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Our critics pick 2008’s best of the big screen

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine who in 1995 suffered a stroke that left him with movement in his left eye, period. Screenwriter Roger Harwood adapted the story from Bauby’s memoir, which he dictated by blinking at the correct letter as an assistant read through the alphabet. Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby in the scenes where the camera isn’t confined to a strict first-person POV; Julian Schnabel orchestrates the memories unfolding Dalton Trumbo-style while a pair of ravishing speech therapists (Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Josée Croze) lavish attention on the patient. The real star, though, is the camera of Janusz Kaminski, who filters all this beauty through Bauby’s rarefied perception. Not a great movie, I would argue, but a very successful experiment. (AS)

Iron Man

As an adolescent comic book geek turned adult blockbuster aficionado (no stretch to see the connection there), there was plenty to hope for out of Iron Man. There was plenty to fear as well, though—with the notable exceptions of much of the Batman series and, to a lesser extent, the Spiderman series—the delicate art of transforming pulp fantasy into cinematic greatness is rarely achieved. Director Jon Favreau and lead actor Robert Downey Jr. play the heroes here, making Iron Man a charismatic thrill-ride from start to finish. Great screenplay, great directing, great—but not overbearing—special effects, and great performances topped by an astounding turn from Downey. This is the kind of movie comic book geeks and blockbuster aficionados alike can point to and say, “See? This is why I love these things!” And nobody can make fun of us for it. (ND)

The Dark Knight

When Marlon Brando was alive Jack Nicholson called him “the man on the hill.” Volcanically emotive and relentless in capturing the motions of human heart and body, Brando was the actor of his era. Heath Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain scaled that same elevation of acting craft. But his work in The Dark Knight, bringing the Joker out of the dark and onto the screen—done with the performer’s equivalent of a knife ground to fine, sharp, razor blade-edge—puts him at the pinnacle. He is an actor fearless in his study of character—six weeks in a motel with A Clockwork Orange and Sid Vicious as preparation material—and equally skilled at embodying that persona for the screen in voice, expression, gesture, motion and creature depths. (KK)

Gonzo

Gonzo is a documentary—the anti comic-book blockbuster genre, if there ever was one—but its subject could easily have resided in the pages of a comic. It’s a fantastic piece of work about the (larger than) life of consummate freak Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Part reverent look at the undeniable brilliance of Thompson’s work, part expose on the good doctor’s well-chronicled lifestyle excesses, and part showcase for Thompson’s many famous devotees, director Alex Gibney’s film is a pure celebration of a true mad genius. And the sequence covering Thompson’s memorial service, in which his ashes were blasted from a tower, might be the most remarkable eulogy ever caught on film. (ND)

Persepolis

Based on Marjane Satrapi’s comic of the same name, this animated feature examines the 1979 Iranian revolution through the eyes of a young girl in an idealistic, affluent family, from elation over the Shah’s demise to fresh disillusionment with what came next. The outspoken Marjane’s family sends her to study among decadent European youth in Vienna, where she is exposed to casual sex, drugs and punk rock. Lost, dejected and tired of personal rebellion, she returns to find a different Iran than the one she left. Iranian officials protest Persepolis every chance they get, which would make it worth watching even if it weren’t so darned gorgeous on its own, all stylish black and white with a few color cameos. (AS)

WALL-E

It’s easy to pick on the fact that the second half isn’t as staggeringly beautiful as the first half. But director Andrew Stanton crafts a miraculous little love story that only happens to have as a subtext humanity cut off from emotional connection; and only happens to find true joy in the body of a robot. (SR)

Surfwise


Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, an 85-year-old former doctor and Stanford graduate who, among other things, introduced surfing to Israel back in the ’50s, sounds like a cool dude to share a beer with. But what if the laid-back life guru were your pops? That’s a totally different story, and that’s what makes Surfwise so fascinating. Doug Prey’s documentary covers all of Doc’s wild existence, from surfing around the world to sleeping with hundreds of women to meeting his elegant wife, Juliette, and pledging to raise a family of 11 in a 24-foot camper. The only thing more interesting than Doc’s past is how his extreme parenting philosophies—no school, little money, lots of surfing—influenced his nine kids as they now raise families of their own. (SB)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

If cinema is the art of painting with light and motion, Guillermo del Toro is a master of the form. Hellboy II is not just the only fantasy-action hero film of the year to embody the chroma flash and geometry of comic book form, it is also one hell of a great visual ride. Del Toro’s swooping camera work, sharp graphic novel jump cuts and transitions, and sense of color (he works the primary palette like Roy Lichtenstein or Bob Kane) do homage to the comic book form. But they also push the film deeply and successfully into the territories of special effects, epic and detailed set design, perfectly paced tempo and just a hint of a  “message” (green is good).  It’s pure fourth-gear fun. (KK)

Brave New West

Sprung from the American West and shaped by two Missoulians,  High Plains Films’ Brave New West is an engaging documentary profiling Utah environmentalist/journalist/curmudgeon Jim Stiles, greatly strengthened by Stiles’ own remarkable archives (16mm footage of Glen Canyon before it was dammed, for example) and the wisdom of filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr in employing them. In doing so, they’ve strengthened their own place in the lexicon of Western storytellers. (ND)


Burn After Reading

Like your satire of early 20th century America served up with a grotesque but undeniably funny hatchet blow to the head? The Coen brothers’  Burn After Reading is the blackest of black comedies, and it fulfills the dictum Mark Twain established for socially involved satire: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” (KK)


Control

Director Anton Corbijn claims he wants audiences to pay attention to the actors while watching Control and only “notice” the beautiful look of the film afterwards. Whatever. The former video director’s starkly beautiful black and white cinematography and gritty, street-level mise-en-scene is the perfect complement to the story of British band Joy Division, whose chilly outlook and doomy guitars have now inspired two generations of teenagers to paint their bedrooms black. Newcomer Sam Riley is a force of nature as singer Ian Curtis, a conflicted family man (the movie is adapted from his widow Debbie’s memoir) who wrote some of post-punk’s most alienated poetry and suffered from epileptic seizures onstage. Depressingly
gorgeous. (AS)
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