Yes, it's time for the Battie Awards, Blog About Town's much-awaited look at the movies of 2008.
FAVORITE PICTURE Last year I had trouble choosing among so many good movies; this time around I also had a tough time picking a favorite—but it was because I had trouble getting genuinely enthused about many of the movies I saw. I respected Wendy and Lucy and The Band's Visit, I liked Wall-E and Encounters at the End of the World, and I was impressed by Slumdog Millionaire, and I thought Waltz With Bashir was a significant statement about war...and then I liked a lot about Happy-Go-Lucky and Rachel Getting Married, and I loved runner-up Chop Shop, but at the moment I have to say that, to my surprise, my favorite 2008 movie so far is The Reader.
After perusing Manohla Dargis's review in The New York Times, which reviled it as a too "tasteful" movie about the Holocaust, I was very reluctant to even see The Reader. But I dragged myself to the theater the other day and found it very powerful. Yes, it is technically polished—the cinematography is especially beautiful. But no, I don't think it's exactly a Holocaust movie. To me it is a post-Holocaust story, to some degree an allegory, that subtly probes Second Generation issues using quasi-Oedipal (or at least Freudian) imagery and tensions. David Rabe's screenplay questions how the post-Nazi generations of Germans might feel feel toward their Nazi elders—including those who raised them—and offers some plausible answers: attracted, repelled, furious, sympathetic, close, estranged, pitying, judgmental, indebted, screwed up. I don't think this has been covered much in cinema, though The Nasty Girl (1990) comes to mind. I am aware that critics as estimable as Ron Rosenbaum have also vilified The Reader, but my own reading of the film turned out to be pretty much in line with director Stephen Daldry's.
FAVORITE REVIVAL First, I have to give kudos to the Museum of Modern Art for screening Menjant Garotes, Luis Buñel's "home movie" of Salvador Dalí's father and stepmom. Then it's kudo time to the Film Forum for The President's Analyst and its Tatsuya Nakudai festival featuring The Human Condition as well as oddities such as The Face of Another and Age of Assassins. But this year the kudo of all kudos goes to the Film Forum's screening of A Face in the Crowd, with live appearances from Patricia Neal and Budd Schulberg as well as people from Piggott, Arkansas—a small town where the film was shot! What a coup.
BEST DVD REVIVAL White Dog. Finally.
OVERLOOKED ACTORS Hey there, Bruno Ganz in The Reader, Dennis Quaid in Smart People, the cast of Chop Shop, and the cast of Happy-Go-Lucky (but especially flamenco teacher Karina Fernandez and driving instructor Eddie Marsan). And here's to you, the kids of The Class and the kids of Slumdog Millionaire. And even you, superstar Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire. You're all appreciated! [Oh yes: The cast of Rachel Getting Married, and especially Bill Irwin.]
COMEBACKS Nice work, Debra Winger, Mickey Rourke, and Robert Downey, Jr. Stick around some, okay?
CURRY CEILING? Slumdog Millionaire is getting most of the Oscar buzz, yet it received no acting nominations.
MOST ENIGMATIC CHARACTER One thing I like about Snape in the Harry Potter series is that he's hard to fathom, hard to read. That's what I like about the character of Jamal's brother Salim in Slumdog Millionaire. He's a fascinating, surprisingly complex character.
STEALTH SUBPLOT Salim's story in Slumdog Millionaire leaves much—but perhaps not too much—to the imagination.
FAVORITE SMILE David Kross, as Michael Berg in The Reader has just the nicest smile, which Ralph Fiennes is then only barely able to muster as the older, jaded Michael.
THANKLESS ROLE Hey, Emily Blunt? You're finally off the hook this year! But there's hardly any replacing you....
BEST SEX The affair in The Reader is a great portrayal of a youthful sexual relationship. Until it turns out to be kinda problematic. Still, there are aspects of the relationship that are worth savoring—I mean, it's possible to have the fun without the Nazi past and the problematic age divide. Am I wrong to feel this way? Feel free to chastise me.
[WORST SEX The versatile Kate Winslet had the best sex in The Reader and the worst sex in Revolutionary Road. Life is like that sometimes. It has something to do with "chemistry," I think.]
