Latauro & AICN Downunder return... and it is a doozy!
Published at: Dec. 28, 2008, 5:49 a.m. CST by headgeek
THE AICN-DOWNUNDER ANNUAL 2008: THE BEST, THE WORST, THE WRAP-UP
Each year, there's an argument about whether it was a good or bad year for cinema. And each year, I maintain that it's a redundant argument, given most lists wind up with ten great films, ten awful films, and everything in-between is largely ignored. This year, however, I found to be a bit different. This is the first year I would actually subscribe to the argument that it was a bad year for cinema. This is a purely subjective viewpoint, mind you, as I've found that the films that everybody else flipped for left me largely unimpressed. You'll see what I mean when I go into more detail below, but this is the first time I would actually say, "Yep, not a great year for movies".
AICN-Downunder did experience something of a hiatus over the past few months, as I was all-consumed with the final season of my movie show "The Bazura Project" , here in Australia. AICN-D will return in full force in the new year. In the meantime, however, this was the year that was...
THE OBLIGATORY DISCUSSION OF AUSTRALIAN CINEMA IN 2008
THE BLACK BALLOON swept the Australian Film Institute Awards, as most of predicted it would. This is not because it was particularly good, but because it was a drama about a mentally-disabled teenage boy and Toni Collette was in it. There are about two or three "award-worthy" films per year, and so the field is usually pretty bare. It was cut out of the televised broadcast that nobody watched, but the best moment was when co-writer Jimmy Jack accepted the award for Best Original Screenplay, ending his speech with, "Jim Schembri. Fuck you."
It was a great moment, because it perfectly demonstrated why our industry is small time and why it will always be small time. Not only do we make films like THE BLACK BALLOON -- which I felt was utter garbage designed to pander to funding bodies -- but when the film wins the AFI Default Award For Screenwriting Because We Have More Categories Than Movies (next year I want to see them give out a Best Attendance Award), Jack could not let it go. He couldn't be gracious. He couldn't focus on his success. He had to publicly release the bitterness he had at getting a negative review from The Age film critic Jim Schembri.
I can understand being pissed at a negative review. Even a completely reasonable discussion of what didn't work can get up the ire of someone who just devoted two years of their life to a film. It's understandable to be pissed. Grown-ups, however, know when to appropriately release that frustration and when not to.
As if we didn't have enough to be embarrassed about, our award winners have to act like petulant children. It's not enough we don't know how to make films that people want to see?
I wanted to see every Australian film that came out this year, but time constraints prevented me from this goal. I missed a LOT, like the apparently-great THE SQUARE, and the Hugo Weaving/Rose Byrne period piece THE TENDER HOOK. I also have a stack of ultra-independent films sitting on my desk that I'm hoping to get to in the new year. (Apologies to all the directors and producers who have sent me DVDs that have gone hitherto unwatched. I will do my best to amend this as soon as I can.)
But, within the relatively narrow field of Australian Films I Saw, here is a rundown of what I loved and what I didn't.
The Not Good:
HEY HEY IT'S ESTHER BLUEBERGER was not the worst Australian film of the year, despite what was said by, well, anyone who saw it. It certainly wasn't any good, limping to the finish line as only an Australian film can once its exhausted all of its ideas in the first act.
No, as I said above, THE BLACK BALLOON gets the award, because it thinks it's much better than it is. As I said in my original review, supplanting actual storytelling for Important Issues Like Autism isn't going to fool anybody who watches more than one film a year. Poor characterisation, poor dialogue, and some truly surreal (not in a good way) directorial choices made this a complete chore to sit through. A film journalist friend of mine send me a text message right after he'd walked out after the first fifteen minutes. His message expressed a lot of anger at what he'd just had to sit through. I didn't have the heart to tell him that was the best part of the film. What a waste of time.
The Very Good:
CACTUS received even less attention than THE TENDER HOOK, if that's possible. Though it does have a few issues with structure, CACTUS was a complete surprise to me, being as it was a Very Good Australian Film. This film at least had an idea where it was heading, knew how to set up a plot, and contained more than a few interesting characters. So why was it so summarily ignored? Oh yes, it wasn't about autism, or prostitution, or whatever this year's hot button topic is.
Similarly, BLACK WATER failed to make a splash (lolz!), because it was a meagre crocodile film. Also, it was really entertaining, which, I understand, automatically disqualifies you for an AFI. Terrific acting, terrific direction, and a script that knew exactly where it was going. Writer/directors David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki should sell out and go to Hollywood as soon as humanly possible, as Australia clearly doesn't know what to do with them. (BLACK WATER did very badly in Australia. Go figure.)
