Friday, December 19, 2008

Three Stars High And Rising

I’m hopelessly behind in catching-up with year-end studio releases, so any attempt to forge a true ’08 “ten best” list would be callow and wasteful. But in the spirit of lists blooming everywhere like toadstools, I had the thought of compiling a litany that you won’t find elsewhere: the best “three-star” movies of the year.

You know what a three-star is, and you know where it rests on the slightly ridiculous but formally accepted four-star scale. To my mind, a three is a movie that rises to no ambition at all, totally succeeds at being satisfactory, soars confidently below the A-list, etc.

To put a finer point on it: there is nothing wrong with these movies, no adjustments that need to be made. They’re proudly innocuous, largely un-controversial, mostly playing it safe on the path to home video – I’m deeply in “like” with these movies, we’re friends, but I know there’s no future. (Except maybe for the title at #1, which shook up my criteria for aesthetic horse-races like no other)

Here’s a movie that exists in the spaces between other movies. So tiny, so inconsequential, so definitively lost in translation … and yet loaded with fetching faces (chief among them non-actor Norah Jones, who has the most beautiful screen neck of the year) and lovingly photographed rivulets of ice cream cascading down mashed blueberry pie. MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS is the kind of guilty pleasure you have to earn.

9) LEATHERHEADS (George Clooney)
“Not so fast, hotshot,” the critical establishment replied when Clooney attempted to follow his masterful GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK with this utterly breezy charmer, kind of an old-school Barry Levinson thing right down to the perfect Randy Newman score. Quick-witted, nice to look at, and harmlessly in love with itself. It would seem a hard movie to dislike, but many did.

8) DOOMSDAY (Neil Marshall)
Utterly nuts. English horror auteur Marshall followed his terrific THE DESCENT with this mad John Carpenter pastiche (right down to the font used for the credits), but unlike most of the dreadful Carpenter remakes of late, this one gets the grime, bitterness, and playful nihilism. And lead toughie/looker Rhona Mitra makes for a fine Snake Plissken proxy. Just the kind of spirited mish-mash I dig.

7) IRON MAN (Jon Favreau)
First-rate second-rate moviemaking. Take away Robert Downey, Jr and his improvised laugh lines, replace him with Nic Cage, and IRON MAN would be unwatchable studio product. The script and story are deeply second-rate, especially once the movie clears the still-catchy Stan Lee origin story that makes up the first act. But, of course, add Downey (along with the best cast a popcorn movie has had in decades) and you’ve got the very definition of a movie that pleased everyone by offending nobody. Watch for IRON MAN 2 to be utterly excoriated by the Fanboy Nation for daring to exist, or for not being “dark” enough.

6) HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY (Guillermo Del Toro)
I was dragged against my will to see this one at the dollar theater. Turned out the price was right. While Del Toro’s initial entry in this wanna-be franchise remains rather lackluster, this sequel had enough of the dark PAN’S LABYRINTH pixie-dust sprinkled on it to rise above the standard-issue source material (Hellboy is an exact dupe of The Thing, from The Fantastic Four, in terms of huggability.) And the stand-off with the forest elemental is one of the stand-out scenes of the movie year.

5) BE KIND REWIND (Michel Gondry)
I couldn’t imagine I would have cottoned to this, but then again I couldn’t imagine artsy-fartsy show-off Michel Gondry would have invested the movie with so much warmth and soul (and movie love.) Like last year’s LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, this one takes a surprisingly warm-hearted view of a community coming together in support of something utterly ludicrous. It also contains the oddest allusions to Fats Waller since ERASERHEAD.

4) STREET KINGS (David Ayer)
I suppose people hate Keanu Reeves more than they like co-scripter James Ellroy, based on the reception to this underrated toughie. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to achieve, as self-consciousness tends to wear down on the organic bleakness of the original noir cycle, but STREET KINGS takes place in a particularly morally grimy Los Angeles. And Keanu works just fine. (Gravitas comes to everyone, if the career is long enough.)

3) THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Justin Chadwick)
Any sleazy historical drama that comes in at under two hours and features two of the most beautiful young women on the planet is already well on its way to three-star glory, but BOLEYN resurrects the trash-history genre in higher-style (and with a lot more fun) than the early-year reviews let on.

The Coens, coming off their masterpiece NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, slip back into their happy side-career of churning out three-star comedies; BURN is no different, and no weightier, which to some people reads as a punishable offense after OLD MEN’s heavy-lifting. But as with every minor Coen picture since O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, the true pleasures of BURN are in the precision and details, most of which only reveal themselves on second viewing. And Brad Pitt deserves an Oscar nom here, in an alternate universe.

1) MAMMA MIA! (Phyllida Lloyd)
Indeed. Here’s a movie-musical to separate those who take life too seriously, and those who love Abba. There are no other kinds of people, but if you love Meryl Streep like I do, add that ardor into the mix as well and you’ve a guilty pleasure that I’m feeling less and less guilty about. If every movie were as exuberant as MAMMA MIA, we wouldn’t need daylight.

1 comment:

Esperanto Grrl said...

Three cheers for "Lars and the Real Girl!" On the contrary, I don't think it was ambitionless at all. It was such a sweet, funny picture, quirky, intense and tender, and utterly surreal.

Personally, I thought it was the best movie of the year. I was outraged it was totally passed over come the Oscars, but what can you expect from the humorless zombie corpses? At least Benjamin Button didn't win, and that's all you can ask for.