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Archive for January, 2009

Top Five Movies of 2008 – Honorable Mentions

Posted by Steve on January 20, 2009

While I’ll be writing about my top five individually, eventually (the second part of my TV rant is coming soon, I swear!), there are some movies I need to give an honorable mention to. This is not a list where I show how obscure I am. Nor do I choose stuff because it makes me look clever. Nope, this is a list simply to choose what I think were the best movies I saw in 2008.

Honorable Mention 1: Cloverfieldcloverfield

I like monster movies. I enjoy watching cities destroyed by monsters who seem to have no specific agenda other than “Look at that building. I think I’ll smash it.” Cloverfield‘s gimmick was, of course, that it was shot in the first person. Now had this movie been shot normally, I feel I would not have enjoyed it as much. Sure, the movie came with an innovative promotional campaign, and an original take on monster design, but it could have easily become just another monster movie. As it is, the first person vantage point adds to the immersion and the sense of urgency. Throw in the spectacular opening attack by the monster, with the Statue of Liberty being decapitated and her head being thrown across Manhattan. Spectacular stuff. One of the few movies I’ve watched and then immediately watched again. Then watched a third time with the commentary track. It was only on the fourth viewing I realised I had this movie all wrong. Sure, it has a monster in it, but it isn’t a monster movie. Cloverfield is a love story. Rob treks all through the city during the attack to rescue Beth. The movie ends with them declaring their love for each other. That’s a love story set against a backdrop of a giant monster attack.

Special mention must go to Michael Giacchino and his score for the film. “What score?”, I hear you say. “There’s no music other than music that plays at Rob’s party at the beginning.” Oh, but you are wrong my friend. Yes, the movie itself has no score. After all that would ruin the first person gimmick. Like somehow military types found the camera and, for a laugh, added a score to the video. (Though everything is improved when “Yakkety Sax” is added to it.)

No, there is music. If you left before the end titles start rolling, that was very foolish of you. Now go stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done. What is it you did? You missed one of the most epic, fantastic movie themes ever, that’s what!

Simply called Roar!, and available on iTunes (or you could do what I did, and rip it from the end of the DVD.) Giacchino, who is probably best known for his work on the TV show Lost, delivers a truly epic piece. It starts out quiet, then builds, over the course of more than ten minutes, to an epic conclusion. If you have the movie and have never listened to it, and you have any appreciation at all for movie music, go and listen to it, right now. On my iPod I only have music from three movies. I have the soundtrack from The Dark Knight (I find the Joker related pieces intriguing), I have Roar!, and Giacchino’s other big score of the year, Speed Racer. Speaking of which…

Honorable Mention 2: Speed Racer

speed_racerNow right now, you’re either going “This guy is insane!” or “Okay, interesting choice…” Or you’re one of the chosen few who “get” this movie, see it for what it is, and are nodding your head and quietly cheering to yourself. In which case, hello brother or sister.

Let’s deal with the negative nellies first. Go away. Right now. You will not be appeased by anything I am about to write. You have now instantly dismissed me as any sort of writer about movies. It’d be best for both of us if we move on and see other people, pretend this never happened.

Still with me? Excellent. First of all, a minor grammatical thing. This movie is by The Wachowski Brothers. Now for the Matrix movies, this was correct. However, since then, Larry has, as far as I’m aware, had “the operation” and become Linda. So it should, technically, be The Wachowski Siblings. But then that has no kudos built up like their original partnership name. Yes this is the kind of tedious level of trivia I sit and ponder so you don’t have to.

Right, the movie. Let’s start out by saying I am no fan of the anime the movie is based on. I’ve seen a few episodes, mainly when Speed TV aired it in the slot prior to their Formula One coverage. It was fun and, given Schumacher was dominating at the time, a lot more interesting than the races I was waiting for were. When the movie was announced I wasn’t really interested. The Wachowski Brothers/Siblings being involved intrigued me. I am one of the seven people who enjoyed the Matrix trilogy and I was curious what they would do, then I totally forgot all about it.

Then the first trailer popped up. The visuals blew me away. I was still sceptical though. After all Hollywood had taken a childhood favourite of mine, Thunderbirds, and ripped the very heart out of it, turning it into a pathetic “kids rescue the adults” vehicle that had very little to do with the show I loved. It would have been very easy for the Wachowski’s to phone in a parody, make fun of the thing, and rake in a big pile of cash. In fact, under any other stewardship, I am sure that is exactly what would have happened.

