10 January 2009

The Best Film of 2008...

...is The Class.

The only strange thing about this judgment is that I haven't yet seen The Class. Herein lies the problem of film year 2008. I'm so convinced that I will like Laurent Cantet's yet-to-reach-me film that I've placed it above all the others I've seen. Cantet has the pedigree (Human Resources, Heading South and Time Out) and I'm always a sucker for classroom films (see my adolescent affinity for Dangerous Minds or repeated rewatchings of To Be and To Have).

In fact, I have to go back to France for the only other movie from '08 that I'd even consider "very good," Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. It's studded with fun moments: Paull's mirror moment with the wolf, Faunia's trip to the mall with Junon, Ivan's awesome "Love and Happiness" remix, his wife Sylvia's (inevitable?) hookup with cousin Simon. And one transcendent moment: Henri's mind-blowing, c-u-next-tuesday toast to his mother and sister. It just seems unfortunate that the plot is made to revolve around eldest sister Elizabeth who is easily the least interesting person in the film.

And so I come to the putative "contenders." Slumdog Millionaire is the most frame by frame predictable movie I've seen since Pearl Harbor. There is no suspense. Except for the anticipation each time the host pronounced "MILLONAIRE!!"

I was speaking to a friend of mine who wanted me to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and I told him that I'd probably check it out from the library in 18 months if I saw it on the shelf. He persisted, saying that it was quite touching and, "it's written by the same guy who did Forrest Gump," at which point I realized I would probably only consider Button if it were one of two movies on the shelf and the other was the Sex in the City movie ("Mexi-coma!" see, it was a terrible year).

Revolutionary Road
has the look and cast of an Oscar picture but I wondered throughout the film what happened to Richard Yates' arch tone--Sam Mendes starts right in with the screaming. While the details feel right (many olives in many empty martini glasses, the Wheeler's cabinetry, Leo's sunglasses at the beach), the film felt more oppressive than anything. Easily the best scenes are Michael Shannon's, precisely because he is the only hint of Yates' authorial, mocking voice--but even this is undercut by the cliched premise, "only the crazy man sees the truth." Not to mention the overwrought symbolism of Mendes' climax--oh, yes, I understand it now, it's a red stain on the perfect white carpet of 1955 America! Deep. Original. I do, however, applaud the scene where Winslet smears a handprint onto the car window while cheating on Leo--my heart will go on and on.

What about the comedies? I hid out in the bathroom during Mamma Mia!, I slept through In Bruges, I laughed hard only once at Burn After Reading (Brad Pitt's pronunciation of "rapport" and Malkovich's reaction), I waited for some real stakes in Happy-Go-Lucky and found Vicky Cristina Barcelona more breezy than sexy in spite of Penelope Cruz's best efforts.

The "intelligent" summer blockbusters were, as it turns out, average blockbusters. Iron Man's lines aren't necessarily funnier just because Robert Downey Jr. is saying them and all of Batman's lines are funny just because of (what I can only hope) is the worst voiceover in the history of the cinema. My throat is still raspy from many, many Dark Knight impersonations that weren't even 50% as ridiculous as what it actually sounded like in theaters. In defense of Batman and Iron Man, I will say they are much better than Wanted, which is, in the immortal words of my friend Kevin McCarthy, "essentially a film about a faulty loom." Quantum of Solace was good but mostly a tease--still waiting for the first full-fledged martini and theme song Daniel Craig Bond picture. And for my tastes there really wasn't enough beefcake in QOS.

I'm more bewildered by all the praise heaped on Rachel Getting Married, which centers around faux Golden Globe winner Anne Hathaway's attempt to play a "troubled girl." I found her performance flat, her personality shown through actions (casual sex, car crash, ugly tattoo) rather than acting. Instead of a realistic view into Kym's possible mental illness, her entire crisis is explained away in a rehab meeting--she is sad and damaged because she accidentally killed her brother. Rosemarie DeWitt, playing her sister, gives a much more nuanced portrait of relentless self-involvement. Even the film's best scene--the dishwasher loading competition between groom and father of the bride--is undercut by the coincidence of dead Ethan's choo-choo-train plate being revealed in a stack of dishes. Ridiculous. And the only moment I really believed Kym was when she yelled for that incessant band to shut the fuck up. I needed a break too.

I should also admit I haven't seen the potentially excellent Synecdoche, New York, The Wrestler, Milk and Che. But I imagine I will find the latter pair unsatisfying because they are biopics and the former two limited because of their directors. Here's hoping I'm wrong. Until then I'm sticking with The Class as my film of the year--can't wait to see it.

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