Sunday, February 22, 2009

Best of 2008

Mike here with the best of 2008. Not timely, but I'm not paid, so screw it. For a while, I wasn't sure I had a top 10 I would be comfortable with. A top 6 maybe, with 4 decent ones. Luckily ,the end of the year rewarded us with high quality. I didn't expect to do a block in the middle of foreign films, but go figure. I did a lot better in terms of catching up with stuff. Which caused films I had hoped would make it, like The Counterfeiters, Man on Wire, and Vicky Christina Barcelona, to just miss out. Oh well, I feel confident about the quality. Here we go:

10) REVOLUTIONARY ROAD- A film one should not see in a depressing mood. American Beauty without most of the humor, but still very good. I saw a blog that had the house where Kate and Leo's characters live as among the top evil houses on film. The empty promises it promotes that helps one confuse career achievement (or a spouse's career achievement) with emotional fulfillment. Couples may come and go, but the house with false promises will continue, on Revolutionary Road and elsewhere.

Should have been acknowledged more by the Academy, but not at the expense of films 9-1 on this list. Kate Winslet should not win over Anne Hathway in Rachel Getting Married, but Kate should have been nominated for this over The Reader. Thanks for nothing Harvey Weinstein (but at least you approved one of my faves of 07, I'm Not There, so there you go.).

Like American Beauty, well written with a strong cast. I like Michael Shannon, but here, even though it's not a major role, a little of his screen time goes a long LONG way. And it doesn't help that despite different eras depicted, Mad Men covers similar territory better. But I find it better than say Slumdog Millionaire, uplifting be damned.

9) GRAN TORINO- My second biggest surprise of Oscar completely ignoring a film. Better than Clint Eastwood's other 2008 directorial release, Changeling. And not just because Clint turns in a better performance here, than Angelina does in her film. I won't argue that Ms. Jolie isn't a more talented actor. I would agree she has more talent and at least possess the skill set to access said talent. But having so much self-awareness that you know what roles you can blend into without distraction is not a gift, it's developed over time. Clint has decades of said experience and knows when to tower and when to blend in this, while Ms. Jolie feels like she gets away from her character to become ANGELINA in the film's second half. Don't give me lip about actors should be able to take risks and therefore grow and become better. This is the wrong forum, again I don't disagree, but Clint fits like a glove in this story; Angelina in Changeling, not as much.

Good to see Clint taking chances. Taking a chance with two first time screenwriters, and not turn their story into some geriatric Death Wish. And while Clint has the reputation of giving little direction to his actors (letting them do what they do which is why they were cast), for him to cast mostly non union actors and non-actors, just to fit the specific nationality (Hmong). That he pulls credible performances out of most of them, bravo. Not everything runs smoothly throughout with their performances, thus the low ranking. But the story engages, as a bigoted old man sees his value sets not in his own flesh and blood, but in the immigrant family he despised but learns to respect and care for. Surprisingly funny at times, when Clint does his best Archie Bunker, most of his line unrepeatable in a list like this. Understandable why some audiences have rejected most Oscar nominees in favor of this.

8) MILK- The best of the 5 Best Picture nominees, the only one I would put on this list. Seeing this on opening night in Chelsea, with a sold out crowd revering the screen was tremendous. Now I know what it feels like to attend Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Finally, a Gus Van Sant film I truly like with no reservations. The better of the two Van Sant films released in 08 (I admired the attempt with Paranoid Park, as opposed to actually liking or recommending it).

A very good biopic, that instructs the newbies, and feels right to those who know and/or lived the history, while never failing to maintain interest. Doesn't try to tell every decade of Harvey Milk's life. Just the section where he not only comes out of the closet, but moves to San Francisco for a complete change of lifestyle. And while shooting in San Francisco areas lend great authenticity, making the city another character, the editing of news reports and interviews from that era depicting Prop 6 and those who were for it, gives the viewer a sense of time, immediacy and conflict better than any scripted re-enactments. Probably would have made the film 3 hours long.

