The Best and Worst Films of 2008
by Del Harvey
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Yes, it’s list time again. But before we get to my list, I’d like to go off on a little tangent for you. I’d like to talk to you about the many films released in 2008 which were simply horrible, poorly developed, weakly executed, and nearly unwatachable. What is going on in Hollywood? Are the hundreds and maybe thousands of executives at the studios so completely frightened of taking risks that the can no longer make a simple decision? Have they so completely lost touch with their audiences that they are willing to green light anything that smells of success, no matter how stale?
I’m talking about films that have decent trailers and intriguing casts and behind camera talent, but which fizzle and fuzz out, sometimes before the end of the first act, but always by the end. I’m talking about films like Max Payne, The Love Guru, The Happening, Bangkok Dangerous, Four Christmasses, Mad Money, Pathology, Street Kings, The Women, Meet The Spartans, What Happens In Vegas, 88 Minutes, I Know Who Killed Me, Meet Dave, In The Name Of The King, The Hottie & The Nottie, and many, many, many others.
Let me start off by saying, I absolutely know how rare it is to find a script with a female lead, let alone an ensemble female cast; but that is not a good enough reason to make a film, even if you can get the likes of Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Jada Pinkett Smith to star in the film. Do they think a bunch of names on a poster will guarantee people will want to see the film? How shallow are these people?
And let’s talk about egos for a moment, because this is the ego stroking biz, after all. A perfectly decent film like Righteous Kill would have benefitted greatly if one of the leading males’ egos had kept the final dialogue from running over almost five minutes, completely deflating all the energy from an otherwise very good suspense film. And speaking of egos; someone needs to sit Vince Vaughn and Eddie Murphy down and talk to them about their choices for material. Their 2008 efforts were a perfect example of not even trying. Just because you have an ego doesn’t mean you get a free pass. Rest on your laurels too long and the parade passes you buy, folks.
And good animation takes a little effort. So many people jumped on the politically correct bandwagon, shotgunning skies full of praise at Wall-E, that I had to take a step back and recognize the shallow when I stepped in it. Yes, it’s got a statement, but it’s a film that should have been an Oscar-worthy short instead of a feature. It’s pretty, it’s PC, and it’s a statement at the end of two terms of one of the worst presidencies in our nation’s history. But does that make it good? Really?
And funny is hard to do. It is the hardest thing to do. But that doesn’t mean a studio should okay every script that crosses their desks in hopes that one of them will stick. We can get four-year olds who can do that kind of work. With so much phenomenal screenwriting talent in this country, why is it so difficult to write a decent comedy? Don’t these execs know what’s funny anymore?
Why am I ranting? This year I saw more good feature-length films on Masterpiece Theatre than I did in the cinema. The last few years there were at least a few filmmakers and execs who took chances on films like The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country For Old Men, and Juno, to name but a few. What happened to those people who greenlit those films? Were they fired in studio downsizings? Did they leave the country because getting any kind of quality film past a studio exec is just too life-shortening an experience? Whatever the reason, there are only a few films worth talking about this year, and it’s time I got to them.
THE BEST FILMS OF 2008
Batman raises the stakes in his war on crime. With the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent, Batman sets out to dismantle the remaining criminal organizations that plague the city streets. The partnership proves to be effective, but they soon find themselves prey to a reign of chaos unleashed by a rising criminal mastermind known to the terrified citizens of Gotham as The Joker.
Nolan does a remarkable job with the superhero genre, quite possibly marking the nadir of such films with this, his second entry in the Batman franchise. He makes us believe in a man wearing a rubber bodysuit by telling the story through three normal people – Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes. By making those three the focus of the bulk of the onscreen time, we have less time to notice the flaws in the comic book characters of Batman and Joker, and thus their presence gains impact tenfold over the average caped crusader. A brilliant bit of writing and filmmaking that is difficult to top.
The story of California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.
