Monday, January 19, 2009

2008: THE LO-O-O-ONG GOODBYE



At long last, my official goodbye to 2008, and not a minute too soon (in fact several thousand minutes too late, by my estimation). As always, I would never pretend to have seen it all. Those regular readers of this blog are undoubtedly well aware, in fact, of just how much I miss on a regular basis. Even so, and given a particularly grueling schedule of school and work that characterized most of the moments of the year for me, I still did manage to see enough to give a good go at a year-end round up. (Winter break was very helpful in this regard—I crammed in a lot of holiday movies in those two weeks.) Some fulfilled my expectations, some were big disappointments, some surprised me on both ends of the scale, but all in all I have to say that to my mind, unless the last impression of a less-than-stellar package of Christmas releases is what colors the entire year for you, 2008 was a fairly strong year across the board. It’s inevitable that in most years, good and bad, more lousy movies will end up on screens than worthy ones—that’s the law of averages when applied of the cutthroat business of modern movie production. But any year that produces a list like my top 20+, and showcases so many excellent roles for and films about women, has to have something going for it. So let’s begin this lengthy stroll down the path of the most notable triumphs and failures of the year from my perspective, with some hopefully entertaining side trips along the way. As always, we begin with the list—this year in ascending order, from 20-11, a brief break to consider one genre that was truly outstanding in 2008, and then 10 straight on up to number one.


20) WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) Pixar’s formally fabulous, at times almost Keatonesque science fiction fable isn’t as original as has been claimed (Silent Running is an obvious ancestor). I also found it less captivating than masterpieces like Ratatouille or The Incredibles, or even the far less ambitious Monsters, Inc. And I think there’s something to the argument that points out a certain degree of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do hypocrisy inherent in a movie about a world suffocated in inorganic trash created by one of the movies’ most prodigious sources of marketing tie-ins and other such consumables. That said, Wall-E is still so visually splendiferous, its evocation of the loneliness inherent in even the most sophisticated technologies so moving, that the shortcomings of its satire and its point of view on global redemption don’t come into clear focus until after you’ve already left the theater swooning. (And I still can’t wait to see it on Blu-ray.)


19) SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle)


18) KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (Patricia Rosezma) I’ve had a lot of occasion to think about how many of the movies aimed at kids condescend to their audiences, about how many aren’t bothered about narrative or emotional shortcuts that dumb-down the material because the underlying notion is that most children won’t care for the meat of real experience to go along with the sweets of their entertainment. But this terrific picture strikes a real balance between kid-level sophistication and the need to reach deeper, and its themes of empathy for the many have-nots during the last Great Depression should have chilling resonance for adults as it simultaneously prepares the hearts of its younger viewers for an understanding of what it really means to give and receive during times of need. The fine cast, which includes Stanley Tucci, Joan Cusack, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Wallace Shawn, Glenne Headly and Kenneth Welsh, is headed by Abigail Breslin in the title role. She sparkles at precisely the right level of real-girl incandescence, absent the kind of annoying precocity that might have been reasonably expected, and director Rosezma’s sure hand grounds the story with remarkable steadiness of purpose. This is a well-crafted, well-told movie rooted in that rarity or rarities, a realistic perspective on the point of view of a preadolescent girl, which opened on Independence Day and was lost in the media rush to anoint Hancock the movie of the weekend instead. May it find its true life on DVD.


17) MILK (Gus Van Sant) This terrific mainstream telescoping of the political life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, can’t hold a candle to Rob Epstein’s searing, complicated documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. However, as docudramas go it has unusual grace, an engaging lead performance by Sean Penn (no one’s first choice for the actor one takes to one’s heart), and the good/bad luck to find its great theme of empowerment through the political process reflected by the setbacks in the gay rights struggle v. 2008. Van Sant trades off his usual avant-garde leanings for a much more straightforward approach, one that makes room for a vivid portrait of the emergence of a political community, as led and encapsulated by Milk, whose most desperate fight is the one to finally emerge from the shadow of otherness and be seen as fellow human beings.


16) REDBELT (David Mamet) In which we see Mamet being Mamet, but with a much more commanding control of the camera and a much less clinical approach to both the dialogue and the usual mouse traps he loves to set for his characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor is riveting as a jujitsu instructor who must navigate the manipulations of the movie business and ultimately redeem his idealistic standards about what it means to fight. The plot elements are no less convoluted here than usual, but because the dialogue is less self-conscious and epigrammatic, and the acting uniformly strong (no consciously wooden stunts a la Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna in House of Games here), Mamet seems freed to make a film rather than a specimen under glass, and the result is the most riveting, resonant movie of his directing career.


15) BURN AFTER READING (Joel and Ethan Coen)


14) FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (Hou Hsiao-hsien) The spirit of Albert Lamorrise’ s 1956 film The Red Balloon shadows Hou Hsiao-hsien’s delicate expansion of its themes into a haunting, placid meditation on the contradictory impulses and inexplicable fragility of life as seen from the perspective of a tentative seven-year-old boy. Handed over by his distracted artist mother (Juliette Binoche), herself reeling from the disorientation of a broken relationship with the boy’s father, to a Taiwanese nanny (Fang Song ) who is also a filmmaker, the boy watches with bemusement as the nanny begins to adopt his methods of drifting through the Parisian streets as a way of finding her own footing in an unfamiliar world, and the two begin to forge a quiet relationship. Perhaps not as resonant as some of his other films, Hou’s near-invisible processes here still ripple with the quiet confidence of a master and result in a tone of unexpected tenderness and underlying sadness that makes each step through Paris, as conjured by Pin Bing Lee’s camera, a specific journey of these two hearts where we discover everything and nothing all at once.


13) HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (Guillermo Del Toro) Del Toro’s gifts as a spirited storyteller come bound to the breathing of new life into overly familiar CGI techniques, imbuing them with a certain lovely, handmade quality that is his hallmark. The resulting designs and sensibility of the fully imagined worlds he offers up here, in a sequel that makes the bounty of the first Hellboy movie look positively stingy, offer no justification for their own rich pleasures, just grander and more gleeful indulgences in them. For sheer delight, there’s no moment in the movie that’s more alive than Hellboy and company’s tour through a bustling troll market in search of an evil forest prince, a hidden neighborhood of ogres and monsters where, unlike the streets of Manhattan, they can roam unnoticed; for spectacle and aching beauty, there’s the titular hero’s battle with a spore-spewing elemental god that looks like a giant, pulsating beanstalk, a creature which will be consigned to extinction should it be defeated. Hellboy II: The Golden Army taps into the plight of the outsider, the freak, but never with a heavy hand to match the one attached to our hero’s scorched-red right arm—it’s too busy showing all the other lead-footed fantasies how to entertain in style.


12) MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (Wong Kar-wai) Never has the simple act of sitting at a counter in a bar or diner looked or seemed so seductive, so dense with yearning, as it does in Wong Kar-wai’s somber, subtly romantic mood piece. Norah Jones’ status as a fledgling actress works in her favor here—she drifts away from potential love with the owner of a diner (Jude Law) and across the radar of some outsized personalities, including a self-destructive cop (David Straithairn), his beleaguered, apparently insensitive wife (a career high mark for Rachel Weisz), and a gambler with delusions of grandeur and some serious daddy issues (Natalie Portman), all the while reflecting their insecurities and neuroses back on themselves as she attempts to make sense of her own rudderless life. Jones seems disaffected at first, but she’s really just a romantic without access to the means of expressing it. Wong enriches the frame with planes of shimmering, textured imagery meant to celebrate her and the other, lonely, sometimes tragic characters and to cocoon them in environments spun from their own haunted interior landscapes.


11) THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (Chris Carter)

DOCUMENTARIES


I saw enough excellent documentaries in 2008 that I decided to just give them their own category and celebrate them all. Alex Gibney’s GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON, locates the nexus between the journalist’s brilliance and his demons. MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh) celebrates the inspired dance of Philippe Petit along a thin wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and, by silent extension, the ghosts of the Towers themselves. No movie, fiction or nonfiction, was as frightening or disturbing as TROUBLE THE WATER (Carl Deal, Tia Lessen), an examination of the spirit of a pair of Hurricane Katrina survivors built around extraordinary home video footage shot in the hours leading up to, and during, the devastating storm. The best of the bunch I saw was certainly Werner Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD in which the director finds fresh, visually expressive ways to contemplate the beauty and terror of Antarctica and the necessary eccentricities that enable men to survive there. (The film’s title is, as one might expect from the benign pessimist Herzog, charged with double meaning.)

