Gold in the Desert: 2008 in Film
It seems as though 2007 and 2008 are mirror images of each other. 2007 was a year in which blockbuster summer entertainment hit an all-time low, with unimaginative sequels and threequels failing creatively left and right. However, there were a lot of great films that came out outside of the bloated summer mold that were fantastic, so many that putting together a list of my favorites that year was almost impossible and actually ranking them was out of the question. This year was the opposite, the summer movie season was the best in years, however the worthwhile offerings outside of that mold were few and far between with a lot of movies doing little more than fishing for awards and masquerading as great cinema during the fall season. Still, every year has some great movies to offer , you just have to pan for gold rather than looking for it in plain sight.
5. Quantum of Solace
- It seemed inevitable that Daniel Craig’s sophomore outing as James Bond would be underwhelming. Like his two immediate predecessors, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, Craig had an impressive and exciting debut, however the follow-up is almost the opposite. Marc Forster’s direction is pretentious and dull as his camera movements mindlessly ape the work of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, making the action scenes a jumbled, jerky mess. The plot was so uninteresting and inconsequential that Die Another Day‘s fantastically idiotic narrative looks appealing by comparison; it’s a shock that it was dreamed up by the same team that brought us Casino Royale. This film is just as out of tune from beginning to end as the terrible opening song by Alicia Keyes and Jack White, making this what is easily the worst Bond offering in a long while.
- This movie seemed poised to be an interesting comment on the overcrowded market of superhero blockbusters, but instead opted to join its loud, special effects-laden brethren. The main thing that separates Hancock from those movies is that Hancock is far worse. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the movie had stuck to its misanthropic superhero-guns displayed during the first half. However a “twist” comes out of left field midway through the movie, initiating some bad CGI battles and some terrible melodrama that drags anything good this movie had going for it down into the mud drowing it like a diseased rat. This is one that could have been, but never will be.
3. 10,000 BC
- I’ve always longed for a good big-budget pre-historic caveman flick, sadly 10,000 BC is not the bygone genre romp I’ve been waiting for. Starting off with a rambling, phoned-in voiceover by Omar Sharif, this movie features talented actors such as Cliff Curtis attempting to speak to each other in what sounds like a combination of whispering and shouting. Combine that with lifeless direction courtesy of Roland Emmerich and silly wigs left over from the set of Stargate, and you have a stinky turd that’s only purpose is to take up shelf space at the video store.
2. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
- Between Brendan Frasier screaming his dialogue, Maria Bello doing an awful English accent, Jet Li’s enormous talents being wasted in cartoon form, and yetis that are comically familiar with American football culture is me, wondering why I was stupid enough to see this movie.
1. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
- Kevin Smith used to be the only game in town for comedies involving nebbish and/or nerdy protagonists, however Hollywood has since caught up with Mr. Smith, as there are writers and directors out there now doing what he does, except they’re doing it better than he is capable of. Enter Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith’s latest effort combining the hot comedy stars of today, like Seth Rogen and Justin Long, with his usual stable of players and a premise involving the titular leads doing the titular dirty on film. The result is one of the more idiotic and misogynistic comedies of the year, with Smith phoning in a script containing characters that are so incredibly unlikable that I couldn’t wait to be rid of their company. What’s even worse is that there is one scene in the film involving Justin Long as a gay porn star that is incredibly funny, but at the end of the day all it did was make me hate the rest of the movie even more for being an obnoxious, unfunny bore.
THE GUILTY PLEASURE
Punisher: War Zone
- This was one of the most entertaining movies I saw at the cinema all year. It’s morally questionable on multiple levels, it has a group of bad guys that clearly feel that chewing the scenery is too subtle, and action scenes that are so violently excessive that it makes Reagan-era shoot-’em-ups look modest by comparison. This is the closest anyone has come to making a true Punisher movie, and even though it is silly, it’s still a blast to watch.
What’s this? A film from the west involving martial arts that actually has something to say about…martial arts? No, this isn’t Lau Kar Leung making his Hollywood debut (although the fight scenes could’ve used his flair), Redbelt is actually the latest film by David Mamet, who apparently is really into this stuff. The story is about martial arts instructor Mike Terry (played by the always excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) who refuses to fight for money or fame, however a series of unfortunate events involving a troubled cop, a nervous rape victim, a Hollywood actor (played by Tim Allen of all people), and some sleazy fight promoters, leaves him in a metaphorical choke hold that he must fight his way out of, the way he teaches cops to reverse them in everyday life. A lot of people have crapped on this movie, specifically because of its ending, which is a major departure from Mamet’s usual anti-Hollywood endings, however Mamet isn’t making Glengarry Glen Ross, and what comes in the end is certainly earned. Featuring a supporting cast of Mamet regulars such as magician Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Joe Mantegna, Redbelt is a one-of-a-kind martial arts film to come out of the west that covers its topic intelligently, making it one of the more refreshing and interesting movies I saw this year.
