Thursday, June 26, 2008

Halftime Report

Well, it's just about halftime for the year that is 2008. Six months just about down, around six months to go. What do you think have been the highlights and perhaps the lowlights of the year thus far? Which film is the best you have seen, or what collection of films from this year have kept you going in spite of the fairly bleak (for quality cinema) time of the year late winter/spring usually is, and indeed the normally "dumb" movies of summertime? Was there an arthouse adventure that was like an oasis despite not featuring much hype? What film took you by surprise? Which is a film you will defend to others who don't understand its appeal, or find it grievously flawed? What's been overrated? So, again, what were the best of the best? What were among the worst of the worst?

Guess I've got to go first.

My favorite films of the year thus far, in a somewhat elastic order: The Fall, OSS 117: Cairo--Nest of Spies, In Bruges, The Band's Visit, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Orphanage, Priceless, My Brother is an Only Child, Roman de Gare, My Blueberry Nights, Iron Man and Snow Angels. The order may not be right, but it's sort of what I'm feeling right now. The issue of whether a few of these are actually 2007 or 2008 films is to be left ignored right now: I saw them all in 2008 and unless I'm wrong none of them were released in America before January 1. (Am I wrong? I have a feeling I am about The Orphanage. The Band's Visit I think is '08.) I've begun to cave as far as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days goes, as I believe it was released theatrically, though on an incredibly limited basis, before New Year's.

My least favorite, in a somewhat elastic order: The Happening (I swear I went in with objective eyes; I'd like to see Shyamalan bounce out of this slump just about as much as anybody), Funny Games and Cloverfield (best score in a bad film this year).

Most underrated: The Fall. I understand where the critics of it are coming from, as well as the many people I know who wanted to like it more but found it cold or uninvolving. I could say it just struck me and that's that, but beyond such a simple perspective, it really was a startling look at the potency of art (in this case a fairytale enlivened by the imagination of a girl and the cinematic adventure of Tarsem capturing puissant imagery on behalf of said imagination) as a whole and how it's used, and why it truly matters.

Most overrated: The Visitor. A lot of good little pieces that don't truly result in a great deal to chew on, and it feels at least partly suffocated by the director's crushingly heavy hand.

Three films that with a good deal of intelligent tinkering could have potentially been truly great: Married Life, Snow Angels and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Two films that were neither good nor great, bad nor awful but rather lukewarm-bland and rather forgettable: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and The Incredible Hulk.

One film I wished I liked better: Speed Racer. Ought to give this another spin on DVD.

One film that captured the pure fun of old-fashioned cinema, even if not perfectly: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. As a screwball romantic comedy, it could have used more screwball and an even more confident screenplay but it was a noble effort from top to bottom nevertheless.

Overall, this has been a rather strong year thus far. Here's the controversial part of this post:

Thus far, I would contend that 2008 has been at least somewhat stronger than 2007 was at this juncture. '07 had Zodiac, yes, and that counts for a great deal. Breach was a better film than its release date would indicate, or at least it featured a performance that would have been right at home anywhere between Labor Day and New Year's Eve with Chris Cooper. I found The Host disjointed and marginally bloated, though it was a fun genre experiment. A Mighty Heart made me wish it was about the Pakistani cop in charge of its investigation (which it often was) rather than the helpless, mostly immobile wife. 1408 was a decent chiller but nothing to write home about (the ending was sufficiently ambiguous that I've always thought that I perhaps ought to take another look at it, however). The Grindhouse experience was undeniably a highlight of the first half of 2007, and Death Proof is still quite terrific. The Hoax featured strong turns by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina but it wasn't as accomplished as it thought it was. Fractured was pure potboiler diversion but who can resist Anthony Hopkins playing a psycho killer? Waitress and You Kill Me--the first a fairly guilt-free romantic-comedy, the second a comedic base hit for director John Dahl--were both better than most anything else I saw for quite a while.

Then again, I possibly missed a few highlights from the first half of '07. Anyone have any input on that? One I know I missed was Knocked Up, which I finally watched on DVD in December.

But most importantly, what do you think of this first half of 2008? Is is disappointing, as many have suggested? Or, do you just perhaps think like I that it's been somewhat surprisingly good considering everything? Last year I didn't see any summer blockbusters aside from Ratatouille and The Bourne Ultimatum. This year I've seen Iron Man, Speed Racer, Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, The Incredible Hulk, The Happening (if you want to count it among the big summer movie fare) and will see WALL-E and The Dark Knight (update: got my tickets for 1:30 PM July 18--IMAX, yippee). I didn't just become soft in twelve months' time; there have been some reason, whether great or small, to see these films this year, so even in the dumbed-down months of summer, '08 still feels stronger than '07 did.

Of course, maybe the fall of '08 will completely drop the ball. It was the season of autumn last year that was primarily responsible for making 2007 feel like a possibly great year for American film (history will have the final word on that, I suppose).

But for now, we have to be content with only seeing the first half of the year. I've been going to movies a lot more in the late winter/early spring and especially now summer than I was last year. (Last July I only saw two films--La Vie En Rose and Once, for instance.) All and all, '08 feels muscular, and if the names Nolan, Allen, Coen, Ed Harris, Spike Lee, Eastwood, Forster, Luhrmann and many others mean anything to you, odds are you're looking forward to at least a couple of films between the two holidays involving fireworks.


Anonymous said...

I've got to agree with you on The Visitor. I enjoyed it and Richard Jenkins performance was great, but I just didn't get the level of enthusiasm that everyone had. I thought maybe it was just me.

There are already many movies that I've missed for the first half of 2008, which is the way of things for me when the weather gets warm and sunny. I like being outside then.

