What we ask of modern movies is a pretty tall order, just transcend the ordinariness of everyday life.
Television has pushed its creative boundaries to the point where average films, typified by the glut that go directly to DVD today, just cannot consistently compete with TV on an artistic level. Most of the week-in and week-out theatrical releases, despite significant budgets, content beyond network TV boundaries, or a reliance on costly visual effects, just can’t deliver on our basic request like an episode of “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica” do.
But the true best of the best in movies can, and do. They use these expensive resources to go places, physically and digitally, that great TV can’t. And even more rare is when the movie goes even smaller, in an attempt to get inside the heart of the human experience. And that’s what the most admirable films of 2008 did, either in scale, in artistic expression, with their words, through a unique visual style, or by remarkable performances.
Between now and the Oscars (2/22), we’ll be posting about the best films of 2008. Some have been looked at before here at pG.com, especially those that broke out in late summer, but most will be examined with fresh eyes. We’ll start with the film that, thanks to all the awards it has collected, has pretty much become the front-runner for Oscar’s best picture.
Imagine a darkly optimistic fusion of ”Tom Sawyer”, “The Godfather”, “Midnight Express”, “The Usual Suspects” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Set it in the heart of Mumbai, India. Hand it over to Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “28 Days Later”, “Shallow Grave”, “Millions”), using the most hyper-kinetic aspects of his signature style in a summation of his career’s work. This is “Slumdog Millionaire“.
Truly commercial, driven by a script designed like a Rolex, emotionally charged in an old-fashioned (almost ham-handed) way, ”Slumdog” is still unique, arresting, and very, very watchable. Basically the story of Jamal, an urchin from the slums of Mumbai, and his lifelong pursuit of the girl of his dreams, “Millionaire” carries his tale from an impoverished childhood to a working-class young adulthood, when Jamal becomes a contestant on the Indian TV version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Nine different actors (three per character) portray Jamal, his love Latika, and his brother Salim, as the story unfolds over more than a decade. The amateur child and youth actors are totally astonishing, particularly Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala who plays the adolescent Salim, who quickly matures from a crafty petty thief into a criminal figure to be feared. Dev Patel stars as the young adult Jamal, and he brings a marvelous sweetness to the role, perhaps even too sweet given the many kinds of scars Jamal has from his tragic life on the streets.
I’ve recently read that an industry backlash is already gathering against the presumed best picture front-runner. Simultaneously, other pundits say the love for the movie’s story of tragedy and triumph is really a resonant metaphor for the backstory of the making of the film. Director Danny Boyle, hammered after the unfair stigma attached to big budget disaster “Sunshine” (2007), struggled to get this personal and low-budget (under $12 million) film made while original distributor Warner International Pictures imploded. Warner Brothers, proper, and Fox Searchlight teamed up to keep the project alive and into theatres, with Seachlight pumping over $25 million into P&A and the Oscar campaign itself.
Above all, the film is entertaining, though very dark, and really very accessible, despite the abundance of subtitles through much of the film. Thus, it’s solidy commercial, and the overall story of the making of the film, its stunning location work in Mumbai, and the “little film that could” package really do make this a solid and deserving front-runner for the best picture Oscar.
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