MY YEAR IN FILM 2008:
THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE DISREPUTABLE
These are in alphabetical order because I really couldn't decide how to put them in any kind of preferential order - I genuinely like them all more or less equally.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Sidney Lumet created a film to rival his greats, a tough little crime thriller that takes some extremely nasty turns but never loses its sense of emotional ache. Lumet gets a career-best performance out of Ethan Hawke while simultaneously deploying Philip Seymour Hoffman's ruddy, bloated self-seriousness to maximal effect - even Marisa Tomei is great as Hoffman's unfaithful wife. The film's main theme, the suffocating violence of family relationships, plays out with an intensity that could forgivably be compared as opera, Shakespeare or Greek Tragedy. Those comparisons, however, simply serve to highlight how fundamental sound the narrative construction of this film really is - the relationships and behaviors of these characters have a certain grisly timelessness that exemplifies the best the Dramatic Narrative form has to offer. But don't get the wrong impression, the script is tricky, twisty, and constantly shifting ground, altering expectations, pulling the rug out from under the audience to both dramatic but also comic effect. The final third of this film meets Aristotle's maxim for great drama: as the terrible story bullets to its conclusion, what happens is both unexpected and inevitable.
Black Book. Michael Barker, head the Sony Classics distribution company, referred to this film as "Holocaust perv" - but that's not exactly right, as Black Book isn't really a Holocaust film. It is, however, as gloriously perverted as you might hope Paul Verhoeven's first film in his native Holland in over twenty years might be. Carice van Houten is hot as hell in a star-making turn as a Jewish singer infiltrating Gestapo headquarters on behalf of the Dutch resistance. Verhoeven has always had a knack for bringing out that irresistible sex-power in his actresses (the fame-inducing turns of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Gina Gershon in Showgirls are two obvious examples), but in Black Book that overwhelming confluence of beauty, seductiveness, strength and pure raw animal magnetism is put to heroic use. The perversion extends just beyond the stunningly gorgeous lead actress dying her pubic hair (to better disguise for Semitic identity) and being doused by a tub of shit (as a cruel, undeserved payback) and goes beyond the physical realm into a world of moral perversion. Verhoeven has always been one of cinema's greatest grinning cynics, a world-weary fantasist with a flair for the black comedy mined from humanity's worst tendencies. Black Book not only manages to make a sympathetic hero out of a Nazi officer, but presents an endless succession of characters whose capacity for hypocrisy, selfishness, and mercenary greed never ceases to be shocking. In a final slap in the face to the audience, Verhoeven ends the film with a pointed allusion to the endless war between Palestine and Israel.
A Girl Cut in Two. Claude Chabrol's collaboration with Benoit Magimel has proven fruitful: they've made three above average films together, two of which at least verge on greatness. In addition to the depraved Ruth Rendell adaptation The Bridesmaid, Chabrol and Magimel also scored a success with this story of a powerful older man, the pert weathergirl he corrupts and the erratic aristocrat that isn't used to being denied what he wants. Francois Berleand, memorable in a bit part in an earlier Chabrol film (Comedy of Power), takes on the lead here with great results. He's a comfortably debauched but still respected member of the cultural community. He seems genuinely hesitant to bring Ludivine Sagnier's more or less innocent weathergirl into his world, but equally unable to resist her youth and beauty. His hesitation leads her to relent to the obsessive advance of Magimel's aristocrat. Magimel is a pleasure as the hissably egocentric, condescending dandy - his natural charisma undercuts the character's general awfulness and leaves room for genuine sympathy for him at the end of the film. Chabrol once again pokes and prods his favorite theme: how a seeming innocent will display an even greater capacity for depravity than the person supposedly corrupting them. You may never find exactly what Sagnier agreed to do for Berleand at his mysterious private club, but you know that she is ultimately a more than willing participant.
