BEST of 2008: A Look Back at This Year's Film Highlights!
What was your favorite film moment of 2008? Did you get your money's worth this year? Or did you ball up your fists and take them back to the box office, demanding a refund? Sure, it's fun to sometimes dwell on the awfulness found at your local Cineplex. But looking back over these past twelve months, the good far outweighed the bad. And some truly unique and awesome films managed to reawaken the dead soul of the lost and wandering cinema dweller. It wouldn't be fair to confine all these wonderful and moving movie moments to one top ten list. So instead, we present the best from 2008:
Best Animated Film: Without a doubt, it was everyone's favorite little Johnny-5 rip-off robot WALL-E. The film came as the crowning jewel in Disney/Pixar's long existing relationship. Serving as the best slice of sci-fi seen this year as well, the first twenty minutes of this existential meditation on the state of Earth cultures contained some of the headiest ideas ever witnessed in a children's film. It was subversive stuff, and proved that quiet restraint certainly can sell to the masses. It also served as a weird dichotomy, preaching the dangers of consumerism while at the same time filling toy stores with the same kind of plastic junk that has made our planet unlivable in the future. That takes some balls on Disney and Pixar's part. WALL-E was sort of like the high faluten preacher that teaches abstinence and a drug free life, all the wall he's out in a back alley raping nuns and doing spooners of crack rock off a donkey's ass. Doesn't matter. This thing was dressed to the nines and smelling of Marion berry pie. It was a delicious and provocative treat. And will be remembered as fondly as 2001: A Space Odyssey in the very near future. As for a runner-up, there really isn't one. Though a couple other animated films did prove to be entertaining in 2008, none were as thought provoking as WALL-E, and none reached the dizzying heights seen within the confined walls of Brad Bird's greatest achievement. It truly stands on its own as this year's singular masterpiece.
Best Comic Book Movie: Um, duh! It was The Dark Knight. How could it not be? It was the highest grossing film of the year, and the second highest grossing film of all time (though still chugging behind the steam stacks of Titanic; maybe that will change when Batman returns to theaters sometime this January). Even so, a couple billion dollars at the box office doesn't necessarily make a great movie. What made The Dark Knight such a welcome delicacy was the way it took an aged pulp hero and turned his mythos into a dark and dusty mirror of our socioeconomic hard times. It didn't quite reinvent the comic book genre, but it did change our cultural landscape and the way we look at our heroes and villains while keeping its graphic thematic narrative intact. A very thin line was drawn between the good guy and the bad guy, and we found ourselves rooting for Batman just as much as we found ourselves cheering on the Joker. The film brought a legitimacy to the genre that had never been experienced before. But that's not to say it was the only comic book movie out there. Nearly every screen adaptation pulled from the dusty vault of some backwoods comic shop managed to find a willing audience. Hellboy II: The Golden Army vastly improved on Guilermo Del Toro's first film, coming on strong like the The Empire Strikes Back of this particular franchise. And it proved that practical effects can make a movie that much more special. And let's not forget about Jon Favreau's Iron Man, which took a comic book hero none of us ever really cared about before and turned him into box office gold. Plus, it gave us one heck of a performance by Robert Downey Jr., who managed to breath fluid life not only back into his career but our cinema screens as well.
Best Thriller: Was it The Strangers? Or was it Funny Games? Both films hit the scene with an unexpected push of audience enthusiasm, and both are remembered for their frighteningly unpleasant scenic atmospheres. Both lived and breathed in an ultra realistic world, and it seemed as though these things could have happened to any of us. They were the two films that jumped the torture porn fence, and they truly gave us some of the most shocking and scary scenes of the year. Both are equal in their craftsmanship and their funhouse like ways of disturbing our psyches. Both films managed to get deep under our skin. In all, Funny Games and The Strangers are tiny little masterpieces that gave many horror fans and suspense mavens hope that neither genre was completely dead.
