Sunday, January 25, 2009

Best Films of 2008

The year of 2008 saw a ton of new films getting released, but the Writers Strike did take it's toll. Some really good films premiered at the end of the year, but throughout 2008 there were some really interesting films that made quite a splash. Though this year was dominated by some blockbusters (Dark Knight and Iron Man), the films that resonated more, again came from a smaller financial scope but with more heartfelt feeling and more cinematic impact. The list of the films I thought were great achievements was as follows (and in no particular order).

Milk
Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna, Victor Garber, Alison Pil, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabreel

The Wrestler
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry

The Changeling
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Donovan

Wall-E
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Ben Burtt, Sigourney Weaver, Kathy Najimy, John Ratzenberger, Fred Willard, Elissa Knight

The Reader
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris, Elias Koteas, Jason Flemyng

Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar

Elegy
Director: Isabel Coixet
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry

Special mentions should go for the following films. "Speedracer" from Larry and Andy Wachowski, "Son of Ranbow" from Garth Jennings and "The Dark Knight" from Christopher Nolan.

The Reader

Movie name: The Reader
Year of release: 2008
Director: Stephen Daldry
Stars: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
The Reader is the third film for theater director Stephen Daldry. Following the previously successful films that were "Billy Elliot" and "The Hours". His work is getting the stamp of high literary adaptations - this one from a book by Bernhard Schlink (and the previous from a book by Virginia Woolf). The Reader follows the story of the young Michael Berg in Berlin, in 1958 when the city is being rebuilt after the bombings of WWII. Michael befriends an older woman after she helps him to his house, when he feels ill. He starts an affair with Hannah, who likes to listen to him reading to her. When the affair is over and Michael goes to college, during one of his seminars he discovers that Hannah is being accused of being one of the Nazi guards that worked in Auschwitz (and that had the prisoners read to her). The affair is something that haunts Michael's life and his relationship with women. The film's outline sounds like a heavy melodrama with few glimpses of hope, but in the end, it's a film about the meeting of two souls, about how the decisions you make carry you through or lock you in a life that you feel miserable and detached from. The photography and soundtrack are impeccable as usual in Daldry's films, and the acting makes the film gain another dimension. Kate Winslet is fantastic, creating a complex woman, that no matter how hateful her actions, is still more than just a cardboard character. Ralph Fiennes inhabits the older Michael with a sadness and silence that is touching (is there anything this man can't do?) and the young David Kross imbues his young character with the innocence of first love. A very good film worth checking out.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscars 2008

The Oscar nominations are in. It's good to see some really good films being recognized, finally. "Milk", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Slumdog Millionaire" are the front runners, but "The Wrestler" also deserved some more attention (though the nominations of Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei are well deserving). You can check the full list of nominees here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Movie name: Slumdog Millionaire
Year of release: 2008
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
Following the wonderful "Sunshine" from 2007, the talented filmmaker Danny Boyle and his team went to Mumbai and shot "Slumdog Millionaire", the story of Jamal Malik, with particular focus on his eternal love for Latika and his relationship with his older brother Salim. The film introduces us to Jamal when he's on the final stages of winning the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire?". He is questioned by the police of why he knows most of the answers, and as he replies his life unfolds. We see Jamal and Salim as children, Jamal always the idealistic and persistent one, no matter what the difficulties and obstacles are, whereas Salim is always looking for easy solutions. When they become orphans they resort to all sorts of schemes to survive, something that is added by their young friend Latika, for whom Jamal falls in love. Forced to leave Latika behind, Jamal spends his days fighting for a way to survive and to find her again. Using the fantastic camera of his usual director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle (they worked together on "Millions" and "28 Days Later"), Danny Boyle captures the energy and pulsating vibration of the reality of Mumbai. We see the extreme poverty, the lack of sanitation, of conditions, but through it all, Jamal is a beacon of hope and perseverance. This is a love story at it's core and it is an uplifting one. Danny Boyle has always been a fantastic talent and this is another one of his good films. However where "Sunshine" was daring and impeccably executed, this film is a more conventional work for him. A good film nonetheless!

