Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Chris Bellamy’s Top 10 Films of 2008…One Month Late

At long last, Chris gives us his top 10 list—Can you handle this much Bellamy?

Blame the Holocaust. It’s the logical move. This year, there was something in the neighborhood of 800 movies concerning the Holocaust, Nazis, concentration camps, or any fun combination of all three.

The result, as it turned out, was that 2008 wasn’t the greatest year for movies, by and large. Who has time for creative, personal works of art or interesting ideas when so many variants of this Very Important Lesson are at our hands?

Studios from around the world plundered the greatest tragedy in human history for every last vestige of a dramatic slant with which to attack heartstrings everywhere. If one doesn’t do the trick, Hollywood brought reinforcements from all angles. By God, they will get that lower lip to quiver if it’s the last thing they do. What exploitation? These are Serious Dramas!

Amazingly, none of the Important Holocaust Dramas from 2008 were particularly good, ranging from the banal (“The Counterfeiters”) to the excessively mediocre (“The Reader”) to the downright absurd (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”). While that certainly didn’t stop the Academy from having its way and, dammit, just nominating whatever the hell Holocaust movie sounded the funnest, it did make it a bit easier to narrow down the year’s elite films.

But OK, if the Holocaust defense is too un-P.C. for you, blame the writers’ strike for pushing back so many projects. Or, you can blame “LOST” for overwhelming just about everything else that came out, in any medium, making even the biggest pictures look…well, small. Or blame Bush. (After all, he has inspired countless humdrum indie documentaries during the last eight years.) Blame whatever you want, but there was more than enough mediocrity to go around this year. That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of excellent choices – there were. Just not as many as a few other years I could mention. Whittling 12 months down to 10 movies wasn’t as difficult as usual – and when it comes right down to it, 2008 will be known for one movie – and for good reason.

1. The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The best movie of the year was, for once, the biggest as well. What a novelty, to construct a superhero template and take to task the very idea of heroism. Christopher Nolan’s noirish masterpiece scopes out a world of grey in which neither good nor evil is a solo act, as Heath Ledger’s incomparable Joker uses a microcosmic Gotham as a battleground for the two.

What’s most remarkable about "The Dark Knight" is the breadth of detail with which it explores its struggle, while remaining massively entertaining. From the Batman impostors who “fight crime” in his name, to the dual (and dueling) identities of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent ( both who they are and who they wish to be…which is, essentially, each other), to the experiments the Joker sets up to prove his theories on humanity, to the stunning and ballsy symbolic gesture that closes the film, Nolan’s vision persists.

"The Dark Knight" is crime drama and tragedy wrapped inside a pop-art exterior – and it took its genre to new heights. That it will be the most-remembered film of 2008 from a pop-culture standpoint is beside the point; the film stands as a testament to epic filmmaking.

Academy-Sanctioned Holocaust Version (ASHV): We open on a flashback of a young Alfred Pennyworth watching his family get slaughtered at the hands of the S.S., then slowly dissolve into the principled, ever-loyal butler for the hardest-working man in crime-fighting. The Joker turns out to be none other than the son of Joseph Mengele, continuing in the spirit of his father’s experiments in modern-day Gotham, including the infamous test of his dueling “concentration boats.”

2. Reprise
Directed by Joachim Trier
Joachim Trier’s "Reprise" captures something almost completely intangible and does it in a purely cinematic way. A film about two writers in their 20s, Erik and Philip, whose paths start at the exact same point and expectedly diverge in unexpected ways, it celebrates and toys with all the peculiarities and trappings of youth – the joyful exuberance, the naivete and confusion – amid the insulated environment of Oslo, their hometown.

As the film opens, Erik and Philip drop their respective manuscripts in the mail and we’re treated to a romanticized fantasy of what their lives will be like – they will be like a French New Wave movie, a freestyle montage of existential struggle, social unrest, torrid romance and expository narration, all captured in black and white with George Delerue’s “Contempt” score. It’s a beautiful touch by Trier and it establishes the film’s tone from the outset. The rest of the film, in all its vibrance, humor and insight, exists in the same spirit.

