Best of 2008

2008 FILMS

By David Ferguson

fergusontx@gmail.com

Greetings again from the darkness.  In the 2007 list, I described myself as “borderline giddy” thanks to the high number of quality movies released that year.  Contrast that to the exasperation I felt during most of 2008 as I bemoaned the paucity of truly fine films … explaining why my number of movie-going trips dropped to 99 for this year. 

As always, my demand for a good story (and the necessity of holding down a full time job) causes me to be somewhat discriminating in the movies I see.  So while I anxiously await the release of films like Milk and Synecdoche, New York, I hold off on those such as Fool’s Gold and Pineapple Express until they hit cable or DVD.  Another of my quirks is that I ignore the traditional arbitrary guideline of TEN favorite movies and just include those I believe should be included. (It is, after all, MY list!).  The comments below are condensed from the original version for purposes of space and to (hopefully) prevent boredom on your end.

Since I avoid movie reviews prior to seeing a movie, judging a film by the previews can be quite misleading.  Revolutionary Road is the perfect example.  The preview was a work of art showcasing a beautiful film with a top notch cast.  After sitting through the movie, I was angry.  While the critics lauded its merits, all I saw was a bitter film with a couple of adult adolescent characters, who think the world should revolve around them.  The other side of the coin is Valkyrie, which after roughly 237 previews, I was prepared to despise.  It actually proved to be a well made, interesting film that motivated me to research the true life events.

As for top performances this year, it is no secret that the late Heath Ledger captured the imagination of many with his truly unique and exceptional turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.  As a selfish film lover, I feel cheated in not being able to watch Mr. Ledger’s career develop over the next 20 years.  I firmly believe he was going to be like Paul Newman or Jack Nicholson … an actor whose mere presence drives me to their latest release.

Other outstanding performances include Frank Langella from Frost/Nixon.  Though recreating the role he made famous on stage, he took the nuances and subtleties to a new level.  Also, the great Sean Penn brought crusader Harvey Milk back to life and Mickey Rourke is haunting in The Wrestler, a parallel universe to his own.  A special shout-out to Robert Downey, Jr for both Iron Man and Tropic Thunder looking forward to Sherlock Holmes!

The following actresses were quite impressive: Amy Adams has been critically overshadowed by Viola Davis and Meryl Streep, but her reaction to having the innocence in her world rocked is what really gave meaning to the Doubt title, though Viola Davis had the scene of the year as she walked alongside and went toe-to-toe with Streep in Doubt. Sally Hawkins proved Happy-Go-Lucky may not be all it’s cracked up to be as an outlook on life; Penelope Cruz exploded in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and  in Mamma Mia! Meryl Streep had us singing ABBA songs in our seats (well, umm, not me … but some people).

So even though 2008 was a down year for great films, there was still plenty to love about hitting the cinema.  The perfect analogy for 2008 might be the Tom Cruise cameo in Tropic Thunder.  As he screamed, sweated and danced onscreen, my thoughts ran from “What the heck?” … to … “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

My Number 1 Film of 2008!

 SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Directed by Danny Boyle

Written by Vikas Swarup (novel), Simon Beaufoy

Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan

This terrific story makes for a spell-binding film to watch! One of my favorite overlooked films of the past five years is Millions, also directed by Danny Boyle. Slumdog has a touch of what I call bleak optimism. The screenplay is by Simon Beaufoy, who also wrote Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Full Monty, and is based on Vikas Swarup‘s novel Q&A. Not really sure how to describe this other than a classic love story wrapped in an odd rags-to-riches tale of survival.  Whew!!  And that is still selling it short.

We get a glimpse of India’s dark side without being slapped with a guilt-ridden social statement. Of course, with the recent real-life violence in Mumbai, it makes the message of the film even more poignant. The movie is actually three beautifully interwoven segments. The working class pauper is having a nice run of success on India’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. Given his background, his success brings with it the presumption of cheating. As he is being brutally tortured and questioned by the police, flashbacks into Jamal’s childhood explain how he “miraculously” knows each of the game show answers.

