Reverse Shot's Two Cents, 2008

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The Good, the, Bad, the Ugly, and the End of It All



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World’s Greatest Superhero: Zhang Yimou
Forget Iron Man: Zhang Yimou’s romanticized conceptualization of the Chinese people as one mean singing, dancing, contorting, fighting, and peacemaking machine was the year’s supreme example of onscreen superheroism. An extension not only of the director’s recent CGI-driven wuxia pian but also of his majestic theatrical extravaganzas (including one performed on the Li River that I had the good fortune to see in 2005), the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony was a production whose glamour and lavishness I had initially planned on resisting. Something about the show’s attention-hungry expensiveness, cute humanitarian didacticism, and insistent use of the Chinese character for “peace” seemed crass, particularly amid reports of the government’s continued persecution of human rights activists and crackdowns on subversive elements. Furthermore, if Hero and House of Flying Daggers appeared to have been made with the Western audience foremost in mind, then this spectacle would certainly be an even more naked instance of self-exoticization and grand-scale flossin’ for foreign eyes. No more than 20 minutes in, though, I had to figure out why I was tearing up. Then I wondered: what influence should cultural identification hold over our spectatorship in this modern, globalized, fashionably disillusioned world?

My father—who, like many in the Chinese diaspora, holds a deep-seated ambivalence toward the “mother land”—constantly repeats to me the famous prophesy: “When China wakes, she will shake the world.” And just as election night seemed to offer the dream of an infinitely redeemable America and the fulfillment of long-unmet ideals, Zhang’s images of Chinese power constructed a riveting and emotionally charged fantasy about how a nation can gather up its resources to heal itself. As thousands of performers in the Bird’s Nest manipulated gigantic props with grace and executed painstakingly detailed choreography with precision, the soulless pyrotechnics of Zhang’s last few films finally attached themselves to a human dimension that justified their existence. It was as if, for a moment, the fraught symbol of one large mass of Chinese bodies were reinvested with beauty and magic. But for cinephiles, the most meaningful element might have been what was projecting onto the stadium floor. In the middle of the stage, images of China’s past artistic glories rippled and morphed on the world’s largest LED screen, providing a powerful analogy of media across history—as if the form of ancient scroll painting had given birth to cinema and, at last, to our uncontainable digital age. —Andrew Chan

Most Exhilarating Moments of Pure Cinema: In the City of Sylvia
There are a few sequences in Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia that take place on a train platform. I could try to describe their shimmering, almost ethereal loveliness. I could try to explain how Guerin uses light, glass, and the camera to reflect, refract, and distort a gallery of human faces into something breathtakingly beautiful. But I could never do them justice. All I can tell you is that there are a few sequences in In the City of Sylvia in which a man stands on a train platform and stares at the faces of the anonymous women across from him, and that these were, for me, the most thrillingly transcendent moments of movie watching I had all year. —Chris Wisniewski

Most Unwelcome Comeback: The Wachowski Brothers
Sometime in the future Speed Racer will probably be hailed as a landmark film of this digital-onset moment. Of course, we’ll all be dead, and won’t have the chance for rebuttal, so hopefully our grandchildren will still maintain the priceless Reverse Shot archives. Speed Racer’s incorrigibly lame, unforgivably artificial, and borderline unwatchable, save for a few moments near the finale in which Emile Hirsch enters some sort of Zen-speed zone and sees lots of swirling colors. It’s purty for about five minutes and then heads straight back to the banal. As the film completed the transition, I remembered once digging on The Matrix and a small piece of my youth withered and died inside me. —Jeff Reichert