Short film THE FUNK may have been an exercise in style (at under ten minutes, it's welcome to be), but it totally knocked my socks off. I'm hoping to see a lot more from director Cris Jones in the future.
Steven Kastrissios's THE HORSEMAN may have contained many flaws, but I'd still rank it above most local output. A good, old-fashioned revenge film, HORSEMAN abandons the excesses and tangents that plague many films in this vein, and maintains a consistent, entertaining pace from beginning to end. Trust me, you'll be hearing more from this film and this filmmaker in the future, so keep an eye out.
NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD's use of Quentin Tarantino, the acknowledged film expert/guy who makes things cool, seemed to single-handedly do away with the cultural cringe that dogs Australia's relation to its own cinema. His objective enthusiasm for films most of us had long forgotten gave our cinematic history a sudden legitimacy that it had never before known. It spurred the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Brisbane International Film Festival to put together Ozploitation retrospectives, though full credit must go to the Melbourne Underground Film Festival for doing it first, before it was hip. But NQH will be discussed in greater detail below...
AICN-DOWNUNDER'S WORST FILMS OF 2008
When I opened my mail and discovered a pass to a screening of BABY MAMA, I noticed that the ticket read "Seats limited, be early to avoid disappointment". My plan of being absent to avoid disappointment seemed so much more effective. Similarly, I avoided SEX AND THE CITY, MEET DAVE, THE LOVE GURU, BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS and many others that you can see coming a mile off. I have no interest in seeing everything, especially when so much is so bad. Most of the films below are ones I had hope for, and so the disappointment is so much more palpable. And boy, were they some big disappointments. If you'd told me at the start of the year that I would see ten films worse than 10 000 BC, I'd have spent the entire year hiding under my bed. Nonetheless, here is the list:
I've not been lucky enough to see the classic that is BOXING HELENA, but the fact that Jennifer Lynch shares DNA with David Lynch is enough to pique my interest. Thusly, I entered SURVEILLANCE with moderate (but not high) expectations. SURVEILLANCE has a plot twist that was apparent to me within the five minutes, therefore creating an immense amount of tedium as I waited for the revelation to come. In the meantime, I was treated to a series of scenes in which two cops harass innocent people. This, in itself, is not an issue, but Lynch seems to believe that this is really, really funny, and tries to present their scenes as comedy. It's horribly distasteful, and made me quite sorry I skipped out of the Eric Bana MAD MAX 2 Q&A session a few questions early just so I could see it. Bleuch.
9. THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE
"This film has been kept secretive because nobody knows what to do with it. It's so utterly awful, that it's probably a better idea that we pretend it didn't happen, because when we all come to make our Worst of 2008 lists, I doubt we'll even remember this one came out." So ended my original review of the second X-FILES film. I put that statement down to wishful thinking. I have not, sadly, forgotten this film, nor its uncompromising blandness. It baffles me that anybody at any stage of this process thought this script would be a good idea. Its jokes aren't funny, its story isn't interesting, its subtext is really disturbing (don't fear the paedophile -- fear the victim of paedophilia!), and its third act would have seemed lame if it was wrapping up an episode of, say, a supernatural show from the 1990s. This is lazy, lazy stuff, and though I believe that most franchises I once loved can be successfully brought back, I WANT TO BELIEVE I CAN THINK OF A BETTER TITLE has cemented the fact that THE X-FILES is best left alone.
8. SOUTHLAND TALES
When it was finally dumped on DVD here in Australia after the protracted wait, something surprising happened: I loved this film. Utterly loved it. Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely unreleasable and bad in ways I don't think I've fully come to grips with, but I love how head-first-into-the-wall awful it truly is. This is a giant mess of a film that proves Richard Kelly may have contracted Shyamalan Syndrome; that is, he's come to believe everything everybody has said about him, and written a film with this in mind. It's included here not just because of what a nuclear disaster it is, but of the harm Kelly managed to do to himself. The misguidedness of SOUTHLAND forced many to take another, more critical look at DONNIE DARKO to see if it was the piece of genius we all proclaimed it as upon its release. Now, I love DONNIE DARKO, but I think it only holds up to critical scrutiny up to a point. Where many classic films simply get better with analysis, DARKO gets better until you hit the peak, and then it all falls apart... The fact that SOUTHLAND nearly ruined another, largely-unrelated film for me is a truly impressive feat. SOUTHLAND, it must be said, does contain some great elements. A couple of scenes towards the end are excellent, Sarah Michelle Gellar is hilarious, and Dwayne Johnson continues to be utterly brilliant in terrible movies (does that qualify him for a buddy movie with similarly-stricken Brendan Fraser?). Still, these elements don't save it from itself. Unwatchable, yet unmissable.
