Friday, February 20, 2009

Of slumdogs and resurrections

Let me start by saying that the screenplay of Slumdog Millionaire was heavy-handed; in fact, I've never felt so manipulated by a movie's premise. The film is about a young man named Jamal Malik from the slums of Mumbai who joins India's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," telling us about his life in flashbacks from when he was a young boy and why he knew the answers to the questions during the game show. Fifteen minutes into the movie, you just know how the movie will unfold, everything conveniently falling into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The twist? There is no twist.

Having said that, the movie has a lot of things going for it. Scene for scene, the movie is truly one of the year's best-made. Almost all the scenes work, with Danny Boyle directing with equal parts energy and tenderness, like a cross between his previous films Trainspotting and Millions. The cinematography is striking, the editing, the music of Bollywood icon A.R. Rahman appropriately thumping, and the well-cast actors providing authenticity to the movie.

However, the true star of the movie is India. Slumdog Millionaire is probably a more authentic movie about the country than any Indian-made movie out there because Bollywood -- India's main film industry based in Mumbai -- is all about escapism, and more often than not, simply refuses to turn their cameras on the poverty and corruption that surround them. Which Slumdog does, that is why it has caught the ire of a lot of Indians.

As a fan of Bollywood, I am glad that Slumdog Millionaire has gotten all the attention because this is probably the closest that Bollywood will ever conquer Hollywood. And I'm just thrilled that a movie that prominently features Amitabh Bachchan can actually win the Oscar. Bachchan, as the movie points out, is the most famous man in India, probably the most famous actor ever, if you take into account all those who have flocked to his movies in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Europe. At his prime, Bachchan's appeal to his millions of fans can only be accurately described as a cross between those of James Bond, Brad Pitt, Obama, and Jesus Christ! If you've seen the movie and you know Bachchan, you'd understand why that kid would willingly fall into a big pile of shit just to be able to get his autograph. In a country of almost a billion people, to have a one-on-one chance with its most famous son is truly worth all the shit in the world.

Amitabh Bachchan in Shaan ("Pyar Karne Wale"):

It is towards the ending that the movie truly flies. Suddenly, all thoughts of its imperfections fall away. As Jamal tries to answer the last question, we wait with bated breath, like the throngs in the movie held enraptured by this moment, watching the show in small television sets in the slums, stores, and outside electronic shops in Mumbai. This is why we watch movies in the first place, why among all art forms, movies have the ability to put a lump in our collective throats and sweat in our palms like no other art form can. This, among other reasons, is why Slumdog Millionaire will live long after this moment has passed. This is why Slumdog Millionaire, the little film that could, will win the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Wrestler, winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler twenty years past his prime, as he faces old age, health problems, loneliness, and, well, the fact that his glory days are behind him. Randy is played stunningly by Mickey Rourke, whose heydays were in the '80s.

Talk about underdog, but can there be a better example than Mickey Rourke? Rourke's film career was so over that I could not remember watching any of his movies ever since I started watching movies. Oh, he was in Sin City, but nobody under thirty would probably remember Rourke for his movies, than for his truly bad botox job. (First time I saw him on TV a few years ago, I was like, who is that man with the creepy face? He's an actor? Mickey who?)

The fact that the life and career trajectory of The Ram mirrors that of Rourke (Rourke also used to box) is not lost on a lot of viewers. But we don't really need the back story. The story of Randy's life is all there in Mickey Rourke's eyes, face, and battered body, in a very physically demanding, and at the same time very emotional performance. I believe there's nobody else among this year's Oscar nominees could have possibly played this role as perfectly as Rourke did (with the possible exception of Meryl Streep, if she chooses to step out of her comfort zone!). Rourke is ably supported by Marisa Tomei, playing a stripper who's Randy's last hope for companionship, as his grown-up estranged daughter has disowned him. Tomei's equally exceptional work in this movie is the year's best performance by an actress.

The Wrestler is hands down Darren Aronofsky's best work to date. I couldn't find any flaws in it. There are scenes that are just devastating, like when Randy was at this sort of meet and greet with fans (who came in trickles). He looks around the room, fellow wrestlers, past their primes, bandaged, physically incapacitated, selling videocassettes of their best fights to stay alive. Randy himself was reduced to selling meat and salad at a deli counter, and you just know that he'd rather be somewhere else, in a ring, fighting.

