Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ben's Top 10 Movies of 2008

It's funny how you can have such an amazing movie experience one year (ahh, 2007), with a new classic seemingly every week, new additions to your all-time favorites, etc. And then the next year... well, to say that the year 2008 was a mixed bag would be an understatement. Sure, there were a slew of fine movies that were entertaining in the moment... but there were far more disappointments, clunkers and films shrouded in mediocrity. Even as we made our way through awards season, I was mostly underwhelmed. But fortunately, when the dust cleared, there WERE some standouts that made sifting through the crap worthwhile. And regardless of the overall quality, I still managed to see a total of 104 movies on the big screen -- my 8th straight year surpassing the century mark. Yes, I am a goddamn maniac... but you know you love it. Now, without further ado, let's get on with the list, shall we?

10. TROPIC THUNDER -- What better way to kick off the list than with one of the funniest, most outrageous movies of the year? I tell ya, when Ben Stiller really sets his mind to it, he is able to come up with some good stuff. It's unfortunate that his career is littered with so much fluff... but then a movie like this comes along and sets everything right. A hilarious, R-rated lambasting of Hollywood in which three big-time actors are left to fend for themselves in a hostile jungle... except that they think it's all part of their next movie. Stiller kicks ass as "the action hero," Jack Black is great as "the comedian"... but the real star is the man, Robert Downey Jr., as "the Oscar winner," who spends the entire movie in blackface in order to fully embody his African-American character. Method Acting at its finest! This performance has already earned Downey a Golden Globe nomination, and I wouldn't be surprised if Oscar followed suit. Great supporting cast, too... especially Tom Cruise as a bigshot producer... in a fat suit!

9. DOUBT -- A fine piece of work about a popular priest who is accused by a suspicious nun of having an improper relationship with an altar boy... who happens to be black... in the '60s... in other words, a big ol' mess. But what could've been a run-of-the-mill cautionary tale about the power of doubt vs. faith is made memorable by four powerhouse performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and the Mother Superior of all actresses, Meryl Streep. All were great, but watching Streep is the cinematic equivalent of watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel -- a masterful performance that is yet another example of her continued domination over all other actresses. There's Meryl Streep, and there's everyone else. Just give her the Oscar now!

8. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA -- Maybe leaving New York City was the best decision that Woody Allen could've made in this late stage of his career. A couple of years ago, he went to London and made MATCH POINT, his best movie in, like, a decade. And now, he has gone to Barcelona and created another triumph, this time about the trials and tribulations of love, friendship and figuring out what makes you happy. Perfectly-scripted interplay between Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz (in a scene-stealing performance) drives the movie and makes it as funny and entertaining as it is poignant. It also doesn't hurt that all three ladies provide some mighty fine eye candy.

7. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD -- Ever wonder what might've happened if Jack & Rose had both survived the Titanic, gotten married, moved to the suburbs and fast-forwarded to the 1950's? This movie tells that story... okay, not really... but it does reunite Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a seemingly-perfect couple living a seemingly-perfect suburban life... only to reveal that things are not quite as happy as they seem. In fact, their relationship is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Leo and Kate brilliantly capture the trapped, desperate feelings that both characters experience in their own ways... and it is, at times, brutal to watch. Kate is virtually assured of her sixth (!) Oscar nom (though I fear she will lose again, thanks to Streep) -- she never ceases to amaze, and goddamn, she's gorgeous. Director Sam Mendes crafts a fantastic and painfully vivid portrait of the American Dream gone hopelessly awry. (Also funny to see Leo & Kate reunited with fellow Titanic passenger Kathy Bates!)

6. MILK -- A couple of years ago, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN earned a spot in my top ten... and now we have Gus van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk, the '70s activist who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. I just love me some movies about gay people! Seriously, though, this is a great film. Sean Penn is fantastic in the title role, fully embodying Milk's fascinating life. In fact, the movie is chock full of standout performances, including James Franco as Milk's neglected life partner and Emile Hirsch as a follower-turned-leader. But the real stand-out is surefire Oscar nominee Josh Brolin as the troubled city Supervisor who feuds with, begrudgingly befriends, and ultimately goes off the deep end and assassinates Milk and S.F. mayor George Moscone. It's a truly effective movie that really should have been released BEFORE Election Day -- I can't help but wonder if the Prop 8 vote might have turned out differently if people had seen this movie before hitting the voting booths. (But that, I think, is a discussion for another blog.)

