Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

In all honesty, this essay has been in the writing since August. Not that everything on the lists for 2008 have been solidified since then, but just what I could reasonably assume- or know for sure- was going to be here come year’s end. My Top 10s- been up in the air up until the end. Plus, I found that time being at a premium during the holidays, a head-start could never hurt. 🙂

And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised- they can’t be finalized either. For one thing, I’m not what one may call a “professional” critic, so unless I get to screen a movie early at work, I won’t be seeing it until it hits theatres. For another, Atlanta- though a Top 10 market- still sees some films later than New York and L.A.. Meaning no 2008 release of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” No Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” (with Leo and Kate). And no Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (with Mickey Rourke). And sadly, no time yet for me to catch Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” “The Reader,” Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” or “I’ve Loved You So Long,” among others. Still, with 140 films in the memory bank from this year by the time of this writing, I think it’s suffice it to say that I can speak pretty clearly about the best (and worst) of 2008.

So what did I find this year?

1) Comic book movies are king. Starting with the record-breaking success of “The Dark Knight,” the amount of comic book movie adaptations may have been smaller than we’ve become used to, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t eating them up just the same, as “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Wanted,” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” proved to varying degrees. Hell, even the non-comic book superhero “Hancock” racked up serious bank even as Will Smith dared to run in the face of conventional heroics.

2) Animated movies are hitting a new stride. And believe it or not, that would be the case even without Pixar’s “Wall-E” in the mix. True, the Weinstein Bros.’ “Igor” didn’t really rake it up, but the big boys delivered big time with CG-animated movies that found canny blends of humor and heart, be it Disney’s “Bolt,” Dreamworks’ “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” and Fox’s “Horton Hears a Who.” And with Oscar buzz strong for “Wall-E” (a Best Picture nod isn’t out of the question), don’t look for things to change anytime soon.

3) Comedy is back baby. OK, so the occasional dud got in release (“Fool’s Gold,” “The Love Guru,” “Step Brothers,” and a lot that I intentionally missed out on), but whether it was small and scrappy like “Be Kind Rewind,” “Run Fatboy Run,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” and “Hamlet 2” or big and rowdy like “Tropic Thunder,” “Get Smart,” “Pineapple Express,” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” filmmakers are finally finding ways to put funny back in comedy. Of course, myself and my friend Ron are still hoping for another feature offering from the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” gang, but if we have to settle for Judd Apatow, Kevin Smith, Steve Carell, and Seth Rogan, I guess we can manage.

4) 3-D is here to stay. With the success of this summer’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and this fall’s 3-D presentation of “Bolt” (which I’ve been fortunate to see for myself this year at the theatre), as well as past successes “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express,” people are shelling out for the more-expensive 3-D experience. Now, the studio’s gamble on new-fashioned jump-out-and-grab-you 3-D presentation (for all their CG-animated cartoons, and projects from “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” to “Avatar”) seems completely warranted. But “Journey” wasn’t that great a movie, and “Bolt’s” just as good in 2-D, so will the fad fade like it has before? Not if Pixar, Robert Zemeckis, and James Cameron have anything to say about it (each have 3-D features hitting screens in 2009).

5) Imagination isn’t dead. Neither is great acting, great fun, smart writing, provocative storytelling, and adventurous thinking, as you’ll see in the lists below, as I go through my Best, Favorites, and Worst of this year.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

Brian’s Top Ten Films of 2008
1. “Wall-E” (Directed by Andrew Stanton)- Thirteen years into their reign as the premiere animation studio in America (if not the world on the basis of the two “Toy Story” films, “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille”), the magicians over at Pixar- under the guidance of “Nemo” director Stanton- have made their finest film, the one to cement their status alongside the old masters at Disney and the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki with an unforgettably funny and touching story about two misfit robots who fall in love and find a way to lead humans back to the Earth they left behind to rebuild. It all leads up to a moment of perfect emotional resonance and a Peter Gabriel song that enters your soul to stay. It’s been too long since an animated film landing in Oscar’s final five (“Beauty and the Beast” to be exact)- now it’s Pixar’s turn to do the same.

2. “Slumdog Millionaire” (Directed by Danny Boyle)- For much of the year, I didn’t think anything would come close to matching “Wall-E” for the year’s best film. In true underdog fashion, along comes Boyle’s critical darling to subvert my expectations, as an illiterate slum kid finds himself one question away from being a millionaire, even though what he really wants is just to find the love of his life. Like Pixar’s unlikely masterpiece, love wins out against the obstacles of life. Isn’t that the definition of a crowd-pleaser?

