My Picks for 2008

Late though this post may be, what with the Oscars come and gone, I decided it was finally time to put up my best of 2008 picks. So without further ado, I give you My Picks for 2008.

At last, the day is here when I release to all my adoring fans (yeah, right) what I thought was both the best and worst of 2008. But before I do, let’s talk a little bit about this year’s films. First of all, I have to say, in comparison with last year’s large crop of excellent movies, this year is like that one bad year Old Farmer Joe found worms had eaten about 25% percent of his crop, 50% had some bird droppings in them, and only 25% were actually good enough to bring home and eat. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I think you’re smart enough to get the idea. There were some gems, though, sparkly shiny ones, in addition to the turds, so let’s honor both of them, shall we? I saw fewer films this year than last’s, for a variety of different reasons, but I also found myself less inspired to go out and see them to due to aforementioned dearth. In any case, let’s get to it, shall we?

The Moments

3. Full Retard, Tropic Thunder

Disagree as some people may over whether “Tropic Thunder” was extremely smart or just downright dumb, usually what they can agree on is Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, as the renowned actor Kirk Lazarus, in that movie – a man so caught in becoming other men that he’s lost himself under a couple of layers of personality, so confused as to who he is that the only person he can really be is someone else. “I’m the dude playin’ a dude disguised as another dude!” Arguably his best moment in the movie comes in his conversation with Ben Stiller, when he dissects actors playing roles in retarded movies, warning Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman, to “never go full retard” if he wants to win an award. It’s a clever skewering of the all-too typical drama where some “retarded” person ends up having a side quirk that makes the audience more comfortable with them – from Dustin Hoffman’s clever mathematics in “Rain Man” to Forrest Gump’s charming “the pants off the nation.” As Lazarus points out, “That ain’t retarded. Remember Sean Penn, ‘I Am Sam,’ 2001, went full retard? Came home empty-handed.”

2. Jackie Chan Vs. Jet Li, The Forbidden Kingdom

Finally, those of us who waited for this day ever since we first saw Chan kick ass drunk or Li, well, simply kick ass, were rewarded. Though the movie was not everything martial arts fans hoped it would be, this fight scene was – gorgeous, flowing, grappling, punching, kicking, swinging action. It showcased their unique techniques dramatically and breathlessly, was long enough to not feel like a cheap fight, and short enough to not feel like it was dragged on. And, appropriately, the two titans were evenly matched, drawing a stalemate in the end. Now that we’ve seen these two fight as allies, though, it’s time they showed up onscreen as mortal enemies. Unlikely, though, given Chan’s age. One can always hope, however….
1. Pencil in the Head, The Dark Knight
As if the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping bus-through-the-bank-wall-whatever-doesn’t-kill-you-make-you-stranger intro scene weren’t enough, the Joker continued to show us how devilishly clever and disturbingly funny he was. Without even a warning, down comes the goon’s head to an eagerly awaiting pencil. It’s brief, gruesome, makes you laugh out loud while choking back your voice in shock, and is one of the best villain intro moments in recent comic book movie history. Nobody could say it better than the Joker does a second later, sweeping his hands with showmanship at the empty spot on the table. “It’s gone.”

The Disappointments

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Months of hype, a director that had just given us one of the all time best serial killer movies last year (Zodiac), and the opportunity to take some chances and have some fun with a unique and intriguing premise, and what do we get? A bloated, too long, simplistic, unfocused Oscar-wannabe behemoth. (And the Academy took the bait – the movie picked up 13 nominations(!)) “Benjamin Button” fails to do much with its premise at all beyond the overdone “time is short, treasure what you have now” theme. Despite the characters’ multiple claims that Benjamin has led an extraordinary life, it’s hard to believe where they’re getting that from – all he does is hold a series of job over the course of his life. Woop-de-doo. The fact that he ages backward is never really a big deal, and when it comes time to deal with the consequences of what happens when he gets younger and younger, the film cops out and we get a predictable epilogue that’s simply a montage of over-emotional scenes, and this isn’t even getting into its extensive similarities to Forrest Gump. The cast is great, and the effects that de-age Pitt are perfect, but it’s a damn shame they have to be mired in such a trivial story.

