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December and 2008 movie round-up

There is a slight outside chance that I will reduce my PVR queue tonight, but more likely my movie-watching program for the year is closed. Because I am unsure of whether to continue with this series in the next year at all, I’ve decided to depart from my standard M.O. and have the monthly overview posted now.

December’s list of watched movies that I’ve never seen before contained several of last year’s releases in American Gangster, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Michael Clayton and The Kingdom, slightly older Eragon and School of Rock, and one entry from the previous century, The Avengers.

Brief impressions, as always, are below. As an additional bonus, I am also listing all of my 47 first-seen movies for the year 2008, with my ratings and briefest of notes.

I watched American Gangster almost immediately after finishing up November with Scarface, hoping for an antidote to the disappointment about that one. Thankfully, it delivered. The movie features two of the best actors of the last couple decades or so, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and they both give their customarily outstanding performances. I’d rate the movie high just because of them. But it was also the overall portrayal of the environments in which the main characters operated that I found both powerful and authentic. And as I indicated in my reasons for disliking Scarface, I expect my crime boss to be ruthless and cunning, but I cannot see him as a drug-addict or maniac. Washington’s Frank Lucas is certainly my kind of a crime boss.

Another highlight of the program was Michael Clayton, an intelligent and well-acted corporate crime thriller. A couple of excellent performances in this movie as well, particularly by Tom Wilkinson whom I always seem to like. I admit that I’ve been a fan of George Clooney’s since his ER days and I am probably pre-disposed to receive a movie with him more positively than others. But I think this type of role is perfect for him – no romantic overtones, no calls for action-sequence prowess, just a conflicted smartass who is awfully good in his chosen field. As much as I enjoy his Danny Ocean turns and as I much as I cheered for his Oscar win as Bob Barnes in Syriana, I think Michael Clayton was the best Clooney that I’ve ever seen.

The Kingdom won me over with glimpses of life in Saudi Arabia. I have no idea how realistic they are, but in the absence of much other visual evidence, I found my fascination with foreign lands greatly influencing my appreciation of a movie set largely in a land that I only know about through the main-stream media. There are also a number of very poignant moments in this film, no least the two closing dialogues played out in parallel on both sides of the struggle, which express the exact same sentiment coming from “us” and from “them”. A lengthy gunfight in which none of our heroes – none of them trained commandos, as it were, – gets seriously injured but all of the bad guys are killed always look like an incredible stretch; an obvious run-up to someone on our side being downed when it looks like the fight is over is too cliché. There are a few minor things that detract from my regard for this movie otherwise.

I did not see the original Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth, but I liked the follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, well enough. I always enjoy a faithful period recreation. (I primarily mean it in terms of recreating the environment and the feel of the times; I don’t particularly begrudge the filmmakers dramatization – or otherwise “adaptation” – of the actual historic events.) Plus, Blanchett, Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush are all among the actors whom I regard quite high. Yet, something about this movie felt too sketchy, too self-possessed in admiration for scenery and costumes at the expense of the plot development. And I am not familiar enough with the Spanish Kings of that era, but the contraposition of the pathetically cartoonish King Philip against the fabulous Queen Elizabeth looked too allegorical all in itself.

Eragon was a bore. I like fantasy genre a lot, but when the story is formulaic in every aspect, I tend to lose interest. As far as I’ve gathered, the movie left a lot of the novel on which it based on out, so maybe that’s the reason it felt so uninspiring. Jeremy Irons – another actor whom I always enjoy watching perform – is a bit of a saving grace, but he inexplicably manages to cover the same distance as the flying dragon in about the same time ahorse, and then meets his death. That was with a good third of the movie still to happen… The ending could not shout any louder that there would be a sequel, but I doubt that there actually will be one.

I can see how people may like School of Rock, with some very funny scenes and the theme of a loser discovering ways to enrich his life and the lives of others. Unlike many other names mentioned herein, I am not really a fan of Jack Black’s, although I recognize that he did a pretty good job with this particular role. Still, the whole concept of exploiting children and lying to them for any personal gain is a premise that I find very hard to get over, no matter how fun the performances might be.

