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Jan 5, 2009

BEST AND WORST FILMS OF 2008 (and everything in between)

It's that time, end of the year where everyone is creating their best and worst of 2008 film lists, so why should I be any different.

So here it is...the 2008 edition.

BEST OF 2008

1) WALL-E (Walt Disney/Pixar)

Further proof that Pixar is the company with the best creative minds and output in all entertainment. In WALL-E Pixar has created a touching and heartwarming movie, making computer generated robots into more real and fleshed out characters than many of the live-action films that came out this year (or any year for that matter).

They also managed to sneak an environmental message in without being preachy. I also give Pixar kudos from not pulling any punches in their commentary on what they see as our increasingly fat, lazy and consumer-driven society. This movie is pure magic.

Currently available on Disney Blu-Ray and DVD.

2) SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Fox Searchlight)

Full disclosure -- I am not a fan of Danny Boyle's work. I am probably going to be scolded for this, but I hated TRAINSPOTTING (still do), and haven't liked any of his other films at all either -- until this one.

In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Danny Boyle has fashioned a unique love story, one set against a world of intense poverty and a ruthless class system. Not only is this film beautifully written and acted, but it also has extremely exciting and effective sound design and editing techniques which really push the story forward in a dynamic way. It's one of the most engaging movies I have had the pleasure of viewing in a while.

Still playing in theaters, no Blu-Ray or DVD release date yet.

3) GRAN TORINO (Warner Bros.)

It's amazing that Clint Eastwood who is well into his 70s can manage not only to pump out 2 big movies this year (the other was THE CHANGELING) but do so in such a short period of time. GRAN TORINO was shot, edited and released within just a few months (production began just this past July, and the movie was released in December) while THE CHANGELING was still in post.

Clint makes great use out of untried actors, which brings a simplicity and realism to his films. Not only that, but somehow in GRAN TORINO Clint makes a crusty, out-of-touch and out-spoken racist man sympathetic. It's a movie that really captures the essence of our rapidly changing and increasingly splintered and violent society.

Playing in select cities, opens wide January 9. No Blu-Ray or DVD release date as of yet.

4) IN BRUGES (Focus Features)

Anyone remember that this movie came out this year? Having been released in February, it seems that the critics and awards people are overlooking this gem of a film -- and it was nice to see something so good be released in the commonly dead winter months.

IN BRUGES has been on DVD for a while, and is definitely worth checking out. The cast composed of Ralph Fiennes, Collin Farrell and Brendan Gleason are in top form, and never has a location been so brilliantly interwoven into a plot like Bruges is in this story.

5) MAN ON WIRE (Magnolia)

Not only is this an uplifting documentary in a time where it seems every other documentary is about Iraq (or bad misguided opinion movies made by Michael Moore), but it plays out like a heist movie.
The movie also allows us to look back on a place of great tragedy, and remember that there are also fond memories of it as well. The tragedy is never mentioned or even alluded to, but a shot with a plane in the background, did get the reaction of a few gasps in the audience.
That main figure himself that did the actual crossing is so energetic and full of life and personality, you can't help but be caught up in his tale.

Currently available on DVD.

6) THE WRESTLER (Fox Searchlight)

Mickey Rourke seems so perfect in this role, and it's just a really engaging character piece. Darren Aronofsky makes these characters -- Rourke as as aging wrestler, Marisa Tomei as an aging stripper -- look like they have been through the meat grinder (and I'm sure it's not a coincidence that Rourke's character uses a meat grinder at one point in the movie) of life but never do they come off as pathetic and you really want the best for them. He also steers away from focusing on the actual professions that they are in, never taking a stance as to whether or not Wrestling is bad, but stays focused on the characters and their story.

Currently in theaters, there is no Blu-Ray or DVD release date set as of yet.

7) THE DARK KNIGHT (Warner Bros.)

Ok, so a big budget summer super-hero blockbuster has invaded my top 10 list (in fact there are 2...see #10) and not only that, it has invaded the critic's awards, their lists and no doubt will be on the Academy list as well.

Christopher Nolan's follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS is a triumph from beginning to end. Never before have I seen a character like Heath's Joker in a comic book movie where you feel that indeed the citizens of Gotham face danger at every turn, and the hero has to stay on his toes to keep up. Heath's Joker also made me kind of forget Jack Nicholson's turn at the role in 1989, which at the time, many people thought was the absolute ideal casting of the character. Heath not only took that mantle from him, but made it impossible for anyone to follow in his footsteps, not to mention any further BATMAN movies will really have to excel to reach the levels that this movie has reached.

The movie is jam packed with some very tense moments, not to mention some of the best acting ever in a comic-book adaption.

