Belated as always, or as I call it, fashionably late, it’s time once again to put the magnifying glass to the cinematic year. So while 2008 wasn’t the artistically daring year that 2007 shaped up to be, it was still a fairly decent year for film as a whole. This will be my tenth year reviewing movies. It’s hard to believe, but I started typing out film reviews at the age of 17, and now I feel like I cannot stop if I tried. In honor of this critical milestone, I have decided to look back to previous yearly write-ups to add depth to the history of my love affair with my mistress, the movies. I cannot say for certain how many reviews I’ve written in those soon-to-be ten years, let alone how many words that I’ve written, but what follows is a peek into my maturing critical soul. Enjoy and here’s to ten more years and then some.
PART ONE: THE 10 BEST AND WORST FILMS OF 2008
I usually miss some of the more obscure or limited release films every year when I compos my Top Ten lists. I just thought, for once, it would be nice to have a finalized version after I had actually seen all the movies I intended to. So, my 2007 finalized Top Ten follows, and then it’s on to the highs and lows of 2008.
Revised Best Movies of 2007 list:
9) Sweeney Todd
7) Michael Clayton
5) No End in Sight/ Taxi to the Dark Side
4) Knocked Up
3) No Country for Old Men
2) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
Editor’s note: Notable exceptions I still have yet to see from 2008 include Revolutionary Road, Synecdoche, New York, Rachel Getting Married.
The biopic of America’s first openly gay elected official is stirring, thoughtful, and occasionally limited. Sean Penn gives a wonderful performance as the captivating and tragic Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin). He changes his look, his voice, how he carries his shoulders and moves his arms; it’s a terrific and transformative performance that only sometimes hits a few fey stereotypes. The movie mostly follows Milk’s path as a community organizer who successfully mobilized the gay rights movement. You’ll witness local politics in depth, and that’s my one reservation with this fine film – it focuses too heavily on the political formation of a movement and less on the man that kick-started it. You get little glimpses of Milk the man, and most of those glimpses happen to be his romantic relationships with annoying men. That said, director Gus Van Sant orchestrates real archival footage from the time including protestors and homophobic spokespeople, and it gives the movie an authentic relevancy. The deadly confrontation between Milk and White is played in a painful, very un-Hollywood approach that made me wince hard. It’s amazing to watch Milk and realize how far the American public has come since the 1970s and how much further we, as a nation, have to go.
9) Slumdog Millionaire
It’s like City of God and Forrest Gump had a baby that was raised by Oliver Twist. The film is given a dynamic energy thanks to director Danny Boyle’s exuberant camerawork and skillful style. Boyle is a director that knows how to make images jump and Slumdog feels like it is coursing with life. The feel-good fantasy nature of the rags-to-riches plot is offset by some pretty harrowing violence, and Boyle makes great pains to show the realities of living in squalor. Slumdog Millionaire is a thrilling, funny, and triumphant story that courses with lively electricity, thanks to the deft direction of Danny Boyle. This movie is enormously entertaining while still baring a social conscious about the plight of those impoverished, though I hope people don’t get the mistaken idea that all that character-building impoverished life styles will lead to future fortunes like Jamal. The movie is hopeful and uplifting while also balancing tense violence and improbable circumstances. While I’m not onboard with the critics calling this the best film of 2008, it has some minor flaws in approach to storytelling and character, Slumdog Millionaire has all the right markings to be a crowd-pleasing sensation. There’s a magic feeling to the film that definitely takes hold of the audience, an uplift that channels smiles and gasps of joy. While I’ll still credit Millions as Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting, his work on Slumdog is deserving of praise. I don’t know if another director could have made a film with so many contradictory elements (feel-good flick with child prostitutes?) run so smoothly.
8) Let the Right One In
This is a pre-teen vampire love story that is miles away from Twilight folks; it’s solemn, mature, stark, violent, tense, and astoundingly ambiguous. Director Tomas Alfredson pares down the emotions and the entire film takes on a very reserved and curious atmosphere, which I feel heightens the sense of wonder and dread about a supernatural romance. The relationship between 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and 12-year-old looking vampire girl Elie (Lina Leandersson) is entirely believable and constantly intriguing, as key information is doled out like breadcrumbs. Oskar is negotiating puberty and Elie is well aware of what awaits. The movie works as an example of methodical horror where emphasis is placed upon anticipation and the imagination. The climax at a community pool is one of the best film finishes of the year. I was a tense ball of nerves, and I love the movie’s closing shot. Even better, the movie works as an intriguing and intricate drama about human relationships. I can revisit Let the Right One In and dub it an unconventional and moving romance. Or I can revisit the film and dub it a melancholy examination of a manipulative and parasitic relationship, as Oskar might be doomed to a fated life like Elie’s former guardian. And then there’s a brief glimpse below the waist (no need to feel gross, it’s a doll in real life) that provides another revelation that calls for more long-ranging critical analysis. Really, I can keep revisiting this Swedish horror film and discover more to discuss and diagram each time. And I didn’t need a single scene where the vampires played super hero baseball games.
