Here I find myself more than two weeks into the new year with a light work day sandwiched in between the MLK holiday and the historic Obama inauguration. So what's a film geek to do but finally get down to his long overdue year-end Best/Worst list?
These days, "Change" is the dominant theme on everyone's mind followed by a close second-- "Cutbacks." In looking back over the movies I viewed in 2008, both themes make themselves readily apparent. I watched about half the movies I normally do, and I watched more than half of those selections on DVD rather than in a traditional theater. For a few selections, I even embraced digital "change" wholeheartedly watching by way of streaming Netflix feed or Blu-Ray disc.
Yes, I finally plunked down a couple hundred on a Blu-Ray player. I guess I'm just another sucker in the revolving door of digital formats. Sign me up for the 3-D, hi-def brain implant chip that's sure to come down the pipe in 2015...because sometimes you just need to re-watch Showgirls or Starship Troopers virtual-reality style.
But, in my defense, two of the movies on this list I did watch the old-school way on a fifty year old drive-in movie screen in Vermont. So much for change and cutbacks.
Anyway, onto the list...
Che is not your father's biopic -- a by-the-numbers recounting of the highs and lows of a famous person's life all dressed up in a best-of-hits package -- but it may your ornery Communist uncle's. By focusing solely on two guerilla campaigns in Che Guevara's life -- his successful Cuban campaign and the later failed Bolivian one -- director Steven Soderbergh circumvents the pitfalls of predictability that plague a movie like Ray or even this year's commendable though conventional Milk. Instead, he defines Che, the man, not by pop psychology but by action. This makes for some very rich, intense battle scenes, a fine workmanlike performance by Benicio and, unfortunately, a 4 and 1/2 hour runtime. Watch it over a couple nights...with your closest Marxist friend.
9. Tropic Thunder
The people who protested this admittedly taboo-tweaking and completely balls-to-the-wall funny Ben Stiller war movie satire may have missed the point. The targets of the jokes in Tropic Thunder were not people with disabilities (i.e. "Simple Jack"), African Americans (i.e., Robert Downey in "blackface") or even the morbidly obese (i.e. Jack Black's "Fatties" franchise). The target was mainstream Hollywood and its gross exploitation of all of the above in order to make crass profit and garner cruder Oscar nominations. A better point might be made by boycotting the next Eddie Murphy-in-a-fat-suit movie, the next Rain Man or I Am Sam ego trip Oscar bait performance, or, dare I say it, by boycotting the Oscars itself.
8. Encounters At The End of The World
After a disappointing detour into conventional narrative last year with Rescue Dawn, director Werner Herzog came back with another unconventional documentary about oddball Antarctic scientists and consumer culture drop-outs making some of the world's most important human discoveries in sub-zero weather at the most remote place on Earth. From his voiceover narration, you can tell director Herzog hates being there and never wants to see another damned snowplow or penguin in his life. But that just makes things all the more entertaining.
7. The Fall
The most stunning cinematographic images caught on film (or hi-def?) in 2008 plus the cutest little French girl you ever did see. Granted, this movie is mostly style over substance, and the bare bones plot concerning a paralyzed, suicidal stuntman weaving an elaborate bedtime story to a tot with a broken arm in order to save his own life is, at times, maudlin at best. But the sheer vivacity of the images captured make it seem organic produce fresh. This is one I regret not having seen on the big screen. But even downsized to Blu-Ray, it's a delectable treat.
6. Iron Man
Hollywood made a goldmine this year, and possibly kept itself afloat, by sticking top-notch dramatic actors in silly superhero outfits and saddling them with source material only a 13 year old boy could love. But you've got to give them credit...when the superhero movie is done right, it can be entertaining as hell. Downey, Jr. was a true revelation here, single-handedly reviving his career and kick-starting a franchise of which I'm sure we won't see the end for quite some time. And kudos to director Jon Favreau for striking a light, whimsical tone that served as antidote to The Dark Knight's brooding nature-of-good-and-evil treatise. The fact that he and Downey were able to make us root for a dude, Tony Stark, who is basically an opportunistic military industrial complex douchebag is a small coup in itself.
