2008 Year in Review

The Best    |    The Worst    |    The Individual Best

The Best

Every time I hear someone referring to this year or that year as the “worst this decade” or “the most dismal year in film history”, I wonder how they measure a great year versus a bad year. Did they not give out enough four-star ratings? Or is there some greater marker that determines what a great year it has been.

The year has certainly been limited on the films that you feel like cheering on. Whereas years like 2000, 2003 or 2007 where there was at least one film that felt like an instant classic, other years have had several good movies that never really stand out as all-time greats. But we won’t be judging that. Reviewers twenty or thirty years in the future will be doing that. And what may be critically acclaimed now, may be trashed and burned in the future. We can make good guesses on what classics will make it through and which won’t, but we have no idea for certain. And, when looking at 2008, it’s easy to see that out of the large group of entertaining and well made films, there are really only a small number that are going to be the fodder for discussion decades from now.

But, that won’t stop any reviewer from declaring the year’s best films and I’ll start my own list off with the film in my No. 10 position for this year. Iron Man looked on paper to be one of those standard issue comic book adaptations that put a lot of noted stars together in one film and hoped it would fly. But, what we got was a thrill-packed action adventure film that only tangentially felt like a superhero movie. There were no superhuman spider-bitten teenagers, no super-powerful aliens crash-landed into the planet or any other of a myriad unusual entities that have emerged from the comic book world.

Instead, we have a very human, very flawed human who happens to be a technological genius. The film was helped tremendously by a brilliant performance from Robert Downey Jr. who had been stuck in obscurity for years due to several bad decisions and a drug problem that had him in prison far more often than he was making movies. This was his rebirth. Downey emerged not only as the force of talent we always knew him to be, but as a box office draw that managed to help both his own film and his Oscar-nominated performance in Tropic Thunder become much larger successes than anyone had ever imagined.

Amazing performances often outshone films this year and none is more evidence than the Ron Howard feature Frost/Nixon. Michael Sheen as Richard Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon brought their Tony-winning roles to the big screen in a film that felt as much an exploration of political philosophies to an often-tight psychological exploration of a desperate man hoping to outlive his indiscretions. While most of the praise was heaped on Langella throughout the year, culminating in a well deserved Oscar nomination, Sheen also delivered a strong performance and when you can go toe-to-toe with Langella and come out as a near-equal, then you’ve certainly achieved success. Not that we had any doubt after his terrific turn, also unheralded, in The Queen.

The comic book medium, though suffering a small speed bump in the not-great, but not-awful Incredible Hulk, managed to roar back to life with The Dark Knight, a film that now sits behind Titanic as one of the highest grossing films in history. This is a bit of a disingenuous distinction, as it doesn’t take inflation into account. In reality, the film sits on the all-time list at number 27. It’s still quite an achievement, and the film is certainly better than some of the flicks above it (Forrest Gump and The Sting aren’t that wonderful). But what stood out most about the film was the performance of tragic thespian Heath Ledger.

Ledger delivers such an amazing performance as the Joker that Jack Nicholson pales in comparison and, when the original Batman came out, Nicholson not only felt right, but turned in a fantastic performance. You can’t compare the two and Nicholson still deserves praise, but it’s clearly Ledger’s ability to leap whole-heartedly into a role that really helped the film elevate itself from cult fandom to unequivocal success. The film that surrounds it isn’t bad either, but after having seen the rebirth of the franchise with Batman Begins there are some elements that seem to pale in comparison.

But, overall, the film seems more akin to the great science fiction films of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, which explored the depths, depravity and determination of humanity, than it does to the pop culture box office draws of the modern comic book film. It transcends its medium like few other films could, which is probably why it was such an amazing success.

The inner workings of the human soul were a prominent theme this year. Even though the subject is often the subject of great movies, my top ten seems to be filled with the darker, more evocative examinations of those themes. This is certainly true of Revolutionary Road, the first re-teaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet since their box office success in Titanic eleven years ago. Both have matured as actors, Winslet always having been a strong actor and DiCaprio is improving more each year. In Road, the two play a husband and wife in the 1950s who must come to terms with their white picket fence lifestyle and decide whether they want to continue living it or move on and live their lives to the fullest.

