2008 Retrospective

Top ten lists suck. Movies can be so different, yet so enjoyable, that it can be difficult to compare them against one another. For example, one of my favorite cinema experiences this year was Role Models, but is it really one of the top 10 movies of 2008? Then again, who the hell am I to think that this blog post is a monument in history, and by leaving out Frost/Nixon I’m upsetting the balance of the universe?

Here are the movies I enjoyed most in 2008. This means they can be the pinnacle of their own genre. That’s why something twee like Son of Rambow or brutal like Rambo can beat out The Curious Case of Benji’s Mean Buttin’.

10. The Fall
Probably the most gorgeous visuals of 2008, other than Wall-E. A injured stuntman (Lee Pace) tells tall tales to a little girl in the hospital, but not just to befriend her. The fantasies he constructs reminded me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the story itself is engaging enough to make it more than eye candy. A sleeper of the year.

9. Milk
Sure, Sean Penn’s performance is incredible. But let’s not give James Franco, Emil Hirsch and Josh Brolin short shrift! Even Diego Luna is good as a drama queen. But beyondf the acting, this is one of Gus Van Sant’s best- he brings us to ’70s San Francisco as deftly as David Fincher did in Zodiac, he captures the feel of the era and makes an engaging biopic out of a political life. And he doesn’t make any pointers to Prop 8 like another hamfisted director might (cough, Oliver Stone).

8. Rambo
Best pure action picture of 2008, one of the most bloody and brutal of the genre, and a fitting end to the John Rambo story (if it’s over). A return to the roots of First Blood and Stallone doing what he does best- staring and killing.


7. Son of Rambow
This is listed as a 2007 film in IMDb but it only got theatrical release in the U.S. this year. So I’m counting it. It’s a delightful childhood fantasy about kids making their own sequel to First Blood, back in the early 80s, in small town England. Great characters, great story. If you liked Big Fish but don’t like Tim Burton’s mopey goth bullshit, this is infused with that childlike sense of wonder, some emotional dashes of reality and no smarm, and none of Timboy’s hangups.

6. In Bruges
The dark comedy sleeper of the year, this is an utterly fantastic hit-man thriller comedy from Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrel redeems himself as an actor after S.W.A.T., and his eyebrows deserve the Academy Award. I warn you, the comedy is fiercely gallows-esque, but everything happens as it must. It’s on DVD, rent it now.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh’s newest is a character study at heart, with Poppy’s indefatigable cheer, her roomie Zoe’s unfazeable calm and driving instructor Scott’s fierce armor of seething rage. But we see through the chinks of that armor, and see something nailed down and in torment (thanks to Gerald Kersh for that great line). Sally Hawkins won the Globe for best comedic actress and hopefully she’ll get a nom at the Oscars, or Eddie Marsan will get supporting, but I think this film will be sadly overlooked. Don’t make that mistake yourself.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
It’s as good as everyone says it is. Go see it. It’s an uplifting experience, and an eye-opening look into Mumbai. Solid acting, and few subtitles if you care about that. Different, exuberant, and an emotional thrill ride. Danny Boyle’s best in years.

3. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan transcends the comic book genre with this excellent thriller that reminded me of the best of the Batman Animated Series remade for adults. Heath Ledger gave an incredible performance as we all know, but the secondary characters played by Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and Michael Caine fill in the cracks in reality that form when we watch an eccentric billionaire dress up to fight an insane terrorist in clown make-up. The film is built more like a labyrinthine criminal takedown procedural by Michael Mann, and gripping throughout. I missed it in IMAX, to my enduring shame.

2. The Wrestler
The best drama of the year, and Mickey Rourke’s return to fame. Even if you don’t like wrestling, and think it’s stupid, this is a great movie and deserves you give it a shot. Aronofsky is one of the best directors working today.

1. Wall-E
The best film of 2008. First, it looks stunning- you don’t even know it’s CG until the little cockroach shows up. Secondly Wall-E may be a robot, but he’s one of the best characters this year; and his simple love story, set against the backdrop of a hilarious satire on the future of human expansion (pun intended) hits us smack in the gut to play our heartstrings like a certain Marx Brother on a harp in the middle of a terrific comedy. If you haven’t seen it, this isn’t “just” a kid’s film, it’s Brazil done by Chaplin, and one of the most refreshing science fiction stories in a good while.

Yet to see: Doubt, Choke, Good, Synecdoche, New York, Towelhead, W., Miracle at St. Anna, Australia, Waltz with Bashir, Encounters at the Edge of the World, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Shotgun Stories; I was gonna wait until I saw them all, but the Oscar noms come out tomorrow so I want this here first. Then I can make my predictions, and what I think deserves it- which are almost always at odds.


