It is difficult to believe that the 21st century's inaugural decade is just one year away from closing out. Shocking, really. All those silly fears of Y2K have long been replaced by the new potentially apocalyptic date of December 21, 2012 (if you are unfamiliar with it, feel free to Google, or just wait for next summer's blockbuster movie on the subject, "2012," starring John Cusack and directed by "Independence Day" creator Roland Emmerich). Enough about the future, though. Let us talk about the past twelve months in movies.
In 2008, my reviewing habits remained very much even with previous years. Not counting the 55 retrospective reviews I covered during "Dustin's October of Horror" special, I reviewed 185 films that were released between January 1 and December 31, 2008. Some were good, a handful were either great or awful, and an overwhelming amount (62 out of 185, to be exact) were rated a mediocre, middle-of-the-road two stars. While this is slightly more than in previous years, the count for movies rating one star or lower actually dropped for the first time in memory (21 in '08 vs. 24 in '07). Meanwhile, those rating four or three-and-a-half stars also dropped (11 vs. last year's 14), though the number of strictly four-star reviews doubled (4 vs. 2). All in all, 2008 runs even with 2007 in terms of cinematic quality. There is plenty of room for improvementit wouldn't hurt for Hollywood to inject some originality and intelligence in between their line-up of sequels and remakesbut, then, isn't there always?
If you have read my annual "The Year in Review" essay before, you will be familiar with the rundown. First, I call attention to the best performances of the year (ultimate winner colored red). Next up are my choices for the most overrated and underrated of 2008's crop. And, finally, we arrive at my lists for the absolute best and worst motion pictures of the year, with a little explanation for good measure. What films should be sought out immediately and what films should be used as this winter's kindling are mere moments away. Until next December, have fun at the movies!
The Best Performances of 2008
(my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
"Slumdog Millionaire," directed by Danny Boyle, has already won many critical and audience accolades and is a shoo-in for a load of Academy Award nominations. Why it is being noticed in this way, treated almost like the Second Coming, is one of the biggest mysteries of 2008. A third world-set romantic fable in which a teenage boy's appearance on a Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" coincides with flashbacks to his troubled, homeless childhood and the girl who is to be his soul mate, the film struck so many artificial and disingenuous notes that it failed on virtually every level. The notion of protagonist Jamal (Dev Patel) thinking back to his personal experiences in order to answer the game show queries was intriguing, but the questions themselves were dull and it was particularly far-fetched to consider that they were asked of him in the chronological order that he learned them. The love story held no emotional or substantive weight, remaining underdeveloped. The outcome of the game show was misguided, with the two other possible options both better than the one director Boyle came to. As for the wine-and-roses finale and Bollywood-infused closing credits musical numbera virtual copy of the entire conclusion of 2001's Lance Bass/Emmanuelle Chriqui-starrer "On the Line"it distastefully followed the tragic, brutal murder of a prominent character. "Slumdog Millionaire" wanted to send the viewer out singing a happy tune, tidily sweeping the somber and sinister sides of the story under the rug. The whole thing felt dishonest.
"Passengers," directed by Rodrigo Garcia, was unceremoniously dropped onto a hundred theater screens last October without advanced press screenings and with no advertising of note. All this, despite the film coming from TriStar Pictures and headlined by A-list actress Anne Hathaway (in the thick of Oscar buzz for "Rachel Getting Married"). Not surprisingly, the picture came and went with few people realizing it even existed. The zinger was that, with the proper marketing campaign, it could have easily proven profitable. The other zinger was that it was actually a really strong effort, commercially viable without misplacing its classy intelligence. "Passengers" is a supernatural drama steadily leading toward an easily-guessed revelatory ending, but the story of a grief counselor (Anne Hathaway) assigned to the haunted survivors of a plane crash went to some unexpectedly deep, thought-provoking places. The outcome was eerie without resorting to cheap "boo!" scares, breathtakingly atmospheric in its photography of the chilly British Columbia locale, and finally quite emotional. It was not what happened, per se, but how it happened. Fighting back tears and being manipulated in a way that refreshingly didn't feel condescending was something that could never have been guessed in advance, and the final shots of a beautiful world in its natural flow struck a lingering chord. "Passengers" is worth discovering. It deserves a far fairer shake than it got from its distributor.
