The best and the rest in 2008
(List appended and including some films not yet released in Manila; plus my contribution to the Sight and Sound Magazine Films of 2008 (pdf file))
So what was worth watching and what--at least in my opinion--was a total waste of time and money in 2008?
Dave Filoni's Star Wars: The Clone Wars aims to be a cross between Japanese anime and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 'Supermarionation,' successfully combining the worst of both worlds: the clunkiness of Japanese anime), the wooden inexpressiveness of marionettes. Easily the most execrable of producer George Lucas' recent product (though Revenge of the Sith (2005) could give it a run for its, for its--well, let's call it "money," and leave it at that), and easily the foulest mainstream Hollywood movie of the year.
The best thing about Ed Harris' Appaloosa his screen realization of the 2006 Robert Parker novel, is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar; the worst thing about the movie is that it's easygoing, casual, and mostly familiar. It's a largely straightforward, slightly absurd, considerably bloated remake of a Western classic; you enjoy it, but it doesn't break new ground, it doesn't show you something startling or new, doesn't make your blood sing.
Frank Darabont's The Mist faithfully follows Stephen King's novella (which, frankly, I'd always thought owed no small debt to John Carpenter's terser, tighter The Fog (1980)), and plods along without much verve or distinction, falling into the standard-issue postapocalyptic melodrama between us (politically and culturally enlightened folks) and them (Christian fanatics led by Marcia Gay Harden, ironically the only actress to leave any kind of impression because she gives the material the respect it deserves (as dietary roughage)). With a twist ending that practically redefines the meaning of the term "cheap thrill."
Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino's Horton Hears a Who? is a largely inoffensive effort from a largely inoffensive writer (Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Suess). In terms of animation the movie's not exactly Studio Ghibli--it isn't even substandard Pixar--and its largely undistinguished digital animation fails to either excite or enrage a viewer. In which case one is tempted to ask: "who cares?"
Byron Howard and Chris Williams' Bolt represents Disney's latest attempt at 'family-friendly' fare so totally devoid of point and bite and flavor that the movie ends up like an order of McDonald's French fries confined under glass. The concept (a dog deluded into thinking the episodes of his weekly TV show, brimming over with super ninjas, attack copters, and gasoline fireballs, are his real life) borrows heavily from Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), which in turn borrowed the idea from the late, great Philip K. Dick's brilliant 1959 novel Time Out of Joint--to considerably lesser effect, in my opinion.
Jon Favreau's Iron Man for maybe the first fifteen minutes plays like glorious satire, with Robert Downey Jr. putting forth an entertaining Portrait of the Rich Weapons Manufacturer as degenerate bastard; then things become considerably less interesting (and less honest) when said weapons manufacturer sees the light and fights to redeem himself by donning shiny red-and-gold armor (you wonder what he uses for polish). Mostly inoffensive, save for the waterboarding scene--folks, for the record, waterboarding was inflicted on suspected terrorists, not the other way around.
Somewhat more acceptable politically speaking is Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk mainly because the Hulk represents nonconformism, and his story plays out as a kind of comic-book protest against military paranoia in general (the Hulk is superhumanly strong; ergo, the generals believe, he must be controlled, or destroyed). That said, it's hard to like this conventionally told, action-oriented Hulk, especially when Ang Lee's far more fascinating 2003 version--with its hints of child abuse and Oedipal rage--is available on DVD.
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg might have acknowledged the changes time has wrought on Indy and his world by dealing with Indy's aging body, with the escalating paranoia found between nations, with the increasing untrustworthiness of the American government (all not altogether irrelevant issues at the time of this movie's release). Instead Spielberg has the hero hide inside a fridge to escape an atomic explosion, then fly off to South America to delve deeply into the urgent issue of crystal skulls and extraterrestrials. A wasted opportunity.
On Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight--let me sum up: sodden melodrama decked out with unimpressive vampire trappings (and frankly cheap-looking CGI effects), storyline basically stolen from the second season of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (difference is, Whedon's a wittier, far more imaginative writer than Meyer could ever hope to be). To add insult to Filipino audiences' injuries, Meyer's sucky little romance is tinged with sexism (the heroine can only be fulfilled and satisfied by her man, and waits patiently to be either protected or rescued by him) and racism (the heroine ignores the token Asian, the token Native American, the token African-American villain, and zeroes in on the pretty Caucasian with sparkly-white skin).
