I had hoped this would be the last post, but as ever, I run off at the mouth. Fingers. Whatever.
Most Underrated Movie of the Year: The Invention of Lying
It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s poorly directed, sloppily structured, paced badly, and apparently the original script is much stronger (I have yet to read it, sadly). Nevertheless, it’s also terrific brainfood, features an incredibly ballsy middle-act satire on religion that drew gasps of surprise from the audience we saw it with, and happily skewers the idea of romantic love as depicted in the movies. As expectations of real-world romantic love are often distorted by expectations generated by the fake movie world, it was nice to see this subverted with such glee. Ricky Gervais also surprised us with an emotionally powerful scene in a hospital. Real tears flowed down my shocked face. Who knew he had it in him?
G-Force (A clever spoof of action movie cliches mistaken for an empty and noisy kids movie.)
A Christmas Carol (As I said before, a loyal and thoughtful adaptation with a lovely painterly look.)
Pandorum (A committed performance by Ben Foster and a consistently bleak atmosphere make this worth watching.)
Land of the Lost (Horrible final act but we laughed a lot on the way there. I also laughed a fair bit at Year One, especially at Oliver Platt. What?!??!)
Duplicity (A very entertaining con-trick movie with a ton of very entertaining performances, especially from Clive Owen, star of the also-very-entertaining The International.)
Most Overrated Movie of the Year: Up In The Air
By the end of the year it felt like only a handful of critics had seen through the glossy, heartwarming sheen of polish that coated Jason Reitman’s phony feel-good confection. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows Armond White didn’t like it, and along with his rant against Precious is probably the only other time I’ve agreed with him this year. Dana Stevens, Stephanie Zacharek, J. Hoberman, Karina Longworth and Keith Uhlich also resisted its sickly charms, along with a few other choice reviewers. I’m honestly not sure what I can say to top Will Leitch’s elegant takedown of the film, except that this is the one movie this year that almost had me all the way through to the end and then just lost me completely in the final act. The ridiculous U-turn of one character — as clunky a “twist” as anything I’ve seen in poorly plotted action movies — was the final straw.
Some great work from the cast still deserves praise, and there were enjoyable moments throughout, but I cannot forgive it for all the clangingly obvious metaphorical messages, its sneering distrust of anyone’s desire for isolation (Ryan Bingham is portrayed as a kind of crazy person for not wanting to hang out with his awful family), its attempts to streamline Walter Kirn’s unorthodox (and horribly overwritten) novel, or its final message. Yes, I can attest to the fact that unemployment can indeed have the unintended consequence of allowing a person to reconnect with his family, and the support and love that they can give is a wonderful thing. I’m a better person for that experience. However, as wonderful and as welcome as that is, there is still the gnawing uncertainty and fear that remains underneath it. Unemployment is not a betterment opportunity. It’s an absolutely fucking terrible and distressing situation. The mawkish attempt to spin it as a kind of freedom — using non-actors who had in fact just been laid off — made me want to set fire to the screen. When this wins 20 Oscars later this year, I will be saying the swearwords I reserve for special occasions.
Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire (This year’s Slumdog Millionaire. I just want to forget it happened.)
Mesrine (I heard some people compare this rather average and overlong crime flick to The Godfather. Without irony! It’s a kind of madness.)
The Hangover (A comedy with a structure but no jokes. Its success has left me utterly baffled.)
“Trying Too Hard” Direction Of The Year: Tom Hooper (The Damned United)
Some great performances and a nifty script by Peter Morgan forced to contend with all kinds of tricksy and unnecessary compositional flash. A shame, as it’s a good enough movie that even someone who hates football/soccer as much as myself was riveted throughout. This “award” might not seem like it, but consider this a recommendation. Ignore the attention-seeking framing. Enjoy the performances instead.
Best Movie of 2008 That We Saw in 2009: Rachel Getting Married
Nothing I can add to this post, really. It knocked our socks off and the memory of it lingers on. Simply an instant classic.
Synecdoche, New York (Wrenching to watch, but fascinating nevertheless. I’d rewatch it to get a better view of it, but I’m too scared to endure it again.)
Worst Movie of 2008 That We Saw in 2009: The Reader
Lest this comment turn into a profane rant, let’s just say that letting this profoundly awful and ethically dubious piece of crap go past greenlight — let alone onto screens and into awards ceremonies — is a black moment for culture in general. I watched the whole godforsaken thing in a state of apoplexy, horrified at its weak moral arguments and shitty veneer of classiness. It’s the worst kind of empty Oscar-bait. I may have hated Crash, but it’s worth ten Readers. Bury it under a mound of salt. ::spits on movie::
Punisher War Zone (One of the dumbest and most tedious superhero movies of recent times. The Punisher accidentally kills a cop and mopes in his lair for 80% of the movie? Yay fun!)
Most Baffling Movie of the Year: All About Steve
Even weeks after seeing it I have just no idea what the hell this movie was supposed to be doing. Appreciation of humour might be a completely subjective thing, but even taking its “comedic” efforts off the table, I’m still just not sure what was going on from one scene to the next. Are we meant to dislike Mary? Admire her? Love her? Hate Steve? Root for them both? Root for her and DJ Qualls’ nerdy character? What the hell was the sub-plot about the three legged baby? The worst comedy metaphor for abortion ever? What the hell is funny or logical about people protesting the amputation of a baby’s vestigial third leg? What tone was it going for? Why did a tornado appear in the middle of the movie? Oh God, it made my head hurt trying to keep up with it. I doubt even a re-edit could save this pitiful mess.
