Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Year in Movies

I saw more than 70 movies in theaters during 2008, and while I don't think the year was as good as 2007 (topped by "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," "Eastern Promises," "Michael Clayton," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and more) or 2006 ("The Departed," "The Queen," "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Lives of Others," "Volver" and more), there were still plenty of films that I thought were "good" or enjoyable.

What was missing, for me, was that undeniable instant stone classic on a level of the films noted above.

So, with that faint praise, here is one dude's assessment of the year in film circa 2008.


I didn't see as many documentaries this year as normal, but here are three that I liked a lot:

* Young at Heart: Some call it manipulative, but for me, this beautiful, uplifting and riotously funny documentary about a Northampton, Mass. chorus of senior citizens who specialize in reinventing punk, soul and rock 'n' roll classics was one of the most enjoyable and emotionally rewarding visits to the movies I've had in years.

* U2 3D: I've always thought 3D was a gimmick and hadn't seen a film in the format since childhood, but with the lads cranking it up for the bigscreen, I figured it was a necessity. Sure, it's a bit overblown, but the creativity is undeniable, and just to see some of those incredible U2 songs on a five-story (or whatever it was) screen ... well, priceless.

* Religulous: Bill Maher thinks the religious are completely ridiculous, and while I don't agree with that ultimate assessment (lapsed Catholics are still Catholics, of course ), his very funny film offers up some compelling arguments to support it. If you can get past Maher's withering cynicism, there's some "there" there.


* Blindness: Director Fernando Meirelles directed one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years in "City of God," the incendiary, "GoodFellas"-like portrait of the lives of the residents of a Brazilian favela, and then followed that up with the geo-political dramatic thriller "The Constant Gardener," another fine effort. Unfortunately, the gifts that informed both of those films have not been employed to their best use here. His filmic essay on human nature that examines what happens to the denizens of a major metropolis when its residents startingly lose their ability to see is, sadly, not very illuminating.

* Che: I thought for sure that the reteaming of "Traffic" director Steven Soderbergh and actor Benicio Del Toro in a political drama about the infamous 20th century revolutionary would be a can't-miss examination of power, corruption and dreams thwarted that would transcend the biopic boundaries and provide a powerful allegory for our time. Uh, no. Somewhere in that two-part, 260-minute ambitious failure is an 180-minute masterpiece waiting to be unleashed.


* The Bank Job: Actor Jason Statham has been in some good movies ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch," and "The Italian Job," among others), but he's also been the only watchable thing in some real dogs, such as "Cellular," "Crank," "London" and others. This latest one looked like it might be another misfire, but to my sheer delight, it was a crackling heist/gangster saga in the vein of "Sexy Beast" and "Layer Cake," coupled with the intrigue of the best spy movies. In a happy upset, I fookin' luv'd it.

* Burn After Reading: My favorite Coen brothers movies ("Miller's Crossing," "No Country for Old Men," "The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," "O Brother Where Art Thou") tend to be their more dramatic efforts that infuse humor, as opposed to their more overt comedic efforts. People I've spoken to have flat-out hated this one, but I'm a fan of the performances by the volcanic John Malkovich, the icy Tilda Swinton, the rascally George Clooney, an earnestly sad Richard Jenkins and the bemused David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. I pretty much loathed the buffoonish performances the Coens apparently wanted from Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, but -- hey -- it's their movie.

* The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: My first comment upon leaving the theater was, "Wow. Beautiful." Upon further scrutiny, the flaws -- including Pitt's wooden performance, the oddly unaffecting framing device with Julia Ormond and an elderly Cate Blanchett, the overly sweet nature of everything, etc. -- become more apparent, but the sheer ambition of the work and the luminous Blanchett kept me interested. Note: It's perfectly possible to dislike "Forrest Gump," the film to which this is often compared, and like "Button."

* Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Comedies rarely get mentioned on best-of lists, and while this is no "Knocked Up" or "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," it does feature a terrific lead performance by Jason Segel (and a supporting role for his man-junk) and an unforgettable Dracula puppet show.

* In Bruges: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play hitmen hiding out in Bruges, Belgium, waiting for orders from profane mob boss Ralph Fiennes. That's pretty much it. They hang tight, waiting for word, yet manage to get into some serious shenanigans. Beware for the tonal shift from funny buddy comedy to bloody revenge drama.

* Rocknrolla: Guy Ritchie takes a lot of crap for having been Mr. Madonna, but he has a good hand for ensemble gangster flicks, and this represents a return to form of his early days of "Lock, Stock" and "Snatch." Bonus points for the great use of The Subways' "Rock & Roll Queen" and the casting of Idris Elba (Stringer Bell of "The Wire") in an excellent supporting roll.

* Slumdog Millionaire: I liked the energy and style that Danny Boyle -- an incredibly talented director who never repeats himself cinematically -- brought to the telling of this tale, but something about it rang too Capra-esque and "feel-good" in the end. The filmmakers seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: a tough, violent, unsparing film on the one hand, and a happy love story with a celebratory Bollywood dance number tacked on the end on the other hand. To me, it seemed a bit insincere. Critics have compared this to "City of God," my favorite movie of its release year and best movie I'd seen at that point since "GoodFellas," but in my eyes, the comparison is an insult to "City of God." But not a bad movie and undoubtedly a massive crowd-pleaser that seems a shoo-in to win the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday.

* Valkyrie: Get past Tom Cruise and the eye patch and settle in for a gripping thriller about one of the many unsuccessful plots to kill Hitler.

* W: Oliver Stone making a film about George W. Bush sounds like a recipe for disaster in some quarters, but I was salivating from the moment it was announced. Of course, Stone confounded extremist expectations by making a fairly nuanced portrait of the hapless 43 and the "brain trust" that surrounded him in his presidency. Some of the performances are caricature, and Stone's basic theme of the son trying to impress the father has been debunked by those loyal to Bush, but the movie worked for this political junkie. How beautiful is Elizabeth Banks?!

* Zack and Miri Make a Porno: It's not Kevin Smith's best movie, and the extremely slow start had me worried that it might be his worst, but then it kicked into gear after about 10 minutes and had me in stitches from then on. Craig Robinson is ridiculously funny as Rogen's buddy who finances the film. Again, how beautiful is Elizabeth Banks?!

Next up ... THE TOP TEN.

Stay tuned...

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