Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Children of the popcorn

With general scheduling/interest/economy issues, any free time was a little harder to come by in 2008, as you can tell from my movie viewing habits. (Compare to last year, when I saw 56 films ahead of time. This year I could create an equally sizable section for advanced screenings that I skipped or lacked time to see.)

Free advanced screenings (18): Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, The Other Boleyn Girl, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 88 Minutes, Baby Mama, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Deal, Iron Man, Young@Heart, Son of Rambow, Wanted, Space Chimps, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Valkyrie, Slumdog Millionaire, Revolutionary Road

Saw in theater upon release (15): 21, Sex and the City, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Wall-E, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, The Dark Knight, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, W., Get Smart, Australia, Quantum of Solace, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Wrestler, Frost/Nixon, Milk

Waited until DVD/Cable (32): 27 Dresses, Untraceable, Rambo, Jumper, My Blueberry Nights, Cassandra's Dream, Vantage Point, Fool's Gold, In Bruges, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Charlie Bartlett, Be Kind Rewind, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Semi-Pro, The Bank Job, College Road Trip, Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns, Smart People, Leatherheads, Speed Racer, Mad Money, Hancock, Kung Fu Panda, First Sunday, Mamma Mia!, The Incredible Hulk, The Longshots, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, Burn After Reading, Righteous Kill, The Visitor, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

I haven't yet succumbed to paying for Movies on Demand from my cable provider, but by December I could not ignore the ubiquity of Redbox. The local library system is still my (free) DVD source of choice, but those $1 nightly rentals filled in a few blanks.

And now my annual list of irreverent superlatives.

Best Example of My Alienation from Younger Audiences

I don't think I saw a violent, allegedly edgy film this year that was geared toward physical and mental teenagers. Must have been one of the screenings I skipped.* So I'll say Jumper, which was neither bloody nor nihilistic, but was nonetheless incredibly stupid. Those who were suspicious of Hayden Christensen from the Star Wars series may confirm their doubts confirmed here; he's very wooden and shows neither range nor appeal. There's an elaborate mythology and franchise potential -- both are ultimately squandered, but I wonder if a good film could have been made at all. Another poor paycheck choice by Samuel L. Jackson.

*Edited to add: Oh wait. Totally forgot about Wanted. Both violent and allegedly edgy. Maybe the first poor paycheck choice for Morgan Freeman.

Style Over Substance Award

The easy answer is Speed Racer. Despite its likely massive FX budget, the most interesting visual element was putting the four eyes of Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon in the same movie. Wasn't all bad, though: it didn't pretend to be about anything, and has a select group of understanding fans.

Substance Over Style Award

I don't think I saw a film this year that was otherwise strong but felt underproduced, like it could have have benefited from a bigger budget. In Bruges, Young@Heart, and Son of Rambow look as they should in their respective charming ways. I do think that Be Kind Rewind tried a little too hard to look authentically cheap, so there you go.

Best Eye Candy, Female

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is all about the eye candy, with its cast and sumptuous setting; who knew Woody Allen had such an affinity for the pretty? Fans of Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz won't be disappointed, but my preferences and fond memories of the film gravitate toward Rebecca Hall (previously mentioned here). She was stunning to watch, in both senses of that word, as the sensible girl who can't help but be drawn in to that tangled web of multiparty relationship drama.

Best Eye Candy, Male

I never understood the cult of Colin Farrell, but I'll mention him here because his work in Cassandra's Dream and In Bruges finally makes the hype worthwhile. He can be an appealing leading man when he plays troubled, vulnerable, and moral characters -- like a next-gen Mel Gibson, back when we liked Mel Gibson. I don't know if he'll find that in mainstream movies, but as long as he picks projects that stretch his acting muscles, I'll remain interested.

Strangest Credit

"Directed by Fred Durst." From The Longshots, which was fine.

Unfortunate Trend of the Year

Studios are crazier than ever about developing, expanding, or reviving film franchises. On its face, nothing is wrong with that, but a lamentable by-product has emerged: the unnecessary film. Familiar (if not beloved) characters get dusted off and returned to the marketplace with stories that never needed to be told. What's worse is that the approach has succeeded: The Incredible Hulk, Indiana Jones 4, and Sex and the City all did well in the box office, inviting talk of even more unnecessary continuations. Not faring as well were second installments of The X-Files and Harold & Kumar, and a fourth Rambo.

Not all these films are bad -- I enjoyed some elements of Hulk, and I think history will treat The X-Files more kindly -- but they did not exist out of any need to satisfy audience demand. You can even see something similar among Oscar contenders, where Frost/Nixon re-enacts a recorded time in history, Doubt tries to expand a good stage idea beyond the stage, and Milk gives dramatic treatment to a subject covered definitively in a documentary.

Love Story of the Year

WALL-E by a mile. Either watch it or take my word for it. The film is flawed in some other respects -- it's probably the 4th best Pixar creation, by my estimation -- but the central relationship is pitch perfect, requiring neither analysis nor further commentary.

Buddy Comedy of the Year

This one's also easy: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. (There's no rule stating a buddy comedy has to be about guys.) Strange that a period film has such a "you go, girl" attitude, but you buy into it quickly with such nimble comedic performances from Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. The latter seems to be channeling (mocking?) Nicole Kidman in her Moulin Rouge! days, and opposite Lee Pace's own variation of Ewan McGregor, the similarities are amusing. Strong supporting turns from Shirley Henderson and Ciarán Hinds and an effective prewar European backdrop make it quite an experience.

Honorary Brevity Award

A lot of press was devoted to comeback king Robert Downey, Jr. and his remarkable year of output: Iron Man, a cameo in The Incredible Hulk, Tropic Thunder, and delayed Oscar bait The Soloist. He's worthy, especially given his checkered past, but I find it odd that people leave out a movie that was released in February 2008: Charlie Bartlett. It's listed in the IMDb as a 2007 film -- another delay, I'd imagine -- but it deserves to be mentioned among the actor's recent accomplishments. Because it was among the more enjoyable films I saw this year, and it clocks in at a speedy 97 minutes, I'm giving it some much needed attention now.

Downey plays a supporting role here; he's the well-meaning but flawed principal of a high school that's been taken over by the title character (Anton Yelchin), a clique-defying intelligent rebel. I understand the Ferris Bueller comparisons in retrospect, but this movie is less of a broad comedy and more of an indie curiosity with some mild mainstream aspirations. It's offbeat, well written, and ultimately the kind of film you're glad wasn't all that popular.

I recommend it as a pleasant DVD discovery: if you have the means, watch it as a double feature with 1999's Mumford. Go in chronological order. Both tackle similar themes, and both feature the always welcome actress Hope Davis.

(For those curious, 88 Minutes was both an awful movie and a misnomer. It was 108 minutes.)

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