Top 10 films of 2008

•April 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

A third of 2009 is already over, and I still haven’t posted my top 10 films of 2008.
In a way it’s a good thing, because it gave me a bit more time to think things over and see which films really stayed with me.
It’s a really hard list to come up with and it keeps changing in my mind all the time, but this is it for now.

1. Dark Knight

2008 belonged to Dark Knight. It’s the #1 film in the box office and it’s the only film I saw more than once in the theater. Christopher Nolan has crafted what is probably the best superhero movie ever made. It’s rich, dark, beautiful, exciting and it got better with each viewing.

2. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s film is an intense character study with an amazing performance by Mickey Rourke. It’s a really touching film about a dreamer who continues to dream no matter what the consequences are, a theme that I find particularly appealing.

3. The Good, The Bad, and The Weird

Kim Ji Woon’s loving tribute to Sergio Leone and Italian Spaghetti westerns is the best action film to have come out of Asia in years. A must see for any fan of action cinema or Asian cinema.

4. Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Uli Edel’s political thriller/biopic is rich and ambitious. It’s a complex film that one has to see and form their own opinion about. Definitely one of the most thought provoking films of the year.

5. Wanted

Timur Bekmambetov’s film might be a bit too angsty and angry for it’s own good, but it’s an energetic and highly original action film. To me, one of the most entertaining films of the year and the biggest surprise of the year. (I didn’t think I was going to like it that much).

6. Frost/Nixon

Best “Oscar Season” film, and one of Ron Howard’s best films overall. It’s amazing to see Howard and the actors create such a rich and multi layered film with what seems to be so little.

7. Forever The Moment/The Chaser
OK, I’m cheating and including two very different films in one ranking, but it’s just to show that 2008 has been a bit of a comeback for Korean cinema. Both of these are very different and amazing in their own way. Forever The Moment is an intelligent and moving sports drama that stands out because it chooses to focus on the humanity of it’s characters and the situation. The Chaser is an original and intense serial killer thriller with an amazing performance by Kim Yun Seok (whom I always liked, ever since his turn as the popcorn munching detective in the TV show Resurrection)

8. CJ7/The Way We Are

Cheating again. Not the best year for HK films, but there were a few standouts.
CJ7 might have disappointed a lot of Stephen Chow’s fans, but I found it charming and lovingly made.
The Way We Are is moving in it’s honest and humane depiction of day to day life of the lower class in HK.

9. Everlasting Moments

Powerful Swedish drama about the liberating power of photography (and film making). Precision film making by veteran Swedish director Jan Troell

10. Waltz With Bashir

As with Baader Meinhof Komplex this is a problematic film that will certainly anger and divide film goers, it’s also an important film that has to be seen. Certainly the most meaningful Israeli film of the year.

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Some more notes:
Ip Man is out of the list because I only saw it in 2009.

Red Cliff is out too because I haven’t watched it (Still keeping fingers crossed for a screening on film some where in the LA area).

Jean Francois Richet’s Mesrine films are not in the list because I just caught them at the colcoa film festival, but are already a major contender for best film(s) of 2009 for me.

Both Changeling and Gran Torino deserve to be on the list. Not entirely sure why they are not there.

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Surprisingly absent are Japanese films. I guess it wasn’t the best of year for Japanese cinema – or maybe I made some wrong choices.

CJ7 - You gotta love the little guy!

CJ7 - You gotta love the little guy!

The Way We Are (2008)

•December 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I still remember how I first got into Hong Kong Cinema in the early 90’s. Cable TV was just starting out in Israel and we weren’t subscribers, but we could get the split screen that shows you what goes on in different channels. I used to leave that running on the background just to listen to the songs from MTV. I remember one day MTV Europe had their “Cult Corner” on and they were talking about HK movies. I stopped what I was doing and took a look at the TV. MTV Europe occupied the lower left square of the split screen. They showed two clips, one was the famous scene on the beach with Chow Yun Fat spotting the assassin sent to kill him by seeing the reflection in his sunglasses. The second clip was from Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers, the one where CYF bounces his gun with his leg to shoot an army of henchmen. Needless to say I was completely in love. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. I had to turn the city upside to get a copy of The Killer and it is still one of my very favorite films of all times.

