Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Best Films of 2008

1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Both a sensitive depiction of loneliness and a stinging rebuke of consumerism, WALL-E is an ambitious family film with plenty of humor and a cute-as-a-bug protagonist to amuse the kids and thougthfulness to engage adults. WALL-E is packed with physical comedy and sight gags as old as the silent films that provide inspiration for a hero in the tradition of Chaplin's Little Tramp. The sleek space-age design and graceful moments of quiet, such as a lovely robot dance among the stars, give comfort and peace from the heavy themes. WALL-E'S echo of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY--call it the second dawn of man--serves as a cunning tribute to Kubrick's film and an optimistic note for the future of slumbering mankind. Writer-director Andrew Stanton packages the fun and high-mindedness in dazzling ways to make WALL-E successful as popular entertainment for all ages and art that merits serious discussion.

2. THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

THE DARK KNIGHT upends the traditional view of the blockbuster as possessing all brawn and no brain. Director Christopher Nolan administers the visceral stimulation required of an action movie and contemplates the urgent questions regarding the use of power to combat evil and the importance of imagery in the fight. Heath Ledger's riveting turn as The Joker, a sociopath conducting fear experiments on the public for his anarchic amusement, provides a terrifying reminder that the social fabric can be easily torn.

3. WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

A simple story of a woman on the verge of losing everything, WENDY AND LUCY gains quiet power in how director Kelly Reichardt depicts the immediacy and peril in living day-to-day. As Wendy, a strapped young woman driving across the country in search of work with her dog her lone companion, Michelle Williams gives a heartbreaking performance. While the film deals Wendy the indignities of her economic situation, acts of decency and compassion provide the most stirring moments in a gorgeously photographed film.

4. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Jonathan Demme, 2008)

The challenge of a drug addicted past and family tensions in the present is beautifully elucidated in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. The handheld camerawork draws us into an intimate and suffocating look at what it can be like to hurt many people and desire redemption. The stylistic choice allows the camera to get close while having the freedom to wander within a confined setting, which is precisely the situation Anne Hathaway's Kym finds herself in. Director Jonathan Demme unfolds RACHEL GETTING MARRIED like a novel that gives the immersive experience of being in an environment. The wedding and reception scenes are, in a sense, superfluous to the main narrative, yet this multicultural celebration of community and family is precisely what Kym feels outside of even while in its midst.

5. FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 2007)

Provocateur Michael Haneke didn't need to remake his 1997 Austrian thriller, especially a decade later as an English-language clone, but as multiplex performance art FUNNY GAMES is a wickedly amusing joke on viewers not expecting a film to toy with them so mercilessly. Coming on the heels of the torture porn trend in horror movies and amid countless reality TV programs, the timing couldn't be better for Haneke's stern lecture decrying the audience's bloodlust and the phoniness and debasement passing for realism in pop culture. Uncomfortable yet ultimately exhilirating, FUNNY GAMES uses suggested violence, intense moralizing, and dark humor to jolt modern moviegoers into recognizing what we consume for entertainment and question whether it's edifying.

6. MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh, 2008)

It's clear from the beginning of the documentary MAN ON WIRE that French wirewalker Philippe Petit survived the forty-five minutes he spent performing on the cable strung between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers without a net or any safety measures, but knowing this doesn't diminish the tension. Director James Marsh employs a heist film's structure to lay out the specifics of how the high wire artist and his friends schemed to get to the top of the towers, let alone pull off this inconceivable feat. Recreated scenes, home movies, and photographs are expertly edited together to heighten the sense of daring and danger.

7. A CHRISTMAS TALE (UN CONTE DE NOËL) (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)

French auteur Arnaud Desplechin makes gloriously messy films about human interactions, so what better hothouse of domestic clashes is there for him to examine than the dysfunctional family Christmas movie? Featuring a who's who of France's finest actors, including Catherine Deneuve as the clan's matriarch and Desplechin surrogate Mathieu Amalric, A CHRISTMAS TALE unpacks a familial history of grudges, joys, disappointments, and fears that would keep a psychoanalyst busy for decades. For as brutally honest or supposedly truthful as the characters are with each other--with Desplechin it can be hard to discern between the real and the imagined--the airing of grievances is quite playful in tone and the director's inventive cinematic techniques.

