The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has more than Oscars on its mind. Meanwhile, The Wrestler provides Mickey Rourke with an ideal comeback vehicle, and The Class is the best film you haven't heard enough about.
The reviews you see here were written back in early December during the heat of end-of-the-year awards voting. Looking back at them now, I'm reminded yet again that 2008 was a good movie year. Not a great one, but a good one. You had to find your pleasures where you could. Here are six such pleasures.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount Pictures)
Director David Fincher gets more and more interesting. Where Zodiac represented a major step up – a serial-killer movie with very little cheap thrill but a whole lot of obsessive intrigue and serious artistry – TCCOBB is ... well, it's an Oscar movie. Not that it should win Oscars, necessarily, but it's the sort of sweeping, life-affirming big heavy drama that has its eye on the prize. Put another way, this is a new generation's Forrest Gump, a tale of a strange individual who traverses the 20th century, bumping into some of its major historical moments, while dealing with an on-again/off-again true love. This means a certain amount of conventionality – a narrative voiceover, a present-day device that keeps the main story moving – and a certain amount of precious ponderousness that pays lip service to humanistic values. But because it's Fincher, it's never treacly – there's something wonderfully restrained about the whole film. (You'll never catch Benjamin Button regard itself with such smug satisfaction as Gump did.) Plus, the thing is a technical triumph – after a while, I ceased trying to figure out how they could put Pitt's face on a little person’s body, make Cate Blanchett look like she was 20, and so on and so forth. Yet, Fincher treats his copious effects with matter-of-fact disregard. Brad Pitt isn't a revelation like he was in Jesse James, but he's now merely really good, which is all you can expect of a star who actually can act. (In a pretty good cast, Tilda Swinton is the best in show.) What helps counterbalance the film's Gump-ness is a love story that's more tragic than Away From Her, although, when you think about it, they're really dealing with the same stuff. This film is too long, starts slow, and has little flourishes throughout that impress Oscar voters but put me off – but I was enormously moved anyway. Sometimes, it's not sappy if you can back it up.
The Class (Sony Pictures Classics)
The pleasure of My Dinner With Andre was realizing, “Hey, this is all the movie is gonna be – just two guys talking about interesting things that I'm interested in.” Laurent Cantet's The Class really isn't that different – a teacher and his junior-high students do cordial battle with one another over the course of a school year and talk talk talk it out. Everyone else will tell you that the film spits in the face of Hollywood movies where an inspirational teacher inspires his ragamuffin students (usually from the wrong side of the tracks) to do inspirational things, but while that's valid, to me the movie is better aligned with the quiet, naturalistic films out of Romania that are impossible to describe but are really, really affecting. There's nothing momentously brilliant about The Class – no stunning moments of joy or sorrow or anger. It's simply the best film about school-as-metaphor-for-life since Election (although I can't think of two films that are more different in tone and temperament) and a great example of how long rehearsal periods and cinema-verite camerawork can still work wonders, no matter how many artsy hacks have ruined the good name of both techniques. And just when you think there's no story, it turns out that there was one all along.
Waltz With Bashir (Sony Pictures Classics)
Here's a movie whose problems are obvious – and I agree that they are problems – and yet I ultimately found myself so affected by it that I had to admit that my emotions beat out my logic this time out. An animated documentary about the early-'80s war between Lebanon and Israel, Waltz With Bashir seeks to enliven the self-indulgent "personal documentary" genre by turning it into a gorgeous graphic novel. Filmmaker Ari Folman fought in the war but can no longer remember his role in a massacre that occurred there – the film is his attempt to interview colleagues to help jog his memory. But if there's a preciousness involved in turning atrocities into a journal about yourself, the animation compensates in many, many ways – the flashbacks are one visionary, hallucinatory sequence after another. I agree that the animation's brilliance cuts both ways, though – as hypnotic as it, its gorgeous dreamworld also holds the horrors of war at arm's length, creating a distancing effect that works against what it's trying to convey. Folman fixes that problem at the very end of his inconclusive, transporting film.
The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
The best thing you can say about director Darren Aronofsky's very good movie is that it's so grippingly told and genuinely odd in its rhythms that you almost forget its conventionality. At its heart, The Wrestler is about a fading athlete (Mickey Rourke) who has to reconcile with his past (in the form of daughter Evan Rachel Wood) while deciding what to do with his future. Oh, and there's a stripper (an excellent Marisa Tomei) with ... well, not quite a heart of gold, but she's not, y'know, a regular stripper. It's smarter and funnier and deeper than that barebones sketch, but that's what Aronofsky is working with. Those who hated The Fountain will no doubt prefer The Wrestler's less-showy style, but this movie demonstrates how skilled a filmmaker he really is as he finds new ways to stage boxing/wrestling scenes and subtly show how Randy the Ram's waking life is a divide between the ring and the miserable rest of the world. But for argument's sake, let's pretend you don't know anything about Mickey Rourke's personal history. How much of the performance is our own connection to and sympathy for the man? It's a nit-picky point, I realize, but as much as I was wrapped up in The Wrestler, I never forgot that I was watching Mickey Rourke-as-Mickey Rourke. Stars using their iconography in a role is nothing new, but I found myself caring more about the actor than the character. This movie is yet another superb recent depiction of America's forgotten economically depressed – and it's very sharp without being mean. But all in all, it's an astounding acting showcase but not quite an astounding movie.
The Order of Myths (The Cinema Guild/New Yorker Video)
Director Margaret Brown has a simple story to tell. For over 300 years, Mobile, Alabama, has celebrated Mardi Gras. But even now, the city actually has two celebrations – one for the whites, one for the blacks. This documentary could have so easily been self-righteous, but Brown isn't interested in that – this has to be one of the calmest depictions of race relations in America in recent memory. Part of what makes this movie so great is that Brown accurately portrays what racism really feels and looks like – it's subtle prejudices, not cross-burning lunatics and lynching heathens, that make up much of bigoted behavior – and she does a stunning job of letting her subjects' comments (even from people we come to like) stand on their own without commentary. No major revelations unfold at the Mardi Gras that The Order of Myths documents, but Brown shows how different races can come together in slow little steps. She doesn't think she's cured racism any more than Obama's election does. Everything has to happen incrementally. Every Hollywood fiction film about "race" should study this movie and take copious notes. Boogie Man (boogiemanfilm.com)
If I had seen this movie before Obama won, how would it have hit me? As a companion piece to the under-seen So Goes the Nation, Boogie Man is indispensable, instructive political history – Nation shows how Bush beat Kerry, while Boogie Man shows how his dad whooped Dukakis. But despite the fact that I'm a sucker for such stuff, what I loved about this documentary is that it lays bare a history of the country through one man's eyes – has anyone shaped political conversation in the last 20 years more than Lee Atwater? The lack of insights into Atwater’s background didn't bother me – Boogie Man is a very American story, suggesting yet again that anyone can rise from humble origins to a position of power through pure will, so the fuzziness of his upbringing only makes the rise that much more impressive. And let's not mince words: Good human being or not, the guy's cheap tricks were simply evil, and his win-at-all-costs mentality has done more harm than good. He deserved comeuppance. But more so than even W., Boogie Man is all the more remarkable in that its chief sentiment isn't anger but sorrow – "look what's happened to America," it seems to be saying. And like Nation, this film is largely a thriller – you know the ending, but that doesn't make it any less horrifying. Seeing it after Obama's win, I certainly didn't feel like the era the movie documents is now over. But I will say that if McCain had won, I'm not sure I could have stomached it.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.