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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Favorite Films of the Year

Since I am behind on my 2008 Oscar-season diet, I will refrain from making my top 10 list (look for it in a couple months when I've caught up with some more flicks). Nevertheless, I am dying to write about my favorite films of the year. As I look back in the year, there are really only 3 films that I walked out of and felt just about completely energized and satisfied by what I had seen These would be my top 3 of the year, and I doubt if anything will overtake them. I'll write about them in the order I saw them.

Wall-E (2008)

When I read about the premise of this movie, I couldn't quite wrap my head around it. A movie that takes place hundreds of years in the future and stars a robot who is the only remaining "creature" on the desolate wasteland that is our planet? Now I'm a big fan of Pixar, and think they have done wonderfully innovative things, but I wondered if this would stretch even Pixar's imagination to the limit.

The moment the movie started, and pretty much the whole way through, all my doubts were erased. The first half, with Wall-E and Eve interacting on Earth, was absolutely sublime. The physical comedy and poignancy was absolutely reminiscent of the best of Charlie Chaplin. Somehow everything comes together to make us care about these two robots.

The second half, taking place on a spaceship full of obese humans, is slightly different, perhaps not as lovable, but no less fascinating. It's actually quite amazing that Pixar got such pointed satire through the studio.

As a whole, Wall-E is brilliant because it is completely original in an absolutely accessible way. I think it will definitely stand the test of time as one of the all-time greats of animated film.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

If I had to pick a genre that I typically love, it is probably the naturalistic drama about family relationships, when it is well-done of course (You Can Count on Me, Junebug). Rachel Getting Married joins my list as one of the best. On the surface, it's about a sister (Kym) getting out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sister Rachel's wedding. Underneath, it's about much more than that. The movie is never played for cheap laughs or cheap sentiment.

Jonathan Demme directs in a style very reminiscent of Robert Altman (a favorite director of mine). His camera twists and turns and picks up conversations here and there. The movie does not feel excessively plotted (some probably find it underplotted and rambling), but that's what I love about it. You feel that this is a very specfic family with very real feelings, resentments, and joys. The wedding itself (which takes up a lot of the end of the movie) is a joyous occassion. As soon as I left the theater, my moviegoing companions and I all remarked we wished we could go to that wedding. Leading up to the wedding we learn a lot about this family and what has brought them to this point.

The performances could not be better. Anne Hathaway has gotten a lot of awards traction for this role, and she deserves it. She plays against type and is able to absolutely inhabit a prickly, wounded, guarded, character. Rosemarie Dewitt plays the responsible sister Rachel beautifully, with the right mixture of characteristics to avoid being heroine or villain. Bill Irwin, an actor I was unfamiliar with, has a key role as the father and the peacemaker of the family. The moments when his emotions slip are quite beautiful. Debra Winger also has the small but crucial role of the mother. Her quiet performance hints at deep layers underneath the surface actions of her character.

A great movie (my favorite of the year) and I can't wait to see it again.

Milk (2008)

Biopics are usually not my favorite genre. While they are often quite watchable, the scripts can often seem paint by numbers, as if you know exactly where they will go (even if you know next to nothing about the person). So why doesn't Milk fall prey to the same problems? First of all the movie wisely focuses solely on Harvey Milk's political awakening and subsequent career. When dealing with only a handful of years, it is much easier to develop interesting characters and not have to breeze through the obligatory plot points. It reminded me of how Capote focused not on Truman Capote's entire life, but only on his research and writing of In Cold Blood.

Much of the success of Milk certainly has to go to Sean Penn. Like many great performances this year (Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway), Penn plays against type. He is also able to inhabit a gay character without becoming overly effeminate or mannered (this is no Robin Williams in The Birdcage). He is also backed up by an extremely impressive cast. I loved Josh Brolin as his political nemesis Dan White, James Franco as his lover, and Emile Hirsch as his political protege.

While I think I would have loved this movie regardless of its release date, I think part of the reason it is so effective and was its political moment. Harvey's line of "You've gotta give 'em hope" was especially poignant as I saw this between the election and inauguration of Obama. While the repeal of Proposition 8 in California certainly makes this film bittersweet, it does show how far our country has come. Seeing Milk's political successes makes you think that with enough passion and leadership, change is gonna come.

Don't let the talk of politics bore you. Milk is vibrant, alive, engaging, and never didactic. See it.

Wall-E: A
Rachel Getting Married: A
Milk: A

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