Space Chimps The bottom of the barrel in animated features this year, "Space Chimps" was low-rent hogwash that simply embarrassed itself by following on the heels of the superior "WALL•E" and "Kung Fu Panda." The computer-generated animation looked like a prototype of the format, circa the early 1990s; visual details were lackluster, so poorly defined that not even the characters' mouths were able to correctly synch up with the dialogue half the time, and the screenplay lacked imagination, wit and personality, with far too many jokes relying on corny "chimp" puns, pop-culture references from a decade ago (the "Macarena," anyone?), and rancid scatological humor that had no place in a G-rated movie. A supporting character whose head unmistakably looked like a large, pointy-nippled bare breast was creepy and unclean, to be sure, but the only source of inadvertent entertainment value "Space Chimps" had to offer.
Diary of the Dead How could it be that George A. Romero, the granddaddy of the zombie genre, would land so far off the mark forty years after making 1968's iconic "Night of the Living Dead?" "Diary of the Dead" was a wretched motion picture on the level of direct-to-DVD tripe, coming complete with atrocious acting, stilted dialogue, cheap musical stingers, and inappropriately cartoonish humor. That the film was done in the documentary style of "The Blair Witch Project," depicting via camcorders an invasion of the undead upon the earth, and yet didn't hold a single truthful or authentic moment was its most egregious sin of all. Romero's "off-day" must have lasted from the moment he began writing the script to the second he sent the end result to print.
Semi-Pro The nadir, thus far, of Will Ferrell's career as a leading man, "Semi-Pro" was a pitiful sports comedy that came strikingly close to not getting any laughs at all. Desperate, lazy, pedestrian filmmaking with a tired, tedious, barely connected narrative, the film was not only expendable, but so slight that it almost didn't appear to exist at all. The mind boggles how anyone involved thought this project was in shape enough to not only be shot, but also released.
Righteous Kill An astonishingly inept and ill-considered motion picture, "Righteous Kill" brought together the increasingly campy talents of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and proved nothing if not that they are ready for the retirement home. One of the most patently imbecilic thrillers to come down the pike in many a moon, the film was boring, predictable, illogical, and so poorly shot that its New York City setting could have been filmed in Cincinnati and no one would have been the wiser. Of particular note was a hilarious chase scene in which actors past middle-age briskly walked rather than ran in lukewarm pursuit, one of them unfortunate enough to be wearing a ridiculous sweatsuit. If it weren't so silly it would have been depressing to behold.
The Spirit A woebegone big-screen treatment of the 1940s comic by Will Eisner, "The Spirit" had no sense of timing, rhythm or pacing. It went so wrong in so many ways that all the audience was left to do was stare in terror at the wreckage before them. That is, when they weren't struggling to stay awake from sheer boredom. Director Frank Miller, left to his own devices, didn't have a clue what he was doing, turning a film made in the greenscreen-heavy style of "Sin City" look more like a chintzy direct-to-DVD-level rip-off. With a script that had no story to speak of and switched from brooding drama to comedy of the bad pun variety in the same breath, it isn't any wonder that the cast looked confused. Why Samuel L. Jackson, as villain Octopus, seemed to be channeling Grace Jones by way of Uncle Remus from "Song of the South," however, is anybody's guess.
In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale A worst list wouldn't quite be the same without Uwe Boll's name showing up at least once. With the biggest budget of his career at his disposal ($60-million), Boll only crashed and burned on a larger scale. An incorrigible rip-off of "The Lord of the Rings" had that epic Oscar-winning trilogy been helmed by an orangutan, acted out by virtual corpses, and had its camera dunked in dirty dishwater before each new shot, "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale" was a creatively bankrupt vanity project flawed to the point of viewer amusement. Indeed, the film would be irredeemable if not for its near-brilliant ability to give the viewer douche chills for 127 solid minutes. One simply hasn't lived until they've seen Jason Statham playing a farmer named Farmer, Matthew Lillard drunkenly stumbling around while saying "Hip-hip-hizzah," Ray Liotta wearing an absurd gold-studded magician's robe and ascot, and Burt Reynolds sporting a wig made of poodle fur while delivering one of the most pouty, unintentionally funny performances in recent memory.
