Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hammer's Top 10 and Bottom 5 of 2008

It all comes down to this. A whole year at the movies - hundreds of dollars spent on 104 tickets at the theater (the digital projection at the Muvico in Rosemont is a personal fave), many more movies watched at home on DVD, and still more that I completely missed. This was an odd year - the Oscar pedigree films generally came up short (Benjamin Button, Australia), while Hollywood nailed the art of the summer blockbuster (see numbers 1 and 2 of the best, below). The Spirit aside, comic book films enjoyed great success this year (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2). There were a few pleasant surprises (Death Race), some collosal disappointments (I'm still smarting from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), a trio of really smart comedies (Hamlet 2, Role Models, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and one unfairly maligned box office bomb (Speed Racer). But enough already, let's get on with the show. Here are my picks for the very best of 2008:

TOP 10

10. Cloverfield. And they say critics don't remember anything past December. Cloverfield was released in the wasteland of January, yet having recently re-watched it on DVD, I was again impressed with what a brisk, inventive thrill ride that producer J.J. Abrams and company managed to deliver. A seamless blend of special effects and handheld cinematography help to reinvigorate the monster movie. There was a ton of pre-release hype, and for once, the movie lived up to all of it. Stick around for the end credits - composer Michael Giacchino's theme plays over them, and it's the best piece of movie music produced all year. Even better - buy the twelve-minute track (titled "Roar!") on iTunes for only 99 cents.

9. The Visitor. I missed seeing The Visitor in theaters, and had to catch it on DVD. Even on a small screen, for which this type of film is better suited, I appreciated the subtle nuance and graceful humanity that writer-director Tom McCarthy was able to capture. The Visitor is a small film with a giant heart, and it features a well-deserved lead performance from veteran character actor Richard Jenkins. Hidden gems like this show you that sometimes all you need is a great script with real characters interacting in a believable way to hook an audience and connect with them.

8. Frost/Nixon. Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own stage play, as directed by Ron Howard, is one of the great head-to-head matches that's graced screens in recent years. The movie plays more like a sporting event than a historical drama, with the two opponents trading questions and answers rather than punches. Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon are pitch-perfect in this surprisingly thrilling and fast-paced film.

7. Burn After Reading. The Coen Brothers threw everyone off their game by following up last year's Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men with this deceptively slight straight-up comedy. Though the first half hour is a little slow, the movie really picks up steam as it rolls along and the last five minutes had me laughing with glee. This is the funniest thing the Coens have done since The Big Lebowski, which is reason enough to rejoice.

6. Milk. Even if Proposition 8 hadn't passed, the story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected public official would still resonate with viewers. That being said, Milk is as timely as movies get and it's one that might actually do some good in the world. Sean Penn is excellent as Milk, giving a humane, likeable, and charismatic performance. Together with Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and James Franco, this movie boasts the best ensemble cast of the year.

5. In Bruges. Action comedies about likeable hitmen are about a dime a dozen, so it takes a special kind of film to make an impression. Thanks to a smart, funny script by writer-director Martin McDonagh, and memorable performances from it's three leads: Colin Farrell (at his best), Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges manages to do just that and then some. If there were any justice in the world, this would have blossemed into the word-of-mouth hit that no. 3 has become.

4. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Some movies hit you in the sweet spot, and you fall in love with them, blind to any imperfections and just happy to be in such company. That's how I felt watching Nick and Norah. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings charmed the heck out of me, and watching their quirky love story unfold over the course of one evening is something I can see myself doing for years to come. This is the new Say Anything for its generation.

3. Slumdog Millionaire. Charles Dickens meets Bollywood by way of Danny Boyle in this surefire crowd pleaser and inevitable Best Picture winner. Though a happy ending is all but ensured with this one, Boyle gives the proceedings an edge and a slight air of unpredictability. Well-acted and smartly scripted, this is a hugely rewarding film, and the choreographed dance over the end credits sends the audience out of the theater on a true moviegoing high.

2. Wall-E. Can Pixar continue to keep topping itself? I thought the one-two punch of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles would be impossible to beat, but amazingly, they've outdone themselves yet again with this magical and engrossing movie. To label it just another animated movie does it a grave disservice. This is art on a whole other level - realistically drawn and full of heart. Ben Burtt's sound design (capturing all the robot noises) is just amazing. Large stretches of the film have no dialogue whatsoever and are utterly captivating. Wall-E is a near-perfect film that will stand the test of time.

1. The Dark Knight. What more can one say about the most critically and commercially successful movie of the year? An epic crime saga disguised as a comic book flick, The Dark Knight is a modern masterpiece. It is the Godfather II of summer blockbusters. Much has been written of Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker, and much more will continue to be written after he wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It is a towering, iconic screen performance. From James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's eerie, unconventional score to Christopher Nolan's confident direction to the awesome ensemble acting to the thoughtful, often disturbing script, the whole production shines. This is true Best Picture material, and no amount of prejudice towards its source material should detract from that.


And on the other end of the quality spectrum, we have these duds. The five films below may not technically be the worst of the year. Obviously, junk like Meet the Spartans and The Hottie and the Nottie are worse, but who expected anything out of them? If you go to see those, you're just asking to be tortured. So, let's pick on some bigger targets, shall we? Here are five films that I actively hated this year:

1. The Happening. Remember when M. Night was the toast of the town? The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, even years later, are still awesome. He's been on the decline for a while now, but his reputation is officially ruined with this one. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel give career-worst performances under his direction. M. Night has no idea how to craft a quick and nimble thriller. Laughably ludicrous.

2. Mamma Mia! Here's a novel idea: a movie musical starring people who can't sing or dance. The movie's supporters will argue it's just pure fun. But there's a fine line between exhuberant and obnoxious, and Mamma Mia (darn that stupid exclamation point) steps over. Way over.

3. Seven Pounds. If only I had heeded the advice learned in Yes Man - say yes to everything. Did I want to leave the theater during this movie? Yes. Did I? No. Did I waste 124 minutes of my life watching Will Smith give away seven parts of his body with the help of a jellyfish? Yes.

4. Fool's Gold. An embarrasing star vehicle that wants to be Romancing the Stone but has no clue how to replicate the succesful genre mixing of action, romance, and comedy. Fails to work on any level. Kate Hudson, your stardom is hereby revoked.

5. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Simon Pegg is one of the funniest people working in movies today. How this one managed to neuter him and render him completely unfunny is just shameful. 100% laugh-free and a chore to sit through.



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