I refuse to do a Top Ten Films list. First, I haven’t seen enough movies, only a few dozen of the films that were released this year to be quite honest. Second, when you start micromanaging things to that level it is so subjective as to be meaningless. So, we’ve come up with 15 Notable Film Awards for 2008 that even the most hardcore movie buffs may have overlooked, forgotten about, not seen, or just plain not have considered at the time. If you get anything out of this set of awards, hopefully it will be a more thorough understanding and appreciation of film. Hahaha…just kidding!
** Biggest Disappointment of 2008 **
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
While the argument can be made that Crystal Skull could share this award with X-Files: I Want to Believe, there is no question that expectations forced it into the top spot. The original Indiana Jones Trilogy is one of the most beloved series of films of all time. X-Files, while having a hard-core following, had pretty much dropped off the radar for most fans for a while. From a script standpoint, X-Files was better. In the end, had X-Files been a weekly episode, it would have fit in and played fine. Crystal Skull was just a misfire on most every cylinder. Part of taking 17 years to work up a sequel while year after year saying that you’re going to have to find the “perfect” script kind of puts fans in a mindset that now that they’ve got the film rolling that they DID find the perfect script. Actually, they may have. Frank Darabont’s original script Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which is about 65% of what hit the screen was actually pretty delightful. It took a mastermind of Lucas’ caliber to strip all the fun out and completely squash the life out of it. Darabont’s script may not have been epic, but it certainly had a lot of Indy “fun” in it and was much more true to the spirit of the character. With all that in mind, it was still good to see Harrison Ford don the fedora again, and there were a few nice Indy moments. The motorcycle chase in the first act was about as pure fun as the movie got, though. Beyond that, if there is going to be any more Jones films, please wait until George Lucas retires or dies. Get his fingers out of the creative process -ANY creative process. Don’t trust the guy to plan your lunch menu at this point…unless after getting up from the restaurant table you can claim that he shot first. The most fitting review for Crystal Skull could ironically come from a classic movie line in the afore-referenced scene from Harrison Ford himself: “Sorry about the mess.”
** Most Outstanding Film with a Rotten Climax **
We are currently in the Golden Age of comic book films. There are two things going on with this phenomenon. One is that digital effects have finally reached a stage to bring the outrageousness of Super Hero comics to life in somewhat of a believable way, but second is that filmmakers are starting to take seriously the need for comic book movies to have a real script and characters. Just recreating a replica of ink and paint tights and a few tag lines is not enough. With that in mind, we got the mind-numbingly outstanding Dark Knight that kind of came and overshadowed the outstanding Iron Man in this capacity. Robert Downey, Jr was brilliant in this role, and though Iron Man was never one of my “books” during my brief few year flirtation with the comic book world in my younger years, he really brought the character to life with a sense of justice. What came together on screen was so good 85% of the time, that by the time it came to the terribly mediocre “climactic battle” between Iron Man and the evil Iron Obadiah Jeff Bridges that it was completely forgivable because it was so entertaining in every other respect. Great script, great effects, self-gratification humor – all the ingredients of a comic book geek’s fantasy film.
** Best Audience Reaction to a Poop Joke **
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
No way I’ll spoil this, but as poop jokes go, Zack and Miri Make a Porno has a priceless one that had the audience I saw it with gasping in a mix of delight and disgust. I enjoyed it myself. Also, It’s noteworthy that Kevin Smith managed to give us probably his best overall effort yet. While Zack and Miri may not have been the funniest movie he’s ever made, it certainly was a fine flick from Smith. Definitely his most sharply directed and solid effort yet as a filmmaker.
** Best Kept Film Secret/Most Fun Movie Speculation **
If you were to review movies as an entire investment, marketing package, and product, Cloverfield would hands down be one of the best Hollywood efforts of all time. Producer JJ Abrams’ brain child of a “first person” Blair Witch Style giant monster movie was shrouded in mystery up until shortly before release. Even the official website didn’t reveal anything about what the movie was going to be about or even the title. The fact that the script didn’t leak is phenomenal in today’s day and age, and that was partly achieved by keeping the cast full of unknown players and not letting them read the script before signing their contracts. Cloverfield itself was actually one of the year’s best movies as well, though there were some flaws with it that kept it from being truly classic. Complete lack of likeability and logical decision-making on the part of the main characters was my biggest beef with it. WAY too much exposition in the first act almost lost me as a viewer. However, as giant monster movies go, this was the best time I had watching one since my pre-teen “honeymoon” with the Godzilla series on Channel 4 on weekends.
