In regards to the world of film, 2008 will be remembered as the year in which the industry proved it could thrive even when the economy did not. Never before were there so many films that grossed over two-hundred-million dollars — six films, in fact — at the box office, with three of them going past three hundred and one of them becoming the second-highest grossing feature of all time.
Thankfully, that film, The Dark Knight, was no empty pirate feature, but the year’s best movie. Blockbusters continued to dominate in the summer months as studios still subscribed to their make or break strategy, while the year’s more thoughtful features were saved for the later months. Along the way, as always, there were some wonderful gems that were under-viewed and some awful disappointments that should never have seen the light of day. What follows is one humble critic’s take on the best and worst the cinematic world had to offer in 2008.
THE BEST OF 2008
1) The Dark Knight
There wasn’t an American film made this year that was as ambitious as this, or one that examined what we’ve become as a nation since 9/11 more effectively. Gotham City is our country, Batman is our protector and he’s forced to look at the effect of his fight on crime and change his methods once chaos comes to town in the person of the Joker. Without question, Heath Ledger’s performance as the pop icon villain was mesmerizing, but what stays with you is the tragedy that befalls the film’s hero, who’s forced to compromise his beliefs and become something he never intended to be in the face of inexplicable tragedy. The Dark Knight will continue to resonate long after 2008, a statement few films made this year can claim.
2) The Visitor
Another film connected to 9/11, this movie, an examination of a university professor (Richard Jenkins) who tries to save an illegal immigrant from being deported, shined a light on our country’s inhumane treatment of detainees and the callous approach to their humanity. Containing a degree of anger that erupts at the end, this was one of the most moving and thought-provoking features of the year.
3) In Bruges
The best foreign film no one saw, this wry black comedy stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hit men who’ve been sent to Belgium by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) for a job. What they don’t realize is that one of the killers will be ordered to kill the other, which sets up a crisis of conscience for them both where they end up questioning their own moral codes. Violent, funny and with a great twist ending, In Bruges is the sort of film Quentin Tarantino used to make.
4) Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood delivers a fitting swan song to his career as he stars and directs this tale of a bitter Korean War veteran who finds himself utterly alone after his wife passes away and his neighborhood has been taken over by various immigrant groups. While the film is being advertised as a sort of Dirty Harry for the geriatric set, it’s actually a moving tale of an unlikely friendship between the old codger and a young Vietnamese man who he takes under his wing. Poignant and quietly espousing the virtues of personal responsibility and honor, Eastwood tweaks his persona while giving one of the best performances in his career.
5) The Wrestler
2008 was filled with solid lead performances, but none were as moving as the turn provided here by Mickey Rourke. As a has-been wrestler reduced to surviving on pick up matches held in high school gyms, the actor channels and an inner pain and sadness that would move a stone. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky takes the Rocky formula and injects it with a dose of reality, and the film winds up being far more moving and profound than any similar Hollywood pap. (The Wrestler is scheduled to open at Boardman’s Art Theatre on January 23.)
6) Tropic Thunder
Sure, Ben Stiller’s comedy that lampooned all things Hollywood was offensive, and that was precisely the point. This war movie parody skewered movie star egos, greedy execs and vacuous agents while taking pot shots at addle brained audiences and the empty entertainments they eat up. Uproariously funny, this film took no prisoners and kudos must be given for all involved, including Robert Downey Jr., for putting themselves in the crosshairs.
7) Man on Wire
If you’re a fan of heist films, make sure to see this documentary by James Marsh, as there was no better entry in that genre this year. Using archival footage and recent interviews, the movie recounts the efforts of Philippe Petit and his crew to break into the newly constructed World Trade Center in 1974, string a wire between the towers and pull off one of the most daring high wire walks ever recorded. In the end, the feat is seen not only as an example of daring, but an act of consummate beauty.
