One of my vices even bigger than beer-drinking is movie-watching. I see pretty much every halfway decent release in a calender year, trying to miss nothing that is either critically acclaimed or affects the zeitgeist in some way. These are my thoughts on cinema 2008. Note: I consider a movie’s year of release by when it first came out in New York City. Thus, some films–mainly foreign stuff–may be considered 2007 films by the Academy and by other critics, but if I couldn’t see it in theaters til 2008, then that’s what I consider it.*
TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR
1. ROMAN dE GARE — I understand the gripes people have with this French film. It “cheats” a bit in the storytelling, it uses cinematic trickery, it’s intentionally manipulative (then again, aren’t all good films?), and one could even say it has plot holes. And I won’t argue with you if you feel those ways. Having said all that, no other film released in 2008 kept me as captivated for its running time. No other film had me as amped up when I left the theater. No other film permeated my brain as much. Had me thinking so much about it, reading as many online words as I could about it. This film was the most often my answer when people asked me, “Seen any good movies lately?” A lot of films are called “Hitchcockian,” but since the masters’ death, this is the rarity that truly is. I won’t tell you anything about its plot except to say this is not to be missed.
2. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK — I am admittedly a hyoooooooooge Charlie Kaufman fanatic and his past three major films have all made my year end top ten (“Being John Malkovich” at #2 in 1999, “Adaptation” at #1 in 2002, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” at #2 in 2004). “Synecdoche” makes Kaufman’s other works seem like child’s play. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily better than the three aforementioned but it’s just as ambitious, if not moreso, than any of them. I think only time will tell whether this is a true masterpiece or just an awe-inspiring, mind-bending, mess of a curio. Still wrapping my brain around this one even after three viewings and it will certainly demand even more. Just because Kaufman is smarter than us all–and has no problem displaying that–doesn’t necessarily mean he is making incomprehensible films. This is one of the best ever movies about a man’s life.
3. GRAN TORINO — Simply based on the trailer, you might think this to be some trite, over-the-top joke of a work. Yes, perhaps in some one else’s hands (I’m looking at you DeNiro). But not with the great Clint Eastwood both directing and starring in it, in legitimately some of his best work in both venues. His gravelly rasp makes all his lines sound like immediate classics. A taut script with nothing extraneous and more comedy than I expected. Another masterpiece from the legend and if this is indeed his swan song as an actor a fitting career conclusion. I challenge you to exit the movie and not spend the rest of the day trying to gutturally growl like Clint. The end credit song, both written and sung by the cinematic polymath, is splendid too and will be stuck in your head for days, even if Clint sings a bit like Cookie Monster.
4. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE — You know how blurb whores–lackluster film critics that LOVE every movie just so they can get their name on the advertising, posters, billboards, and DVD boxes–will sometimes say, “People were cheering in the aisles!!!” in order to note how great a movie was? Well, I certainly had never seen that literally happen until I saw this picture. “Slumdog” is so life-affirming, so touching, that, yes, I saw several people actually pump their fists, actually stand up and celebrate in the aisles after this movie about the harrowing life journey of a Mumbai orphan. (Not to mention a funny story surrounds my theatrical experience with this one.)
5. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON — A technical marvel, sure, all David Fincher films are, but a damn fine story too. I don’t get all the shit people having been giving this movie, calling it overly long and boring, throwing out har har epithets like “Benjamin SNOOZE Button.” I just don’t see that. It’s long sure, but as Roger Ebert always notes, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” I totally agree and, even hungover like a motherfucker as I sat with the other Jews on Christmas Day, I was spellbound by all 166 minutes of the run-time. Some of the best and most award-worthy make-up and special effects work ever go into making Brad Pitt look numerous ages while Cate Blanchett has never been so beautiful. Your humble narrator may have even cried as the end credits rolled. Then again, he was alone on Christmas day.
6. THE WRESTLER — Mickey Rourke gives the best performance of the year as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. I hate when people say an actor “inhabited” a character, but that’s exactly what Sir Eddie Cook does in this one. If he wasn’t so famous you might think this was a real documentary about a down in the dumps wrestler trying to get back on…middle. A heart-wrenching story about failed dreams with little chance of any success for the rest of one’s life. The third act scene in the deli is mind-blowing, maybe the best single movie scene of the year. Darren Aronofsky is definitely back in top form after the mild failure of “The Fountain.”