5. The Dark Knight
Director Christopher Nolan lifts the superhero movie to epic, Shakespearean proportions. Enough's been said about Heath Ledger's brilliant, unnerving spin on the Joker that I won't belabor the point. And, damn, that Harvey Dent burn makeup was freaky! By once again treating what could have easily been throwaway pop culture material with deadly severity, Nolan delivers a compelling rumination on what it takes to be a hero in terrorism's modern age and delivers a genuinely entertaining crime epic in the process. In my humble opinion, the Batman reboot franchise (and the superhero movie in general) has reached its peak--it really can't get any better than this--and they shouldn't bother to try. But much like the countless Batman imitators that plague Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne at the beginning of The Dark Knight, there will surely be many pale, unworthy imitators to come.
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
What's worse than trying to help get your best friend an illegal abortion in late 1980s Romania? Dinner at your boyfriend's parents' house right afterwards. This movie is anything but feel-good and its clinical, matter of fact style makes the dire proceedings that the two girls in the film experience even harder to take. But this is one of those IMPORTANT movies that people should see, those on both sides of the abortion issue, and especially those in America lobbying to have it reversed back to illegal status. This may not be the "best" movie I saw in 2008 but probably the most relevant.
3. Slumdog Millionaire
Speaking of "feel-good," this little indie movie that could is sure to clean up at the Oscars this year much the way its street urchin protagonist racks up rupees in the Mumbai version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? There's not a damn thing wrong with that because, for once, this type of movie earns its "feel-good" by dragging us first through the slums, the toilets, the drug dens and the brothels of rural and urban India in order to get to its sing-along Bollywood end. Sure, you've seen the up-from-nothing poor kid makes good trajectory a million times before whether it be in Charles Dickens' Victorian England or on the pages of Forbes magazine. But you've never seen it quite the way Danny Boyle's relentlessly rushing, exuberant camera captures it here.
2. The Wrestler
Two words, pure and simple: Mickey Rourke. Bring it.
1. Man on Wire
You might think this small, obscure documentary about French tight rope walker Phillipe Petit is an odd choice for my Best Movie of 2008, but, honestly, it's the one that stuck with me the most. This is a movie about taking extreme chances for no other reason than to remind yourself you're alive. It's about finding the beauty in completely foolish yet life-affirming acts. It's a movie about a crazy Frenchman who walked on a thin wire between the Twin Towers years before they collapsed. There's so many ways to watch this movie: as historic document, as biography, as performance piece, as true life action movie, as perfect heist movie minus the loot. The fact that you're watching this awe-inspiring, death-defying feat occur at the same place where the nation would suffer its greatest tragedy (though 9/11's never directly mentioned in the film) hits you on so many emotional, metaphorical, and, dare I say, metaphysical levels that it's sublimely ridiculous.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Forest Gump in reverse? Perhaps. A three-hour excuse to play with age-related CGI effects? Most definitely. But that doesn't mean there aren't still some awe-inspiring sequences in this David Fincher gravestone to sandbox curio.
After daring stylistic exercises like Gerry, Last Days and Paranoid Park, this may be Gus Van Sant's most conventional movie to date. But the fact that it's about one of the more unconventional politicians ever to hit the soapbox and the fact that Sean Penn's image-erasing performance is a minor miracle more than makes up for Milk's otherwise commonplace biopic format.
If the Hatfields and McCoys were to have a feud in modern day Arkansas, it might look something this. Minimalist, low key and distinctly Southern with another knock out performance by Michael Shannon. Director Jeff Nichols is one to keep your eye on.
Unlike John Malkovich, life inside writer/director Charlie Kaufman's brain is not a fun waterslide onto the Jersey turnpike. Instead, it's very dark, very depressing and very repetitive. There's lots of blood in people's urine, talk of death, the meaningless of art, the futility of love and doppelgangers galore. But there's also some genuinely inventive moments you've never seen before on film amidst all the misery. I have a very, very high tolerance for depressing films, but this one even tested my reserves. Kaufman, pop a few Paxil, figure out that doppelganger thing and get back to us in 2010 with something a little less hopeless but equally as inventive.