3. “Milk” (Directed by Gus Van Sant)- Two careers of audacity and risk collide in telling the story of another. Iconoclastic director Van Sant (whose films include “To Die For,” “My Own Private Idaho,” and “Good Will Hunting”) and iconoclastic actor/director Sean Penn (“Mystic River,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Into the Wild”) go for broke and bring the story of gay activist Harvey Milk- who in the ’70s became the first gay person elected to public office- and his transformation from an in-the-closet New Yorker to an outspoken advocate for human rights over the years he spent in San Francisco before he was assassinated by a fellow city supervisor (the sensational Josh Brolin). Milk said in his recorded will, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” The fight he fought back then is still raging, but his inspiration is felt all around. In one of the best performances of the year, in one of the best movies of the year, Penn brings Milk to life with unbending determination and unquestioning heart.

4. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (Directed by Cristian Mungiu)- If IFC- which released this powerhouse in America- were smart, they’d push this film hard- Weinstein-era Miramax hard (a la “City of God”)- for awards consideration for acting, directing, and writing (and dare I say Best Picture?) for this Romanian masterwork set in Communist Romania, where two young woman (vividly played by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu) are looking to secure an illegal abortion at any cost the practitioner Bebe (a chillingly-amoral Vlad Ivanov) asks. Abortions are now common practice in the country, but in the ’80s, it could mean as many as ten years in prison, and writer-director Mungiu keeps the tension high by playing things true to life, and true to the psychological stress on his characters. Regardless your political stance on the subject, Mungiu doesn’t play it safe or preach to one side or the other- instead he’s wanting you to simply put yourself in the shoes of his characters for a couple of hours, and live these lives. It’s an unforgettable experience.

5. “Man on Wire” (Directed by James Marsh)- For a documentary with all of the participants being interviewed, Marsh delivers a tremendous amount of suspense in recalling the story of Philippe Petit, a French wirewalker who in 1974, snuck onto the roof of the just-completed World Trade Center, suspended a wire between the two towers, and proceeded to walk between the two towers a total of eight times. Marsh lets Petit, his girlfriend, and his co-conspirators tell the story in their own words, using archival footage and photographs and dramatic recreations to put us in the middle of the drama. But we watch, and we don’t feel like he broke the law- through his excitement and passion for his endeavor, we feel the same way he did. This is artistic achievement unlike anything else in history. The Towers are now gone, but Petit’s accomplishment lives on as a testament of what they came to inspire in the human spirit.

6. “Stop-Loss” (Directed by Kimberly Pierce)- With the indecencies of the Iraq War on a lot of people’s minds of late, it’s unfortunate that this film, from the writer-director of the Oscar-winning “Boys Don’t Cry” (who hasn’t lost her gift for authenticity and real emotion in the ten years since that film), didn’t make more waves when it was out. It certainly made a lasting impression on me, as we look at a group of friends (with standout performances by Ryan Philippe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in particular) from Texas who’ve proudly served their country, but have seen their lives take unfortunate turns as a result of what they’ve seen over there. Stop-Loss is the military term for extending a soldier’s tour of duty after their supposed to be done; it’s also a good description of what this film does to the viewer when watching this penetrating look at the costs of duty and honor.

7. “My Winnipeg” (Directed by Guy Maddin)- Canadian surrealist Maddin makes a hypnotic and poetic ode to his hometown in this fascinating “documentary” culled from personal memories and the city’s history, which includes being breast-fed in the locker room of the Winnipeg Arena, an early-life encounter at a school for girls, and the heart of the city which dwells in its’ side streets. Part of Maddin’s success in creating this dreamlike evocation is his engulfing narration and his visual style, which harkens back to the silent era with its’ grainy black-and-white, rear-screen projection, iris shots, and exaggerated performances by actors recreating Maddin’s family life. My first experience with Maddin’s art- his 2004 film “The Saddest Music in the World”- felt sterile and artificial; this film- which reminded me of Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror,” the silent masterpiece “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages,” and Lynch’s “Eraserhead”- is arguably more artificial than that film, but feels completely alive through Maddin’s lyrical touch.

