Tag Archives: Best films of 2008

Review: Synecdoche, New York

Sony Classics

Courtesy: Sony Classics

A review of this film would be more inconsequential than usual and mere folderol to the spectacle of it all. Therefore, it is much more prudent to jot down some thoughts had a fair bit ago upon experiencing the piece. After all, Charlie Kaufman himself said Synecdoche is constructed more like a dream than a rational, linear film. Caden Cotard(Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director heading headlong for death. This knowledge is conveyed to him through the various failures of his body. The blood in his stool, the pains in his body, the pus, the headaches, the insolvency are all harbingers, signaling that the road is ending and there is no detour. Yet, Caden still wants to find a way out the same as we all do, his conduit being theater. Having won a MacArthur genius grant for his interpretation of Death of a Salesman, he sets about creating meaning in the existential void by bringing all of life into the theater, a venue he can manage and mold to his liking. His wife having left him with his kid and quickly finding himself all alone in the world, Caden connects with the world by bringing it into his. Actors are cast, mammoth sets are built and much like the world itself, everything is begun with grand ambitions and hopes as larger than the titanic warehouse in which Caden creates his world. It is with this premise that the film leaves the pathetic trepidations of the masses behind and one begins to see Charlie Kaufman playing with the puzzle he has just created, attempting to solve it not for the audience but for his own pleasure. Eventually he puts the pieces together and finds that they form a picture of nothing. Caden sees his love rejected universally as his daughter and ex wife scorn him, his relationships end in chaos or awkward stalemates. While he was busy bringing his life onto the stage, he forgot to live it. No matter, life is theater isn’t it? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and no matter what Caden comes up with it is gone. The stage is ephemeral and as unforgiving as the world, the performances disappearing into vapor as quickly as they come. Still, Caden wants to learn a thing or two before his time runs out. The stage becomes a prism, refracting, reflecting and extracting his life mercilessly. It is all there, the bleak sadness of his rituals: cleaning up his ex wife’s apartment while she is away, falling in and out of love with the same woman, smart enough to see it yet too stupid to do anything about it. It all comes out but Caden needs much more. Every extra is a lead, it’s real life man. Like life, the experiment ages. Actors become weary, sets begin to decay and Kaufman creates it all with exactitude. Reappearing for brief instants almost subliminally, certain images and motifs began to seep into the film. There is a pattern to it all, sad as one finds to be once discovered. Caden does not know that he’s just a little person, however, and he begins to get stage directions seemingly from on high. Wandering through his shattered reality and the one he did not create Caden has no refuge but in melancholy and the slight comfort of another. That’s it isn’t it? The song goes “I’ll find a second little person who will look at me and say… I know you, you’re the one I’ve waited for. Let’s have some fun.” A cautionary odyssey after it all happens, Caden cannot win and neither can we. Therefore, the least we can do is get the little moments that Caden sacrifices right. Regrets, however, cannot be fixed. The full weight of this bears on Caden but before he can do much more about it or nothing at all, there is a final stage command, die. I’m just a little person and so are you. This film might seem big but it isn’t. In actuality, it’s made for the little people like you and me by a little person. Kaufman knew he could not succeed where Caden had failed yet he got on with it, as we all must. See it and weep if you can, then forget about it forever, no good in fighting time.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
– Vman


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Review: Milk

Focus Features

Courtesy: Focus Features

Perhaps the unsung hero in the praised to the heavens Gus Van Sant helmed Harvey Milk biopic Milk is director of cinematography Harris Savides. Bringing the same visual acumen he did to Zodiac, Savides seems to have undeniably mastered the palette of the 1970s. The images he and Gus Van Sant put on the screen are as, if not more stunning than the bravura performance by Sean Penn and co.

