MY YEAR IN FILM 2008

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christopher funderburg

 

   THE WORST

The truth of it is, there's nothing more boring than hearing about what somebody doesn't like. And do you really need someone to tell you The Hottie and the Nottie or Larry the Cable Guy: Witless Protection sucked? As Terrence Rafferty once pointed out, "Most bad films are depressingly similar" - so, why waste anyone's time pointing out those predictable defects? Most films will be forgotten anyway, so why not let them die silent deaths? Instead of putting together a list of bad movies, I've decided to compile a list of flawed films that deserve recognition for what they did right rather take easy shots at digital Chihuahuas or excreable pseudo-art starring Kristin Scott-Thomas. So, here goes

 

   GOLD STAR FOR EFFORT!

Listen, these movies all have their problems. Some of them have massive problems. But I want to nurture my inner Poppy and give them credit for everything they did right. I like 'em. (Even if certain things about them really stink).

The Promotion. All of the films in this section, The Promotion came closest to slipping onto my "Personal Favorites" list. Sean William Scott and John C. Reilly strike a pretty remarkable balance between comedy and pathos as two grocery store managers vying for a position as the general manager of a new store in their chain. The area precisely between desperation and humor is a tough spot to nail, especially without resorting to the comedy of cruelty and condescension which writer/director Steve Conrad miraculous eschews. It could easily be a film laughing down at a couple of pathetic losers, but Conrad, Scott, and Reilly take the harder route and approach the characters with a deep, wistful sympathy. Conrad, a first-time director, doesn't have quite the ability to pull off what he's after, unfortunately. The film moves in fits and starts and has trouble building a few of the purely cinematic moments it attemps – the farther it strays from its two leads, the weaker it gets. He also can't quite integrate some of the more left-field elements and plenty of jokes fall flat; but when the film is clicking, it's as devastatingly funny and brilliantly observational as any comedy that was released this year.

 

The Wrestler. I've never liked Darren Aronofsky's films. It's easy (and accurate) to deride Requiem for a Dream as a style-over-substance spectacle that's not much more than an After-School Special in love with its own hyperactive filmmaking. The Fountain is what happens when an idiot aspires to make a work of, like, Deep Philosophy, man, and can't come up with any strategy other than to crib from a variety of more reputable sources (in that case: Carlos Fuentes, Hayao Miyazaki, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, among others). So, I feel like it's inherently misleading to say that I don't think The Wrestler is a good movie. I actually think it's an incredible step in the right direction for Aronofsky and a film for which I have a great deal of affection. Obviously, the vast majority of the film's appeal is Mickey Rourke's inarguably great performance – he's pathetic, inspiring, goofy, charming, infuriating, idiotic, wise, all that noise.

The bare bones script ends up working in their favor because it gives Aronofsky plenty of room to focus on Rourke and the details of his character's world. It’s amazing just how accurately it nails the distinctive cultural flavor of professional wrestling. Equally amazing is just how lived-in Rourke's work feels – you can't help but worry that he's actually been sleeping in his van for real over the past few years. Marisa Tomei (shockingly upping the ante on the already substantial hotness she displayed last year in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) has a good rapport with Rourke, even if her role doesn't provide the dramatic force the film seems to expect of it. The major flaw, though, is a paint-by-numbers story that droops to it's nadir with an estranged daughter subplot featuring an absolutely awful, histrionic Evan Rachel Wood – a resource-less actress who looks doubly embarrassing across from the unpredictable, effortless Rourke. Still, it's hard not to leave the theater not feeling like you've seen something special in Rourke's performance as it emerges from a bleakly amusing landscape of pop-cultural detritus.

 

 

 

 

 

Silent Light. Carlos Reygada's tendency towards deliberate obscurity and hollow formalism is thankfully undermined by the simple beauty of this film. He still constructs his films a bit like a ringmaster running a freakshow, but this film fortunately overcomes his Harmony Korine-esque treatment of actors. His tedious, underdeveloped notions of spiritual redemption are still tacked on the surface of the material, but there’s just so much beauty to be found in the life of the Mennonite family that the "thematic" distractions don’t undermine the purely cinematic pleasures at which he excels. Reygada has always been a savant at rigorously constructed long-take cinema and Silent Light's austere, pastoral settings are a perfect subject for his unblinking camera. The more the film keeps things simple, the more of joy it is to watch. In Silent Light, Reygada tones down his tendency to bombast and lets the best he has to offer as filmmaker float gently to the surface.

 

Miracle at St. Anna. Spike Lee's latest mess exists in a funny place in my memory. I can distinctly remember thinking as I left the theater, "That was actually pretty good. The reviews were way too hard on it." But when I think of the film, all I can remember now are the truly horrible bits – of which there are many. The last ten minutes alone are an embarrassing example of the tone-deaf miscalculations that plague it throughout. Lee obviously means for the scene on the beach to be touching, not cringe-inducingly hokey, contrived, over-wrought, obvious and somewhat baffling (I want to see the film in which the little Italian boy makes his fortune in "seat-belts"). It's an over-the-top epilogue to an already over-long movie that throws even more beside-the-point material into the jumble. But that's always been Lee's problem: for a filmmaker with such a deep connection to jazz, he's frequently awful at hitting the blue notes. He wants this film to take on everything, all-at-once: race, military structure, war, brotherhood, justice, religion, communication, the history of Italians and blacks, Southern bigotry, the possibility of morally-conflicted Nazis,  poetry, sex, neglected veterans, John Wayne and Hollywood's depiction of war, and, most inexplicably, John Leguizamo's newspaper-reading habits. And that's just themes! He approaches it all through gritty realism, neo-noir book-end sections, slapstick (borderline Stepin Fetchit) comedy, operatic hyperrealism, magical realism, and straight-up Hollywood Classicism. To pull it off would require a Thelonious Monk-level preternatural sense of how to attack these various notes in unexpected, innovative and ultimately beautiful ways. Granted, he's done it before, but he just can't pull it off this time. But for fuck's sake, am I really going to criticize a man for attempting to be the Thelonious Monk of cinema and only getting part of the way there? You can have your filmic Dave Brubecks and keep watching Flags of Our Fathers or Saving Private Ryan – I'll take The Miracle of St. Anna any time.

 

The Bank Job. A solid little heist flick anchored by Jason Statham's stone-cold, bad-ass presence. It's the type of movie that makes you realize just how much filmmakers underutilize Statham in (enjoyable) crap like Death Race or Crank. I'm not joking around when I say that he could be this generation's Eastwood (or at least it's Charles Bronson), but everybody insists on casting him in cartoon-y action movies that make zero use of his serious, intelligent features and natural gravitas. The guy could be a real actor (not just an action hero), so it's great to see him in something more down-to-Earth like this film from journeyman director Roger Donaldson (Cocktail, Dante's Peak, The Recruit, also some real crap).

Hewing surprising close to a fascinating true story, the film is lean and propulsive with nice moments of humor punctuating the overall air of tension. It deftly handles a fairly convoluted story and the second half takes some brutal turns – the scene with the sand-blaster is memorably horrifying. My only real complaint is that it builds to a whimper and fizzles when it should explode. But that's the problem with keeping the "true" in "true crime:" life is rarely structured like a satisfying action movie. The film sorta peters out after an absolutely fantastic middle section; it keeps all the balls in the air for much of the running time, but can't get them down without dropping most of them. Still, I can't complain about a nice little heist film that strategically deploys one of my favorite misused stars. Also, it had the best poster of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

Standard Operating Procedure. It wouldn't be unreasonable for me to claim that Errol Morris is my favorite filmmaker. There are few artists whose work I return to as much as Morris' or whose ideas about the world have more affected my own. I'm normally indifferent to production updates for filmmakers in which I'm interested (meh, I'll just catch the finished product), but I carefully tracked the development of Morris' latest project. Factor in the amazing series of essays he wrote for the New York Times in the lead-up to its release and I don't think I could've been more excited for Standard Operating Procedure. More than that, I felt perfectly attuned to why Morris had picked a subject (the torture of prisoners at Abu Graib by American soldiers) that felt stale and over-played to a great extent. At least three other major documentary films, several more Hollywood fictions, and an endless amount of essays and articles in magazine and newspaper had covered the U.S.'s queasy relationship with torture in the War on Terror – hardly the type of idiosyncratic subject matter for which Morris is known.

But through those NY Times essays about cannon balls in the Crimean War, the Lusitania and "the claw," I got it: I knew why Morris was returning to the scene of the crime and how he would handle the investigation once he got there. And that's why Standard Operating Procedurewas so frustrating: I felt like I could see exactly the film he wanted it to be, but which it most definitely was not. I had to watch it three times in the theater just to make sure I wasn't missing anything and that it was as ineffectual as it initially seemed. Make no mistake about it, there's nothing remarkable about this movie. It's a misshapen mishmash of uninteresting characters and tedious posturing that doesn't come to any special conclusions not previously covered by other writers, journalists or filmmakers. The essential problem is that Morris spends the whole film getting his ducks in a row: there's so much evidence to sort through that just getting the "facts" straight and sifting through them for inconsistencies takes up the bulk of the running time – and even then, you don't get a sense that he's made his point so much as run out of time. He certainly doesn't elucidate any of the ironies he's clearly setting up.

What's more, virtually every other Morris film is anchored by a couple central characters (and quite frequently by a single character), but here he never finds that compelling personality to serve as the lens through which he can focus the narrative. Despite the preponderance of his signature stylistic tics, the film is as cinematically dull as a film by a lesser director like Alex Gibney or  Eugene Jarecki – what makes Morris imitable is not the slow-mo cut-aways or aggressive top-lighting, but his approach to character and his ability to construct compelling, idiosyncratic narratives through those characters he discovers. But in S.O.P., he seems strangely unconcerned with the people involved and that gives the film a fuzzy, unfocused feel that leaves you wondering what you're supposed to be paying attention to in absence of any singular Morris personalities. Maybe he just never found the right person to tell a story this big and fragmentary? If that's the case, he should have just gone back to the drawing board. What's he done instead simply isn't of the caliber which he's capable and, honestly, it's a lot worse than similar films (say, Taxi to the Dark Side) in which I have little interest.

