The Year – So Far

October 3, 2008

As we begin the sprint through the season when awards-focused movies start dropping from the trees like apples in a windstorm, here’s an overview of what, for me, have been the highlights – and lowlights – of this year’s films so far.

And really – does anyone really think any of the movies really matter before, oh, say, Oct. 1? Sure, it’s all well and good to tout “WALL-E” as a best picture candidate – in June. Because, in June, it probably was the best picture of the year at that point. The same with all this silliness about Heath Ledger and a posthumous Oscar for the drastically overrated “The Dark Knight,” a movie that bears virtually no resemblance to the Frank Miller comic book that introduced the term as a synonym for Batman. Sure, Ledger was good; hell, given Warner Bros.’ willingness to relaunch the film in theaters at the end of the year to hype Heath, he may even score that nomination. (I love Phil Hoffman in “Capote” but Ledger got jobbed when he didn’t win for “Brokeback Mountain.”)
But here, briefly, is a wrap-up of what’s been out there from the start of the year through the beginning of October.

THE BEST:

Well, actually, I would put “WALL-E” at the top of the list for the year so far – and can easily see it in the top five of my top 10 list for the year. Soulful, funny, incredibly accomplished visually and stunningly articulate for a nearly silent film – it should not be ghettoized as a work of animation. (And, really, isn’t an animated film as pure a piece of filmmaking as there is – in terms of handcrafting every single frame?)

And I let myself get completely carried away by Jon Favreau’s “Ironman,” thanks to the pitch-perfect performance by everybody’s favorite recovery/comeback poster boy, Robert Downey Jr. This was far and away the best big-budget superhero movie of the summer.
I also really liked a pair of very smart dramatic comedies or comic dramas, you pick ’em: “Smart People” from first-timer Noam Murro (its only flaw: an overbearingly on-the-nose soundtrack), and “The Visitor,” by Tom McCarthy. Both of them featured wonderfully drawn characters with surprising interaction – and “Smart People” featured the always funny Thomas Haden Church. I particularly liked Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor,” a great character actor who brought brains and heart to a self-contained man forced to let the world back into his life.

The year’s saddest, sexiest film so far: “Elegy,” with Sir Ben Kingsley and the lush Penelope Cruz investing Philip Roth’s tale of an aging professor’s most profound fling with seriousness and serious heat.

My favorite foreign films so far: “Tell No One,” a French adaptation of American author Harlan Coben’s novel by an exuberant Guillaume Canet; and “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” which isn’t really a foreign film – but, hey, Woody Allen in Barcelona? How much more foreign can you get?

The two documentaries that really got under my skin were Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure,” which should be required viewing for anyone who registers to vote this year (along with Alex Gibney’s little-seen Oscar-winner, “Taxi to the Dark Side”) – and Neil Young (a/k/a Bernard Shakey) and his “CSNY: Déjà Vu.” They’re both movies that can rouse anger in an audience about the kind of material the mainstream media is too busy avoiding, in pursuit of the latest distraction.

THE YEAR’S MOST OVERRATED FILM:

What else could it be than “The Dark Knight”? Yes, I know – Heath, Heath, Heath. And then …. what? A lot of generic action, too many plotlines that don’t go anywhere – and if I had to listen to Michael Caine give that speech about “the hero we need” one more time, I’d have run screaming from the theater. Too long, too slow – and just not fun! It’s a comic book, folks – it’s supposed to be one long rush of excitement with the occasional break for comic relief or plot (or character) development. But Christopher Nolan worked way too hard to make the point that he was creating literature, not a comic book. Look how serious we are! Look how tragic our hero is! Boo hoo! I didn’t hate it – I just thought it was an underwhelming, disappointing sequel in a period when comic-book-movie sequels – “Spider-Man 2,” “X2: X-Men United” – are often better than the originals.

THE WORST:

I try not to pick on cheesy genre movies when I slag films as the year’s worst. Fish in a barrel, as it were. So here goes:
Wong Kar-Wai is a big fish and his long-aborning “Blueberry Nights” is a barrel of something – or perhaps the word should be crock. This guy’s movies have never done anything for me; friends rhapsodize about his visuals but, sorry, I need at least a modicum of plot and character to hold those visuals up. “Blueberry Nights” was simply a mess and died a deserved death.

So did Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind,” a movie that performed the almost alchemical feat of making Jack Black unfunny. I was one of the few who liked Gondry’s “Human Nature” but realize now it was because of Charlie Kaufman’s script.

