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2008: The Year in Film

By: Danny Baldwin

     Every year, I find myself opening this piece by reflecting on how bad the state of film is, almost without exception. That’s probably because I have a tendency to remember all the bad movies I’ve seen when scrolling down my screening log, trying to compose my lists. When I look back now, 2007 and 2006 (which I originally condemned) seem like great years for film.

     I’m tempted to dismiss 2008 in the same way as I have past years, despite the above admission. But I’ll resist the urge. There’s no reason to engage in such a practice because even though I disliked the majority of movies this year, there were plenty of good ones and soon enough they'll be the only ones I remember from 2008. After all, I saw well over 250 theatrical releases; quite a few were bound to be bad because it’s easier to make a bad movie than a good one.

     One thing’s for sure: November and December were great months for film even if the rest seem mediocre now. The 2008 Oscar Season was sweeter than ever, with tons of hits and few misses. For at least the final 50 days of the year, it felt great to be a regular moviegoer.

     Looking over my list of the best films of the year, I realize that most all of them use simple, old-fashioned storytelling techniques to express richer, more complex themes. 2008 represented a welcome return to the basics for Hollywood. But before we get to the good stuff, let’s unclog our arteries and cleanse the bad from our systems…


The Bottom 10

(Presented in reverse-preferential order.)

Dishonorable Mention: Burn After Reading, Mamma Mia!, DOOMSDAY, W., Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?.

10. RocknRolla – I don’t remember much about the schizophrenic story of this Guy Ritchie flash-fest. Likewise, I see no reason to talk a lot about it. It’s a mish-mosh of self-indulgence, useless eye-candy, incomprehensible plot-points, and good actors wasting their time in bad roles – more than enough reason for it to be on this list. The movie will either bore you to death or numb your mind to a point at which you wish you were dead.

9. The Spirit – Frank Miller approached this adaptation of a Will Eisner comic by very literally adapting it—sometimes frame-for-frame—and the results are just as soulless and monotonous as hundreds of pretty, but empty panels. Fans of the source tell me Eisner’s snarky sense of humor is what makes The Spirit come alive, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this movie. It’s a mess made up of the hyper-stylization of Miller’s previous film, Sin City (which he wisely allowed Robert Rodriguez to co-direct), the franticness of a two-year-old, and some of the most pathetic attempts at physical comedy you’ll ever see. That Miller screwed up so profoundly with a badass Samuel Jackson and a glammmed-up group of vixens including Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, and Paz Vega at his side makes the failure of The Spirit seem all the more monumental.

8. Teeth – Mitchell Lichtenstein’s first feature tries to use the campy humor of a girl employing a rare case of vagina dentata as a protective-mechanism to find a larger story about teenage angst. It never succeeds, but Lichtenstein pretends it does by bombarding the viewer with equal amounts of unfunny, cringe-inducing vagina-chompage and avant-garde, self-indulgent attempts to explore a non-existent grander picture. Jess Weixler turns in a good lead performance—unlike Lichetenstein, she clearly understood the real humor and emotion behind the film—but her work is the only positive in this rotten, occasionally offensive dud.

7. Strange Wilderness – To make an intended-comedy starring Steve Zahn, Jonah Hill, Justin Long, Jeff Garlin, and (yes, you’re reading this right) Ernest Borgnine without a single decent laugh was already a sin for co-writer/director Fred Wolf. That he made Strange Wilderness so crude and downright unbearable is just an added reason to count it as one of the worst of 2008.

6. College – Hey there, high-schooler! Yeah, you – the one who bought a ticket for Babylon A.D. and then snuck in to see this R-rated “comedy”. It’s a good thing you saw College because as the movie taught you, you have a lot to look forward to if you pursue your education beyond the twelfth grade. Just like the 17-year-olds who discover themselves on a frat-filled college-tour in the movie, you’ll be able to productively use your time at university to become an alcoholic and swear like a sailor and get ostracized by upper-classmen and pretend like you have a shot at dating a D-grade-movie-extra bimbo! And guess what? Only you and your drunken friends will actually find any of said antics funny. Doesn’t that sound just peachy? If so, then mission accomplished: College taught you well.

