The best of this past year, in order of their greatness:
1. Milk: Here’s a movie whose time is now. Sean Penn is amazing as Harvey Milk, imbuing the gay civil rights icon with humor and humanity. Director Gus Van Sant brings the late 70’s back with all the cringe-inducing fashion and facial hair that entails. Milk may preach to the choir a bit, but it’s a vital piece of filmmaking.
2. WALL-E: Put on your Sunday clothes, indeed! Pixar may be genetically unable to make a bad movie, but WALL-E succeeds in ways few filmmakers can touch. A trash-collecting robot turns into a modern-day Chaplin as he pines for his ladylove, EVE. Both a sweet intergalactic robot romance and an indictment on our non-sustainable culture, WALL-E spins garbage into cinematic gold.
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Despite an ungainly title and a structure a little too Forrest Gumpy for its own good, David Fincher’s decades-spanning tale of a man who ages in reverse becomes a magical rumination on living life to its fullest, starring two beautiful actors who have seldom been this luminous. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, not to mention a stellar supporting cast including Tilda Swinton and Taraji P. Henson, bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to glorious life, but it’s Alexandre Desplat’s breathtaking score that really casts the spell.
4. Changeling: Clint Eastwood’s fact-based LA melodrama featured the most beautifully-rendered recreation of 1920’s California I can remember, but it is Angelina Jolie’s heartbreaking performance as a single mother faced with the kidnapping of her son that places Changeling so high on my list. Even when the film veers into 50’s Caged-type histrionics, it perfectly fits with the film’s style. Jason Butler Harner is chilling as a psycho who is crucial to the story.
5. Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. really is having the best year ever, isn’t he? He wasn’t this hot in his Brat Pack days, but his marvelous ability to play off his partying history to portray arms manufacturer Tony Stark in Iron Man gives the film a gravitas it wouldn’t have otherwise. Add to that, his priceless multi-layered (and multi-ethnic attempting) role in Tropic Thunder, and you can bet the former bad boy has his pick of future work. Iron Man put the fun back into superhero movies.
6. Burn After Reading: The Coen Brothers’ latest sour tale of lovable losers has not received the acclaim it deserves. The entire cast, from John Malkovich as a jittery CIA spook on his way out, Frances McDormand as a plastic surgery-obsessed gym attendant, Brad Pitt as her dimwitted brawn, George Clooney as a sex-toy loving FBI man, to Richard Jenkins as McDormand’s lovelorn boss and the rest of the cast are laugh-out-loud funny. The dark comedy about losers trying to scam other losers is the Coen’s best comedy since Fargo.
7. Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle is the surprising director of this Indian Horatio Alger tale. Echoing classic literature and Bollywood films, the story of a boy from the Mumbai slums whose life experiences make him a big winner on India’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? (or “milli-nair” as the slimy host brays it) manages to be a hopeful romance amidst filth and poverty you seldom see on screen.
8. The Reader: Yes, it’s the film based on an “Oprah-approved novel about a sexy Nazi cougar”, but Kate Winslet makes it so much more. Directed by The Hours’ Stephen Daldry, the film, and especially Winslet’s performance, makes you ask yourself if you could love someone capable of heinous atrocities. Specifically, how did the next generation of Germans who came of age after the Holocaust forgive their parents, teachers and mentors for allowing it to happen? The Reader reminded me of For a Lost Soldier, which also involved a boy willingly seduced by an adult with dubious intentions.
9. The Visitor: Richard Jenkins so often shines in supporting roles that I was happy to see him as the lead in Tom McCarthy’s touching intercultural friendship tale The Visitor. When Jenkins’ closed-off professor finds an undocumented couple living in his New York apartment, it brings him back to life as he helps the two try to make their way in the difficult post-9/11 world of immigration. McCarthy understands characters in need, and Jenkins is a perfect vessel for his (sometimes-preachy) message.
10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: This list needed a little more sex and comedy, and Woody Allen’s latest film offered both. Saved from Dorothy Hamill hair hell, Javier Bardem became one of the hottest men on film this year, as an artist who romances Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and the excitingly sensual Penélope Cruz (who owns the movie once she appears). Allen is forgiven for slapping such a clunky title on such a hot film.
Now, of course, I have favorite things, just like Oprah, and one of them is bad movies ... and 2008 brought some nasty crud from its sewer drain:
1. Hell Ride: Who thought making a film written and directed by and starring Joey Bishop’s son Larry as a hot head of a motorcycle gang was a good idea? Executive producer Quentin Tarantino, apparently, who must have thought this steaming pile of Hell’s Angels crap would make Death Proof look better. Bishop is repulsive as a leading man, and the film’s pseudo-cool grindhouse pretense can’t hide its vile and sadistic misogyny. I’d ride through hell before suffering through Hell Ride again!
2. The Life Before Her Eyes: It’s the movie that gives its ending away in the title. Not that you’re likely to be around that long, what with the turgid trials of school-shooting survivor Uma Thurman dragged out beyond human endurance. Evan Rachel Wood and Susan Sarandon’s daughter Eva Amurri also give great performances in vain. The film before your eyes is a waste of celluloid.
3. The Happening: Okay, I admit it’s better than Lady in the Water, but so are hemorrhoids. M. Night Shyamalan needs to learn that we don’t want lectures from a raging egomaniac with an infantile grasp of plot development. He got two things right. He stayed off-screen and he showed us Spencer Breslin getting blasted in the face. When your killer is a Patrick Swayze song, it’s time to start the script over!
4. Speed Racer: So this is what it looks like when somebody eats a color wheel and vomits on the screen. The Wachowski Brothers prove everyone wrong who said they couldn’t direct a film worse than The Matrix Revolutions. When an obnoxious moppet named Spittle, or is it Spritle, isn’t the worst thing in this candy-colored mess, you can just imagine what horrors await you if you take this ride.
5. Prom Night: Poor Brittany Snow! Last year, she lost the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962, and this year, she’s the reigning queen of the lamest prom on record. Brooding hunk Jonathan Schaech slums it as a particularly unoriginal stalker/slasher who dispatches brain-dead teens and others exactly the same boring way. Hmmm, the police know he’s an escaped loony heading for the prom ... shouldn’t have taken ninety seconds to catch him, much less the ninety minutes you’ll never get back from watching this non-thriller.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.