The movie poses some tense questions about marital relationships of the period and the influence and control women had in them. As women grew into more self-sufficient and outwardly powerful individuals, the men in their lives seemed to feel more at odds with this discovery and often began to try to exert their own control over situations, which cause turmoil like that displayed in Sam Mendes’ claustrophobic, constraining film about desperation and release in suburbia.

Several male performances this year were terrific, a regular occurrence this past decade. None, however, were more iconic than Mickey Rourke’s rise from the ashes to play Randy the Ram Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Co-starring Evan Rachel wood as the wrestler’s estranged daughter and Marisa Tomei as the stripper/working mother he wants a relationship with. The internal struggles Rourke displays are an extension of his real life issues, which make the performance more poignant than it already is. While the film certainly doesn’t sugar coat his conflicts, there is a tenderness and compassion in it that have often characterized Aronofsky’s films, including his still-best film Requiem for a Dream.

Examining politicians has become a favorite topic in Hollywood these days, but none have been as good as Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Detailing the rise to fame of the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history, the film places Sean Penn front and center as the slain icon. He’s surrounded by many strong performances, but the film belongs entirely to Penn. He brings such humanity and strength to the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role. The story is filled with passion, assurance and purpose.

With the U.S. filmmakers looking for cheap thrills and quick bucks, it often falls to filmmakers in countries around the world to provide genuinely great horror films these days. Glossy, derivative and emotionally bereft, the horror product of the United States should take some tips from this year’s reconstruction of the vampire myth, Let the Right One In. Taking the unusual approach of exploring the difficulties of children growing up as outcasts, vampires seem to make the perfect vehicles for a depth of exploration seldom seen within the genre. The film not only provides terrific young performers, it also gives us a deep, evocative script that you just don’t find very often.

A strange, inventive and involving tale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the year’s most elegant films. With a dearth of quality period dramas, some would say it’s a welcome relief. For me, I’m glad that there’s always at least one and what a one Benjamin Button is. Featuring devastatingly good performances by Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, and capable performances from Brad Pitt, Taraji P. Henson and the rest of the cast, this gorgeous film isn’t the Victorian-era corset romp most period films strive for. Instead, it’s a humble film that spans the years following World War I all the way to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. It’s as much a testament and tribute to the history of filmmaking as it is an involving story about a man who ages backwards and the simple, yet powerful parallels between old age and infancy.

Thought provoking is a great way to describe most of the aforementioned nine films. However, none is as deep and powerful as the film I place at the top of my list this year. Splitting critics fairly evenly between dislike and adoration, Blindness is a haunting film about the grace and villainy inherent in the human race. Set in alternate reality of the present, a plague of blindness unhinges the refined, political correctness of society displaying the desperate, animalistic nature of human civilization and highlighting the grim determination and triumph of will of a small group of inmates at a detention facility.

While many of the actors in the film deliver terrific performances, including Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal, this film ostensibly belongs to Julianne Moore who gives one of her most brilliant and unflinching performances to date. The lone sighted person in all of this horrible mess, she must witness first hand the atrocities around her while putting on a brave front for those she has volunteered to look after. If you want to watch a film that really gets down and dirty with its exploration of the depravity of the human soul, this is your film. It’s uncompromising to a fault, filled with unyielding imagery and a pervasive sense of evil, Blindness is a difficult film to watch; however, it is an amazingly fulfilling experience that I wish others could and would experience and appreciate.

For all their flaws, most of the films of 2008 are either entertaining, insightful or challenging, but certainly not lacking in reward. They each show us where we’ve come from as a society and where we could go depending on our courses of actions and that’s what’s really important to me when watching movies. I like to enjoy myself, but I also like to think, expand and grow and while there are many better films released in this past decade, the output for this past year is strong enough. There were sufficient numbers of memorable moments, which should help keep it from becoming a year of the forgotten.

The Worst

2008 wasn’t entirely a bed of roses, however. For every brilliant film, there was an equally awful movie. Some were big box office behemoths ill deserving of praise and others were small poorly crafted films that were never expected to succeed. And it is those films I recognize here.

