Yep -- It's been a year since I've started sharing my unorganized, rambling thoughts on movies with this-here blog thingy. I've gone through three incarnations, finally settling on my man Hugo Stiglitz as the name I want associated with my film musings. I've also gotten a chance to write a lot about books, music, and share random thoughts on philosophy and religion (which I've moved to my other blog), and I feel pretty darn lucky to have a forum that I can just jot my crude, mostly unedited thoughts down. I've enjoyed writing on here for a very selfish reason: it got me writing. I've never claimed to be a good writer, and early the year before I started this blog I was so sick of writing from countless Lit papers that I was glad to be done with it. After being mired in the postmodern brilliance of the Rushdie's and Winterson's and their brand of magical realism, and the hilariously black, nihilistic comedy of Martin Amis I was ready for a sabbatical from thinking; finally I was done with a four year journey and I wanted some time to veg. But I've always loved writing about film, something I am very opinionated on, and so I thought what better way to get back into writing than starting a blog. And here we are today...
I had a lot of fun early last year writing about Italian horror films, specifically of the zombie variety. I look forward to moving through all of Argento's films this year in an attempt to catch some of his early stuff I haven't seen, and to revisit some classics of his (I just recently saw Opera this past year). I look forward to continuing to share my arbitrary thoughts on films. I feel pretty lucky that a film buff who used to memorize movie information from reference books can write something and people actually care enough to read it, and sometimes comment on what I wrote. Thanks to those who stop by and read and take the time to comment...
Now, it's been quite the year for movies, too -- proving more difficult than years past to think of an appropriate pecking order for these films. But if you read my top ten last year you know that I always feel like there should be an asterisk next to my list because I'm not a professional film critic, I don't get to see everything, so inevitably there will be (supposed) great films left off my list. For one reason or another I just never got a chance to see these movies:
A Christmas Tale
Synechdoche, New York
Mother of Tears
I've Loved You So Long
Encounters at the End of the World
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Flight of the Red Balloon
I'm sure there are others that I've forgotten....now onto my favorite movies of 2008...
Links to my original reviews are provided in the title of the film if you're interested in more in-depth thoughts.
I'll begin with this caveat: these were the movies I thought were not just the best, but were my most memorable film experiences, making them my favorite movies. A lot of these movies pass my criteria for a great film: being aesthetically pleasing and having a narrative worth investing in. Even though for the sake of my OCD I'll go ahead and place these films within an arbitrarily numbered order, really I would love to go back and revisit any of these films a second or third time. These lists are always fluid, as look back at some of my choices from last year I think I would order things differently, or at least put a few different films on the list, but that's what I felt about those movies at that particular time, and I think that film should not just be written about, but talked about....extensively. It's a funny business this 'ranking' movies -- I guess it reminds me of something Kramer said on "Seinfeld": 'This is capricious and arbitrary!" Well, yes it is. And with that in mind I give you the 'best', 'top', 'favorite', whatever-films of 2008, beginning with five that I would gladly recommend to anyone, but for whatever reason couldn't crack my top 10; we'll call them 11-15:
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Pixar's magical ode to the silent masterpieces of Keaton and Chaplin and the French whimsy of Tati is one of true surprises of the year. And even though it's kind of cliche to speak of how surprised I was to be moved by an animated film, I just gotta say it: I never would have expected myself to sit down and watch a G-rated kids film by myself and be so emotionally involved. Wall-E and Eve's galactic dance scene is one of the best in any film this year.
