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The Films of 2008: And Lo, The Show Went On

by William Goss

This past Christmas Eve, on what could barely be considered a whim, my father and I opted to have dinner at a Japanese steakhouse. You know, one of those deals where they cook the food in front of you and serve it right up. I knew the routine, and yet I found myself watching with renewed glee as our chef went through the rounds and nearby brats stared onward in slack-jawed awe. It was an experience that got me thinking about the difference between craftsmanship and showmanship. Did the food taste any better for all that flash and noise? Not necessarily, but what flash and what noise! The whole thing ended up being a healthy reminder to my critical sensibilities of the line dividing those who make movies and those who MAKE movies, and what a pleasure the familiar can bring in the right hands.

The Best of 2008

1) Tarsem Singh traveled all across the world in order to shoot The Fall, and all that gorgeous cinematography only serves to further the universal truths at the core of his story, a story about broken people and fractured fairy tales, weaving itself all around the facts of life, the wonders of fiction, and the good grace for anybody to know when they should accept one over the other. It’s more lovely than most paintings, more sweeping than most novels, and more potent than, well, any other film this year in the story it wishes to tell and the emotions it wishes to convey.

2) If The Fall is grand storytelling at its most exquisite, then The Dark Knight is pop filmmaking at its most masterful, constantly and deftly balancing a new-school sense of spectacle with an old-fashioned respect for the audience and their intelligence. Its tragic weight and visceral appeal don’t just raise the bar on superhero movies; those qualities make one wish that we could take the quality of today’s blockbusters for granted, and if that isn’t the sign of a masterpiece, I don’t know what is.

3) Week in and week out, Hollywood shows us the heights from which life plucks us and the depths from which heroes save us, and when it works, we forget it’s the grand illusion of directors and writers and actors alike, if only for two hours. Kurt Kuenne’s documentary, Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father, reminds us of the true power of hope against hope, made clear in flesh and blood and celluloid between him and the Bagbys, who rallied against unspeakable real-life horrors and yet made it through on the hope of preventing others from ever sharing their heartache. To a point, thanks to Kuenne, we do, and we come out better for it. It’s a movie he wishes that he had never made, and in turn, it’s a movie I wish that I had never seen. But he had, and I have, and maybe the world will that much easier to endure for it.

4) The story of a burned-out athlete trying to reclaim his former glory is nothing new, nor is the tale of an estranged father trying to make up for lost time, or a customer wishing to be more than that with a woman of the night for that matter, but in the hands of a humbled Mickey Rourke and an intimate Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler trots out familiar tropes to heart-breaking ends and reminds us why we keep those old staples around after all.

5) Filmmaking at its best allows for viewers to live life vicariously through the experiences on-screen, and to see Philippe Petit teeters between the Twin Towers in James Marsh’s doc, Man on Wire, is to see a man act out towards the heavens with considerable grace, a fair amount of planning, and yes, no small amount of insanity. May we all hope to reach so very high in any sense.

6) Sometimes, the most profound truths are best when plainly spoken, as is the case with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Anything is possible. Nothing lasts. But with a warmth and humanity seemingly absent from his career until now, David Fincher stretches these simple observations into a long, lingering look at a life lived backwards as time moves forward, a life full of numerous pleasures and as many missed opportunities. Is it similar to Forrest Gump? It sure is, but whereas that film had little to offer beyond nifty nostalgia, Button sagely tackles nothing less than the mortality in our lives, which is why I can see this mesmerizing piece of melancholy lasting long after we do.

7) At a time when destruction seems to dominate, the pleasure of watching two young boys enable one another’s creative streaks makes Son of Rambow an ever-charming respite from the woes of the world. It’s a coming-of-age tale filled with wit and whimsy, to be sure, but beyond all the chuckles lies a heart that wields imagination against hard reality at every turn and ultimately values friendship over popularity. It may all sound so easy, and it may all seem so noble, but believe me when I say that Rambow earns its sentiment, and does so in all the right ways.

8) Love conquers bullies and bloodlust alike in Let the Right One In, the tender tale of a young boy falling in love with an ostensibly young ghoul in a snowy, shadowy Swedish suburb. In a film composed of nothing but impeccable cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoyterma (yes, THE Hoyte Van Hoyterma), Right One happens to boast one of the coolest single shots I’ve ever seen, that of an off-camera slaughter that, much like the film as a whole, advances the relationship at hand while showing off a rarely matched technical dexterity in filmmaking.