In desperate need of an adequate spoof, the superhero film has gotten treated to two previous attempts, neither of which was that exciting. Mystery Men is certainly the most fun of them all, but Superhero Movie comes very close. Filled with several really funny sequences, the film’s biggest deficiencies are in some very tired and rudimentary jokes. No one can say this is a masterpiece of any caliber, but at least it’s mildly fun even if it isn’t well acted or even slightly successful.

Meet the Spartans and the tenth film in this list, were not nearly as bad they could have been. There were some strongly funny elements in Spartans that made it far more fun than expected. The bravest decision was sitting on the homoerotic nature of the 300 film and keeping it sustained until the very end. The biggest problems with these films are that they latch onto a joke, torture it to death and then toss it, never revisiting it. While the movie is filled with many of these types of moments, it is certainly an improvement over the dismal Epic Movie and Disaster Movie.

The biggest success in this year’s list of worst movies, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a betrayal to the series that, until now, had only Temple of Doom to act as a low point and even that film isn’t that bad in comparison. Reverting to his fascination with aliens, Steven Spielberg betrayed his characters and confused its audience by throwing in so many unnecessary twists that it got in the way of many of the more inventive architectural traps and puzzles that made the series so special to so many over the years. Harrison Ford has long outlived his usefulness as an action hero and although his age was worked into the plot, it may be time for him to retire from the character unless an astoundingly good, alien-free version comes along in the future.

Less entertaining than it could have been, Untraceable is little more than a glorified police procedural, any number of which are on television these days, and most of those are better. Like a big screen version of a blend of CSI and Law & Order: SVU, Diane Lane delivers an underwhelming performance ill fitting to her career.

Last year, one of the best movies of the year was Bridge to Terabithia, an adult-friendly adaptation of an acclaimed children’s book. It was a book many in the audience who had brought their kids had grown up having read. Yet, when they brought City of Ember to the screen, they seemed to revert to the old Disney-style of family film, high on the amusement park adventures and sense of wonder, and limited on the emotional investment and philosophical sentiment. The performances weren’t as bad as the other films I’ve mentioned so far, but they weren’t that good either. Saoirse Ronan, hot off her Oscar nomination for Atonement failed to live up to expectations and Bill Murray and Tim Robbins, who have careers of fine performances, devolve into muddled caricatures.

No one ever expected Disaster Movie to be a great film, but we at least hoped to be entertained. The spoof has been off its mark for some time despite having a devoted set of followers. I’m in that crowd, but even I had too many problems with Disaster Movie. The performances weren’t up to the “X Movie” series standards, having never gained an Anna Faris-type performer who could carry the film. Trying too hard to make crude jokes and ill-mannered statements about movie, there were only a handful of scenes worth watching and even those had been lightly spoiled in trailers.

Hancock was intended to humanize the super hero genre, but managed to only muddy the waters. Built on the premise of a deadbeat with super powers, the story stayed true to that concept for only half the film before launching into a strange, inexpert tangent that made it feel like two movies, neither of which were competent on their own, but when combined proved to be minimally entertaining and entirely confusing and redundant bringing nothing new at all the genre. To add insult to injury, Will Smith has never been more irritating and condescending. Even though his character is supposed to take on these characteristics, his ego gets the better of him and he comes off poorly.

The second remake in my Worst Of list, The Day the Earth Stood Still bears only artificial resemblance to the classic 1951 sci-fi film. Destroying all the joy of discovery and the meaningful statements on human civilization, this Keanu Reeves disaster is cloying, irrelevant and almost artless with limp performances from a cast that certain has done better in the past.

Less catastrophic in terms of the technical aspects, but no less incompetent than April Fool’s Day, and equally poorly acted, Max Payne became yet another in a long line of video game adaptations that have failed to live up to audience expectations. A paycheck’s a paycheck, but after earning an Oscar nomination for The Departed, Mark Wahlberg didn’t need this unwieldy behemoth to make some good money, but he made it anyway and it was clearly a mistake.

