RICK KISONAK: What a difference a year — an election year — can make, huh? Last December we remarked on the torrent of films that had been made in reaction to the war in Iraq and Bush’s misguided policies in general. With the exception of Oliver Stone’s bafflingly point-free W., this past year saw barely a celluloid reference to the lame duck or his lame legacy.
What filled that void? Well, for the most part, Nazis, superheroes, Judd Apatow wannabes and Catherine Keener. The indie icon starred in no fewer than four pictures (Hamlet 2, What Just Happened?, Genova and Synecdoche, New York), in addition to the upcoming Robert Downey Jr. drama The Soloist, now set for spring release. Remember how Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed to be everywhere this time last year? Next to Keener, he’s looking practically agoraphobic.
MARGOT HARRISON: Well, some critics seem to think Batman in The Dark Knight was supposed to be G.W. Bush, but they’re the misguided ones, in my opinion. Now, I haven’t seen many of this year’s fall Oscar contenders, because they haven’t hit Vermont, so for me this looks like the year when summer blockbusters went dark. First America thrilled to a sweet animation that evoked all our fears about wrecking the planet and smothering in our own junk (WALL-E). Then, barely a week later, everyone lined up for the most anti-heroic superhero movie ever made. (I’m still talking about The Dark Knight, but Hancock could also contend for the title.)
What a downer, huh? Well, on the bright side, there were some unusually substantial roles for women, in films such as Happy-Go-Lucky and Rachel Getting Married. There were way too many superhero movies, but some of them were actually good. And lots of Catherine Keener is never a bad thing.
Most Stellar Performance
RK: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York. He may have paced himself this year, but when he was in front of a camera, he was phenomenal. His portrait of a regional theater director who dreams of mounting a massive meta-production unlocking the meaning of life is as spellbinding as it is heartbreaking. He’s also fabulous in Doubt, a film that isn’t in the same league as Synecdoche, New York but, ironically, is more likely to wind up winning him awards.
MH: Go ahead and say it’s because it was his last performance. But seriously, Heath Ledger. He chose to play the Joker not like your typical movie psycho or like Nicholson, but like a spaz who got mocked in junior high and grew up and figured out how to scare the shit out of the cool kids. It may have been over the top, but it’ll be remembered.
Most Annoying Performance
RK: Nicolas Cage in Bangkok Dangerous. And I didn’t even see this movie. I just continue to find the actor’s anything-for-a-buck professional ethos appalling. Talent like his is a terrible thing to waste.
MH: Mark Wahlberg, twice over. We know Marky Mark can act — look at Boogie Nights or The Departed. But this year, the trees in The Happening and the snow flurries in Max Payne were more expressive than he was.
RK: Pineapple Express. Seth Rogen — fast approaching national-treasure status — and writing partner Evan Goldberg teamed up with producer Judd Apatow and indie director David Gordon Green (George Washington) to engineer an entirely new strain of motion picture: the stoner action comedy. In a year of half-baked laughers, this one was totally baked. And that was a good thing.
MH: Happy-Go-Lucky. Mike Leigh’s tale of a manic young woman who’s also a fairly smart cookie got laughs from real-feeling characters, not ridiculous situations. However, I should note that I laughed harder at the last half-hour of Southland Tales than anything else all year.
RK: I’m torn, because I thought Tropic Thunder truly blew, but I have to go with Get Smart. Steve Carell hit a career low here in the role of CONTROL operative Maxwell Smart, inexplicably retooled by the picture’s creators. The whole point of the original series — the brainchild of no lesser talents than Mel Brooks and Buck Henry — was to offer a bumbling, Clouseau-like parody of James Bond. In this update, the agent was reconceived as a methodical, highly efficient asset who every now and then resurrects one of the show’s famous catchphrases. What’s the point of a Maxwell Smart who doesn’t bumble?
MH: Fool’s Gold. I think it was supposed to be funny. But the setup of an uptight chick bickering with a slobby guy till they both break down and kiss has passed its sell-by date. Also, Matthew McConaughey’s pecs, while impressive, cannot act.
RK: Clint Eastwood showed no sign of slowing down in 2008, just of screwing up. He directed two films. Changeling was a so-so period suspense-fest. Gran Torino, on the other hand, is a sloppily made collection of cornball clichés about an aging racist (Eastwood) who befriends a family of Hmong that moves in next door. The writing is sophomoric, the cast is made up largely of nonactors who should have remained that way, and, worst of all, Clint himself sings the film’s title song sounding like Tom Waits with a mouthful of razor blades.
