2008 was a memorable year by most standards. From the economic downturn, to a history-making election, with the Olympics and Heath Ledger’s death thrown in for good measure (I’m sure I’m forgetting some other events), one can not deny it was an exciting year of ups and downs. That is unless, if you judged it solely based on the quality of film releases which may be the weakest its been since 2003. This year filmmakers reflected upon the world’s current state of turmoil and neglected to respond, or did so ineffectively. The few films that tried to confront current issues directly (Under the Same Moon, Stop-Loss, The Band’s Visit) have been met with undeserved indifference. Instead audiences have taken a liking for films that either attempt to gloss over them, or ignore them completely. Films also demonstrated a lot of misplaced emotions, paralleling the way people relate to our world. Titles like Miracle at St. Anna, The Happening, and Standard Operating Procedure show filmmakers stepping out of their comfort zones in order to send a biased message, with varying success. Documentaries suffered a downturn after last year’s genre comeback, though some bright spots (Gonzo, Man on Wire) still showed how powerful they can be with the right idea in mind. Other niches like horror and westerns also suffered a bad year, but comedies, especially ones in the Judd Apatow vein, continued their reign.
Still, it can’t be denied that this was a disappointing year. It is the first time since I have started critiquing film that I haven’t awarded any movie four stars, while the number of films with one star and lower remained the same as usual. It is frightening to think that this trend may continue, but I don’t think it will. Film quality is cyclical, and we may be in the deepest part of a lull. For 2009 there is nowhere to go but up.
Some interesting facts about my Top 10: Second time a particular filmmaker has held two spots on the list, no four star movies on the list, second time a particular filmmaker has held the #1 spot on the list, first time in 5 years there is a comedy on the list, first time ever there is a totally black and white film on the list, first time I had to use three star films for my honorable mentions.
I’ll get to the lists soon, but first….
Most Boring Good Movie: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Most Exciting Bad Movie: Transporter 3
Most Beautiful Movie: Australia
Ugliest Movie: Saw V
Best Horror: The Happening
Best Comedy: Tropic Thunder
Best Animation: Wall-E
The Average Movie: Righteous Kill
The Bottom 10 of 2008:
These films are the worst of the worst. I would not recommend anyone seeing any of these films, unless its for free and some serious time-killing is needed. They are ordered from best worst (#10) to the very worst film of the year (#1). The ratings in parentheses are out of ****.
Dis-Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild, Over Her Dead Body, Semi-Pro, Shutter and Superhero Movie
10. How She Move (*) – This film came out in January of 2008 which was so long ago that if it wasn’t so unforgettably pedestrian, it may not even have made this list due to my negligence. Still, after 200+ films seen, I still can’t get over its bad grammar, stereotype-infused script, and production values that make other dance films (Step Up 2 for instance) look like big-budget special effects blockbusters by comparison. Director Ian Iqbal Rashid’s tendency to conform to pre-existing standards in the genre, including the common theme of tragedy initiating the need for dance as a release (a concept that is brilliantly explored in Save the Last Dance) rears its ugly head from the very beginning, and the film’s unfortunate cliche characters are ones that only people with an IQ below 60 can relate to. I guess that is the filmmakers’ generalization of this film’s audience – how insulting!
9. College (*) – Drake Bell better be careful about the roles he picks in the future. If he wants his career path to follow that of his fellow Disney apprentice Zac Efron, he needs to make smarter choices in the future, and after College the three-strike rule will certainly apply to his future films. While watching this film I knew that this was bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking at its worst, but when I looked for some type of redemption for all the disgusting scenes involving boring characters that are clones of the ones found in Superbad near the end of the film (Judd Apatow-style) I was left hanging. The one thing the filmmakers could not copy from Apatow’s films (all superior by the way) is the fact that his films contain doses of humanity, however small. With College we get feces, vomiting, and fart jokes at our expense and that of the characters, and in the end it turns out that those are the only things the filmmakers cared about. Looking for what college to go to is an experience that deserves much better treatment.
8. The House Bunny (*) – This is the first time when underrated comedic talent Anna Faris has been the worst part of her film, and the fact that she’s on screen for about 99% of the film’s mercifully short 97 minute running time makes The House Bunny a hard film to sit through. Unlike in other films, Faris stumbles over the material, and seems uncomfortable as a Playboy bunny reject, though she has played self-demeaning characters in the past. My best guess for why that may have happened is that she thought it was all a big joke, as did I. Here is where I want to vent about the writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith. My question to them is – How can you follow one of the strongest writing debuts in recent memory (10 Things I Hate About You) with a string of horrors which represent the worst of the comedy genre? Titles like Legally Blonde and She’s the Man are shadows of the complexity and beauty found in 10 Things, and The House Bunny is a new low even for them. This is probably helped by hack director Fred Wolf – the Uwe Boll of comedy, as this was his follow-up to the even worse Strange Wilderness (look further down on the list) and demonstrates that his knowledge of character development in comedic efforts is 1/16th that of mine, and anyone who has ever seen a good comedy.