Dishonorable Mention: Yatterman
Takashi Miike’s version of the old anime series was certainly garishly coloured, hyperactive, and featured several cartoonish elements. That much he got right. It also featured a giant robot dog being attacked by a giant robot woman with missiles for nipples. The robot dog then sends an army of robot ants to attack the robot woman, and they agitate the nipple missiles so much she begins to have an orgasm. This makes the robot dog horny, and he proceeds to start kissing the woman, who by this point is yelling, “I’m coming!” She then explodes. It also features a man being absorbed into the butt of a creature called the God of Thieves, much buttock-exposure from one character who is creepily obsessed with his female boss, and a completely baffling love triangle plot that bogs down the entire movie and doesn’t seem to get resolved at the end. And yet it still it makes more sense than All About Steve.
Most Obtrusive Product Placement of the Year: Up in the Air
(The photo shown above is sponsored by MacCutcheon whiskey.) When we saw Up In The Air at the London Film Festival, the screening was sponsored by American Airlines. I barely noticed this fact. Half an hour into the movie, I was convinced I was watching an extended and expensive advert for the company. And Hilton Hotels. And Travelpro luggage. I’m not railing against product placement in movies: that would be futile, and besides, though something like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is full of fetishised footage of hot cars and gadgets, it has a kind of pointless gloss and trivial air about it that the commercial nature of it can be ignored as business as usual. In Up in the Air the product placement sometimes feels like the reason the movie exists. Some might argue that this is product placement done well, but during scenes where Clooney and Farmiga compare hotel keys and executive passes in airports, it was easy to forget that the movie was an adaptation of a novel, not the outcome of some godawful synergistic meeting of minds between AA and Hilton and Paramount. The product placement is woven directly into the DNA of the movie like some kind of awful high-budget Mac and Me, with characters even eulogising those products in their dialogue. If that’s that way it’s going to be done, fine. Just don’t expect me to listen to your heartwarming tales of connectivity at the end.
Dishonourable Mention: Love Happens
Walter (John Carroll Lynch) is grieving because his son has died after falling off some scaffolding at his construction site, and he blames himself. It has stopped him working, and he is close to financial ruin. And here comes Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart) to get Walter out of his emotional slump by taking him and their therapy group to Home Depot, where he buys him a huge pile of tools for just under $3000, and this magically fixes his crippling emotional wound! Hey, you can kit yourself with everything a handyman needs for just under $3000 at Home Depot? Thanks, movie! That’s not at all horribly manipulative and staggeringly tasteless!
Most Disappointing Movie of the Year: The Men Who Stare At Goats
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book. George Clooney is great value as the delusional Lyn Cassidy, and Jeff Bridges is even better as Bill Django. It is occasionally very loyal both to the book and the TV series Ronson also made (The Crazy Rulers of the World), and some of the setpiece moments are nicely done. However, when you go back and revisit the original materials, you realise how Grant Heslov and Peter Straughan waste a lot of energy on making the material seem wacky when it’s already mindbogglingly odd just on its own. Even worse, the final act is a complete disaster, full of childish slapstick that undercuts the two minutes of serious subtext. The hastily added battle-against-the-antagonist doesn’t help. By the end the tone wore on me. With the benefit of hindsight I’d find it hard to recommend it to anyone. Best to stick with the book and TV series. They’re funny and disturbing and rage-inducing, all in the right proportions.
Outlander (Really really long and kinda boring, though it gets some scenes really right.)
Les regrets (Well made and absorbing, but too similar to director Cédric Kahn’s earlier movie L’ennui.)
Two Lovers (Well observed and very well performed, but as with James Gray’s other movies, the emphasis on style and tone comes at the expense of dramatic oomph.)
The House of the Devil (OMG it’s the scariest movie of the year! Except it’s actually just really slow and the ending is silly rather than scary. A damn shame. I really wanted to like it.)
Franklyn (As with House of the Devil, the kind of low-budget labour of love I really wanted to support, but just couldn’t. I look forward to future films by both filmmakers, though.)
Not Disappointing, Not Great, But Still Worth Watching Movie Of The Year: Extract
As with Office Space, Mike Judge expends a lot of energy introducing a plot that gets abandoned two thirds of the way through and then just sort of gets resolved in a half-arsed manner. Also, lots of great character actors do terrific work, but often get given some rough material and unfinished arcs to work with. Nevertheless, this is the charm of Mike Judge’s work. It’s not polished or finessed, and even in this rough diamond state allows for more laughs — and satirical heft — than most comedies released. It’s just a shame that the energy peters out with such predictability (with the caveat that Ben Affleck is hilarious all the way through). Though it’s not fashionable to say it, I’m increasingly of the opinion that his strongest movie is coincidentally his angriest: Idiocracy. Every revisit to that movie makes me laugh more. Maybe in time it will be considered his best work.
Most Tediously Conservative Remake of the Year: Race To Witch Mountain
That’s right, it’s not The Taking of Pelham 123. That was indeed a terrible and pointless remake, but it at least had some awareness of what made the original memorable. Tony Scott and Brian Helgeland kept some moments that worked, threw out the rest, and added some very annoying modern accoutrements (post-Die Hard banter between villain and hero, swearing, the Internet). That sucked, but the latest remake of the Witch Mountain stories was a different kind of crappy remake. More mediocre than bad, but formed by a series of stupid and unadventurous choices. The original movie — directed by the quirky British director John Hough — was a peculiar beast, made during a period when Disney’s live-action movies felt like they were made by people who were thinking their story through instead of just glomming bits together from other films. Not all of those movies were great, but they were certainly lively. This remake dropped all of the atmosphere and ambiguous plotting in favour of a predictable Fifth Element carbon-copy complete with cab driver. It’s horribly boring, makes fun of SF fans, and completely wastes two of the hottest and most appealing lead actors ever (Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino, who should be running Hollywood by now). Avoid like the plague.
Okay, one more to go. It’s really trivial. That’s a warning.