Monday, January 5, 2009

In Defense of...the 2008 film season

The general consensus of the past year of movies is a rather negative one, from a critical standpoint. "We were spoiled in 2007," seems to be the excuse, and it's a good one. 2007 gave us three perfect masterpieces (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men) and three flawed masterpieces (Sunshine, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). This year, on the other hand, the only two masterpieces appear to be Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E.

Many films that were destined to be classics didn't quite make the cut, like the poorly directed, half-assed Doubt or the entirely overwrought Gran Torino. But for every misstep there was a cinematic success that was ignored. Consider Baz Luhrmann's beautiful Australia and Charlie Kaufman's thought-provoking Synecdoche, New York. While one celebrated storytelling of old, the other criticized storytelling as a whole and the inability of people to direct their own life narrative, respectively.

This was also the year of the Great Comedy, featuring at least 5 films that will be remembered for their ability to induce laughter - Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Tropic Thunder topping the list. And don't forget Sex Drive, perhaps the most under-appreciated comedy in the history of comedies, Role Models and Happy-Go-Lucky, which found a way to make someone laugh and tear up at the same exact moment (whoa).

The American independent film fared well too, with small, performance-driven gems like Snow Angels, The Visitor, Son of Rambow and the surprisingly effective In Search of a Midnight Kiss.

Foreign films blossomed, thanks to Let the Right One In specifically, but also Steve McQueen's Hunger and Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven. Not surprisingly, none of them were nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Granted, period pieces were less lush and more dull (Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess) than years prior, but those were directorial problems amongst top-notch acting (someone give Keira Knightley an Oscar nom for her perfomance!).

But studio films were better than they've been in years. The Dark Knight changed film marketing as a whole while reinventing the superhero genre, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army showcased special effects that did not rely on CGI and computers (praise actual costume and makeup design!) while both Lakeview Terrace and Body of Lies dealt with current issues (racism and war) with a sharp and a stong hand (well at least up until the last 15 minutes of both films - don't you hate when that happens?).

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button achieved visual firsts while providing an epic tale told in today's modern verse, polarizing the critical masses along the way (always the sign of a true classic).

Right now, this year appears to be a bust; a smorgasboard of near-misses and sheer let-downs, sprinkled with only a few surprises. A year from now or longer, I believe the sentiment will be much different, and many of these films will be celebrated.

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