ASHV: Erik and Philip write Very Important Novels about the horrors of puberty by way of the Holocaust as seen through a Godardian lens.

3. Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
The greatest discovery of last year’s Sundance Film Fesival was James Marsh’s "Man on Wire," a documentary about Philippe Petit’s high-wire act between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Far from merely reminiscing about the event, Marsh combines the traditional elements of old footage and talking-head segments with a dramatization that plays like a high-stakes heist movie. By doing so, the movie gets us into the mindset of those involved to experience the heightened importance of this grand event.

The sense of danger is so palpable that we forget just how innocent the entire endeavor is. But we are reminded when, after an absurdly funny and sensationalized series of events, we witness an astonishing moment in time – the walk itself – that then and now can only seem surreal. And breathtaking.

ASHV: The twin towers aren’t in Manhattan; they’re just a metaphor, and Philippe is in a race against time to run across the wire from one tower (death!) to the other (freedom!). Without falling off and into the deadly swamp of Nazi alligators awaiting him more than 100 stories below.

Directed by Andrew Stanton
“WALL-E” is a movie that trounces established filmmaking styles – and established directors – at their own game. It is action, romance, science fiction, slapstick comedy, social commentary and absurdist satire, and it comes in the form of a Pixar animated film. Director Andrew Stanton has come a long way from his previous film, “Finding Nemo,” a wonderful-looking but slight effort compared to this one. The 15-minute opening sequence is a brilliant introduction to the character and tone of the film and it rarely, if ever, steps wrong. Unless, of course, it’s on purpose, to piss off M-O.

ASHV: The film’s villainous auto-captain, “Auto,” doesn’t visually reference the HAL-9000 from “2001" with is glowing red iris; instead, its eye takes the shape of a swastika and speaks in an angry German dialect. Fortunately, nobody on the ship can understand German, and there are no subtitles – a good thing, as this is a kids’ movie, and some of Auto’s words are VERY naughty.

5. Paranoid Park
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Of the two Gus Van Sant films that came out this year (along with “Milk”), “Paranoid Park” was the more personal, the more unique and the one that most demands to be seen and experienced again. “Experience” is the key for me in this one – any movie can depict a person dealing with a tragic event, but damned if I’ve seen anything that does so in such an exquisitely internal way. The movie is not about discovering the “truth” about the incident or getting/not getting caught – it’s about one teenage kid’s mindset about something he isn’t quite ready to deal with yet. “Paranoid Park” is a collage of images, fragmented memories and feelings that reflect something intangible and, in an oblique way, truthful.

ASHV: The narration sequences – deliberately broken in the current version to replicate the detached recitation of, say, a book report – are now the result of our hero’s finally having learned to read after committing an historic monstrosity.

6. Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Of all movies from 2008, this one demanded the most of its audience. The great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, here making his directorial debut, stares into his own brain and finds an endless chasm of neuroses, hopes, fears, inaccuracies, embellishments, tragedies and regrets. He brilliantly filters this all through one theatre director with the goal of creating an all-encompassing theatre piece—designed to speak to the very essence of the human experience. The piece becomes an albatross that carries him to his dying moment. The film is a messy concoction of absurdist and surrealist impulses, and it culminates in a stunning, funny, bleak apocalyptic sequence that includes the best closing line of the year. “Synecdoche, New York” has too many inspired scenes and ideas to name, but the burning house is, yes, burned in my memory forever.

ASHV: Theatre director and refugee Caden Cotard creates an all-encompassing theatre piece about the Holocaust, using his fellow captives as actors to play all the parts. Hilarity ensues, as the prisoners so immerse themselves in their newfound thespian talents that for a few fleeting moments they forget about the horrors that surround them and see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The film’s final line, however, remains the same.

7. Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme

There has been a theme emerging among my picks for the year’s best films—“Rachel Getting Married” is the fourth one so far, along with “Reprise,” “Man on Wire” and “Paranoid Park,” that is specifically focused on creating an experience in which a story takes place, rather than the other way around. Such films capture something intensely individual, something sensory that we have to feel rather than just hear about. We’re inside something. Many films present everything and everyone from a distance simply to tell Us a story.