This is expert film-making with a creative and multi-faceted story and I have been recommending it to everyone.  Be forewarned, the early torture scenes are pretty strong and the story is not presented in traditional Hollywood arc.

2.  THE DARK KNIGHT

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Written by Christopher Nolan

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart

Christopher Nolan can now stake his claim … the Batman franchise is HIS! Taking Batman Begins to a whole new level of terror and psychology, The Dark Knight is unlike any previous adaptation of a comic book, graphic novel or super hero. It redefines the category. For this, we have Nolan, Christian Bale and the terrifying performance of the late Heath Ledger to thank.

Nolan gives us wonderful visuals with Batman’s effortless gliding through Gotham City, Bat Sonar and some pretty nice chase scenes … including one with a stunning Lamborghini. His script delivers some classic lines from the Joker and multi-layers with Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and even Luscious Fox. The fight scenes are not quite what we would hope, but the weapons are very cool … by the way, who uses a School Bus as a get away vehicle (brilliant!!)??

Bale seems even more comfortable in the cowl this time, though the lines are certainly blurred between the Dark Knight and billionaire Bruce Wayne. Seems like half the characters now know his identity (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration). Though Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Rachel Dawes is far superior to Katie Holmes’, I must admit that I am glad to see the love story between the ADA and the Bat come to an end. This guy is most effective on his own … leave the ladies alone!

No matter what you have heard or what you expect, Heath Ledger’s Joker is more chilling and terrifying than you can imagine. The make-up, the movements, the hair, the voice and the flickering tongue combined to give me chills more than once. The closest villains I can compare this to: Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Malcom MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Ledger is even more frightening.  Watch for a 2009 theatrical re-release and see this one (again) how it was meant to be seen!

3.  IN BRUGES

 Directed by Martin McDonagh

Written by Martin McDonagh

Starring Colin Farrell, Brendon Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

Award winning playwright Martin McDonagh brings his amazing writing talents to the big screen and scores with his first turn as a feature film director. The city of Bruges (yes, in Belgium) is the perfect setting for the multi-layered story. Its well preserved medieval architecture is like a character unto itself.

Colin Farrell delivers his best performance to date. He is funny, dangerous, sexy and emotional throughout. This is exceptional acting from a guy who tends to disappoint. Of course, it helps to have magnificent writing and this one most certainly delivers on that front. The dialogue is quirky and quick … so tune in your ears very early.

Additional strong work here from Brendon Gleeson, whom all will recognize from Gangs of New York and the Harry Potter series. He is a tough guy with a streak of humanity. The third piece of the puzzle is Ralph Fiennes as the off-kilter, mastermind bad guy. The supporting work is fine from Jordan Prentice as the dwarf actor (sadly Mr. Prentice is most famous for playing Howard the Duck) and a very cute Clemence Poesy as Farrell’s odd love interest.

Very few writers can write dialogue like this and even fewer can juggle as many layers without making a film seem busy, crowded or forced. Hopefully Mr. McDonagh will bring more of his work to the big screen … he certainly adds a touch of talent! Be forewarned … the “F-word” is quite prevalent, so protect the youngsters.

4. THE FALL

 Directed by Tarsem Singh

Written by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultamakis

Starring Lee Pace, Caina Untaru

I am not much of a fan of director Tarsem‘s The Cell … found it over the top and a bit full of itself. This one, on the other hand, is a multi-faceted visual and spiritual feast!

Starring Lee Pace (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) as a recently paralyzed stunt man from the “flickers” and newcomer-extraordinaire Caina Untaru as Alexandria (a precocious young patient at the same hospital), this film is captivating throughout. Pace wins young Alexandria over with colorful and detailed stories to which we are provided a buffet of images and settings! There is no shortage of life lessons here, but it works on a few levels. Watching the trusting Alexandria discover the truth and try desperately to save her own innocence is both heart-wrenching and fascinating.

This one grabs you from the opening credit sequence and doesn’t let go until the story is completed. David Fincher and Spike Jonze are both listed as Producers and I hope this one finds more of an audience on DVD.