7. PRIVATE LESSONS
The performance of teenager Jonas Bloquet is really the only thing to recommend in a film that can only be described as a ponderous, morally-corrupt, French piece of crap. The story of a teenager who is taught the ways of sex by older family friends is one of the most poorly mishandled films I've seen in a while. The only hope for the film was that the horribleness of the older characters would somehow become the point of the whole excerise. It didn't. Instead, the fact that they screwed up this poor kid was the film's "twist", as if everything else leading up to that point had been completely acceptable. And I'm not some ranty ideologue, either; I have no problem accepting moral ambiguity, but not when it's done as badly as this. The only piece of good news is reserved for Francois Ozon: his film 5X2 is no longer the worst French movie I've ever seen.
6. WORDS OF WISDOM (WILLIAM S BURROUGHS
As I discuss below, 2008 was a great year for documentaries. The exception that proves this rule is WORDS OF WISDOM, close to the worst documentary I have ever seen in my life. Rather than being an examination of Burroughs, or his work, or interviews with people who knew him, the film is a meandering mess that careens from unengaging anecdote to unengaging anecdote without any throughline at all. The interviews themselves are with people who appear to have met him once or twice, and the lion's share of the film is given over to a friend of the filmmakers; a self-important writer who asked asinine questions of Burroughs during a random book tour, and someone who Burroughs purported to dislike. Utter rubbish.
5. SMART PEOPLE
Not really expecting this one in here, were you? A quirky character drama with some decent actors? How could this possibly be in the worst list? Well, it's here in part because of its assumption that it can coast by on contrived character quirks and literary references and be considered part of the intellectual arthouse canon. The plot is dull and lazy; the characters are poorly-conceived; the dialogue is atrocious. I had been looking forward to this film, and was in quite a good mood when I watched it, so there were no extraneous outside influences or prejudices that got in the way of the film. No, for what it was -- an arty character piece -- it was an utter, abysmal failure. Sadly, it is not the only example of lazy arty-ness this year, but we'll get to that a little later in this list...
4. MAX PAYNE
Perhaps not the most unpredictable entry, but one that got me thinking: why is it that nobody can make a good film out of a video game? These things actually seem to be getting worse. MAX PAYNE is a joke from start to finish, with laughable direction, performances that aren't even fun on an ironic level, and tedious nods to what I'm told are bits from the game. Seriously, if you can't make a film and leave behind the bits that clearly only belong in gameplay, then don't make the fucking thing. Even the sound design on this thing was bizarre. If you're noticing how bad the sound is, then you know something's wrong. Hollywood is oft mocked for its base-level shite; this film helps redefine just how bad it can get.
3. MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Congratulations, MARGOT. You beat the rubbish SMART PEOPLE, the tedious PRIVATE LESSONS, and the thoroughly-overrated THE SAVAGES to earn your place as the most cynical, detestable character-based film of the year. It's not like I don't like Noah Baumbach, either. I adore the Wes Anderson films he had a hand in scripting, and I thought his SQUID AND THE WHALE was terrific. MARGOT is not. MARGOT features the most unlikable characters I've ever seen in a film treating each other horribly. And, interspersed with this, we get to see them masturbate and defecate themselves. I could live with all of this if the film seemed to have any sort of point to it, but the only point I could glean was that horrible characters being mean to each other somehow translates to arthouse credibility. Just as this year proved to the masses that a film like DARK KNIGHT -- a comic book movie of all things! -- could be taken seriously, MARGOT proved -- to the small number of people who suffered through it -- that character studies can be as bad as any MAX PAYNE. Or, sometimes, worse.
2. THE HAPPENING
I loved THE SIXTH SENSE. I figured out the ending halfway through, and did so on a first date (which, believe it or not, impressed the girl no end), so the affection with which I recall that film is genuine. Likewise, I absolutely loved UNBREAKABLE. I loved the tone, the script, everything about it. Even the hokey (but thematically relevant) title cards at the end. The goodwill from those films helped me to forgive SIGNS its sizable narrative flaws, and I enjoyed it a lot at the time. Then THE VILLAGE happened. Though I consider it to be his best directorial effort, I also considered it to be his worst script to date. Suddenly, his trademark twist (which, he assures us with every film from SIGNS onwards, will not appear in this film!) was proving to be his undoing. Had THE VILLAGE avoided the stunningly obvious twist and instead presented itself as a straightforward monster film, it would have been a raging success (in my uneducated opinion, naturally), but he couldn't resist his 180 degree switcheroo. Then there was LADY IN THE WATER, the film that cemented M Night Shyamalan's opinion of himself. Honestly, if you're going to do write a character whose works are so brilliant that they inspire future world leaders, don't cast yourself in that role. At least pretend you don't have a runaway ego that could consume cthulhu in one gulp. Oh, and the film was garbage, too. So you can see how my opinion of his works changed over the course of this stage of his career, and you can see how I felt THE HAPPENING would be his make-or-break film. The verdict? BREAK. Honestly, I can't believe that he's getting a budget for another film after THE HAPPENING, which saw him reach an absolute nadir (to date!) in his writing and directing. An absolute joke a film that has nada going for it. Embarrassing for all involved.
