2008: A half-assed cinematic odyssey

I used to take time at the end of every year to load up on movies like an orphan at a Bonanza dessert buffet. What new movies were on video? I’d rent them. What was in the theaters? I’d blitz them and find out.

This year I simply couldn’t bother doing it: I have a stack of 30 films, and many hours of TV shows, that I’m working through instead. Oh, and prepping for a new job, I’ve been churning through political books. So off the bat, here are the films I wanted to see but missed.

Sex and the City
Kung Fu Panda
Twilight (for “essential pop culture knowledge,” if not pleasure)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Role Models
The Happening (for hilarity’s sake)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Valkyrie
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Slumdog Millionaire
Doubt
In Bruges

Here’s what I did see, in order of how much I liked it, and whether or not I’d recommend it to you, dear reader.

36. An American Carol
Reviewed here. David Zucker’s misbegotten political satire was either five years too late or two years too early (I’m counting on a conservative Obama backlash to begin by then.)

35. Swing Vote
Reviewed here.

34. Punisher War Zone
A good, not great, b-movie, set in a New York City of terrible, terrible accents and musical-comedy-worthy gangs.

33. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
I love me some Mary Johansen contrarianism, and I urge you to read her review, but 1) I don’t generally care for action movies, 2) I was never part of the cult of Indy movies anyway, and 3) this sucked and was boring.

32. W.
Not a bad movie, and largely well-acted, but so much less interesting than reality, and so bland, as all of Stone’s work has been since U-Turn.

31. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Of course I like stoner comedy (check down the list), but this was slapdash.

30. Battle in Seattle
Hackneyed but well-intentioned indie film about the 1999 anti-WTO protests.

29. The Foot Fist Way
Painfully lazy–like Pineapple Express without editors or professional actors. Danny McBride was funnier in Hot Rod, even. (“I’ve been drinking green tea all goddamn day!”)

28. Hancock
I’m in the Chris Orr camp here. Just didn’t get it. Never got involved. Never felt stakes, or felt for the characters.

27. The Incredible Hulk
If I liked the character more, I might rate it higher: Ed Norton was fine, the supporting cast was fine, and Hulk battles sound at one point. Also, the Omar cameo is better than any second of Dominic West in Punisher.

26. Rambo
The most violent film I’ve ever seen in a theater, and the best one to feature a former Angel cast member.

25. Wanted
Jesus, this was the annus action movie mediocrus, wasn’t it? Take the action scenes from The Matrix (now a 10-year old movie!) and remove the point.

24. Diary of the Dead
The worst of Romero’s five zombie epics, which is a shame, as the contrivance (film students tape the zombiepocalypse!) was a good one and the story was a reboot. Still, crap acting and a horrible, dull ending.

23. Miracle at St. Anna
Flawed as hell and hard to follow, but when it clicks it’s a fine war movie. Also, the baby bayoneting scene makes Rambo look tame.

22. Speed Racer
I like experiments, and this was an interesting, sickening experiment. It should be impossible to adapt another cartoon without falling short of this example. SPOILER: Racer X is Speed’s brother! (Why didn’t the family name the youngest son something cool like “Rex” or “Speed”? Name a kid Spritle and he’s bound to be a fat sack of money-befriending shit.)

21. Pineapple Express
Again: Danny McBride, savior of films, on track to be this generation’s Charles Nelson Reilly. The rest of the film is slow-moving and weirdly atonal.

20. Be Kind, Rewind
The second-worst Michel Gondry film (he’ll never bowl below Human Nature).

19. Quantom of Solace

I’m going to cop out and tell you to listen to the Dana Stevens podcast on this one. She nails it: just as Moonraker was a blunder that copied the popular films of its error, QOS makes mistakes based on the popularity of the Bourne films.

18. The Visitor
A bit afterschool-specially, but undeniably affecting. Richard Jenkins’ best sad-ass performance of 2008.

17. Burn After Reading
Minor Coen Brothers with Richard Jenkins’ second-best sad-ass performance.

16. Redbelt
Unjustly ignored Mamet that starts brilliantly and turns into a lame Karate Kid tribute in Act III.

15. Frost/Nixon
Painful to think what great things another director (and a rewrite of Act III) might have done with this.

14. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Overlong, but endlessly rewatchable, with almost as many LOL moments as my favorite 2008 comedy.

13. Mongol
Fine melodrama, but not much more.

12. Man on Wire
Beautiful, and a wonderful Michael Nyman soundtrack, but when it slackens it feels like a History Channel filler show.