sevenpounds.jpgMost (Understandably) Overlooked Performance: Rosario Dawson in Seven Pounds
Okay, so Gabriele Muccino’s eat-for-this-is-Will-Smith’s-body tearjerker is utterly risible. Yes, it’s a nonsensically structured bonkers plunge into an eye-rolling plot of self-sacrifice so desperately contrived that Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession seems restrained by comparison. (A defense of the film as a whacked-out update of that trashy Hollywood treasure is not unthinkable, I dare say—just replace Sirk’s gorgeous Technicolor compositions with a trendier, but no less contemporarily stylized, aesthetic.) Even still, it’s difficult to remain unmoved by Rosario Dawson’s conflicted (and disease-afflicted) love interest. Dawson, who also suffered beautifully in 2005’s Rent, has been piling an impressive resume of roles for most of this decade, many of which have highlighted her ability for shifting between registers of emotional transparency and shielded vulnerability. Simply put, Dawson is always the one to watch whenever she’s on-screen, whether in dubious exploitation (Descent) or exploitation art (Death Proof). And if, in some God-forsaken alternate universe, Seven Pounds had caught on, Dawson would easily be looking at an Oscar nomination. Yes, she handles the weepy melodrama exquisitely, yet there’s also, at the heart of the film—buried deep down, past the Jesus Christ and the jellyfish and the squishy organ donations—a tender, well-acted, no-win romance between Smith and Dawson, that, for its fleeting moments, makes you forget the surrounding silliness. It’s a movie that occasionally provides an escape from itself. —Michael Koresky

x-files-i-want-to-believe.jpgFrom the “I Kinda Feel Sorry For . . .” Files: Speed Racer and The X-Files: I Want to Believe
The revisionist machine is already starting to hum for Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers’ moving picture coloring book that probably suffered at the box office and in review sections more for the sins of the last two Matrix movies than for its own, lesser problems. I can’t get myself as worked up about championing the thing as much as the "looks cool must be subversive" crowd—this is the Wachowskis we’re talking about, and almost everything about Speed Racer except its relentless kineticism is “I know kung fu” dumb. But it has its moments, including a glorious car race against the past weighed down by none of The Matrix’s ponderous, hypocritical postmodern philoso-junk. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as pure style, but it could perhaps be the key to the Wachowskis’ future.

Meanwhile, The X-Files: I Want to Believe produced this past summer’s most notable blockbuster whimper, and almost nobody seems to want to believe in it for posterity’s sake, even as a cult item. More like a B-episode from the original TV series than a feature-length spectacular continuing its main storyline (as did the first movie), Believe, like Speed Racer, is also not quite “good” and yet offers something missing from the year’s overhyped, high-concept thumb-twiddlers. Sure, its plot is sub¬–Silence of the Lambs and some of the editing is downright amateurish, but after the disposable Manichean machinations of The Dark Knight I was genuinely astounded to see complex issues of faith and loyalty being played out on a multiplex screen. If that sounds pretentious, in total contradiction to the keep-it-simple dictum for Speed Racer, and not all that fun, consider using it as an excuse to get back into the series, a paranoid thriller done right and, at its best, sci-fi-horror genre perfection with the added bonus of intelligence. —Michael Joshua Rowin

Biggest Lingering Worry: Wall*E
I love Wall*E. I really do. Even though it didn’t quite crack my personal Top Ten, I still can’t think of another film from 2008 (save Synecdoche, New York) that was as immediately and deeply moving. If you haven’t seen it yet, most of what you’ve read about its deft navigation of silent film tropes in a CG world is true—you can believe the hype here. So what has me worried? The small matter of the film’s second half, which should not be such a small matter at all, especially when the film is placed alongside its brethren in the Pixar stable. Wall*E’s first forty or so minutes were a miracle of economy and restraint, so why the overload on the back end? Big chases and broader jokes define the world aboard Eve’s astral home, almost as if Andrew Stanton and Pixar were afraid of the Pandora’s box they’d opened with their frankly perfect, nearly-silent beginning. Even at its most hectic, Wall*E is never less than enjoyable, but the gear shift is a let-down, especially as it seems so familiarly Pixar. So many of their films end with bravura, mad-cap sequences like Wall*E’s chase for the sapling that I fear in breaking out of one orthodoxy they may just end up subscribing and re-instating another, rather than continually evolving. One could easily retort that Wall*E and Pixar’s forbears (Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, Spielberg) often found similar exit strategies useful, but what keeps me worried about Pixar is that, given the four-quarter economic model they’re bound by, there may never be room for them to completely grow up. —JR

