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The Best of far

Now that 2008 is almost half over (or half begun for you optimistic types), I decided to reflect back on what I've seen in the theatres this year and compile a list of my favorites. I will concede that compared to 2007's releases (a year for the ages--There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, I'm Not There, Eastern Promises, Darjeeling Limited, etc) 2008 is a bit thin on masterpieces and strong turnouts from established directors. We'll see what the 2nd half of the year brings. For now: David Mamet's Redbelt has hands down been the best time I've had at the movies this year. The simple plot falls somewhere between Le Samourai (or its American cousin Ghost Dog) and Karate Kid: an honor bound jujitsu instructor is constantly challenged by the conniving people who populate the instable and immoral world around him. There are a few twists and surprises along the way, but the driving force behind the film is definitely the performance of star Chiwetel Eijofor and the numerous and wonderful supporting cast (including the briefest appearance of Ed O'Neil!). Surprisingly not as "talky" as one would expect a Mamet film to be, there are large sections of the film where the soundtrack is just the pounding rhythms of Japanese drums (taiko?) Some suspension of disbelief is required of the viewer to accept the universe in which the movie exists, but if you allow yourself to live there for an hour and half, hopefully viewers will find the end [this could be considered a non-specific spoiler] as triumphant and awesome as I did. It was a feeling comparable to the one in Return of the King in which king Aragorn tells the kneeling hobbits, "My friends, you bow to no-one." And then the entire kingdom bows to the two diminutive heroes. Gets me every time. While the universe of Redbelt may be a moral fantasy, the implied reality of Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure is a moral nightmare. One minute into Standard Operating Procedure I was immediately reminded as to why Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers. His documentaries look and feel like nothing else. They are well-made films, not simply talking heads and B-roll such as the majority of agit-prop docs that play week-in and week-out around town. Morris' films don't necessarily propose some truth or absolute, but rather explore the nature of reality and humanity. The enigmatic center of this film is the infamous events at Abu Ghraib and the photos that have come to define them. Intimate interviews are cut with the actual photos (more than we ever saw on the evening news), camcorder footage, artful graphics and newly filmed "re-creations" in a style typical of Morris (lots of slow-motion, repeating images, and macro-focus). The end result is a double-whammy: between the routine de-humanization at Abu Ghraib and the effective military/media use of a limited group of photos to represent what was in fact a complex situation, the truth slithers away. The question is raised, if it wasn't photographed, did it happen? Or how about: where was the line between standard operating procedure and prisoner abuse? What can these photos really tell us? While it's clear that Morris believes those charged were scapegoated and further investigation is needed, his documentary never browbeats or spoon feeds its messages to the audience. It has a timeless quality that will make it relevant to viewers long after the evildoers at Abu Ghraib are brought to justice (whether in this life or the next). Speaking of justice, some might consider vengeance a form of making things right. My third favorite film of the year (so far) is a quiet little indie called Shotgun Stories, a rural Southern family feud story. It covers some of the same thematic ground as Cronenberg's History of Violence (vengeance, cyclical violence, and their intergenerational transmission), but in a far different style. Where History is cast in comic book Americana, Shotgun Stories is all rolling wheat fields, custom vans parked by the river, and salt of the earth drinking cans of Miller on a creaky porch. And while History sought to shock and entertain with its mix of extreme violence and classic Hollywood style, Shotgun Stories is far more contemplative and quiet, shot in a simple style with long lingering shots that sometimes depict nothing more than the aforementioned porch front idyll. Populated with many non-actors, some of the line delivery is a bit stiff and the pacing awkward. But before any particular element of the movie could wear thin on me, it was over, and with an intellectually satisfying conclusion to boot. It's far from perfect, but it's vastly superior to a lot of films, independent and commercial, that have been released this year. As a runner up I will mention briefly Oliver Assaya's Boarding Gate. It seems to take place in the same universe as Assaya's earlier films Demonlover and Irma Vep. A multi-national melange of intrigue, double agents, double crossings, sex slavery (!), and sleazy business men. While I'm not sure of what the movie's intention was, I can say I enjoyed it. Asia Argento is the suitably trashy (action!) star, a feisty call-girl caught up in a web of deceit that involves an impotent and masochistic Michael Madsen and a Cantonese-speaking entrepreneur played by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. As with other Assayas films, the plot becomes muddier and muddier and style, surrealism, and extremely stylized characters come to the forefront. Oh, and I suppose Iron Man was a pretty good summer movie. If you had told me a year ago I would enjoy Iron Man more than the new Indiana Jones, I would have laughed, but here we are... What's next? The Dark Knight?! Pineapple Express?! We'll see what 2nd half of 2008 can deliver. Anyone out there? What are your favorites so far this year? What are you most looking forward to?