Although it never made it to the theaters, the remake of the ‘80s cult classic April Fool’s Day not only failed to come close to the fun and originality of its predecessor, it failed to even live up to the studio’s expectations, earning a direct-to-DVD release. As a fan of the original film, warts and all, I was severely disappointed at how much of the campy fun of the 1986 film. Instead, we are given a self-important version that was not only not entertaining, it wasn’t even good. From terrible performances to poor editing choices and an inept screenplay, April Fool’s Day is example one of how to fail a remake and fail colossally.

With great films, awful films and everything-in-between films, 2008 is must like every of year in movie history. You can’t please everyone and there will always be more duds than there are successes, but everyone needs a movie to enjoy even if they are terrible, corny, redundant and irredeemable.

The Individual Best

Now that we’ve covered the best films of the year, let’s take at some performances, technicals and other achievements that were superlative in 2009.

Often, there are performances given by terrific actors outside of the top ten, whether in lead or supporting roles. This year, however, it seems most of them are already within the Top 10. On the lead side: Blindness features the terrific performance of Mark Ruffalo, Frost/Nixon the great work of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, Iron Man features a solid perf by Robert Downey Jr., Milk has the unquestionably great performance of Sean Penn, Revolutionary Road features the blossoming actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Mickey Rourke returns to fine form with his haunting role in The Wrestler. The only actor I’d single out from the non-Top 10 list is Hugh Jackman. While Australia was far from a perfect film, he fit the role of a cattle drover better than I had ever expected. While his isn’t anywhere near the top of the year, it is still a fine achievement.

But, of these, I am torn between Penn, Rourke and Langella for who gave the year’s best lead male performance. Rourke’s ability to move the audience is far more endearing than Penn’s charismatic politician and, although I think Penn melted into his role as Harvey Milk and Langella is a soulful Nixon who made us actually care about the guy, I’d have to give the year’s top prize to Rourke, but only by a hair.

Likewise, many of the year’s best supporting male performances came from my top 10 films list including Gael Garcia Bernal in Blindness, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Kevin Bacon in Frost/Nixon, and both James Franco and Josh Brolin in Milk. Other smart and entertaining performances included Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky, and Tom Cruise and Downey again in Tropic Thunder. Of these, the best comes down to a race between Ledger, Bacon, Franco and Cruise.

While I enjoyed Downey’s performance in Tropic Thunder, Cruise was such an interesting and hilarious character, that I give him plenty of credit for doing something I would never have fully expected of him. Franco is refined, passionate and revelatory in Milk, but he has relatively little to do, which shouldn’t diminish his work. And between Ledger and Bacon, I’m tempted to give Bacon a career honor for creating an honest and captivating performance as Nixon’s close friend, bodyguard and confidant, but there it is very limited in comparison to the manic ferocity that accompanies Ledger’s performance as the Joker. That he never got the fullest credit for his work on Brokeback Mountain (losing the Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ham-fisted impersonation in Capote) and on many other films until after his death, all of that talent and effort culminated in one of the most intense performances in recent memory.

Although it can sometimes be said that great roles for women are few and far between, there were several this year.  Julianne Moore escapes those awful paycheck films to deliver a master class in acting as the selfless wife whose ability to see allows the audience someone to share their disgust at the depravity of human beings when deprived of one of their most important senses. Cate Blanchett is quietly effective as the love interest and storyteller of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While many have chastised her for taking on so many stunt roles and characters that spend much of their time forcefully projecting their fear, anger and convictions, she tones it way down to give an honest, heartfelt performance as Daisy, and although I like her fiery performances quite a lot, this one gives her new depth as an actress. Angelina Jolie can never fully blend into characters, but one of her most effortless performances came from Clint Eastwood’s Changeling as a mother who refuses to accept the impostor presented as her missing child, never giving up hope that she can one day find him.

