Many people have said that 2008 was a down year for movies; I would argue that it was instead a down year for masterpieces. The probable five Best Picture nominees (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Dark Knight) are four movies that won't be remembered three years from now and one comic book movie (albeit it an excellent one). Two of them didn't even make my top 10.
But if you look a little deeper, you'll find a year rich with small, powerful films and hilarious comedies. Pineapple Express, Step Brothers and Tropic Thunder were all well worth the price of admission, and The Counterfeiters and JCVD were foreign-based features that got limited releases but rave reviews. And then there were my top 10 (listed alphabetically), all of which stand as proof that there are a few diamonds in any movie "rough":
The Dark Knight
Did it live up to the hype? To the untrained eye, yes. As a continuation of Batman Begins, to a die-hard fan who attended a midnight showing? No. Heath Ledger's Joker is possibly the most mesmerizing character in recent cinema history, and Christopher Nolan paints the dreary, crime-ridden streets of Gotham City with a kind of depressing beauty. However, after repeat viewings, I can't help noticing numerous faults. The story is overly complicated and somehow, it goes on for too long while also packing way too much in. The saga of Two-Face could and should have been a movie in and of itself; tacking it onto the last hour doesn't do the character justice. Meanwhile, the Joker's rigged-boat scheme, followed by the anti-climactic hostage/skyscraper sequence, are a huge letdown after the edge-of-your-seat goings-on we've just sat anxiously through.
However, even after all that, it still ends up being one of the best comic book movies of all time. Carried by one of the greatest, creepiest performances you'll ever see, The Dark Knight is a truly impressive (and successful) attempt to take a genre film and make it accessible to both the masses and critics. Even if Batman Begins is better.
Much like Good Night, and Good Luck. in 2005, I expected to enjoy this story of journalistic integrity and courage immensely (because, you know, I'm a "journalist"). And although it wasn't as captivating as Edward R. Murrow's battles with Joe McCarthy (my favorite movie of 2005), director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan have succeeded in carrying Morgan's play over to the silver screen.
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are both captivating as Richard Nixon and David Frost, respectively, and Oscar nominations should be in both of their futures. Langella, specifically, does a wonderful job of transforming into our 37th President, especially since he doesn't exactly resemble the man at first glance. However, his hunched-over posture, the power and intelligence that radiates off his very being, and even the desperate sadness in his voice near the movie's conclusion all exemplify this historical man in one of his darkest, most interesting hours. For an actor who has portrayed characters like Skeletor in the He-Man movie and "the owner of the Knicks who hires Whoopi Goldberg" in Eddie, kudos to Langella for flexing his chops as he reaches his golden years.
Gran Torino is Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is Gran Torino. The movie could not exist without the man; not only is he brilliant as the racist veteran Walt Kowalski, but in the hands of a lesser actor/director, the movie would be seriously flawed.
Actually, even with Clint, it still has issues. Eastwood arguably goes overboard with the racial slurs, practically begging the PC crowd to get up in arms, and every actor that isn't either Clint Eastwood or Drew Carey's TV transvestite brother (stealing his two scenes as the friendly neighborhood barber) is interestingly terrible. But through it all, Clint makes it work; his constant grumbling, his menacing stare, even his impressive 78-year-old physique remind us of the man with no name, the man with the gun, the actor who was often the same yet always tremendous. He turns shlock into gold with Gran Torino; he shares a message of redemption and understanding that surprisingly comes off, by the end, as very realistic. If this is the final movie Clint Eastwood ever acts in, he is going out on top.
If Ledger's The Joker is the ultimate comic book movie antagonist, then Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is its finest protagonist. In a bit of casting genius, the smooth-talking playboy Stark is embodied fully by Downey Jr., a motormouth in his own right who has been itching for a big Hollywood break for God knows how long. I've been a Downey Jr. fan since forever, so in a way, his work in this role meant as much to me as any performance this year. The man is a genius, consistently hilarious and able to really connect with an audience, and if Marvel Studios has any sense, they'll milk their good luck for all its worth and keep Downey Jr. reprising Stark as much as possible. His work, as much as the great special effects and the truly awesome look of the Iron Man armor, is what made this movie beloved by almost everyone.
Also, let's not ignore Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane, a fairly lackluster villain who nevertheless has one of the coolest looks in a film this year. His bald head/bushy beard style should be adopted by anyone with the guts (and facial hair) to pull it off; if The Dude can do it, so can you.
It's a shame that Heath Ledger is an absolute lock for Best Supporting Actor, because Josh Brolin's turn in Milk is another in a tremendous string of criminally ignored performances for the 41-year-old actor. In fact, almost every actor in Milk is terrific, whether they're portraying an outlandish homosexual or a repressed, murderous civil servant. It's rich material from Dustin Lance Black, a fairly unknown screenwriter, and to paraphrase a recent review of the film, it allows gays to "have fun" on screen. Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia - neither one paints being gay as a bad thing, but they do emphasize a bit much on some of the hardships that homosexuality in America can result in. However, Milk reminds everyone that if you and some gay friends get together, especially in San Francisco, you can have a great time! And be elected to public office!
But there are bigots out there, and in the end, Milk is a reminder that we need more people like Harvey Milk out there to make the world a better, and fairer, place.
