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The Year in Film: The Best and Worst of 2008

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2007 was a hard year to top, as good a year for movies as any I've lived through. We had great new films from first-class filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof), the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), among others, not to mention fresh blood like Diablo Cody and her screenplay for the indie fave Juno.

So if 2008 didn't surpass it, no surprises there. But what was surprising was that 2008 didn't even stand a fighting chance. American politics were at their most exciting in years, but the movie business suffered. Months came and went with little to celebrate, and break-out successes were few and far between. The Writers Guild of America strike started in November 2007, continuing into February of '08, and who knows how many productions that bungled (we'll be feeling those repercussions in 2009 as well). But let us be thankful for the movies we did get, because even if you had to look for 'em, the good ones were out there.

The Best Movies of 2008

If the industry was left reeling with a year-long strike hangover, with visions of new media residuals dancing in executives' heads, it's only fitting that the best movie I saw this year didn't exactly fit any traditional models. The entirely independent Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was released onto the Internet in three parts (or "acts") over one week in July, before becoming a bestseller on Amazon and iTunes. In a year when superhero movies and comedies prospered, Dr. Horrible was both. Plus a musical. If you're scratching your head as to why a 42-minute Web production is on a list about movies, you have fair reason.

Time put it on its list of best TV shows (in addition to calling it the fifteenth best invention of the year), Entertainment Weekly listed it as both one of the best Internet videos and TV-on-DVD releases, and the American Film Institute was pretty vague on the matter when it called Dr. Horrible one of "eight moments of significance" in 2008. However, everyone involved with its making calls it a movie, the DVD jacket calls it a "Joss Whedon Film," and most importantly, I liked it better than any other movie since Joss Whedon's last movie.

Television maestro Whedon was frustrated by the strike, so in a flash of inspiration, he put together Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog; it's not coincidental that its story of a well-intentioned but powerless supervillain going up against a big dumb antagonist who incorrectly believes that he's a force of good can be seen in broad strokes as a story about the writers vs. the producers.

The result was a wacky, tuneful, and tragic slice of genius, as only Whedon (along with brothers Jed and Zack; and Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed's fiancée) could do. Neil Patrick Harris plays the title villain, who doesn't have it in him to be truly evil, and is in love with Penny (Felicia Day), the girl down at the laundromat. One of Dr. Horrible's ill-fated schemes introduces Penny to pompous do-gooder Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), whom she promptly falls in love with. The songs this inspires the characters to sing are as good as any Whedon penned for the beloved Buffy musical episode "Once More, With Feeling," and the amount of genuine pathos put into what could've been a mere novelty shows that art knows no boundaries. It also doesn't hurt that its innovative business model has proven a resounding success. It had been a few years since we'd heard from him via any screen, big or small, but Joss Whedon is still at the top of his game.

And then there was that other superhero movie, an obscure arthouse film you may have heard of called The Dark Knight. With 2005's Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan made the first truly good — nay, great – Batman movie, and with The Dark Knight he topped it in every respect. There was Christian Bale's terrific portrait of a conflicted (Bat)man at odds with his own self; a layered, multi-faceted script which functioned as both an excellent crime film and a chillingly accurate examination of the state of America; and the late Heath Ledger's leering, jeering, and hauntingly unforgettable Joker. In other words, more than enough to make it the greatest comic book film ever made.

For another unforgettable performance, we turn to Gus Van Sant's Milk, in which Sean Penn does the best work of his career. I haven't always been a fan of Penn's, but here he slips so completely into the skin of Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay elected official, that there's no acting there. He simply is Harvey Milk. It's an ultimately tragic tale, but Van Sant's effortless direction and a multitude of excellent performances (Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch) make it an exuberant cinematic experience.

Synecdoche, New York
, on the other hand, is a different kind of experience. It can be frustrating, maddening, and wearying, but it's also completely brilliant. The directorial debut of lauded screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is a masterful deconstruction of film narrative, challenging every storytelling preconception you might have. It slips through time, locations, and even realities at a pace guaranteed to make your head spin, all anchored by Philip Seymour Hoffman's sterling performance as a neurotic stage director who spends decades constructing a play about his life.

Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky has got to be the happiest film of 2008. No other movie this year left me with as big a smile as this one did; sure, some hard truths are realized as per the stuff of great drama, but Sally Hawkins, as the unfailingly optimistic schoolteacher Poppy, is such a source of genuine goodness that the film lifts your spirits. It's also very funny, a trait Leigh is not known for, and Eddie Marsan almost steals the whole thing as Poppy's road rage-prone driving instructor.

Runners-up: Iron Man, for being the year's third great superhero movie, a witty and heart-pounding adventure with wonderfully charismatic turns from Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow; and WALL·E, for being one of Pixar's best offerings yet, funny, adorable, and surprisingly timely.

There are still some heavy contenders out there that I've yet to see, like Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, and The Wrestler, not to mention all of the awesome foreign movies that didn't play around here. Hopefully I've still got treasures left to discover.

The Most Pleasant Surprise of 2008

I was really not looking forward to In Bruges. The trailers made it look like a Guy Ritchie movie: stock European tough guys spouting idiotic one-liners as the director tries to impress you with his style (or lack thereof). Rather, In Bruges is the kind of film Ritchie might make were he to accrue talent. Playwright Martin McDonagh's big screen debut sports two irresistible performances from Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as Irish hitmen stuck in the tiny Belgian town of Bruges; Farrell thinks it's a shithole, Gleeson thinks it's lovely, and boss Ralph Fiennes thinks it's the perfect place to stage an act of retribution. The film is at turns hilarious, poignant, and surprising; all in all, one damn fine movie.

