The Best Films of 2008

Know why this is a great vampire film? Because vampires in it don’t sparkle in the sun! They singe, they smoke and they explode. From young love nibbles to brooding bouts of school aged drama it would not be hard to draw connections to this film’s emo Hollywood counterpart “Twilight.” However the comparisons are going run out real quick when you realize that “Let the Right One In” is a film before it is a vampire film–Ingmar Bergman by way of “Fargo” by way of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” of all things. 

With a stark and cerebral approach that makes poetry out of snow and blood and time itself, the film makes a good case for why our Euros neighbors should reclaim horror films from uninspired American fare (a horrible English language remake of this film is already on the way) and tired Asian ghost-girl hooey. What establishes this film as something truly unique is the lack of genre sensationalizing. Tomas Alfedson engages the horror via a heightened storytelling style that permits his moody and heartfelt scenario (a story about a troubled boy who befriends an eternally young creature of the night) to find its own natural rhythm. The end result is a true (and uncompromising) synthesis of romance and horror.

Upon rewatching I was floored by how much I missed the first time (one particular, and subtle, gender twist is brilliant) but at the same time delighted by the sheer volume of nuances that await the engaged viewer. I knew this right one was a classic when I tried to imagine how it would play without the horror elements. You know what: this understated and strangely sweet tale would still rank as the best film of the year!

It was so hard to not place “The Dark Knight” at the number one position that I’m unofficially calling it my co-best of the year. A product of the times more than any film this year, we’ve written about it, talked about it, argued over it (is Batman emblematic of the Bush administration? did Twoface… you know?), quoted it and in some (drunken) cases, acted it out. Not since the “Lord of the Rings” series has a film’s staggering box office impact been matched by the imagination at play–and, yes, that’s a dig against popular cinema. 

What surprised me was not that Christopher Nolan’s film is light years beyond his previous “Batman Begins” effort but that it set a new gold standard for the comic book genre as a whole. It is, quite simply, the best shot comic book movie of all time. The best looking. The best acted. The best sounding. The best directed. The best written. And the most involving if you choose to look at it as a summer superhero movie or a operatic big-city sociological/morality tale about the nature of order and what happens to society where there is none. Numerous cityscape shots and mentions of the of “the city” not only raise the stakes but establish the fate of Gotham as both a conceptual plot device and a living breathing entity. Speaking of characters, while Christian Bale delivers the most complex and vivid representation of the citizen/crusader to date (sorry Clooney), the fact that the most underrated performance in a Batman movie comes from Batman himself is a strange turn of events but not entirely random when placed in the context of the juggernaut that is Heath Ledger’s legend in the making (perhaps legend made) Joker performance. “The Dark Knight,” weather you liked it as much as the fanboy next door or not, made us all a little more serious.

About a girl passing through Portland who finds herself stranded, careless, careless, jobless, dogless and godless, the quietly devastating power of “Wendy and Lucy” is proof enough that the new trend of detached social realist filmmaking is, perhaps, at its zenith of excellence. As time slowly passes Wendy’s situation grows dire to a point where the poor girl is reduced to counting pennies to pay for a hot dog, calling out into the darkness for her lost dog and bartering with the local car mechanic. You could read Wendy’s busted car and lost dog as symbolic representations of her economic and emotional/moral downfall and even draw parallels to what this says about the modern condition. Or you could just take it for what it is, a film about a girl struggling to get by. Yes, it’s a tragic affair but this film is not dire in the usual melodramatic Hollywood or indie film sense. Working off this same plot, director Kelly Reichardt could have thrown in rape and tears and a-hole boyfriends or god knows what else but instead chooses to keep it real–literally. We’re not asked to pity the protagonist, just to consider her. Speaking of which, a quick word on Michelle Williams: her bare bones performance is heartbreaking and relatable weather male or female, young or old. The most pure and true piece of work I saw all year. In a year where a lot of “female films” misfired (“Rachel Getting Married,” “Twilight,” “The Women,” “Sex and the City”) “Wendy and Lucy” knew that sometimes its better to tap a chord rather than strike it.


Not since “Way of the Gun” has a single crime movie made such a profound contribution to the genre. We are stillliving in a post “Pulp” world but that doesn’t mean the crime films that follow can’t also be daft, menacing AND emotional. “In Bruges,” like the touristy town it depicts, is a “shit hole” and a treasure. Its quaint beauty has a way of coexisting with sinister Medieval underpinnings and the shaky fusion creates an unshakable mood of harmonic dissonance. While the dreamlike innocence of Bruges is anachronistic to this modern hair trigger age, the childlike boredom and me-me-me-izms the protagonist wallows in, sadly, isn’t. The way this film handles violence –dirty and sad, yet thrilling– is also something to be prized by viewers hungry for something offbeat but not offputting. Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson appear in star making –despite the fact that they’re already stars– turns as a pair of fuck-up hitmen on the run from a scarier-than-Voldermont Ralph Finnes. Gleeson is the heart and soul of the film while Ferrell is the childish wit but Finnes really perfects the triangle as a brilliant advisory who is as polite as he is psychopathic (“apologize for that bit about my ‘cunt kids'” he mawkishly pleads before letting loose with a murderous rage). Written and directed with gleefully wicked insight by Martin McDonagh this is that rare crime film that shows what happens when criminals go vacation and, in a deeper sense, in purgatory.

2008… man, what a downer. Why do “realistic” films always have to be so depressing? “HGL” is the perfect example of a film that is able to lift ones spirits without condescension of hand holding (I’m looking at you, SLUMDOG!). Veteran British director Mike Leigh cares about his characters enough not to betray them (or us) with unrealistic or all-too-apparent scripted actions. He never pulls his punches either and, thus, his “Happy” film is as subversive as “feel good” films got in 2008. I should stop everything I’m doing right now because one cannot talk about this film without singling out the effervescent lead character, apt named Poppy. The film stars –more like belongs to– Sally Hawkins in a revelatory performance that outshines any non-Joker performances this year. Ah, but she too is a joker. One of the free spirited variety that won’t let the world skew her, um, worldview–and, yes, the notion that Poppy’s view of the world is far more enlightened than the world’s view of her –or itself, or anyone!– is a fantasticly morbid touch that the writer/director puts out there for us to chew on. The underlying truth of the picture may be that Poppy can’t touch everyone’s lives and hearts but she sure got to mine.