The Forbidden Kingdom Sitting through "The Forbidden Kingdom" was akin to standing in front of a brick wall for 113 minutes. "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale" may have been so bad that it was comical, but this pitifully superficial and amateurish martial arts adventure was just so bad that it was groan-inducing. A drab exercise in poor storytelling, empty-headed characters, low-grade aesthetics, forgettable action sequences, uniformly terrible acting, and a wrongheaded messagethat learning to beat up people who are mean to you is the honorable thing to dothe picture made its team-up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li nothing but an afterthought. In this way, they were the lucky ones.
An American Carol There was a time when comedy spoofs like "The Naked Gun" trilogy and "Airplane!" could be counted on to serve up a near-constant string of audience laughter for their entire running lengths. They were smashingly witty in their stupidity, outrageous in their straight-faced lunacy, and irresistibly charming. Watching them now, they still hold up. The sorry excuses for the genre these days are baffling, resulting in the not one, not two, but three worst films of all of 2008. The Democrat-mocking "An American Carol" showed that right-wingers could be just as asinine and unfunny in their lampoonery. Ironically, while it was the liberals of America who received the brunt of abuse in the film, it was the conservatives, portrayed as hypocritical, narrow-minded hicks and heathens, that unsuspectingly looked like fools. Sadly, director David Zucker (himself responsible for those aforementioned '80s parody classics) is now no more than a talentless, unambitious hack who wouldn't know the meanings of irreverence and comic timing if they walked up and kicked him in the face. Nonetheless, by the very fact that the camera at least pointed in the right direction most of the time, "An American Carol" was still a baby step above the next two monstrosities on this list.
Meet the Spartans Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer could technically be called writers and directors, but that might be giving them too much credit for the desecration they have enacted upon the cinemas these last few years. That they released two movies in 2008 is doubly shameful, and by the very fact that "Meet the Spartans" was a few minutes shorter, squeaking in a hair above an hour before nineteen full minutes of end credits, means that it can only receive the runner-up spot for worst movie of the year. A spoof of "300," "Meet the Spartans" was so offensively atrocious in every facet that the act of watching it was akin to witnessing a tragic death occur before one's eyes while onlookers off to the side cackle and point. Friedberg and Seltzer have zero interest outside of the monetary funds the gig is earning them, and even less respect than that for their audience, who are counted on to bust a gut over the mere sight of two men kissing or Britney Spears shaving her head. In the year 2008, is this all it takes for something to open wide across the country on 2,500 screens? Really? God help us. "Meet the Spartans" was a downtrodden cinematic vacuuma sickening, derivative, shallow, condescending, utterly worthless piece of shit. And yet, it still wasn't the worst...
Disaster Movie Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer returned less than eight months after "Meet the Spartans" for an excursion into hell scarcely like any other. About forty minutes into "Disaster Movie," an epiphany hit me: I, like all living things on this earth, would one day die. Usually thoughts of this nature rustle up unsettling feelings of fear and maybe a little critical self-reflection in a person, myself included. For the first time, however, the mere thought of imminent death seemed like a sweet, luxurious respite in comparison to the untold-in-number miseries being endured in that theater. Suddenly I was transformed, no longer afraid of my ultimate fate. For that (and only that), "Disaster Movie" deserves my gratitude. For everything else, "Disaster Movie" once and for all proved that personal, creative, financial and moral integrity are nonexistent within today's Hollywood studio system. There simply is no other valid explanation for its existence, or the continued hiring of talentless filmmaking leeches Friedberg and Seltzer. They could be nice guys in real lifeI hasten to add that I have no desire in ever meeting thembut as so-called writer-directors, they are cretins whose sensibilities never rise above that of a messily overflowing sewer and whose intelligence borders between that of a three-eyed inbred sheep and a human vegetable. They do not make films; they make inconceivable, incomprehensible freak shows as unimaginably abysmal on every level as anything else being released to multiplexes in the twenty-first century.
Marley & Me A late-in-the-year surprise with more going on in its heart and head than the cheery, kid-friendly trailers and television ads would have a consumer believe, "Marley & Me" was a tough, realistic, perceptive slice-of-life. Directed by David Frankel and adapted from the best-selling memoir by John Grogan, the film accurately portrayed a marriage and career while discussing weighty existential topics we all must go through. Less about a dog's wacky antics and more about how a pet can become a meaningfuland then fleetingpart of a family's life, "Marley & Me," again and again, hit notes that rang true. Manipulative or not, it worked here. This decade's answer to "Terms of Endearment," you didn't have to be a dog lover to be touched to tears by "Marley & Me," you only needed to be human.