7) Tropic Thunder
Tropic Thunder is a wildly funny movie that takes no prisoners when it comes to its sprawling satire. Ben Stiller and company cut down the self-absorbed lifestyle and mentality inside the film industry and insecure actors. The film really shares the spotlight and each actor provides something different and welcome, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Robert Downey Jr. gives a brilliant comedic performance that will be long remembered. Downey elevates every scene he steps into and gives a performance, like the film, that is densely layered with comedy. He never breaks character even when the cameras aren’t filming and even when he’s alone. He’s two steps removed; channeling a performance as a heralded Australian actor playing his idea of a 1970s black male. It’s a comedy that has the potential to leave you aching from slapstick humor one second and biting satire the next. This feels like a complete comedy and not merely a series of sketches. Every character has an arc, some great moments, and each actor brings something different and something wonderful to the fray. The movie is rude, crude, stupid, smart, and all over the place thanks to such a broad comic canvass. It took many years for Stiller to finally get Tropic Thunder off the ground but the wait was worth it. This is a rare comedy that eels loose, hits hard, and may warrant multiple viewings just to catch all the jokes-within-jokes. This is a movie with plenty on its mind, perhaps too much, but I wish more comedies were as well executed and skillful in their gags about gas passing.
You know you’re in for some intellectual and moral ambiguity when the opening sermon covers the nature of doubt. Doubt follows a New York head nun (Meryl Streep) in 1964 that suspects one of the new parish priests (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young male student. The acting by the four principal actors is phenomenal. This is a showcase of stellar acting. Streep is ferocious and unwavering, a one-woman wrecking ball, and yet she still manages to make an antagonistic character empathetic: she’s doing what she feels is right to protect her students. Are unethical deeds acceptable in a righteous pursuit? Does she truly believe her convictions, or is Streep striking back against an entrenched hierarchy that diminishes her value? There is a clear resentment between some of the nuns and the array of priests with all the power and all the say. Naturally, in a he-said she-said molestation case, the audience is more likely to side with the funny, caring, progressive priest than the scary nun who detests ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. In the end, the accusations aren’t cleared up and the film lets the audience debate the results. Director/writer John Patrick Shanley adapts from his acclaimed stage play and does a mostly fine job bringing it alive on screen, though he has a penchant for relying on really simplistic visual metaphors. The supporting cast rises up to Streep’s level, notably Viola Davis as the mother of the boy accused of being mishandled. Note to future students of acting: study Davis’ 10 minutes of screen time to see how a truly talented thespian displays a range of conflicted emotions, none of them feeling inauthentic or cheap. Doubt isn’t just one of the best-acted films of the year but also one of the best, period, and I have little doubt to that.
5) The Wrestler
There isn’t a note in The Wrestler that feels misplaced or a moment of drama that feels false or contrived. The scenes of emotional revelation feel genuine and aren’t delivered with deliberate emphasis, like Randy’s (Mickey Rourke) moving speech where he tells his neglected daughter how rotten of a father he was, which he accepts bitterly, but he pleads to fashion enough understanding just for his little girl not to hate him. The Wrestler skews against convention and ends on its own terms, following the fated trajectory of its tragic hero. This isn’t a generic or sentimental tale of uplift and redemption. Rourke is the role. It is a perfect marriage of actor and character. The character of Randy is the latest in the long film tradition of the noble loser that must fight to reclaim his victory, which makes for a deeply empathetic experience. The Wrestler is a rich and engrossing character study that aches and wheezes with the pain of real life. The film takes after its star and proves to be quiet, unassuming, brutally honest, and deeply affecting. This is a surprising, heartfelt, and equally heartbreaking movie that finds many truths through the self-dawning of its title hero. It’s not the wrestling matches that I’ll remember most, no sir. I will remember the small interludes, like Randy dancing with his daughter, the beer he shares with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) as they lament the 1990s, the love and brotherhood backstage between with the wrestling opponents, Randy delighting the kids in his trailer park by pretending to fight them. Randy may not find solace or stability outside the ring but the people around him prove that Randy was bigger than “The Ram.”
4) The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight has less in common with other superhero series and should be considered a modern crime drama. It has more in common with Heat than with Spider-Man. Even compared to co-writer/director Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins, this is the first Batman film that feels like it occurs in a real city in our own reality. This is a movie about symbols and ideals and about the tenets of civilization. Believe the hype because everything you’ve read and heard about Ledger’s performance is the gospel truth. The actor vanishes completely underneath the gnarly latex scars, stringy hair, and smeared makeup. He transforms into this menacing figure and he makes Jack Nicholson look like a circus clown in comparison. He’s creepy and funny in a totally demented and spooky way, but he almost comes across like a feral creature that enjoys toying with his prey. Ledger fully inhabits his character and brings a snarling ferocity to the role. The movie presents an arsenal of mature questions and rarely gives absolute answers. This is an intense, epic crime thriller with a labyrinthine plot that is packed with emotion, subtext, philosophy, penetrating open-ended questions, and genuine nerve-racking tension. It’s hard for me even to think of this movie as a super hero flick despite that fact that it’s about a billionaire in a rubber suit. This is an engrossing modern crime drama that just so happens to have people in weird costumes. Nolan and his brother have crafted a stirring addition to, not just the Batman canon, but to cinema as a whole. Ledger’s character is the driving force behind the film, the man that makes everyone else react, and his incredibly daring and haunting performance will stand as a last reminder of what talent was lost to the world when he passed away.