Let's be clear: MAX PAYNE is, on the surface level, a far worse film than AUSTRALIA. However, one cannot help but judge films on their intent, or, at least, their perceived intent, and AUSTRALIA wore this intent on its sleeve with such overtness, it was impossible to ignore. AUSTRALIA wanted to be a sweeping romantic epic that hit the heights of GONE WITH THE WIND. Preoccupied with this mantle it so desperately wanted, AUSTRALIA never does anything of note. With every scene, the question seems to be on Baz's mind: "would a scene like this be in an epic?". Such concern with being an epic masterpiece robs the film of anything that might make it unique or interesting. Its self-consciousness, however, is not its primary undoing. The dialogue is on par with a bad pantomime -- and the fact that they're doing it on purpose does not excuse this fact -- and the less said about the acting, the better. (Although, in defence of Nicole, I give her credit for interpreting every moment exactly as the script and the direction demands. Her awful performance should really be blamed on Luhrmann.) The racism that permeates the film doesn't help much, either. Painting Hugh Jackman's character as the White Saviour of Aboriginals probably seemed like a good idea in theory, but it's done in such a cartoonish manner, it comes off as over-earnest political correctness for the sake of it. And I'm certain it didn't occur to anybody that having the Aboriginal characters hide in the background whilst Jackman fights for their honour might be considered racist, but then, given the film features mysterious Aboriginals with magical powers, as well as a Chinese cook named Sing-Song who makes Mickey Rooney's BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY performance seem completely appropriate, they probably weren't paying a lot of attention. Add to that an unfocused, meandering narrative, some horrifically lazy characterisations, and a deflatingly limp happy ending, and you have what I consider to be the biggest disaster of the year. I've been told to not take it so seriously, to just enjoy it on a surface level. Save for one scene (the admittedly well-constructed scene with the cattle at the cliff's edge), I am unable to do this. To be entertained by any moments in the film, they need to be entertaining, and that's one thing this disaster is not. And, Jesus, the ego it takes to call this film AUSTRALIA... Honestly...
AICN-DOWNUNDER'S BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2008
I used to be amazed when other writers on this site would have a separate Best Doco section. I couldn't imagine seeing so many docos in a year that you'd not only be able to put a top ten together, but have a list that was exclusive enough to leave things out!
Well, this year I went through the looking glass and saw a significant number of documentaries. Most of these were at the Melbourne International Film Festival, but I also saw quite a few outside of MIFF. Either way, for my money, this was the best year to date for docos, and these entries have more than justified their appearance on this list. To be honest, I'm more impressed with this list than I am with the narrative films, something I never thought, what with my love of a good plot-driven movie, would ever happen.
Usually, when a known film actor narrates a documentary, it's because the actor wants a bit of credibility and the filmmakers want a bit of press. With DEREK, however, narrator Tilda Swinton happened to be both the writer and, most importantly, a close friend of the subject, experimental artist Derek Jarman. The strength of the film comes from the fact that Jarman, who died from AIDS in the 1990s, actually narrates his own life story via archival footage. I knew this film worked because I had absolutely no knowledge of Jarman before it began, yet found the entire film to be highly interesting at every moment. A superb film.
9. ROCK'N'ROLL NERD
Documentaries about famous people tend to fall into one of two categories: they're either archival stories of the subject's life, told with the benefit of hindsight, or they're current and timely looks at them in close up. ROCK 'N' ROLL NERD does something I'm not sure any doco has done before: some friends of musician/comedian Tim Minchin decided to start making a doco about him. The thing is, he was not well-known, not successful, and was considering quitting because he wasn't making any money. Michin's success comes over the course of the film, and we get an incredibly personal look at his life as he reacts to the fame and success that he experiences. For that unique fact alone, this film is notable. Consider, then, Minchin's charm and humour to be something of a bonus. That's his on-stage persona, though; off-stage he comes off as a bit over-sensitive and insecure, although these traits are probably highlighted only because we're not used to seeing subjects in such a personal light. A fascinating example of being in the right place at the right time.
