31 January 2009

Top 10 Movies of 2008

I meant to post my top 10 movies of 2008 awhile ago, but then, it seems somewhat unfair, seeing as how there are plenty of movies that are apparently phenomenal that I haven't seen yet (Man on a Wire, Revolutionary Road, My Winnipeg, Milk, Let the Right One In, etc). But of what I saw, here are my picks. Not listed in any particular order, because really, that's asking too much.

The Dark Knight - A comic book adaptation with genuine moral complexity. I HATED Batman Begins and fully expected to hate this one as well, but instead, I was absolutely blown away. Heath Ledger was every bit as phenomenal as they say. 

Cloverfield - Totally underappreciated, but in my opinion, a brilliant exploration of form and narrative in monster movies. Though many will complain that there weren't enough shots of the monster, in my mind, that was half the point, and anyhow, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire film. 

Happy-go-lucky - This movie is absolute genius. A fascinating meditation on happiness. I meant to blog about it awhile ago - what's amazing about the film is that it shows, quite simply, a happy woman. One (or at least I, jaded cynic that I am) would be tempted to assume that anyone who is happy all the time must be either somewhat crazy or somewhat stupid - at very least, out of touch with reality. It turns out to be far more simple. 

Close Encounters at the End of the World - I really like Herzog, and Antarctica is pretty much fascinating, so it's hardly surprising that I adored this movie.

Mamma Mia! - Straight up delightful.

The Band's Visit - I have to admit that I don't remember it as well as I do some of the others on the list, aside from isolated scenes that I'll never forget, but I am nonetheless confident that it belongs on this list.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired - Really, a remarkable documentary, both a fascinating story in and of itself and a really interesting commentary on the legal system and American moral hypocrisy.
Pineapple Express - Yes, it's a stoner comedy, but it's a hilarious one. Also one of those fantastic half parody-half serious films that I'm a complete sucker for. James Franco was marvelous. And yes, it's much, much better than Tropic Thunder. 

Frost/Nixon - Riveting, hilarious, and very timely. A great movie, even if it is somewhat Oscarbating.

A Christmas Tale - A very well done French movie about a family getting together for the holidays. It might seem cliche, but I assure you, the French can do it like no one else. Darkly hilarious and filled with a strange blend of despair and joie de vivre. I loved it. 

Movies that were considered but didn't make the cut:

The Reader - This got edged out by The Band's Visit. It's a good movie, a worthy adaptation of the book, and very well played, but it didn't quite make it to the top 10.

Slumdog Millionaire - It's a great movie, but I dunno, it just didn't quite grab me as much as the aforementioned ones did. That said, it was a great film, and restored my faith that a Western director can make a movie set in India that isn't racist and essentializing (ahem Wes Anderson ahem).

Doubt - Although I appreciated the subtlety, and the acting was fantastic, ultimately it just didn't quite wow me.

Iron Man - This wasn't actually considered, I mention it only to say that despite what many critics might tell you, it was most certainly NOT one of the best movies of 2008. 

Rachel Getting Married - Although there are a lot of good things about this movie, it nonetheless fails to actually be a good movie. 

Touch of Pink

This isn't a particularly brilliant film, but it definitely has its moments. It's about a gay guy who's dealing with the prospect of coming out to his mother. Fairly standard stuff, so to spice it up, his mother is Indian, his lover is British, leading to some fabulous cross-culture hijinks. To make it even better, his extended family is in the midst of planning a big wedding for his cousin - always ample opportunities for humor there - and as a final capper, the main character has an invisible friend - the ghost of Cary Grant. Sounds crazy, and it is, but in fact, the quirkiness of it goes a long way in compensating for the otherwise somewhat stock premise. It doesn't quite suffice to make up for the fact that the protagonist is a somewhat whiny, insipid guy, but hey, you can't have everything. 

Actually, the cross-cultural aspect of the film is pretty ballsy, and definitely has teeth. It starts on the humorous side, with the mother being extremely rude to the British boyfriend (who she thinks is a roommate) but progresses to some heavier stuff about self-hatred (on the part of the protagonist) and a kind of exoticizing fascination (on the part of the lover) - just because you order your tandoori extra hot, doesn't make you any less white. I don't mean to imply that the movie really deals with these issues with any kind of depth - it doesn't. It tosses out these compelling lines and then cheerfully glides over the underlying tensions they represent, moving determinedly towards its inevitable happy ending. But at least those lines are there.