BEST INTERLUDE The episode of Benjamin's dalliance with the swimmer in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a captivating sense of place and mood lacking elsewhere in the film.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ARTICLE OF CLOTHING The shiny green jacket adds tension and welcome humor to The Wrestler.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY UNDERGARMENTS Hands down, this special honor goes to Poppy's stockings and such in Happy-Go-Lucky, though Melissa Leo's undies also do honorable service in Frozen River.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A MARQUEE In an early 1970s scene in Milk, when the Castro is still "the old neighborhood," the marquee advertises The Poseidon Adventure. In the late 1970s, the marquee announces a Bette Davis double feature of Jezebel and All About Eve. What a difference the gays make!
BEST DECOR The fireman-fetishist's bedroom in The Wrestler. Kids' furnishing never looked so kinky—thank goodness!
MOST PAINFUL USE OF OFFICE EQUIPMENT The staple gun in The Wrestler beats the pulp out of The Joker's pencil in The Dark Knight.
MOST PAINFUL USE OF MUSIC Tie between Mamma Mia! and Rachel Getting Married. The saving grace about the music in the latter was the moment when Kym cries out for the guests to finally stop playing. There's no such moment in the former.
BEST WEDDING goes to Rachel Getting Married, despite the length. And music.
WORST WEDDING goes to Mamma Mia! despite the location.
WORST PUNCTUATION The exclamation point in Mamma Mia! should probably be an interrobang.
WORST SCREENING The sound was out-of-synch for about the first half-hour of Mamma Mia!—but even that didn't help this schlocky dud of a musical.
BEST THING I CAN SAY ABOUT MAMMA MIA! Aside from the setting being beautiful? Well, I think people are giving Pierce Brosnan too much of a hard time for his share in the Mamma-misery.
DUMBEST BEHAVIOR BY A CHARACTER WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER This could probably go to any number of characters in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but instead it's going to the police officer allowing the beating of Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire. I think he says he has better things to do—and I think he's right. If the movie has to have a beating to catch the audience's attention, then it should be better explained in the film or come from a gambler who has a stake in Jamal's success on the game show.
MOST CONFUSING ACCENT Sorry, Meryl Streep. You're one of the greatest, but in Doubt your accent varies too widely. So it goes—this (and your appearance in Mamma Mia!) only proves you're human.
SPIRIT OF ROBERT ALTMAN Jonathan Demme and Jenny Lumet for Rachel Getting Married.
MOST INCLUSIVE MOVIE Rachel Getting Married, of course. Except there probably wasn't a McCain supporter in the bunch!
BEST DEPICTION OF A MEDICAL CONDITION Anisa George, as Rachel's best-friend Emma in Rachel Getting Married, eats gluten-free.
MOST LIKE A YOUTH ORCHESTRA TOUR The Band's Visit captured the feeling of disorientation and limbo of passing through an unfamiliar area and briefly encountering the people there.
THEME I was going to say death, with poverty as a runner-up, but child abuse takes the prize this bleak movie year.
BEST ALTER-EGO Robert Downey, Jr. is a compelling Tony Stark in Iron Man.
ACHIEVEMENT IN SUPERHERO MOVIES Movies in the Marvel franchise seem to be referring to each other, bringing them a lot closer to what made the comic books so interesting and involving.
CHEAPASS THEORY In this major election year, the bleak themes indicated despair over the state of the world; the superhero movies reflected a fantastic wish to be saved from the despair.
OBSCURE TREND At least three movies (Wendy and Lucy, Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler) have scenes in which a protagonist sleeps in a car. Harbinger of things to come? And that's not even getting into the subject of those mobile homes....
MOVIE I WISH I'D SEEN I didn't take the time for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
INTERESTING USE OF MUSIC The soundtrack to Waltz with Bashir evokes Slaughterhouse-Five as well as—of all things—American Pop.
SHAYNA PUNIMIM Among others, I'm sure: Alison Pill in Milk and Zoe Kazan in Revolutionary Road. Broadway babies both!
LOGO Paramount made with buttons for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
END CREDITS The Bollywood number for Slumdog Millionaire.
BEST RECYCLING OF A TERRIBLE MOVIE Hello, Dolly in Wall-E.