Sunday, April 26, 2009

2008 Film in Review

Let me start by acknowledging the awkwardness of discussing the films of 2008 at the close of April 2009. I realize that many of these movies are long forgotten, the Golden Globes and Oscars having beaten any remaining interest into the ground.

I for one, however, still have not seen all of the films released in 2008 that I had originally intended to. What's more, I have little doubt that the vast majority of individuals that voted on the aforementioned awards would say the same. Nonetheless, I have finally reached the point where I have seen enough to merit this post. So that's that.

Now, I've heard every argument in the book against making "stupid, pointless lists" at the end of the year, but fuck it, I like them. So here's mine. These are the films I saw from last year and the grade I would give them. Yes, grades are somewhat arbitrary. Deal with it.

The List
The Wrestler -- A+
In Bruges -- A
I.O.U.S.A. -- A-  [see my review here]
Frost/Nixon -- B+
The Reader -- B+
Waltz With Bashir -- B+
Marley & Me -- B
The Dark Knight -- B
Man on Wire -- B
Vicky Christina Barcelona -- B-
Slumdog Millionaire -- B-
Milk -- B- [see my review here]
Changeling -- C+
The Fall -- C+
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- C
Iron Man -- C
Ché, Pt. I -- C-
Quantum of Solace -- D+
Defiance -- D+
Bolt -- D

Films I Have Not Seen, But Would Like To:
Revolutionary Road [see Dave's review here]
Gran Torino
Burn After Reading
Tropic Thunder
Pineapple Express

More on Five:
1. The Wrestler (director: Darren Aronofsky; starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood)

The best film I saw in 2008, hands down, and probably the best movie I've seen in recent memory. Much of this is due to Mickey Rourke's realistic portrayal of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up semi-pro wrestler, living in a trailer park and searching desperately to reclaim some purpose in his life. Credit must also be given to director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) who finally made a movie I didn't just "appreciate," but enjoyed. In particular, there's an insanely brilliant scene where Aronofsky's camera follows Rourke from an upstairs bathroom in the grocery store where he works, down the stairs, across the stockroom, through a pathetic plastic curtain, and into the deli. It's all done to the faintly heard rumbles of a crowd cheering, apparently heard in his head, and this short description doesn't do it anywhere near the justice it deserves.

The movie's real triumph, however, is the story itself, which comes courtesy of Robert Siegel in his writing debut. Siegel's protagonist is a complete fuck-up who sleeps with twenty-somethings instead of remembering to meet his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) for the dinner date they'd planned just a few days prior. He claws tooth and nail for a date with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and continues taking steroids after a serious bout with death. And yet, no matter how far he falls, you're always on The Ram's side. I could go on, but just: see this, please.

97% on RottenTomatoes / 8.4 on IMDB / Trailer]

2. In Bruges (director: Martin McDonagh; starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes)

What makes In Bruges so unique? For one, it's dark and violent. There are a couple of graphic shots you'd expect from Saving Private Ryan, not a slapstick comedy about two dudes hiding out in a scenic European city. In fact, those dudes (Colin Farrell as Ray, Brendan Gleeson as Ken) are hitmen awaiting instruction from their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Ray's new to the biz, and on his first and only job, he accidentally shot a little boy. Harry informs cheery Ken, who's delighted with the sight-seeing, that he must kill the sorrowful Ray, who's burdened with the guilt of murdering an innocent child. On a night out, Ray meets and falls in love with a drug dealer (hot French chick from the Harry Potter fliks) on the set of a movie starring a midget.

The plot summary should take care of answering the question that opened this review: Bruges' script is tremendous. Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, his first full-length feature film, Bruges is smart, surprisingly human, and funny as all hell. Now I toiled over which quote to choose, but I think this gem sums up the humor well:

Ken: "Oh we shall strike a balance between culture and fun."
Ray: "Somehow I believe, Ken, that the balance shall tip in the favor of culture... like a big, fat, fucking retarded, fucking black girl on a seesaw."