5. IRON MAN -- There were a bunch of superhero movies last year, but in my opinion, the best one did NOT feature a gravelly-voiced hero in a bat suit and a smiley-faced villain in a nurse's outfit. In Iron Man, the great Robert Downey Jr. (what a year for this guy!) is perfectly cast as billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark, who gets captured by terrorists, builds a kick-ass armored suit, gives himself the ability to fly and smash shit, and basically becomes the most kick-ass (and wise-ass) superhero ever. The supporting cast is solid (gotta love Jeff Bridges), but this is Downey's movie through and through. Big props to writer/director/swinger Jon Favreau, who clearly has his finger on the pulse of geekdom and has crafted perhaps the best film in this new age of superhero movies.

4. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE -- If there's a theme to be found amongst the movies in my Top 10, it's that of LOVE, because, y'know, I am a damn softy... and few movies capture that theme more succinctly and euphorically than this one. Danny Boyle, who has given us films about drug addicts and zombies, goes a different route to tell us this amazing Bollywood-influenced tale of a boy raised in the slums of India who embarks on a lifelong odyssey that ultimately lands him in the hot seat of the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. The hook is that all of his experiences, which range from incredible to unthinkable, give him the knowledge to answer the questions he is given -- but will it be enough for him to win the grand prize... and will that, in turn, be enough for him to find happiness and reunite with his long lost love? It's an outstanding film that taps into every emotion -- a modern-day fairytale that we can only hope will stand the test of time.

3. THE WRESTLER -- When I was a kid, I LOVED professional wrestling. I was a card-carrying Hulkamaniac and vividly remember watching Hulk Hogan slam Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III (arguably the signature moment in wrestling history). As the years have gone by, my interest in wrestling has gone through ebbs and flows, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. So when this movie came along, starring Mickey Rourke as a past-his-prime wrestling star struggling to find his place in today's world, it was right up my alley. I've never been a huge Rourke fan, but man, Randy "The Ram" Robinson is the role he was born to play. It's been touted as a "rebirth," and that is certainly true. The Ram's dealings with the wrestling world, his legacy, his health, his relationship with his daughter and his love life are all starkly honest and some of the most emotionally-involving stuff in any movie in the past year. I also really like this new phase of Marisa Tomei's career in which she gets naked in every movie... but, um, I digress. :)

2. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK -- Charlie Kaufman is my hero. When it comes to screenwriters nowadays, no one even comes close to this man's complete mastery of the art. All of his films -- HUMAN NATURE, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and of course, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND -- are at worst, interesting, and at best, some of the greatest pieces of cinematic genius we've been graced with over the past decade. Now, for the first time, he tries his hand as a writer/director, and the result is... well, it's poetry... but, like, the craziest goddamn poem you've ever heard. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (another great year for him, too) stars as a playwright who, after enduring marital and health issues, embarks on a lifelong theatre project in which every character relates to a person in the real world -- and each character is the star of his or her own story -- and every character has supporting characters who are, in turn, stars of THEIR own stories -- and so on -- all inside a massive warehouse built into a full-scale replica of NYC. As the years go by and his own life continues to fall into various states of disrepair, the line between fantasy and reality becomes more and more blurred. It's funny & sad, complex & fascinating, bizarre & even confusing -- but in a way that makes you want to watch it six more times to figure it all out. It's the most thought-provoking film of the year, and further proof of Kaufman's godlike ability.

...and finally...