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight isn't exactly a bad movie; it isn't the Second Coming either, which is basically the problem I have with the picture. It's a largely photocopied version of the Batman comics, with a motiveless (and as such uninteresting) Joker played with one-note intensity by the late Heath Ledger (no, I don't believe in giving an actor a break even if he did pass away). It borrows elements from respected comic writers Alan Moore and Frank Miller (among others) without borrowing their often mordant sense of humor. Writer-director Nolan crams hot-button issues (terrorism, the question of civil rights, the issue of domestic surveillance) into his picture without bothering to integrate them, or restate them in creatively dramatic terms; he shoots car chases and fight sequences as if he had liquored up his cameraman first, then cuts the footage together for maximum incoherence. An overproduced, overpraised, underimagined mess.
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is apparently the movie to beat in this year's Golden Doorstop race--but why bother? What Boyle tries to do in this glossy, feel-good movie about the virtues of the poor and miserable Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, and many others have already done, and done a better job at that.
Andrew Stanton's animated feature Wall.E (you wonder at the quantity of digitally animated features--are we having some kind of Golden Age? Or, considering the quality of much of this, a Tin Age?) starts out somewhat interesting, then quickly fizzles out. The first forty minutes are a largely silent Chaplinesque pantomime interspersed with excerpts from Hello, Dolly!, and can easily be seen as a parable--or at least an extended sketch--on loneliness. Unfortunately Wall-E himself is designed to mercilessly jerk tears from an audience (those uptilted binocular eyes beg you to pick him up and cuddle him), and the movie's latter half wastes its time on an easily resolved conflict that dramatizes the dangers of couch potato-ing. Like The Dark Knight not an especially bad picture but compared to what Studio Ghibli, Studio 4°C, Madhouse, Gainax, Production I.G., Radix, Bliss Pictures, 2.4.7 Films, Les Amateurs and Aardvark Animations have done, mostly simpleminded kiddie fare.
Speaking of kiddie fare, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda is the kind of high-concept digital animation I actually find more tolerable, mainly because it doesn't put on airs or strive for romantic tragedy--no Chaplin bathos, just slapstick. With an arguably livelier voice cast that includes Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and the original drunken master himself, Jackie Chan (underused--but then, how can you use the still physically eloquent Chan when all you have is his voice?), and perhaps one inspired sequence, where the panda and his sifu battle with chopsticks over a steamed dumpling.
By many standards Peter Berg's Hancock is inferior to Nolan's better-produced, better-promoted superproduction. The plotline has a helter-skelter quality; the picture's tone careens from low farce to high tragedy (with lumpy, ugly bits of violence tucked away here, there); the director in all probability thinks he's got more originality and control of the material than he actually has. But Will Smith makes for an appealingly unkempt, unwholesome superhero, and the idea of him and Charlize Theron once being a hot item generates more electricity onscreen than a dozen Iron Men. It's not a perfect movie, maybe not even a good one, but it has a subversive spirit (even if not much else is), and the determination to pull its superhero down from his ten-foot marble pedestal and get him dirty. Or at least a little mussed.
Matt Reeves' Cloverfield takes a clever concept and runs a fair distance with it--basically informing us that the world today is seen almost exclusively through digicam eyes, and that even a giant monster loose in the streets of Manhattan cannot be appreciated, much less comprehended or feared unless properly viewed--that is, on a video screen. So what if the characters are written and acted like so many computer constructs? Sometimes an idea, executed with sufficient skill, can evoke its fair share of pleasure.
Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is darker, more satisfyingly ambivalent fare than the previous installment (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), with Lucy, Edward, Susan and Peter as the former kings and queens of Narnia, called back to face a more human enemy, the Telmarines, who invaded their kingdom hundreds of years ago. C.S. Lewis' fantasy masterpiece, ostensibly pitched towards younger readers, on further reading reveals itself to be more sophisticated than anything Tolkien might have dreamt up (the concept of relative time, for example--where one year on Earth is equivalent to a thousand on Narnia). Adamson's competent, and has actually improved since his last feature effort, but one wishes for an adaptation done by a real filmmaker--John Boorman or Julie Taymor or even Guillermo del Toro come to mind.