[80% on RT / 8.1 on IMDB / Trailer]

3. Frost/Nixon (director: Ron Howard; starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon)

A few years back, I would have told you Ron Howard was the biggest hack in Hollywood. The Da Vinci CodeA Beautiful Mind? Splash? Yawn. Across the board, this guy was making sappy garbage and being touted as one of the most prominent directors in the industry. But since he signed on to Arrested Development, I simply haven't been able to look at lil' Opie Taylor the same way. Frost/Nixon is Howard's best film since Apollo 13, and is decidedly un-Ron Howard. He takes a subject that even I -- a student of political science -- had little interest in (a series of post-Watergate interviews with former President Nixon conducted by British TV personality David Frost) and makes a fairly compelling story of it. It's certainly overdramatized at times, but the film's casting director deserves an AIG-style bonus for giving Frank Langella the role of Nixon. In a year when everyone (including myself) was commending Sean Penn for talking with a lisp and kissing James Franco, Langella fills the shoes of one of America's most recognizable and notorious faces with ease. Rourke was better, yeah, but hell if I saw a more gripping scene all year than a drunken Nixon yelling into a phone in the dead of night.

[92% on RT / 8.0 on IMDB / Trailer]

4. Marley & Me (director: David Frankel; starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin)

If you saw a billboard for Marley & Me, it probably looked like this. Result: most people, myself included, assumed it was some shitty kids movie about a cute dog. To my surprise, this stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston (note to studios: put mega-celebrities on billboards, not dogs) in a story that relies on "Marley the dog" as a framing device more so than the central plot focus. The real story, based on this book, is about a just-married couple and the hardships that accompany the standard American life. We watch Wilson & Aniston as they transition (deteriorate?) from youthful, sex- and career-driven optimists to mature, family-juggling suburbanites. I was amazed at how much I connected with and cared for the characters as I watched them grow in and out of love. There's also a solid supporting cast, which includes Alan Arkin, Eric Dane, and that older guy from The Wire. The movie ends predictably -- the studio's horrendous marketing campaign even used this to target sympathetic viewers -- but if you've lost a dog in your lifetime, it's worth seeing the film simply to remember the unmatched joy our pets bring us. Miss you, Bob.

[60% on RT / 7.1 on IMDB Trailer]

5. Waltz With Bashir (director: Ari Folman; starring: Ari Folman, Dror Harazi, Ronny Dayag)

A foreign, animated documentary is like the film equivalent of a blind, one-legged midget. All things considered, Waltz With Bashir got a substantial amount of press last year for its grim portrayal of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The protagonist is director Ari Folman, and the plot is essentially his effort to remember the events of the war, which he has perhaps not-so-curiously forgotten. The narrative is thus told first-hand by a series of real life interviews with soldiers, journalists, and friends of Folman's that were involved in the conflict.  The stories told by these interviewees are depicted by a unique form of animation that is absolutely stunning, to say the least. The technique used, which resembles "rotoscoping," the meticulous process of drawing over live film frames (as famously used in Waking Life), was developed specifically for Waltz. The process began with a 90-minute live film shot in studio, which was then laid out on a storyboard. Next, the storyboard was used to draw 2,300 free standing illustrations. Then (this is the cool part): "Each drawing was sliced into hundreds of pieces which were moved in relation to one another [in a computer program], thus creating the illusion of movement." But the film's strengths reach far beyond its mere look. In particular, it's difficult to forget the utter silence of the theater in Waltz's closing two-minutes, which personally ran chills down my neck. Finally, I mustn't neglect to mention Max Richter's brilliant original score, which actively and effortlessly supports this unique and commendable film.

[96% on RT / 8.1 on IMDB / Trailer]

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Solo & I.O.U.S.A.