XCulture and Apres Ski

This weekend I was part of the multimedia event promoted by XCulture. XCulture is, in their own words - "The intention behind 'X' was to create a 21st century Live-art "happening". A kick-ass, inspired and inspiring event that brings artists out of their studios and into a multi-media, live-art environment.". Three designers (amongst them, myself) were asked to create a visual representation of a theme that a curator would throw. The three words for the evening were: Planet, Essential and Invisible. Throughout the evening we worked on each other's designs and it turned out to be a really interesting approach to the concept of collaboration and understanding each other's perspectives. Check XCulture site here and here. You can check my profile with XCulture here.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Golden Globes

The Golden Globes have just been announced. Some of the good surprises of the evening were the winning turns of Kate Winslet. Sean Penn did not win, but Mickey Rourke is a justified winner (even if no one can top Sean Penn's performance this year). Also failing to make good winning turns were the wonderful Meryl Streep (for Doubt) and Angelina Jolie (for Changeling). "Slumdog Millionaire" is the underdog that has been winning everything. Seems to be last year's unbeatable film. For a complete list of winners click here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gran Torino

Movie name: Gran Torino
Year of release: 2008
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, John Carroll Lynch, Geraldine Hughes, Brian Howe
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
Clint Eastwood has offered two great films this past year. "Changeling" is already on my list of the best of the year and "Gran Torino" follows in the same line. The film follows what at first sight looks like the walking grouchy cliche that is Walt Kowalski. His wife has just passed away, he can't get along with his sons or grandchildren. To top it all off, his new neighbors are an Asian family that seems to disrupt his quiet and tranquility. Thao the young man from the house is harassed by a gang and through an initiation has to steal Walt's vintage car, a Gran Torino. When he's unable to do so, his family presents his excuses, making Thao repay what his shameful behavior brought on. An unlikely friendship is forged between this family and this old school man that brings a smile and a sense of peace to his life. However the menace of urban gangs looms by. As is usual with his style, Clint Eastwood is direct in his approach to direction and hits all the spots as far as the screenplay his concerned. This is a character tailor made for him, an aging Dirty Harry trying to find some peace in his old age. He knows his mistakes, his shortcomings, and the persistence and niceties of this Asian family, particularly of those two kids, touch his heart. The film is anchored in it's apparent simplicity, but the message comes across loud and clear. Tradition, values and education. It's a film that shows again why Clint Eastwood manages to create great films in whatever he touches.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Wrestler

Movie name: The Wrestler
Year of release: 2008
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Wass Stevens, Todd Barry
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is a wrestler that has had his glory days in the 80s. Now in his 50's he does small amateur venues and goes to small fan conventions, trying to recapture some of the old glory. His only friend, potential romantic interest is Cassidy (professional name, Pam real name), a stripper/dancer (with some age) that he knows from a local bar. Randy also works in a grocery store during the week to make ends meet. Following a particularly difficult match, Randy has a heart attack and finds himself having to quit the Wrestling world. He tries to connect with his estranged daughter Stephanie, but eventually decides to give his final effort in a match with an old oponent. Darren Aronofsky follows the beautiful "The Fountain" with a film that at first sight is totally it's opposite - whereas "The Foutain" was about the beauty of life and love, "The Wrestler" goes for the gritty reality and to showcase the sadness and solitude of a beaten down man. The film showcases a terrific performance by Mickey Rourke, one where the mix between his own life and his character's seems to blend to give a richer and more profound sense of where the end of this character's life is. Marisa Tomei also excels as Cassidy, portraying a woman that knows her youth is slowly going and that her future needs to be changed and moved in a different direction. This is a moving and touching film, one where you can feel the pain and angst of the characters. Unlike many dramas coming from Hollywood, this one doesn't feel artificial, this one goes for the heart.

