My Year at the Movies: 2008

Let's Do It Again: 2008 in theaters:

I could have back-dated this, but I didn't. I'm honest. Very, very late, but better than than never. 
My yearly escapade into the year that was--last year.

No Country For Old Men
Grade: A-

I saw two of big Oscar Horses of 2007 in theaters in 2008 (No Country and There Will Be Blood.) Of the two, it seems that Blood has slid nonchalantly into a "bonafide classic" slot, finding itself on many a reputable critic's Best of the Decade list (myself included. Am I reputable?) No Country, however, continues to spark debate. As for me, my initial reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive. But as I found myself reflecting in the days after, I was nagged by a realization that the film is among other things, almost totally emotionally non-resonant. I admire Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, as ever, and the film in worth seeing for the totally solid performances alone. I like the movie a lot, in fact. But There Will Be Blood can now be said to easily stand head and shoulders above it.

Sweeney Todd

Grade: A-

I don't actually remember the circumstances under which I saw this in the theater.. Strange. I do remember the movie, however, which I found to be a decent Burton vehicle, if still a mostly lousy musical. I can't compare it to the stage version, as I've never seen the production. As a movie musical, it's a little too drab and unexuberant to register much longer than the time it takes to walk back to the car, or the fridge. Hard to say if this is due to Burton's waning talent/drive, or the source material's nature. Unfortunately, I would guess at the former, as Burton's current project, Alice in Wonderland, seems hellbent on cementing him as a Disney for-hire moneymaker. Look for the DVD, t-shirt, bobble-heads and Nintendo DS game at your local Hot Topic.

Bluebeard's Castle

Grade: B+

Seen at Gene Siskel Film Center, as a one-off showing. Powell's made-for German TV production of the opera, replete with his trademark visual sparkle and emotional heavy-lifting. Though the narrative is sung entirely in German, Powell's knack with musical styling remains eloquent and immediate. A treat, if only for its relative unavailability. Pretty Technicolor candy. I felt like a real movie snob, sitting there amongst a crowd of mostly older, professor types, going on about their favorite and least favorite Powell films.

Animal House

Grade: A+

Shown at the Hollywood Boulevard Cinemas in Woodridge, IL. This is the former home of the Woodgrove General Cinema, where I worked for a year or so in my youth, shilling out bags of popcorn wet with extra butter and large Mountain Dews to eager viewers of the latest Schwarzenegger opus. The theater has since (mercifully) transformed into Hollywood Boulevard, a cinema/eatery, which also occasionally books revivals, with guests. (I worked at this incarnation, also, for a total of approx. three shifts, but I'd rather not discuss that.) On this night, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, and other players of note were on hand to give a Q & A and sign autographs.

There Will Be Blood

Grade: B++ (revised: A+)

I'm not sure what exactly held me back from totally wrapping my arms around There Will Be Blood and giving it a big, wet kiss upon first viewing. Maybe it was the performance of Paul Dano as Eli Sunday, which, rightly or not, I now find unsettling and strange as opposed to ill-measured and jarring. Maybe it was the deliberately wonky ending, which I now find delightfully dark and perfect, as opposed to just plain weird. Whatever it was, I take it all back. I don't know if it's perfect, but There Will Be Blood is probably a masterpiece, and easily one of the best films of its decade, and the best epic since God knows when. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what he always gives--the best acting on planet earth. There Will Be Classes. People are going to teach this thing. Kudos, PTA. You made a fucking barnstormer.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism

Grade: B+

Shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with introduction and afterword by Jonathan Rosenbaum, the great, former head film critic at the Chicago Reader. I attended many of these. I really, really hope he gets to program another series/class there, and soon. We're friends on Facebook now.. so maybe I'll just ask him!  Anyways.. a weird flick. Very weird. Check it out.


Grade: A

Mamet gets on his high horse again about honor and integrity, dragging out most of the old faces (Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Ed O'Neill,) and a lot of what by now, to Mamet fans, are his same old thematic tropes. Though, I can see why Mamet wears on some people, I still admire the film. Undistinguished as it is, resting beside better films like Spartan, The Spanish Prisoner and Homicide, Redbelt is still a cut above standard fare, and Mamet's love of the MMA sport shines through. Tim Allen is great here, somehow.  More, please.

The Fall

Grade: A-

What The Fall lacks in a believable, well-acted story arch (which is quite a lot, unfortunately,) it easily, EASILY makes up for in its unprecedentedly breathtaking visuals.  As far as empty screen-painting exercises go, especially compared to a certain box-office mega-blockbuster of 2009, I'll take Tarsem over Cameron any day.  AND, by the way, this film was actually PHOTOGRAPHED.  With a camera.  No CGI.  Zero.  Watch it and see if you believe that.  Cuz I didn't.  But it's true.


Encounters at the End of the World

Grade: A

Herzog has continued to remain enigmatic and often frustrating in the new millennium.  This film is for me one of his more successful efforts, treading familiar water such as it is.  Critics were quick to sharply pick out the familiar tropes (isolation, mad genius, eccentricity, etc.) and more and more, I was quick to see it that way as well.  Particularly in light of his later The Bad Lieutenant film, whose agenda remains ever dodgier and inscrutable.  Has my main man Werner been selling us snake oil all the time?  I'm inclined to think not, but the next few years will tell.