8. TRANSSIBERIAN (Brad Anderson, 2008)

Emiliy Mortimer and Woody Harrelson find more adventure than they desired during a week-long trip aboard the Trans-Siberian Express in Brad Anderson's Hitchcockian thriller. TRANSSIBERIAN is a superb suspense film with plenty of intriguing developments to challenge the characters and keep viewers on the edges of their seats. As usual Mortimer is terrific playing a woman struggling to resist indulging her wild old ways as temptations and pressures mount.

9. DOUBT (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

Writer-director John Patrick Shanley's moral drama actively involves the viewer in assessing the truth of a nun's allegation of a priest. In DOUBT the truth gets tossed about like a kite on a blustery day. It shifts direction abruptly, is difficult to control, and gets battered in the process. However, Shanley's film is not an argument against doubt but a reasoned case for a healthy dose of skepticism to balance out faith, even if such thoughts are unsettling. DOUBT inspires more uncertainty than it resolves, but unquestionably it houses philosophical inquiries and top-notch acting from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis to mark it as a compelling piece of cinema.

10. AMERICAN TEEN (Nanette Burstein, 2008)

Nanette Burstein's sharply-felt documentary about Warsaw, Indiana high school seniors visits the hallways, bedrooms, and basements where the formative years are spent and finds things are not all that different regardless of when one is a teenager. The primary participants resemble their fictional teen movie analogues--Hannah, the artistically-minded outsider; popular mean girl Megan; Colin, the star basketball player in a hoops-mad community; and lovelorn band geek Jake--but are depicted with greater complexity than their central casting counterparts often receive. Burstein captures teenage angst and hope with such emotional potency that it is unlikely to make viewers wistful for a frequently idealized time in life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

2008 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (4 LUNI, 3 SAPTAMÂANI SI 2 ZILE) (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

Without a doubt this devastating portrait of a woman looking to get an illegal abortion in Romania during the 1980s is difficult to watch. Anamaria Marinca's searing performance anchors writer-director Cristian Mungiu's unblinking film, which confronts those on both sides of the issue with tough questions about personal freedom and legislated morality.

BE KIND REWIND (Michel Gondry, 2008)

Writer-director Michel Gondry sprinkles his affection for childlike imagination and handcrafted art throughout BE KIND REWIND, a fun and funny goof on backyard moviemaking. Gondry's intent is not to mock crude, no-budget creations but rather to pay tribute to the artistic spirit freed from commercial aspirations and demands. It's filmmaking as joyful activity and expression instead of a box office competition.

BLINDNESS (Fernando Meirelles, 2008)

Short of putting nothing but white on the screen, the desaturated visual conceit, which emphasizes white and gives the disorienting sensation of limited sight, is as close as the audience can get to experiencing what the characters in BLINDNESS live. Director Fernando Meirelles presents a grim vision of societal breakdown and a survival situation in which most people are susceptible to their worst impulses, but the dynamic style makes the unpleasant content more palatable.

ELEGY (Isabel Coixet, 2008)

Ben Kingsley's commitment-phobic college professor falls harder than he thought possible for Penelope Cruz as his younger student in this moving study of love and aging. Kingsley brings out the complexity in a man whose intellectual curiosity is matched only by his disinterest in deeply knowing the women he beds, but it's Cruz's performance, which transcends the object of desire role, that brings meaning to ELEGY.


The title of Werner Herzog's documentary refers to his experiences while visiting Antarctica and ruminations on the planet's demise. In ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD Herzog alternates between astonishment and curiosity at the weird and wonderful people, creatures, and landscapes he sees and resignation about the potential for mankind to ruin it all. On the whole the nature footage is impressive, but the strange, beautiful world revealed in the underwater photography is so stunning that it produces feelings of rapture.

