Every year, it seems like it gets harder and harder and harder to come up with a list of my favorite films of the year. This year, I procrastinated longer than ever, finally slapping my list together on the day that this year’s COFCA nominations were due.
Sure, there were a few no-brainers. There was no way I could put together a list without Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, and Benjamin Button. But, as a number of critics have already pointed out, 2008 produced plenty of good movies but not a whole lot of great ones. Mostly, it was The Year of the Ho-Hums—movies that I could have reviewed using just one word (which, coincidentally, was recently selected for inclusion in the new Collins English Dictionary): meh.
So, even more than last year’s list, this year’s list comes flying out of left field. You’ve been warned.
Movies Toward Which I Didn’t Feel Entirely Indifferent:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:
This year, as I looked ahead to the end-of-year awards season, Benjamin Button was that curious glimmer of hope. As I sat through ho-hum drama after ho-hum drama, it gave me something to look forward to. But could David Fincher’s super-sized drama about a man who ages backwards possibly live up to my ever-growing expectations? Heck, yes.
Back in September, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog played at the Toronto Film Festival—and, because of some crossed wires, I missed it. At the time, I was just disappointed to have missed the screening where a fellow critic smacked Roger Ebert (I can totally understand where Ebert was coming from, by the way—the theater wasn’t the best, and the subtitles aren’t always easy to read. I probably would have been frustrated by the guy in front of me, too). But now that I’ve seen this beautifully thrilling Indian adventure, I wish I’d fought my way in to see it with the Toronto crowd.
Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon was my big surprise of the year. I went in expecting the same old historical drama, but this two-man battle of wits absolutely blew me away with its crisp dialogue and its brilliant performances. One of the first truly worthy award-season dramas to screen for press, Frost/Nixon gave me a bit of hope for the month of December.
Runner up for surprise of the year was WALL•E. This Pixar adventure about a bumbling robot who speaks in beeps and boops could have been a ridiculous mess. But this is Pixar we’re talking about here. (Sorry I doubted you, guys. WALL•E was awesome.)
The Dark Knight:
The summer of 2008 was The Summer of The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan couldn’t have printed his own money faster than this movie raked it in. But, unlike a lot of big summer blockbusters, this one truly deserved the box-office blowout. It’s dark, it’s thrilling, and it’s worth seeing over and over again. The only downside to The Dark Knight (other than its bladder-busting runtime) is that Heath Ledger won’t be around for the follow-up. I’ll truly miss Ledger—but I’m glad that he left something this spectacular to remember him by.
I know it’s not the kind of movie that you typically see on a best-of list—but Tropic Thunder was simply one of the most entertaining films of the year. The writing’s hilarious, the action is top-notch, and Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance is nothing short of brilliant.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas:
With its unusual perspective—told through the eyes of an innocent young German boy—this Holocaust drama is beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s not easy to watch—but it’s a film you won’t soon forget. It also cemented Vera Farmiga solidly into place on my list of favorite actresses.
This irreverent and eccentric comedy came flying out of nowhere in February—not exactly the time of year when you’d expect something this smart and witty. Think of it as Tropic Thunder in a little European town filled with fat American tourists.
2008 was quite the year for Guy Ritchie. He finally got himself free from Madonna (and got a whole bunch of money in the process), and he released his best movie in years. The story is twisted, tangled, and highly entertaining—and Gerard Butler is just a whole lot of fun to watch.
Another big-screen adaptation of a stage play (along with Frost/Nixon), Doubt is smartly written and filled with fast-paced dialogue. It’s a drama, a mystery, and a morality play rolled up in one—and it’ll keep you guessing from start to finish. Of course, the stellar cast doesn’t hurt, either…
Film Festival Favorites:
Roman de Gare:
The 2008 Cleveland International Film Festival was an all-around success (such a success, in fact, that I at least kinda liked 14 of the 15 movies I saw there), but this spellbinding French mystery took home my own personal top honors.
The Brothers Bloom:
After seeing this witty con-man caper at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, I couldn’t wait for its release in December—so I could see it again. Imagine my disappointment when the release date was bumped yet again—this time to May of 2009. But who knows…this one could just make my year-end list two years in a row!
Other Memorable Moments in 2008 Movies:
Best Movie-Watching Experience: The Duchess. After attending a screening in the swanky private screening room of one of the swankiest hotels in Toronto (the kind with its own red carpet), it’s hard to go back to watching movies in the theater down the street.
