Tuesday, 30 December 2008

2008 round up: the year in movies

So since I bought a house, I've probably watched more movies than at any other time in my life. Danijela and I have been watching about two a week, often more, alongside some newly discovered television shows. Maybe it's nesting; maybe we feel poor; maybe we are just being lazy after all the work we've done at the house! Could be. It's very cozy here; and now that winter is upon us, there are even better reasons to stay indoors. I've just finished the major part of my Christmas shopping; now if only I could develop some sort of remote shovelling system.

Anyway, I thought somebody out there on the internet might find it interesting to know what I watched in the past 12 months; so without further ado:

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a Frank Capra film, starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. I'm not much of an older film connoisseur, but from what I have seen, I've found that the style, particularly the acting, is very different, and often difficult to appreciate. I think this film is actually remarkably modern, despite its hyper-sentimentality. The thing is, I just find the story to be so beautiful, and the performances to be so earnest, that the film creates a sort of nostalgic reality that feels right, regardless of its simple storytelling and black and white morality—it's got just enough dirt and meanness. It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas story that doesn't need to be about Christmas—I'm not sure if the holiday is even mentioned—but it's definitely not about Santa Claus; and the spirit and reason for the season are front and centre in this one.

The Player (1993), a Robert Altman film, starring Tim Robbins and co-starring many others. Adapted from the novel by Michael Tolkin. It's an update of the noir style of film, but under the bright California sun. Altman uses incredibly long shots (the opening scene is over seven minutes long), and lots of tricks with light and shadow and close ups to create this Hollywood insiders thriller. It's full of satire, but not offensive enough to prevent half of Hollywood from doing cameos in the film. Very clever and entertaining; lots of talking makes it feel longer than its two hours; Entourage fans should enjoy.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997), written and directed by Atom Egoyan, and starring Ian Holm and Sarah Polley. Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks. This is a slow and ponderous film that has just enough weirdness about it to be clearly recognized as "Canadian". The thing mirrors The Pied Piper, with all but one of the children of a small town dying in a bus crash—but the question is "Who led them to their deaths?" There are a number of possible culprits of course, and none is clearly identified as the one, so the audience is left guessing. It's mostly well played; and Sarah Polley is excellent as the young teenager who survives the accident.

Mean Girls (2004), written by Tina Fey, directed by Mark Waters (whose brother wrote Heathers), and starring a very fresh-looking Lindsay Lohan at 18, alongside several Saturday Night Live alumni. While this movie clearly pays homage to Heathers, even directly copping some of the latter's scenes, it is definitely its own sort of beast. Mean Girls is far brighter and more optimistic—there are no murders, intentional or otherwise—and its satire is not so bleak. Still, it's very clever and well written, and it makes sense now in a different way than Heathers makes sense now. And Lindsay Lohan is very good, as is the rest of the cast.

Elf (2003), stars Will Ferrell as the title elf, and is directed by Jon Favreau. The movie also features Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, and Mary Steenburgen. This is certainly the best Christmas movie I've seen in years, which is not really fair, since I generally avoid them. Regardless, this one is fun and intelligent and somehow not at all sappy, which is the most important part of all. And the starring role—a wide-eyed fully grown man who grew up among Santa's elves but who travels to New York City to find his real father—is perfect for Will Ferrell's antics and gestures. I think the thing about Christmas movies now is that they're clearly pushing a secular version of the holiday, but the good ones at least also try to encourage some sort of Christmas spirit that is incredibly and increasingly hard to find among the consumption clatter. In other words, despite being very enjoyable, I'm not sure that Elf is a movie with any message at all, other than simply follow the Christmas spirit because that's what you're supposed to do, which cheapens the film to the level of something more crass like Bad Santa. Then again—and I'm afraid you'll have to see it to know what I'm talking about here—maybe the message is that we are looking for a Christmas spirit to believe in, and we don't really know where to look other than to that former-symbol-of-giving-now-symbol-of-consumerism, Santa Claus.

Basquiat (1996), was painter Julian Schnabel's first film. It stars Jeffrey Wright in the title role, as well as Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, and too many others to list. Schnabel is very talented at creating pieces of art out of movies; and over three films and 10 years (I haven't seen Berlin), he has clearly improved in his storytelling. Basquiat drops the viewer right in the middle of the story with next to no context, which works well given the subject and the time in the art world. There's a lot of neat stuff here, and regardless of how true it is, it seems to offer a realistic glimpse of the new-expressionist movement of the 80s in New York. But the film is worth seeing just for David Bowie playing Andy Warhol!