The movie is currently on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is being re-released in theaters (both regular and IMAX) later this month.

8) THE VISITOR (Overture Films)

Another movie kind of being forgotten by the end-of-year critics, which is surprising since it got a lot of attention when it was released this past summer.

A great "small" drama dealing with the ever present "illegal immigration" issue, and a great performance from an actor that is usually stuck in supporting roles -- cops and fathers mostly (he's the Father in STEP BROTHERS for instance).

Currently available on DVD.

9) DOUBT (Miramax)

Combine acting powerhouses like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and new cinema can-do-no-wrong (so far) Amy Adams and any script you give them is going to sound like Shakespeare. Seriously though, this thought provoking drama is another movie where the actions aren't so important as the reactions of the characters.

It isn't quite as noticeable as it is in say SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, but the sound design goes a long way in creating the atmosphere for this movie in a very subtle manner.

Currently playing in theaters, no Blu-Ray or DVD release date as of yet.

10) IRON MAN (Marvel Studios/Paramount)

As mentioned earlier, summer super-hero blockbuster #2 to make my top 10 list. Not only that, it really was the first summer movie this year, and what a great start it was.

Robert Downey, Jr. is truly the instrument that makes IRON MAN such a great film. The movie also benefits from strong direction from Jon Favreau who treats the material more seriously than just your standard comic book adaptation.

Would have been the comic book adaptation of the year, if that pesky THE DARK KNIGHT hadn't come along and stolen all of its thunder.

Available on both Blu-Ray and DVD.

HONORABLE MENTION

TROPIC THUNDER (Dreamworks/Paramount)

This was Robert Downey, Jr's year for sure. First IRON MAN, and then this. Not to mention some great moments with Tom Cruise in a fat suit. Some very surprising moments, and really just a very funny solid satire that was right on the mark.

KUNG FU PANDA
(Dreamworks Animation/Paramount)

Dreamworks Animation had a solid contender this year against powerhouse Pixar's WALL-E with KUNG FU PANDA. Even the super-star powered voices (Jackie Chan, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, etc.) didn't drown out the charm of this movie. In fact, in most cases I didn't know that some of those actors were even the talent behind their respective character! Will have you saying SKADOOSH for days.

Currently available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

W. (Lionsgate)

Oliver Stone's bio-pic of the (when released -- depending on when you're reading this) still sitting President George W. Bush didn't generate much heat, but it packs quite a wallop even if it is one of the director's more under-stated outings.

It was a bold move making and releasing this film while the President is still in office, but that only amplifies the absurdity of the situation that this man who (in Stone's opinion) not being the brightest guy, got himself to be the leader of the free world. There were complaints of many of the actors being too much of a caricature of the figures they were playing, but I think that is what Stone was going for as there are many moments when this movie feels like it is theater of the absurd (and I still say Thandie Newton's awkward portrayal as Condoleezza Rice is the key to the whole thing).

This is a movie that will probably be revisited in a few years or so, and looking back I think many will see why it was a movie that had to made when it was.

Will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on February 10, 2009.

BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE YEAR (a.k.a. SURPRISINGLY BETTER THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN)

RAMBO (Lionsgate)

I was very surprised by this movie. I personally thought ROCKY BALBOA was going to be the Stallone sequel to watch, instead it was RAMBO a film that really captures some of the horrors of war in areas of the world that don't get much attention, and the alienation of the John Rambo character. Not to mention on top of that, the insane and extremely bloody body count caused by both the bad guys and (of course) Rambo himself.

Currently available on both Blu-Ray and DVD.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR (with the highest expectations)

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (Lucasfilm/Paramount)

Coming into 2009, this was quite possibly the most anticipated movie, especially by those of us who are in the STAR WARS generation. Actually, if it not for the reaction to George Lucas and his messing with the original STAR WARS trilogy and the lukewarm and almost hostile reaction to the STAR WARS prequels, I think the anticipation of this movie would have been very close to the furor caused by THE PHANTOM MENACE.

This was one of the movies I couldn't wait to see not to mention all the merchandising surrounding it especially the soundtrack. Instead it was all just one big massive let down and where to begin. Shia LaBeouf swinging with the monkeys is a good place...not to mention a really weak plot surrounding an alien artifact, sending Indy and crew from one uninspired action scene to the next which even the great re-appearance of Karen Black's Marion Ravenwood character couldn't save. Even the score was weak.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

THE WORST OF 2008

1) THE HAPPENING (20th Century Fox)

I dislike M. Night Shyamalan's films to begin with (with the exception of THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE is only now starting to grow on me) but even with that this film was just one big laughable joke. No tension, terrible acting and a story line and sequences that were just so absurd, instead of being afraid the audience was howling (the old lady in the house at the end especially). This was even worse than 2006's LADY IN THE WATER which I believe also made my worst of list.