11. Cloverfield
I hate monster movies and I really, really liked this.

10. Gonzo
Somewhat preachy, but it’s hard not to make a great Hunter Thompson documentary.

9. Gran Torino
Extremely preachy, and very mockable, but I fell for it.

8. Tropic Thunder
The best comedy of the year, with the best fake trailers since Grindhouse.

7. The Wrestler
Great melodrama that could have come from the movies’ golden age.

6. The Dark Knight
I’m not even going to challenge the CW here. I only think the “guy who’s figured out Batman’s identity” subplot could have been cut.

5. Synecdoche, New York
Some people didn’t like the experiment. I, spending, half my time thinking like Caden Cotard, am still thinking about it.

4. Iron Man
A perfect superhero flick.

3. Encounters at the End of the World
Herzog documentary. C’mon–it could be about feline hypnotherapy and it’d make the list.

2. Wall-E
I’m part of the cult. I cried when the robots loved each other!

1. Milk
Perfect in every way. What’s this year’s Crash that will suck ass and steal its Oscar?

The best of 2008: the tunes

1. Marnie Stern – This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That

2. TV on the Radio: Dear Science

3. Santogold – Santogold

4. Cadence Weapon – Afterparty Babies

5. Sam Phillips – Don’t Do Anything

6. Brian Eno and David Byrne – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

7. mc chris – mc chris is dead

8. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus!!! Dig!!!

9. Q-Tip – The Renaissance

10. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us

Merry Christmas, Powerline

On 12/23, Powerline’s John Hinderaker reports on the “duplicate ballot issue” in Minnesota’s Senate race.

The recount in the Coleman-Franken Senate race is drawing to a close, and the result depends on the outcome of the motion that the Coleman team argued before the Minnesota Supreme Court (minus two of its members who are serving on the Canvassing Board) this afternoon. The motion relates to duplicate ballots that have been counted, giving Franken an extra 130 or so votes. If Coleman prevails on the duplicate ballot issue, he wins the recount; if not, Franken will win by somewhere between 25 and 50 votes.

On 12/24, Coleman loses in an unanimous decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Powerline’s Scott Johnson comments:

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling on the issue of double counted ballots, the ballots in issue will be included in the totals rendered by the Board of Canvassers in early January. If the margin between the candidates is fewer than 130 votes, or if other substantial issues remain as a result of the treatment of the 1,600 absentee ballots, a contest is guaranteed. I take the Coleman campaign statement’s slight hesitation on this point only to mean that so long as the margin is not prohibitive, a judicial contest of the recount is now inevitable.

Old and busted: if Coleman loses at the MSC, Franken wins! New hotness: if Coleman loses at the MSC, Coleman still wins! Maybe! Meanwhile, InTrade drops the chance of a Coleman win from 14% to 6%.

Swing State Project FTW

The site’s breakdown of presidential vote by congressional district continues in California, gerrymandered to hell and back in 2001 in order to create safe seats for every Democrat and Republican. It was a GOP bloodbath. Republicans now representing “blue” seats, with several seats left to be analyzed:

Dan Lungren (CA-03)
Buck McKeon (CA-25)
David Dreier (CA-26)
Ken Calvert (CA-44)
Mary Bono Mack (CA-45)
John Campbell (CA-48)
Brian Bilbray (CA-50)

No results yet for CA-11, which Jay McNerney picked up for the Democrats in 2006 from Richard Pombo, but given that Obama won every county in CA-11 I think it’s now a blue seat.

Fringe wars

My favorite thing about the Obama Birthers is that they’ve already split into factions. I know, it’s surprising–you’d think getting your ass kicked in every court with a gavel and desk would build some movement solidarity. But no! There are four major players in the Obama Birtherverse, and three of them hate the others.

One of the three is Andy Martin, and that really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The man can’t pass the bar because he’s so clearly mentally unstable that no state will give him a license. He is the retarded P.T. Barnum of the Obama Birtherverse. Now, he’s convinced that two other Obama Birthers, Phil Berg and Leo Donofrio, are con men. Here’s his response to the press conference I covered for Slate:

The U. S. Supreme Court becomes ground zero in a con game by anti-Obama profiteers. Paranoia spreads as hucksters undermine the anti-Obama movement. Con artists such as Philip Berg seek to cash in by filing false legal claims against Barack Obama.