I was impressed by the Scandinavian artistic output this year. This very New Wave-styled Norwegian film manages to be thoughtful and intelligent, stylish without being vapid, touching, and it brilliantly captures the exuberance of youth on the cusp of adapting into maturity. Reprise follows two best friends and aspiring writers; Phillip finds success immediately but cannot handle it, and Erik must fight through rejections. Director/co-writer Joachim Trier (cousin to Lars) has given the film a hypnotic triptych narrative structure, meaning there are flashbacks, flash forwards, flashbacks within flashbacks, and the viewer is best advised to just succumb to the thrills of the narrative and sort it all out later. The structure made me feel totally immersed in the lives of this small unit of 20-somethings. You get a lifetime of detail thanks to the tangential narrative structure and the help of an occasional narrator. The film has a remarkably deft touch when it comes to crafting realistic characters; the pangs of uncertainty, jealousy, and insecurity all ring true without being trite or obvious. But the movie never gets dour or pretentious as it covers weighty topics. The movie also has an indelible energy that is hard to ignore. Reprise is playfully edited and constantly moving, sometimes forward, sometimes backwards, sometimes telling us a possible scenario that sounds better than reality. I found several small moments to be provocative, like Phillip trying to replicate the happy memories of time and place by trying to restage a photo of his girlfriend with his girlfriend (a lovely Viktoria Winge). Reprise is full of small tender moments that speak volumes. This is a terrific film brimming with life and verve and clearly targets Trier as an inspiring filmmaker to watch.
2) Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is an extremely personal movie, but it’s also a gut-wrenching, emotionally devastating film that will completely empty out your tear ducts. As an ardent fan of film, I cannot fully advise doing some research on the real-life case before seeing the movie, but those with less strong sensibilities may be better off knowing what they are going to be in for. This film is emotionally draining and infuriating, but it is also unquestionably one of the best films of the year, bar none. Just thinking back on it makes me have to fight back tears. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne decided to make a movie that would serve as a living testimony to the life of his departed friend. He traveled the nation, interviewing scads of friends and relatives about what Andrew meant to them. The documentary is only 90-some minutes but Kuenne packs lots of information and interviews into a small space of time. In fact, Kuenne serves as director, writer, narrator (he occasionally even gets choked up), composer, but his work as editor is the most accomplished. Through teams of interviews and home movies, Kuenne is able to bring Andrew to life in a manner where an ordinary audience member feels like they know the guy. Dear Zachary is a documentary that needs to be seen to be believed, and it desperately and deservedly needs to be seen. This potent doc is emotionally wrenching and will stir up great anger, which might just point lynch mobs toward our bewildered neighbors to the North. But Kuenne’s film isn’t just a sad movie that requires a few boxes of tissue at hand. No, Dear Zachary is also inherently a very life-affirming tale about the long reach of human goodness. While the Academy has already left Dear Zachary off its shortlist for the Best Documentaries of 2008, I doubt you’ll find a more stirring and heart-breaking story in documentary form.
And the best film of 2008 is…
I have seen this movie over ten times now, and let me say it still feels like I’m watching it for the first time. This is a beautiful story told in a beautiful way in a beautiful looking movie. I imagine kids will be tickled by the funny robots but I really believe that this film will play much better for adults, and when was the last time a mainstream, American family film did that? If you told me that a film that takes place on a trash-filled Earth, with minimal dialogue, and a romance between two robots would be the most thrilling, moving, and wonderful film of 2008, I would have scoffed. The film has such a huge and vibrant heart. More is said in indecipherable robot bleeps than in much of the tripe Hollywood calls dialogue. Watching WALL-E court EVE, a bit unsuccessfully at first, begins as cute, moves into being adorable, and ends up being greatly touching and flirting with the profound. How many other movies, let alone romances, end with the long-desired climax of two characters merely holding hands? This movie is a delight from beginning to end and a classic example of the power of expert storytelling. And yet even though WALL-E is primarily a love story the film also manages to be greatly exciting and equally funny. WALL-E is a wonderful love story, a heartfelt and immensely charming character piece, and a thrilling sci-fi tale that soars to broad heights of imagination. It’s timeless while still being rather timely thanks to its environmental message. Moments after the movie was over I wanted to see it again. This is a phenomenal movie that will stand the test of time as one of the greats.
Honorable mention: Frost/Nixon, Kung Fu Panda, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Previous Best Pictures of the Year: 2007: Once
2006: United 93
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003: Lost in Translation
2002: (tie) City of God, Spirited Away
2001: Moulin Rouge!
2000: Requiem for a Dream
1999: American Beauty
WORST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
10) In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
This was somewhat of a banner year for director Uwe Boll. One of his 2008 releases, Postal, didn’t actual merit a place on this list, despite the fact that it opens with a joke involving terrorists crashing a plane into a skyscraper. That is the first time Boll has released a movie that did not find a spot in the ten worst movies of the year list. But it wouldn’t be a worst of the year list without Boll’s presence, now would it? The wordy Lord of the Rings rip-off, In the Name of the King, is high-class camp. Boll achieves a workable level of derisive enjoyment that manages to keep the movie entertaining even while its spins into stupidity. Fantasy is just not Boll’s preferred territory and it mostly shows. He really wants to make his own entry in the style of Lord of the Rings, but you can tell his mind is elsewhere. The plot is a mess but that isn’t indicative of Boll’s lack of interest with the film, it’s just indicative of a typical Boll movie. I just don’t sense that Boll’s heart was truly in this venture. In the Name of the King seems to be the last time I think we’ll see Boll flirt with mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking. I think his time luring known actors has come to a merciful end. In the Name of the King will stand as a ridiculous Lord of the Rings rip-off that has some workable action alongside its many laughably awful moments. Even for a $60 million film, Boll finds new ways to prove that no matter what sized budget the man has he will always try to grasp something beyond his reach.
