Tradition holds that, for Hollywood, the Spring represents the end of ballyhoo - and the business year. During the four month flatline between January and April, every unmarketable mess, every experimental excuse, every contractually obligated star vehicle, and otherwise underdone effort would get a mandatory release - a few days of bewildering box office glory before fading into VHS obscurity. It was always an aesthetic stop gap, a means of making talent happy, critics cranky, and audiences wary. Summer would come soon enough, and with it, the far more palatable popcorn fare. Yet for over 16 weeks, we had to tolerate some pretty pathetic offerings. All of that changed a few years ago when Hollywood realized it could up the ante, just a little, by providing a couple less than mediocre movies. The accompanying turnstile twists proved their approach correct.
Now, Spring is a battle between horrendous and highlights. There are still more stumbles than sonnets, but when you consider the crap that used to pour forth, literally nonstop, a few fine films is all one can ask for. Yet oddly enough, 2008 saw a trend toward documentaries that indicates a real failing among fiction films. While the studios seem convinced that everything old is repackage-able again, the men and women exploring the reality around us are doing it with style, wit, and a clean, clinical eye. They say that everyone has a story to tell, a narrative that if captured properly, would give the old “truth is stranger than…” mantra a clear run for its money. Two of the five films listed below do indeed bring that maxim to startling life.
But there were other excellent offerings that deserve a runner’s up mention: the beat-happy British heist flick The Bank Job; Leatherheads, the half-successful screwball comedy from George Clooney; the uneven document Sputnik Mania, centering on a certain Soviet satellite and the effect it had on a worried West; and the gonzo zombie stomp of Shine a Light, featuring the undead Rolling Stones in all their going through the maverick motions glory. In addition, the underserved demographic of Florida finally got to see two outstanding foreign films from 2007 - The Counterfeiters and Persepolis - movies that would have made this list had they not already had their moment of glory last year. So here is what SE&L thought were the best Spring flings of 2008, beginning with:
# 5 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
dir. Nicholas Stoller
While some may believe - falsely - that the Apatow era of feature length funny business has peeked and begun to ebb (thanks to Dewey Cox
or Drillbit Taylor
, take your pick), the truth is that there’s lots of satiric fire left in the old furnace. Case in point, this wonderful brom-com from Freak and Geeks
costar Jason Segel. While the story of a rather caustic breakup may seem like the last place heart or hilarity could be found, there’s a heaping helping of both in this tale of a struggling composer dumped by his TV star girlfriend. Our hero hopes a trip to Hawaii will cure what ails him. Turns out, his ex is there with her slezoid British boy toy as well.
There’s so much more to this movie than raunch and the risqué. Sure, penis abounds, but so does some emotional insights into how love can linger long after it really should. Besides, there’s puppets - putting on a production of Dracula - with music! How much more do you want. While Segel is a strange leading man, he is surrounded by a capable cast including Kristen Bell (riffing on her current career arc with self-deprecating brilliance), Mila Kunis, and UK yutz Russell Brand, playing every Amy Winehouse inspired pub spud imaginable. Together they take a subject that should sink like a stone and make it laugh out loud loveable. And rumor has it that Segel will be scripting the new Muppets movie. How weird is that?
# 4 - The Dhamma Brothers
dir. Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein
We really don’t know what to do with our exploding prison population, do we? We love the notion of warehousing the dangerous and deadly, keeping ourselves and our wee ones away from the true (yet undeniable) horrors of the world. Yet mention the concept of rehabilitation or rights and the cold, conservative nature inherent in all of us leaps to the fore. We don’t want inmates given a chance. Instead, we demand that they be kept locked away forever - no matter what the judges, juries, or sentencing guidelines suggest. It’s from this narrow-minded premise that this look at the use of Buddhism in an Alabama penitentiary gets its undeniable power.
Certainly, there is every reason to be skeptical. As one of the guards convincingly argues, prisoners will “fake it ‘til they make it”, meaning they will do anything to gain some early release favor. But Vipassana (a tiring ten day ritual) seems like an insane way to achieve that ends, especially with all the deep-seeded personal problems and unhealed wounds it tends to open up. We learn a lot about these men - stories that seem antithetical to the crimes they committed and yet completely in line with the standard police profiling. Their tales of abandonment and abuse are horrific, just like the ways they choose to compensate for them. This is as eye opening and uneasy as fact filmmaking gets.
# 3 - Cloverfield
dir. Matt Reeves
Sure, the viral marketing campaign that swept the Internet last summer seemed overly calculated, guaranteed to make whatever turned up in theaters four months later appear simultaneously exciting and exasperating. Who knew that producer JJ Abrams and a couple of his TV pals (Felicity
‘s Matt Reeves and Lost
‘s Drew Goddard) would turn the whole thing into one of the finest genre efforts of the new millennium. Sure, some consider this monster movie nothing more than Godzilla
with a Blair Witch
POV, but that’s just part of the film’s appeal. There are also riffs on 9/11, our current sense of social fear, and the notion that nothing is real unless it’s viewed through a camera or featured on TV.
Now that it’s out on DVD, the movie can be studied more closely (and without some of the accompanying handheld shaky-cam nausea), and some interesting elements definitely come to the fore. The relationship between the friends (and former lovers) becomes even clearer, the emotional needs that each carries adding to the seriousness of the situation. The monster’s movements are also clarified, thanks to the lack of an anticipation/shock factor. We get to see the amazing CG destruction in all its wow-factor glory. It all makes for one of the most creative kaiju-like efforts ever.
# 2 - Be Kind, Rewind
dir. Michele Gondry
No, this was not that wacky, weirdo comedy that the presence of Mos Def or Jack Black would indicate. Nor was it just another piece of Michele Gondry wistfulness mistaking pure imagination for screenwriting. Instead, this is the finest love letter to the VCR and the videocassette ever constructed, a story that requires audiences to drop their pretexts and perceptions and recognize exactly what the scenes are saying. What we are witnessing here is not just the recreation of classic ‘80s films by a bunch of video store employees turned amateur auteurs. Instead, the so-called “Swedeing” that occurs is a reflection of just how pervasive cinema has become as part of our everyday lives.
As with most broad canvases, it’s the details that get lost. When Black and company make their new versions of these well-remembered films, they are done so without any real reference - no script, definitely no VHS copy to consider. Instead, this is moviemaking from memory, the rote revisiting of favored titles by people who have them memorized. All geek love should be this pure and pristine. Thanks to Gondry’s vision, which places all the action in a gee-whiz setting of communal consideration, we witness the first movie ever to acknowledge the seismic change that occurred when theaters headed home. Destined to be considered a modern masterpiece in the future.
# 1 - Young@Heart
dir. Stephen Walker
Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are additionally viewed as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and The Clash as points of sonic reference.
This fantastic feel good documentary, chronicling the preparations by the Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), is so uplifting that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Balancing the joy inherent in making music with the inevitability of a life slowly fading away, we meet individuals so inspiring they practically preach to us. Certainly, British filmmaker Stephen Walker pushes a few buttons here and there, and middle aged choir director Bob Cilman can ham it up with the worst of them, but these are minor quibbles in what is destined to be another overlooked fact-film come Oscar time.