IRON MAN (Jon Favreau, 2008)

Director Jon Favreau populates IRON MAN with actors more accustomed to prestige pictures than summer blockbusters, but the choices pay off with richer performances across the board. Quick with a quip and projecting a reckless air, Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as an intelligent and wealthy ladies' man with self-destructive impulses. His low-key line readings bring a lot of humor to his interactions with his human and robot counterparts. As Stark's loyal assistant Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow lends quiet grace and value to what might otherwise have been an unremarkable Girl Friday part. Favreau forges a strong film through the combination of character development and comedy with the explosions and impressive special effects expected during the the big movie season.

MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Biographical films can feel like museum pieces, but Gus Van Sant's blending of archival footage and meticulous period recreation in MILK brings to life a vibrant community ready to boil over from the pressure put upon them. As a case study of political mobilization, MILK provides an intriguing look inside one man's conquering of the system. While the director puts his distinctive stamp on the material, MILK is an actor's picture. Penn's riveting performance captures Milk's complexity. Milk never apologizes for who he is, and it's Penn's looseness in the role that rounds out his acting and allows him to inhabit the character rather than impersonate the man.

THE ORDER OF MYTHS (Margaret Brown, 2008)

For all of the grand statements about what the election of Barack Obama means about current racial attitudes in America, THE ORDER OF MYTHS provides an example of one practice that shows how much work remains. This documentary about Mobile, Alabama's still-segregated Mardi Gras celebrations examines how people hold onto traditions. Director Margaret Brown resists playing gotcha as she challenges those who prefer to cling to mindsets that value the past while destroying the present and future.

PARANOID PARK (Gus Van Sant, 2007)

Merging his experimental impulses with a more accessible story (or at least something with the semblance of a plot), Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle paint the inner life of a teenage skateboarder in the grays and blues of confusion, guilt, and alienation. Where MILK found the director focusing on a man attempting to be larger than himself, PARANOID PARK stares at a kid who finds himself wishing he could be so small as to be invisible.

PRICELESS (HORS DE PRIX) (Pierre Salvadori, 2006)

Audrey Tautou sparkles as a gold digger teaching Gad Elmaleh the ways of seduction for profit in PRICELESS. Although more risque than classic Hollywood romantic comedies, this French charmer is a throwback to glamour, graceful physical comedy, and sexually-charged battle of wits.

REDBELT (David Mamet, 2008)

Mixed martial arts and David Mamet may not seem made for each other, but both concentrate on hitting hard, whether with hands and feet or words. Physical and verbal combat come into play in the twisty tale of an honorable jiujitsu instructor played by Chiwitel Ejiofor. The venue may seem an unlikely one for Mamet, but it's an apt setting for the corrupting influene of commercialism upon art and principle.

SNOW ANGELS (David Gordon Green, 2007)

Although the interweaving stories of burgeoning and disintegrating love in SNOW ANGELS display trappings of suburban hell films, writer-director David Gordon Green embraces the characters in his rurally located movie rather than keeping them at arm's length with snarkiness and irony. Viewing these often unlikeable people with empathy, and sometimes humor, instead of judgment and condescension makes all the difference in what could have otherwise been a miserabilist tour of a rocky relationship landscape. In retracing the steps that led to tragedy, Green and lead actor Sam Rockwell provide the context rarely found in news reports or fictional films about common misfortunes. SNOW ANGELS can painfully burrow into one's heart, but such is the cost of empathy, or any human connection for that matter.

TELL NO ONE (NE LE DIS À PERSONNE) (Guillame Canet, 2006)

Films in the Hitchcock mold one of my favorite things, and this French suspense movie does not disappoint. Well-acted by François Cluzet as the prototypical "wrong man", a doctor suspected of murdering his wife and possibly others, and smoothly directed by Guillaume Canet, TELL NO ONE artfully delivers pulpy thrills.