1. WALL-E -- In the history of movies, has there ever been a company with Pixar's track record? They haven't made a bad film in 13 years, and only twice has a Pixar film failed to make my Top 5 of the year. When I first saw the trailer for WALL-E, I had a feeling that we were in for something special, despite the fact that the title character looked like a cross between Johnny Five and E.T. But little did I know just how special it would be. It drew me in from the very beginning, and by the time it was over, it had affected me like no other movie this year, and like no other Pixar film before it. The first act is virtually dialogue-free in a fully-realized dystopian future -- but more is said without words than in most talkfests we'll ever see. The relationship between old, broken-down WALL-E and sleek, futuristic EVE is as good and real as any romance I can think of. Then suddenly it goes off in an unexpected direction and becomes part-cautionary tale about the dangers that humanity faces as we lay waste to our planet... and sure, it’s got stuff for the kiddies, too... but at the core, this is a love story, tried and true. This movie is a triumph and works on so many levels... a true masterwork that cannot be showered with enough praise. We're talking about the best sci-fi movie in years. The best love story of the year. Certainly one of the funniest, smartest, most poignant films of any kind this year. And after re-watching it several times on DVD, I can safely declare that this is my favorite Pixar film yet. All hail Pixar, for they can do no wrong!

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Other Noteworthy Titles (in no particular order):

Rachel Getting Married. Frost/Nixon. Waltz With Bashir. W. Speed Racer. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Quantum of Solace. Burn After Reading. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Let the Right One In. Tropic Thunder. The Dark Knight. Elegy. Towelhead. The Reader. Defiance. Zack & Miri Make a Porno. Kung-Fu Panda. Step Brothers. In Bruges. The Wackness. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. Son of Rambow. Bolt (in digital 3D). The Bank Job. The Other Boelyn Girl. The Band's Visit. Chapter 27. Baghead. Teeth.

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And now... The Top 10 WORST Films of 2008:

10. APPALOOSA -- It's usually great to see Ed Harris in a movie... but not this time. This western features some of the most laughable situations and dialogue of the year. Also, Renee Zellweger's presence was jarring, because as far as I know they didn't have freaky-looking aliens in the Old West.
9. WANTED -- Probably the worst and most senseless MATRIX wannabe ever, utilizing technology that quickly went from cool to annoying, like, eight years ago. Not even Morgan Freeman playing a bad guy and naked Angelina Jolie could save it from being a hot mess of a movie.
8. THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR -- I wasn't expecting greatness... just fun, which the first two Mummy films managed to provide. But that was clearly too much to ask from this senseless sequel. How you can possibly fuck up a fight between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh is beyond me, but this movie manages to do it.
7. THE RUINS -- When reviewing my master list of '08 movies, I actually had to look this one up... that's how unmemorable it was. Potential for good horror was there (the trailer had me fooled), but the execution was horrendous.
6. FUNNY GAMES -- One of the most infuriating movies of the year, thanks to an unforgivable plot twist that destroyed what had been a sufficiently creepy & disturbing first two acts. A complete waste of Naomi Watts in her panties.
5. 10,000 B.C. -- On one hand, gotta give props to Roland Emmerich for unabashedly ignoring any & all historical fact... which would've been all well and good if everything else had been the least bit entertaining. But no.
4. UNTRACEABLE -- Absolutely no redeeming value to this asinine thriller about a guy who kills people by, um, hooking it up to the internet, so that the more people who watch it via streaming video, the quicker the victim dies? Or something. I'm starting to think that, UNFAITHFUL aside, Diane Lane actually kind of sucks.
3. PENELOPE -- Poor James McAvoy has two movies in the bottom 10... not a good year for an otherwise fine actor. This piss-poor fairy tale starring Christina Ricci as a girl cursed with a pig nose (though she's still super-cute... SHE'S ALL THAT syndrome rears its head once again!) has absolutely nothing going for it.
2. THE HAPPENING -- This movie would've been the worst of the year, but it was saved because it directly led to Andy Samberg's hilarious Mark Wahlberg impression on SNL ("Say hi to your mom for me!"). The movie, though, is a joke... a travesty... a perfect storm of awful writing, acting, plot and direction... and as far as I'm concerned, the final death knell for the once-great Shyamalan.
1. THE LOVE GURU -- The Mike Myers that once gave us Wayne's World, Austin Powers and even Shrek is officially dead and gone, thanks to this wretchedly unfunny, unholy piece of crap. There's no other way to put it... it's just flat-out NOT FUNNY to the point of being embarrassing, not just for Myers, but for those of us who were unfortunate enough to endure it. It's so mind-bogglingly, gut-wrenchingly bad that I can't imagine Myers ever recovering. Another Austin Powers movie would be desperate... another Shrek (which seems inevitable) would be pathetic. No, he should just crawl under a rock and spare us any more bullshit. It makes me sad to say it... but he's done.