5. Blindness – Acclaimed Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles proved that he was more talented than the exploitative and criminally-overrated City of God led me to believe with The Constant Gardener, 2005’s densely-layered and superiorly acted political drama. This year, he made a futuristic parable about a quarantined group of people infected with a viral blindness. Cast off from the rest of the world and thrust into inhumane conditions by their government, they succumb to all of the typical Lord of the Flies traps, which Meirelles captures in the most graphic detail he possibly can. This all sounds like the set-up for a great film, but Blindness comes off as an utterly ridiculous one. There isn’t a thought behind Meirelles’ premise; by the end of the movie it seems as though he just plain likes putting rape and other violence on the screen. Julianne Moore stars as the token wife who is miraculously immune to the virus but sneaks into the quarantined area to be with her husband (Mark Ruffalo), leading the blind in ways that are every bit as frustrating to the viewer as they should be but for none of the right reasons.

4. Hunger – Just as Meirelles is overly infatuated with the violence in Blindness, videographer-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen seems to have made Hunger simply because he thinks the look of flesh rotting of malnutrition looks cool. This stylized interpretation of Irish Republican Bobby Sands’ fatal commitment to the 1981 IRA Hunger Stike is grueling all right, but only because it represents a filmmaker putting his audience through hell for no reason. Michael Fassbender of 300-fame delivers a strong lead performance, but one wishes McQueen would’ve given him more to do than pretend to suffer for 96 minutes-worth of tightly-framed long-takes that show little more than a man’s decomposing body.

3. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay – Another hour-and-45-minute commercial for weed, this time with the titular duo engaging in even more bathroom humor and taking the time to denigrate the sitting President. I consider it the most dangerous film of the year for anyone under 18 (perhaps 25 if they’ve already bonded with the reefer).

2. Disaster Movie and Meet the Spartans – Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedman are likely cashing in big-time by making the worst spoofs to ever reach cinema-screens, but perhaps they should take their earnings and go on a permanent vacation. The team’s two pictures this year were too silly for me to claim they contained anything offensive, but I was certainly offended by the fact that hardworking Americans were ripped off by buying tickets for such trash. There’s nothing even remotely funny in either picture and, as such, they were both insults to the exhibitors forced to show them and the people who chose to endure them. 

1. Postal – Part of me doesn’t want to give Uwe Boll the recognition entailed in deeming Postal the worst film of the year, but I’ve decided to be honest and allow him what he will surely see as an honor. In an age full of films criticizing the Bush Administration in its final days, this was the only one of the bunch that stood as a clear and unapologetic F-you to America, reason enough to condemn it. The opening scene parodies the 9/11 attacks—yes, it allows the terrorists who took over the first flight to hit the World Trade Center an amiable cameo before they plunge to their deaths—and it only gets worse from there. After that, the movie suggests George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden are working together. Oh, and it also trivializes all Americans—liberal and conservative—as vile scum. Postal is a self-proclaimed “satire,” but last time I checked, satires have feature some remnant of truth to be funny. Boll is off in la-la land, convinced he has made a video-game adaptation (yes, the movie is based off of a video-game) with actual substance when in reality he has only embarrassed himself further by alienating even the small group of moviegoers that still watches his films for their “so bad it’s good”-entertainment-value. Whether we should all sign the popular anti-Boll Internet petition or just ignore the guy is up for debate. All I know is that Boll has made what is easily the worst film I’ve ever seen, much as I hate to afford him the credit.


The Top 10

(Presented in reverse-preferential order.)

Honorable Mention: Cloverfield, Changeling, Live and Become, The Reader, Snow Angels.

10. Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard’s dramatic telling of the famous interviews may be more workmanlike than it is complex, but it’s nonetheless one of the most compelling films of the year. With mainstream media attention focused on political mind-games more than ever before, the heated verbal contention between David Frost and Richard Nixon feels contemporary and relevant. (The movie isn’t political, despite Howard’s shameful attempts to link Nixon to Bush when discussing it, most notably at a Q&A with FoxNews’ Chris Wallace.) Anchored by a dynamic, nuanced Frank Langella performance that far transcends an impersonation of Nixon and also-strong work from Michael Sheen as Frost, the picture is vigorously entertaining.

9. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and The Wackness – Tonally-opposite as they may be, both of these whimsical New York City-based teenage romances entertained me and invested my emotions. The first is a Before Sunrise­-like walk-and-talker that pins music nerd Nick (Michael Cera) with record producer’s daughter Norah (Kat Dennings) as they get to know each other searching the lonely, glowing streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn for a secret show being held by indie-rock band Where’s Fluffy. Cera and Dennings have insatiable, relatable chemistry and the movie’s quirky supporting characters are endearing. The latter film is less upbeat, but just as involving: Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) deals pot during his last summer of high school as his family breaks down from financial troubles at the beginning of the Giuliani Administration. His shrink (Ben Kingsley) trades him advice for weed. But then comes Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), said shrink’s step-daughter, and things begin to turn around for Luke in ways that only the summer allows.

8. Let the Right One in and Twilight – Between these two engrossing entertainments, it was a great year for vampires at the cinema. The first is a chilling, moody Swedish-import that follows a pubescent boy as he falls in love with the girl next door, not realizing she lives off blood until he likes her too much to stay away. The experience gets under your skin and takes chances in ways that American films don’t. (Ironically, it’s being remade in the U.S. for next year.) The second, a pop-lit production that raked in the box-office of a Hollywood film but was made on a quarter of the budget, is just as artistically successful on its own terms. While fans of the Stephanie Meyer source novel didn’t get what director Catherine Hardwicke was going for, those of us who connected with Hardwicke’s campy exploration of teenage romanticism and eroticism loved the film. Let’s hope new hire Chris Weitz doesn’t screw the series over by electing for a more serious approach directing the sequel.

7. Revolutionary Road – You don’t have to hate American suburbia like Sam Mendes to connect with the director’s stirring, intimate depiction of a 1950s family in crisis. When we first get to know Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) as they bicker on the side of a Connecticut highway after Frank bashes the production-values of a play April stars in, the experience feels eerily similar to 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But Frank and April are hardly in the same verbal war of wits George and Martha fought forty years ago. They are real people with genuinely distressful, chaotic emotions living in a world that doesn’t recognize their pain. The supporting characters the couple interacts with are derivative, but only because they are seen as caricatures through the eyes of two individuals who have convinced themselves that the social norms of their time are disgusting because they cannot find a way to happily exist within them. What follows is utterly surprising; the audience expects Revolutionary Road to go in one direction because the set-up feels familiar on the surface, but it instead moves towards a violent, thought-provoking conclusion that applies to domestic-life today. Yes, the film may be too dismissive of suburbia, but it works because the central relationship is compelling. DiCaprio is as good as he’s ever been and Winslet gives a performance that should win the Oscar. And oh is the movie gorgeous to look at: veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins eye-poppingly balances the pronounced colors of a ‘50s aesthetic with the piercing intensity of modern camerawork. Some will call Revolutionary Road shameless Oscar bait, but if all shameless Oscar bait were as good as this then the term wouldn’t have a negative connotation.

6. Man on Wire If you don’t already know going in, you learn very early on in James Marsh’s Man on Wire that daredevil tightrope walker Philippe Petit successfully crossed the gap between the Twin Towers in 1974. But that fact doesn’t destroy any of the suspense the movie creates. Frankly, the movie’s magic rests not in its end-result, but in its exploration of Petit’s journey, which is as dense as it is lyrical. Interspersing documentary interviews with Petit and his accomplices, Super 8 footage of Petit’s famous stunt, and staged re-enactments to fill in the gaps, Marsh weaves a tale that grabs the viewer’s sense of wonder. It’s an experience that audience members are content to just sit back and marvel over, only to then find themselves on their edges of their seats, sucked in thinking about Petit’s unique life-philosophy. Looming in the backdrop is the knowledge of the Towers’ ultimate fate, providing the film an added sense of relevance. Even those who refuse to watch documentaries will be engrossed by this one.