 5. TELL NO ONE

 Directed by Guillaume Canet

Written by Harlan Coben (novel), Guillaume Canet

Starring Francois Cluzet, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean Rochefort

Based on the novel by Harlan Coben, writer/director Guillaume Canet (who also plays a small but crucial role in the film) delivers a very interesting, complicated story that is a great deal of fun … in a stressful way!  While not a big fan of the overall directing in this one, I really appreciate the smart story and the level of suspense.

The acting is excellent and led by Francois Cluzet as Dr. Beck, who is suspected, if never accused, of murdering his wife eight years ago.  Dealing with his grief and anger, Cluzet is a master of the moment.  The entire cast performed well, but I’ll also single out Kristin Scott Thomas as a friend to Beck (and his sister’s lover) and another nice performance from the always great Jean Rochefort (you must see him in The Hairdresser’s Husband).

There were a couple of scenes I could have lived without, but again, I was thoroughly captured by the suspense, mystery and tension of this thriller.  Very different, yet somehow familiar, I had a difficult time figuring out how or if Dr Beck could prove his innocence.  Good stuff.

6. MILK

 Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch

Bio-Drama based on the political rise of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to office, is much more than that. It is a reminder of how ridiculous and closed minded the establishment was just 30 short years ago. Seeing Anita Bryant brought back some scary memories and reminds us just how important it is to understand an issue PRIOR to passing judgment.

Sean Penn turns in yet another of his seemingly endless top-notch performances. However, this time he is not the brooding, mumbling type … he is the issue-oriented, quick thinking, charismatic leader of the gay movement in the 70’s, and he is spot on as Harvey Milk. The film does not portray Milk as a perfect man, but does spend most of the time on his mission to be elected in order to provide a voice for the gay movement.  I also was enthralled with Josh Brolin‘s take on the tough role of Dan Brown, a good man who just couldn’t understand why people listened to Milk instead of him. 

Director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) does a masterful job of capturing the feel of the times through sets, and a mixture of news footage and other actual video. We get a feel for the cause without dwelling on the discrimination and outright abuse that this group absorbed. While not a documentary, it is a strong recollection of a very explosive time in U.S. history.  Just remember, “You gotta give ‘em hope!”.

7. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

 Directed by Woody Allen

Written by Woody Allen

Starring Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall

I have very much enjoyed Woody Allen‘s resurgence and obviously Scarlett Johansson has played the role of his muse. VCB takes a step up even from his most recent offerings, both because of Allen’s crisp writing and the amazing cast.

Scarlett teams with Rebecca Hall, a relative unknown in the U.S., to play Cristina and Vicki, two American girls spending the summer in Spain. Scarlett is the free-spirit; Rebecca is the engaged, practical one. The film takes off when they are both propositioned by a local painter, played brilliantly by Javier Bardem, back in his most macho and amorous element after his trip down psycho road in (my favorite film of 2007) No Country for Old Men.

There are no coin flips this time for Bardem’s character. He wants everything, including both Scarlett and Rebecca. That would be enough for most films, but not for Woody! We are then treated to Bardem’s ex-wife, played explosively by Penelope Cruz. She is amazing as the jealous, suicidal artist who transitions into the warm and caring mentor in a very odd communal setting with Scarlett and Javier.

What adds to the element of Allen brilliance here is the seemingly secondary character of Vicky played by Rebecca Hall. In reality, she is the heart of the story. Feeling trapped into a marriage, Rebecca doesn’t know how to handle her awakening since her Javier moment. Woody really pushes us on the topics of love, desire, freedom, loyalty, commitment and marriage. And if you need just an element of creepiness, Rebecca Hall’s speech pattern and mannerisms remind me of Woody’s-ex, Mia Farrow. Maybe that’s why he cast her??

Some of Woody’s best writing in a long time and a pleasure to watch these fine actors execute. The best scenes are Javier and Penelope, and Javier and Rebecca. Throw in a beautiful soundtrack of Spanish guitar and you have a truly fine film.

 8.  SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

 Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Written by Charlie Kaufman

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

Charlie Kaufman is an astounding screenwriter. His stories include Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich and my favorite, Adaptation. The man is brilliant at exploring and exposing the unexplainable human mind. Here, for the first time, he takes on the added duty of director.

