Tag Archives: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Movies of 2008

paranoidpark

Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2008, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time. But I’m quite satisfied with the final ten I’ve narrowed it down to. These are the films that thrilled me the most in 2008.

10) Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer): Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). A small, lyrical, beautifully photographed film.

9) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): This is a crazy, brainy movie, loved and loathed by many. Similar in spirit and style to the films he’s written (especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Synecdoche is truly Kauffman’s magnum opus.

8) Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt): This is a short, quick, devastating film. Reichardt follows Old Joy in theme and style, peering in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly menacing world.

7) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen): The second really great film from Allen in 2008 (the other being Cassandra’s Dream), Barcelona is a sumptuous feast of elegant, polished, on-point filmmaking. Allen is a master of the craft, and this film is gorgeous, rewarding evidence of that fact.

6) Australia (dir. Baz Luhrmann):
I’m confounded by the paltry critical and popular response to this movie. I simply adored it. It’s a remarkably fun, beautiful, lush film with no pretensions of importance but a keen command of the craft. That is: the craft of outrageous, epic, old school Hollywood artifice that birthed everything from Gone With the Wind to Titanic. A joy to watch.

5) Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Not for those who hate slow movies, because this is a very slow movie. But that is why I love it. It rushes for no one or no thing, and treats its subjects with the sort of delicate, curious gaze that is rarely seen in the post-Tony Scott era of attention-deprived cinema.

4) Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme):
A highly compelling, superbly acted assemblage of intimate, interpersonal moments. Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and the whole cast offer a smorgasbord of stylish, humane acting. I think it might be my favorite wedding movie ever.

3) The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films ever as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.

2) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher):
This is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. It’s a film that touched me deeply, perhaps more than any film this year, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life’s impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing. Props to David Fincher for two years and two films (this along with last year’s Zodiac) that rank among the best and most defining of the decade.

1) Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant):
This film has stuck with me more than any that I have seen this year. Something about it moved me very deeply; it’s one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though it is highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.

Honorable Mention: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Cassandra’s Dream, Slumdog Millionaire, Shotgun Stories, The Wrestler, Wall-E, Chop Shop, Burn After Reading, Hunger, Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Tell No One, Snow Angels, Iron Man.

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In Defense of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I almost didn’t go see Vicky Cristina Barcelona because of a 1.5 star review I read by one of my favorite film critics, Jeffrey Overstreet. But the fact that it was a Woody Allen film with a high percentage on rottentomatoes ultimately led me to go see it this weekend. I’m so glad I did. Just seven months after he crafted one of the tightest and most underrated films of the year in Cassandra’s Dream (read my review here), Allen has done himself one better with this film, his best since Match Point.

I respect and accept Overstreet’s criticisms of the film, as being demeaning to its female characters and a celebration of self-destructive behavior. The film can certainly be read in this way, and certain tonal attributes do indicate that Allen is gleaning much pleasure out of watching his characters suffer under their own silly neuroses. But don’t all comedies take pleasure in the misfortunate of their characters? Sure, this is slightly closer to home than the fakeries of Tropic of Thunder, but it’s crafted with the same storytelling logic: point out the faults and fireworks of human nature (lust, narcissism, etc) and milk it for laughs. It’s exactly what Shakespeare did in his comedies. Don’t tell me that The Taming of the Shrew was any less cruel to its characters than Allen is to his.

Beyond that, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is just an amazingly well-made film. One doesn’t have to agree with all of its philosophical conclusions (and with Allen, one rarely does) to enjoy that it is remarkably sharp, erudite, and entertaining. I couldn’t help smiling at how utterly precise the film’s script was, nailing its characters (albeit bathed in unabashed stereotypes) with the punctual economy and poise of an experienced and world-weary storyteller. And the actors Allen picked work so, so well for the story. Newcomer Rebecca Hall is a stunner, Javier Bardem proves his worth playing a non-psychopath, and Penelope Cruz sizzles with unbridled and hilarious intensity.

And a word about Scarlett Johanssen. I don’t know why people pick on her acting so much. She was totally convincing in this role, playing the same sort of confused, naïve, hormonal youngster in search of herself that she played in Match Point and which serves as Allen’s muse. Yes, it’s a type, and no there is not a lot of nuance to it. But the majority of people don’t have a lot of nuance to them, and someone has to play them. If anything, Johanssen gives her character (Cristina) more depth than she deserves. She’s funny and tragic and remarkably beautiful, and I wouldn’t have had anyone else play the part.

I also don’t think it’s fair to hold this film up to Allen’s oeuvre and pronounce it lacking the “insights about faith or true love” that his best films supposedly have in spades. This is a gorgeous film, vibrant and alive and everything a film should be. But beyond it’s artistic merit I do think it adds to the thematic and, yes, spiritual explorations of Allen’s films. This is a film about individuals longing to be other than what they are… each character has lofty ambitions and dreams and is not satisfied in their current predicament (even while they are all middle or upper class with scant reasons to be dissatisfied). Whether it be a home in Bedford with a tennis court, an aspiration to have a more open and “European” soul, or a desire to eschew fidelity for a passionate dalliance with a Spaniard, this is a film that is fueled by the very human (but perhaps particularly American) desire for the unattainable. Allen is not sanctioning or vilifying such desires, he’s just acknowledging them—in the same way Beethoven acknowledges insatiable passion in his music or Picasso in his painting.

The artistic and truthful representation of passion and longing (even through the somewhat ironic and cynical lens of Woody Allen) is, I argue, innately spiritual. It may not be intentionally so, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a spiritually relevant movie. It’s a harsh and hilarious critique of just how self-indulgent and ridiculous we are in our bourgeois spiritual searches, but it is also an earnest lament for the fact that we can’t escape our prevailing discontent if we keep looking for it in the wrong places.