Assigning some meaning to the 2008 movie year is difficult, because it didn’t have much meaning. In basic terms, 2008 was an exhausted climax. The year before was full of trilogy cappers (Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Shrek the Third, Ocean’s 13). Indiewood had a crossover blockbuster with Juno, which came out late 2007. Transformers was the giant summer tent-pole. The box-office failure of Grindhouse showed the limited power of an internet fanbase. Judd Apatow fulfilled his New Year’s resolution of signing his name to as many comedies as possible. Two-thousand-eight was about restarting, and finding new footing. Much of it wasn’t great, but a lot pointed in interesting directions.
First-half syndromeSo much of the best stuff in ’08 was from movies that were half-successful. This is because movies often start with alluring concepts, but aren’t well-honed into full scripts. Usually, films get lost in their mid-section. But this year they suffered from First-Half Syndrome. It’s fun watching Will Smith be a smart-ass superhero in Hancock, but then a back story about Charlize Theron and a villain no one cares about pads out the back half. WALL-E living on his home planet offered the year’s most eloquent silent moviemaking, but then it introduces humans and delivers a limp retread of Idiocracy’s future satire. Synecdoche, New York is intriguing until it becomes only intrigued with itself. Step Brothers is a lot of fun until its makers stop imposing any guidelines. And Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull offers prime Spielberg set-pieces before George Lucas takes the driver’s seat.
Most disappointing movieThe most disappointing movie of the year is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though its quality is erratic. (Again, haters don’t know what’s up: The “nuke the fridge” scene is amazing, and the ’50s sci-fi element of an alien invasion is not out of character.) In fairness, Indie is partly the recipient of the Most Disappointing honours on accord of this being my nom for Most Anticipated Movie of My Lifetime.
Stop hating on ironyI understand the argument. In the early years of this decade, sarcasm was taken too far. Nothing seemed sincere, and movies like Sugar and Spice, Joe Dirt, Guy Ritchie-style crime films (though Ritchie’s ’08 entry RocknRolla is terrific) and TV shows like The Family Guy traded soul for disaffected anomie. But irony, when done right, is inherently satiric. It believes in an ideal, and requires writers to express their feelings about the world and be clever. More movies this year needed that boost in personality. Watching Cloverfield on opening night, I kept thinking, “Is this it?” How did the first “hip” movie of 2008 get away with being so witless?
A friend to all is a friend to noneIt’s part of a larger trend of movies wanting to appease everyone. Now that the internet has democratized film criticism (and this could be a good thing, but it isn’t), and websites like Ain’t It Cool don’t realize the immorality of reviewing unproduced scripts, studios fear taking risks. It’s why Iron Man is so highly acclaimed. Despite a standout performance by Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man’s greatest asset is that it doesn’t do anything terribly wrong. Iron Man was more fun than The Incredible Hulk, but a little less so than Hellboy II and Punisher: War Zone---comic book movies that stumble more because they risk more. It pays off the other way, too: The Dark Knight risks more than all those movies, and in some circles it’s the movie of the year.
The Day the Earth Stood Still would be twice the movie it is with a tenth more personality. The remake of Robert Wise’s benchmark film boasts one good scene (alien Keanu Reeves not knowing he’s supposed to be startled when a man is stabbed), and one nice visual (the giant robot, Gort). But the movie ends up going through gutless motions: moralizing on the state of humankind without expressing the problem with it. I guess there was no room in the budget left for imagination.
Following bad buzz for Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan tried to give people what he thought they wanted. The Happening is Shyamalan’s effort to recapture his thriller audience from The Sixth Sense and Signs. But clearly his heart is no longer in this material---evidenced by how he resorts to B-movie sensationalism just to keep himself awake. The fear of not pleasing everybody led Shyamalan to make the least interesting movie of his career.
Comedy renaissanceIf many genres couldn’t get their acts together and be exciting, then comedies reigned in 2008. Admittedly, they had a lot to ridicule. The very best of them achieved a balance of being over-the-top and subtle. Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2 and Burn After Reading marked the sharpest social satire since Mars Attacks!. In their understanding of human ambition and folly, these movies reinstated the credibility of irony.
On the softer side, Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind had a community finding its own art through the populist appeal of movies. CJ7, from superstar Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), brought big laughs and feeling to the story of a boy’s moral growth during his friendship with a dog-like alien. Even Role Models was funny and endearing in its identification between anti-social males.
Stealing thunderA comedy directed by Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder, had more thrilling, coherent action scenes than the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace, Death Race and Transporter 3. Bonus: It was also funnier.
ConfessionA heated argument broke out at a screening of the Jessica Alba thriller The Eye. The point of debate was whether a middle-aged man deliberately bodychecked a teenager who kept running up and down the aisle, or whether he was just getting up to go to the bathroom. Though this did not affect my opinion of The Eye, it made the film-going experience 12 percent more interesting.
Confession #2Despite my efforts to cover as many films as possible, I could not drag myself to see Beverly Hills Chihuahua. This is not to be taken as a judgement on that movie, which may have been great.
Breakthrough starsDanny McBride (Pineapple Express, The Foot Fist Way, Tropic Thunder) and Melonie Diaz (Be Kind Rewind, Hamlet 2, Nothing Like the Holidays).
Memorable scenes and imagesA rebellious penguin breaks from the herd and walks to its certain death in Encounters at the End of the World.George W. Bush imagines a crowd’s roar as he stands in an empty baseball stadium in W. Indiana Jones is framed against a mushroom cloud, uniting two iconic images.A man and woman return from underground hell into the daylight in Mother of Tears. Outer space is reflected in the robot WALL-E’s eyes.German radio propaganda blares from the sky like the voice of god, attempting to break the spirit of marching soldiers in Miracle at St. Anna.The Joker sticks his head out the car window like a dog, joyriding in The Dark Knight. The jaw scene in Mirrors. Daughter Kym’s presence sullies dining room family bliss in Rachel Getting Married. The Mayor of Whoville discovers the scope of the universe upon hearing Horton’s voice.
Movies I never want to see againBlindnessAustraliaCloverfieldRighteous KillSemi-Pro
Best movies that didn’t play theatrically in HalifaxCJ7HoneydripperMy Blueberry Nights
Best movies of 2008Look for my definitive list on January 8.