Old racist protects his neighbors from gangs. Punks feel lucky. Asses get kicked. Old man coughs up blood. “Torino” is the Clint show and, thus, the dissemination and virtual disintegration of the icon gives this film an electric charge. “Changeling” aside, the reason I love Clint Eastwood films is and old and tired one. He empowers traditional, simply crafted films with the luster of classical Hollywood storytelling. Starting with atonal music, drab color pallets and working all the way down the line Clint keeps things simple and always comes back to the heart of the matter: story. His sensibilities are so simple and finite that you can take what you’re watching and understand (as well as embrace) it to its core. What this film also imparts is a remarkable sense of B-movie humor; all scowls and scales, Clint, as a performer first and director second, puts himself out there and is able to laugh at his once stoic/now stodgy image. The casting of Asian non-actors as either innocents or thugs makes Clint stand out even more. Brilliantly zippy “Dirty Harry” line readings such as “Relax zipperhead. I’m not gonna shoot you. I’d look down too, if I was you. You know, I knew you were a dip shit the first time I ever saw you. Then I thought you were worse with women than stealing cars… Toad” are followed by dead-on-arrival responses like “my………….. name is Thao.” This is a film that will never be called cool, but it’s certainly not cold and that’s why I love it.

“Cassandra’s Dream” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” Yeah, I don’t like combo picks either but with respect to the banner year Woody Allen just had it’s impossible not to. 08 year saw the Wood Man’s best twofer since 2005’s “Melinda and Melinda” and “Match Point.” In both years Allen’s dual works contrast the lighthearted with the tragic. Realistically, either would each land a slot on my list while both represent the filmmaker at his sharpest –and most subtle– in the respective genre of drama and comedy. One film is a moribund Greek tragedy where a crime breaks the code of morality and bond of brotherhood while the other is a sunny (but not soft) love note to travel romances. Both eloquently espouse the pitfalls of entitlement and, indirectly, the poisons lure of the “American dream.” Now, the neurotic romp “Vicky” took across Spain emerged as the clear fan and box office favorite and I am glad that it earned the accolades it so richly deserves but I’m still reeling over “Dream’s” inability to connect with critics, audiences, Allen fans and even the fucking French! Whatever, time will tell on that one but time has already made up its mind on Allen’s status as a master and while seemingly minor here are two more notches on his bedpost (which sounds totally creepy). He’s going to need to get a bunk bed if this keeps up.

The golden age of comic books was, oh, about 78 years ago. After 2008 (and spilling over into 09 with “Watchman”) I can definitively state that a similar golden age has officially –and finally– entered into the realm of cinema. Ushering in this comic renaissance were men of Bats and Iron and boys of Hell. The second “Hellboy” may not have grabbed the zeitgeist by the balls like Batman or to a lesser extent Iron Man did but it did something so much more valuable: it made superheroes fun. Remember-fun? If this is the last of the “Hellboys” then let it be said that the big red devil has more soul than Gothem’s’ citizens and more heart than Iron Man’s hollowed out core. Oh, and there’s that Barry Manilow musical number too!


Charlie Kauffman’s play-within-a-film-within-a-play drama is …… about…… um, life as fiction? Life is fiction is more like it. Remember that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where, upon entering a black hole, astronaut Dave Bowman enters a wonky time vortex and ends up watching himself as he lies there dying in a sterile and obviously staged environment? That’s exactly what it feels like watching this deliberately enigmatic puzzle assemble then de-assemble itself before your unbelieving eyes. Possessing a singular if disturbingly evasive vision that can only be called postmodern sadism, there was nothing else like “SNY” in 08 and will be nothing else like it ever unless, that is, Kauffmann makes a sequel which is not out of the realm of possibility if you saw the “Being John Malkovich” characters pop up in “Adaption.” The labyrinthine viewer-as-god plot surrounds plague stricken playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymore Hoffman), suffering from, oh yes, Cotard’s syndrome, a real disorder in which the suffering loon believes they’re dead. How cool is that! The film contains layers upon layers of characters within characters (my favorite is played by Samantha Morton as Cotard’s personal assistant who, in turn, is played by Dian Wiest who plays her while standing right next to her and this, of course, is before Wiest plays Hoffman who was being played by Tom Noonan before he… etc.), settings within settings and key plot events that twist and turn only to double back and reenact themselves! This film is a marvel of intelligent design. I can’t say I “like” it, hell, I can’t even pronounce it half the time, but I will say I am endlessly fascinated by what this film accomplishes and how this film accomplishes the “what” in question.


A film about an aging fighter who’s down on his luck, who’s busted up and who’s daughter wont talk to him. A film that takes a washed up and punch-drunk icon of action and places him in the most “real,” physically demanding and heartbreaking role of his career. A film shot with dignity and realism but also a slick sense of action and purpose. I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT THE WRESTLER! I’m talking about “JCVD.” “The Wrestler,” for all it’s The Passion of The Mickey Rourke-isms, is a horribly written, cliche cluttered mess of a indie drama. A movie you can follow, predict and get the essence of at all times. None of this is possible in “JCVD.” Though it could have just as easily been titled “Being Jean Malkovich,” “JCVD” takes Jean-Claud Van Damme, casts Van Damme as Van Damme, and throws Van Damme in an epic personal struggle to win custody of his children, evade the tax man and shoot body (and soul) crushing action movies that few watch and even fewer respect. The film then entangles the actor (yes, he’s now an actor!) in a fantastically polished crime drama that I won’t spoil. I knew “JCVD” was something special because the version I saw had no English subtitles and I still couldn’t take my eyes (or ears) off it! The film exists to pose a question for the ages: WWJCVDD or What Would JCVD Do?

