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.

Son of Rambow

You know you’re getting old when childhood memories start yellowing around the edges like old photographs, when they begin to resemble fantastic nostalgia more than reality, and the colors fade like you’re watching an old home movie. Soon you’ll insist that things were much better back then, before we had vaccines for chicken pox, when the best game in town was Pong, seat belts were optional and tighty whities were the only option available. You’ll forget that good music was just as rare on the radio- ever hear Whitney Houston at an ’80s party? Well, let me tell you in the mid-80s, escaping her ear-shattering wails was as hard as Chinese algebra. The rear view mirror should come with its own warning- objects may not be as rosy as they appear.

Son of Rambow is a movie by Garth Jennings, whose other major feature was the underappreciated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adaptation, which took an impossible book and made a pretty entertaining movie out of it. But defending that movie is for another time. In his latest, he kicks Tim Burton’s mopey goth-boy butt off the parapets and takes his crown, by making one of the best childhood fantasies of recent vintage, about two schoolmates and who become unlikely friends while making their own Rambo movie. He even manages to touch on the prickly subjects of bullies, religion, and authority without stooping to the booger-flinging childish attitudes so prevalent in Burton’s movies. It’s a little subtle and quirky, but I found it truly delightful.

Will Proudfoot is a quiet, imaginative boy whose family belongs to a religious sect which forbids such modern distractions as television, music and the movies. We meet him when he sits outside the classroom to avoid a filmstrip being shown. Wild boy Lee Carter is also in the hallway skipping class, and they don’t so much meet as collide; the strictly raised boy, and the boy who’s raising himself. Lee’s older brother minds him by using him as a house servant for himself and his preppy hooligan pals, leaving him to his own devices as long as he goes to school. He’s got a storeroom full of goodies to play with, and Lee has been sneakily borrowing his ’80s-era video camera- 50 pounds of shoulder-mounted camera and hip-mounted tape and battery pack, just like I remember them.

The only movie showing in town is First Blood, and when Will’s repressed imagination- thus far limited to picture stories illustrated on notepads and throughout his Bible- meets Lee’s Huckleberry Finn-like freedom and utter lack of regard for the law, they collaborate on their own sequel to the Sylvester Stallone blockbuster called Son of Rambo. The movie deftly weaves several plots involving school and home life; the boys prank their schoolmasters, and deal with French exchange students, including a young punk named Didier who introduces the sheltered kids to a walking, talking rockstar who looks like he walked off their Bau-Haus album covers. Will’s mother is a widow, and having trouble with the Brethren; one wants to become part of the household, and thinks Will needs even stricter parenting. It’s to Jennings’ credit that the religious family is not used for mockery, or turned into stereotypes; Will’s mother is devout and does want him to be, but she is never shown as domineering or cruel, and neither is the church.

The movie does have a subtle, fantastic aura, where the early ’80s are a magical, innocent place; little touches, like the shed they hang out in being off-kilter, almost like Dr. Seuss designed it. The music and the look is spot on, with Lee’s self-absorbed jerky older brother driving around in a Triumph TR7 and looking like he walked out of a Polo catalogue. How children were allowed to roam in nearby forests and abandoned factories because we didn’t assumed an adbuctor was hiding behind every bustling hedgerow. The two relatively new child actors are magnificent discoveries and never seem like they are acting; Lee is given to some near-breaks of the fourth wall, as he likes self-narrating, but he rides that razor’s edge perfectly.

The story does follow that “unlikely friends” formula, but their friendship seems founded on abuse- since Lee really doesn’t know how to treat friends, since he has none, and only his brother as a role model- so when they realize what good friends they actually are, it surprises us as well as them. The ending is a bit bittersweet and unlikely, reminiscent of Be Kind Rewind not only in how it centers on a low-budget, folksy recreation, but in the sentimental, caring neighborhood it creates (and longs for). While there’s a touch of Michel Gondry in its whimsy, it also reminded me of Tim Burton’s early (and best) work, like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when he was less likely to insert dark little asides to avenge a childhood full of jock bullying. (Even in Big Fish, one of Burton’s best recent films, he had to stick a scene of a jock dying on the crapper which was completely unnecessary).

While set in the ’80s, and involving stunts no 9 year old should contemplate, I think it would be a great kid movie. It reminded me of my childhood. We make stupidly dangerous bike ramps for our Huffy Bandits and Mongooses; if we only had a videocamera! It’s inspirational to the imagination, and there are consequences to their reckless behavior, so it’s not like it espouses jumping off buildings (I did that too, and have a lifelong injury to remind me not to do it again). It’s good fun for adults too, especially for those of us who grew up in the time period- it doesn’t dwell on nostalgia, but captures the era so well that even though it’s set in Britain, I had to grin a lot in remembrance. It even uses some of the best clips from First Blood, like this one again:
And yes, they had to add the “w” for legal reasons, obviously. Just in case Sly gets too old to make Rambo 8, and needs to get rescued by his son.