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Column Fri Jan 02 2009

Best & Worst Films of 2008, Revolutionary Road and Azur & Asmar

Happy New Years and all that good stuff. Let me first have you take a quick peek at this. First of all, I'm inviting this guy to every screening I host. Clearly he has good taste in films (see my Best of 2008 list below to see why I think this), but really I'd like him to come because he personifies the frustration my fellow film lovers and I have felt over the years as we try desperately to enjoy films without the distraction of human voices, cell phones, and all manner of devices that emit light. If you read this column regularly or don't but profess to being a film lover, let's make a New Year's Resolution Pact: turn everything off when you enter a movie theater. Don't put it on vibrate, don't dim the light; just turn it off. You can go two hours, give or take, without communication with the outside world. And if you can't, a) you have a problem bordering on addiction, and b) you don't belong in a movie theater. Especially in this day and age, people are clearly getting a lot pickier about how they spend their entertainment dollar. If they choose to spend it at a movie, they don't want a frickin' circus going on around them.

I'll tell you why I especially feel for this guy in Philadelphia — because in recent months, I've been pretty forward about telling me to shut up or turn things off. Let's face it, most theater management won't do shit about disruptive patrons. I remember one foreign film I went to see a couple years back with an especially chatty bunch. I complained to the manager, and his response (no lie) was "Well, the movie has subtitles; you don't need to hear it." Please feel free to count the number of wrongs that statement is. As terrifying a prospect as it is to confront talkative moviegoers, nine times out of 10, asking them to be quiet one time gets the job done. I realize when you're at a movie that attracts a younger crowd (I'm talking Bolt young), there's a noise source you can't really do anything about. But there's no damn excuse for talking through Benjamin Button or anything else for that matter. Let the (non-violent) revolution begin in Chicago; it seems like the sensible place. We've already seen at least one push for change out of our little corner of the Midwest. This call to action seems like small potatoes, and a lot easier for everyone to get on board with. Vote 'Yes' for shutting the fuck up and letting me watch my movies in piece.

First up is my wrap-up on 2008, followed by a couple reviews for films opening this first weekend of 2009.

BEST FILMS OF 2008

With the exception of my Benjamin Button and The Wrestler write-ups here (after all, I did just review them both last week), I've actually gone back and excerpted bits from my original reviews of the films in my Top 10. I am actually finding that my first thoughts on these films are more honest and immediate than what I could come up with in hindsight. If you think picking a Top 30 list is a bit overindulgent, please feel free to stop reading at 10. If you think separating documentaries from the rest of pack is somehow unfair, sorry. I know there are more than few of us out there that treasure the documentary format and don't mind having a separate list of 20 to select from. And as for the Worst Of... list, I couldn't be bothered to rank them (with one exception), and I'm sure there are more out there, but these are the titles that really made me wish I owned the legendary Alamo Drafthouse film projector that seems to know when a crappy movie is moving through its mechanisms and immediately melts the offending film.

Anyway, here are the 30 best of 2008:

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My stand-alone review last week says it all. Even if you ignore the flawless special effects (which "At the Movies" douche nozzle Ben Lyons can't seem to ignore; and, yes, it chaps my ass that he also thinks this is the best film of 2008) the film's timeless stories, interesting characters and emotional pull remind me why I fell in love with movies in the first place. I also love the director David Fincher keeps things from getting overly sentimental with a cool, slightly distanced approach to the material. He never forces us to care about these people; each one must earn our respect and emotional investment. The Hurricane Katrina framing device of the film pushed it right to the top for me. Anyone with any connection to the city or people of New Orleans will find it impossible not to be moved by this.

2. Wall-E
[After seeing Wall-E,] why could I not remember any other film I'd seen all summer? All year so far? Could this be the best film I see all year? With half the year gone at this point, this is my favorite movie so far. Prepare yourself for something deceptively simple, thought provoking and devastatingly marvelous. I've run out of great things to say about Wall-E; just go see it.

3. Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In isn't about excessive gore or standard-issue scare tactics. The film builds and earns its tension-filled moments with a careful mix of measured performances and a sparse, quiet sense of drama and fear. The film is not just unlike any other vampire movie you've ever seen; it's unlike any horror film I can think of, at least in the last 20 years. You need to seek this one out and see it. It's not overly violent or flashy, but it is a fiercely scary and perfectly realized work.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
You've trusted [director Danny] Boyle to tell great stories about heroin addicts, raging viral maniacs, and the possible end of the world thanks to the sun burning out. You absolutely must have faith in his abilities to tell the most human story he's ever embraced. This is a marvelous achievement, filled with life, danger and thrills, all of which combine to produce one of the most uplifting films of 2008. You're going to cherish Slumdog Millionaire.

5. The Wrestler
I think my review says it all.

6. The Dark Knight
In the end, I don't know if it's good or bad that we'll never get to see The Joker and Batman go head to head again in the current franchise. Of course it's terrible that [Heath] Ledger is gone, but in a sentiment I'm sure The Joker could appreciate, he has left us wanting more. Even if Ledger were still alive, I'm not sure I'd want him to reprise this character. That would almost be too much of a good thing. What he gave us is more than we deserve or could have anticipated, and for that I'm overwhelmingly grateful. I'll say it one more time, and then I won't have to ever say it again about this film or Ledger's work: you have no idea what's in store for you when you sit down to watch The Dark Knight.

7. The Fall
There will probably be many great films in 2008; we've already seen a couple of them. But I doubt one will come close to sending me into a deep splendor the way Tarsem's The Fall does. It's a film I first saw more than a month ago, and I still reflect upon both its purely visual aspects and its great understand of what storytelling is. In his previous film, The Cell, Tarsem managed to visualize insanity. Here, he somehow manages to capture and combine the realism of a man's desire to end his own life and the fantastical world that his words fuel inside the mind of a six-year-old girl. The Fall never stops finding new ways to remove the breath from your body as it pulls you deeper into its world and its way of thinking.

8. Snow Angels
The specific events of the movie aren't really the point; Snow Angels is about how it makes you feel. You will fall for a couple of these characters, while growing to despise others. It's a desperate and steady process, leading up to a moment when everything in this small town changes. Saying much more than that would be criminal. Just go see this film and allow it to stroll through its desolate locales while you watch these glorious moments unfold. Everything about this movie works, although it never forces the issue or bashes you over the head with messages or emotions. [Director David Gordon] Green keeps things simple, clean and focused. And the few times he strays from that approach, you get nervous; that's his very clear intention.

9. Milk
By showing Harvey Milk as he dictates his biography (or perhaps he saw it as his obituary), [director Gus] Van Sant gives the film a subtle fatalistic atmosphere that transforms Milk's story into one of legend. I'm sure Milk wouldn't have wanted to be thought of as an icon during his lifetime, but I also believe that he's want his death to stand for something, and this film fulfills that. Milk is impressively fine filmmaking, telling a story that is both long overdue and perfectly in synch with the times. You may not consider this to be the ideal Thanksgiving choice, but you'd be wrong. There is nothing that speaks more strongly about this country's potential than Milk.

10. Tropic Thunder
I didn't know if I'd see a mainstream comedy like Tropic Thunder ever again, and I certainly didn't think that Ben Stiller or Tom Cruise would have anything to do with it. Tropic Thunder is a comedy with balls...heaving, sweaty balls swaying to and fro as if to say, "Hey you. I dare you to kick me, to challenge my scrotal power, my swampy fortitude." The film's observations about the way modern Hollywood works and the personalities that make it work the way it does are delivered like a poison dart right in the neck. And from the moment the film begins (whatever you do, do not walk into this movie even 30 seconds late), I started laughing and hardly stopped. I lost count of the number of times I found myself saying, "I can't believe what I'm seeing." But mostly I just thought, "Look at all of those huge balls on the screen." Just thinking about it makes me happy.


11. In Bruges

12. Iron Man

13. The Visitor

14. Rachel Getting Married

15. Synechdoche, New York

16. Tell No One

17. Shotgun Stories

18. A Christmas Tale

19. Paranoid Park

20. Wendy & Lucy

21. Happy-Go-Lucky

22. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

23. Vicki Cristina Barcelona

24. Timecrimes

25. Cloverfield

26. Redbelt

27. Appaloosa

28. The Promotion

29. Frozen River

30. The Bank Job

BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2008

A couple of things to note about this list: a handful of these titles have yet to be released and may never be released. For my first trip to the SXSW Film Festival this year, I set my sites on documentaries. Some of these docs did make it to theaters, but a couple still have not, and I hope titles like Second Skin and Some Assembly Required do make it to the big screen. If not, seek them out on DVD.