Not much to say, really, about Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” which was as hateful as a movie can be without actually curdling onscreen. And Al Pacino, in “88 Minutes,” showed what doesn’t become a legend most: variable facial hair and hair color that seemed to shift from scene to scene and even shot to shot. That dreadful thrill-less thriller had the balls to be 20 minutes longer than its title.

“Speed Racer” was the summer’s first casualty, a Technicolor flopperoo that was mind-bogglingly insipid. The Wachowski brothers need to do some serious downsizing – like back to the scale of their terrific 1996 film, “Bound.” Or else take the blue pill.

And then there was M. Night Shymalan’s “The Happening,” which tried to make the rustling of leaves in a breeze into a horror-movie trope. Sorry, Night – you’re no Rod Serling. You’re not even John Carpenter.

And the less said about “Get Smart,” the better. It was a criminal waste of the talents of Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway and Duane “The Rock” Johnson. Only veteran Alan Arkin found a way to make the material work and he deserves combat pay for putting up with slapstick indignities.

PLEASANT SURPRISES/HIDDEN TREASURES:

Sure, it got slagged by critics at the start of the year but check it out at the video store and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Martin McDonagh’s hilariously grisly “In Bruges,” which proves that a) Colin Farrell can, in fact, act, and that b) he’s also very funny. So, for that matter, are Brendan Gleason and Ralph Fiennes.

I also really enjoyed the pair of Matthew Broderick films that came and went faster than a drive-in theater twin-bill at the start of the summer. “Diminished Capacity” was a lovely, loose comedy that teamed Broderick with Alan Alda under Terry Kinney’s direction. “Finding Amanda” offered a much darker Broderick, still very funny, teamed with a wonderfully dirty Brittany Snow, written and directed by Peter Tolan of “Rescue Me” fame.

For sheer, stripped-down testosterone, marinated in finely brewed codes of honor, David Mamet’s “Redbelt” was one of the year’s tastiest little tales, thanks to a central performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as an intensely laidback and balanced martial-arts instructor.

On the other hand, when it comes to thoughtful chick flicks, it’s hard to resist “Then She Found Me,” Helen Hunt’s directing debut in which she costarred with Bette Midler and Colin Firth.

There have been several strong films about kids, which never seem to attract adults (and which are too adult to attract kids). I thought “Son of Rambow” was as pure an expression of the liberating, life-affirming nature of movies as any film I’ve seen, full of heart and humor. The barely released “66” encapsulated just how big you can dream – and how much you can be crushed – even at the age of 13, with its story of a second child trying to bring off his own idealized bar mitzvah at the moment when his family’s finances fall into crisis. And “Under the Same Moon” was a touching road movie, the story of a Mexican boy searching for his mother in America.

Documentaries seemed to come and go too quickly to make an impact, but there were outstanding ones to catch up with: “Bigger Stronger Faster,” about the American fixation on being a winner and the complex questions surrounding steroid use; “Chicago 10,” Brett Morgen’s rousingly comic (and heart-breaking) film about the trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others indicted for conspiracy to riot after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and “Body of War,” Phil Donahue’s gripping film about one soldier’s struggle after being paralyzed in Iraq.

DISAPPOINTMENTS:

I’ve already mentioned “The Dark Knight” but “Indiana Jones and the Legend of the Crystal Skull” ran it a close second. Sure, Spielberg still knows how to blend wisecracks and action – but given the resources he had at hand, some of the action sequences were incredibly cheesy, with the green-screen seams showing on what should have been a breath-taking chase through the jungle and what appeared to be a generic apocalypse sequence at the end.

“War Inc.”, John Cusack’s satire of the military-industrial complex, should have been better, given the material he had to work with. In a lot of ways, it mirrored what he did in “Grosse Pointe Blank” – except that that film actually made you laugh, instead of nod and sigh.
I know I’m not the target demographic for “Sex and the City” – but I think I have a working sense of humor. And very little about the movie version of the TV hit struck me as funny. There were more laughs in a half-hour episode of the HBO series than in the nearly two-hour film. As bad as “The Women” was, it had more jokes that hit home than what amounted to a fashion show with traces of plot.

GUILTY PLEASURES:

I’ll only list two: No, I didn’t think “Mamma Mia” was a great movie. But great fun? Absolutely.

And I may be the only critic in America (or perhaps the known universe) who gave a positive review to Mike Myers’ “The Love Guru,” but I’m not apologizing for it. Comedy is subjective; everyone’s sense of humor is different. Mine happens to be exceptionally juvenile – and Myers’ puerile poop and dick jokes had me laughing all the way through. No excuses. I did say it was a guilty pleasure.

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