The most un-Van Sant like film turns out to be one of his best, as well as one of the best of the year. Penn turns in what should be an Oscar winning performance as the first openly gay politician in America. The story turns out not only to be a mesmerizing tour-de-force for Penn, but also a fascinating look at what it is that drives some people to fight for their beliefs, no matter the danger.
Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson gives us an outstanding visual interpretation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s adaptation of his acclaimed book about friendship, rejection and loyalty. The story is presented in a disturbing, darkly atmospheric, yet unexpectedly tender tableau of adolescence. At the same time it is an absolutely new and exciting take on the vampire film, a genre largely overworked here in the States.
What is so wonderful about this film really are its characters and how much a sense of reality they are given. Instead of some darkly brooding vampire searching for his next sexy bride we are introduced a little girl who reluctantly accepts her fate and the fact that she must feed off others to survive. Oskar seems to sense there is something odd about Eli almost from the start, but it is this same oddness which draws him to her as a kindred spirit forced to face the harsh realities of life not uncommon to many of us as we grow up. These two slightly off-center characters realize how lucky they are to have found each other among a world often too hard to face alone. I could go on and on with praise for this film. The truth is, I cannot recommend Let The Right One In enough, it’s that good.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
In this continuation to the adventure of the demon superhero, an evil elf breaks an ancient pact between humans and creatures, as he declares war against humanity. He is on a mission to release The Golden Army, a deadly group of fighting machines that can destroy the human race. As Hell on Earth is ready to erupt, Hellboy and his crew set out to defeat the evil prince before The Golden Army can destroy humanity’s existence.
Del Toro gives us another glimpse into his fantastic imagination while also providing a fun bit of escapism that’s got humor, action, excitement, romance, and all the things you’d expect from a film that’s all about the enjoyment of movie-going.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
War threatens London as Miss Pettigrew, a destitute governess, filches a client’s card from her agency and presents herself at the door. A singer named Delysia Lafosse wants a social secretary as she seeks a West End role by sleeping with a feckless producer in the bed of Nick, a smarmy nightclub owner with whom she also dallies. She ignores Michael, her piano player, who loves her and has tickets for New York on the Queen Mary. Miss Pettigrew’s job is to make sure Delysia gets the part. Over 24 hours, Miss Pettigrew is also called upon to help an ambitious and unfaithful fashion editor patch things up with her older fiancé, a lingerie designer. Has Miss Pettigrew found her calling?
Amy Adams continues to show her considerable talent as the delightfully ditzy ingénue in this wonderful period piece with a message, co-starring one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood, Frances McDormand. This amazing little film shows that it is possible to make a period piece tale on a low budget without compromising quality. Very much looking forward to Ms. Adams’ next venture, Sunshine Cleaning, due early 2009.
Waltz With Bashir
One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. Every night, the same number of beasts. The two men conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early eighties. Ari is surprised that he can’t remember a thing anymore about that period of his life. Intrigued by this riddle, he decides to meet and interview old friends and comrades around the world. He needs to discover the truth about that time and about himself. As Ari delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, his memory begins to creep up in surreal images.
This film is a true original; an animated documentary narrative. This film from Israel tells about the atrocities of war in an area that has been ravaged by war for as long as I can remember paying any attention to the news, Gaza. It is an amazing film for its emotional depth, its visual strength, and its ability to blend seemingly contrasting genres into something which rises above much of its competition.
MR73 (The Last Deadly Mission)
A washed-up Marseilles cop (Auteuil) earns a chance at redemption by protecting a woman from the man who killed her parents as he is about to be released from prison.
Why is it the French do pathos and tragedy so well? Daniel Auteuil, growing a bit long in the tooth, gives us a very dubious character whom we cannot help but root for as he tries desperately to uncover a horrific murder mystery and maybe bring a couple of disreputable cops to justice at the same time. The cinematography sometimes is reminiscent of Seven, the action sequences are tightly choreographed, and the writing is some of the best from any foreign film released this year.