Best Drama: Clint Eastwood made two movies this year. The second one allowed the acclaimed director to step back into his acting shoes, and wow, what a performance. His sheer presence alone in Gran Torino made the film one of the grandest character studies seen this year. As grizzled old Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, Eastwood was able to remind us just how piercing his stare could be. And the story of an old Polack with a penchant for racial slurs making friends with a young Hmong teenager was more heartfelt and life affirming than anything Eastwood had ever accomplished before. Just as affecting was the human smuggling drama Frozen River, from director Courtney Hunt. This tale of a single mom forced to haul illegal immigrants across the frozen waters between New York State and Quebec was the most harrowing journey seen this year. And it allowed Misty Upham to prove herself as one of the most fascinating and talent actresses working in Hollywood at this moment in time. We should also mention David Gordon Green's first film of the year Snow Angels, which proved the Pineapple Express director could be quite versatile with his eye for the bizarre intricacies found buried deep inside the most frightening of human dramas. And Towelhead, Alan Ball's adaptation of Alicia Erian's coming of age saga, moved audiences like no other film this year. All four films were effortless in the way they moved the human spirit.
Best Comedy: A laugh is a personal and private matter. And never more so then when you are sharing it with a room full of people. What might move one person to guffaw in their isle seat might make another groan and roll their eyes. Sometimes, a fart can be just as affective as a witty and intelligent observation. So, picking the best comedy of the year is a tough one. Sure, Tropic Thunder seems to have weeded its way into the modern consensus as the go-to lung stunner of 2008. But the more sophisticated and experienced cinema snob will just as likely point to Lloyd Kaufman's deft observational gross-out epic Poultrygeist as the film whose keen and clever jokes weighed the most. And lets not forget Burn After Reading, which worked effortlessly in getting a few well-deserved laughs of its own. The film never tried to be funny. Nor did it pretend to care what you thought of it. It existed on its own merits, and the absurdity of the situation was enough to rouse the sleeping intellectual in us all.
Best Action Adventure: Even though it was sold and soared across our collective consciousness as a stoner comedy, David Gordon Green's astute caper Pineapple Express came screeching onto the scene in August as the most unexpectedly exciting action film of the year. And you only need look to two scenes for proof. First, there is the prolonged fight sequence between Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Danny McBride, which finds the trio beating on each other with a Dust Buster. Then there is that infamous chase which saw Franco's leg through the windshield of a hijacked cop car. Both Eagle Eye and Wanted tried hard to provide the best vehicle momentum of the year, but, as good as they were, they both lost out to Pineapple Express, a stinging ode to Midnight Run. Rambo and Punisher: War Zone both get special mention as the most violent action films of the years, and we can't leave this category alone without mentioning Indy's fourth film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Though the hardcore fans found it about as pleasing as taking a bath in a bucket full of Jar Jars, the film did managed to squeeze out quite a few action sequences that were well worthy of Indy's prowess. And the Jungle Cutter chase was a prolonged, sweaty palmed heart attack that rates right up there with some of the best moments from the entire Indiana Jones series.
Best Horror: Sure, there were a handful of box office champions purporting to be horror films. But can we honestly tout and shout about a film like Prom Night when it sucks so bad? So what if it opened at number one on its weekend of release? That doesn't make it any good. Or even watchable. The real horror came from unexpected places. Dirty, dingy little films that barely made a blip on our box office radar. These are the films that no one is necessarily talking about at this moment in time. But like all true horror masterpieces, they will surely find their way to a hungry cult audience in the near future. Competing for the gold are two independent slices of brilliance that seemed to win over even the most ardent of horror aficionados. First, there was The Signal, which revolved around a mysterious transmission that drove our electronic dependant populace to mad hysterics. Told from three different perspectives by three very different directors, the result was nothing short of amazing. And then there was Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One in, which took John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel and turned it into the most poignant and unique Icelandic vampire love story ever told. Plus, it gave us one of the coolest climactic end shots in horror history. Also worthy of mention are Mitchell Lichtenstein's Teeth, which turned the vagina into a Bruce the Shark for our modern age, and the filthy little Stuart Gordon film Stuck, which found a homeless man wedged into the windshield of a young nurse's station wagon. All were unique, and all were quite proficient in their means to creep us out. (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane would have gotten a mention here as well, except that they screened it and then shelved it indefinitely. Maybe we'll see it in 2009.)