Documentary:

Standard Operating Procedure – The most important documentary of the year, about Abu Ghraib; Frost/Nixon for real, he gets confessions you won’t believe. No one wants to hear about Iraq anymore, but if you care about this country’s name being dragged in the mud, you should see this film so this doesn’t happen again.

Man on Wire – Excellent doc about Phillippe Petit, who tightroped between the Twin Towers.

Foreign Films:
Let the Right One In – Coming of age movie and vampire tale that throws away Anne Rice’s horrible influence on the genre, and makes us frightened of them again. Incredible.

Tell No One – Excellent thriller based on Harlan Coben’s novel, moved to Paris. The Fugitive with more thrills and twists.

Honorable Mentions (worth seeing):

The Reader
– fine performances in a somewhat overlong and convoluted telling of a strong story about guilt, shame, and the eagerness to go along that makes those who stand up even more extraordinary.

The Visitor – Emotionally powerful indie by the director of The Station Agent, about a withdrawn, widowed professor who gets attached to a couple he finds squatting in his New York apartment. A touching and heartfelt film that shouldn’t be overlooked; if a big name played the prof, this would be huge.

Religulous – Bill Maher shows us the religious who border on crazy and makes fun of them.

Defiance – A fine WW2 story we’ve not heard before. Old-fashioned good movie.

RocknRolla – Guy Ritchie does his thing again, good fun but takes a long time to warm up.

Rachel Getting Married – Fine drama by Jonathan Demme, Anne Hathaway gives an excellent performance, but it is a bit indulgent in the overlong wedding scenes.

Role Models – Funniest comedy of the year.

Iron Man – Probably the most fun I had in a theater. Great action, and Robert Downey Jr. embodies the part and makes Tony Stark his own. Gwyneth Paltrow is delightful as Pepper Potts and isn’t just arm candy. Jon Favreau did a great job directing, and I’m sad Terence Howard won’t be returning as War Machine. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will live up to this.

Gran Torino– Clint Eastwood’s performance will be remembered as one of his best, and it’s a solid story that gives us insight into a culture not many people know about.

Revolutionary Road – great acting, but this is American Beauty: The ’50s.

Frost/Nixon – Great performances but a bit sketchy inbetween the interview parts.

Be Kind Rewind – Overlooked cute and quirky comedy by Michel Gondry with Jack Black and Mos Def.

Kung Fu Panda – One of Dreamworks best- a classic old kung fu movie done for kids with a great voice cast a funny script. Better than expected.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Very funny Apatow gang film with new guy to watch, Jason Segel.
The Bank Job – Solid British heist film.
Pineapple Express – Terence Malick makes a stoner action comedy.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno – Kevin Smith does Apatow; not his best but lots of laughs.
Tropic Thunder – Very funny, Robert Downey Jr.’s second hit of the year. Tom Cruise? yawn.
Quantum of Solace – Too short but a fine Bond film.
The Ruins – Survival horror in Yucatan; very effective.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Beautiful and strange; great comic book adaptation.
Get Smart – Solid movie version of the classic series.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay – Funnier than the original? Maybe.
Doomsday – Modern homage to postapocalyptica with Rhona Mitra as the new action heroine.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden – Another good doc by Spurlock.
Young People Fucking – a very funny Canadian sex comedy about 3 couples and their sex lives.
The Wackness- Nice coming of age story about a pot dealer in 1994.
The Foot Fist Way – Danny McBride plays a small-town Tae Kwon Do instructor trying to get his idol to perform at his school. If you liked him in Hot Rod you’ll love this. It’s all cruel, sick humor, so it’s not for everyone.

Abominable Mentions (view at your own risk):

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Aliens from Close Encounters – Need I say more?
The Crappening – I didn’t review this because so many had eviscerated it that I felt I couldn’t possibly add anything useful. It’s a heavy-handed ’50s sci-fi that isn’t very scary.
The Strangers – Dumb people get killed.
Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control – Cash in or TV pilot. Yawn.
Death Race – Paul W.S. Anderson continues to make forgettable crap.

A New Year’s Toast to Mediocrity:
Burn After Reading – Fargo in D.C.
Slacker Uprising – A Private History of a Voting Campaign That Failed
The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – Better than 2 not as good as 1
The Incredible Hulk – Everything but super-serum Blonsky is forgettable.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Forrest Gump 2
Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody coasting with a good cast.
Speed Racer – Longer than several seasons of the cartoon.