7. Witless Protection (*) – Every year, I give Larry the Cable Guy the benefit of the doubt, and every year he ends up on this list – a trend that has spanned four years. It is not that I am not trying with his films, in fact it seems like I try harder and harder every time to find some part of the film that may leave me satisfied with the movie-going experience. I was yet again unsuccessful with Witless Protection – a film telling the story of a witless small-town sheriff (Larry) who gets himself in a situation that is too immense and complex for him. It is a story we’ve seen many times before, but it is also one that can equate some enjoyable afternoon fun on a rainy day, if done right. It is too bad then, that Witless Protection is laced with racism, sexism and other offensive material, none of which qualifies as funny. The worst offender is Larry himself, as he seems to turn even potentially funny situations into moments of stupidity as he goes for the most obvious jokes possible, which makes me believe that the length of this film’s script must have been just under two pages, if you include a title page of course. Larry, for the fourth and hopefully final time, stick to stand-up.
6. The Love Guru (*) – Perhaps the only good thing about this film, is that the people involved didn’t mean for it to be as unpleasant, embarrassing, and well, disappointing as it eventually turned out to be. Mike Myers really wants to please his fans, but the material lets him down and his talent fails to come through in the realization of these characters. The other actors are also terrible – Jessica Alba has never been worse, and Justin Timberlake loses all the acting cred he had built up to this point in titles like Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan. The guru himself, Pitka (Myers) is unlikeable, annoying and the things he says are at times way too hard discern and easily confusing. I strained myself to keep up with the plot of this film more so than I did with Synedoche, New York and that is a lot of straining. Don’t punish yourself with this film.
5. Strange Wilderness (1/2) – Director Fred Wolf’s debut constitutes his second entry on this list, automatically launching him to the previously thought unreachable, Uwe Boll level in filmmaking. Strange Wilderness is the most pointless of all the films on this list, and one of the most dangerous. It embraces political incorrectness in the worst way, in that it makes it too obvious. The very beginning of the film almost announces that the film’s goal is to portray viewpoints that most audience-members will disagree on. It fails at that, but succeeds at showing us characters that are under the influence of hallucinogens and marijuana stumble about in the wild (some Hollywood back lot no doubt) ad-libbing their way from pointless scene to pointless scene. One of the most meaningless movie-going experiences of the year.
4. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (1/2) – The fantasy genre officially died with Uwe Boll’s latest. All the hard work put in by Jackson, Adamson, and Columbus to establish it as a genre that film goers should not be afraid of embracing, was all tarnished with In the Name of the King. Because of this film, people have started looking at fantasy again as a genre that will treat them as if they needed to be walked through every scene. The laughably bad dialogue serves this purpose here, as Burt Reynolds’s delivery of his lines is not only the weakest acting performance of the year, but also the most unneeded. The battle scenes are longer than any I’ve seen before, but they are mostly the same scene on a loop shot from different angles. The editing is random and the cinematography is the opposite of epic. In fact, everything in this film is the exact opposite of what it needs to be and what it claims to be. It is not fantasy, drama, or action – but an unintentional spoof of all those genres that spans almost two hours in torturing its audience. Once again, Uwe Boll has outdone himself.
3. Meet the Spartans (1/2) – Directors-from-Hell Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are back and this time with a spoof of the film 300 so unfunny and brainless that at one point I actually felt embarrassed for myself and the rest of the audience that saw this with me for being tricked into watching it. That moment came a mere 5 minutes in. Supposed knee-slappers like Paris Hilton’s “I’m a Hilton, I don’t bow… but I bend over.” and bad Yo mamma jokes are scattered throughout, as the film is all simply one unfunny joke after another with no story development, no sense of setting or passages of time, and most importantly no heart. It is an ugly, dirty mess that deserves to be forgotten. Speaking of which…
2. Disaster Movie (1/2) – Well at least they got the title right…
1. The Hottie and the Nottie (none) – Last year’s worst film Bratz, has a lot in common with The Hottie and the Nottie. Case in point – the message it sends is also one that has the ability to hurt a lot of people if followed – the message that all girls should strive for beauty and popularity in order to get what they want. It is a message so ugly that at one point I did not care that I had seen better acting in high school plays, that the script had some of the worst lines imaginable, that Paris Hilton has most of the screen time and is incredibly annoying and unattractive, all I wanted was for it to end. And at the end when the film tries to repent its message, it doesn’t do it with the enthusiasm and drive that it did while sending it. Do yourselves and humanity a favor and don’t watch this film. Thank you!
