Monday, 5 January 2009

Listmania! The Films of 2008, Part 1

Later than just about every other best movies list in the world, here is my overly elaborate take on 2008, completed now in frustration over yet more bullshit release date nonsense which means, in addition to never having the time to see everything, many promising movies won't come out in England until mid-Jan to late Feb, if we're lucky. Especially annoying is that, apart from a couple of truly terrific and left-field movies (I'm thinking primarily of The Wrestler here), the stuff we get early is the sub-Miramax tripe that openly begs for Oscar attention, especially if it stars Kate Winslet. Meanwhile Rachel Getting Married, Frozen River and Synecdoche, New York (for example) are delayed until an annoyingly late date or not given a release date at all.

This renders list-making a futile exercise, as some truly great films end up on UK screens long after the rest of the world has moved on from them. A couple of UK press end of year lists that I read this week featured No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, two films from 2007 that got released here way too late to get on UK lists. Even worse, two movies I definitely would have put on my 2007 list (Sweeney Todd and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) came out here too late for me to see them. Though I thought both films were stunning, I won't put them on my 2008 list as I would feel bad for dropping two recent films out of the list. For the record, Sweeney Todd is Tim Burton's best film since Ed Wood, and Diving Bell should have swept the Oscars. And now I can relax about it.

Of course, I could have delayed this even more, and Canyon was lobbying for a further delay until we'd finally caught up, a plan completely ruined by the news that Synecdoche’s UK release has been changed from February to, get this, FUCKING MAY (!!!!!!!!!), but even if it was coming out soon, after a couple of weeks of insane movie-watching marathons I'm just about spent, and the delay has been exacerbated by illness. Sorry, newly-released Che and The Reader, and sorry other missed movies such as Standard Operating Procedure and Seven Pounds and Changeling and the potentially coma-inducing BBC Films costume drama trio of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Edge of Love and The Duchess, you'll all have to wait. Consider this list the almost definitive one for 2008, with the proviso that if Synecdoche and Rachel Getting Married are as good as we hope, this list is subject to change. Further to that, if we see any turds from 2008 that have yet to be released, my worst lists might change as well.

N.B. Yes, I know I've cheated by shoving eleven movies into my top ten, but The Wrestler completely ruined my original list by being absolutely amazing. Blame Darren Aronofsky and his wonderful cast and crew for excelling themselves. Also, there are a lot of Honourable and Dishonourable Mentions, but I've tried to match them up so there are an equal amount of each. It makes sense in my head. Please just indulge me and my listophilia.

Best Movies of the Year:

1. The Dark Knight - L.A. Confidential featuring a man dressed as a bat, a psychopath in makeup, and a fallen hero with half a face. Nothing else this year could top the thrill of seeing the superhero genre show its potential for complex emotional and intellectual storytelling.

2. Kung Fu Panda - A love letter to a genre and a culture, a beautiful spectacle, an inspirational tale, and a perfectly pitched comedy. Repeated viewings have not yet dimmed its good-natured genius. And when I say repeated viewings, I mean obsessive-level rewatching.

3. In Bruges

Martin McDonagh’s debut feature, a perfectly constructed blast of cynicism and optimism, made me laugh harder than anything else this year, before sending me to the edge of my seat in the final act and keeping me there until the credits rolled. McDonagh has very definitely arrived.

4. Red Cliff: Part One - John Woo’s return to form, a glorious big-screen blend of heroism, romance, and trademark uncynical bromance, is a perfect crowd-pleaser. China now has its Lord of the Rings, and if you’re lucky enough to see the uncut original, so do you.

5. Gomorra - Five tales intertwine to explore the extent to which organized crime in Italy corrupts and destroys everything around it. The palpable sense of moral and physical decay pours from the screen. A staggering achievement.

6. Redbelt

Mamet’s pared-down classic, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor at the height of his powers, generates suspense through mundane threats to the life of an honest, honourable man, and resolves them in an outrageously exciting fashion. The final ten minutes had me alternately gasping and cheering.

