Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best of 2008: Film

10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This film succeeds both in spite of and because of its excess. At almost three hours, it’s about 20 minutes or a half hour too long, there’s a lot of material that while interesting in and of itself distracts from the film’s core. The center of the film is the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy, and that works wonderfully. The two actors are great as they deal with the frustrating impossibility of being together, as well as the joy of the brief moments when their lives overlap and they can be together. That stuff all works wonderfully, the material surrounding it ranges from strong to distracting. The old age Benjamin stuff works well, but goes on too long, and I found the constant cut backs to the present day framing story distracting. But there’s a haunting magic to the final hour or so that few films can match. I think it’s simultaneously been over and underrated by the film critic world at large, but it’s certainly a top 10 worthy film.

9. Wall-E

Pixar’s second best film (behind only Toy Story 2) is a remarkable piece of visual storytelling. Drawing on the visual language of silent comedy, the film is a cautionary tale about the world we live in, as well as a touching romance, and galaxy spanning sci-fi story. There’s moments of such pure joy in the movie, it’s more exuberant and exciting than anything else this year. I think the film does dip in quality a bit in its more conventional second half, but that’s only because the first half is so strong.

8. Synecdoche New York

Charlie Kaufman’s distinct cinematic voice goes in a more extreme direction than ever before in this film. I think it’s one of the best films of the year, but also extremely flawed in many ways. The second half goes rather off the rails, repeating the same beat over and over again, but the first half is uncanny in its ability to create a really unnerving vision of everyday life. There’s moments that are just disturbing, and the passage of time serves to disorient you in interesting ways. There’s very little difference between dream and reality here, is it a surreal world or are we experiencing the psychotic mind of the film’s protagonist? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The film is an experience, and I’ll definitely give it another look when it turns up on DVD.

7. The Wrestler

It’s less ambitious than the previous three films, but The Wrestler still stands out for its ability to make the everyday life of its protagonist into an epic struggle as large as anything on screen. Cinema can do so many different things, create so many different moods, and put you in different worlds. Most films you talk about in the context of world building are fantasy or sci-fi movies, but Aronofsky is as precise with his details as a Peter Jackson or George Lucas. The choice of music and props places you in this guy’s life, in the ever-growing distance from his glory days. It’s a really well made story that turns everyday life into something huge and meaningful.

6. The Dark Knight

I still have strong feelings against Batman Begins, but this film won me over, primarily due to the chaos incarnate performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker, but also Aaron Eckhart’s virtuous and troubled Harvey Dent. It’s an epic summer blockbuster done in the style of a 70s crime film, and the fusion really works. I don’t think all superhero films should have the self-seriousness of this one, but it works here. The story is epic, it doesn’t always make sense, and there’s some issues with the ending, but the overall takeaway is pretty phenomenal.

5. My Blueberry Nights

Yeah, there’s a lot of haters out there on this one. Even I will concede that it’s not at the level of Wong Kar-Wai’s other films, but there’s still wonderful moments that no one else can create. Wong Kar-Wai uses a different cinematic language than everyone else, and I love the chance to dip into his world for a while. I think he got a bit lost trying to capture some imagined idea of Americana, but there’s a great romanticism to the film, and some of the most beautiful images captured on film this year. And I still love the voiceovers that everyone else called pretentious or overwrought. Just get lost in the movie and then they’ll make sense.

4. Rachel Getting Married

Like The Wrestler, this film uses a ‘realist’ handheld aesthetic, but still manages to turn everyday events into consistently memorable film moments. It’s one of the most exciting and energetic films of the year, ably shifting from deep emotional moments to the simple joy of being together with everyone you know for a wedding. That’s what life is like, it’s not one tone, there’s a lot of emotion inherent in every experience, and we run the full gamut here. Great stuff.

3. Let the Right One In

Vampires have so much metaphoric resonance. On some level, we all exist as drains on the people around us, and the mix of violence and sex inherent in their bite has fueled millions of romances. This film de-dramatizes the traditional vampire narrative and uses it as a way to connect two isolated teenagers in Sweden. Visually, the snowcovered landscapes of the town are amazing, creating this incredibly stark world for everything to happen in. The relationship between the two kids is perfectly realized, and so subtle. It’s not played as a horror story, it’s just these two peoples’ lives, and there happen to be horror elements there. Things happen in a dreamy almost slow motion cadence, and that pace helps draw you in and lets you get lost in the film’s world. It’s one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen.

2. Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

This is a hard film to categorize. Is it something new? Is it a remake? Is it a sequel? I think to some degree, it’s all three. It’s a more focused, emotionally clear take on the series’ first six episodes, and it was one of the most exhilarating, emotional experiences I had with a film in 2008. It doesn’t reach the heights of End of Evangelion, but it does a great job of clearing up some of the strange logic issues the series had, and making the emotional arcs a lot clearer early on. I don’t think it replaces the series, but it’s a great supplement, and if I had to start someone with the show, I might just show them this movie first. The animation was beautiful, and the final moments of the film are as haunting a closing as anything on this list. I can’t wait to see where they go with Rebuild 2.0.

1. Australia

This is a film that didn’t get much love from the critical community or audiences, and it baffles me why. No film was a more absorbing emotional experience for me this year than this one. Baz Luhrman has an uncanny ability to create signature movie moments, building the images and music together to sublime emotional crescendos. It was three hours, but still zipped by, and even though the “two films in one” structure meant there was a slight drag in the middle, I was riveted for the vast majority of this film. I don’t think it had the deepest characters or most challenging narrative, but emotionally, the film hit me like no other, and that’s what the best movies do.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008: TV

This year in TV continued the Golden Age of television, as some of my all time favorite series had career best seasons. Doctor Who, Mad Men and Battlestar all offered their best years yet, and beneath them was a fairly deep bench of really solid, but unexceptional series that all fall somewhere in between great and just ok, depending on the episode. The class of 2008 doesn’t look to have any all time classics, but there’s a lot of potential there.

10. Life on Mars
Best Episode: ‘The Man Who Sold the World’

There’s a bunch of shows on this list that are very much “TV good.” The best of Golden Age TV has been the kind of stuff that is said to ‘transcend’ television. How many times have we heard The Sopranos is more like a movie than a TV show? Life on Mars is very much the sort of thing that feels like a TV show, it looks good, but it’s not particularly artistic, and the characters generally follow that TV protocol of the illusion of change, stuff happens, but it doesn’t seem to add up to change that much. Still, if TV good was good enough for everyone watching TV before 1995, it can be good enough for me from time to time. The acting on this show is fantastic, and it’s still fun to watch Sam Tyler adrift in the alien world of the 1970s. It’s a show that has incredibly promising moments, these trippy interludes that are great fun and hint at a much larger world underneath the procedural storytelling that the show is structured around. What side of things will they emphasize next year? Who knows, but I am eager to see the show come back.

9. True Blood
Best Episode: ‘I Don’t Want to Know’

Speaking of TV good, True Blood barely even reaches that level, it’s more at TV so bad it’s good a lot of the time. I wanted more from Alan Ball’s followup to Six Feet Under, one of the greatest TV shows of all time, but this is still an entertaining show, one that had some really good moments and some really weak ones over the course of its first season. The central problem is that most of the characters were pretty bland, only Anna Paquin’s Sookie and Bill really popped out of the core cast. But, as the series went on, some of the supporting cast, particularly Lafayette, started to stand out, and during the Amy/Eddie arc, there’s plenty of great moments. However, the show stumbled in its final episode, with an absolutely arbitrary murderer revelation, and a barely there cliffhanger that didn’t really pay off anything the season had been to date. I still think the premise is strong, and the show was usually entertaining, but I doubt that it’ll ever be truly great. But, it’s still quite entertaining.

8. Swingtown
Best Episode: ‘Cabin Fever’

This is a classic example of a really strong “TV good” show. Nobody’s confusing the series for art, but it hits the emotional beats that you really want from an ongoing serial narrative. The characters are well realized, and I found myself drawn into their emotional dramas even as I was aware of the emotional manipulation the series was creating. Sure, there were way too many episodes that involved someone having a party and all the characters going, but there was some great subtle change in the characters over the course of the season. Watching the show brought back memories of Buffy or Six Feet Under, and the joy you get from just investing in characters’ lives. It never hit the heights of those two series, but it was a really solid season, and I’m sorry that the show won’t be back for a second round.

7. 30 Rock
Best Episode: ‘Cooter’

The show has been a bit less consistent this season than in past years. The onslaught of guest stars got old, but an episode like “Reunion” reminded me just how good the show could be. That was the year’s best comedy episode, with the hilarious Braverman impression, and the show’s over the top flaunting of its snobbishness and disdain for the ‘common man.’ The abbreviated second half of season two had some classics as well, particularly last season’s hilarious, and emotionally true, finale, “Cooter.” It’s the closest thing we’ve got an Arrested Development successor on TV today.

6. Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles
Best Episode: ‘The Tower is Tall, But the Fall is Short’

This is a show that I almost gave on a couple of times. I stopped watching during the first season, then caught up on DVD. As year two progressed, I almost dropped it again. The episodes didn’t have that much continuity, it was a b-movie of the week type thing, but starting in mid season two, things started to knit together better, the characters became more defined, and the universe of the series kept expanding to more interesting directions. It’s a really strange show because there’s no clear focus, it’s got so many different plotlines going on and they all involve strange philosophical questions about predestination and the nature of humanity. I love the addition of Jessie, who’s managed to make the initially boring Riley into an interesting character. There’s just a lot of interesting stuff going on, and you never know what you’re going to get from week to week. The lack of cohesion is still a problem to some degree, but the show has made a vast improvement, which will hopefully continue when it’s paired with Dollhouse next year.

5. The Daily Show/Colbert Report

Normally I keep these sort of lists confined to traditional scripted series, but this year, I’ve got to give props to two of the funniest, most insightful political commentaries on TV. I don’t know if I can add anything to the myriad praise both series have already received, but it’s still amazing how these shows can be simultaneously funny, and cutting in their assessment of a political world gone mad. The Daily Show still struggles to find new correspondents who are as good as Colbert or Rob Corddry were a few years ago, but Stewart is as sharp as ever. And, it’s amazing that the seemingly one joke schtick of The Colbert Report could grow into an entire skewed universe that can be goofier than The Daily Show ever is, and occasionally surprise you with an absolutely brutal condemnation of the policies of those in power. And, if the past few weeks of political scandals tell you anything, it’s that the shows will have no shortage of material, even after Obama takes office.

4. Battlestar Galactica
Best Episode: ‘The Hub’

After an underwhelming back half of season three, BSG soared forth with its best set of episodes yet. It feels like forever since the show was on, but as I recall, each episode of the fourth season was really strong, nicely building on the tension inherent in the third season’s closing revelation of the final four, the show was more complex and emotionally engaging than ever. And, thankfully, we’ve only got a month left until the show finally returns for its final bow.

3. The Wire
Best Episode: ‘Late Editions’

It wasn’t the show’s finest season, mainly due to the not quite fully formed newspaper storyline. However, I think the show deserves a bit more year end love than it’s been getting because there was no show that had me more hooked on a week to week basis than this final run of The Wire. So much is written about the show’s sociological content and intellectual merit, but beyond all that, this is one addictive piece of fiction. “Got that WMD” indeed, I would stay up until 3 or 4 AM every Sunday night, waiting for the new episode to show up On Demand. The season did a great job of resolving the series’ ongoing character arcs, particularly the beautiful Bubbles ascent out of the basement, juxtaposed against the kids’ fall. It was a fitting final run for one of the greatest TV series of all time.

2. Mad Men
Best Episode: ‘Jet Set’

Mad Men had one of the strongest first seasons of any show in history, but Matt Weiner and co. still managed to top it with an introspective, often surreal and always compelling second outing. Don Draper is one of the most fascinating characters in TV history, made all the more so by the blank slate he projects to the world almost all the time, broken only occasionally by strange events, such as his encounter with a group of European vagabonds in the season’s best episode, “Jet Set.” This show is picking up the mantle of 60s European art cinema, deepening our understanding of the series’ universe with each episode. This series is the heir to The Sopranos, and like that legendary series, it’s the important commentary on contemporary American society in any medium.

1. Doctor Who
Best Episode: ‘Forest of the Dead’

I love all kinds of shows and movies, I can appreciate the artsy personal ennui of Mad Men or the gritty realism of The Wire, but there’s still part of me that responds more than anything to the sort of crazy sci-fi epic that Doctor Who at its best is. This season was by far my favorite of the series, there’s no outright clunkers, a swath of solid mid-level episodes, and a disproportionate amount of all time classics. The Russell Davies scripted three part closing arc is more epic than the show has been to date, from the fanboy joy of seeing characters from all three series brought together to the utter tragedy of Donna’s fate. Nothing else on TV emotionally engages me like this series, it may be galaxy spanning alien wars, but the show manages to puncture right to the heart of the emotional issues we all deal with. “Forest of the Dead,” the season’s high point, spun through a multitude of different realities, and managed to make one off characters extremely memorable. No series stuck in my head like this one did, when The Wire ended, it was all resolved, this one’s stuck in my head and had me eagerly awaiting the series’ real continuation when Moffat comes on board in 2010.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor"

I haven’t been that impressed with most of the Doctor Who Christmas specials to date. While the series proper might have a lot of standalone episodes, there’s usually some kind of connective tissue between them all, even if it’s just the developing relationship between the Doctor and his companion. With the exception of “The Christmas Invasion,” all the specials have been minus a regular companion, and that places a lot of burden on standalone character development. How many new characters can we get invested in?

