Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008

My 'Best of...' list is based on movies I have seen this year, not on movies released this year. So some of these were rentals of old movies. I have included links to the films I reviewed. Feel free to disagree, or recommend something that I may have missed seeing.

First Tier
Chris and Don: A Love Story
Man on Wire
In Bruges
The Counterfeiters
Slumdog Millionaire

Second Tier
The Visitor
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Frozen River
The Dark Knight
The Brick

Worst Movie
Hands down, this goes to The Happening.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I have been putting off seeing this movie since its theatrical release. The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former editor of Elle magazine, who has a massive stroke and becomes "locked-in". He is completely paralyzed and has only the ability to control one eye. He and his speech therapist develop a (brutally tedious) mechanism for communication through blinking. This I knew before seeing the movie, and it completely doused my interest. A movie about a paralyzed guy who tries to write a book by blinking. I could not envision any possible way for this to be engaging.

The film is nominated for Best Director Academy and wins the Best Director Golden Globe last year (2008) and it is a well deserved award. Director Julian Schnabel finds a way to visually make this a first-person telling of Bauby's autobiography. The voice over of Bauby's thoughts (although no one else can hear) is pure genius and the behind-the-eyelid camera work eases the viewer into the reality of what Bauby is experiencing. The colors are striking, both inside and outside the hospital which provides a strange juxtapositon of beauty and hope with the depressing. This seems to be exactly the internal struggle Bauby was having as he alternately relied on his imagination and memory (the butterfly) to balance his living in the present (inside the diving bell, sinking to the bottom of the lake). A good mixture of triumph, hope, sorrow, frustration and the human spirit. Well worth the price of admission.

The Times of Harvey Milk

Having just seen Milk, it was nice to follow with the documentary version. The Times of Harvey Milk was made in 1984, just 6 years after the assassination, and a couple months after Dan White was released from jail for the double murder of Milk and Moscone. No new revelations in this version, but it is good to confirm some ideas from the more recent rendition. I am always a bit hesitant about absorbing information from "historical fiction" movies. I hate that my only real ideas about some serious history comes from a medium that allows/encourages/requires creative license. So the documentary at least makes me feel better about what I now "know" about Harvey Milk and the development of the gay civil rights movement. I am a bit amazed at how new civil rights issues are for gay/lesbians. This discussion in a public/political forum started in my lifetime. Perhaps this says more about how old I am getting, but in the big timeline, it is still a new discourse for our country. And re-reading that last section, I wonder if one can be "a bit amazed"? Is "amazed" too big of a word/idea to be paired with "a bit"? I am surprised that San Francisco became the center of gay culture only in the last 30 years. My incorrect perception was that San Francisco had always had this character. I am discouraged by the inability for people to truly debate a difficult topic. The Milk/Briggs debate was an excellent example of stating presupposed belief without the willingness/ability to even consider a different point of view. I am reminded that stereotyping almost always leads to misunderstanding.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Sometimes you just need to see a Jackie Chan Kung Fu movie dubbed in English. Supercop (released in the US in 1992) was an excellent way to fulfill my need. Jackie Chan is the Hong Kong detective charged with going undercover in China to infiltrate a drug ring. Michelle Yeoh is his Chinese counterpart (his sister undercover) and together they use their martial arts skills to gain the trust of the bad guys and then eventually caputure them. Nothing surprising in the plot, but well executed, cheesy humor and just fantastic english translation for the voice over. Lots of "Get him" and "Quick, come this way!". Perfect late night, vacation viewing.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bon Cop, Bad Cop

This buddy cop movie is set in Canada with the odd-ball pairing coming from an English speaking detective from Toronto getting partnered with a French speaking detective from Quebec. Even while this utilized many of the predictable buddy-cop elements, and builds on the Canadian stereotype by making the serial killer motivated by a hockey team, I still found it enjoyable. The two detectives have pretty good chemistry, alternating between french and english language, and transitioning from an initial territorialism to an "all-we've-got-is-each-other" partnership. A good sunday afternoon surprise.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Knowing the premise going in (Benjamin ages backwards), I was very curious to see the mechanics of how a person could do this. I was actually pretty impressed with the treatment of being born old and growing younger... until the teenage years, that is. At the end of Benjamin's life, he reverts to an infant, which requires me to suspend too much rationality. While the line of how much disbelief can be suspended varies from film to film, in this case I was able to believe a wrinkly infant born with arthritis and cataracts, but not the shrinking of a full grown human back into an infant. Other than this novelty (upon which the entire film is based), everything else drags. This should be expected for something that clocks in at 2 hours 40 minutes. The point of the movie is made early: Don't take anything in life for granted because everything changes quickly. And then we have that hammered in to us for the remaining hours. The story is not engaging enough, the characters not deep enough, the story arc not mysterious enough to keep the viewer engaged. Perhaps this would be a good rental if (and that is an important if) you are in love with Brad Pitt or like to see movies featuring the makeup artists. Otherwise, there is much better fare available this season.