Less perfect than these four, but still worthy of the price of a ticket, were YOUNG AT HEART (Stephen Walker), BILLY THE KID (Jennifer Venditti), UP THE YANGTZE (Yung Chang) and the polarizing, caustic and hilarious RELIGULOUS (Larry Charles), in which the debate over Bill Maher's status as an asshole (he probably ranks) takes a back seat to the host’s take-no-prisoners incineration of the function of religion. The movie, in a rather strangely moving way, makes a good case for the importance of doubt in opposition to the relatively fearsome surety of absolute belief, from which all forms of fanaticism are forged, and does so by giving the various representatives of God in the religion debate enough rope to, if not hang themselves, then seriously tangle themselves up. It’s always been true of satire, genteel or caustic, that it has no obligation to the rules of fair play in striving to hit its targets; therefore, complaints of Borat-style ambushing or Maher picking and choosing his “victims” based on their ability to argue their convictions with cogency seem beside the point. The highest praise I can give to Maher and Religulous is that it put me in mind of perhaps the most pitiless and clearheaded thinking on religious belief I can think of—that of Mark Twain. Of course Maher is no Twain, but they are kindred spirits in their impatience for the intolerance and illogical consistencies with which their holy subject seems to be regularly shot through. At the risk of preaching exclusively to the choir, Religulous gets an “amen.”

THE TOP 10


10) SHOTGUN STORIES (Jeff Nichols) Like Gran Torino, an examination of the snowballing effect of violence, albeit in a minor key that eschews much of Eastwood’s penchant for melodrama in favor of the poetry of silence disrupted, of the inescapable patterns of coarse prejudice and willful misunderstanding that hang in the air like humidity, infecting generation after generation. Michael Shannon’s deceptively quiet performance as the oldest of three brothers embroiled in an increasingly ugly conflict with the stepsons of their recently deceased father masks a lifetime of unease that seems to inform the entire landscape of the small Arkansas town in which their personal tragedy will play out. Shannon draws you in with his deadened eyes; he makes identification with this brother’s frustration seem effortless, palpable. It’s a major performance, but it’ll be overlooked, like the movie itself, because it lacks ostentation, the big look-at-me moment. And like Shannon’s intuitive, deeply felt work, the movie feels artfully lived in, a glimpse into the heart of a place of sadness from which some men will never return.


9) GRAN TORINO (Clint Eastwood) A bitter, bigoted retired auto plant worker who resents just about every intrusion into his life after the death of his wife reacts with frustration and annoyance at the Hmong family who moves in next door into his Detroit neighborhood, but soon becomes a protective force when the family’s teenaged son is threatened by a local gang. Eastwood sidesteps almost every pitfall in what sounds like just another white savior/unwashed peasant scenario and infuses the proceedings with humor, authenticity and a stab at redemptive grace. The reductive trailer may have helped sell this moody, conversation-heavy piece as a meat-and-potatoes action flick—an octogenarian extension of familiar Dirty Harry tropes—but the movie has the bittersweet tang of life and a measure of the real cost of violence, as well as the mournful classicism that Eastwood has virtually perfected in most of the films he has directed since White Hunter, Black Heart (1990)-- the inept Absolute Power (1997) and the heavy-handed Changeling (2008) hereby excepted. And if this is indeed Eastwood’s swansong as an actor, as has been hinted, he’s chosen perhaps his strongest performance to go out on.


8) IN BRUGES (Martin McDonagh) Two hit men on the run (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell) are dispatched to the medieval Belgian city of Bruges and ordered to cool their heels after a bloody incident back in London. Farrell is randy, restless and haunted by the events from which the two are fleeing, and rails against the city’s ghostly resistance to modernity, while Gleeson settles in amongst the canals and Gothic architecture and begins to see life from a freshly minted perspective as he keeps a paternal eye out for his slightly loose cannon of a partner. These are two of the year’s best performances fleshing out a sharply stylized meditation on male bonding and the acceptance of responsibility woven from the fabric of the movie’s lyrical, slightly acidic dialogue. Playwright and first-time feature director McDonagh also has filmmaking chops—In Bruges glides along on a breeze generated by its patience, visual acuity and skewed comic perspective, all of which results in a shoring up of the film’s emotional investments when the boys’ boss (a foul and funny Ralph Fiennes) hits town and the check for their stay finally comes due.


7) U2 3D


6) THE CLASS (Laurent Cantet) One school year inside the classroom of a French linguistics teacher telescoped by director Cantet, working from Francois Begaudeau’s script, based on Begaudeau’s book (he also stars as the teacher, Mr. Marin). The verisimilitude of the classroom setting is at first shocking—those who crave the phony, comforting dramatics of To Sir, With Love or Dangerous Minds will have little to grasp onto here. The brilliance of The Class lies in its precise examination of the multicultural reality of that classroom—the intricacies of language and personal experience that can mask shades of meaning-- and how Marin’s failure to integrate and adapt his style to the needs of his students, to fully appreciate how their different backgrounds can shape how they see what they’re going through in the classroom, can sow the seeds of conflict—the kind that cannot be easily wrapped up within the confines of a narrative film. Respectful of Marin and his passion, as well as the students, even at their most resistant and indifferent, this is a movie that sheds rare light on the frustrations inherent in educational systems that transcend the limitations of language and enter into the realm of the universal.


5) RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Jonathan Demme) This picture is probably closer to what I think of as being a Demme movie than anything since Something Wild, yet at the same time it feels, at least stylistically, like a new breed. Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn employ an impatient hand-held style (the antithesis of the patience of a film like Melvin and Howard) that earns its keep because, as David Edelstein suggests, it becomes an extension of the jangled nerves and dysfunctional patterns of the characters. A moneyed Connecticut family of musicians and artists hosts a weekend wedding celebration that turns testy when the sister of the bride—a narcissistic junkie just out of rehab (Anne Hathaway)—arrives and immediately begins picking at the scabs that precariously bind her familial relationships together. The difference between this movie and a squirm fest like Margot at the Wedding is a matter of simple empathy—Demme is not in the business of pinning butterflies. The multiculturalism at the heart of the movie is not imposed by him either; it is dictated by the lives of these people, yet it accurately reflects his inclusionary attitude, one which extends to Hathaway’s Kym, her equally needy but more outwardly stable sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the family matriarch (Debra Winger), whose brittle countenance reads simultaneously as protectiveness (of herself and her daughters) and selfishness. Rachel Getting Married is Demme’s return to form, and he gets there by channeling his inner Altman and coming up with a challenging, exasperating and invigorating comedy that tests the limits of a family’s forgiveness.


4) HAPPY GO LUCKY (Mike Leigh) Is there a braver, more difficult-to-sustain stance to take in these increasingly grim times than that of the relentless optimist? In the female performance of the year, Sally Hawkins portrays Poppy, a kindergarten teacher whose positive outlook on life seems at first to border on the delusional. She floats through her nights with careless abandon and her days with professional passion undaunted by all evidence that might contradict her enthusiasm. But when she comes in contact with a surly, fanatically tinged driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) the limits of Poppy’s worldview are tested. Leigh shares his admiration for Poppy through the exuberance of Hawkins’ performance, which is never less than welcome, and it is a measure of just how tender are the director’s feelings that Poppy is never allowed to be seen as shrill or a receptacle of condescension, that her attitude seems mostly a natural byproduct of her general sensitivity, not a lack of intellect. Happy-Go-Lucky may in many ways be the polar opposite of a relentlessly bleak narrative like Naked, but that’s not a backhanded way of saying that it, like Poppy, chooses to ignore the dark side. When Poppy comes face to face with the rage she can’t understand, her sober assessment, and her fear, is palpable, a tonic balance for the happiness which, as it should, will eventually hold the day.


3) WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt) Of all the movies on this list that, in one fashion or another, reflect or are rooted in the acrid soil of the national economic disaster which we seem poised to endure for the foreseeable future, none expresses the attendant fears of that position with greater visual economy, obstinate dignity and plain poetry than Wendy and Lucy. The movie has, in its aching heart, the ability to make your own spirit soar even while it takes its share of that ache as its own. A homeless young woman, Wendy (the sublime Michelle Williams) on her way to a job in Alaska has car troubles in a small Oregon town and, over the course of waiting for the repair, loses her dog Lucy. Within that simple framework Reichardt orchestrates (from a screenplay she wrote with Jonathan Raymond) a wrenching, beautifully observed chorus of emotions as Wendy begins to face the very real possibility of a life completely, profoundly derailed. In this exceptional film every grace note is hit and sustained without an ounce of overstatement—in its unassuming way, Wendy and Lucy is devastating and pretty nearly perfect.


2) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Tomas Alfredson) The wintry landscape that blankets and informs this softly spectral and unnerving horror film gives it a literal chill, but the chill in your bones comes directly from the fashioning of a prepubescent coming-of-age story in terms of perpetual night, the procurement of blood and, of course, the deceptive appearance of youth. And what’s so surprising is the immediacy of the friendship between mousy, violence-obsessed 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrandt) and the mysterious Eli (Lea Leandersson), also around 12, who feels no cold and hides in her bare apartment during the day while her grim-faced companion (a man of at least 60) goes trolling for victims to drain for her. The title of the film implies not only the finding of one’s soul mate, but also the lore which prevents a vampire from entering a house without a specific invitation from the intended victim. Alfredson and scenarist John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own book) connect us profoundly with Oskar’s longing to find a special person in Eli with whom to grow up. But just under the surface of the movie’s ostensibly liberating conclusion lays a disturbing undercurrent which suggests there can be no liberation for Eli or Oskar, only hunger, servitude and even longer, colder nights.

...and then there was one...


1) SPEED RACER (The Wachowski Brothers) For every one of us (and there are a few) who embrace this much maligned would-be blockbuster as a pop masterpiece of velocity, digital artistry and visual/aural inspiration, one concerned with the coexistence of family bonds and artistic principles as well as the heady rush of disorientation to be found racing in a world in which physics seems to be refined and redefined with every race, there are at least 10 who decry it as “candy-colored caca” (Owen Gleiberman) or some other manifestation of What’s Wrong With Movies. At this point I’m not going to convince anyone, nor should I even try, that Speed Racer is bound to be influential—there are those who think it might just end up being the Blade Runner of its time—or that it’s brilliantly, enthrallingly entertaining, shot through with visual poetry and comedy and resistance to camp or cynicism, the ultimate Funk Decimator for any occasion. No, I’ll just be happy to maintain my delusional stance that it’s a great movie and try not to worry about whether anyone else agrees. No other movie this year surprised me more, or more consistently, or gave me such pleasure over multiple screenings. I’m telling you, folks, it’s one for the ages. Cool beans.

************* OTHER GOODIES FROM 2008***************

FAVORITE SHORTS

MIKE GILBERT ON CINEMA (Andrew Blackwood, Mike Gilbert)



The lightning-speed mind of ex-stand-up comic Mike Gilbert is given more or less free reign to riff on everything from Paris Hilton to Michael Mann in this verite cross between stand-up comedy and a spectacular act of regurgitative rationalization. Sort of a mini-Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema for the attention-deficit age, Gilbert’s hyperventilated observations are often simultaneously absurd and exacting, precise and preposterous, and always shot through with the frightening electricity of the truly movie-obsessed.


GANDHI AT THE BAT (Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm) Newsreel footage, previously suppressed and newly discovered, of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s once-in-a–lifetime experience pinch-hitting for the 1933 Yankees is the centerpiece conceit of this impressively mounted, Zeligesque comedy. It’s an admittedly odd joke, but no less funny for that, and the production’s recreation of both newsreel style and the details of a bygone era of baseball is worthy of a budget far greater than what was undoubtedly at the filmmakers’ disposal. Giddy fun.

MOST MEMORABLE MOVIEGOING EXPERIENCES OF 2009


RUN OF THE ARROW/MERRILL’S MARAUDERS, Egyptian Theater, January 13, 2008, with Andrew Blackwood and Sam Fuller’s widow signing books in the lobby.

U2 3D, Universal City IMAX, February 3, 2008, with my wife Patty, losing ourselves in the multiple layers of visual and aural sensation.

THE MIST, Movies 12, Springfield, Oregon, February 22, 2008, with Bruce—because seeing a movie like this with a kindred spirit is essential.

HOT FUZZ/SUPERBAD, DVD, February 23, with Bruce—see above.

CHARLEY VARRICK/THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3, Aero Theater, March 6, 2008.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, DVD, March 23, 2008

JOE DANTE’S MOVIE ORGY, New Beverly Cinema, April 22, 2008, with Aaron Graham, Joe Dante, et al. The enthusiasm was so contagious, I think I floated on the fumes of this screening for at least a week.

DEATH RACE 2000/ZOMBIE/INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS, Mission Tiki Drive-in Tiki Invasion II, May 3, 2008, with Haruka Sometani-Straight, Max Straight, Paul Reilly and Steve King (only Haruka, Max and I made it all the way through the third feature; in fact, we were the only car left on the drive-in lot at 2:00 a.m.…)

SPEED RACER, Opening Night, May 9, 2008, Americana Glendale 18, with my two daughters, unexpectedly caught up in what I was expecting to be one of the year’s worst.

SPEED RACER, Universal City IMAX, May 19, 2008, with Don-- because seeing this movie with a kindred spirit was essential.

SANSHO THE BAILIFF, New Beverly Cinema, July 2, 2008

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, Americana Glendale 18, July 26, 2008, with my youngest daughter, who loves Hellboy because he loves cats.

BEND OF THE RIVER, DVD, July 26, 2008, late night with my sleepless older daughter, watching her discover the pleasures of old-fashioned storytelling.

EXPLORERS, New Beverly Cinema, September 28, 2008, with my oldest daughter, thrilling with her to the zippy comedy of my favorite Joe Dante film.

1941/I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, New Beverly Cinema, October 26, 2008, with Sal, Mr. Peel, et al. Oh, yeah, and Nancy Allen and Bob Gale and the ever-present spirit of Wendie Jo Sperber. Sort of a dream come true.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR, Americana Glendale 18, November 1, 2008, with my oldest daughter, discovering for myself just how much she’s begun to open herself up to the emotional side of going to the movies.

ROAD HOUSE (1947), DVD, November 29, followed by the audio commentary by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan—like watching a great movie populated by old friends (Richard Widmark, Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde) with two other good and wise pals. This commentary, which beautifully balances scholarship, camaraderie and sharp, possibly bourbon-fueled observations, is the best I’ve heard in a long time. (And speaking of Richard Widmark, who we lost during the past year, take a gander at who Fred “Hunter” Dryer is starting to resemble these days…)



EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO on successive weekends during the American Cinematheque’s Golden Age of Cataclysmic Cinema series, with Patty, Don, Danny, Corey, David and special guests Genevieve Bujold, Laurent Bouzereau and Carlena Gower. I’d never seen Earthquake in Sensurround before, and it was a huge amount of fun. The movie itself is entertaining, but by no rational standard could it be thought of as good. It is, however, the pinnacle of disaster camp. The movie’s technical and miniature effects are still impressive today and go a long way toward offsetting the general lack of style and personality that director Mark Robson fails to provide during the lulls between rumbles and crumbles. (And it’s still a lot more fun than a serious catastrophe like The Swarm.)


