Saturday, December 27, 2008

Only SOME of the Best Films of 2008

by Jason Pyles / December 27, 2008

2008 was a great year for the cinema and a momentous year for my family. I only make mention of my life’s personal events to emphasize that after having our first baby, a college graduation, a move across the country and working one and a half new jobs, I’ve only been able to see 101 of this year’s films (in contrast to my 176 reviews in 2007). And unfortunately, many films that are receiving the most critical acclaim are, as of yet, unseen by me.* (see list below)

So again, the following 11 films are only some of the best films of 2008.

1.) The Dark Knight (PG-13)
Some people have said “Iron Man” is a superhero movie for those who don’t like superhero movies. OK, maybe, but it’s still a superhero movie, an excellent one. But “The Dark Knight” transcends the genre. And not to be technical, but Batman never really was a superhero in the truest sense: He’s just a rich guy with the means to have slick, crime-fighting gadgets. But let me be clear here: Yes, Christopher Nolan is a superb director whose contributions cannot be diminished; Christian Bale successfully pulls off the bat man with a straight face; in fact, all the film’s actors have become their characters. Yet it is Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker that makes “The Dark Knight” so lofty. Ledger deserves the Oscar — and not as a consolation prize for being deceased. A good villain is just as important as having a good hero. Among the films I’ve seen in 2008, “The Dark Knight” is the best of the year.

2.) The Orphanage (R)
“The Orphanage” is a truly creepy film and perhaps more impressive, one of the few effective haunted house movies. Filmed in Spanish with English subtitles, this non-slasher, spine-tingler is rated R but not for the usual reasons: Its rating is solely due to “disturbing content.” I might have termed it “troubling” content.

3.) Cloverfield (PG-13)
Everybody plays the “what if” game. And because of that, “Cloverfield” is pure cinematic delight because it allows the “what if” game to unfold before our eyes. What if a real monster attacked New York City? This is no King Kong or Godzilla monster mash; “Cloverfield” endeavors, as realistically as possible, to portray such a horrific event. Best of all, the movie pulls us up onto the screen, into the action, because we identify with a character videographer’s subjective point of view through his camera lens, a trick that “Quarantine” later attempted in October but with much less success.

4.) Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (PG)
Highly controversial and arguably slanted unfairly, “Expelled” is a documentary for “the believers,” meaning, those who believe “Genesis” over “The Origin of the Species.” Ben Stein is the gadfly of the scientific community as he observes that it seems to have closed its mind to ideas like Creationism and wholly accepted Evolution. “Expelled” is a showdown that is much more engaging than it sounds.

5.) Snow Angels (R)
Some films can carefully portray with lifelike verisimilitude the sad dramas that play out in the lives of regular, everyday people. “Snow Angels” is one such film, and its magnificence is matched only by its pensiveness.

6.) Run Fatboy Run (PG-13)
Because its director is David Schwimmer and its title is “Run Fatboy Run,” you may doubt my judgment on this surprising comedy. But Schwimmer shows considerable promise as a director, and the movie’s title is likely a marketing design, even though it is somewhat fitting. “Run Fatboy Run” is funny, but it’s also inspiring. This movie is a banner and a beacon for anyone who’s tired of being a loser and wants to stop sucking.

7.) Rambo (R)
I know. Sy Stallone is like 62 years old and “Rambo,” like most of the “Rocky” movies, is a thing of the ‘80s. But who goes to see a “Rambo” movie? Someone expecting a Merchant Ivory Production? No. Someone who wants to see “Rambo” blow everybody away. Done. But that’s not what makes this movie excellent: Reportedly, in this time of war, Stallone wanted to try to depict the true horrors of warfare, and it appears he has succeeded with a film that approaches the graphic violence of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). And though it’s difficult to make a war film that doesn’t ultimately glorify war (which I suppose “Rambo” still does), it still paints a vividly grotesque picture.