7. THE COUNTERFEITERS — Even Jews are fucking sick of Holocaust movies, but this is a great, unique one and it doesn’t even involve the reprehensible Roberto Benigni lying to his poor little kid. The semi-true story of a legendary Jewish counterfeiter taken in by the Nazis and then forced to helm a team to make counterfeit money and documents for them. Austrian/German with subtitles, natch.
8. THE VISITOR — Thomas McCarthy has big balls to make such a subtle, “quiet,” thoughtful film that does not necessarily give you a happy ending in its tale of a widowed professor who stumbles into the lives of two illegal immigrants. It’s less overtly political than you’d think too. Longtime character actor Richard Jenkins deserves an Oscar nomination simply for the final subway scene. He’s phenomenal.
9. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS — If a filmmaker was challenged to make a movie with the absolute LEAST chance of playing in a mall multiplex in middle America, it would certainly be this Romanian flick about two university students trying to arrange an illegal abortion. A stunning film that is both riveting, yet forces you to turn you head from the screen several times (especially toward the end) due to both shock, disbelief, and even disgust. Cristian Mungiu has several impressive long shots that seem to go on for 10 minutes straight. I can’t imagine how they were scripted or acted as they were so documentary-like. This is hardly “light” entertainment, nor is it a completely politicized picture, but overall, a very worthwhile film. You need to be in the right mood to watch it–not a great “date” movie fo’ sho’–but it’s surprisingly entertaining. I think this film will be on my mind for a long time.
10. SHOTGUN STORIES — What David Gordon Green did for North Carolina, rookie filmmaker Jeff Nichols does for Arkansas. It was little surprise when the credits rolled and I saw Green had actually produced this one. A great and unique movie presented with incredible subtlety in telling the story of a feud between two sets of half-brothers following the death of their father. Hopefully this will finally make Michael Shannon a star. Though I doubt it.
MAN ON A WIRE — The best documentary of the year, a nice blend of intrigue, mystery, romance, Quixotism, and inspiration. Masterfully made with a true character as its star, Philippe Petit. A remarkably good soundtrack for a doc. “You should live on the edge of life…on a tightrope.”
WALL*E — The best animated film of the year, but still a bit overrated as both a film and as part of the Pixar canon. Seemingly one part “Short Circuit,” one part “Idiocracy,” one part “2001,” and one part a ham-handed screed ala “An Inconvenient Truth.” I liked the “Short Circuit”-ness, LOVED the “Idiocracy”-ness, was flummoxed by the “2001”-ness, and hated the Al Gore shit. Let’s be honest, Pixar can’t make a flop. This movie is solid and beautiful to look at, but has a bit of a lagging story line. But still, any movie, especially a children’s one, that makes wicked fun of fat people is A-OK in my book.
Other notables (alphabetical): Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, City of Men, The Dark Knight, Encounters at the End of the World, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, In Bruges, Iron Man, Revolutionary Road, Snow Angels, Son of Rambow, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, prologue to Tropic Thunder, and Vicky Christina Barcelona
I don’t care if you were a movie star in every single scene or on camera for just ten seconds, if you gave a great performance you gave a great performance. Here are my year’s favorites in some semblance of an order. It was admittedly a somewhat weak year for the ladies.
Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”
Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”
Phillip Seymor Hoffman in “Synecdoche, New York”
Dominque Pinon in “Roman de Gare”
Michael Shannon in “Shotgun Stories” and “Revolutionary Road”
Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor”
Benicio del Toro in “Che”
Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Robert Downey, Jr. in “Iron Man” and “Tropic Thunder”
Colin Farrell in “In Bruges”
Dev Patel in “Slumdog Millionaire”
Karl Markovics in “The Counterfeiters”
Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”
Michael Angarano in “Snow Angels”
Werner Herzog narrating “Encounters at the End of the World”
Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Anamaria Marinca in “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”
Emily Watson in “Synecdoche, New York”
Rebecca Hall in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Cate Blanchett in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road”
Rosario Dawson in “Seven Pounds”
Fanny Ardant in “Roman de Gare”
Frances McDormand in “Burn After Reading”
WORST FILMS OF THE YEAR BASED ONLY ON THEIR ABOMINABLE TRAILERS
I go to tons of theatrical releases which means I am forced to see tons of shitty trailers for tons of presumably shitty movies. Here are the worst movies of the year that I never saw, based purely on their mind-numbingly vapid trailers that diseased my cerebellum.