Gran Torino

There are great stories, and great characters; the rare times they converge, and you have a classic. Gran Torino has a great character, and a good story; but it just may be a classic. Because Clint has crafted a character we instantly dislike, yet want to spend more and more time with. A character this good can make a minor classic all on his own.

We meet Walt at the funeral of his wife, where he’s smoldering as his grandchildren show up, in football jerseys and bare midriffs. His sons mutter to each other about whose kids will disappoint him more. The stage is set- an irascible old man who no one is good enough for, living alone in “the old neighborhood” where he’s a final holdout who hasn’t sold his house to immigrants. His craggy face is sculpted in a constant sneer; he doesn’t like what he sees. The repast is at his home, where his sons mumble with their wives about whether it’s time for him to sell it, and his pierced granddaughter is eyeing the classic car that gives the film its title, as she sneaks a smoke in the garage.

Naming a movie after a car when it’s not a road movie is an odd choice, but it makes sense. The 1972 Gran Torino is rough, unforgiving relic from a bygone era. Walt treasures his- he helped build it on the Ford assembly line, and keeps it looking brand new in his garage or driveway. We never even see him drive it, or take enjoyment from it. He just sits on his porch with his Lab, Daisy, drinking PBR’s and sneering at the sorry state of disrepair his Asian neighbors keep their homes in. He’s the kind of man who feels great pain at the sight of a patchy lawn. Next door, the family is celebrating the birth of a child. There are two teenagers in the family, a shy, hunched over boy named Thao and a smart and independent girl named Sue.

They are Hmong- the original “boat people” who sided with us in the Vietnam war, and fled here when we retreated. It’s to the film’s credit that they cast unknowns in the parts, let the actors ad-lib in their own language, and portray their customs. Like Walt, we feel like we’re in a foreign country surrounded by them. the infamous “Get off my lawn!” scene, where he aims the M1 Garand he fought with in Korea at some Asian gangbangers ensues when Thao’s cousins begin hassling him to join up with them. They stumble onto his lawn, and he goes outside. When Thao’s family try to thank him for his help, he tells them to get off his lawn too.

 

The next day they shower him with gifts- flowers and food. He shuns them, but Sue persists. He may call her names, but they seem to connect because she is a polite and courteous person who is sure of herself. She’s not offended or afraid of him. He can’t scare her off. Eventually he makes an unlikely bond with her brother Thao, without giving away too much of the plot. Thao and his family, the upright side, keep banging heads with his criminal cousins. But Walt’s a fixer. He fixes things. Eventually he’s worn down by Sue’s hospitality, and goes to a family party. Good food, free beer, and good company get the better of him. He may call them zips or gooks to their faces, but he doesn’t hate them. It’s apparent that he hates the shabby state of the neighborhood more than anything else.

The n-word is just about the only slur not used in this movie. I was just in a forum discussion about whether Walt is racist or not, which I find beside the point. He’s a misanthrope; he says it plainly that he wants to be left alone, and slurs are an easy way to make that so. As the story unfolds, we don’t get any obvious revelations of why he is the way he is. It’s left to us to piece together. He’s a child of the Depression and a veteran of the forgotten war, the Korean conflict. They didn’t get parades, or monuments, and our troops retreated in shame. The battle was a slaughter, with stacks of Chinese and Korean soldiers used as sandbags.

The local priest sniffs around too- Walt’s wife made him promise to get Walt to give confession, as if she knew the burden he carried. The film eschews the predictable; it is not a revenge tale, and while it is one of redemption, it knows that sometimes we are beyond it. Walt spars verbally with the young pastor, badgers Thao into becoming a man, and faces his own shortcomings- that he never got to know his own sons. The ending is satisfying, but not the one we wanted. Sure, we want to see Dirty Old Man Harry drive around town in his beat-up truck, being a bad-ass and facing down thugs forever. We know he’ll fix the problem with the thugs- but we just don’t know how.

The movie lives and dies on Eastwood’s performance, easily his best in years. Walt is a brick wall; he never blinks, never winks at you. Even his sense of humor is brash. We see him with his barber (Marge’s husband from Fargo) trading insults and ethnic slurs, and telling awful jokes with his drinking buddies. Some have said that the Hmong actors are too amateur, but they felt natural to me. It was a great choice, just as shooting on location in Michigan was. We haven’t seen the gritty streets of Detroit since Four Brothers and 8 Mile. And the story may not be great, but Eastwood knows just what to tell and what to leave us to figure out. He takes a simple story and makes it gripping, and as much as I like his output, I think this is his most enjoyable movie since Unforgiven.

4.5 out of 5 30-06 rounds.