Valkyrie nazis.jpgNo More Nazis:
Let’s not get too dour here. Swastikas n’ jackboots n’ those nifty peaked caps are stock images of the last century, and thus unavoidably liable to reiteration and exploitation. Nazism remains the speediest index of villainy available, and it would be foolish to declare that, in 2008, such appropriations suddenly went “too far,” after we’ve already been treated to “Springtime for Hitler,” Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and the efforts of Tinto Brass and Russ Meyer. No, what’s being charged here is hitching a free ride on the “serious” (i.e. unutterably horrible) side of Nazism to give both a dose of gravitas and a pornographic charge to rote entertainments masquerading as “dramas.” According to chief offenders Defiance and Valkyrie, Nazis split their time evenly between hideous crimes, nightclub orgies, and canny set decoration. Defiance’s best howler has a couple of arrogant Nazi officers driving with a veiled, fox-furred strumpet in tow to an unidentified “party” in the middle of the Byelorussian forest—Nazi nightlife will evidently not be held back by the lack of urban facilities or society women in the battle-scarred countryside. Valkyrie, meanwhile, lovingly manufactures courtyards full of blood-red banners, marble-inlaid swastika swimming pools, and stained-glass celebrations of the master race, getting off on the Nazi penchant for catchy, Hollywood-accentuated interior design while ostensibly paying tribute to a small group of (upper-class) Germans who repudiated their entire ethos.

Add to these and other such ostensibly tony items as The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Adam Resurrected, and Good, such lowbrow instances as The Spirit (wherein Samuel L. Jackson delivers a monologue in full SS getup for no discernible reason) and The Unborn (which props up its poorly executed horror tropes with a tasteless flashback to the camps), and one may be forgiven the temptation to adopt the famous scorched-earth position of Adorno. As these and even less distinguished items show, writing poetry after Auschwitz is not the most barbaric thing that can be done under the shadow of the Nazi legacy—though undoubtedly the upcoming Inglourious Basterds [sic and all] will restore moral equilibrium to the situation with QT’s trademark sensitivity and nuance. —Andrew Tracy

Wait, This Was a Movie People Cared About? The Edge of Heaven
In many quarters, Fatih Akin’s debut, Head On, is nigh upon revered as a landmark statement from New European Cinema. I haven’t seen that film, or his documentary on Turkish music, but if I were to judge on the basis of The Edge of Heaven alone, I’d be more likely to name Akin a charlatan peddler of Haggisian fare for the Euro set. Its “coincidences” are telegraphed, its milieu wholly artificial, and its ending feels like Crash without the invisible cloak. As with Rachel Getting Married, the praise heaped upon Edge of Heaven bespeaks of a dearth of available options for the middle-brow set. Like Crash, if we view it as an ethnographic study of that foreign race known as “Movie Characters,” it almost holds one’s interest. But in any other year, this thing would be a C-lister at best. —JR

miracle-at-st-anna-2.jpgWait, Did I Hallucinate That? Miracle at St. Anna
I barely know anyone else who saw it, so perhaps the whole thing was a nightmare conjured up by an overdose of guacamole and Sam Fuller? It was certainly an unforeseen decision for Spike Lee to make his much-anticipated World War II epic—intended to right the wrongs of decades of African-American–denying Hollywood war pictures—in the style of the corny, broad two-fisters he was trying to correct. In theory this was a delightful surprise (I’m sure we all expected some sort of desaturated, post–Saving Private Ryan plunge into visceral immediacy). In practice, it was something quite different: sloppily staged battle scenes; lumbering storytelling; an endlessly ill-fitting array of subplots seemingly taken whole-hog from the novel without prejudice; laughably old-fashioned sexism (the busty village peasant does laundry topless for all to see); and, most defeatingly, broad, wild-eyed acting from its black leads in clichéd roles (the gold-toothed buck, the behemoth simpleton . . . ) that came perilously close to making the film an example of the very stereotyping Spike Lee usually so eloquently bemoans. Let’s hope that he recovers quickly from this strange momentary lapse of judgment and skill. Most disconcertingly, films like these only serve to justify the slings and arrows of the anti-Spike contingent. Don’t let them win! —MK

