I had a friend once who claimed that there was no point in listening to a record or seeing a movie that was merely good, that to invest the money and time, it should be great. I later caught him listening to -- and enjoying almost to the point of tears -- a CD that would never be described by anyone as great. The point is that sometimes a good movie does wonders for the soul that a great movie could never hope to replicate. Take a look at Iron Man, still on nearly 4000 screens and still raking in the returns. It's well on its way to earning $300 million and shows no signs of stopping there. It's currently the #1 highest grossing film of the year, as well as one of the top rated films at Rotten Tomatoes, with a whopping 93%. I'm one of the movie's fans, but it seems to me that this response is based more on sheer gratitude than anything else. Everyone seems to be simultaneously chiming in: thanks for the good movie!
2008 has been a lousy year for great movies, but I have seen quite a few good ones. The documentary Young@Heart (212 screens), for example, has continued to live in my memory long after I saw it, and long after any of the award-winning Iraq documentaries I've had to sit through. I suspect that it's one of those rare, word-of-mouth docs like March of the Penguins or Grizzly Man that people actually tell their friends about. I don't want to give anything away, but before I saw the movie I didn't care much for the band Coldplay, and now I can't listen to "Fix You" without getting a lump in my throat. The key to this movie is that it looked terrible before I went in, and it turned out to be a huge and happy surprise.
That's actually the dominant theme for all these "good" movies. When I saw that The Bank Job (122 screens) was 1) a movie starring Jason Statham and, 2) distributed by Lionsgate, I immediately assumed that it was junk that would be withheld from press screenings. But instead director Roger Donaldson came to town on a PA tour to promote the film. I was still skeptical: this guy has one of the least interesting resumes, ever. But lo and behold, it's a good solid, old-fashioned bank heist movie. (And Donaldson was an incredibly nice, knowledgeable guy.) Given, it has a few plot holes, but it's brisk and clean and a lot of fun. Flawless (40 screens) is another heist movie (diamonds this time) that comes together and works thanks to its coherent look and feel, and thanks to solid performances by Demi Moore and the ever-dependable Michael Caine.
I did a column a while back on Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights (59 screens) and how everyone hates it because it doesn't have the weight or depth of Wong's previous films, not to mention that it's in English. But I can't help it; I found it incredibly sweet and romantic, with a bold look and intricate sound design. I had heard bad things before I went in, but this is another one I still think about. (I might actually see it again.) Another foreign film shot in English, The Band's Visit (35 screens) was disqualified for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration because the Egyptians and Israelis speak English as their common language. It looked like one of those fluffy, sugary Miramax art house films that make a lot of money and sometimes win Oscars, but it has unexpected depth and skill. It starts off with the fish-out-of-water formula (an Egyptian police band stuck in Israel) but it uses space and silence to beautiful effect.
Speaking of foreign films, I think everyone is pretty much over Amelie by now, perhaps overdosed on too much cute, and poor Audrey Tautou never really followed up her performance with anything remotely satisfying; she seemed stuck in "cute" mode. Her latest film, the enjoyable Priceless (38 screens), surprised me when I saw her transform from cuddle-bunny to sex kitten. She stalks around in heels and little black dresses like a hot huntress looking for men to devour. It's a pretty silly wealth-fantasy film, and somewhat of a French drawing room comedy, but it always seems to step back just before it goes too far.
Finally, we have Juno (15 screens), which I always thought was just a "good" film and not a great one. Talk about the kind of damage that too much hype can bring. Does anyone love this film anymore? Is everyone sick of it? Yet I stand by my initial review. It's not one of last year's best films, but I enjoyed the sound of it, the musical ring of the unusual, artificial dialogue. I also thought that Ellen Page was the best vehicle for that dialogue, with her bold, wry voice and clipped delivery. But it doesn't go anywhere particularly amazing or try anything exemplary; and it has a lot in common with two other good movies from 2007, Waitress and Knocked Up, that didn't receive nearly the same kind of praise. Perhaps, as time goes on, people can once again begin to enjoy Juno for the good film it is.