8.) Iron Man (PG-13)
As mentioned above, “Iron Man” is a fine example of a comic book movie. It’s a well made, summer-fun, big-budget, popcorn blockbuster that is wonderfully entertaining. But as Heath Ledger is to “The Dark Knight,” so is Robert Downey Jr. to “Iron Man.” He makes the movie worth seeing on the merits of his humorous performance alone.

9.) Tropic Thunder (R)
Speaking of Robert Downey Jr., when an actor can convincingly perform in layers, piling character upon character within a role, then you know he or she has a remarkable gift. I don’t care if this is a comedy, he still should be nominated for his performance. Not only is “Tropic Thunder” hilarious, it savagely cannibalizes and ridicules the Hollywood from whence it sprang. It has an updated variation of the “Three Amigos!” (1986) plot that’s both smarter and funnier.

10.) The Ruins (R)
Many people will disagree with my ranking “The Ruins” among this list, but I don’t care. This is an excellent horror movie, which is nearly an oxymoron. While watching this film, imagine that you have fallen into this scenario. Yes, the vines (which are not the point) are ridiculous, but this is no “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Setting the vines aside, which are merely a plot device, the true horrors of “The Ruins” could happen. What is scarier than being marooned in another country and watching those who are with you — the only people you thought you could trust — make dreadful decisions out of fear? It is what the characters do to one another (and it’s typically not meant to be mean-spirited) in this midst of their crisis that makes “The Ruins” an effective horror movie.

11.) U2 3D (G)
I’m not even a U2 fan, per se. But I like their music, and besides, who doesn’t enjoy concerts? “U2 3D” is comprised of incredible footage from several U2 concerts that puts the viewer up on the stage with the performers. And even without the 3-D glasses, this would still be an enjoyable experience for any music lover — especially a true U2 fan.

Honorable Mention of 2008:
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Charlie Bartlett
Definitely, Maybe
The Happening
Horton Hears a Who!
The Incredible Hulk
Lakeview Terrace
The Other Boleyn Girl
Pride and Glory
Quantum of Solace
Righteous Kill
Smart People
Under the Same Moon


* These are the films from 2008 that I haven’t seen yet that are supposed to be exceptional:

The Band’s Visit
A Christmas Tale
Chop Shop
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess of Langeais
The Edge of Heaven
Encounters at the End of the World
The Fall
Frozen River
A Girl Cut in Two
Gran Torino
In Bruges
I’ve Loved You So Long
The Last Mistress
Let the Right One In
Man on Wire
My Winnipeg
Rachel Getting Married
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Shotgun Stories
Slumdog Millionaire
Standard Operating Procedure
Synecdoche, New York
Tell No One
Trouble the Water
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
The Wrestler


And for what it’s worth (which isn’t much), these are the 10 worst movies of 2008, with the absolute most terrible one listed at the bottom.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
Vantage Point
The Eye
How She Move
Superhero Movie
First Sunday
Witless Protection
One Missed Call
Meet the Spartans

Monday, December 22, 2008

Billy Elliot...

I'm glad you guys liked this film. The first time I saw it, I was blown away. There are so many things about it that I loved. Every character was perfectly cast and I would go so far as to say that if any big time "Stars" were in it, it would have ruined it. You truly believe that these characters are going through these tough times. I was in my late teens and early twenties in the early 80's and I remember that recession, I also remember it was even more difficult in England.
So the scene where Billy is dancing in pure frustration after his family has had the fight with his teacher to the song Town Called Malice by The Jam is not only pure brilliance but absolutely perfect when you read the lyrics to that song and understand that when it came out in the early 80's it shot to number 1 within a week partly, I think, because of it's lyrics and it's commentary on the times.
Prior to suggesting this movie to this group I had some friends watch it and some them thought it had a hidden gay agenda (hence Andy and my discussion) but I didn't think so. To me the theme was purely - be who are, and find what you love doing and do that for a living. That message is driven home so strongly at the end when the strike is over and you see Billy's dad and brother heading back down into the mine on the elevator; and the look on their faces says it all. I can relate to that look - it's same look I have as I'm driving to my current job. It's not in a mine - but it's just as dark :)
The only part of the movie I didn't think was accurate (and I may be wrong) was all of the cursing (F bombs in particular) that was depicted among the family. I'm from working class Northern Ireland and so is my mother and father. I've never heard my family speak that way and according to my mother it wasn't that way when she was growing up. And even now when I ask members of my family that are still in England and N. Ireland they say that it's not how movies portray it. Maybe there are working class areas of England that conversation is continually laced with profanity but I've never heard of or seen it. To me it actually just becomes distracting.
I think we all hope to be Billy Elliott some day (if we're not already there)... finding what makes us jump out of bed every morning and excited to keep moving forward.
It's interesting to see Jamie Bell grown up now... recently in the King Kong remake and also in the new movie coming out soon called Defiance with Daniel Craig. I think he's got a bright future.

