I was going to do a Top Ten for the year so far, but a funny thing happened when I tried to do this. While I was reviewing the eligible 2008 releases (43 so far), I couldn’t come up with even five movies that I felt deserving, much less ten. It has not been a very good year so far in terms of new releases. So instead, I want to touch on the highs and lows of the year so far, along with a mention of other titles that were noteworthy, if not necessarily deserving of Best Of status.
The best new release I’ve seen thus far is Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories. The film stars Michael Shannon as the oldest of three adult brothers whose father abandoned them years ago and began a new family, with four sons. The two sets of half-brothers grew up as bitter rivals, and emotions come to a head after the father dies. Shannon may be the most creepily intense actor in movies today; see William Friedkin’s Bug if you don’t believe me. Among the more interesting insights the film has to offer is that most of the characters seem to know full well that their actions are irrational and unproductive, but their hatred is self-sustaining and out of their control.
Incidentally, Shotgun Stories was released yesterday on DVD.
Another overlooked independent film is The Fall, directed by Tarsem. Already a film of legend before it opened, Tarsem spent years in production while filming all over the world, and relying on his own money for funding. The result is a spectacularly imaginitive film about a little girl who befriends a suicidal man in a hospital. He tells her stories about a mysterious masked bandit and his fight against an evil tyrant, and we see the stories come alive in her imagination.
If you’ve seen The Cell, also by Tarsem, you know he is an unparalleled visual artist. The Fall matches and perhaps exceeds the visuals in the earlier film, while thankfully stepping up the storytelling as well. It doesn’t have the depth of the somewhat similar Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s a pleasure to watch and a good yarn in the best sense of the term.
The best major studio release so far has been, without question, Pixar’s WALL·E. Jackrabbit Slim wrote a review for this site, and my comments can be found in that thread. It’s not a perfect film, but Pixar’s consistent high level of creativity and quality - and in a genre that typically brings out the worst in studio instincts - can only qualify as miraculous at this point.
Speaking of studios, a trend I’ve noticed this year is that the big summer releases are being drastically overrated. ‘Good’ is being turned into ‘great,’ and completely average films are being enthusiastically greeted. As examples, I offer up Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (review by Jackrabbit Slim), which earned a 79 Metacritic rating, and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (review by Jackrabbit Slim), which earned a 61 Metacritic rating. Both were serviceable entertainments, but little more than that, and the high volume of praise for both (near-unanimous in the case of Iron Man) puzzles me. I certainly allow that other people just feel differently than I do, and I also allow that both represent a big step up from the Roland Emmerich debacles of summers past. But I can’t help but believe that if these had been released several years ago, before terrible summer movies became a given, those ratings would be lower than they are now. I guess what I’m saying is that it feels like the world is grading on a curve.
On the other hand, maybe the world is just crazy, because the worst film I’ve seen this year is Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which scored a mind-numbing 65 on the Metacritic site. I reviewed the film for this site, and I think history is already on the way to vindicating me on this point, but the intial enthusiasm for this one reminded me of the initial response to The Phantom Menace. If anything, it’s even more unfounded in this case.
Another one I hated, but in a different way, was David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels. The film tracks two loosely intersecting stories, the first of a marriage on the rocks (featuring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell), and the second of a high school romance (Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby). The storyline concerning the high schoolers didn’t bother me too much, but the Beckinsale-Rockwell storyline disgusted me with Green’s relentless insistence on stacking the deck against the Beckinsale character. In the course of the film, she has to deal with a cheap affair with a friend’s husband, the Rockwell character’s obvious mental illness, and the dramatically pointless death of her young daughter. That’s a lot to ask of an audience, and I felt that Green approaches all of this with a very heavy and manipulative hand. And it all leads to a Tragic Ending, which is one of the most cruel – to the characters and the audience – in recent memory.
Speaking of movies that are cruel to the audience, no year-in-review piece can be complete without a mention of the most polarizing film of the first six months, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (my review here). The film caused a minor earthquake upon its release in March (at least critically, if not in terms of box office) due to its relentless violence and seeming nihilism. I found value in it, though, and if nothing else it helps to illustrate the moral callousness of a film like Snow Angels, by emphasizing the inherent manipulativeness of onscreen violence.
Finally, a few honorable mentions, as it were – I didn’t like them enough to warrant a formal Best Of list, but they’re good films to seek out on DVD if you missed them. In no particular order:
Redbelt, David Mamet (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
Reprise, Joachim Trier
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Nicholas Stoller (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
The Visitor, Thomas McCarthy (review by Jackrabbit Slim)
Summer Palace, Lou Ye
Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani
The Bank Job, Roger Donaldson
Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant
In Bruges, Martin McDonagh (review by Jackrabbit Slim)