5. Slumdog Millionaire – Danny Boyle, one of the great engineers of modern cinema, packed for India to make one of the most visually innovative, adrenaline-pumping audience favorites in recent memory. Shooting on three different cameras, Boyle and his crew authentically capture the religious, cultural, and economic woes and developments of India through the life-story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a once-dirt-poor contestant on the country’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”. The movie is a huge technical feat—it transitions seamlessly between styles and tones—but it’s hard to embrace strictly as an auteur piece for Boyle because his cast makes it a profoundly human experience. Patel is strikingly charismatic and hits all the right notes in depicting Jamal’s Dickensian transformation from rags-to-riches and his relationships with brother Salim, who after years of hardship becomes a slumlord himself, and lifelong love Latika. What’s more: all three are played in their youths by real kids from the streets of Mumbai speaking the native language, adding to the organic feel of the experience. Slumdog Millionaire takes the viewer to many dark corners of the world, but at the same time it’s exuberant and hopeful, spinning an old-fashioned yarn with the awareness, immediacy, and innovation of a great contemporary motion picture.

4. Gran Torino – Clint Eastwood’s final foray in front of the camera is one of his best. He plays Walt Kowalski, an aging Korean War veteran and lifetime Ford auto-plant worker living in a once-thriving Michigan town that has succumbed to Hmong-immigrant gang-violence. Walt’s a stubborn racist who can’t stand his sons’ yuppie families or his new neighbors, but he’s sympathetic from the start because we can relate to his core nostalgia for a bygone America. And he only becomes more relatable as the movie moves, fostering an unlikely friendship with Hmong teenager Thao and protecting Thao’s family in the face of a neighborhood gang. The movie tells an old-fashioned story with a sharp sense of humor—Walt’s audible growl at anything that bothers him is only the tip of the comedic iceberg—and hits on deeper themes in the process. There is thought-provoking commentary on the demise of the industry-based U.S. city, the changing American family, and—as Walt begins to realize he must act to stop neighborhood gang activity to ensure Thao’s future—faith’s role in life, death, and vengeance. An involving mixture of vintage Eastwood ass-kicking, human drama, and food for thought, Gran Torino is exactly what a mainstream entertainment should be.

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – David Fincher and an extensive team of artists pulled off the most realistic integration of computer-generated imagery and traditional filmmaking to date in expanding an F. Scott Fitzgerald short-story about a man aging backwards. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that rare fusion of narrative and visual poetry that wafts over the viewer as it plays and finds its way into their conscience in the days after they see it. I’m tempted to call it dreamlike, but the experience is more substantive and haunting than that. Benjamin Button’s “curious” biology is not a gimmick; it’s the vehicle for a story encompassing a great Old Hollywood romance, a century’s worth of American history, and a unique dissection of the extensively-explored topic of what it’s like to be different in society. In the lead role, Brad Pitt works seamlessly with face-replacement technology to craft a real, sympathetic human—the film’s simplest and greatest accomplishment. Opposite him, Cate Blanchett is majestic and wonderful as Benjamin’s lifetime love Daisy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has so many facets that it’s almost impossible to talk about in a short blurb like this, but I assure you it’s a work you must experience. The movie would easily be the best mega-budget Hollywood production since The Lord of the Rings if it weren’t for my #1 pick.

2. The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke makes a comeback for the ages playing Randy “The Ram” Ramsinski, a down-and-old, 40-something wrestler with a career and a personal life in turmoil. Randy’s existence has been reduced to working in a supermarket and wrestling in high school gyms on the weekends just to get by. He convinces himself that he and a stripper (Marisa Tomei) have a future together and that he’ll against all odds mend the fractured relationship he has with his adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). But the only thing Randy knows is how to wrestle, and Rourke understands this sense of helplessness. The actor remarkably earns the viewer’s sympathy playing a complete screw-up of a man because he expresses just how conditioned Randy has become. This fact is particularly striking in the ring, when Randy’s innate, animalistic satisfaction in the crowd’s response—meager and pathetic as it is at this point in his career—is enough to merit puncture-wounds from a staple-gun and barbed-wire. And never is Randy’s aforementioned helplessness more painstaking than in the three tragic scenes he shares with his daughter. He gets back into touch with her at a low-point in his life, only to impress her and then let her down for the billionth time. Wood is heartbreaking in the role and deserves an Oscar.  Shooting on 16mm, director Darren Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti capture the intimate authenticity of a DV-shot documentary and the gritty texture of 35mm in each scene, providing the story and performances an added sense of realness. All elements fused, The Wrestler reaches a powerful final-scene crescendo that is as tragic as it is inevitable.