-Note: I hope everybody joins me and posts there favorites here too. Also, my top ten took FOREVER to figure out because (a) films in 08 weren’t up to par and I kept trying to find new ones; (b) I couldn’t nail down the order and am still not sure I have and (c) it took a while for me to do all the graphics do to a buggy photoshop program. Either way 11-20 is next week as are a few individual awards such as director, performance and best moments of the year.

 

11. Wall-E

Pathos ruled 2008 movies to a point where the mark of a good one seemed to be that if you want to die the film has done its job. That little fruity robot with a film named after him, “Wall-E,” however, rose to the top of everyone’s list because he made us want to live. And love. The first half: classic visual poetry and elegance to a point of perfection. A splendid utilization of sight and sound and filmic references ranging from 50s musicals to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The second half: the (mostly) epic failure of a consumerism-in-space metaphor thwarted by the fact that the film iswhat it’s preaching against (a safe, sterile, homogeneous, middle class cautionary tale positing that the masses, the massive masses, of are not responsible for their ignorant all-consuming gluttony… thanks Big Business Disney). Were the first half released on its own: we’re talking best film of the year consideration. Were the second: um, ………..”Space Chimps.” That it is still is one of the year’s best is a testament to the tenacity of this post-apocalyptic sci-fi children’s epic. This is one for the ages… assuming, that is, the human race makes it long enough to see the ages.

 

 

 

12. Red Belt

The fat Panda got all the attention this year but “Redbelt” emerged as the real kung fu master of 2008. “Breath, breath, breath… you know the escape, you know the escape, breath, breath, there’s always an escape,” the sensei tells his student and, yup, there’s nothing quite like the sound of a David Mamet film. Contrived at times, yes, but his tales are confidently told and always existing in their own smooth sounding world. Mamet’s new age “Rocky” manages at once to be a thrilling sports film and a captivating show biz con game. It’s also film about fighting, about Hollywood swindlers, about cops, and about gambling. A great sports noir. And, yes, in case you were a Mamet fan getting worried: Ricky Jay is also in it. Done deal. The plot is basic but the dialogue is electric, par for the course in Mamet films. No cooler character graced the screen in 2008 than Chiwetel Ejiofor’s karate instructor. He’s just fucking awesome and I’m sorry but you have to curse when describing this guy and this performance. Ejiofor shoots off Fight Club-ian philosophy as calmly as a modern day Kane and/or Bill (from “Kill Bill”); “Conquer your fear and you’ll conquer your opponent” he says with a total, eerie aura of calmness in his face and a burning sadness in his heart. And when he tells his protegee that “Its not about fighting, it’s about prevailing” he might as well be talking to us about Mamet’s film.

 

 

13. Encounters At the End Of the World
The relationship between man and nature has long been explored by filmmakers. None have been doing it as long or as eccentrically as German new wave filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog’s ability to take his fear/fascination stance toward nature from fictional masterworks such as “Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarildo” into the realm of real life through documentaries such as “Grizzly Man,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Encounters at the End of the World” makes him a rare bird indeed. As per usual, Herzog’s nature documentaries reveal more about Herzog than nature itself. This film is no exception. In addition to random bits about iceberg data and seal calls sounding like “Pink Floyd” B-sides in Antarctica, we also learn learn for instance the un-scientific facts that Herzog “loathe[s] the sun on celluloid and even on my skin” and that the last thing he wants to do is make “another” penguin documentary (amen). Or how about his ponderings on the “weirdness” of tree and whale huggers? (That may be the most obtuse assertion made by a nature documentarian ever.) Herzog even gets sidetracked by small Arctic town and notes the local “abominations such as an aerobic studio and yoga classes” makes him want to “get into the field as soon as possible.” And so he does.

 

Herzog’s icy and matter-of-fact Germanness (for lack of a better word), as evident in his detached observational but nonetheless poetic images and comically deadpan voice-over, is matched by the environment he portrays. I loved how this film takes the notion that Antarctica is the “end of the world” and creates its own thesis on how it may be the last site of humanity’s imprint after the literal end of the world–of course Herzog would relay this though with all the emotional investment of an alien. The best moment of the documentary though arrives when Herzog nabs a Penguin expert and of all the question one could ask such a man, asks him if he’s seen any gay or crazy penguins. The expert looks puzzled. And so are we until Herzog captures a moment of total beauty and sadness. A penguin suddenly decides he’s had enough of the group life and leaves for good, heading out into the unknown “towards certain death” (much like Herzog Grizzly Man subject did). That haunting image of a lone penguin going against nature and waddling toward his inevitable and doomed path is more poetic than any “March of the Penguins” and more poignant than just about any man made drama in 2008.

 

 

 

14. Frozen River

What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold!!! I heard something along the lines of “Christmas time Indie drama about a single mom struggling to raise her two kids who joins with a local Indi… er, Native American in smuggling immigrants across the US/Canada border…” and I couldn’t be farther away from a screening. My loss. Frozen River is proof that I should never (unless it’s an Inarritu film) pre-judge based on a craptasstic plot summary. The film does not preach about the wrongs of boarder control. It is not overly sentimental about who this woman is and what she does. It is not melodramatic despite the fact that kids must go hungry during the holidays while the mother saves (and steals) away for a “life saving” pre-built home. And it is hardly even a thriller. And we have Melissa Leo portrayal of gritty and stupid integrity to thank for all that. Oh, I suppose the finely tuned and truly original script by first time writer/director Courtney Hunt (favorite IMDB post about her: “If you switch the first letter of both her names it is funny”) should get a lot of credit too.