Synecdoche defined means ‘a part for the whole’. This applies to so many pieces of this Kaufman puzzle … the most obvious being the actual scale model of NYC. But much more importantly, we are provided bits of a person’s life and come away with an understanding of the whole. To paraphrase, Kaufman tells us we are each the stars of our play/life. None of us see ourselves as supporting characters. We actually cast the role of the extras through our friends, neighbors, co-workers and lovers. Yet, we remain the star of our own show.

Make no mistake. This film is complex, intricate and comes at you from all angles with multiple levels and story lines. As a viewer, you must commit and work very hard to keep up. It won’t be for everyone, but it is incredibly rewarding for those who invest. This is quite simply a story about life and people … it is a story about you … or me. We try to live our dream but no matter our intentions, the impact of others is what makes a life what it is.

 9. YOUNG AT HEART

 Directed by Stephen Walker

Starring Bob Cilman and the Young at Heart Chorus

Quick … when is the last time you heard a 92 yr old lady singing a Clash song? This is about the most fun I have had at a movie in a long time. It is inspirational and heart-felt and emotional and enlightening. This is a group of elderly people who are each true entertainers and work hard at their craft.

The documentary approach by director Stephen Walker is at times intrusive and abrupt, but the charm of the performers overcomes whatever clumsiness the film crew throws out. Choir director Bob Cilman is a pleasure to watch as he really drives the group to reach levels they otherwise wouldn’t touch. Watching them try to capture a Sonic Youth song is at times painful, but in the end, redemptive. Even more painful is the “Yes I Can” sequence; and worst of all is watching one poor singer just unable to grasp his lines in the James Brown song “I Feel Good”. Luckily, his onstage mishap has no bearing on the performance or his own enjoyment. What a triumphant moment.

The “stars” of the group include the ultra charismatic Eileen Hall. She is 92 years of dynamite! Opening the film belting out “Should I stay or should I go?” is even better when she describes it as a “Crash” song rather than The Clash. Without a doubt the most touching performance in the film is from the amazing voice and persona of Fred Knittle as he sings Coldplay‘s “Fix You” in tribute to his recently deceased singing partner.

I dare anyone to keep a dry eye during Dylan‘s “Forever Young” or not bust out a smile during Bowie‘s “Golden Years” or The Ramones’ “I Want to be Sedated”. The video aspects do not take away from the film at all and “Staying Alive” will have you dancing in your seat! This is one of the special few for all ages. It is a must see and should stimulate some great conversation between your family’s various generations.  The warning here is that illness and death are taken head-on.  While these people are full of life, they are well aware that death is always hovering.

10. THE BAND’S VISIT

 Directed by Eran Kolirin

Written by Eran Kolirin

Starring Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz

A stellar film from rising star, Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin. This film offers the beautifully delivered message that regardless of our culture, we all want to be connected to another person. Other than the language we speak, we really aren’t so dissimilar.

The Egyptian Police Orchestra is stranded on their way to play at the opening of an Arab Culture Center. The language barrier causes them to be stuck in a one-horse town with a similar name to their destination. What follows is a touching story and terrific film-making. So much is communicated with so few words.

There are three or four amazing scenes. My favorite is probably the funniest in the film. At the roller rink, one of the band members assists an awkward local teen with the proper technique in consoling a girl whose feelings he has hurt. It is funny and touching and moving and insightful. Also great are the band leader’s scenes with Dena, the beautiful and lonely restaurateur who takes the band in for the evening.  The two are so emotional and sincere that I continually wanted to scream at them both!

 11. THE WRESTLER

 Directed by Darren Aronfsky

Written by Robert Siegel

Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Darren Aronofsky is quickly joining the elite as the breadth and depth of his films continue to amaze (Pi, Requiem for a Dream). Here, he takes Robert Siegel‘s script and turns it on its ear. The best decision he made? Standing firm on his choice of Mickey Rourke, rather than Nic Cage. Rourke brings more soul to this film than Cage has ever even read about.

