It should come as a surprise to no one that I prefer old movies to new movies. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, most of the time when you see an old movie it is because that film has managed to survive for x-number of years. Most movies are failures of one kind or another, so when you see something that’s fifty years old it is usually because only the best films withstand the slow death of history. Granted, not every old movie is as good as Out Of The Past, High Noon or Meet Me In St. Louis. Not every old movie is masterpiece, but the chances are pretty good that the film will be worth seeing. In contrast, when you see a new movie, it’s a virgin experiment. Maybe it will be worth seeing and maybe it won’t.
Having said that, movies—at least in my humble opinion—simply aren’t as good as they once were. In some respects filmmaking has improved, but I would submit that one area of filmmaking that has disintegrated is in the simple art of storytelling. Film, at least as most of us care to understand it, is a storyteller’s medium. Films from the classic period (the 30s, 40s and 50s) evolved out of literature, theater, art, and photography. Films today are often derived from television, comic books, video games, and other movies. I don’t mean to issue an across the board denigration of modern film when I point out that films used to be smarter than they are now. That’s a simple fact, as far as I’m concerned.
And yet, the movies continue. Every week sees new releases. New filmmakers emerge all the time, and great films, I’m thrilled to say, are made every year. Every years brings crap, too, of course. This year was no different. Here then is a look back at 2008, a year we must already confine to that ever-expanding library known as The Past.
Frozen River-This was probably the best new movie I saw this year. It starred Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, a poor woman living near the Mohawk reservation on the border between New York and Canada. She meets a poor Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) who convinces Ray to use her car to transport illegal immigrants across a frozen river that straddles the border. This film by first time director Courtney Hunt is a beautiful piece of work, by far the most suspenseful picture I saw in a theater this year. It’s also a compelling character study. Misty Upham is great as Lila, manipulative and sympathetic. And as Ray, Melissa Leo gives the year’s best performance (at least the best I saw). This is powerful screen acting of the highest caliber. That she will not win an Oscar in March tells you everything you need to know about what a bullshit façade the Oscars are.
The Dark Knight-A comic book movie that made a billion dollars would normally be a movie tailor-made for my contempt, but Christopher Nolan captured the Batman ethos in a way that no one else ever has (at least on film). This movie isn’t perfect (would it kill Nolan to actually film a decent fight scene?), but the good here far outweighs the bad. Christian Bale is the perfect Batman, a scarred but good man trying to walk an unwalkable line in a corrupt world rooting for his failure. The film belongs, as everyone, knows, to Heath Ledger who issues a performance as The Joker that has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s conception of centerless evil than it does with comic books. Ledger and Nolan created a character that transcended the movie, an image of evil that stays with you. They figured out early that The Joker isn’t funny; he’s scary.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull-This was the worst piece of shit I saw all year. I still maintain a great deal of fondness for the original Indy movies, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, but this was the most calculated, joyless, stupid, badly made marketing exercise imaginable. Spielberg and Ford should be ashamed of themselves, Lucas…god, what can you say him? George Lucas has devolved into a profoundly terrible filmmaker.
4 Months, 3Weeks and 2 Days-This was a Romanian film about two women trying to arrange for an abortion in Bucharest in 1987. It’s a deeply unsettling movie, superbly acted by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, and deftly directed by Cristian Mungui. The subject matter might sound either depressing or like the set-up to a sermon, but it’s neither. It’s edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, and it’s the kind of suspense that comes from characters and the way their decisions play out in the real world.
Cassandra’s Dream and Vicky Christina Barcelona-It was a good year for Woody Allen, still pumping out movies like a one-man studio. Cassandra’s Dream was a thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as brothers who agree to commit a murder to pay off their debts. The movie got terrible reviews and did crappy business at the box office (even by Allen’s usual standards), but it worked for me. Vicky Christina Barcelona got better reviews and did much better business, and I liked it. It marked Allen’s return to comedy after his dreadful 2007 career-nadir, Scoop. Neither of these movies were Allen at his best, but they show that he’s still in the game.