 

 

 

15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

If it must be reduced to a description than “4 Months…” is about a woman attempting getting an abortion. Simple. Sad. If the system makes it hard for women now the film imagine an attempt of such a life saving act under the iron curtain which not only outlawed abortion but contraception! The film unfolds as time does. Slowly but naturally. We see, we wait and we study this woman. Perhaps there’s a Romanianrenaissance going on that I was unaware of but I view this priceless film by Cristian Mungiu as a companion piece to the Romanian drama “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Both films take a cold look and long stare at the slow nature of death that fills the everyman’s room and darkens his/her souls. While “Mr. Lazarescu” depicts the death of the old and discarded as a way of exploring the dehumanizing nature of institutional health care, this film approaches that theme through the subject of illegal abortions and female guilt/shame (is not the unborn child who is dying so much as the mother who is knocked up by a man and knocked out by a system run by men). Told from the positions of the self absorbed mother-to-not-be, her friend who has to deal with all of her shit (and emerging as the real protag–who may be preggers herself!), and the coldly casual abortionist (this guy’s no Vera Drake) the film works as a hands-off commentary on communism in 1980s Romania and a hands-on (hehe) commentary on women’s rights.

 

 

 

16. Iron Man

When “superheros” are rich and use wealth, power and government connects to build and acquire literal powers to fight the “evil” of the world, are they really superheroes or something else entirely? That’s what I like about “Iron Man” the character (Robert Downey Jr.) andthe film (Joe Faverau). On his own terms, Tony Stark is not super and he’s not really a hero but the whole is greater than the sum of its liver decayed parts. Here we have a superhero that has seamlessly adapted to the times and hooked superhero fans up with the most effective visuals of the year: Iron Man’s suit. Iron Man’s suit seems to be “Iron Man’s” message and it’s a message reinforced (literally and figuratively) by Tony Stark’s hollowed out heart. It is something that is backed by a military apparatus and yet also something that encases a power hungry charmer (and a drunk). Man-made authoritianism and shiny purddy things! This murky view of American power and all its contradictions is what keeps Iron Man vital to Marvel’s comics and will hopefully allow him to reign in the cinemas for years to come.

 

 

17. Doubt

I have to pause before I say I loved “Doubt.” It’s not the kind of film I would like. “Doubt” is one of those rare greats where the great part has very little to do with who made it and how it was made. Directing as if he just discovered Dutch angels and poetic symbolism, John Patrick Shanley’s film is overwrought in every sense of the word and not always the good sense of the word. Problem number one is that Shanley, the man behind the play about a Catholic Priest in question and a Nun who questions, is a far too attached to what the play was than what the film should be now. The result is dialogue that often feels strange, estranged and staged. No considerable attempt is made to allow the film to stand on its own. ZAP. POOF! oh…………….the power went out AGAIN; KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK hark, someone IS at the door; frooooossschhoh……………………… the wind is blowing, is God trying to tell us something? I watched and was hardly surprised to learn that John Patrick Shanley’s last film was “Joe Versus the Volcano.” Still… I have to say, the film’s deliberately effusive did-he-or-didn’t-he hook gives the film a drive and a destination. It’s a testament to performers Streep, Hoffman, Davis and Adams (next to “Dark Knight,” the ensemble of the year) that “Doubt” overcomes it’s stylistic constraints. The actors give this film life where there is no life (it might as well have been “Dogville” in that respect) and the film’s coda, Streep’s blow-out, shoudda-won-an-Oscar-for-it “I have doubts” line that ends the picture, is perfect in the way it allows the real agenda of the film to emerge. Not to tell us about child abuse but to make us the judges and fate deciders! This is a film we will be discussing for years and SHOULD be discussing because the biggest revelation in “Doubt” is not what happened but what we think happened.

 

 

 

18. Lakeview Terrace

Nobody put Neil Labute’s race relations thriller on their list. Shows me how little everybody knows. Or at least how easy it is to dismiss this film. A common B-movie thriller? Yes it is. A film people will be talking about years from now? No, sadly, but keep in mind that nobody is talking about that brilliant 90s neighbor-from-hell thriller “Arlington Road” either so maybe “Lakeview” is the kind of story that will endure. Samuel L. Jackson delivers the year’s (most literal) knock-out performance as a hostile cop named Abel (nah, not symbolic) who is consumed by notions of race and class and purity and takes it all out on the new interracial couple in town (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington). Sadism, humor and a deep and profound sadness infects this character to the bone. This is the film that “Training Day’ tried to be and the film that “Crash” wanted to be.

 

 

 

19. Man on Wire

For real. I had this whole eloquent 300 or so word write-up for “Man on Wire” prepared and ready to go. It talked about the artistic integrity of the film, the novelty of the subject matter and the brilliant, politically relevant way the film connects the past and the present by showing how some look at the world trade center and see art, love and universal redemption through a thin line that connects cultures while others see (or saw) it as simply something that needed to be destroyed. Trust me, it would have convinced you to see this offbeat and dramatically tense documentary about a tightrope terrorist. That is if you haven’t seen it already, in which case we can just gab about what an annoying attention whore that Frenchmen Pierre is.

 

 

 

20. Tell No One

No, tell everyone! Tell ’em you saw a fantastically realized thriller. Tell ’em that while it’s based on the novel by a hack known as Harlin Coben, the French got it in their heads that the American author is really good and paid tribute by making a film better than anything he’s ever thought up. Tell ’em it’s the best Euro thriller since “Cache.” Tell ’em it isn’t in French if you have to. Just Tell ’em anything that will get them to see this film! A few gripes: This is a good thriller but it is also a standard one. “TNO” adds nothing to the genre. It’s got a lot of heart though and the protagonist (Francois Cluzet), tortured by his dead wife, dosen’t have a false note in him. That’s what I think we are responding to. Still, if this were an American made studio film starring, say, Tom Hanks critics and film snobs would not have supported it as much if at all.

 

 

Neglect Pick From Yesteryear: Southland Tales

In no way is this a 2008 film. It’s just that I forgot to see it in 2007 and caught up with it when it came out on DVD. WOW! Until the three plus hour directors cut comes out (that, I assure you, will make my list if and when it is ever released) I could not live with myself unless I acknowledged it in some way. It’s really one of the best films of the decade. And yes I say that knowing full well it’s Richard Kelly we’re talking about.

 

 

Wild Card Pick: Funny Games

Ha!

