Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Films of 2008: My Favorites

Sorry this list is a little late, but New Year’s week was a bit hectic for me. (Jacob came into town; much merriment—and a touch of drama—ensued.)
Cloverfield—The first film I saw last year is still my favorite. Yes, it’s high concept, but more importantly it’s ferociously entertaining, using special effects sparingly and generating gargantuan amounts of suspense and terror. By depicting a monster movie scenario via shaky camera work and naturalistic performances, Cloverfield accomplishes the difficult feat of making its Godzilla-esque premise believable. Some criticized producer J.J. Abrams and co. for exploiting 9/11 imagery to unnerve their audience, but the best horror filmmakers have always used real fears to underlie fanciful stories.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall—Hands down, my favorite comedy of the year. Writer director Jason Segel established himself as a rising talent to watch with this hilarious and relatable film. All the pain of breakups is made as real as it is hysterical, as hapless Peter (Segel) tries to escape to Hawaii, only to run into ex Sarah (Kristen Bell, always perfection) and her vain new rock star beau (Russell Brand). Luckily, adorable and caring hotel clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis) is there for support—and maybe more. By now, we all know the raunchy/sweet, improvisational MO of the Judd Apatow gang movies (he produced this), but Forgetting Sarah Marshall distinguishes itself with strong storytelling and vivid characterizations that go just far enough to amuse without devolving into Cartoon Land.
Iron Man—If not for a Certain Acclaimed Blockbuster, this would easily be 2008’s best superhero film. As is, it’s a fantastic film that delivers the action goods without sacrificing story or character. Robert Downey, Jr. brought his career roaring to new heights as the funny, evolving Tony Stark, who has a traumatic experience in Afghanistan and decides to change from weapons magnate to advocate for peace. The scenes with Stark developing his super suit have the same sense of wonder and discovery that made Spider-man such a delight. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow imbues Stark’s long-suffering (and smitten) assistant Pepper Potts with enough depth and likability to remind us why she became a movie star in the first place.
Sex and the City—No, I’m not one of those gays who gathered around the television for each week’s installment of the HBO megahit. But I was game to see the big screen version with my friend Elon (a devoted fan) and was pleasantly surprised by just how good this movie is. Yes, it’s an entertaining and often witty romp filled with glitzy fashions. (This has to be the biggest ode to conspicuous consumption since The Devil Wears Prada pretended to condemn materialism while celebrating it in every frame.) But it’s also a surprisingly dark and affecting look at broken hearts and the enduring power of love and forgiveness. Besides, the cast’s lived-in chemistry with each other is an alluring entertainment in its own right.
The Strangers—The horror genre is in a weird place right now. We’ve got torture porn, a trend that mercifully seems to be on its way out (though I anticipate annual Saw sequels through 2015). We’ve got a seemingly endless stream of remakes, most of which are as bland as they are unnecessary. But here’s a movie that’s simple, stark, and incredibly effective. The best elements of Halloween—from the shadowy camerawork to the masked killers and spooky sound design—combine into a power house scare show that knocked this horror junkie off his feet. Liv Tyler’s vividly emotional performance as the victimized Kristen helps sell the harrowing this-could-happen-to-you-scenario. Why’d the killers pick them? “Because you were home.” That lack of rhyme or reason may be The Strangers’ biggest scare of all.
The Dark Knight—What can I say about this massively popular, tremendously lauded film that hasn’t already been said? That it’s deftly plotted? Politically relevant? Fabulously acted—especially by Heath Ledger as an indelibly vivid Joker? Said, said, and said. Aaron Eckhart probably hasn’t received enough attention for his complex and sympathetic portrayal of Harvey/Two Face, though, and I will say that the action sequences are killer—just because a movie is deep and dark doesn’t mean it can’t have bad-ass set pieces.
The Pineapple Express—Compared to the humanistic Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Pineapple Express is business as usual for Judd Apatow: broad characters, wackiness, and a secondary plot. It’s a 21st century stoner movie with an action template: Dale (Seth Rogen) and his dealer Saul (James Franco), two sorta-buddies, are forced to go on the run after Dale inadvertently witnesses a murder. What elevates this farce beyond being merely entertaining is Franco’s outstanding performance (he inhabits this lovable flake in the deepest way possible) and that trademark dash of sweetness that balances out all the drug and sex jokes. By the end, Dale’s come to see Saul as more than the “loser” who supplies him his weed—he respects and cares for him as a friend. Altogether now: awww.
Milk—It took years of development and half a dozen false starts, but the wait was worth it for this biopic of legendary gay activist Harvey Milk. Sean Penn gives a bravura performance as the charismatic Milk, who overcame the odds to become America’s first openly gay man in office; the film tells the story of his years in San Francisco, where he became “the Mayor of Castro Street” and helped mobilize an entire generation to fight for gay rights before his tragic assassination by a disgruntled colleague. None of the criticisms that have been lodged at this film—that it’s built on biopic clichés and is occasionally preachy (both of which are more or less true)—have diminished my tremendous affection and respect for it. It’s a hopeful and inspiring tale, full of detail and brilliant acting—standouts in the latter category include Emile Hirsch as queer spitfire (and future AIDS Quilt creator) Cleve Jones and Josh Brolin as the conflicted and murderous Dan White. As Milk says in the movie, “You gotta give ‘em hope”—and that’s exactly what this beautifully rendered film does, at a time when the gay community (youth especially) needs it more than ever.

No comments: