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It’s hard to believe but I’m putting together my top ten even later than last year. Again I had hoped to catch up on some movies I missed, but yet again that barely happened. But truthfully this time there weren’t that many I feel like I missed the boat on by skipping.

2008 wasn’t a great year. I’d say it continues a trend starting in 2006, the year Brian and Jared started this project and the early first discussions among the four of us. 2006 had a strong crop of great movies (The Departed, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth). 2007 had a handful of great films (Knocked Up, Hairspray) but a much larger group of very good films (Once, Mr. Brooks). 2008 had few great or very good films, but a huge chunk of merely good films. My top five were easy to pick. The next three became fairly obvious. But literally two dozen films vied for those final two slots. On the one hand, that’s a nice group of films in contention. On the other hand, all are flawed and wouldn’t have come close to my top ten in previous years.

Enough rambling, on with the list!

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1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  A rare film that left me feeling like I had experienced something, although it wasn’t a very pleasant something. Writer/director Christian Mungiu explores abortion in 1980s Romania, where the procedure, along with many other freedoms, are restricted under a Communist regime. Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu play college roommates Otilia and Gabita. When the latter becomes pregnant, the former helps her find a doctor to perform an abortion and sets up the particulars. It’s a night full of unsavory characters and dirty hotel rooms. Otilia also must balance her duties caring for her friend with commitments to her boyfriend (where “I need to help Gabita get an abortion” will not suffice as an excuse).

The subject matter is tough and bleak. Mungiu’s stylistic choices are always fascinating but never distracting. His shots run for minutes at a time, often with the camera remaining still and the subjects moving throughout the frame. One scene where Gabita sits down to dine with her boyfriend’s family lasts a very uncomfortable, unbroken ten minutes. It’s a technique nearly identical to the one used in the only other recent Romanian film I’ve seen, 12:08 East of Bucharest. Romanian cinema is said to be undergoing a renaissance; can a reader let me know if this is part of the new Romanian style?

The abortion scenes are extraordinarily graphic and brutally realist although not needlessly lurid. I wouldn’t say it contains any politics and I suspect most viewers will feel the movie supports whatever abortion views they had going in. I know that months later I find several images from this film deeply affecting.

4 Months won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 but failed to make even the Foreign Language shortlist. The outcry surely factored into the Academy’s decision to alter that category’s nomination procedures for 2008. A short qualifying run made it eligible for the 2007 Oscars – and both Marinca and Vasiliu would have been very deserving nominees in the Lead and Supporting categories, respectively – but didn’t get a real commercial US release until 2008. It is a true masterpiece, but one I have no intent of viewing again soon.

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2. The Dark Knight. We’ve discussed this movie a lot around here, but I keep coming back to the same thought: The Dark Knight is like someone wrote a superhero movie just for me. It has the genre’s requisite action sequences, humorous sidekicks, sleek gadgets, and scheming villains but with a complexity and dark edge that one rarely sees in films, let alone in a genre flick. This truly got to me in parts, helped of course by Heath Ledger’s legendary performance, and made it gave me points to ponder leaving the theater. Those are qualities I love to find in any film of any genre.

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3. The Wrestler. I fully enjoyed this film when I saw it initially but I’ve found it has risen in my esteem even further over subsequent months. At its heart it’s such a simple story so well told of people whose peaks are far behind them and whose only glories will never be achieved again. Mickey Rourke’s baring performance is incredible (and I remind you that the dude cut himself for real in those wrestling scenes and that is bad ass) while Marisa Tomei is her usual sparkling self. And nomination snub be damned, can you think of a song that so perfectly encapsulated its film like Bruce Springsteen’s title song over the credits? The fade to black and the first strums of that song are just so perfect.

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4. Milk. Who knew a formulaic Oscar-bait genre pic could be so good? It tells the story a remarkable subject and does so incredibly well. Milk manages to be a message movie without becoming overly preachy and it maintains an over-arching narrative without straying too far into the classic biopic “tick the box” feel. Director Gus Van Sant gives it an intense feel of time and place, transporting the viewer into the middle of tumultuous 1970s San Francisco. And perhaps most notably it is full of terrific performances, not just from the incomparable Oscar winner Sean Penn but also supporting players Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch.

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5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The last few years have seen some incredible documentaries where filmmakers happened to be filming what would have been a rather pedestrian film just to capture an incredible turn of events (think King of Kong). Here, when his friend Dr Andrew Bagby was murdered in 2001, director Kurt Kuenne decided to make a film about his deceased friend. A noble subject to be sure, but probably one that results in an intensely personal and not widely-seen final product. But Andrew’s ex-girlfriend and suspected killer, Shirley Turner, fled to her native Newfoundland where she announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne’s film turned into a film for Andrew’s son, Zachary, to tell him about his father.

Andrew’s parents David and Kathleen move to Newfoundland to battle Shirley for custody of Zachary while the wheels of justice turn unbearably slow. The Bagbys must maintain a friendly relationship with their son’s murderer in order to see their grandson, an unthinkably painful prospect. The twists and turns continue as the courts make rulings and Shirley’s sanity appears unstable. I will not come close to revealing the film’s resolution. David and Kathleen end up becoming the main characters in this incredible story; their resolve is truly remarkable.

Dear Zachary did the festival circuit and had a short theatrical run in 2008, but I saw it on MSNBC. It may have future airings there and I would recommend checking it out if it does.

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6. Slumdog Millionaire. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the points Slumdog backlash devotees make. It feels mildly exploitative, the acting isn’t particularly great, and the plot strains credibility. I think for the most part it doesn’t really matter. The way the story advances through incredible chance does bother me to some extent, but I accept it as a modern fairy tale. Most fairy tales take outlandish turns. And I don’t really know how you can make a film about extreme poverty without it feeling at least somewhat exploitative unless it dwells on only the most negative aspects of human existence. The life of the poor isn’t horrible for every second of every day and it’s not necessarily glamorizing poverty to show that in a film.

Slumdog is always fascinating. The adjective that still comes into my head all these months later is “vibrant” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think that’s too positive a word. It is vibrant, but also brutal and nasty and dirty and raw. Maybe “pulsating” is a better word, helped with by the Oscar-winning camera work and score. I do love films where the settings feel like a major character; this was the case with my 2007 love affair with The Assassination of Jesse James and the same holds for the bustling slums of Mumbai even tough they couldn’t be further from the emptiness of the Great Plains in Jesse James. In a way I felt like I had spent two hours experiencing India. Truthfully I’m not sure Slumdog will hold up well as a Best Picture winner but it’s a pretty fantastic immersive experience with a crowd-pleasing ending.

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7. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I always knew this would make my list, but a reviewing several months ago surprised me with how good it truly is. I think with films that depend on humor and shock value subsequent viewings will necessarily lose some of the impact. And that happened here, but by not guffawing so hard I caught how well-crafted it is. The characters are interesting, well-developed, and amusing. The jokes are taut and clever; the plot engaging. Plus it has some moments that could be considered truly classic (think Dracula musical and YOU SHALL NOT PASS!).

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8. In Bruges. I like a movie that can get to me a little and this very, very dark comedy did. Much like Sarah Marshall it depends to some extent on shock value, but even if you know what’s coming it’s still deeply engrossing and the ruminations on fate only get more fascinating. Great performances and fully-developed characters make the subject matter and strange twists and turns seem natural. The concept is a little insane (odd couple hitmen hiding in Belgium!) but the execution is spot-on to the point that it doesn’t really seem that insane.

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9. Tropic Thunder. Does this clever and funny film make writer/director Ben Stiller respectable? I mean, Zoolander was quite good too. Like the previous two films on my list I’m surprised how well it held up on a second viewing; here you take out the shock value and it’s still damn funny. Maybe even funnier. The Hollywood mockery is clever and the fake trailers that begin the movie are hilarious. The Golden Globe nod for Tom Cruise is kind of a joke, but Robert Downey Jr’s recognition surely is not. He’s an actor in blackface acting as an actor in blackface acting in a movie. And he does the DVD commentary as his character’s character. Heady!

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10. Let the Right One In. What an interesting mixture of genres. It’s a vampire movie and does have some genuinely creepy moments straight out of a good horror film. But the film’s wide appeal is clearly due to the very sweet tween romance between protagonists Oskar and Elli (the vampire). I haven’t seen Twilight but I think I can safely say that Let the Right One In beats it at its own game. The DVD subtitle controversy may have the internet up in arms, but this is a real winner no matter what subtitles you get. In fact, I’ve read comparisons of the two sets of subtitles and the new set has a few sections that are superior to the theatrical set. I think it’s rare to see a vampire movie that’s so cute.

And there were plenty of other good films this year that did something special. Most of these were in the running for the last two spots on my list. In no particular order:

I like a raunchy Apatow-style comedy with a helping of depth and insight. Or you can take something like Role Models, eschew the depth and insight, and just make it extra balls-out funny. Paul Rudd can definitely lead a film… For a great double feature of very clever and entertaining con movies, pick up The Bank Job and RockNRolla. Both are some of the most fun movies I’ve seen in some time with plots that withstand scrutiny… Speaking of fun films, Gran Torino is not what I would call a good movie by any stretch but hell if it isn’t ridiculously entertaining. It thrives on Clint Eastwood’s hilariously fun and over-the-top performance.

