Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

" Oh no you don’t. I don’t want to be a politician. "
— Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

MRQE Top Critic

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2008 saw lots of entertaining movies, but there’s not much to be found on our list — or anyone else’s — that seems likely to have changed the course of cinema. There’s nothing that seems like it’s going to be talked about for years to come in the film studies classes of the future.

It’s not a bad year to have been busy with other endeavors. Notably, our founder Marty Mapes has been busy earning a living in the Internet industry, leaving less time for his movie habit. For the first year ever, Matt Anderson contributed more reviews and articles than Marty (congratulations, Matt!), thus wresting control of Movie Habit’s top ten list.

Guided by the wisdom of crowds, Movie Habit has compiled our collective top ten list, a composite put together from the lists of five thoughtful film critics.

If you find yourself wanting more, you can also read all of our picks (Next Ten of 2008). You can look at the raw data that went into our list; you can sort the data by critic, by weighted score, by unweighted score, and by the number of critics who picked a given title.

Without further ado, here are our top ten.

1. The Dark Knight,

Does Ledger earn an Oscar?
Does Ledger earn an Oscar?

In Batman Begins, Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan mined reality in order to create a solid base for their take on Gotham’s most famous son. In The Dark Knight, they dig deeper and the result is one rock-solid, intense action-drama that /batapults/ onto this year’s short list of the very best. Picking up right where Batman Begins left off, The Dark Knight finds Gotham reeling from the Arkham Asylum breakout. Organized crime has gotten its second wind, but Batman continues to fight the good fight.

The new kook on the block is the guy dubbed “The Joker,” a grotesque, disfigured maniac who is hell-bent on spreading anarchy. The late Heath Ledger is the Joker King, an immersive, unrelenting horror with a back story that trades in the Hollywood glitz and /kitsch/ of a huge vat of green toxin for something far more down to earth and much more demented.

For Christopher Nolan, nothing in the Batman canon is sacred; characters, relationships, casting, sets, and props are all put to use in service of his razor-sharp screenplay (co-written with his brother, Jonathan). As a result, this movie doesn’t even remotely feel like a comic book movie. This is a modern-day crime/action/adventure movie with characters named Bruce Wayne, Alfred, The Joker, Harvey Dent, and James Gordon.

2. Tropic Thunder,

Among the extras is a 30-minute mockumentary that ranks with Spinal Tap
Among the extras is a 30-minute mockumentary that ranks with Spinal Tap

Is Tropic Thunder controversial? Yeah. Is it hilarious? Absolutely. And the Blu-ray edition of the Director’s Cut is almost a top-shelf release. Almost.

In either its original theatrical version or in this Director’s Cut, Tropic Thunder is a highly comprehensive satire from its very first frames, which take the form of a series of fictional pre-movie commercials and trailers. Tropic Thunder is about the filming of a movie based on a Vietnam War memoir. Well, that’s the goal, but when the reality is they have agents back home fussing over things like the lack of TiVo in their talents’ posh hotel rooms things go south in a hurry.

Regarding the Blu-Ray release, the good news is that the supplemental materials are really good. In fact, some of the stuff is so good, it ventures into that rare territory of actually being every bit as entertaining as the movie itself.

The bad news is that the BD-Live content is a collection of video clips accessible only via buffered Web playback; they can’t be downloaded to a hard drive. The worse news: those features are included on the standard DVD 2-disc set.

Effectively, Blu-ray owners are once again being penalized by Paramount, one week after Secrets of the Furious Five, the Kung Fu Panda direct-to-video sequel, was left off the Blu-ray release. It’s unacceptable that the Blu-ray edition should be in any way perceived as less than definitive; that’s not how the format will grow in popularity.

3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,

Graced with an absolutely top-notch THX-certified presentation
Graced with an absolutely top-notch THX-certified presentation

Fully acknowledging the passage of time, Crystal Skull picks up 19 years after the events of The Last Crusade.

The communists had kidnapped Indy and his pal “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone, Beowulf) while they were digging around in Mexico. The group of commies is led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth), who’s out to fulfill Stalin’s dream of psychic warfare. Naturally, the Russians underestimate the integrity and tenacity of Indiana Jones and the opening action plays like gangbusters as Indy escapes their clutches only to stumble his way into a weapons testing lab in the middle of the desert.