That was when my obsession with HK cinema started. It was before DVD’s and I could only get what was available in Europe in PAL format. I was so obsessed that at one time I wrote a letter to the head of Golden Princess asking for copies of Bullet in The Head and City on Fire. Strangely enough the complied and sent me copies which I still have to this very day. They remind me that if you are stubborn enough and really want something you can be creative about it and accomplish it.

Fast forward about 15 years later. Who would have thought that the HK film industry will shrink to about a tenth of it’s size in the early 90’s, and that my favorite film of 2008 isn’t going to be a testosterone heavy gangster melodrama, but The Way We Are – Ann Hui’s beautifully realized love song to the lives of simple people in HK.

The Way We Are follows the lives of Sister Kwai, a hard working middle aged woman who lives in the huge housing estates of Tin Shui Wai. The film follows her life and her relationships with her slacker (but kind hearted son), her brothers (who are more well off), and her neighbor, an elderly lonely woman whose daughter past away.

I’m sure it was really tempting for the film makers to let the film become an all out depressing meditation about life’s difficulty for blue collar workers and their families, but Hui chooses a different route. She chooses to just follow it’s characters and show their lives in the most realistic way possible, the joys and the pains. The result is a realistic portrayal of the life of the low middle class in Hong Kong, and while some will argue that not too much happens in the movie, if you open your mind and your heart to it you will be rewarded with one of the most moving films I’ve seen in a while.

Hui has made many films in her 30 years career, she is one of the true veterans of the HK film industry. With this film she is adapting to the new reality of HK cinema. It’s a very low budget film, shot on DV with non professional actors. Sometimes from limitations rises greatness and this is certainly one of those cases. Watching a film like this gives me hope that HK film makers will continue to find ways to make good cinema and that a revival is only a matter of time. The heydays of CYF and John Woo will probably never return, but something different and exciting in it’s own way might still emerge from the HK film industry.

Buying a new TV at a local electronics store

Buying a new TV at a local electronics store

Struggling together with a piece of Durian

Struggling together with a piece of Durian

The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008)

•November 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I finally managed to catch this film last weekend at the AFI film festival. I’m a huge fan of Kim Ji Woon’s A Bittersweet Life, so my expectations for his followup were sky high. The good news is that the film kicks ass! Not only did it not disappoint me, but it pretty much exceeded my expectations. This is one of the very best action/adventure films of recent years and should not be missed by anyone, least of all fans of Asian cinema.

I would even venture to say that this is the most accomplished Asian action film since John Woo’s last Hong Kong film, Hard Boiled. The movie is pretty much action packed from start to finish and each scene is lovingly constucted with immense skill, creativity and energy.

The plot revolves around three gunslingers in 1930’s Manchuria. The Weird (Song Kang Ho in a show stealing performance) unwittingly acquires a treasure map in a “routine” train robbery which triggers a chain of events that involves a ruthless assassin (The Bad – Lee Byung Hun who has never looked cooler), an honorable gunflghter (The Good – Jung Woo Sung , who doesn’t quite hold his own with the other two, but still manages to crank out an enjoyable performace), a gang of Chinese mercenaries and a battalion of the Japanese army. Everyone is after the map without even know the true nature of the treasure.

Everything about Kim’s film oozes cool. From the rich and colorful environments and constumes, to the uniquely designed weaponry. Kim just gets better and better with each film. I liked The Quiet Film, loved A Tale of Two Sisters, completely fell in love with A Bittersweet Life, and I am all out crazy for this latest outing of his.

Kim’s film is not just about cool and good looks (although those play a big part). The story, while simple, is also engaging and entertaining and balances perfectly between comedy and intensity, mainly thanks to the presence of Song Kang Ho who continues to prove that he is one of the most versatile stars in Korean cinema.

I’m pretty sure many international territories will pick up the right to this film, so hopefully many film fans out there will be exposed to it’s magic. Just when you think the Korean wave is dead a film like this comes along and reminds you that Korea is still a cinema powerhouse. In fact 2008 has been a much better year for Korean films and I can name at least 5 films that I thought were very good to excellent. (Among them are Forever the Moment and The Chaser, the latter was also screened at AFI fest).

I’ll stop gushing. The movie is fantastic and I can’t wait to watch it again.