Most Surreal Movie-Watching Experience: The Midnight Meat Train. I still have no idea why an entire busload of elderly moviegoers chose to watch this strangely amusing gore-fest at the local cheap theater on a Tuesday afternoon. But I can say that they weren’t nearly as amused as I was.
Desert Island DVDs: If I had to be stranded on an island (without a bunch of other people to keep things interesting), there are two of this year’s DVD releases that I’d have to bring with me: Tropic Thunder and WALL•E. Considering the number of movies I watch during a given year, it’s rare for me to watch the same movie more than once. But, so far, I’ve seen WALL•E three times—and I’ve seen Tropic Thunder four times (actually, four and a half). I never leave home (at least not for any extended period of time) without both DVDs.
And Now For the Bad News…
As with this year’s best-of list, I’m having a hard time getting excited about the year’s worst movies. Again, there were definitely some stand-outs—some movies that make my head hurt just thinking about them. Like Mike Myers and his wild-and-crazy copulating elephants. Or poor, post-lobotomy Katie Holmes trying to steal from the government. But, generally, even the year’s worst movies made me feel strangely numb. So either someone’s been slipping something into my morning coffee…or it was just a pretty dull and depressing year to be a film critic.
The Love Guru:
No other movie in 2008 made me as violently angry as Mike Myers’s latest monstrosity. In fact, just thinking about it makes me angry all over again. Fortunately, my prayers were answered, and only 10 or 15 people saw it in theaters. I’m hoping that means that there won’t be a sequel.
While there are actually a lot of great girl movies released in 2008, the first one of the year was also the worst. In fact, this witless comedy was so painfully ridiculous (not to mention maddeningly repetitive) that it almost made me ashamed to be a woman.
Not once in my entire movie-going career have I seen so many people walk out of a movie. The funniest thing about Disaster Movie is that someone actually gave it a green light. But, then again, that’s not really funny. It’s just sad.
Eddie Murphy’s humorless family comedy was so bad that I walked out of the theater feeling depressed—on a beautiful, sunny summer afternoon. Fortunately, I saw it at the Movie Tavern with critic pals David and Neil—so it wasn’t a total waste. I just tried to keep telling myself that I was just there for lunch—and the fact that a really, really bad movie was playing at the same time was just a coincidence.
Made of Honor:
Note to Hollywood: Women aren’t as dumb as you clearly think they are. We actually realize that Made of Honor is just a bunch of bad clichés slapped together. Sure, Patrick Dempsey is cute—but, if I really wanted to, I could watch him for free on Grey’s Anatomy.
Sometimes, I feel bad for Ice Cube—going from notorious rapper to starring in bad January comedies like First Sunday. I mean, Ice-T gets a great gig as a tough cop on Law & Order, and Ice Cube’s left playing a bumbling crook with a heart of gold, opposite Tracy Morgan? Sad. What’s next—Marilyn Manson starring in Disney movies?
Fun idea, dreadful execution. This low-low-budget indie was somehow able to bore me to death and make me violently ill at the same time. While that’s quite a feat, it’s not something that I recommend trying at home.
Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric CGI mess was actually a fun movie to hate. In fact, after the screening, my fellow critics and I stood outside the theater for a long, long time, just giggling about how totally ridiculous it was. Good times…good times.
All I can say is that if real FBI agents are as stupid as the FBI agents in this idiot cyber-thriller, we are all in serious trouble.
Over Her Dead Body:
I had so many options for this last slot. Would I go with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson’s Fool’s Gold? Wacky Jodie Foster and the farting sea lion of Nim’s Island? Or maybe the silly and repetitive Vantage Point, which gave my colleagues and I our favorite line of the year: “Stop! Rewind that!” But no. This final honor goes Over Her Dead Body, starring Eva Longoria Parker as a screeching ghost with an attitude.
Here’s to 2009?
Ah, January…that time of year when everything is fresh and new again. A time to start over from scratch and look ahead to all of the thrills, chills, and silly comedies that the new year will bring. A year for new film festivals, summer blockbusters, award hopefuls, and (best of all) new surprises. And while 2008 wasn’t exactly the best year for movies, that means it can only get better from here…right? I sure hope so…