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.

the golden globes – livebloggin it

Slumdog Millionaire – golden globe for best picture: drama. It’s awesome to see a story like this win. It’s been a long time since a story like this, reminiscent of classics like Pressburger & Powell’s The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, win big. Go Bollywood! And who says Americans won’t read (some) subtitles?

And holy shit Mickey Rourke gets best actor for The Wrestler! Go Mick! I’m really surprised that he beat Sean Penn. I think Mickey deserves it, but Penn was pretty amazing too. And he cutely thanks his dogs. He’s got 5 little dogs and he’ll kick your ass if you laugh at his chihuahuas.

Glad that Mad Men got best series, but the cameramen suck for focusing on the bald dudes when there’s hotties behind him. January Jones and Christina Hendricks please…

Kate Winslet wins another one! Wow. She should have won for Little Children two years ago, and now she’s cleaned up. Meryl Streep is going to have her killed.

Freida Pinto from Slumdog is still adorable.

Sascha Baron Cohen being funny and mean. And once again Woody Allen coasts on his rep from two decades ago with a mediocre comedy- Vicky Cristina Barcelona wins best comedy, despite being an insipid snoozer. Go see In Bruges or Happy-Go-Lucky instead; even Burn After Reading, despite being Coen Bros. coasting, was better than VCB.

Colin seems pretty nervous. He and Sally Hawkins don’t realize how good they were. Hell they might be acting it. Damn they’re good. They got me.

Yay Colin Farrell for the underrated In Bruges! A gay golden globe for my gay friend and a normal one for me because I am normal. Best actor in a comedy- though James Franco got a nice nom for Pineapple Express. Franco was great in Milk and got snubbed there.

Sigourney Weaver’s still got it. Ripley can be my Alien Queen anytime.

Danny Boyle gets the Best Director award he deserves. Personally I wanted Darren Aronofsky, but of those nominated- Opie Howard for Frost/Nixon, David Fincher for Forrest Gump 2, Sam Mendes for American Beauty: the 50s, he definitely deserves it. Slumdog is a blast, a retro Hollywood epic. Go see it. And then get some lamb korma.

Apparently when you’re old enough to win a Cecil B. DeMille award, you’re old enough to tell long rambling stories no one wants to hear. Clint Eastwood ought to go up there in character from Gran Torino and tell him to shut up.

Marty Scorsese! He’s turned into Ace Rothstein. And please stop sucking Spielberg’s cock.

Tina Fey, all the way! She’s pretty funny on twitter, too. Woman of the year with her Sarah Palin schtick, too. Way to go Tina. And Baby Mama was pretty funny, great for an SNL-related movie.

Slumdog handily picks up best score, too. And it’s a good one, too.

Apparently Glenn Close is wearing the drapes a la Gone With the Wind, and Lawrence Fishburne ate all of Seth Rogen’s leftovers. Morpheus looks more like Idi Amin.

Going by Seth “Nutrisystem” Rogen and Giammati, muttonchop ’70s sideburns are in! And I just shaved my Lemmy ‘stache off. Damn you, Firecracker!

Paul Giamatti for John Adams; he did a great job, and I always like it when fat little men get awards.

Alec Baldwin for 30 Rock; Duchovny probably lost because he got too into the part and had to go for sex addiction counseling. Baldwin joked about humiliating and belittling his daughter. I guess his Glengarry Glen Ross performance wasn’t much of a stretch.

Slumdog Millionaire for best screenplay; the direction was what made it, and the screenwriter even said so. Let’s see if Boyle gets the win, too.

John Adams is grabbing a lot of TV awards; it was quite good but not great, sparse year for mini-series.

Waltz in Bashir gets best foreign language film as expected. Must see it.

Heath Ledger gets a well-deserved award for The Joker; wtf is Tom Cruise nominated for Tropic Thunder for? To show the couch-hopping vitamin pusher still has a sense of humor? Robert Downey Jr. at least got a nom, he was fantastic in Tropic Thunder.

Wall-E deservedly wins best animated. No contest.

Meryl Streep looks embarrassed to be nominated for Mamma Mia.

Don Cheadle really needs to grow back his hair. And facial hair. He looks like he’s made of play-doh.

Glad Sally Hawkins won a GG for Best Actress for Happy-Go-Lucky. I called it and haven’t written my review yet, but it’s one of the year’s best films, and shows that you don’t have to be dark to be deep.

Kate Winslet for The Reader- glad she finally got one, but haven’t seen this yet. Marisa Tomei was great in The Wrestler, but she’ll never be forgiven for winning an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny.

Slumdog Millionaire

When I reviewed Gran Torino, I said that when a great character and a great story converge, you have a great movie. Slumdog Millionaire does it, in spades. Three actors come together to make a great character, and two directors and two writers build us a great story, giving us a great movie. Go see it. Then come back and read this.

The story is a classic rags to riches, or “rags to Rajah” as the game show host puts it, about a street kid named Jamal who ends up winning the top prize on India’s “Who wants to be a millionaire?” program. When we meet him he is being interrogated for cheating, because what could a nothing like a slumdog know? Well, it’s that sort of film where every question he answers takes us back to a time in his life, and it’s done masterfully. We meet Jamal as a child with his older brother Salim, scampering around the shanty towns of Mumbai and thriving in misery as kids are wont to do.


There is tragedy, and there is joy. If the story were just depicting street life alone, you could just watch Salaam Bombay! but this is much more. Jamal is good-hearted and giving, while his brother Salim is more self-serving, and a bully. They clash but stick together, soon picking up a third “Musketeer,” a girl named Latika. We learn some of the dark secrets behind the begging children of Mumbai; fagins and their ways, gangsters, tourist scammers. As they grew up into young men, their plight became reminiscent of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, as they work in kitchens that pour tap water into used bottles and glue the caps back on, and tell tall tales to tourists at the Taj Mahal.

It’s not all fun and games; there is tragedy, loss, division and unrequited love but I don’t want to give away the details. It keeps the perfect note throughout, and is definitely one of the best films of the year. A classic story with a near-perfect cast- older Salim is weak at times- but masterfully made modern and engaging, by Danny Boyle at the top of his game. There are so many fine touches. Boyle’s direction is light-hearted and flashy at times, even in the drab colors of the slums. The subtitles come out of people’s mouths like word balloons, but most of the film is in English. It gets the full Bollywood treatment with a dance number at the end, and some of the best designed credits I’ve ever seen.

Every great story has a boy, a gun and a girl.

Dev Patel plays older Jamal as the vessel of all these experiences, both wounded and idealistic, self-assured and humble; he’s a mere chaiwalla, or coffee go-fer, but he’s got sharp eyes and ears and makes his own luck. The younger versions, and their compatriots, are natural and never seem amateur. The story has the great emotion of an epic of the golden era made urban. Don’t hesitate to go see this, it’s one of the best movies of the year. Boyle’s childhood masterpiece Millions crossed with Salaam Bombay!, and a lot more. A great soundtrack, too. It’s based on Vikas Swarup’s novel, which I’ll probably pick up soon.

5 lamb kormas out of 5