Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Round-Up#5 (The Best of 2008 edition)

Hi there. The year is almost over, and so it is time for yours truly to share with you my list of the best films and books I experienced in 2008. I will keep this short and sweet, so let's begin.

Best books I read in 2008:

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl: Whether you are into Poe or not, this novel is nothing short of astounding. After burning through it as quickly as I could (which I ultimately regretted doing, since I was so sad when it was over) because it was so compelling and entertaining, I had to sit back and admire how much Pearl has achieved with this book. Not only has he attempted to solve the mystery of Edgar Allan Poe's death (a mystery which has proven insolvable for over a century) by using clues and evidence that he has gathered through painstaking research, but he has also written one of the best historical novels of all time.

This is a compelling, brilliantly written, meticulously plotted novel that people will continue to talk and argue about for years to come. And as a bonus, it's also one hell of an entertaining ride. Unmissable.

The Lamplighter by Anthony O'neil: One of the most original, imaginative books I have come across in a long time, The Lamplighter is a metaphysical thriller that is so ambitious, so intriguing and so clever, that it is almost unfathomable that it still hasn't become a worldwide blockbuster.

The deceptively simple plot revolves around a series of viciously violent murders in 19th Century Edinburgh that seem to have been committed by a beast and are inexplicably linked to a young, mentally unstable woman named Evelyn. But Thomas McKnight, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, delves deeper into the case and discovers that Evelyn might not be of unsound mind, but is in fact possessed by none other than the Devil himself. From there the plot slithers - with impressive subtlety - into areas and strands that are sure to confound the most astute of readers till the deliciously challenging and imaginative resolution of the mystery.

A must for fans of clever, thought-provoking mystery novels that are heavy on atmosphere.

Duma Key by Stephen King: When Stephen King is in the zone, he is unrivaled in terms of sheer storytelling skills. He can draw you in, turn you inside out, while never losing his masterful grip of atmosphere and characterization. Even at his most unoriginal (and let's face it, King is not famous for the originality or freshness of his plots) he can still be compelling. Although I still believe that Early King is the best King (Salem's Lot, The Shining, Pet Semetary...) after many missteps during the past couple of years, Stephen King delivers a book that succeeds on so many levels and is so absorbing, that one is almost able to forgive him the book's climax. Almost.

The story revolves around Edgar Freemantle, a multi-millionaire, who after losing one of his arms in a near-fatal car accident, his life falls apart and so is advised by his therapist to leave it all behind and move to a resort in Florida. After moving to a house there, he begins to paint wonderfully surreal paintings of beauty and terror and soon after things start to happen...

Saying more would be unfair to you, since most of the pleasure that comes from reading this book comes from surrendering to King and letting him guide you through Edgar's daily life and his attempts at pulling it all together again. Most of the journey is terrific and shows King at his best. Then comes the climax. Oh, the climax. Even with that disappointing and jarring turn of events, eighty percent of the book is so enjoyable and so masterfully written that it is still worth it. And maybe, just maybe you will like that ending. I didn't.

Best films I watched in 2008:

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: That Steven Spielberg can make this sort of movie in 2008 is a miracle in itself. This kind of movie is not made anymore, plain and simple. The kind of movie where you leave your worries, your troubles, your life outside the theater door and then take your seat and surrender to the wonders, the sights and sounds that envelop you. And after the film ends, you don't even have to apologize to your intellect for having insulted it.

This triumphant return of Indiana Jones is a film for all ages, and Spielberg (who is at his wondrous, ebullient best here) makes every second of this film count. There is no time to catch your breath and during it all the smile will never leave your face.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Hellboy, as created by Mike Mignola, is a character that is easy to love. He is huge, he is red, he is slightly juvenile, he is testy and he is a demon from hell destined to destroy the earth yet continues to ignore his destiny and use his powers to help humans. But let's not get into details here. The first film (also written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro) was a fun, imaginative ride. This, the sequel, is an even more entertaining and successful celebration of dark imagination. The plot is tighter, the pace quicker and the visuals are nothing less than fantastic.

If you haven't seen it, you've missed a marvelous piece of cinema. Then again, you can go out now and get the DVD, and while you're at it, pick up the first film and make it Hellboy night. You won't regret it.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe: This is a film of a rare breed. It is a well-crafted, almost minimalist thriller, that depends on the strength of its writing and characters to entertain and thrill. This is a film that is made with one purpose in mind: to provide a gift for the fans of the phenomenally successful series that ended its runs after nine seasons in 2002.

After 6 years of absence and a previous feature film that didn't really represent the series' true aesthetics, what most people (and by "people" I mean non-fans) expected was definitely not this.

For true fans of "The X-Files", however, this film is nothing less than a gift. Small revelations about Mulder's and Scully's characters and a screenplay that is more interested in discussing the nature of faith and standing up for something you believe in than in monsters and conspiracies, make this a well-conceived, well-crafted thriller that plays like a really good stand-alone episode, especially since creator/co-writer/director Chris Carter expands the dramatic landscape and lends the proceedings a somber resonance that he couldn't have integrated while the series was still on the air. Now that the series is over, he could finally focus on the fates of Scully and Mulder in an almost elegiac manner that is effectively bitter-sweet.

Where the film fails is as a stand-alone feature, because in the eyes of a non-fan who isn't familiar with the characters and their struggles, this would feel like a limp, clich├ęd thriller that is twenty years behind its time. And, arguably, this is the reason the film has not fared well at the box-office, despite being one of the best thrillers of the year and one of the best TV Spin-off films ever made.

If you are a fan of the series, ignore the bitterly negative comments and go see it. This film is a great X-Files story, and it could even be considered the true end of Mulder and Scully's story (ignoring the abysmal final episode of the series, "The Truth"); especially if you consider the post-credits sequence which indeed hints that this film might be where it all ends. If that is the case, then I can honestly say that the whole X-Files story ends on a high.

As for the best film I watched in 2008, the answer is simple...

The Dark Knight: Batman Begins is a great film, and with it co-writer/director Chris Nolan single-handedly saved the Batman character and Mythos from total humiliation after the disaster that was BATMAN AND ROBIN. Batman Begins is an intelligent, epic, dark psychological thriller that took the Batman/Bruce Wayne character and shoved it into a chaotic film-noir universe that was a marvel and a joy to behold.

Again, it is a great film.

But nothing could have prepared anyone for the cinematic masterpiece that is The Dark Knight. With Knight (whose total worldwide gross is nearing a billion dollars!), Nolan has climbed the ranks of great filmmakers, becoming a member of the mainstream geniuses club, which includes notable members like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and, to some extent, Michael Mann. The Dark Knight takes the Batman story and turns it, for the first time ever, into a truly mythic tragedy. By delving deeper into Batman/Bruce Wayne's psychology and envisioning The Joker as a nefarious anarchist (instead of the usual interpretation of a giggling psychopath), Nolan and co. have produced a great thriller, an awesome film-noir, and a comic-book adaptation that is almost flawless.

With great action sequences, great dialogue, an epic feel, serpentine plot twists and, above all, magnificent performances from all involved (especially Heath Ledger as The Joker), this is an unmissable cinematic treat. If you are one of the few very unfortunate people who still hasn't seen it, go now!

So, till next year, keep browsing those shelves.