2) SPEED RACER (Warner Bros.)

Ahh the Wachowskis, the geniuses behind THE MATRIX. What they would do with this beloved adaption of the popular anime I watched religiously as a child. Well the MATRIX Wachowskis showed up alright, too bad it was the Wachowski brothers who brought us the truly awful THE MATRIX RELOADED and MATRIX REVOLUTIONS.

If you want to talk about a complete mess of a movie, this is a textbook example. The car races defy any sort of physics and are impossible to follow. I will give credit to some of the editorial techniques and color scheme of the movie, but overall this movie was just one big loud and confusing disaster.

3) HANCOCK (Columbia Pictures)

This movie gave me a glimmer of hope...a hope that was dashed very early on into the film. After advertising it as one thing (and a good premise at that) the movie skews off into a wild tangent (thank you BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II for allowing me to use "skews" and "tangent" in a sentence) that just abandons the premise, and loses the audience in the process.

4) THE LOVE GURU (Paramount Pictures)

I happen to like the AUSTIN POWERS series, even GOLDMEMBER (it was better than THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, that is for sure). So I was kind of looking forward to seeing this new Mike Myers original character -- and especially a movie that revolves around the Toronto Maple Leafs perhaps winning the Stanley Cup (talk about improbable). But right from the opening moments, this movie degenerates into nasty and unnecessary toilet humor. Brooms drenched with urine, penis references, fart and feces noises, elephant copulation..you name it and it's here. Not to mention that on top of all that, the movie is just really, really bad.

5) EAGLE EYE (Dreamworks/Paramount)

And here I thought nothing could be as bad as Shia LaBeouf swinging with the monkeys in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Here we have Shia being dragged along by some unseen force, being made to break laws in order to stay alive. There is a car chase early on in the film that is just so over the top and so incredibly unbelievable, I was pretty much hating the film well before the second act which was a whole lot worse. Actors such as Rosario Dawson and Billy Bob Thornton are wasted in really stupid roles that insult their and our intelligence.

6) RIGHTEOUS KILL (Overture Films)

Take 2 legendary Academy Award winning actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, team them up and then give them a really bland script that has all the nuances of a bad cable TV movie. This movie almost made me sad watching these two powerhouses reduced to material like this, and made me realize that perhaps their day has truly come to an end.

7) WANTED (Universal)

There are so many reasons to dislike this movie -- like stunts and injuries that defy any sort of real world physics and characters with abilities that are never really fully explained or rationalized. But I can truly sum up the real reason this movie is so laughably bad, and that is "loom of fate."

Enough said.

8) ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (The Weinstein Company)

Kevin Smith makes his regular appearance on my "worst of" list. Here he has made a bland, unfunny romantic comedy about 2 roommates who have unspoken love for each other, and find it while making a porno. No chemistry between the characters and more butt, penis and urine jokes (although I think THE LOVE GURU still beats it in that category).

Oh, did I mention that a character ends up having someone take a crap on his face? Oh yeah, that's there too.

9) MAMMA MIA (Universal)

This movie made a killing at the box office and it made want to cry, but not in a good way. Very poorly plotted story made to fit so that the characters can break into Abba songs at any given moment comes to the silver screen from the stage, and stinks it up royally. Then Pierce Brosnan starts singing his solo, and that's when the true horror begins.

10) CLOVERFIELD (Paramount)

I know a few people who are going to scold me for this one (Alex, I know you're fuming right now) but CLOVERFIELD was a gimmick in search of a movie.

11) QUANTUM OF SOLACE (MGM/United Artists/Sony)

So the same people who are going to be mad at me for #10, are also going to be upset at this one.

Following up one of the best Bond film in years which virtually re-energized the franchise, the filmmakers decided to make this a two-part story continuing from CASINO ROYALE. Here we have James Bond who comes off as a nasty thug rather than a suave secret agent. Sure he beds a couple of women, and gets into some daring car chases and fabulous action sequences....but the movie lacked several things that make the Bond franchise so appealing. There was a weak villain (although the actor played it to the hilt, charging Boliva more for water hardly seems like a grandiose plan for a Bond villain) and even worse, a really, really, really bad Bond girl. I liked the fact the movie started in the middle of an action sequence (clever, original), but then the movie really never found its footing from that point on, and kind of plays like one big action sequence, driven by heavy action and light on story.

Luckily the Bond franchise is resiliant, and hopefully the next entry will be better.