As 2008 gets taken off the Current Events shelf and moved to History, let us contemplate the seismic changes the year has brought us. The United States elected its first black president. The economy took its worst turn in decades. A stripper won a screenwriting Oscar. And a movie about a rubber-clad sadomasochist earned $531 million.
It was a strange year, both in the movies and in real life. “The Dark Knight,” the most popular film of the year (and the second-highest-grossing film in history), also happened to be one of the year’s best, a confluence that’s rarer than you’d think. Comic book movies got darker and smarter, animated films got ever more complex, senior citizens Rambo and Indiana Jones both came out of retirement, New York got destroyed a few times, and several films managed to be huge hits based on — get this! — predominantly female audiences. What a country!
I reviewed 241 of 2008’s theatrical releases and watched but didn’t review (mostly at festivals) another 43 new films. Of the ones I reviewed, 136, or 56%, got a grade of B- or better. That’s pretty good, don’t you think? To enjoy your job more than half the time? Heck, some of those C+ and C movies have their entertaining moments, too. For that matter, even the D and F movies, while excruciating to watch, are fun to write about. I guess my point is that this is a sweet gig, all things considered. The pay isn’t great, but you get to see some pretty cool stuff.
The Best Movies of 2008:
1. “WALL-E” Pixar’s computer-animated tales have always been marvels of smart, efficient storytelling, filled with unfailingly engaging characters — even when, as in this case, they aren’t human (they’re not even biological), and they barely speak. It’s strange to be brought to tears by a romance between two robots, but here we are. When WALL-E and Eve hold hands, everything else about the movie — its sublime pop-culture references, its sophisticated sight gags, its subtle satire — is almost beside the point.
2. “Synecdoche, New York” Charlie Kaufman once wrote a movie about people climbing inside John Malkovich’s head. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I’d really like to spend a few minutes inside Kaufman’s. What must it be like in there? Does it resemble the surreal, wistful, hilarious, multi-layered, brilliantly constructed story of “Synecdoche, New York”? Would I make it out with my sanity intact? At any rate, his directorial debut is wonderfully bizarre, and the rare film that truly rewards repeat viewing.
3. “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” Kurt Kuenne’s documentary about his slain friend is part tribute, part true-crime story, and part scathing indictment. What I remember most, though, is the ennobling story of the murdered man’s saintly parents. Their grief is unimaginable — you really need to see the film to learn the extent of their suffering — but their continued faith and decency are inspiring. Kuenne makes no effort to be fair or even-handed, nor is it a requirement that a documentary do so. This one is raw, personal, and completely unforgettable.
4. “Son of Rambow” This delightfully mischievous English comedy, about two young boys setting out to film their own “Rambo” movie, got very little attention stateside, and only a cursory DVD release that has now rendered it hard to find. Yet “Mamma Mia!” sits on every Blockbuster shelf in the country. Where is the justice?
5. “The Wrestler” Mickey Rourke’s comeback does not interest me. What interests me is his honest, unself-conscious performance in this sweetly affecting film about a washed-up pro wrestler trying to make sense of his life outside the ring. Darren Aronofsky, whose films have tended toward the artsy and abstract in the past, brings it down to earth here, and the result is something beautiful and moving.
6. “Tropic Thunder” I’m in awe at the sheer number of gags in this pitch-perfect Hollywood satire, and at the different types of humor employed, and at how well-oiled the whole machinery is. The director’s cut on the DVD adds about 13 minutes to what was already an excellent film, and actually improves it in the process.
7. “Young@Heart” A documentary about a chorus of senior citizens who sing rock songs could have been full of “look at the silly old people” jokes. Instead, this British production about the Massachusetts-based Young@Heart Chorus is joyous and uplifting, brimming with vital oldsters you’ll want to adopt as grandparents. It has something to say about the power of music, too.
8. “The Dark Knight” Hells yeah it’s too long. WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT?? Heath Ledger’s performance transforms every scene he’s in, and the rest of the film is a treasure trove of popcorn thrills, heady socio-political ideas, and good old-fashioned superheroism. The film raises the bar on comic book movies to a ridiculously high level.