9. The Dark Knight
- Even if it should also be awarded with “Most Overrated Movie of the Year”, The Dark Knight is still a fantastic piece of work, with powerhouse performances not only from the late Heath Ledger, but from the entire cast, which consists entirely of heavyweight actors and actresses. Even if the film succumbs to moral and thematic grandstanding, Christopher Nolan’s direction is otherwise superb, channeling the likes of Michael Mann’s Heat simlar to how he channeled Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in Batman Begins. While it’s sure to start an annoying trend of studios shoehorning darker themes and visual stylings into their comic book properties, it still doesn’t take away from what is Batman’s best run of films yet.
8. Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being an American
- While I enjoy movies about baseball, I really couldn’t care less about sports, so when I heard about Bigger, Stronger, Faster, the documentary on steroids in American athletics by bodybuilder Chris Bell, it went in one ear and out the other. However, I have recently become very interested in bodybuilding, so when this movie popped up on NetFlix, I decided to give it a shot. What I got was an extremely entertaining and informative film that was not only educational on the different kinds of drug practices that go on in athletics (from steroid abuse to blood doping), but was also an essay on what it says about the American image in general. Bell juxtaposes fantasy in the form of the training montage from Rocky IV with the truth about how America and the Soviet Union really competed in the Olympics, contrasting American myth and reality in a simple and effective way. The film examines the use of steroids in sports putting drug use into perspective, thus showing how it relates to the contemporary evolution of American mythology and pop culture.
7. Repo! The Genetic Opera
- I saw a lot of movies in the theater that could be described as “strange” or “different” this year, but I didn’t see anything else nearly as psychotic or bizarre as Repo! The Genetic Opera. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (of all people), Repo! features a diverse and strange cast, consisting of the likes of Buffy veteran Anthony Stewart Head, Sarah Brightman (yes, THAT Sarah Brightman), spy kid Alexa Vega, Bill “Chop Top” Moseley, goodfella Paul Sorvino, and Ogre from the band Skinny Puppy. Oh yeah, and Paris Hilton is in there as well, playing what is practically a foil of her public persona. The film is a futuristic rock opera about a company called GeneCo that will finance your organs with a monthly payment plan, however if a payment is missed, the Repo Man will come and take the organs back by force, using his trusty scalpel. A Shakespearean plot ensues involving conflicts over power and unrequited love, all fleshed out through song and comic book interludes. While it’s a deeply flawed film, it’s one made with freewheeling passion that creates a carnival of chaos for you to behold with your (hopefully paid-off) eyeballs.
6. The Fall
- Tarsem’s return to feature filmmaking after his ill-fated debut The Cell is one that is more suited to the man’s unique visual talents. Beautifully shot, every frame of this film is filled with wonder, passion and imagination, it’s the movie that people erroneously thought Pan’s Labyrinth was. Most fantasies and fairy tales that are marketed towards adults feature neutered, bleak color schemes and cinematography in a lazy attempt to telegraph to the audience that what they are watching isn’t for kids, and is meant to be taken seriously by an adult audience. Tarsem doesn’t play that game. This is a fantasy filled with vibrant colors, fully embracing the fantastic, rather than downplaying it for the cynics. Strangely enough, this was a movie that was not well received critically, however the negative criticism of this movie is almost universally lazy, using snarky, unfounded terms to describe it, many critics dismissing its visual style by comparing it to “a perfume commercial.” I brought up the fact that these ridiculous criticisms were coming up in a conversation with Playtime contributor Daniel Davis, the man who pointed me towards this film. Being the ball of brevity that he is, he simply replied “I don’t have time for people who don’t like The Fall.” I guess I don’t either.
