Sunday, August 24, 2008

Top Films of Fiscal Year 2008

In state government, we don't measure things on the usual calendar. The operative measure of time is in fiscal years (days, weeks and months are grouped conventionally). September begins Fiscal Year 2009, which promises to be memorable. There will be a new president and the Texas legislature will convene for its biannual insanity. Not only that, but the Minnesota Twins are one of the two AL Central teams in contention for the post-season and Michael Mann will take another (no doubt laughable) stab at getting a mass audience to go see one of his trademark brooding crime dramas. Still, at least cinematically, Fiscal Year 2008 had a lot to recommend.

Eastern Promises

In retrospect it makes perfect sense that David Cronenberg would eventually make a movie about tattoos; the surprise is that nobody is fucking them. Nonetheless, David Cronenberg's second consecutive crime-drama-about-identity-starring-Viggo-Mortensen is the best film of his substantial career. It may not be his usual creepily erotic science fiction, but he hasn't totally abandoned his fascination with bodily trauma. In one of the best, most harrowing fight scenes ever staged for film he evokes both the fragility and resilience of a human body. The whole cast nails it.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is ostensibly about a woman having an illegal abortion. The pregnant woman, though, is not the film's main focus (nor is she even its most sympathetic character). This movie reminded me of the equally great The Lives of Others. Both films take place in socialist republics around 15 years ago. What impresses me most about them is that rather than being matter-of-factly bleak they depict people living and surviving under crushing regimes. As dramas they are absolutely gripping but they are also extremely affecting as documents of life without some of the very basic freedoms and privileges enjoyed by most people of this country. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has a long segment that takes place at a birthday party, and the dialogue and setting of that scene alone reveals a lot about how these people experience their lives, their country and their era. Do not be put off by the movie's stately pace; it is monumentally good.


I haven't read Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about growing up in Iran but the animated film is thoroughly, thrillingly cinematic. It twists the standard adolescent-coming-of-age formula by giving our heroine a loving, supportive home. There is plenty of drama everywhere else. The film opens with the Shah still in power and proceeds through his overthrow, the Iran-Iraq War and the rise of the Islamic tyranny that still controls the country (even as its citizens embrace Western culture). Persepolis is just as intimate in its details of life under an oppressive regime as The Lives of Others or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, though Marjane's political maturation (and perhaps the animation) gives this film a vibrancy and joy those other great films rather lack. This is easily the best animated film I've seen in years (and really the only I've found truly worthwhile).

No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers' first adaptation is darker and more cynical than the rest of their oeuvre, but it's a gratifying and full return to form after a few off efforts. Javier Bardem is indeed great, but Josh Brolin is at least as good as Llewelyn Moss, who spends the movie staving off fate after making some bad decisions. Meanwhile, a sheriff and his deputy (Tommy Lee Jones and Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt) are more like a Greek Chorus than the heroes convention demands. Jones considers the carnage these two have wrought he wonders to a mentor if the world is getting worse. His response? Nope, it's always been this bad. Arizona and Los Angeles may bring out the Coens' humanistic side, but in Texas you're still on your own.

Generation Kill

A scant few months after closing up The Wire, David Simon, Ed Burns and Nina Noble returned with this brilliant companion piece. Like The Wire, it immediately drops you into a meticulously detailed verisimilitude and fluid narrative. The show's seven episodes follow a battalion of Reconnaissance Marines on the leading edge of the US invasion of Iraq. The later years of sectarian and insurgency violence have come to overshadow those first few months which, in spite of the military triumph, were also marked by supply shortages and gratuitous civilian casualties. On the former, the Marines of the 2nd Platoon offer a wry running commentary on Donald Rumsfeld's war strategy and reformation of the armed forces. Also like the Wire, Generation Kill is massively irreverent of authority (the officers are almost exclusively incompetent or hungry for promotion) and its blistering anger is complemented by a strafing wit.

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's nightmare phantasmagoria overwhelms. Watching it again I was struck by how many of the scenes and sequences that comprise its 2 and a half hours were indelible the first time through. This guy's worst film is still really fucking good, and with this he's topped himself.

The Dark Knight

The latest Batman movie manages to balance the conventions of the superhero narrative with a densely detailed crime drama in a way that David Simon might appreciate (that is, if he believed in entertainment). These two opposed forces allow Christopher Nolan plenty of chances to ruminate on his usual themes of justice, revenge and vigilantism. Indeed, the climax of the film involves Batman battling the police and the pointed absence of a giant explosion. This might be as close as anyone gets to my Platonic Ideal of comic book adaptations.

The Bank Job

Like Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men, Jason Statham's Bank Job hood is just smart enough to get into a huge amount of trouble and maybe not clever enough to get out of it. This British heist thriller is part fact and part urban legend and, like James Ellroy's American Tabloid, creates a sinister, convincing blend of the two. It's nice to see a movie about a robbery that's plausible, not to mention one with a real sense of danger (surely nobody went to see Ocean's Eleven expecting that Matt Damon or Don Cheadle could be subject to some enhanced interrogation with a blow torch). Surprising, too, that following the criminals, intelligence agents, mobsters and political figures never gets too dense with exposition; director Roger Donaldson has no trouble keeping all the balls in the air. When he brings it all to a head he does so with a quiet, humble confidence. I thought it was a blast.

Pineapple Express

With its carefully considered shagginess, and in being a loving take on a throwaway genre by an ambitious and talented filmmaker, the only thing Pineapple Express really reminds me of is Punch-Drunk Love. Notwithstanding his cameo in Knocked Up, this is also the first thing since Freaks & Geeks that deserves James Franco's talent.

1 comment:

adolfo said...

I haven't read Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about growing up in Iran but the animated film is thoroughly, thrillingly cinematic.
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