Stop-Loss-This was the year’s biggest disappointment for me. I’m a firm believer that director Kimberly Pierce made a masterpiece with her first film, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, and I’ve been waiting patiently for her follow-up. This Iraq drama, however, is—how else to put this—sophomoric. It’s too pretty, too contrived, and, worst of all, too conventional. It’s a bad film by any measure, but it was a serious letdown coming from such a talented filmmaker. I’m waiting to see what Pierce does next. Hope springs eternal.
The Fall-In a better world, this movie would have made a billion dollars. It’s the story of a man telling a little girl a fairy tale, a fairy tale we see brought to life in the richest, most gorgeous images I saw this year. This film is the best advertisement available for color cinematography. It’s also a pretty good advertisement for whimsy. Alas, here’s all you need to know about how much the world sucks: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull made 786 million dollars worldwide. The Fall made 3 million dollars. If you like the kind of movies normally referred to as “visual feasts”—The Wizard of Oz or Pan’s Labyrinth—then you will want to seek this movie out immediately. I’m sorry if you didn’t see it in the theater. It was a pretty damn good argument for the big screen, too.
Savage Grace-This was another long-awaited disappointment. I’m a big fan of Tom Kalin’s 1992 cult film Swoon, and I’ve hoped for a long time that he would get a chance to make another feature. This movie, however, is a long, depressing slog with some extremely unlikable people. I guess that was supposed to be the point. The film tells the story of the remarkably dysfunctional Baekeland family, a moneyed clan given to incest, betrayal and murder. The movie is well-acted by Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, but to what end? I have a cast-iron stomach for unlikable characters, but watching this movie was like being trapped in a country house with a group of narcissistic psychopaths.
My Winnipeg-The Return of Ann Savage. Noir geeks worship at the altars of forgotten women, women who never made it as movie stars and then receded into oblivion until they were rediscovered by weird guys (like yours truly). Ann Savage was the star of 1945’s Detour, a 68-minute B-movie masterpiece about a very, very mean woman. Here she is sixty-three years later in Guy Maddin’s wonderful homage to dreams, history, family, and a very, very mean old woman. Savage died a few days ago, on Christmas. As a tribute, check out this terrific little movie.
Burn After Reading-The Coen Brothers’ dark comedy is as nihilistic as No Country For Old Men. It is, in fact, their darkest comedy yet. That’s not to say it’s their best. It lacks the huge laughs of The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona, but in its uneven off-tone way, it’s a lot of fun. Kudos to the cast, particularly George Clooney as a Treasury agent obsessed with sex, cheese, and quality flooring, and Brad Pitt as a fitness obsessed goofball. John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton bring real rage to their roles of an unhappily married couple, so much rage, in fact, that it throws the movie off. Not a great movie—maybe even a failure—but interesting nevertheless.
Appaloosa-Ed Harris directed this adaptation of the Western novel by Robert B. Parker (one of the great underrated entertainers working in the printed word, by the way). This is a nice, old fashioned Western costarring Viggo Mortensen and Harris as a couple of hired guns who get involved with the proverbial evil rancher played with relish by Jeremy Irons. “Old fashioned” here means that the movie is about characters and their values in conflict with each other. It has a lot in common in Costner’s Open Range, though it lacks that film’s all-time great shoot-out at the end. That’s okay. The end here is based as much on character as it is on guns.
Religulous-Bill Maher is an asshole, there’s no way around it, but his comic-essay on the shortfalls of religion (directed by Larry Charles) is a very funny film that hopscotches around the world profaning the sacred. Maher talks to a dude playing Jesus at a Christian theme park, a guy running an “ex-gay” ministry, a Holocaust-denying rabbi, some dour Muslims, some happy ex-Mormons. It all plays like a cross between Borat and Christopher Hitchens.