ivelovedyou.jpgBest Third-Act Twist (SPOILER):
Brad Pitt’s untimely demise in Burn After Reading
Worst Third-Act Twist (SPOILER):
I’ve Loved You So Long’s Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) didn’t murder her son in cold blood after all. Let’s see if I get this straight: 1) No one bothered to do an autopsy (or, alternately, they didn’t notice he had a terminal illness while doing the autopsy); 2) No one cared to determine a motive; 3) Her husband and family decided she was a murderer without any explanation and proceeded to completely repudiate her without demanding said explanation; 4) She never talked to anyone about any of this; but 5) She nevertheless left the evidence exonerating her just lying around on her end table. As improbable as it all is, I would be willing to accept it if it didn’t let her—and us—off the hook. What’s the point of making a movie about guilt and redemption if it turns out no one was ever really guilty of anything in the first place? —CW

pleasure robbed.jpgBest Jacques Rivette Film: The Duchess of Langeais
Second Best Jacques Rivette Film: The Pleasure of Being Robbed
I’m jesting a bit, but in a year that saw one of cinema’s truest talents return after a few-year absence with a film as texturally rich and endlessly enigmatic as the great films of his seventies heyday (though given Rivette’s remarkable consistency, picking out salad years is tough), it was heartening to see a young American filmmaker about a third of Rivette’s age attempting to follow in his footsteps. The Pleasure of Being Robbed may be a little too solipsistic, a little too meandering, a little too enamored of its enigmatic protagonist, but its creator is 23 years old. And, to boot, he hasn’t gone and churned out another inarticulate gabfest straight from mumbledum or some sort of over-eager hairy-palmed genre dreck. Let’s see where Joshua Safdie goes in these next few years. For now, I’ll revel in his late-film stuffed panda bear dance/wrestle that defies logic and reason as it enters into that odd liminal state that binds so many of Rivette’s best. If the rest of The Pleasure of Being Robbed had shown such daring, it might have made my year-end list. For now, I’ll settle for great expectations. The Duchess of Langeais? Pretty damn good, too.—JR

Most Unwelcome Proselytizing: Four Christmases
I asked for nothing, absolutely nothing, from Four Christmases, and I got even less. With bloated, beady-eyed Fred Claus himself and chirp-tastic June Carter Cash headlining, one could expect, I suppose, a mix of the crass and the cloying, but Seth Gordon’s hateful holiday offering reached new depths of shamelessness. Audience-abusing first as a sick pummeling series of regional American stereotypes (all of which somehow exist within 100 miles of each other in the film’s geographically confounding space-time) and finally as a slick reaffirmation of bourgeois family values, Four Christmases takes Vaughn and Witherspoon’s independent, black-wearing power-couple on a December 25th tour of their divorced parents’ four homes, one after another, as a way of bringing them to a greater understanding of the importance of . . . reproducing? Yes, after being, variously, vomited on by babies, body-slammed by brothers, and violated by four slumming Oscar-winners who “should know better” (but who are, let’s face it, old and confused), the couple realize that the one thing missing in their lives has been their very own child. Cut to hospital room denouement and the most disingenuous “miracle of life” wrap-up since Towelhead. —MK

thefall.jpgVisionary Cinema Award: The Fall
“I was literally having visions. All of the day and all of the night, I lay in a fever. Before my eyes swam monumental red curtains flapping in the desert breeze. I saw men with scimitars and scythes. I saw a silent film stuntman felled by an accident. I saw him alternately trick a guileless little girl into providing him with the drugs he’d need to end his life and then terrifyingly berate her for not doing so. I saw the girl weep. I felt the power of love course through my veins. The power of love is the power of cinema. I knew my imagination could bring this flower into the world. A world that needs hope. It was written.” —“Visionary” “Director” “Tarsem,” upon accepting his prize at the recent Reverse Shot awards ceremony in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. —JR

Most Politely Overlooked Awful Scene in an Otherwise Okay Movie:
There have been many words used to describe the beloved Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In. Delicate. Beautifully crafted. Serene. Creeping terror. And overrated as it just might be (a bit too much of the convenient, telegraphed comeuppance for my taste), the film indeed leaves the impression of blood-red stain on downy flake. But dear, ever-so-kind critic, what say you of the crazy kooky CGI kitty attack awkwardly shoved into the last third of the film? Are we just gonna pretend it ain’t there? Utilizing effects that look left over from Bette Midler’s Hocus Pocus, Tomas Alfredson stages a hilariously overwrought set piece, full of flailing, spittling cats widening their ‘toon maws and lunging their ‘toon paws as they attack a newly converted vamp (who, incidentally, is a remnant of an underdeveloped subplot—another deep flaw of this supposedly impeccable piece of storytelling). It’s even less convincing than Dario Argento’s similar scene in the ridiculous Inferno, and in that one the director literally had live cats thrown at his actress from off-camera, all of which would visibly smack into her and run away terrified. —MK

