Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 in Review: The Best Films of the Year, and Runners-Up

Let’s skip the introductions, shall we? Those were already given.

First, I give the list of films that I cherished but nevertheless didn’t quite make on my top ten. I still love them, though. Case in point: I gave all of these four stars.

In alphabetical order:

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

“Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” was one of the more magical experiences I had at the movies this year. A wondrously animated, side-splittingly hilarious adventure, the film was every bit what I wanted from the previous live-action efforts. It was simply magical, telling a thrillingly original story with a kid-friendly but useful message.

The Happening
Probably the most misunderstood gem of the collection, “The Happening” was, for me, nerve-rattling, uneasy, and inherently terrifying. Is it a B-movie underneath? Yes, but an effective one at that. Probably this year’s best American horror film along with “Quarantine,” the movie was so effective for its slap-in-the-face of an environmental message, which surprisingly doesn’t talk down to the viewer.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

In my original review, I called it a “visionary movie masterpiece.” And so it is. The direction by Spanish master Guillermo del Toro makes this film even better than the already-brilliant 2004 original. Filled with nightmarish special effects and art design that seems straight out of del Toro’s great “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” was one of the best films of the summer.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

One of the best Friday night actioners of the year (nothing can beat “Wanted”), this was a splendidly made, visually exciting entry into a historic cinematic saga. No, it ultimately doesn’t live up to the other films, but does that matter? It’s still wonderfully witty and very much a pulp entertainment at its heart. The ending has been eviscerated as being awful and desperate, but I really loved its inevitability (think about it).

Iron Man

The second best superhero film of the year, as well as the third best graphic novel/comic book adaptation, was “Iron Man,”, which succeeded in doing three things: being a terrific piece of popcorn entertainment that nicely jumpstarted the summer season, a hilarious and indirect dissection of Robert Downey Jr.’s career, and a surprisingly effective personal drama regarding fate and calling. In a summer movie? You bet.

Marley & Me

A film I saw in the last two days of the year, “Marley & Me” was simply terrific. My fear walking into it, compounded by unimpressive trailers, was that the filmmakers would turn it into a slapstick comedy and forget the dramatic bits of the incredible source material. This was somewhat confirmed in my mind by the PG rating of the film, an adaptation of a very PG-13 book. Then I found out who the director was: David Frankel. He had directed “The Devil Wears Prada” to great success a couple years ago. Everything was okay for me. And it is. This is a film on the level of “My Dog Skip” or “Benji! Off the Leash.” Simply great stuff.


The film I championed back in February to…nothing. Like, no one saw this movie, and I hate that. “Penelope” was one of the best romances this year and the most overlooked film of the year. With a resonant and intelligent screenplay and effective performances by James McAvoy and Christina Ricci, “Penelope” was a near-classic of its kind and on par with last year’s “Bridge to Terabithia” as one of the great family films of recent years.


Maybe I was overreaching when I told a group of friends that this film was better than “Cloverfield.” After watching the latter film another time after viewing this one, ultimately that film beats it. But that doesn’t take away from the impact of “Quarantine,” a terrifying surprise this year that I once was dreading horribly. Gosh, it’s amazing how things turn out to be, isn’t it?

Son of Rambow

Along with “Penelope” as one of the forgotten masterworks this year, “Son of Rambow” was a magical bit of filmic nostalgia, following a group of kids in the ‘80s as they venture to make the film of their dreams. What’s brilliant about the experience is its intelligence in film production and the pains of childhood and adolescence, brought across with equal amounts of humor and pathos.


One of the best and most innovative summer blockbusters in a couple of years, “Wanted” was breathlessly exciting, so much so that after two viewings, it ended up good enough to be on this list. In a summer chock-full of innovation (sue me, it was), “Wanted” was one of the most satisfying experiences. Saying that, after the awful marketing campaign, feels weird, but it’s true.



Directed by Stephen Walker

Heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure, “Young@Heart” was a transcendent and fascinating documentary depicting the performances of the Young@Heart Chorus at an old folks’ home. The songs they choose are timeless, the performances they give equal that of the original performers. It’s heartbreaking because of the imminent and unstoppable mortality. At the same time, we want none of these people to go away.

In a year where any given week had a sequel or remake of some sort, “Young@Heart” was blessedly one of the most satisfying movie experiences in it. This is a must-see for any family with older and more discerning children, or younger children who have seen films dealing with similar topics, as far back as “My Girl” and as recent as “Bridge to Terabithia." This film is their equal.



