Thursday, January 29, 2009
2008: My Year in Movies -- Let's Put This to Bed, Ninja-Style Edition Part 1
A semi-free-associational, six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon, reliance-on-patchy-memory look at every movie I saw in a theater this year
I'm probably going to give a lot of worthy films short-shrift, because I'm busier than hell and I want to finish this crazy project before May.
... Another superhero blockbuster part deux, Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army was a lot more fun than The Dark Knight, but not without its problems. Del Toro is such an innovative creator of monsters that I wish I could take my own 5-year-old self along to his movies with me. The monsters in this film are a joy to behold. The story, aah, not-a so much-a, as we say in Fake Italy. Aesthetically speaking, Del Toro creates some beautiful images here, and I love the drunken singalong, but I wish he hadn't swapped the first film's nastily charismatic villains and urban action setting for a bunch of fucking elves and fantasy quests.
... Speaking of buttery, greasy blockbustery Hollywood grand slam breakfasts, David Gordon Green and Gus Van Sant made two films each this year (Snow Angels and Pineapple Express for Green, Paranoid Park and Milk for Van Sant). Even spookier, both made one low-budget independent film and one big Hollywood production with massive promotional budget. Both independents came out first, followed by the mainstream films. It gets spookier. Both independent films were based on novels with screenplays by the directors, but both Hollywood films were based on original screenplays by other people. James Franco starred in both directors' Hollywood movies. Unfortunately not a spooky development at all, the independent films were largely (and unjustly) ignored. Happily, all four films were very good. David Gordon Green actually stepped out of his comfort zone twice. Snow Angels took him from his previous films' poetic South to New England in the winter and a much more conventional narrative structure. Still character-based and artfully composed with Green's typically eccentric eye for images worthy of Terrence Malick, Charles Burnett, and William Eggleston's photos if they moved, Snow Angels is so lived-in and so full of wonderful acting miles from ACTING! by Kate Beckinsale, Amy Sedaris, Tom Noonan, and everyone else in it. Maybe more tragic than it needed to be, with only a new romance by a couple of smart, likable teenagers giving me any hopefulness, it still impressed me. Then came Pineapple Express. Green surprised me by making such a graceful transition to the multiplex with a film so seemingly unrelated to the rest of his work. A director who seemed too personal and idiosyncratic to make a good mainstream film, Green's loose, character-based, visually expressive style matched up well with the Rogen/Apatow team. I really liked it, and I think Danny McBride should be in every movie. Green is also responsible for asking Huey Lewis to sing the film's closing credits song, giving him three instructions: 1) Make the song sound like his 1980s hits. 2) Synopsize the film in the lyrics. 3) Repeat the movie's title often throughout the song. Hear it by clicking here.
Gus Van Sant's last dalliance with Hollywood arguably produced his three worst movies: the competent Good Will Hunting aka Rocky VI: Equations, the puzzling remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, and the anonymous and shitty Finding Forrester aka You're the Man Now, Dogg. Fortunately, his return to mainstream, expensive, movie-star movies, Milk, is a solidly enjoyable, if slightly well-worn, formally interesting entertainment. Though I detest bio-pics more than any other genre of film (I may write a post explaining why someday), and I had grown weary of Sean Penn as an actor thanks to a long string of ponderous, overbearing, speechifying roles, I liked Milk a lot (save for the cringe-inducing scene of boy-in-wheelchair uplift). As so many pundits, hacks, and talented critics have already pointed out, it's nice to see Sean Penn play a joyful character with a sense of humor again. Penn gets to make some speeches and tackle some heavy drama, but his inhabiting of Harvey Milk is actually nuanced and full of space. He listens and reacts to the other actors instead of thespian-sploding all over the place. Josh Brolin and James Franco are also worth seeing here. (I'm not one to pontificate on the possible political impact of a film, and I don't find that approach very interesting anyway, but I do hope Milk can do at least a little bit to make our culture less homophobic.) Van Sant shows a keen interest and sensitivity toward the film's setting and moment in time, and I liked all the attention spent on the details of city government.
Van Sant's films, even his bad ones, are full of such luscious colors and compositions (again, except for the jobbing Forrester), and Milk is no exception. I love the way Van Sant's films look, first and foremost, and that's part of why I fell in love with Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in high school, watching both films dozens and dozens of times. His movies, at their best, have an almost narcotic effect on me. His more low-key 2008 release, Paranoid Park, provided this pure movie hypnosis better than Milk's Academy Award sheen and reliable three-act structure. An extremely loose narrative about a teenage skater who accidentally causes a death, Paranoid Park repeatedly loses itself in images, inarticulate teenage speech, the camera's movements, and the varied soundtrack. A closeup on droplets from a boy's shower-wet hair dripping onto the bottom of the tub becomes an abstract loop of shapes and patterns, as do the scenes of skaters skating at a local park. Comparing apples to oranges, which is all I really do here, Milk is like a Vanity Fair article while Paranoid Park is like a piece of music.
Still more to come, for Christ's sake. I haven't even written about my two favorites of the year yet.
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