 

 

Special Mention

Frost/Nixon

good/great. Good because the film must play better on stage because, really, the heart of “Frost/Nixon” is not the build up to the infamous interview and it’s not the backroom power struggle its the interview but the sight of two men who are outmatched and engaged in a war of words as if the fate of the world depends on it. The film is “great” however because it still captures that vibe with a great dramatic eye. I liken this film to a classic sports movie where the underdog team (in this case, TV personality David Frost) does battle with the smug, rich players that have never lost, or, in the case of Nixon, lost once and is determined to win back the glory. Yes, even I can’t believe I’m ranking a Ron Howard film. But it’s hardly “his”… as it’s DNA belongs to playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan. After that it’s a Frank Langella film a Michael Sheen film. After that… okay, it’s Ron Howard. Point is, it’s a lot of things before it’s a Ron Howard film. Sheen’s casual showbiz skeez is not what defines Frost, nor is asshole what defines Nixon. The film really does not see Nixon’s presidency and hunger to repair his “legacy” in black and white terms and that is why it works.

 

 

Milk

“Milk’s” two missteps, it’s a traditional biopic (a genre I hate) and a message movie (a genre I avoid), are offset by the fact that the issue of gay rights –but when it comes down to it, human rights– circa 1970s is more topical and urgent than ever and, well, that it’s really well made. It’s not the message of that moved me so much as it is the making of it and the meaning of it. Gus Van Sant has earned so much cred since his Hollywood days (from “Good Will Hunting” to “Elephant,” from “Finding Forester” to “Last Days,” from “Psycho” to “Gerry”!!!) that to see him finally make a mainstream andartful picture evokes a sigh of relief. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk does so much more than play “gay political guy that gets assassinated.” He evokes a spirit and a time in a way that makes it impossible not to notice and get “recruited” by. The performance is so much more than mimicry. It’s alive and timeless. The film, though, isn’t but could have been. I wish the story explored Harvey Milk’s antithetical opposition, Dan White (Josh Brolin), more and really digged into his own last days leading up to you-know-what. These two opposed figures comprises the heart and soul of “Milk”–they could have even called it Milk/White! What does not define this film and what will not be talked about are the countless rallying the troops/defining the movement montages.

 

 

Dear Zachery

Sometimes the role of a documentary is to incite, instruct and infuriate. Most others, you get a title like “Man on a Wire” that seeks to enthrall with showmanship and storytelling. “Dear” is the former. This is one of the more compelling true crime docs since “The Stair Case” and “The Thin Blue Line” before it (though, seeing as how I’m sick of Errol Morris’ arch and stylistically out-of-touch filmmaking ticks that is not saying much). Exploring the aftermath of a crime as much if not more than the crime itself the film contains footage from past and present that is so startling that to watch is to see the rare sight of documentary unfold as it’s literally unfolding! Really, though, it is one of those “must see” docs that one cannot and should not describe except to say “see it.” Perhaps more of a downer than the content is the fact that the film, so promising, is riddled with glaring flaws. They include but are not limited to often sloppy editing techniques (namely, the transitions from light to heavy moments), a fame whore “documentarian” who would rather get his story out than honor a fallen friend, and music that makes ears bleed. Even all that can’t hold this one back. It’s worth seeing, if you’re open to seeing.

 

 

 

The Man From London

Famed art house Hungarian director Bella Tarr has made a new film. This is a rare event for film buffs. Especially rare considering that since it’s lukewarm premiere at Cannes the film has yet to snag an American distribution. After I dry my tears there are three things you need to know about this film and only three things. 1. It’s Tarr. 2. Tarr does noir. 3. And Tarr does noir from afar. Is there any other way for him?

 

 

Pineapple Express

Ja, man. Surprised to see this didn’t make that many lists. Well, it didn’t make mine either but it easily ranks as the best comedy of the year.  The key to success was not so much the stoner humor but the quirky 90s era action parody that David Gordon Green pulled off. Rad!

 

W

Saw it. Liked it. But loved it??? This is a place holder for Oliver Stone’s “W;” may go up, may go down. Either direction, though, it’s still Stone’s best film since the A+ “Nixon.” Even so, I’m not sure if the film is great or if the subject matter lends itself to compelling comedy/drama/oh fuck we elected a nimrod. “W” scores points with me because it is one of the most distinct and gutsy releases of 2008–I mean, how many filmmakers are brave enough to make a quasi-historical film before the history has even been written (usually they play it safe and go “oh, Vietnam was bad,” like, thirty years after). It is also the first feature film to effectivley gets across the age old notion of: who’s more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows the fool. That is to say George W’s lazy/drunken/ignorant/daddy issues/entitlement complex is one thing while the American public allowing such a walking disaster into the highest position of world power (TWICE!!!) is the stuff of whopping blunders. And just when it looks like Oliver Stone is taking the easy way out by depicting Bush as some sort of comic fool/foil, he reveals him to be a tragic figure swept up by sinister forces. Tragic for him. Tragic for us. Tragic for everyone… except for Dick Cheney of course.     

 

Top 20 Performances, Moments, etc. of 08

2008 Performanes to Remember

  1. Christian Bale/Heath Ledger/Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight
  2. Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky 
  3. Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy
  4. Sean Penn in Milk
  5. Meryl Streep in Doubt
  6. Jean-Claud Van Damme, JCVD
  7. Samuel L. Jackson in Lakeview Terrace
  8. Ron Perlman in Hellboy II
  9. Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt
  10. Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges
  11. Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino
  12. Brian Cox in Red  
  13. Wall-E in Wall-E
  14. Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York 
  15. Melisa Leo in Frozen River  
  16. Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road
  17. Mickey Rourke (playing Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler
  18. Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long, Tell No One and to a lesser degree The Other Boleyn Girl
  19. Jason Statham in… nothing really seeing as how Death Race/In the Name of the King/Transporter all sucked but I’m afraid to leave him off. 
  20. Red Baloon in Flight of the Red Balloon (overrated film, great balloon)