Lake of Fire. One of the most misunderstood films to be released in 2007, Tony Kaye's epic study of the conflict over abortion in America since the early 1990's, isn't really about abortion at all: it's an exploration of the rise of fundamentalism and its violent tactics in a public discourse. Many reviewers were puzzled (if not outraged) as Kaye's seeming unwillingness to take a stance in the abortion debate, but he's too interesting a filmmaker to simply engage in advocacy filmmaking and, as a British citizen, I suspect he feels very little stake in the ultimate outcome. He is, however, deeply concerned with how and why the debate has become so irresolvably polarized, intransigently hysterical and horrifically violent. To do so, he traces the rise of the anti-abortion movement, starting with the large-scale organization of abortion clinic protests that begin in the early 1990 through its splintering into more and more radical factions, culminating in the frequent assassination of doctors providing abortion services to terrorist activity such as the bombing of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. He's most interested in parsing and delineating the political and psychological trajectory of these groups, so he gets deep into their mindset and makes a sincere effort to understand their point of view. That, of course, led to even further outrage and confusion, especially on the part of Feminist critics, who couldn't understand why he would bother to spend so much time attempting to accurately present the most compelling and emotionally affecting elements of anti-abortion rhetoric - he frequently allows the flames of their inflammatory material to burn at full brightness. Fortunately, Kaye has more on his mind than delivering more of the simplistic good vs. evil arguments that got us here in the first place. It's essential viewing, a thoughtful dissection of the worst that the politics of outrage have to offer.
Margot at the Wedding. I was surprised to like this film as much as I did. I thought The Squid and the Whale was little more than an indie-fied Murmurs of the Heart rip-off, too unimaginative in its style and too contemptuous of its characters for it really to be worth much further consideration. But Margot at the Wedding surprisingly feels like a natural extension of Squid that quadruples the complexity and intelligence. Apparently, when director Noah Baumbach showed this film to Laura Linney, her response was "compared to this, The Squid and the Whale is a toy." And I'd have to agree. Mainly a film about the various ways in which family members pulverize each other emotionally, the cast of Margot nonetheless has a certain vulnerability and capacity for forgiveness that adds a layer of complication to the drama. Almost of the drama in the film is derived from the collision of expectation with identity: it's a film about what the world wants us to be vs. who we are vs. who we want to be. That's what makes Jack Black's "ironic mustache" such a great trope - he knows he's going to get hammered for it by Nicole Kidman's judgmental writer, but he also knows that there's a level on which she's right. He is basically a loser... but obviously Kidman choosing the ironic mustache as the emblem of that loser-ness is unfair, elitist bullshit. The mustache becomes a symbol with which to pummel her sister, Jennifer Jason Leigh, out of marrying Black, but obviously the pummeling has more to do with Kidman's own neuroses and less to do with her desire for Leigh's happiness, but nevertheless marrying Black probably isn't the best idea... and the whole thing winds itself up in these unbearable circles of truth, humiliation, and hypocrisy. Margot at the Wedding isn't a toy, it's a trap.
Persepolis. From the striking black & white drawings to the political intelligence to goofy sense of humor, everything about Persepolis is charming. Of course, much of that substantial charm is derived from Marjane Satrapi, the protagonist of this dreamy, imaginative autobiography. Satrapi wins you over immediately as a Bruce Lee obsessed tyke and keeps scoring points on through her adult years. Seriously, this film so effectively eschews all of the baggage and clichés of "important cinema" that you almost don't notice that you're watching one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful historical analyses ever doodled. A pitch-perfect blend of humor and heartache, rebellion and resignation, fear and hope, immaculate aesthetic design and unadorned simplicity, there's little more you could ask for from a movie.