7. Speed Racer - THAT’S RIGHT!!! Delirious, kaleidoscopic, overwhelming, sincere, thrilling, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Building from a hectic, information-packed opening to a breathtaking climax, the Wachowskis rewrote the rules of cinema and yet the public spat on them for their efforts. Ingrates.

8. Pineapple Express - Just like Hot Fuzz before it, the maligned action genre is sent a mash note in the form of a comedy. Also like Hot Fuzz, I expect to be rewatching this and finding new funny moments for a long time to come. As Seth Rogen says several times during the movie, "Nice!"

9. Iron Man - If The Dark Knight is a vision of the future of the superhero genre, Iron Man is the perfect encapsulation of what the old school can do when it’s done right. The best Marvel adaptation since X-Men 2, and the perfect delivery vehicle for concentrated bursts of Downey Jr. genius.

10.= The Wrestler - Some critics who have written about this movie have complained at how much it depends on redemption story sub-genre clichés, but seriously? Have they even seen it? The most uplifting depiction of bleak despair of recent years, beautifully performed and shot, and deeply moving.

10.= Eden Lake

Where the hell did this come from? Borne of the raging torrent of fear and mistrust that infests Mail-reading England, James Watkins’ debut feature recalls Straw Dogs and Deliverance, but still feels utterly modern. Horror movie of the year, with a kickass finale too.

Honourable Mentions:

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Man On Wire

Worst Movies of the Year:

1.= 21

Formulaic, anodyne, sickeningly white-washed, unambitious, boring, stupid, poorly cast, and just plain offensive. When people bitch about Hollywood product being trash, this is the film they are imagining in their head.

1.= Cassandra's Dream - The worst and most inept student film about morality ever made, with terrible amateur dramatics and shaky production values. Except it’s not a student film. It’s by the director of Manhattan, and is made by professionals. How does this happen?

2. 88 Minutes - Something this wrong-headed achieves a kind of perverse beauty. It’s not the only film on this list that I love for being bad, but it’s possibly the one I had the most difficulty believing existed (see also: Jon Avnet’s follow-up Pacino project Righteous Kill)

3. Slumdog Millionaire - I have more to say on this sorry excuse for a movie below. Much more.

4. Bangkok Dangerous - Bad Nicolas Cage movies are often a thing of pure joy. This, however, is a boring, poorly-made chunk of pointless junk. Depressing, predictable, inept; how did this get made? Why did this get made? My environmentally conscious self weeps for the landfills bloated with unwanted copies of this tripe.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky - It’s beloved by many. It’s sure to get Oscar nominations. It also features a starring performance of technical brilliance that is, nevertheless, almost unwatchably annoying. The phoniness of Leigh’s appalling movie made me gag with revulsion, but it’s the almost blanket critical praise that aggravates my soul the most.

6. Mamma Mia! - As I am not a middle-aged woman with very low standards, I did not enjoy this film at all. Pierce Brosnan’s singing haunts my dreams. Still, the studio made enough money to pay for my therapy, right?

7. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

More on this in a forthcoming post, but, as with 21, the archetypal mindless spectacle used as an example to justify hatred of populist cinema by pseudy asshole critics who think King of Phonyland Mike Leigh is an artiste.

8. The Happening - Watched with the right people, it’s one of the most entertaining films of the year. In the cold light of day? A startlingly ill-conceived mess. Even then it’s still somehow lovable. But, you know, shit.

9.= In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale - Dr. Uwe Boll brings the pain. A hero called Farmer (because he's a farmer), acres of pure ham from the bad guys, hectic and incomprehensible action scenes, and respected actors openly cashing a paycheck and sullying their careers horribly? I feel compelled to keep watching it.