Well slam them all you wish for the Matrix sequels (and even as a fan, I agree with a lot of the criticism, or at least understand it), but they stuck to their guns here. They did not take the easy route. They played the movie completely straight, never once going for the tedious “Isn’t this silly?” type of nonsense that infects so many other big screen adaptations of old shows. People complain about the characters not being fleshed out enough, the visuals being garish… This is supposed to be a live action cartoon, and the Wachowski’s smash the ball so far out the park they’ll have to use satellite tracking to find it.

Let’s start with the story. As a hardcore racing fan, I have to believe that somewhere in the mix, someone involved in this movie is also as big a racing fan as me. This movie has a racers heart. Yes, the racing sequences are crazy (in a good way), but the soul of racing is represented in this movie. The purity of Speed, wanting to be the best, but to do it the right way, away from the corporate corruption. From the start I felt this was a movie that had a racing heart. What had me falling head over heels entirely is the Vanderbilt Cup being mentioned. Couple that with the old racing footage shown, and I knew that this was a movie that loved racing.

Then there’s the visuals. I firmly believe that in five years time, once the taint of box office failure has worn off and time has passed, this movie will be seen as pioneering and visionary. Sure, we’ve had movies on virtual sets before like 300 and Sin City, but Speed Racer elevated the process far beyond what had come before. The movie’s visuals are jaw dropping, end of story. Like they did with The Matrix, the Wachowski’s have upped the ante when it comes to visual effects and let’s face it, that movie was spectacular until endless parody and ripoff rendered the effects used worthless. I find it hard not to act like a kid and cheer my lungs out when Racer X leaps his car in the air to punch out another racer in midair, then lands and gives a smug grin.

This movie is uplifting, and made me feel like a kid. I’m eight years old and watching a cartoon on a Saturday morning. As a fan of real racing, which has seen it’s share of corruption and depravity in recent times, to see a fictional racing series where good guys are striving to get the sport clean, perhaps it’s a symptom of the times we live in, but I find this movie to be more than a little wish fulfillment. The racing sequences themselves are simply breathtaking, especially the Casa Cristo Rally.

Then there’s the performances. This is a not movie in which people will win Oscars for acting. It’s not supposed to be. It’s cartoon characters bought to life and it succeeds admirably at what it tries to do. Every performance is played entirely straight and the story which is of course cartoon nonsense is taken completely seriously. It would have been so easy to make fun of names like Inspector Detector, but it’s played 100% straight and the movie soars because of that fact. All the cast are enjoyable, but my three favourites, in order are.

Christina Ricci as Trixie: Ricci is an actress who has never achieved the massive fame she richly deserves. She’s exceptionally talented and beautiful. Here she plays her part perfectly. She’s sexy, but in a safe way.

Kick Gurry as Sparky: I wish he’d been in the film more as I loved the character. I’ve been a fan of Gurry since seeing him in the criminally underrated Garage Days which is my favourite Australian movie. Seriously, if you’ve not seen it, you must! It has Celeborn from Lord of the Rings in it (the actor Marton Csokas, playing a sleazy record label exec), some of the most awesome drug experiences ever put on film, and possibly the finest closing credit sequence I’ve ever seen. Oh yes, and the gorgeous, lovely Pia Miranda, who I would walk over hot coals and broken glass for just to kiss her hand.

Matthew Fox as Racer X: A lot of people whined about his performance in this film. They’re wrong, and missing the point entirely. The reason his character comes across as cold and unemotional and flat is because HE IS, and he’s a cartoon character. Without venturing into spoiler territory, the guy is a masked hero who shows almost no emotion. That’s the point. I am a big fan of Fox from Lost (even if Jack is a bit whiny these days), and love his work in this film. Given bloody Keanu Reeves was almost cast in the role, all I can say is thank God for Matthew Fox!

Then we get to the Giacchino connection. Yep, the same guy who wrote the epic Cloverfield closing theme wrote the score for Speed Racer. Throughout the score you can hear elements of the original music from the anime, but Giacchino makes it his own and doesn’t overuse it. Rather than ramble on though, Scorekeeper at AICN has that covered here. Why reinvent the wheel?

In the end, Speed Racer is a polarizing movie. You either love it or hate it. There seems to be no middle ground. It was only when the movie appeared on some worst film lists that I realised how many people seem to inexplicably hate this wonderful, fun, visionary film.

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