Not that Martin ever asks for money. Oh…

URGENT APPEAL: The Committee of One Million to Defeat Barack Obama is raising money to oppose President-elect Barack Obama.

http://CommitteeofOneMilliontoDefeatBarackObama.com. Please give generously up to the maximum of $100. Our ability to fight and defeat Barack Obama is directly dependent on the generosity of every American.

“The Committee of One Million to Defeat Barack Obama limits itself to $100 maximum contributions; there are no bundlers, fat cats or illegal contributions. Obama is opposed to everything America stands for,” says Executive Director Andy Martin.

Yes, that is from the very same post I quoted above. But it’s still pretty fun to read: Martin accuses World Net Daily of printing “gibberish,” calls out the people who claim “Obama’s grandmother was at his birth in Kenya” as “unhinged” morons, and accuses Phil Berg of legal “hyperventilation.”

Berg hates Martin, too, as Martin filed a complaint against Berg and is running around calling him a con artist. Donofrio attacks anyone who sues Obama on grounds other than his moronic “Obama’s father was a British subject!” argument.

And then there’s this. My favorite part is that Lindsey has the same Macbook that I do.

“Milk”

I can’t really be objective about this movie. In my gut I know what Chris Orr is talking about. This is Good Will Hunting Gus Van Sant, not Elephant Gus Van Sant. It’s Hollywoody. It traffics in cliches. The martyr dies (spoiler alert!) in slow motion.

And yet… no, I can’t put fingers to keys and claim I did not start tearing up at the first minute of this movie. As Orr notes, and criticizes, Van Sant begins the film with the same shocking footage that begins The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the brilliant 1984 documentary. Dianne Feinstein, president of the board of supervisors, informs the press that “Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot… and killed.” Members of the media scream. “The suspect is supervisor Dan White.”

How can you not choke up at that? As with so many moments in Milk, resisting the emotional tug is like holding still your leg as a doctor raps it with a hammer. It’s mind-boggling that no one has made this movie before, and dramatized the last great civil rights battle of the 20th century, especially when its key figure was as flamboyant and witty and out there as Harvey Milk. The popular film that I can best compare to Milk is Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), the melodramatic story of Robert Gould Shaw and the first all-black volunteer company. Similar scene-chewing, similar cast-the-guy-who-looks-like-the-guy ethos (you could easily mistake the street mural of Shaw outside my house with Matthew Broderick), similarly functional this-is-what-happened dialogue that the screenwriters leaven with jokes.

I was impressed with how Van Sant resisted making Milk into a saint. The character flaws are there-pettiness, an eye for much younger men. Van Sant frames the film with Milk’s tape recordings, marked “in case,” recorded in the event of his assassination. But he does not use the large chunks of the tapes that eschew rhetoric like “should a bullet enter my brain, let it obliterate every closet door” and instead name and shame Milk’s political foes, the people he demanded not be appointed to fill his supervisor’s seat. Sean Penn’s Milk (and there’s really no criticism to make of Penn’s acting here) is smart and funny, and you want to cry when he’s killed, but he is not sanctified onscreen.

There are two other actors who play ball here. Josh Brolin’s Dan White is perfect, slow-boiling and sociopathic, but with an obvious and unfulfilled need to be liked. Diego Luna gets less screen time as Jack Lira, but he nails the role: it is obvious why Milk’s friends hated Lira, and Milk’s fawning over him bring much-needed distance between us and the martyr-politician. He’s never as flawed as when he’s making excuses for his drunken boy toy. We need to see him flawed like that.

That said, Van Sant makes some easy, lazy choices, perhaps because he cannot understand, or does not want to understand, the cops and social conservatives whom Milk fought against. I don’t think any cop is ever given a name or face. When White gives up his job, he is buttonholed by cops who literally pull him into a room and shut the door. We never hear what they say or who they were. I see the dramatic purpose, but it’s misbegotten–what the cops were doing in San Francisco was dramatic, and involved a war of insults and insubordination to a police chief who demanded they be more gay friendly. And while it would be hard to find as actress to play Anita Bryant–less odious people have been tried by the ICC–hell, Van Sant found a perfect Dan White. The reality of the film suffers, actually, because the news clips keep intruding on the drama.

Ah, sour grapes. I heartily recommend this movie. It’s a melodrama, but so was Milk’s life–yes, the SF opera house was really the last thing he saw as Dan White murdered him, as the police report would tell you. You will cry like your family dog just died, and you will make me feel less ridiculous for my blubbering act in the dark theater.