In Bruges Sort of a travelogue of the Belgium city, the opening thirty minutes of "In Bruges" are visually stunningthe cinematography throughout takes full advantage of locations that one character accurately describes as "a fairy tale come to life"as well as ruminative and poetic in its collision of the Old World with the New. When the full details are finally revealed about the circumstances that have brought tourists Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to Bruges, that lulling feeling of safety begins to tear apart. And, by the time Ray starts to question how he can go on with his own life while knowing what he has done and Ken is sent on a deadly new mission that he is unsure whether or not he can carry out, all bets are off. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, "In Bruges" was a bravura, genre-twisting gem, a film involving hitmen that, at last, wasn't like every other past movie involving hitmen. Effortlessly able to shift between pitch-black comedy, soul-searching drama, and riveting suspense without missing a beat or losing sight of the grander scheme, this was one picture that packed a wallop.
Changeling Directed by Clint Eastwood, "Changeling" told of a gripping true story, stranger than fiction. An almost epic tale of child loss, police corruption and serial murder set against the backdrop of a burgeoning 1920s and '30s Los Angeles, Angelina Jolie led the way in a phenomenal performance as a single mother whose world cracks, then shatters, after her nine-year-old son goes missing. Soundly woven together, all the pieces fascinatingly connecting (or suggesting connection) over the passage of time, "Changeling" never lost steam as the story developed and the characters were faced with seemingly indomitable hurdles. At the head of it all was Jolie, in a ravishingly poignant portrait of Christine Collins, a woman fighting to be heard while keeping her son's memory alive. If there has to be evil on the planet, or right next door, Christine signified that one's natural propensity for goodness was just as much a crucial constant.
Rachel Getting Married A wedding is the catalyst that reunites an ailing American family in "Rachel Getting Married," a searing drama that cut to the bone. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film was wrenching and uncompromising, but not without an all-important glimmer of hope in its façade. In essaying the role of Kym, the mentally unstable sister of the bride, Anne Hathaway delivered a revelatory performancebold but not flashy, achingly real but never saccharine, breathtaking in its fearless modulations while remaining steadfastly naturalistic. So honest in the tough places it went, and so suggestive and intuitive of the way family members interact in a variety of situations, that it never felt like anything other than a documentary. A great one.
Snow Angels Based on the richly textured novel by Stewart O'Nan and adapted for the screen by David Gordon Green, "Snow Angels" was a searing portrait of three interconnected families living in a small Pennsylvania town, their lives affected and, in some cases, irretrievably altered through a series of tragic events. In a film of emotionally rattling moments, it was in the smaller, quieter interludes of interpersonal connection and reflection that were often most poignant. Both in Green's depiction of a wintry landscape of lost souls and in his painfully accurate portrayal of characters struggling to make their way in a world that oftentimes seems cruelly unfair and confusing, "Snow Angels" hit all the right notes. Beautifully acted by an impressive ensembleMichael Angarano, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Thirlby, Amy Sedaris, among othersGreen handled the tough material with a necessary rawness, lending equal weight to both the extraordinary and deceptively mundane moments of life in motion that make all of us startlingly, stingingly and intensely human.
The Wrestler In the comeback turn of the year, Mickey Rourke gave the performance of his lifetime. "The Wrestler" was a small film, unflashy and naturally gritty, and that worked in its favor. One didn't watch the picture so much as he or she lived it, wincing all the way through its raw, painfully intimate character study of an aging one-time professional wrestler at the end of his ropes, struggling to reclaim the glory he once had even as he self-destructs. Frequently brutal and sad, playing out with the messiness of real life, the results were mesmerizing. For the tough-looking but weary, imposing yet mortal Mickey Rourke, and for Darren Aronofsky's exquisitely minimalist direction, and for Marisa Tomei's and Evan Rachel Wood's sharply tuned supporting work, and for a revealing story never quite shown in this stark a light, "The Wrestler" was a film not to be missed.
