This list should be kept and used as a companion log throughout the years while you make searches on Netflix. I never expect, of course, that everyone out there will agree with all of my choices, but I certainly hope everyone agrees with my number one pick of the year! Certainly there was no other film that came close in matching it. Sure it’s not typically “high profile” in Oscar’s choice of subject matter. If you are one of the few that have stayed away because you don’t like comic book movies and are convinced they are incapable of reaching High Art, think again.
BEST OF 2008
1. The Dark Knight – Filmed and paced with throbbing forward motion, Christopher Nolan’s direction is a triumph of operatic action, drama and music synthesis. Batman (Christian Bale), further troubled by what public image to display in contrast to doing the most good, has to greatly compromise his ideals ultimately to protect Gotham’s citizens. The head adversary, The Joker (Heath Ledger) is such a disturbing creation that he hotwires into your very nerves. The suspense is so palpable that your adrenaline is drumming incessantly, but that’s probably due to the immediacy of conflicts: There are always three or four noir-flavored plots toppled on top of each other simultaneously. The film’s visceral power is not to be ignored either. The Batmobile shedding its shell to convert into the Batcycle is the most exhilarating movie moment of 2008. If all blockbusters were this well made then critics wouldn’t have to complain about the quality of blockbusters. The bar has just been raised.
2. Burn After Reading – Like most of the Coen Brothers’ conundrums it is all a commotion of accidents spilling into the next. This is the kind of underappreciated movie that will get discussed on a VH1 movie countdown list of classic scenes probably ten years from now with its pundits explaining how it was misunderstood in its initial release. Time will prove it as most memorable, most repeatedly watchable, most intricately and ingeniously plotted. An actors coup includes George Clooney as the compulsive womanizer, John Malkovich as a weirdly pompous CIA agent, and Brad Pitt as the clueless nimrod out to blackmail men that are way, way smarter than him.
3. Slumdog Millionaire – Incredible and virtuoso. Jamal (Dev Patel) is orphaned at a young age, roams the streets peddling and hustling for survival, and entering adulthood lands a spot on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” only to be accused of cheating. Director Danny Boyle has taken some potentially grim and mirthless material and has triumphantly directed it like a rip-roaring action movie spurred with lightening pacing as it traces one remarkable boy with an unbreakable determination and willpower to succeed.
4. The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke that makes the comeback of a lifetime as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler on the brink of professional and personal oblivion, but the film deserves inexhaustible respect as well for it being a character study – the kind we got with regularity in ’70’s cinema when characters were allowed warts, faults and defects. Rourke’s powerhouse performance is a work absent of any vanity. Marisa Tomei is also excellent as a sexy but pitiful stripper whose only commitment is motherhood. Look at them as people and consider the sad missed opportunities.
5. Tropic Thunder – Raucous and rowdy comedy classic, every bit has manic energy. Robert Downey Jr. delivers one of the best comedic performances ever, crossing lines over into the subversive as an Australian actor thespian metamorphosing into character as a black military sergeant. Ben Stiller and Jack Black also play actors who go to the jungle to shoot a Vietnam movie. Full tilt with vulgarity but ridiculously irresistible nonetheless, it took extra viewings for me to see this as an extreme satire on celebrity egomaniacs.
6. Paranoid Park – A perplexing and intriguing avante-garde experiment. Skateboard kid (played by non-actor Gabe Nevins) accidentally kills a security guard, holds this secret to himself and to his journal, and spends the rest of the film trying to free himself from the guilt. Gus Van Sant’s disaffected approach, emphasized through a jumbled non-linear narrative that seems to pop out of Alex’s dissociated mind, can be a mesmerizing cinematic experience if you get Van Sant’s meditation on vacuous youth.
7. Changeling – Clint Eastwood’s most complex work in years yet criticized in some corners as merely a simplistic kidnapping tale. Did everyone miss and undervalue the depiction of 1920’s sexual inequality and inherent chauvinism in professional males during that era? Asylums were a common practice back then, and although it has been tackled in old black & white movies, it’s never been done as well as it does here with wronged woman Angelina Jolie being thrown in and stripped of her dignity just for being a good mother.
8. W. – The ever underappreciated Oliver Stone made a lingering film that dared to dissect, by means of psychological probing, the professional fallacies and personality inadequacies of George W. (Josh Brolin). As president, George Jr. wants to outshine his father’s legacy. A father whose course of action as former president was too slow, not thorough enough. The film sees baseball as W.’s first love obsession, and politics as not so much as a love obsession but as a heritage entitlement. The subversive factor is that the film only seems to bask in the glow of our former president. The biopic tone is flattery, but the Stone-craft flakiness is a mirror of criticism.