8. “Iron Man” (Directed by Jon Favreau)- For their first film as an independent production company, Marvel Comics took a lesser-known entry in their stable of superheroes, dressed him up with a director known more for character-driven smaller films (“Made’s” Favreau, although later efforts “Elf” and “Zathura” showed he could do a big-studio film up good), a cast led by a troubled headliner whose caught more headlines for his off-screen woes than his onscreen triumphs over the years, and a script co-authored by no less than four writers (although a couple of them were responsible for the 2006 masterpiece “Children of Men”), and came out on top with a movie that was smart, character-driven, funny, acted with vibrato (especially by star Robert Downey Jr. in the comeback of the year), and still delivered the action goods in high style, finding it a place among the best superhero movies ever made. Their “Incredible Hulk” starring Edward Norton continued the streak of success, albeit on a smaller level, but one thing’s for sure- Marvel knows how to do right by their characters…and fans.

9. “The Dark Knight” (Directed by Christopher Nolan)- Seeing Nolan’s thrilling sequel to “Batman Begins” for the third time, it’s strengths are even clearer and it’s weaknesses were even more marginalized as the film’s theme crystalized further into my mind. It’s one that has driven many of the best comic book movies of the past ten years- including the one directly above this on this list, as well as Raimi’s last two “Spider-Man” films. That theme is one of choice. The choices we make to do good, and to give into bad. When dealing with characters of unlimited power, it’s a truly profound choice when Peter Parker puts on the black Spidey suit, or Tony Stark puts on the Mark II, or when Gotham’s triumvirate for good in “Knight”- Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and newly-elected DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart)- find themselves facing difficult choices when confronted with a new kind of evil in the sociopathic Joker (the late Heath Ledger). Dent says it best when he says, “Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The choice between good and evil, right and wrong, has never been put so clearly. For Nolan and his actors, it’s the choice that drives this uncommonly good sequel to the level of an instant classic.

10. “Synecdoche New York” (Directed by Charlie Kaufman)- It is true that you need to watch Kaufman’s sad, poignant directorial debut at least twice to even begin to explore its’ meaning. It’s also true that the filmmaker’s teasing wit and imagination will be a hard sell for the popcorn crowd of “Dark Knight.” So be it- working at the peak of his powers along with the superb Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, Kaufman’s ingenious philosophical study in life is two of the most thrilling hours you’ll spend in a theatre all year.

Eleventh Place: As always, there were a lot of quite good films that didn’t quite make the cut for the final 10. That doesn’t make them any less noteworthy. Among the “runners-up” for my top 10 are: “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”, Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s engrossing look at “Rolling Stone’s” iconoclastic reporter- he’s been gone from this world since 2005, but look around, and you can see his fearless loathing for authority felt everywhere these days; “Rachel Getting Married”, Jonathan Demme’s emotionally-raw film of a family fractured by the past with striking performances by Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt; “Tropic Thunder”, Ben Stiller’s rowdy satirical jab at the Hollywood hand that feeds him- he, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. are comic gold; “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, David Fincher’s sad and lovely romance about the heartbreak of aging, with a beautifully-calibrated lead performance by Brad Pitt; “Religulous”, Bill Maher’s fascinating documentary/commentary looking at organized religion- he takes them all on, and each one is equally crazy at the core, starting with the people who go too far with it; “W.”, a fascinating and sympathetic look at outgoing President George W. Bush from polarizing director Oliver Stone, with a tremendous performance by Josh Brolin as Dubya; “The Visitor”, a moving and surprising drama about an old college professor (the superb Richard Jenkins) who forms an unexpected bond with two illegal immigrants living in his New York apartment; “In Bruges”, an original and entertaining Irish crime drama with a wicked wit fueled by electric and engaging performances by Colin Farrell and Brendon Gleeson; “Young @ Heart”, a warm and humanistic look at a group of seniors who get in touch with their youthful side through singing rock songs- a rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You” is particularly moving; “Standard Operating Procedure”, another provocative political documentary from the masterful Errol Morris, this one probing deep into the Abu Ghraib scandal; “Son of Rambow”, a wonderful coming of age comedy about a young boy’s imagination being woken up to life from the director of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”; “Smart People”, a very smart movie- in the vein of “Little Miss Sunshine”- about a family of elitists and how they learn to regroup after tragedy- Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page headline the stellar cast; “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”, a fascinating “insider” look at steroid abuse and the culture of winning in general in America from filmmaker/bodybuilder Chris Bell; “Recount”, a made-for-HBO drama about the fiasco in Florida during the 2000 election from “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach with fabulous performances by a star cast including Kevin Spacey, Tom Wilkinson, and Laura Dern; “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”, Guillermo Del Toro’s second film with the demon hero lovingly called “Red” (and memorably played by Ron Perlman) which feels less like another comic book movie- like its’ predecessor did- and more like an ambitious fantasy adventure it should be; “Shine a Light”, with Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese bringing out the rebellious best of the timeless Rolling Stones in a pair of charity concerts in his native New York; “Diary of the Dead”, with iconic horror filmmaker George A. Romero turning his zombie army of the undead into a chilling commentary on our tendency to point a camera at anything- including tragedy- and put it online; and “Cloverfield”, another intense horror film for the YouTube age with four 20-somethings on the run when a Godzilla-like creature attacks New York from producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves.