The Top 10 Films of 2008
These films are the best of the year. I have become a tougher critic of late, which means that they had to really impress on all levels in order to get on this list. I think these films deserve at the very least a single viewing, and are ones that everyone can enjoy. They are numbered in ascending order (#1 is the best film of the year) and are rated out of ****. I hope you enjoy reading the list as much as I did putting it together.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Dark Knight, The Happening, The Secret Life of Bees and Slumdog Millionaire
10. Changeling (***1/2) – One of two Clint Eastwood masterpieces this year, Changeling is an epic, emotional and provocative film that accurately captures police corruption in Los Angeles during the 1920s. It finds Eastwood, yet again challenging himself with something he has never done before – a drama set in the past that requires not only Eastwood’s expectantly assured direction behind the camera, but also needs a strong production design, a captivating story, and a powerful central performance in order to succeed. The film succeeds with all those counts. While Eastwood may find it hard to improve on perfection (Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima), his directing is at least as strong as it was for those films, and he even takes a few surprising choices as parts of the film can easily be classified as thriller material. The film looks great, from Tom Stern’s fittingly depressing cinematography, to the precise recreation of ’20s Los Angeles which succeeds at taking you to a different time and place aesthetically more so than any other 2008 film not set in the present day. At the very center of it all is an excellent Angelina Jolie delivering a performance worthy of at least a nomination for all the major awards. She is given great support by such names like John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan and Michael Kelly. Changeling is not an easy film to watch – thematic elements like misogyny, psychological torture, and of course, child abduction are found and suggested throughout the running time, but staying through all the hurt that the character goes through will reap great rewards for the viewers.
9. Tropic Thunder (***1/2) – As Hollywood satire films go, Tropic Thunder may be the most extensive and complete example. It leaves no stone unturned and takes every opportunity to make fun of the extremely flawed system that produces the mainstream blockbusters we go see every weekend at the movies. Not only that, but it is also the funniest film of the year. With a cast of names which includes, but is not limited to talents like Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, and Tom Cruise, you are surely going to laugh out loud a few times. This may be the first comedy in a long time that has gotten ‘stupid humor’ right. While what is going on screen is about as dumb as anything in the lowest of the low-brow comedy genre, the creativity in the writing forbids cheap jokes, and tries hard to make original material out of a story that we have seen many times in the past. While Ben Stiller still has some kinks to work out while in front of the camera, he is extremely competent in the director’s chair, having the ability to handle big special effects sequences, and many genres in one. It helps that he has hired action cinematographer John Toll to give each scene a more believable look. Stiller says this film was 8 years in the making – it was worth the wait.
8. In Search of a Midnight Kiss (***1/2) – Every once in a great while a small film comes out of nowhere that is so powerful and so affecting, that it puts most big films, and in fact most other films to have come out during the year to utter shame. Suh is the case with In Search of a Midnight Kiss – a film that has comparatively low production values, but a very big heart. It tells the story of Wilson (Scott McNairy) a depressed man who wants to spend New Year’s at home, alone in bed. But his best friend convinces him to put a personal ad in the newspaper, which helps him meet a romance-seeking woman (Sara Simmonds) who may just be his perfect match. The film is black and white as it relies mainly on the emotons that the characters express to move the audience, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a great exercise in cinematography which captures the city of Los Angeles better than most color productions are able to. There is a lot of longing in this film, and a lot of talking, but when it all comes together in the end, the film revelas itself to be so much more. In Search of a Midnight Kiss is also proof that you don’t need a complex screnplay to get people’s attention. Expect the audience to laugh and cry along with this film’s characters, without them being tricked into it by unneeded script cleverness.
7. Doubt (***1/2) – Not only is this film good because of its incredible acting and potent direction, but its timeliness is cannot be doubted. The film’s portrayal of the dark side of Catholic schools may hit close to home, with its depiction of a priest who may have molested a young boy, and an evil nun who labels Frosty the Snowman as pagan and subversive. Ask any private school students about their experiences and they may mention suspicions and complaints about their teachers and superiors. But Doubt isn’t really about that, it is about doubting yourself, your beliefs, and ultimately your faith. It is impossible to highlight the film’s best moments without spoiling it, so I’ll simply state that the ending of the film is one of the most powerful of the year, only because of the last lines uttered in the film and thier many meanings. Doubt is very much open-ended, but if the viewer thinks about it for a long enough time, the answers slowly start to reveal themselves. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep deserve serious consideration come Oscar time, as they show the very best acting on film this year, by anyone. See Doubt to witness a film working excellently on all calibers.