9) A sense of compassion has snuck back into today’s comedies – the better ones, anyway (see also: Son of Rambow, The Promotion) – and while I don’t want to give credit entirely to producer Judd Apatow for reversing the trend of hollow humiliation humor, his efforts certainly don’t hurt. Case in point: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which takes an almost classical screwball scenario and yet cares for each and every character as they endure any number of amusing ups and downs in their relationships. And no, it’s not too long: there’s a difference between characters you’d love to hang out with in real life and characters you love spending two hours with, and I was happy for every scene with these funny, flawed bastards.

10) So rare is the modern crowd-pleaser that earns its rousing finale, but I’ll be damned if Slumdog Millionaire’s blend of hard-knock life and high-concept fable didn’t hook me in and hold on tight. A cross between Oliver Twist and City of God might not be for all tastes, but director Danny Boyle displays a new-found loose and fast sensibility that takes the story way, way down and all the way back up to hope, glorious hope for a happy ending that we might be actually be happy with for the first time in a long time.

11) Batman wasn't the only one to have dibs on the post-9/11 zeitgeist, as the creature running rampant across Cloverfield's young, frightened Manhattan evoked our most recent tragedy and exorcised it by way of good new-fashioned popcorn thrills. Its effects are impeccable, while its effect is dually terrifying and cathartic.

12) I'll have to take the word of my friends that playwright Martin McDonagh's sharp writing has shone on the stage for any number of years prior, but his caustic hitman comedy In Bruges is indication enough that he has what it takes to stand out in a field all too rarely known for humor this black and yet morality this humane. Of course, it wouldn't be so surprisingly touching if it weren't for the spot-on trio of performances from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

13) Nina Davenport's unflinching doc, Operation Filmmaker, falls in the best train-wreck tradition of Overnight and Lost in La Mancha as she captures the highs and lows of a young Iraqi man's internship on the set of Everything is Illuminated -- at least, for as long as he'll let her.

14) Be Kind Rewind had me hooked going into 2008 with its gloriously goofy premise -- that two buds (two buds, it should be said, who look and sound just like Jack Black and Mos Def) have to re-enact the entire rental selection of their video store after one of them is accidentally magnetized and erases them all -- but where it really surprised me was its sweet, sincere turn from an ode to creativity to one for community, because so little can bring people together like the movies and history they share.

15) Watching two assistant managers (Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) at a suburban supermarket duke it out for the full manager position at a new location sounds too much like sitcom fodder for its own good, but The Promotion takes something so easily rendered mean in spirit and made his leading men just as conflicted with themselves and the pressures they face to make a better life for their loved ones as they are with one another, and the result is a low-key dramedy that examines what the American Dream has come to mean with the same subdued tone that made Little Miss Sunshine similarly stand out as more than just an adorable tale of a beauty pageant underdog.

16) There's nothing revolutionary about Gus van Sant's Milk -- that is, beyond its subject, who Sean Penn portrays with all the warmth that stood for one man's progress then and has come to mark one society's regress now. It's the type of performance that, with this kind of cast and this kind of direction, gives biopics and social change alike a good name.

17) While WALL-E can be found to be derivative of so very many films, at least its ambitions show in Pixar's efforts to lift from anywhere between Charlie Chaplin's City Lights to the more conscientious sci-fi efforts of the 1960s and 1970s (particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running). The little robot, himself cannibalizing his brethren for spare parts, comes across as an amalgam of E.T. and Short Circuit's Johnny 5, and yet it's legendary sound engineer Ben Burtt and director/co-writer Andrew Stanton who manage to make both the character and his film their own distinct, winsome entities.

18) Just because Poppy's nice doesn't mean that she's naive, and it's this careful balancing act that makes Sally Hawkins' bittersweet performance in Happy-Go-Lucky one of the finest this year has to offer. Shot as loosely scripted as any of his work to date, writer/director Mike Leigh lets Hawkins work her natural charms before placing her in situation after situation that challenge her notions on life, and our own notions on her. It works in no small amount due to Poppy's encounters with Eddie Marsan's violently temperamental driving instructor matching her step for step and bound to go overlooked for it.

19) A straight-faced psycho-sexual fairy tale of sorts, David Mackenzie's Mister Foe (also known as Hallam Foe) is lucky that Jaime Bell is the one keeping his voyeuristic yet vulnerable protagonist on the side of caring and not creepy... which isn't to excuse his mom/stepmom issues and knack for spying from rooftops. Yeah, you've likely never seen a coming-of-age film quite like this.

