Friday, December 26, 2008

End of 2008 wrap-up Part I - The Moments That Mattered

I put off my top-ten of the year list for as long as possible (so that I might see the few Oscar bait movies that I have missed). In the interim, this piece was about certain scenes, moments, character beats, and what not that worked in 2008, regardless of the quality of the films that contained them. Here are my ten favorite 'moments' in 2008.

Best unheralded performance: Gary Oldman - The Dark Knight
Much has been said about Health Ledger's almost certain-to-be Oscar winning performance as The Joker. So let me be one to give credit to my favorite performance in the film, that of Gary Oldman as the weathered and beaten down representative of decency and honor known as Jim Gordon. His most touching moment comes about 90 minutes in, when he shares a brief, quiet moment with his son. Having faked his death so that The Joker wouldn't go after his family, Gordon returns home to an angry but relieved wife and kids. Quietly sneaking into his son's bedroom, his idolizing child asks him: "Did Batman save you daddy?" Oldman smiles, kisses his son on the forehead and (truthfully) replies: "Actually, this time I saved him." The son smiles and the moment is heartbreaking (in a relentlessly bleak story, it's the rare and very last moment of happiness in the picture). Moments later, Jim gets a call that Harvey Dent is missing. And it all goes downhill from there.

Best Action Scene: Role-Playing Smack Down - Role Models
Better edited than the police van chase in The Dark Knight. More real-world plausible than the jungle chase in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. More emotionally rousing than the 'rock-sock-em robots' climax of Iron Man. More comprehensible than any mish-mash fight scene in Quantum of Solace. The funniest film of the year contains the funniest scene of the year, which is also best action scene of the year. Set at a giant Renaissance Faire-type battle royale, this sword/axe/mace face-off is both hilarious and completely credible as an action spectacle. Even though everyone knows its a fake fight with fake weapons, the film has earned our emotional investment in these misfits, so we actually care about the outcome. Ironically, this was allegedly staged by some of the action-choreographers from the last two Bourne films... so THIS is what an action scene looks like when Paul Greengrass isn't cutting it within an inch of its soul. This was the most rousing action scene of the year.

Most heartwarming coda: Hancock's gift to Ray - Hancock
This mega-hit Will Smith superhero deconstruction was one of the more divisive movies of the year. I'm in the 'loved it' camp (it plays even better on a smaller screen). Point being, if the movie is working for you up till the end, you may just water up just a little during the incredibly potent coda. No spoilers, but it ends the movie on a lovely note of earned goodwill.

Most emotionally potent line of dialogue: "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." - Jim Broadbent - Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Whatever the flaws of the fourth Indiana Jones picture, it does work as a coda to the life of our favorite whip-wielding archaeologist. The film starts from a place where Indy is beaten down by life, abandoned by his country, too old to start over and faced with the very real prospect of dying alone and in exile. Indiana Jones then gets one last opportunity at happiness, in the guise of the opportunity that he turned away from so many years earlier. Ironically, the absence of Sean Connery and the death of Denholm Elliott give the film a poignancy that it otherwise would have lacked. The mourning of friends and family and the rediscovery of new family prevents the film from simply being an exercise in nostalgia.

Best verbal spar: Angela Bassett and Lance Gross - Meet The Browns
Attempted union-busting issues aside, Tyler Perry gets this year's 'most improved player' award. Meet The Browns was a lower-key (and better acted) distillation of his usual farcical family in crisis story lines, The Family The Preys was a genuinely fine film, something resembling a 1950s family melodrama that added new flavors to the Perry palette (mixed-race plots, morally gray characters, partially unhappy endings), and House Of Payne toned the farce down just enough to be watchable. The emotional highlight of this year's Perry products was the brutal screaming match between Bassett and her high-school aged son. After Gross is caught selling drugs to provide for his unemployed mother, Bassett attempts to kick him out of the house. Gross refuses to leave, unleashing a brief monologue that is stunning in its tear-stained rawness. It's actually far more 'real' than the 'for your consideration' shouting matches in Revolutionary Road, and is easily one of the best-acted scenes in any film this year.

Best scene in a bad movie: 'Cough Syrup' - The Happening
While Mark Wahlberg gives a uniquely terrible performance in The Happening, he does have one good moment towards the end of the film. After his wife (Zooey Deshanel) confesses to meeting an attractive friend for lunch (the thing that has been troubling her all movie), Wahlberg launches into a brief monologue about how he had a mild crush on a pharmacist at a local drug store, a crush which led him to getting a bottle of cough syrup that he didn't need. His wife asks if he's joking. It doesn't matter if he is, she instantly gets the point and simply smiles with relief and says 'thank you'. In a movie where many of the characters seem oddly inhuman, this one moment reminds us that M. Night Shyamalan usually has a subtle grasp of relationships between friends, families, and lovers.

Best use of old music: "It Only Takes A Moment" - Wall-E
And that is all
That love's about
And we'll recall... when time runs out
That it only took a moment
To be loved a whole life long!

This Hello Dolly ballad is one of a few reoccurring songs in this terrific cartoon, and its the one that most pulls the heartstrings. I have never heard the song in its original context, but it is achingly sad here, a constant reminder of the fragility of emotional connections. It also serves as drumbeat reminder of the (literal) tragedy of the trashing of an entire planet and the finite nature of life itself. Wall-E is a movie that gets better each time, and I'll probably get slightly emotional each and every time I hear that refrain for, well, for my whole life long.

Best end credits bonus - "Thank You For The Music" - Mama Mia!
Next time you watch Mama Mia!, do stay for the whole end credits. The reward is a gorgeous cover of ABBA's "Thank You For The Music", a song that was cut out of the film. As good as Amanda Seyfried is during the actual movie, she absolutely kills on this (if I recall) nearly 'A Capella' version of one of ABBA's better songs. It is one of a few good songs that didn't belong in the narrative (along with "What's The Name Of The Game"), but it's a shame that this terrific rendition won't get a wider audience. So if you're one of the many, many people who bought Mama Mia! on DVD or Blu Ray, please skip to the end of the end.

Smartest moment in a horror film - Scott Patterson saves himself - Saw V
Of all the many people caught in various traps by Jigsaw or one of his apprentices, only one victim had the quick-thinking and intelligence to save his own sorry butt. Trapped with his head stuck in a cube that was rapidly filling with water, FBI agent Strahm does the only thing he can think of. He grabs his pen and stabs himself in the throat, giving himself an instant tracheotomy and saving his own life. It is the kind of intelligent behavior that is so rarely seen in even good horror films, that you almost want to stand up and cheer. If only the rest of the film was as smart.

Best Bruised-Forearm moment - Kenneth Branagh picks up his wine - Valkyrie
Branagh and Bill Nighy plot to kill Hitler by putting a bomb inside a case of wine. When it fails to detonate, Branagh then has to go back and collect said wine bottle to prevent discovery. It's kind of awkward.

Scott Mendelson

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