5. WELCOME HOME, ROSCOE JENKINS — At least it’s not “Big Momma’s House 5.”
4. WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS — “I haven’t had sex in forever…And I need to have sex, cause I’m good at it!” Go have sex with yourself, Ashton.
3. YES MAN — “Was I chewing gum before?”
2. BRIDE WARS — “My hair’s blue! It’s bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue!!!” I’m not even sure why Anne Hathaway needs to play pranks on Kate Hudson. If I was Anne I’d be like, “Kate, you’re already so much more uglier than me, there’s no reason for me to try and make you look worse.”
1. MEET THE SPARTANS, SUPERHERO MOVIE, & DISASTER MOVIE — I measure the intelligence of human beings by how many times they laugh during a spoof movie trailer. Zero times = over 80 IQ. One or more times = you are not allowed to be my friend.
WORST FILMS OF THE YEAR
I try my damnedest not to see bad movies, but sometimes–due to placating girls, accidental mismanagement of my Netflix queue, sexy trailers, in-flight “entertainment”–I just can’t help it. These are the worst films I actually saw this year.
5. P.S. I LOVE YOU – This film actually was released in late 2007, but I didn’t see it until last week when a girl and I were so fucking bored on a Sunday that she forced me to let her call it up on HBO OnDemand. Whoa boy. Comically offensive. Why is it that Hilary Swank can only play challenging parts well and when she is cast as a relatively normal person she is unable to handle the task? I luckily didn’t watch enough dreck in 2008 to have a fifth worst selection and I would be absolutely remiss if I wasn’t able to bash this crapfest. I challenge a human being to watch this one from start to finish. Alex DeLarge never had it so bad.
4. WANTED — Like “Fight Club” for dumb people, “Office Space” for people that don’t like to laugh. An absolutely ludicrous plot with dumb physics-defying action. Apparently, the DVD has deleted scenes showing Angelina and James McAvoy visiting the ATM to make sure the studio’s checks to them cleared.
3. YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING — You know, I honestly hate to bash small-budget independent movies. We should admire all people that somehow have the gumption to get anything filmed and released to strangers. Nevertheless, if one has the audacity to name their film “Young People Fucking” then they should be able to handle some bashing. This is what passes for edgy sex comedy nowadays?! This is essentially an “Everybody Loves Raymond” level of sexual and romantic discourse. Sans laugh track of course. If you want an edgy movie on sexual mores go back in time and watch this in 1958. Or, I guess watch it in Canada where it was made. Provocative title but the emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately most all the movie’s characters do though. This bomb couldn’t even have the decency to give me tons of gratuitous nudity. The flick is overly talky too. I really just wanted these annoying young people to shut the fuck up and actually…fuck.
2. VANTAGE POINT – Loved the trailer, looked cool, unique, tense, something John Frankenheimer might have made back in the ’60s, and thus I was duped into seeing this disaster. Incomprehensibly terrible and a major waste of some serious talent.
1. JUMPER — The script to this one was awesome and the trailer was equally cool. Competent director Doug Liman has a history of pretty cool pictures, so this seemed destined to be one great, or at least adequate, popcorn movie. Nope. Hayden Christensen makes for one of the worst leading men ever and the plot is even more ludicrous than the special effects and dialogue. Unquestionably the worst movie of 2008. Maybe the entire decade. In fact, watching this may have even been the two worst hours of my entire year. And that includes the two I spent listening to my ex-girlfriend break up with me in Central Park. Oh wait, that actually took four and a half hours.
*2008 was somewhat of a so-so year for film, especially compared to the amazing year of 2007.
Notable 2008 movies as-yet-unseen: Bolt, A Christmas Tale, Doubt, Edge of Heaven, Flight of the Red Balloon, Frost/Nixon, Frozen River, Happy Go Lucky, I’ve Loved You So Love, Let the Right One In, Milk, My Winnepeg, Paranoid Park, Rachel Getting Married, The Reader, Waltz With Bashir, Wendy & Lucy
WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITES (AND NOT-SO-FAVORITES) OF THE FILM YEAR?