The big surprise is the degree to which The Towering Inferno works as spectacle and suspense when you’re lucky enough to see a pristine ‘Scope print like the one the Egyptian Theater unveiled. Sure, it’s lumbering and kinda dopey at times, and there’s really no excuse for hiring Fred Astaire and giving him absolutely nothing to do. (His love interest, Jennifer Jones, is far more active and mobile, especially during her tumble out of that scenic elevator.) But even though it is inarguable that the events of 9/11 have led us to be more sensitive/empathetic/potentially horrified at the spectacle of people trapped in and falling from a burning skyscraper, the fact is that it is still possible to see The Towering Inferno on its own terms. (Relatively speaking, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center made me feel queasier over its transgressions and opportunism in dealing with the actual tragedy in question.) And those terms, silliness and occasional tastelessness and all (seeing Susan Flannery ignite and then take a flying leap still bothers me), are those of a well-constructed thriller that has a few aces up its sleeve: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and the relatively unsung director John Guillermin (The Blue Max, The Bridge at Remagen, Shaft in Africa the 1976 King Kong and, yes, even Sheena). I’ve always enjoyed Guillermin’s unpretentious presence as an action director, and when combined with credited “Director of Action Sequences” Irwin Allen the talented journeyman makes the most of his gigantic canvas. But whether or not you argue over who staged the action, the movie is anchored by the presence of its stars (who presumably fell more under Guillermin’s influence than Allen’s), and Newman and McQueen consistently give the movie the kind of human gravitas a monster-sized film like this needs. (I was most grateful for Newman’s performance in particular—I had forgotten just how good he could be even in a movie that few would consider an actor’s showcase, and this fiery blockbuster is as good a display of his movie star magnetism as anything he ever made.) I think The Poseidon Adventure is still the high-water mark of the golden age of cataclysmic cinema, but it made for an exciting movie night indeed to find out that there is, after all the years of not thinking so, another movie that could contend for the title, and The Towering Inferno is it.

DISAPPOINTMENTS


HANCOCK All except for that part Thom talks about below. (I’ll save it for her, since she reminded me of it again tonight.) Peter Berg overuses fast cutting between close-ups like no film since my old cropped VHS copy of Once Upon a Time in the West.

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA Standard-issue late-period Woody Allen, but in a new and exotic setting and with a Spanish fireball at the center. At times charming and involving, but really we’re traveling Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy terrain here without the nods to a far superior work of art.

CHOKE Pleasantly nasty at times, but ultimately much more conventional and sentimental than even it thinks it is. Sam Rockwell is terrific, but the movie’s dingy heart is reflected by its murky look and indifference toward its characters.

W. A superficial treatment of an everyman cipher. Entertaining, but dismayingly toothless.

DOOMSDAY Coming on the heels of The Descent, this may be one of the year’s biggest letdowns. Neil Marshall’s futuristic thriller is as derivative as his previous film was relentless and horrifying. It’s a testament to their good humor than neither George Miller or John Carpenter raised a huff over plagiarism.

MOTHER OF TEARS I like a busty, leather-clad demon matriarch as much as the next guy, but this Dario Argento potboiler (and flesh-ripper) takes the final plunge, one the director has been flirting with for years, into ridiculous self-parody.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL I’m not a fan of this series (with the exception of Temple of Doom), but even I have never said that an Indiana Jones movie was dull… until now.


THE RUINS A perfectly sadistic and engrossing book has become an uninspired (however beautifully rendered) gore fest on screen, no more, no less. And who among you will be surprised that Hollywood has adapted this inescapably bleak story and somehow seen fit to tack on a supposedly “audience-friendly” ending that betrays the entire spirit of the enterprise?

THE DARK KNIGHT What more needs to be said? I just don’t see how this is a better movie than Batman Begins or any number of interchangeable writ-large modern action movies (like say, Iron Man), and all the inevitable, audience-baiting Oscar nominations are unlikely to change that. Not disreputable by any means, but murky in its visual choreography as well as its arguments for illegal surveillance (only for those who warrant being spied upon, of course), and far too enamored of its own deep-dish pronouncements about the complementary qualities of good and evil, anarchy and order, desire and restraint that are supposedly encapsulated or magnified by the Joker/Batman dichotomy.

SHINE A LIGHT Yet another Rolling Stones vanity project in which the geezers trot out their hits, sidestep the dirty business, and come off occasionally inspired but more often bored and, finally, hypocritical about their own dark humor.

HAMLET 2 A comedy about relentless positivism among the untalented, the devilish humor loses focus just when it should be sharpest. There are few things more embarrassing than a movie that practically begs for points on shock value when the material in question—a ludicrous Andrew Lloyd Webber send-up called “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” inside a play called Hamlet 2-- is as tame and thickheaded as it is here.

APPALOOSA Everything is in place here for a rousing western except for a surefooted hand behind the camera. Ed Harris, beside Viggo Mortensen, has the on-screen gravitas to play a self-appointed sheriff with a penchant for pulling the trigger, but Harris the director lets scenes and set pieces dribble on and on, mixing and matching tones without a sense of how to build atmosphere and tension. Some might suggest the aimlessness is intentional, a stab at a new tone for the genre, but I think it’s just ineptitude.


THE WRESTLER To paraphrase Pauline Kael, here’s a Darren Aronofsky movie for people who don’t like Darren Aronofsky movies. Except that I didn’t like this one any better than I did Requiem for a Dream. The director trades in his stock visual hyperkineticism for faux realism, all the better to follow around the specimen known as Mickey Rourke with a Steadicam and stay out of his way while he mines a roster of sports/relationship movie clichés for all they’re worth, simultaneously making the movie as much about Mickey Rourke as it is the titular “beat-up piece of meat.” Ultimately as phony, puffed-up and exploitative as the world of wrestling that it depicts, this movie congratulates itself (and audiences) for buying into its dime-store Christ mythology largely because it’s impossible not to notice that the guy selling it looks and talks like he’s lived anything but a pampered Hollywood life. That may be a novelty, but it can’t paper over a litany of tearjerker moves that would make Rocky Balboa blush.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS The most prevalent argument for this movie (and it’s not necessarily a bad argument) is that it is the dumb, dopey action flick the red-eyed rogues played by Seth Rogen and James Franco would fancy themselves in, that they’d want to see, or that it’s all some kind of meta-joke, a tall, wild tale cooked up and embellished by the stoners in question at the breakfast table the morning after. Whether you buy into that or not, it seems to me that any comedy which apparently requires the audience to be as baked as the main characters in order to inspire a steady stream of laughter is probably lazier than it even wants to admit. Even Nice Dreams had more ambition than this, and it didn’t insist on elaborate rationalizations (on the part of the filmmakers or its fans) to explain the pungent haze where its good sense ought to be.

SURPRISES

SPEED RACER
REDBELT
IN BRUGES
MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS
ROLE MODELS
WELCOME HOME, ROSCOE JENKINS
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN
THE HOUSE BUNNY
THE LONGSHOTS
MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA
TRANSPORTER 3
DIARY OF THE DEAD



and MEET DAVE: I can’t account for the wrath delivered upon this agreeable, well-performed family sci-fi comedy. Outside of one annoying bit (featured in the trailer) where Eddie Murphy’s humanoid-spaceship “Dave” does a Barry Gibb impersonation—nothing more timely than a stale “Stayin’ Alive” joke—this surprisingly funny movie doesn’t operate in the same universe as a howler like Norbit or even, for that matter, other family-oriented Murphy hits like Dr. Doolittle or >Daddy Day Care. Meet Dave (a lame title) was a huge flop theatrically and that fact, combined with low expectations in the wake of Norbit, apparently doomed this picture from the start. But the irony is, the movie, a kid-friendly wrinkle on a great Woody Allen sketch from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…, is a hoot, and it features Muprhy’s best, most sustained and nuanced performance since his original turn as Sherman Klump (and Buddy Love) in the remake of The Nutty Professor. “Dave” is a spacecraft that takes human form, precisely mimicking the various forms of human behavior it encounters (with the added comic zing of wide-eyed, mechanized detachment)—Murphy plays the ship as well as its absurdly British-accented captain, who resides with his crew in the ship’s “brain.” (As in Allen’s movie, all the body parts have dedicated crew members, though apparently Spaceship Dave has no need to reproduce.) Murphy’s comic instincts seem sharper here than they have in years—roles like Klump and this one encourage the kind of physical identification, the full-bore commitment to a part that he thrives on as a performer when he’s hitting on all cylinders. (The lack of same was part of why he was such a drag in his overrated Dreamgirls appearance—just getting behind a mike and “doing” James Brown is apparently no longer enough.) The actor finds the absurdity in the premise and uses it to his advantage—every blip on the ship’s blank face, every quizzical, noncommittal reaction to outside stimulus, every attempt to mimic language and behavior is a tiny marvel. (Dave, incredibly, never even blinks.) The aliens’ quest to regain possession of a precious and life-saving, salt-extracting orb from their planet, which has landed in the hands of the requisite 10-year-old boy, is merely a device used to set Murphy down in the urban thicket of New York City and riff off the conflicts—interior as well as exterior—as he pinballs around the streets until the plot is forced to kick in at around 75 minutes in. Anyone silly enough to expect it to be more than that would probably count themselves among this movie’s many disappointed viewers-- director Brian Robbins has not delivered, nor would he be capable of or interested in delivering Eddie Murphy’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. But why all the hate based on the movie’s admittedly lowbrow humor? You either find Dave’s inability to modulate his braying impersonation of a friend’s (white) boyfriend funny, or you don’t; a set piece in which Dave ingests hot peppers, thus forcing the workers manning the stations of the tongue and tummy to endure a tidal wave of masticated jalapenos, is either clever or insufferably dumb. That’s why comedy is hard-- nobody’s funny bone gets tickled in quite the same way. But the effort exerted to condemn this genial and delightful picture seems misguided and over-scaled. Even if one insists that Meet Dave is tasteless or less than hilarious, it could hardly be called punishing or aggressively annoying. Could the same be said of Pineapple Express, or even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? For those willing to give it a try (and I eagerly passed on it in theaters just like you probably did), Meet Dave might qualify as the year’s biggest surprise.