Brian’s Favorite Films of 2008
1. “Wall-E” (Andrew Stanton)- Has an animated film ever had so much soul to it than this masterpiece from Pixar? From the outset, our hearts are with Wall-E, the trash compacting robot whose lonely existence, spent cleaning up Earth’s mess, is about to be turned upside down by the appearance of EVE, a sleek probe robot who Wall-E becomes more than a little smitten with. The result is a love story for the ages, and a classic in the making from the masters at Pixar, who raise the bar yet again with this bold effort that leaves you on an emotional high.

2. “Speed Racer” (Andy and Larry Wachowski)- The smartest thing the Wachowski Brothers did in their directorial follow-up to their overpraised “Matrix” trilogy was blend the cliches of a sports movie with the good vs. evil appeal of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and eschew the R-rated tone of “The Matrix” for a more family-friendly one, befitting this adaptation of the cult fave animated show. Also on their side is an exciting score by Michael Giacchino to match the pop of their visually eye-popping universe and the note-perfect cast from Emile Hirsch as Speed, Christina Ricci as Trixie, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as Pops and Mom, and Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X. A box-office failure to be sure, but I’ll take this one over a number of more successful films anyday.

3. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (Peter Sollett)- Sure, the film lacks the wild humor of Judd Apatow’s comedies and the hip factor of “Juno,” but “Nick and Norah” have something far more rewarding to offer the viewer- a genuine heart and a good soul driven by music and the unexpected as the title characters- played by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in a pairing that recalls John Cusack and Ione Skye in “Say Anything” and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”- go on a late night journey through New York to find the elusive underground band Where’s Fluffy, and where their romantic heart truly lies. There’s a genuine sincerity that lifts this film above other youthful comedies made nowadays and makes me think the critics who bashed this movie will be in for a rude awakening when it takes its’ place among those forementioned films as a youthful classic.

4. “The Dark Knight” (Christopher Nolan)- It’s hard to imagine action sequences more exciting and visceral as this film’s opening bank heist (which rivals “Heat” in dramatic punch) or a later ambush on the dark streets of Gotham- both gain even greater impact when seen on the big screen of IMAX they were filmed for. But more exciting to me when watching Nolan’s record-breaking sequel (firmly sitting at #2 all-time domestically to “Titanic”) were the psychological battles being played out onscreen as The Joker (Heath Ledger’s last completed performance is an instant classic of menace and mirth) forces Gotham’s forces of good- including the limitless Batman (whom Christian Bale imbues with a gravelly baritone that is his performance’s one weakness) and the city’s new White Knight Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, in a powerful and multi-dimensional performance that rivals Ledger’s)- to make some tough choices for what they believe in.

5. “Iron Man” (Jon Favreau) & “The Incredible Hulk” (Louis Leterrier)- Talk about a 1-2 punch. In their first summer of producing their own adaptations of their characters to the big-screen, Marvel Studios came out swinging, first with “Swingers” scribe Favreau and troubled star Robert Downey Jr. bringing one of the company’s lesser-known superheroes to life in an action-adventure for the modern age in a tale of personal responsibility and transformation. A month later, Marvel brought their big green giant- and his human alter ego Bruce Banner- back to the big-screen (after a stilted debut film in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation) with another live-wire actor- Oscar-nominee Edward Norton- in the starring role. Under the direction of “Transporter 2” and “Unleashed” actioner Leterrier and keen acting chops of Norton, the big green one delivered the psychological tension and slam-bang action (Hulk’s final battle with The Abomination is one of the best such battles in recent memory) Lee’s film failed to deliver. Unfortunately, “Hulk’s” franchise future is less certain than Tony Stark’s (“Iron Man 2” is on the way in 2010), but with Marvel in charge, you can bet you’ll be seeing both of them in the much-anticipated “Avengers” film in 2011. Personally, I can’t wait to see what this studio has up its’ sleeve.

6. “Synecdoche, New York” (Charlie Kaufman)- The term synecdoche is defined as, “a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special.” In Kaufman’s engrossing and drolly funny film, it’s as much a metaphor for the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director as it is a description of the film itself. The line between truth and fiction is blurred elegantly by the writer-director into the most profound cinematic statement on life and art since Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev.”

7. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (David Fincher)- Another film about life and death, and emotional truth learned through fantasy, this time taken from the short story by iconic Jazz Era writer F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man born with the physique of a man in his 80s, who grows younger in looks but older and more detached emotionally as those around them go the opposite direction physically. Brad Pitt gives one of his best and most underappreciated performances as Button, while Fincher- who continues to get better and bolder as a filmmaker- uses his continually-adventurous visual imagination to show a life going backwards, but lived forwards. Alexandre Desplat’s mournful score finds the beauty and pain in life in a way that rivals Thomas Newman’s work for “Wall-E” and the score mentioned immediately below.

8. “Man on Wire” (James Marsh)- Michael Nyman’s evocative score captures the conflicting feelings of loss and accomplishment of Philippe Petit’s story, when in 1974, he strung a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and proceeded to walk eight times between the 200 feet separating the Twin Towers, with the world watching in awe and the police ready to arrest him. Authorities at the time thought he was crazy, but doesn’t everybody who doesn’t understand the passions of a dreamer? Marsh captures the suspense and imagination of the act through recreations and lively interviews with his subjects. Petit’s passion makes us feel less like the cops ready with handcuffs and more like the onlookers who couldn’t help but be inspired by his unparalleled achievement and imagination.

9. “Tropic Thunder” (Ben Stiller)- Co-writer/director Stiller may have concocted this Hollywood satire twenty years ago after the likes of “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” but if the Vietnam movie-within-a-movie is a bit dated, it’s jabs at Hollywood antics are as fresh as the blood from a recently blown-up director. From the vanity- and insanity- of actors (Stiller’s performance is his best, Jack Black adds another comic gem of a performance this year, and Robert Downey Jr. rocks the house as an Aussie who gets deep inside his characters, even the African-American G.I. he’s playing here) to the blind racism of Hollywood to the prickishness of studio heads (a cameo by Tom Cruise that must be seen to be believed), nothing is sacred to Stiller and his cronies. Everything in Hollywood is ripe for slaughter. Prepare to spill your guts with laughter.

10. “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (Kevin Smith)- The kids can have their endless stream of Judd Apatow-produced comedies. I’ll take the man who made an art form out of dick-and-fart jokes anyday. Not trying to stir up a rivalry between Apatow and Smith- both are modern comedy masters in my book- but I would like to point out that Smith christened the genre for the modern age with “Clerks” back in 1994. Now, he’s taken Apatow regular Seth Rogan (and “40 Year-Old Virgin” freaky bookstore girl Elizabeth Banks) under his wing to play life-long friends whose financial woes lead to making an amateur porn flick. Smith keeps the rowdy laughs cumming faster than money shots with the help of a cast that ranges from Smith vets Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes to porn starlets Katie Morgan and Traci Lords, but Rogan and Banks find the soul that complicates sex in Smith’s best love story since “Chasing Amy.”

Other Notable Favorites: Personally, I found this a particularly strong year on the faves front- a lot of movies I can see myself watching over and over in the years to come. Apart from the eleven above, others that didn’t quite hit that level of entertainment (but came really dang close) include: “Kung Fu Panda”, which continues the string of engaging and enjoyable offerings from the CG wing of Dreamworks Animation, endless “Shrek” sequels aside; “Bolt”, Disney’s CG-animated adventure comedy that’s their best animated film not from Pixar since 2002’s “Lilo & Stitch”; “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, the long-awaited fourth adventure with Harrison Ford’s iconic archeologist- Steven Spielberg and George Lucas may not have come up with a classic, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the fun; “Be Kind Rewind”, Michel Gondry’s quirky and sweet ode to the inspirational power of cinema with Jack Black and Mos Def at their broadly comic best; “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”, a fascinating look at the most peculiarly truthful journalist of the past 30 years- you want to know where the blogosphere got its’ start, you look at the the good Doctor’s writing; “…Around”, an “on the cheap” indie from New York writer-director David Spaltro, who culled from his own experiences as a film student in the Big Apple to make a slow-to-start, but ultimately rewarding, look at self-discovery for one budding filmmaker like himself; “Definitely, Maybe”, a sweet and touching love story between a father (Ryan Reynolds) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) revolving around the loves of his father’s life (Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, and Rachel Weisz); “Get Smart”, a polished, and hilarious, contemporary update of the classic silly spy comedy series with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway ideally cast as Max Smart and Agent 99- the rest of the film’s laugh-generators are just gravy on top; “Happy Holidays”, a low-budget comedy about three friends at crossroads in their lives I was fortunate enough to see when the filmmakers contacted me for a review; “Seven Pounds”, an enigmatic drama about a man (Will Smith, continuing to push himself dramatically) looking to atone for one mistake- Rosario Dawson makes a lasting impression as a woman he looks to help; “Fireproof”, a Christian-funded love story about redemption and finding your path from the creators of “Facing the Giants” that hits its’ Evangelical message a little too hard, but nonetheless resonates with the feeling of truth; “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”, with Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman delving deeper into the fantasy of this offbeat comic universe to bring out its’ reality- very much a 180-degree turn from “The Dark Knight,” but just as compelling; “Burn After Reading”, with those crazy Coen Brothers following up a Best Picture winner (“No Country for Old Men”) with a stupidly funny (and sometimes just stupid) spy-and-sex comedy with a killer-good cast; “Yes Man”, Peyton Reed’s light and entertaining holiday comedy about turning no into yes with endearing contrasts in personality by way of Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel; and “Sukiyaki Western Django”, a singular blend of bloodshed, genres (Kurosawa meets Leone meets Woo and Tarantino), and sensibilities in an action-Western from the singularly unsettling mind of Takashi Miike (whose cult favorite “Audition” still gives me the creeps).

