January 16, 2009
Ten Best (and Five
Worst) Films of 2008
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected in U.S. history, was senselessly gunned down by a man who later claimed that his junk food diet had led him to kill. In their biopic on the slain activist, director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (TV’s Big Love) have effortlessly balanced a celebration of Milk’s achievements with the tragedy of his loss. Anchored by Sean Penn’s astonishing recreation of both Milk’s mannerisms and spirit, the film demonstrates the difference individuals can make without denying the difficulties. After a recent election where mudslinging made voting seem like a futile activity, it takes a special film to make politics look both exciting and purposeful again.
With Pi, director Darren Aronofsky proved that you could make an engrossing movie about a man obsessed with numbers. With The Wrestler, he manages to make the theatrical world of professional wrestling seem vividly real. As the film illustrates, the outcomes of the matches may be predetermined, but the physical and emotional toll of the sport is all too genuine. In the performance viewers have been waiting for decades for him to deliver, Mickey Rourke makes the audience care deeply about Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed up wrestler who may have squandered his last chance to make good with his life. The Wrestler doesn’t feature any of the jaw dropping images that dominated Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain because Aronofsky has the good sense to simply let Rourke go to work.
Let the Right One In
If The Wrestler is a film that people who’ve avoided WWE matches can enjoy, the Swedish import Let the Right One In is a vampire movie that demonstrates to cynics that bloodsuckers are still pretty damn cool. This is tale of a bullied 12-year-old boy (Kåre Hedebrant) who develops a bizarre relationship with a girl (Lina Leandersson) who is only around after the sun sets. Loaded with dozens of subtle, creative images (watch what happens when the girl leaps off the jungle gym), the film continually surprises. Although there is some gore, the biggest frights come from the chills in the atmosphere. Like a bite from the undead, the film’s eerie impact isn’t fully apparent until long after it’s over.
I’ve Loved You So Long
British actress Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient) is mesmerizing as Juliette, a shy French woman trying to restart her life after 15 years in prison. Scott Thomas and writer-director Philippe Claudel take their time in revealing how Juliette got into her current predicament and if she can get out of it. By stringing the audience along, Claudel manages to get the most out of the conclusion. Scott Thomas normally plays glamorous, upper-class roles, so it’s a revelation to see what she can do here. Sporting little makeup and a modest wardrobe, she holds a viewer’s attention more easily than she did in the period dramas that had been her specialty.
It is refreshing to be able to catch a superhero movie that features first-rate performances and a clever script. As with The Dark Knight, there is some social commentary mixed in with the special effects (does selling weapons indiscriminately really boost our national security?). But the most important reason to catch Iron Man is simply because the film is fun. Leading man Robert Downey, Jr. finds the perfect blend of sly humor and guilt as a wealthy military scientist who uses his technological toys to take out bad guys. Director Jon Favreau (Zathura) has a terrific eye for action scenes, but it would be all for naught if the story and the characters weren’t interesting.
Leave it to the crew at Pixar at make a movie about environmental devastation that’s more romantic than any of the live action love stories that hit the screens this year. While it’s technically audacious (there’s no dialogue during the first 40 minutes), WALL-E has a warm heart that belies its occasionally bleak images and frequently amusing potshots at consumerism. Writer-director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) demonstrates rare skill in making a trash compactor and a probe droid more compelling than people. He also delivers an ecological cautionary tale and a Christian allegory (Stanton has made no secret of his faith) without ever making the audience feel they’re being preached to.
Playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan has specialized in dramas like The Queen that consist simply of people talking, but they frequently pack more tension than a hail of gunfire. His look back at the 1978 interview Sir David Frost conducted with disgraced President Richard M. Nixon renders both participants in a startlingly human light. Frank Langella’s Tricky Dick is appropriately slippery and treacherous, but the actor makes his quest for redemption oddly engrossing. Langella thankfully avoids doing an impersonation, as does Michael Sheen, who is his match as Frost. Whereas many plays suffer in their transition to the big screen, Ron Howard’s claustrophobic direction actually makes the limited settings seem even more volatile.