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And now... Some Random Movie Thoughts!

Most Pleasant Surprise: This is kind of difficult, because there weren't a whole lot of pleasant surprises this year. Stuff was mostly as good or as bad as expected, or worse. One exception was SPEED RACER, which I hoped would be fun and turned out to be an awesome, perfectly-cast, non-stop, candy-coated visual roller coaster ride of orgasmic proportions! It was just a blast to watch, especially in IMAX. I also didn't quite know what to expect from Oliver Stone's W., but it turned out to be quite good, with Josh Brolin giving a tremendous tour-de-force performance.

Biggest Disappointment: My first instinct is to go with INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL... but, really, did anyone think that was going to be good? Likewise, STAR WARS: CLONE WARS was pretty horrendous, even for a kiddie cartoon, but my expectations were so low that I actually ended up enjoying myself on some level. Instead, I'm gonna go with CLOVERFIELD, which was built up to be this big EVENT from a supposedly-visionary filmmaker, but turned out to be one of the most laughable things I've seen all year. GOSSIP GIRL meets GODZILLA meets THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT? Gimme a break (though imagine how much better it would've been with Blair and Chuck Bass!). Some other disappointments for which I initially had high hopes: BABY MAMA (guess Tina Fey isn't infalliable after all). SMART PEOPLE (great cast and Scrabble-themed poster do not a great movie make). CHOKE (great Palahniuk book plus Sam Rockwell should've equaled cinematic goodness, but instead it was surprisingly "blah" for a movie about a sex addict). Really, though, the biggest disappointment of the year was the fact that we didn't even get to see what would've been the most anticipated movie of the year: HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. Damn Warner Bros.!

Most Underrated Movie: I'm gonna have to go with Charlie Kaufman's SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, which I haven't seen on anyone's Top 10 lists other than mine. What the hell is wrong with all these so-called film critics?? I also would've liked to have seen more praise for Amy Adams and Frances McDormand in MISS PETTITGREW LIVES FOR A DAY; Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz in ELEGY; and the Coen Brothers, Clooney, Pitt & McDormand creating a perfect storm of hijinks in BURN AFTER READING. All good stuff.

Most Overrated Movie: This may depend upon what happens when the Oscar nominations are announced, but for now, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is being blown waaaay out of proportion. As I mentioned in my previous entry, it wasn't terrible... but overall it was just too bloated, slow and heavy-handed. Unfortunately, it is the kind of movie that "makes Oscar cry," so my ire could be raised when the noms are announced in a few weeks. Also, sorry to say, but THE DARK KNIGHT would never have been such an uber-blockbuster if Heath Ledger hadn't died -- I will stand by that theory till my dying day! Yes, it was a good, entertaining Batman movie... and yes, Ledger was fantastic (as was Aaron Eckhart)... but the fact that this movie has been put on so high a pedestal and is getting major Oscar buzz is really kind of absurd.

Two Movies That Were in My Top 10 as Recently as a This Afternoon: At first, I had RACHEL GETTING MARRIED at #10. It's a fine little movie about love and family... but I had a lot of trouble writing about it, and soon realized that maybe I didn't love the movie as much as I thought I did when I first saw it. So I scrapped that idea. Though, Anne Hathaway's performance is still one of the best of the year, and she deserves an Oscar nomination for sure. Anyway, next I moved onto FROST/NIXON, solely because of Frank Langella, my pick for Best Actor for his astonishing performance as Tricky Dick. From what I can tell, this portrayal is about as close to the real thing as you can get. However, upon further reflection, I decided that the movie itself is lacking -- in fact, if you boil it down, it's really no different than your average sports movie, complete with that critical moment when the underdog gains the necessary confidence and ultimately topples the overwhelming favorite. Not that it was a bad movie by any means... but it's not Top 10 material. So, yeah... now you have some further insight into the crazy way my mind works!

