Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Fifties: A 2008 Progress Report

By the time I wrote this annual feature last year, as a traditional mile-marker for the moment I've seen 50 U.S. theatrical releases within the calendar year, I wound up with a list that, with amazingly few reservations, I would have been proud to repeat at the end of the year. And thank goodness, since I still haven't gotten around to finishing my actual end-of-year feature (which you'll be kind enough not to reiterate in the comments; I know). This year, it's such a different story: I feel strong affection for a solid field of ten or twelve films, but almost always because of messages, ironies, complexities, and surges of entertainment value that well up from the spaces between discrete contributions. What I mean is, my favorite movies from 2008 aren't much laden with great performances, great scripts, or great cinematography, and while it takes nothing away from them to celebrate their game-raising coordination of strong raw materials, I admit that I'd like to be a little more dazzled before the year gets much older. And I'd love to avoid more half-formed mediocrities and out-and-out howlers, which have really been piling up of late. Which is to say, my 50th official screening for 2008, of Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, brought zilch to the party beyond its unbelievably static and belabored theses about class and gender, an uncharacteristic bout of boring photography from Eduardo Serra, and a Ludivine Sagnier performance so vacuous that I started to feel contagiously light-headed.

To be sure, there have been brighter moments in 2008, and for my money, these have been the brightest:

Burn After Reading - The Coens' most consistent, balanced comedy since Raising Arizona
The Dark Knight - A pop blockbuster with emotional and thematic ambition
The Fall - Gorgeous and inventive, with a beauty of a finale
Savage Grace - A ferocious drama that holds tight to its own strangeness
Up the Yangtze - A doc that blooms from familiar dogma to poignant humanism

Yung Chang, Up the Yangtze - Intimate without leering, sobering without glops of rhetoric
Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading - Indulgent to actors, but nimble with pace, tone, and endless oddity
Alex Gibney, Taxi to the Dark Side - Stages a rich, compressed, and polished argument
Tom Kalin, Savage Grace - Treats engimatic behavior with bold, unsettling technique
Alexander Sokurov, Alexandra - Pushes a familiar style into revealing, resonant terrain

Juliette Binoche, Flight of the Red Balloon - Freer and funnier than ever, with convincing neuroses
Penélope Cruz, Elegy - A sterling portrait of candor, patience, and disappointment
Vera Farmiga, Never Forever - Will she ever tire of spinning gold from flax?
Famke Janssen, Turn the River - Announces her gifts for specificity and layered motivations
Catinca Untaru, The Fall - A restless tyke who deepens and enriches an outlandish tale

Chris Cooper, Married Life - Above par for a strong career, with a heartbreaking climax
Ben Kingsley, Elegy - An ideal bridge between Roth's ferocity and Coixet's compassion
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight - Preternaturally inventive, wittily frightening, physically indelible
Karl Markovics, The Counterfeiters - Fine shadings of rattled stoicism and shifting motivation
Ryan Phillippe, Stop-Loss - Thrives and matures under Peirce's direction

Patricia Clarkson, Elegy - Stands up mightily for her character, but also grasps her fears
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Indulgently reviewed, but cleverly comedic
Jenifer Lewis, Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns - Plays to the balcony, but you can do that when you're this funny
Julia Ormond, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl - Lovely; makes her downturned aloofness work for a change
Claude Sarraute, The Last Mistress - Just the puncture we need in the film's turgid self-seriousness

Thomas Haden Church, Smart People - Dare I say his sad-sack routine has aged like good wine?
Barney Clark, Savage Grace - Startingly composed among scary adults, and bigger stars
Stephen Dillane, Savage Grace - A swift sketch of sour arrogance that lingers through the film
Jaymie Dornan, Turn the River - Yet another wise, subtle, convincingly expressive kid
Peter Sarsgaard, Elegy - Quivers with Rothian malignancy and barely veiled self-disgust

Burn After Reading - Reaps laughs from runes and non-sequiturs that would die in other films
The Counterfeiters - Credible suspense that evades obscenity in this context
The Dark Knight - The dangling plots amp up the film's concern with unresolvable evils
Elegy - A stale seduction plot opens out to confused desires, unexpected dares
Jellyfish - Piquant mini-narratives, even when the film is too opaque