THE WRESTLER (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

While director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel's tour of the small-time wrestling circuit is enlightening, THE WRESTLER'S greater value comes as a portrait of aging via Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei's powerhouse performances. Rourke wears the physical and emotional scars of a man beaten for a living who continues to revel in what he does. Rourke's portrayal of the titular wrestler peels back the qualities people like about the character beyond his signature move. Tomei's naked performance, in every sense of the word, demonstrates how her fortysomething stripper is in charge of what she does yet ultimately draws her worth from the eyes of strangers. Both characters are sacrifices who give themselves up for the pleasure of others. Randy isn't nicknamed The Ram for nothing. Through the moving and observant performances, THE WRESTLER pins down the human cost of these professions.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On guilty pleasures

Wednesday a student was talking to me about anticipating that night's LOST season premiere while also expressing that the show must be a guilty pleasure. I was surprised that such a complex and popular program would get the guilty pleasure tag because the well-reviewed and highly-rated series is not the sort of disreputable entertainment normally associated with the term.

Then again, despite plentiful references to old philosophers and decades of popular culture, LOST'S science fiction and fantasy trappings banish it to dwell in the valley of genre rather than the hilltops of high art. As tends to get ingrained in us at an early age, if something is entertaining and accessible, it must be lightweight and can't be taken seriously. Difficult art that is less pleasing to the senses--stuff that feels like work to consume or is emotionally oppressive--has heft and merit.

In other words, fun is equated to the unserious and pleasures of the flesh and unpleasant means intellectual rigor. Certainly there is some truth in the thinking that pleasant, easy-to-watch fare lacks substance and skill and more demanding works display greater smarts and artistry, but intelligence, enjoyment, and craftsmanship are not (and should not be) mutually exclusive.

Two of 2008's most gratifying, thoughtful, and proficient films were entertainments for the masses in the forms of an animated children's comedy and a comic book action movie. Presumably "low" films like WALL-E and THE DARK KNIGHT may not have the sheen of high art--heavens, what self-respecting "important" movie would have frivolous ancillary products?--but existential explorations of loneliness and the limits of power thrive underneath their slick surfaces.

(While this blog entry is not intended as an indictment of yesterday's Academy Award nominations, that body tends to reinforce attitudes which consider prestige, somberness, and superficial seriousness more worthy of praise. The vacuous awards bait that is THE READER stands as the most egregious example.)

As a mass media consumer and critic I try to remain open to the potential of spotting artistic value in all films (or TV shows, books, music, etc.), whether the object appears to be studio schlock or art-damaged obscurity. So I don't put stock in the concept of guilty pleasures. I like what I like, and I don't feel as though it is necessary (or productive) to apologize for those preferences. Calling something a guilty pleasure only tends to marginalize it more.

Plus, when most people claim to reveal their pop culture guilty pleasures, they don't appear to feel any guilt about liking those things. Maybe there are shades of embarrassment in admitting these likes--the tough guy who enjoys romantic comedies or the literature professor with a weakness for Rob Schneider movies, for example--but guilt doesn't factor in.

Not that I'm going to change the dialogue, but I'd like to rename so-called guilty pleasures with the more precise label of disreputable favorites. All right, so that won't fit as easily on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or roll off the tongue as smoothly, but in my mind "disreputable favorites" describes what is meant when people talk about guilty pleasures. It's the stuff that mass audiences reject, critics pan, and cultural stereotypes proclaim we shouldn't appreciate yet we find ourselves enjoying anyway.

I say it's time to stop feeling guilty and start embracing the disreputable.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Worst Films of 2008

There's value in observing what makes films successful and what makes them fail. Sometimes it's easier to learn from bad movies than it is from the good ones. Explaining what works can be more difficult to pin down than spotting the techniques that lead to cinematic disaster.

There's value in finding what you like, what you don't like, and why you have those likes and dislikes. I'm an introspective sort anyway, so to me it's helpful to understand why certain things speak to me and other things don't.

High-mindedness aside, if I wasn't a critic, I would not have subjected myself to most of the films making my worst list, but I believe there is an obligation to keep up with what's out there, even if that means visiting the dregs of the cinema.