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): “The Bank Job”; “Cadillac Records”; “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”; “Cloverfield”; “Death Race”; “Eagle Eye”; “Encounters at the End of the World”; “The Forbidden Kingdom”; “Ghost Town”; “Hamlet 2”; “The Happening”; “Henry Poole is Here”; “The House Bunny”; “In Bruges”; “Leatherheads”; “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”; “Milk”; “Miss Pettigrew Lives for Day”; “My Winnipeg”; “Nights in Rodanthe”; “Quantum of Solace”; “Redbelt”; “Religulous”; “Role Models”; “Saw V”; “Sex and the City: The Movie”; “Shine a Light”; “The Signal”; “Slacker Uprising”; “Slumdog Millionaire”; “Soul Men”; “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”; “Stop-Loss”; “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; “W.”; “War, Inc.”; “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”; “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” ; “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”; “Young @ Heart”.

Brian’s Favorite Performances of 2008
This year was quite a year for actors. From comebacks to great roles to unexpected pleasures to swan songs, I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to call this one of the best years for acting in recent memory. Let’s start with the swan songs- much has already been written about Heath Ledger’s unforgettably wicked Joker in “The Dark Knight,” it hardly seems worth trying to write more. That said, let me just say this- everything you’ve heard about this performance is true…and then some. Also giving his all and leaving us too soon was Bernie Mac, whose joy for life and spirit is alive and well as a soul singer in “Soul Men” and a lion father in “Madagascar: Escape to Africa.” Now the comebacks. Ten years ago, Robert Downey Jr. seemed like another Hollywood tragedy in the making. Now, after virtuoso star performance as a billionaire genius-turned-superhero in “Iron Man” and a brilliant comic turn as an Aussie method actor in blackface in “Tropic Thunder,” a star is reborn, and looks to be here to stay (his “Iron Man” co-star Gwyneth Paltrow also showed us what we’re losing to family as the peppy Pepper Potts). And though her comeback was less prominent, Elizabeth Shue delivered a sassy and self-aware turn playing herself in “Hamlet 2” that made me remember why she was such a crush for those of us from the “Karate Kid” generation. For unexpected pleasures, let’s start with two animated pairings that made their films instant classics (at least for me). There’s the sweet and nearly silent romance between Wall-E (whose beeps were provided by sound designer extraordinaire Ben Burtt) and EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight) in “Wall-E,” followed by the inseperable bond between TV superdog Bolt (John Travolta, though the animation adds additional character) and real-life owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) in Disney’s “Bolt.” On the live-action front, the young love pairing of Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” made that film infinitely endearing; Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, and Matthew Fox embodied their cartoon-inspired characters, and helped inspire our acceptance of the digitally-created world of racing in “Speed Racer”; and James Franco was a comic tour de farce as a stoned dope dealer in “Pineapple Express” (ditto the unrecognizable Tom Cruise as a studio exec in “Tropic Thunder”). But it didn’t quite stop there- British comic Ricky Gervais brought his acerbic wit beautifully to the very American comedy of “Ghost Town”; Isla Fisher was a spunky and sweet romantic treat in “Definitely, Maybe”; Zooey Deschanel, who makes a wonderful romantic interest to an earnest Jim Carrey in “Yes Man”; and Anna Faris and Emma Stone were funny and sexy sorority sisters in the mild comedy “The House Bunny.” As for great roles, there were a lot of those as well, starting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a violently-tormented Iraq War vet in “Stop-Loss” (How good is he? He’s the only one I’d say is giving Ledger and Downey Jr. a legit run for Best Supporting Actor this year.) and Aaron Eckhart as Gotham’s Two-Faced DA Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight.” Not far behind those two are Sean Penn as iconic gay politico Harvey Milk in “Milk”; Philip Seymour Hoffman as an artistically and emotionally-scarred theatre director in “Synecdoche New York”; Brad Pitt as a curious case in life and death in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; James Brolin as a fuck-up son turned in over his head President in “W.”; Edward Norton, who brought his singular acting verb to the comics’ trickiest hero in “The Incredible Hulk”; Jack Black, who hit a comic hat trick by finding three shades of broad comedy in a trio of films- “Be Kind Rewind,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “Tropic Thunder”; Will Smith, continuing to delve fearlessly into the sometimes murky waters of his character’s psyches in “Seven Pounds”; Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf, who teamed for adventurous father-son escapism in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, who keeps getting better and bolder, this time as a jujitsu instructor with a code of real honor in “Redbelt”; Amy Adams as a vivacious woman with a flip head on her shoulders in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”; Sascha Baron-Cohen as the deluded Lemur King of “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”; Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, who brought contemporary comedy and easy chemistry to the classic pairing in “Get Smart”; Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks, who turned a raunchy premise into sweet comedy in “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”; and Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as a couple of clueless blackmailers in the Coen’s “Burn After Reading.” And this isn’t even including a lot of the major Oscar hopefuls I saw this year- stay tuned in coming weeks for THOSE possibilities.

