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From Dark Knight to M. Night, here are ’08’s best and worst

by Glen Baity

From Dark Knight to M. Night, here are ‘08’s best and worst

I admit, after Ghost Rider and two Fantastic Four movies, I was ready to call it quits on the funnybook adaptations. But 2008, you made a believer out of me again. A triumphant Batman movie was only one part of what proved to be a pretty excellent year in American cinema. I haven’t yet seen everything I wanted to see (Synecdoche, will you ever make it to Greensboro?), but there was a lot to love in 2008 regardless. Here are my favorites:

10) Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr.’s big comeback set the bar high for blockbuster season. This hot-rod popcorn flick was wall-to-wall fun, and everything a summer movie should be.

9) Revolutionary Road. What if Jack had survived that run-in with the iceberg? He and Rose might have ended up in this picket-fenced hell. Kate and Leo reunite for the first time in a decade for a smoldering adaptation of Richard Yates’ suburban gothic. Their lovers’ war might have been overwrought in other hands, but in Sam Mendes’ film, it just feels uncomfortably real, difficult to watch and impossible to forget.

8) Persepolis. Technically a 2007 release, this animated stunner didn’t show up in Greensboro until February, so I’m seizing the chance to highlight it one more time. At turns somber and joyful, and always powered by a dissident’s heart, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography of a young punk rocker growing up under Sharia law is a knockout.

7) Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway is at her best — if not her most likeable — as the black sheep in this weighty drama about love, loss and unrelenting regret. Jonathan Demme’s lyrical film lures you in slowly; by the end you’re one of the family, for better or for worse.

6) American Teen. Nanette Burstein’s documentary was largely ignored, which is a shame — it’s probably the most moving, entertaining film about high school life I’ve ever seen. This true(ish) story about clique-conscious teens in the middle of nowhere calls to mind the warts-and-all memories we all have of our formative years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll cringe, all at the same time.

5) The Wrestler. Believe the hype: Mickey Rourke is amazing as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up king of the squared circle. Bad knees and a bum ticker be damned, he refuses to go down quietly. Darren Aronofsky’s film is rockribbed poetry, a requiem for a muscleman that pulls no punches and tells no lies. Unmissable.

4) Milk. Heartbreaking and uplifting, Gus Van Sant’s biopic of the slain gay rights leader is suitably brave and insightful. Sean Penn is at his wry best in the haunting title role, playing a man who never let the bastards get him down, even in death.

3) Let the Right One In. Sick of vampires? Take just one more drink with this Swedish chiller and you won’t regret it. Less a horror film than a love story with a body count, Tomas Alfredsson’s movie will stick with you like an undead soulmate.

2) WALL-E. No studio but Pixar could summon so much magic from Earth’s last remaining occupant: a childlike trash compactor who falls in puppy love with a killer iPod. WALL-E and EVE’s fireextinguisher space dance is one of my favorite film moments of 2008, but it’s only one memorable scene of many. A visual marvel, a masterpiece of dystopian science fiction and a great kid’s movie, all in one package.

1) The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s final performance is the stuff legends are made of, but it doesn’t overshadow Chris Nolan’s definitive portrayal of the Caped Crusader and the lunatics who pursue him. The epic story is crowded with big personalities, but it never feels rushed or claustrophobic. Nolan’s Gotham is vividly realized, a city lousy with crime and corruption, and one that is also worth saving. It all adds up to a film that is, without question, the best comic-book adaptation ever made, and my favorite movie of 2008.

Honorable Mention:

Pineapple Express. Maybe you’re a little tired of Seth Rogen, and maybe I can’t blame you for that. But you can’t deny James Franco’s goofy stoner, who runs away with this bizarre, frequently entertaining action-comedy.

Doubt. I am no Meryl Streep fan, but watching her spar with Phillip Seymour Hoffman is wicked fun in this engrossing battle of wits. A weak ending knocked it out of the Top 10, but there’s still plenty to like here, including a wonderfully credulous Amy Adams.

Frost/Nixon. Speaking of battles of wits, Ron Howard stages a great one. Frank Langella captures Dick at his trickiest, and Michael Sheen is great as David Frost, a cream-puff TV host who somehow rose to the task of prosecuting Nixon for an angry nation.

Burn After Reading. The Coen Brothers’ latest was dark, weird and, like all their best work, a little off-putting. It was also hysterical, thanks to an airheaded Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as — what else? — a couple of bargain-basement con artists in way too deep.

It wasn’t all transcendent. Not to be outdone, here are a handful of 2008’s

Worst:

The Happening. Pretension, thy name is Shyamalan. M. Night’s eco-horror takes the prize for most ludicrous premise, exacerbated by Mark Wahlberg’s laughout-loud earnestness and the director’s newfound love of splatter. Spoiler alert! It sucks. Swing Vote. This mealy-mouthed political fable was an instant anachronism, made somehow worse by the nasty real-world political season that followed in its wake. Kevin Costner’s Bud might have forecast the Joe the Plumber nonsense two months in advance, but that’s not exactly something to brag about. And a few others that made me cry, snore or claw at my eyes: Max Payne, Fool’s Gold, Bangkok Dangerous, Speed Racer, Smart People, Doomsday and 10,000 BC. Say what you will about their abundant clich’s, feeble stabs at comedy, and lame CGI: Despite their best efforts, it was still a very good year.

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