A movie like “Rachel Getting Married” isn’t afraid to indulge in its characters’ lives and craft a film out of ambience as much as anything else. We’re inside this house that becomes a breathing organism with all the guests, workers, musicians, family members and every conflict that comes up (or has been simmering) between them. Jonathan Demme’s restrained, handheld style perfectly projects Jenny Lumet’s script into something personal and beautiful. This movie charms and this movie hurts – and it hurts in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we saw everything from a distance.

ASHV: The loving family in Connecticut is now a bunch of Nazis. The inspired, loading-the-dishwasher sequence is now about a competition to cram as many refugees into the ghetto as possible—rather than those trivial “dishes” into that non-historically important “dishwasher.”

8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
A movie both praised and reviled for what it isn’t, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is an astonishing marriage of the old-fashioned Hollywood epic and modern sensibilities and technical capabilities. Together the two elements – the old and the new (or, if you insist, the young) – speak to the very heart of the film. The whole of Benjamin Button is the co-existence of elements that in nearly all other contexts are mutually exclusive. Life and death, young and old, hope and regret – all of those things, among many, exist at once, allowing us to examine life’s best and worst elements in all their inevitability.

The film is about death, of course, but its version of death is something of a catharsis. It is an oft-stunning scrapbook of experiences, during which time Benjamin observes—and is observed, harshly at times—amid an ever-changing set of circumstances as he grows younger/older. He begins and always remains an isolated character, a curious anomaly, and to me that lent a certain poignance to every new emotion and new experience he went through. Like the film, Benjamin himself inspires both awe and consternation, and in both cases it’s understandable. “Benjamin Button” has sharply divided people. What I see is a deeply felt exploration of the expectations and inevitabilities within life. That it takes the time to inspect an entire life spent within a sort of peculiar isolation is a testament to director David Fincher.

ASHV: Technically, this doesn’t really apply, as “Benjamin Button” was nominated for a thousand Oscars already. But for the sake of consistency ...let’s just say Benjamin creates a rapid-backward-aging serum, which the Allies give to the Nazis, who all take it and turn into babies. Then the Allies kill the babies.

9. The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky makes a significant stylistic transition with “The Wrestler” and deftly pulls it off. He strips down his visual palette to explore the life of a stripped-down pro wrestler, once famous, but who now has to scrounge for rent money. Aronofsky slowly, deliberately introduces us to the different angles of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s psyche, ultimately coming to the sad conclusion that, at least in Randy’s mind, his frailty is too much to overcome. The brutal wear-and-tear he takes in the ring is his own form of flagellation—punishment for the mistakes he’s made for which he cannot forgive himself. Mickey Rourke’s performance is worth every bit of the hype, ripping into the broken, emotional core beneath his self-created mass of flashy masculinity. “The Wrestler” is a film that refuses to go for the easy out and insists on following this character’s struggle through its natural progression.

ASHV: Randy assuages some of his crushing guilt through a symbolic renaissance, as he returns to the circuit and goes on to defeat a series of Nazi-themed opponents such as The Final Solutionist, The Bergen-Belsenator and the tag-team known as Führer Furor.

10. Happy-Go-Lucky
Directed by Mike Leigh
A rant about the Academy’s inexplicable snub of Sally Hawkins for Best Actress would be well worth it, but instead let’s just celebrate the movie she starred in, “Happy-Go-Lucky.” Once again, Mike Leigh proves that he’s one of the best, if not the best, at creating real human characters – natural, three-dimensional, strange, flawed, absurd, tragic and everything in between. There is an intimacy in his films that I can only compare to Kieslowski and Bergman.

There is a knock-you-flat-on-your-ass sequence in which Poppy (Hawkins)—a typically bubbly, optimistic, caring person with too much energy for her own good—happens upon a mentally unstable homeless man, speaking in complete jibberish, and approaches him. She sits there and listens, she looks into his eyes – “yeah…I know…I know…”—and lingers for minutes on end. Without saying anything at all, the scene expresses so much and hits so hard, I can’t imagine any vocalization of any of the things being felt or understood being any more powerful.

And, of course, every interaction between Poppy and her driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) is brilliant. Enough said.

ASHV: Poppy breaks into a concentration camp to be with a friend she’s just met – not so happy-go-lucky now, huh?