Actually, what's kind of intriguing about the movie is that the invisible friend, ie, the ghost of Cary Grant, is used in an entirely different way than such characters generally are. He's meant to be the guiding light, and indeed, he acts as though he were, but it can't be ignored that his advice is almost always terrible, and leads to nothing but trouble. Not in a hilarious mischief sort of way - it's actually largely unstated how destructive he is, and is rarely a cause for humor. Though he's plenty amusing - who knew that Cary Grant was so sassy? He is also, rather curiously, quite a racist, which oddly enough, is milked for added humor. The more that I think about it, the more strange it is, really. What in the hell is this movie trying to say?

Anyhow, although it's far from being a masterpiece, it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon. 

23 January 2009

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

The preview for the movie was appealing, and then I started seeing all these articles about this "forgotten classic", "the most depressing novel ever written" and I was highly intrigued. I managed to find a copy without Leo and Kate on the cover (don't even get me started on how much this annoys me) which had the added hook of a praise blurb from none other than Kurt Vonnegut. I don't normally pay too much attention to praise blurbs, but if Kurt Vonnegut tells me a book is good, I'll read it. And big surprise, he's right - it's a fantastic book. Indeed, a major downer, but really marvelous writing. The style actually reminds me of Salinger, there's a kind of melancholy austerity to it, but it's incredibly evocative and penetrating. The inner lives of the characters are phenomenally rendered, in that fantastic, slightly ironic way that I adore. It's the Madame Bovary of the American suburbs.

I can't make up my mind about the ending. I don't want to give it away, but as any of the reviews of the movie will tell you, it's not a happy ending. One of the things I liked about the book is the way that it's absolutely tragic despite the fact that nothing really happens, and that is somehow far more poignant than the actual tragedy that the text ends with. But then, maybe that's the point? I can't make up my mind. 

I want to add that one reviewer, I can't remember who, made an important distinction concerning the novel - it's not about how the suburbs ruin people's lives. It's about people who blame the suburbs for the ruin of their lives. This, to me, is an absolutely crucial difference. If you take the first view, you end up like the characters, if you take the second, there's still some hope for you, maybe. 

17 January 2009

The Visitor

Immigration is an issue that is extremely close to my heart and very important to me - if it were up to me, the borders would be open and anyone could come and go and stay as long as they liked - so it's not exactly surprising that I loved this movie. It's the story of a university professor who befriends a pair of illegal immigrants whom he discovers squatting in his apartment. But it's also a story about a guy who is lonely and sad and meets a group of people who change his life. Maybe it's a little cliche - it's definitely somewhat sentimental - but it's quite well done, and extremely powerful.

I often think of Chinua Achebe's complaint about Heart of Darkness, that really it's about this white guy trying to figure himself out and all of Africa is just there as a backdrop, totally flat psychologically (like whoa, Africans have interiority? WHAT?!?). I don't fully agree with Achebe's reading  - I suppose I give Conrad's use of irony more credit than he does - but it remains, for me, a valuable rubric for assessing other films. So one of the things that I appreciated about The Visitor is that yes, it's ultimately a film about a white guy trying to find himself. And no, the film doesn't go on to follow the other characters once they've left his life. I imagine some people out there will loudly complain that this is continued eurocentrism, bla bla bla. Well, no. It's a movie about the white guy. The supporting cast is just that, a supporting cast. Sorry. But they nonetheless have a real depth and complexity. They matter. They are people, not just stock props. The choices they make are interesting and important and compelling. They have their own tensions and dramas, even if those get less screen time.

I suppose one can also complain that in some sense, all the characters are a bit too good to be true. Indeed. They probably are. But isn't it nice to see good people doing the right thing sometimes? In this film, the problems are not the results of characters screwing up - they're the result of a system that is screwed up. The point is to hammer in exactly how fucked up the immigration system is, and while you might want to say that the same argument could be made without such idealized characters, the point is, the system really is that fucked. And while the argument that no one should be deported applies just as much to people who've committed minor crimes as it does to those who have never done anything wrong, it'll be a lot more compelling to doubters (aka haters) this way. So yeah, for me, politics trumps art on this one. 