9. “Cloverfield” If the shaky camera makes you queasy, you’re excused. For the rest of us, it’s a scarily effective technique for bringing us directly into the action. The ebb and flow of the story — intense thrills, quiet regrouping, more intensity — holds up nicely on repeat viewings. It’s also pretty amazing from a technical standpoint.
10. “Boy A” This melancholy story about a young man released from prison after serving 10 years for a crime he committed as a child is bolstered by Andrew Garfield’s heartbreaking, award-winning performance. It’s the stuff of high drama, and it asks some tough questions about forgiveness and second chances — like, for example, do such things really exist?
The Worst Movies of 2008:
1. “Witless Protection” It’s easy to say Larry the Cable Guy is a one-trick hack who appeals to the dumbest class of moviegoer. Easy, and also true.
2. “Disaster Movie” and “Meet the Spartans” Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the talentless, incompetent boobs who write and direct these “spoof” films, are to comedy what barnacles are to a boat: prolific, irritating, and hard to get rid of.
3. “College Road Trip” Martin Lawrence’s reign of terror continues unabated.
4. “Made of Honor” It’s one of those “chick flicks” — you know, comedies where every single female character is dumb, fat, angry, or one-dimensional, and where the final message is that the man should get whatever he wants. You go, girls!
5. “College” It was a total box-office flop, but I saw it. Now I cannot unsee it. In fact, I saw it back-to-back with “Disaster Movie.” That was not a good day.
6. “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” Two Martin Lawrence films in one year? Which deity did we provoke, and how do we appease him?
7. “Chapter 27” Jared Leto put on 50 pounds and a hilarious accent to play the man who killed John Lennon. Because really, wouldn’t you love to spend 90 minutes with a delusional assassin?
8. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” At this point, George Lucas is actively trying to enrage and alienate his fan base.
9. “First Sunday” As if Tyler Perry weren’t bad enough, now there are Tyler Perry rip-offs.
10. “Mamma Mia!” Picture a barn full of braying donkeys. Now picture someone trying to make those donkeys bray to the tune of an ABBA song. Now ask one of those donkeys to write a script, too. Whatever the result is, it’s probably better than “Mamma Mia!”
Hollywood’s Shameful Secrets
These are films that are not screened for critics before they open, which is almost always a sign that the studios know they’re bad and want to avoid negative opening-day reviews.
“An American Carol”
“The Family That Preys”
“The Hottie and the Nottie”
“In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale”
“Meet the Browns”
“Meet the Spartans”
“My Best Friend’s Girl”
“The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie”
These secrets are slightly less shameful: They were screened, but not until the night before they opened, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., and sometimes without the press being invited.
“10,000 B.C.” (press)
“Disaster Movie” (press)
“One Missed Call” (press)
“Prom Night” (no press)
“Quarantine” (no press — in fact, critics were specifically told there wasn’t a screening — a lie, obviously — and the person running the screening was told that if any critics showed up, under no circumstances should they be allowed to see the film.)
“The Ruins” (no press)
Finally, these films were screened in some markets but not in others. I guess the studios are only ashamed of them in some regions.
“Be Kind Rewind”
“Nothing Like the Holidays”
Longest movie: Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara biopic “Che” (review to come), at 257 minutes — unless the two halves are counted as separate films, in which case the longest is a tie between “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Australia,” both at 165 minutes.
Shortest movie: “Wendy and Lucy,” 80 minutes.
Most enjoyable bad movie: “Punisher: War Zone”
Least enjoyable good movie: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”
Longest title: “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie”
Movies whose titles have no obvious connection to the content: “Cloverfield,” “Definitely, Maybe,” “Yeast,” “Snow Angels,” “The Fall,” “Kabluey,” “Made of Honor” (at least not with that spelling), “Quantum of Solace” (Quantum is the name of a sinister organization in the film, but what does “Quantum of Solace” have to do with anything?)
Movies about teenagers who participate in a secret competition, the time and location of which they learn about at the last minute via text message, where the final round winds up taking place outdoors instead of inside: “Step Up 2 the Streets,” “Never Back Down”
Directors who released two films this year: Woody Allen (“Cassandra’s Dream,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) Clint Eastwood (“Changeling,” “Gran Torino”), Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer (“Meet the Spartans,” “Disaster Movie”)
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