It gave me great pain to leave off one of my cinematic heroes, Woody Allen, who just missed the list with his “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”—yes, another “relationship dramedy” from the master himself, but one that finds new insights about our own desires and expectations as the characters discover surprises about themselves—not just in what they want, but in what they don’t want.

A film well deserving of its (surprising) awards-season attention is Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges,” a hilarious but surprisingly poignant story of two displaced hitmen. Tarsem finally discovered how to combine actual storytelling with his incredible flair for visuals in his excellent “The Fall”—a huge step up from 2000’s “The Cell.”

Yang Li’s “Blind Mountain” – which received only a very limited release—features the most brilliant ending of the year, and is a powerful and angry film in its own right. Michael Haneke remade one of his own films with “Funny Games,” a Brechtian experiment in audience participation and expectation.

Guillermo del Toro returned for another go-round with Hellboy and outdid himself with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” which featured some of the most stunning visual setpieces I’ve seen in years. Del Toro may have a kindred spirit in Tomas Alfredson, whose “Let the Right One In” is an expressive and beautiful examination of childhood isolation through the specter of a vampire story.

There were two excellent choices from David Gordon Green this year – the sensationally funny “Pineapple Express,” which begins as a stoner comedy and becomes an absurdist deconstruction of the Action Movie; and the much more somber, poetic “Snow Angels,” which featured my favorite opening scene of the year.

Hsiao-hsien Hou follows up his stunning “Three Times”—the fourth-best film of 2006 – with the ethereal “Flight of the Red Balloon.” Christopher Bell’s documentary “Bigger Stronger Faster*” offered new perspectives into the steroid issue that has gone from sports-world nuisance to mainstream political issue. Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” takes us to a neorealist setting in Queens through the eyes of a resourceful young orphan and his relationship with his sister.

Gus Van Sant kicks Hollywood’s biopic-loving ass with “Milk,” which finds the essence of a hugely sympathetic character in victory, in defeat, in ecstasy and in death. Stephen Chow, meanwhile, found the essence of irony and comic juxtaposition—once again—with his underrated “CJ7.”

And the great Errol Morris examines the Abu Ghraib scandal in different contexts in “Standard Operating Procedure,” which explores the relationship between a moment caught on film and the truth that such a moment represents.

“My Brother is an Only Child,” “Iron Man,” “Speed Racer,” “Transsiberian,” “Horton Hears a Who!,” “Changeling,” “Cloverfield,” “Shine a Light,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” "Ghost Town," “Role Models,” “Burn After Reading,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Blindness,” “Leatherheads,” “Gran Torino,” “The Strangers,” “Doomsday.”

1. 10,000 B.C. (directed by Roland Emmerich)
2. Love Songs (directed by Christophe Honore)
3. Vantage Point (directed by Pete Travis)
4. Hounddog (directed by Deborah Kampmeier)
5. Revolutionary Road (directed by Sam Mendes)
6. Righteous Kill (directed by Jon Avnet)
7. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (directed by Dave Filoni)
8. Boarding Gate (directed by Olivier Assayas)
9. Prom Night (directed by Nelson McCormick)
10. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (directed by Mark Herman)


Anonymous said...

I made the error of watching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on the plane to London. Horrid.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it, though? It goes high on the list of the most absurd endings of all time. In so many ways. I was stunned at the idiocy. I feel bad that you had to sit through it.

Janean said...

Benjamin Button, really? The whole time I was listening to that part of the podcast I kept expecting you to make it clear you were kidding. I do like the ASHV, though. They kill the baby Nazis. Awesome.

Anonymous said...

Yes, really.

As long as there are people in this world defending terrible films like "Frozen River," "A History of Violence," "Dogville," "Scarface," "Irreversible," "Kinsey," "Trouble the Water," "Revolutionary Road," "Mulholland Drive," etc. - to name a few off the top of my head - I'll be right here (like E.T.!), defending "Benjamin Button" to the death.

Stewf said...

According to every source I checked, "Reprise" was released in 2006. Do you fellas need a fact checker?

Jeremy Mathews said...

No US distribution until 2008, my man.