26 February 2009

The Top Ten Movies of 2008 (More or Less)

So here it is. I realize it's quite late, but movies don't really come to Baton Rouge with the speed and quantity I'd like. So this is as good as I could do. A couple of disclaimers:
A) I didn't see near all the films that came out this year. I really didn't see any of the foreign films, and only saw one documentary. So this list can't possibly be comprehensive. It might be if I were writing this years down the line, but I prefer to get it out in a relatively timely fashion. (If you can call two months after timely. Hey, it's a few days after the Oscars. Has to count for something (?)).
B) As with every other top ten list, the order is pretty arbitrary, with a couple of exceptions, but not worth noting. Suffice to say, the films are on the list because they deserve to be there.
And so without much further ado:

The Top Ten Movies of 2008

1. The Dark Knight
You can say I'm biased to put it at number one. Suit yourself. But I think you'd be hard pressed to find a movie that more for a genre this year. Or a movie that excited more people. There are so many stellar achievements in this film on several levels, this movie deserves its placement. You can read my review if you want to hear more praise.

2. The Wrestler
Haven't posted my review of this yet, but its spot here should let you know how much I liked it. Linear, simple, character-driven dramas were a bit of a rarity this year, and to have this one come from a director like Aronofsky is a surprise indeed. Much has been said of the performances, particularly Rourke's, and it's all true. While it may not have had the flash or pizzazz of the best picture nominees, it quietly established its supremacy over all of them.

3. Wall-E
You only have to look at the other animated films this year to realize how special this movie was. Look a few years into the past and it will stand out even more. Pixar has made a name for itself in the past with engaging stories and technical achievement, and has recently added to that a cinematic sensibility that draws on the best styles throughout film history, with Wall-E drawing on some of the best, including Chaplin.

4. Synecdoche, NY
Like several other Charlie Kaufman films, this one has been polarizing, to say the least. I'm thinking that time will smile upon his first directorial effort, and it will be looked back on as a work of thematic depth, visual brilliance, and an audacity matched by few filmmakers out there.

5. Gran Torino
Posted a review of this a few weeks back, but a second viewing has cemented my opinions. This will be one of those sadly undervalued films that people will rediscover when examining the work of Eastwood, and while it may not rank as one of his masterpieces, it contains one of his best performances.

6. Man on Wire
As far as documentaries go, this may not have the scope or ambition of others, but that's a good thing. Rather, it's an intimate study of one man's dream and the rather insane lengths he went to in achieving it. One of its marvels is its ability to communicate the kind of devotion and love that others had for Philippe, devotion he might have taken for granted but desperately needed.

7. Rachel Getting Married
Probably one of the only films that employs the handheld camera technique and makes it truly work. The reality of the characters and the setting permeates every frame, and makes it one of the most engaging films of last year. And Anne Hathaway shows us that she has a bright future ahead of her.

8. Doubt
Based on one of the best American plays of recent years, Shanley's film version showcases a solid cast manuevering through an emotional and ethical mindfield. Rather than trying to overly embellish the play, it employs an admirable focus that may in fact answer the question that the play set out to obscure. But still, at the end, it's up for you to decide.

9. In Bruges
Martin McDonagh's feature debut is probably the most curious and interesting comedy of the year. It defies easy categorization, as expressed in my blurb about it a couple of weeks ago. It has some of his trademarks of random violence and simpletons dealing with moral conundrums, but it allowed him the chance to visually interpret it exactly as he wanted.

10. The Visitor
Like Milk, takes a political issue and discusses it rationally and empathetically without beating the audience over the head. In fact, it's hardly a political film at all, and so it's rare that the message ends up being one of the most memorable parts. That and the brilliant performance by Richard Jenkins.

Honorable Mentions

11. Vicki Cristina Barcelona
12. Milk
13. Revolutionary Road
14. Pineapple Express
15. Ghost Town
16. Iron Man
17. Burn After Reading
18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
19. Be Kind Rewind
20. Frozen River

Here's to the end of the 2008 movie season. I'm glad it's over. Compared to 2007, this past year was a let-down, but still yielded some gems. Here's hoping that next year Hollywood will take the inspiration and success from films like The Dark Knight and truly up its game.

17 February 2009

The Reader

This is my third attempt at this review. I'm a little bit stonewalled. I'm not sure if there's actually much I can say about this film. There's some good acting, it's directed decently, and the story is relatively interesting. I'm just not sure it works, for whatever that means. Whatever sympathy it was trying to garner for the main character, it didn't get it from me.

Perhaps the main thing I'd criticize about this film is something that's becoming more and more prevalent in films today. I'm talking about non-linear narrative structure. In fact, all five of the best picture nominees are structured this way. The strongest of the bunch, Milk, utilizes this to the least extent. In The Reader, it reaches almost a fever pitch. While Ralph Fiennes is capable enough to carry his portion of the story, what is the purpose? This may seem like a very shallow question to ask, I think it's valid. I think that what started out as innovative turned into a gimmick and has now become so commonplace that it's lost whatever spark it might have had. What's really the point of showing us the end of the story first? Sometimes it can work, don't get me wrong, but nowadays it seems like it would be stronger to write a linear story and have to keep the suspense going the old fashioned way.

So that's not much of a review, but it's more in tune with what I want my entries to be. I want the films to spark forays into larger discussions.

16 February 2009

Oscar Thoughts 2009

So any that know me probably know how disappointed I am about the Oscars this year. The best films of the year had a chance. They had all the makings of nominees and even winners. But then the Academy had to fall back (for the most part) on medicore Oscar-bait films and a couple of movies that got stuck in everyone's heads like a bad song. I'll withhold my own thoughts on what the best films of the year were (i.e. My Top Ten for 2009) until later this week, but first I'll take a look at the nominees, generally. I would take the time to go category by category, but frankly, they don't deserve it.

