Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008

No, this is not a top ten of the year, nor even a fair bid at a summation of the year in movies. It’s just a grab-bag of passing thoughts teased into being by some of the films I saw this past year, and an effort to say a few things that no one else is likely to.

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Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the Outback

Australia: Instant guilty pleasure. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anyone like Nicole Kidman around in early 20th century Australia, and that no person of the time, white or black, really wanted a child of the Stolen Generation the way Lady Sarah Ashley and wily old King George both wanted Nullah. I’m also pretty sure that doesn’t matter a bit to Baz Luhrmann … or to me as a viewer of his film. Throughout its considerable running time, a voice like that of the servants of imperial Roman heroes at triumph whispers in my ear that this is not a masterpiece, not perhaps even an especially good movie. Yet how can I resist its joyous celebration of the movies, how they transform and redeem us, how they enable us to contrapose what should have been to what was? Drawing from screwball comedy, epic western, epic war movie, from acknowledged classics (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Red River) and forgotten oddities (Donovan’s Reef, The Devil at Four o’Clock), Luhrmann gives us an infectious re-invention of his native land made in the image of what is most important to him, the movies. –And what a joy to see again, together, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and David Gulpilil—giants of the now-distant golden age of Australian film.

Changeling and Gran Torino: This year’s Eastwood two-fer underscored once again what is strongest and weakest about the vision of the man who is perhaps the last quintessentially American film maker. On the good side: a strong sense of story and story-telling, of a thoroughly visual narrative style, and of the power of an honestly observed character (Oscar nominations be damned, no performance of 2008 arrested my admiration more than that of Michael Kelly as Changeling’s Detective Ybarra). On the down side: a stubborn simple-mindedness when it comes to corruption and evil. The flat portrayals of the gang members of Gran Torino and the LAPD top brass and their sanitarium cronies in Changeling reduce what might have been to something much less. On the other hand, if Eastwood is indeed the last American film maker who sees with truly American eyes, there may be a lesson for us all in his bull-headed conviction that good guys are complex personalities with a compelling dark side, but bad guys are just plain bad—and stupid and expendable into the bargain. Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name still battle for possession of Eastwood’s soul, and every film he makes is to some degree a new skirmish in his continuing war against the staying-power of his own screen image.

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Redacted

Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Redacted: Three different answers to the question What can you do with the Blair Witch technique?—all of them honorable, all of them worlds better than the film that pioneered the shaky, hand-held, found-video device. Cloverfield re-imagines the marauding, city-destroying monster movie from the point of view of characters caught up in real disaster, confused, never privy to what is going on. The “we’re making a video” premise lends itself nicely to chaos, while nodding to the time-honored tradition of teasing the audience with the merest glimpses of the monster until the climax. Romero’s fifth visit to the genre he single-handedly created (zombies were never the flesh-eating risen dead until Night of the Living Dead) is, for the first time, a reboot. The previous four films were, in the eyes of audiences at least, successive chronological extensions of the original central event. This time, wipe the slate clean, it didn’t happen in 1967, and what if it happened this year, to people with today’s media and today’s technology? More importantly, it is still mere metaphor, a stark, attention-getting vehicle for the shock and horror Romero feels at what the human community has become. DePalma’s riff on the same device was probably the best—though the least watched—of the several “Iraq consciousness” films of the past year and a half. All three of these “shaky video” films were alert enough to acknowledge that video technology has improved since Blair Witch, and that, in the right hands, even footage shot on the run doesn’t have to look annoyingly bad. But more to the point, in the midst of all of this technology, all three films embody a profound sense of loss, and each ends with a haunting moment of real human connection—of conscience.

The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Quantum of Solace, and pretty much every other “action movie” of the year: I don’t begrudge The Dark Knight its, er, day in the sun. Its admittedly over-rated political/social comment nevertheless sets that film apart from your garden-variety superhero movies and gives it something like real vision. And Heath Ledger’s performance was a knockout. But the aspect of the film I want to focus on here is the so-called “action-directing.” For the past several years—roughly tracking the steady improvement in videogame technology—“action films” have seemed increasingly to be made to promote videogame spinoffs, with the result that action sequences have become too long, carrying too much of the film’s narrative burden while conveying too little narrative information. Moreover, the style of what passes for action directing today is retrograde to the fundamental principles of film making: quick cuts, so short that you often can’t tell what body part, or whose, you’ve just seen doing exactly what; no attention to composition, point of view, or the establishment of spatial relationships. The result is that the action sequence is exhausting without ever being thrilling, and without advancing the film’s story, characterization, or vision. Yeah, I know, rules are made to be broken—but you have to know what you are doing before you can break the rules and still make your film work. Unpredictably, Baz Luhrmann turned out to have a surprising facility for action, and Australia was one of the few films of the year in which the action sequences made visual sense, created suspense, and advanced the story instead of interrupting it. But that’s because Luhrmann appears to have studied John Ford for fistfights, Howard Hawks for cattle stampedes, and Akira Kurosawa for battle sequences. No one, I submit, should hold himself out as an action director until he has memorized Seven Samurai shot for shot.

Sukiyaki Western Django and Summer Love: The spaghetti western has a long reach, and is alive and well in the hearts of those who love and understand it—even if they’re Japanese or Polish.

Best of the Year: When I ask myself what films I really liked most this year (besides Australia), I come down to two.

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Man on Wire

Man on Wire appealed to our fascination with danger, and specifically with heights (about which no one has a neutral opinion). But it also provoked us with a new kind of caper movie, a carefully-planned and well-financed break-in for the purpose of doing something benign and uplifting, the apotheosis of performance art. And it gave us a quirky antihero. This isn’t a guy who overcomes fear; it’s more like fear has never even occurred to him. Most of all, the film presents one of the strangest occupations ever documented, suggesting that no matter how weird that thing is that you do, you can find meaning and redemption in it—and you can give some of that to others.

And Let the Right One In: I had advance notice from a friend in Sweden that this movie was something special, but I wasn’t prepared for exactly what. That any new twist at all could be wrung from the vampire mythos at this late date was amazing; but that it could coexist with—no, be the heart of—a visually haunting and profoundly honest grasp, both tender and savage, of adolescent pain, sexual uncertainty, social anxiety, and wishful fantasy … well, that was what made this film the best of the year for me.


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