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.


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.

In Bruges – dark comedy sleeper of the year

I saw In Bruges on a whim after it generated considerable buzz early this year. It’s already on DVD after a February release, unfortunate for a well-advertised indie; despite Colin Farrell in the lead, it didn’t have legs. Probably because it’s a brutally dark comedy; it was sold as being like Snatch and other recent screwy U.K. crime comedies, when it really isn’t. It’s a bit deeper, a lot darker; it has colorful characters too, but these are more rooted in reality. The other thing it had against it was no one could pronounce the title. It’s broozh, for the record. I think I called it Brooges, but then again, I mispronounce everything.

Normal beer vs. Gay beer

This is a damn shame, because it is one of the best movies this year, if you have a sick sense of humor. I can’t reveal too much of the story, because watching it unfold is part of the fun. It involves two hit men who have to cool off in the sleepy medieval tourist town of the title after a botched job. The other great part is the characters. I used to think Colin Farrell was useless, but this movie may even make up for King Arthur. Brendan Gleeson, one of my favorite fat Irish actors, plays Ken, who is making the best of the little “vacation,” seeing the sights, playing it cool. Farrell’s Ray is a city boy from Dublin, and finds the town’s glacial pace maddening; he stays in the pub most of the time, ordering “a gay beer for my gay friend and a normal beer for me because I am normal,” poking fun at the snifters of Belgian beer vs. the manly Irish pint of brown.

The movie is directed by Martin McDonagh, his first major film- and it’s an achievement. It deftly unravels it’s little tale, and we learn what happened with the botched job, why the boss sent them to Bruges of all places, and what exactly these guys have on their minds. Ken is more of a brooding old crook, he has no illusions about what they do- kill people. Ray is the young pup, fiery tempered, sardonic gabber.

Me eyebrows’ll snatch the Oscar fer sure!

The botched hit that drives the plot begins as nothing new- he is in the confessional, getting penitence for the crime he is about to commit- but the bullet goes through the priest and hits a young boy who was next in line. In the middle of your chuckle you’re greeted with horror; and the movie progresses from there, with the manic Ray trying to deal with what he has done. Their boss, Harry, whom we only hear over the phone, sends them far away to let the heat cool off; but he has other reasons, and is given depth of his own.

Feckin’ art shite!

Ray can’t stand the town, but finally perks up when he seems a film being shot, and rushes over like a giddy schoolboy. By way of that, he meets Natalie, a pretty girl working with the crew, and Jimmy, a little person acting in the movie. Ray is the kind of guy who makes a bad first impression and then corrects it in your mind, if he likes you; before long he’s doing coke with them and Jimmy’s prostitute in a hotel room, and where it goes from there is anyone’s guess, but McDonagh’s story has its own logic- it goes where it has to go, where it will inevitably go.

Not the Colin Farrell you may be used to.

McDonagh was a playwright first and the film reminded me of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, also about two criminals holed up; the story keeps surprising you, but without going on crazy tangents. It deftly distracts you from what you know must come next. I’m sure it will be compared to other crime films from across the pond like Guy Ritchie’s, but it reminded me a little of Layer Cake when there was tension, but the humorous vibe is all it’s own.

I’m not Peter Dinklage, motherfucker.

The humor arises from its characters, and the story they find themselves in; the perfect tone is leavened by McDonagh’s considerable writing talent and the skill of the actors. There’s a surprise appearance of one of my favorite actors, Ralph Fiennes, who’s made a career of playing villains; he makes a new one here as Harry the mob boss, as principled as he is ruthless. And funny in just the right way, reminiscent of Ray Barboni from Get Shorty with an appropriate dry manner. Jordan Prentice plays Jimmy, the little actor with a proclivity for whores and cocaine; I mistook him for Peter Dinklage at first, to my shame. He has a similar acerbity, but he’s good in his own right- hopefully there’s room for two smart-ass little people in Hollywood, because I can’t get enough of Dinklage and would like to see Prentice again, he’s that good. He was the bag of pot in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and survived the ignominy of playing Howard the Duck, a movie I saw in the theater, to my enduring shame.

It’s on DVD and definitely worth a rental; dismiss your hatred of Colin Farrell, he’s thrown away the cap and shaved his stubble, and his eyebrows might win an Academy Award here. This is his best role yet. If you won’t take my word for it, Ebert’s review is more detailed and even more gushing.

The trailer.