'Twas David Edelstein's end-of-the-year list that tipped me off about Patricia Rozema's Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. This ain't cutting edge filmmaking folks, but it does put front and center on honestly established dramatic terms an economic Depression we may find ourselves dwelling on and mulling over with greater and greater urgency, as the present depression plays itself out.
Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job is a fine example of that most termite of termite arts, the well-made genre picture (in this case, a bank heist), with maybe one twist--it's a truer story than the filmmakers claim, with one of the producers actually having met two of the real-life robbers. Director Donaldson first came into international attention with the evocatively low-rent divorce drama Smash Palace (1981), flew to America, and hasn't made a decent film since. One appreciates this recent evidence that he can still turn in a crisp, finely tuned thriller.
The aforementioned Julie Taymor is the kind of wild-card filmmaker that infuriates as much as fascinates. Her idea in making Across the Universe (2007)--an extended music video of the Beatles' greatest hits, held together by little else than a g-string of a plot and the sheer brilliance of her style--suggests she owns a huge, bulging brass pair, and that she's not afraid to use them. The film is as much a failure as it is a success (whether more success than failure or vice versa is a matter of opinion), but one thing you can't accuse it of being is boring.
There's termite art, and then there's Chris Carter's The X Files: I Want to Believe, possibly the most underrated mainstream Hollywood movie of the year. Coming out years after the demise of the TV series and even more years after the first feature, this film doesn't aspire to earth-shaking revelations, or end-of-the-world scenarios; instead, it's a small-scale investigation into a series of kidnappings that includes the odd grisly detail (an amputated arm, a head on ice). Better yet, it's the story of Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson, more gravely beautiful now than before), partner to former FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, still boyishly charming), and her crisis of faith. Should she believe in Mulder? Should she believe in the telepathic and precognitive powers of a former priest and child molester (Bill Connolly)?
It's not the X Files we knew and loved, at least not completely; no aliens popping out of shadows, not a word said about government conspiracies, and our heroes have left the FBI years ago--they have no badges to flash, guns to wave. On the other hand Mulder and Scully are still partners; you feel the weight of their years as friends (and perhaps more than friends) sharing a profound trust and intimacy, the weight of their years as agents sharing risk and danger. In the end Carter's film is less a paranormal thriller than a delicately wrought character study, and is all the better for it.
Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, a shamelessly melodramatic mediation on machismo and race relations has the courage of its convictions, which is exactly why I like it, think it's Eastwood's best since Unforgiven (1992). Sure it has a moment or two of Eastwood singing in his gravelly voice (?!), but it's largely funny (intentional), and actually quite clever, climactically speaking (comparing this improbable climax with that of Slumdog's in terms of both audacity (Dirty Harry as a Christ figure) and plausibility (Eastwood carefully prepares you for the unlikely moment), I much prefer the former to the latter).
In a time when people are craving gigantic CGI effects or digital animation or pictures catering to the so-called sensitive side of fortysomething slackers, Stiller still knows the apparently lost art of going for the jugular. His Tropic Thunder is possibly the comedy of the year, if only because it provokes gigantic laughs out of a severed head among other grotesqueries, and applies all that grossness to the ridiculous, self-centered, wholly overpaid activity we know of as moviemaking.
The Coen Brothers hit a home run last year with No Country for Old Men. Their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's action-packed dirge on inevitable mortality has enough solemnity to overwhelm their usual snarky persona, and impressed enough audiences and critics to create a boxoffice hit, earning along the way a gold doorstop or two.
Not a big fan of No Country; I don't think it's McCarthy's best (that arguably is the more deeply felt The Road), nor is it the Coens', who seem strangely muted in this picture.
With Burn After Reading the brothers are back to their usual, irredeemably cynical selves, and we realize what we were missing all along: a free hand at writing the material, a determined lack of seriousness, the ability to express their philosophy freely, without lip service to humdrum humanist sentiment. Burn is uncut Coen, done in a rare ensemble mode (their usual schtick is to surround a chosen protagonist with a cast of eccentric characters). Not all comedies should be this unrelentingly, self-consciously, preciously odd--that would be unbearable; but thank God this one is.
