Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" was chosen worst picture of the year in the Second Annual Ninth Annual Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll, in which I was but one of 81 balloteers. I may have been fortunate in that I didn't see it. Nor was I exposed to runner-up Alan Ball's "Towelhead," which was followed by a multiple tie for third-lousiest between "Burn After Reading," "Changeling," "Doubt," "Gran Torino," "Rachel Getting Married," "Step Brothers," and "Synecdoche, New York." The reason I mention this first is that most of these films (OK, not "Love Guru") were also chosen by some as among the best movies of the year, and they were directed by a few critical darlings: Joel and Ethan Coen, Clint Eastwood (twice), Jonathan Demme, Charlie Kaufman...
This year's poll favorites:
10) "Synechdoche, New York" (Charlie Kaufman, USA)
9) "Let the Right One In" (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
8) "Wendy and Lucy" (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
7) "Milk" (Gus Van Sant, USA)
6) "Waltz With Bashir" (Ari Folman, Israel)
Before I do my proper "ten best" honors (in a form that is not a critics' poll ballot), I just want to say that the best things I saw on any screen in 2008 were:
1) "Generation Kill" (seven-part HBO mini-series, adapted by Ed Burns and David Simon, the makers of "The Wire," and Evan Walker Wright, a reporter embedded with the 1st Recon Marines in Iraq in 2003, based on Wright's book). I don't like the title. At some point in Episode Three I thought this was the funniest show on TV. About 15 minutes later, I still felt so, but I also felt something radically different. Susanna White is one hell of a director.
2) "Liverpool" (Lisandro Alonso; seen at Toronto Film Festival)
3) "Four Nights with Anna" (Jerzy Skolimowski; seen at Toronto Film Festival)
4) "35 Rhums" (Claire Denis; seen at Toronto Film Festival)
5) "Mad Men" (AMC, Season Two)
6) "In Treatment" (HBO, Season One)
Just because they didn't play for a week or more on US movie screens doesn't mean they should go unacknowledged (any more than "The Dekalog" or "Fanny and Alexander" should), and I hope to have the opportunity to write about them in depth in 2009. ("Generation Kill" was just released on DVD December 16.)
Ben Stein, whose spectacularly idiotic "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" uses Nazi concentration camps as scenic backdrops for a nonsensical embrace of Intelligent Design, is nominated for a Malkin Award at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, for saying the following in an interview aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network:
When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed ... that was horrifying beyond words, and that's where science -- in my opinion, this is just an opinion -- that's where science leads you... Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.
Right. Just an opinion he picked up somewhere. I mean, when you think about it, what have those murderous scientists (Darwinists!) done about the leading causes of death in the world before the mid-20th Century: tuberculosis, cholera, influenza, pneumonia... ?
The Malkin Award, named after the blogger Michelle Malkin, is given annually for "shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric. A[--] C[------] is ineligible -- to give others a chance." You can vote for Stein, or one of his ignominious fellow nominees, here.
But, really, check that reasoning: God Love = Compassion therefore Science = Murder. That's gotta win some sort of a prize.
Above: Ben Stein on location at Dachau.
UPDATE: He won! And the scientist he was hating on won the equally nasty [Michael] Moore Award.
When she put "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" on her Worst Movies of 2008 list, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum referred to the Holocaust melodrama as "Honey, I Gassed the Kids." And, if she honestly believes the movie is as awful as she describes it (and I have no reason to think she doesn't), it is her moral duty as a critic to pummel it with everything she's got. A "dumb summer comedy" can be awful, undendurable; an irresponsible or simpleminded film that exploits and trivializes a "powerful subject" (genocide, racism, pedophilia, rape, suicide, torture, any number of historical atrocities) can be flat-out evil -- precisely because it presents itself as Serious (or Risky or Important or Challenging) Cinema. If filmmakers choose to play with fire, they'd better be morally and artistically equipped to handle the responsibility, or they deserve to get burned.
"The moral of this outrageous, British-accented nonsense appears to be that if you build a death camp, sometimes the wrong people get killed," Schwarzbaum wrote. "Not for the last time, alas, has the Holocaust been co-opted into a kitschy 'universal' story of 'tolerance' about how we're all 'one.' But this one is supposed to be a story for children!"
I can't vouch for Schwarzbaum's take on "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" (although that title made me throw up in my mouth a little, as they say) because I haven't seen it, but I know exactly what she means. I feel the same way about the denial fable of "Life is Beautiful." (Protect your kid from the cruelty and stress of immediate danger by telling him death camps are just fun 'n' games! While you're at it, why not tell him that if he throws himself under a truck it will just bounce off him? And he can really fly if he wants to, too! Don't shatter his dreams!)
Todd McCarthy of Variety, who's old enough to know better, writes at the end of his review of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button":
Still, for what is designed as a rich tapestry, the picture maintains a slightly remote feel. No matter the power of the image of an old but young-looking Benjamin, slumped over a piano and depressed about his fading memory and life; it is possible that the picture might have been warmer and more emotionally accessible had it been shot on film. It has been argued that digital is a cold medium and celluloid a hot one and a case, however speculative, could be made that a story such as "Benjamin Button," with its desired cumulative emotional impact, should be shot and screened on film to be fully realized. These are intangibles, but nor are they imaginary factors; what technology gives, it can also take away.
[Don't worry -- no spoilers.]
This makes about as much sense to me as blaming the weather on Doppler radar pictures. It may be the second-most misguided thing I've read about movies all year (after Patrick Goldstein's assertion that a "dumb summer comedy" is more worthy of contempt that a dishonest or inept film that expects its ambition to be taken more seriously).