Directed by Jon Favreau
The real comic book champion this year, Iron Man is more grounded in the reality it lives in than most comic movies, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is just as impressive as Heath Ledger as The Joker. It's funny that a movie that grossed nearly 300 million would seem like nothing when July rolled around and The Dark Knight began it's infamous path to the top of the all time box office charts. I think it's more fun, better when it's serious, and just overall a better crafted film that The Dark Knight. Great classic comic book filmmaking by Favreau. One of the real surprises for me this year as I knew nothing about Iron Man the comic and was really watching the movie solely on how highly my friends were extolling the picture.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Fascinating stuff here as Aronofsky goes for something completely different aesthetically than his previous films, but stays at home with The Wrestler's theses of addiction. Everyone knows about Mickey Rourke already so lets talk about Marisa Tomei: here's an actress who knew exactly what to do with this role. Her Cassidy is a sweet, warm character, however I didn't find her to be the stripper-with-the-heart-of-gold caricature that she could have been. Aronofsky nicely juxtaposes Cassidy's realism and acceptance that she her time as a performer is coming to an end; there just isn't any demand for her anymore. Rourke's Randy 'The Ram' is not so quick to let go of the 'spotlight' (or what little of the spotlight is left), he's a performer, and it's all he's ever known; it's gotta be weird to ask a professional wrestler to do anything else besides perform for people, which is apparent in wonderfully filmed deli counter scene where Rourke hits every not right as he slowly turns the most mundane of jobs into a performance. I think if you're a fan of wrestling like I am then you're bound to be less surprised by the hardcore matches Randy endures, or the art of 'blading' to make it look like you've been busted open. But that doesn't change the fact that you have a beautifully acted story of two performers, past their prime, trying to connect; Cassidy tries, and she's a little hard on Randy at first, but warms to him and the idea of leaving the strip club and living a normal life, Randy is incapable of such genuine soul searching and connectivity to another person because he's always dealt in staged, scripted performances: he doesn't know what reality looks like. And that's what makes The Wrestler one of the best films of 2008.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Was there a funnier film all year? Maybe Pineapple Express or In Bruges, but those were different kinds of funny, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another homerun for Judd Apatow, and another member of his troupe (Jason Segel) has made himself a star. Segel's script is a pointed and hilarious look at what inactivity will get you when you have a beautiful girlfriend, it doesn't matter how awesome your Dracula rock opera is going to be! I loved Segel's performance here and the way his script never vilifies Sarah (his ex-girlfriend) or her new boyfriend Aldous Snow (hilariously played by Russell Brand), a pretentious, narcissistic musician who is more impressed with his body than Sarah's. The film makes fun of him and his awful music videos, but surprisingly throughout the film Peter (Segel) and Aldous almost come to be friends and realize what a manipulator Sarah is. Like any good Apatow film there's a real sweetness buried beneath the gross-out humor. Hey and Bill Heder, one of my favorites, has a great role. Also, William Baldwin has an amazing cameo doing his best David Caruso on a CSI rip-off. The funny thing is, if they made another CSI show (and really what's stopping them) Baldwin's agent should turn in this footage in order to get him the job.
Directed by David Gordon Green
You have to go back to last April to remember the less popular David Gordon Green film of 2008, but Snow Angels is a film filled with great power. Green uses the beginnings of a sweet high school romance and juxtaposes it with the harsh, cold, and slow breakdown of a divorced husband (the always great Sam Rockwell) and wife (the surprisingly good Kate Beckinsale). Green usually deals with outcast kids with a rural backdrop who talk and act like people from those particular areas of America would talk. His brutal honesty and ability to make dialogue sound genuine instead of heavy handed and overly wrought, not to mention the relationship him and his DP Tim Orr have, make Green one of the premier filmmakers of my generation. Here he attempts the domestic drama with similar results: honest dialogue and beautiful cinematography. His camera isn’t as flashy as it was in Undertow, here Green seems more interested in filming the way Bergman would, allowing the camera to simply sit on moments, no matter how brutally honest or awkward, and allow the audience to get inside of the characters minds. The camera acts more as an onlooker than something to be played around with, whereas Green used the camera to great effect for the chase elements of Undertow, here he it's more understated, an onlooker or a passer by, there are even moments when a tracking shot will continue long after the characters have stopped walking; we hear the dialogue, but we continue moving forward. The effect is minimal, but the affect that it has on the viewer, although easy to miss, is profound.
Other films I enjoyed this year: Speed Racer, Happy Go Lucky, Recount, The Dark Knight, Burn After Reading, Gran Torino, Milk, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Indy 4, Tell No One, Man on Wire, Standard Operating Procedure, Tropic Thunder, and half of Step Brothers.
Onto the top 10...
Directed by David Gordon Green
I loved this stoner masterpiece (even if I didn't get all the weed references) and not for the obvious reasons (Franco and Rogen are great, it has some great physical comedy) but for the more films more nuanced moments -- and for a film filled with explosions, eff bombs, weed, bromance, and a hyper-kinetic energy throughout, you have to look pretty hard for those nuances. The ending is an 80's/90's action film buffs wet dream with references to every buddy action film from Lethal Weapon (guy gets shot, falls over railing, chain snags his foot on the way down, he is dead swinging back and forth) to Tango and Cash (overly long fight scenes and lots and lots of fire). One scene in particular sealed the deal that this was one of my favorite films of the year: the ending where Franco and Rogen have just escaped from their 'holding cell' and are looking around only for the camera to pan just a tad to the right and reveal a wall of guns, to which Rogen says "nice". That and the fact that Franco's stoner has a 'footprints in the sand' poster in his apartment. If you understand why those two jokes are so funny, then you 'get' the movie.