Best Stretch: The Duplass Brothers’ Baghead
Worst Stretch: Jason Statham in The Bank Job
Dear Duplasses, I was totally down with you for how well you inverted horror tropes by forcing them to fight for dominance with your own brand of skewed comedy. More of this, please! Straight mumblecore was always totes boring, anyway. Hey Statham, if you can’t even navigate yourself through even the simpleminded dramatics of The Bank Job, don’t start sizing yourself up for ascots and top hats just yet. You’re no Dwayne Johnson. Get working on Death Race 2: The Deathening. —JR

synecdoche_0.jpgBest Supporting Actress: Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York
Though just one of a stellar lineup of some our best actresses, Samantha Morton still managed to stand apart from the crowd in Synecdoche, New York, seemingly reinventing herself on camera. Glowing, complex, and surprisingly voluptuous, Morton turned Hazel into one of the year’s most phenomenal creations. Hazel never gives Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden exactly what he needs, yet remains the aloof love of his life, always by his side, right up until her devastating final scene (if Kaufman’s strictly metaphorical “house on fire” conceit doesn’t work for some, there should be no question in anyone’s mind that Morton sells it every step of the way). Hazel neither fits into the role of lover or savior; she’s neither an object nor domineering; she isn’t victim, mother, or whore— which makes her fairly unique for a female character in American cinema. And Morton consistently surprises in the role, always sexual but never self-consciously so, full of her own neuroses and hang-ups. As great as Morton has been in the past, she’s never seemed this emotionally open. —MK

blueberry nat.jpgWorst Supporting Actress: Natalie Portman in My Blueberry Nights
The only reason Norah Jones comes off rather well in Wong Kar-wai’s gloomy American misstep is that, surrounded by a bunch of hammy grandstanders, she recedes into the background—a silent, unpretentious observer of folly. Jude Law preens, David Strathairn overdoes his much-practiced inward bit, and Rachel Weisz goes all Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf dinner-theater blowsy; but Natalie Portman deserves special mention for giving perhaps the single most egregiously unconvincing interpretation of a human being in 2008. Cast perhaps twenty years too young, Portman is a cigarette-smoking, bleached-blonde “seen-it-all” Vegas card sharp with a dark past and a penchant for frilly shirts and heavy, jangling necklaces. She’s wise, she’s tortured, she’s no-nonsense: imagine Macaulay Culkin circa 1990 playing FDR and you’ll start to envision the disconnect here. —MK

Best Musical: La France
There may not have been any other contenders this year (do we have to remember the existence of Mamma Mia! ?), but this small musical starring the miraculous Sylvie Testud and Pascal Greggory turned a pretty soggy narrative—the wife left behind searching for her man at the front—into something fresh and exciting via the introduction of a band of singing soldiers. Their makeshift instruments (pulled seemingly from nowhere) and Beach Boys harmonies provided a perfect model for the creation of Brechtian dissonance—put frission into play, don’t fall prey to slavish irony. To boot, La France was put into limited release by Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, so it might also offer filmmakers working on the fringes a model for limited distribution in years to come.—JR

Why So Serious? Award: Christian Bale
Dude, you’ve finally broken through to the elusive mainstream from cult-following and Teen Beat–hell, and you still can’t crack one goddamn smile? Your evident soullessness on-screen was apparently corroborated by reports that you allegedly assaulted your own mother (!), and you still refuse to take roles in anything that doesn’t require you to glower in dark rooms or do kray-zee accents or lower your voice four decibels? You seem to take ACT-ing seriously, yet your line-up of films of late have included a dumb magic movie (The Prestige), a stupid western by the director of Walk the Line (3:10 to Yuma), the Bat-Man movie (in which you actually seemed constipated), and, next, a goddamned Terminator movie?! Bale, you peaked at age 12 in Empire of the Sun. Artistically, your career is quickly becoming a joke. So, come on, man, enjoy the ride, and give us a smile.
UPDATE! Bale strikes again.
Runner-Up: Russell Crowe
This award’s champion in years past. Hilariously self-regarding, Crowe, who once famously shoved a BAFTA producer up against a wall for not letting him read aloud his poem about ACT-ing upon accepting an award, seems to take ACT-ing very seriously, indeed. So, pardon us for laughing when we look at the names of his recent films, some of them not directed by Ridley Scott: Cinderella Man, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and, coming soon, the that-can’t-be-the-real-title thriller State of Play. It’s okay . . . he does these for the art. —MK