Best Moments of the Year

  1. March of thea Penguin. A little guy breaks from the pack and waddles towards certain doom in Encounters at the End of the World. He’s had enough of the pack life. Can’t blame him. This moment could be most haunting and poignant moment ever captured by a documentary. 
  2. Heads Up! The penultimate scene in Let the Right One In.
  3. The zero cut action opening of JCVD–great action followed by a great Buster Keaton moment.
  4. Horn-E. Little Wall-E‘s junk yard serinade. Kid’s got game.
  5. An Asian gang gets the fuck off Clint’s lawn. 
  6. “Want to see a magic trick!” The Joker makes a pen disappear in Dark Knight.
  7. God, so many moments from In Bruges to pick from. How about: Brendan Gleeson stops Colin Ferrell from committing suicide, so he can shoot him.  
  8. “die…” The last word uttered in Synecdoche, New York. God damn, gives me chills.
  9. The zombie party in The Signal (argh, I forgot to put this film on my 20 best).
  10. Ram Rod. The Ram’s final turnbuckle wrestling move in The Wrestler. Turns out to be more poetic and original than anything preceding it in this cliche of a movie. 
  11. Gay shoes. The Italian shoe gift that Frost gives Nixon is actually quite touching; at this point I even felt sorry for the self sabotaging Nixon. His asking Frost if he really called him while in a drunken stooper is touching and tragic.
  12. The final, bongo playing shot of The Visitor (my theory: Jenkins has, in fact, lost his mind at this point)
  13. Zen Master Ejiofor helps a rape victim heal in Redbelt by jumping her from behind. That’s a new one.
  14. U2 song + shaggy dog + Internet cafe = great moment (that goes nowhere). Tell No One.
  15. We find out what the title Waltz with Bashir means.
  16. It can’t possibly get any worse, can it? We find out about the baby in Dear Zachery.
  17. Punisher throws a grenade at a thug in War Zone. The guy looks at it and dismissively shrugs, too lazy to even react to his own death. *boom* Funny reaction/stupid movie.  
  18. So long and thanks for all the fish. The notion that a mantle with fish and popcorn sitting on it will, with great certainly, outlive humanity in Encounters at the End of the World. So that’s what the title is referring to. That’s so Herzog!
  19. Awkward Dan White moment #583: He pops his head into Harvey Milk‘s office and says “hey guys!” Is he being antagonistic, does he just want a friend or is he gay? All three!
  20. Putting the cock in Hancock Will Smith punches a hole in the roof with his, uh, super load.

Best Director
  1. Christopher Nolan, Dark Knight
  2. Thomas Anflerson, Let the Right One In
  3. Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
  4. Kelly Reichart, Wendy and Lucy
  5. Woody Allen, Cassandra’s Dream
  6. Andrew Stanton, Wall-E
  7. Clint, Gran Torino
  8. Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD
 
Best Screen Story
  1. Dark Knight by the Nolan Brothers
  2. …no number 2, that’s it.
Best Poster Art
 
 
and
Best Trailer
The Cloverfield teaser is better than the “Cloverfield” movie. As an aside, I love how JJ Abrams gets so much credit for “Cloverfield” and “Lost,” two things he has very little to do with.
  
Best Indivdual Shot of the Year
The bathroom attack in Let the Right One In as seen from the outside. I took the color out and cropped it but this is a beautifully composed shot. The most effective (and artful) image of horror that I can recall. Note to”Saw”: NOT showing what happens is better!

Catching Up… 2009 Film Log

2009 films that I am too lazy to fully review.

Friday the 13 So sue me, I always thought “Friday the 13th” was a ridiculously mind numbing bore. A film without a shred of mystery (the building block of good horror). Sure, I like horror, even slasher/horror, but this series set the genre back not in a way that is quantifiable by years but by the totality of its essence–it RUINED it! That being said I like the idea or remaking or as in the case of this film, re-doing, already crappy 80s horror films because what’s the harm? “Texas Chainsaw” got the trend started and an army of unoriginals hit the market in full force; the Jason-come-lateys ranged from the really good “Hills Have Eyes” to the could-have-been-good “Halloween” to the what-were-they-thinking “Prom Night.” The new “Friday” is, I feel, the best of the series, ranking just above the one where Jason is on a spaceship (I’m not counting “Freddy vs. Jason,” which is only awesome because Freddy is awesome). Again, not saying much especially coming ardent non-fan, but like the new “Chainsaw” (same director here), this remake/follow-up gets a few things right. The atmosphere is crisply dark and floods of noir-ish blood shed light the screen when needed. The body count is high and filled with deaths of pretty young actors we all want to see get naked then die because that’s what it’s all about! A slight difference is that the leads are almost interesting. But alas, Jason, is not, he’s never been and never will be, he’s a lumbering bore. So when viewed on realistic terms this film is not good, not compared to an original horror films like “Drag Me to Hell,” but it does what it should and does so with style so, points there. C

  • Sunshine Cleaning–What could go wrong in a film about a pair of down on their luck crime scene cleaners? A lot, apparently. The film opens with a solid (if not realistic) premise and a cast that’s just as strong (love Arkin and Blunt’s stoner American accent is hypnotic) but both are brought down by a screenplay that falters in the second act where the interesting crime scene clean upstuff gets buried (get it) under way too much extraneous character BS (oh, god no, not childhood flashbacks! and the dumbest scene of the year: hey, lets go stand under a train so we can feel ALIVE–the fuck?). Then it down right sinks in the third act when that character BS I didn’t like to begin with gets NO payoff (the dude with the one arm? the cop with the two arms? the lesbian subplot? the chick who hates her mom? and a final, solve-all happy ending that reeks of reshoots). C
  • Taken–Look, I have no idea how Taken, a kick ass B-actioneer that was released in Europe a few years ago, has become one of the biggest films of the year (it’s heading towards 200 million!). But I’m glad it is. As some blogger noted, this film has no right being as good as it is. Yup, there’s something intrinsically pleasing about seeing Liam Neeson take out the (euro)trash in an attempt to save his daughter–he’s the new Harrison “GIVE ME BACK MY DAUGHTER” Ford in that respect. The awesome cathartic zing of Taken stems not so much from Neeson’s ex CIA bad-assness but from his character’s slow and steady and methodical approach as he inches closer and closer towards the whereabouts of his daughter. Bones are broken, lives are taken… this no nonsense/bare-bones character Neeson takes on reminds me of Lee Marvin in Point Blank and George C Scott in Hardcore, men who are driven by a mechanical soulless rage, and you can’t find better company than that. And how great is it that Neeson finally has a solo hit film on his hands; one where he’s not a smooth talking goddamn mentor (Star Wars: Episode I, Batman Begins, Narnia, Kingdom of Heaven). B+
  • Coraline–I’m going to admit right here that I feel Neil Gaimen is overrated. Sorry, he gets way too much credit for peddling goth-light versions of fairy tales. Coraline, you could say, also fits into that whole Hot-Topic-Nightmare-Before-Christmas-OMG hype but the film overcomes a lot by being so simple and pure and non-gimmicky. Just a splendid little archetypal film about a raven haired girl entering into a dream world and overcoming her fears (hum, sounds like Spirited Away). Much adventure is had… but it’s pretty thin stuff. The film gets bumped up a grade point for the fantastic IMAX presentation. B-
  • Underworld: Rise of the Lycans–No Kate Beckinsale… more Bill Nighy… all Michael Sheen. A win, win, win situation for semi-Underworld fans like me. Does this make this prequel any better than the first or half-way decent second? No, not by much but it sure makes it a lot more fun. I mean, vampire/werewolf sex is a hoot, and a howl! The story is set in the past and, thus, dosen’t bother us with how COOL it (thinks it) is. That’s a wise move because it was never cool to begin with. B-