Most people who follow the Oscars probably saw the freight train that was The Dark Knight for a while. The guild nominations, the critical acclaim, the popular support, it all should have led up to a Best Pic nomination. But alas, the academy anti-populist bias won through. They seem to have this attitude that they are the mystic guardians of what constitutes good film, and the Oscars are the general public's precious access to that secret knowledge. Sorry to break it to you, Academy, but now you've almost invalidated yourselves into oblivion.

The films that did make it through to the final five are largely undeserving. The only one out of the five that probably deserves to be there is Milk. It's solid, powerful, beautifully acted, and so on. It's not in my personal top five, but I can understand why it's in theirs. And on some levels, I can understand Benjamin Button. I liked the film in a lot of ways, but it just doesn't measure up when compared to the best films. But again, I can kind of understand why the Academy went for it. And got to give them at least some credit for going with a fantasy.

And that leaves the rest, including the frontrunner-apparent. A film that's got everybody wrapped up in some poverty-stricken wonderland that doesn't really exist. A film with all with all the visual capacity of a Michael Bay film. A film that just simply isn't "Best." It's not even great. It might be good, but at this point all the attention it's getting has just made me embittered toward it. And the future will prove me right. The backlash is coming. Of course, I'm talking about Slumdog Millionaire. And that's where I'll stop. The movie doesn't deserve my attention. Or anybody else's. That's all from me.

The other two, Frost/Nixon and The Reader are Oscar bait through and through. While I enjoyed Frost, it's nothing without those great performances, particularly Langella's. The Reader probably wouldn't be on anyone's radar if it weren't for its now deceased producers Minghella and Pollack. That's not to disrespect them in anyway, they both made some really great films, and they will be missed. But I have a feeling that if they weren't involved, the Academy wouldn't have taken notice like it did. And there's also Harvey to contend with. But oh well, my review on that later.

The acting categories are a little more varied, allowing for great performances from non-best picture nominees like The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married. Mickey Rourke has my vote, but as you probably know, he's going to be neck and neck with a still-deserving Sean Penn. I'd love Anne Hathaway to win, but I think the Academy's going to give Kate Winslet her due, even if she's given better performances. Heath Ledger's got it wrapped up for supporting, and at this point it's Penelope Cruz's to lose for her subtly chaotic turn in Woody Allen's great Vicki Cristina Barcelona.

In most Oscar years, I try to see all the nominees right down to the shorts. This year, the spark is gone. Maybe it'll be back next year. It depends on the nominees. This year the nominations made me so bitter that I haven't been as into the whole race as I usually am. So I don't have much to say about the tech categories. As far as I can see, the evenings going to end up with more statues going to Slumdog than it deserves.

It's shaping up to be a big week for the site, as I hope to post reviews for The Reader, The Wrestler, He's Just Not That Into You, and Revolutionary Road. And then on Thursday, my top ten. I'll also try to update on what I've been watching on dvd (i.e., not as much as I'd like). So stay with me reader(s), there's more to come.

03 February 2009


In a way, it takes a very particular set of circumstances and artists to put out a good movie that reliess completely in dialogue. Maybe that's why Frost/Nixon was originally a play. Now, in this visual dimension, it achieves much of the same excitement and tension without becoming a necessarily great film. It's satisfying in a historical and dramaturgical way, but not really cinematically.

Theatre, of course, has a visual dimension. But it also has the luxury of being able to rely on dialogue in a way that film can't. Theatre, as I'm generally realizing, has much in common with law proceedings based on their root in ancient Greece. Ancient rhetoric had much in common with ancient drama, and vice versa. But film has to extend beyond the words (if it has to use them at all) and show us something. And because this source material is entirely reliant on dialogue, it is here where Ron Howard's skills almost fail him.

I did say skills. He has them. A lot of people love to tear down Ron Howard, but I think that's mostly a matter of audience. Ron Howard's audience is mostly made up of older people. In his long career in the business, he's more familiar with their style than the one of the new generation. Now there's nothing wrong with knowing your audience, and nothing wrong with having an older audience. It's just simply a matter of mismatched material.

Howard's never out to dazzle us with his skills. He maintains a quiet technique of solid storytelling and a balance between overt artistry and subtlety. But often he has material that is well-suited to his skills. Here, he lacks the style to really give the material its punch.

That's not to say the results are all bad. They're in fact quite-good. It's just not exactly great filmmaking. The confronation between the titular characters is very interesting to watch. I'd think that for a generation that remembers the Nixon era it would be even more poignant than it was for me. The acting is superb, but without it the film would be nothing. It's a solid film, and easily communicates its purpose. It's good in many regards. Just not great. Just not one-of-the-five-best-pictures-of-the-year great. I'm bitter.

Last Chance Harvey

Last Chance Harvey is a slight if entertaining film with a host of flaws that just can't seem to keep it down. One of the most suprising things about the film is the ability to enjoy it. Most of that is due to its star duo, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who do their best to play sad sacks for the first half of the film, as the script flits annoyingly back and forth between Harvey's journey to London for his daughter's wedding and Kate's feeble attempts at blind dates and dealing with a high-maintenance mother.

The forty-five minute collision course finally comes to an end and the movie heads in exactly the direction we knew it would. We suspend our disbelief at Kate's ability to put up with Harvey's pushy flirtations. We play along with the arbitrary twists of fate that conspire to keep Harvey and Kate apart. But we know they'll come together in the end. And that's okay.

I guess what works best about the film is the way it lovingly allows these things to happen, because after all, by this point in their lives the characters deserve some happiness. There are distractions and side trips, like Kate's mother's paranoia about her Polish neighbor, but the movie ends up where it should, and is almost cathartic in its conclusion.