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Value Added (and Thank You!): The Secret of the Grain
Coming on like a lazy-Sunday ethnography of a French-Arabic family, Abdellatif Kechiche’s extraordinarily well-crafted The Secret of the Grain goes out like a suspense drama. What’s most impressive is that the nail biting it induces comes not from some neck-breaking third-act twist or emotional misdirect, but rather from a savvy accumulation of detail and plot points, which all coalesce in a maniacally extended climax. In this sense, Kechiche’s accomplishment is not unlike that of Laurent Cantet’s with The Class (both films, with their Césars and Palme d’or, respectively, are the French breakouts of 2008): what seems to be “verité” is actually character-based melodrama told with a highly sophisticated, authentic, lifelike shooting style. Secret of the Grain, about a dour first-generation Tunisian immigrant trying to open a couscous restaurant in the Southern French commune of Séte for the legacy of his children (and potential stepchildren), may not combine genres as much as it mixes emotions and demands wildly varied modes of viewership. All are rewarded handsomely. —MK

Value Added (No, Thank You!): Changeling
Good ol’ Clint must have been feeling ambitious this year. By my count, he turned in five films: Gran Torino (seemingly made in four minutes) and the four unconnected shorts that ended up grouped together by dint of a pair of thick red lips under the name Changeling. Let’s count genres: courtroom drama, lost child weepie, women-in-prison exploitation, and, last but not least, grim serial-killer policier. Was Clint up for handling this? Not at all—the whole thing moves in a series of increasingly offensive fits and starts over an interminable length. I wouldn’t have thought he had a camp sensibility until recently seeing Gran Torino, so now I’m doubly disappointed—what he could have done with Jolie and some of the patented GT humdinger repartee. Instead, even if I can’t fault the man for his ambition, he’s turned in a grim, dour slog. If the name hadn’t been taken already he should have called this ungainly beast Sin City. —JR

Value Added (No, Thank You! –Documentary): Constantine’s Sword
As audiences continue to shun documentaries, filmmakers continue to bust out the same sort of aesthetically impoverished, issue-based chum to increasingly meager returns. Filmmakers want to blame the masses: “They’re too upset! They just want light entertainment!” they cry instead of realizing that ticket-buyers have just gotten wise to patchwork-quilt formalistics and “this-thing-happened-it-was-so-bad-amirite” rhetorical strategies. Constantine’s Sword might not have been the year’s worst offender, but it certainly sticks out since it takes truly provocative, necessary material and bungles it beyond imagining. What do the Emperor Constantine, lapsed priest James Carroll, and the intersection of American military power and American evangelism have in common? Seemingly not much except that they’re crammed artlessly into one overlong, under-considered film. —JR

shyamalan.jpgGreatest Contributor to World Laughter: M. Night Shyamalan
We’ve defended you through thick and thin, buddy. We’ve suffered slings and arrows for standing behind our assessment of The Village as one of the best Hollywood films of the decade. But even we had to admit, over and over, that The Happening was just [giggle] … too [chortle] … much [snort]. We’ll confess that perhaps Night Shy’s dialogue has always been perched somewhere on the edge of risible, in its weirdly atonal stabs at simultaneous profundity and sarcastic deflation, and The Happening is no slouch in that department (see “Quote-catcher” below), but the real surprise to these weary eyes was the sudden lapse in visual élan and, worse, taste. Constructed of one sloppily conceived, badly blocked, nonsensically edited, gassily acted scene after another, The Happening forewent both the almost-risible Lady in the Water’s atmospheric, unified, single-take aesthetic and certainly The Village’s gorgeous, poetic visual economy. But auteurists beware: we can’t simply blame the absence of Christopher Doyle or Roger Deakins for the dearth of visual coherence. The Happening is just a sad hack-job, dispassionately shoved out for the viewing public’s inevitable indifference. Or, as it turned out, lampoonery. Thanks, Night Shy, for some of the best drunken party conversations, slapdash email exchanges, and text messages of the year: “OMG what about the lawnmower scene?” “OMG do u remember the lion video?” “OMG how did they all get in their cars outside the truck stop if they arrived there by train”? “OMG Tiramisu!” —MK