Directed by Matt Reeves

The only film out of the spring months of January through April (“Young@Heart” was close, releasing wide in early May), “Cloverfield” was the year’s first masterpiece, a tight, taut, and frankly terrifying bit of sci-fi/horror chamber drama. Depicting a giant monster attacking Manhattan and leaving rubble in its wake inadvertently reminiscent of the World Trade Center towers, the film was a breath of fresh, innovative air in a spring season sadly bereft of such a gem otherwise.

The final moments, however, elevate this past its well-worn genre conventions into something deeper. The thoughtful rumination on humanity and its imminent end was something I didn’t expect. Shot like a home video would be, with overlapping chaos and dialogue, the film was more of a surprise than anything else. I expected something freakin’ awesome, not awesomely freaky.



Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams

Immediately entering my list of fifteen great animated films, “Bolt” is what happens when you make a perfectly good animated film without the help of Pixar. A brilliantly rendered story of companionship, friendship, and unconditional love that sounds predictable at the outset but ends up being quite the opposite, “Bolt” was the biggest surprise of the year. It was a surprise for two reasons: (1) I never thought it would make this list, and (2) it was surprisingly as entertaining and funny as anything by Pixar, with the exception of possibly “WALL-E.”

What makes “Bolt” so effective? I’m not sure. But I am sure that it laughs in the face of convention and goes in directions unseen at the outset. The ending is predictable in theory but not in execution, and the result is a highly rewarding and entertaining animated experience. I really loved everything about “Bolt,” and I think everyone should see it.



Directed by Clint Eastwood

“Changeling” would be the most resonant experience of the year, if it were not for my top two films. Angelina Jolie gives one of the best performances of the year as a woman who has lost her child and doesn’t know what to do with that information. Receiving opposition from the very place she should be receiving help—the exceedingly corrupt Los Angeles Police Department—she finally takes matters in her own hands, only then to be thrown in an asylum.

Suspenseful, slow-moving, and brilliant for its first half, “Changeling” unfolds into something even more inherently tragic by the end. When Jolie’s Christine Collins is faced the life-altering truth about her son’s whereabouts, we see something in her eyes that transcends performance; she slowly has become the woman she’s playing. We, too, see her plight as our own, and the fear of losing something precious to you is more evident than ever. One quick question: where the heck do critics get the idea it was overstuffed yet overlong? Does that make sense to anyone?


Tropic Thunder

Directed by Ben Stiller

After writing those two paragraphs about “Changeling,” it seems a tad unfair to award a comedy directed by Ben Stiller a higher placement. Let me make this clear: the five following films are far removed from the other five, in much the same way “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale” was infinitely worse than the other four films on that list. “Tropic Thunder,” however, is an undeniably resonant piece of cinematic art in a completely different way than the other four films. This is a comedy and a satire all in one, both equally effective.

By eviscerating every aspect of Hollywood that has been eviscerated before, Ben Stiller captured lightning in a bottle, advancing the comedy genre where other films this year and last did not, and simultaneously making a highly effective epic war spoof. That’s a lot for someone to handle, but Stiller did it, and we love him for it. Oh, and did I mention the Oscar-worthy, hilariously ribald performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise?


The Fall

Directed by Tarsem

Probably the most indescribable and most original work on this list, “The Fall” is a bizarre masterpiece that one cannot deny. The story falls by the wayside completely, but still manages to charm the viewer with how deep it goes. The visuals are the point here, and they are top-notch. The cinematography is beautiful, the art direction is stunning, and the costume design is certainly intricate.

The inherent self-pretentiousness is almost endearing, as in the first scene that shows a movie being made and one of the people involved being injured. The entire scene is filmed in slow motion, for no reason. That is the tone of the whole film. No, it doesn’t have a “point,” but maybe that is its point. The audience is never sure, and director Tarsem has achieved what he set out to do. Isn’t that all that matters?


Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle

For a film celebrating life, the R-rating given to “Slumdog Millionaire” entirely unwarranted. Case in point: I sat next to a group of high-schoolers who could have been watching something more mainstream, like “Bedtime Stories” or “Yes Man” or “Marley & Me” but weren’t; they were really involved in the intricate plotting of this film, its refreshingly vital filmmaking. That was encouraging to see: a group of high-school-aged kids seeing a film being highly honored by most critics’ circles.