Pineapple Express (2008) was written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow, and stars Rogen and James Franco. The plot of this stoner buddy movie is simple, and it contains a lot of stumbling and bumbling around à la Superbad, which makes it easy to enjoy. But there's not a lot of depth, not that one should expect much from this type of movie. If you like these guys' work, you'll probably like this. It is funny, and occasionally surprising, but don't expect even the same sort of light social commentary that one can usually hope for from this crew.

Heathers (1988) was written by Daniel Waters (brother to Mark, who, as mentioned, directed Mean Girls), and, most importantly, stars Winona Ryder (at 17), Christian Slater (at 19), and Shannen Doherty (also 17). This film is in my mind probably the ultimate teen movie, and it is as relevant today as ever, particularly in the frightening new context of school killings. There's no doubt that it's a farce, but that doesn't make it feel any less real or powerful. In addition, it is clearly influential—I'm sure it influenced my young and impressionable mind when I saw it, probably on CityTV's late great movies—but a movie like this one can't help but be influential. It's incredibly written—smart, droll, bitter, funny, and satirical, all somehow without being over the top; and remarkably acted by such a young cast, none of whom, if I may say, went on to really fulfill her potential.

The Dark Knight (2008) was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and too many others to mention. While I will certainly not buck the trend by saying that Heath Ledger's was not great, I will say that I didn't enjoy this sequel as much as Batman Begins. The sequel has all the great darkness, violence, and gadgetry of the previous film, and the cast is as good, if not better, but I think Nolan tried to force too much material into the project. Actually, I know that's what I didn't like about it: the entire Harvey Dent/Two Face story was rushed and badly developed, and I began to get the feeling that Batman could simply buy his way out of everything. It's a shame, because I really wanted to like it a lot, mostly due to Nolan writing and directing, but I guess you can't win 'em all. Still, I won't say you shouldn't rent it.

Batman Begins (2005) was directed and written by Christopher Nolan, and stars Christian Bale, Michael Cain, and Liam Neeson, among numerous others. This version is a fitting tribute to the Batman that I grew up reading. I was confused by the story at first, because I knew nothing about Ra's Al Ghul or Henri Ducard, nor had I ever read any version of Bruce Wayne's early training; but I caught on quickly. I'm a bit of a sucker for the type of story that involves lengthy training to avenge some sort of wrongdoing in the protagonist's early life. Kill Bill is a good recent example. Actually, I think I've got a thing for revenge movies in general. Anyway, it works here, against the backdrop of a crumbling Gotham faltering under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption and organized crime, desperately in need of a hero. Many of the comic book move tropes are used here: darkness pervades, steam comes from nowhere, people are afraid and paranoid, but somehow struggle through their daily lives. It's a very good effort, and better than the sequel. I hope Nolan keeps it simple for the next one.

Stand By Me (1986) is a Rob Reiner film, based on a Stephen King story, featuring several future stars, all 16 or younger: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell, and Corey Feldman; and it's got Kiefer Sutherland, too! I saw this for the first time in 2008. I don't know how I went 22 years without seeing this film. I read the Mad magazine spoof when it came out, so I pretty much knew how the thing went; but it always had a certain mystique about it, which it pretty much lives up to. It's got most of the elements of a Great American Story: a gang of friends, a journey, nostalgia, friendly conflict, poor vs. rich, school smart vs. street smart. It really is great, with excellent performances from all involved—better than Feldman and Sutherland would give the next year in Lost Boys, but that's a different thing entirely.

Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) is an adaptation of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, starring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt. I am not happy to admit that of Garcia Marquez's books, I've only read one, and it's not this one; it's One Hundred Years of Solitude. So I can't say how accurate the depiction here is, but with the little knowledge of the author's style that I have, I feel confident saying that the film misses the mark. I'm going to blame the directing here in the main, because the writing is okay, and acting is okay. But the story has no magic, and the characters share no chemistry. To the film's credit, the cast is almost entirely Spanish—even the leads—even though they speak in English. It bothers me when a film set in a non-English locale is full of English or American actors, made to look foreign and speak in awful accents.


In the unlikely event that you've made it this far, you might have guessed that this exercise is quintessentially new dilettantish. That may not be clear since nowhere have I bothered to explain what that means to me.

Well, it's one thing to post an online journal, simply as a vehicle for thoughts, opinions, and daily exploits, whether the author intends it for general consumption or personal; but it's another thing entirely when those thoughts and opinions presume to extend into the realm of criticism or journalism, without the benefit of a professional background or the hand of a skilled editor (preferably both). In the former case, you have probably the majority of bloggers—random posts on personal topics, and possibly some specific theme of personal interest—in the latter, you have "citizen journalists" (like myself)—probably mostly aspiring writers, artists, or general self-promoters, all of whom feel they have sufficient knowledge on some or many topics to write on them with credibility—most probably don't.

