The Best Movies of 2008

2008 Year in Review

2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.

2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.

So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:

  1. The Reader/Revolutionary Road

I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.

The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.

Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.

Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.

 

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  1. Doubt

Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.

 

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  1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.

One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!

 

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  1. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.

 

 

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  1. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.

 

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  1. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.

 

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  1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.

 

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  1. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.

 

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  1. Wall-E

Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.

I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.

 

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  1. The Dark Knight

The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.

Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.

Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.

‘Iron Man 2’ is Overloaded but Still a lot of Fun

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It was too easy to expect “Iron Man 2” to be better than the original. Many comic book movie sequels in recent years have blown away their predecessors to where you struggle to remember what the previous films were about. “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men 2,” “Blade II” and “The Dark Knight” made us believe it was mandatory for sequels to be more enthralling because all the origin stuff was finally out of the way to where things could become a whole lot more interesting.

I was worried “Iron Man 2” would end up being like “Spider-Man 3,” a film whose massive disappointment still irks me years after its release. That sequel had far too much going on in it to where I quickly lost interest, and it was such a comedown from the brilliant “Spider-Man 2.” You’d hope the filmmakers and studios would remember how these movies do best with just one villain for the superhero to deal with. Sometimes you can get away with two, but you may be asking for trouble if you go beyond that.

With that said, “Iron Man 2” is still a lot of fun. Regardless of the flaws and clichés this time around, it is still the kind of experience you hope to have with a summer movie like this. Director Jon Favreau is back as is the always entertaining Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, whose heroics prove to be every bit as big as his ego.

This sequel starts six months after Tony has come out to the world as Iron Man, feeling no need to disguise himself in some geeky disguise like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. He makes a grand entrance at the Stark Expo which has since been relocated to Flushing, New York, and he resists the urge to make his technology available to the U.S. military. Regardless of the demands of smarmy Senator Stern (Gary Shandling is great fun to watch here) to make Tony turn over the Iron Man suit over to him, Tony stands confident in telling everyone he has successfully privatized world peace.

As always, success breeds enemies, and you can only go so high before you get knocked off your pedestal. The vicious knock down comes from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a deeply embittered and heavily tattooed Soviet physicist who is led by his father to believe Tony’s father, Howard Stark, had betrayed him by deporting him from America. Ivan eventually puts together his own arc reactor which allows him to use these electrified whips to inflict serious damage on objects and especially humans foolish enough to come within 20 feet of him. Clearly, Ivan has spent at least a decade in prison, and he has tattoos covering just about every section of his body. It made me think about what Robert Mitchum said about Max Cady in the “Cape Fear” remake:

“Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him!”

Rourke is a lot of fun to watch in this role which has him doing a pretty good Russian accent, and it’s a vast improvement over the crazy Irish brogue he tried to pull off in “A Prayer for The Dying.” Like the best actors, he focuses on the pain which drives his character, giving us something much greater and more fearsome than your typical one-dimensional villain. The only downside of his performance is that we don’t get to see enough of him. After one great fight scene on a race trick, we have to wait for Ivan’s electric whipping act to return in the film’s final act. Still, this is Rourke we’re talking about, and he gives it his all here like he did in “The Wrestler.” If there is one thing which hasn’t changed, it’s that Rourke still plays characters who never take the time to shampoo their hair.

Tony’s other chief nemesis is Justin Hammer, a business rival looking to create his own line of Iron Man suits since Tony is unwilling to share his. Plus, Hammer is looking to get into the Pentagon, a place Stark cannot see himself partying at. Hammer is played Sam Rockwell who provides a good dose of comic relief while still giving his character a nasty edge. You can feel the relentless resentment Hammer has for Stark and how it spills over into bringing Ivan on board not so much out of respect, but as a chance to tear down the empire Stark Industries has built up over the years. Rockwell continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today, and I loved how he tried to mimic Tony’s dance onto the stage at his own show to little avail.