Finally, I actually really sympathized with, and cared about, the central character, played with great restraint by Richard Jenkins. I LOVED watching him fall in love with drumming and rock out to Fela. It just made me happy inside. He's great at playing men consumed with misery who manage to find a glimmer of happiness in the world.

A good movie. Recommended.

Ah! I forgot to mention that another thing I really liked about the movie was the way it subtly pointed out class markers in immigrant stereotypes. What some will consider the most improbable part of the movie - Richard Jenkins' willingness to help, and interest in sharing Tarek and Zainab's experiences, was my favorite part. It leads to two great scenes; one where Jenkins (ie Walter) is sitting in front of a table of jewelry in a suit trying to sell it, and many others where he plays the drums in the park. There's something shocking about a white guy in a suit engaging in these activities - and the shock makes you realize that these aren't neutral things to do, just regular everyday activities for regular old people - they're tied to expectations or beliefs about class, education, etc. Which is really messed up. 
  I also liked this because it was a nice visualization of sympathy, the act of putting yourself in the position of the other. In the movie, it's implied that it's because he's so lost in his own life that Walter can be moved in this way. His position is less fixed, shall we say, so he can try out other ones. And his doing so creates a shock in the viewer that, I think, pushes them to imagine themselves in the position of each other characters in the film. Some might claim that you're prone to do this in movies anyhow, but I don't think that's true - I think you identify with certain characters, but probably not all of them. In this movie, I think, because of its way of focusing closely on one person at a time, and also because of this imaginative leap being performed for you once, you are inclined to try out identifying with each of them.
Finally, a nice aspect, though not so pleasant to watch - the movie illustrates clearly the horror that is deportation. Deportation is atrocious. It's easy not to think about this, but deportation really, really sucks. This is not because the places people get deported to are so awful - they might well be quite pleasant even - but because it means getting jerked out of your life and dropped off somewhere else, with no possibility of return. It's very easy to not think about, but it's really a terrifying thing. 

11 January 2009

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

I bought this for mainly for my mom, who likes mystery novels, but also thinking that it might be kind of a nerdy take on the genre, maybe a step up intellectually from my usual guilty pleasures of Janet Evanovich and Dick Francis (though I must say, the Stephanie Plum series has seriously dropped in quality from its early days. Are you listening Janet? What happened? Also, while we're on the subject, you can't call Stephanie chunky and then tell me she weighs a buck thirty five. Quit reenforcing negative body image stereotypes.). Uh... where were we? Right. So the strange thing about this book is that it is kind of fun and interesting, but man, it's SO badly written. I'll probably get hateful anonymous comments for this (there's been an increase in those lately. I think the troubled economy is making people grumpy.), but Fforde writes like a somewhat talented high school student. There are some good ideas, but the prose is jarringly amateurish and quite grating. The characters are horribly flat and cliche. Also, as is typical in works that feature time travel, there are aspects of the plot that don't quite make sense. But the ideas are so strikingly odd and original that you sort of go along with it anyhow.

The novel is set in an alternative past, a kind of strange sci-fi conceit really - rather than an alternate future, it's an alternate version of our world set about 20 years ago. Why or how things ended up working out differently is never stated, but that's kind of neat. The main differences seem to be that time travel is possible, that England and Russia have been at war for a very long time (a kind of irritating sub-plot that I suppose is meant to add pathos and serve as not at all subtle political commentary), and that literature is much, much more important to everyday life. The main drama of the work ends up turning on a strange issue whereby the lines of fiction and reality are blurred, allowing people to travel into novels, and characters from them to intervene in real life. This rapidly turns into a logical consistency catastrophe, but it's chalk full of dorky literary references (which goddamn it, I'm a sucker for), and it's so strange that you can't help but follow along to see what happens, even if you do find yourself annoyed by how clumsily it's done.