Case in point is the first sexual encounter between Harvey Milk and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Naturally, the performances are perfectly tuned and calibrated. Franco calls upon a hitherto largely suppressed charm (think of the dour Harry Osborn in Spiderman 3) and glances knowingly at the considerably less attractive Penn, easily conveying that he just cannot help but be captivated by this funny looking Jew from long island. Meanwhile, Penn’s halting downward glances reveal that though Harvey was brazen enough to proposition Scott in the subway, he still retains a sweet, easily wounded core underneath that freedom fighter exterior. These performances, however, are stunning precisely because of the visual mastery of Savides and Van Sant. A handheld camera is placed within inches of the performers, providing startlingly intimate close ups as it lapses in and out of focus. The larger image appears beautifully worn with lighting dim and hazy enough to hint at the illicit nature of the activity.

Of course,  Milk does not just contain a flawless opening scene. Rather, the film picks up righteous steam as Harvey moves from Long Island to San Francisco to find a purpose. Eventually he discovers this to be politically crusading for gay rights and more specifically, representing Castro street, the center of the burgeoning homosexual scene. Harvey starts riots, boycotts anti gay businesses and generally causes hell. He runs repeatedly and loses just as often but refuses to stop being a nuisance to the man. His hard nosed head on charge into the establishment — gay and straight — forces homosexuals to demand more than just gay friendly leaders and challenges those leaders to deliver the rights they promised in exchange for gay votes. Eventually, Harvey becomes the first openly gay public official and begins fighting the good fight, mainly against Orange juice spokesman Anita Bryant and her campaign to ban gay teachers in California schools.

Although by now Harvey has most assuredly been canonized as a gay saint, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black approach his story with a determined realism, balancing scenes of Harvey loudly pumping his fist and infecting a generation with his fervor with his domestic failures and rocky personal life. Above all though, credit is due to the supporting players in the film for grounding the story. Emile Hirsch plays Harveyrecruited gay activist Cleve Jones with both humor and a subterranean anger. When he tells Harvey he doesn’t do losing, the apathy of disaffected youth fully gives way to the fire started by Harvey.

Likewise, Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Harvey’s assassin, Dan White lends another, even more vital dimension to the film. Refusing to sentimentalize a universally reviled man, Brolin nevertheless explores the reasons for White’s egregious murders aside from the now infamous “twinkie defense” — arguing that an excess of fast food consumption caused the act — employed during his subsequent trial. An oft -stated armchair phycologist diagnosis would be that White was simply an extremely repressed homosexual, whose internalized homophobia caused him to lash out. Fortunately, Brolin does not settle with such an easy, convenient conclusion instead portraying White as the ultimate misfit, a lone working class conservative in gay, liberal San Francisco whose lack of political strength leaves him at the mercy of the world around him, a man who just wished to seize control for once in his life even if it was with a revolver.

Gus Van Sant is an oddity in American cinema,  a director who can delve as deftly deeply into the calculatedly mainstream (Good Will Hunting) as he can into the aesthetically experimental (Paranoid Park ). His presence and more importantly the mise en scene he perfects in the film are what elevate Milk above the innumerable perfectly acceptable biopics into the realm of American classics.

– Vman

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Top Ten Films of 2008

What a fascinating year in film. Although it is questionable whether or not this list will have any impact, here are my top ten movies of a very fruitful and rewarding year in film with a snippet or two about their greatness when necessary.

1. Synecdoche, New York – By far the most ambitious film of the year. Charlie Kaufman has come close to doing what Caden never managed to do. Most assuredly, it is not for everyone but delving into the despair at its heart yields immeasurable joy.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – The best mainstream film of the year, rife with deep sadness. Fincher and Pitt continue to put out excellent work. An instantly classic American epic.

3. Milk – This movie oozes style and talent. Gus Van Sant seared the feel of the 70s into every frame. His impressionistic, empathetic camera combined with Sean Penn’s tour de force were a spectacular combination.

4. Rachel Getting Married – Jonathon’s Demme’s seemingly simple hand held cinematography and unaffected performances all around yielded a near flawless, naturalistic masterpiece.

