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Palinode’s Movie Year, or Film Critics Love the Movies You Haven’t Seen Yet

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In the increasingly on-message climate of the entertainment industry, it’s becoming clear that the Hollywood movie year is a kind of centaur, with the nasty ass-end dropping its turds into February, the powerful money-making muscles pumping away through the summer months, and the cerebral, exalted fare chewing up Oscar fodder at Christmas.  So when December comes, nauseated and exhausted film critics try to treat the first eleven months like a terrible, topping-drenched dream.

That’s why every top ten list on the subject sings the praises of films like Milk, The Wrestler, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Wendy and Lucy, Slumdog Millionaire, etcetera. You know what these films have in common?  I have not seen them.  Nor will I see them until they show up in the megaplex, which is not yet.  Maybe Benjamin Button will shake the dead awake with its amazing quality.  Maybe Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler is as jaw-dropping as the trailers make out.  But for those of us who live outside a major metropolis, we’re on the slow track for most of the best, waiting for the arthouse milk run to stop at our station.  Why not make a list for the rest of us schlubs?

Note: My selections are still the kind of arty, elitist and infuriating crap that angers and alienates red-blooded types.

Notier: Despite a moviegoing pace that approached frenetic at times, I missed a shitload of stuff in 2008.  Synecdoche, New York, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Elegy, Pineapple Express, Zack & Miri – all of these came, clamoured for my attention, went.  As with all these kinds of lists, this is as much about self-selection and contingency as anything else.

Hunger – As a piece of politics or history, this strange film about the last six weeks of the life of IRA member Bobby Sands as he embarks on a hunger strike will probably not satisfy many people.  But as an unblinking look at captivity, desperation and brutality, it is spellbinding.

The Orphanage – A woman moves into the orphanage on the coast of Spain where she grew up, intending to turn it into a home for special needs children.  Predictably, the past does not stay buried.  Made in 2007 but not released in North America until 2008, The Orphanage takes just the right elements from mainstream Hollywood entertainment to achieve the near-impossible: a supernatural melodrama without an ounce of sentimentality.

Let The Right One In – While we’re on the topic of European horror films that reveal the tired genres of torture porn and J-horror remakes as symptoms of a cultural imagination gone bankrupt, Tomas Alfredson’s adapted tale of a bullied boy who befriends a two hundred year old vampire with the body of a thirteen year old girl is one of the most touching stories of loneliness and friendship I’ve seen.  An American remake is tentatively scheduled for 2010.  Expect suckage.

The Edge of Heaven – Do you feel like you’re missing something from your life?  Chances are that absence is cut precisely in the shape of Fatih Akin’s German-Turkish film The Edge of Heaven, a drama about immigrants, family, forgiveness, politics and everything else.  After thirty minutes of watching, I was angry that it had to end at some point, but after two hours I was so satisfied that I didn’t want to watch another movie for a week.

The Dark Knight – What an atrocious mess:  a shallow, sloppy explosion of bombast and spectacle that pretends to be a much better film.  Most of it makes no sense whatsoever, and the parts that do make sense are painful in their earnest explorations of dime-store philosophy.  Christian Bale’s rasping Batvoice gets sillier with every line, and as a friend pointed out, Heath Ledger is so good that his Joker actually works against the movie as a whole by making the other performances look weak by comparison.  So anyway, I went and saw it four times.

Iron Man – In the current run of comic-book-to-film adaptations, filmmakers have tried to situate the absurdities of comics in the texture of the real world, and the results have been predictably silly.  No matter how realistic you make a Batman film, your imagination must eventually make room for a guy in a bat suit who beats up criminals for fun.  Who knew that the secret ingredient was Robert Downey Jr.?   Like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, there’s no way to separate the success of Iron Man from the work of its star.  Downey Jr. is one of the few actors who managed to make a comic-book character seem like a rounded human being, even while playing him as a fantasy character come to life.

Wall-E – The last decade has been pretty good for animation, and most of that goodness has been obsessively coded by Pixar.  The truth is that no mainstream film in 2008, animated or otherwise, matches the imaginative achievement of Wall-E.  Somehow Pixar believed that a box with an R2D2 voice, an obsession with Hello Dolly! and a face that consisted of nothing but a pair of eyes could be a fitting subject for a blockbuster summer film.  An unlikely mash-up of silent-era comedy and 1970s science fiction, Wall-E is a children’s film that aims its complexities at adults and its cuteness at all of us.  It’s not perfect, but if this is imperfection, I’ll take a kick in the head and call it refreshment.







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