Instead of resting on the lofty laurels of its earlier successes, the series once again takes risks, much in the same way Temple of Doom was a big, big risk with its much darker tone and story. While it certainly helps that Spielberg and Lucas were able to so smoothly steer the series away from another mystical, spiritual relic and move in a different direction, the fact that they took the risk to begin with is something that should be applauded rather than derided.

Given the relatively unspectacular DVD treatment the original three have been given so far, it’s a relief to report this one delivers the goods on Blu-ray. Since Crystal Skull is the first Indy movie actually produced in the era of DVDs and high-definition, the crew had the HD cameras ready and was able to provide plenty of great behind-the-scenes footage that does a good job of giving a sense of how Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas collaborate.

Even better, reflecting the spirit of the movie, the supplemental materials are fun to watch.

4. Chop Shop,

Polanco works the Chop Shop in Queens
Polanco works the Chop Shop in Queens

It seems like there are dozens of movies about kids without parents on the fringes of society. Within the genre, it’s surprising how good most of the films are. Set in the present and filmed in Queens, New York, Chop Shop is a worthy entry into the genre. Director Ramin Bahrani explains, “Willet’s Point, Queens, is twenty blocks of junkyards, dumping grounds and row upon row of auto-body repair shops.” But perhaps the most interesting feature of the neighborhood is Shea Stadium. It can be seen in the background almost all the time, and you have to wonder whether those Mets fans even know this little street exists.

Alejandro (Aleh, for short) has a sister but no parents. He’s about 11 years old, and he knows how to hustle. Customers drive in to his side street and boys like him try to guide them to their shop for the business.

Through the eyes of children who don’t know anything else, the neighborhood can be magical. The stadium looms over the neighborhood like a civic monument, and when the Mets play, Aleh can stand across the parking lot and see second base. Even when he’s not watching the game, he can hear the roar of the crowd on game day, clearer than traffic driving by or a jet flying overhead.

That’s not to say that Chop Shop — or any movies in the genre — are all joy and happiness. Only that they illustrate the human capacity — or at least a child’s capacity — for love and delight, even in the worst of circumstances.

5. Man on Wire,

Petit walks above Sydney before his WTC stunt
Petit walks above Sydney before his WTC stunt

Even though Man on Wire is a simple, low-budget documentary, there’s a joie de vivre and moments of whimsy that are unmistakably. The movie starts “once upon a time,” with Philippe Petit in a dentist’s office in France, reading the newspaper. He came across a story about the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. Philippe ripped the story out of the paper and left the office in a flash. As he puts it, he traded in a toothache for a dream. And that dream? To rig a tightrope between the two towers and walk across it.

The bulk of Man on Wire follows Philippe through his planning and plotting of this feat, which at times rightfully feels more like a heist flick than a documentary about a “harmless” high wire act. The interviews with Philippe and his friends are oftentimes a hoot. They struggled to figure out a plan, they struggled to patch together a trusted team of cohorts.

This is a genuine, heart-felt movie about people, their dreams, and the crazy world that has so much to offer for those willing to step out on a limb. And the theme here is that, if you really want something, nothing is impossible.

6. U2 3D,

Bono crouches on the stage and 3D-enhanced animation follows Bono's hand gestures
Bono crouches on the stage and 3D-enhanced animation follows Bono’s hand gestures

To describe U2 3D as a spectacular 3D presentation of spectacular performances by the band on their Vertigo tour is to sell it short. U2 3D is a beautiful statement about civilization and the possibility that different cultures, religions, and technologies can coexist — if we want them to.

Edited down from more than 100 hours of footage shot during the 2006 Latin America and Asia-Pacific legs of the band’s world tour in support of the album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, U2 3D offers viewers the best seats in the house, including on — and above — the stage. This isn’t old-school, gimmicky 3D. This is the first live action movie shot in digital 3D and it is something to behold.

U2 doesn’t know how to do things half-assed and their commitment to pushing boundaries and piercing envelopes continues with this production. Going beyond presenting the concert footage in 3D, there is a real artistry on view in how all the elements are brought together.

7. Pirate for the Sea,

He can quote maritime law like the devil can quote the Bible
He can quote maritime law like the devil can quote the Bible

One of the highlights of the 2008 Telluride Film Festival was Pirate for the Sea, a mere movie that infused my audience and me with a sense of justice and triumph.