Of course, the parallels between the story and Rourke’s real life are well documented and somehow that is no distraction at all … in fact, it adds to the realism and effect. Rourke’s performance cannot be overstated. He is The Ram! Sure, he did a great job with the wrestling scenes, but that’s just the tip. Watching him get out of bed, his hulking walk, the labored breathing and the lighting up of his face as he enters the ring … those are the moments that heighten the performance and, in the end, make this movie so strong.

Randy (not Robin!) the Ram is a sweet, gentle, lonely man just trying to figure out how to make a life after all these years. His life begs the question if it is better to have glory days to look back on or to have no glory days at all. It is painful watching him desperately trying to connect with someone … either his angry, estranged daughter (played well by Evan Rachel Wood) or the tired, re-focused, middle-aged stripper played by Marisa Tomei. He doesn’t know what he wants; he just wants something or someone in his life.

Aronofsky is to be commended for his take on the industry of wrestling. He is quite respectful for these entertainers who work hard, and literally bleed for their craft. More importantly, he captures the community of wrestlers. These guys care for each other and a bond exists that only they understand. While at an autograph show, Rourke’s character catches a glimpse of his future and it’s not pretty.

This is not much of a motivational film, but it is fascinating and not to be missed by those who can appreciate an amazing performance. After watching this, just for fun, put in your DVD of Body Heat or Diner … compare the Mickey Rourke of 25 years ago to the Randy the Ram of today. Also, gotta love the cool Springsteen song that ends the film.

 12. THE VISITOR

 Directed by Tom McCarthy

Written by Tom McCarthy

Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbass

This is a wonderful character study from writer/director Tom McCarthy, also the creative force behind the excellent film The Station Agent.  McCarthy, a well known character actor, breaks a Hollywood taboo by casting a character actor in the lead role. The move is pure genius.

The main reason this film works is the subtle, soulful performance of screen veteran Richard Jenkins. Jenkins plays a college professor who is going through life’s motions while buried in his own solitude (presumably since the death of his wife). He is jolted back to the land of living through an unexpected confrontation with a squatting illegal alien couple.

It is easy to understand how Jenkins is so drawn to the engaging, charismatic, energetic, drum playing Tariq. Watching Jenkins connect with this guy through music is just fascinating.  Of course, the film takes a turn when law enforcement officials stumble onto the illegal alien issue. While the subject is broached, this is no political statement film. The really interesting part begins when Tariq’s mother arrives and has an even greater impact on Jenkins.

This is a very simple story based around a complex subject. The real fun is watching the four main characters interact. All are strong performances, but each is extremely subtle. If you enjoy observing the finer points of human nature, you will enjoy this one.

 13. GRAN TORINO

 Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Nick Schenk

Starring Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her

I was caught off guard by the political incorrectness and comedy and depth of Eastwood‘s latest. Say what you will, but this man has turned into one of the finest and most dependable filmmakers working. He is an expert director with a real feel for guiding the viewer.

Now the hard part. What to say about his character, Walt Kowalski? Equal parts Archie Bunker, Dirty Harry and Buford Pusser. Walt spews racial epithets like a sports announcer spouts superlatives. You will be uncomfortable at first until you can adjust to his nasty temperament. But guess what? There is a heart of gold beneath the rugged body armor. Sure it stretches the boundary of believability at times and certainly his pet project, “Toad”, could have used a stronger actor. Still, there is quite a dose of social commentary on the developments occurring in neighborhoods across the country … both racially and politically.

Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino bears a resemblance to its owner. A relic of the past that still has a bit to offer. A couple of my favorite scenes involve Clint and John Carroll Lynch (Fargo) in the barber shop. These guys go at each other with no holds barred. It is laugh out loud guilty pleasure. Also, don’t miss Clint’s real life son (and the film’s music director), Scott Eastwood, as Trey … the anglo-tough-guy-wanna-be who gets humiliated by both a group of African-American punks and Walt.

So while the viewer is expected to make a few leaps in feasibility, it is in fact, still very good film making. Supposedly this is Clint’s final acting gig and I hope that’s not true. Sure, the patented grunts and moans are a bit over the top, but the man can still carry a scene and a film. Either way, let’s be thankful for his amazing ability to produce quality films.