Ratatouille. Watching the first twenty minutes of this movie, I thought, "This is one of the best movies I've ever seen!" Unfortunately, there's weak middle section overloaded with Jim Carrey-esque mugging and physical comedy, so Ratatouille never really reaches the level I expected from the exhilarating, madcap beginning. Still, a film about the joys of food is right up my alley and Remy the rat is great creation: some of his character animation in this film (his poses in particular) rivals the work of Chuck Jones, the gold standard for such things. Every time Remy can take center stage, the film comes alive with a pure unbridled joy and imagination that few films can even sniff at - his inability to resist contributing to the soup is one of the great on-screen representations of getting so caught up in something that you love that you don't even notice that, say. a kitchen boy is staring right at you and is going to straight-up kill you. The film resolves with food critic Anton Ego reviewing the hard work of Remy the rat and I defy you not to get at least a little choked up when it flashes back to his childhood. There's something special about a movie that so well understands the potential for unadulterated glee to become intertwined with a mundane necessity like eating.
Sad Vacation. Tadanobu Asano is one of those actors who's unique. There's just no other way to describe his presence. I'm not sure he's a particularly skilled actor - certainly actor-ly technique is not his main appeal. He also rarely delivers the type of out-sized idiosyncratic performances that one associates with a cult favorite like, say, Crispin Glover or Jack Nicholson. He's a legitimate leading man, handsome and charismatic; but he's also weird, dangerous, and sensitive. Sad Vacation takes full advantage of Asano's unique possibilities - you believe him as a seductive charmer, a dutiful surrogate brother, a vengeful son, a violent murderer, a smiling friend, a deadened nihilist. Granted, there's great supporting work from the entire constellation of Vacation's large cast, but Asano is the center of the galaxy as a son on the run from his criminal past, unexpectedly reunited with the mother that abandoned him.
The Savages. Some sort of a spiritual sister to Margot at the Wedding, The Savages is another bleaker than bleak story of the emotional violence families inflict on each other. Laura Linney reaches the heights she's failed to re-attain since her revelatory turn in You Can Count on Me and her performance negates whatever resistance one might have to engaging this film on its peculiar downcast level. Her character is the embodiment of the painfully authentic conflict between your desire to be good to your loved ones and your desire to simply say fuck 'em. She's caught in a go-nowhere life, nursing unlikely dreams that are the only thing she has left to define herself. When her father needs to be shifted from a private residence to a nursing home, she and brother Philip Seymour Hoffman bicker their way through the process, unsure how much respect they should afford a father who only made them miserable. The improbably upbeat ending aside, the film was inexplicably marketed as a comedy (come to think of it, so was Margot), but there aren't really any laughs to be had other than of the "God, that's so horrifically, painfully true, all you can do is laugh or blow your brains out" variety. I suppose that would scare most folks away from seeing it; but if the subject matter hits you just right, you'll feel like in comparison no other film you've seen this year even matters.
Like I've said before, this list isn't intended to tear down the films that are obviously junk, that you know are junk and that never stood any real chance of being anything but junk - what's the point of that? This is a list of the worst films of the year that had even a sliver of expectation of quality. But don't get me wrong, these are also some of the worst films you will ever see.
1. Redacted. It's not even that I disagree with the film's basic premise (soldiers are not necessarily heroes and some horrible shit gets perpetrated by even U.S. soldiers during a war and some of that horrible shit is abetted by systemic problems within a military power-structure, etc.) or with the narrative/stylistic decision made by Brian DePalma (rendering the narrative through a variety of faux-documentary forms such as artsy documentary, you-tube clip, shaky home-video, security camera footage); the insurmountable flaw of Redacted is its excruciating, embarrassing tone-deafness. Nothing about this film is right: the "home video" footage is as phony as a $30-bill with Bill Graham's picture on it, the acting is porno-level, the violence is cheesy, even the god-damn "security camera" footage has perfect audio to accompany it - because of, you know, all of those grainy black-and-white security cameras with high-grade directional microphones on them.