8. PLANET B-BOY
My carefully-planned day had finished five hours early. Usually, this is a good thing, but it's a great thing if it's during the Melbourne International Film Festival and you have a festival pass sitting comfortably in your wallet. The great thing about a festival like this one is the freedom to walk into something you've never heard of before, but because of my tendency to overbook myself, this was the first time I'd ever been able to do this. A documentary about breakdancers competing in a worldwide breakdancing competition? Uh, yeah, okay. I'll take a look. Director Benson Lee begins with the origin of breakdancing, where the whole point and significance is economically described in a thoughtful and articulate manner. Not what I was expecting, but if the whole film had been like this, I'd have been completely satisfied. From there, however, we are told of the breakdance competition, and introduced to many of the competing countries. We learn that the Koreans are the most inventive, the Japanese are the most technically flawless, the French have the most beautiful movements, etc. We meet a variety of interesting people, and, in-between learning their stories, we see them perform some truly amazing dance moves. Before the film, I had no interest or knowledge about breakdancing. Five minutes in, I considered myself a fan of an artform that the rest of the world just didn't understand. Seriously, this is one to seek out.
7. ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
I may have been a late convert to Werner Herzog, via his science fiction mockumentary THE WILD BLUE YONDER, but that film was so masterfully beautiful, I became immediately intrigued by anything and everything the man did. This, of course, made ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD a must-see, and it's an interesting companion piece to YONDER. ENCOUNTERS is a documentary about the people who live in Antarctica. Though the film is a little discordant at times, Herzog's amazing narration, and the personalities of the people he meets, make this film one of the most engaging, hilarious and downright enjoyable documentaries I've ever seen.
6. THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS
KING OF KONG received, quite rightly, a lot of coverage on this site, so there's little left to tell you about this story of a man obsessed with Donkey Kong. The film may be manipulative -- but what film isn't? -- but the personalities of the two men, the overtness with which we're shown who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, is what makes this film what it is. A challenge: try to watch this film and stay in your seat, don't applaud, refrain from cheering. You won't be able to do it. I saw this film with the usual crowd of silent, jaded critics, and our cinema was most anything but subdued. Watch it with someone who is certain they're not going to enjoy it, just so you can say "I told you so" at the end with all the self-satisfaction you can muster.
5. MAN ON WIRE
Though I enjoyed MAN ON WIRE upon first viewing, it was only afterwards when the film stayed in my brain and continued to play itself out that I realised just how good it was. The story of Phillippe Petit, the Frenchman who illegally crossed New York's Twin Towers on a thin wire back in 1974, is one you really shouldn't miss. The background of Petit, the recreated flashback footage, and the genuine flashback footage move this from an amusing anecdote into an excellently-crafted story of a man who turned a defiant act of gymnastics into a work of art. Easily one of the year's best docos.
4. MY WINNIPEG
Ever since my "Bazura Project" co-host Shannon Marinko introduced me to Guy Maddin via his amazing 2000 short THE HEART OF THE WORLD, I have, with fierce determination, awaited every future release from the Canadian-born filmmaker. My next experience with him was BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!, a truly amazing film that was in my top ten last year . MY WINNIPEG is better. There's a thrill I get from typing that, because I really loved BRAND, and so watching a filmmaker improve upon his own brilliance is really what makes you happy to be a film geek. MY WINNIPEG is a truly amazing autobiography told in Maddin's unique style. Some elements seem fictitious; others seem far too weird to be made up. I don't know what's real and what's not, and I really do not want to know. I'm happy with this film exactly as it is. Every city deserves to have a filmmaker of Maddin's talents tell its story through their eyes, and I've developed a true affection for Winnipeg (which I've never visited) by seeing it through such a personal and fantastical lens. I really, really loved this film, and I can't wait to see what Mr Maddin gives us in the future.
If you need further proof that 2008 was a great year for docos, TRUMBO is number three instead of number one. Any other year, TRUMBO would trumpo every other film. It is a sensationally good film, mixing the biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with noted actors performing everything from his scripted monologues to letters he wrote to the phone company. Trumbo used the English language better than nearly anyone else, and this film perfectly captures this. I never rank movies out of five, but if I did, this would be an automatic five. One of the most enjoyable experiences I had with a movie all year, and one I am dying to revisit.
2. WALTZ WITH BASHIR
Writer/director Ari Folman can give himself a well-deserved pat on the back for essentially reinventing the documentary, or, at minimum, opening up a world of possibilities that I'm praying are explored in the future. Folman delves into a dark period of his life in the Israeli army, a period he has no memory of, and he goes in search of these memories through interviews with old army buddies. Oh, and the film is animated. This is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see; the animation (which I believe is not rotoscoped, no matter how much it looks like it) frees him up to interpret events with a sense of both heightened reality and pragmatic fantasy. When you spend the entire running time of a film feeling utterly stunned at just how good it is, you know you've been treated to something special. You simply cannot miss this seminal piece of cinema.
1. NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD
Every year I hope an Australian film will be somewhere in my top ten, and every year I'm largely disappointed by what's on offer. So, when NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, I couldn't believe it. Here was a film that did many, many things at once; most importantly, it was the most energetic and entertaining film of 2008. Period. That's the point I try to push to people when I tell them about it, and I usually cover up the fact that it's really educational. I knew practically nothing about this period of Australian film, and I soon found out why. Director Mark Hartley had been unable to find much, or any, info about these films in books on Australian cinema, all of which seemed to focus on the Australian New Wave (Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce, etc). Shlocky films by guys like Brian Trenchard-Smith and Richard Franklin were simply not discussed. The only hope you had of being remembered is if you were George Miller, whose MAD MAX was one of the few examples of crossover between Australian New Wave and Ozploitation. Ah, there's that term! Ozploitation. Most film movements are never recognised during their time, only in retrospect, and even then, it's hard to pin down who first recognises them as such. This is, perhaps, the clearest example of a film movement origin. Interviewee Quentin Tarantino coins the term "Aussiesploitation", which Hartley then adapts to "Ozploitation". And thus, a film movement is formed. For that reason alone, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD should be considered an important film, but the way it's presented ratchets this up to claim the mantle of one of 2008's best films. In any form. If you're even a casual devotee of cinema, then you must do all you can to track down this film.
AICN-DOWNUNDER'S BEST NARRATIVE FILMS OF 2008
And now, to the main event. Or so those of us who snobbishly place more emphasis on narrative films than documentary films would believe. The truth is, when I think back to the films I saw this year, I'm far more excited by the films on the doco list. The following narrative films did not actually inspire me much at all. At the beginning of the year, I almost published a list of the films I thought would make this top ten, and I wish I had now, as I was almost completely wrong about all of them. This is, as always, an incomplete list, partly due to films I've missed, and partly due to the end-of-year disparity between Australian and international release dates. I've not yet seen MILK, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, three facts which bother me a lot.
For those interested, my nearly-made-it list includes:
WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY -- I know it's not a popular film, but it's one of the most spot-on satires I've seen in a while, and it made me laugh a lot.
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY -- Mike Leigh's film is more of a character study than an actual narrative, but as character studies go, it's one of the year's best.
GARDENS OF THE NIGHT -- After this film, I will never make fun of Tom Arnold again. Yes, that Tom Arnold. I didn't know he had a performance like this in him.
SOMERS TOWN -- Shane Meadows make a subdued, but terrific, film to follow up his amazing THIS IS ENGLAND.
SON OF RAMBOW -- A film I really, really, really, really liked... but didn't love.
PERSEPOLIS -- Part narrative, part documentary, all in animated form. About ten times funnier and engaging than you're expecting.
THE VISITOR -- A beautiful character piece with Richard Jenkins in a perfectly-fitting lead role.
REDBELT -- This is an okay David Mamet film, which makes it great compared to nearly anyone else's film. Definitely worth seeking out.
TROPIC THUNDER -- Yeah, I loved it. Sue me.
GRAN TORINO -- There are a lot of flaws in the film that contains what people tell me is Eastwood's last starring role, but there's a lot of great moments in here, too.
10. GONE BABY GONE
I have absolutely no problem with Ben Affleck as an actor. I really like him, actually. However, the sheer talent he displayed behind the camera as director of GONE BABY GONE should be proof that the guy's true calling lies behind the lens. For a directorial debut, GONE is made with such flawless command, that more established directors should really be taking note. The film also contains further proof that Casey Affleck can do just about anything on-screen, and if the film was nothing more than a showcase of talent for the Affleck boys, it would still be enough to recommend it. But with an unusually compelling story propelling the film along, as well as a cast with no weak spots, you end up with one of the year's best films. If you missed this during its brief run, buy it.
9. THE DARK KNIGHT
Hey, anyone wanna guess what the talkbackers are all gonna be bitching about below? How dare I put DARK KNIGHT so low on the list! It reinvented cinema as we know it! Well, it didn't. It's damn good, but it's also damned flawed. Honestly, how many times must Nolan et al have a third act that hinges on Gotham being evacuated? And how many narrative strands can be crammed into one film before it buckles and cracks under its own weight? It's a film that tries to do too much, and, to my mind at least, it's a film that suffers from impossibly high expectations. Nevertheless, once I brush aside those expectations (ingrained though they may be), I find that the film is actually very, very good. Heath Ledger's performance got a lot of attention because of the tragedy of his death, and because of how flashy it was, and I think the attention it receives actually undervalues its power. Ledger's Joker is the seminal depiction of the character, a true example of both the writer and the actor understanding exactly what makes a villain like this tick. It was a joy to watch. I really like Bale's Batman, silly voice and all, and Eckhart made a brilliant Harvey Dent. The opening bank robbery sequence is unparalleled, the underlying themes are more interesting than most any other superhero movie, and the seriousness with which the filmmakers take the subject is so refreshing. I don't think ignoring the film's flaws necessarily does it any favours, but there's enough in here for me to love, and more than enough for it to sit comfortably as one of the ten best films of the year.
8. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
You'll note that, for a top ten list, there is a continued theme of flawed movies. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is not a great film. It is a very, very, very good film that can see greatness from where it's standing. It's so damn close, I got a little frustrated towards the end, but it shouldn't detract from the film's actual quality. You know the way Charlie Kaufman takes a high concept and explores it in every permeation? BUTTON nearly does that. It explores a lot of different themes in interesting ways, but for a film that runs for over two and a half hours, I think they could have comfortably inserted a few more ideas in there. Nonetheless, BUTTON skims the surface of greatness with a central performance that could well be Pitt's best yet. His movie star looks tend to distract people from his acting talent, yet he completely sells us on the idea that he's a seven-year-old in a seventy-year-old body. Of course, the makeup and special effects -- both of which stand as the best I've ever seen -- do a lot of the heavy-lifting, I'm certainly not discounting them. There are effects in this film that I didn't think were possible; Pitt aging backwards and Blanchett aging forwards will leave you stunned with their perfection. Though the love story between the two isn't as great as I think it could be (again, so close!), there is an undeniable beauty to it, and an undeniable beauty to the entire film.
7. THE WRESTLER
I'm on the record as saying Darren Aronofsky is the closest we have to Stanley Kubrick. It's not just the obvious yet misguided FOUNTAIN/2001 comparison, but the way in which he tackles each project, the care with which he crafts them, and the meticulousness that's oft mistaken for coldness. Now I'm beginning to think that he's doing Kubrick by way of Soderbergh, fitting his small character piece in between the large-scale epics of THE FOUNTAIN and ROBOCOP (assuming he makes the latter). The script to THE WRESTLER occasionally slips into cliche, which is a shame given the rest of it is so damned good. Aronofsky knows exactly how to direct actors, and Rourke, it turns out, is truly amazing. In the twenty-four hour period in which I saw BENJAMIN BUTTON, THE WRESTLER and GRAN TORINO, THE WRESTLER stood out as the most memorable, the most understated, the most unexpectedly compelling. In a year of questionable character studies, this sits as the best.
It probably doesn't hurt that WALL-E was preceded by what is now my favourite Pixar short ever, PRESTO. It also doesn't hurt that WALL-E is made by Andrew Stanton, my favourite Pixar guy. Don't get me wrong, if they start up a religion based around John Lasseter, I'm so there, but Stanton's the guy I respond to the most. FINDING NEMO impressed me the least (on first viewing), and is now possibly my favourite Pixar film (on seven hundredth viewing). WALL-E continues the tradition of an important message framed by an original and brilliant story. By now, you've all seen it, so you know how good it is. Roll on UP.
5. IRON MAN
Part one of talkbacker complaints was "Why was DARK KNIGHT only at number 9?!?". Part two is "Why is IRON MAN higher?!?". Well, there are a number of reasons, the most important one being this: I like IRON MAN more. I just had a better time watching it. And sure, IRON MAN has some third act problems same as DARK KNIGHT, but overall, I consider it more successful. As I said earlier, films can only ever be judged on inferred intent. DARK KNIGHT was trying to be the GODFATHER PART II of superhero movies. IRON MAN was just trying to be as fun as possible. Robert Downey Jnr is the obvious lynchpin of the film's success: a drunken, womanising billionaire with an excess of charm and wit. There are many ways in which DARK KNIGHT is a better film, but when I looked at which films I enjoyed over the past year, IRON MAN was way up the list.
4. CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR
I can't remember when this was originally released in the States, but I believe the Australian release was very early in the year, hence its inclusion on the 2008 list. Few people manage to take serious issues and present them with the sharpest of sharp dialogue as well as Aaron Sorkin. There are more laughs in this film that most supposed comedies I sat through this year, and repeat viewings only make the film better. But, most importantly, it highlights an important and current issue in a way that LIONS FOR LAMBS could only dream of. Whereas the impact of, say, MUNICH was diminished in its final shot by reducing the entire Jewish/Muslim conflict down to the events of September 11, making the unspoken claim that the age-old race war is only as important is its impact on America, CHARLIE WILSON does the exact same thing with the exact opposite outcome. It takes a giant leap from good to great by undermining the gung-ho let's-get-'em attitude with possibly my favourite scene of the year. (The difference, incidentally, is that CHARLIE WILSON had, up to that point, been about America's involvement in the middle east, so the "lesson" was appropriate and not out of left field.) Despite an unnecessary piece of ADR at its tail end, the zenmaster scene at the conclusion of the film is what flips this movie up into the realms of greatness.
3. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
I love Woody Allen. Truly, passionately, and unapologetically. It's not that hard to love ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. Nor do I find it even remotely difficult to love TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, SLEEPER and ZELIG. What perhaps discounts me from being someone who should recommend Woody Allen films is the fact that I even like his bad films. I saw ANYTHING ELSE a couple of years ago and loved it. Well, not loved it, but I enjoyed it and would happily watch it again. Even as I watched it, I was aware that it was probably his worst film, but I cared not. So there you go. Ignore the guy who liked ANYTHING ELSE, if you must. But I was also shocked when he completely reinvented himself with MATCH POINT. The plot comparisons to CRIMES AND MISDEMEANOURS are obvious, but the style and the way in which the story is presented is something new. Whether or not you choose to -- rather predictably -- put it down to Scarlett Johansson's role as muse, there was an energy that accompanied MATCH POINT that suggested this was the work of a fresh, twenty-something director, not a stalwart who had been working for several decades. I, quite unsurprisingly, loved SCOOP, but am yet to see CASSANDRA'S DREAM (no cinema release for Australia? Bastards). VICKY CRISTINA, however, continues the MATCH POINT tradition of directorial energy. That Woody has it in him, after so many years of writing the neurotic male lead, to create a character like Javier Bardem's Juan, impresses me greatly. That he can write a script like this and get such amazing performances out of Bardem, Johannson, Penelope Cruz and the incredible Rebecca Hall, impresses me even more. This is funny and dramatic in a way that the copious number of Woody Allen copycats could never dream of. The most exciting thing about this film? It reminds us that, at 73, Woody's best work is not necessarily behind him.
2. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
Without wanting to diminish the importance of this true story, or make light of it, this film seemed like an elaborate dare. Take the formula for the most boring film possible -- people staring into the camera reciting the alphabet in French for two hours -- and make it interesting and captivating. The lesson is to never bet against Julian Schnabel. I don't know how he did it, but he made a beautifully deep film from a story that could have easily turned, in lesser hands, into an exercise in sombre artiness. A near-flawless film that is also something most left-of-mainstream films don't seem to be: a total crowdpleaser.
I have never been as surprised by my own Top Ten list as much as I have been this year. When I actually began sorting through my list and pushing films higher or lower depending on what I thought of them, I was shocked to discover FROST/NIXON landed quite easily at the top. That sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment, doesn't it? I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make here, other than Ron Howard made, in my estimation, the year's best film. Peter Morgan also proved himself to be something of a smartarse. Every time I hear the idea behind his films, be it this or THE QUEEN, I don't see what the appeal is. THE QUEEN seemed to me to be pointless tabloid speculation, but turned out to be a superbly layered examination of how little truth is revealed even when a person lives permanently under a public magnifying glass. Similarly, FROST/NIXON appeared to focus on the actual television interview between David Frost and Richard Nixon, which left me wondering: what's the point? Why not just release the original interviews (which they've just done), interviews that are interesting enough on their own? Then, of course, I saw the film. The film isn't just a public manhunt for Nixon; it's a comparative study of two very different men trying to come to terms with their changing fortunes as they intersect with one another. There isn't a single weak moment in the film. There isn't a single weak performance. Michael Sheen proves himself to be more than just a spot-on Blair impersonator, giving one of the best lead performances of the year. Frank Langella overcomes his physical dissimilarities to Nixon by capturing the man's character perfectly. Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen and Toby Jones are all completely reliable in their supporting roles. Rebecca Hall, who, between this and VICKY CRISTINA, is clearly my new favourite actress, is perfect in every respect. Morgan's script cannot be improved upon. Ron Howard is... well, how do I put it? I'm a Ron Howard apologist, and yet I hate some of the man's films. I hate THE DA VINCI CODE (though I also hated the book, so it could just be that) and I really hate A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Most of his other work, THE GRINCH, THE MISSING, CINDERELLA MAN, EDTV, RANSOM, BACKDRAFT, leaves me completely cold. I just cannot work up an opinion on those films. So why is it that I'm such a Ron Howard apologist? I love WILLOW and I loved APOLLO 13. I seriously adore those films, and have a real soft spot for Howard because of them. FROST/NIXON goes further than either of those films, proving that Howard has a command of pace and story that is matched by very few. When I talked earlier about CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR being the perfect mix of education and entertainment, I'll submit that FROST/NIXON takes this brilliant duality and runs even further with it. I didn't see it coming, but FROST/NIXON is AICN-Downunder's best narrative film of the year.