Frost/Nixon

Movie name: Frost/Nixon
Year of release: 2008
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfayden, Toby Jones, Kate Jennings Grant, Andy Milder
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis:
Following the highly successful (and highly mediocre) "The DaVinci Code", Ron Howard went in the direction of a stage play, and adapted Peter Morgan's (author of the screenplay of "The Queen" amongst others) "Frost/Nixon". The film follows the interview process that brought together british talk show host David Frost to disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon. We are introduced to David Frost early on, as a talk show host that specializes in fluff (aka, interviews with celebrities, quizzes, contests). When Frost gets the idea of interviewing Richard Nixon, he does so with the intention of recapturing his popularity in the US. After convincing the former president, Frost sets out to secure financial backing for his project. Even though this proves to be a difficult project, Frost starts out the interview process much to the delight of Richard Nixon and his aids, who see the interviews as a way of cleaning the former president's image. The most interesting thing about the film ends up being the dynamics of these two different personalities. One trying to get credibility that he never had and another trying to restore what was lost. David Frost understands that his facile way of charming and getting out of the situations won't help in this situation and Richard Nixon sees his oponent as someone he can intellectually dominate. Ron Howard for once doesn't try to obliterate the edges and create an appealing and all pleasing story (as he does with every single film he touches). The film plays out as a duel with these characters, that are served with two wonderful actors (who were also in the Broadway play in these parts). Frank Langella does a terrific job as Richard Nixon, with the sad and tired look, but also with the shrewdness. Michael Sheen does a good job playing David Frost, with his quick remarks but also with the fear that his stake might fall flat on his face. A film worth checking out.

Yes, Man

Movie name: Yes, Man
Year of release: 2008
Director: Peyton Reed
Stars: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp, Rhys Darby, Danny Masterson, Molly Sims, Fionnula Flanagan, Sasha Alexander
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4

Synopsis:
Jim Carrey is back in comedy land, following his unfortunate last film "The Number 23" from Joel Schumacher. This time he plays Carl, a divorced bank employee that says "No" to everything. His best friend tries to bring him to more social activities, but Carl always manages to refuse or to get away from it. When he gets persuaded to go to a self improvement seminar, he ends up being persuaded to say "YES" to each and every invitation that pops up. This new attitude ends up getting him in a lot of different and odd situations, but also allows him to grow as an individual and get a quirky and beautiful girlfriend. As most of the comedies with Jim Carrey, the end is never really the interest - the focus is the journey and how excessive he can get. "Yes, Man" does start to accuse a bit of Carrey's age, but the film also manages to crank a few laughs and unlike the irritating "Liar, Liar", it's facile morality isn't so obnoxious. The film also scores with the casting of the great Zooey Deschanel that is finally getting out of her indie domain. Worth checking with some reservations.

Doubt

Movie name: Doubt
Year of release: 2008
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Stars: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis:
"Doubt" is the adaptation of a very successful stage play that director John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed on Broadway. The film takes place in 1964, a year after the assassination of President Kennedy, and follows the lives of some intervenients of a catholic school run by nuns. Sister Aloysius is the strict principal, nicknamed "dragon" due to her rigorous and dictating style. Sister James is a more liberal teacher, one that tries to be kind and understanding and Father Flynn hovers as a more progressive and modern figure. When Sister James suspects of wrongful behavior towards a student from Father Flynn, she confides her questions and suspicions to Sister Aloysius, that proceeds with her indomitable will to find the truth behind the situation. The film certainly shows it's theatrical roots, and even though the theme is rich and is pertinent as ever, never really gets profoundly examined. The three main characters brace themselves for the storm, and question each other and themselves, and Doubt does appear, but the film itself feels almost too restrained. One of the more interesting characters ends up being the mother of the young student, one that understands all too well the nature of her child, and one that hopes he manages to survive it all. The film manages to capture the viewer mostly because of the intensity of it's actors. Meryl Streep once again is fantastic, as is Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their battle is intense and ferocious. Amy Adams conveys the innocence and ingenuity of the young sister and Viola Davis is terrific as the mother trying to protect her child. "Doubt" is an actor's film, one that allows them to shine, but it's themes needed a stronger vision.