SCARIEST (Fiction Division)


THE STRANGERS I fancy myself a battle-hardened horror veteran, and when movies scare me they are most often in the get-under-your-skin category, of which this year’s Let the Right One In is an excellent example. But The Strangers somehow managed to bypass all my defense systems and sent me straight back to the hypersensitive brain of my ten-year-old self. This movie may not be a classic—hell, it may not even be reputable—but it surely is effective. There are set-ups and pay-offs here that are so rudimentary, so central to the iconography and structure of horror technique, yet so smoothly executed, with a slight tweak in timing or framing for good—or evil-- measure, that it often felt like I couldn’t close my eyes tight enough or sink low enough in my seat to hide from the horror. No greater praise, then, for a movie that takes its time anchoring the audience to empathetic, potentially off-putting characters via fairly subtle expository foundations and has no other agenda other than shaking the shit out of you. Mission accomplished.

SCARIEST (Nonfiction Division)
TROUBLE THE WATER


ACADEMY OF THE UNDERRATED
Speed Racer, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Burn After Reading, My Blueberry Nights, Meet Dave, Quantum of Solace


ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Changeling, The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Pineapple Express


Best Director
ANDY AND LARRY WACHOWSKI, Speed Racer
(Runner-up: Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In, Laurent Cantet, The Class, Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky, Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy)

Best Actress
SALLY HAWKINS, Happy Go Lucky
(Runners-up: Gillian Anderson, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Anna Faris, The House Bunny, Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married,
Elizabeth Pena, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy)


Best Actor
MICHAEL SHANNON, Shotgun Stories
(Runners-up: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt, Colin Farrell, In Bruges, Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges, Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way, Sean Penn, Milk, Paul Rudd, Role Models)

Best Supporting Actress
ROSEMARIE DeWITT, Rachel Getting Married
(Runners-up: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Susie Essman, Bolt, Ahney Her, Gran Torino, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rachel Weisz My Blueberry Nights, Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married)


Best Supporting Actor
ROBERT DOWNEY, JR., Tropic Thunder
(Runners-up: Roger Allam, Speed Racer, Billy Connolly, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Emile Hirsch, Milk, Michael Kelly, Changeling, Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Role Models, Brad Pitt Burn After Reading)

Best Screenplay
MIKE LEIGH, Happy-Go-Lucky
(Runners-up: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In, Martin McDonagh, In Bruges, David Mamet, Redbelt, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading, Andy and Larry Wachowski, Speed Racer)


Best Cinematography
CHRISTOPHER DOYLE and RAIN KATHY LI. Paranoid Park
(Runners-up: Darius Khondji, My Blueberry Nights, Pin Bing Lee, Flight of the Red Balloon, Declan Quinn, Rachel Getting Married, Peter Zeitlinger, Encounters at the End of the World)

Best Editing
ROBIN CAMPILLO, The Class (Entre les murs)
Tim Squyres, Rachel Getting Married, Roger Barton, Zach Staenberg, Speed Racer, Barbara Tulliver, Redbelt, Jon Gregory, In Bruges, Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire, Roderick Jaynes, Burn After Reading)

THE PICKINGS OF MY DAUGHTERS (Six-year-old Division)


Best movie of the year: HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (“Because it was very action-y!”)

THE PICKINGS OF MY DAUGHTER (Eight-year-old Division)


Best movie of the year: SPEED RACER (It has romance, action, and it’s funny too. There’s nobody funnier than Spritle and Chim-chim doing so-so kung fu! The best!”)

2) THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (“Exciting!”)
3) HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR (“Happy and full of good songs!”)
4) KUNG FU PANDA (“A little weird, but weird is good!”)
5) STAR WARS: CLONE WARS (“Very violent! And then there’s Jar Jar Binks!”)
6) KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (“Mysterious! Who’s the bad guy?!”)
7) WALL-E (“A cute movie!”)
8) MEET DAVE (“Hilarious!”)
9) BOLT (“A very sweet movie! My favorite character, Rhino, was very strange!”)
10) GET SMART (“Very secret agent-ish!”)

THOM McGREGOR’S PICKS (Spouse Division)

1) WALL-E
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY


2) MAN ON WIRE
U2 3D

3) BURN AFTER READING
4) HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR

5) The first half of HANCOCK, if only for the moment, completely out of left field, when our stubbly, burnt-out superhero lands in jail and, in a super-Shawshank reversal, shoves a predatory convict’s head up his own ass, complete with squishy sound effect and—what makes the whole thing nonsensically delightful— to the musical accompaniment of Quincy Jones’ Sanford and Son theme song! It’s all downhill from there!

2008 MOVIES I REGRET HAVING NOT YET SEEN


A CHRISTMAS TALE
GOMORRAH
GHOST TOWN
NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
THE READER
MOVING MIDWAY
CHRIS AND DON: A LOVE STORY
EDGE OF HEAVEN
STILL LIFE

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
MAX PAYNE
STUCK
TELL NO ONE
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
JCVD
CHE
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
CADILLAC RECORDS
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
MY WINNIPEG
WALTZ WITN BASHIR
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
THE ORDER OF MYTHS


END OF YEAR LINKS (in no discernible order)

Richard Corliss on Speed Racer and the inevitable smart-ass knock on him for putting it on his 10-best list.

And here's Khoi Vinh from the blog Subtraction on Speed Racer's graphic design.

Scott Van Doviak’s Top 10 Unwatchables (with clips!)

NATHANIEL R.’s CINEMA HALL OF SHAME (with links to Hyperbole Glut, December Glut, Underappreciated Films, Doc of the Year and Top 10 of 2008)

HARRY TUTTLE’S LINKS THROUGH A CRISIS IN FILM CRITICISM

CRITIC WATCH- WHORES OF THE YEAR

Hollywood Bitchslap’s 10 Best and WORST of 2008 (Boll-Free)

CRITICAL MASS: Sean Burns and Matt Prigge discuss the films of 2008.

Film Critic.com’s WHAT WE LEARNED AT THE MOVIES (2008 Edition)

MICHAEL GUILLEN’S TEN FAVORITE INTERVIEWS OF 2008

KIM MORGAN’S TOP 10

JAMES ROCCHI’S TOP 10

PAUL CLARK on FAVORITE 2008 MOVIES (part 1), PART 2, HONORABLE MENTIONS, THE YEAR IN TRAILERS and FAVORITE MOVIE MOMENTS

SCREENGRAB’S collective TOP 10 LISTS

2008 FAVORITES FROM BOB TURNBULL

THE VILLAGE VOICE/LA WEEKLY FILM POLL

SCOTT WEINBERG: THE YEAR IN HORROR

CRAIG PHILLIPS’ TOP 10

STEPHANIE ZACHAREK’S Top 10

KATHLEEN MURPHY AND RICHARD T. JAMESON’S MOMENTS OUT OF TIME 2008

WESLEY MORRIS’ YEAR IN FILM

AARON HILLIS ON THE YEAR IN DOCUMENTARIES

REVERSE SHOT’S BEST OF 2008

Seattle film critic Robert Horton moderates a film series panel discussion at the Frye Art Museum on the best and sometimes worst films of the year. Kathleen Murphy (Queen Anne News, MSN.com), Andrew Wright (The Stranger), Jim Emerson (rogerebert.com) and Horton also provide their top ten movie lists of 2008.