Brian’s Favorite Music of 2008
This year has been deceptively great on the movie music front. A lot of low-key and adventurous offerings by composers both known and unknown populate my list of the best movie music of 2008. And the year’s best came from all over the place, from animated films (Thomas Newman‘s lovely and mournful score for “Wall-E” is further proof of his shamefully Oscar-less gifts) to comic book films (multiple listenings of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard‘s haunting score for “The Dark Knight” reveals innovations and bold strokes that require an Oscar all their own) to cartoon adaptations (Michael Giacchino‘s “Speed Racer” has too much of the original series’ themes to make Oscar’s short-list, but he continues to solidify himself as one of movie music’s most exciting composers to listen to, especially if you checked out his brilliant end credits opus “Roar!” for “Cloverfield”, only topped by Zimmer’s Joker suite as the best cue of the year) to documentaries (Michael Nyman‘s evocative score for “Man on Wire” captures the accomplishment’s suspense and spirit) to critical darling indies (A.R. Rahman‘s propulsive and riveting work for “Slumdog Millionaire” is a contemporary landmine of drama). And that’s just my top five for the year- so much struck the right chords this year that it could populate Oscar’s Best Original Score category three or four times over, from three jewels by Danny Elfman (be it his singular delving into Glass-esque minimalist for “Standard Operating Procedure”, a return to comic book fantasy in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”, or his soft-spoken inspiration in “Milk”); a pair of gems from action master John Powell (be it his dramatic intimacy and immediacy for “Stop-Loss” or his winking-eye nod to action cliches for “Bolt”); an evocative score that captures the sense of period and emotional distress of his film by Clint Eastwood (“Changeling”); a musical whirlwind into stupidity and espionage from Carter Burwell (for the Coen’s “Burn After Reading”); a sweet and offbeat score to fall in love to that avoids teen movie cliches from Mark Mothersbaugh (for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”, whose underground rock soundtrack gets points to as the year’s best song soundtrack); a blending of comic book heroics and heavy metal guitars that gets to the heart of a man looking to turn his gear-head ingenuity into something that spells trouble to the bad guys (Ramin Djawadi‘s score for “Iron Man” requires multiple listens to hear its’ ultimate triumph); a sprawling, romantic, and elegiac score that captures the possibilities and triumph of life on a low-key scale (Alexander Desplat‘s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”); an evocative and imaginative experiment in sound-design for a low-budget horror gem (“The Signal”, composed by Ben Lovett); and finally, an entertaining and old-fashioned symphony of fun by a master (John Williams for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”). I normally mention the year’s best songs as well, but I’ll just say this- they’ll all make my personal shortlist for the Best Original Song Oscar this year, highlighted by a personal triumph for Bruce Springsteen (his song for “The Wrestler” is one of his best) and an instant classic by Peter Gabriel (with his end credits song for “Wall-E”). Don’t worry, the others will get their due come Oscar nods.

