Australia (Baz Luhrmann). For about a minute or so, Australia promises to be some psychedelic version of The New World, but emotion is quickly subsumed by Baz Luhrmann’s effusive style. The Wizard of Oz is referenced throughout, sometimes charmingly, but it’s Gone with the Wind that Luhrmann’s most interested in, grossly amplifying the 1939 classic’s worst tendencies (and little of what makes it special): Luhrmann desperately announces his conviction to the displacement of half-white, half-aboriginal children, but his way of celebrating the spirituality of Australia’s aboriginal people is by depicting them as, you know, magical negroes. And the horseshit doesn’t end there. Maybe Luhrmann was pooped by the time he filmed Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman’s reunion, but the way he botches their sightlines is just one example of how uncommitted he is to making their stone-cold romance seem credible. Are we supposed to think their affections for one another is rooted in anything deeper than that really gross harlequin-romance shot of Jackman flashing Kidman his pubes?
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher). Last year it felt as if I was the only person in the world that disliked Zodiac, and now I feel like the only person in the world—at least in my critical circle—willing to rally behind the flawed but enthralling The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I will never be a fan of Cate Blanchett’s obnoxiously fussy, vacuous acting style, which Tilda Swinton immaculately shows up in five minute’s worth of screen time (even in silhouette, inside a sexily claustrophobic elevator, you marvel at the way this great actress sends her character’s every doubt and desire rippling across her entire bodacious bod), so the film’s framing device—Blanchett coughing up a storm in old-age makeup while dying in a New Orleans hospital—is quite the endurance test. Bad habits abound, not least of which are the much-noted Gumpian ones, from the New Orleans setting that exists for no reason than to permit a shameless Katrina reference, to the trite lumping of Benjamin Button in with the city’s old, crippled, and non-white citizens (they’re all outsiders, get it?), but I was dazzled by Fincher’s prismatic images, each and every one a profound (at least in terms of deep focus) consideration of how time is of the essence to his characters. Brad Pitt and Blanchett aren’t playing humans so much as gears in a timeline slowly inching toward each other, poised to meet once and never again, so praise for their work is perplexing. Is it poignant? Not exactly, but does it have to be? Fincher understands the way the old are taken for granted, seeing Benjamin’s long, more curious trajectory from life to death as no more, no less of an American reality or tragedy.
Doubt (John Patrick Shanley). People tell me this material worked on stage, but if John Patrick Shanley’s metaphors and themes were flung at Broadway audiences as hard and fatuously as they are here, I ain’t buying it. For about 30 minutes, we’re subjected to bippity-boppity-booing images of people just getting ready to do shit (like eating and writing and kneeling) before the stage begins to be set for Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s epic screaming match. I like how Streep localizes her character’s rage (and possibly her resentment for having lived a life beneath a nun’s habit) entirely in the face and eyes, but the whole time I felt as if I were trapped inside an elevator (even when Shanley hilariously opens out the material to the projects near the school where the story takes place) with every member of the National Board of Review.
Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard). Yes, this is Ron Howard’s best film since Parenthood, but it still blows. It smugly rewrites history to flatter its liberal audience, who can project their disdain for George W. Bush onto the pugilistic back-and-forth between Michael Sheen’s David Frost and Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon. You never feel as if you’re watching a thoughtful consideration of political comeuppance because Frost’s desire to hang Nixon out to dry isn’t informed by any sense of moral duty, only a selfish interest to be seen as something more than just a bobble-headed celebrity interviewer. Essentially, Cinderella Man II.
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood). Fifty years from now, when Eastwood’s talents will be respected as highly as John Ford’s, we may recognize Gran Torino as the Man with No Name’s version of The Searchers (please, try to tune out those easy comparisons everyone’s making to True Grit). In short, Eastwood applies some interesting formalist strategies (he uses light to perpetually convey the feeling that his character has absolutely nowhere to go but up) to material that’s pitched at the broad level of an ’80s culture-clash comedy, and if the result isn’t a masterpiece, the artistic friction on display here is delirious to behold. This is a less funereal, more self-conscious vision than the schizophrenic style Eastwood brought to Changeling, and it’s one that pushes a poignant message about redemption and living for someone other than oneself.
The Reader (Stephen Daldry). Obviously made with Oscar—and only Oscar—in mind, The Reader is chockablock with some of the most absurd “prestige” moments I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. (I still don’t know what to make of the dubious way Daldry’s camera lingers on the wealth accrued by the Holocaust survivor played by Lena Olin, almost as if her passing judgment on the woman’s attainment, only moments after pondering the impoverished death of one of her betrayers.) In reality—which is to say, something the film doesn’t care to convey—the extraneous noises of the world dissipate when a person in love ponders their object of affection; here, though, a young German boy sits down to dinner with his family shortly after fucking the former Nazi guard played by Kate Winslet and the clatter of the silverware around him is grossly exaggerated in homage to the boy’s pelvic thrust, making me wonder if Winslet really popped his cherry or turned him into a vampire.
Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes). Poor Kate Winslet, wasted in another trite evocation of suburban soul-suck. She’s good in this, especially during her many smackdowns with an uneven Leonardo DiCaprio, but it’s sad watching her earthy acting mode rub up against Sam Mendes’s high-falutin’ style, which consists almost entirely of slowly zooming into and out of people and their Eames furniture. Oscar soothsayers have decided Winslet is overdue for an Oscar, and they’re so insistent on justice that you have to wonder if anyone is going to call out the shamelessness with which the movie works to obscure the actress’s gifts, especially during its histrionically framed climax. I know the always-good Michael Shannon is getting mad props from the film’s many naysayers, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of variance between his smugly characterized role—a former math whiz who seems to have traveled from the present into the past just to show how superior he is to everyone around him—and the last five or six loony tunes he’s played on screen.
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle). This is no masterpiece, but I feel no shame in saying it may end up being my favorite Best Picture nominee. Anil Kapoor’s performance is the pits, and the ending is a slog because it doesn’t feel inspired by the type of melodrama I’ve ever seen in a Bollywood film, but you watch Danny Boyle’s tricked-up version of Los Olvidados knowing that it wasn’t made to win awards, only to elate. He soulfully expresses the significance of pop to an underprivileged people, most memorably in that early scene of young Jamal not wanting to get any of the shit coating his body on the picture of the movie star he wishes to have autographed, and dares to recognize a certain nobility in poverty people with money (or fans of Frozen River and The Visitor) don’t seem to think exists.
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky). Agreeably small and scummy, just like Mickey Rourke’s performance, and an obvious step up for Darren Aronofsky after The Fountain, but awfully conventional in a very calculatingly retro way. (Wendy and Lucy’s vision of destitution feels more genuine to me, even if Kelly Reichardt has an annoying habit of downplaying emotion.) The problem here in a nutshell: Aronofsky wanted to make a ’70s movie, but instead of looking back to Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, or Martin Ritt for inspiration, he takes a page from the John G. Avildsen more schematic playbook. Completely unrelated: Is it just me or are the same gay-rights activists giving Milk a free pass in the wake of Proposition 8 strangely mum on Rourke’s recent “fag” comment, or are all bets off because the target of his disdain was Perez Hilton? Just saying.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.