I have never been a raving fan of Meryl Streep. I’ve loved several of her performances, including those in Defending Your Life, Adaptation., and The Devil Wears Prada; her role in Doubt can be added to that list. She has such an effortless style that blending into her roles is one of her stocks in trade. Unlike her normally self-effacing personality, she’s cruel, stern and unapologetic in Doubt. Kate Winslet is easily one of our best young actresses working today. In Revolutionary Road, she provides the audience with a passionate, desperate housewife longing to be free but trapped in a suburban melodrama where her desires for her husband’s success are constantly at odds with his own. Sally Hawkins is so peppy and energetic in Happy-Go-Lucky that her quieter more private scenes resonate more fully. Seeing her work with her kindergarten children and deal with a petulant, explosive driving instructor is quite an entertaining and thought-provoking experience. But one of the best performances of the year comes from Michelle Williams, the quiet actress who seems to work very hard to make her performances look so easy. In Wendy and Lucy, she does a great job of conveying the desperation and solitude of an unemployed woman making her way north to find a lucrative job with only her yellow lab as a companion.

Of all of these performances, Winslet, Blanchett, Moore and Williams give the best, but to choose just one, I can’t help give it to Moore who seldom disappoints and in Blindness soars to her highest level since Far From Heaven.

Supporting performances by women are even more desperately lacking, but the year did have a small number of such turns that deserve recognition. Tilda Swinton is powerful as the lonely woman who becomes Benjamin Button‘s paramour while he is at sea exploring the world around him; Viola Davis takes a brief scene in Doubt and creates an indelible portrait of a desperate mother trying to keep her child from being expelled because he’s different and a priest has taken an interest in him; Marisa Tomei continues her streak of interesting and multi-faceted performances as a stripper/working mother who tries to separate business from pleasure in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Sadly, there aren’t more terrific performances this year and out of this bunch, I have to give Tomei the prize for her subtle and shaded performances.

For directors, the ten best are probably among the best directed of the year, although Ben Stiller does much better than I expected with Tropic Thunder but certainly doesn’t hold a candle to any of the year’s best directors. The best of the year were Fernando Meirelles’ evocative Blindness; Andrew Stanton’s entertaining and sophisticated WALL-E; David Fincher’s sprawling, detailed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Darren Aronofsky’s non-sentimentally-emotional The Wrestler; and Tomas Alfredson’s original and involving Let the Right One In. Of these, the most complex and daunting tasks fell to Meirelles and Fincher and of those two, I can’t help but admire what Fincher does with Benjamin Button more than any other director’s work this year.

Music didn’t seem to be as important an aspect of most films released this year as it has in the recent past. The best, most emotionally involving score came from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alexandre Desplat is shaping into one of our great composers and the subtlety and beauty of Benjamin Button is testament to that. The scores for Milk, WALL-E and Slumdog Millionaire were also solid efforts, but they just can’t compare to Button.

Songs written for films weren’t terribly impressive this year, but “The Wrestler” from the film of the same name by Bruce Springsteen is easily the best. Although I haven’t been impressed with his body of work, “The Wrestler” is a terrific song and although I enjoy the beat and energy of “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire it works so much better when accompanied by the closing dance sequence than it does standing alone, which Springsteen’s song is much better at. As for the best use of previously recorded music either adapted to the film or used in full, that distinction falls to both WALL-E and Hellboy II. The former uses music from Hello, Dolly! to create mood and enhance several scenes while the latter has a most interesting use of the song “Can’t Smile Without You” performed by a pair of drunken heroes in the film.

Looking at the best designed films, which, for me, combines art direction, costume design, cinematography and makeup, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has no equals. Changeling, Milk and Revolutionary Road are all quite exceptional, but Benjamin Button does everything perfectly.

As for the best in sound and visual effects, Benjamin Button easily takes the Visual Effects prize and WALL-E excels in its use of sound effects to tell a story that is largely silent. Iron Man and The Dark Knight each do a solid job of blending all of these elements, but are individually weaker than the strengths of Button and WALL-E. A special mention belongs to the technical effects in Blindness where the sudden appearance of objects that weren’t previously there adds an interesting element to the film.

With so many critics constantly on the look out for the next great year in film history (such as 1939), they often put down some quality films that might prove that any given year was a fairly solid one. Although I don’t feel 2008 could live up to one of those glory days of filmmaking, it was an enjoyable, high quality year in films that had sufficient numbers of wonderful experiences that could stand the test of time.

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