Many moviegoers might have been distracted by other filmic fares about men aging in reverse, robots in love, or forays into Bollywood, but what Aronofsky offers here is an unflinching, clear-eyed, no artifice, well-told portrait of a man just trying to do what he believes he was born to do. These, and other reasons, make The Wrestler, in my opinion, the best movie of 2008.

The lists

The best movies of 2008: a very good year

1. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)

2. Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea (Hayao Miyazaki) - The year's best animated film is not Wall-E. Hayao Miyazaki's interpretation of The Little Mermaid is full of life and brimming with ingenuity. Like his other movies, I don't think most adults who have seen it (myself included) understood it perfectly. Which is why people keep watching his movies again and again. Destined to become a classic.

3. Man On Wire (James Marsh) - A man, with a little help from his friends, goes through the pains of secretly setting up to walk across the top of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a tightrope. Here's a word I don't usually use to describe documentaries: enthralling.

4. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson) - Less a horror movie than a study on loneliness, to simply call this beguiling Swedish stunner a vampire movie is really to oversimplify it. Plus: since they're Swedish (unlike those Twilight kids), they're naturally pale!

5. Milk (Gus Van Sant) - Gus Van Sant's extremely well-made Harvey Milk biopic has 2008's best ensemble of actors, led by an astonishing (and atypical) performance from Sean Penn, truly one for the ages. This movie will be remembered for a long time.

6. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) - Less a superhero movie than a prime example of modern film noir and of the gangster genre in the vein of The Untouchables and The Godfather, this could have been a true contender had the Oscars got the balls to nominate it for Best Picture. The question remains: what's up with Batman's voice?

7. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood) - It's one of Clint Eastwood's best acting-directing feats. The Oscars unbelievably snubbed it; the viewers didn't, and rightfully so.

8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher) - It's this three-hour-long period drama starring Brad Pitt. I almost didn't watch it, and I'm glad I did. The craftsmanship displayed in this movie is just undeniable. And isn't it thrilling that "edgy" filmmakers like David Fincher and Danny Boyle are being nominated for awards?

9. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton) - This movie could have ranked higher had Wall-E stayed on Earth! The first half is a masterful treatise on loneliness (there's that word again. Are these movies trying to tell me something?) But then it becomes this...Disney movie, not even a Pixar movie, if you know what I mean. Frustrating.

10. Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard) - I don't like Ron Howard as a filmmaker. His movies are mostly compromised, commercial outings pretending to be more important than they really are. This one didn't feel like that. It's probably Ron Howard's best film, I couldn't believe he directed it. Riveting.

The rest

11. Jay (Francis Xavier Pasion)
12. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (Guillermo Del Toro)
13. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
14. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
15. Kung-Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)
16. 100 (Chris Martinez)
17. The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier)
18. Be Kind. Rewind. (Michel Gondry)
19. Australia (Baz Luhrmann)
20. Encounters At The End of the World (Werner Herzog)
21. Jodhaa Akbar (Ashutosh Gowariker)
22. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg)
23. Gomorra (Matteo Garrone)
24. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
25. Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke)
26. Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King)
27. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)
28. Changeling (Clint Eastwood)
29. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
30. Bolt (Byron Howard and Chris Williams)

Full disclosure: I have not seen some other supposedly good 2008 movies like Hunger, My Winnipeg, Rudo y Cursi, Trouble The Water, The Class, and Synecdoche, New York.

The worst: Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov)
It pains me that a lot of quality movies could not get screenings in the Philippines because of nudity, while this unnecessary ultra-violent drivel gets to earn a lot of money.


1. Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
2. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
3. Sean Penn (Milk)
4. Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)
5. Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino)
6. Anna Faris (The House Bunny)
7. Baron Geisler (Jay)
8. Tessie Tomas (100)
9. Eugene Domingo (100)
10. Anita Linda (Adela)
11. Meryl Streep (Doubt)
12. Josh Brolin (W.)
13. Benicio Del Toro (Che)
14. Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder)
15. Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married)
16. Viola Davies (Doubt)
17. Colin Farrell (In Bruges)
18. Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon)
19. Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)

(You must be looking for Kate Winslet. I've seen the movies. She's not on the list.)

Special mentions

Cinematography - The Fall
Visual Effects - Speed Racer
Production Design - Be Kind. Rewind.
Costume - Jodhaa Akbar
Make-up - The Dark Knight
Musical Score - Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea

Theme Songs

1. Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea)

2. Deewangi Deewangi (Om Shanti Om)

3. The Wrestler (The Wrestler)

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