Artsy and Fartsy

Music, film, arts, culture.

Favorite Movies of 2008

One advantage of being married to a professional film critic is that I get to see a lot of movies. I've seen some really good ones in 2008, especially in the past couple months. Here are my favorite eight movies of the year, not exactly ordered, but somewhat grouped into three sets of varying enthusiasm.

The Wrestler — This movie is my very favorite movie of 2008. I wrote a blog entry that talks about why I like this movie so much. It hasn't opened in Austin yet. I was fortunate to see my wife's screener review disc, for free. When it arrives in Austin theaters next month, I so totally will pay to see it again. And if I still like it then as much as I do right now, I will buy the DVD when released. I like this movie so much, maybe I'll buy you a copy. As far as Oscar picks, this is my choice for best movie of the year, and Mickey Rourke is my choice for best actor.

The Most Overlooked Movie of 2008

The end-of-year movie lists will begin appearing over the next week. I have a prediction for what will be the most overlooked, undeservedly ignored movie of the year. It's Standard Operating Procedure.

Standard Operating Procedure is a documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris, creator of some of the most important documentaries of our time, such as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. He did some cool Apple ads too.

The film is about the Abu Ghraib incident. We all saw those sickening photos of American soldiers performing abusive and humiliating acts on Iraqi detainees. So, we go into the movie pretty much knowing all about it, or, at least, thinking we do. Morris deconstructs the photographic evidence with rapier precision, and interpolates all the individual data to determine exactly what we can say about what did and did not happen behind the bars at Abu Ghraib.

Changeling, The Wrestler

Sometimes the ending makes a movie. Sometimes it breaks it. I recently saw one of each kind.

Changeling (2008) stars Angelina Jolie as a mom in desperate search of a child. I watched a "for your consideration" screener. The movie is so long (141 minutes) that it's split across two discs.

I watched the first disc one night, and went to bed thinking this was something very, very special. Jolie did a superb job, and I was completely sold and intrigued by the improbable premise. At times it seemed almost like an M. Night Shyamalan story (the good kind, back before he became a self-referential joke) shot with the economical sensibilities and gritty reality of a Clint Eastwood movie (which it is).

Then, on a later night, I watched the second disc. The story ended with a suspenseful and exciting courtroom scene. The movie, unfortunately, continued on for another half hour. That really undid all that had been created before.

Bonnie and Clyde and Zack and Miri and Bruce

Saw three movies last week. I recommend them all.

Last Sunday, we saw "My Name is Bruce" with star and director Bruce Campbell in attendance. We were lucky to get tickets; the show sold out in five minutes. The movie was silly and fun, with homages to everything from "Evil Dead" to the Three Stooges.

Community Media Weekend

This has been my weekend of community media.

Saturday, I attended the Texas Community Media Summit. There were several highlights of the event for me. For instance, it was nice to see Debbie Austin from The Texas Observer give a shout-out to Austin Bloggers, a site I manage.

I also enjoyed finally meeting U.T. R.T.F. Professor Laura Stein who seems to have a good earthy handle on community media issues. She lead a session on media convergence. It got me thinking about funding for projects such as open source tools. One effect of Texas SB 5 is that many cities will find their PEG (access television) budgets cash rich for capital equipment, but starved for operating funds. Maybe some of those funds can be used for servers and other infrastructure for community media projects.

I had a blast chatting with public policy superstar Charles Benton. He got me thinking about the impacts the digital television transition will have on community media, and what opportunities there may be.

Then, on Sunday, I went to see the new Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind.

"Wait! Wait!" you say. "What's that got to do with community media?"

I don't want to give too much away, but if you've seen the trailer you already know it's about a couple of guys who end up creating their own movies. What I enjoyed was seeing how the process of creating their own media ultimately affects their neighborhood and the people around them.

The movie was sweet and had a lot of heart. I enjoyed it a lot.

The embedded video is Michel Gondry's own sweded version of the movie trailer. (I'll also recommend the sweded trailer by these guys, with its inspired Big Lebowski bit.)

Mom and Dad Come to Austin

Alamo Drafthouse marquee for Joe Bob Briggs, photo by Richard Whittaker

Joe Bob Briggs came to town last weekend and screened Mom and Dad, an infamous exploitation "sex hygiene" film. Its infamy accrued from its sensational marketing campaigns, not its cinematic content. The film is an extraordinarily poor production, with the payoff being some (disturbing still today) film-within-a-film "educational" pieces that show a human birth delivery, a cesarean section, and ravaged victims of venereal disease.

I put "educational" in those air-finger quotes because the inset films really aren't educational. They are shock footage wrapped in a veneer of educational presentation, to protect from prosecution. The information presented careened between hysterical and wrong, such as the discussion on how a fertilized egg divides into 2, 4, 8, and then 12 (should be 16) cells. Joe Bob Briggs said that after seeing these films, he wasn't sure he ever wanted to have sex again.

I'm finding it interesting that the power of that movie seems to persist even today. Articles about the well-attended-but-not-crowded screening are popping up around the blogosphere. There is a cool reproduction of one of the vintage newspaper ads for Mom and Dad posted over at Reel Distraction. There is a summary of the evening posted to My Movie Journal is Better than Your Movie Journal. I thought the comment about the first half of the evening being like a "jazz lecture" was dead on, and kind of why I liked it. Even the Austin Chronicle weighed in, albeit over a question about the Texas film production fund asked in the earlier part of the evening.

Spiderman 3 is Meh

So I made this total tease posting about Spiderman earlier in the week. I feel somewhat obligated to go back now and give an opinion.

And that opinion is: meh.

I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed Casino Royale so much is that it took an overwrought, bloated franchise and brought it back to earth with interesting and somewhat believable characters and situations.

