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The Very Best Films of 2008

Written by Christopher Beaubien • January 13, 2009 • 2 Comments

Taken as a whole, the best films released in 2008 tasted just as sweet as those in 2007 did. Looking at only the titles There Will Be Blood (dir. P.T. Anderson, 2007) and Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman, 2008), I would be immensely cheered at the state of American cinema. However, there were a number of films scattered and tucked away in corners of the film distribution that saw almost 650 films released in 2008. My impression is that at least twenty to thirty films of a given year should be of great quality. Within those hundreds of films released, it is a pity that so few are wonderful. Still, who can quibble about a year where Charlie Kaufman, Christopher Nolan, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Mike Leigh, Kelly Reichardt, and some triumphant newcomers such as Lucí­a Puenzo and John McDonagh performed so well from either the open or the outset?

I saw a number of films that made their way to Vancouver. There are a few lingering titles that might have been included on this list if I saw them such as Steve McQueen’s Hunger, and Pere Portabella’s The Silence Before Bach. I missed those films shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival that year. My excuse was being bedridden with a cold; I missed out on so much that week. Unfortunately, Portabella refuses to release his film through circuits outside the mercy of unreliable theatrical distributions, which I am taking personally.

Making a list of the best films of the year generally affords the critic an opportunity to collect preferred films as an artist would apply to a collage. Which titles that carry particular visuals and ideas are arranged by the same intellectual deliberation crossed with the finesse of emotional intuition a painter applies a brushstroke. These recommendations could be read as a chef’s deliberate, however liberal feeling, succession of entrées like: starting with Potage à la Tortue, then Quail in Puff Pastry Shell with Foie Gras and Truffle Sauce, following by Cheese and Fresh Fruit, and finally Baba au Rhum avec les Figues — the prize to the movie I am referencing is the prize itself.

The films themselves are so different from one another — not including the given works of formulistic hacks — that measuring a film about a vampire versus a film about a hermaphrodite often appears as a defeatist’s approach. I look at this as a collection of films that made a lasting impression on me, and not as a system of rank. Just because Gus Van Sant’s Milk or Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married didn’t make the top ten does not mean I think any less of them. I love them dearly.

Without further ado, here are the movies that made me sit up a little straighter than usual this year.

1. Synecdoche, New York

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Movie Review: MILK (2008)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • December 16, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

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Vote for Harvey Milk (1930 – 1978)

The passing of Proposition 8 across the United States two weeks ago adds more urgency to the new Gus Van Sant film Milk. It is a red alarm crying out against the continued and criminal persecution of homosexuals. Denying the civil rights of an individual to legally marry a person of their choice is cruel. For decades, sanctimonious hypocrites have relentlessly imposed their prejudice on homosexuals, forcing them to live in the margins of society. Homophobia has always puzzled and irritated me. When I was seven, before I was aware of gays and lesbians, I casually wondered if there were men who loved men and women who loved women. Later I found out my musing was correct – and like looking up at the sky to see birds were flying up there — I was cheered by the prospect. As a level-headed straight man, I support and empathize with good people like Harvey Milk.

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Movie Review:
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • November 11, 2008 • 2 Comments

The Life Stages of Caden Cotard

Oh God, I feel alone. I feel so utterly alone having connected and clicked with a film that many people will reject. This being the directorial debut of the incomparable screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann: Sï-nêk’dõ-kë, Nyöo Yáwrk. For me, Synecdoche, New York is a tough sell — an unconventional film that I treasure where recommendation demands caution. It’s where I stand with Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987) and Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977). These films fly in the face of all the formulaic and commercial creeds of how a movie should work and gives pause for how many ways it could work best. A first impression might grimace, conclude “it’s weird” and close the investigation — that’s their right; however, Synecdoche, New York deserves better and an appreciative audience. The film works, not despite, but because of its extraordinary structure and function being mysterious, opaque, labyrinthine, yet emotional, accessible, and fully-formed.