This is the Dilettante: the person who has not gone to the trouble to acquire proper training or education in a small range of activity or field (those would be professionals, specialists, or connoisseurs), who retains only superficial knowledge of anything, but can speak at length about many topics. The dilettante is a product of the bourgeois revolution—at least on the grand scale. There was no time for amateurs before then, among the masses.

And now we are experiencing a new middle-class revolution, which has blessed us with more leisure time than ever and more entertainments to fill it; and, apparently, a desperate need to express to others just how we are using that time, and several means to do so. There's nothing wrong with that. But it is the circumstance of the New Dilettante: adrift on a sea of unimportance, she uses her blog as a life preserver—a beacon in the vast blue. With luck—and much self-promotion—her words might shine out like a flare and draw attention her way.

Don't get me wrong: the name of my blog is not ironic. It's merely a statement of my situation and our time. For all the talk of "democratizing" journalism—which is great in some ways—blogs are generally soapboxes for people who may have informed opinions or may not, but regardless, they have opinions that they feel they must share with the world. Case in point: this rundown of the movies I watched in 2008, featuring short, utterly unprofessional, and uninformed reviews. I don't do scholarly research—the reviews are all based on my feeling looking back on the films. But is there a point to all this babble on the internet? Is there a discussion going on?

For me this is merely an exercise. I suppose I don't expect anybody to read this; but certainly I, along with the legions of other blogger journalists, hope people will. And, as a writer, I cannot help but hope they'll enjoy what they read; for I also have the dream of being discovered—preferably by some reputable and established magazine or newspaper—but really by anyone who will pay and spread my words. But please, read on!


27 Dresses (2008) stars Katherine Heigl as a traditionally romantic young professional woman, and James Marsden as her cynically modern young professional foil. In other words, she desperately wants to get married, and he desperately doesn't. The movie is light and fluffy, and has a happy ending—definitely a product of the time. And one might argue that it is (along with other recent movies like Juno and Knocked Up) pushing a traditional moral agenda in which the arguments of modern cynics will always come up short—could be. But I wonder about the writers of these fluffy, but cleverly written things. Has the supposed cynicism of Gen X turned to traditionalism? Was it always so? Anyway, there are a number of generational themes tied up here: for example, workaholism and over-ambition, and a new-ish take on finding true love on the other side of all the cynicism. And I think it's worth watching.

The Heartbreak Kid (2007) is a film from the Farrelly brothers, featuring Ben Stiller, Rob Corddry and Jerry Stiller as men who refuse to grow up. On a whim, Stiller's character decides to marry an even less mature woman whom he hardly knows, and queue the pissing jokes. I only watched this because I was in Cuba with cable, and Danijela and I were exhausted from too much fried food, but it wasn't bad. In short, it's a lighthearted comedy about love and fate and tough decisions, and Rob Corddry and Jerry Stiller are two hoots. I wouldn't have paid to see it though.

Knocked Up (2007) is a film from recently overexposed writer and director Judd Apatow, starring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan, along with much of Apatow's standard crew. None of that is bad. For the most part—that is, among the Apatow films that I've seen—he is a clever and funny writer, a combination of traits that seems to be missing from straight-up comedy these days (see The Heartbreak Kid above). Here the issue is unplanned pregnancy between unlikely strangers. The real unlikely factor is that they choose to try and continue their relationship and keep the baby, not knowing whether they actually like each other. Is it realistic? No. Is it protesting abortion? Maybe. Do either of these things take away from the writing and the performances? Definitely not. The premise of the film is that the woman gets knocked up; knowing that, we should probably expect before watching that she might go through with it.

Juno (2007) stars Ellen Page and Michael Cera, alongside a great supporting cast including Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. It was directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, so it is basically a great big Canada love-fest. It's also a sort of companion film to Knocked Up, but in high school. A young girl gets pregnant by her best friend and decides to keep the baby, but give it up for adoption. I'm getting back to near the beginning of '08 here, so I don't remember Juno especially well, but the performances are very good, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Despite its heavy subject matter, it has a light feel,

To come:

The Lost Boys
Weird Science
3:10 to Yuma
No Country for Old Men
Blades of Glory
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo
La Vie En Rose
The Golden Compass
There Will Be Blood
The Prestige
The Savages
Away From Her
Eagle vs. Shark

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