I fear that with Spiderman 3, Sam Raimi has taken a long stride down the well-tread path to franchise failure.

Sure, the movie is action packed and the effects are striking. But that's about all it has going for it. Spiderman deserves better.

As far as characters, this movie favors quantity over quality. The Sandman was one of my favorite villains from the Spiderman comic. I was particularly disappointed with the movie version. The origin scene was fantastic, and I think it would have worked if he had been portrayed as a human-sized creature made of sand. Instead, the movie turned him into the Stay-Puft Sandman.

I think what was most frustrating for me was the lazy writing. The Harry Osborne story arc whipsaws around when the butler drops a comment, for no purpose other than the plot required it. That was too gratuitous and deserved more care.

I thought the final fight scene, which coalesced many of the fragmented plot pieces and had a grace and style not seen in the earlier fights, was somewhat redeeming.

The non-plot bits with the regular ensemble were tremendously fun. Watching J. Jonah Jameson trying to rein in his blood pressure was a hoot. It was fun to see Bruce Campbell, who played the snooty usher in the last installment, in another "service industry" role.

If you like Spiderman, go ahead and see it. You'll have a good time. But if you love Spiderman then go watch the second one again.

Spiderman 3 is (Embargoed)

I've been thinking since last Thursday how I could write this blog entry in some way that doesn't sound braggy or snotty. I cannot, because I've realized the purpose of this blog entry is to be braggy and snotty. So, here goes.

I saw Spiderman 3 last week.

One of the perks of being married to a professional film journalist is that she sometimes sneaks me into free movie screenings. I've been warned, however, under penalty of severe spousal disfavor, that information about the movie cannot be printed until it's released. So, I won't say anything about the movie other then, yep, I saw it.

I supposed I could discuss the event, but even there caution is advised. I heard a story about a guy who went on a studio junket and wrote about the junket experience and ended up getting banned from all that studio's film screenings. I'd hate to get my wife in trouble by talking about how they gave us free food from the concession (whatever we wanted), or that the reels were shown out of order (which some people are describing as a "true grindhouse" experience).

Come back Friday. Maybe I'll post an opinion then.

Music Industry Self-Immolation

I'm working from home today. Earlier in the week, I got a wild hair to buy a pile of CDs from Amazon. I've done that a couple of times since I unloaded my vinyl on Craig's List. I find myself, in equal measure, replacing missed favorites and acquiring classics that escaped my collection. So I've been multitasking between my day work and the occasional trip to the living room to switch a CD in the ripping tray.

Somehow, this whole process is making me feel dated and archaic. Little discs of aluminum—how precious!

It's clear that the days of CD purchasing, let alone CD ripping are numbered. Some recent articles in the news suggest the process is hastening.

First, there is the big, recent news that EMI is going to allow their catalog onto iTunes with higher fidelity and no DRM, albiet at a higher price. I'm unwilling to purchase digital music that's licensed and tethered to a device. This, suddenly, makes things interesting. I'd be curious to hear how the higher fidelity recordings (256-bit AAC) compare to the (FLAC) lossless compression I'm using. And I'd need a web-based iTunes store, so I can access it from my Linux workstation. If those happen, I'll be ready to start buying digital downloads instead of the aluminum discs.

Then, there is this op-ed in the Times that lays out just how bad and stupid the music industry is being.

The major labels wanted to kill the single. Instead they killed the album. The association wanted to kill Napster. Instead it killed the compact disc. And today it's not just record stores that are in trouble, but the labels themselves, now belatedly embracing the Internet revolution without having quite figured out how to make it pay.

The final thing, not related to CD marketing but to general music business stupidity, is the new royalty scheme that threatens independent net-based radio. This is one of the last remaining ways for me to discover new music. I think once that's gone, it's game over.

All this makes me wonder what the hell I'm doing still buying and ripping CDs. What's the sense when the music enjoyment comes wrapped in such a crappy experience?

5:15pm update: Christopher Beam at Slate weighs in on the 256-bit AAC issue and suggests it's mostly not noticable. I'll believe it when I hear it. Sure, it probably makes little difference when you are listening on a portable player with $12 ear buds. I want digital tracks that are good enough to play on my home stereo.

This Film is Not Yet Rated

I watched This Film is Not Yet Rated over the weekend. In it, Kirby Dick sets out to answer a very difficult and elusive question. The answer, unfortunately, just isn't all that interesting to me.

Dick tries to discover exactly who is the (mysterious and anonymous) MPAA ratings board. This is the secretive cabal that confers the R's and PG's on movies. A good portion of the movie is spent with him and his hired investigators, rifling through garbage cans and eavesdropping on lunch discussions. He discovers, amazingly enough, the board is made of people.

I would be more interested learning how the MPAA got its power, how it is able to maintain its iron-clad control over the system, and where are the cracks that may lead to breaking the system. While it's interesting to know the sorts of people on the board, the time spent on the issue is disproportionate to its significance.

Dick has some excellent interview subjects. I was pleased to see Wayne Kramer and Maria Bello talk about their experience with The Cooler, which may be one of my top-ten favorite movies of all time. They painted a credible argument that although the ratings board claimed they wanted NC-17 due to a fleeting bush shot, the real reason is that the movie had a scene of unrestrained and lingering female pleasure, and that's what they found disturbing.

I was deeply troubled with the re-enactment technique Dick used to portray phone calls he had no permission to record. I suspect he had recordings somewhere to back up the dramatic re-enactments, but it still felt dishonest. Further, I'm not sure they were even necessary.

The film careens wildly from meaty discussion of our society's tolerance of violence to conversations with the private investigators that could have been ripped from a reality television show. There are some very good bits, but ultimately there were too many shallow spots that left me disappointed.

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