1. The Dark Knight – Trying to add to the discussion on the best film of 2008 is likely a more impossible task than making the movie was. While I’m not about to come up with anything particularly unique here, I must credit co-writer/director Christopher Nolan for achieving the unthinkable by helming a $185 million, 155-minute sequel to a superhero movie that was once all but assured a sequel. As if that wasn’t enough, he did it with a superhero and a villain who had already waged war in a terrible previous movie. And he made it one of the most emotionally complex, politically thoughtful, visually groundbreaking, epically entertaining, wispily romantic, terrifyingly violent, and downright moving films of all time. (For a less adjective-filled analysis of the film, click here.) This is not just the best comic-book adaptation to date; it’s a masterpiece unto its own. From Christian Bale’s full embodiment of the titular Dark Knight of Gotham City to the late Heath Ledger’s much-discussed, eerie turn as his nemesis, the picture contains just as many well-written characters and great performances as it does impressive special effects. In a year with more than its share of accomplished Hollywood productions, Nolan’s film best reminded moviegoers that mainstream motion pictures can still be involving and thoughtful at the same time. I long considered putting a smaller movie in the top slot of my list to bring it greater attention, but as I began to reflect on The Dark Knight’s infinite accomplishments, my decision became clear. Here’s to hoping the upcoming third entry in Nolan’s saga is every bit as good.

Loose Ends

Most Overrated: Encounters at the End of the World – I love Werner Herzog as much as the next guy, but where others found the veteran filmmaker’s documentary exploration of Antarctica a fascinating vehicle for inquisitive discovery I found it a meandering and distant effort.

Most Underrated: The House Bunny – This hilarious, lightweight comedy may not have allowed me to forgive director Fred Wolf entirely for the monstrosity that was Strange Wilderness (#6 on the Worst list), but it came close. The writing is sharp and the lead performance from Anna Farris serves as yet another example of the actress’ impressive comedic chops.

Most Overlooked: Nothing but the Truth – Rod Lurie’s part government-thriller/part human-drama tragically may never play in theatres beyond unpublicized Oscar-runs in New York and Los Angeles due to Yari Film Group’s ongoing bankruptcy. I admittedly have some problems with the movie’s political pretext, which assumes the never-directly-mentioned Bush Administration has been knowingly corrupt through story-parallels, robbing the movie of considerable complexity. But there’s no denying that director Lurie expertly weaves a story rife with ethical dilemmas and lead Kate Beckinsale delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Let’s hope Yari can work something out and the film finds an audience; it’s a must-see.

25 More Good Movies That Didn’t Make My List: Be Kind Rewind, Boy A, Charlie Bartlett, The Class, Flash of Genius, Get Smart, A Girl Cut in Two, The Hammer, Happy Go-Lucky, Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Last Chance Harvey, Marley and Me, Married Life, Milk, OSS 117: Cairo—Nest of Spies, Rachel Getting Married, Roman de Gare, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Strangers, Transsiberian, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor, Waltz with Bashir, Zack & Miri Make a Porno.

If I Picked the Oscar Nominees (listed in preferential order):

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor.

Best Actress: Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Kate Beckinsale in Nothing but the Truth, Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long, Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin in Milk, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, Bee Vang in Gran Torino, Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder.

Best Supporting Actress: Evan Rachel Wood in The Wrestler, Viola Davis in Doubt, Marisa Tomei in The Wreslter, Debra Winger in Rachel Getting Married, Olivia Thirlby in The Wackness.


Published on: 1.1.2009


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