Review: Watchmen

  • What’s Good:The genre’s most literal comic book film coming from its most literal directors. More of a bonus feature for fans than an actual movie in fact. Rejoice, someone finally attempted to make “The Watchmen” and this is as good as it’s ever going to get.
  • What’s Not: Snyder does not update Moore’s postmodern superhero paradigm. He does skim the surface of the evolution of superheroes but all that amounts to is a pair of batman nipples on Ozymandias. The performances are iffy and the lack of some major plot details sting (especially the retarded ending). Also, the only thing I dislike more than flash-backs is period music. This has both!

Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel is one of the most literate and enjoyable stories ever told. It is the “Citizen Kane” of graphic novels. Zach Snyder’s version… is not. Should it be? No. Could it be? No. Does it think it is? YES. Watchmen proper exists in its own universe and cannot be replicated or recaptured. It’s cannon. But it’s also universal and infinitely applicable to post-80s American culture so trying and failing is better than not trying at all. “Visionary” director Zach Snyder (dude, being visionary is not the same thing as as continually adapting visionary material!) and his bold/cocky filmmaking may prove to be a case of wings of wax soaring towards the sun but, you know, that hubris is exactly what was needed to pull the trigger on this bad boy. I’m just grateful someone had the balls to film the unfilmable and not only that but film it for comic book fans instead of moronic multiplex moviegoers. The film, such as it is, is endlessly entertaining if not entirely satisfying (because how could it be?). But it also begs the question: if you’re going to make “Watchmen” with total devotion and utter fidelity with respect to the source material then why make it at all? Well, perhaps because it isn’t so much a fully autonomous film as it is a treasure trove for fans of the novel (at least, those open enough to accept a film version for what it is) and an insane adventure for anyone who hasn’t heard of it. Win/win.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen is to this day the premire source for superhero parody and political allegory. What makes it so unique and fly so effictivley is how subtle the first trait is and how blunt the second. Blowhard mystic/anarchist Moore made a bleak and bombastic doomsday parody before such a thing was commonplace (watch the brilliant “Southland Tales” to see the modern incarnation of this genre). It’s tone (more pastiche than parody) and presentation is a thing of non-linear perfection–a marvelous marriage of style and concept that trancends any limitations of “the page” that we thought were there. The problem with the film, or any film, is that it is so literal. The non-problem with this film is that Snyder is as non-imaginative as directors come in terms of producing new ideas vis-à-vis old content. But that’s not a knock because what he adds is a fresh and purely cinematic veneer that few modern directors are as adept at presenting. Here is a man who remade “Dawn of the Dead” and not only added nothing new but took away a few things (!) and the film is still better than Romerio’s overrated version. On “300” Snyder latched on to the text and, like a self-fapping computer virus, downloaded a living and breathing monster of kineticism and madness to film. Snyder’s copy/paste approach with “Watchmen” is similar in terms of intent except instead of fascist porn (which I like as it turns out) is a celebration of political and personal anarchy (which I like even more).

It’s one thing to see sketches of Nite Owl and another to see a dude dressed up as an owl. Multiply that many times over and you have the problematic Dr. Manhattan who is so far beyond human that he is an abstract elemental figure in the book and, well, one-third of the blue man group in the film. However the fact remains that this Dr. Manhattan (and Billy Crudup’s stoic, post-human acting style) is as good as he’ll ever get. The reason: penis. By going there and showing Manhattan’s member the film goes a long way (teehe) toward legitimizing itself and emerges as a non-sanitized Hollywood product. I’m astounded at how risky this film is and glad a studio gave somebody so much money to make something so quirky. I shudder to imagine Terry Gilliam circus freak show or Paul Greengrass heavy handed war on terror version that was very close to being made. Snyder’s answer is (and quite wisely) to focus on the everyday nature of these superheroes and really dig deep to explore the mentality behind people who run around in superhero costumes. While the superheroes in this film are driven to save people more than the people want or need to be saved this is no “Dark Knight.” Not even close. The fundamental problem is that the film doesn’t explain why they’re so super in terms of strength or intelligence. The slow-mo visual wallop looks cool to be sure but this only ends up contradicting the story in a big way.