2. The Happening

You have to understand, I’m one of the guys who stuck with Shyamalan through both “The Village” AND “Lady in the Water.” I was ready to give him one more chance to show us something along the lines of “The Sixth Sense” or “Signs,” but then he gives us this, a terribly drab, melodramatic affair that takes itself so seriously the only real way to watch it is by having a box of kleenex ready to dab away your tears of laughter. It’s baffling trying to figure out what Shyamalan was thinking when he made this – some scenes, like one in which some random guy has his arm ripped off by a lion, are so awkwardly brutal that those kleenexes will come in handy and you have to wonder if nobody gave Shyamalan any weird looks when he told them about it. There are many Hitchcockian touches, not surprisingly, as Shyamalan’s first movie had people immediately comparing him to the master of suspense, which has probably given him a complex. Not to mention that the gore is entirely secondary to the scares – it’s obviously a gimmick. Look for the restricted trailer on youtube, and I kid you not, you’ve seen every single moment of blood in the movie. I’ll be nice and not give away the ending, though you should save yourself the trouble of watching the entire thing and just wikipedia it so you can wonder along with me what the hell he was thinking.

1. The X-Files: I Want to Believe

With this, I don’t wonder if Chris Carter is stupid; I just hate him. He honestly thought he could get away with milking the X-files hardcore fanbase just a little bit longer without investing any time at all into the script (joke’s on you, Carter – I work at a movie theater- got into it free. :-P). It’s like a two-part episode of the TV series, nothing more than a monster of the week, and not even one of the better ones. The in-depth exploration of Mulder’s beliefs that Carter had talked so much about turned out to be nothing more than an extended edition of what the show had done again and again for nine years, except the TV show was way better. If you’re a completist X-Files person, you’re probably gonna wanna see it, but otherwise, you wouldn’t be missing anything at all. It’s a waste of such great talent – both Duchovny and Anderson turn in excellent performances, and it is a rush to see them on the big screen for the first time in so long. But that’s it. If you bought it, left it with your the rest of your X-files collection for five years, forgot about it, then one day randomly decided to watch an episode and stumbled upon that, you’d shrug to yourself and say, “Eh, that was okay. Which season was that?”

The Underdogs

3. Role Models

The story is so straightforward that you may be tempted to think it’s a little too stereotypical with the cliched “kids help adults find themselves and get back on feet” type deal, but there’s a lot of evidence that the movie’s more than that, from the excellent performances across the board, to the subtle way it focuses on the characters, making us believe that these are real people going through these ordeals. It also, thankfully, doesn’t trivialize or make the role-playing thing into a gimmick. Like the best comedies, the script doesn’t create pointless out of control shtick situations just for hell of it, but instead these creative environments feel like legitimate extensions of the characters. It’s also just plain damn hilarious, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in his second big screen role plays it perfectly while first timer Bobb’E J. Thompson steals the show as a bluestreak talking young black teenager.

2.Horton Hears a Who

We all want to forget them, but they’re there in our memory, like a haunting black stain on the wall, that’s always somehow just over your shoulder, letting you know that wrong has been done in the world, and there’s nothing you can do about it: the terrible Dr. Seuss adaptations. I mean, Mike Myers must have had the fattest paycheck in the world or been high on something to do “The Cat in the Hat”, so let’s try to forget about all of that. From the people who brought us the moderately entertaining “Ice Age” and its ho-hum sequel, and the visually explosive but playing-it-safe “Robots”, there’s this little gem of a movie (see, told you there were some of those) that manages to update the Dr. Seuss novel a little bit while maintaing the elements that were most important. And it takes the form of filmmaking arguably best suited to Dr. Seuss – animation. It’s crisp and sharp and unusually funny for a kid’s flick, too.

1. Definitely, Maybe

Kudos to everyone involved, from the director, to the great cast, to the excellent script writing, for pulling together that rarest of feats – the romantic comedy that manages to get you truly involved with the characters and doesn’t treat them like rag dolls to be thrown wherever the plot needs. It’s to the movie’s credit that by the time right before you find out who Ryan Reynolds had his kid with, you still don’t really know exactly who it is, and yet you still care for each of the characters and what will happen to them. When the end does go the sappy route, it doesn’t feel cheap or undeserved – it takes the happy way knowing it could have gone the sad one and been just as good, and as a whole, the movie, thank God, transcends such God-awful claptrap as “Good Luck Chuck” or “The Heartbreak Kid.”