Best Romance: All in all, this was a pretty lean year for both the romantic drama and the romantic comedy. Maybe that's why the best romance of the year came courtesy of a girl with a pig snout. In Penelope, Christina Ricci played a cursed socialite with a horrifyingly deformed nose. It took Wanted's James McAvoy to warm her cold heart, and a scooter trip with Reese Witherspoon for her to learn how to love herself. In the process, she gave us one of the most unique love stories of the year. Sure, Never Back Down flirted with the idea of a teenage love affair, but it was mostly about breaking bones and defining punches. The relationship held between Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight was heartbreaking, but again, there was too much movie going on to really look at their sad state of affairs. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was sweet, but relied a little too much on its own gross-out humor to be a winning romance. Which only leaves Sex and the City: The Movie and the Richard Gere/Diane Lane weep fest Nights in Rodanthe as worthy successors to Penelope's plight in life. One film was age affirming and socially gratifying for woman over the age of thirty, and they other was a heart breaker that offered hope only to crush those dreams in its last few fleeting moments of screen time. All three are great romance films, yes. But they faced little to no competition and were released far enough apart that they didn't need to compete for their audiences.
Best Documentary: As the documentary genre became an even more accepted means to entertain this year, we were greeted with a number of exciting and enthralling documentaries that rivaled anything in the fictional department. Quite a few docs managed to pull us in and engross us with their true-to-life stories. But there was only one film that stood head and shoulders above the rest as an unforgettable exploration into the mind numbing terror of human social drama. And that film was Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son About His Father. What starts out as a coy, personal video journal for a deceased man's unborn son soon becomes a stomach dropping journey that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It will tear you apart inside, and it made for one of the best horror films of the year. Maybe we should have dropped it into that category. Other worthy documentaries culled from the past year include the self-explanatory Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Philippe Petit's daring, elegant, yet illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in Man on Wire, and Surfwise, a film that took an honest look at the Winnebago imprisoned Paskowitz family.
Best Kill: You asked for it, you got it! Not only did Heath Ledger's Joker prove to be an extraordinarily entertaining look into the mind of a psychotic genius, he also came as the most terrifying screen presence of the year. While one too many films took their sweet time in killing off its own beloved characters, the Joker managed to off a nobody, and make it the most memorable moment of the summer. Of course, we're talking about the "Magic Disappearing Pencil" trick. With one fail swoop, Arkham Asylum's best pulled off his most amazing feat. He proved to be both scary as hell and quite accessible at the same time simply by knocking a guy's eyeball into a piece of lead, and then making it vanish into his skull. If you blinked, you missed it. And from this moment on, we knew why there was so much praise being thrown behind Heath's performance in The Dark Knight. Other notable kills include Sylvester Stallone's Rambo detonating a small nuclear charge in the jungles of Burma before jumping behind a truck-mounted .50 caliber machine gun to decimates an army of Burmese Soliders, thus turning a whole truck full of them into ground hamburger. And let's not forget the most surprising kill of the year, which came courtesy of George Clooney in Burn After Reading. After taking a quick shower, he explodes the grinning face of Chad Feldheimer all over the closet of his lover's husband. It was shocking, which made it even funnier once you were able to calm down enough to laugh.
Best Comedic Performance: Any actor that can take the art of blackface and make it fresh, exciting, and above all else, funny again, is a genius in his own right. And people have spoken these words about Robert Downey Jr. for as long as I can remember. Even before he started crashing on wayward couches and taking roles in sub par action flicks like Air America, people would often site the actor as the best of his generation. Heck, the guy even made the third worst film of the 80s (Johnny Be Good) watchable. And that has to account for something. This year, the actor found his way into two high profile pictures that acted as a defibrillator on his waning career. He was smug, charming, and daft in Iron Man, but his performance as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder stands as the defining moment in 2008's comedic film legacy. Much like the character he is playing on screen, Downey gave himself to this on-screen method actor and sold it home in a solid bit of hysterics. No one else could have pulled off such a grand recital, and it is one that will be remembered for years to come. Other notable comedic performances this year include Brad Pitt's self absorbed, goofy Hard Bodies' employee Chad Feldheimer in Burn After Reading. The role allowed Pitt to break free from his stated persona and proved that he is quite apt at stealing the show when asked to be funny. And let's not forget the extremely underrated Eddie Murphy doing duel duty as both Spaceship Dave Ming Cheng and the vessel's Captain in Meet Dave. Most scoffed at this box office failure, misappropriating it as the second coming of The Adventures Of Pluto Nash. But those few that saw it fell in love with it, and Murphy once again proved that he still has what it takes to keep an audience laughing. And he did it while bucking his most outrageous behavior, appealing to adults and kids alike. His was a far more natural and skilled performance than any seen in the other comedies that attempted to make us laugh this year. We must also mention Tom Cruise, who sort of redeemed his couch jumping, Bridge flaunting ways as a Joel Silver esque film producer in the comedy that launched a thousand comebacks: Tropic Thunder. Though, to be quite honest, his tiny bit of screen time was more disturbing than funny. And it gave me nightmares. Kind of like the real Joel Silver. (Why wasn't Cruise wearing Bapes? Oh, that would have been the dead give away.)