Man On Wire-A documentary about Philippe Petit, the tightrope-walker who managed in 1974 to sneak into the World Trade Center and walk between the Twin Towers. The feat was amazing, and the story of his break-in with the help of a large number of accomplices plays like a heist film. It all doesn’t add up to much (like the act itself), but it’s a fun story.
Quantum Of Solace-I’ve already written about this, but just to recap: I liked it more than a lot of people.
Rachel Getting Married-I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Demme’s family drama. The acting here is superb, particularly by Rosemarie DeWitt as the much imposed-upon Rachel, Anne Hathaway as her drug-addict/train wreck of a sister Kim, Bill Irwin as their emotionally scarred father, and Tunde Adebimpe in a subtle performance as Rachel's understanding husband-to-be. Demme, working from Jenny Lumet’s script, does a good job of juggling all these characters and more, but I got sick of Kim, the narcissist drug-addict sister. The film does something smart, though, because while it makes her the main character, it also positions her inside a story that is not really about her. She's part of an ensemble (like we all are in life), but like a lot of drug addicts I’ve known, Kim can't quite figure out that other people have emotions and thoughts that are not focused on her. Some scenes go on too long, and Kim gets annoying, all of which—I believe—is intended. So here you have a film that is smart, funny, and moving but also gets long-winded and irritating on purpose. That’s why I say I have mixed feelings. I usually have mixed feeling about weddings, too.
Frost/Nixon-Here was a good movie, well-acted and well-directed that nevertheless left me a little cold. It tells the behind the scenes story of the famous television interview in which David Frost (Michael Sheen) managed to wiggle a pseudo-confession out of disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). I have a feeling this all worked better on stage. Part of the problem is that screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan has to work with Nixon’s actual words from the interview, and at the end of the day Nixon didn’t really cop to much. Ron Howard does a craftsmanlike job of cranking up the tension, but at the end, all it amounts to, really, is that a lying politician briefly expresses remorse for some vague wrongdoings connected to Watergate. It’s not like he said he was wrong for destroying Cambodia. Not a bad film, but it’s been overpraised by a lot of people.
Valkyrie-Here’s the thing: Germans didn’t speak English with German accents, so director Bryan Singer decided to forgo accents when he shot his thriller about an attempt to kill Hitler. Everyone speaks with their natural accents (American for star Tom Cruise, English for Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson)--Kubrick did the same thing in Paths of Glory. I bring this up because it curiously seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people. Too bad, because this is a tight little piece of work that fans of the director’s The Usual Suspects will want to see. Cruise—perhaps finally sensing that he has turned himself into a walking punch line—keeps his head down and gets the job done as a one-eyed, one-armed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The key to the movie’s appeal is two-fold: one, Stauffenberg’s plan to kill Hitler was ingenious (kill Hitler with a bomb, then frame the Gestapo and use the Fuhrer’s own anti-coup backup force—Operation Valkyrie—to take over the government). The second part of the film’s appeal is that we know the plan will fail. Knowing it will fail just makes the movie all the more suspenseful.
Gran Torino-Clint Eastwood is a great director, but he’s not a very deep thinker. You can see this dichotomy at work in a lot of his films (particularly in Million-Dollar Baby). He’s a skilled director of actors and he’s a meticulous storyteller (Unforgiven, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County) , but if a deep-seated complexity is not present in the script he doesn’t always manage to find it in the course of filming. His latest film is a good example of what I’m talking about. Here he plays a racist old Korean war veteran named Walt who begrudgingly befriends the Hmong family that moves in next door, particularly the teenage daughter (played by a luminous young actress named Ahney Her) and her younger brother (played by Bee Vang). The family is threatened by a gang of Asian toughs, so Walt sets out to protect them. Eastwood gets good performances from everyone (and Eastwood himself is excellent), and the movie has moments of real humor and pathos, but there’s a certain thinness to what’s going on here. The ending avoids the Dirty Harry payoff it seems to promise, but I’m not sure its substitute has much more to say to us than a conventional gunfight would. There are racial themes here worth thinking about, but Eastwood doesn’t grapple with the underlying problems of the character. Is this film a thriller or a drama? I’m not sure. It works as both for a while, but as a drama it falls short. I won’t give away plot points, but if you see the film ask yourself about the character played by Ahney Her. She’s the most likable character here, played by an actress of beauty and grace, but why does the movie lose track of her? When does it cease to find her interesting? Is she just there to set-up a plot point for the men to resolve violently? I don’t think this is intentional oversight on Eastwood’s part, but that’s just the point. This film opens a lot of issues, but it doesn’t handle them.