1. COLLEGE (Deb Hagan, 2008)

Although COLLEGE has its roots in raucous higher education comedies, what it really wants to be is SUPERBAD minus the affection for the characters. COLLEGE double majors in raunch and degradation of the trio of high school friends and actors portraying them. It's humiliation as career move for former Nickelodeon star Drake Bell and squeaky clean AMERICAN IDOL finalist Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais. The filmmakers are all too happy to dish out the indignity. For as much disdain that COLLEGE possesses for its characters and actors, it is equally as contemptuous of its audience. Nudity and vulgar depictions of hard partying and hazing are apparently all COLLEGE thinks viewers want. Original or funny jokes don't matter. Being offensive is one thing; COLLEGE makes you feel dirty for having watched it.

2. MEET THE SPARTANS (Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, 2008)

MEET THE SPARTANS, a feature-length parody of 300, isn't terribly different from VH-1's BEST WEEK EVER, except for the lack of self-conscious irony and smugness. It stands above (or below) the culture and takes potshots at easy targets. The triumvirate of celebrity bad girls are mocked, Spartans are totally gay for each other, and reality TV judges are self-absorbed clowns. Burn! Writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have made a career out of pop culture-mocking time capsules with exceedingly short shelf lives. Maybe there wouldn't be anything so wrong with the disposability of their movies if they were funny.

3. ZOMBIE STRIPPERS (Jay Lee, 2008)

Like so many exploitation movies, the title ZOMBIE STRIPPERS is more enjoyable and memorable than the actual product. Unsurprisingly ZOMBIE STRIPPERS is poorly acted, written, directed, edited, and lit, but it is so tedious to watch that this might be the first movie that would be improved if Uwe Boll were calling the shots. At least the oft-derided director would have dropped the pretense of shoehorning in political subtext in an attempt to bring class to such a trashy film.

4. AN AMERICAN CAROL (David Zucker, 2008)

Writer-director David Zucker has been coasting for a long time on early career, exclamation point-punctuated creative successes (AIRPLANE!, TOP SECRET!, and POLICE SQUAD!), so objections to his latest so-called comedy are not primarily political. He hasn't made anything worthwhile since THE NAKED GUN, and AN AMERICAN CAROL'S recycled silliness keeps him on the schneid. Sure, jokes based on meager Republican talking points don't do the film any favors, mainly because putting ideology first is rarely funny. As unworthy of debate as the film's flimsy grandstanding is, AN AMERICAN CAROL isn't particularly inflammatory except for a tasteless invocation of 9/11. Reasonable people can disagree about issues facing the nation, but AN AMERICAN CAROL'S comedy style and politics are sorely missing that kind of thoughtfulness.

5. NOBEL SON (Randall Miller, 2007)

The nasty, self-satisfied NOBEL SON comes straight from the mold of mid- to late-1990s Tarantino imitations dominating video store shelves. Like so many of its theatrical and direct-to-video brethren, NOBEL SON is fueled by perceived cleverness rather than actual wit and innovation. Lots of "style" is imposed with little effect on this glib exercise in plot convolutions and hateful characters.

6. THE WOMEN (Diane English, 2008)

MURPHY BROWN creator and THE WOMEN writer-director Diane English aspires to present strong women, but this miserable lot come off as fragile, helpless, and sorely lacking an arsenal of witty retorts that their counterparts in the 1939 original possessed. Rather than a funny, empowering look at modern females, THE WOMEN serves laughless reinforcement of many of the old stereotypes.

7. MAX PAYNE (John Moore, 2008)

A video game adaptation slathered with action scenes and film noir atmospherics might sound like potentially brainless fun, but the mind-numbing repetition, emotionless performances, and needlessly complicated plot make MAX PAYNE earn a title promising extreme suffering.