The Worst

3. The Eye

Hey, Miss Alba! It’s good to see you again! Seems I’ve seen you on this list before, just a year ago, hm? Coincidence? I think not! “The Eye” was another one of those lame Hollywood rip-offs of a better Asian film (and the original one wasn’t even one of the better ones) that some exec threw money and a hot star at thinking he could get a profit. The dude from “Jurassic Park III” is in it. You know, the dude who almost got eaten by pteradactyls? Yeah, him. Anyways, “The Eye” plays like a wannabe version of “The Sixth Sense”, and the plot stumbles along with Alba through most of the film, who can’t act her way out of a paper bag, much less make it believable that this eye transplant is causing her to see ghostly images. In the end, it’s just another bullet that every Alba-hater can safely tuck into their rifle.

2. Meet Bill

Hey, look it’s another turd! Oh, wait, that’s just another bullet to add to the Alba Rifle 3000. Whoever concocted this soullless snoozefest should be carefully examined for brain damange – not only is it like some kind of monstrous conglomeration of the worst parts about movies which it shamelessly rips off, it also features some of the worst performances of fairly good actors, like Elizabeth Banks, Timothy Olyphant, and a neutered Aaron Eckhart. (Who would go on to play one of the most underrated roles of 2008 – Harvey Dent.) The script never quite makes sense, and never once stops to explain itself, other than to preach a nifty little “find yourself” message to the audience. Alba as a lingerie clerk is all over the place, never once finds a spot for her character, and seems content to just giggle at random moments. Somehow I have a feeling that my yearly lists won’t be free of her anytime soon.

1. Meet the Spartans

In Alba’s defense, she’s not the only one who’s been on this prestigious list. The lovely Carmen Electra has been in it more – last year’s “Epic Movie” (#4), and 2006’s “Date Movie” (#2). This year, it’s “Meet the Spartans”, a disjointed, barfed-up mess of a movie that is nothing more than cheaply regurgitated and screamingly obvious pop culture references strung together with bodily fluids and private part jokes. I heard “Disaster Movie” was worse, but I didn’t see it. “Meet the Spartans” is the worst movie I have ever seen, bar none, and I have no interest in putting anything above it. It’s painfully unfunny, and makes you want to somehow cause harm to the creators’ dogs. Don’t ask why. Just follow the voice.

The Honorable Mentions

3. Funny Games

French director Michael Haneke was raked over the coals for basically just doing a re-release of his original, and it grossed less than half of its budget. Though yes, it is a shot for shot remake, it’s arguably a necessary one – the kind of people who would go out and pay to see “Hostel” or any of the “Saw” sequels are the ones who need to see this movie, and they wouldn’t go looking in the foreign films section at your local Blockbuster – they’ go to the multiplex for a “fun” evening of torture and death on a family. “Funny Games” slapped these people in the face when it presented a disturbing, unsettling film that was ruthless with its audience to the point where it was even questionable that the movie itself was overstepping its boundaries. Once it starts the onslaught, it does become difficult to endure, but it’s a fascinating project, and different enough in small, subtle ways from the original that anyone who’s seen the first is bound to get something new.

2. W.

Oliver Stone’s movie about our no-longer-incumbent President didn’t raise a lot of eyebrows, but it probably raised more than several middle fingers – its sympathetic portrayal of Bush despite all the harm he’s done to this country and how much people hated him didn’t earn it many tickets – by the time it hit theatres all the Bush-haters were caught up in the Obamoments, and in the last few months while Obama and McCain were racing to the White House, nearly all of the focus was taken off of Bush and placed on the election. So not only did it fly under the radar, but those few who did see it were instantly turned off by Stone’s refusal to take cheap shots at Mr. Bush – what would be the point in making a movie that carbon-copied the political climate and people’s ideas? Why do you need a movie to explain to you what you already know or believe? Much more fascinating to have one that looks at Bush as a lonely, broken man who really only ever wanted to make Dad proud. Brolin’s performance as W. was Oscar-worthy, but that’s the last time I’m mentioning the Oscars in this note, because of how much Oscar voters just didn’t seem to give a crap this year.