Ching toi (The Moss)
Jan (Shawn Yu) is one of the many dirty cops living in a very run-down area of Hong Kong. He’s so corrupt he’s really more like a gangster than a cop; self-serving and living aimlessly in this hellish section of the city, he is continually splitting his time doing working as a cop or jobs for the mob and offers protection to the prostitutes in exchange for sexual favors. Of all the girls working in his neighborhood, he fancies Lulu (Bonnie Xian) most. He finds her non-inquisitive and quiet nature comforting, and being with her like being someplace peaceful, where he can seek solace. Jan’s peaceful routine disappears when the son of local “Godmother” Chong (Susan Shaw) goes missing in a rival gang’s territory run by the Tong, an old friend of Jan’s. Along with his disappearance is a valuable green gemstone that was meant as a birthday gift from her son. Chong sends Jan to confront Tong (Liu Kai Chi). It is at this moment that a mysterious beggar (Louis Fan) makes an attempt to kill Tong.
This off-beat suspense film is less about cops than it is about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shawn Yue, a rising star among Hong Kong’s actor elite, gives one of his best performances as the confused young cop who can’t quite figure out right from wrong. Writer/director Kwok improves his filmmaking skills beyond his earlier Pye-Dog by going for complexities in the conflicts among his various characters, and ends up scoring a hit. Kwok is one to watch among the new crop of Chinese/Hong Kong filmmakers.
Guy Ritchie returns to perhaps his best genre, the crime film, with RocknRolla, starring Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, and Tom Wilkinson, to name but a few. Many critics and fans have been waiting for Ritchie to return to the standard set by his early films Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and this is it. I admit that I am one of the few who truly enjoyed Revolver, but RocknRolla is much closer to the kind of film his fans have long been waiting for. The major difference is his cast. Instead of Jason Statham we are treated to Gerard Butler, and actor who can not only play action and do so convincingly, but one who can also do humor and romance equally as convincingly. Other standouts in the cast include Mark Strong as Wilkinson’s elegant strongarm Archie, and Toby Kebbell as junkie rocker Johnny Quid, Wilkinson’s stepson and nemesis.
A mobster from the old school, Lenny (Wilkinson) knows the right wheels to grease and has his hand on the throat of any bureaucrat, broker or gangster that matters. With one phone call, Lenny can make the red tape disappear. But as Lenny’s right-hand man Archie (Mark Strong) tells him, London is ground zero for the changing times, with big-time mobsters from the East (Karel Roden), hungry criminals from the streets, and everyone in-between, all vying to change the rules of commerce and crime. With millions up for grabs, all of London’s criminal underworld conspires, colludes and collides with one another in an effort to take their cut. But as high rollers and petty criminals alike jockey for dominance, the true prize of one multi-million-dollar deal will fall into the hands of a junkie rock star (Toby Kebbell) - Lenny’s stepson, presumed dead but very much alive.
One thing Ritchie is good at is the sly and surprising convoluted plot, and he satisfies with that element in RocknRolla, yet does not overdo it. This film did not receive appropriate attention from its distributor.
Tony Stark is a billionaire industrialist and genius inventor who is kidnapped and forced to build a devastating weapon. Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and escapes captivity. When he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, he dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.
Favreau and Downey do Marvel Comics proud by giving us a film which both captures the spirit of the comic book character while adapting the story to the screen with style and sensitivity. The cast is near perfect and the special effects are some of the best without stealing the show from such capable actors as Paltrow and Downey, who solidly resuscitates his failing career.