More Movie Meanderings …

 On the next couple of pages, you will find three categories.  The first is a list of “Mainstream” movies that I feel safe in recommending in case you missed them during their theatrical run in 2008.  Most of these are pretty well known.  The second category is “Independent / Offbeat”, and is a list of films you may or may not have even heard of.  Some of these don’t have widespread appeal, but they were of interest to me … just know these come with a disclaimer (Don’t blame me if you don’t like them!).  The third category is new this year: “Oldie but Goodie”.

I. MAINSTREAM

IRON MAN

Director Jon Favreau capitalizes on the talented Robert Downey, Jr’s proclivity for deadpan wise-cracking in defining Tony Stark  … the brilliant billionaire, playboy, inventor and business tycoon who becomes Iron Man.  Of course, no superhero is complete without a nemesis and Jeff Bridges is wonderful as a shaved-headed Obadiah Stane (and Iron Monger). This one is funny, exciting and very entertaining … plus, don’t miss Stan Lee’s cameo as Hugh Hefner.

MAMMA MIA!

I was not fortunate enough to have seen the Broadway version, and have heard the stage aficionados are not necessarily pleased with the screen version. Judging it strictly as a film, it had me laughing out loud, tapping my toes, singing along (in my head) and most importantly … engaged in the story. This is pure entertainment that most adults will really get a kick out of, even if most of the actors can’t really sing a lick! (Streep good, Brosnan … not so much).

TROPIC THUNDER

Viewed as a spoof on Big Hollywood, this is pretty darn funny! Of course, we live in the time of political correctness, but if you can remember that this is only a movie … you will probably laugh out loud quite a few times. Robert Downey, Jr is truly amazing and Tom Cruise is a surprising and shocking hoot!

GHOST TOWN

American audiences are, for the most part, still not aware of the genius of Ricky Gervais. His delivery and style is very unique and tart (ok, acidic!). This guy can deliver an undressing with minimal effort …and you can’t help but laugh.  This one unfairly died at the box office but surely is worthy of a DVD rental just because quality adult comedies are so rare.

BE KIND REWIND

Writer/Director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) proves two things: 1. he is one of the most creative forces working in film, and 2. he doesn’t see the world exactly like you or me.  While the previews made this look like another Jack Black slapstick comedy, in reality it is a thought-provoking, even touching movie.  Sure, there is a bit of cornball at the end and Black can be over the top at times, but there are quite a few sensational moments in this one.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES

Having not read Sue Monk Kidd‘s novel, I was expecting a sappy, soulless, chick flick that would have me rolling my eyes for a couple of hours. Instead, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) delivers a very engaging film with a message. Dakota Fanning is terrific as the damaged young Lily, who accidentally killed her mother.  The cast is a highlight and includes wide ranging performances by Jennifer Hudson, Paul Bettany (as a nasty redneck), Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo. The film is a smorgasbord of odd family life that slowly gives hope to young Lily.  This one’s not all sweet like honey as it touches on the Civil Rights Act and the ongoing racism of the 1964 south.

WALL-E

Pixar has somehow taken another step forward in their remarkable animation process. This time we are treated to a warning about our consumptive lifestyle and, even better, a cute little love story that makes this point … a simple gesture (holding hands) can be the ultimate connection.

II. INDEPENDENT / OFFBEAT

SON OF RAMBOW

A semi-autobiographical piece from writer/director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the film focuses on the escapades of two young boys making a movie. Along the way, many topics are addressed … family, religion, friendship, loyalty, idol-worship, etc. The boys are so endearing that most kids would enjoy the film and certainly most adults will find it to be entertaining and charming, despite its relative simplicity.

 HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

This one tricked me a bit. After viewing the preview, I really expect a light-hearted message comedy where Sally Hawkins’ eternal optimism would change the world. Instead, we see that, while it is admirable to bring a smile to others, the only thing we can really control is our own emotions.  Written especially for Ms. Hawkins, Mike Leigh has created quite a commentary on optimistic people and how so many of us seem to be beyond salvation. As Poppy says … that shouldn’t stop us from trying!