9) The Love Guru
While never approaching the realm of good, I’ll admit that Mike Myers’ latest is not the cinematic abomination is has been hailed. I laughed a few times, though rare. Myers’ brand of comedy mixes puns, juvenile bathroom humor, slapstick, celebrity cameos (Ben Kingsley, why?!) and a certain level of self-aware absurdity (I don’t think Myers has found a penis joke that he didn’t enjoy). I feel that the comedy world has moved beyond Myers’ once popular brand of yuks. Thanks to Judd Apatow, we’ve transitioned to smart and tender character-based comedies. The threadbare plot relies takes too many self-indulgent and lazy detours. Why do we have to endure Guru Pitka (Myers) sing “More Than Words”? It’s not funny and just wastes time. Here’s an example of the lack of thought: Pitka wears a chastity belt but he can still get injured being hit in the groin. It’s a movie that doesn’t even remember its own gags. I’m always wary when a movie resorts to extended scenes of the characters cracking up and adding lines like, “I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time.” I have no qualms over crude comedy but it needs to be done with some planning to context and character. Watching someone get hit in the face with urine is not funny. Having pint-sized Verne Troyer get hit in the head is not funny the 80th time it happens. The movie never even satirizes the self-help industry. The Love Guru is too indulgent, too forced, too pun-heavy, too ill conceived, and far too stupid to succeed. I never thought I’d say this in a comedy that includes Myers, Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan, John Oliver, Daniel Tosh, and Romany Malco, but Justin Timberlake is the funniest man on the screen as a daffy French-Canadian goalie. And would someone please stop hiring Jessica Alba for anything that involves speaking.
8) 10,000 B.C.
This is a colossally stupid movie. This movie almost does a disservice to the word “stupid.” Director Roland Emmerich spins a host of clichés and prays it’s enough to stage some pre-history visual wonders. The movie’s visuals are certainly pleasing to the eye, but the plot and characters are totally vacant. The characters are one-dimensional morons. It’s not even worth mentioning what the numerous historical inaccuracies are (Egypt wasn’t even settled until 7,000 B.C.) because it would be less time consuming to simply state the historical accuracy the film presents. 10,000 B.C. makes Quest for Fire look like a documentary. Even worse, 10,000 B.C. is a total bore. The only way something this silly and gleefully historically inaccurate could work is if it offered some adventure thrills. 10,000 B.C. seems to sputter for long stretches, having characters assemble and depart and walk and speak their ridiculous caveman speak (Note to all filmmakers: if you are going to make a movie that predominantly features cavemen then do not give them any speeches). The pacing is rather slack and the action sequences, when they do occur, aren’t very well developed, hoping to leave their mark with plenty of long shots. Several action sequences are doomed from their very conception, like the laughable giant ostriches eating people. The movie is so damn serious that all of the stupid, silly adventure heroics come across as downright insufferable. I cannot possibly sit through a 1 hour 45 minute film that deals with pet saber tooth tigers, traveling across the entire continent of Africa by foot at record speed, and giant freaking killer ostriches and have the movie try to uphold a serious reality. It’s insulting and a waste of time. No movie in the history of mankind will ever be serious as long as it has a killer ostrich. 10,000 B.C. would classify as camp if it weren’t so resoundingly boring.
7) Over Her Dead Body
This is abysmal comedy from beginning to end. It peaks in the second minute when Eva Longoria-Parker’s shrewish character is killed by a large angelic ice sculpture. It’s all down hill from there, my friends. Longoria-Parker stars as a deceased bride who won’t let her still-living fiancé (Paul Rudd) find happiness. The bland comedy could have more accurately been retiled, “Cockblock from Beyond the Grave” (it was at one time titled Ghost Bitch). I have no idea why Rudd is apart of this travesty and seeing him do his trademark smirk and shoulder shrug just made me weep. The comedy is nails-on-the-chalkboard obvious. There is nothing smart, clever, or interesting within any of this movie’s 95 minutes. Writer Jeff Lowell (John Tucker Must Die) felt the need to direct as well because clearly there was no one else on this planet that could interpret his artistic vision. Longoria-Parker is powerfully obnoxious and egotistical until her last-minute personal epiphany that others deserve to be happy too. What did Rudd ever see in this ghost bitch?
6) Street Kings
This is a wildly overwrought and sleazy drama is hoping to come across as edgy but everything is so overdone. It fulfills all the requisite elements of the modern crime picture; double crosses, forlorn anti-heroes, bloody violence, but Street Kings misses the mark big time when it comes to any nuance. Every beat of this murky, convoluted dirty cops mystery is plain and obvious. If you cannot guess within minutes who the eventual culprits will be then you haven’t seen enough movies. Every character is a cliché of a cliché, every unrestrained actor is constantly speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, and the dialogue is some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Keanu Reeves is a listless leading man who is blank and lifeless, unable to wrestle the dark and complicated emotions needed for a “cop on the edge” role. I can practically feel Forest Whitaker’s spittle every time he speaks. Street Kings feels like a route retread of rogue cop pictures, which are director David Ayer’s specialty. It wants to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the law but it can’t stop from feeling like a lobotomized version of L.A. Confidential (Note to Ayer: Jay Mohr + mustache = an arrangement that benefits neither party).