-Karl Huddleston

Debate: In Cold Celluloid

by Jason Pyles / December 22, 2008

Ever since the gangster pictures of the 1930s, there has been considerable debate about the portrayal of violence in film — is it exploitative? — or does it serve a meaningful purpose? It’s such an age-old controversy, many people are altogether weary of the discussion. But I have a different question, though it is related to this topic.

In 1967, Richard Brooks released a film called “In Cold Blood” that is an adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel by the same name. Both tell the grim but true tale of two zeros who planned to rob a Kansas farm family and slaughtered them all in the process. The phrase “senseless deaths” has never been more fitting.

(Interestingly, the film stars Robert Blake as one of the killers; you might remember that around 2002, Blake was arrested for the murder of his second wife but was later acquitted in 2005.)

Relative to the explicit and graphic nature of present-day movies, “In Cold Blood” is tame, perhaps even mild enough for a PG rating — minus the profanity.

But here’s the issue: The film is shot in the actual home of the murdered family. This begs an obvious moral question. What was the merit in shooting the film in their home? The reasons must have pertained to authenticity and perhaps because it’s somewhat intriguing, but are these reasons justified? I suspect that it had less to do with artistic motives and more to do with cashing in on a fascinated nation’s curiosity.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the same heinous event befell my family — heaven forbid — how would I feel if Hollywood wanted to tell the story within the walls of our sacred home, where the horrific acts occurred?

In his 1968 review of “In Cold Blood,” Roger Ebert wrote this:
“And every detail of the film, from the physical appearance of the actors to the use of actual locations like the Clutter farmhouse, was chosen to make the film a literal copy of those events. I do not object to this. Men have always learned about themselves by studying the things their fellows do. If mass murders of this sort are possible in American society (and many have been), then perhaps it is useful to see a thoughtful film about one of them.”

My Take:
I’ve heard this argument before, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s imperative for us to realize that monsters exist and such dangers are possible, but to me “In Cold Blood” crosses the line with its shooting location. When I watched “Breakdown” (1997), for example, I thought it a valuable cautionary tale, but it was fictitious; whereas, “In Cold Blood” unfortunately happened. (And regarding violence in film, most people think it’s fun to be scared. Fine. So fictitious horror is one thing, but when we watch the “Saw” movies for their “entertainment value?!,” I think that’s sociologically problematic.)

Please feel free to post comments and discuss this question.

[ Note: I might mention, as a mere afterthought, that we’re probably more familiar with the more recent Philip Seymour Hoffman film, “Capote” (2005), about the journalist and author who followed the story and conducted extensive interviews with one of the killers. ]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Worst Movie Ever Made

Not "Billy Elliot." My post for "Billy Elliot" is below this one.

Jason here. I have an idea: We soon will be entering our third wave of movie picks (by those who are still giving movie suggestions). What if, this third time around, we have a competition to see who can pick "the worst movie ever made" (which, I realize, is an impossible determination, much like "the all-time best film").

Why subject ourselves to this exercise?

