Monday, January 5, 2009

2008 TOP TEN + 2

It’s been a good year (movie wise that is) so the Top Ten list has been expanded a bit….

Animated cartoon
A combination of a well-written story, superb CGI and great voice talent makes this a real winner. Some of the jokes are the “laugh-out-loud” sort plus there are many amusing moments.
Particularly important for the wee ones with their short attention span, there is very little down time with the action pretty well non-stop. I don’t know if it will become a Disney Classic but it’s a charmer on its own.

Terrific acting with Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz at their very best, a solid story beautifully shot with a musical score of classical music this one will win some awards. Casting is bang on (except for Peter Sarsqaard) and with time given to develop the character of each it’s easy to understand the issues they have to deal with.

Based on a true story
Although it runs for just over two hours, it doesn’t seem like it: crisp editing, an interesting story that unfolds during the television interviews and two outstanding performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella all combine to make time go by too quickly. Great attention to detail and expert cinematography recreate the time and place beautifully. Music by Hans Zimmer is not one of his best efforts; there is nothing of the calibre he has demonstrated in the past. That is not a criticism, just an observation since that the musical score does not take away from the movie, it simply adds nothing special as his music usually does.

Musical comedy
Anyone who has ever hummed one of the ABBA’s big hits will revel in hearing them sung amid the glorious setting of a lovely Greek island. Someone has wisely chosen to not change the musical arrangement from the original hits so they sound right. The additional songs first heard during the stage performance fit in beautifully, not surprising given that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus collaborated to write them. Unlike some musicals where the songs seem to come from out of nowhere, these all meld in as part of the story narrative. Given that the main reason everyone shows up is to celebrate a marriage, it is not surprising there’s a lot of joy and happiness throughout the movie. And some funny bits along the way. Although Meryl Streep started her career as a singer, I cannot recall any previous role in which she sang. Consequently her singing talent came to me as a surprise. Perhaps you could quibble about the cast selection, that there are younger actors\actresses around, that there are better singers. Fine. But that doesn’t take away from the fact the ones in the movie do a heckuva job and that’s enough for me. The dance numbers are well staged with unbounded energy, the costumes are great, the acting uniformly excellent. In short, it’s a must-see movie and a lot of fun. By the way it’s rare that I go to see a movie for a second time. This is one of them.

Political drama
Based on a true story
The rise of Harvey Milk to a position of importance is adeptly played out making use of flashbacks as he dictates his memoir. Sean Penn and Josh Brolin give outstanding performances; the supporting cast are almost as good. The melding of archival film and recreations is done in a manner it’s hard to tell them apart, given the attention to period detail. In fact the entire movie looks and feels so real with the exception of a few minor instances.

With some Hindi dialogue and English subtitles
Some may find the first few minutes a bit disturbing but then it settles down to a pattern of a question posed to Jamal on a game show then a flashback relating to that query. These snippets of Jamal’s past generally involve his brother and Latika as well. They are not all the same: some are quite funny, others are sad or touching and a few are disturbing enough I had to look away. In each instance the music is an important element in setting the tone and expertly chosen. Both the editing and the cinematography are very well done. Together they sometimes make the slums of Mumbai look beautiful. Sometimes

“Once upon a time…”
That would have been a better opening to this fairy tale about a newborn child who looks like a crippled old man and because of reverse-aging will look younger as he gets older.
Using flashbacks from the reading of a journal written by Benjamin, a series of vignettes chronologically follows him as he grows up from the end of World War I to present day. As each one is fairly short there is no boredom factor but because it takes 2 hours and 47 minutes to cover all those years, some may feel the film too long. I did not even though I am not a big fan of any movie that goes beyond two hours. The movie is very entertaining, even engrossing and has some special effects that are worth the price of admission alone. The acting is uniformly great (especially by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette) and a the sound track is a joy to hear.

It is worth going to the movie just to see the wonderful performances by all the principal actors. Kate Winslet in particular does a fantastic job in this thought-provoking film set in Germany in the years following World War II. At the risk of saying too much I’ll simply point out that some of the issues raised, the decisions taken are of themselves worthy of further consideration. In addition to the fine acting, the cinemaphotography and musical score are first-rate as is the attention to period detail.

Terrific acting is but one of the things that sets this movie apart. The low-key, unhurried pace is another but the main thing is the story about random encounters and the impact they can have on our lives. Taking a simpler approach to story telling, there are no flashbacks, no parallel developments, in fact none of the more sophisticated filming techniques seen so often. By contrast the director takes an unusual approach like showing a discussion being held behind closed doors without our hearing what is being said or having people speaking in a language other than English without subtitles being shown on the screen. He relies on the fact we are smart enough to figure it out ourselves. How refreshing. Oh by the way: did I mention the superb acting?