Talking about dark comedies, Stuart Gordon barely made a ripple with a low-budget based-on-a-true-story film called Stuck, but the picture should really be better known; if Nolan's idea of absurdist horror is Ledger cavorting with a faceful of psychedelic makeup, what till he gets a load of Stephen Rea in this picture, hanging on for dear life from the windshield of a car.
What could be odder (and more exciting) than Gordon flying under the radar with a new horror-thriller? How about Johnnie To, flinging together elements from Silence of the Lambs, Eyes of Laura Mars, The Killing, and even what looks to be a more complicated version of the climactic gunfight in Sergio Leone's Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966) to create Sun taam (Mad Detective, 2007). The film would make a fascinating double bill with Carter's X-Files movie; what Carter treats as a desperate drama past almost all possibility of hope or redemption, To treats as a deeply comic obsession, with enough bravura filmmaking and traces of melancholy to make the mix uniquely his own.
After spending all this time lambasting big-budget digital superproductions, I suppose it's ironic that one of my favorite films this year happens to be a Hollywood superproduction. Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army has the color, style, and romanticism, pitched at an epically conceived level, that Nolan's The Dark Knight could only dream of achieving--and this with what is essentially a workplace comedy (think The Office only with demons and monsters and underground elves thrown in). This is about the most perverse superproduction I've seen in recent years, with huge CGI action sequences that reach their emotional crescendo not when the hero wins, but when a monster passes away; elaborately constructed sets that del Toro's camera glances at in passing, focusing instead on two friends singing Barry Manilow's "I Can't Smile Without You" (the film's emotional high point). The picture was probably too much of a good thing--it made modest boxoffice business before being crushed by the bat juggernaut. But of course--the film is a rare delicacy that needs proper savoring (in private, like a kinky indulgence); anything else would have been like pigging out at McDonald's.
I mentioned one possibility for a double bill; let me propose another--Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (his best work in years), paired with Arnaud Desplechin's Un conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale). If, as Tolstoy once put out, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Demme and Desplechin's respective families demonstrate the truth of that statement with a wealth of sharply observed details. Demme's Buchmans with their multicultural, multiethnic nuptials have every reason in the world to be happy, and somehow still manage to miss the mark; Desplechin's Vuillards are cooler, less accommodating, less affectionate overall, and yet manage to be startlingly openminded when it comes to casual adultery (or maybe it isn't casual, is why they're so supportive). The source of either family's pain is the premature death of a child; the source of their redemption (or at least basis for some kind of truce) being accommodation, the spirit of tolerance, no small helping of hypocrisy or inertia or even just plain laziness (too tired to break off relations, in effect)--in other words, anything and everything that will help maintain or regain for them the precarious balance of their lives.
Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, NY is easily his best, most complex, most ambitious work, which may be both its glory and downfall.
On a purely superficial level I appreciate his moving on after years of writing about introverted protagonists with adolescent longings for beautiful women (Craig's for Maxine in Being John Malkovich (1999), Puff's for Lila in Human Nature (2001), Charlie Kaufman's for Susan Orleans in Adaptation (2002)), though I see he still hasn't lost his fascination for self-reflexivity. With Synecdoche he's finally managed to write about a bittersweet, longstanding relationship with not a little poignancy (well, there's Joel and Clem in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but that film involved amnesia--Joel still at one point winds up gazing at Clem with adolescent longing).
I like it; I even appreciate what Filmbrain points out are Kaufman's Jungian attempts to fully integrate his hero's life. The way I saw it, though, was as yet another dramatization of Kaufman's apparently incurable writer's block, only more massive and immovable than ever--not for nothing, I suspect, did Kaufman choose to set Caden's project in a warehouse (a homage to Welles' Citizen Kane (1941)?). There he wanders about, planning and cataloguing and constructing sets and events and bits of dialogue, many of them for all you know brilliantly staged and acted out. But that first step of sitting down and writing out the merest sketch of a story for his production to even begin, that simple act he can't do.