1. Pineapple Express

What sets this Apatow production apart from others is its willingness to abandon the loser-guy-gets-life-together-to-be-with-amazing-girl, which, let’s be honest, is starting to get a little cloying. Instead, it starts out simple, a couple o’ potheads (played with easygoing everyman charisma and chemistry by Franco and Rogen), who need to run away from the law, then gets slowly more ridiculous. Criticisms of how over-the-top the last half hour is ignore how it’s all after a well balanced progressions of realism to fantasy. It’s also easily one of the most hilarious Apatow entrires, and doesn’t cater too much to the stoner audience to leave out what an audience not on drugs would find funny.

The Best

10. The Wrestler

What makes this movie so powerful is also what makes it so heartbreaking. Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Johnson, is a man dealing with the consequences of a broken past, struggling to make ends meet, and things don’t work out for him. He bleeds, bruises, vomits, and makes you cringe every time a blow lands. The script isn’t afraid to put him through his paces, but it never feels like we’re watching a tear-jerker, partially because of how uplifting it is too. This broken man lives on, his wounds healed every time he’s performing for his fans, a rejuvenating act that can’t go on forever. Rourke’s performance is raw and real, drawn from Rourke’s own experiences, portraying Randy as a man lost without the call of the crowd. It’s riveting and visceral filmmaking, even if you couldn’t care less about pro wrestling itself.

9. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Explosions, shards of falling glass, and evil geniuses in tights be damned and forgotten – Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to the decent-but-not-great original took the universe from the first and expanded it, rendering it even more complex and fascinating, populated by ninja elves, tentacled super beasties, glowing piles of rock-monsters, and so much extra fantasy eye-candy it’s enough to make your mouth water. It was merely the gorgeous coat to a lean body, though – probably one of funniest superhero scripts ever written, it was solidly character-centric. You cared about these odd alien-like creatures, despite their deadly horns, webbed feet, and gills, and it made the slick action-fantasy that much more enjoyable.

8. Doubt
Oversimplification of the issue is always a danger when it comes to flims about the clergy. In “Doubt,” no question is oversimplified, no one person demonized over another, but instead all highlighted as inextricably human, crippled by doubt of one kind or another, and searching for someone in whom they can trust. The cast is one of the best of the year – each of them playing off one another gracefully and powerfully, which makes for quite a few poignant and heartwrenching scenes. No easy answer is ever offered, and the end leaves you hungering for something beyond the celluloid – that is where some of the best films take you.

7. Bolt

“Bolt” is a good sign – it’s sent a shock to Disney’s animation department and has pulled them out of their creative slump. With a cast of quirky yet surprisingly complex characters, even if there are some plotholes and the whole affair is a bit straightforward, “Bolt” succeeds through sheer energy and ethusiasm – everyone’s having a good time, and many of the visual gags have some Pixar touches, with pop culture references and animals talking hip bllisfully absent. The one who does talk even close to that is a pure loveable sidekick idiot, the hilarious hamster Rhino. It’s a zippy ride all the way through, and easily Disney’s best animated feature in years.

6. Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle is certainly a versatile director, but with his latest he’s outdone himself. The movie is a wondrous surprise, a unique, clever concept skillfully executed and buyoed by excellent performances from a cast of unknowns, including the amazing Dev Patel as the titular “slumdog.” The script manages to brilliantly convey themes of destiny, chance, and love by manipulating traditionally disparate elements (a game show with images of horrific child abuse) into a whole that’s not depressing or didactic, but utterly honest and hopeful. Literally no other film like it was released this year, and such uniqueness comes along only so often. Boyle is maturing more and more as a filmmaker, and it’s a sight to behold.
5. Burn After Reading
Don’t be one of those people who mistakes this for a movie, in essence, about nothing – because the nonsensical surface is merely a decoy, disguising and, by turn, illuminating the film’s main themes: greed, stupidity, paranoia, and government dunderheadedness, all made gruesome and dark in screwball strokes, as the people in the movie barrel onward to an obscenely ludicrous conclusion only possible in a Coen Brothers’ flick. Its apparent stupidity is part of its genius, as it can both be enjoyed as a silly little comedy and an exploration of today’s paranoid times. The cast’s hilarious performances are a nice fat bonus, especially Pitt’s as a clueless workout center employee, both bold and unforgettable.