** The Loathsome and Offensive Yet I Cannot Look Away Award **
This movie slipped under a lot of radars in 2008 as a remake of a French Film of the same name and by the same director. The film is purely a psychological experiment in how far you can push an audience’s tolerance for being uncomfortable. As a viewer, the film is painful to watch, puts you through the wringer and there is virtually nothing enjoyable about it. However, it is interesting, ruthless, intriguing, and forces you to want to see how it ends. It’s just no fun getting there. It’s the story of how a family is taken hostage by two young psychotic serial killers and systematically played with and tortured over the course of one long, agonizing night. I was tossed back and forth by this movie, at times, being angry about the director’s overt efforts to manipulate the audience’s emotions and other times admiring the film’s strokes of genius. If this type of movie doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t rent it. But if you really want to experience a completely different style of film in the horror/thriller genre you might want to check this out. It’s anything but standard thriller-fare. Even if you consider that “praise” I have to say that there were several times that I just toyed with the fact that I didn’t want to see any more of it and just about acted on that feeling. To this day I still don’t know if I can say that I’m glad I watched it through to the end.
**Most Average Film That’s Still Going Get Blu-Ray Time in My Home **
Over the last 25 years or so there have been several filmmakers that have claimed to be trying to bring a “comic book” to life on screen. We have the winner. I’ve always thought that Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy was completely overrated in this respect. Giving the characters wardrobe choices that are all primary colors does not a comic book movie make. In this case, the Wachowski Brothers were trying to bring a cartoon to life, and what they put on screen was one of the most wacked out acid-tripping films of all time. The movie is visually stunning, and to be quite honest, is completely honorable to it’s source material. I liked Speed Racer. For what was set out to be achieved, it was spot on. The real problem is that the source material isn’t all that great to begin with. If you’re still watching DVDs on an old analog 19 inch TV, don’t bother with Speed Racer. But the combination of utter weirdness and unprecedented visual effects work make this definitely worth a look. It’s the most literal definition of “eye candy” ever made.
** Funniest Film of the Year, Best Motion Picture Comedy in Ages **
This is your career Ben Stiller, and ya done good. This film is a completely guilt-free comedy that’s solid start to finish in spite of being hindered by an over-the top performance by Jack Black that just seems completely out of place. It’s also one of the sharpest and funniest satire’s of the film industry that you’re going to get in the guise of a mainstream comedy. Even Tom Cruise brings down the house in this, as does as an entertaining supporting performance by Matthew McConaughey with a very funny call back joke to put a capper on the climax of the film. I’d also love to see Robert Downey, Jr get a best supporting actor nomination for this. He had two great films this year. Just goes to prove that it takes a real hardcore recovering addict to be consistently entertaining on the screen. In my mind, Tropic Thunder is the exception to an ever increasing rule we see with movie comedies: that the formula for mainstream comic success is to have just enough funny scenes to keep the audience entertained even if the rest of the film is shit.
** Best Continued Dividends Paid By a Contract With Satan **
When Steve Jobs had his lawyers help draft his contract with Satan, he got one of the best deals in history. Lucifer’s lawyers are still scratching their heads on what the hell happened. With his stake in Pixar, where he still sits on the board of directors, the advent of the iPod and surviving bouts with seemingly terminal cancer this guy has come out smelling like a rose. The phenomenal part of this deal is that Pixar is now not only sitting on a 14 year run of never releasing a financially unsuccessful film, they’ve never even released a “bad” movie. Now don’t get me wrong, when I’m on my deathbed asking to watch my favorite Pixar films, some of them like Cars and Finding Nemo may get tossed aside, but they’re still great movies. There is no explanation other than a paranormal deal. In 2008 they may have released their best film since Toy Story 2. Wall-E isn’t quite as high as TS2 on my list, but it’s a phenomenally good looking, well-made and scripted film. The utter brillance of Wall-E is that it is a completely entertaining package for someone of virtually every age. For my 4 year-old, it’s one hellevu robot movie. For my over 30 lazy ass, it’s one thought provoking masterpiece of about environmental problems, the human condition and the role of technology in taking our eyes off the plight of our planet as well as a heart-warming love story. And wow, we get Fred Willard to boot!. If you haven’t seen Wall-E, don’t dismiss it because you’ve developed a seething hatred for Pixar after having seen Cars 400 times and having bought every single piece of licensed Cars merchandise and clothing for your kids. Wall-E is brilliant, not to mention another stunning reason to buy a Blu-ray player.
** Best Reveal of 2008 **
Gillian Anderson in X-Files: I Want to Believe
Since 1993, the X-Files universe has been overly heavy with trench coats, hidden pregnancy, medical scrubs, and cold wintery settings covering up the wonderfully beautiful body of Gillian Anderson. Though the glimpse was a fleeting footnote to an otherwise ho-hum, disappointing film, at least we finally got to see Ms. Anderson take it off and expose her bikini clad body in a calm, tropical setting as the credits roll. Sure, you can scour the internet and find scads of great topless or semi-nude and suggestive pix of Anderson, but that’s not Scully, damnit! Bravo to Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson…uh…sort of.
