Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
I have this knee-jerk aversion to any movies about the Holocaust and/or World War II, and since I missed the chance to see this for free before it opened, I just figured I'd skip it or maybe catch it on video. But after hearing such raves from several people I know and reading the glowing reviews, I broke down and went to see it and I'm glad I did. This is an unbelievably detailed and comprehensive film, showing a perspective on the war that I think is rarely seen, that of the Germans and specifically of the Nazi leadership. The Allies are nothing more than an unseen presence for almost the entire film, and you can't help but sympathize with a number of the German characters even if you know they are at least partially responsible for horrible atrocities. Hirschbiegel emphasizes more than anything the humanity of these people, Hitler included, forcing the viewer to understand that all of the horrors of the war were perpetrated by human beings not much different from the average person, and that not all of them were completely and totally evil. Really only Hitler and Goebbels come off as completely amoral and inhuman, and even they aren't caricatures or monsters. At times the film is so thorough (it's two and a half hours long) that it feels tedious, and Hirschbiegel follows so many characters that it's hard to keep track of many of the minor ones. But overall it's a powerful film and one that offers a fresh perspective on a tired subject.
Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)
I kind of go back and forth on whether Anderson is a genius or an annoyance. I found Punch-Drunk Love annoying, but I loved Magnolia and liked Boogie Nights (it was one of those movies that was an inevitable disappointment after so much hype). It's actually been several years since I saw an Anderson picture (since Punch-Drunk's theatrical release), so maybe all that time away refreshed me (and of course Anderson himself has nearly disappeared since then; apparently he is making a movie about the Teapot Dome scandal, of all things), but I thought this was absolutely wonderful. It's much more focused than the sprawl of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, essentially following only four characters, and it tells a more believable and emotionally involving story than Punch-Drunk did. The cast is phenomenal, which is to be expected from Anderson regulars John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, but I was really surprised by Gwyneth Paltrow, who gives probably the best performance I've seen of hers, unaffected by movie-star excesses (she was a relative unknown at the time). Samuel L. Jackson does his standard badass thing, but it works, and the minimalist dialogue is poetic and pithy. Anderson's camera work is astounding, with these breathtaking long takes and artistic still life shots that open and close certain scenes. A really remarkable little film, and probably not the kind of thing he'll make anymore now that he's a certified Auteur.
Michael Moore Hates America (Michael Wilson, 2004)
I was skeptical of this, and my conservative editor at the Weekly loved it, but my reaction was somewhere in the middle. Not the hatchet job you think it might be; Wilson goes out of his way to be fair and honest, since that's exactly what he accuses Moore of not doing. His point is less specifically about Moore than about the shrillness and negativity of political debate, and Moore is just the most high-profile example of this (and, yes, Wilson is more of a right-leaning guy, although this is surprisingly not the main point of the film). Wilson doesn't hesitate to tear apart conservative nutjob David Horowitz just as much as Moore when Horowitz shows up claiming liberals want to assassinate him. Some of Wilson's specific complaints about Moore are overly nitpicky, and sometimes he uses Moore-esque tactics without apologizing for them, as he makes a point to do at other times. But for the most part his intentions are noble, trying to say that you shouldn't elide truth and fairness just to make a point, even if you believe your point is right. He finds a number of rational Moore supporters to talk to him in a calm and respectful manner, and points out that he has no problem with people who share Moore's beliefs or the concept of debating ideas. The saddest part of the film is the way that Moore comes off as exactly the kind of thing he's fought against, as Wilson repeatedly attempts to set up interviews, and Moore blows Wilson off just like Roger Smith did to him in Roger & Me, making glib comments rather than engaging Wilson in an actual exchange of ideas. Moore is clearly an egomaniac, as this film makes clear, but that doesn't make his political beliefs erroneous.