This is no schmaltzy sports movie with underdogs, a hard-nosed coach, and snooty villains; it’s ten times better because it affects the real world. In this movie the underdogs are whales, fish, and the marine ecosystem. The villains are whalers and fishers who violate international law, smug in the knowledge that nobody ever polices them. The hard-nosed protagonist is Paul Watson, the charismatic captain of the vessels Sea Shepherd and Farley Mowatt, and president and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Pirate for the Sea features some of Paul’s more recent and notable accomplishments. For example, Paul recounts the time he saw a Japanese boat fishing illegally; he documented their illegal act and then he rammed them. The Japanese vessel filed a complaint, to which Paul immediately admitted guilt, offering his videotape as evidence. But when the court date came, the Japanese plaintiff didn’t show up. Turns out, they not only dropped the charges, they claim the incident never happened, no doubt afraid to have evidence of their illegal fishing practices revealed in a court of law.

If you get the chance to see Pirate for the Sea, you may not be at a film festival, outdoors, sitting behind beautiful young people wearing black sweatshirts that read “Sea Shepherd Crew.” You may not have the back-of-the-brain excitement of realizing that the filmmaker and “star” are in attendance. And you may not experience the palpable emotion of an enthusiastic audience of 500. In other words, you may not like Pirate for the Sea as well as I did. But I still have to recommend the movie highly as one of the highlights of Telluride 2008.

8. Changeling,

Jolie gives another solid portrayal of a strong woman facing an unbearable situation
Jolie gives another solid portrayal of a strong woman facing an unbearable situation

In this election year rife with politicians gone corrupt and the economy spiraling downward thanks in large part to behind-the-scenes greed, Changeling arrives as a strong statement about responsibility, accountability, and the all-important need for people to speak up in the face of wrong-doing. Clint Eastwood’s latest is a horrifying drama based on a true story that happened back in the late 1920s.

Called in to work an extra shift, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) leaves her 9-year-old son at home, alone. When Christine returns, her boy has disappeared, without a trace. She calls the police, only to be given the standard spiel about how they won’t do anything until the boy has been missing for more than 24 hours. From there, Christine’s life unravels as those put in a position of authority and trust shirk their responsibilities and point blame at every corner other than their own.

Changeling is a fascinating — and draining — movie to watch. The story turns into a harrowing tale of kidnapping, gruesome murder, and the overwhelming power of civil disobedience to right some wrongs. Eastwood deftly recreates a world of outward innocence and grace. Streetcars amble through the streets of Los Angeles, buoyed by Eastwood’s jazzy, atmospheric score. But it’s also a world without television, the Internet, cell phones, and amber alerts; it’s a world where information can be hard to come by and serendipity plays a large role in the police business.

Ultimately, the case is made clear that, election year or otherwise, people have a responsibility to take a stand and to demand accountability.

9. Happy-Go-Lucky,

Happy-Go-Lucky is another favorite from Telluride. It’s about optimism, friendship, and the teacher-pupil relationship. In a Q&A session after the movie, Leigh said he deliberately set out to make an “anti-miserablist” film, which drew laughs from a Telluride audience used to despair and misery.

Sally Hawkins plays an unstoppably optimistic woman. She lives with a friend from college and she teaches children. She decides it’s time she learned how to drive and so becomes the pupil. Her teacher is a short-tempered man who is both annoyed by and attracted to Poppy’s pep.

As in most Mike Leigh films, Happy-Go-Lucky is less about what happens than about who it happens to. Leigh is fascinated by his characters, and although there are conflicts and developments, if you only look at the story arc, you probably won’t really appreciate his films to the fullest.

10. Redbelt,

Hollywood offers Mike a movie credit: associate producer
Hollywood offers Mike a movie credit: associate producer

After my screening, I overheard people saying it was not what they expected from a martial arts film. But Redbelt is first and foremost a Mamet movie and only secondarily a martial arts movie.

Mamet is the screenwriter behind stagey dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. He’s also written clockwork capers like Heist and The Spanish Prisoner. He’s known for his formal, exact, yet seemingly inarticulate dialogue, and his stories sometimes have a fatalistic tinge of Greek tragedy. He is a smart writer and director, firmly in control of conflict and words. If you don’t know him, look him up.

Redbelt is a sports movie, where lessons learned in the class prove useful in real life. It’s also a Mamet caper with clockwork twists and turns and sharp and snappy dialogue. The tone is fatalistic like a Greek tragedy, but not so hopeless. It’s all of this and more. It’s one of the best movies of 2008 so far, and it’s worth a look.