Song Kang Ho - The Weird

Song Kang Ho - The Weird

Lee Byung Hun - The Bad

Lee Byung Hun - The Bad

Jung Woo Sung - The Good

Jung Woo Sung - The Good

Body of Life/Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

•November 1, 2008 • Leave a Comment

What do these two movies have in common? They are the films no one saw. Ridley Scott’s Body of lies opened with about 12 million USD in box office receipts and Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna opened to an abysmal 3 million.

Personally I always like to root for the underdog and that might be part of the reason that I think it’s a real shame no one went to see these films. 20-30 years from now I believe there is more of a chance that any of these two films will still be remembered than today’s box office hits like Eagle Eye or Beverly Hills Chiuaua.

Body of Lies is one of the best American films about the war on terrorism. It works well both as a fast paced thriller and as a contemporary thought provoking piece about America’s role in the middle east. Many of these films tend to belong to two camps. One camp will depict the terrorists as sweaty and smelly fanatic villains and the other camp will have a more left wing agenda and depict the American soldiers or intelligence operatives as messengers of evil who meddle in places that they shouldn’t.

Scott’s film strikes a very fine balance between the two approaches which creates a film experience that might be a bit more challenging than your average blockbuster. Both Russel Crowe and Leonardo Di Caprio give great performances in complex roles. Leo’s field agent is aggressive and at times obnoxious, but you can’t help but feel for him as he loses his grip on the situation that he is in. Crowe is his operating agent and he is manipulative and calculating, but also charming and in his own way loyal to the cause and to his people in the field. The true winner is Mark Strong as the head of the Jordanian secret service. This is a breakthrough performance for him and I’m sure we will see him in many interesting roles in the very near future.

The case of Miracle at St. Anna is even more frustrating. With Miracle, Spike Lee has crafted his most ambitious film to date. It’s an epic war film that tells the story of 4 soldiers (3 black and one puerto rican) who are the sole survivors of a failed attack on a German stronghold. The soldier take refuge in an Italian village and form a connection with the local villagers.

It’s an intense and passionate piece of film making, at times very brutal, but always engaging with some of the more memorable imagery I’ve seen recently from a big budget studio film. It is very clear that Lee and his team poured their hearts and souls into every scene and I can’t imagine how he is feeling right now.

The most surprising aspect in Lee’s film is how fair and balanced the film is. Being a Spike Lee film you would expect the black soldiers to portrayed is complete victims who are being used by their white commanders and while that is the case in some of the scenes, Lee takes special care to show us that the soldiers are far from perfect and that there are good and evil people on all sides of the conflict.

My favorite scene is the one where the American soldiers, the Italian villagers and the German forces all pray before going to battle. Lee cuts between the different group as they all voice the same prayer in different languages. In other words, we all even believe in the same god, but it is a matter of how you as a person interpret god’s message and how you decide what is good and what is evil.

Another fantastic aspect is the “miracle” from the films title. It takes place towards the end of the film and ensures the survival of one of the key characters, but it’s not driven by a fantastical element, but more by the presence of decent human beings at the right place at the right time.

If you want to, you can find many reasons to make fun of, or dislike the film. It’s a bit too long, it’s very sentimental and some might say that it’s heavy handed it’s time, but if you keep an open mind and let yourself give in to it’s raw power you will be treated to one of the more intense film going experiences of the year.

What both films have in common really is that they are both films by extremely comptenet film makers who, with the backing of a major US studio set out to make films that are more personal. Very few film makers in the world can convince a big US studio to spend tens of millions of dollars on this kind of riskier story telling and for that alone, both Lee and Scott deserve admiration.

The soldiers of Miracle at St. Anna

The soldiers of Miracle at St. Anna

Leo is at his very best in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies

Leo is at his very best in Body of Lies

The Divine Weapon (Singijeon) – 2008

•October 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

mpark4 in Koreatown is screening this Korean blockbuster with English subtitles. It’s a great opportunity to catch this highly entertaining historical epic on film with Subtitles.

The plot is pretty thin and involves the efforts of carefree merchant (Jeong Jae-yeong in a star making performance) and the beautiful daughter of weapons expert to create the Singijeon, the Korean version of the rocket (which apparently was created several hundred years before it’s western counterpart as the film’s closing caption tells us).