But what can I say? I sort of enjoyed it. I can't really unabashedly recommend it, but there are definitely worse things to do with your time.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I loathed Match Point, so honestly, my expectations going into this were extremely low. But lo and behold - I really quite enjoyed this movie. In fact, it almost made me want to give Match Point another try (though I don't think I will), because it actually served to confirm my "if you're being extremely charitable then you could argue that it's trying to do this" interpretation of the earlier film. "This" being a clever sort of comedy of manners based around an absolutely cliche set of plot structures, which the film both milks for their utility and mocks. 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a delightfully ridiculous story about Vicky and Cristina, two young American women who head to Barcelona for the summer and become enmired in a ridiculously tempestuous love debacle. What's brilliant about the movie is the balance it manages to strike, both mocking the characters and also humanizing them. This is most obvious in the case of Cristina, played entirely well by Scarlett Johanssen, a woman who longs to be a liberated free spirit and to find herself in Europe. All that cliche stuff. Certainly, she's a ridiculous character, and the film is occasionally borderline vicious towards her. But nonetheless, you find yourself genuinely sympathizing with her as well. Same goes for Vicky, the straight-laced, uptight friend who gets swept up into melodrama. Either of the characters could easily be either too leniently treated or too harshly - the film manages to get the angle just right. Likewise, Penelope Cruz, who is absolutely revelational as the deranged ex-wife, and is also borderline ridiculous, delightfully unhinged, but also wonderfully poignant and touching. And Javier Bardem as the stock sultry European painter is likewise slightly sleazy, slightly preposterous, but ultimately, actually, a pretty good guy. So the movie ends up both poking fun at these cliches, but also fleshing them out - after all, these stories DO happen. And ok, yes, the premise is sort of silly, and a lot of parts of the movie stretch the credibility pretty thin - but never, I think, too thin. The polyamorous segment will indubitably make some viewers extremely skeptical, but I thought that actually, it was quite well done - it was uncomfortable at first, then it worked, sort of, but ultimately it didn't. Which, I think, is kind of exactly how such things go. 

I think this is idea of humanizing cliches is a theme that Woody Allen has now gotten really interested in. If so, I worry, because it's awfully tricky to get right, and perhaps he shouldn't push his luck. Though if you miss old Woody Allen, one thing that persists is his lovely evocation of place - something he's always been great at, and manages to pull of brilliantly, even in foreign countries. They're dreamy and gorgeous and slightly unreal but wonderful nonetheless.

What really struck me about the movie was Johanssen's character. In opposition to her friend, who knows exactly what she wants, the sultry Scarlett has no idea - she only knows what she doesn't want, and is game to try just about anything. At first, this makes her seem far more confident and adventurous than her friend. But what the movie subtly points out is that she's actually extremely diffident, always willing to step aside and put other people first. Because she has no clearly articulated needs and desires of her own, and is, for all her narcissism, a conscientious person who doesn't want to hurt others, she rarely considers her own well being. It's really kind of interesting.

The only real complaint one could level against the film is that for all the fantastically attractive stars, the sex scenes are, well, not that exciting. There's nothing wrong with them, they're fine, it's just that they're not nearly as explosive and hot as one might expect. I wonder if this isn't related to the fact that everyone loves to call Woody Allen a pervert, and if the sex scenes were hot, it would likely be seen as his lewdness. Pity, that.

Anyhow, all in all, really a very good movie. And really, I have to say it again - Penelope Cruz is fabulous. The movie is worth seeing for her alone. Luckily, it's worth seeing for plenty of other reasons too.

02 January 2009

Top 10

I'm not ready to unleash my top 10 movie list (a couple more movies I still wanna watch before deciding), but of the books I read last year - though most of them were released much earlier - here's my top 10:

1. Cutty, One Rock by August Kleinzahler
2. Seasons of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih
3. The Good Terrorist, Doris Lessing
4. Tales From Bective Bridge, Mary Lavin
5. Grendel, John Gardner
6. The Great Man, Kate Christensen
7. A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon
8. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
9. The Rabbi's Cat (1+2), Joann Sfar
10. Zoo, Victor Shklovsky

Top 5 non-fiction:
1. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
2. The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginzburg
3. Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear
4. Where You're At, Patrick Neate
5. Harmful to Minors, Judith Levine

