The lead-up to the Oscars is prime season for catching up with movies. While the slate of Oscar nominated films isn’t a bad place to start, the Academy inevitably leaves something to be desired in the pictures it decides to honor.
Especially in a year in which the nominations are dominated by conservative, occasionally mind-numbing fare like Benjamin Button (“the central drama in this picture turns out to be Brad Pitt’s makeup,” one critic noted), it’s important to seek out the daring, diverse, and occasionally outlandish films that, in my opinion, have kept the pulse of cinema alive and well. With this objective in mind, here is my list of the most-deserving-to-be-recognized films of the past year. The envelope, please.
Billy the Kid
“I’m not black, not white, not foreign. Just different in the mind.” This documentary stars 15 year-old Billy Price, an eccentric, troubled, but endearing high school loner raised by his single mom in a rural Maine town. Billy was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, shortly after the filming of this documentary, and it’s apparent throughout the footage that there’s something different about him. What differentiates him above all else, though, is the articulateness and perceptiveness with which he communicates his thoughts on life. Billy’s aspirations aren’t all that different from any other boy his age – to make friends, play rock and roll, win the heart of a girl – but his earnest attempts and tentative success at meeting these challenges are a testament to the spirit of a kid who’s more than deserving of the spotlight. [Currently available on DVD.]
Trying to impress a girl friend with my open-mindedness and sensitivity, I mentioned that I had gone on my own to see this “chick flick,” only to be informed that she had also seen it and had walked out of the theater midway through. I still contend this is a must-see movie for anyone in their late 20’s and early 30’s bewildered by the world’s insistence on growing up and settling down. The work is directed by Mike Leigh, known for beginning his projects without a formal script and letting his films take form through his actors’ improvisations (a method perhaps best exemplified in his work Topsy-Turvy, one of my all-time favorite films). Sally Hawkins, an incredibly talented actress, flowers when given this freedom. Her performance has garnered her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical (but, alas, no Oscar nomination). The flamenco class scenes are classics that channel Lucille Ball. [Currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.]
Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Muscles from Brussels, delivers a startlingly candid performance in this film in which he plays himself. Having hit rock bottom in his personal and professional life, the action star returns to Belgium, where his bad luck continues after he stumbles into a bank heist. Despite being held hostage alongside other civilians, Van Damme becomes the police’s and press’s primary suspect, sparking mania in a country where the actor is apparently as close as you get to a national treasure. Not since Bloodsport will you have you cheered this hard for Van Damme. [Available on DVD in April.]
Let the Right One In
(“L†t den r„tte komma in”). I’m self-conscious about how much I hype this movie, my favorite of 2008. “A Swedish vampire movie?” You might ask. “Really?” Yet every person I’ve coerced into seeing this film has fallen in love. Twilight this is not. Director Tomas Alfredson draws on the horror and romance genres in a way reminiscent of what Guillermo del Toro did with the fantasy and war genres in Pan’s Labyrinth. The film was critically acclaimed internationally and managed to get limited release in the United States. Though it went unrecognized by the major awards shows, it didn’t go unnoticed by the studios – Cloverfield director Matt Reeves has been signed to write and direct an English language remake slated to be released in 2010. Don’t make the mistake of waiting for the inevitably inferior American version, though. This is the rare film that will leave you riveted days after the final credits role. [Available on DVD in March.]
Man on Wire
A documentary chronicling Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. The film is assembled from footage, still photographs, and reenactments of the event and its preparations, alongside modern-day interviews with the participants. I had the privilege of seeing Petit speak after a screening of the film, and he is just as compelling and frustratingly charming in person as he is in the film. What makes this movie so powerful is what goes unspoken. The incredible risk of the feat (which you can read on the faces of everyone but Petit) and the tragedy that was to occur at this location 27 years later converge in a moment of incredible and unexpected equanimity. Petit reclines on the wire midway between the towers, the world suddenly still. [Currently available on DVD.]
Rudy Giuliani. Biggie Smalls, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest. Doing drugs with your shrink. Losing your virginity beachside in Fire Island. If you grew up in New York in the 1990s, you’re practically obligated to see this movie. Josh Peck delivers a touching performance in his first leading role, playing a shy, frustrated teenager dealing pot, struggling with girls, and confronting all of life’s other big questions in the summer after graduating high school. If the film’s soundtrack doesn’t have you sold, then see it for the make-out scene with Ben Kingsley (yes, Gandhi) and Mary-Kate Olsen (yes, Full House). [Currently available on DVD.]
Waltz with Bashir
This animated documentary from Israel, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, revolves around a war veteran struggling to recover his lost memories of the Beirut massacre of 1982. The film is a powerful statement on genocide that ditches grandiose solemnity for the fragmented recollections of men who, decades after being thrown into the Lebanon War as mere boys, betray uncertainty about the roles they might have played in this tragedy. [Currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema.]
Though I can’t fairly include them on this list given the widespread recognition they’ve received from audiences and awards shows, I can’t help but give mention to Milk and The Wrestler. I was incensed when Sean Penn won the Oscar for Mystic River, a film rife with the over-acting for which I feel he’s far too often praised. But in his performance as politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk in Milk, Penn puts on a master class in acting that should earn him this year’s Oscar. The film is rounded out by a terrific supporting cast and studied but tender direction from indie legend Gus Van Sant, who succeeds in making the first great biopic in years that’s important without being self-important.
Penn’s main rival for the Oscar is Mickey Rourke, whose performance as beat-up and washed-up professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler is a Marlon Brando worthy site to behold. (Credit is also due to Marisa Tomei, whose scenes – let’s admit it, guys – go a long way towards convincing us that 44 is the new 24. George Costanza knew what he was doing after all.) I was surprised, however, to find myself leaving the theater just as impressed with the direction of Darren Aronofsky, who I had dismissed after bloated projects like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. The incredible final scene in The Wrestler (he dies?) is as beautifully composed as anything in Scorcese’s Raging Bull.