While everything is pretty much by the numbers, there are several key factors which set the film apart from other films in this genre. The main event is the Singijeon itself, a very cool arrow with gunfire that is responsible for some of the more exhilarating action sequences in the film. Other than that the pacing of the film is pretty good and while it has a running time of 135 minutes it does not feel bloated at all like many other recent Korean efforts. Lastly, while still very violent, the tone of the film is a bit lighter and it offers a very appealing mix of action, intrigue, suspense, drama and romance. I personally can’t ask for much more from a good summer blockbuster.

If I have any complaint is that one of my favorite actors, Ahn Sung Ki, gets top billing, but actually has only a few minutes of screen time as the Korean king. He is pretty much here to collect a paycheck and while I would have loved to have seen more of him it’s nice to see him clear the stage for some of the younger Korean talent.

On a related side note, the AFI film festival will screen several Korean films including the very bleak thriller, The Chaser (which I’ve already seen, so I may skip) and the highly anticipated new Kim Ji Woon film, The Good the Bad and the Weird.

Another interesting film to be screened is the anthology movie Tokyo with three segments directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon Ho.

I have my tickets for The Good the Bad and the Weird and Tokyo, AFI doesn’t announce if the filmamkers are going to be present, but in many cases they are which is a really cool added bonus (in 2006 I saw Bong presenting The Host).

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)

•September 29, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This week brought with it some pretty cool movies. The main event this week was “German Currents” a mini festival at the Aero theater in Santa Monica dedicated to current German film (2007-2008). I managed to catch four films. All of the four (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, Keinohrhasen, Lissi und der wilde Kaiser and Winterreise) are worth a mention, but Baader Meinhof Komplex is easily the one that commands the most attention.

Reportedly the most expensive film ever made in Germany, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex is an attempt at telling an accurate historical account of all the events that led to the creation of the RAF (Red Army Faction) terrorist group in Germany of the 60’s and 70’s. The film is told completely from the prepective of the terrorists which makes for a pretty polarizing film going experience.

The film follows the three main leaders of the group, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof for over two decades. From Meinhof’s roots as a left wing, but peace loving, journalist all the way to their trial in the late 70’s.

In many ways the film is a companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s Munich, both films try to tell the story of the birth of modern terrorism as we know it by focusing on events that took place in Germany in the 60’s and 70’s (The Munich incident is also mentioned in Baader Meinhof Komplex), and both films are epic in scope and run almost 3 hours (150 minutes in Baader Meinhof’s case), but while Spielberg’s films definitely takes a firm stand against violence from any side, Uli Edel’s film tries very hard to remain completely impartial. This comes across sometimes as an endorsement or glorification of the acts the were committed by RAF members and is further intensified by the fact that the main members are played by some of Germany’s most talented actors and that the film portrays their actions as part of the 60’s spirit of free love and rock’n roll (the film has an excellent soundtrack with quite a few rock classics from the era).

After the screening there was a short Q&A session with the film’s executive producer who explained that they were trying to make the definitive Baader Meinhof film. Apparently more than 15 films have been produced in the past that dealt with specific events or specific characters and the film director (Uli Edel) and writer/producer (successful German producer Bernd Eichinger) wanted to make one movie that will tell the full story in the most accurate way possible. He also mentioned that they were trying to portray events and not judge the characters, but let the audience make up their own minds. In his mind it definitely does not condone the acts of the terrorists, but he is aware of the criticism towards the film.

In that aspect the film is similar to another film produced by Bernd Eichinger, Der Untergang (Downfall), that film told the story of Hitler’s last days, and was also criticized for putting a human face on some of the greatest villains in recent history. As in many cases one has to see the film and decide for themselves. My first reaction to the film was mixed. My main gripe was that it tried to hard to strike a strange balance, in one scene it’ll portray Meinhof as a mother that cannotĀ  bear to be separated from her children and in another she agrees to send them to a camp of Palestinian orphans. In one scene it’ll portray Baader as a James Dean like individualĀ  who takes off his cool looking leather jacket and gives it to one of the new younger members of the group and in others it will portray him as a selfish and unstable borderline lunatic. But after the Q&A (and 48 hours of thinking about the film) I gained more respect for what the film makers were attempting to do and while it’s not always successful and it does lag at times I have to admit that it is one of the most ambitious and impressive films I’ve seen.

