People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
  Best and Worst of 2008
I used to love the year-end best-of lists that populate magazines and TV shows that come around in late December and early January each year, but now, like a lot of people, I’m pretty sick of them. However, this is the first year in which I’ve had a blog, and I’ve actually been pretty excited about putting together my first year-end best/worst lists.

A few words before I get into it…I don’t see anything close to every movie that comes out, and I haven’t seen many of the films populating other year-end lists, like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Milk or Slumdog Millionaire. I generally see movies I’m interested in and think will be entertaining, and try to avoid those I think will suck. And I also tried to tie in as much as possible film’s I’ve discussed in this space over the past several months. Because I typically use this blog to crow about what I loved (or hated) at the movies or on DVD, there was going to be a ton of overlap anyways.

And no, I didn’t give them a made-up award name. I feel like things get self-indulgent enough around here without me going to those lengths. With all that said, here are the 10 movies/DVDs I enjoyed the most in 2008, followed by the five worst (I’m trying to be nicer this year, so I’m focusing more on the positive than the negative.


1. Let the Right One In
Tomas Alfredson’s vampire film (I almost described it as “offbeat,” particularly in light of Twilight’s success, but like to paraphrase Michael Bolton in Office Space, why should I qualify my review? Twilight’s the film that sucks) was that rare film about which I heard an insane amount of positive things beforehand, and not only did it not disappoint, it managed to surpass expectations. That said, hype and expectation aside, this is a beautiful, haunting film that’s stayed with me ever since I saw it (twice). Maybe not for everyone – at least one friend of mine thought it was horribly overrated, but whatever – but no other film I saw this year knocked me on my ass like Let the Right One In did. (Check out my full review here.)

2. The Wrestler
I wrote in this space about how Darren Aronofsky is ridiculously talented, and in my TIFF recap, I lamented not being able to see this movie (which at the time still had no distribution deal). Aronofsky proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in terms of story – the plot is pretty standard sports movie fare – to make a truly great film. If you haven’t seen it, everything you’ve heard or read about Mickey Rourke’s performance is absolutely true. The best work I saw any actor do this year (though the next film on my list boasts a close second). Aronofsky’s last two films (The Fountain and this) have brought me to tears in a movie theatre, and if he can do that with his planned RoboCop remake/sequel, well, then I’ll know he’s truly a genius.

3. The Dark Knight
I love this film for a lot of reasons. Heath Ledger’s performance, obviously, is one. He’s so good I actually forget I’m watching an actor, and I just think of him as The Joker, which I can only say about two other performances I’ve ever seen: Rourke in The Wrestler and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. But as much attention as Ledger got (and will get – if he doesn’t win the Oscar, I’m pretty much done with paying any attention whatsoever to the Academy Awards), this is just a great film. Christopher Nolan deserves an incredible amount of praise for not only building on the excellent Batman Begins and delivering something genuinely special, but also – and this is just the comic book geek in me talking – proving that just because a movie is about a guy who dresses up in a costume and fights crime, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be taken seriously as a movie and work on its own merits. It’s a legacy I’m hopeful/confident Zack Snyder’s upcoming Watchmen film will build on.

4. Iron Man
Jon Favreau’s superhero flick kind of got a raw deal this summer. In any other year it’s huge box office haul would have made it the film of the year, but instead it’s just sort of a footnote in The Summer of Dark Knight. But Iron Man was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theatre, and like The Wrestler, proves that a standard genre plot – the superhero origin story, of which I am pretty tired at this point – doesn’t necessarily mean a standard film. Normally one of my problems with superhero movies is they don’t spend enough time on the superhero action (which is what I paid to see), but Favreau stacks his deck with an incredible cast that almost makes it disappointing when the titular hero shows up to kick ass. Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong, and the sequel – and planned spinoffs like Captain America, Thor and The Avengers – can’t come fast enough.

When I heard that Jean-Claude Van Damme, formerly one of my favourite action stars (back when Boyz II Men was one of my favourite musical groups, just to put my appreciation of quality back then into perspective) was starring in a film in which he’d play himself as a washed-up former action star who gets embroiled somehow in a botched robbery in his hometown of Brussels, it sounded like it would at least make for compellingly surreal viewing. What I wasn’t expecting was a genuinely great performance from JCVD himself (he delivers a minutes-long monologue to the camera that’s as riveting as anything I’ve seen in a movie this year) and a beautifully shot, emotionally engaging film from director Mabrouk El Mechri. One of the year’s most pleasant surprises. (Check out my full review here.)

6. The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration
Okay, this one is cheating – these movies are more than 30 years old in some cases – but Paramount’s Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is hands-down the most impressive DVD release I saw all year. I hadn’t realized how crappy the previous Godfather DVDs looked until I saw the gorgeous transfers on the standard discs, and as I said in my review, I can only imagine how amazing these films look on Blu-Ray. Kudos to Paramount for giving some of the greatest movies ever made a DVD set they deserve. Even if you’ve already got these movies on DVD, trust me, this is the set to pick up. (Check out my full review here.)

7. Mongol
This movie really surprised me. Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s film about the early days of Genghis Khan combines action, emotion and beautiful cinematography better than just about any similar Hollywood movie I can think of, and, as a Mongolian co-production shot on location and populated with Mongolian actors (though the title role is played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, who does some great minimalist work here) it has a real authenticity to it. I have no idea how historically accurate Mongol is, but it’s a great movie, and I hope Bodrov and company get to complete their planned trilogy of Khan biopics. (Check out my full review here.)

