Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2008 - The year in review

Alright, I’ll get it out of the way first, then will come the overanalysis and dissection. Beloved readers (yes, both of you), my Top Ten movies of 2008 (A caveat: I include movies on my list that I saw that were either released in Toronto theatres or played at this calendar year's film festival, whichever came first. This is why Son Of Rambow was on last year's list--topped it, in fact--even though it only opened here in 2008):

1. In Bruges
2. Rachel Getting Married
3. Slumdog Millionaire
4. Happy-Go-Lucky
5. Wall-E
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
7. American Teen
8. Not Quite Hollywood
9. Religulous
10. It Might Get Loud

And the runners-up (in alphabetical order)

· The Burrowers
· Forgetting Sarah Marshall
· Frost/Nixon
· Gran Torino
· Hancock
· Iron Man
· Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
· Let The Right One In
· Pineapple Express
· Redbelt
· Synecdoche, New York
· War Inc.
· The Wrestler

There’s no way to describe the past year in movies without the adjective “weird” popping up somewhere in the text. Well, maybe not “weird” per se, but there was a lot that seemed just a little off. Which was not always a bad thing. I may lose my Cinema Nerd Guild union card for admitting this, but to my utter surprise, everything in the upper half of my top ten this year is also showing up on plenty of critics’ lists. How’d that happen? I’d mourn the passing of my tetchy obscurity-love, but there’s actually something refreshing about being able to engage in serious debate about the titles that moved me this year, instead of trailing off so often into “Well, I saw it at a festival, it’ll be on DVD eventually, I guess…” (my next blog entry will revisit the past decade of my top ten lists to see what’s held up and what I’d throw overboard in retrospect so you’ll see what I mean).

Here’s something else bizarre: until I caught Benjamin Button on January first and had to regretfully nudge the Joe Strummer flick off the back end, my top ten this year was evenly split between fiction features and documentaries. One through five and six through ten, respectively, and that was a complete accident I only noticed once I’d juggled titles around for a while. Who knows, if I’d gotten around to seeing Man On Wire or Encounters At The End Of The World, which are showing up on a lot of critics’ lists, my own decalogue would have been even more doc-heavy. Speaking of which, can someone explain to me how, in this nearly-unprecedented age of documentaries actually making some bank at the box office, American Teen tanked so badly? Staged insert shots aside, little else this year could touch it for sheer drama, and there were few people who were such a luminous presence onscreen as Hannah Bailey. I'm baffled, frankly.

Then of course, there’s this year’s TIFF, which I dissected enough during its run (scroll down if you care) but which was enough of a near miss this year to cast a curious shadow over my autumn’s mood. At least, what I actually saw left that aftertaste. Looking over my top ten, I see six titles that premiered at the Toronto fest, even if only two of them were festival screenings that I actually saw. Who would have ever figured that a Danny Boyle flick, set in India and structured around a game show, shot and cut in his typical Trainspotting-esque hyperkinetic style would be a leading Oscar contender at this point? Or that Jonathan Demme would beat a retreat from his recent lefty documentaries and ill-advised remakes to re-embrace his uptown vibe, Dogme-style, and return to his humanist roots, and lead Anne Hathaway by the hand towards critical reevaluation?

How about the other big genre story of the year, namely the domination of the superhero saga? 2008 truly was the summer when Marvel fans could rejoice at their beloved comic heroes getting proper big-screen treatment. The Marvel Studios five-year plan to unveil a series of interconnected blockbusters has finally borne fruit in not just bringing respectful comic adaptations but also comic books’ hypertextual nature to the screen. Even Punisher: War Zone, not part of the Avengers continuity with its Marvel Knights banner and hard-R rating, was done right. Third time’s the charm, apparently: the filmmakers--a big shoutout to my former kickboxing instructor Lexi, who graduated to the directing big-leagues by lensing this one--were positively reverential towards Garth Ennis’ groundbreaking run on the title and made an adult action flick that’s much more than a guilty pleasure.

As for other comic movies, I loved Hancock, even if the ending battle was a bit of a muddle and the DVD release gives away the huge plot twist in its cover art. Then there was the elephant in the room, the second-biggest (worldwide) grossing movie of all time at this writing, The Dark Knight. Which didn’t even come close to making my list. While I will gladly concede that Nolan’s sequel contained a half-dozen movies’ worth of images that are seared into my memory, I wound up ultimately underwhelmed. Perhaps if it were shorn of half an hour, the botched Scarecrow cameo, the life-is-a-pile-of-shit ending and the too-often leaden pacing, the narrative could have matched the visuals for sheer impact. While I wouldn’t begrudge Ledger his posthumous Oscar, The Dark Knight is this year’s most overrated movie.

Or maybe that’s The Wrestler, which I still think is pretty terrific, mind you, but isn’t quite the masterpiece that many are claiming. Yes, Rourke is staggering, even once you strip away the meta-meanings of his portrayal. But the character of his daughter, ably played though she is by Evan Rachel Wood, is a paper-thin one-and-a-half notes, and the final reel gets almost unbearably mawkish. The final shot is one of the year’s biggest miscalculations, I think.

What The Wrestler gets absolutely right, on the other hand, was part of a bigger trend this year in utterly glorious cinematography. I suspect it has a lot to do with increasingly widespread use of high-quality video cameras, but this year’s images were as brain-ticklingly evocative as I can remember. I walked out of Gran Torino, Benjamin Button, Choke and countless other movies this year feeling like I was waking up from a dream, that I could still smell the settings and reach out and touch the peeling paint on the walls of the sets. Not that these were flashy films by any means, on the contrary their utter lack of visual affect was what lingered. Even a big-budget event film like Twilight was visually stunning; the rolling hills and forests of the Pacific Northwest were more expressive characters than the background Cullen brothers.

Okay…a couple more tidbits:

Worst miscasting: William Hurt in The Incredible Hulk. Overall, I had a blast at the flick, and I know they made a point of recasting absolutely everyone from the Ang Lee misfire, but replacing Sam Elliott with an actor you don’t believe, for a second, could ever even enlist in the military let alone become a cigar-chomping, hard-as-nails general was a rare misstep.

Barf-bag please! I actually didn’t make it halfway through Cloverfield. The trend towards feature-length handheld was bad enough, but incorporating whip-pan POV video into the narrative form is an aesthetic phase that needs to end as soon as possible.

Not as bad as all that: Speed Racer. Okay, yeah, it was junk, and probably killed what remaining goodwill the Wachowski brothers still had in Hollywood with its colossal kah-beuhm of an opening weekend. But it was genuinely daring filmmaking, an experiment that failed but failed with verve and ambition.

Okay, that’s nice, can we get back to business, please? Daniel Craig himself has said that he hopes the Bond films bring back such mainstays of years past as Q and Moneypenny, and after the skillful but dour Quantum of Solace, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s just agree that the franchise reboot was successful and lighten the fuck up a little, please?

Surprise of the year: Ghost Town looked like something you’d have to drag me to with hooks through my eyelids, a horribly clichéd rom-com with a hackneyed, “what, again?” premise. Man, was I wrong on that count. It turned out to be hilarious and affecting in equal doses, with stellar performances from all the leads and a burnished glow on its images of New York that lingered in the memory.

As for 2009…only eight more weeks ‘til Watchmen! Woo-hoo! And seven months (grumble grumble) until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There’s also Michael Mann’s Dillinger biopic, Tom Twyker’s The International, James Cameron’s Avatar…and I have no idea what’s on deck for the 2009 TIFF. So while 2008 had its high points and hidden rewards, this year could very well handily blow it out of the water. Can’t wait.

1 comment:

Alana said...

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