Doubt-A priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is suspected of molesting the only black student at a Catholic school in the Bronx in the winter of 1964. The person doing the suspecting is the nun (Meryl Streep) who runs the school. These two go at each other with teeth bared, while in the middle are the boy (Joseph Foster), his mother (Viola Davis) and a young nun (Amy Adams). Did Hoffman do it? Is Streep persecuting him for reasons of her own? What is the proper balance between certainty and doubt? Some people have found the movie either too bound to the stage play or too eager to break free from the stage (i.e. director/playwright John Patrick Shanley tilts his camera a lot), but I loved every minute. The cast is superb. Streep and Hoffman are both actors who are so good they’re often undervalued. That’s too bad. Streep is a living legend who always shows up to work. Her work here is terrific. And Hoffman is simply the best actor we have working in America today. Only he and Shanley know for sure whether or not his character is a child molester, and their refusal to tell us—thereby forcing us to wrestle with our own perceptions, fears, and convictions—is brave. A great movie.
Standard Operating Procedure-This was the toughest documentary I saw all year. Errol Morris’s unflinching look at the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib uses interviews with most of the major players involved (including torture poster girl Lynndie England). These people, from Generals to interrogators to disgraced Privates, paint a disturbing picture of what was going on under the banner of the American flag in Iraq. Morris pieces together what happened and the results are a harrowing look at war, group-think, and the policies of the Bush administration.
The Wrestler-I’ll admit it, I love movies about broken down old men. I’m not sure what it is about watching some past-his-prime old-timer grappling with his failing body—perhaps it’s a unconscious desire to face my own eventual decline with some measure of honesty. Maybe it’s deeper and darker, a latent desire for decline. Here’s what I know for sure: with The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky has made one of the great Broken Down Old Man movies. It’s not surprising since, if you look at his past credits, Aronofsky clearly likes tales of disintegration (Requiem for a Dream is two hours of people falling apart). Here he casts Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pro-wrestler about twenty years past his fame’s expiration date. He’s still wrestling at small, bloody, brutal venues. His life is a mess, and it’s getting worse, but The Ram keeps on going, doing the only thing he knows to do: shooting steroids and letting himself be bashed over the head with chairs. The Wrestler isn’t perfect (the subplot involving Randy’s resentful daughter feels rote), but it’s still pretty wonderful. I could not care less about wrestling, but the film’s depiction of that world has the feel of a great documentary. By the end of The Wrestler, The Ram’s story has real emotional kick. He’s just a washed up wrestler, true, but embodied magnificently by Mickey Rourke, he becomes a very relatable warrior: a broken down old man raging against the dying of the light.
I see more movies than most people, but man does not live on cinema alone (at least when he’s not getting paid for it). I mean, look at all I missed:
· The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
· Snow Angels
· Synecdoche, New York
· Slumdog Millionaire
· The Reader
· The Class
· Wendy and Lucy
There is still time, of course. January will be a good month for flicks if I can see any of the above.
And finally, just for fun, here’s a very incomplete list of stuff I didn’t see because I had no desire at all to see it:
· Iron Man
· The Incredible Hulk
· Punisher: War Zone
· The Spirit
· Yes Man
· Seven Pounds
· Righteous Kill
· Body of Lies
· Swing Vote
You could add to the above list just about every other movie released this year. Ah, but what a year it’s been in the classics. That’s the thing with loving great old movies, they stay great. Every year is a good one.