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Curtain Call

Well, my first semester as a graduate student is over, and my second is about to begin. I saw plenty of very good movies last fall, but not as many “great” ones as I generally like to find. I blame the studios for their outrageous refusal to release the most critically-acclaimed films of 2008 in 2008 (at least not in a venue where they can be accessed by the general public). I hope this doesn’t become a habit, but with any luck the extra boost of Oscar nominations should bring some decent fare to town. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with the great movies I did manage to stumble over in the dark as I continue to feel my way through the vast territories of “cinema.” But enough metaphorical ramblings, here are my top picks of the fall (in no particular order, as per usual):

Syndromes and a Century

Scotland, PA

Recount

Ghost World

The Sensation of Sight

Aliens

I Confess

Doubt

Changeling

Shakespeare in Love

I’ve already reviewed The Sensation of Sight (great film! grab a DVD copy!), Changeling (a harrowing but worthwhile experience), and Shakespeare in Love (part-silly, part-profound, all good fun). Syndromes and a Century which comes to us from Thailand, is a very difficult film to describe. I think that it is unlike any other cinematic experience I have ever had. Actually, “experience” is just the word to use here, for that is what this is. It would take at least two viewings to really begin to unpack what is going on in a meaningful way, but that first viewing was, for me, a sublime experience of what I would call “pure cinema” (a term I never use because it sounds a bit snotty, but in this case it genuinely applies).

Scotland, PA is a different sort of thing entirely. It takes the characters and the story of Shakespeare’s tragic Macbeth and turns it into a Coen-esque dark comedy about a white trash couple who plot to take over the burger joint where they both work. It is brilliant in its sheer audacity and hilarious in its execution (and having Christopher Walken as your straight man never hurts). Ghost World also combines tragedy with quirky comedy, though in a very different way. It follows two cruelly-cynical best friends as they grow apart over the course of the summer after they graduate from high school.

Recount, which is a made-for-TV movie that sports an enviable cast, recounts (harhar) the whole epic, outrageous saga surrounding the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The story is told in a fascinating, compelling, and surprisingly (or is it?) balanced way. Doubt also pits two volatile forces against each other, in this case a Catholic priest and a militaristic nun who believes him to be guilty of an impropriety with an altar boy. Based on a stage play, the performances in the film sizzle and pop deliciously, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about what really happened as best we can and in the face of an almost overwhelming ambiguity.

In the arena of newly-discovered classics, my favorite Hitchcock discovery of last year’s project to watch his entire canon was undoubtedly I Confess. This is Hitchcock at his most symbolic, and the film is full of significant religious imagery. Montgomery Clift, in his one Hitchcockian role, is fantastic as well. I also watched Aliens for the first time, and found in it a rip-roaring sci-fi action flick that offered wall-to-wall entertainment throughout. Why hadn’t I seen this sooner? Who knows.

Honorable Mentions

Nashville

Robert Altman delivers a towering epic of American politics and country-western music. This movie is a long and wild ride through a few days in the lives of some very strange (but very American) characters as they struggle to steal the limelight. It is an ambitious project, brought off in spades, and I knew immediately when it was over that I would need to see it again. The last scene is killer.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This story of a man who experiences the 20th century while moving backwards from extreme old age to youth is certainly not without its flaws. It is often sentimental and occasionally trite, but it can also veer into profundity and is even genuinely moving once or twice. Cate Blanchett turns in a great performance, and visually the movie is just a pleasure to look at.

The Train

As the Allies approach Paris to liberate it from Nazis, an art-loving Nazi officer engages in a high-stakes battle of wits with members of the French Resistance. He has loaded a train car with great works of art to be shipped back to Berlin, and his opponents will have to expend every trick in their repertoire to keep the train from leaving with its priceless cargo. I’d never heard of this movie at all until a few months ago. The concept intrigued me so much that I watched it immediately, and was not disappointed.

Trainspotting

Danny Boyle’s breakthrough film is just the sort of kinetic, full-sprint production you might expect from, say, 28 Days Later or Slumdog Millionaire. It is a harrowing drug odyssey that doesn’t quite rival Requiem for a Dream for sheer disturbing impact (though it has its moments), but does succeed in getting the same point across. Definitely a must-see for any later fans of Boyle’s work who (like me) picked up his career within the past four or five years.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Although it is undoubtedly considered “lesser” Coen brothers fare by those who only seem to like their serious films, The Hudsucker Proxy is a light and lovely throwback to fast-talking comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance is clearly meant to channel Rosalind Russel’s character from His Girl Friday, and she pulls it off rather well. Paul Newman pulls a toweringly funny turn as an evil corporate executive, and Tim Robbins is the fresh-faced rube who comes up with a million-dollar idea and struggles to hold on to his identity as he rides the corporate elevator “all the way to the top” (literally). But this is more than just great nostalgic comedy. The Coens have created a whole world inside the soulless skyscraper of Hudsucker Industries, and it is a genuine pleasure to visit.

Alien

Without Alien there could never have been an Aliens, though that is by no means the only compliment I can extend in its favor. Alien, made seven years before Aliens, is a very different, more cerebral sort of sci-fi which at times has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than with its space-marine-shoot-em-up sequel. Ultimately my preference for the more visceral pleasures of Aliens is purely arbitrary, as both were great in their own way and well-worth seeing.

Marnie

Burn After Reading

City of Ember

The French Connection

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~ by Jared on January 10, 2009.

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