6. The Life Before Her Eyes (***1/2) – A film that not many people saw, but everyone needs to see is Vadim Perleman’s sophomore effort The Life Before Her Eyes. A film that fearlessly combines the beauty and ugliness of life, and successfully shows the importance of the small moments as well as the big ones, it is truly a film that teaches us a lesson that we can value for the rest of our lives. Perleman pulls out the stops, and his film exhibits all the technical prowess that the drama genre permits, as well as creating an emotional roller coaster ride that causes discomfort and happiness within mere moments of its short running time. The film’s visual and scripted ‘tricks’ are essential to the story and the audience will never feel cheated into a feeling or a concept. Perleman is unafraid of actually ending the film and tying up all the loose ends, because he is rightly confident in the material at hand. If you ever need a film that will reward you endlessly, at the small cost of having to sit through one of the most intense, disturbing scenes put on film this year, this is the film for you.
5. Blindness (***1/2) – Director Fernando Meirelles’s faithful adaptatin of Jose Saramgo’s novel by the same name is the most disturbing, evasive, and hopeless motion picture of 2008. What makes it great is the fact that it is also very realistic. The film’s central dilemma – that almost everyone on Earth is instantaneously hit with the condition ‘white blindness’ is largely a metaphoric statement about the current situation in the world. Many have claimed that people are ‘blind’ to what is really happening, but only one filmmaker – Meirelles has enough courage to portray this fact in such a graphic and unforgiving way. Blindness is not recommended if you are suffering through a bout of depression or a moment of sadness. But whatever state of mind you see this film in, it will undoubtedly effect you and make you think twice about what people are trying to sell you is going on, versus the true reality.
4. Revolutionary Road (***1/2) – This is director Sam Mendes’ best film. Yes, not even the tumuluous American Beauty, the thoughtful Road to Perdition, or the convincingly over-the-top Jarhead measure up to his greatest accomplishment yet – Revolutionary Road. After seeing this film one is compelled to label it as something it may not be due to the decision Kate Winslet’s character makes at the end of the film. It is a decison infused with so many question that all start with Why? that it will stay in your head for a very long time after the screening. This type of powerful message filmmaking is what Mendes has wrongfully dodged until now, but it is wonderful to see him finally make a film that tries to say something more than what we readily see on the screen. The performances by reunited Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are flawless, and the look of the film is easily comparable to the most beautiful of the year. This film may bedifficult to take in, but once you have, you’ll be thankful you did.
3. Gran Torino (***1/2) – In all honesty, after the tour de force that was Changeling, I thought that Gran Torino would be an unneeded afterthought added on to the close of 2008. I was wrong, dead wrong. Gran Torino is not only a slightly better film than Changeling but it is a needed one indeed. It’s simple story of an unappreciated old man struck a chord with me that I was not expecting it to. It is Eastwood’s gracious response to Roger Donaldson’s amazing World’s Fastest Indian as it also pleads for society to have more respect toward its older members. It is a film made up of great acting moment after great acting moement, non-stop until the end, and Eastwood deserves a nomination for directing and acting for this masterpiece. This may not be his crown jewel (The Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima are vying for that spot), but it is pretty darn close. See this film.
2. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (***1/2) – A kids movie that is definitely not for kids, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was the best film I had seen all year for the longest time. Its development toward its heart-stopping and shocking ending is similar to what you would find in a children’s film, but the subject of this one is the Holocaust. It is told from the German point of view, just like Valkyrie, and portrays the innocence that some Germans exhibited during those terrible times – innocence very fittingly represented by an 8-year old boy who is quick to believe what may not really be true. I don’t want to say anything more, because the film and especially the ending needs to be experienced first hand. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas made me believe in the power of cinema again.
1. The Wrestler (***1/2) – Director Darren Aronofsky continues exploring death with The Wrestler, but unlike his last film The Fountain this is a different type of death – the death of the soul. Professioanl wreslter Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s (Mickey Rourke) soul is gone as he realizes that he is at the end of his rope, or as he sees it, the end of his actual life. The performance by Mickey Rourke is an absolute powerhouse, and the effort behind the camera by Aronofsky matches Rourke turn by turn. The Wrestler is the best film of the year, because it makes powerful drama out of an unlikely character and is not afraid to show the blood that is spilled in the process. Not for the weak-hearted, this film is one that wallows in unforgiving realism – no metaphors, no fairy tales – just real life in all its ugliness. These days there is nothing we need more than that. The Best Film of 2008!
Thanks for reading!