20) Michael Haneke proves himself just as frustrating now as he was ten years before by painstakingly remaking his provocative (some might cry 'pretentious') Funny Games in the English language, so that we may all ignore his essay against violent entertainment in our native tongue. It may sound like I'm dismissing the film -- I'm not; I do happen to admire it a great deal -- but it's the type of fourth wall-breaking, plot-rewinding challenge that addresses those looking for brutality by depriving them of it almost entirely. Us Americans may have gone and made his message more relevant than ever, but that's all the more reason why we're not about to pay to sit through it (and, well, didn't).

Honorable Mentions
21. Reprise
22. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
23. Pineapple Express
24. Tropic Thunder
25. [REC]
26. Waltz with Bashir
27. Iron Man
28. Doubt
29. Burn After Reading
30. Standard Operating Procedure

The Worst of 2008

1) Witless Protection
2) An American Carol
As much as I want to keep politics out of this, the only reason that these laugh-free farces rank lower than anything touched by the likes of Friedberg and Seltzer is that they encourage their targeted mouth-breathing audience to think, act, and believe in some dangerously broad assumptions. Hating these movies doesn’t mean hating America; if anything, it demonstrates a love for humanity as a whole, so that they may be spared further inept antics from some of today’s dimmest comedic minds.

3) Disaster Movie
4) Meet the Spartans
Speaking of today’s dimmest comedic minds, those hailed by Satan and Satan alone under the names of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer keep on keepin’ on with their half-assed, half-baked half-movies that plaster together some worthless trailer parodies (as opposed to full-length movie parodies) with whatever MAD TV alum has the weekend off. The only thing that gives me hope that these two might not match Tyler Perry for most movies a year are their dwindling grosses; now there’s reason enough to love America.

5) The Hottie and the Nottie – This regressive rom-com, in which a guy gunning for Paris Hilton has to settle for her hideous best friend first, lowers the brow of all involved and the brain cell count of all who watch it. Me watch funny movie sumdeigh.

6) In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
7) Postal
Uwe Boll is going to crank out his shoddy video game adaptations, and there’s nothing we can do about it. What’s most telling about Postal, though, is that he even fails to successfully offend anyone who bothers to give his films the time of day; his winking mention that his filmmaking is funded by Nazi gold might succeed at giving the Third Reich a even worse reputation than it’s had to date.

8) 88 Minutes – This one starts out as a laughably convoluted thriller and ends up as a outright debacle, with potential victim/villain Al Pacino stumbling around in a droopy-eyed stupor while Alicia Witt shrieks and shrieks and shrieks.

9) College Road Trip – Remember when Disney used to stand the tip-top in family fare? Well, worry no more, as this Martin Lawrence vehicle substitutes shame for relentless slapstick and a zany digital pig (no, silly, I’m not referring to Raven-Symone!). As for Donny Osmond’s cranked-up and possibly coked-out supporting turn… I remain in honest awe to this day.

10) The Love Guru – Like the sixth entry in the Halloween series, we’ve all been forced to suffer The Curse of Michael Myers. He’s a mirth-killing sociopath operating under the belief that a cocked eyebrow, a goofy accent, rampant innuendo, and stale jabs at co-star Verne Troyer's stature will prove as equally winning for audiences who so eagerly ate up not one, not two, but three orders of the same old, same old…. And He Just Won’t Die.

11) Prom Night – Talk about your bloodless remakes. No, literally, there’s not a drop of blood – or tension – in this thing. Imagine that it plays as a slasher parody instead, and you’ll have a spoof that Friedberg and Seltzer might even envy.

12) Made of Honor – Stale rom-coms won’t go away any time soon, but since when were they so hateful towards women? A bunch of jerks chanting “Steal the bride! Steal the bride” in their locker room isn’t romantic. It isn’t comedic. It’s kinda scary and sorta sad.

13) The Air I Breathe
14) The Life Before Her Eyes
One’s a willfully opaque drama that struggles towards the profound and lands absurdly short. The other… actually, that pretty much covers them both.

15) Strange Wilderness – Anyone who claimed that marijuana was necessary to enjoy Pineapple Express didn’t put themselves through this staggeringly lazy comedy, one that clearly didn’t improve with age since its 2005 lensing (if it has, yeesh) and probably wouldn’t improve with pot. Clearly, the cast and crew weren’t above trying that theory for themselves and catching the results on camera. The film doesn’t even end, it just giggles to a stop, and does so alone.