MH: Most of the high-concept horror films this year, including Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, The Happening and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The first two proved that fake-documentary films can be as stagy and unbelievable as any other kind. The last two were just mistakes. At least we had two chilling, psychologically acute scare flicks from Europe: The Orphanage and Let the Right One In.
RK: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Like most people, I expect, I assumed I knew the story behind the legendary director’s 1977 arrest and subsequent exile. All that changed when I watched Marina Zenovich’s remarkable and revelatory documentary on the subject. No excuses are made for the crime he committed. At the same time, his treatment by this country’s justice system, it turns out, was nothing short of criminal.
MH: That Indiana Jones ended up with a woman roughly his own age.
Best Vampire Under Voting Age
RK: If you see just one movie this year about a bullied Swedish albino who convinces a 12-year-old vampire to go steady with him, you owe it to yourself to make it Let the Right One In. It is mournfully beautiful, brilliantly original and masterfully directed. Lina Leandersson is unforgettable as the supernatural tween.
MH: Lina Leandersson again. The scene where she shows us what happens when a vampire enters a home uninvited is enough by itself to erase decades of tongue-in-cheek bloodsucker flicks. However, I must give Robert Pattison of Twilight some points for ruthlessly making fun of his character in the press (and, some would say, on screen).
Best Imitation of a Judd Apatow Movie
RK: In a year rife with wannabes, writer-director David Wain (The Ten) revealed to the world that he too had come down with a case of Apatow Envy. Like many a 2008 comedy, Role Models appropriated shamelessly from the Apatow canon. Raunch was mixed with romance. Potty-mouthed dialogue was interspersed with feel-good moments. Faces familiar from films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad — including McLovin himself — were prominently on display. Apatow addicts looking for a fix of movie methadone will find Wain’s to be higher-grade stuff than other imitations, however. It had way more Apatow regulars. And it was a ton funnier.
MH: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which Apatow did produce). Writer-star Jason Segal is a talented alternative to the verging-on-ubiquitous Seth Rogen. He deserves more screen time, though preferably not in his birthday suit. Russell Brand delivered one of the comic performances of the year as a vain but even-tempered British pop star.
Most Inexplicable Hit
RK: Beverly Hills Chihuahua comes to mind. A talking dog movie from Raja Gosnell, the director of Scooby-Doo and Scooby-Doo 2. Now here’s a filmmaker who likes to stretch. The thing was number one for two weeks straight and is closing in on $100 million at the domestic box office. There has to be some way to blame George W. Bush for this.
MH: Judging by Chihuahua and last year’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, I’m guessing most domestic ticket sales these days are driven by the tastes of kids under 5. However, my pick is a flick that hit it bigger with the mom demographic: Mamma Mia! Singing, dancing and sparkles are all fine, but not when they come with a shopworn story and lame pop hits. My female friends and relations will just have to agree to disagree with me on this.
Most Inexplicable Flop
RK: Critics savaged The Happening, but I found the latest from M. Night Shyamalan exquisitely directed, convincingly acted, hauntingly scored, imaginatively scripted and creepy as all holy hell. Many reviewers seemed to relish the opportunity to pronounce the filmmaker’s career officially dead on its arrival. I’m not certain I understand the phenomenon. Are we so overloaded with truly innovative and talented directors we feel the population needs to be brought under control the way hunting season thins the deer herd? Even if this were a disappointing work, it wouldn’t have merited the laceration it underwent, and the thing is, it wasn’t a disappointment, not even remotely.
MH: Blindness. OK, this depressing tale of a worldwide epidemic was never hit material. But given that we’re all petrified of pandemic flu, maybe we should have paid more attention to its cautionary tale of the chaos that results when civil society stops working.
Best Omen of the Impending Downfall of Civilization
RK: Rumor has it Disney is already working on a sequel to Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
MH: In Sex and the City, a man proves his love by building a woman a walk-in closet for her shoes. Yes, if I remember right, it was just for her shoes. And people wonder about this credit crisis.
RK: Nicolas Cage again. Bangkok Dangerous had him under the most unfortunate rug he’s sported since Con Air. It was like a cross between a greasy mop and roadkill.
MH: The taffy-colored towhead Robert Downey Jr. revealed when his Australian character in Tropic Thunder stopped pretending to be African American. It came with a nifty Russell Crowe impersonation, though.