Directed by David Mamet
One of Mamet's most simplistic cons (which not to say that the film is simplistic) Redbelt reminded me of the lesser heralded Mamet pictures like Homicide and Spartan where Mamet takes a bit of a break from his usual smoke and mirrors, con game script and focuses more on a (somewhat) linear journey of the films hero. Redbelt's hero is the teacher and owner of Jujitsu school and one nigfht when a women walks in out of the rain (typical noir premise) things begin to fall apart, thus brinigng the film into clearer focus. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the hero of the film and the man taken down a path he is reluctant to see to its end. He is a force on screen and turns in one of the years best, and most underrated, performances.
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Director Tarsem's visual masterpiece is one of the most ambitious undertakings in quite some time. Many critics called the film nothing more than a "vast sugar-frosted folly" (Xan Brooks of The Guardian), and yes, it is somewhat of a folly, but it's a masterful folly. Despite some flaws with the film, it's a tribute to its style that this film appears in the top ten. Tarsem loves his long shots, an exercise in vanity perhaps (so he can show off how cool his sets are and how vast his scope is), but they showcase the amazing (non-CGI) sets and locations. There are some semi-powerful moments between main characters Roy (who is suicidal and only tells the story to manipulate Alexandria) and Alexandria, especially at the end, but it's the visuals and the way each visual just kind of jumps and pops off the screen scene after scene. The music that accompany these scenes is beautiful, too; sweeping the viewer through scene after amazing scene. It reminded me of a film like Baraka. Yes, the film is almost all style over substance, but so what? It's not a truly great film, for that to be true it would have to excel in both narrative and visuals, but it is a masterful exercise in avant garde cinema. If this were made in the 1960's during the glory years of art-house cinema and the foreign film craze, then critics and viewers alike would be hailing this thing as a masterpiece; it would be studied in every film class today, but because it's made in 2008 it seems that people aren't as impressed with this type of filmmaking. Are you seriously telling me that every avant garde filmmaker of the 1960's weren't making films that were nothing more than "sugar-frosted" follies? I think The Fall is great
Directed by Courtney Hunt
Melissa Leo is the heart and soul behind this film and one of the main reasons for it being one of the years best films. The film never manipulates you or tells you how you are supposed to feel about these characters (even those have accused it for stating the obvious: that poor people have it hard) and Leo and fellow co-star Mist Upham who plays Lila, a Mohegan woman who steals Rae's (Leo) car and when she is caught, tells Rae that she knows someone who will pay good money for the car. Rae needs the money so they set off across the border, over a frozen river, to Canada to meet the person who will pay for the vehicle. What follows are poor choices, a reluctance to continue breaking the law due to the need of money, and a relationship that feels formed out of reality, rather than Hollywood contrivances. Rae and Lila are no Thelma and Louise, and I like that they talk about things that people like them would talk about; this isn't a lovey-dovey story where the two women, complete opposites, find that they are more similar than they thought. This is a story about two women who operate out of necessity and due what they do because they have no other choice. The film could have spiraled into lame Mystery/Thriller cliches, but it sidesteps them all to tell a compelling story with one great, great performance by Leo.
Directed by Thomas Alfredson
The amazing thing about Thomas Alfredson's film is that somehow, someway it doesn't flub the premise with what could be an eye-rolling horror/love story; instead he treats the horror genre not as a convention, but as just another element to add into a wonderful story about a lonely, misunderstood boy who just wants someone his own age to relate to. There's also deeper themes of androgyny here as you can give the film a queer reading (which apparently is made clearer in the book). There's also the haunting final image of Oskar tapping the box, cementing his place in Eli's future as a carer (or slave if you want to give it a darker meaning) for Eli much like the old man in the beginning of the film, that makes this unlike any modern horror film I've seen. Oh, and the ending scene in the pool is pretty great, too.
Directed by Faith Akin
A re-post from my original thoughts on the film: It's impossible for me to champion Faith Akin's film enough, but thanks have to go to my friend Brandon for making me aware of this beautiful, poignant film. Certainly one of the best films of 2008. It’s so much more fulfilling than the slew of hyper-link films that came out during the post-Crash era. I never felt like these coincidental occurrences or happenstance moments were me being jerked around by a filmmaker who was just trying to use smoke and mirrors to mask a flimsy parable about humanity and forgiveness. Akin is wise to not for the grandiose and to let some of the most simple moments and facial expressions speak for the multitude of emotional currents running through the film. That last image is as poetic as it gets. Just the sound of the waves was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and the image of the son waiting for his father was enough to make me smile wider than I’ve smiled in a long, long time at the movies.