JIM EMERSON’S FAVORITE MOVIES (a video piece)

Use this handy guide from the Los Angeles Times to help you decide what movies to skip in 2009!

It’s Armond White’s annual BETTER THAN list, guarantee to shock, surprise, delight and perhaps even annoy!

Join DAVID EDELSTEIN for a look at his top film picks for 2009.

Andrew Schneker’s fine, restrained piece on GRAN TORINO


Appropo of nothing 2008, read Bruce Handy’s excellent piece on composer extraordinaire JOHN BARRY

…and Ed Howard’s EARLY HAWKS BLOG-A-THON would be an excellent way to get 2009 started in style, you know…

PLUS, just because:


THE TOP 50 SPECIAL EFFECTS OF ALL TIME


THE 24 WORST SPECIAL EFFECTS OF ALL TIME

And as if things weren’t already weird enough in 2009, how about A WEDDING AT TACO BELL?



Finally, belated goodbyes to Patrick McGoohan from Glenn Kenny, Ricardo Montalban from the Los Angeles Times and now, word of the death of Ironside actor Don Galloway from Allan R. Ellenberger. May these talented men, and all those who have left us over the past year, find peaceful rest...

And before I forget, the year's worst.

Second runner-up: The Happening (M. Night Shamaylan)

First runner-up: Mamma Mia! (Phyllidia Lloyd)

And the year's biggest loser, Zach and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith)

********************************************************************

36 comments:

Joseph B. said...

I bow down to your list making, prowess my blogging friend! Great list, especially the inclusion of Shotgun Stories and My Blueberry Nights. I'm convinced that when Michael Shannon blows up in the mainstream either this year or the next, Shotgun Stories will be the film everyone races back to watch.

The Driveindude said...

Dennis,

Once again you show true film-manship and this self-described "delayed year end posting" was well worth the wait. Why your not getting paid to do this is beyond me.

And I absolutely love the fact that 35 year old disaster movies are getting the love they deserve. These were true escapist films that the movies were invented for in the first place. Nice work my friend.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I don't really know what to comment on but I feel if a fellow blogger puts this much work into a post then God Almighty, I have to say "Thanks." I do not have the patience to place as many links into one post as you have here. For that alone I applaud you.

And what are you apologizing for about not seeing everything? Crikey, looks like you've seen 90 percent of what was released in 2008. Anyway, excellent job (and thanks for the Best/Worst FX links, I love watching clips like that).

Ali Arikan said...

And, once again, the most entertaining, and richly fullfilling, look back at the previous year's films comes from Dennis.

Lots to say (especially with regard the bleak conclusion to Let The Right One In), but let me read this bad boy again. And, who knows, I might even finish my best of list before it's time to compile one for 2009.

This is beyond impressive - this is a labour of love. Dennis, I salute you.

Bob Turnbull said...

I'm savouring going through the links (thanks for including me!) and can't wait to dig into the special effects ones later.

Thanks for making me curious about several films not on my radar and even more eager to see some that are on the list ("Speed Racer" chief among them, but I go hot and cold depending on who I read - I'll get to it though). And yay for "Towering Inferno"!

I can't agree as much on "Mamma Mia!" being that awful - oh, it's no great shakes, but if you've seen the stage play, roll with the absurdity of trying to cram a plot around those songs and just enjoy Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, it ends up being pretty enjoyable. Depends on how you approach the film I guess - I had few expectations due to the early lambasting it took.

Thanks also for reminding me that I gotta get me a copy of that "Roadhouse" DVD.

bill r. said...

Good Lord, you put a lot of work into these, don't you? You shame me.

A couple of things: I finally saw In Bruges, and while I take issue with certain elements, when it works, it works like hell. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll be mysterious here, but one of the most haunting images I've ever seen in a film happens towards the end of In Bruges -- close-up of a pair of eyes. I think you know the moment. And Colin Farrell and Brendand Gleeson are through-the-roof great in this.

And I must take issue with your lovely wife regarding that scene in Hancock. It was right about then that I started to tune out. I hated that scene.

It was nice to see Redbelt on your list, even though you liked it more than I did. You certainly made me want to see it again.

And Speed Racer...yeah, I WILL SEE THAT MOVIE! I promise!

bill r. said...

Oh, I forgot: glad to hear you're a fan of The Ruins (the book, I mean). That's a damn good horror novel, and I love that he Scott Smith committed to his sorta bonkers premise, because he pulled it off, without ever winking. Smith's previous novel, A Simple Plan was also terrific. I wish he'd write more.

Personally, I thought the movie was fine. Not great, but reasonably effective nobody embarrassed themselves with it, and I can see myself popping it into the DVD every so often.

Chris Stangl said...

If I were to bother with a 2008 Favorites, we would have the same top two... but it's really only the top spot that mattered last year. SPEED RACER! The best movie since KILL BILL! I'll need it to soak in for a few years, but SPEED RACER is one of the most thrilling movies of the unfinished decade.

Thank you for writing more about MEET DAVE than anything else here, even those on the top ten list. I admit, I enjoyed NORBIT more than most people who are not Armond White; for me the essence of Eddie Murphy phoning it in is the schizo, overwritten HAUNTED MANSION. I find Murphy in family comedy mode, when he is engaged and has some vaguely human material to shape, is more enjoyable than in the grimy '80s action movies and equally grimy comedies that supposedly constitute his cinema star heyday (neither, of course, is a patch on his stand-up).

Kevin J. Olson said...

Wow Dennis, this is some list. Thanks for putting the time into this. I've lurked around here for awhile, never really leaving a comment, but I feel compelled to say something here: it warms my heart to no end to see you champion Michael Shannon for Best Actor. When I reviewed Shotgun Stories on my blog one of the things I wanted to make clear was how much of an emotional force Shannon was, seeing how most of the energy from the blood-feud runs through him, he has an uncanny way of wearing it all on his face without overacting one bit. He's a fascinating actor proven even more by the fact that he upstages Kate and Leo in Revolutionary Road.

One last thing: I am also glad to see you give Redbelt some love; a movie I found to be one of Mamet's best. The con wasn't overly confusing or contrived (as you mention) and Chiwetel Ejiofor is another actor, like Shannon, who is surely not even a thought in the minds of Oscar voters. It's a shame too, because he is such a presence in the film.

Great list that I will surely revisit. Thanks for putting so much thought into this.

What a great read.

Craig said...

Sad there's no Juno this year of which we can share disgust. But there are some titles here that I haven't seen but want to.

Larry Aydlette said...

Wow.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I promise to squeeze Speed Racer on my queue when there's room. I hope Invasion of the Bee Girls was worth staying awake for.

Don Mancini said...

A post like this -- so passionate, multifarious, and lo-o-o-ong -- renders almost any response inadequate. How can we, your constutuency, possibly express the proper degree of appreciation for this wonderful gift? But if I may speak for my brethren, the multitudes who consider ourselves your loyal subjects, students, and playmates -- we take very seriously our responsibility vis-a-vis responding to your gargantuan essay, and we do so with nine not-so-simple words:

"We can't catch him -- He's just too damn fast!"

(That's from SPEED RACER, in case you're not one of the converted (yet).)

We can't catch him -- Dennis is just too damn fast! Fast out of the gate with this voluminous post, filled with well-written, witty essays regarding many movies about which Dennis, and the rest of us, have strong feelings -- usually positive, but sometimes espousing a contrary position, which is where things get really interesting. We don't spew venom at our brothers or sisters who failed to see the exalted virtues of SPEED RACER. We just explain our respective positions to each other, as only eggheads can, with a maximum of passion (supported by well-chosen details), and hopefully a minimum of elitist snark, and then bid each other a sincere good-night, see you back here tomorrow to discuss the relative merits of the '70s-era disaster films. Not for us the juvenile name-calling and hurt feelings which so often occur on other like-minded blogs. No, at SLIFR, we follow the example of our host and leader Dennis, and that example is one of inclusiveness -- respectful inclusiveness for, and vigorous debate with, other viewpoints, no matter how blindly, how stupidly they may mock the many sacred virtues of SPEED RACER.