5) 88 Minutes
The serial killer thriller 88 Minutes actually began filming during the fall of 2005 (!). It was released in the United States well after it had been available on DVD in Europe for over a year. After watching all 108 minutes of 88 Minutes, it’s easy to see why the studio and the film’s astounding 20 producers (!!) were trying to hide this from public eyes. Dr. Gramm (Al Pacino) gets a phone call saying he has 88 minutes to live. First off, the time frame doesn’t work at all. 88 minutes is too short a time frame to do crack investigation, and Dr. Gramm runs all over the city of Seattle at least three times without getting caught in any gridlock. The movie establishes a real-time ticking clock but then decides to follow a different set of time. 88 Minutes has no characters, only red herrings. Each of the numerous supporting characters is given the chance to act suspiciously and for no real good reason. Gramm takes his turn going through accusing nearly every supporting character he comes across as being in league with Forster. The screenplay even establishes characters, like the painfully named Guy LaForge, who serves no purpose other than to wear a leather jacket and squint in backgrounds. Forget anything approaching characterization, because writer Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious) has created a script that is woeful in every department, including thrills. The reveal of the killer is mishandled, as is most every plot point. This is a complete laughable mess that would have been just another half-rate direct-to-TV movie airing late nights on cable channels were it not for Pacino’s sad involvement.
Uwe Boll’s third 2008 release is his worst film since 2005’s Alone in the Dark. This is a dull slasher movie and Seed (William Sanderson, in his SEVENTH Boll movie)is about as dull as killers can be. His main attributes are that he’s a huge guy with a sack on his head, which is kind of similar to about 1000 different slasher movies. When it comes to horror movies, building an atmosphere is essential but there’s a notable difference between building dread and simply killing time. Boll does not know this difference. It may be hard to notice for some, but Uwe Boll is actually improving as a filmmaker, at least from a technical standard. Seed looks like an actual movie. Seed is grisly and nihilistic and futile. The killer is a bore and the story is poorly structured, taking far too long to get Seed in the ground and wrecking havoc. Boll’s screenwriting shortcomings are fully evident as he strings together genre clichés and ridiculous plot points that obliterate credibility. He grasps at making statements about the human capacity for cruelty. Well I didn’t need a Uwe Boll movie to educate me on man’s inhumanity to man, especially one this shoddy and empty. This movie isn’t even entertaining; it’s a chore to sit through. This is the first Boll movie that I sat just waiting for it to be over. There is no reason to watch this thing. During the extended scenes of torture video watching by the police, one of the cops watches a baby decompose and replies, “Sick bastard.” I think Boll was projecting here.
3) The Hottie and the Nottie
This should come as no surprise, though perhaps the surprise is that there were other movies worse this year than garish spectacle celebrating the vanity of Paris Hilton. The film tries to champion a misguided message but fails miserably. There’s some lip service paid to inner beauty but Nate (Joel Moore) never sees the “nottie” as a “hottie” until she starts to physically transform and reconfigure her body. He remains shallow until the ugly girl meets the demands of others. The comedy is excruciating. The Hottie and the Nottie is physically nauseating to watch. I’ve written before that there’s a difference between gross-out and just gross, and this movie doesn’t seem to understand this. I nearly vomited after seeing an infected toenail land in some guy’s mouth. Snot bubbles, varicose veins, gnarly teeth, extreme acne, and overgrown hair are not comedy without context. Presented alone, they compose a vile health department slide show. There’s nothing funny in just being gross. I’ve heard complaints that The Hottie and the Nottie would be viewed more fairly if Hilton was not the lead but I argue that Hilton and the film are inescapable. This is just a sad, icky film that serves one purpose: to stroke Hilton’s vanity. But remember kids, just be your self.
2) Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
Ben Stein narrated this flatfooted documentary that sought to expose the persecution he felt that proponents of Intelligent Design faced in the scientific community. Stein doesn’t try very hard to disguise his interview style, which includes him leading his interview subjects and lobbing softball questions like, “Intelligent Design is just Creationism, right,” and the audacious, “What was the purpose of the concentration camps?” I think it is telling that the interview subjects are not given lengthy reactions and are not pressed into actually presenting what Intelligent Design proof that exists. In contrast, the evolutionary scientists interviewed are intercut with clips of Nazis and Communists soldiers. I don’t even think Michael Moore would have chosen to go that obvious, manipulative route. The film is heavy-handed propaganda, sure, but man oh man does it just take an ugly turn in its last third. Ben Stein eventually makes the leap from evolution to … wait for it … Nazism and the extermination of those less desirable. racism or anti-Semitism. And what about all the countries in the world that have embraced evolution as science and not gassed millions of people? But Stein persists in trying to attach the Holocaust and Nazism to evolution. To me, this is like blaming The Catcher in the Rye for shooting John Lennon in the head. Expelled never makes the case for why Intelligent Design should be taught, merely that it is unfair to exclude it from the classroom. Stein and his interview subjects say that there are problems with evolution but then they never even articulate what those problems are. The movie presents contradictions, logic fallacies, and some disconcerting guilt-by-association arguments that border on exploitation. Even though I disagree with its ideology, from a filmmaking standpoint this film falls apart. The topic of evolution’s relationship to religion deserves a thoughtful and intelligent movie. Expelled is not it.