The Dark Knight Batman came of age with "The Dark Knight," rendering all previous big-screen incarnations of the caped crusader close to obsolete. At last, this was the motion picture that audiences, whether they be fans of the DC comic book or viewers who still believe superhero movies are for kids, had been waiting for. Equally nihilistic, imaginative and emotionally gratifying, "The Dark Knight" was in many ways a groundbreaking triumph, and perhaps the best superhero film to date. Really, to label it as such almost doesn't seem right; director Christopher Nolan masterfully deconstructed what a comic book adaptation could and can be, and to what depths it can endeavor to go to. A sprawling, densely plotted, thematically rich epic, "The Dark Knight" worked both as a thoroughly riveting summer blockbuster and a mature, thoughtful, sumptuously layered crime drama. Nolan surely outdid himself, and so did the late Heath Ledger in his bone-chillingly unforgettable posthumous role as the psychopathic Joker. Bruce Wayne had finally met his match, and then some.
Cloverfield As haphazardly as "Diary of the Dead" aped on the POV-"let's-pick-up-a-camera- and-shoot-it" style of "The Blair Witch Project," "Cloverfield" perfected it. Doing for grand-scale monster movies what that terrifying 1999 gem did for late-night hikes, the picture brought to breathless, nightmarish life what it might really look, sound and be like if a giant creature invaded a city. Following a group of partygoers as their evening of fun turns to terror and, ultimately, a fight for survival, "Cloverfield" is just about as authentic and large in scale as the genre has seen. That the film was made for a reported $25-million is frankly amazing and proves that a budget of hundreds of millions is unnecessary. The visual effects in bringing the monster(s) and the disaster itself to fruition were close to seamless; for an hour and a half, the audience was led to wholly buy into the idea that Manhattan had become an apocalyptic landscape. Filled with visions destined to seep into the viewer's memory and not let go, "Cloverfield" ended not on death and destruction, but on a quiet moment between two characters, enjoying a quiet day at an amusement park, unaware of how quickly their existences were about to turn. This unforced comment on the unpredictability of life was devastating, raising "Cloverfield" above and beyond even what it seemed to strive for.
Synecdoche, New York The two best motion pictures of the year share a lot in common. While one is more commercially palatable than the other, at their center is the same notion about the natural process of life and death, and the desire we all have to make something of ourselves before our limited time has run out. "Synecdoche, New York" was the astounding, at times dangerously unwieldy directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The picture, just about as surreal as David Lynch on his quirkiest day, was, at once, staggering, baffling, morose, frightening, hilarious, continuously inventive, and unspeakably touching. Like stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Kaufman set out to make his filmmaking masterwork, a cinematic exploration so thematically rich and boundlessly meaningful that it also might work as a piece of art to be looked at and deciphered in different ways by each individual viewer. The conventional laws of linear storytelling did not apply to Kaufman's lyrical madness, almost every scene set weeks, months or even years after the last. This could be disconcerting at times, but in the best way. The film, like Caden, like ourselves, uncontrollably careens to its final demise, and where it ends up is unexplainable and awe-inspiring.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button In a motion picture that was as much of a masterpiece as the cinema saw in 2008, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was its near-perfect depiction of a person's complete life spread out over a series of significant moments, observations and memories. In just a smidge under three hours, director David Fincher encapsulated in all its messiness, heartbreak and glory the journey of living, loving and, ultimately, dying. That the title protagonist (Brad Pitt) whom we follow happens to age backwards gives the story an extra shot of whimsy, but also an added dose of eye-opening existentialism. Though he becomes more youthful on the outside as the people around him, like loving mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett), start to grow old and pass away, there are otherwise very few differences between him and the rest of the world. Like everyone else, he is faced with the internal ravages of time, and the unknown of what is to come after he has breathed his last breath. Upon first viewing, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was undeniably and lastingly powerful. Upon second viewing, with the foreknowledge of where things were headed and what was to come, the experience was transformative and transcendent. In response to its beauty, to its heartbreaking truth, and to its impacting comment on how nothing lasts, tears began to fall from the film's fifteen-minute mark and continued for the next two-and-a-half hours, all the way until the end credits. For such a sustainable period of time, that had never happened to me before. Fittingly epic without losing sight of its intimacy, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" plays like a symphony in the language of film.