 CHAOS THEORY

A quirky, surprising little gem from writer Daniel Taplitz and director Marcos Siega (Pretty Persuasion). Not in the traditional Hollywood mode, this one takes us on a very unusual path towards self-actualization. Ryan Reynolds delivers by far his best screen performance as the OCD dad who seems to have the perfect family, job and life. The trouble is, he runs it through endless lists, often burdening his wife (the always terrific Emily Mortimer) with helping him maintain his “to do” schedule. Another film that didn’t draw much of a theatrical crowd, but this is quality story telling that deserves a shot on DVD

MAN ON WIRE

Documentarian James Marsh is a smart filmmaker. Here he has an incredibly engaging and energetic subject and he wisely lets Phillipe Petit (and his cronies) tell the story. It features an intertwined performance from Messr. Petit (today), film clips and photos of his early years, and insight from his unlikely support group who helped him pull off the “artistic crime of the century” … a high-wire dance between the twin towers in 1974.

ROMAN DE GARE

Excellent bit of storytelling and film-making from French master Claude Lelouche. This one has a bit of trickery in its approach and will force you to pay attention to details as you fumble to get the story and characters straight (similar to, but not quite at the level of Swimming Pool).  Magicians, Serial Killers, Runaway husbands, Suicide, Murder, Romantic affairs, Pig slaughter, Family quarrels … well you get the idea. This one has much to offer and will keep your attention as you attempt to assemble all the pieces.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS

From highly acclaimed Romanian director Christian Mungui, this dark, disturbing film shows us the bleak underbelly of Communist Romania. The daily challenges commoners face just for a pack of cigs or to feed a new found kitty fall right in line with solving the problem of an unwanted pregnancy.  Definitely not a feel good, inspirational film, it is still exceptionally powerful in its message … even if the look and feel of the film are what one would expect with a very limited budget.

FUNNY GAMES

For years I have recommended director Michael Hanecke‘s 1997 German version as a sleeper in the creepy, psychological thriller genre. This time he recreates the film in English, scene by scene. It is very difficult to watch at times as it reminds us that the worst evil has no conscience. And most of us can’t help but put ourselves in the shoes of the “normal” victims. How would we react? What would we do differently? How could they let this happen to themselves? As a husband and father, Tim Roth‘s helplessness is torturous.  You will find your inner voices debating as you watch … even though the killings are never actually shown.

MONGOL

Though I am no history buff, I certainly don’t buy this as a historically accurate portrait of the great warrior and leader Genghis Khan. Portrayed here as a caring, fair man who takes much advice from his wife; Khan is presented as a great guy who just happens to kill people who deserve it. So I choose to look at this as a dramatic interpretation of the formative years and experiences of this fascinating figure. This doesn’t have the look and feel of some cheap indie; it really delivers a quality story on a massive scale.

III. Oldie, but Goodie

My son, Jason, encouraged me to add this category to either introduce you to, or remind you of, an overlooked classic.  This year’s pick is one that he and I watched together this year.

 NETWORK

 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Paddy Chayefsky

Starring William Holden, Robert DuVall, Faye Dunnaway, Peter Finch

Winner of 4 Academy Awards, lost Best Picture to Rocky

Sure the newsroom and sets seem dated (it’s been 33 years!), but you will be amazed at the parallels to today’s world and how far we really haven’t come in the battle between News and Entertainment.  This movie foreshadowed the demise of real news reporting in favor of shock journalism and especially Reality TV.  I couldn’t help but think of Oprah, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart as I watched this again.  It really helped me relate to Howard Beale’s encouragement to go to the window and yell “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  One interesting side note, Peter Finch died a few weeks before winning an Oscar for his performance; making him the only actor to win posthumously.  He will share that distinction this year should Heath Ledger win for The Dark Knight.

Thanks for reading.  Hopefully you disagree with me on some or all of my choices.  Debate adds interest and fun to the movies!  Until next year …

 

 

 

 

 

*** all photos courtesy of www.imdb.com ***

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