Best Poster: Some will argue its merits as a comedy, but Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno found its own bit of brevity with a stick figure poster that recalled the hyped restricted Grindhouse films of the past with its "so shocking we can't show you" mantra. The original concept poster and 1-sheet for the film stole a couple of brightly lit headshots, arrogantly aping the Apatow esthetic. And then repurposed them with an oral sex visual joke used last year in the banned promotional posters for Good Luck Chuck. They were mildly amusing, but seemed regurgitated from comedies of our recent past. It wasn't until these bus dwelling adverts caught the eye of the MPAA that they were banned. And it was truly a blessing in disguise, because the new revamped stick figures were an ingenious bit of marketing. Call Kevin Smith and his film what you will, but you can't deny that his sense of promotion is golden. (And lets face it, Zack and Miri Make a Porno had one joke that produced the loudest laughs heard in any theater this year; that certainly has to account for something.)
Best Bad Movie: Hands down, its The Happening. Some claim its awful dreck, and that it supports the worst performance of the year. Those that didn't like The Happening didn't quite understand its foothold on bad B cinema. This thing is a purposely-ingenious spoof of z grade Drive-In movies, and Walberg's acting is extracting from those same elements. This is the most awesomely horrible movie I have seen in ten years. Was this intentional on M. Night Shyamalan's part? If so, The Happening is a brilliant recreation of the worst in schlock cinema. Maybe that was supposed to be the secret twist. Because its heart reeks of Ed Wood. If it was an accident, that makes it even more of a feat of wonder. Mark Walberg talking to a fake houseplant? A dude lying down in front of his riding lawn mower? Miscasting in every single role? Using the R rating to pimp it out, even though it looks like a PG rated film? People running from slight gusts of wind? Best part: "I like hotdogs." The movie is a waterfall of randomness and cheese. Every moment is a great big lollipop of stupendous, unbelievable crap with a chewy shit center. All I could do was watch it in awe, and wonder aloud, "What the fuck were they thinking?" It is the true definition of "So Bad it's Good". It deserves a special reward, and will probably get several when the Razzies are announced. The only other film that dared compete with its horribly watchable ways was the Tobey Keith uber-comedy Beer For My Horses. Which was as disturbing as it was enjoyable on so many unintentional levels.
Comeback of the Year: There were so many. 2008 was definitely the Year of the Comeback. Sylvester Stallone revamped Rambo. Tom Cruise won back audience members with his cameo in Tropic Thunder. Vern Troyer gave two winning performances with both Postal and The Love Guru, and Audrey II the outer space houseplant was back terrifying people in The Ruins. But it was really Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. that made the most noise. These two master magicians fell off the map due to their own personal demons in life. And in 2008, they reemerged as the most talked about performers of the past year. Both put in excellent work, but it was Downey that truly came out on top. Where Rourke had the acclaimed The Wrestler, Downey came with four great films that included Iron Man, Charlie Bartlett, Tropic Thunder, and the withheld drama The Soloist. There's no doubt about it. 2008 was the year of Robert Downey Jr., and he didn't disappoint at all. Let's hope he keeps up this golden boy run in 2009.
That's it for this year. I hope the 2008 box office found you well and willing to spend more money in 2009. If one of your favorites is missing (like In Bruges, please let us now in the comment section below. Thanks for the memories. And have a great big blast of a New Year! Will see you in January with a whole new batch of beautiful endeavors.