- Lately it seems that a lot of the horror movies worth watching are coming from France, but the cream of the crop that made its way to the United States this year was Inside, which is easily the meanest slasher flick in ages. The very premise of this film is one that is going to keep mainstream audiences away, and what lies in store for audiences is a movie that is literally choking on its own blood. The plot is simple: a woman who is nine-months pregnant finds herself being chased through her own home on Christmas Eve by a scissor-wielding woman in black. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury keep this movie tight and lean, indulging only in the gore and the suspense, while the cinematography by Laurent Barès makes the whole film feel as though it takes place in the womb, only adding to the sense of danger as the main character finds herself being invaded by her attacker on multiple levels. This one comes highly recommended to those with a strong stomach that are always on the lookout for something freaky to watch, because this is a rare one that really delivers the goods.
4. Frozen River
- The term “indie” is often misapplied these days. After the explosion of American independent cinema in the late eighties and early nineties and the advent of studios like Miramax, Hollywood has figured out ways to pre-package indie movies the same way they figured out how to pre-package genre cinema in the late seventies, practically shoehorning indie movies into its own genre. It seems that almost annually audiences are hit with the “little movie that could,” a Little Miss Sunshine or a Juno, a film that takes all of the stereotypical elements of what is considered to be indie cinema (dysfunction, awkwardness), along with a color scheme (an example being orange, green, and white for Juno) and boom, you have a “little independent film” that has some big names in it that will probably end up winning Best Screenplay at the Oscars.
Thanks to this syndrome, real quality independent cinema often comes and goes unnoticed, but there is always gold out there, even in the dry cinematic desert that was 2008. Writer/director Courtney Hunt’s feature debut is an excellent one, a reminder of what American independent cinema can be. I love it when films delve into a part of American culture that you never see depicted, and that’s exactly what Hunt does here, showing us the life of a single mom who gets mixed up in Native American smuggling across a frozen river on the border of New York state and Canada in order for her to make a better life for her kids. Melissa Leo, a fantastic actress who really gets a chance to show her chops here, gives a great performance that is worthy of the Oscar that she has been nominated for. Say what you will about the Academy, but it’s always nice to see something from a truly independent movie get a tip of the hat, rather than this year’s Hollywood equivalent of Juno.
- In a time when movies are full of cynicism, it’s good to see a film that is so optimistic. Sally Hawkins’ performance is a real treasure, and in many other films, her nature would be portrayed as overly cute, but something to be balanced out by a strong-willed man. However writer/director Mike Leigh never allows the character to be compromised, and this might bother narrow-minded adherents to the three-act structure. This movie really offers is more reminiscent of the character-driven films of the seventies, leaving out any overarching conflict to make it more digestible for mainstream audiences. Watching a movie like this is like taking a cool shower after a being outside on a hot, humid day. It’s refreshing and life-affirming.
2. Speed Racer
- Every summer movie season it seems that out of all of the big-budget blockbusters that fill the overstuffed multiplexes, there is always one that that comes out in theaters to a resounding thud, making very little money whilst getting gleefully savaged by the critics. Most of these clunkers probably deserve it, as they are often unimaginative, banal films. Unfortunately, this year the movie devoured by the critical horde was Speed Racer, which was easily the most entertaining and imaginative thing that Hollywood put out this year.
Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, returning to their directors’ chairs for the first time since The Matrix Revolutions, the siblings have created an eye-popping orgy of colors, images, and innovative editing that comes together crafting one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had watching a blockbuster in a good while. Underneath the virtuoso visuals, the film has positive themes and a story that kept my attention. It’s the closest live action has ever come to the capturing the outlandish and imaginative insanity of Japanese animation, blending live action and CGI the way it was meant to be done. If you missed this one, ignore the small-minded criticism of it by the trolls in the mainstream press and see it with an open mind.
1. Let the Right One In
- For those who haven’t crossed this movie’s threshold, the less known the better. Let the Right One In is a vampire film from Sweden. It hit theaters here around the same time as Twilight, offering the perfect alternative programming to the pop-tween angst vampires in the pop-culture zeitgeist. Imagine Ingmar Bergman directing a vampire film, except with little kids instead of bourgeois yuppies, and you might imagine something like this film. Director Tomas Alfredson gives the movie a pace that is practically glacial, but the movie’s slow burn is enjoyable and makes the explosions of supernatural vampire violence even more intense. However, the best thing about this movie is the performances. People often excuse terrible acting from child actors because, well, they’re children. The two leads in this film happen to be child actors, and they pulled out two of the best performances I’ve seen all year. What this movie ultimately turns out to be is a coming of age story, and I’m a sucker for those, especially when they’re done as well as they are here.
Edited by Daniel Davis