Death at a Funeral

Very rarely do I not finish a movie. This is one case where it happened. This British flick is centered around the funeral of a father and all the guests that attend. There are the requisite revelations about the fathers past which shake up the family and wacky funeral attenders for comic relief. Somehow it just seems blase. The characters were working through their bits like it was a job. Nothing really original, and no-one was engaging. The only thing going for this movie is that my friend Amy said she really liked it. So maybe I need to give it another chance (or at least a complete first chance and finish watching to the end). But until then...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wendy and Lucy

Open with a grainy train-yard scene and at least the genre of movie is set. This is not a flashy comic book hero or action film with crisp, clean lines. This is "real life". Wendy is on her way from Indiana to Alaska, in search of something better. She is stuck in a stereotypical Oregon town, where the mill has closed down and there are no jobs. And here she is faced with the decisions about what she is able to accomplish as an individual in this world. And it is here that I wonder what qualifies as a good movie. Clearly it is not just entertainment value. Good movies often provide another point of view, are informative, encourage solidarity, etc. without being entertaining at all.

The film did hit one chord exactly right. The sense of helplessness when particular situations are put upon you. You can't argue with the face of the problem even though you know you are right. In this case, Wendy encounters several of these cases. Watching Lucy as she is driven away from the grocery store, exchanging looks with the store owner when they both know the clerk is a prick, asking "Are you sure?" of the mechanic. Sometimes the bureaucracy wins, and the clerk is just a face dispensing justice without any power. This inability (or unwillingness) to rage against the injustice of bureaucracy places a sense of hopelessness over the film, (and Wendy embodies this sense) and ultimately pushes Wendy and Lucy down to the borderline for me.

Throughout, and in reflection afterward, I found myself feeling empty. Or perhaps longing. It is the same feeling I have on occasion when Annika is in an unknown location and I am waiting for her to come home, and she should be home now but isn't. Did something happen to her? All of the thoughts and emotions that flick across consciousness about what my life would be like without her. This is the same empty/longing feeling that was evoked during this movie. So, does that make it a good film? I don't like those feelings. And I don't necessarily feel like I need to feel solidarity with Wendy over her plight.

If you like feeling; and in particular feeling helpless, sad, alone and not-belonging, then you will love this movie. Otherwise, it may leave you empty, with a longing that you try to avoid. Either way it will stick with you.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Harvey Milk is a gay man in the 70's in San Francisco running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. This is essentially the same time that across the country (Florida, Kansas, Oregon) cities are repealing equal protection laws for gay and lesbian people. The acting is superb and the story is engaging. We know from the outset that Milk (along with Mayor Moscone) is shot, so it is a bit surprising that this doesn't just feel like a train wreck waiting to happen. There is a surprising amount of hope in the film (and I would guess in the actual events). It was about 2/3 of the way through before I realized, "Wait a minute, this guy dies...". Great filmmaking by Gus van Sant.

Perhaps the most tragic part of the entire tale is that 30 years later, we are basically in the same place. Annika did some research after Prop 8 passed (repealing gay marriage in California), wondering if it would be reasonable for us to get a divorce and then file for a Civil Union. This is really a bad idea. Something like 1000 benefits that married couples have are denied to those bound by civil union. Not the least of which is a civil union is a state code, and therefore not transferable across borders. Maybe it would take a large show of solidarity like that from married heterosexual couples to make the point and bring this into the light for how idiotic it is.


Saturday, December 13, 2008


Sometimes a movie is good, and you just don't know why. Tsotsi is a South African thug living in the townships. He lost his mother to (presumably) AIDS and left home to live on his own. He has his own little gang who makes money by pulling off small time robberies and has enough of an independent streak to avoid going to work for the local "boss". He is hard, and getting harder. When he steals a car with a baby in it, everything changes. Perhaps what I liked about this film is the search for meaning and humanity when there is no role model for meaning or humanity. Tsotsi has no basis to even consider the existence of empathy or caring. And yet seems to find it within himself and within others. It is not easy, and it is not wrapped up in 93 minutes. But the glimpse of hope is worth it.