Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Optimist Would Say the Year is Half-Started: Film

I never did get around to doing a top ten film list for 2007 despite it being perhaps the strongest year of the millennium in cinema. As I stated in my 1980 List introduction (oh yeah, that thing) I never really feel comfortable providing a list that I will surely modify when I get around to seeing (or rewatching) all the titles from the year that interest me, a process which often involves waiting for the DVD releases of the blink-and-you-missed-them variety that is all too common amongst smaller and foreign releases. By time I feel confident that I have seen, if not all, at least like 93% of the films that either intrigued me, were directed (or were written by or starred) personal favorites, or garnered the critical acclaim of the handful of critics and bloggers I respect, well, it's July already, and who in this day and age of instant gratification really cares about seven months ago. Besides, did you really need another person telling you how the best three films of last year were Zodiac, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men?

With that said, I will now present a list of my favorite films of the first six months of 2008 for no good reason other than my boss is on vacation and I can get away with updating my site at work. Also, out of the five films on the list only one probably made money, so some use may come if one of my (three) regular readers watches something on the list, likes it, and tells a friend to watch it, and so on and so forth. You know, the whole pay it forward theory.

Before presenting the list, I want to make a few general comments about this year. It's been kind of miserable financial wise for distributors of foreign and independent films (Picturehouse, Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage all will cease to exist soon), yet none of the films on my list were released by a major studio (although several are released from the secondary boutique arms of their corporations), so the whole quality (of film) versus quantity (of viewers) argument comes into play. Looking over the list of thirty-three 2008 releases that I have seen thus far, I would give the ol' thumb up to twenty of them (obviously some with more enthusiasm than others), a solid enough ratio, to give some perspective, if this year was a baseball player, this would be a record setting year in hitting. I've found there to be a lot of interesting, inventive and esoteric fare amongst the releases I chose to see (why oh why did I waste time with One Missed Call & the Prom Night remake?). However, I must conceded if all the films in my mid-year top five end up making my year-end top ten, this will have been a down year. The second tier level of quality of this year's fare surpasses last year in that area, but the top tier cannot compete. To compare: by June 30th, 2007, I had already seen the list worthy releases of: Zodiac (my favorite film of last year), The Lives of Others, Grindhouse, Black Book, Knocked Up, Hot Fuzz, and the re-release of Killer of Sheep.

One more delay before I present the list. In full disclosure I have not seen these films whose reputations suggest they might be up my proverbial alley: Wall-E (I know, I know), My Winnipeg, Encounters at the End of the World, Roman de Gare, Funny Games '08, The Fall, Shine a Light, Shotgun Stories, Mother of Tears, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Duchess of Langeais.

Okay, here's my top five of 2008 so far:

1. Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings)

Garth Jenning's followup to his over-stuffed adaptation of Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is this charming and sweet (two adjectives that have lost their positive connotations recently due to maudlin cinematic abuses) tale of the transformative power of cinema. Anyone who spent their youth recreating scenes from or plotting sequels to their favorite films in their backyard or at the playground will instantly recognize kindred spirits in the film's protagonists, the scheming, Dennis the Menace-ish Lee Carter and his new friend, and filmmaking partner, Will Proudfoot, who is growing up amongst the creative crippling throes of a devout religious sect. Jennings shoots his film entirely through the kid's eyes. When we see Will and Lee film stunts for their video project, an unauthorized sequel to First Blood that provides insight into each boy's fatherless existence, we see their vision of the impossible stunt, the low budget actuality only seen in fleeting glimpses of the end product. Rambow's far from perfect, things wrap up a little too cleanly and a scene that creates an adolescent’s version of a decadent nightclub is a little too cute and would have worked better as a music video, but Jenning's youthful exuberance is always affecting.

2. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)

Akin's novelistic approach (each Act is split into chapters which we see through the perspective of different characters) to the story of three parent-child combinations deals with the coincidences that bond us, but unlike Crash or Babel, he does not attempt to make any grand statements about racism or millennial communication anxiety, but rather focuses on personal concerns such as forgiveness and acceptance and how it relates locally (specifically for the film in terms of Turkish-German relations). The film is rooted in the natural heartbreak of the everyday moment but allowing for growth and change, encapsulated by the cinematography, which may be murky, a conscious decision I assume considering the visual command displayed in Akin's prior film, Head-On, but sprinkled with transcendent moments such as a slow-motion first kiss between two doomed lovers, the visitation of a spectral image and the final long uninterrupted shot that ends the film focusing on one character's anticipation.

3. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

McDonagh manages the impossible; he breathes new life into the stalest of genres, the hitman comedy. He brings fresh dialogue (he's a well regarded playwright, so natch) that's genuinely funny, a sure command of the visual medium and the ability to surprise, most notably displayed in a flashback scene and the shoot-out that concludes the film. Colin Farrell as Ray, an immature and impatient hitman who may not be only metaphorically stuck in purgatory in Bruges, gives a career revitalizing performance. And I can't believe I laughed at a midget joke in 2008! But the characters created by McDonagh and the glee that Ferrell imbues Ray with made it so. Let's be grateful for minor miracles.

4. Tell No One (Guillaume Canet)

"Hitchcockian" is a term that gets tossed around too frequently. Any thriller with a twist ending is anointed with the adjective. But Hitchock's films were always about playing with the form of narrative cinema and never about the single "game-changing" twist (well, Psycho, but there's so much of the former going on) but rather a byzatine labyrinth of twist upon twist presented with exuberance and humor, both of the manneristic and gallows variety. Canet gets this and understand the McGuffin, in this case a man's search for his wife who was presumed dead eight years prior, is only the story's catalyst, and the fun is the hell he puts our seemingly innocent protagonist to get there. Thusly, when the full mechanics of the plot are revealed in a one guy explains everything manner (again, like Psycho) the film temporarily loses momentum. Do all the threads add up in the end? Possibly not, but who cares, like the saying goes, the thrill's in the chase.

5. The Strangers (Bryan Bertino)

This tense throwback returns the notion of suspense to the horror genre, a virtue I thought disappeared long ago in favor of loud soundtracks, over-editing and an increased emphasis on gore. First time writer-director Bertino keeps things simple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedmen are a couple in a rough patch and they are attacked by three people wearing masks and…that’s it. But if you are looking, there’s all kind of character revelation, not in the dialogue, but in body language and action. I will discuss the ending below, please skip if you intend to see it, but if a horror film that doesn’t assault your senses and utilizes visual compositions and practical tricks instead of CGI, then here you are.

SPOILER FOR THE ENDING…The audience I saw this with, mainly a bunch of teenagers and kids who snuck in after buying tickets to Kung Fu Panda, were totally into the film, audibly scared, yelling at the screen, et cetera, until the conclusion when they jeered once the credits started. While I understand their reaction to the extent that it didn’t provide the closure that they are usually fed; there is a complete lack of explanation and, even more significantly, comeuppance to the titular attackers, but it’s this very reason I found the film all the more effective. There is not a lot of mystery left in horror films, too often things are either completly over-explained, see the first hour of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, or unnecessary and/or lame connections are arbitrarily included to tie everything neatly together, see funnily enough Halloween II making Laurie Strode Mike Meyers’ little sister. Personally, I find the idea of a 10 year old boy snapping and inexplicably murdering his sister chilling without limp attempts at psychosis. Same goes for three people who randomly choose a couple to play sadistic games with before tying them up, removing their own masks, and stabbing them. END OF SPOILERS.

For shits and/or giggles, here are my favorite moments of the year in cinema thus far presented in no particular order and with some cryptic descriptions to avoid spoiler-dom:

--Will Proudfoot runs home jumping, kicking and shooting a make believe machine gun after watching First Blood, which is probably the first movie he's ever seen, Son of Rambow

--A kiss in a nightclub, The Edge of Heaven

--A fatal trip to the top of the tower, In Bruges

--Footchase, Tell No One

--Shotgun blues, The Strangers

--Amputation!, The Ruins

--The entire opening montage of Speed Racer

--Tony Stark's revelatory press conference, Iron Man

--Upside-down kiss, My Blueberry Nights

--The post-coitous horsing around of two teenaged lovers, Snow Angels

--"The shit gets real": the assaulting third act of Rambo

And because I don't know when to stop, here are the films I am most anticipating for the remainder of the year: The Dark Knight, Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, The Brothers Bloom, The Road and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


Anonymous said...

Well I have seen two of the films you mention here and they both likely would make my list. so we are in some agreement. no iron man? i guess maybe it would make a top 10 of mine, and yes see WALL-E already!

if i had to make a list of my own so far this year i would say..(in no order) In Bruges, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Iron Man, The Strangers, and WALL-E (I am guessing after Saturday Dark Knight will be on the list too)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this.

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