1. Dear Zachary
2. Man On Wire
3. Body of War
4. Second Skin
5. Song Sung Blue
6. American Teen
7. They Killed Sister Dorothy
8. The Business of Being Born
9. Encounters at the End of the World
10. Trouble the Water
11. Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story
12. Full Battle Rattle
13. Up the Yangtze
14. Bigger, Stronger, Faster
15. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
16. Religulous
17. Young@Heart
18. Some Assembly Required
19. Surfwise
20. Moving Midway


WORST FILM OF 2008


Speed Racer

Here's what I said when I first saw it: "Something about the trailers and commercials for this film bothered me: the acting seemed stiff, and worse than that, the dialog was cookie-cutter awful. Still, the visuals were simply too glorious to care about such petty elements as the acting or the script. But when you expand those flaws for more than two hours, they become impossible to ignore. As a result, Speed Racer is tedious beyond words, and when there wasn't racing happening, I was either ready to fall asleep or kill someone, more than likely myself...I don't make a habit trying to predict what demographics are going to love or hate about a particular movie, nor do I ever attempt to anticipate box office tallies for a given opening weekend. I'm sure Speed Racer will do quite well for a while, but it's not the type of film you'll feel compelled to go back and watch over and over again. It physically hurts me to watch so many people try so hard to entertain me and come up with something so astonishingly mediocre. Here it is, people: the first turd of the summer has been hatched."

TIED FOR SECOND WORST FILM OF 2008

10,000 B.C., 21, 88 Minutes, An American Carol, Bedtime Stories, College, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Disaster Movie, Fly Me to the Moon, Fool's Gold, Four Christmases, The Happening, In the Name of the King, Jumper, The Love Guru, Made of Honor, Max Payne, Meet Dave, Meet the Spartans, The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Nobel Son, Over Her Dead Body, Righteous Kill, Saw V, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Transporter 3, What Happens In Vegas, The Women, X-Files: I Want to Believe


Revolutionary Road


Not satisfied to dissect the modern American marriage with American Beauty, British theater director turned moviemaker (he also directed the excellent Road To Perdition and Jarhead) Sam Mendes has turned his attentions to picking apart the American marriage circa the 1950s, when sex roles were just beginning to change but so was the definition of the American Dream. Based on the novel by Richard Yates (adapted here by Justin Haythe), Revolutionary Road features some of the finest acting I've seen in recent months as Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio re-team for the first time since Titanic broke every box office record known to mankind. They play April and Frank Wheeler, a young couple who have always set themselves apart from their friends. They weren't the same as those other suburban Connecticut dwellers who went to the office every day (in his case) or stayed home with the kids (in her case). Yet, the more time passes, the more they find those type of people are exactly who they are, and it makes them aggressive and mean.

Frank hangs with the guys from the office (including Dylan Baker), but we never get a sense he feels close to any of them. She plays the perfect homemaker and puts on a front when one-woman welcome wagons show up at her door (Kathy Bates as Helen Givings is fantastic, especially when she brings over her recently institutionalized grown son (live wire Michael Shannon) over for a visit. The Wheelers even have best friends, nearby neighbors Milly and Shep (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour). Perhaps to feel just a little more special than his married life allows him, Frank even has a little something on the side, a meaningless affair with a young woman from the secretarial pool (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of the late director Elia Kazan).

What Mendes clearly is going for with Revolutionary Road is to expose, irritate and perhaps even poke until it hurts the cracks in the lives of this couple that just want a little more out of life than what everybody else has. Clearly in a desperate attempt to capture what she loved about their lives to begin with, April maps out a seemingly reasonable plan to move the family to Paris for several years, allowing Frank to relax and be creative while she works at a high-paying job she's got lined up for herself. The idea grows on him, but as they begin to tell their neighbors and co-workers, you can almost feel the earth shift off its axis ever so slightly. Shortly after they begin to make the arrangements to go to Europe, we see Frank begin to lose his nerves. He gets an offer for a phenomenal promotion in his company, and he doesn't say no right away. Pulling in the other direction is April, who behaves as if this trip is not only the thing that will save their marriage but also her life.