The second film from the festival that is worth mentioning is Til Schweiger’s Keinohrhasen (Rabbit Without Ears). I remember reading about the fact that it is one of the most successful German comedies of all times and after watching it I can understand why. It’s a perfectly crafted Romantic comedy that follows all the genre’s conventions, but does it with great skill and a true wish to entertain and grant the viewer two hours of escapist entertainment. Some will criticize it for being overly commercial or predictable, but I have to admit that for the most of it’s 115 minute running time I had a big smile plastered all over my face which to me is an achievement.

Overall this festival further solidifies my impression the German cinema is on the rise for the past few years. From perfectly crafted genre movies to ambitious and thought provoking historical epics that deal with some of the darkest times in German history it seems like Germany is a territory to keep a close eye on when it comes to cinematic output.

Moritz Bleibtreu (Baader) and 	Johanna Wokalek (Gudrun Ensslin)

Moritz Bleibtreu (Baader) and Johanna Wokalek (Gudrun Ensslin)

Moritz Bleibtreu and Martina Gedeck as Baader and Meinhof

Moritz Bleibtreu and Martina Gedeck as Baader and Meinhof

Til Schweiger and Nora Tschirner in Cinema surveillance images are loading at the bottom of the page Rabbit without ears (Keinohrhasen)

Til Schweiger and Nora Tschirner in Rabbit without ears (Keinohrhasen)

Appaloosa (2008)

•September 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Ed Harris’ Appaloosa is my pick for movie of the week. It’s not the best movie I saw this weekĀ  (that’s probably Georges Franju’s Judex – which I caught on DVD on Monday), but it it’s the coolest movie event I attended this week.

The screening that I caught on Thursday, at the new Arclight in Sherman Oaks, was followed by a Q&A session with Harris and his writing partner Robert Knott (with a special guest appearance by Rex Linn who still looks exactly like he did in Cliffhanger back in 1993 – lucky bastard).

The film is a western with Harris and Viggo Mortensen as Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch a duo of gunslingers who are hired by the residents of Appaloosa, New Mexico to help them in their struggle against Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) a violent rancher that terrorizes the town.

In many ways the plot of the film is similar to that of last year’s 3:10 to Yuma as a large chunk of the film concentrates on Cole and Everett’s efforts to bring Bragg to justice despite opposition from his gang of supporters, but while Yuma was more focused on action and conflict, Appaloosa is more fascinated with the relationship with between Cole and Everett. The two have been riding together for many years and are more than best friends. In some of the more endearing moments of the films Cole is trying to better his somewhat brutish personality by expanding his vocabulary, he often fumbles for the right word and it is always Everett that comes to his aid by providing the correct word or the correct pronunciation.

My first reaction to the film was somewhat mixed. The film’s almost frustrating approach to the conflict between Bragg and our heros, and the eccentric relationship that develops between the three of them and a somewhat enigmatic woman who suddenly appears in the town (Rene Zellweger), seemed like strange choices to me, but after the film Harris and Knott got to explain some of their choices and their explanations made sense.

The one thing that was clear from the Q&A session is that Appaloosa is the movie Harris and Knott wanted to do. The choices you see on screen are all theirs and in certain cases they had to fight New Line Cinema’s executives to retain some of these choices. Whether or not you agree with these choices the result definitely commands admiration and respect.

Appaloosa’s approach is likely to frustrate some viewers and I don’t foresee it having the success of 3:10 to Yuma at the box office which is kind of a shame because the film has a lot to offer to those with some patience. The chemistry between Harris and Mortensen is fantastic and Rene Zellweger does a great job of playing the unusual female interest of the film. The rest of the cast is also superb. It was a special treat to see Lance Henriksen as one of the Shelton brothers, the only two gunslingers who might be a match to Everett and Cole’s gun skills.

Harris mentioned that he took a long break between filming his previous film (Pollock) and this one due to the fact that he gets totally immersed in the material when he directs a film and he didn’t want to expose his daughter, who was just 8 years old at the time Pollock was released, to another 4-5 years of obsession. Since his daughter is now 16 he feels that it is quite possible that he will return to the director’s chair sooner this time, and after seeing Appaloosa I hope that statement will be true.

Harris and Knott

Harris and Knott

The pictures I took are kind of blurry. I sat on the second row and I didn’t want to be rude and flash these guys right in front of their eyes.