Oh, Come On, It’s Not That Bad (I Might Be Crazy Edition): The Happening
Everyone hates The Happening (see above), so why don’t I? Perhaps I’m proving myself the truest Shyamalan apologist on the RS staff, but where others found unbridled portent and pretension all lamely rendered with some of his worst filmmaking, I left with lightly positive memories of a cheeky B-movie that generally sold me on its eco-terror premise. If Mark Wahlberg acting opposite a potted plant isn’t some kind of metaphor, I’ll hang up my keyboard. Don’t stray too far down this road, Night Shy, but I’m not gonna beat on you too hard for dumpster diving. —JR

american-teen.jpgWorst poster: American Teen
Effective though it may have been in getting some major media attention for a documentary, the Breakfast Club–evoking poster and trailer for Nanette Burstein’s year-in-the-life look at a group of Indiana high-schoolers savvily, shamelessly, shamefully locks each of its five participants into types designated by John Hughes so many years ago. Not only does this give actual cultural credence to Hughes’s generalizations (and in all fairness such easily accessible people-filing is the provenance of comedy), but it also reduced real, actual, unformed humans to nothing more than pop-culturally generated categories. Well, we have the “princess,” the “jock,” the “geek,” the “heartthrob,” and the “rebel.” (For the record, if we’re being reductionist I believe the “heartthrob” and the “jock” in The Breakfast Club and often in real life, are the same person…but hey). It also appears from the trailer that the “rebel” (who looks about as out-of-the-mainstream as Juno) and the “heartthrob” meet up and start dating—could such a fortuitous set of circumstances have occurred perhaps because, oh, I don’t know, a camera is following them around everywhere they go? (More minus points: where’s the “gay” . . . oh, I mean the “outcast”? ) Insert reference to The Hills here to talk about the not-very-interesting merging of real life and fictional teen drama, and you can give American Teen some bogus analytical heft. Pandering to the eternally high-school rutted American mentality, the rules of which products like these culturally sanction as inextricable facts of life, the ad campaign for American Teen (ugh, that title), only further glamorizes a time of life we all really need to forget about already. —MK

Most Rightfully Straight-to-Video: I Could Never Be Your Woman
A ludicrously alarmist, publicity-driven Entertainment Weekly “exposé” tricked many into believing that poor Amy Heckerling’s long-delayed, straight-to-video rom-com I Could Never Be Your Woman was some sort of misunderstood comic gem, the victim of Hollywood-driven double standards, cast off into Netflix hell because the studio suits just couldn’t handle a female-directed film about the romantic pursuits of a fortysomething professional woman. And certainly, a Michelle Pfeiffer-Paul Rudd pas de deux couldn’t be all bad, right? In reality, this big fat slice of foney baloney was, well, simply too awful to believe, much less release. It’s wretched from the top down. Pfeiffer’s lit like a scarecrow, every vein popping out of her increasingly severe head, as a neurotic TV writer. Rudd is unattractively unleashed, doing preening cartwheels for audience attention as, you guessed it, an arrogant young actor. Forty-year-old Stacey Dash plays a teen sitcom star—and looks and acts like a forty year old. An especially flabby Jon Lovitz does occasional walk-ins as Michelle Pfeiffer’s ex-husband (say what?!). Tracey Ullmann shows up in a bizarre fantasy subplot as, wait for it . . . Mother Nature. There’s blown-out lighting. There’s nonexistent actor-blocking. Scenes go on infinitely longer than they should. Add to all this an unmistakably smug tone: Heckerling evidently thinks she’s blowing the lid off of Hollywood sexism considering all the angling she does for a “You go, girl!” viewer reaction. Yet audience participation is not this abortion’s forte, hence its much deserved Blockbuster Video world premiere. Unavoidable afterthought: Could Amy Heckerling ever actually direct a coherent film in the first place? —MK