Best Argument for the Banning of Sequels
RK: Quantum of Solace. This was the first sequel in the 46-year history of Bond films. With any luck it will be the last. Two big problems: First, 007 trades in his license to kill for a prerogative to mope. Who needs a brooding, angst-ridden Bond? Second, the whole incomprehensible mess plays like a second-rate Bourne rip-off — with action scenes quoted almost verbatim and fundamental story elements lifted from the series. Please. Say never again.
MH: Though Jumperdoesn’t have a sequel yet, I’m going to go with it preemptively, given that its greedy, tween-pandering makers chose to value a sequel setup over an actual ending.
RK: Man on Wire. British-born filmmaker James Marsh appropriated the conventions of a heist caper to tell the story of French aerialist Philippe Petit and his August 7, 1974, high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. Chronicling the conception, planning and commission of “the artistic crime of the century,” it’s Houdini meets Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen all rolled into one.
MH: Trouble the Water. Though only part of the film is a firsthand record of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans, the rest is a compelling character study of the young woman who held the camcorder when all hell was breaking loose around her.
Most Toothless Satire of the Movie Industry
RK: Are you sitting down? Actors are self-absorbed. Agents are motivated by self-interest. Hollywood producers and studio heads are more interested in making money than great art. These are among the insider bombshells dropped in What Just Happened? What’s happened to Robert DeNiro’s career may be more to the point.
MH: Tropic Thunder wasn’t so much toothless as it was a gigantic prosthetic set of choppers that were further enhanced with CGI. In other words, despite a few biting bits, it was too much like the over-masticated action movies it was trying to satirize.
Best Guilty Pleasure
RK: Cloverfield. I’m a monster man from way back, and this is the most blood-draining thing I’ve come across in years. The brainchild of “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams, the picture is so stripped down, so thoroughly devoid of traditional devices and tropes (e.g., scientists speculating as to the creature’s origin, American military might triumphing over an evil invader) that there’s nothing left but the experience of trying to survive an apocalyptic attack, with the viewer thrust into the middle of the mayhem Blair Witch-style. It’s only 84 minutes long but packs several times the primordial punch of bigger, longer, star-studded productions such as Godzilla and War of the Worlds. I doubt there’s a filmmaker working today who can match Abrams’ knack for infusing timeworn forms with new life. With “Lost,” he reimagined the desert-island drama. In Cloverfield, the monster movie was reborn.
MH: Well, I can’t agree. But I enjoyed Twilight, so I have no high ground to stand on. Lush cinematography, clever direction and fun performances made this abstinence-promoting vampire romance into a dreamy meditation on teen delirium.
RK: Did it get worse this year than Speed Racer? I’m sure there were crappier movies. But I doubt there were crappier movies made by filmmakers as accomplished as Matrix creators Larry and Andy Wachowski. In bringing the ’60s anime series to the big screen, the brothers weren’t content to peddle sound and fury signifying nothing; they reveled in a digital orgy of meaningless sound, fury and computer-generated Day-Glo color. This may be the least special special-effects movie ever made.
MH: OK, Rick, I know you liked it. But I’m going to have to go with The Happening. Its premise has promise, and the trailer showed off Tak Fujimoto’s exquisite cinematography. But I found the film laughably written, poorly staged, and woodenly acted. I don’t mind that the villains belonged to the vegetable kingdom. I do mind that Zooey Deschanel’s vacant stare makes it seem like she’s wondering, Can trees really be scary? And I mind that Mark Wahlberg plays a biology teacher who believes “acts of nature” can’t be explained, period. No wonder American kids are falling behind in science.
RK: Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk are all fine films to greater or lesser degrees, but I didn’t see anything in 2008 that could hold a candle to Synecdoche, New York. And I stand by the two predictions I made in my review: First, you won’t come across a motion picture that’s better, more brilliant or more ambitious this year. And second, it won’t win the Oscar (or any other major award) for Best Picture. In one sense, as I said, this is a shame. In another, it’s probably as it should be. Can you imagine a world where everybody is on the same wavelength as Charlie Kaufman?
MH: I don’t like superheroes. Or caped crime fighters. The much-praised Batman Begins left me cold, as did Tim Burton’s version. And yet, for some reason, I find myself still convinced The Dark Knight is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Nietzsche wrote about the uncanny power that Wagner’s dark, often turgid operas had over the Germans of his day. I never understood the phenomenon till I saw this film. It’s not the smartest one I’ve seen. But it’s superb mythmaking and reminds us of the danger of letting fear determine our choice of leaders, at a time when many of us are scared . . . a lot.