An ill-timed visit by Helen and her still quite off-balance son for dinner sets off a chain reaction in the Wheeler household that fates the family to go through some very ugly times. Even if the rest of the movie were utter crap, Michael Shannon's "I-see-through-your-mask" portrayal of a man who has been on the wrong end of dozens of electroshock therapy sessions is worth sitting down in the theater to see this film. Shannon has been getting more and more attention of late with roles in World Trade Center, Bug, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead and the extraordinary Shotgun Stories, and it's great to see him working steadily and getting such meaty parts. Winslet will get quite a few accolades for her beyond-brave performance, but DiCaprio really surprised me as this weak, waffling man who can't stand by the courage of his convictions or be empowered by the love and support of a strong woman. He puffs up his chest for the sake of his silly mistress, but can hardly look April in the eye when he tells her he's having second thoughts about their travel plans.

An ill-timed pregnancy is thrown into the mix late in Revolutionary Road, but by that point fates are pretty much sealed. The film's greatest weakness is its script. Some of the dialogue just never rung true for me, but worse than that, it sometimes feels choppy and stagey. I don't always need character's motivations spelled out for me, but a few clues here and there would be useful, especially in such an emotionally loaded work. The acting saves the stilted writing from falling flat and it saves the film from dying a lonely death on the screen. When Winslet and DiCaprio are on screen together, the devastation is total. In many ways, these are the best two actors to play this part, effectively laying waste to their perfect Titanic romance. I hope every single person who went to see that movie 10 times comes and sees Revolutionary Road just once in the hopes of seeing what a marriage between Jack and Rose might have been like. (Don't forget, Kathy Bates as Molly Brown was a witness to their original love affair almost 12 years ago, so it's only fitting that she be on hand in this film to watch them self-destruct.) It's not all that difficult to look past the sub-par script with the help of some outstanding performances, but it's also impossible to ignore the film's shortcomings. I'm leaning on the side of recommending the film, but don't say I didn't warn you.


Azur & Asmar


One of strangest, almost hypnotic animated experiences I've had recently is watching Azur & Asmar, a co-production from many European nations (although I believe the version opening today at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a weeklong engagement will be dubbed in English), a film that mixes religions, cultures, animation styles, and points in history to the point where I stopped trying to figure out the references and eventually was able to sit back and enjoy the images, which often resembles a moving painting, with more detail and color than you get in your standard-issue American animated fare. The plot from director/animator Michel Ocelot is an adventurous hide and seek about two boys (one white, one Middle Eastern) who are raised together by the Middle Eastern child's mother. The white child, Azur, looks at Asmar as his brother, although Asmar's mother is actually his nanny. Azur's cruel, heartless father doesn't like the idea of his song getting to close to these Middle Easterners, so he sends his child off to be schooled elsewhere and throws the woman and her son out the same day Azur leaves. Years later as the result of a shipwreck, Azur makes his way to the land where Asmar and his mother are now rich and influential merchants. He is there in search of the Djinn Fairy, who is apparently awaiting rescue by a prince, who must goes through a series of trial and tribulations to win her hand. Both boys have wanted to find the Fairy since they were children, and between the two them, they have acquired the means to do so.

The film has the somewhat rambling quality of a child making up a story as he's going along, but that's part of what I loved about it. The deliberately flat, albeit stunning, animation has a flowing quality to it that is utterly captivating and unlike anything I've ever seen. It's both surrealistically lifelike, while being almost otherworldly in its execution. The English dubbing leaves a little bit to be desired, but I've heard worse, and in the end I'm not sure there's anything younger audiences can really take away from the film other than a vague message about cooperation. It's certainly a film for fans of animation who are perhaps a little bored with the standard-issue stuff of late coming out of American movie houses. It's a noble effort, but it won't set your imagination on fire.

Kim / January 26, 2009 9:45 PM

But what if I DON'T trust Danny Boyle? He's a sloppy storyteller at best, he has abominable taste in screenplays ("Sunshine" was an exercise in stupidity, nothing more, nothing less), and his idea of directing is to throw visual tricks hyperactively at the screen in the hopes that some of them will stick. He's been lucky in terms of some of his casting choices; otherwise, he's a genre-hopping clown. I guess our generation needed an Ed Wood to call its own, huh?

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