Vicky Christina Barcelona
Maybe not his best but certainly a return to form of sorts for the Wood-man. Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are great, Rebecca Hall is quite a find and Scarlett Johansson...well, at least it's not a Michael Bay movie. Barcelona and ménage à trois hasn't looked this good in decades.
Stallone's Rocky was just a palooka from Philly with a busted nose, a mean southpaw and a softie heart. He deserved to be retired with dignity and Stallone did so with that character in Rocky Balboa. But Rambo was a soldier of fortune, a mercenary, a self-avowed killing machine from the Reagan '80s. He lived by the sword and thus should have died by the sword. But Stallone just didn't have heart (or the guts) to do it. He just had to leave it open for the sequel. I'm sorry, but Rambo as 60 year old lone defender of Thailand is just ridiculous. And not in a good way.
9. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Spielberg brings shame to the man in the felt hat nearly 20 years after the fact with the weakest Indiana Jones installment to date. And George Lucas, once again, rapes our collective childhoods with more alien CGI mumbo jumbo. I pine for the days of giant tumbling paper maiche boulders, but I fear those days are long gone. Worse, I fear Shia LeBeouf as Indie in another sequel.
8. Diary of the Dead
Note to George Romero: Putting a digital video camera in a zombie's hand and having it upload the footage to YouTube or FaceBook or Twitter does not in and of itself make for biting social commentary. You have to try a little harder, just like the ne'erdowell cyber-auteurs you're lampooning. Otherwise, you just look like an out-of-touch old man trying to use the kids' cool new lingo. Or worse, making another Cloverfield.
7. The Incredible Hulk
Give me Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby over this CGI and testosterone-pumped mess of a movie any day. Sticking a top-notch dramatic actor (Ed Norton) in a live action superhero cartoon does NOT always work. This is one of the movies I saw at a drive in. Luckily, the opposing screen was playing You Don't Mess With Zohan so I could sneak a peek away now and then.
6. Street Kings
The co-written by James Ellroy credit continues to lead me down some dismal cinematic highways-- first Black Dahlia and now this. I'm sorry, but I just don't buy Keanu Reeves as a tough L.A. street cop who uses questionable methods to get his man unless that man is named Bodhi, those methods involve surfing and the movie is Point Break.
5. Quantum of Solace
The failure of this sequel to the awesome Bond reboot Casino Royale can be summed up in six words: James Bond is NOT Jason Bourne. Also, director Marc Foster may know how to shoot Billy Bob and Halle Berry frolicking in the nude, but he knows absolutely nothing about the geography of shooting action.
4. Righteous Kill
Moviegoers patiently wait decades for the ultimate pairing of Pacino and DeNiro and this 2 hour see-the twist-coming-a-mile-away episode of CSI is what we get? Save it. I've got Heat on disc.
3. Death Race
Close ups of bad actors behind the wheels of unidentifiable cars shot by deliberately shaky cameras. When 15 minutes in, you're pining for the laughable Roger Corman original, you know you're in bad shape.
2. Run, Fat Boy, Run
I got this one from Netflix because I was on a Simon Pegg kick after marathon viewings of his wonderful BBC comedy series Spaced. Let's just say I'd rather run three actual marathons back-to-back than watch another minute of this laughless formula tripe ever again.
As a proper film geek, I make it a point to never walk out on even the worst of movies and give them a chance to redeem themselves in the end. But this one was so archly unfunny and in love with its own '40's screwball cuteness, that I couldn't make it through; I left the room to do laundry instead. I guess you can say I would ACTUALLY rather watch socks dry than seeing all of Leatherheads.
Burn After Reading
Not to harp on Clooney twice, but every time he works with the Coens they turn in their weaker efforts (Intolerable Cruelty, O, Brother Where Art Thou?). I'm starting to think he's something of a cinematic mandrake root to them. Either that or the Coens, pranksters that they be, decided after cleaning up at the Oscars last year with No Country to put out the worst thing on their project slate. Whatever the case, this movie was not much more than a bunch of screaming heads in D.C. and, for what it's worth to you, a goofy Brad Pitt in spandex.
Be Kind, Rewind
A very funny concept sunk by some piss-poor execution and maybe not the right director. Honestly, I think I made better, more entertaining "bad backyard movies" in my own backyard than these when I was in high school. And one of them also lampooned Driving Miss Daisy.