The Oxdox International Documentary Film Festival is one of the more exciting events I've taken part in since moving across the pond.  70 documentaries are being shown in just seven days, many of them accompanied by question & answer sessions with their directors, producers, and stars.  Just halfway through the festival, I've already been lucky enough to catch two incredibly well-executed films, Solo and I.O.U.S.A.

Solo is the story of Andrew McAuley, an Australian adventurer, and his attempt to paddle a regular ol' kayak (solo) across the Tasman Sea, from Australia to New Zealand.  I went into this film thinking it would be hugely inspirational to see a man, one who clearly had ten times the gall and strength than me, leave his family for a dream.  I was moved, incredibly so, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

What I saw was one man's obituary.  The great majority of Solo is comprised of two sources: a video journal McAuley kept while on his 30-day trip, and interviews with his wife, Vicki.  And what these videos document is a man who pushed himself beyond the limits of what he even thought possible -- and lost.

The film opens with McAuley's distress signal, sent to the New Zealand coastguard just 30 kilometers from shore -- within eyesight.  Viewers are then treated to the story of McAuley's life, the preparation that went into his trip, and finally, scene after scene of his battle with one of the most treacherous expansions of ocean on Earth.  You see him cry repeatedly, promise his wife he'll never do anything so stupid again, and yearn to hold his baby boy.  What you learn is the sanctity of human life, and the very demarcations of what man is capable of.  It is no doubt one of the most depressing films I've ever seen, but one that's worth every second.

You can watch the preview for Solo below, and get details on when it will air on the National Geographic Channel here.  McAuley's blog remains intact here.

I.O.U.S.A. is another in a series of excellent documentaries released this decade that aim to wake up the American public.  Some have been tremendously popular with the common moviegoer (e.g. Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth) while others have gone regretfully unnoticed (e.g. Why We Fight).  Regardless, each of these films -- and you can add I.O.U.S.A. to this list -- takes a subject that Americans have some cursory knowledge of, and claims that we've got a substantially larger problem than any of us may realize.

This documentary, directed by Wordplay's Patrick Creadon, tackles the issue of the US National Debt crisis by focusing on former Comptroller General, David Walker.  Walker's "four deficits" are highlighted: the trade deficit, the savings deficit, the budget deficit, and the leadership deficit.  The moral is frightening: if we the nation of America continue down the road we are on, we will be unable to sustain ourselves, and like the empires that came before us, we will crumble.

Creadon mixes media effortlessly -- interviews, news stories, animation, speeches -- and, critically, presents what I found to be a neutral and informative take.  I would strongly suggest all Americans see this film precisely because there aren't too many practical day-to-day fixes provided.  Instead, solving this problem will take a shift in attitude and political lifestyle that can only be accomplished on a national level.

The full-length film is 85 minutes in length, but if you only have a half hour, they've made a "bite-sized" version that's freely available to watch on their website here, or on YouTube here.  Watch the trailer:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Protestantism, Capitalism, and Discontent

I want to identify three forces that I find interesting and perhaps related: 1) American society is guided by the self-regulating market and a culture of individualism; 2) We are the most Christian and religiously devout nation in the west; and 3) Americans, both men and women, have gotten steadily less happy over the past 100 years despite living in one of the most opulent nations in modern history.

I recently picked up the Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell in which he writes:
I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: “Weary of earth and laden with my sin.” In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.

This is due in large part to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self.
This speaks strongly to both my life experience and frustration with the church, but also hints at a potentially inherent antagonism between capitalism and Christianity.

The primary religion of our culture emphasizes the depravity of the human nature. The institution that has largely guided American social transformation for the past two-hundred years, market capitalism, is centered in the primacy of self-interest. With our economics leading us to focus on ourselves, and our religion on how fallen and broken we are, is it surprising that we aren’t getting any happier?

Despite my frustrations, I am a Christian and believer in the usefulness of markets – seeking an alternative way to understand faith and society through a lens of human flourishing, not depravity and selfishness.