Original title: Le Monde selon Monsanto
Written and directed by French journalist and filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin her passion for the subject is probably the reason why it runs a little too long. More than a few interviews are shown in their entirety whereas some editing would have made the point more effectively. Also far too much time is devoted to watching her Google for information on her computer. However the film is notable in that it brings to light the underhanded tactics used by Monsanto to stifle concerns about their products and how it has resorted to misleading advertising, concealing scientific information and offering bribes to influential government officials. And the implication of one company controlling the sale of all seeds in the world boggles the mind. That’s scary!

Wartime drama
Based on a true story
With all around solid performances (especially by Tom Cruise) and great attention to detail, the recounting of an attempt on Hitler’s life is riveting stuff. Although it runs almost two hours, it needs all of that time to recreate the situation and provide enough information so we can understand what was going on. For some viewers it will be a story retold but to many it will be an eye-opener to learn that not all Germans were villains during World War II.

There are few movies that disappoint because the end credits appear. This is one of them. During the course of almost two hours we get to know various members of the chorus and can relate to them almost like old friends. Although the average age of the choir members is eighty, they sure don’t act it. This feel-good documentary tracks their efforts under the direction of Bob Sillman, their youthful music director, (he’s just a kid of 53), during a six week period in preparation for the annual show in their hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts.


This thought-provoking movie is characterized by exceptionally strong performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Although Streep’s role is far more nuanced than the others, it is not necessarily that much better: they are all good.
What they have to say makes for some serious consideration about morality and the truth. Although there are no grand sweeping vistas, I loved the camera work capturing the starkness of the 1960’s catholic school setting.

Original title: Vier Minuten
In German with English subtitles
This is one terrific movie combining a well-constructed character study with exceptionally good acting. Movies about relationships too often are so predictable; this one is not. Music is central to the story: there is lots of it including many original pieces along with those composed by Schumann. Despite the fact some of the flashbacks are a bit confusing this shortcoming does not significantly alter the overall story line. The cinemaphotography is top notch and the editing bang on.

War drama
Seen from the perspective of a naive young boy, the Holocaust is a much different historical event. Once you get over the fact that they speak English rather than German, the story unfolds at a rather measured pace. There are really good performances from both young lads and Bruno’s mother (Vera Farmiga) in particular. Beautiful cinematography and attention to detail add to the visual experience.

Every once in a while there is a movie that gets it all right. Such is the case with this one. Two absolutely brilliant performances (Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano) are framed in beautifully shot majestic scenes of the undeveloped western United States. Production design (the overall look of the movie including costumes, sets etc.) is outstanding and the musical score is just perfect albeit not your usual sound track. Although it runs for two hours and thirty-eight minutes it is not excruciatingly long: it takes that much time to cover some 30 years and needs the unhurried pace to allow for adequate character development. In a word, it is just the right length.


Crime comedy
Promoted as a “comedy thriller” it is anything but. There are several mildly amusing moments amidst a proliferation of swear words and there is absolutely nothing thrilling about it. Makes you wonder if it’s the same movie they are talking about than the one I saw? The musical score is mostly heavy thumping bombastic percussion and often totally out of sync with what we see. Maybe we are supposed to see the humour in that? There are some viewers who will be offended to see the machine Harry has invented. That kind of thing belongs in a pornographic movie not one for general audiences.

Animated action\adventure
The principal character Despereaux conveys some very important social values; that it’s not just appearances that are important, one should be courageous and able to forgive. But that is not enough to outweigh the overall tone of despair and doom. Assuming of course the kids can figure it all out as the story is fairly complicated what with the two different worlds with nice guys among the not-so-nice guys and visa versa.
One other thing: the official classification is G but that gives no indication of what’s in the movie. The one I’ve assigned is more appropriate and consistent with other movies of this type. In all likelihood parents of young ones (4 and 5-year olds) might not want to expose their children to these things. And also save themselves a lot of explaining afterwards.

Animated cartoon
Expectations not met makes for an unhappy experience.
Pixar’s track record of producing entertaining state-of-the-art animated CGI cartoons led me to believe this would be one more to add to the list of Knick Knack (the animated short film about the snowman trapped in a snow globe), Toy Story (the first ever first fully computer-generated feature film with Buzz and Woody), Finding Nemo (my all-time favourite with Marlin, Nemo and Dory), Ratatouille (with Remy and Linguini) and Cars.
Such is not the case.
The first half-hour is depressing with monochromatic browns of a world we would rather not see populated only by a robot going through his repetitive daily manoeuvres whose only buddy is a cockroach. Although the animators have attempted to “humanise” WOOD-E with expressive “eyes” and limited (very limited) vocal expressions I found it impossible to feel for this mechanical thing. So his dire situation left me entirely unmoved and consequently of little interest.
When EVE comes on the scene things liven up a bit and there are a couple of funny moments, even some tender ones. But that doesn’t last long as we are transported to another world where the producers hammer home their second strong message (about the consequences of a pampered life; their first was about the effects of over consumption) but it goes on far too long. It would be fine if these sequences were novel or funny, but they are neither. In fact there is not one really humorous moment during the entire film.
One thing needs be said though: the technical aspects are simply amazing not only in terms of the images but the sound. However that alone is not reason enough to sit through almost two hours of filmmaking.

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