I am proud to be a SPEED RACER fan -- out and proud. But I am even prouder to be a member of the SLIFR community, where I know my SPEED RACER fixation will be honored even by those who do not share it. THIS, friends, is the America over which Barack Obama now presides.

Campaspe said...

WOW, what a post! I love your unique, informed and intelligent taste, and most of all I love how damn fearless you are about it. No apologies, no defensiveness, just here-it-is. Now that's criticism.

I was particularly intrigued to see how you reacted to Towering Inferno--glad it holds up. Though that one actress igniting will always bother me too.

Fox said...

Hey, Bill! BILL R.! Yes, you Bill!

Did you see Mr. Cozzalio's mention of Diary of the Dead in his SURPRISES section? Oh yeah! Boo-ya!

Great list btw, Dennis. It will take me until Valentine's Day to fully read the whole thing, but it's great! :)

bill r. said...

Fox, Dennis and I frequently disagree. We have come to terms with it, and our friendship is stronger for it. Now shoo!

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox, maybe Dennis went into Diary of the Dead thinking, "Man, this is going to be the best Dead ever! No WAY this one's gonna let me down. No way!"

And then he was surprised by how bad it was and left saying, "Wow, Diary of the Dead is atrocious."

It's a possibility. As long as Dennis doesn't confirm or deny, we'll never know. (Dennis - Don't confirm or deny).

Fox said...

Goddamit Lapper! Why you gotta be so clever!

YOU ALWAYS TAKE BILL'S SIDE TOO!

... wait ...

Oh cool.... So guess what? I've never met, nor chatted with Dennis before, but he just text messaged me (!) and said that he indeed though Diary was at least a 3 and 1/2 star film.

Actually, it was more like this:

FOX: I LUV DRY OF DEAD. IT'S AWSME. Y DOES BILL R. HATE U? U R COOL. C U LATER.

- D.C.

bill r. said...

That sounds like Dennis, all right. Fox, I guess you're on the level.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jonathan, DID, Joseph B., and everyone, I really appreciate all the kind words. There were a couple of nights that turned into daytime working on this when I just wanted to go to bed, but I knew if I did it’d be another week before I got a chance to pick it up. Your thoughtfulness makes me glad I stayed awake.

Ali: I’m really glad you enjoyed Speed Racer! And I especially look forward to anything you have to add to the discussion on Let the Right One In. It’s been a while since we had a vampire movie that was this rich and genuinely haunting.

Bob: I can’t recommend that Road House disc highly enough. Kim has a great observation about a blouse Ida Lupino wears while bowling with Cornel Wilde (one of the movie’s great visual sublimations) that is so funny that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here. Let it suffice to say that in reference to what she says, I had one and I know what she’s talking about. You have to hear the commentary to know what I’m referring to, but if you’re my age you probably did too. Hehheh! How’s that for tantalizing?

Bill R.: I just didn’t think much of Hancock at all, so I really welcomed that inexplicable moment—and the musical accompaniment is really what sold it for me. It’s just so damn weird. (By the way, my wife wants you to know you can choose the weapons, but she’s wondering if you can make it a little later than dawn—she’s not a morning person and you may have an unfair advantage as to aim and speed of the draw.)

Also, I loved The Ruins (book), and while I didn’t think the movie was as bad as I’d heard, it did annoy me that it didn’t have the courage of the book’s convictions, especially since Smith wrote the screenplay, did he not? (Which, of course, doesn’t mean a thing when suits start tinkering with a movie’s ending in search of a bigger box office take.) As for Diary of the Dead, I did not expect I’d much care for another meta-horror movie, particularly from Romero, who I felt, with Land of the Dead, had finally squeezed the zombie teat dry. So I was really taken aback that, despite the ridiculous notion of the woman who pieced the footage together feeling the need to put a music score on it (“Because I want you to be scared!”), the movie worked very well for me, even as I resist the notion of getting too deep-dish on what Romero’s up to here. For me it’s enough that the movie is a reasonably effective fright machine, head and shoulders above the sloppy Land and (blasphemy alert) the numbing obviousness of Dawn (I liked the remake much better than Romero’s version.) For me, Romero’s Dead movies are the numeric inverse of the Star Trek franchise—apparently it’s the odd-numbered ones that I prefer. Even liking Diary as I did, I still want Romero to move on. What else is there to do with this theme?

Chris: Your writing on Speed Racer earlier this year was a tonic—it made me very happy indeed (almost as much as the movie did!) As for Murphy, I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan, but I love the first Nutty Professor and now Meet Dave, and you’re right—even something as innocuous as Dr. Doolittle is preferable to me over ‘80s fare like Beverly Hills Cop or Coming to America. (I have never “got” those movies.) Thanks for the encouragement about the Meet Dave piece—I figured that would get the biggest collective razz!

Kevin: Shannon was outstanding, wasn’t he? As was the movie. As an ex-denizen of a small town, it felt utterly authentic to me, even as it was an aesthetically stylized film. I do hope you’ll lurk no longer and comment often!

Craig: I know. I didn’t dislike The Wrestler enough, otherwise that would have been a keen candidate for this year’s Juno prize. Did anyone like Zach and Miri, I wonder?

Larry: Sam Fuller would’ve appreciated the economy of your response! :)

Peter: Invasion of the Bee Girls featured Anitra Ford in various stages of undress. Staying awake was not a problem.

Jonathan: Whoops! Sorry, Jonathan…

Fox: So that’s what I sound like in textspeak… 

Campaspe: The respect I have for you always makes hearing from you a happy occasion, but gosh, who wouldn’t be happy when you’re so generous? Thanks so much. Your comment really made my day. (I read it during a tough afternoon with my fourth graders.) I spent the last half of the year waiting for something to grab me the way Speed Racer did, and I loved the movie so much that anything other than honesty about that would’ve seemed like a betrayal. Years ago I might have worried, but one of the good things about getting older is that I’ve learned that as long as I can satisfy myself that I’ve approached the experience of a movie with as much intelligence as I can muster, then my reaction is what it is, and while I can defend my position and engage with the opinions of others there’s no need to go all Armond White and try to denigrate others if they disagree. Thanks so much for all your encouragement.

Don: I remember the first thing I did after coming home from Speed Racer on opening night was send you an e-mail which essentially said, “You may think I’m crazy, but I loved this movie, and I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it.” I will likely never forget your response: “I KNEW IT! I told Danny that if anyone will appreciate this movie as much as I do, it’s Dennis.” Well, I think you’ve probably seen it more times than I have, but I know our appreciation of it is way mutual! I can’t wait for you to come over and drink it in on Blu-ray! (But leave the Chim-chim cookies at home!) I wish I could say I was “so damn fast” with this post, but the reality is I never thought I was going to finish it! It really does make it worthwhile that you and others have enjoyed it so much, whether you agree with everything in the post or not (which was certainly never the point). The fun (hopefully) is in the reading and the thinking and the watching together, and everyone here, you particularly, has made that experience a really great one for me in 2008. Thanks so much for the blush-inducing level of compliments, fellow egghead! (I’ll write you back re MBV3D tomorrow, I promise.)

Peter Nellhaus said...

I'll see Speed Racer next week. Good, bad or indifferent, it seems like the perfect film after the time spent writing about eight films by HOU HSIAO-HSIEN.

Bob Westal said...

Hey Dennis -- I admit to skimming portions of this nevertheless great post, largely because I'm so pathetically behind on this year's releases since the middle of last summer (that pile of DVDs to review is always sitting there, always....) and I'm slightly spoilerphobic (besides, I prefer to sort of compare my reactions with others and tend to read reviews in depth mostly after I've seen the film in question), but I want to echo Don in particular in praising your affable approach to contrarianism -- a religion we all practice to varying degrees (I'm almost embarrassed at how rarely I strongly disagree with the will of the critical majority...I'm more of a "meh, not really my thing" or "wow, I actually kind of liked that" when I'm in disagreeing mode...with occasional dramatic exceptions....)

I also simply applaud you for the stamina to see so many new movies while being a dad, working, and going to school. Maybe if I give up my TV addiction (even if probably my favorite "movie" this year will probably be "Mad Men").