01 January 2009

What I Read in 2008

1. The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginzburg
2. The Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek
3. The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Shel Silverstein
4. The Clown, Heinrich Böll
5. Madmen and Specialists, Wole Soyinka
6. Silk, Alessandro Baricco
7. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear
8. Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle
9. Killing Johnny Fry, Walter Moseley
10. Confessions, St Augustine
11. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
12. Know What I Mean? Reflections of Hip-Hop, Michael Eric Dyson
13. Trans-Atlantyk, Witold Gombrowicz
14. Waiting for Foucault, Still, Marshall Sahlins
15. A Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami
16. Inferno, Dante
17. Utopia, Thomas More
18. Where You're At, Patrick Neate
19. Shroud, John Banville
20. Candide, Voltaire
21. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
22. RL's Dream, Walter Moseley
23. I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek
24. Grendel, John Gardner
25. Visions of Utopia, Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp, Martin Marty
26. A Tale of Tub, Jonathan Swift
27. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel Delany
28. Gaelic Gothic, Luke Gibbons
29. Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki, Ignacy Krasicki
30. Zoo, Or Letters Not About Love, Victor Shklovsky
31. Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
32. The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, Thomas Kinsella
33. Three Sisters, Brian Friel
34. The Irish Comic Tradition, Vivien Mercier
35. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
36. Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern, Joel Pfister
37. The King's of Spain's Daughter, Teresa Deevey
38. Katie Roche, Teresa Deevey
39. A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen
40. Never No More, Maura Laverty
41. The Rising of the Moon, Lady Gregory
42. Burning of Bridget Cleary, Angela Bourke
43. The Old Lady Says "No!", Denis Johnson
44. The Country Girls, Edna O'Brien
45. Tales From Bective Bridge, Mary Lavin
46. Celtic Revivals, Seamus Deane
47. All That Fall, Samuel Beckett
48. Tono-Bungay, HG Wells
49. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
50. Whiteness of a Different Color, Matthew Frye Jacobson
51. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby
52. Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, Seamus Deane, Terry Eagleton, Edward Said, Fredric Jameson
53. The Good Terrorists, Doris Lessing
54. Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
55. Inventing Eastern Europe, Larry Wolff
56. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
57. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, Judith Levine
58. Historia, Ignacy Krasicki
59. I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, Sinaan Anton
60. Seasons of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih
61. Dwoje Biednych Rumunów Mówiących po Polski, Dorota Masłowska
62. A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne
63. The Deportees and Other Stories, Roddy Doyle
64. Seven Types of Ambiguity, Elliot Perlman
65. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
66. A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon
67. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
68. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
69. Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley
70. Prairie State Blues, Bill Bergeron
71. Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson
72. Utwór o Matce i Ojczyźnie, Bożena Keff
73. The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Toibin
74. God, Gulliver and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination, 1492-1946, Claude Rawson
75. The Innocent, Ian McEwan
76.  The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
77. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
78. The King of the Fields, Isaac Bashevis Singer
79. The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland, Ina Ferris
80. Belfast Confetti, Ciaran Carson
81. The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq
82. Beauty and Sadness, Yasunari Kawabata
83. Martha Quest, Doris Lessing
84. The Great Man, Kate Christensen
85. Trans-sister Radio, Chris Bohjalian
86. Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville
87. Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole
88. Lanzarote, Michel Houellebecq
89. In a Cafe, Mary Lavin
90. Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembge
91. Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua
92. Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault
93. Jonathan Swift and the Art of Raillery, Charles Peake
94. The Persian Letters, Montesquieu
95. Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, Amara Lakjous
96. Father's Music, Dermott Bolger
97. The Rabbi's Cat, Joann Sfar
98. The Shape of Utopia, Robert Elliot
99. The Rabbi's Cat 2, Joann Sfar
100. Nickel Mountain, John Gardner
101. Love and Garbage, Ivan Klima
102. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
103. Cutty, One Rock, August Kleinzahler
104. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
105. The Thief and the Dogs, Naguib Mahfouz
106. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
107. The Prophet, Khalil Gibran
108. Almost No Memory, Lydia Davis
109. Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories, Ghassan Kanafi

(2007's list can be found here, along with an explanation of how I'm able to produce such a list)