Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top Films of 2008

A second post of past movie reviews

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: David Fincher has marked himself as one of the most talented directors to emerge in the 1990's. With films that were often controversial, sometimes successful, he created an opus of films that explored the darkest parts of humanity. Whether it was the serial killer of Seven or Zodiac or the brutality of Fight Club, Fincher pointed to the obsessions inherent in everyone. With Button, he has made an abrupt volte-face and directed a sentimental romance. Though the premise--a man who ages backwards--could have become a mere gimmick, the film succeeds in being able to make such a narrative possible. The film has little resemblance to the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story, but by using it as a base the film goes off in more profound directions than its original author would have conceived. With the perfect casting of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (who were supposed to have made their first appearance togetehr in Aronofsky's The Fountain before Pitt abruptly dropped out), the film carries you through the life story of an eminently strange man. As Pitt youthens (is that the opposite of ages?), his face beckons to the alluring dancer of Blanchett. However, both know that their love is doomed. The film is in many ways quite a conventional epic, but it is also strangely affecting. And anyway, if we can believe that a billionaire would dress up as a bat why can't we believe a man can age backwards?

2. Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne): This film was actually released in France back in 2006, but did not receive American distribution until this year. This murder mystery based on a novel by Harlan Coben achieves what few thrillers ever dare: being utterly romantic. With a fine cast, including Francois Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas, the film follows Dr. Alexandre Beck as he tries to uncover his wife's murder mystery after he receives an email from her eight years after her death. The message's only words were: Tell no one. After the mystery is unraveled with numerous complications, one of the most satisfying endings ties this underrated masterpiece together.

3. Australia: Yes, most critics and audience members despised Baz Luhrman's newest cinematic extravaganza. The film is a rich, and sometimes ridiculous, pastiche of movie history. With a plot line involving an ice queen (Nicole Kidman's usual type of role) who must go to the wilderness of Down Under, Luhrman utilizes the glory of the Australian landscape to backlit a rather complex story of pre-WWII policy towards aborigines. The film cannot quite make up its mind as to what it is: is it supposed to be funny, is the over-the-top sentimentality ironic, is it just a mess? Regardless, it is a beautiful film, and one of the few that should be seen on the big screen.

4. Milk: Gus van Sant has been a rather uneven director. He had a huge hit with Good Will Hunting (1997), and received critical respect for Elephant (2003), but since then has toiled with some films that received no acclaim commercially or critically. Milk sees van Sant return to form with a powerful biopic of Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician elected to the Board of Supervisors to San Francisco. Sean Penn, whom I thought incapable of a restrained performance, has stunned critics with this film where he is neither campy or dour. With a strong supporting cast of James franco, Diego Luna and Josh Brolin, the film follows Milk on his rise and then to his doom.

5. Wall-E: Pixar did it again. This story of a trash robot, who resembles short circuit, and his quest for love succeeded on little dialogue and stunning visuals. When he meets a female robot, he plays her his favorite songs from Hello, Dolly and then holds her hand. After the required conflict and adventure, everything is resolved in perfect Disney fashion, but never feels manipulative or treacly.

6. Slumdog Millionaire: It is quite the sign of the times that the feel-good film of the year has scenes of torture, sexual abuse, blinding and intense poverty. It is also telling, that one of the first truly successful films about India in the States was directed and written by white guys (Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufroy). However, that aside, the film is pitch-perfect in its rendering of the love between a slumdog and the beautiful Latika. An appearance on the Indian edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, sets Jamal on a path to reunite with the girl whom he lost many years before. When Jamal uses his lifeline to cal his brother and Latika answers instead, tears should be welling in your eyes, or you have a heart of stone.

7. The Reader: Two years ago, Kate Winslet made an appearance on Ricky gervais' HBO series, Extras. In the episode, Winslet is making a Holocaust film about a catholic nun who saves Jews from the Nazis. When asked what drove her to choose this project she respoded: "For the Oscar. Do we really need another Holocaust movie? No, but hey I've been nominated five times and never win. The Academy eats up this stuff. I am sure to win." Well, Winslet made a Holocaust movie and appears to be the frontrunner for Best Actress. Bernard Schlink's novel, upon which the film is based, was heavily moralistic (see Dominick LaCapra's excoriation of the book in "Writing History, Writing Trauma"), but David Hare's adaptation (fortunately) loses much of that tone. This tale of a former female guard at Auschwitz who befriends an adolescent in post-war Berlin shines because of Winslet. Winslet could have become a star of pointless romantic comedies after Titanic, but she chose to become a great actress, and now her year of Oscar glory seems to be at hand.

8. Gran Torino: Only Clint Eastwood could utter lines, like "Listen, you gook..," or "You are slant-eyed idiot" without being offensive. This story of a elderly curmudgeon who has just been widowed and befriends his Hmong neighbors, whom he previously felt unworthy of a greeting, shows Eastwood at his best as an actor, and unlike the overwrought quality of his WWII epics, the film has a small feel to it that is very welcome.

9. I've loved you so long (il y a longtemps que je t'aime): Who would have thought that Kristin Scott Thomas was a better actress in French than she is in English. She portrays a woman who has been released from prison after a 15-year sentence for murder. Philippe Claudel masterfully reveals the circumstances of her imprisonment in this quietly affecting film that is hinged on Thomas' bravura performance. It is a tragedy that Thomas was not nominated for Best Actress.

10. The Wrestler: coming from Darren Aronofsky, one of the most brilliant, if also bizarre, auteurs of our generation, one would expect this film to be a bit more "out there." Instead, Aronofsky has directed a poignant character study of a Hulk Hogan-era wrestler far past his prime. The film is devoid of the supernatural storyline of The Fountain or even the metaphysical discomfort of Requiem for a Dream or Pi, but Aronofsky achieved a breathtaking performance from Mickey Rourke, a man everyone had given up for dead. I'm not sure if Rourke will win the Oscar; many seventy-year-olds who make up the core of the Academy's voters will most likely be a bit turned off by him, but it is most assuredly one of the best performances of the year.

11. The Visitor: A gem of a movie. Richard Jenkins shines as an embittered professor of economics who befriends two squatters he discovers in his Manhattan apartment. Jenkins who had been a busy character actor finally found a role that brought him acclaim and attention. With touching scenes of his emotional rebirth, Jenkins could very well win the Oscar this year.

12. The Dark Knight: Enough ink has been spilled about this movie. It is slightly uneven, a half hour too long, but Heath Ledger is superb.

Honorable mentions: The great comedies of this year: Nick and Norah's Infinite PLaylist, Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Mamma Mia.

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