And, yes, such chutzpah. I'll ignore the obvious "Speed Racer" (which you've now single-handedly convinced me to see..at some point...) and give it up for saying you're not a fan of Indiana Jones movies except...Temple of Doom!!?? You start the sentence in a conventional way and then you end with a nice little whammy, leaving us plebians who are not big fans of the series except for..."Raiders of the Lost Ark" feeling a bit gobsmacked, but in a good way.

And also thank you, seriously, as a gorephobe for that pic of Ray Liotta from, I presume, "Hannibal." I've been avoiding that one -- which I know no one (but maybe you) actually likes that much but my love of "Silence of the Lambs" sort of compels me to eventually see. You've (partially) demystified the scene I've been avoiding it for all these years. I think. Maybe I won't have to be dead drunk when I finally see it....

GoJoe said...

I don’t really do the top ten thing anymore, but, if I did, quite a few of my choices would mirror yours. Now you do have a couple of my least favorite recent films in the mix, but God bless you for continuing to stand up for SPEED RACER.

bill r. said...

Dennis - There's an interesting movie lost somewhere in Hancock, but Berg didn't care to find it. The head-up-the-ass scene just highlighted, for me, what he was interested in. And boy, Thom, you sure do start duels quickly, don't you!? But if that's the way you want it, then I say Uzis at 1:30 pm.

I thought The Ruins had the courage of the novel's convictions -- I mean, the film's not exactly cheerful -- it just didn't know how to mine the quieter moments for nice character touches, or a different kind of dread, like the novel did (I remember feeling REALLY hungry reading the scene where they were parceling out food...and I'd just had lunch!). Smith did write the script, but he's apparently one of those novelists who isn't overly protective of his work when it comes to film adaptations, so he just kind of let the director have at it. And the whole thing just comes off as a shadow of the book (which a lot of people hated, by the way), albeit a diverting one.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, did you find the way the movie of The Ruins ended to be a bit of a dodge? I mean, the book made such a convincing case for the hopelessness of the situation that I actively resented (though I wasn't much surprised by) the movie's concession to a "happy" finish. If they'd been able to sell it with as much conviction as the book had for the way it ends, then that might be a different deal, but the movie just seems tossed off in the final act.

bill r. said...

Dennis, did you see this in the theater? Because I watched it on DVD, and while the ending I saw was slightly different from the book, it definitely wasn't happy. Maybe my "unrated" DVD is significantly altered from the theater version, because otherwise I'm sure I'd be as down on the film as you are.

SPOILER


In other words, everybody dies in the version I saw.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hmm... I honestly don't know if the DVD I saw was the unrated version-- I got it from one of those little DVD robot kiosks at my local supermarket, so I doubt it was anything but the standard version.

SPOILER:

In the version I saw, everyone but the Jena Malone character dies-- she somehow gets past the gauntlet of villagers and escapes in a Jeep...

I'd be amenable to seeing the version you saw, however, because I admired the conviction of that ending in the book.

bill r. said...

SPOILERS:

Yeah, the way the book's ending plays out is still much better than the version I saw. In the book, there is NO hope, and the reader can only watch the inevitable unfold. In the version of the film I saw, Malone does still drive off in the jeep, but then at the last second you realize the vine is in her.

So, still kind of a rote, "gotcha!" ending anyway, but better that than what you apparently saw.

A S H L E Y said...

An Altman reference always draws me in, I loved your lists!

I was excited to see Let the Right One In ranking high.

I agree that the movie has an "ostensibly liberating conclusion" which suggests "only hunger, servitude and even longer, colder nights", making Oskar a slave.

The final scene was disturbing, Oskar tapping messages into the coffin, taking care of Eli as the old man had.

Bemis said...

It's funny - while I think Wall-E is Pixar's best, my daughter would rather watch Monsters Inc. every night. Most of the parents I know say that Monsters Inc. is #1 in their houses (as with your kids, IIRC) while Wall-E just doesn't get their attention. Dennis and parents reading: any suggestions on what age I should try again with the others?

Rick Olson said...

Dennis, though I came to it late, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your list, perhaps best of all I've read. Thanks!

Ali Arikan said...

I enjoyed The Ruins. I thought it was made clear in the film (by the head villager's decision to shoot the kid who was hit by the piece of vine Malone threw at him) that any sort of contact with the vine led to one's being infected (with the spores[?] possibly infiltrating the skin?).

In the final shot of Malone driving away, I seem to remember a grey, tumultous horizon ahead, an approaching storm. That she was about to unleash on the rest of the world the vine made for a chilling finale.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

A S H L E Y-- I'm with you. I knew it didn't have anything to do with anything, but I love Altman movies so much that, on some level, they all have something to do with everything I write, it seems. So why not slap that mug up there and bring up a wonderful 35-year-old movie that's probably better than all but one or two of the movies on my list from 2008?

Rick-- Thanks, my friend! I'm so glad you had fun reading it!

Ali-- You know, re The Ruins, I know there's at least four or five different endings on the DVD mined from when the filmmakers were trying to decide how best to cap the movie. It's to the point where I can't be sure, by recall, if I saw the ending you saw. I seem to remember the gathering clouds, but I don't remember the intimation that she had the vine in her. I do remember yet another group of clueless bastards approaching, getting ready to make the climb from which they would never come down. Or was that the book?! With such muddy recall and such clear memory of my disappointment, it may be time (now that I've got a keen new HDTV) to revisit The Ruins, especially since you and Bill seemed to like it more than I did. With horror, I'm usually always willing to give it another try, especially when those whose opinions I value look at it differently than I do.

Bemis-- While WALL-E (the character) is clearly, on some level, a child, Monsters, Inc. has that direct point of identification for kids-- the character of Boo-- for whom the sophistication of Wall-E is no substitute. My kids love Wall-E too, but my oldest saw Monsters, Inc. when it first came out (she was two), and she's never given up on it. My oldest daughter (and to some extent the younger) really came of age with Pixar. By the time The Incredibles came out she was five and was ready for the upgrade in humor and physical action. But it really all depends on your child-- those movies, even the innocuous ones like Cars and the Toy Story movies, are very visually dynamic and rather relentless, and it may take longer than you'd think for them to conquer their fear of such (for them) bold imagery and loud noises. I've found that good in-between Pixar material can be found in just about any Technicolor musical from the glory days-- my girls love films like Singin' in the Rain, The Gang's All Here, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Meet Me in St. Louis (another one with a very strong kid connection). The only rule I made for myself is in not just allowing them to lap up whatever crap direct-to-video sequel Disney or whoever decides to cough up in some phony "Platinum Edition." You'll find, as a cinephile, programming your kids' entertainment can really be a fun way to open up the world, and the world of the movies, to them. I'd love to hear what your little tyke ends up taking to his heart.

Moira Finnie said...

Hi Dennis,
This is to let you know that since I have been tapped for a Premio Dardos Award this week, I now pass the award along to you, in my admiration for your blog.

“The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”

The rules:
“1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.”

Please feel free to take the badge from my blog at
Skeins of Thought

And please keep writing!
All the best,
Moira Finnie

Steve C. said...

Well, I did it. I took the jump and rented SPEED RACER. Holy crap. Count me among the converted. That's one righteously gorgeous freakin' movie. Moment I knew I loved it: The kung-fu battle in the snow. And it just kept getting better from there.

Also: Yeah, THE RUINS the film isn't quite THE RUINS the book, but I do think you're shortchanging the larger implications of the supposed happy ending for reasons already stated. What I dug about the film (aside from the nervous tension) is its shifting of emphasis to means more cinematic. By that, I mean it's not just a straight, film-it-and-go-home adaptation that often emerges from the horror genre; rather, it changes what needs to be changed given the medium while trying to use the medium's primary strength (visuals) to approximate the tone that the original works achieved via its medium's primary strength (words). That's a lot of words just to explain that it squicked me the fuck out.

Alan Coil said...

Holy crap!

I've been VERY busy the last month, so this is the first time I've been to your site this year. It looks like I'll spend most of this next week reading your comments, and going to read links from here.

I liked Dark Knight more than you did. I liked Walleye less than you did. And I absolutely thought Speed Racer was the best new picture I saw last year.