Sunday, January 11, 2009

Party at the Movies like It's 1999.......

Jason over at Jamais Vu has had a brilliant idea: to compose a blog retrospective of 12 of the best films from a decade ago, one short meditation on each film per month of 2009. The goal is to examine some great films with the added perspective that ten years can offer. And it's only that much more appealing since several of the years since then have been cinematic duds (I would argue that 2007 was a similarly excellent year for film; Jason makes the case for 2001 as another great year).

Either way, I'm piggy-backing on his idea (read: stealing it blatantly), and I will also compose a little ode to an interesting/important film from one of my favorite movie years. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this all turns out. Jason and I have a tendency to see media culture from similar vantage points, even if we tend to come to different conclusions about how it works. Case in point, both of us believe that 1999 is the best year in American film in our lifetimes, although (as you'll see) our list of favorites (or at least important films) is slightly different, and I suspect that we'll have slightly different approaches to the films both of us will be discussing. Honestly, I think this is the kind of project that bloggers as a community should do more often, rather than reserving the dialogue (often one-sided) for year-end best-of lists (I'm obviously not exempt from criticism here).

In any case, here is the rundown as I'm writing about them (which diverges a bit from Jason's list):

January: Election
February: The Talented Mr. Ripley
March: South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
April: Fight Club
May: Office Space
June: Three Kings
July: Magnolia
August: The Limey
September: The Matrix
October: The Insider
November: Eyes Wide Shut
December: Being John Malkovich

I'm really sad not to be writing about eXisTenZ or Go or Audition (or Dead or Alive or any of the 27 other Takashi Miike films from that year), but this seems like a solid list (and I didn't discover Miike until around 2003 or so, anyway). More than solid. I actually love every film I've listed here, and it's unusual to see a list so long from a single year. In any case, I should blog about Election in the next week or so, and I welcome others to join in on the conversation.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Coming Soon: Best Films of 2008

The standard end-of-year list will arrive sometime later in the month. I was able to compose last year's list right on the new year because so many of the great films of last year arrived before the awards season crunch: if I recall correctly, both Zodiac and Eastern Promises were even Spring releases. And, despite the fact that I missed out on some truly great films when I composed the first draft of the list (we'll see some of those notables in a blog entry in the next week or so), I already had to whittle that list down considerably to get it to ten.

This year, on the other hand, has not been quite so giving cinematically. Only two films so far that have really swept me off my feet, with only a few others that are even pretty great. A lot of this has to do with the fact that 2007 was one of the great cinematic years of my lifetime (1999 was the best, and there'll be plenty more on that as well!), and 2008 could hardly hope to match it. A lot of it also has to do with the aforementioned scheduling of releases: I simply haven't been able to see a lot of the "2008" films that I think will actually be good since they haven't arrived in my small mid-West town yet. Hopefully, this state of affairs will change in January, and, if not, well, I'll charge ahead anyway!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best Films of 2007 #1: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Now that we've rung in the new year 2009, just when it's really time to start reflecting on the best films that 2008 had to offer, it's about time I finally wrote a bit on my favorite film of 2007.* Actually, it was just returning from a highly acclaimed film from this past year that will not end up in this year-end praise-a-thon that reminded me that the task had gone unfinished. And, since the latter film reminded me of the better earlier one, and since both films are really about looking backward and understanding our cultural legacy only in retrospect, it only seems appropriate that I would open this post by discussing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I had had the utmost confidence that I would love this film when I had first read about it about couple of years ago. David Fincher is among my favorite filmmakers, and his previous two pairing with Brad Pitt are among my very favorite films of all time (Se7en and Fight Club). Fincher was also in top form: his Zodiac, one of my favorite films of the previous year, is just looking better to me over time, and I'm convinced that I'll think of it as his defining work at some point in the near future (if I'm not already there now). Sure, the premise of Button, adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backward, seemed a bit gimmicky at first, but I had confidence that this was precisely the kind of fantasy that Fincher would be able to transform through his misanthropic, Kubrickian vision into a dark meditation on how memory defines experience, on how entirely contingent circumstances define social life.

To some extent, the film delivers on that promise. It's not a bad film: the mix of digital and traditional cinematography is often breathtaking, and the digital effects are even more seamlessly incorporated into the narrative than they were in Zodiac. This is a film, more than most others, that genuinely uses its special effects in service of the kind of narrative it wants to tell, and in that regard, because this narrative is so absurd, they warrant even more care to allow for a suspension of disbelief. A tall order, and the film accomplishes it beautifully. The actors are also all in fine form here: Cate Blanchett has never been more winning, and Brad Pitt here perfects the kind of passive observer role he's been crafting since the beginning of his career.

But notice here that while I'm discussing how well-crafted the film is, I'm not saying a whole lot about what ends toward which craft was directed. And, sadly, the reason is that there isn't a whole lot there. The narrative itself makes a lot of gestures toward some heady issues: the social constructedness of race in America's history; the aforementioned interrelation of memory and experience; the recognition of the contingent circumstances that cause personal experience to become explicitly political. Although, in these regards (as well as in its picaresque structure), it seems to be stealing a page from the equally mediocre yet more annoying The Jerk. A whole lotta critics are comparing the narrative to screenwriter Eric Roth's narrative for Forrest Gump, but it actually reminds me much more of a less fanciful, and thus paradoxically less hard-bitten and pragmatic, version of Tim Burton's similar deathbed fantasy Big Fish.

But I digress. What I really want to get at here is that Benjamin Button is in some ways the opposite of the previous year's Brad Pitt vehicle, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Where Fincher's film uses its gorgeous imagery and its busy and absurd narrative to make gestures to such big ideas, Andrew Dominik's film uses equally gorgeous (if simpler) imagery and the pregnant silences of its narrative to speak volumes more about such issues. For instance, while Benjamin Button uses a Hurricane Katrina subplot to no discernible end (even as such a framing device could have fit perfectly with the sloppily laid out ideas about race, social context, and the governmental intervention into the personal set up in the first hour of the film) other than as a beautiful image that has been evacuated of its social import and thus rendered inert, Assassination uses barely-spoken conversations and nearly still images of nature and of Western interiors to articulate a complex understanding of how a mythic vision of the West had to be displaced by "civilization" (or encroaching governmental policies) even as that very mythos helped to create the kind of "civilization" we have today, defined as it is by the myth of the rugged individual's pursuit of commercial gain. And while Fincher's narrative makes such hollow gestures in the service of a rather schmaltzy, saccharine love story, Dominick's makes such sublime gestures in the service of a genuinely heartbreaking and intellectually astute gunslinger tale in what is perhaps American film's definitive contribution to cinematic genre. In other words, Fincher seems to be up to Danny Boyle's old tricks that I had complained about on a previous occasion (although, as we'll see, his Slumdog Millionaire seems to be a move in the right direction for him), while Dominick has crafted the kind of imagistic tone poem about America's cultural memory that I had previously only believed possible in films like Terence Malick's Days of Heaven or The New World. He has crafted, in other words, one of the very best films of its year, in a year that produced at least seven or eight of the very best films ever made.

* Actually, as you'll note in one of the early segments of my best of 2008 series coming up, I did have another favorite for 2007, but I didn't actually get around to seeing it until the next year rolled in. Dedicated readers could probably guess what it is anyway, since I've written about the film before.