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True Story

Apparently I really went in for realism this spring, or so said my favorites list as I sifted back through the last four months. Between the top ten and the honorable mentions, there are four documentaries, a mockumentary, a satire, one based-on-a-true-story and three historical films. Some of my picks will be no surprise if you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been talking about, but perhaps others will.

That’s gotta be the best showing for documentaries I’ve had, though, and there are lots more that I enjoyed very much which aren’t on the list. I frequently find myself turning to a much-recommended doc (particularly those with quirky subjects) for light entertainment while I work on something that doesn’t require my full attention. Netflix and their “Watch Instantly” feature are wonderful things. And now, the top ten from the spring:

There Will Be Blood

The Sweet Hereafter

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Michael Clayton

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Paprika

Lake of Fire

The TV Set

Into the Wild

Behold my annual reminder of the movies you just saw lauded at the Oscar ceremony a few months ago . . . Although this time I picked up more than usual in my fall top ten. And it was a good thing, too. Amidst the multiplex wasteland of the beginning of 2008, I have continued to reap the benefits of last year’s bumper crop of quality cinema, starting with the remainder of the best picture nominees. I did have a chance to see There Will Be Blood before the ceremony, of course, and I was in awe of its scope, its scale, and its lead actor.

Michael Clayton had to wait until a few days after the Oscar buzz had died down so I could rent it, but it totally blew me away. I was enthralled throughout every second of its two-hour length. It was like watching an unpublished Grisham novel written when he was at the top of his game. Really, really impressive work by Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson. Bravo.

As for the films that got fewer nominations, undoubtedly because there can only be so many in a given category (and, after, only one can win): Just a few days ago I finally saw Into the Wild. I hadn’t thought that a two-and-a-half hour movie about a college grad forsaking civilization would result in something I’d want to sit through, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is an amazing chronicle of a true spiritual journey, and whether the journey is a success or not is just one of the many interesting discussions the film might inspire.

I also saw The Assassination of Jesse James, which I’d been after since I first heard of it. I’ve developed quite a taste for revisionist Westerns during the past few years, and this is one of the best of its kind, and one of the best films period, that I’ve ever seen. On the surface this is an account of the doings of a group of outlaws over the course of a few years in the late 1800s, but just beneath that surface lies a deep, thought-provoking examination of the nature of celebrity and the ways in which we write and remember our history. There are a ridiculous number of good performances in this movie, and the cinematography is some of the most excellent and beautiful you’ll ever encounter.

The Sweet Hereafter is among the most heartbreaking movies I’ve ever seen: the story of what happens in a small town when a school bus carrying virtually the entire child population skids off a road and breaks through the ice to sink into a lake. This is another one with many, many amazing performances, but particularly noteworthy are Sarah Polley and Ian Holm. Fantastic, but so, so sad. Look for a music video from the film at the end of this post that has haunted me for months.

On a much lighter note, there is The TV Set, definitely the funniest entry to my list. Dave Duchovny is a talented screenwriter who has just had a pilot picked up by a major network. Sigourney Weaver is the slimy executive hell-bent on squeezing every ounce of originality and class out of the project. Ioan Gruffudd is the new consultant, a prodigy fresh from British television who finds himself a little out of his league in the ugly world of American TV. Hilarity ensues, but also some rather barbed social and industrial commentary. Be warned, if you watch a lot of network television, particularly sitcoms (and, thank heavens, I don’t), be prepared to hate yourself for boosting the ratings on that garbage by the time this is over. Incidentally, this movie contains the first direct reference to Netflix I have yet run across in feature film. Truly, they have arrived.

I saw Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame when it first came out over a decade ago, but I really felt that I had re-discovered something special when I watched it again more recently. I think it might be my personal favorite of their animated features (now that I’ve finally seen nearly all of them). Lake of Fire I cannot recommend enough. It is absolutely the final word on a balanced and level-headed examination of the raging debate over abortion and its brief but tumultuous history.

Honorable Mention:

Chalk

A very fun, very smart, very small-scale indie mockumentary that you’ve probably never heard of. It follows a small group of teachers through the ups and downs of a year of public school. The performers are all people you’ve never heard of either, but this is all to the good. One could easily watch most or all of this film without cluing in to the fact that it is fictional. As my wife is just wrapping up the long battle of her first year teaching public school, we found this to be of particular interest. Give it a shot.

Into Great Silence

Watching this movie is an amazing experience: over two-and-a-half hours of footage of peaceful monastery life, most of it with little or no sound of any kind, and certainly no dialogue. Sitting through it in the proper frame of mind is much more an act of spiritual meditation than anything resembling a regular viewing. In fact, a regular viewer is quite unlikely to make it through the whole thing, or even try.

No End in Sight

Great, eye-opening documentary on the disastrously inept mis-handling of the opening months of a war that is now dragging into its sixth year. Do yourself a favor and check it out here (the full movie is viewable on Google Video).

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Identity is a great spy thriller and a pretty good movie, but I disliked the style of its sequel so much (I found the choppy editing to be blinding, pretentious, and incredibly distracting) that I gave the third chapter in the trilogy a miss for several months. I finally caught up to it in March, and wow. Just an great production on every level. I need to see the second one again on DVD to decide whether my opinion of it still holds, but I really feel that the director made the quick-cutting work for him in a big way here that he didn’t really achieve before. The script is nothing to sniff at, either. This might just be the greatest spy thriller ever.

Days of Glory

This movie was mixed in amongst a particularly promising batch of best foreign film nominees a few years back. It tells the little-known story of North African troops from French colonies who fought in the French army in World War II, despite overwhelming prejudice and unfair treatment from the native Frenchmen. It is a story that certainly deserves to be told, and it is told well here. Definitely worth a look.

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~ by Jared on May 5, 2008.

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