The other big addition to “Iron Man 2” is Scarlett Johansson who plays Natalie Rushman, Tony’s new personal assistant. But eventually she is revealed to be a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. named Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who is flexible in ways her enemies only wish they were. The coolest fight scenes in “Iron Man 2” belong to Johansson, and she dominates the screen every time she’s onscreen. Her cool confidence combines with an irresistible sexiness. Like Rourke, she is underused here, but she is fantastic to watch throughout.

And of course, we have returning characters such as Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and Pepper ends up inheriting more responsibilities such as becoming the new CEO of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Nick Fury, having appeared in the post credits sequence of “Iron Man.”

Also returning to Tony’s side is Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, only this time he’s played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle is a fantastic actor and it is fun to see Rhodey try on one of those Iron Man suits, but I miss Terence Howard in the role. Howard brought a gravity to Rhodes which balanced out perfectly with Stark’s uncontainably egocentric personality. It’s no fault of Cheadle’s that Rhodes is not as strong a character this time around.

Watching “Iron Man 2” quickly reminded me of how good the first one was. Yes, it was an origin movie, but it was also one of the better ones in how fresh it felt and of how invested it was in the characters as well as special effects, something other summer blockbusters could learn from. We were left wanting more, but we also didn’t leave the theater feeling partially or completely unfulfilled. “Iron Man” left us patiently waiting for the sequel instead of craving for it in record time. Considering how good the first one was, we wanted the filmmakers to make as good a follow up as humanly possible.

“Iron Man 2,” however, is somewhat undone by putting too much into one movie. There are too many characters and bad guys here to where some don’t get enough of a chance to develop into something more interesting than usual. But Favreau keeps everything moving at a swift pace, and the cast is perfectly chosen as each one gets their moment to shine and bring their own uniqueness to their character.

But the one guy who really holds this franchise together is Downey Jr., and not once does he try to compromise Tony Stark/Iron Man and make him easily likable. Whenever Tony ends up acting like a jerk, we know what fuels his character; a despair over knowing how that the thing which saved him may also kill him sooner than he would prefer. I’m also thrilled he didn’t turn Tony into another superhero who constantly whines about the responsibilities they are forced to deal with. Tony wants all those responsibilities, and you know that with Downey Jr. playing the role, he will never shy away from what is expected of him.

I’m glad to say “Iron Man 2” is no “Spider-Man 3” thank goodness, but it could have been had Favreau and company not kept things going at the right pace. In the future, let’s hope Marvel sticks with one villain instead of two or more as it will make for a more effective motion picture. Still, all we ask from a summer movie like this is for it to be a lot of fun, and this one gives audiences a very entertaining ride.

* * * out of * * * *

Witness Mickey Rourke’s Career Resurrection in ‘The Wrestler’

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The Wrestler” is kind of a cross between “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” in that it deals with a man looking to continue making a name for himself long after his five minutes of fame, and who seems to be more at home in the ring than outside of it. Darren Aronofsky films this movie with a rough edge, and he doesn’t hide away from the harsh reality Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke, and the rest of the characters inhabit. It also marks another in a long line of movies with characters hanging on by a little thread to their financial existence.

After one of his more vicious fights involving staple guns and barbed wire among other things (there is no flinching on the details here), Randy suffers a serious heart attack and later finds himself waking up in a hospital bed after an emergency bypass surgery. The doctor tells him that to wrestle again will kill him, and he is forced into retirement and ends up finding work at the deli counter of a local supermarket for whatever hours he can get. Despite his fame and the attention he gets in his trailer park home from the kids who live there, Randy’s life is a lonely one, and he has practically no close personal connections to lean on.

What goes on from there might seem predictable, but this is not your typical redemption story with everything turning rosy at the end. As his mortality looms over him heavily, Randy tries to get closer to those around him with limited success. Marisa Tomei gives a great performance here as Cassidy, a stripper who is very friendly to Randy while working at her club. Like Randy, she is also past her prime in her profession, and she doesn’t draw the big numbers like she used to. The two of them are relics of the 80’s, and their happiest days have been trapped in that time which was brought to an end by the advent of Kurt Cobain and Grunge which all but vanquished the days of long haired heavy metal icons. Ironically, as perfect as they seem together, it is their individual professions which keep them apart. The rules they are sworn to follow are also the ones they struggle with, and in the end these rules define who they are.