This is a fantastic film, endlessly romantic, undeniably fascinating, and unspeakably touching. It ranks as the second-best live-action romance of the year and the third-best in general. In Dev Patel’s debut performance, director Danny Boyle has found an incredible talent; Patel is intense and never-wavering in his portrayal of someone who’s life has gone so wrong, it’s a wonder he keeps going and finds joy in it. Scored with music by British pop star M.I.A., “Slumdog Millionaire” is continuously inventive from its opening sequence that flashes back and forth, to scenes scored to the theme music of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” to the energetic and uplifting Bollywood number over the end credits.



Directed by Andrew Stanton

Like my previous three choices, “WALL-E” is romantic, beautiful, and side-splittingly romantic, an unforgettable animated experience. So good is it that it transcends the genre and becomes something more. It is, in that respect, the greatest of its kind ever made, so far removed from every other of its kind (except perhaps “Beauty and the Beast”) that it almost isn’t animated at all. It’s the epitome of the phrase “genre masterpiece.”

“WALL-E” works as three different movies in one. The first is a hilarious and lovable slapstick comedy portraying WALL-E’s endearing escapades cleaning up the Earth’s mountains of trash. The second is one of cinema’s most affecting romances, written with such clarity and emotion as to make “WALL-E and Eve” synonymous with “Forrest and Jenny.” The third is a scarily realistic sci-fi film, containing haunting visions of a Manhattan made out of trash and a civilization completely unaware of their turmoil in space. This is not a masterpiece; it’s three masterpieces in one.


The Dark Knight

Directed by Christopher Nolan

The very best film of the year 2008 until its last week, “The Dark Knight” ranks as the best superhero film ever made, but that’s almost damning praise on something that transcends the superhero genre and becomes a crime drama on the level of “The Godfather” or “GoodFellas;” its similarity with both of those films goes beyond just a sentence though. Bruce Wayne is a lot like Henry Hill from Scorsese’s classic in that he’s unsure whether what he’s doing makes him happy or not; their turmoil becomes the films’ central theme of calling and destiny, two things that have never truly been covered in either genre. Harvey Dent is much like Michael Corleone from Coppola’s masterpiece in that he’s a good man driven to do very bad things because he feels he has no other choice; both men’s wives have died by the end of both films, and there’s gonna be hell to pay.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a lot like Hannibal Lecter, nice and outgoing at the outset and then demented and psychopathic within five minutes of meeting him. Joker is not without a moral compass—he may be an “agent of chaos,” but he follows his own rules, as well—but it’s skewed to the point of ridiculousness and is in the opposite direction. That’s how Ledger plays him, demonic but reserved; he rarely, if ever, has angry outbursts, opting to laugh instead of get angry, and that makes him all the scarier. What Nolan did, unapologetically and groundbreakingly, was to deconstruct the genre that “The Dark Knight” is undoubtedly in—that of superhero—and rebuild it into something new and more revitalizing. Let’s just hope the inevitable third picture, reportedly starring Johnny Depp as The Riddler and Rachel Weisz as Catwoman, can live up to this entry. If so, and if any of the possible fourth and fifth films live up as well, we are looking at one of the great American sagas of all time.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher

A film that has haunted me ever since seeing it last Friday evening, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a historic achievement in cinema, a film so impressive that it rivals “Minority Report” as the best film of the decade and ultimately beats out “The Dark Knight” for best of 2008. Beautiful and intimate, yet epic and unforgettable, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is finally a thoughtful rumination on mortality and death. These are touchy themes, not always used in cinema but refreshing when they are. Made with refreshing originality and unequivocal beauty by David Fincher, the film was simply a masterpiece for every minute of its 159.

I want to take a moment to address the comparisons to screenwriter Eric Roth’s previous opus “Forrest Gump.” They are completely warranted. Like the previous film, it is about a character who makes his way through the world in a way that is different in most ways but the same in others. Benjamin Button is a lot like us, since we probably don’t know how this world works either. Is it so different, in the long run, to live backward than to live with a physical or learning disability or even in a minority or of a different sexual orientation? Life is a box of chocolates, according to Roth’s creation. Every chocolate’s different, right? If nothing else, both films are epic pleas for one-of-a-kind personalities.

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