Rachel Getting Married
The little movie that couldn't. Even though the kids dig Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries and the teens dig her in The Devil Wears Prada, the adults did not dig her in this. And that's a shame, because she turns in a performance that most people, myself included, didn't think she had in her.
I'm still blown away by the lack of awards recognition this is receiving. Even though dysfunctional, quirky family-based dramas have barely been recognized (The Royal Tenebaums, The Squid and the Whale) come awards time, I thought having Jonathan Demme at the helm would give it a bit more credibility. Too bad, too, because Debra Winger and Bill Irwin (he won't get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but short of Brolin and Ledger, no one was better) were terrific, Hathaway was amazing, and the newscaster from The Ten gets to put in a few solid minutes as a drug addict love interest for Hathaway.The forgotten gem, for the most part, of 2008.
I loved The Station Agent, and I loved this. I'm always a sucker for an indy movie that gives a career character actor a chance to shine; most people probably know Richard Jenkins as the dead father from "Six Feet Under" or the gym manager in Burn After Reading, but given his first real shot at carrying a movie, he shines.
The scene when he blows up in the immigration office - the movie builds up to it, you know that it's coming, but he still shocks you with his anger. It's a movie cliche to have the stuffy old man learn how to open his heart, and writer/director Tom McCarthy deserves kudos heaped upon kudos for turning it into a modern tale of the differences and similarities between races and cultures. A Best Supporting Actor nomination would be deserving for Haaz Sleiman, the illegal immigrant who draws Jenkins' character out of his shell.
Pixar has made some great movies (The Incredibles, Toy Story), but nothing like this. As a huge fan of the "show, don't tell" style (again, my journalistic upbringing), I couldn't have loved the speechless first 30 minutes any more than I did. Not only did it perfectly introduce audiences to Wall-E's quirky mannerisms and noises, but it forced a focus on the visual aspects of the movie, allowing the accompanying sight gigs to have their full effect. Wall-E having trouble deciding whether a spork belongs in the fork or the spoon bin was one of the funniest things on screen in 2008.
It's hard to put a finger on what gives Pixar the ability to make movies that are beloved by kids and adults; the genuine message behind this film worked side by side perfectly with all the cute moments. It's quite a skill to preach entertainingly without being preachy, and it's something Pixar needs to milk for as long as they have it. Capped off with a surprisingly catchy Peter Gabriel song in the end credits, Wall-E deserves all the Best Picture praise its received this year.
The best movie of 2008. I've already offered my two cents on The Wrestler elsewhere on this blog, but the recent 3.5-star review in the Philadelphia Inquirer inspired me to throw a few more words out there. Critic Steven Rea offers that it is not a "perfect movie," but not in a negative fashion, and I'm tempted to agree with him. As I said before, The Wrestler was not designed in a Rocky-esque fashion, to show an underdog triumphing over adversity. Randy "The Ram" Robinson isn't exactly doomed from the start, but he does exist in a sort of perpetual state of disarray, of sadness, and of failure.
Even as director Darren Aronofsky allows you to side with "The Ram," to root for him and cry with him as he stands perched on the top rope, you can't help but feel other emotions. Pity, and a bit of bewilderment, and maybe even disgust. He has accepted the fact that his family is not as important as his time in the ring, and this is not the typical demeanor of a cinema protagonist. But then again, Robinson isn't perfect, and neither is this movie. It is a movie of struggle, a struggle to understand, a struggle to accept where life has taken us and where we'll go from there. It's not the kind of movie that typically wins Oscars or enchants audiences, but it is the kind of movie that speaks to those out there who want the cinema to be a truer reflection of life. As Bruce Springsteen sings in the title song, "The Ram" is a one-legged man, someone perpetually handicapped but who can make you smile "when the blood, it hits the floor." The beauty of the movie is in the struggle, and no movie in recent memory has captured this struggle so eloquently, or so movingly.
And finally, the best documentary, and by far the most heart-warming movie of the year. Whether Stan is singing the high-pitched "AAAAANGEELLLL" part of David Bowie's "Golden Years," Joe is learning Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" or Fred is crooning an absolutely beautiful version of Coldplay's "Fix You," the members of the Young@Heart senior citizen chorus will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.
It's so refreshing to see a group of older people with an unmistakable zest for life, enjoying themselves and painting a wonderful picture of what the elderly can accomplish. It's also absolutely crushing as you learn that several of them died during the course of the movie, and a few soon after. Still, the movie reminds us that life is fleeting, and the chorus helps them get the most out of it.
When Fred reads his email to the camera at the end, thanking the chorus for allowing him to "attempt to sing at the same level as them" (his performance is, without question, the best of the movie), it's impossible not to cry. If you have a heart, you will love Young@Heart.
Role Models was a picture-perfect leap for David Wain into relatively mainstream comedy. Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderful little movie that is a little over-hyped but still very entertaining. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a hilarious breakout vehicle for Jason Segel. Man on Wire is an unbelievable documentary about the man who tightrope walked between the two World Trade Centers in the 1970s. Burn After Reading showed the world that even a Best Picture Oscar won't bring the Coen brothers too far from quirky. Finally, although the movie was a bit long and a bit lacking, it's a crime that Josh Brolin won't get a Best Actor nomination for his work as George W. Bush in W. Whatever your politics are, his unexpected capturing of our current (but not for long) President was one of the true delights of 2008, from (I know I'm heaping it on) one of our generation's emerging actors.