And the worst film of 2008 is…..
1) Meet the Spartans/ Disaster Movie
My friend Drew said that counting the annual spoofs by writer/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer was unfair. “They don’t even qualify as movies,” he argued. Oh, if only he were completely right. Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie would be hard-pressed to fit the definition of a movie, no matter how generous you are with the term. True, it is a collection of moving pictures, but surely we must have greater stipulations for our movie going entertainment. The actual flick is only 65 minutes long, barely a little over an hour, and then it’s crammed with 15 minutes of outtakes and needless extra scenes to be strewn over the credits. I should be more upset by the total transparent laziness to even construct a film of suitable length, but every minute I was spared more of this junk was an act of divine mercy. Disaster Movie was put on the fast track and was in production before many of the movies it deems worthy of attack were even released. As a result, it seems that the boys were watching trailers for upcoming movies and hedging their bets on what would be popular. This explains why they mention movies that made no cultural impact and flopped at the box-office, like Speed Racer and The Love Guru. As expected, Friedberg and Seltzer apply their shallow level of comedy to the movies caught in their crosshairs. These guys simply don’t understand the difference between reference and parody, and once again they deluge an audience with cheap references to other movies and the reference is designed to be the joke. But wait; to prove how in touch they are, Friedberg and Seltzer have used their SECOND SPOOF MOVIE OF THIS YEAR to include jokes about Michael Jackson being a pedophile. Oh my good graces, how do these guys come up with such cutting-edge and timely material in the year 2008? Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie are pop culture vomit. No, this is worse, this is cinematic diarrhea. It’s watery pop culture discharge masquerading as entertainment. This movie is offensive to anyone that appreciates laughter. This film and its ilk are offensive to mankind. And plus, it’s just not funny people, not in the slightest. There’s no wit here, no comedic payoffs, no running gags (besides gay jokes), no thought or upheaval of convention; instead, this movie is a lazy, cheap catalogue of pop culture events. Just as I said in my review of Epic Movie, Friedberg and Seltzer must be stopped at all costs if comedy is to survive. Sorry Drew, but as long as they two hacks keep making movies they will likely have the worst film of the year slot guaranteed.
Dishonorable mention: Fireproof, An American Carol, Fool’s Gold, Semi-Pro
Previous Worst Pictures of the Year: 2007: Epic Movie
2006: Grandma’s Boy
2005: Alone in the Dark
2004: The Forgotten
2001: Freddy Got Fingered
2000: Battlefield Earth
1999: The Mod Squad
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Pineapple Express, Hamlet 2, Burn After Reading, Where God Left His Shoes.
Worst titles of the year: The Hottie and the Nottie, Where in the World is Osama bin Ladin?, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Happening, College, Quantum of Solace.
Titles that could be confused with porn: My Blueberry Nights, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, The Foot Fist Way, Midnight Meat Train, Let the Right One In, and … naturally, Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Previous best titles that could be confused with porn: 2007: Hot Fuzz, Black Snake Moan
2006: Inside Man, Eight Below, Stick It, You, Me, and Dupree
2005: Grizzly Man, The World’s Fastest Indian
2004: 13 Going on 30, Super Size Me, Along Came Polly
2003: View From the Top, All the Real Girls, The Italian Job
2002: Igby Goes Down, XXX, Brown Sugar, Full Frontal
Hat Attack: The Duchess is a costume drama but it’s also a Big Hat movie that puts other hat movies to shame. There are gigantic floppy hats, hats that look like fruit displays, hats that look like eighteen-layer cakes, hats that look like they have their own hat, hats with feathers zigging and zagging in every direction, and hats that look like they are consuming their host’s heads. If you work in the haberdashery industry or have an above average interest in hats and hat-related products, then run, don’t walk to The Duchess. You will be enraptured by the orgy of towering hats that jostle for screen time. Rarely are women seen without hats, so you truly will get your hat money’s worth over the course of the film’s two hours. If there were a specific Oscar category for Hat and Hat-like Accoutrement then The Duchess would dominate.
The Best 10 Minutes of 2008: Watching the breathtaking footage of an effete Frenchman walk a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in the award-studded documentary Man on Wire. I’m fairly so-so on the rest of the movie, but the footage is breathtaking.
Runner’s-up: Tony Stark becomes Iron Man; the KISS army enters live action role playing, Role Models.
Previous winners: 2007: Bathhouse fight to the death, Eastern Promises.
2006: The unblinking camera in Children of Men.
2005: Kong vs. T-rex vs. T-rex vs. T-rex, King Kong.
2004: The concluding car chase in The Bourne Supremacy.
Best Film I Saw in 2008 (that wasn’t released in 2008): Taxi to the Dark Side. Even though this jarring, eye-opening documentary was released in early 2008, it won the Oscar for the Best documentary of 2007. Therefore, I feel it ineligible for this year’s consideration. However, Taxi makes a fabulous companion piece to go along with the equally excellent and inflammatory 2007 Iraq War doc, No End in Sight.