Brian’s Worst Films of 2008
Is it possible that 2008 was a worse year than most are? Well, we had two films by uber-hack Uwe Boll, so it’s not far off. Plus, there were a few too many comedies that weren’t fairly funny, and a documentary that was more propaganda for the self-righteous right than an intelligent discourse on its’ subject. But despite how fantastic this summer was on the escapist front, there’s certainly enough to be discouraged about the direction some cinema seems to be taking towards mediocrity. Here are several examples of mediocrity I saw this past year, and yes, some of them were seen in theatres. I know; I’m not too happy about it either.

The F’s:
=“In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Seige Tale”– My first film seen on 2008 was also the worst, with this latest epic of badness from the infamously untalented likes of Uwe Boll hitting all the wrong notes in how to make a movie, and that goes with getting so many good actors (like Jason Statham, Burt Reynolds, and for the love of God, Ray Liotta) to actually agree to this film, that seems to have no story whatsoever. That said, screening this piece of crap with several other managers does rate as one of my favorite moviewatching experiences in years.

=“Funny Games”– Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt are too good to be apart of such a seemingly pointless film, a remake of an Austrian torture thriller masquerading as a critique on our obsession with violence. It suffers from the same hypocrisy and exploitative tone “Natural Born Killers” did, turning a compelling premise into an exercise in brutality. At least that film was stylish and hyperly over-the-top- this film is just bland and boring after a while.

=“An American Carol”– David Zucker, why hast thou foresaken us? And I ask this not because you’ve so blatantly attacked personal fave filmmaker Michael Moore in this patriotic twist on “A Christmas Carol,” but because you’ve done so in a way that’s so profoundly unfunny, and makes the last two “Scary Movie” films you directed look like your classic spoofs “The Naked Gun” and “Airplane!” in comparison. When Uwe Boll, of all people, makes a riskier and- dare I say- more interesting satire on American politics than a genuinely good filmmaker- as you have been in the past (and see below for that equally-terrible satire)- what does that say about our ability to make fun of ourselves?

=“The Love Guru”– All of the sudden, those “Shrek” sequels are starting to look pretty good. Same with “Austin Powers.” Excuse me while I shudder. That’s how bad this latest concoction from Mike Myers- with him as the Guru Pitka, a spiritual guide not above a good dick joke apparently- is. It doesn’t help that it wastes the looks of Jessica Alba and the comic talents of Stephen Colbert and John Oliver along the way. At this rate, the only thing that can save Myers’ reputation is a third “Wayne’s World” movie. I’m game… 🙂

=“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”– Here’s a rarity for the F grade- a documentary. Now bear in mind, it isn’t that this film- hosted by right-winger Ben Stein- is about Intelligent Design that lands it a place on this list. It’s because the film- while bringing up some valid points on the erosion of intelligent debate and the limits of free speech in this country of late- is a blatantly one-sided, not seeming to mind that it’s just furthering the divide between intelligent debate and simply shouting at one another. Don’t look for much intelligent discussion here.

=“Postal”– Unable to cut it as a “serious filmmaker” (if you call films like “Bloodrayne,” “Alone in the Dark,” and “In the Name of the King” serious), Uwe Boll tries his hand at satire, adapting yet another videogame into an unwatchable movie, this time of a post-9/11 America where religious nutjobs are just as Hellbent on destruction as Osama bin Laden and his followers, pissed off that the number of virgins waiting for them in Heaven has dropped. If the film had been just Boll’s footage of the boxing matches he held with his five biggest critics, I might have been entertained. Then again, that doesn’t mean it would’ve made any more sense than any of his other films.

The D’s: This year has seen more than its’ fair share of duds. Although none of these hit the level of disaster of the film’s above, well, they weren’t far off. The worst-of “runners up” includes: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (D), which took a great sci-fi movie and turned it into a cheesy one with contemporary touches that drown out what made the original unique; “Superhero Movie” (D), another lame spoof movie that has some laughs, but is otherwise a stain on the underpants of this once-reliable genre; “Step Brothers” (D), a rowdy and far-too-raunchy comedy from the “Talladega Nights” team of Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly- they get some laughs, but out of mean-spiritedness; “Fool’s Gold” (D+), a slick and sexless romantic comedy/adventure starring hotties Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson that isn’t romantic or funny; “Jumper” (D+), Doug Liman’s dull sci-fi actioner about people who can jump between time and space- it’s just about as bad as it sounds; and “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” (D+), a comedy show doc that’s acceptably funny by way of Vaughn and his pals, but has too much behind-the-scenes chatter and not enough of the on-stage show.

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