The Happening

Grade: F

Easily, far and away, the absolute and undisputed WORST movie of the 2000's.  Why does it trump such spectacular crap-storms as Glitter or Gigli?  Because of the unbelievable earnestness by which it nosedives.  Not a single line, moment or scene resonates, but all is played as somber and stone-faced as a funeral.  Truly one of the epic blunders of cinema history.  Not so bad it's good, but so bad it's the worst, most easily and justly hated, and most personally insulting film I have ever seen.  M. Night: go back to Pennsylvania and open a cheese steak stand or something.  I'm gone for good.

The Dark Knight IMAX

Grade: A

From worst to best, Nolan makes a supreme triumph, every bit as engaging and "game-changing" as "Memento."  It's too long, and the false-endings did frustrate me some, particularly on repeat viewings.  But not enough for me not to proclaim this film quite possibly the greatest comic book movie of the last twenty years.  Chicago has never looked greater or grimier.


Grade: A- (corrected: A+.)

Back to back masterpieces clearly demonstrate that 2008 was not nearly as weak a film year as those with lousy memories will attest.  I have a feeling Pixar's long term legacy will shake out much in the way that classic Disney's (which they are so clearly modeled after) does; everybody admires everything, but everybody has their favorites.  The purists will likely never break free of Toy Story or Finding Nemo.  But for me, WALL-E will likely never be topped.  Like it or not, the way Pixar handles real-life problems in fantastic ways (i.e.; the death of a parent in Finding Nemo, earth sickness in WALL-E, even miscarriage and aging in Up,) Pixar have proven themselves braver even than most companies making films strictly for adults.  And better, too.

Tropic Thunder 

Grade: B+

Whatever ill-will There's Something About Mary and Meet the Parents might have instilled in me with regards to Ben Stiller, the actor quickly undid, with roles in favorites such as The Royal Tenenbaums and AnchormanTropic Thunder is fairly throwaway, and will no doubt be mostly remembered for the loony black-face performance of Robert Downey Jr. as a white thespian "blacking up" for a role in a film.  Jack Black simply should not be here, as he's practically non-existent anyway save for a couple of lousy fat jokes.  Stiller is funny enough.  And Tom Cruise, paying penance for his crazy couch-jumping ways, officially ushers in the trend of hush-hush uber-celeb cameos in comedies that The Hangover and Zombieland would ape.  Destined to repeat ad-nauseum on cable for decades.

Pineapple Express

Grade: A- (corrected: A.)

This, however, is a cut well above.  David Gordon Green breaks out of the drama-heavy vibe of his previous three features and cranks out the best stoner comedy since "Up in Smoke."  James Franco is the standout.  Watching this again recently, I was inclined to remark that the film was near-perfect; it maintains a consistent and hilarious tone throughout, a rare feat.  And David Gordon Green is still my pick for best of his generation. 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Grade: A

Considering the shit-tastic, insert-pistol-in-mouth atom bomb of bullshit that was Whatever Works,  perhaps we should be greatful that Woody still gets about one in three right these days.  Has he just lost grip on his judgement, or does he truly just not care anymore?  Either way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona should hold up fairly well.  In ten years, when Woody's dead (or very near death) and we have the benefit of a bit of distance, I wonder--will we still hold up Match Point as his last great picture?  I kinda doubt it.  But as of right now, this one still sits a few rungs beneath it on the ladder.


Grade: B++, (corrected: C-)

I laughed my butt off, no doubt about it.  But Religulous has about as much to say regarding religion as Borat did about the middle east (a film, not coincidentally, by the same director.)  It's broad-as-a-board comedy with an angry edge that tips its hand much to heavily (and without recourse) into vitriol and diatribe, thereby effectively stymieing Maher's point.  It doesn't sit well, basically, Maher's "problem of religion."  If you want to be all 'holier-than-thou,' it helps to have some kind of conception of what being holy really is.  Maher seems much happier just pointing and laughing. 


Grade: A-

Halloween night!  Coming on the heels of Religulous, W. struck me as fairly even-handed, although I suppose that it really isn't.  Stone's ideas are clear, but he is very careful to avoid including anything that might be pot-stirring, instead focusing mainly on the events, as they occurred or are said to have occurred, in the Bush 2.0 Presidency which was, at the time of the film's release, still just barely alive.  An amazing cast makes this one worth returning to, as does the sure hand of Stone, who seems legitimately interested in figuring out and depicting exactly what made this man tick.  Fascinating? Absolutely.  True?  Maybe.  (Probably.)  And I loved the ending.  A great image that has stayed with me.

 The Mummy/The Man They Could Not Hang

Grade: A-/B.

Karloff double-feature, Halloween weekend, Bank of America Cinema.  Was this my first time to this theater???  I think it may have been.  One of the jewels of Chicago, which may be doomed to close (pending a building sale) in the middle of this year.  God, I hope it doesn't.

Synecdoche, NY

Grade: A? (corrected: A+)

Ahhh.. Sin-eck-duh-key.  How you bring out the best and the worst in people.  Ebert thinks you were the best film of the decade.  I disagree, but my love for you is strong.  The buddy I dragged along to see this with me will not let me live it down to this day.  It's become kind of a punchline, as I imagine it has for many people.  It will be interesting to see how this film ages.  Overambitious indulgence or uncompromising vision?  Right now, it's about a 50/50 split.  Maybe it will remain so.  Maybe.. that's OK.  Viva Tom Noonan.  He's amazing.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Grade: B++.

Fincher fan though I am, this film looks pretty weak in hindsight.  Cate Blanchett and especially Tilda Swinton made it for me, but all else was essentially effects-laden filler.  Pitt is good enough, as usual, but no better.  Definitely deserved the "Forrest Gump Redux" stamp that got dumped on it.


And then, 
it was 2009.  

Whew.  That was a busy year.