Don’t listen to the rest of these fools on this site, Frozen River is terrific. It’s a quiet film but it kept me tense in its portrayal of desperate poverty… Or for another wintry film to cool you down this summer, turn to David Gordon Green’s bleak but affecting drama Snow Angels, featuring good performances from Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale… For something completely different, Green’s other 2008 film was the hilarious stoner comedy Pineapple Express. I think maybe the last scene was the best ending of the year… Another place to look for laughs is Get Smart, which blew my low expectations away. It’s fairly mainstream comedy but very well-done.

Is it sacrilege for me to admit Kung Fu Panda was my favorite animated film of the year? DreamWorks rose above their usual crutch of pop culture jokes to create something that’s timelessly funny and entertaining while the animation is strikingly gorgeous… HBO’s Recount dramatizes the 2000 Presidential recount farce in a way that didn’t seem too obnoxiously political. Many of the characterizations are campy fun but Laura Dern as Katherine Harris takes the cake… The Fench thriller Tell No One takes the usual genre elements and gives them a curious French stylistic twist… Have I mentioned recently how great Richard Jenkins is in The Visitor? He’s near perfection in a good film, though it lags a bit whenever he is offscreen.

And one final commendation to the first two-thirds of Hancock. It’s rare indeed for me to be so onboard with a movie so quickly and so completely. I mean, what a concept: a boozing superhero who needs a PR campaign to repair his image. Brilliant! The plot and every little story touch is so clever and entertaining while Will Smith and Jason Bateman turn in their usual terrific performances. Too bad the last third is so putrid that it irreparably damages the film. Everything that is so right about the first hour goes spectacularly wrong, as if an entirely differenent set of people made it. I don’t understand how something can be so well-crafted at the beginning and so hapharzardly awful at the end. And I’m not even talking about the big twist, which the DVD box basically spells out. It’s the resolution with its out-of-leftfield plot points and absurd logic. Without that unfortunate turn of events Hancock would have surely been near the top of this list.

On to a better 2009!

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It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we thought of the Best Actor category:

Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. The final topic: What is your biggest hope for the nominations?

John: Give Jenkins the Recognition He Deserves

I loved me some Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. He did so much with a fairly restrained character without ever seeming one-note or bland. The film loses a bit when it meanders to other topics and characters, but when Jenkins is on the screen it shines. His journey from detached and solitary to a man reengaging with society is entirely engrossing. He’s never showy and he nails his character’s awkwardness and slow gain in confidence. I said last year that I loved Casey Affleck in Assassination of Jesse James for making his character absolutely perfect. It’s a sentiment I extend to Richard Jenkins. Of course that’s partly a writing triumph, but a great performance is what makes it transcend into something very special. I hope voters dig far into their screener pile to find this film released months ago. At this point Jenkins is very much on the bubble and it could go either way. If his name is announced tomorrow I will be very happy.

Brian: Don’t Forget Sarah Marshall

Any love for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. A screenplay is all I really ask for, but a best song nomination wouldn’t be out of the question. Goofy, charming, and sentimental — I’m consistently surprised by the staying power of that film on my Top 5 list.

Adam: Living and Dying With Dark Knight and In Bruges

If anyone is reading this blog at all they would have recognized my love for The Dark Knight and In Bruges (in fact, I saw In Bruges for the second time the other day and it definitely held up). I would love to see TDK sweep the nomination categories as well as the awards. And, it would be nice to see In Bruges get credit for its screenplay, art direction, cinematography, and supporting acting. The art direction & cinematography nods were added to my wish list after the second viewing. The choice of locations, camera angles, and shots are actually very well done. They enhance the story and feel of the movie so subtly that you might not even notice it the first time around, but their effects can not be overstated. I also (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) agree with Brian. A nod to Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be a nice addition to screenplay and song – but I won’t hold out hope.

Jared: Just a Genuine Surprise Would be Nice

Sure, I’m rooting for some long shots to receive nominations (some of which are probably obvious, none of which I’ll be so foolish as to jinx). Most years I’d be hoping not to see certain people get nominated, but I think the only film even sniffing the Oscars that I actively disliked this go round was Synecdoche, NY (with the caveat I’ve maybe three or four movies left to see). But my biggest wish for the Oscar nominations is for my picks to be pretty wrong and to see a good amount of surprises. Part of that desire, to be sure, is the selfish wish for some added excitement to this relatively mundane Oscar season. But I also think there are many nominees who seem to be in the mix just because everyone is resigned to the fact that they should be nominees. I’d love to see some wild cards in there, some picks which really excited people. Sure, preferably they’d be nominees I’d be excited about as well, but if Synecdoche sneaks into the screenplay category and I can bash it for a few weeks, that’d be OK.