** Most Fun Action Flick of 2008 **
Quantum of Solace
For a movie franchise with dozens of films over 45 years it’s great to see that there’s still fun to be had with it. Solace hit all the bad-ass notes that a good action flick needs and Daniel Craig is steadily moving up in Bond circles as one of the most beloved Bonds ever and deservedly so. While I still see the Bond franchise as a collection of great moments and a handful of solid films over the years, Solace proves that the Craig era has been able to breathe more life into something 45 years old than half a dozen iced coffees at Starbucks will into me when I hit 45 sometime in the next decade. Awesome, sharp action sequences in one slam bang awesome action fest. Loved it.
** Best Continuation of a String of Mediocre Films Starring a Decent Actor **
Keanu Reeves in
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Not much to say here other than Keanu seems to really take his time choosing roles that seem to be attractive to him. Bravo Mr. Reeves, now how about entertaining us? The Day the Earth Stood Still is a logic-challenged mish-mash of mediocrity. Now, don’t get me wrong, War of the Worlds a few years ago with Tom Cruise is another fine example of a classic sci-fi film remade into a not-so-great digital effects fest, but at least War of the Worlds was FUN. Imagine any or everything that was slightly cool about War of the Worlds being stripped out and leaving the remainder. That’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. You’re so mad or bored in this movie by the time the next thing that might be slightly cool comes up that it’s hardly worth the effort. This script could have used a couple of more re-writes and two or three more scenes with John Cleese. That or some gratuitous nudity might have helped.
** Most Painful 1 Hour 43 Minutes Spent in the Cinema This Year **
After careful thought on this, this was absolutely the worst movie I had the displeasure of seeing this year. The finished product felt like a work print edit of a film that that was made from a script that was 4 or 5 drafts from completion. The only honorable thing Lions Gate could have done with this movie was to let it collect dust on a shelf and put it direct to DVD in a couple of years. I suppose they could have tossed about about 40% of what was shot out and tried to rewrite and shoot something somewhat identifiable as entertainment to insert into the gap, but it would have been an uphill battle. For anyone that’s read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Spirit is probably the closest approximation to Vogon Poetry that the Human Race will ever achieve. Honorable Mention in this category goes to Star Wars: The Clone Wars. What a raging disappointment that was, too. Not nearly as bad as The Spirit, but also a painful film to sit through.
** Best Performance by an Actor in Lead Role (My Personal Pick) **
Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon
When it comes down to it, this is a tough call. Heath Ledger was stellar in The Dark Knight and deserves every bit of recognition he gets up to and including Best Actor if he wins it (which I don’t think he will). However, when I look back at the 30-40 films I’ve absorbed this year, the guy that lit up the screen for me the most was Michael Sheen. Recently, the real David Frost condemned Frost/Nixon as not historically accurate. He qualified this by stating that the events and facts depicted were probably “10-15%” inaccurate. I’ve got no beef with the real Frost, but who’s he kidding? For a historical drama based on a true story I’d say that 85-90% accurate is pretty damned impressive. Frost’s real problem with the film is that it depicted him as having less overall journalistic credibility at the time of the Nixon interviews than he felt he had. He’s probably right, but it’s inconsequential to movie itself. Sheen not only completely absorbed this material, but he struck an incredible balance of humor, angst and likeability in the part that it was hard to not identify with. It was a great role with Sheen portraying Frost as someone who charges head first into a highly charged political interview not caring one flying leap about the politics of the situation or of former President Nixon himself. Frost ends up surrounded by people with a political agenda and a stake in him nailing Nixon. For his own sake he has to move forward and help those people’s agendas to avoid his own career and financial decimation. Frank Langella has gotten well-deserved accolades for his portrayal of Nixon in this piece, but it was a perfect crime for Sheen to steal this show out from under half a dozen other outstanding performances in this movie alone.
** Best Film of 2008 (My Personal Pick) **
The Dark Knight
It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s an uphill argument to say that this film is anything but superb. It truly is The Godfather of the Super Hero genre. It’s a first rate psychological mob drama that just happens to be written around a classic Comic Book Hero/Villain duo. While Michael Keaton’s Batman took on almost a supporting role in the terribly misguided Batman Returns all those years ago, when Christian Bale takes a back seat to Heath Ledger’s Joker as well as an ensemble cast of some our generation’s great actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman etc…) it’s in the service of putting together a film that really will stand the test of time. Yes, the movie has a handful of minor issues. It’s a little too long, the third act gets a little mish-mashed and the Joker’s coupe de grace stunt ends up being a little contrived, but all ultimately forgivable speed bumps in the course of a classic motion picture. Director Chris Nolan has almost sabotaged any further efforts he might try to take in this franchise. On my first and subsequent viewings of the film, I’ve come to the determination that it’s that opening bank robbery scene that really catapults this movie into a type of gritty violence and demented joy that we’ve never seen in a comic book film before. Forget Superman: The Movie, forget Spiderman 2, forget Iron Man. While all great films, The Dark Knight is a movie for the ages, not just for Batman fans, but for fans of just plain damned good movies. While toying with this choice, I had to swirl around some great movies this year: Burn After Reading, Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button; but of all those choices, The Dark Knight is the most complete package of the bunch. Congrats.