The only complaints I have, is the slight feeling of a whitewash that seems to make Milk into Saint Harvey (don't know if that's true, but the feeling is too much to shake for this ticket buyer, so if you don't like it, tough.), the idea of hinting that Dan White was repressed and in possibly in the closet (this much of the history I'm confident to say, bullshit. Which is a shame, considering how accurate the depiction of depression in White feels.), and James Franco's only ok performance. That tends to stick out like a sore thumb in the otherwise impeccable cast. Speaking of cast, Sean Penn may not be as tall, or as thin as Harvey Milk, but otherwise, not a false note in his performance. While I personally lean toward Frank Langella's performance in the entertaining Frost/Nixon, if Sean wins Best Actor, it would feel right.

7) TELL NO ONE- I'm a sucker for the kind of suspense film that Hitchcock made. I'm also a sucker for the kind of suspense thriller Hitch might have at least considered making if he was alive today. That's why in 2003 I rated Swimming Pool a little higher then say, Lost In Translation and Mystic River. And this follows the style of one of Alfred's man on the run flicks, while also working as a mystery and as a meditation on loss.

Adapted and directed by Guillaume Canet, a man, mourning on the eight year anniversary of his wife's murder, receives a video of someone looking like his wife at an airport, along with a three word message, Tell No One. That man must find out, and the journey begins. The sense of loss is palpable, so the need to find the truth is great. And it's nice in a film like this where not all the twists and turns are predictable. Vastly under seen in theaters, even for an art house release. You can correct that when it comes out on DVD at the end of March.

6) WALTZ WITH BASHIR- A nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and not to be missed. The best documentary of the year, and the only one on this list. Mostly animated; used to stay away from typical shots of talking heads, and bring the vivid descriptions of war, life at home and the dreams to life. Director Ari Folman talks with other fellow Israeli war veterans about their experiences. Some mutual, and some repressed. There's a depiction here of a group of men raised mostly likely by parents who survived the Holocaust. As soldiers, they fought in the first Lebanon war, rarely winning any battles, and lucky to survive the pounding they took from the Palestinians. Once they made it through into the major cities, these Israelis ended up providing cover fire for Phalangist fighters, who pull out Palestinian old people women and children out of town into camps, where they were massacred. The soldiers didn't know until way too late into all of this. When they told their superiors, they appeared to be ok with it, and didn't have stopped until hundreds had been killed.

No, the full history of the back and forth violence between all the parties are not explored, because it is of no interest to the filmmaker and his fellow veterans who lived through a portion of it. They share the same feeling as Eastwood's Gran Torino character, where war leaves a permanent emotional scar. The filmmaker is interested in bringing out fleshing out their memories, repressed and otherwise. The animation isn't Pixar, but the film making is vibrant. If you don't come away shaken, i don't know what to say about you. Though for me, if I don't feel like you saw something well done when NOT IF you see this, then frankly, I don't know what to say about you either.

5)GAMORRAH- If you know some that says that mob movies are waste and that nothing more can be said in the genre, Gamorrah is the proof that this person is an idiot. Or Mobbed up. This just recently opened in New York, but since it received a one week release in L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, it counts toward this list and not next year. Dark Italian film based on the book that exposed the dealings of the Camorra crime empire, based around Naples. All elements of honor or coolness from previous mob films, comes off as bullshit next to what's depicted here, an area that God seems to have forgotten. Similar to both Traffic and Traffik (Google it people), in its multi-arcs and semi realist style of telling the story. It's almost as though director Matteo Garrone decided: I can have the speed and style of say, City Of God, but you can't have the editing jump cuts. You must let the camera roll and let the story be told that way. Very Visconti or very Kubrick in its overall final state.