That’s it from us. Here’s hoping for some happy Grouches tomorrow morning!

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. Today we’re making predictions. Going out on a limb a little, what will and will not happen in the nominations?

Brian: Torino for the Upset

Gran Torino will squeeze in as a Best Picture nominee, kicking out Frost/Nixon. I think Oscar voters will be blinded by the strong box office performances of Eastwood’s take on the Incredible Hulk, and the old fogeys will be regretful if they don’t throw some dap to what could possibly be Eastwood’s last film. Considering the movie’s pure audacity, I can’t even protest the pick that much, even though it was not very good. I like its chances, and like the Arizona Cardinals making a playoff run, I think that a surprise nomination could give it upset special potential over Slumdog in the end game.

John: TDK Loses, HSM3 Wins

I’ll believe Dark Knight getting a Best Picture nod when I see it. It deserves it but the Academy is so good at disappointing me. Despite love from nearly every guild (producers, directors, writers, art directors, editors, sound mixers, cinematographers, costume designers) SAG skipped it for its Ensemble award and the acting branch is by far the largest in the Academy. I know the correlation between SAG Ensemble and Best Picture isn’t perfect, but I’m pessimistic. The Reader seems so much more up the Academy’s alley that I can definitely see it ignoring the comic book film. This is a prediction I’d love to be wrong, but I expect lots of fanboy bitching tomorrow.

After last year’s debacle in the category I expect High School Musical 3: Senior Year to score at least one Original Song nomination. Fortunately rule changes prevent it from nabbing more than two so it can’t match Enchanted‘s three. None of the groups that names Best Song has given the bland musical tunes any love, but if anyone can it’s the Academy.

Jared: Good News Coming for Happy, Winslet, Leo (DiCaprio); Bad for Jolie, Blanchett, Leo (Melissa)

It is hard to make exciting predictions this year, with so many categories seeing so much uniformity across guild awards and the other precursors.  I won’t make up something crazy just for the sake of being bold, but I can see a few slightly unexpected things to happen.  Happy-Go-Lucky will garner three nominations (Actress, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay). I wouldn’t necessarily agree with all of them, but I think the film’s unbridled optimism will resonate with voters in this political and economic climate, and since Eddie Marsan is the one counter to that in the whole movie, he stands out too much not to be noticed.  Kate Winslet grabs two noms, and Leonardo DiCaprio comes along for the ride. The former is more likely than the latter, but I think Winslet peaked at the right time, is a name people know and want to vote for, and I think people want to get her an Oscar win.  There are scenarios where Revolutionary Road or The Reader pull down more nominations, but I see them having difficulty cracking the big categories, so support could funnel to DiCaprio.  Leo, Jolie, Blanchett out for Best Actress. This category is an eight woman (well, no, nine, Michelle Williams has a non-zero shot) free-for-all, and really, nothing is absolutely guaranteed.  I think Jolie misses because Changeling didn’t resonate in general any more than A Mighty Heart.  I’m even now second-guessing myself about Blanchett, since the Academy loves her so, but I think she has more of a chance if Benjamin Button broke out a little more at the box office.  And Leo will suffer from being in a movie released too early and being too little of a name.

Adam: Those Expecting Surprises Will be Disappointed

Not sure how much of a long shot it is, but I think Leonardo DiCaprio edges out Pitt and Jenkins for a Best Actor nod.  I also second Jared’s prediction of Happy-Go-Lucky getting more nods than it deserves (which I have no problem ridiculing in the days to come).  I think Dev Patel rides the seemingly-universal love for Slumdog Millionaire into a supporting actor spot.  Honestly though, I really don’t see that many “long shots” in even remote contention.

The Visitor succeeds on the back of Richard Jenkins. The film soars when he’s on the screen and falters when he’s not. It’s his character and his performance that carry it even as some of the other elements come up short.

I’m a sucker for understated performances that display a lot without really emoting much. Think Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others or Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men or even In the Valley of Elah. Jenkins falls into this category even though his character, Walter, is a bit more than a complete blank slate. But he’s the ultimate bland guy, an economics professor no less, who finds himself widowed, alone, and bored but doesn’t even care enough to be restless. I loved watching Walter loosen and open up.