That's what's so shocking about this film: conceptually, theoretically, it could have been powerful and timely - instead it's a fucking joke, as hopelessly awkward as a public access tv show, as lame as a sitcom, as botched as a SNL sketch with Jimmy Fallon in the lead. It's almost inconceivable how poorly DePalma renders the mishmash of news reports, card-games in the barracks, midnight rape raids, and psychological-competency tests - none of it feels for one second real or authentic or even plausible. The film has a crater-sized credibility gap. And the acting - Jesus Christ, the acting - this group of unremarkable numb-nuts makes the cast of Clerks look like the Royal Shakespeare Company. This film will make you cringe and agonize and squirm deep down into the bottom of your seat like you're watching on episode of "Fawlty Towers." I've defended DePalma in the past, but this independently produced nonsense makes me feel like maybe in the past his essential haplessness has been masked by big budgets and studio oversight - it makes me wonder if he intended Femme Fatale and Raising Cain as the campy delights I preceived them to be or as dead-serious thrillers.
2. Evening. Director Lajos Koltai managed to more or less eschew the typical traps and clichés of Holocaust melodrama with his gorgeous directorial debut Fateless, so I didn't write off this film altogether from the get-go. At very least, I assumed that cinematographer-turned-director Koltai would deliver a picturesque film. Certainly, though, the cast left me cold: the perpetually over-rated Meryl Streep and the charisma-deficient Claire Danes headline a cast of "name" actresses to whom I am essentially indifferent (Toni Collette, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson). I should've known that Claire Danes (still tied in the standings with Sarah Jessica Parker for the "Most Homely as a Mule Leading Actress" Cup) would turn out to be a less charming/more depressing subject than the Holocaust and Koltai wouldn't be able to do anything with he wet-cigar screen persona.
To top it off, the plot itself is straight-up melodrama with an old lady indulging in deathbed fantasias over a great tragic love affair from her youth. Redgrave is the scenery-devouring demented oldster and Collette and Richardson play her comically mismatched daughters (one wears a business suit, the other has punky red highlights in her hair!) - perhaps Redgrave's own tales of youthful romantic bullshit will be relevant to her daughters' contemporary romantic bullshit? Danes plays the young version of Redgrave in a series of gauzy flashbacks. There's a love triangle, a ruined wedding, a repressed homosexual, a work-shed tryst, etc. All you really need to know is that there's a scene in this movie where Redgrave, in a fit of lovingly-rendered poetic insanity, chases a possibly nonexistent butterfly around her room attempting to get it to sit alight her out-stretched fingers. What a magical moment! Come to think of it, I recommend that everyone see this movie.
3. The Walker. When I first heard about this, I assumed that those creeps in Hollywood had stolen my idea to make a movie about Paul Walker and his super-abs as they solve a high-concept airplane robbery spree where the robbers escape by parachuting out over Key West. Instead, the writer of Rolling Thunder and Taxi Driver created this tale of... I'm not really sure what the idea is here. Woody Harrelson plays a lovable homosexual who gets caught up in a high society murder. The murder has mildly conspiratorial, political implications in which Harrelson is only a mildly unwitting pawn - but the whole thing takes place in D.C. and his job is to hang out playing bridge with gossipy socialites, so its not like the political implications are a surprise. Nor are they very deep. Satire seems to be on the agenda for director Paul Schrader, but he also seems to think he's created a compelling, complex gadfly in Harrelson's flamboyant, Wilde-quoting beltway insider.
But the film offers no clue as to whether the endless scenes of tea-drinking and antique-purchasing are supposed to be punishingly tedious or charmingly glib. Does Schrader really think he needs to expose the darkness and double-dealing behind the black-tie fundraisers and 3 martini lunches? This movie is either supremely obvious or hopelessly ineffectual, but probably both - for certain, you don't leave the theater wishing Harrelson's handsome young thing would walk you to the opera and regale you with juicy gossip at the cocktail party afterwards. And some of the lines Harrelson delivers in his fey Southern accent are real howlers, too: his admonition to an ex-lover who has just thrown a quote from Harrelson's precious Oscar Wilde back in his face, "Oh, not Wilde, anyone but Wilde" is an instant classic of endlessly quotable, utterly terrible dialog.