A mish-mash of Escape from New York and The Road Warrior with a female protagonist. Which all sounds good on paper and is perhaps where it should have stayed.
A mindless Fight Club action rip-off about little more than Angelina Jolie's back tattoos and the physically impossible art of "bending bullets." Good for a laugh or two and then an immediate shot to the dome.
The Will Ferrell comedy machine is showing a little wear and tear with this one. And, to be honest, Step Brothers was much, much funnier.
THE OBGYN / ADA APPROVED AWARD
Teeth - If you don't already know what "vagina dentata" means, you may not want to and may not want to see this movie. Unfortunately, I took four years of Latin in high school and grew up in pretty conservative Christian town, so to this inventive little indie horror movie I could relate. If the abstinence vows in Twilight were too tame for your blood, you may want to check this one out. It's got much more bite...in all the wrong places.
HAPPIEST MOVIE MADE BY A NOTORIOUSLY PESSIMISTIC DIRECTOR
Happy Go Lucky - Miserablist British director (Naked, Vera Drake) goes balls-out sunny with a character who can shrug off just about every bad thing that happens to her. I found it refreshing, but, also, highly suspect. Someone's been dipping into SSRIs me-thinks.
MOST EGREGIOUS MATT DAMON CAMEO
Che - Don't get me wrong, Damon is a fine actor. But there's absolutely no reason for him to walk into the middle of the Bolivian Revolution for two minutes and stop the movie short just by his mere presence. Damon, I know you and Soderbergh are pals, but there are plenty of non-working actors out there. And when they appear on screen, they don't carry quite so much baggage.
MOST EGREGIOUS TOM CRUISE CAMEO
Tropic Thunder - Speaking of baggage, here it works for Tom Cruise in spades. Casting the much maligned Scientologist as a fat, hairy, balding, barking studio head with a taste for the Crunk was maybe the movie's greatest coup. It takes "meta" to a whole new level...I don't know, maybe "beta"?
THE KID GLOVES AWARD
W. - Who would have ever thought notorious muck-raker Oliver Stone would have been the one to take it the easiest on departing presidential boob George W. Bush? I don't know whether to commend the man for his newfound maturity as a director or ask for his impeachment and his DGA card.
THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT AS EXTENDED HUMMUS JOKE AWARD
You Don't Mess With The Zohan - The above label makes it sound like a bad thing. But, honestly, there's some laugh-out-loud funny moments here. The political commentary, ech, not so much.
THE MARRIAGE IS HELL AND THE SUBURBS ARE WHERE YOU GO TO DIE AWARD
Revolutionary Road - After American Beauty (which Sam Mendes directed), Little Children (which Kate Winslet was in) and now Revolutionary Road (which Sam Mendes directed AND Kate Winslet is in), I'm starting to think the husband-wife team of Mendes/Winslet have their own cottage industry going in marital-suburban malaise. I'm guessing they won't be renewing their vows or moving to Glendale anytime soon.
MOST R.E.P.S. IN A MOVIE (RACIAL EPITHETS PER SECOND)
Gran Torino - OK, so Clint's playing an avowed racist in this movie and I have a high tolerance for characters talking like a sailor on shore leave when the situation is correct. But, man, there's enough slurs dropped in the first 15 minutes of this movie to make even a KKK Grand Wizard wince. Did the Man With No Name notorious for directorial restraint for once go too far? Let's discuss.
BEST MOVIE SONG YOU CAN'T GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD
Pineapple Express (M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes") - Was this song even in the movie...or just the trailer? I don't know, but I sure as hell couldn't get it out of my head (or my iPod rotation) this entire summer. "All I wanna do is -- BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, KA-CHING!" indeed.
MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2009
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Forget that this is a sequel nobody ever wanted to a movie most people never saw in the first place ("Oh yeah, that one where Harvey Keitel shows his pecker"). Forget that it has possibly the worst movie title since Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Just focus on one thing: Notoriously grumpy art-house director Werner Herzog directing Jerry Bruckheimer sell-out Nicholas Cage in, of all things, a crime movie sequel. This will either be the biggest train wreck you ever saw or the finest thing put on film in 2009. Mark my words.