BENJAMIN BUTTON is the Best Film of 2008, so says Capone!!!
Published at: Dec. 25, 2008, 12:31 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
If all goes as planned, I'll have my Best & Worst of 2008 piece for you in about a week. But here's a little preview: David Fincher's THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON will be at the top of my Best list. I could, quite literally, spend 4,000 words talking about this single film and ignore almost everything else that opened in theaters this holiday weekend (everything except THE WRESTLER; that one will be on my list too). Instead, I'll try to break it down to its essentials.
First and foremost, BENJAMIN BUTTON will engage you emotionally, in the most pure and fulfilling way possible. If you cry at movies, you'll cry at this one. If you don't cry at movies, well, you'll probably cry at this one. At the very least, you'll be like me. I never cry at movies. But I do get this strange strain in the back of my throat that is probably my body hurting me just a little because I refuse to cry. I never feel like I'm holding back the tears, but that strange sensation is just a friendly reminder that if I responded to emotion like a human being, I'd be crying at that moment. I've seen BENJAMIN BUTTON three times to date, and I've gotten that feeling every time.
I also love the fact that BENJAMIN BUTTON celebrates the fine art of great storytelling but giving us not only an examination of a full life--birth to death--but also a life lived fully. In this age of biography films seeing a resurgence--MILK being the most recent example--even the finest of those films only gives us a fraction of a life, usually some turning point in a person's journey. But screenwriter Eric Roth (FORREST GUMP; THE INSIDER; ALI; THE GOOD SHEPHERD) takes the germ of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story and transforms it into something, well, transformative. It's a film that takes full advantage of its primarily New Orleans locales by adding healthy doses of surrealism, magic and, yes, even a touch of spirituality to tell one of the most complete and fulfilling films in recent memory.
So far, all I've really talked about is the film in broad strokes. But even when you examine BENJAMIN BUTTON's finer details, you see just how near perfect this thing is. Not only do we get the complete story of the titular character, who is born an elderly infant and spends the rest of the 80-some years growing younger in body while older in mind, but we also get surprisingly complete examinations of all of the people Benjamin (played at most ages by Brad Pitt using some incredibly sophisticated and seamless special effects). Characters such as his adopted mother Queenie (the sparkling Taraji P. Henson) or Benjamin's biological father (Jason Flemyng), who we assume we will despise for abandoning his son on a stranger's doorstep after a failed attempt at drowning him. Jared Harris' Captain Mike borders on caricature, but even he grows on us as he reveals himself to be a frustrated artist. My favorite of Benjamin's journeys takes place in Russia, where he means the wife of a British spy. The unconquerable Tilda Swinton plays Elizabeth Abbott, with whom Benjamin has his first true love affair, despite having a lifetime crush on Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett, whose beauty never ceases to amaze me.)
The long unrequited love between Benjamin and Daisy is at the heart of this splendid work. In fact, the entire film is one long flashback from Daisy's deathbed. Her now grown daughter (Julia Ormond) is reading Benjamin's diary to Daisy as the early winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina threaten outside her hospital room window. It's an odd framing device that has been a major sticking point for many critics, but it never bothered me even a little. In a way, it's Fincher's way of paying tribute to New Orleans and its people, but it also adds a sense of tension and immediacy to the proceedings.
I don't think I want to say too much more about BENJAMIN BUTTON at this point. It's an experience best lived through with as little knowledge of what comes next as possible. I've really only told you about what happens in the lead character's early years, with so much more to come when he becomes younger and embarrassingly handsome. The lingering thoughts concerning the film's many themes that stay with me to this day are associated with death. The world would have to look different to a person getting younger, wouldn't it? I haven't been able to shake that overwhelming sense of loneliness that Benjamin must have felt his entire life, even during those times in his life when he is loved completely, when he is literally surrounded by those who love him. Everyone else would appear to be rushing toward death while he lost his aches and pain and grew more energetic by the day.
I love that David Fincher (SEVEN; FIGHT CLUB; PANIC ROOM; ZODIAC) is the director who finally got this story to the big screen, after so many others tried and failed. His entire career could be looked at as aggressive resistance to sentimentality, and he never allows himself to get lost in it with BENJAMIN BUTTON. There is almost more heart and soul in this film than in any I've seen in a decade, but it never gets sappy or overwrought with swooning atmosphere. He's the perfect filmmaker to keep this story honest and on the right side of dark and uneasy. But in the end, he makes us love and respect all of these characters so much that we cry for them for unexpected reasons. The first time I got that strange feeling in my throat was when one character is reading postcards; you'll know the scene I mean when you see it.
One of my favorite moments in the entire 10 years-plus that I've been writing for Ain't It Cool News took place a couple weeks ago at the annual Butt Numb-a-Thon in Austin. Harry was kind enough to let me introduce this film, my favorite of 2008, to an audience largely made up of people that I've grown to know and love over the years, a few of whom had seen the film already. But something clicked that afternoon (it was the second film of BNAT), and by the end of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, nearly the entire theater of hardened geeks had been reduced to weepy piles of goo. It was the perfect film moment for me. A few days later, I got the chance to do the same thing in Chicago, with almost identical results (although fewer of the men admitted to tearing up). This is the kind of film you're proud to be overwhelmed by. I can't wait to watch it again.