Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dr. Criddle's Top Ten of 2008

The general consensus seems to be that 2008 wasn't quite as strong a cinematic year as 2007, with the incredible one-two punch of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, as well as well as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Once, Zodiac and I'm Not There, among others. However, what seemed to truly categorize '07 year's finest films was how filmmakers injected a lyrical, art film sensibility into such well-worn genres as the police procedural, the celebrity biopic, the musical and the western. The tradition seemed to continue in '08, as films about superheroes, urban vigilantes, robots, vampires, and even pro wrestlers astonished audiences with their unexpected soulfulness. If any kind of theme categorizes 2008's films, it's the profundity of pulp, as the pictures that superficially appear to be more user-friendly proved infinitely more rewarding than the "important" films. So, without further ado, I present my personal top 10 of 2008:

1) Let the Right One In

Few outside of hardcore horror buffs saw this marvelous little picture - the David to Twilight's Goliath - which is a real shame. It's a horror film that is really the day-to-day hell adolescents go through, and is the best film of that nature since Ginger Snaps, maybe even since Carrie. Director Thomas Alfredson doesn't short-change genre fans - the film delivers in spades such beloved cliches as blood dribbling from lily-white lips, attacks in the shadows, cats that hiss in the presence of the vampire characters, and bodies that spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. However, at the real heart of the picture is the delicately rendered love story between two young outcasts: Oskar, a viciously bullied 12-year-old boy, and Eli, his mysterious new next-door neighbor whom he only sees around when the sun goes down. From her, he gains the courage to stand up to those who push him around, and from him, she recieves love for who she is as opposed to fear for what she is. It's a refreshingly morally ambiguous tale and a profound character study of such quiet and subdued power that drew me in, and by the end, had me beaming from ear to ear in spite of myself.

2) The Wrestler

If you'd have told me five years ago that I would have been brought to tears by a Botox-addled, lime green tights-clad Mickey Rourke delivering a monologue over the top of a Guns N' Roses song, I would've probably thought you were insane. But that's exactly what happened the moment that Randy "The Ram" Robinson, about to step back into the ring, despite warnings from his doctor regarding his weakened heart, tells his girlfriend, Pam (Marisa Tomei) "The only place I get hurt is out there" - gesturing to the dressing rooms, the building lobby, and the rest of the uncaring world outside. The Wrestler shows professional wrestling for what it is - a planned-out fiasco more spectacle than sport, yes, but an incredibly physically gruelling one that abandons its older athletes to become wandering nomads in their autumn years. Rourke is utterly emotionally naked in the role - thank god Nicholas Cage turned this part down! - giving the finest performance of the year. And the fact that Axl Rose licenced the pivotal and poingant "Sweet Child of Mine" to Darren Aronosky for free almost makes me forgive him for the travesty that was Chinese Democracy.

3) In Bruges

One of the numerous wonderful films this year that was dumped onto an uncaring public in the dog days of early spring. Advertised as yet another Guy Ritchie knockoff, it is indeed closer in spirit to Waiting For Godot, if Beckett's Didi and Gogo were Irish hitmen who curse like truck drivers and really, really do not like Americans. Playwright and first-time director Martin McDonagh weaves a story that starts off deceptively simple (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson's characters are told to hide out in the titular Belgian, cobblestone-paved, tourist-attracting city, after Farrell badly botches his first kill job) - but takes numerous unexpected turns, weaving an often darkly funny, sometimes heart-wrenchingly soulful tale of moral redemption, honor, brotherhood and remorse. Colin Farrell does the best work of his career here as beagled-eyed Ray, alternately swaggering and tough-talking and guilt-wracked and childlike. Brendan Gleeson is similarly exellent as his fatherly partner Ken, and Raph Fiennes injects soul and humanity into the well-worn archetype of the furious and potty-mouthed crime boss. And there's also a racist, cocaine-snorting dwarf. What's not to love?

4) The Dark Knight

For a film of this nature to even begin to live up to the ridiculous amount of hype it received from fanboys is alone remarkable, but Christopher Nolan's brilliant sequel to Batman Begins exceeded my expectations in every way. His Gotham City is not the colorful phantasmagoria we've seen in other media, but the setting for a profoundly rich, viscerally philosophical, post-9/11 detective story that just happens to feature a man in a pointy-eared mask. The star of the show, of course, is Heath Ledger's Joker, who, like Stephen King's Pennywise, is a creature seemingly born out of the moral decay of a corrupt society. With no past nor backstory, he is merely an agent of chaos, as Michael Caine says, someone who simply "wants to watch the world burn." The hype over Ledger's performance has nothing to do with his tragic and untimely death - even if the young actor had lived to be a hundred, his brilliant characterization would still be worthy of rank among the cinema's greatest villains. Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhal and Gary Oldman all do similarly strong, if considerably subtler work here. The Dark Knight is the first comic book adaptation that is truly as great as a great graphic novel, and arguably the finest superhero film ever made.

5) Synecdoche, New York

Admittedly, I only saw Synecdoche, New York once, which I'm sure is about ten or twenty times too few to fully get my's brain around it. Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is as cryptic as they come, making his pervious screenwriting efforts look positively straightfortward in comparison. A film about the process of creating which mirrors 8 1/2 in its confusing but beautiful mix of dreams, fantasy, and reality, it is simultaneously self-loathing yet celebratory, cynical yet optimistic and bursting with life. Phillip Seymor Hoffman, plays theater director Caden Cotard as a man at war with himself, disgusted with himself for his masterbatory artistic aspirations while the world outside his door goes to hell. It's sometimes overreaching, sometimes pretentious, but never boring and always captivating, as Kaufman proves once again that he is one of the finest storytellers of contemporary motion pictures.

6) OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Funnier and better than all three Austin Powers films put together, this French import is one of the finest genre spoofs since the heydey of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. It is both an esquisitely detailed parody of the Cold War-era exotic-locale espionage thriller (complete with a 50's setting, rear projection screens behind cars, and a lush, Ye Olde Technicolor palette) and a pointed satire of post-colonial French arrogance and ignorance toward Muslims and Third World people. Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (aka OSS 117,) created by pulp writer Jean Bruce, became France's answer to James Bond in a series of seven poker-faced spy films in the 1960's. Michel Hazanavicius' revamping of the character as a comic buffoon is a pure stroke of genius, and as played by Jean Dujardin, he is a perfect mix of the suaveness and casual misogyney of Connery's Bond, and the stupidity and unwitting offensiveness of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. And in an age when a presidential candidate has to actually explain why his middle name is Hussein, it's a film all Americans should see, but unfortunately, most would probably not get.

7) Stuck

A contemporary b-movie by Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon, one of the modern masters of the genre. Literally ripped from the headlines (it was inspired by a female hit-and-run perputrator from Fort Worth, Texas, who got a homeless man stuck in her windshield and left him there to die,) Gordon melds this morbid supermarket tabloid fable into a sublime concotion of true-crime entertainment and blackly hilarious, fucked-up situation comedy. Mena Suvari is the corn-rowed, none-too-bright Brandi, a caregiver at a rest home for the elderly, who, driving home drunk from the club after her boss announces her consideration for a big promotion, hits the recently homeless and supurbly down-on-his-luck Stephen Rae with her car. Fearing that word of this getting out will compromise her career, she leaves him in her garage, bleeding like a stuck pig, while continuing to go about her life. Hilarity ensues. Richly human, thrilling, and even political - one of modern horror's finest autuers proves that human beings are much scarier then zombies, demons, or anything else the imagination can conjure up.

8) Gran Torino

The past couple of years have witnessed the big-screen returns of Rocky Balboa, John Rambo and Indiana Jones, but none of those pictures proved quite so memorable as Clint Eastwood's gleefully subversive, sort-of-but-not-quite dusting-off of his Dirty Harry persona. Acknowledging, as Sylvester Stallone failed to do with the messy Rambo, that the iconic action stars of yesteryear really don't gel with our oversensetive, politically correct climate, Eastwood plays Korean War vet and ex-assembly line worker Walt Kowalski as a kindered spirit to Harry Callahan, but a more nuanced and three-dimensional human being. He's a bitter, crusty, racist old bastard, and like Mickey Rourke's Ram, a relic of an earlier time who has outlived his usefulness. Though a bigot he may be, he is ultinately a good man - not a popular notion for today, and truth be told, there are few actors and directors besides Eastwood who could pull such a character off and still have the audience on his side. He's one of the few true Movie Stars we've got left, and if Gran Torino really is his last acting role, it's a goddamn shame.

9) Wall-E

While not my favorite film from the geniei at Pixar (The Incredibles is still tied with the first Toy Story for that honor) it is undeniably the most offbeat and experimental work they've ever done - who but Pixar would have the stones to mix live-action clips from Hello Dolly with robots falling in love in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? The titular droid is as instantly iconic and adorable as R2-D2 or Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent Running, and like Douglas Trumbull's greatly underrated film, it packs an environmentalist allegory of human responsibility. Magically blending the silent comedy of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd with the lived-in sci-fi aesthetic of 2001, Star Wars and Alien, it's a rare form of children's entertainment that marries high art with Happy Meal tie-in-inspiring cuteness. It's as unpandering as a G-rated film can get, and I couldn't be happier that audiences and critics have embraced it so lovingly, even if the muleheaded Academy has refused to grant it a seat at the grownups' table.

10) Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most delightfully unabashed geeks working in the cinema today, and while Hellboy 2 may not have the dark thematic richness of his masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth, it is an improvement over the franchise's first installment in every way, and one of the most fun times I had in a theater all last year. The urgent-mission style pacing of the previous film is jettisoned (along, thankfully, with Rupert Evans' boring Agent Meyers) in favor of a more leisurely plot that focuses on the quirks of its monster characters. The picture boasts some of the coolest lookin' monsters in a good long while - all latex and rubber, like in the good old days. A particular highlight takes place in a Mos Eisley Cantina/Diagon Alley-ish alcove beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, which plays like Rick Baker's mad wet fever dream. The real pleasures of Hellboy 2, however, come from the main characters - Ron Perlman's tough, construction workerish but also childlike titular demon, Doug Jones' effete Gillman-type Abe Sapien, and Selma Blair's troubled psychic arsonist Liz Sherman - and the film's rhythmic pace, which makes us feel like we're one of the gang. Scenes like Hellboy and Abe's drunken sing-along to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" would never have worked if not for the characters' effortless charm, which is at the heart of what makes Hellboy 2 so enjoyable.

6 Comments:

Blogger Jason Whiton said...

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
I just saw this a couple of days ago and loved it! It was really interesting to see the making of and hear about how they studied 1950s filmmaking techniques and style. And the Dr. No moment was priceless :) Beautifully shot and more refined than Austin Powers.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Fuzzy Duck said...

Nice variety. These all sound good. I've been looking forward to that French spy spoof for a while. And I adored "Hellboy II" and "Gran Torino." Such underrated films, those two.

4:05 PM  
Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...

As I said, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is worth seeing. Very underrated really and still sticking with me, the story of the post World War II American Dream gone sour.

Kate and Leo also give powerhouse performances.

I'm gonna check out THE WRESTLER, THE READER and MILK soon.

1:23 PM  
Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...

This is also a fine list. I'd put GRAN TORINO up a few notches myself, but everything you listed is/seems quality.

1:25 PM  
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4:36 PM  
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