4. Sleuth. If you're only going to have two actors in your movie, make sure that neither of them is Jude Law. It might be tricky to determine if the actor in your movie is Jude Law because at some point he might be wearing cheesy, unconvincing make-up and speaking with an overbearing accent (possibly intended to be Irish). But you're not an idiot - that's obviously Jude Law. Get him out of your movie! Also, Michael Caine will clearly do anything for a paycheck, so don't think bringing him back to the material that made him famous is some kind of a coup. Finally, don't get Kenneth Brannagh and Harold Pinter involved. Those are two guys whose actual talent levels are not within sniffing distance of their hyper-inflated reputations.
5. Deathproof. I don't get it - weren't you bored? It seems obvious at this point that no other filmmaker can pull of the type of needlessly geeky, improbably verbose, theoretically cool pop-cultural riffing that's the hallmark of Quentin Tarantino's dialog, but Deathproof seems to be evidence that not even Tarantino himself can pull it off anymore. Forget about the obvious fact that this movie in no way resembles to type of b-exploitation cheapie it purports to commemorate; the real problem is that it mainly plays like a laughable Tarantino rip-off - the type of movie that every over-caffeinated movie-nerd teenager was making in his basement in 1995. But since it's Tarantino, it even feels more a like a parody than a rip-off: that is, the details and tics are so perfectly Tarantino (obviously, because Tarantino made the damn thing) that the film's essential idiotic ineptitude feels like a pitch-perfect lampooning of everything for which the notorious QT is notorious.
Hot chicks improbably obsessed with cult ephemera like Vanishing Point? Check. References to old tv shows? Check. A carefully-selected, ostentatiously displayed soundtrack overflowing with soul classics of yore? Check. Cartoonish violence? Check. A token literary allusion to a source with which you can assume the director is only glancingly familiar? Check. Go-nowhere, over-written discussions in which the main characters pontificate endlessly on the most meaningless of subjects? Check, check and double-check. It's like a big joke - who can take this seriously? It's grueling to sit through and - to top it all off! - the climactic car chase that's the film's sole reason for being is actually no great shakes. When I think of a truly great car chase (like in the freeway chase in To Live and Die in L.A., for example), the pursuit is always a significant and meaningful extension of the narrative. In Deathproof, the bad-guy appears out of nowhere and just as quickly gets a truly retarded comeuppance - there's nothing at stake, the characters involved are all one-dimensional Tarantino-bots and then the danger dissipates in a puff of half-baked, under-cranked fisticuffs. Easily Tarantino's worst film and a complete waste of time - say what you will about Roger Corman or Russ Meyer, they at least knew how to deliver without pretense all the tits, gore, and violence you crave in a b-movie. Tarantino can't even get that right.
6. Jimmy Carter Man from Plains. A film that belongs to that strange breed of hagiography that never even bothers to lionize its subject, so thoroughly on the side of its protagonist that it assumes the audience naturally has the same uncritical reaction of pure admiration to the deeds and words of whoever that Hero might be. This is particularly troubling in the case of Jimmy Carter, who begins the film by guilelessly describing the haunted house near childhood home and the ghost he frequently saw there. My jaw was on the floor - this guy was president of the most powerful country in the world at one of the most precarious points in its short history and he actually believes without caveat or abashment in motherfucking ghosty-boo's? Jonathan Demme doesn't even blink at the insanity on display here. Granted, that might be a plus if there were only more insanity on display throughout the rest of the film. After that startling opener, the only other real morsel of nutso behavior is a clip of Carter's muumuu clad mother appearing on Johnny Carson. Her skin looks like it's made from cigarette ash.
