Saturday, December 27, 2008
Saturday Night At The Movies
You put THAT one on your list? No. Seriously?
By Dennis Hartley
It’s that time of year- for the obligatory Top 10 lists. Recently, I took a look back at what I thought were some of the best DVD reissues of 2008. Tonight, I don my Kevlar vest once again, to humbly offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2008. I should qualify that. These would be the “top ten” movies out of the 40 or so first-run features I have selected to review on Hullabaloo since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I obviously don’t have the time (or the bucks, frankly, with admission prices these days) to screen every new release (especially with that pesky, soul-sucking 9 to 5 gig that takes up my weekdays-y’know, the one that pays the rent and junk).
And yes, I am aware that 2008 isn’t officially “over” yet, and we all know that the movie studios like to save their big guns (read: Oscar bait) for late December. There are a handful of such releases I still haven’t had the time or energy to catch (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt and The Reader) and the one I am most anticipating (The Wrestler) isn’t even slated to open in Seattle until January 9th (DAMME you, sirs!).
A gentle reminder, dear reader, that I’m just one of the ordinary motion pitcher watchin’ folks, plopping down my hard-earned kopeks at the box office like everyone else, and not a high-falootin’ critic who is comped into advance screenings or receives DVD screeners in the mail (OK…sometimes) or feted at Cannes (never!). I have resigned myself to the fact that, on the evolutionary scale of film criticism, I will never be held in the same esteem as a Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael or even a Jeffrey Lyons (although I would sincerely hope that I am taken more seriously than, let’s say, a Ben Lyons). So, with no asses to kiss and no promises to keep, may I present The List, in alphabetical order:
Burn After Reading- A welcome return to the type of dark, absurdist cringe comedy that the Coen brothers truly excel at. Leave it to the Coens to mash up the elements of screwball comedy, door-slamming bedroom farce, spy spoof, political satire, social commentary and self-parody into a perfect cinematic cocktail. The breezy script (penned by the brothers) is tighter than a one-act play, and capped off with a great zinger. It’s a rarity in film these days: an expedient, highly satisfying denouement. In other words, the film neither overstays its welcome nor feels rushed; it wraps up just when it needs to. With George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. Full review.
The Dark Knight- There was one part of the considerable hype surrounding this film that didn’t blow smoke; the late Heath Ledger is mesmerizing in every single frame that he inhabits, and his performance alone makes this one a must-see. He plays his Joker to Christian Bale’s Batman like John Wayne Gacy, coming for your children with a paring knife (and in the clown costume). I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Ledger went to in order to find his character, but I don’t think I’d ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures. Stylishly directed by Christopher Nolan. Full review.
The Gits- In the summer of 1993, Seattle musician Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits, was beaten, raped and killed, her body unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot. Her murder remained unsolved until an astounding break in the case in 2003 helped bring her killer to justice. This random, brutal act not only had a profoundly disheartening and long-lasting effect on Seattle’s incestuous music community, but symbolically represented the beginning of the end for the city’s burgeoning music renaissance. Super-fans and first time filmmakers Kerri O’Kane and Jessica Bender have constructed an engrossing, genuinely moving portrait of Zapata’s legacy in a rockumentary that admirably avoids sensationalizing the tragedy; it instead gives us an inspiring portrait of four close friends truly committed to each other, their music and their fans. Full review.
Happy Go Lucky- Concerning a young Londoner named Poppy, whose improbably infectious giddiness is brought to life with amazing verisimilitude by Sally Hawkins, in one of the best performances by an actress this year. I venture to say that British director Mike Leigh is making a somewhat revolutionary political statement for this cynical, post-ironic age of rampant smugness and self-absorption; suggesting that Poppy’s brand of bubbly, unflagging enthusiasm for wishing nothing but happiness unto others defines not just the root of true compassion, but could be the antidote to societal ills like xenophobia, child abuse and homelessness. Then again, I could just be dreaming. Full review.
Honeydripper- Writer-director John Sayles transports us back to the deep south of the early 1950s, evoking the earthy blues poetry of the Delta, outfitting it in shades of August Wilson and transferring it to the screen. Essentially a languidly paced folktale, set in an Alabama backwater called Harmony, Honeydripper rolls along, slow and steady, like a glass bottle sliding up a steel string, and is easily his most engaging ensemble piece since Lone Star. With Danny Glover, Charles Dutton and Mary Steenbergen. Full review.
Man on Wire- On the surface, this may appear to be a straightforward documentary about an eccentric high wire artist who is either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. But if you look closer, you might discover one of the best suspense thrillers/heist movies of 2008, although no guns are drawn and nothing gets stolen. It is also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen this year, although it is not a traditional love story. Existential and even a tad surreal at times, it is ultimately a deeply profound treatise on following your bliss. Directed by James Marsh, featuring music by Michael Nyman. Full review.
Milk-Gus Van Sant’s stirring (and very timely) biopic about San Francisco politician and gay activist Harvey Milk (assassinated in 1978) is one of the most straightforward efforts from the frequently abstract and self-consciously arty filmmaker since his surprise mainstream hit Good Will Hunting in 1997, yet it arguably stands as his most important work to date. The excellent script (by Dustin Lance Black) is richly engaging, yet never strays too far from Milk’s own words and deeds. And most crucial to the success of this film is the powerhouse performance that lies at its heart from Oscar shoo-in Sean Penn, who never falls into exaggerated caricature, opting instead to ostensibly channel the wit, passion and genuine humanity of this remarkable individual. A must-see. Full review.
Slumdog Millionaire- Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood. Just like the best Bollywood offerings, Boyle’s most epic tale to date (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan with a script by Simon Beaufoy, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, romance and kismet. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, infused by colorful costume and set design, informed by fluid, hyperkinetic camera work (from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) and accompanied by the type of rousing, pumping, eclectic music soundtrack that you’ll want to download into your MP3 player immediately after leaving the theatre. Full review.
Vicky Christina Barcelona- Dare I say it? Woody Allen’s latest is his wisest, sexiest and most engaging romantic comedy in, um, years. Okay…truth? To rate it on a sliding scale: as far as his own particular brand of genial bedroom farces go, it may not be in quite the same league as, let’s say, Hannah and Her Sisters, but it still handily blows the boudoir doors off of any other romantic “comedies” one suffers through at the multiplex these days. Penelope Cruz deserves any awards she may receive for this performance; she’s a real force of nature here. A museum-worthy rarity: a comedy for grown-ups. Full review.
The Visitor- If Richard Jenkins doesn’t get an Oscar nod for his amazing performance in Thomas McCarthy’s culture-clash comedy-drama, I will personally picket the Academy. Writer-director-actor McCarthy’s previous effort was the critical favorite The Station Agent, and once again he draws us into an extended family of very believable, warm-blooded characters, generously giving all of his actors plenty of room to breathe. The “strange bedfellows” setup of the plot may resemble The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple on paper, but this not a glib Neil Simon play, where characters throw perfectly timed zingers at each other; these people feel, and interact, like real human beings. There is plenty of humor, but there is also genuine heartbreak and bittersweet melancholy. The important thing is that it is all perfectly nuanced, and a joy to behold. Full review.
And just for giggles, a special nomination for The Most Fun I Had Trashing a Film in 2008: My review of the (unintentionally) pre-hysterical 10,000 B.C., which many of Digby’s readers appeared to enjoy (just in case you missed it). Happy New Year!
Dennis Hartley 12/27/2008 06:00:00 PM