Years after her Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny,” Marisa Tomei remains of the more vastly underrated actresses working today. Since her win, she has given great performances in movies like “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” She continues to make leaps forward as an actress, and yet she remains at the fringes of fame. Perhaps she feels more comfortable doing independent films as they give her the best roles. All the same, part of me wishes she would get more respect because it doesn’t feel like she ever gets enough of it.

Evan Rachel Wood also co-stars as Randy’s long estranged daughter, Stephanie. They share some of the movie’s most emotionally raw and poignant moments together as Randy tries desperately to salvage any sort of connection he may have left with Stephanie. They share a nice walk together at the New Jersey shoreline where they reminisce about memories long gone, and Randy apologizes for not being there for her at all. Wood’s role is largely a reactive one, and she meets Rourke every step of the way when onscreen with him. Long after her emotionally searing performance in “Thirteen,” she is still not afraid of delving into the raw emotions held on to by the characters she plays.

Aronofsky is still best known for the mother of all anti-drug movies, “Requiem for a Dream” which was filmed with so many extreme camera moves and quick edits to where we were left with whiplash as we exited the theater. “The Wrestler,” however, does not have any of those flourishes. Instead, Aronofsky shoots the movie in a simple hand-held fashion and in 16mm to capture the rough and tumble realm these wrestlers exist in, and he makes you feel all the devastating hits, cuts and bruises these men are made to endure in the ring and when they are thrown outside of it as well. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Aronofsky makes you experience the movie instead of just watching it passively.

I also loved how Aronofsky captured the camaraderie between these fellow wrestlers when they get together. We see them sharing the moves they will use with one another, and they always have the outcome figured out long in advance. We see the doctors attend to all the inflicted, let alone self-inflicted cuts, they get in the ring, and he makes you feel all the cuts which have long since torn away at their once perfect bodies. Aronofsky has never done things the clean way, and his work in “The Wrestler” continues this tradition unapologetically.

“The Wrestler” is not Aronofsky’s best movie (“Requiem for a Dream” still holds that title), but it is further proof of how he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in this day and age. Some may have lost sight of this with “The Fountain,” but they shouldn’t after watching this. But in the end, this movie is really all about Rourke and how he and Randy interweave with one another to where you cannot tell if he is just acting or if he is just being the character.

Rourke makes you feel his character’s pain, both physical and emotional, throughout the movie. There is never a moment in this film where he fakes an emotion, and this is a performance coming straight from the heart. With his heartbreaking confession to his daughter, he takes what could have been a clichéd scene and fills it with pure emotion. It’s almost like he the actor is apologizing for not being better as an actor, and for squandering his potential with a lot of crap movies. Rourke has earned my forgiveness ever since he played Marv in “Sin City,” and his performance in “The Wrestler” completes what is a well-deserved comeback.

For those of you who have read my review of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” you’ll remember how I talked about how certain parts need an actor whose face and body show a rough and tumble history, and that they have suffered through life’s most intense challenges. Rourke is not the pretty boy he used to be, but this makes him perfect for this role other than the fact he can still be a brilliant actor. Rourke sells the fact his character has a massive heart attack and that his body has been badly beaten (Rourke did briefly take up boxing when his acting career was almost gone). He sells how Randy now wears a hearing aid and glasses to read most things given to him. He also sells the fact he is deserving of another chance as a lead actor, and he knows he better not screw things up this time around.

“The Wrestler” is one of the most exhilarating and exhausting character pieces I have seen in some time. The movie is nothing short of a great triumph for its lead actor and its director, and it is topped off by a great theme song from Bruce Springsteen himself (who else could have done it?). In 2008, it was hard to think of another performance which could have been even more brilliant than Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight,” but Rourke manages to top him here, and that was no easy feat.

* * * * out of * * * *