9.= 10000 B.C. - Usually I don’t care if a movie plays fast and loose with historical truth, but even though we don’t know much about life 12000 years ago, this is still amazingly improbable. Makes Independence Day look like the original Day The Earth Stood Still.

10. Babylon A.D. - I feel bad adding this to the list. Fox’s usual army of mindless film-wrecking idiot accountants sabotaged the project, but even so, it’s tough to get through without lots of depressed sighing. And yet the director’s cut just got released on DVD. So I want to see it. Though I refuse to give Fox any more of my money. What to do? What to do?

21 and Cassandra’s Dream are at the top of the poll as 21 made me angriest of all the films I’ve seen this year, but Canyon, who considers Cassandra's Dream the worst and most poorly made movie of the decade, made a compelling case for it to get to the top spot. Who am I to argue? Ah, but why are 10000 B.C. and In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale vying for the coveted ninth place? Because of an imminent Face/Off post that I’ve been planning for months now but never got around to. Will I manage to in the near future? Probably not. There’s a drum peripheral and a game of Civilisation IV calling out to me. If I get around to it, all will be made clear.

Most Disappointing Movie of the Year: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

As with the announcement of all of David Fincher’s movies, anticipation for it rendered me almost unable to function as a productive member of society for the majority of 2008, which makes its mediocrity all the harder to bear. Ambitious, sprawling, beautiful to look at and technically an award-worthy marvel, it’s also a million years long, mawkish, and rendered absurd by some third-act character decisions that defy logic. Comparisons to screenwriter Eric Roth’s previous work on Forrest Gump have not been made idly. Several beats are similar/identical, the main characters are innocents dragged across the historical events of 20th Century America like a bouncing ball on a karaoke lyric screen, and sentimental visual motifs crop up in the final scenes (a feather in Gump, a hummingbird in Button).

The same reliance on dire platitudes and cutesy asides, and a similar structure are bad enough, though we entertained ourselves by finishing every sentence in the movie with the phrase "box of chocolates". Also amusing to us was that the movie spent most of its length showing what happened to Benjamin between the 1920s and the 1960s, skipping the last few decades of his life. Of course, Roth had already covered those years in Gump, and didn't need to go over it again. We reckon his next script will be about a three hundred year old man, and Roth can pick over the first two hundred years of American history.

It's especially galling as I wanted to embrace a Fincher movie that was so different from his other movies, hoping that a whimsical tone would work just as well as the cynical tone of some of his better movies, but sadly, I now feel like the archetypal outraged internet ranter bitching about how Fincher "pussied out" because he didn't make Seven II: The Sevening or whatever. It's not that at all. If anything Button is less sentimental, more cynical than Gump, though not by much. It just never kicks into a higher gear, and then, after idling for two hours, stalls completely. Still, a lot of the performances are great, and the effects are the best of the year. I spent the first ninety minutes muttering, "How? Seriously, how did they do this?" So it's got that going for it.

Dishonourable Mentions:

Tropic Thunder (not funny enough)
Transporter 3 (not exciting enough)
Hancock (a frustrating mess)
Son of Rambow (charming but frustratingly slight)
Choke (about as cinematic as a table reading)

Overrated Movie of the Year: Slumdog Millionaire

For the majority of the year I was convinced I would be having another rant about Mike Leigh in this post, but I get to put the boot into Danny Boyle instead. Currently topping innumerable critics polls, Slumdog Millionaire has captured the imagination of the audience in such a complete way that I strongly suspect there is some witchcraft involved. Did no one see what a hollow and tedious mess it is? Did the astonishing ugliness not make anyone want to vomit? Is no one bothered by the bewilderingly fatuous script? I gather the numerous illogicalities, contrivances and insultingly two-dimensional characters have been explained away by many as conventions of a fairy tale, which Slumdog Millionaire, despite paying lip-service to the terrible poverty of India, most certainly is, but that defence is a huge insult to the writers of actual fairytales. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were better writers than this. The other comparison made was that the film is Dickensian. Again, why do people suddenly think Charles Dickens was an idiot?