OK, let's say the movie feels "cold" to you, and you attribute this feeling to something in the film. You could acknowledge the movie's predominantly wintry settings and sepia color pallete (exemplified by the fully digital image, set in the dead of night in an empty hotel lobby in the middle of the Russian winter, above). Or contemplate the loneliness of the emotionally detached title character/observer/narrator, who is born an old man in a decrepit body and is cursed to grow physically younger while watching everyone around him age and die.
And you might very well consider the Kubrickian sensibility of the director, David Fincher ("Se7en," "Fight Club," "Zodiac"), the most deliberate and precise of filmmakers. Not known as Mr. Warm 'n' Cozy -- even when working from a Gumpian screenplay by the writer of "Forrest Gump." If the film is dark and cool in tone, it's not because Fincher chose digital technology. It's because Fincher chose to make it dark and cool. You may dislike the countless ways in which the movie emphasizes these qualities (in every composition, every cut, every performance), but don't pretend it's the video that's doing it.
To the shock of God and everybody, Michael Bay and company will not be bringing up "Rosemary's Baby." Plans for a rebirth reconceptualization remake of Roman Polanski's 1968 horror masterwork, based on Ira Levin's best-selling novel in which the bambino of Beelzebub receives evil prenatal care at the Dakota building at 72nd and Central Park West, have been abandoned because the producers couldn't conceive a way to make it viable for today's post-Cheney audiences. Taking a break from their elocution lessons in Wasilla, Brad Fuller of Bay's Platinum Dunes company tells Collider.com:
"Rosemary's Baby" was announced and it's like a little bit like we're taking about with Freddy [Kreuger]. We went down that road and we even talked to the best writers in town and it feels like it might not be do-able. We couldn't come up with something where it felt like it was relevant and we could add something to it other than what it was so we're now not going to be doing that film.
Instead, the remakers of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Amityville Horror" and "The Hitcher" are proceeding with their remakes of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th" and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."
God, whose 1966 TIME magazine cover story made a cameo appearance as an old doctor's office copy in Polanski's film, was not available for comment.
If I say that I'm not much of a fan of comic-book or superhero movies, it's not because of the source material but because of the movies made from them. Comics fans haven't been as ill-served by the movies as video gamers, but I've noticed that even some of the most fervent appreciations of "The Dark Knight" carry an undertone of defensiveness, almost as if surprised that the filmmakers would treat this "crusader in tights" material seriously, instead of as camp. (Let's just not mistake "serious" for "dreary" or "pedantic.")
"The Dark Knight" has been praised as "the best superhero ever made" -- or even "the first great superhero movie," but even if I thought those things were true, they sound like backhanded praise to me. How sad would it be if it took until 2008 for somebody to claim they'd seen "the first great horror movie" or "the first great comedy," to name a couple other still-disreputable labels? As I've said, I don't think "TDK" is an exceptionally strong or resonant movie, but it never occurred to me to think less of it because it's about characters named Batman and the Joker.
The way I look at it, a metaphor is a metaphor. Batman or the Joker or Spider-Man can become cinematic metaphors as rich and evocative as Achilles or Nosferatu or Carrie or Jesus. Why not?
1) "Let the Right One In": Sole witness to a desanguination: This creature of the night (at right, a standard poodle?) appears out of the darkness of the barren woods, like a corporeal outgrowth of the snow and the white-barked birches themselves. The dog sits, watches, and will not leave, forcing a vampire's procurer to flee in panic and frustration. One of my favorite movie-moments of the year, and one that made me laugh (aghast) the hardest, though nobody else in the nearly full theater joined me. Was it because the movie is Swedish that the crowd didn't seem to know/think it was funny? We won't even talk about the stuff with the cats...
The interview takes place at Dachau. Ben Stein questions Dr. Richard Weikart (author of "From Darwin to Hitler") with the concentration camp as backdrop:
Was Hitler insane? (no) Was Hitler evil? (yes) Is there such a thing as evil? (yes) Is there such a thing as good? (yes) And evil can sometimes be rationalized as science? (yes) And (Dr. Weikart adds), Hitler probably believed he was doing good, improving humanity.
Therefore, Intelligent Design is science.
According to Stein, "Darwinism" (the label Stein applies to those who have dismissed "Intelligent Design" as unworthy of serious intellectual consideration) has been shown -- historically and scientifically -- to lead to evil and the celebration of death, as exemplified by Naziism, the Holocaust, eugenics, abortion, euthanasia...
And that is why Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory.
Scene after scene of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" repeats this mutant species of illogic, which falls laughably short of basic scientific or mathematical standards of expression. I could quote you a hundred similar examples, but you can't really argue with the movie because it fails to put forth an argument -- any argument. OK, that's not really fair. It doesn't try.
Ten contributors to MSN Movies cast their ballots for the best films of 2008, unaware of what anyone else would pick. A simple point scale was used to weight the choices. And the result is one of the more surprisingly satisfying year-end consensus-mixes I've seen so far. Yeah, I'm one of the participants, and six of my top choices wound up on the aggregate list, but still...
Best of all, each title is accompanied by a micro-mini-essay by one of the critics. It ain't easy compressing one's appreciation into nuggets of less than 250 words, but the effort can occasionally yield its own rewards...
MSN Movies Top 10 (bottom to top):(titles link to individual blurbs)
10. Slumdog Millionaire 9. Wendy and Lucy 8. WALL-E 7. Pineapple Express 6. The Dark Knight