4. Gran Torino
Faced with an ever-changing world, Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski reacts by digging in his toes and growling away anyone who wants to pry him from mid 20th century USA. It’s not a gimmick or plot device that Walt is frightened of change, but a true expression of prejudices across America, and the necessity for reconciliation if we’re ever to overcome our pasts and move forward. Walt is classic Eastwood, a la Dirty Harry – hardboiled, bitter, gruff, and swearing up a storm of racial slurs to boot, but the most surprising thing about “Gran Torino” is its warmth – the gritty intensity spewed out by Eastwood isn’t ever really bothersome or offensive, but funny and endearing, because we understand how stuck in the past he is, and how even though he’s a mean old bastard, he’s a good guy at heart, and needs a little push. It’s a subtle, quietly beautiful movie, catching you by surprise, drawing you in, and it’s one of Eastwood’s best in recent memory. The fact that that he produced, directed, and starred in it all in less than a year makes it even more impressive.

3. Wall-E

Will Pixar never cease proving to us that it’s the greatest animation studio in the world right now? Hopefully not, because after wiping away the slightly bad taste from “Cars” with the perfectly delectable dish of “Ratatouille,” Pixar drops our jaws open in entirely new ways with “Wall-E.” From the first twenty minutes that carry all the grace and style of the golden age of silent films, to the endearing bot-love between Wall-E and Eve, to the visually explosive escapades through space, to the powerfully relevant images of an entire species floating through space staring no farther than five inches in front of their eyes, all the way to the cautionary tale of throwing away waste without regard to its consequences, the film is quite the achivevement, transending its own medium and producing something truly great.
2. Speed Racer
Box-office bomb, a bunch of exploded crayolas, visual onslaught, seizure-inducing colors – all of these phrases have been used to describe, in one form or another, the first film the Wachowski Brothers have directed since the third Matrix. And all of them, in one form or another, are over-simplifications that entirely miss the point of the movie – to be a sheer, all-out thrill ride, anime incarnate, a bombardment of images that unleash the ultimate kids’s fantasy – cars racing at hundreds of miles an hour, smashing into each other and breaking the laws of physics right and left as they flip, dash, and careen toward the finish line. Like in their previous films, the Wachowskis break new ground in the visual/digital world – you’ve never seen anything like “Speed Racer,” and you probably never will again. The cheesy dialog was also misunderstood. The script is, in fact, very deliberate – each line specifically tailored to mesh the debatably incongruous world of cartoons and real people, and each image a vibrantly colored bit of speed-enhanced candy. It’s a fun, unique, over-the-top, visual mind-f*ck, not to be missed.

1. The Dark Knight

No more Mr. Nice Bat.
With comic book movies, every now and then one comes out that sets new standards for the genre, elevating it to true art, but “The Dark Knight”‘s real achievement is that it goes one step further – it’s not just a great comic book movie, it’s a great movie, already compared to such gangster classics as “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas,” and for once those comparisons don’t seem like overblown hype. The script by Chris Nolan and his brother, John, is pure cinema at its thrilling apex, a grandiose adventure expertly threaded with themes like the role of a hero, justice in this chaotic world, and good vs. evil vs. the gray in between. The cast was superb all around, from Christian Bale, darkening Batman down, a man so twisted in on himself he can’t really see which way is up anymore; Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, who gives Harvey’s too-quick character arc an astounding depth and emotion, a fallen white knight corrupted by chaos. Heath Ledger as the Joker, not so much a person as an evil force, haunting the streets of Gotham, terrorizing its citizens, is simply breathtaking, and the actor vanishes beneath that paint and cackle, morphing into an instantly iconic villain, ravaged by god-knows-what and machine-gun blasting Jack Nicholon’s joker to oblivion. Then there’s Maggie Gyllenhall, a huge improvement over the ditzy Katie Holmes, who’s shares believable chemistry with Harvey while successfully conveying her brokenheartedness over having to abandon Bruce. And never has someone so noble been so fascinating as in Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Commissioner Gordon. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in the smaller roles also shine. The special effects are some of the best out there, and they never once threaten to choke out the characters. The script is long, but worth every minute. Sometimes all the pieces come together in a perfect concoction so awe-inspiring it reminds you with every minute of why you go to movies in the first place. You watch “The Dark Knight” like the Batman vaulting off the spires of a skyscraper, soaring on the wind, exhilarated with every breath you take, amazed by what you see.
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