A lot of the movies that I did manage to see were ones that I wanted to see but didn't have high expectations for, like Indy 4 (flawed but worth it for the cast and nostalgia value) and Iron Man (it was all about RD Jr). SATC and Kung Fu Panda are also lumped into that, though I enjoyed Panda more. SATC was fun but too long for what it was.

This week it's all about Wall-E. And after reading your review of the film I'm rethinking Mongol. Maybe I'll get out to see that this week.

Anonymous said...

Technically, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and The Band's Visit were 2007 movies (Band, too, was submitted for consideration to the Academy but was turned down because of the amount of English in it). But you're right - since they were released here, they count as 2008 and that's when I saw them. :)

Two of my favorite movies of this year.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Alison, The Visitor's central performance by Richard Jenkins was great but somehow the film just didn't gel, and felt crushed by what felt like sort of trendy liberal white guilt. It was ultimately just too schematic for me.

I'm truly honored to have moved your mind on Mongol with my review, Alison. That's really cool. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Whoops, I've got to pull the trigger on my comments with greater alacrity.

You're right, Alison, I guess they *were* '07 films... But kind of '08, too, aha. :)

Anonymous said...

I think the remark that it felt like trendy white liberal guilt is spot on. That's exactly why I was lukewarm on it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yeah, and it really lacked in subtlety to me. It was kind of saddening and maddening to see McCarthy seem to stall a bit from The Station Agent, which made many excellent points without much of a frontal assault, and especially now in comparison to his 2008 offering.

Daniel G. said...

Great, comprehensive review. All I have time to add at the moment is excitement that I'm not the only who is surprised at the strength of 08 so far. Yes, QUITE a bit better than 07 at this time last year. 07 really went out with a bang starting in September, though. If you start with Yuma, 2 Days in Paris, King of Kong, Jesse James, it just went right through to the end of the year.

While 08 might have some gems in the fall/winter, I wonder if they'll arrive with such consistency. What a year last year was.

Craig Kennedy said...

Ok, I'm just starting to recover from the festival and I'm getting caught up on the blogging I've missed. I was going to run a first half report card myself, but I think I'll just air my thoughts here.

I'll have to look back on my notes to compare 2007, but I recall most of the movies I loved didn't come until fall so I won't be surprised if I decide 2007 is off to a stronger start.

In no particular order here are the 16 movies I'd call excellent:

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The Band's Visit
Chop Shop
Snow Angels
Paranoid Park
Shotgun Stories
My Blueberry Nights
Shine a Light
Roman de Gare
Speed Racer
OSS 117: Cairo - Nest of Spies
Bigger, Stronger Faster

There are a bunch of near misses and only a few movies I outright hated with Rambo topping that list.

I agree that The Visitor was nice, but overrated. I wish I liked The Fall as much as you. I wanted to. I tried.

Except for Speed Racer and WALL-E, summer has mostly been a disappointment. Indy is the best of the rest, but Iron Man and Hulk left me cold.

My guilty pleasure movie is the much hated Forbidden Kingdom. It was stupid, but I had a lot of fun with it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Great write-up right there, Craig.

I think I agree that all of those films--that I've seen--are at least very good or excellent.

There's a handful of films there I need to see, however. Wanna, gotta, gonna, check them out soon.

Wish I had included a guilty pleasure movie, because, Craig, I'm totally with you on The Forbidden Kingdom. It was absurd, stupid... and a whole lot of mindless, diverting fun. Possibly the least cynical, ironic film of the year that I've seen. It was soothing in that way.

Alexander Coleman said...

Daniel, I remembered you saying that you thought '08 thus far was stronger than '07 back at the end of May and I agreed with you and now I'm with you even more. The truth is, '07 was pretty damned bleak and bland for the first half of the year for me with some great exceptions (every time I do this, Zodiac merits a mention). '08 thus far been much more consistently solid. Eagerly looking forward to the rest of the year from this point onward.

I agree as well regarding the fall of 2007. From around 3:10 to Yuma until the very end of the year, it was just about the stuff of legend.

Craig Kennedy said...

Yeah! Forbidden Kingdom!

I'm shocked to see how so many people hated that one. It was fun! It felt like they were trying to recapture how martial arts movies made them feel as kids.

Alexander Coleman said...

Very astute observation, Craig. It really did capture the childish appreciatoin of martial arts movies many boys have. The whole thing just worked for me. I dare say it was what Indiana Jones could have been, if it were just settling to be a dumb fun movie.

Anonymous said...

Greetings, Alexander. It's elessar from AD. Didn't know you had your own blog.

Anyway, prior to May, I would have said that 2007 was better than 2008 b/c in 07 we at least had ZODIAC and BREACH. All 2008 had up to May 2 was IN BRUGES.

Beginning with the release of IRON MAN, 2008 rocketed ahead of 2007. Despite its flaws, Indiana Jones was way more enjoyable than any of May 2007's bloated monstrosities. IRON MAN was (and is) the best Marvel movie so far (the excellent cast and Favreau's knack for humor helped), and WALL-E is, to me, the best film--live or animated--of the past 4 years put together. MONGOL was also awesome, and given my love for big historical epics, was right up my alley. While more flawed than IM, INCREDIBLE HULK was quite enjoyable and served the purpose of integrating the Hulk into the Avengers universe.

Sneaking past the half-way mark a little, Hellboy II was infinitely better than its enjoyable-but-flawed predecessor. Guillermo Del Toro's blend of humor, melancholy, and action was near-perfect, and I can't WAIT to see what he has in store for Middle Earth.

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, Elessar. Thanks for stopping by. (As you did in my "Random Thought" piece.)

You make some very good points about the strength of 2008.

Hope to see you around here regularly. :-)