Previous winners: 2007: The Lives of Others
2006: Match Point
2005: Howl’s Moving Castle
2004: Bad Santa
2003: City of God
2002: Donnie Darko
Biggest Disappointment: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. First off, I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for over a year with my wife, and the week after we moved away they filmed the motorcycle chase in New Haven. Finally, a reason to stay in New Haven presents itself and it has to happen after we escape. It’s not often one of the most anticipated movies comes to your doorstep. I could have been an extra. But perhaps it’s for the best. Never before has the action in an Indiana Jones film come across as so campy. This is likely the most disappointing part of Crystal Skull: the action is too tongue-in-cheek. There were moments where I thought the film was one step away from Army of Darkness. At one point Indy Jr. Jr. is swinging from vines like Tarzan and a batch of kindly monkeys assist him. I’m not asking for complete believability in an action caper but I’d prefer it not become an embarrassing Looney Tunes cartoon. Crystal Skull is filled with little moments that will completely yank you out of the movie. It is possible to think Crystal Skull ranks up with its predecessors but that requires so much contortion that I wouldn’t know how to arrive at that opinion. I suppose we should all resort to the consolation that even with E.T. taking over the plot, this thing could have been worse.
Previous winners: 2007: There Will Be Blood
2006: Snakes on a Plane
2005: no award given
2004: Ocean’s Twelve
2003: The Matrix sequels
2002: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2008: WALL-E. This movie is art for the ages. The opening half with the minimal dialogue is simply magical, visual storytelling poetry.
Previous winners: 2007: Grindhouse
2005: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
2004: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
2003: Cabin Fever
2002: (tie) Jackass and The Rules of Attraction
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2008: (tie) The ending for Seven Pounds and the Loom of Fate in Wanted. Killers that can bend bullets through sheer force of will? Okay, I can accept that. Taking orders from a loom? You lost me. Really, a loom that stitches targets in binary code? Isn’t there an easier way for fate to decree who should be bumped off than someone scrutinizing the stitch work of a rug? What happens when it lists a name with more than one owner? How many “John Smiths” must be killed to secure that the correct Mr. Smith has been erased? How about Will Smith then, playing a suicidal man in Seven Pounds wanting to atone for his deadly past deeds. He wants to give his Smithian organs to good people, so how does he decide to off himself? By pet jellyfish, of course. Huh? He even leaves a note for the eventual paramedics warning, “Please do not touch the jellyfish.” The more I think about that ending the more I want to punch myself in the face with a jellyfish.
Most Ridiculous Uwe Boll Plot Element of 2008: Frankly, with three movies in 2008, Boll needs to be excluded from the pack out of sheer fairness to the other lamebrain films out there. Boll’s biggest blunder would have to be the number of murders attributed to his killer-in-a-sack-mask-and-overalls, Seed. We are told that from 1973-1979, Seed killed an astounding, and numerologically convenient, 666 people in those six years. Just take a second and think that figure over. One person in a ratty cloth mask and overalls killed 666 people. Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey weren’t even anywhere near that figure and they are highly prolific serial killers. Boll wanted to make his serial killer scary but he totally overcompensates and destroys any credibility the film could possibly attain. Why 666? There’s no way it’s a coincidence considering the pull of that number in our pop culture. Was that a target quota for Seed? Did he make a chart to know when he was falling behind? The sheer magnitude of that number obliterates the facade of “reality” Boll wants to create in his movie. These cops have to be the worst investigative unit in history. Seriously, could they not tabulate any clues or patterns or habits of Seed after 665 murders? I think the FBI would have stepped in hundreds of unsolved murders ago. And yet Boll then shows again how staggeringly inept these local cops are. They find out Seed’s home, which is of course a dilapidated shack in the middle of nowhere. This naturally begs the question that Seed would have to venture out long distances to find so many victims, and yet no witnesses of any sort?
Seed can also bust out of a coffin and dig himself out of a grave. Now I did some quick math and a 6 feet by 6 feet by 3 feet grave is 108 total cubic feet. The lightest dirt will weigh is 42 pounds per cubic foot. That means that Seed had 4536 pounds of force weighing down on him in that grave. Yet he was able to free himself and go on his rampage. If Seed is this indestructible force then it’s ridiculous that Pare could kick him a few times and the man went down during the police capture. Which is the worse screenwriting sin? Having Seed wiggle out of 4500 pounds of force or the fact that the prison guards did a lousy job of BURYING ALIVE a man who killed 666 people! Why would you ever bury this maniac alive?! That seems hardly definitive. Common sense begs cutting off the man’s head just to be certain.
Runner’s-up: Marisa Tomei, all tatted up as the aging stripper with a heart of gold in The Wrestler; Angelina Jolie, also tatted up as a weapon of mass destruction and distraction in Wanted; Gwyneth Paltrow and her backless dress, Iron Man.
Previous winners: 2007: Carice van Houten, Black Book
2006: Eva Green, Casino Royale
2005: Angelina Jolie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith
2004: Lindsay Lohan, Mean Girls
2003: Jennifer Connelly, House of Sand and Fog/Hulk
2002: Franka Potente, The Bourne Identity
2001: Thora Birch, Ghost World
Best Onscreen Death: The underwater conclusion to Let the Right One In. It’s terrifying, satisfying, and oddly beautiful all at the same time.
Runner’s-up: “Do not touch the jellyfish.” Just kidding.
Previous winners: 2007: John Cusack losing his daughter a second time in 1408.
2006: The climactic comeuppance, Hostel
2005: Russian roulette gone wrong, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2004: The deadliness of capes, The Incredibles
2003: Unhelpful airbag, Final Destination 2
2002: The soggy TV, The Ring.