Generally, Demme is content to silently follow Carter on a relatively uneventful promotional tour for his new book, Peace not Apartheid. I say "relatively" as the book posits Israel as enforcing an apartheid regime over Palestine, a mildly controversial analysis additionally amplified by the book's publishers to drum up sales. Obviously, any book that touches on Israel is bound to stir up controversy, but nothing too much really comes of it. The film mainly gives you a sense of just how well-protected powerful people are from reality - you know there's people screaming bloody murder at the book's very concept,* but there's surprisingly scant evidence of such outrage on Carter's closed-circuit travels between tv talk shows, fancy hotels and book signings. There's a lot that's fascinating about Carter's Face in the Crowd-esque crack-barrel philosopher persona, his guileless willingness to promote an unpopular idea and his complete lack of contact with reality beyond sycophants, powerful community leaders and slick businessmen; but this film seems oblivious to anything that could be mildly construed as interesting. He does fly commercial and carry his own luggage. so there's that. sigh.
* To be fair the film takes 30 second detour to show some of those folks outside a book-signing. And there was a scene apparently cut from the final release version (which I didn't see) of Carter meeting with a group of critical Jewish community leaders in Arizona, I believe.
7. Knocked Up. Having read a bit about the film before I went in, I was prepared for creator Judd Apatow's insulting ethical stance: being responsible means getting married and starting a life with someone you met while drunk and had sex with once. However, I wasn't expecting this film's complete lack of laughs. Seth Rogan's tired frat-boy insult-centric brand of improv comedy is entirely bankrupt: everything is either gay or a vagina, inappropriate references to mildly taboo sex-acts rule, and stuttering awkwardness is the fall-back plan. I couldn't believe it when I didn't laugh at all for the first twenty minutes of this movie. By the time it got to the hopelessly clichéd and unfunny Ryan Seacrest scene (off-camera, a star is totally unlike his star persona - get it?!), I was genuinely fearing that I might have to walk out. I kept hearing great things about the big Vegas trip with Paul Rudd (I love Paul Rudd!), so I toughed it out. Wow. Cirque de Soliel and tripping jokes - where do they come up with it? I'm glad someone did a scene about how crazy people act when they're on drugs! They, like, totally think they're sitting in a really tall chair. But they're in a regular-sized chair! Also, Cirque de Soliel is such a respected cultural touchstone I'm surprised they had the nerve to take it on - most folks wouldn't even try to spin comedy from homoerotic French acrobats with poetic aspirations and a penchant for flamboyant costumes. It's like shooting fish in an ocean. Or shooting some kind of outer-space fish that swims around in between galaxies. It's like shooting fish in some supremely unconfined space. I'm just saying making fun of that stuff is difficult and original, so kudos.
Left without laughs to fill the void, I had no choice but to focus on the extremely fucked-up philosophy of this movie, which is over-loaded with the worst kind of childish conservatism: women are shrews and nags, abortion is not an option, marriage is a solution to problems, being miserable is evidence of emotional engagement and adult responsibility, Family Uber Alles. But I guess the insane ethical universe in which these two strangers getting married is a good idea and a good thing for their unborn child was counter-balanced and complemented by the total narrative illogic necessary to ensure that Katherine Heigl's attractive, successful, ambitious, intelligent character would even for a second consider letting Rogan's character into her life. I'm not saying she would definitely get an abortion or be a single mother (although those two options are roughly 40,000 times more likely than her settling into a romantic relationship with someone like Rogan), but I think at very least she would pursue someone other than Rogan as a surrogate father. I'm sure she could find a more appropriate partner in five minutes at Wal-Mart - forget about the fact that there's not exactly a dearth of suitors for attractive, successful women from solid families. She doesn't even seem crazy (which is a miracle consider the characterization of every single other woman in the film). Anyhoo, this movie is also too long. The end. (see? wrapping things up isn't that hard!)
(continues on next page with THE DISREPUTABLE films of 2007)
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