We see different aspects of the organization, but never in any exotic locales. The daily dealing rub outs in what is essentially a ghetto. The payments made to people with jailed gang members. It's different business holdings are brought up; from couture (Scarlett Johansson in a Italian dress is featured: now you know who will profit from this exposure), to profiting off dumping toxic waste (tough if you happened to live near there), to their investment in the re-building at Ground Zero, to the everyday practice of killing an average of one person who steps out of line every three days. We meet individuals, like the 12 year old boy, ignoring his mom to become a new recruit. The dapper man who runs the waste management company, without a care about where he dumps. The older man who gives payments, and thinks he's special because he doesn't kill anyone. The two teenagers who literally don't know what to do with a woman (as we see in a scene in a strip club), but whose idolization of Scarface makes them think they can be just like him. Hey kiddies, Al Pacino isn't a mobster, he's paid to play make-believe. The sweaty gangsters you're trying to rip off don't play at all. And don't bother looking for the police. They're only good for taking dead bodies away.

A few professional actors mixed in with mostly non-actors, kind of like with Gran Torino. You should walk away from this film a little sickened by what you experience. Especially since it's been happening, it's going on while you read this, and nothing will happen to change this, probably in our lifetime. But the mastery of the film making should make you feel this is time well spent. Slowly expanding over the next few weeks as of this writing, so do go.

Shocking that this didn't make it to the semis for the Foreign Language Film nomination. Truly disappointing, but even if it did get nominated, I don't think it would beat . . .

4) THE CLASS- The best of the Foreign Language nominees that have received a release. Anyone who intends to become a teacher should be forced to see this. Afterwards, if they still intend to teach, especially somewhere between grades 5-9, make them see the film again. Francois Begaudeau took his experiences as a teacher and wrote a book. He collaborated with director Francois Begaudeau, cast non-actor (see a pattern here?) kids, had them work improvs over the course of a school year, then they shot.

Begaudeau plays a version of himself, struggling to teach multi cultural class. The kids are smart, but are more interested in showing up the teacher and establishing dominance. Combine short attention spans, the lack of experience with verbal subtleties, and an unwillingness to cross the cultural chasm by both students and faculty, makes the job (taking place over the course of a school year with the camera never leaving school grounds) almost impossible to do. Taking place in a country where there seems to be a melting pot, but the pot appears to be only simmering, and no one wants to stir. At times, more gut wrenching then some recent horror films.

3) HAPPY-GO-LUCKY- I'm becoming a big fan of director Mike Leigh. Let actors improvise while only telling one or two of the leads the entire story from beginning to end, then when the improvs go to his satisfaction, Leigh goes off to write the script, then a few months later, shoots the film. With this style, have come a number of Top Ten of a year flicks over the years: Career Girls, Topsy Turvy, Vera Drake. And now, my favorite Mike Leigh film, Happy-Go-Lucky. Imagine if I could truly get into Secrets and Lies and Naked . . .

I grow less inclined to say someone was robbed of an Oscar or a nomination. Whoever has the best personal or studio press agents . . . But Sally Hawkins not getting a Best Actress nomination is shocking to the point of saying "Bullshit." (Who would I drop? Sorry, Melissa Leo . . . ). She plays a single kindergarten teacher who absolutely refuses to be down or nasty. She will be cheerful and chipper to the point that some strangers and the viewer might think she's delusional and insane. Not that she's blissfully unaware of troubles in the world and in other people. She actively tries to help her students and friends. But she will not make the world by being cruel or mean herself, even if one perceives her as a victim at one point.

Leigh lets the viewer decide if she is silly, naive or is in a place in her life we should consider aspiring to. Many smiles and more then a few laughs abound. And Hawkins makes this special creature shine. And her scenes with Eddie Marsan, as her polar opposite driving instructor, are the highlight of the film.

And now for my top 2. The top 3 has been in this order since mid November. But the top 2 both have a good chance of entering my personal top 100:

2) THE DARK KNIGHT- A more politically relevant wasn't made this year. Instead of typical action fare, we got epic film making, something some people said we'd never see again. More a semi realistic crime drama than a typical superhero film. We just happen to have a cape, masks and some makeup here as well. Is a lot close to the dark vein Frank Miller tapped into back in the late 80s. Can easily let me forget Christopher Nolan's last film, the mediocre Twilight Zone episode, The Prestige.

