Monday, February 9, 2009

Top 10 of 2008 and Assorted Miscellany

Speed Racer image found at
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's the top 10 list that you may have been interested in a month ago. I like to take my time, but I've either seen or waited too long to see all the films I wanted to last year, so let's do this thing.

As film years go, 2008 was, well, decent. Not bad, by any stretch, and with some interesting highs, just with some dry patches. It was, for whatever reason, a year when the blockbusters aimed for artistic glory and occasionally achieved it, but the holiday season was kind of anticlimactic and short on cheer. This was also a year in which we got two well-made dark comedies, which may tragically be a record. So here's how things shook out for me in the year of change, crisis, and I’ll try to think of something else starting with “C”:

1. WALL-E. Let’s stack this all up, shall we? Brilliant evocation of character through minimal dialogue and faces with limited expression, expert animation loaded with detail, a decidedly chipper take on dystopian sci-fi, an environmental message that isn’t the least bit judgemental or scolding, an affirmation of willingness to change, all topped with ultracute robots. Also, Fred Willard. We have a winner.

2. THE DARK KNIGHT. A well-oiled engine of a crime thriller with the framing of the superhero genre and the spectacle of an action movie, managing to be a great example of all three. Heath Ledger reinterprets the Joker as a ragged genius who won’t be happy until everyone is as savage and destructive as he is, creating one of the most weirdly compelling villains seen in a long while. The story moves in unpredictable ways and defies obvious structures, the characters are never sure of themselves, the visuals are pristine, and the action isn’t nearly as confusing as it’s been made out to be. A triumph.

3. SPEED RACER. Okay, show of hands, who anticipated this being half as good as it was? The Wachowskis take on a vintage Japanese cartoon known mostly for inspiring parodies on every animated show known to man, and create a visually dazzling and surprisingly heartfelt story of a family fighting the system. This is one of those fantasy films that wraps you in an inviting and tantalizing world which promises more awesome things than you can pick up at once, eschewing any kind of restraint in favor of ninja fighting and random appearances by Shaft. On top of that, it’s a nice reminder to modern filmmakers that it’s okay to have multiple colors on screen at one time.

4. MILK. The energy, the dedication, and the urgency of the Seventies pro-gay movement all course through this film, placing the viewer at the center of a civil rights struggle that’s rarely given its proper place in history. Sean Penn captures Harvey Milk’s charisma and political acumen, while a splendid supporting cast help bring his world to life. Not quite up to THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, but another take on the material is welcome.

5. THE WRESTLER. This one has grown in my estimation since I first saw it, a sign of just how subtly effective the movie is. Mickey Rourke is a powerhouse, Marisa Tomei is beautifully conflicted, and the world of small ticket pro wrestling is rendered with brutal honesty and admiration. The more conventional parts of the story are made believable by Darren Aronofsky’s deliberate eschewing of obvious movie trickery and slow development of emotional intensity.

6. IN BRUGES. Part black comedy, part morality play, part throwback to Hieronymous Bosch; this unique crime picture defies categorization but never ceases to entertain. It’s got a story that’s better constructed than it looks, actors who are putting in more effort than they seem to, and characters who may or may not be as damned as they think they are. Moving and hilarious in equal parts.

7. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. The grimiest and most stylish of heartwarming indie crowd-pleasers; part of me wanted to declare the whole thing overrated and overhyped, but it’s simply too well-made to dismiss. The story may be simplistic, its portrayal of India inaccurate, and some of its elements underdeveloped, but it is the story being told and the filmmakers do a damn fine job telling it. And I really hope more films start doing closing dance numbers.

8. BURN AFTER READING. The Coens follow up Oscar-winning respectable bleakness with an almost deliberately offputting farce that’s just as nihilistic, but has the courtesy to have a sense of humor about it. Like FARGO it focuses on people’s ability to let short term compulsions and a lack of critical thinking foil their ambition and make things very messy very quickly. As comedy it’s an unusual taste, but I couldn’t but laugh.

9. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. As overexploited as the “dumb white guys face the long-delayed onset of maturity” subgenre of comedy is becoming, I can’t help but appreciate the blending of this material with nostalgic callbacks to stoner comedies and 80s buddy pictures, complete with excessive gunplay and a theme song by Huey Lewis. The revelation that James Franco is a great comic performer helps catapult this onto higher ground, no pun intended.

10. TROPIC THUNDER. Feels weird to put these two movies right next to each other, but there you go. A fun satire of the Hollywood movie machine and the actors caught in its gears, not pointing in any one direction but still funny and possessed of a manic energy. Inspired and strangely uplifting.

Films I missed: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Waltz With Bashir, Doubt, Let The Right One In

Most Underrated Film of the Year: SPEED RACER. There’s really no contest here; the Wachowskis labored to bring us a bouquet of sheer Technicolor joy, and it was tossed to the ground because... I don’t know. The dialogue scenes are kind of longish. The editing style takes some getting used to. Um, it’s based on an old cartoon. In the end it amounts to looking at Michaelangelo’s David and bitching about imperfections in the marble. You’d expect either the critics or the public to miss the point but both at once requires some spectacular bad fortune.

Slight runner up though this one actually made some money and wasn’t slated that badly at first but Internet flaming reached really annoying proportions: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I realize that suspension of disbelief has its limits but if your major point of contention with this film is that silly and implausible things happen in it, I wonder what genre you thought this picture was. (Also: CGI is not your enemy.)

Saul Bass Honorary Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Thank God for the Bond series, otherwise I may not have bothered to give this out. (THE WRESTLER had a nice one too, though.)

Worst Title of the Year: NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST. I know that was what the book was called, but seriously guys.

Performances that impressed me (a forever incomplete list):

Elissa Knight, WALL-E
Macintalk, WALL-E
Aaron Eckhart, THE DARK KNIGHT
Michael Caine, THE DARK KNIGHT
John Goodman, SPEED RACER
Sean Penn, MILK
Emile Hirsch, MILK
James Franco, MILK
Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER
Marissa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
Colin Farrell, IN BRUGES
Brendan Gleeson, IN BRUGES
Ralph Fiennes, IN BRUGES
Robert Downey, Jr., IRON MAN
Gwyneth Paltrow, IRON MAN
Jeff Bridges, IRON MAN (in a cave with a box of scraps)
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON
Amy Poehler, BABY MAMA
Robert Downey, Jr., TROPIC THUNDER

... “crashes!” That’s it!

What was I trying to do that for again?

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