The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 5

This movie was supposedly about how we learn and aging. I learned nothing, but was 140 minutes older when it ended. Or maybe it was about love – but I found Cate Blanchett cold, Brad Pitt bloodless, chemistry lacking and their relationship an unconvincing Hollywood cliché. So what I was left with was a Forrest Gump narration and series of unbelievable anecdotes, “told” through a diary-reading format that recalled the much better The Notebook (or was it supposed to remind us of Titanic?) but in this case was wholly extraneous to the bizarre main story, which by itself was more than enough for a whole movie. If there was anything to be learned from a person’s going in reverse direction through life, our attention was diverted by such superficialities as studying the makeup on the actors and calculating what year we were in and how old, or young, the character now was.

A Christmas Tale 8

Quel plaisir to spend 152 minutes with a French family, even one as dysfunctional as this. It took a while to figure out who was who, let alone why, and then part of the fun was deciding whom you liked the most and why. The men were either reprobates or ciphers, except for the short and sweet but largely ineffectual patriarch Junon, who, like me, did the dishes. The personalities belonged to the four women, all of whom, this being a French movie, were easy on the eyes. Of course, if Catherine Deneuve is your mother, that gives you a head start. She was the background, though; it was daughter Elisabeth and daughter-in-law Sylvie who presented the subtle psychological drama. Not so subtle was brother Henri, who was the Rachel to this party. Did we ever care what happened? Not much – even mother’s life-or-death marrow transplant was reduced, from the outset, to a statistical wash. We just were mesmerized, watching from outside.

Frost/Nixon 7

A nicely done theatrical piece, more than a movie – and I’m not sure how well it relates to actual history. Frank Langella’s portrayal of Tricky Dick was superb, but even with all the layers he conveyed, one felt it didn’t come close to plumbing the actual depths of Nixon’s character. What really drove the man, and how could someone who hated people become such a successful politician? I found Michael Sheen’s David Frost overly fluffy and the climactic showdown unconvincing at best – what really happened? – but I did like the eye candy that Rebecca Hall provided throughout. The filmmakers’ lack of trust in the audience – or were they just concerned that a younger generation would have no idea what this was all about? – was epitomized when Nixon made the slip of arguing that the President is above the law. Not content with showing Nixon’s face slip, or lingering silently on Frost’s amazed countenance, they cut away to show Nixon’s backup team groaning and holding their heads for emphasis. Where the film succeeded best was in mixing actual footage with the acting, largely through the device of “interviewing” the characters in postscript fashion, with their hair shorter and years apparently added.

The Changeling 5

I can’t think of a single scene that failed to tax my credulity, either due to the extremity of the characterization, the absurdity of the plot, or the inconsistency of the direction. So often did I hear myself thinking, this would never happen like this, that I could only conclude that this was another of those movies, “based on real life events.” Amy Ryan injected a bit of life into a cast of statuesque acting performances, led by Angelina Jolie, who seemingly had a tear in her eye, or down her cheek, the whole picture. John Malkovich was John Malkovich, while everyone else was either unremittingly evil, sinister or wussy. I thought the movie must be directed and produced by Jolie, and was surprised and disappointed to remember that it was Clint Eastwood, in a rare misfire.

Slumdog Millionaire 7.5

I admit to a personal aversion to Indian poverty and I favor realism to highly improbable stories, but this movie plugged into the energy of Mumbai and swept me along until, best of all, a curtain call in which the cast sang and danced and all the sordidness, violence, corruption and depressing poverty was temporarily washed away. In all, a paean to the escapism of entertainment. Still, this was not the best Indian movie of the year – and why Amal has not been released here remains a mystery.

Synecdoche, NY 3

The longest two hours I’ve had in a movie this year. For 15 minutes the film showed promise, with Charlie Kaufman-trademark quirkiness leavening Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener’s dysfunctional marriage. Then the MacArthur grant arrives and the few remaining tethers to reality are cut loose, leaving us nothing to care about. People are not who we think they are, nor is time. The world is a stage, or maybe the stage is a world. By the time we see that the story is going nowhere, slowly, all we can think of is where we can go, fast.

Rachel Getting Married 8

Anne Hathaway gives a riveting performance (Best of the Year) as the psychotic woman released from rehab to attend, but in the event almost wreck, her sister’s wedding. The other characters barely register (I kept waiting in vain for Sidney to display some evidence of a personality), and none can draw our eyes away from the manic Hathaway with a short haircut that has all the marks of, in a telling metaphor, being self-inflicted. We see enough of her mother, the excellent Debra Winger, to see where some of Kim’s problems, such as lack of personal responsibility and emotional detachment, come from. But most of the movie is like watching a train, hurtling toward a wreck that we know is coming. We don’t feel cheated at the end when it doesn’t, just kind of relieved that a very bumpy ride is over. Still, the ride could have been about ten minutes shorter, as the wedding scene threatened to equal The Deer Hunter’s in irrelevance.

In the Valley of Elah 8

We saw this a year later, and on TV, but my firm belief is that this is the one movie about the Iraq war, so far at least, that will stand the test of time. (We tried to watch The Deer Hunter the other night, to see if that plays a similar role for Vietnam, but the over-lengthy wedding scene so drained our interest that we never made it to the war.) That the war is immoral, that we don’t have a clear mission, that innocent Iraqis are being killed, that young American lives are being ruined, that the war in general is “fucked up” – all these messages came through loud and clear, even though that is not what Valley of Elah is about, and none of it takes place in Iraq. It’s that indirection that makes the political point so powerful.

What the movie is otherwise about is the battle of a determined father (Tommy Lee Jones) against both military and civilian bureaucracy and the search for his son’s killer. Jones is brilliant in an Oscar-worthy role (moreso than in No Country for Old Men), and Charlize Theron is awfully good, too. Jones is heroic, but he’s also stubborn, short on empathy, and when he realizes he, too, has played a part in his son’s death, his character takes on a complexity that, Lear-like, expands the tragedy.

Anvil 4.5

Unfortunately, a loser of a film about unfortunate losers in the rock’n’roll sweepstakes, the Canadian heavy-metallists, Anvil. The two leads, Lips and Robb, look so much like the stars of Spinal Tap, the film often resembles a parody of a parody, which is not a good thing. The songs, of which we get to hear no more than a snippet, are unmemorable, and the film lacks dramatic arc, with only one minor respite (a crowd in Tokyo actually shows up!) from a litany of downer incidents serving as a climax. What we’re left with is the sad thought that artists who can make people happy have to eke out a living at a children’s food bank, while lawyers and hedge fund managers who contribute little to society are making millions.

Body of Lies 7.5

The Mideast terrorist world seems to be the new Cold-War-spy paradigm for thrillers, and if this scenario hadn’t felt so familiar it would have rated even higher. Mark Strong was sharp as the Jordanian security chief, and all the Arabs were convincing Arabs. Brad Pitt’s Arabic accent was standard American, but otherwise he was a CIA agent to be proud of. In fact, if our CIA were half as competent as the movie version, including Russell Crowe, I’d be proud. Ultimately, though, the movie’s unspoken message is that we’re mired in a world we don’t comprehend and can’t change, and the sooner we’re out, the better.