9. Wall-E – Sublimely animated Pixar triumph that gives its’ protagonist robot an expressive, and emotional life. Particularly special are the early scenes of a futuristic Earth dustbowl done in dialogue-free scenes, the words sang are from “Hello, Dolly” on the telly. Funny and poignant is his bric-a-brac home that’s an elegy to Earth past, but a souvenir museum for a home. The love story between Wall-E and an unprogrammed for love robot works, and the outer space scenes hold up the sci-fi aspects, while being funny and endearing, too.
10. Frost/Nixon – Riveting historical drama with British TV personality David Frost (Martin Sheen) going after Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in an exclusive interview in effort to make the disgraced former president apologize for his trespasses. The film builds an unexpected rooting interest for Frost to absolve himself in what could be a career destroying debacle – admit it, you care about what happens in the story because of what Sheen does with Frost, not because of what Langella does with Nixon (who was Oscar nominated). Top-class script is by Peter Morgan (“The Queen”).
Revolutionary Road – Director Sam Mendes takes a harsh swipe at 1950’s social functionaries, and if anything, suggests that middle class married couples dissatisfactions was a commonality that was treated with complacency. Proposing to escape the American blandness, corporate drone Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) searches for ways to liven up his work tedium while wife April (Kate Winslet) searches for ways to break her homemaker routine. Her character is often a mystery with unknown motives and heartless detachment, but Winslet, in a brilliant performance, plays her as someone who is unaware of a likely plaguing psychological disorder.
Honorable Mentions: Robert Downey Jr. gives Iron Man (pic right) a real breathing human soul underneath the tin, and kudos to those whooshing flying scenes; the harrowing documentary Standard Operating Procedure offers candid visual proof of the crimes at Abu Ghraib; the riveting German film The Edge of Heaven interlinks several fateful stories between Germany and Turkey; Rachel Getting Married featured the remarkable Anne Hathaway as a rehab junkie returning home to her sister’s wedding; the biopic Milk with the great Sean Penn as a politician crusading for gay rights in California; the persuasive drama Chop Shop starkly portrays a 12-year old caring for himself on the streets and doing just fine as a junior businessman; Frozen River is another impressive drama with Melissa Leo as a hard-luck woman risking her own well-being for Mohawk Indian immigrants at the Canadian border; The Reader highlights the acting talents of Kate Winslet as a Nazi sympathizer burdened with insurmountable guilt following the war. And then two documentaries: Encounters at the End of the World is Werner Herzog’s supercool Antarctica feature; Man on Wire has astonishing physical sights of a daring trapeze artist.
Worst Films of the Year:
1. Repo! The Genetic Opera – Death-metal musical with non-stop bad lyrics that relentlessly polluted my mind with ugly images.
2. 88 Minutes – Al Pacino tumbles to his career low with this tick-tock turkey.
3. The Happening – There are a lot of deaths by osmosis in this movie, but stupidity by osmosis too.
4. Fool’s Gold – So dumb and contrived and far-fetched and witless that it causes oxygen deprivation to the brain.
5. Made of Honor – The worst sex humor of any comedy in recent ages.
Male Performances: Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”); Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”); Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”); Josh Brolin (“W.”); George Clooney (“Burn After Reading”).
Female Performances: Kate Winslet (“Revolutionary Road”); Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”); Kate Winslet (“The Reader”); Naomi Watts (“Funny Games”); Keira Knightley (“The Duchess”).
Best Action Scene: Anything in “The Dark Knight”
Best Action Scene Runner-Up: The cathedral hooks-and-pulley grappling scene in “Quantam of Solace” (pic below). Daniel Craig pulls his weapon just in time.
Worst Action Scene: The speedboat chase where James Bond miraculously avoids machine gun bullets with no shield from behind in “Quantam of Solace”
Best Trashy B-Movie Scene: “Rambo” where our hero outruns an explosion then dodging the falling jungle foliage that is thunderously falling from overhead
Best Cheesy Frights of the Year: The attack of the Amazon red ants in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
Best Musical Interlude of the Year: Tom Cruise’s hip-hop moves in “Tropic Thunder” (pic below). Somebody give Les Grossman his own comedy franchise.
Best Body Language of the Year: George Clooney in top form in “Burn After Reading”
Worst Casting of the Year: Any American or British actor playing a German in “Valkyrie”
Worst Performance of the Year: Patrick Dempsey’s smelly-looking armpits in “Made of Honor,” especially the bedroom scenes (pic below).
Grossest Scene: The white dog-poo in the execrable comedy “Step Brothers”
Most Disappointing Films of the Year: Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” and the new Bond “Quantum of Solace.”