The white guy rediscovering life via exotic ethnic character plot is a bit cliched at this point and The Visitor does not really break any new ground on that front. In fact, the plot plays out fairly formulaically, complete with a drum circle where the white guy busts loose. But again the success of the film can be traced right back to Jenkins and the character of Walter. Everything about Walter simply works. His actions, from the smallest reaction to the grandest gesture, are believable and not overplayed. I found myself enthralled and smiling whenever Walter was around.

The non-Jenkins, non-Walter parts of the film are a mixed bag, however. I wasn’t a fan of the other actors, including Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira as the immigrant couple Tarek and Zainab who have taken up residence in Walter’s apartment. Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother also didn’t do much for me, though I could accept that what I thought was stilted line delivery may have been an authentic Syrian accent and way of speaking. The characters, especially the mom, are not as well-developed to make us understand them.

There’s a good film to be made about our country’s absurd immigration policy, but this isn’t it. The movie is infinitely more interesting when it’s about Walter’s emergence and the immigration plot provides conventional conflict that may not be necessary. It also tries to be socially important without totally succeeding. From my understanding it gets the facts right, which helps it become a much better indictment of the system and bureaucracy than of policy. This is after all a dysfunctional, incompetently-administered system that treats illegal immigrants – civil detainees – worse than common criminals that throws any semblance of justice or humanity out the window. This is a topic that deserves full-blown cinematic treatment to really explore it instead of the sort of half-try it gets here.

I’ll be rooting whole-heartedly for Jenkins to pick up a Best Actor nomination. It worries me that he might get lost in the shuffle in a year with a lot of big names in the category. Not only would it be nice for a veteran character actor like him to snag some recognition for himself but it really is one of the finest performances of the year. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy picked up a Writers Guild nod for Original Screenplay, which could well translate into Oscar success. That would be fine, even if only for the writing of all parts of the Walter character.

And you know what? It was nice to see an economist on film, even if his occupation is one of the reasons Walter finds his life in a rut. Three of the four of us met while working at an economic consulting firm and let me tell you, the life of a professional economist is as soul-crushing as portrayed. But so many occupations repeatedly get the on-screen treatment it’s nice that it’s our turn.

And it comes with all the traps of film versions of a profession! Cops and lawyers complain that the movies always get it wrong and The Visitor presents us with a pretty lame example of an economics conference. If an economist showed up to a conference, as Walter did, and someone said in their presentation said, “We find under these circumstances financial globalization can be beneficial. Impreically, it’s good institutions and quality of government that will allow third world countries to benefit and harbor the fruits of globalization,” they’d wonder if they accidentally ended up in an introductory course. Thanks for dragging me to a conference to tell me something completely elementary, poindexter.

(For extra reading, here’s a really great article about a prison in a Rhode Island town and the immigrants living inside and outside its walls.)

I’d been looking forward to The Visitor, a combination of my appreciation of The Station Agent, my experience with DHS, and that I’d had the DVD for over a month before I watched it (not that I want to place blame, it could have been the fault of any single one of my roommates).  One of the few potential Oscar nominees released in the first half of the year, The Visitor tells the story of a New England professor going through the motions of life who finds a couple of illegal immigrants living in his rarely-used New York apartment.

The Visitor, frankly, is a middling movie.  While it shares some themes of loneliness found in The Station Agent, the latter movie more deeply probes loneliness as well as ensuing relationships.  This film doesn’t really build compelling relationships, leading to a story which didn’t particularly draw me in.  The connection formed between the white bread Richard Jenkins and the free spirit drummer of free spirit drummer Haaz Sleiman is pretty standard stuff, as is the budding romance between Jenkins and Hiam Abbass.

Even the commentary on DHS and our immigration policies was disappointing.  I have no problems with McCarthy telling only one side of the story, especially because nothing he shows is particularly inaccurate.  But to me it failed to add any real emotion or insight to the matter.  People who find our policies on immigration and our methods of detention to be any combination of naive, wrong, silly, or poorly handled will likely cheer the relevant scenes.  And those who agree with our current policies, or want to see them become even more strict, will likely dismiss the movie for unfounded bias.  But most of all, the situation wasn’t nearly as moving as I think it should have been.

The Visitor has been getting Oscar buzz because of Richard Jenkins’s performance in the lead role.  Granting that no one knows anything when it comes to the Academy, it would seem that he’s right on the bubble for a nomination.  It is would be great story since Jenkins is a veteran character actor, the type who are always around, but never to star or receive accolades.  But to me, that’s the only reason he’s in the conversation.  His character in the film isn’t particularly interesting, and as far as I can tell, doesn’t have any discernible emotions.  I’m happy for Jenkins and always thrilled to have less conventional nominations, but I just couldn’t support one here.

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