Alexandra - A fragile blend of heat, fridigity, daybreak, and dust
The Fall - Resonant snapshots of the florid and the mundane
Flight of the Red Balloon - A kid's-eye view shorn of mawkish overemphasis
Mister Foe - Brilliant with composition, tension, depth, and color
Savage Grace - Color and framing as frontal assaults, in the mode of Contempt

Reprise - Agility and zesty curlicues enliven a weirdly empty story
Savage Grace - Brusque edits evoke a peculiar, psychically specific violence
Taxi to the Dark Side - Mostly a feat of balancing so much data and narrative
Up the Yangtze - Allows curt impressions to resonate with wider patterns
Yella - A better than average apprentice of Lynch and Polanski

Original Score, Burn After Reading - Carter Burwell at the peak of stone-faced parody
Makeup, The Dark Knight - Yes, it's flashy work, but that Joker is already an icon
Art Direction, The Fall - Even when he quotes himself, Tarsem dazzles the eye
Song Score, Mister Foe - A mainline into Hallam, and a window into a city
Sound Design, Wall•E - Melodic interplays of clanks, whirs, and blowing winds

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Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Awesome read as usual; especially pleased by:

1.) The love for Elegy, Savage Grace and Up the Yangtze.

2.) The double-love for Penelope Cruz.

3.) Ledger being put in his deserving category.

I must say I disagree with your opinions on A Girl Cut in Two, but then again, I'm a sucker for Ludivine Sagnier. Still! Awesome read.

8:27 PM, September 17, 2008  
Blogger Lev Lewis said...

No love for Julianne Moore in Savage Grace?

I thought she was brilliant and the best she's been since Far From Heaven.

9:43 PM, September 17, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Brooke (I know I still owe you an e-mail!):

1) So glad to hear it
2) Ditto, though her VCB perf won't be here at year's end
3) Don't you worry about me

I would love to hear an explanation of A Girl Cut in Two, because I saw it with Mike and we were literally at a loss as to what was special about it. I can see that we're in the critical minority by a hefty margin, but I'm flummoxed.

@Lev: I think Moore's very good in Savage Grace (I have certainly taken to her line reading of "MauVAIS!"), but in a way I don't think Kalin is asking her to do much acting. The film insists on its opaque, upsetting surfaces and elisions, especially with regard to its two central characters (Moore's and Redmayne's). They're ciphers, which doesn't mean she doesn't work hard in her group conversations and burn the house down in that airport scene... there's no question I was more satisfied seeing her in this movie than I have been in a while... but I don't think it ranks among her top-drawer work, and in a way, I don't think she's trying for that.

12:38 AM, September 18, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

Tasty! I may have to reply in kind, some time later today, with apologies in advance for completely aping your format. Totally with you on Kingsley, Cruz, Ledger, my beloved Catinca, Clarkson, Phillippe, The Fall, The Dark Knight, Church, Clark and the terrific Dillane, and that Hallam Foe song score. Sarsgaard is borderline for me as he's very good in one single register -- we'll see. I liked Markovics too.

I'm also with you on Moore, who is great fun in Savage Grace but never convinced me she was really taking the job all that seriously.

I may need more convincing that I'm really going to like Burn After Reading, but otherwise this is a feast to celebrate.

Catch you later chez moi!

3:35 AM, September 18, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

whheeeee. i love progress reports.

we've disagreed even more than usual this year I think (unimpressed with Reprise --my favorite of the year? bored by A Girl Cut in Two? even with Benoit's endearingly spoiled showboating? me no understand)

AGREED on what's great about both of Cruz's performances... i shouldn't be shocked at this point but i still am, that she went from someone i could barely watch to someone i am thrilled to be watching ... would that that would happen with every over employed celebrity.

SOMEWHAT AGREE BUT WITH TIM on Sarsgaard. A great note. But a note.

giving Dark Knight actual points for its shortcomings (storyline mess) seems unusually generous when you're normally so cutthroat ;) -- i'm kidding we both know that people who love movies the most are the ones other people think hate movies because they critique.