Five Movies That You Would've Expected Me To See, But I Didn't: Most years, there's no way that movies starring Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Scarlett Johansson and an alien invasion (in IMAX!) would've flown under my radar... but this year, I decided to show some restraint and not see BEDTIME STORIES, YES MAN, VALKYRIE, THE SPIRIT and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I'm sure I'll catch them all on DVD eventually, but from what I've heard, read and seen in trailers -- c'mon, Tom, can't you even ATTEMPT a German accent?? -- let's consider it $60 well saved!

Best Superhero Movie: Gotta be IRON MAN, since it's in my Top 10, right? Well, yes, that is indeed the best, surpassing THE DARK KNIGHT and THE INCREDIBLE HULK in pretty much every way. But you might not know that there was also a film called TEETH, which I consider to be, in a twisted way, one of the best superhero origin stories ever: It's about a girl with a little affliction called vagina dentata that brings disastrous results at first... but as she learns to understand and control it, transforms her into the worst nightmare of sexual predators everywhere! Hilarious dark comedy, but not for the squeamish!

Most Welcome Return of an Old Friend: I wish we could be talking Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. in this space, but, um, no. I'm not talking about Mickey Rourke, either -- his comeback was remarkable, but let's face it, he's never been anyone's friend. No, I'm talking about a man who pretty much defined '90s comedy... and then took a disturbingly precipitous decline in the early '00s... only to return with a vengeance in '08 with the hilarious ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO. That's right, I'm talking about Mr. Kevin Smith. Granted, he had to move away from the View Askewniverse and pillage Judd Apatow's troupe of actors in order to find success... but find it, he did. Welcome back, sir... Now keep it up!


Whew, okay, I think that's enough out of me. Still with me? If so, I salute you! Now it's your turn to share & discuss your favorites and praise/criticize my picks. Ready? GO!

9 comments:

  1. Way to disappear for months and return with Worlds Longest Blog Posts.

    :-P

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  2. Oh my, so much to think about. I stand by you with The Dark Night. I only saw a third of the movies you saw. The opportunity to see SDNYC (sorry I cannot spell) slipped right through my fingers. I also agree on Kevin Smith and the wonderfulness of Vicki Christina Barcelona.

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  3. Hehe, yeah, I think this post was like 6 1/2 pages in Word. What can I say, I'm making up for lost time! :)

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  4. So, did you not see Seven Pounds? I never go to the movies (seriously I think I went to one movie in 2008, and it was Sex in the City), but A.O. Scott's review was so hilariously scathing that, paradoxically, I was tempted to see the movie.

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  5. Eli from BarcelonaJanuary 8, 2009 at 5:07 AM

    I would mention "My blueberry nights" and "In search of a midnight kiss" as some of the best of the year as well. I can't believe you didn't!! :(
    Well, I forgive you because I haven't seen the Godfather yet, so...

    Have fun!

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  6. Man oh man, I wish I still went to the movies. I saw 2 movies in your top 10 - Iron Man and Wall-E and loved them both. Gotta agree with you on Batman. Iron Man was easily worth a second viewing on the plane to Australia. Indy helped me sleep on the plane.

    Gotta see "Teeth"!

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  7. Katrin: I did see Seven Pounds. It was pretty ridiculous, but not quite bad enough to make it into my Bottom 10. Then again, it's a schmaltzy movie, so maybe I was just in a schmaltzy mood that night!

    Eli: I watched My Blueberry Nights on DVD recently. It was decent, but I felt it just kind of plodded along. Plus Norah Jones was pretty bad -- she should stick to her day job. In Search of a Midnight Kiss, also, was kind of a mixed bag for me. I liked parts of it; other parts were just annoying. I remember getting really pissed at one point, too... I think it was when they had to escape from the crazy boyfriend? That whole sequence just seemed out of place and dumb. Ah well. Notice that I did give props to The Wackness, though! :)

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  8. Well, you might be right about the boyfriend's house scene but I still liked the movie, and about Norah Jones, I think she was pretty well taking into account that she is not an actress. The scene that didn't like me much was when she comes hurt from the subway with crazy hair, but I think that was make up's & hairdresser's fault not hers...
    I enjoyed this movie very much!

    Well I agree with you about Wackness, it was a good movie! :)

    SEE YOU!

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  9. When I said "the scene that didn't like me much" I meant "the scene I didn't like much"
    I'll have to come back to NY again just to improve my english! ;)

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