What I love most about Charlie Kaufman’s exercises in the celluloid medium is how they exceed expectations throughout his most unorthodox and dizzying narratives. Throughout, there is apt teasing and suspense over where this story could go when driven by such a visionary. By the end, I feel as if he has exhausted every possibility from his premises with an attentive heart. Such as when the pitiable Craig Schwartz whose puppets of himself and Maxine, a distant female co-worker, kiss for the first time in Being John Malkovich (1999). Or when Joel Barish frantically races away from his evaporating memories with his ex-girlfriend Clementine at hand, trying to save her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Or how about when in Adaptation (2002), New Yorker writer Susan Orlean is struck by the awesome poetry of John Laroche, a toothless orchid thief, musing about the “little dance” between wasps and orchids — “How, when you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.”

In Synecdoche, New York, our hero tries to find meaning in his very existence by resurrecting an evolving metropolis in a gigantic sound-stage where a flock of birds fly off many miles down the structure. The seminal replica of Manhattan is a theatre set for an untitled play about its director and all of the people in his life. Since the play reflects life, so the play must reflect itself like a microcosm that expands, refracts, grows and deepens. It is a comic-tragic, universal illustration of a life that tries to manage its surrounding citizens in roles (wife, daughter, mistress, 2nd wife, etc.) the participant tries to contain. Of course, everyone else is the lead in their own story, so management of the play of one’s life becomes discombobulated.

Enter the world of theatre director Caden Cotard played with great nerve and without vanity by Philip Seymore Hoffman. At age forty, he is burdened with anxiety, bad health, failed relationships, and occasionally distracted by lofty goals that feed his great ego which barely hides his low self-esteem. Like an addict, he mercilessly prods, analyzes and compresses his failures; denying himself a much wanted recovery by purging himself deeper into a sea of emotional toxin. What hurts most is that he tries so hard to preserve what little he has left. While a doctor sews stitches into his forehead after a freak accident with an exploding sink faucet, Caden sheepishly remarks, “I’d rather there not be a scar.”

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“Monsters vs Aliens” Teaser

Written by Christopher Beaubien • November 11, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

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No! This not another merger-bastardization of the Ridley Scott/James Cameron enterprise. It’s a CGI feature from Dreamworks that comes in ATOMOVISION! – correction – INTRU3D! Sigh, 3D is so overrated.

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Movie Review:
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • November 08, 2008 • 2 Comments

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Rare, Bloody and Tender

First, I would like to single out a scene that is pivotal to the overall success of Let the Right One In. Oskar, a twelve-year-old Swedish boy (Kåre Hedebrant), whose parents are separated, is visiting his father (Henrik Dahl) over the weekend. Late in the night, the two are having a blast playing tic-tac-toe. They are interrupted by a visitor whose presence subtly changes the course for the rest of the evening. The last grim exchange between the father and son expresses so much hurt and understanding about the how and why. It doesn’t need to be explained. It is simply felt. This scene sounds like it belongs in a serious drama. It is, but Let the Right One In is also a vampire movie – as sophisticated and thoughtful a horror film as you are likely to find.

This film, like so few can, redeems the horror genre. So many cynical filmmakers belittle their horror films because they don’t believe the genre is worthy. You can browse shelves of horror titles and find only one success out of thirty failures. Thankfully, Let the Right One In joins the ranks of great vampire films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), both of the 1922 (dir. F.W. Murnau) and 1979 (dir. Werner Herzog) versions of Nosferatu, and its cunning companion Shadow of the Vampire (2000) by E. Elias Merhige. Let the Right One In is the real thing. Set in Sweden – 1982, it uses vampire logic in an environment as cold, cruel and recognizable to our own. There are moments of invention such as what happens when a vampire trespasses property where an invitation has not been given. Here, vampires get burned when touched by sunlight – they don’t (*shudder*) sparkle.

ltroi5Living next door to Oskar is Eli (Lina Leandersson), a young vampire who looks like a twelve-year-old girl, but it is more complicated than that. There is an alarming shot of her behind a door that’s ajar — you know the one. She is sheltered by an older deviant (Per Ragner) who appears to be under a spell as he fetches her blood from victims he kills and drains. She would have been better off sending the Ice Truck Killer to perform this task. Upon further reflection, this character may be a possible outlook into the future of what Oskar will become when he reaches adulthood.

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