Chris Cooper in Married Life. It's a strong performance but it's in the wrong movie entirely. I think he's off tone for what the movie is going for... or maybe he just had to pick one since the movie is all over the place and I shouldn't fault him. I just thought he imbalanced it to the point where I couldn't laugh at the humor.

I need to reconsider Savage Grace which I liked but wasn't wowed by... though I'm fully in agreement on Dillane who I noticed got a strange pass from other critics.

9:36 AM, September 18, 2008  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

Interesting. I thought you'd have gone for Moore as well.

I'm behind this year so not seen as much as I'd like. Nice to see some love for Vera Farmiga. I remember hearing about the film yonks ago so I'm happy to see you think she's worth a watch, even if the film is nothing special. Also good to see Ryan Philippe there. I thought he almost matched Cooper in Breach, which surprised me. Maybe he's reaching his peak. Lol.

Dark Knight above Wall-E for picture? Hmph! :-P

How is Pitt in Burn After Reading? He looks so fun in the trailer. I like him in comedy.

3:50 PM, September 18, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: My expectations for Burn were beyond shaky by the time I rolled in, but the movie had me from Hello. Or, more literally, from Memwah.

@Nathaniel: For the Chabrol, I just didn't think Sagnier did anything to let us into her character or make her seem credibly attractive or engagingly contemplative about her "choice" between two stereotypes. And the gimmick of excising any image of whatever Berl&#233and got her up to seemed prudish and affected instead of truly unsettlng, like Eyes Wide Shut minus all the macabre projection. But I know these films are even more subjective than most, when they're relying on this much audience projection.

Re: Sarsgaard, doesn't he kind of explode that note the minute he realizes his dad has an actual emotional life (when he learns about the funeral)? It's a great take, and it really changes the temperature of their next encounter at the hospital.

Re: Dark Knight, I feel like the badly directed stuff that feels addled and unexplained (the thing with the two ferries, the skyscraper raid) is irredeemable, but the more persuasively deliberate asides (the Murphy cameo, the Joker still hanging around at the end) communicated how much chaos and malignancy is coursing all over the city.

Interestingly that you disliked Cooper so much, and I hope you like Savage Grace on second viewing.

@Cal: I can only hope/assume that Farmiga will get a huge breakout lead, but for now, we all gotta settle for tracking down her pint-sized movies and watching how creative she is in them. Not everything she does in Never Forever works perfectly, but she's transfixing.

On DK vs. Wall•E, I slightly prefer the constant unrest and unevenness of the former over the built-in split within the latter: fantastic first hour, rushed and confused second hour. But, as always, that's just me.

On Pitt: he's very, very funny, even if the Coens are often letting him do whatever he wants. A near-miss for my list, as was Downey. They're certainly among the most entertaining perfs of the year. I didn't nominate any of the Burn After Reading turns because the movie thrives so much on cycling among its broadly-played but vivid parts. If anyone stole the show for me it was David Rasche and J.K. Simmons.

2:50 PM, September 19, 2008  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

Up the Yangtze is my favourite of the year so far, but I haven't seen half of the movies you have. I didn't mind Savage Grace, but wasn't wowed either.

I believe you nominated Hallam Foe for something in your 2007 awards so how come it's showed up again here? Have you reversed your "whatever year i saw it" thing when it comes to festival films?

7:21 AM, September 22, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@KC: Still so glad you were a Yangtze fan. I did wind up moving back to organizing the awards via U.S. release year, though I might give Honorable Mentions to (as yet) unreleased films that otherwise would have qualified.

8:21 AM, September 22, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

up the yangste -- Did it play in theaters?

9:43 PM, September 23, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: Yup. Had the highest Metacritic score for in-theater releases for a while there.

11:00 PM, September 23, 2008  
Blogger Catherine said...

Interesting choices, Nick.

I really need to rent Up the Yangtze. My parents watched it a few weeks ago and were raving about it, but I haven't had a chance yet to have a look myself. So far, my highlights of the year have been The Visitor, Man on Wire, Wall-E and I've Loved You So Long. That last one I just saw today and I'm still gobsmacked. Not sure if it's been shown in the U.S. yet, but you need to check it out if it does!

5:19 PM, October 05, 2008  

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