Directed by Jonathan Demme
I really hope Anne Hathaway gets an Oscar for this film. Please, don't let the recent release of Bride Wars fool you, she can act. This is not just her film either, this is everyone's film: Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Rosmarie Dewitt, Anna Deavere Smith, and Tunde Adebimpe all compile one of the great encore ensembles since the wonderful Gosford Park. Jonathan Demme does his best Altman here as he follows around the goings-on of a family preparing for a wedding while their on-leave from rehab daughter Kym (Hathaway) truies to pretend like nothings changed. It's a weekend filled with awkwardness, fights, truths, and best of all love. Here is a family that despite the tragedy that haunts the family and lurks in the corner throughout the film, really loves each other. And boy do they know how to throw a party. Demme's camera follows every little minute thing through till end, when you just have to finally submit and say: alright I'd like to attend a party like that. The image above is a perfect encapsulation of why the film warms my heart.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Minimalist cinema at its finest with amazing performance by Michelle Williams at its center. I'm not a dog owner and I've never owned a dog, but I found myself incredibly sympathetic to Wendy's (Williams) need to find Lucy (her dog) after series of unfortunate happenings. The film follows Wendy through the process of trying to find her dog, trying to get her car repaired, and trying to find her way through the harsh and un-romanticized realities of leaving your home and traveling the road for a better a place. The film is a powerful metaphor for the state of our economy today and the hard sacrifices one must make in order to get to where they need to go in order to be successful -- which is not just defined as monetary success in this film. There is a moment were money exchanges hands, pure and true are the intentions, and it matters not how little amount is, it's in the act that matters. A powerful film that came out of nowhere and blindsided me. I love it when movies I've heard nothing about do that.
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh's debut film In Bruges is a masterpiece. After seeing it three times now I am convinced that one of the years best surprises will also go down as one of the most superbly written films of this decade. It has all of the bite of a Coen brothers film or hilarious vulgarity of a Tarantino script, but it has a heart and some poignancy that is rarely found in films of their ilk. Collin Ferrel is simply amazing here, comfortable in his own language it seems to me that he hasn't turned in a better performance since Minority Report or even his debut The War Zone. Brenden Gleeson is the wiser, older hitman Ken who is ordered to take Ray (Ferrel) to the medieval city of Bruges (who is the real star of the film) so that they may lay low after a horrible occurrence of collateral damage shakes Ferrel to the point where he can't do his job anymore. The film is almost completely derailed by a drug induced rant by an actor they meet while in Bruges (his diatribe on little people and other races is less and less irritating the more I watch the movie), but multiple viewings have lessened my disdain for the scene. The film comes to an amazing climax when Ken and Ray's boss Harry (the always great Ralph Fiennes) shows up to finish the job Gleeson couldn't do. The final conversation in a cafe outside of the clock tower (one of the important, and beautiful set pieces) between the two is brilliant. When I initially saw the trailer for the film I thought it was going to be awful, another Things To Do In Denver While You're Dead type hip-hitman genre film. I love being wrong. Obviously the studio didn't know how to market the film, and the fact the film is gaining more and more of an audience; the fact that it doesn't fall back on the cliches of the genre like the aforementioned film is a tribute to the smart dialogue and non-contrived dramatic moments found within In Bruges.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
It's not a shock that this film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is produced by David Gordon Green. It has the feel, the dialogue, the way it takes you to a rural part of America completely unfamiliar to me, of a Green film. Nichols' script is light on dialogue as the camera kind of just wanders through the daily lives of Son, Kid, and Boy; named by an alcoholic father who left after the third child was born, remarried and in the process became a born-again christian. The other side of the family thinks he's a good man, Son and his brother knew a different man; but it's not just a simple case of one families right and the other is wrong. Nichols draws the viewer into this blood feud that has a certain authenticity to it: this is how it would be for these people living in this place. Michael Shannon plays Son, the oldest of three, and he when he learns of their father death he asks his mom for some more info, she replies: "you can read about it in the paper." It's exchanges like that that make Shotgun Stories such a sad, powerful story. Nichols never lets the big moments get the best of him, never going for the easy tug-at-the-heart-string moment -- especially when Son goes to his mother to inform her of a tragedy in the family, she's gardening and when she's told, she just keeps gardening; there are no false moments of reconciliation or forgiveness, there can be no reconciling this broken family. But Son has a wife and son of his own and there his brother Boy who sees beyond the pettiness of the feud and that they owe it to others to squash it all and live their lives.
Shannon turns in the performance of the year and in a perfect world he would be nominated for, and win, Best Actor this year at the Oscar's. He gets an array of feelings across to the viewer with just the simplest wrinkle in his brow, and Nichols is wise to let the camera stay on him and let the audience read his eyes. Shannon is a powerful force running through a powerful film, and he could have easily gone for some over-the-top emoting, but instead of hamming it up for the screen, he underplays it all perfectly and lets the sadness of the moment speak for itself. I love it when movies let me figure things out and I love it when movies take me to a place I've never been to before, and I especially love it when movies surprise me at every turn for not taking the conventional way out of things. With or without all my previous caveats about ranking movies, Shotgun Stories was easily my favorite film of the year.