 

My Blueberry Nights. The buzz (bzzzz!) on this film was terrible, so I can't say I was surprised that it was bad. Also, it stars lite-jazz impresario Norah Jones and perpetual annoyance (and one of our greatest actors) Jude Law. So, I can't say I was surprised that it was bad. And as few foreign art-house directors are able to successfully make the leap to more Hollywood settings, I can't say I was surprised that it was bad. What I can say, however, is that I was surprised at just how fucking ludicrously terrible this movie is. Every performance is ri-goddamn-diculous. Even normally the reliable David Strathairn delivers a career-worst performance while mediocre talents like Natalie Portman and Law are completely hung out to dry. Rachel Weisz's turn as a drunken Southern belle, a no-good woman who done her man wrong, has to be seen to be believed so outlandish and improbable is its awfulness. If a thousand actors gave a thousand performances for a thousand years, a performance this (there’s no other word for it) retarded would still be a statistical anomaly. So even after seeing it, you might not believe it.

Also, director Wong Kar-Wai has made the puzzling decision to make a road movie but shoot almost entirely in close-ups and confined spaces. Sure, the close-ups and confined spaces are his cinematographical MO, but matching it up with an All-American Finding Yourself road-trip is bizarre at best and a plain ol' dumb idea at worst. The cinematography is slick and self-conscious, like a clever parody of Wong's usual style and the editing is clumsy and inexpressive. It’s the worst of both worlds. Nothing about this movie is any good and the stylistic bravado which normally redeems a Wong movie is painfully botched – the film has the feel of a hastily written undergraduate paper on Wong's stylistic tics. I'm not a huge fan of the director's work, but this freakin' ridiculous.

 

Adoration. Since his breakthrough film, The Sweet Hereafter, Canada's second-best bushy-browed, bespectacled director* has put together one extremely uneven film after another. From Felicia's Journey to Ararat to Where the Truth Lies, Atom Egoyan has yet to make a film devoid of interesting elements and compelling fragments, but it would be hard to argue that he’s made a particularly good one either.** So, as with Blueberry Nights, it would be difficult for me to say that Adoration's problems caught me off guard. A very Egoyan meditation on the give-and-take between true-and-false in constructed narratives, the film follows the story of a student who writes a fake biography of his mother which re-imagines her as a suicide bomber. He reads the biography/story to his high school class and things begin to spin out of control from there.

It's not a worthless idea, but the film suffers some very Egoyan faults like a needlessly complicated narrative and several epically bad performances. It also adds a layer of embarrassing commentary about internet chat-rooms and how new media disseminate information. When will filmmakers learn? The internet = inevitably making your movie lame. Anyhoo, it's not that Egoyan's ideas about new media are wrong (on the contrary), it's that the teenage actors in these scenes are terrible. They unsuccessfully straddle the line between awkwardly naturalistic and amateurishly stilted in a way that makes you wonder whether their performances were over-written/over-directed or entirely improvised. The main high school student also has a terrible, inauthentic way about him – in general, the film's problem is that it feels as phony as a $6 bill with James Woods' picture on it. Everything about the production seems cheap and rushed, from a script that seems like it needed several more drafts to the production design to unimaginatively staged scenes – it's a movie that features a whole lot of people standing around talking in settings that they seem like they were dropped into moments earlier. In other words, it feels like what it is: a lot of under-prepared actors standing around awkwardly on poorly-dressed sets. I like Egoyan, so I'm always ready to give him the benefit of the doubt even if I don't necessarily get my hopes up for his new films. Adoration, however, can't even rise to that level of lowered expectations. Also, Zack Galifianakis does not play the older brother.

* Cronenberg, obviously.
**
His inexplicably unreleased Citadel is easily his best post-Hereafter film, but unless Egoyan changes his mind about letting it be distributed, you'll just have to take my word for it.

 

   BEST RE-RELEASES

Vivre Sa Vie

Rosemary's Baby

Lola Montes

 

Film that most pleasantly exceeded my expectations:

Kung-Fu Panda

I should've known to expect something worthwhile from Mark Osborne, director of the great short film More.

 

   THE YEAR OF ASIA

The beast that is my Asia Argento obsession was fed by a wave of films so much more perverse than I ever could've hoped. It's like the 17-year old me somehow powered through the reaches of time to manifest these films:

Go-Go Tales

The Mother of Tears

Boarding Gate

The Last Mistress

 

Is this a Trend? Really?
Part I: Child Smugglin':
Sangre de mi Sangre, Under the Same Moon, Gardens of the Night

Is this a Trend? Really?
Part II: Poker (years too late to capitalize on the pop-cultural phenomenon):
21
(Asian Harvard gamblers magically transformed by Hollywood into Kate Bosworth & friends), Deal (Burt Reynolds making his triumphant return direct to dvd), The Grand (the long-awaited fantasy teaming of Werner Herzog, David Cross & Ray Romano)

The Local Hero Award for the “Over-rated ‘Under-rated’ Film of the Year”:
Reprise
Runner-up:
Synecdoche, New York

(continues on next page with more AWARDS & my favorite film MOMENTS from 2008)

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