And so it goes, and so he goes, and the joke that's his life becomes more and more elaborate, with a smaller warehouse standing in for the big warehouse, and a stalker named Sam standing in for Caden's stage Caden, et cetera, et cetera--it's the spectacle of a man running helplessly in place, unable to gain any traction, a Red King's nightmare. Its very insularity and opaqueness are part of Kaufman's insular, opaque point.
A hugely unsettling film, and I might have agreed that it's a great one if Kaufman had hired an actual filmmaker (former collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry come to mind) to direct--the fractal idea of the warehouse within a warehouse within a should really give you more of a tingle than it actually does. Still--an impressive achievement.
With Zodiac (2007) David Fincher fashioned an impressive three-hour epic meditation on the time it would take to accomplish a single goal--in this case, the identity of a killer. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button his sights have been raised to a higher, more ambitious level--meditating the passage of time sufficient enough for an entire life. Never mind Eric Roth's wannabe sentimental script (practically a clone of the one he made for Forrest Gump (1994)); never mind that Brad Pitt playing the eponymous character has for the first time in his life turned in an impressive performance (or at least is so perfectly cast that he failed to ruin this one)--the real star of the film is Fincher's beautifully measured filmmaking, with its amazing palette of subdued hues and tints (all done on HD digital, mind you).
Then there's Gus Van Sant's Milk, which may seem like a conventional biopic at first glance, but later reveals itself to be a graceful, lyrical video-and-film collage of an important figure in American history, easily the best mainstream narrative film to come out of Hollywod this year.
Talking about indulgences, some of the best films I've seen this year come not from the Hollywood compost pit with its digital ordure but from the Filipino independent filmmaking scene, arguably the most vital and creative in the country (maybe the world). Seen just a small sample but what I've seen is impressive, from Adolfo Alix's Tambolista (Drumbeat, 2007) an edgy and poignant drama about two youths dreaming of buying a drum set (and the price they ultimately pay) to Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) a cute little number that opens exactly as its title announces, as a casually winning first-person narrative that is funny and insightful and not a little cynical, to Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation, 2007), with its Rashomon-like fractured narrative revolving around a murder (his sophomore feature after the excellent Sa North Diversion Road (North Diversion Road, 2005)) .
Two of the finest of this year's digital productions are Rico Ilarde's Altar and John Torres' Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years when I was a child outside).
Child held captive by diabolical circle in Rico Ilarde's Altar
Altar is by turns cheesy and memorable and unique. You can see that the film is the product of an unrepentantly pulp imagination, as full of pop references and borrowings as Quentin Tarantino's; unlike Tarantino (who it must be remembered made his first feature some four years after Ilarde debuted with Z-Man), there's a purity to the film that's appealing, even infectious. It takes genres and their mixing seriously; you don't see quotation marks, or irony, or any kind of postmodern posturing in the scenarios dreamt up. As such Ilarde might be less like Tarantino and more like fellow pop purveyor Joss Whedon, who has also shown the courage--and power, and magic, if you will--of his romantic convictions. Ilarde believes, and that's what makes us believe in his unlikely concoctions.
The film, incidentally, is caught in a rather unenviable bind. It's too subtle, too stylish to be a run-of-the-mill genre exercise that at most wants to scare the pants off of you. On the other hand it's too obsessed with the trappings of genre filmmaking--the monsters, the martial-arts action, the gothic atmosphere, the music and sound effects--to settle for being a straight "arthouse" product.
Torres' film is if anything as strange if not stranger. It pulls together various strands and characters and documentary footage, and fashions out of the mess an eerily touching film essay on Torres' discovery that his father had a second family, with three previously unknown children (Funny how three of my favorite films this year involve individuals overwhelmed by the central struggles of their lives--Benjamin by a quirk of hormonal fate, Caden by the attempt to catalogue and dramatize his ever-accumulating history, Torres by the outsized figure of his philandering father--and how this results in fractured, memory-rich narratives/lives).
Both this and Altar have been made with less money than would fund the catering budget of a normal-sized Hollywood production. Both reveal a range of technique and imagery and imagination that bigger Hollywood directors can only wish they were blessed with; both are arguably the finest films I've seen all year (not counting the DVDs of classics and rarities I've managed to rent or somehow borrow). The best, the rest of 2008; enough said.
First published in Businessworld 12.19.08