My biggest problem with Danny Boyle's directorial style in the past is that he has no impulse control, and no understanding of how shots should relate to each other, approaching even the most unassuming shot with the intention of making it as kinetic and unusual as possible. Slumdog Millionaire is the worst example of this so far, with almost every shot on a Dutch tilt, lit with garish colours, usually with characters on different focus planes, and then made even more ugly with rapid-cutting and the same kind of fractured and smeared slow-motion that occasionally ruins Peter Jackson's otherwise pristine films. After a couple of minutes I had a terrible headache, made worse when I concentrated on the deeply unlikeable characters, piss-poor performances, and embarrassing hokey plot.

That's even before we considered the patronising treatment of Indian poverty, the simplistic understanding of human nature, the childish humour, and, worst of all, the fact that this film is produced by Celador Films. Celador is the company that makes Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, so please don't tell me this movie is about opening Western eyes to the terrible conditions in Indian shanty-towns, or a celebration of Bollywood conventions (the few times that genre of movie is directly addressed are horribly awkward and poorly done, especially the crappy dance number over the credits). It's an advert for a TV show, which means Boyle has done this kind of shilling twice (the first time was Millions, a film about the UK National Lottery funded by proceeds from the UK National Lottery Fund).

Just to really annoy me, I'd finally embraced the guy after Sunshine, the only film he's made (other than Shallow Grave) that matched the style with the substance and created a beautifully choreographed suspense experience, where his worst impulses were ignored. Slumdog Millionaire is, sadly, a return to form, and we're worse off for it. If it does indeed become the dark horse contender at the Oscars, I expect a slowly dawning realisation not long after that that Boyle has made this year's Crash. At least, I hope that does happen.

Dishonourable Mentions:
Happy-Go-Lucky, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Underrated Movie of the Year: Speed Racer

I won’t bang on about it again, but the blanket critical dismissal of this movie has become an almost impregnable barrier to reappraisal. Nevertheless, fans won’t be silenced, and talkbacks and comment sections still feature outbreaks of praise for the Wachowski’s insane vision. May time absolve it of the imaginary sins against cinema it has supposedly perpetrated. This, Danny Boyle, is how sensory overload is done.

Honourable Mentions: Pineapple Express, Be Kind Rewind, Blindness, Forgetting Sarah Marshall

That's a lot of bitching about movies. And there are two more posts to go! Hell, I watched over eighty movies this year, almost a personal best, so I've got a lot to say. Expect kudos for Robert Downey Jr., and an unwanted award for The Bandit himself, Mr. Burt Reynolds.


sjwoo said...

I don't understand the hoopla over Slumdog, either. The only time the movie surprised me was early, when the boy holds up the photo of that actor and dives into the pit of poop. Had I known that scene would've been the highlight, I would've stopped right there.

I'm sorry you guys didn't like Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I still think of that wonderful scene between Bardem and Hall, the two of them talking and the camera fading from one to the other, just really beautifully done.

Just saw Defiance and really liked it. It's not gonna surprise you, but it's a crowd-pleaser. And I still recommend Elegy.

We saw Wendy and Lucy (not good) and Frozen River (good). Still haven't seen The Wrestler, but will. Thanks to you and Canyon for telling us to stay the hell away from Happy-Go-Lucky! I did feel bad that we couldn't get past the first twenty minutes; now I feel like we lucked out big time.

It is a shame that Benjamin Button turned out to be such a dud. An even bigger shame that it's getting awards and nominations left and right. It should rightly win for best effects, but that's about it.

Admiral Neck said...

Slumdog's going to win a billion Oscars instead of The Dark Knight, isn't it. I shall cry and pout all night like an heiress finding out she's been written out of the will, with even more crying if Sally Hawkins wins Best Actress instead of Dame Kate of Winsletland.