Hey Governor Blagojevich, here’s a movie you need to see right away. Ron Howard’s adaptation of the acclaimed play provides a behind the scenes look at the famous interviews between Robert Frost and Richard Nixon, giving us an intimate look at each man’s motives. While Frost is seen as an opportunist, Nixon comes off as a proud man who has come to justify his illegal activities, only to realize the error of his ways. As Nixon, Frank Langella actually makes us sympathize with the fallen leader, giving us a man who longed to be at the center of everything but was a perpetual outsider. (Frost/Nixon will open locally in January.)
Director Gus Van Sant’s look at the political career of gay activist Harvey Milk is a touching account of one man’s fight for civil rights for all and the tragedy that results when he meets intolerance to his cause. As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn rediscovers a joy in performing that has been absent from his work for years. Seeing his resurrection is thing to behold. Moving and all too current, this is a film that is, regrettably, as relevant today as when its events occurred. (Milk will open locally in January.)
This film from Romania charts the harrowing efforts of one young woman’s efforts to procure an abortion for her friend in a country where this is illegal. The man they find who will perform the procedure takes advantage of them and once the deed is completed, the emotional toll it takes on these two women is shared by the audience, which comes to share in the horror of their situation. Shocking and at times almost too much to bear, this film forces you to rethink your stance on this controversial issue.
11) Swing Vote
The best American film no one saw this year, this look at our corrupt political system and the hope it still contains at its core was far too timely for audiences to embrace. Too bad, because they missed a great performance from Kevin Costner, as a lovable loser forced to change his life when the fate of the presidential election lands in his lap, and newcomer Madeline Carroll, as his daughter who acts as his conscience. Here’s hoping this one finds new life when it’s released on DVD.
12) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Fincher’s unique film looks at the age-old theme of living life to its fullest through a different spectrum, as its main character is born 80 years old and ages backwards. In the title role, Brad Pitt delivers a compelling performance, as does Cate Blanchett as the woman who loves and cares for him, despite his unique predicament. Thought provoking and gripping, this film has a haunting quality to it that’s hard to shake.
THE WORST OF 2008
1) Pride and Glory
Edward Norton and Colin Farrell star as New York cops awash in corruption. The biggest crime committed here, though, is by director Gavin O’Connor, who does nothing but foist a collection of clichés on an unsuspecting audience.
2) Nobel Son
This over-reaching kidnap caper is bogged down with a story too confusing for its own good. Nobel Son is populated by characters we could care less about. Even with Alan Rickman, Mary Sttenburgen and Danny DeVito, among others on board, this was nothing but dull.
3) The Day the Earth Stood Still
This remake of the Robert Wise classic suffered not from the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead nor the efforts to modernize it as an environmental warning. The fault lies in the script, which had enough holes in it to fly countless UFOs through.
4) Bottle Shock
In addition to directing Nobel Son, Randall Miller also made this stinker about small California winemakers trying to crack the European market. Instead of charming, this feature is far too calculated to be believed.
5) Righteous Kill
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro starred as partners on the New York police department trying to solve a series of grisly crimes. If anything, this film proved that the wattage on this pair’s star power has drastically dimmed.
It never occurred to me that this college sex comedy starring Drake and Josh’s Drake Bell would be any good. I simply had no idea it would be so insultingly bad. No higher education or entertainment to be had here.
7) Four Christmases
Reese Whiterspoon and Vince Vaughn go slumming in this ode to family dysfunction during the holiday season. Mindless slapstick and sophomoric humor fill this 88 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
8) The Happening
What’s happening here with the latest from director M. Night Shyamalan? Only more proof that the talent behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was a fluke, and that all film cameras should be taken away from him before he sins again.
Was there a film with more talent on board that was as insulting as this one? Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman are usually sure bets, but this ridiculous tale of assassins in the service of a secret society was far too loud and far too dumb to be believed.
10) My Best Friend’s Girl
Dane Cook, Kate Hudson and Jason Biggs all inched a bit closer to career suicide with this offensive modern take of Cyrano De Bergerac gone wrong. The characters were offensive, their actions revolting and I was left with nothing but the need for a hot shower.