What suffers most is not Snyder’s approach but those who are asked to bring such a concept to life. The performers struggle to grasp the nuances and tonal biplay inheret to the material, sometimes going for slapstick, sometimes tragic and sometimes realism. Patrick Wilson, an actor I like these days, never really gets across the notion that there’s a vengeance seeking creature of the night (owl) deep inside this slob, waiting to pounce on its prey. The passive dummy’s latex muse, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, is horribly, horribly, horribly miscast and incapable of understanding the difference between what she’s saying and what Moore means (hum, casting couch???). Jackie Earle Haley as the masked Rorschach gets it alright, but perhaps too much as he goes overboard most the time and soon becomes a parody of Rorschach, a character, mind you, who was already a parody. Faring better is Crudup as Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (his flashback is by far the best and most poetic) but the role is cold and will always work better on paper. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian has the impossible task of being the most magnetic and likable rapist/mass murderer/presidential killer of all time. Most surprising is how effective Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is. I thought the actor was out of place and potentially the film’s weakest link but along with Morgan he holds the thing together! While the character is underwritten and mishandled at times (not enough TV watching, a random introduction of his big cat, no genetically engineered alien masterplan and no mention of his homosexual orientation) the performance is good enough to get all that across. Set on the hundredth-something floor of his building the scene where this openly “out” superhero Veidt talks to crabby oilmen about the future of alternative energy sources while, in the background, one of his blimps can barley be seen heading right towards the twin towers is stunning and the exception that proves my theory that Snyder and his actors add nothing new to the material.  

Overwrought is the word of the day. If the filmmaker’s “300” was overwrought to the point hypewroughtness then “Watchmen” is so far beyond “300” that it lands in the realm of metawrought. Manic ideological supremacy and delusions of genus don’t just describe Snyder and his effort on the “Watchmen” but apply just as forcefully to Alan Moore’s work. Though the two express themselves in different venues, use different narrative pitches and posses different aspirations (Moore the shaman vs. Snyder the, what, capitalist?), the necessary element to make this story work is, in a word, crazy.     

Grade: B+

Review: Two Lovers

  • What’s Good: One of the most original yet at the same time traditional romantic films I’ve ever seen. Two Lovers spoke to me in profound ways. This film is amazing!  
  • What’s Not: Those who underestimate James Grey. Many feel the film is too measured and deliberate (read, slow).
  • Film Law #27: He whom maketh a film with Elias Koteas maketh the film better.

Much like my number one film from last year (“There Will Be Blood”), “Two Lovers” exists as its own thing, in its own space and at its own pace. Simply put, I’m going out of my way to hype James Grey’s latest drama. Before seeing it the source of the hype was, in fact, guilt over not selecting the director’s superlative “We Own the Night” on my top ten last year. The instant after seeing it, however, that hype transformed into the full fledged worshiping of what I feel to be a near perfect film. James Grey is one of our most intelligent working directors. He is an unsung (and, to his credit, un-singing) master of symbolism, dramatic subtlety, sound design and interpersonal character studies starring Joaquin Phoenix. Seriously, after “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” and now “Two Lovers” the pair are three for three and if this is to be the last role ever put on film by future rap star Phoenix (hehe, yeah right) then he has ended on the most appropriate note possible: tortured thoughtfulness.

As we speak the French are taking credit for discovering this most quiet of auteurs (Grey’s last two films have been celebrated at Cannes and placed on, ohhh, about 200x more top tens than in the U.S.); it’s a shame local film lovers can’t get around to embracing this filmmaker for what he is, an American treasure. I guess we’re too busy calling Diablo Cody a genus. Anyhow, “Two Lovers” is about exactly what the title describes but so much more. The modest offering of the title evokes the beautifully simple yet infinitely complex Woody Allen and John Cassavetes classics and it’s no small compliment to state that the entire film resonates in that tradition in terms of filmmaking and storytelling.

Both dramatically and with a touch of humor, the film follows an awkward man (Phoenix) who can’t follow himself let alone decide between two new women that have entered his barley functioning life; Vanessa Shaw is the “right” girl for him while Gwyneth Paltrow is the girl who tears out his heart and has him begging for more. Who will he choose! I know, I know, we’ve all seen the same set-up before but never have we seen the same results because, for one, the film refuses to submit to narrative expectations or easy characterizations. Leonard lives at home but he’s not a looser. His mother (Isabella Rossellini) eavesdrops but is not a movie mom nag. The girl of his dreams is in love with the “wrong” guy (Elias Koteas) but he’s not an advisory or a monster. Leonard is awkward (every word seems weighted and every step unsure) and while that can be funny he’s not a joke. Leonard is sad and suicidal but not tormented (though Pheonix seems to be). And most importantly Leonard can be a fool for love but he’s not a fool.

All such plot ingredients simmer and eventually lead into one of the most meaningful and intriguing end points I’ve seen in years. Without giving much away I will say that Leonard cries in the last shot, telling the woman he “chooses” (and audience–he makes eye contact with the screen!) they are tears of “joy.” We’ll never know if he is indeed happy or sad and that is, in its own small way, haunting. Enduringly so as I feel (and going out on a limb by feeling that…) this a love story that enters the pantheon of greats. In fact, it came as no surprise to me that it’s loosely adapted or “inspired” if you will from a Dostoyevsky story. Whatever the case may be I feel a groundswell of admiration and hope for James Grey who, for the first time, has reached out beyond the New Jersey crime milieu to explore a fully realized romantic (or anti-romantic if you will) storyline that does not include a single mobster. So: yay.

I’m simply floored by the nature of this film. As poor Leonard seeks happiness and declares his love for the wrong girl this is is modern love story that has a classic swing to it but counter to aspects of both traditions, it is wholly original and impossible to classify as anything beyond “a James Grey film.” For starters the sound design helps brings the film to life by enhancing city sounds like the rushing of cars and even intimate sounds like Leonard’s bubbling fish tank. I feel compelled to mention that James Grey is once again working with sound designer Douglas Murray and it’s really a genus move to utilize top shelf talent capable of epic sounds in movies like “Cloverfield” and “Beowulf” to work their movie magic on a smaller and more personal scale (how come nobody notices this???). But that’s just sound. Everything in this movie feels like it should be. Ducking behind corners to capture awkward people performing impulsive acts, the film is observed more than it is directed and, thus, is not for everyone. Sadly, it also seems like it’s not for anyone. Critics, as usual, don’t quite know what to do or say about Grey. They call his work cliché and they call it boring. They are wrong. 

Grade: A