Finally, The Avengers. A number of good fun spoofs of the super-spy genre and stylish British stereotypes, anchored by scrumptious Uma Thurman and the definition-of-suave Ralph Fiennes, but overall it is just too silly. The plot reminded me of episodes of animated series that my kids like to watch (Kim Possible, for instance; yes, I occasionally cannot help but get involved in watching these with my girls). I’m pretty sure that it is meant to be more comedy than action, but it certainly fell flat for me.

That’s it for the year. I have a bunch of movies waiting for me for the next year, and quite a list to be on lookout for. If I decide to keep doing these reviews in 2009, you’ll hear all about them.

And now, the promised complete list of my first-seen experiences of the departing year.

2008 releases
Kung Fu Panda2008Great animation and fun story
Quantum of Solace2008An excellent new Bond
Sex and the City2008I’m a fan, sue me
Last year releases
3002007Remarkable graphic-book stylization
2 Days in Paris2007Neurotic love story; the setting does it for me
3:10 to Yuma2007Gritty western with an excellent Crowe
American Gangster2007Washington and Crowe shine
Elizabeth: The Golden Age2007Awesome costumes and sets
Evan Almighty2007I fail to see the point or even find good laughs
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer2007A couple of nice effects, but the story is boring
Hot Fuzz2007Great fun, brilliant Pegg
Live Free or Die Hard2007Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the action
Michael Clayton2007Intelligent thriller; best Clooney role
Ocean’s Thirteen2007Almost as good as the first installment; seriously entertaining
Run, Fatboy, Run2007Pegg is fun to watch, but the turn of events is unconvincing
Rush Hour 32007The formula got old
Shoot ‘Em Up2007Grotesquely over-the-top action; good turns from Owen and Giamatti
Stardust2007An instant favorite
The Kingdom2007Saudi setting helped overcome shortcomings
Also this decade
A Good Year2006A love story set in Provence is a winner in my book
A Scanner Darkly2006Pioneering animation, but not my cup of tea
Borat2006The singularly biggest waste of my time all year
Déjà Vu2006Suspenseful sci-fi anchored by Washington
Domino2005Watched it only for Knightley; not badly done in the mold of a Brit-caper, but somehow I was keen for it to end more than enjoying it
Eragon2006Formulaic and uninspiring fantasy
For Your Consideration2006Hilarious take on Hollywood buzz with a number of good performances
Hollywoodland2006Above-average Affleck performance and an interesting period piece overall
Hoodwinked2006Crisply scripted CGI animation
Lucky Number Slevin2006Superbly executed mob revenge story
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer2006It’s not often that you can almost smell what you see on-screen
School of Rock2003Moderate fun, but I cannot get behind the concept of using children for personal gain
The Good German2006Very good post-WWII stylization
The Incredibles2004One of the best animated movies ever and a strong candidate for one of the best superhero movies, animated or not
The Pursuit of Happyness2006Best Smith’s role
20th century
Blade Runner1982A bit too dark and illogical for me
Burnt by the Sun1994Easily the best movie I should have seen years ago
Casablanca1942Slightly disappointed with the acting of yesteryear, but I feel that it’s grown on me since I watched it early in the year
Chocolat2000Good story, excellent acting from Binoche
Full Metal Jacket1987Feels disjointed and lacking impact (which is not to say that it did not have impact 20 years ago)
Platoon1986I can see this movie’s impact in its time more clearly
Risky Business1983I was not impressed with either the story or the performances
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves1991It’s not great, but I like the title character too much
Scarface1983The emphasis on “shocking” makes it quite disappointing
Support Your Local Sheriff1969Good laughs, vintage Garner
The Avengers1998Some good British humour and spy-genre spoofs, but too silly overall
The Dirty Dozen1967At times, a brilliant war movie; not without faults
The Hunt for Red October1990Good Cold War thriller, slightly diminished by the Russian dialogues
Posted in Movies