In this case, I thought the Jackson Lake false Doctor story was a great hook. The high point of the episode is probably the teaser, when we’re left wondering “What’s going on here?” There’s good moments afterwards, but once we find out why Jackson thinks he’s the Doctor, everything goes along pretty much as you’d expect. There’s some cool stuff, like the giant Cyberman/Hot Air Balloon battle, but the spectacle doesn’t have the emotion that the best Doctor Who episodes have.

Part of that may simply be this is the first Christmas Special I’ve watched apart from the series. After six months without Who, and coming off the over the top in every way “Journey’s End,” I wanted something a little bigger. We’ve also got the impending departure of David Tennant hanging over everything, I suppose I should be happy to get even just a decent standalone with Tennant, but I can’t help but want more out of these specials that will close his run.

The moments that worked best for me were the ones that played off the end of last season, and the intense tragedy of the end of Donna’s arc. I watched the commentary on that finale after getting the season four box set for Christmas, and two things stuck with me. One is that I had no clue what Tennant, Davies and Tate were talking about for at least half of the commentary, I thought I knew British culture, but apparently I don’t. The other is that even with them nattering over it, that episode touched something deep on my subconscious, and I was all wrapped up in the tragedy again. I felt almost angry after watching it the first time, that Donna got such a raw deal. I’ve come to appreciate the episode more, and the skill it took to write something that got to me so much. I think it’s a brilliant episode, and in many ways, I wish Davies had just left on that high note and not come back for this inevitably lesser encore.

I don’t have that much to say about the episode proper. The moment that stuck with me was the Doctor talking about his companions at the end of the episode, and saying that “Sometimes they forget you.” He knows why it happened, but still, to have gone through so much with Donna and then to see her go back to the way she was, it must destroy him. I think he knew he could never be with Rose forever, but maybe he did believe that the DoctorDonna would last, and now he finds himself adrift and alone again. I do like that they let him go to dinner with Jackson Lake, and not go for the typical the Doctor leaves alone ending to these episodes.

What will the future hold for The Doctor? I wish we could have gotten a teaser for “Planet of the Dead,” or at least a release date. Will these next specials try to top “Journey’s End,” or will they just let Tennant fade out. A year from now, we’ll know for sure.

Batman #683: "What the Butler Saw"

I don’t have that much to say about Grant’s last Batman issue for the foreseeable future. It’s a nice conclusion to his run so far, summing up the major themes in an easily accessible way, and bridging the gap to Final Crisis nicely. However, I found myself more eager to read that Final Crisis issue than this issue. The ending was never that in question, but at least if Final Crisis #5 hadn’t spoiled the ending of this one, there’d be a bit more tension.

A lot of the criticism of Morrison’s Batman run has centered on the idea that it’s incomprehensible without knowledge of the classic Batman stories Morrison’s referring to, or the philosophy he’s presenting in interviews. These issues tell a condensed version of the “it’s all true” Batman history that Morrison discussed in interviews. It is the first time we see this concept rendered so explicitly in the text itself, and I think that’s the major merit of the issue. But, having already heard the concept in Morrison’s interviews, it’s not that much of a shock. This is basically confirming what we’d already suspect from the run to date.

There’s some fun moments here, but the major significance is found in the events with the Lump, and in Alfred’s final speech. During Batman RIP, Batman puts forth the idea that Gotham is a machine designed to make Batmen, that’s debatably true, but what we see in these flashbacks is the process that led to the creation of Batman, the way he turns the memory of his parents’ death into an engine that drives him past human limits of endurance. The Bruce Wayne we see in the alternate reality scenes is the kind of person that maybe he was meant to be, a spoiled rich kid, but the tragedy fuels him to be an undefeatable superhuman fury of justice.

The Lump tells Batman that he’s useless and immobile, he needs something to power him, and after his emergence in Batman’s mind, he has Bruce’s own trauma to drive him. The concept of Thogal is a brilliant addition to the Batman mythos, rather than just referring to the Nanda Parbat experience, it refers to the entirety of his life as Batman. Each awful thing that happens pushes him deeper into the darkness, but he continually climbs out. He faces death, he experiences the ultimate evil and is able to come back stronger and more able to fight it. That’s what Alfred’s speech that closes the issue is all about, his ability to face death and triumph over it.

The entire saga of Morrison’s Batman will apparently wrap up in Final Crisis #6. It’s a rush reading this in single issues, and seeing the two thematically similar stories literally cross over. Morrison is tying up all his loose ends in the DCU, there’s a lot to cover in the last two FC issues, hopefully they’ll hit that same manic insane hypercondensed style as Seven Soldiers #1 had. I don’t think anyone could manage a totally satisfying traditional narrative wrapup in that short a time, he’ll need something that unwraps in your mind as time passes. It’s only a couple of weeks until we’ll find out.