Inside.jpgMost Wrongly Straight-to-Video: Inside
Considering the effect that Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s “no-they-didn’t” shocker had on me even when watched on my safe little television, I can only imagine the terror this French gorefest would have instilled in me had I seen it on a big, unavoidable screen in a pitch-black movie house. The plot is simply beyond way motherfucking beyond: Beatrice Dalle and her teeth come a-calling one stormy night (incidentally, unnecessarily, during the 2005 Paris riots) to the secluded home of a very pregnant woman, and proceeds to try to get in. First into the house. And then, with a pair of very sharp, very big scissors, into the girl’s bulbous belly. And then, into the heads and torsos of everyone who comes through the front door. At first slack-jawed glance, Inside would seem to be a merely sensational taboo-breaker—why then does it linger in the mind (or rather, crouch in wait at the back of the cerebral cortex with a razor, always about to strike)? Undoubtedly, the film is all too gleeful to impress with its over-the-top STYLE and ridiculous third-act twist, but Bustillo and Maury bring it all back together for a climax as shocking as it is inevitable, and a last image as primally frightening as a Goya painting. (Bonus: best use of a rocking chair since Bob Clark’s Black Christmas!) —MK

Best Script for Post-Racial America: Gran Torino
We love races so much we’ll insult them all! Repeatedly! What are you looking at, fishheads? Runner-up: Nights and Weekends Race matters naught these days so we’ll continue to reify the lily-white hipster universe we operate within! Let’s bone (awkwardly)!
Best Corrective to American Cinema’s Inability to Deal with Race: The Order of Myths
In which Margaret Brown turns in the year’s best, most patiently observed documentary and uses editing’s powers of juxtaposition (remember those?) to provide a massively complicated portrait of race in the U.S. in the early 21st Century.—JR

Quote-catcher—the “best” dialogue of 2008: (*some half-remembered or amalgamated)

- “The mainstream was gone. All that was left were bloggers and hackers.” —Andrea, narrator, Diary of the Dead

“There will always be people like you, wanting to document, wanting to record some sort of diary . . . This is a diary of cruelty. And in wartime, when the enemy can be marked as this son of a bitch or that son of a bitch, then cruelty... becomes justified.” —Andrea, narrator, Diary of the Dead

-“You’re the most wonderful thing in the world . . . a man!” —April Wheeler, Revolutionary Road

- “You're not worth the trouble it would take to hit you! You're not worth the powder it would take to blow you up. You are an empty, empty, hollow shell of a woman. I mean, what the hell are you doing in my house if you hate me so much? Why the hell are you married to me? What the hell are you doing carrying my child? I mean, why didn't you just get rid of it when you had the chance? Because listen to me, listen to me, I got news for you—I wish to God that you had!” —Frank Wheeler, Revolutionary Road

“Come on, Puss Cake, when you’re done asking Yum-Yum out on a date, let’s go back upstairs and get some more of that good Gook food.” —Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), Gran Torino*

“One day we’ll get to a place so far away even Fingers can’t touch you,” —Pleasure (Brendan Fraser) to Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Gellar), referring to Andy Garcia’s crime boss named “Fingers,” in The Air I Breathe*

-“Kill them! They are Muslims!” —The only line of subtitled contextualizing dialogue during the massacre scene at the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire

“Did you see The Passion of the Christ? It's amazing. They throw everything at him—rocks, stones, arrows!" —Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), The Wrestler

“We can't just stand here as uninvolved observers!” —Alma (Zooey Deschanel), The Happening

“We only ate tiramisu. It meant nothing!” —Alma (Zooey Deschanel), The Happening*

“Do you remember our first date? You were so quiet.”
“You bought me the mood ring.”
“It turned purple when you wore it.”
“Then you said ‘that means you're in love.’”
“ Got you to talk, didn't it?”
“But then we checked the little paper chart and it turned out that it meant that I was horny. You loved that.”
“I had no idea.”
“Yours was blue. Peaceful, right?”
“Right.”
“What color was love?”
“I don't remember.”
“Me neither.”
—Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Elliott (Mark Wahlberg), The Happening

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Grrrrr . . . . I hate these punks . . .

Click here to read last year's "Two Cents".