The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

benjaminbuttonI have mixed feelings about this film — much of it is very powerful and affective but just as much of it is borderline lousy. Ultimately I can’t help but see it as a failure, but it’s one of those films that makes you wish its creators could get another shot to make the wonderful film that was within their grasp.

From a special effects standpoint, the film is peerless. Through some combination of digital imagery, makeup and black magic, the filmmakers have managed to seamlessly render Brad Pitt as everything from an 85-year-old man to a 17-year-old kid. It’s astounding what they pull off here, and all the more impressive for being completely organic to the film — there’s nothing showoff-y about the effects, they’re just what was required to tell this story.

(Mild spoilers follow, major spoilers in the comments)

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Frost/Nixon

frostnixonThe second great movie I saw this weekend (and the second-best movie I’ve seen so far this year) is Ron Howard’s adaptation of the celebrated stage play Frost/Nixon. Howard has a knack for dramatizing historic events — this is easily his best film since Apollo 13 and for my money rivals that great movie.

I suppose it would be hard to go wrong starting with such excellent source material, especially with playwright Peter Morgan on board to adapt his own work. But Howard has avoided any of the traps inherent in filming a piece intended for the stage and crafted a compelling work of cinema that works as both an underdog tale and an intimate tragedy.

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Slumdog Millionaire

slumdogmillOK, now we’re talking. After a long dry spell and a lot of good-not-great movies, I’ve seen a batch of films in the past few weeks that boost 2008’s quality level substantially. And my favorite of all these movies — indeed my favorite of the year so far — is Slumdog Millionaire.

A strange mix of Rocky, Quiz Show and City of God, Slumdog Millionaire is simultaneously like a thousand films before it and like nothing I’ve seen before. That freshness is due to director Danny Boyle’s visceral camerawork and editing as well as the film’s setting in the slums of India. I’ve seen plenty of rags-to-riches stories, and plenty of tales about love defeating the odds, but none that painted such a vivid portrait of hope amidst squalor.

(Minor spoilers follow)

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Milk

milkWell, the year is almost over and my top ten list is seriously lacking. Don’t get me wrong… I enjoyed the hell out of Kit Kittredge and Kung-Fu Panda. But I wouldn’t expect them to be among the ten best films of the year in mid-December.

But there is hope on the horizon, in the form of a host of late-release “award” films, some of which are bound to be pretty good.

First out of the gate is Milk, Gus Van Sant’s touching biopic about the Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. My knowledge of Milk was limited to some vague details about his death at the hands of another city official, particularly the reliance on “the Twinkie defense” to explain his crime. Van Sant, and especially lead actor Sean Penn, have done a wonderful job bringing the rest of Milk’s story to life.

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Bolt

boltBolt promises to be the final non-Pixar computer animated film released by Disney, and it’s not a bad way to go out. Pixar films remain on a whole other level, cinematically and in terms of resonance, but there is certainly a place for solid family entertainment of a more pedestrian nature.

Bolt is certainly pedestrian, borrowing elements from everything from Toy Story 2 to The Truman Show, and there isn’t a moment you don’t know exactly where it’s going. But it’s also funny, exciting and charming and a perfectly nice way to spend an afternoon with your kids.

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Twilight

twilightI just read that Twilight made $35 million on its opening day alone, on its way to god knows how much for the opening weekend. Wow. This really is another Harry Potter, with a more narrowly focused audience (namely, girls aged 12 to 99).

This is as good a movie as could be made from Stephenie Meyer’s novel. The source material is weak as literature and thin in plot but strong on personality and heavy with the dreamy innocence of teenage romance. And that describes the movie as well.

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Synecdoche, New York

synecdocheI’m really not sure how to review this film. I definitely know I’m not yet ready to rank it. I feel like I need to see it at least one more time before really grasping it, but the prospect of seeing it again kind of scares me. I’m only halfway kidding when I say this is either the best film of the year or the worst.

One thing is certain. Charlie Kaufman has created a work of ferociously imaginative art — one that makes his previous flights of fancy seem almost conventional. I consider Kaufman one of the few true geniuses working in film today, and by far the best screenwriter in the business, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and work with him on this one. This is a dense and layered text that demands examination, not the sort of thing you watch once and file between Quantum of Solace and Kung-Fu Panda.

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