Vietnam veteran John Rambo has survived many harrowing ordeals in his lifetime and has since withdrawn into a simple and secluded existence in Thailand, where he spends his time capturing snakes for local entertainers, and chauffeuring locals in his old PT boat. Even though he is looking to avoid trouble, trouble has a way of finding him: a group of Christian human rights missionaries, led by Michael Burnett and Sarah Miller, approach Rambo with the desire to rent his boat to travel up the river to Burma. For over fifty years, Burma has been a war zone. The Karen people of the region, who consist of peasants and farmers, have endured brutally oppressive rule from the murderous Burmese military and have been struggling for survival every single day. After some inner contemplation, Rambo accepts the offer and takes Michael, Sarah, and the rest of the missionaries up the river. When the missionaries finally arrive at the Karen village, they find themselves part of a raid by the sadistic Major Pa Tee Tint and a slew of Burmese army men. A portion of the villagers and missionaries are tortured and viciously murdered, while Tint and his men hold the remainder captive. Concerned by their disappearance, the minister in charge of the mission gathers a group of mercenaries and pleas Rambo transport them with his boat, since he knows their last exact location. But Rambo can’t stay behind: he joins the team where he belongs, to liberate the survivors from the clutches of Major Tint in what may be one of his deadliest missions ever.
As Clint Fletcher likes to tell me, I’m old… especially when I bring up history like this: back in the 80’s Stallone was often mocked by critics because nobody took him seriously. But here we are, some 20+ years later, and old Sly is proving he’s still got the uncanny ability to crank out a major action film. At sixty-something, he can still kick ass better than most kids 1/3 his age. He succeeds in making a superb action film where most would fail. Gotta hand it to him; this is one of the most pulse-pounding action films in a long, long time… and it’s all thanks to Sly.
Son of Rambow
SON OF RAMBOW is the name of the home movie made by two little boys with a big video camera and even bigger ambitions. Set on a long English summer in the early 80’s, SON OF RAMBOW is a comedy about friendship, faith and the tough business of growing up. We see the story through the eyes of Will, the eldest son of a fatherless Plymouth Brethren family. The Brethren regard themselves as God’s ‘chosen ones’ and their strict moral code means that Will has never been allowed to mix with the other ‘worldlies,’ listen to music or watch TV, until he finds himself caught up in the extraordinary world of Lee Carter, the school terror and maker of bizarre home movies. Carter exposes Will to a pirate copy of Rambo: First Blood and from that moment Will’s mind is blown wide open and he’s easily convinced to be the stuntman in Lee Carters’ diabolical home movie. Will’s imaginative little brain is not only given chance to flourish in the world of film making, but is also very handy when it comes to dreaming up elaborate schemes to keep his partnership with Lee Carter a secret from the Brethren community. Will and Carter’s complete disregard for consequences and innocent ambition means that the process of making their film is a glorious rollercoaster that eventually leads to true friendship. They start to make a name for themselves at school as movie makers but when popularity descends on them in the form of the Pied Piper-esque French exchange student, Didier Revol, their unique friendship and their precious film are pushed, quite literally, to breaking point.
Jennings has made a fantastic film about small kids with big dreams and in so doing has crafted a film that touches the hearts of audiences of all ages. The two lead actors are fantastic and the story will have you alternately laughing and concerned for their safety, but always wanting to know how it turns out and more importantly, do they get their film made?
THEY WEREN’T ALL THAT BAD
THE WORST FILMS OF 2008
A plot to kill Hitler. Well, I guess we all know how THAT turned out. Excuse me, what was the reason for making this film, again? Oh, yeah… that Scientologist is in it. The one who’s going to save MGM/UA with films like this and Lions For Lambs.
Punisher: War Zone
When your re-boot of a dark comic book film stars a lead actor who is less well-known than the first guy to star in the first telling (Dolph Lundgren), something is wrong. And when you wish you were watching that first, god-awful version instead of the latest remake, something is really wrong. This film is the poster child for the term, “unintentionally funny.”
In the ironically named town of Paradise, a recently laid-off loser teams up with his cult-leading uncle to steal a peculiar bounty of riches from their local amusement park; somehow, the recently arrived Taliban have a similar focus, but a far more sinister intent.
Only Uwe Boll could get financial backing to make a comedy film about all the things Homeland Security is worried about. Unfortunately, he took no inspiration for his script liberally from their operating manual, which means there’s nothing funny about this pathetic excuse for a film which was actually completed in 2007 and re-edited about a dozen times before release in 2008.
BUT NOT FOR ME
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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