8. Tropic Thunder
I’ve watched this comedy a bunch of times now, and I still laugh my ass off every time. Sure, the Tom Cruise dancing stuff is a bit forced, but I otherwise love his performance, and Robert Downey Jr. does some of the best work in his career as an Australian actor doing a cringe-inducing caricature of a black man in a would-be Vietnam epic. Director/co-star Ben Stiller uses his cast brilliantly – Jack Black as an irritating jackass? SOLD – and manages a movie that lambastes Hollywood without being so mean spirited as to alienate viewers. Tropic Thunder is that rare comedy that holds up on repeat viewings. (Check out my full review here.)

9. Punisher: War Zone
Director Lexi Alexander’s insanely violent adaptation of the Marvel Comics vigilante proved the third time was indeed the charm for Frank Castle. It’s a shame this movie tanked at the box office, because it was some of the most fun I had in a movie theatre all year. It’s the perfect mix of violence and black humour, and Ray Stevenson is perfect as the Punisher (he doesn’t utter a line until about 20 minutes into the film), and Dominic West is so good as the villain, Jigsaw, that only Heath Ledger did a better job as the bad guy this year. 2008 was huge for Marvel Studios – their weakest movie was The Incredible Hulk, and that was still pretty good – but sadly Punisher: War Zone seems to have gotten lost in the churn. Hopefully this movie will find its audience on DVD, because it’s a riot, and the most deliriously over-the-top action movie I’ve seen in years.

10. Kung Fu Panda
I groaned when I saw the trailers for this movie – Jack Black voicing a Homer Simpson-esque panda bear in a kiddie comedy that spoofs my beloved kung fu movies – but boy was I wrong. People who know me know my lack of patience for kids movies, but Kung Fu Panda was blast. The animation is brilliant, the script is actually pretty funny, and the action sequences are excellent. It’s that rare children’s movie that actually works for just about anyone. I haven’t been this impressed with a movie of this kind since The Incredibles. (Check out my full review here.)


1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
I had a conversation with a friend of mine right after I saw this in theatres (he’d seen it too the previous week), in which I acknowledged it was awful, but disputed his claim that it was the worst movie of the year. I have a dynamic with this friend where he makes a claim that I disagree with, only to realize days, weeks, even months later that he’s actually 100% right (usually this happens with music, but occasionally with movies as well, as was the case here). This is the most cynical, unnecessary cash-grab of 2008, and the only thing worse than the movie itself – which is filled with painfully leaden dialogue, cheap mugging and largely joyless, unexciting action sequences – is the fact that it raked in a ton of money at the box office. Everyone involved in this film is capable of better work, and should have known better. It makes producer George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels look excellent by comparison. At least Hayden Christensen didn’t survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a damn fridge. (Check out my full review here.)

2. Hell Ride
This movie is such a self-indulgent mess that going on about its awfulness feels like a grown man picking on a sickly child. Writer/director/star/pretentious douchebag Larry Bishop’s movie seems like a solid enough idea – riffing on old biker movies the way Kill Bill riffs on martial arts and revenge movies – but in the hands of such a criminally untalented, self-indulgent hack, it just becomes an exercise in testing viewers’ patience. I watched this thing – TWICE – out of a sense of journalistic duty. I pity those who sat through it ostensibly to be entertained. I’d rather stare at a wall for 90 minutes than watch this again. (Check out my full review here.)

3. Righteous Kill
My full review of this cop thriller will be posted later this week, but suffice it to say it’s not only a terrible film – a whodunit about a vigilante serial killer, thought to be a cop, who murders criminals and leaves little poems at the crime scenes – but it wastes the pairing of two of the greatest actors in film history, which makes it something akin to a war crime. Despite the fact that they share just about every scene together, both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (mostly Pacino) are just phoning it in. Righteous Kill is that rare film that’s so bad it actually affects other, older films; in this case, it makes Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat, which is already astoundingly good, even better. Damn this film for wasting such an opportunity. To hell with Director’s Jail, producer/director Jon Avnet should be brought before a tribunal at The Hague.

4. Sex and the City
Once again, this almost feels unfair. Almost. I probably would have put this fim higher on this list, but tearing up this unwatchable piece of garbage, which is so clearly not meant for me, already feels sort of unfair. But if anyone involved in this movie had the slightest interest in making a actual movie, they would have put some effort into making this something more than a two-and-a-half-hour (!) commercial for various clothing and shoe designers. But they didn’t. So here it is. The fact that people out there somewhere (and a lot of them, apparently) genuinely enjoyed this movie makes me weep for humanity. No wonder the terrorists hate us. (Check out my full review here.)

5. Be Kind Rewind
This isn’t so much one of the worst movies of the year as it is just a big letdown (like I said, I’m trying to be nicer). A million-dollar idea – two dorks recreate popular movies using camera tricks, cheapo costumes and loads of enthusiasm and cleverness – proved that despite his keen visual style, writer/director Michel Gondry should not be allowed to write his own work. Left to his own devices, the “childlike wonder” for which he’s known becomes “overly sentimental drivel.” While there’s certainly some great ideas here, and some flashes of genuine brilliance, it’s ultimately just a giant missed opportunity. If Gondry had asked his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to do a pass on the script, this could have been the film I – and many, many others – had hoped it would be. For my money, this was the most unfortunate misfire of 2008. (Check out my full review here.)

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