5. Waltz With Bashir – completely redefines the documentary format with visuals that are near revolutionary.

6. The Wrestler – Aronofsky is much more subtle but just as great. Mickey Rourke brings out his demons and hits exactly the right note of bittersweet.

7. The Dark Knight – Imbued with far more depth than it had any right to have. The Dark Knight was an example of the greatness that can result when artists are allowed to tackle a mainstream film. Heath Ledger is simply stunning.

8. WALL-E – Animation is no longer for the kids. Although wrapped in a layer of sweetness, it is deeply affecting satire that is near perfectly crafted.

9. The Wackness – A perfect portrait of 90s New York City. Levine takes stylistic risks and they all pay off, creating the overlooked gem of 2008.

10. Burn After Reading – The best comedy of the year. The Coen Brothers berate their audience with darkness and constantly push boundaries, making you laugh and cringe simultaneously.

Honorable Mention (in order of Honor attained): Frost/Nixon, In Bruges, Hancock, Funny Games, Mongol, Australia, Pineapple Express, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Iron Man, W., Tropic Thunder, Religulous,


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Review: The Wrestler

Film fans seeking to appreciate the remarkable range of Mickey Rourke, who plays aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Ramsinski in Darren Arnofsky’s The Wrestler, should view Barry Levinson’s classic debut Diner and note Rourke’s charming performance as Boogie, the charismatic sweet talker always prepared with an anecdote and a wry, knowing smile. Now, Rourke’s face has traded its fresh, handsome luster for lines, scars and wrinkles galore. In fact, Rourke looks like he can now almost play his character in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Marv without make up. Of course a weathered countenance does not a great performance make. Rather it is Rourke’s protean talents and his aforementioned incredible range. Rourke can effortlessly createpathos for Randy, by suggesting the simplicity and purity at the heart of the character yet still hint at a lost intelligence. His Randy is a man seeking lost glory who is willing to man the deli counter at ACME  and endure all the indignities that entails for his rapidly fading dream. He is an oddly gentle character, preferring to inflict pain upon himself rather than others. He tells people he’s alone and washed up but does not beg for their pity. Rourke imbues Randy with far too much grace for that.

The film, though centered on Randy’s turbulent personal and professional lives, is driven by the juxtaposition between Randy and an aging stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). The implication being that they play similar roles in show business, displaying their bodies and  their souls in return for meager compensation and adoration. Unfortunately for them, they are largely becoming obsolete and unnecessary. While her colleagues are gyrating to hip hop, Cassidy is stripping to classic metal. Randy enters to the ring greeted by Guns N Roses. The comedic highlight of the film is a joint rant on how much the 90s sucked. Their stumbling relationship is simultaneously beautiful and painful to watch. Rourke’s easy charm, most evident in his terrible dancing to his adored hair metal, combined with the wounded humanity he exudes with every teary glance, bring unexpected resonance to an otherwise cliched courtship. Likewise, Randy’s reconciliation with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) works in the larger context of the film, simply because it refuses to take the easy way out, unflinching in its simple, messy honesty.

That last phrase could apply to Arnofsky’s work in the film as well. Abandoning the expressive, technically masterful style of previous films such as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain,  Arnofsky shoots for subtly drawn realism and succeeds. Eschewing metaphorical visual odysseys rife with a variety of lenses and surrealist effects, Arnofsky empathetically frames Rourke from behind with a shaky, imperfect handheld camera. Using largely close ups, the camera generally remains trained on Rourke, refusing to miss a second of his tour de force as it brings the viewer directly into contact with every cut, crushing blow and searing staple. Essentially, Arnofsky filmed the movie the way Randy talks, starkly, sweetly and bluntly. The Wrestler finds poetry in its titular subject’s life without artifice or cynical calculation, a fact that makes it a rarity among Hollywood biopics and easily of the finest films of the year.


Do not doubt The Wrestler‘s ambitions. A fine film, steeped in the depression of life we all know.

– R.H.

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