Friday, December 19, 2008

Films of the Year: The runners-up

2008 Cinema Review: Joint Eleventh Place

Looking back on the year’s movies, I’m struck by how many of my favorites featured the theme of family and community – perhaps this reflects only my current personal concerns, or maybe there’s a bigger invisible hand at work. For what it’s worth, here’s my list of six movies that I really loved, but which don’t quite make it onto the top ten of 2008. That best-of list will follow soon.*

‘Quantum of Solace’, a James Bond film notable for featuring the rare instance in which he learns the futility of revenge, and advocates against a multi-national corporation in favor of the right of poor people to have clean drinking water. I know most critics were ambivalent about this movie, but trust me – it’s tightly edited, well-written, and plays more like an advert for a militarized peace and justice movement than the war on terror.

‘Surfwise’ – a rollicking documentary about a family so committed to living free that they unplugged themselves from the social grid and spent their lives in a motor home by a series of beaches. The patriarch is as gregarious as he is dictatorial, and the moral and psychological questions raised by his communitarian experiment deserve attention at any time, but perhaps especially in economic crisis.

‘Synecdoche, New York’, a mind-blowing dog-chasing-its-tail of a film; an aesthetically extraordinary, both troubling and hilarious story about art and its creation, about family and its dysfunction, and humanity and its relationship with itself – a film that gets bigger the more I think about it.

‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ – Another under-appreciated film; but look closely and you’ll see Steven Spielberg fusing wide-eyed wonderment with his darker side – this is a wildly entertaining movie about bruised people becoming a family, it has one of the wisest last lines spoken by a major character in any film, and in the nuclear test zone sequence features the most dramatic image Spielberg has ever created: the atomic bomb as the starting pistol for the second half of the twentieth century.

Australia – In which Baz Lurhmann proves that he doesn’t care what other people think – he just wants to make movies on his terms. And what a movie he’s made: the creation myth of a huge country, seeking to atone for the shallow representation of Aboriginal people, and suggesting that only when you see the world through the eyes of a child can you be truly human.

‘Son of Rambow’ – A delightful little movie which manages to be both a knowing representation of childhood, a critique of religious fundamentalism, and a love letter to cinema itself.

* One of the most disappointing aspects of film distribution is how difficult it’s becoming to get to see movies that lack a huge budget. So, in the interests of being comprehensive, I’ve listed below films that I imagine might have made this list or the one to follow, but that I haven’t seen, either because they haven’t yet been released or screened for critics, or they just haven’t made it to my part of the country.

A Christmas Tale
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
I’ve Loved you so Long
The Wrestler
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire

Monday, December 15, 2008

Films of the Year (part 3) MORE DISAPPOINTMENTS

Continuing the film critic's privilege of somewhat pretentiously deciding which films didn't make the cut - not necessarily the worst movies of the year, just the most disappointing. While it takes almost as much effort to make a bad film as to make a good one, these 13 (see the previous post for the first 7) represent much less than the sum of their parts.

6: 10000 BC - Roland Emmerich makes disaster films. Some of them are fun ('The Day after Tomorrow'). Some of them are pretty bad ('Godzilla'). Some of them make you wish that the world would end if only so you could escape from the cinema.

5: Sex and the City - a movie that exists to provide space for product placement and superficial emoting by characters who remind me of what some fear most about human relationships: that ultimately, we cannot choose to be anything other than alone in our own personal hell.*

4: Eagle Eye - a film that wants to be 'North by Northwest' but ends up nothing more than a calling card for Shia la Boeuf (he's a talented kid, but I wish I hadn't fallen asleep and could believe the film was about more than it seems to be; it felt like I had paid for him to develop a the most well-made showreel in the history of the movies)

3: 21 - the only movie I walked out of this year. Even though I was there alone, I actually began to feel embarrassed for myself after about ten minutes of this literally by-the-numbers coming of age/college sex dramedy.

2: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor/Journey to the Center of the Earth - two Brendan Fraser films for the price of one (try 'Gods and Monsters' and 'Blast from the Past' for a far better evening's entertainment. They're listed here because they both, in their own small way (as John Geilgud might say) show contempt for the audience; one because it is a series of CGI effects strung together by nothing (and you can see the joins), the other because it was marketed as an exciting 3-D experience, but had nothing to offer the vast majority of audiences who had to settle for seeing it without the big glasses. The most short-changed I've felt at the movies this year.

1: Wanted - Easily my choice for the film this year that I most want to forget. This may seem controversial, because the movie is made with a great deal of craft, and so may not therefore deserve the criticism. But for me, the quality of a film is also determined by its cultural and moral vision; in that regard, 'Wanted', with its appropriation of nihilism-inflected-sexviolence, endorsement of the idea that physical attack is a better way to use your time than almost anything else, and its appetite for ultimate destruction gets my vote as the most morally empty, offensive, and distressing movie released in 2008.

To optimists among us: better news to follow.

*OK OK OK I know there's more to it than that, but there might also be less.