Bursting with the energy of a room full of two-year-olds, Danny Boyle’s tale of a street kid (Dev Patel) who makes good on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is a movie that warms the cockles of your heart without ever becoming maudlin or fulsome. Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) present the harsh realities of Mumbai’s slums but never treat their underprivileged protagonists in a condescending light. The outcome of our young man’s effort to be reunited with the love of his life (Freida Pinto) might be as predictable as one of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s wrestling matches, but discovering how he’ll reach the conclusion is gripping.
Man on Wire
James Marsh’s documentary about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s 1974 stroll between the World Trade Center towers plays like a heist movie, but the prize is so bizarre that it’s equally easy to cheer and decry Petit’s endeavor. On one level, the amount of care and preparation that Petit and his associates put into the walk rivals the moon landings. Petit may be an adrenaline junkie and a madman, but he’s not stupid. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to learn that security was lacking 26 years before the towers eventually fell. Marsh doesn’t ask what Petit felt about 9-11. Viewers can pick up the answer to that from listening to Petit talk. Instead, Marsh wisely focuses on Petit’s beautifully insane feat.
The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger didn’t live to see the release of The Dark Knight, but that doesn’t stop him from carrying the movie. His Joker is a villain for the ages. He’s so single-mined in his quest that he’d hurt or kill others and even himself to obtain his goals. His wisecracks may be lame, but his punch lines have tragic consequences. Director Christopher Nolan makes some intriguing observations about vigilantism and the limits of the law. It also wisely avoids neat conclusions to situations that are ethically messy. Nonetheless, the main reason to catch the film is Ledger’s turn as the most frightening individual ever buried under clown makeup.
The Five Worst of 2008
Never Back Down
It’s pretty easy to condemn a movie for having wooden acting, witless writing and no imagination (There have already been four Karate Kid movies, and there’s a remake on the way.). You could even criticize Never Back Down for leading the audience to believe that all problems can be solved by a roundhouse kick, although that failing can be found in just about any action flick. But the real reason that Never Back Down should be titled “Never Pay Your Own Money” is that alleged director Jeff Wadlow can’t even shoot or edit fighting scenes properly. Thanks to his editing, which reduces punches and kicks to visual potpourri, you be better off watching a real ultimate fighting match on ESPN.
This remake of the classic 1939 George Cukor movie lacks not only the acidic wit of the original, it even lacks the clever wordplay and likable characters that writer-director Diane English featured in Murphy Brown. The weak banter sounds as if it were assembled from rejected lines cut and pasted from Sex and the City, and the performers look ill at ease as they try to make the material work. Some like Meg Ryan (as a type-A clothing designer) are simply miscast. As the other woman in a love triangle, Eva Mendes proves that dialogue is her mortal enemy.
Over Her Dead Body
Eva Longoria Parker should be grateful that she has a day job on Wisteria Lane. This misbegotten comedy features her as an obnoxious bridezilla who comes back from the grave to disturb a psychic (Lake Bell) who wants to marry her former husband (Kansas City’s Paul Rudd waiting on a better gig). The special effects are almost as cheesy as the ones in Twilight, and the relationships are even less convincing. The filmmakers can’t even shot Longoria Parker properly. A typical episode of Desperate Housewives is better photographed. As a straight man pretending to be gay, Jason Biggs proves there are more embarrassing things to do than defiling pastries in American Pie.
At last, there is a movie made with computer-generated effects that look less believable than the old stop-motion dinosaurs in a Ray Harryhausen movie. It’s hard to care if the cavemen in this adventure if they’re fighting critters that look as if they’ve escaped from an Atari screen. The character names like Tic Tic and Nakadu only add to the unintentional humor. Watching this evolutionary disaster made me long for the ancient days when filmmakers read and corrected scripts before they were shot.
Before 27 Dresses polluted theaters, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna wrote a witty adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Unfortunately, neither Meryl Streep nor any trace of wit can be found in this movie. Katherine Heigl is as irritating here as she was likable in Knocked Up. Listening to her and her friends whine about how she’s been fated to be a bridesmaid at 27 weddings gets old quickly. If you thought the clothing montages in Sex and the City: The Movie were tedious, wait till you see these. James Marsden plays what may be the lease-appealing suitor in recent memory. He bickers with Heigl’s character and exploits her for a shallow news story, and yet viewers are still supposed to like him.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
© 2009 Discovery
Publications, Inc. 1501 Burlington, Ste. 207, North Kansas City, MO
contents of eKC are the property of Discovery Publications,
Inc., and protected under Copyright.