Well, it's one thing to write interestingly about good films, but it's a whole other matter to try to write something useful about terrible films. And Barrett Hilton, the great filmmaker apologist, has often cautioned me in the past not to be too critical of another person's art.

Thanks to Barrett, I've spent more time trying to find redeeming traits in movies I dislike, and I've found it beneficial, primarily because I can enjoy more about more films.

And beyond that, I've been studying the film criticism of Stanley Kauffmann, who never gets angry, personal or vicious during his critiques; he simply describes what went wrong.

And at the end of this painful, third wave, we can all vote for the worst movie. I already have my pick in mind, and it's not that old. The only rule is that it can't be your cousin's homemade film; it has to be something that was actually released, meaning, we could all rent it somewhere.

Let me know who's in. E-mail your picks to me at


Accepting Billy Elliot

by Jason Pyles

Perhaps the movie’s brief reference to Gene Kelly reinforced the notion, but “Billy Elliot” continually reminded me of the “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) number where Kelly repeatedly sings, “Gotta dance!”

It’s evident throughout this film that Billy Elliot’s gotta dance.

I love people like that — people who are implacably determined to do what they love. One thinks of the Chris Smith documentary, “American Movie” (1999), where the persistent, aspiring filmmaker, Mark Borchardt, absolutely has to make movies, at all costs, no matter what. I fancy myself as that kind of a person, too, but a movie critic sort. Passion often gives way to obsession.

Now, I wasn’t privy to Andy and Karl’s inside joke about this film’s “arguably homosexual agenda,” but I’ll proceed notwithstanding.

Above all, the grand theme of “Billy Elliot” (which dwarfs any homosexual agenda) is acceptance.

Acceptance is the electrical current that moves the film’s characters (and is perhaps what Billy feels when he’s dancing). His whole family still struggles to accept the loss of the mom, Jenny Elliot, particularly Billy and his father, Jackie.

Tony, the brother, has trouble accepting pretty much everything, from the scabs crossing the picket lines to his brother’s general existence. But Tony’s turning point regarding acceptance occurs when he can at least appreciate his father’s loss of conviction to maintain the strike. He embraces his father, and later, Tony figuratively embraces his brother’s ambitions.

Naturally, the movie’s glaring neon-sign issue of acceptance is Billy’s desire to become a danseur (or male ballet dancer). But there are also acceptance themes prevalent with Billy’s friend Michael, and his inclination toward cross-dressing and presumably homosexuality.

All this isn’t to say that homosexuality isn’t important to the film, or, at least, to its director. Stephen Daldry’s film that followed “Billy Elliot,” in 2002, was “The Hours,” starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and a nearly unrecognizable Nicole Kidman. That film was adapted from a Michael Cunningham novel based on writer Virginia Woolf and her book, “Mrs. Dalloway.” It’s an intriguing and unusual film, but it’s even more replete with undertones of homosexuality than “Billy Elliot.”

A little, informal research suggests that even though Daldry has a wife and a child, he is also quoted as admitting he’s gay. What can be definitively concluded from all of this? Nothing — except maybe that “Billy Elliot” has an “arguably homosexual agenda.”

Note: If you appreciate Stephen Daldry’s work (as I do), watch for his current film, “The Reader,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Billy Elliot; the happiest movie I've seen in a while, by Andy

Karl suggested this movie, notwithstanding its arguably homosexual agenda (haha Karl; inside joke). I truly enjoyed this movie, and I have to say that this film was the most heart-warming, uplifting film I've seen in quite some time.

First things first - I quite enjoy using the word "poof" now. It's so much less vulgar, and way more in line with my feelings towards others and my political persuasion.

If you haven't seen the movie, I recommend watching with subtitles. The far-north English accents were very difficult to understand, even for my Irish friend.

I guess the movie doesn't have any major plot arcs, and it seems satisfyingly predictable; but I don't think that detracts from the movie's brilliance. Frankly, I like a good straight-forward, know-it's-going-to-be-ok, happily-ever-after movie. Yes, we all know that Billy's dad will eventually come around, but it's fun to see it happen.