I will stop going further because better writers can and have gone into its themes better. Praise for look and sound, especially on IMAX, cannot stop. And while one can take the time for Heath's Joker, I won't just because I'm in no mood to join the chorus proclaiming him the next James Dean. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent disintegrating into Two Face deserves the same accolades. And for jock itch like Stephen A. Smith, who said they needed someone like Beyonce instead of Maggie Gyllenhall as the romantic interest, three things in her defense:

First, Beyonce can sing, but she can't act. There were reasons why most of the energy in Dreamgirls disappeared the second both Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy left the screen, And Beyonce is one of them. And you're going to have her act opposite Bale, Ledger, and Eckhart? HA!

Second, for those who ripped Maggie must have forgotten Katie Holmes' performance in the same role? The complexity of the character (more sensitivity, a little more sadness) has increased. Katie had enough problems with the somewhat more simplified character in Batman Begins, but you complainers' selective amnesia is annoying.

Third, c'mon, she's playing a workaholic lawyer who stays in the office late. If you're looking for an office relationship and you think you can do better, God bless, but keep your ignorance out. Moving on. To number one . . .

1) WALL-E- Saying this is my favorite Pixar is redundant. Ranking it as the best of the dystopian genre (among my faves, Brazil, Children of Men, Blade Runner, and yes, Soylent Green), is also fairly redundant. One of the best films ever made, that sounds about right, though I'd like to possibly reconsider that about four years from now.

The first half hour plus is among the best silent film homages ever, especially with a nod toward Chaplin and action-wise, Keaton. A better use of Hello Dolly songs here then Gene Kelly did when he directed the film version, whose clips are seen in Wall-E! With a never uninteresting pessimism about our future, with just enough room for change via love that's believable. Yes, believable. The idea of two robots falling in love of course strains credibility. But the fact that this love is more believability depicted than in any studio romantic comedy is both a miracle and a damnation for recent films (go ahead, defend Bride Wars and the Sex In The City movie morons.). All praise for the nominated screenplay from Jim Reardon, Pete Docter and the film's director, Andrew Stanton. This film will age quite well. Don't know if we need a Wall-E 2 like Toy Story 2 and the upcoming 3. This is sufficient.

I invite feedback and criticism and questions about why I left some films off in favor of these. Although annoying comments get deleted. It's possible to believe in democracy on the web and not actually practice it. I know most of you haven't seen all of them. If you're the typical person I know, you're lucky to have seen three or four of them. So let me know. Later all.


JC said...

I like your description of Revolutionary Road. It's well written and right on the money I feel. Also, I'm glad you made mention of the newsreal clips edited into Milk for the sake of enhancing the narrative. Something I forgot to mention.

Didn't realize you liked Dark Knight as much as me. Though I respect your praise of Eckhart and Gyllenhall, I do think you forgot to include Oldman in that as well. I feel his is the most underrated performance in the film. He has some quality scenes, crucial toward the end in fact, and makes Gordon an extremely likeable character, so much so that you seriously mourn when you think he's gets offed. Not an easy thing to do and I feel his work deserves merit.

I'm a little surprised that The Wrestler wasn't in your top ten.
From our conversations I got the impression that you liked it more than Dark Knight. So go figure. But I'm glad you recognized Dark Knight's epic value like I did, as well as Wall-E's direct homage to Chaplin (and Keaton) which I also noted. I'm pleased we agree on #1.

mike said...

Yeah, I left out Oldman. Yes, he was very good, but I was lucky I could even write at all at certain points. Writer's block to a minor degree. If I was going to do a write up on another DK performance, it would be Eric Roberts'. Hard to pull off evil naivete and indifference, but he did.

Why did i leave out The Wrestler? Take your pick of one of two reasons:

1) Waltz With Bashir was the last film I saw that made the list. I rather drop The Wrestler off the list than Revolutionary Road.

2) I choose to put Gamorrah on the list. When you see it (and I'd catch it again with you if you choose to go to Kew Gardens for a cheap price), you'll probably put it on your best of 09 list. But because of it's Oscar qualifying one week run in L.A., I liked the chance of praising it while it was expanding, so that more people would catch what they think is a new release, while accepting the technicality. Again, The Wrestler is not Revolutionary Road.