Thursday, March 12, 2009

Best Films of 2008: The Reid Edition

Naming the “best” of anything can be a dubious endeavor – especially if it’s art. Nonetheless, I’ll proceed with what I, in my vaguely humble opinion, were the best films of the past year. Even though there is an inherent objective quality to making such a list, it’s still very subjective – which I think reflects the subjective nature of art. So maybe this is more a list of my favorites. I’ll settle on saying that these are the best of my favorites (in no special order).

Revolutionary Road

I associate this film with Little Children and American Beauty, and this is based on their having the same basic theme: suburban life, though “nice,” can be incredibly unfulfilling if viewed as an end in itself. Each of these films has its merits, although I tend to think Revolutionary Road is the most interesting and best overall of the three. It is an adaptation of a novel by Richard Yates, written in 1961 and a finalist for the National Book Award along with Catch-22 and The Moviegoer (talk about stiff competition). The story follows Frank and April, a young couple living the typical suburban life, and, typically, they are unsatisfied with it. Atypically, though, they are able to come to a most novel decision: if they are unhappy with their lives, then they should do something about it. And so they decide to pack up and move to France, where they have wanted to live for a while. After they reach this decision, it’s like the shackles have been thrown off. You can feel their joy emanating off the screen. However, as you might expect, it isn’t as easy as all that, and complications arise. The tension becomes whether they will be able to escape the prison that their lives have become. Or, were they only dreaming? Was there anything to escape in the first place? You can watch Little Children and American Beauty, and most any Gen-X film and see more or less the same struggles of people trying to achieve the American Dream, though in different forms. What gripped me in RR, is the (perhaps obvious, or not) revelation that the grandparents of my generation experienced the same struggles. The American Dream has always been a dream. And once you truly realize that, then you are posed with a question: so what are you going to do about it? And that’s where life may really begin anew. Most flaws in this movie are minor qualms: the consistency of the dialect, or the score being too noticeable at times (even though I really enjoy the music).

I’m tempted to say Milk was the best movie I saw this year. Probably the easiest thing to criticize this movie for, is being a run-of-the-mill biopic. This is true and false. I think there were some unique things done in terms of the narrative. But yeah, perhaps there’s not a lot of “Wow, I’ve never seen that” moments. This is not a problem for me though, because the story is unique. It’s about a unique person and his unique trials and triumphs. From the start of the movie, Harvey Milk is portrayed as a good person who decides to try to change things around him. The contention surrounding this portrayal is that it only shows the “good” parts about his life. Perhaps this is true (and I don’t think it is), but it’s also a criticism that can be made about almost any biopic. Any film is going to be a subjective look at its topic. Duh. Moving on…This film was especially enjoyable, because everything seemed to work well together. There was a very good script. Good music. Good cinematography. An appropriate 70s vibe, aided by art direction, costumes, and so on. Wonderful acting. It touches a number of emotions. Milk gives things to think and talk about. A good case of “cinematic chemistry” – the sum of these elements being greater than each taken individually.

I've Loved You So Long

For all the subtlety, simplicity, and brokenness exhibited in this film, it was incredibly beautiful. Kristen Scott Thomas manages to show the humanity of a woman whom I rooted for, without knowing if I should. She has done something horrible enough to deserve something like 15 years in prison. After serving her time, she moves in with her sister’s family and tries to rejoin society, if she can. No character is perfect in this film. And in that way especially, it is true to life. Technically speaking, the film is very solid, which it would need to be since not a lot is happening onscreen. That’s not quite true, though. Because there is so much subtlety at work, unless the viewer is up to being especially observant and emotionally available, the film could be somewhat easily considered boring. However, if you can take the time to invest yourself in the characters and what is happening to them, you may have the unique experience of your heart being warmed and broken at the same time.

Let the Right One In
Here is a film that largely flew under the radar. For whatever reason, a Swedish vampire movie didn’t grip audiences. This is unfortunate, though, because it was a very good movie – horror flick or not. The setting is early 80s Sweden. A shy, bullied little boy becomes friends with a girl of about the same age who moves in next door. He soon discovers this girl is a vampire. What makes this movie especially good is the near-perfect balance of drama and horror. In most horror movies there is almost always some measure of campiness, whether intended or not. This movie attempts a serious, realistic vampire movie – and for me, it pulls it off. The two kids manage to carry the film with some pretty darn good acting. Their characters are very endearing, which needed to be the case, or else the film would not work. It’s strange to find yourself sympathizing with a vampire, but it happens. One other thing I’ll say is that there were plenty of scenes (which were all very well shot) where I wanted to yell “Damn right! Now this is a vampire movie!” The qualms I had were few. One I’ll mention is a cool scene with cats, which makes unfortunate use of CGI effects.

The Visitor

The Visitor may be my favorite movie of the year. Maybe it’s because of my own problems with academia being validated by it. Still, here is another example of subtlety enhancing a movie, especially because the subject matter (i.e. immigration) can easily be sensationalized. It was an honest movie that didn’t drag you around. That being said, the film definitely “takes a side.” However, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t overstate your point – which I don’t think this movie does. The film stars Richard Jenkins who does an amazing job. I really really enjoy films where these hard-working character actors get to show their chops and prove that the most recognizable actors may not be the best actors. It was directed by Thomas McCarthy who did The Station Agent (which I haven’t yet seen). Actually, these are only movies he was directed (and also written) so I look forward to his next.


agust symeon said...

What I have seen of these were marvelous films and I look forward to the two I haven't (Revolutionary Road and Let the Right one In).

It's interesting that between the two of us we hardly selected any films that garnered many Oscar nomations (aside from Milk). The Academy is in this infuriating position of only choosing solid but average films (standard, non-adventurous, Hollywood filmmaking). It seems like they should either just start giving out awards to mind-numbing blockbusters like The Dark Knight (they did this once already with Lord of the Rings numero III) and thus become a bigger, flashier version of the MTV movie awards, or to start actually focusing on smaller, more exciting, more beautiful films (thus risking to completely alienate the average moviegoer who probably doesn't have a chance to see most of the smaller, art-house films).

RL LePage said...

I think I may enjoy Rev. Road more than I should. I've got this nagging feeling that it's really just a mediocre movie. Whatever - its too late for me. So I'm interested to hear what you think.