16) 10,000 B.C.
17) Babylon A.D.
One’s a prehistoric bore with piss-poor effects, the other’s a futuristic mess with post-production woes, and neither will stand the test of time.

18) Hounddog – When Deborah Kampmeier isn’t filling her Southern-fried melodrama with risible symbolism, she’s making Dakota Fanning warble out Elvis tune after Elvis tune while David Morse turns on the knob all the way over to 'full retard'. With or without a relatively tactful and yet essentially exploitative sex scene at its center, this is one hot, humid mess.

19) Hell Ride – Larry Bishop’s homage to ‘70s biker gang exploitation is a redundant, tiresome affair, where even Dennis Hopper can’t be too over-the-top and Michael Madsen doesn’t try to keep a straight face. He hoots like an owl and we howl for it to end.

20) Henry Poole is Here – Mark Pellington’s drama looks good and means well, but the point to which Luke Wilson’s protagonist is badgered by neighborhood groupthink is more irritating than inspirational. It’s not about being one with God so much as being one of us.

Most Unsung Performances
-Kathryn Hahn's gonzo adultress in Step Brothers
-Mila Kunis’ emotionally guarded love interest in Forgetting Sarah Marshall
-Naomi Watts’ completely convincing victim in Funny Games
-Seann William Scott’s quietly desperate breadwinner in The Promotion
-Emily Mortimer’s troubled but tough heroine in Transsiberian

Best Foreign Language Film: Let the Right One In (runners-up: Reprise, [REC], The Band’s Visit)

Best Documentary Feature: Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father (runners-up: Man on Wire, Operation Filmmaker, Standard Operating Procedure, Shoot Down)

Most Pleasant Surprise: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (runners-up: In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Priceless, Ghost Town, Swing Vote)

Biggest Guilty Pleasure: Doomsday (runners-up: Punisher: War Zone, The Midnight Meat Train, Rambo)

Best Car Chase: The Dark Knight (runners-up: Doomsday, Pineapple Express)

Marginally Exciting Car Chases That Just Couldn’t Quite Cut It, Some Undone by Monkey-Related Dilemmas, Most by Whiplash Editing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (runners-up: Quantum of Solace, Eagle Eye, Vantage Point)

Sorriest Release: The Promotion (runners-up: The Midnight Meat Train, Son of Rambow)

Best Posters: Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Funny Games

Worst Posters: American Teen, Nobel Son, Quarantine

2009 Films I Can’t Wait To See
-The Box: Richard Kelly seeks to lend his own thrills to Richard Matheson’s chilling short story about a young couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) given the opportunity to become rich at the cost of a stranger’s life
-Funny People: if there’s one thing that modern comedy cornerstone Judd Apatow knows, it’s… well…
-Up: in theory, Pixar’s track record has nowhere to go but in the opposite direction, but early word on rough footage has been enough to suggest that any and all doubts should stay shelved
-Watchmen: studio shenanigans and altered endings aside, everything glimpsed thus far from Zack Snyder’s take on the daunting graphic novel suggests that he’s about to bring a seriously satisfying adaptation to the silver screen

2009 Films I Can’t Wait To See Again
-Assassination of a High School President: the last known distributor of Brett Simon’s entertaining noir lark recently declared bankruptcy, so who knows whether or not they’ll be finally forced to open it or simply unload onto a studio that might know how to give it the release it deserves
-The Brothers Bloom: Rian Johnson’s crime caper seems perfectly whimsical and quirky on the surface – helped in no small part by Rachel Weisz’ loosest, giddiest performance to date – but a second viewing might help unravel just how these characters try to con their marks for a living and deceive themselves with regards to life
-The Good, The Bad, The Weird: Ji-Woon Kim’s Korean action-adventure/Spaghetti western epic is a peculiar blast from the past, a unique and exhilarating mix of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with, say, Kung Fu Hustle and the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and boy, do I hope that’s enough to get you to catch it on as big and loud a screen as possible
-How to Get Rid of the Others: maybe, just maybe, some kindly North American distributor will find room for this pitch black Danish comedy in which that nation’s malcontents are round up and threatened with execution if they don’t justify the toll they’ve collectively taken on the well-behaved, tax-paying populace

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originally posted: 01/01/09 12:16:29
last updated: 11/30/09 10:48:45
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