The Happiest Comeback of 2008

Sure, countless others have told this tale again and again, but when the tale is this good, I've just got to rehash it: Robert Downey Jr. finally made a big comeback in 2008 after years of rebuilding his reputation as one of the best actors of his generation. That reputation was squandered when he sank into alcoholism and drug addiction, effectively removing himself from the artistry, if not the business, of acting. A guy this talented doesn't do a movie like Gothika because he wants to. After the drug rehab, the career rehab started in 2005 with the triple threat of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Game 6; the following two years brought us gems like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Zodiac.

But it was 2008 when Downey Jr. truly returned to the spotlight, first as the title superhero in Iron Man, the critically acclaimed blockbuster that both comics nerds and film buffs fell for (being both, I was the target audience). Working under Jon Favreau, who seems born to make movies about cocky personalities like Downey's, he delivered a strong, sympathetic performance as a billionaire arms maker who realizes that violence is not the way. Downey, of course, doesn't let anything feel pat, and based largely on the strength of his performance, a film about a superhero relatively unfamiliar to those who tread outside the walls of comics shops became one of the year's biggest successes.

Then there was his offensively awesome portrayal of, in the character's own words, "A dude playin' a dude disguised as another dude." As pretentious Oscar-winning actor Kirk Lazarus, a Method Australian who had his skin dyed in order to play a black soldier in a Vietnam War movie, Downey was the icing on top of Tropic Thunder's satirical cake. If there's anything we learned at the movies this year, it's that America wants — and Hollywood needs — someone like Robert Downey Jr. Thanks for returning to us.

The Saddest Losses of 2008

We lost many familiar faces this year, some expected and some not. And far be it for me to gauge the importance of someone's death; all I know is what they meant to me, and here are the four celebrity farewells that pained me the most.

First there was Heath Ledger, an actor who by all rights should've had a wonderful, Oscar-laden career ahead of him, lost to us through an accidental overdose of sleeping pills on January 22. He left behind a number of terrific performances, and probably has a posthumous Oscar on the way for his work in The Dark Knight, but damn it, he's gone from us forever now.

On June 22, we lost George Carlin, likely the greatest stand-up comic we've ever had, to heart failure. The man was profane, literate, and gut-bustingly funny; his film performances were few, but they were always worth watching, especially when he played the slimy Cardinal Ignatius Glick in Kevin Smith's Dogma.

Paul Newman was a titan among titans, and when he passed away on September 26 after a long illness, you could feel the void he left. A great actor and an even greater humanitarian, Newman was simply one of the best the film world ever turned out. Here was an immensely talented person who, by all accounts, never forgot to feel immense gratitude for the life he lived. He will be sorely missed.

A lot of people probably don't know who Stan Winston was, but they certainly remember the creations he helped bring to life: The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the cyborgs in the Terminator films, the machinations at the heart of Iron Man. As a little kid, I was fascinated with special effects, and Winston, who died on June 15 of multiple myeloma, was always one of the best and brightest in the field. And whether or not the forthcoming Terminator: Salvation turns out to be any good, we can at least count on excellent special effects from a man who truly understood his craft.

The Most Overrated Movie of 2008

A movie about two people talking does not have to be boring, especially not when it concerns one of the most fascinating and repulsive American politicians of the 20th century. But to see Ron Howard's take on Frost/Nixon, you can't imagine it being anything more than a dry history lesson. The film was based on an acclaimed stage play, and perhaps it worked there, but here, where it's saddled with a bunch of extraneous interviews with other characters, effectively excusing Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan from ever actually having to show us what makes them tick, it's nothing but a bore. I'm hoping this one loses its Oscar chances to other, more deserving films.

The Worst Franchise Reboot of 2008

Franchise reboots have been all the rage the past few years (Batman and James Bond much?). 2008 had a few of them, some good (The Incredible Hulk), some less so (Speed Racer), and the absolute worst, The Day the Earth Stood Still. This is not something that needs to be remade or rebooted, but logic does not stop Hollywood. In the beloved original, which won a Golden Globe for freaking "promoting international understanding," the alien character has come to unite humanity. In the remake, Keanu's new alien has come to decimate all human life, and has a shot at winning a Golden Globe for "least inspirational conservation message of all time."

The Worst Movie of 2008

There are bad movies, and then there are awful movies. Feast II: Sloppy Seconds is not an awful movie. No, to call it awful would be an understatement, like saying that Adolf Hitler was a big meanie. If we're going to be truthful, Feast II: Sloppy Seconds is a Repulsive, Disgusting, Idiotic, Moronic, Brain Cell Killing, Soul Crushing Termination of the Human Spirit. To be even more truthful, it's the single worst film I have ever had the displeasure of seeing. And I liked the first one.

Runners-up: Twilight, for making even dumber a teen pop phenom which was already dumb enough (hey kids, go watch Let the Right One In); and The Happening, for allowing us to watch a once-talented filmmaker (M. Night Shyamalan) sink under the weight of his own arrogance and lunacy to become this century's Ed Wood.

And so that, for better or for worse, was 2008.

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About Arlo J. Wiley

  • http://www.friendmouse.blogspot.com/ Friend Mouse

    Excellent y/e wrap-up – not least because I agree with you on all counts!

  • http://wp.blogcritics.org/writer/wesley_mead Wesley Mead

    Superb article, Arlo. Some great choices. I like that you gave both Dr. Horrible and Robert Downey, Jr. their dues.