Right Director, Wrong Movie: Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Pineapple Express
Wrong Director, Right Movie: The Happening, Quantum of Solace, 21, Hancock
Wrong Director, Wrong Movie: Australia, Be Kind Rewind
Biggest Trend: Middle-aged girl power; Sex and the City, Mamma Mia. Women over 40 came out in droves and celebrated a new kind of feminism: rampant materialism and narcissism. I was never a tremendous fan of the Sex and the City TV show, but the movie medium is not the ideal place for these ladies. In half hour doses they come across better, but when blown up to a gargantuan 145-minute length, they become self-absorbed and vapid stereotypes. I didn’t like any of the characters. Perhaps you will. The characters come across as whiny, insecure, and pretty myopic. As for Mamma Mia, who wouldn’t want to watch a less zippy and ten times goofier version of the stage show except with bad singing. I’ve seen the stage show and enjoyed it, as have millions of others around the world, but the movie fails to capitalize on reaching a broader audience. Mamma Mia is content to serve the faithful and delivers a less than satisfactory product. The world of cinema is not the best place for this material. But the middle-aged women have spoken and they want more. Realistically, it’s unfair of me to gripe about a pitiful few number of movies that target an older female audience considering Hollywood’s output. I just wish the movies were better is all.
Runner-up: Mother Nature Strikes Back (The Ruins, The Happening, The Day the Earth Stood Still)
Proof that I am a dog person: weeping at the end of Marley & Me. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known. The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.
Best Villain: The Joker from The Dark Knight. No brainer. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. At the end of the movie I felt a resonating sadness that I will never see this actor, this character, again.
Runners-up: the murderous Shirley Turner, Dear Zachary; Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges; Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W. (this choice seems too easy).
Previous winners: 2007: Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men
2006: Collin Sullivan, The Departed
2005: Cillian Murphy in Red Eye
2004: Tom Cruise in Collateral
2003: The head nun, The Magdalene Sisters
2002: Bill the Butcher, Gangs of New York
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2008: Having Al Pacino fathom the most ridiculous semen conspiracy in the history of mankind in 88 Minutes. Few scenes cause me to simultaneously stare in wide-eyed amazement and resist the urge to vomit. Here goes. Gramm is confronted by his FBI agent pal (William Forsythe) who has some bad news for Gramm. It turns out Gramm’s semen was found inside the “vaginal cavity” of the victim. We know Gramm wasn’t sexually involved with her because he was sexually involved with our opening naked escort lady, Sara Pollard (Leah Caims). Gramm then argues that someone out there framed him by killing Sara Pollard (oh don’t act surprised), retrieving Gramm’s semen from inside her, and then injecting it into the “vaginal cavity” of the victim. Hearing an actor of Pacino’s credit verbalize this theory is akin to having the “sex talk” with your parents, nay, grandparents — it’s just so intensely uncomfortable to watch. I just picture a lab tech with a long syringe that has to run around Seattle to make his semen import/export deadlines.
Previous winners: 2007: no award given
2006: The out-of-nowhere sex scene in Bloodrayne
2005: no award given
2004: Angelina Jolie’s nude scene in Taking Lives
Movie vocabulary: You know what I’ll take away most from the overblown film, Australia? The term “drover.” Hugh Jackman’s character never has a real name, he is simply referred to as “Drover” or occasionally, “Mr. Drover,” as manners require after you sleep with a drover. He is not a “driver” of cattle but a “drover,” which sounds like a present use of a past tense. At one point a little kid says in voice over, “The Drover drove them cheeky bulls.” Can you “druv”? When you are completed is called “droven”? I wonder if Australian school children ever had to diagram this sentence: “The Drover drove the cows until he had droven them far enough to druv.” This grammatical curiosity lodged in my brain and I amused myself elaborating on the “drover” vocabulary.
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies, and I invite readers to check them out at PictureShowPundits.com for further details.
A — Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father Doubt The Dark Knight Reprise Taxi to the Dark Side Tropic Thunder WALL-E A- — Frost/Nixon Kung Fu Panda Let the Right One In Milk Slumdog Millionaire B+ — The Bank Job Bigger, Stronger, Faster* Burn After Reading Changeling Cloverfield The Counterfeiters The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Definitely, Maybe Forgetting Sarah Marshall Gran Torino Iron Man Role Models The Visitor B — Baby Mama Get Smart Ghost Town Happy-Go-Lucky Hellboy II: The Golden Army In Bruges Man on Wire Marley & Me Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Mongol Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist The Other Boleyn Girl Repo! The Genetic Opera Snow Angels The Spiderwick Chronicles Then She Found Me Wanted B- — Hamlet 2 The Incredible Hulk Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Religulous Twilight Quantum of Solace Vantage Point W. Zack and Miri Make a Porno C+ — 21 27 Dresses Australia Be Kind, Rewind Drillbit Taylor The Duchess Hancock Pineapple Express Rambo Son of Rambo Speed Racer The Wackness The X-Files: I Want to Believe Young @ Heart C — American Teen The Day the Earth Stood Still Deception The Eye The Happening Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Jumper Mamma Mia Postal The Ruins Sex and the City: The Movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 Untraceable C- — An American Carol Fireproof Fool’s Gold The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Warrior Semi Pro D+ — In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale The Love Guru D — 88 Minutes 10,000 B.C. Over Her Dead Body Street Kings D- — The Hottie and the Nottie Seed F — Disaster Movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Meet the Spartans