The kid who played Billy was fantastic too; probably a performance worthy of some acclaim.

Anyway, if "F" words don't bother you (and they don't me), this movie should leave you feeling pretty good.

by Andy

Hitting Jason with a "Brick," by Andy

Jason - I'm not convinced that anybody but me and you are actually participating in this site. I sort of don't care, as long as you've got a good cue of movies for me to watch. Did you know that I canceled cable so that I could focus on my film bibliography? Anyway, sorry you had to watch "Brick" again. I know it's not your favorite film.

I'm a huge fan of pretty much anything with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 3rd Rock included. All that said, I did really like "Brick," notwithstanding it's almost nonsensical prose and ridiculously overly-dramatic characters.

Why did I like it? Two reasons, I guess. I always like a good murder mystery, and this one doesn't disappoint. We don't find out until the very end what happened to the dead girl. I felt it unraveled at a fairly even pace, and I thought Joseph's character did an excellent job of persevering in his investigation.

Second, I happened to love the confusing dialog. Maybe it's because I am a criminal defense lawyer and I'm secretly put-off by how stupid my clients are, even in their confusing lingo. I enjoyed the almost code-like language the kids in the move used. BTW, it's not language that is used in Provo, Utah, even in the most sophisticated drug scene.

All that said, yes, I realize it is not a good example of either drug culture or high school. The characters are far too serious to be drug addicts or high school students, and life is way too depressing in their little town. But I don't think we can blame all of that on the director or writer; it is after all a murder mystery. Such movies are rarely full of fun and happiness.

Jason - I miss you buddy. I wish you were here in Utah to watch these movies with.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hitting the Brick

by Jason Pyles

He may look like that sloppy band nerd who, like me, still rode the bus to school in 11th grade, but Brendan Frye is one scrappy dude — a kid who’s all heart. I love how he casually folds up his glasses, places them in their hard, protective case, and proceeds to throw down — with anybody who provokes him. At one point, “The Pin” even suggests that Brendan may be a little nuts, and in fact, he just might be. There are certain people out there whose intensity and determination are nothing less than frightening.

Brendan is one such character, a good character. And since “Brick” is often considered a modern film noir, I can concede that Brendan follows suit with many film noir protagonists: His stamina and rugged ability to take a beating during his pursuit fits the description. Like other noir personalities, his endurance is remarkable.

Both of my viewings of “Brick” have come at the recommendation of Mr. Andy Howell. He’s fond of this film, as I’m sure you’ll read in his post. I appreciated and enjoyed this film more this second time around, but my initial reservation still stands: These kids’ lingo is inaccessible to me; the movie has too much slang for its own good. I suspect that the writer and director, Rian Johnson, was going for authenticity, but it’s so extreme, Johnson crosses over authenticity right into artificiality. It’s the difference between eating marshmallows and eating Marshmallow Peeps.

But during this second viewing, something else gnawed at me even more: These kids take themselves way too seriously. This may sound like a condescending judgment statement, but allow me to explain. Yes, it’s true that teenagers generally have heightened emotions and overly dramatic reactions to their day-to-day issues (not that drug wars, teen pregnancy and murder are trivial problems). But in “Brick” the teens are unbelievably serious all the time. These kids are like zombies because they hardly ever lose their sober, gloomy tone. Nearly every minute of their lives is deadly serious. Contrast the down-time versus the intense moments in Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” (2004) or “Stand By Me” (1986).

The most brilliant aspect of “Brick” occurs at “The Pin’s” house. Most of the film gives us an eerily “adultless” world. But at the lofty crime boss’s house, we see Brendan, The Pin and Tugger politely responding to The Pin’s sweet mother’s hospitality. Hilarious — but more importantly, these brief moments illustrate how the teens in this movie are in their own little world that, again, they take far more seriously than the few surrounding grown-ups do.

P.S. Oh, and what’s with all the fixating about where they eat their lunches?