8. MAMMA MIA! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

In a classic example of mistranslating material from stage to screen, first-time movie director Phyllida Lloyd calls for her actors to deliver broad performances that reach the last row of the auditorium. For a medium dominated by close-ups, and a shot selection Lloyd often favors, the over-the-top acting style quickly becomes overbearing. Usually it is a joy to watch Meryl Streep practicing her craft, but in MAMMA MIA! it's embarrassing to see her mugging and flouncing about like a skittish teenager. ABBA's songs are as insanely catchy as always, perhaps maddeningly so, but if that's all MAMMA MIA! has to offer, one would be better served by their greatest hits CD than the mostly amateur hour singing in the film.

9. DISASTER MOVIE (Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, 2008)

Friedberg and Seltzer's DISASTER MOVIE is their "better" 2008 parody, meaning that they provided a more solid framework for stringing together sketches and I actually laughed a few times. Hip fave-turned-backlash recipient JUNO takes a few well-deserved licks, but other than that it's the same old toothless humor that might be called juvenile if the film could reach the intellectual standard of playground taunts.

10. FOUR CHRISTMASES (Seth Gordon, 2008)

Apparently Hollywood believes nothing gets folks into the holiday spirit like movies about how much scorn people deserve. CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS, SURVIVING CHRISTMAS, and DECK THE HALLS are some examples with little to no good will toward men or filmmaking prowess. (At least the crude and misanthropic BAD SANTA has the charity to donate laughs.) This joyless affair with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as family-avoiding grinches employs Christmas gatherings more for MEET THE PARENTS-like possibilities, but whatever the aim, FOUR CHRISTMASES couldn't be more unappealing in spirit and cinematography.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

7th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

Here's the press release I sent to publicize the Central Ohio Film Critics Association 2008 awards:
WALL·E collects top prize in 7th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

(Columbus, January 8, 2009) Andrew Stanton's WALL·E was named Best Film in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association’s 7th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2008. The film also won two other awards, including Best Screenplay-Original (Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon) and Best Animated Film. Stanton was runner-up for Best Director.

The Dark Knight, which finished fourth on the Best Film list, was awarded three prizes: Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger), Best Ensemble, and Best Cinematography (Wally Pfister). Ledger’s win marks the third time COFCA has honored the actor. He won 2005’s Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work) and Best Lead Performance for that year’s Brokeback Mountain.

Other multiple award winners include Slumdog Millionaire, Frozen River, and The Wrestler. Best Film runner-up Slumdog Millionaire claimed Best Director (Danny Boyle) and Best Screenplay-Adapted (Simon Beaufoy). Frozen River’s two awards went to Melissa Leo for Best Actress and Breakthrough Film Artist. Frozen River placed third on the Best Films list. Best Actor Mickey Rourke and Best Supporting Actress Marisa Tomei pinned down two awards for The Wrestler, which ranked seventh in COFCA’s Top 10.

Other individual winners include: Actor of the Year Robert Downey Jr. for his exemplary work in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s Alexandre Desplat for Best Score.

Other honored films include: Man on Wire for Best Documentary; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) for Best Foreign Language Film; and Ghost Town for Best Overlooked Film.

Founded in 2002, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association is comprised of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio and the surrounding areas. Its membership consists of more than 25 print, radio, television, and new media critics. COFCA's official website at contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on January 8.

Complete list of awards:

Best Films
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Frozen River
4. The Dark Knight
5. Frost/Nixon
6. Milk
7. The Wrestler
8. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
10. In Bruges

Best Director
-Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
-Runner-up: Andrew Stanton, WALL·E

Best Actor
-Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
-Runner-up: Sean Penn, Milk

Best Actress
-Melissa Leo, Frozen River
-Runner-up: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Best Supporting Actor
-Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
-Runners-up (tie): Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt and Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Supporting Actress
-Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
-Runner-up: Misty Upham, Frozen River

Best Ensemble
-The Dark Knight
-Runner-up: Slumdog Millionaire

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man and Tropic Thunder
-Runner-up: James Franco, Milk and Pineapple Express

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Melissa Leo, Frozen River (for acting)
-Runner-up: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River (for directing and screenwriting)

Best Cinematography
-Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
-Runner-up: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Screenplay – Adapted
-Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
-Runner-up: Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon

Best Screenplay – Original
-Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, WALL·E
-Runner-up: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

Best Score
-Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
-Runner-up: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Documentary
-Man on Wire
-Runner-up: American Teen

Best Foreign Language Film
-4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile)
-Runner-up: Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

Best Animated Film
-Runner-up: Kung Fu Panda

Best Overlooked Film
-Ghost Town
-Runner-up: RocknRolla

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

Previous Best Film winners:

2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men
2007: No Country for Old Men

For more information about the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, please visit or e-mail

Monday, January 05, 2009

Marley & Me

MARLEY & ME (David Frankel, 2008)

In MARLEY & ME newlyweds John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) welcome a cuddly bundle of joy into their home only to discover that it's more than they can handle. The feisty puppy that grows into an untamed dog named Marley wrecks their house but wins their hearts.

John's humorous stories about his troublesome yellow Labrador earn him a promotion from the mundane metro beat to a newspaper column, but writing about canine hijinks isn't what he expected of his career.

No one is going to mistake MARLEY & ME for Bergman, but the deft touch with which it addresses spouses' and parents' professional and personal trade-offs proves this to be a more substantial and poignant picture than expected for what appears to be merely a cute dog movie. It is that and something more.

The film is a surprisingly nuanced study of marriage, suburban family life, and deferred dreams. MARLEY & ME and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, Sam Mendes' better pedigreed, angst-ridden drama about a dissatisfied couple in the 1950s, are different sides of the same coin. Where REVOLUTIONARY ROAD believes the suburbs crush hopes, MARLEY & ME discovers that unexpected joy can be found in a life that doesn't completely resemble one's youthful visions of adulthood. Such an affirming message isn't exactly earth-shattering, although it is more novel in the movies, where suburbia is frequently equated to hell.

Don't think MARLEY & ME is too serious, though. This is a relatable and entertaining film that laughs knowingly at one dog's mischief-making and the owners growing accustomed to him. Wilson and Aniston are funny and real as their characters cope with life's ups and downs. As John's crusty editor Arnie, Alan Arkin is a reliable source of dry wit, and Eric Dane provides an amusing contrast as the carefree, rising star reporter John wishes he had the freedom to be.

John and Jennifer don't realize how attached they will become to their dog. It's appropriate then that MARLEY & ME has the same effect on the viewer.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 01, 2009

A new beginning

It's been some time since I last posted here. I won't bother going into the details of a blogging sabbatical that I didn't intend to take. For one thing, the reasons are mostly mundane.

If anything, this entry is here to inform you that I have not fallen off the face of the earth and that I am still reviewing films, even though most of what I have written has not migrated to the web in recent months. Those backlogged reviews may or may not appear here. It depends if I get around to it.

If there's one thing that 2008 taught film critics, it's that you better be doing it because you love it. Many critics found themselves laid off and nudged (or pushed) into early retirement last year. Considering the financial health of the nation's newspapers, the forecast for this year isn't any brighter for those seeking to making a living writing about the cinema.

To be sure, I have not been affected as the film criticism I do has not been for pay. I've been fortunate to incorporate a movie review program into my job. Film critic duties are not my in the job description, though, which is why I don't really consider myself a professional even though I've been at it since 1997.

Or maybe it's just my weird way of looking at it. After all, in 2008 I did get my first check for writing a 100-word blurb for The Nashville Scene. For all of the words I've written, it was that minor piece that provided a sense of accomplishment and has probably been read by more people than anything else I've done.

Now that a new year is here, it's time to make a fresh start. I'm still digging through awards consideration screeners and finalizing my best and worst of 2008 lists. I hope to begin posting those lists within the next week. I have some other ideas for things I'd like to write about here on a regular basis, but for now I need to hold myself to getting content up consistently instead of promising new features.

The majority of my traffic comes from searches and review aggregate sites. Those visitors will never come across entries like this, so to those who've been stopping by expecting something new, thanks for being patient and maintaining an interest. Things should be picking up here again.