Here we are at the end of another year (which, you’ll agree, beats not getting to the end of another year). That means here I am with my seventh or eighth (I’ve lost track) Best of/Worst of lists, while my cohort in cinema Justin Souther offers up his second such list. This also means that we’ve both come down from a solid six weeks of screeners and screenings of those films the studios are most hopeful that critics—and critic groups and Academy Members etc.—will see as the ne plus ultra of filmmaking for the year. To make matters worse, we decided it would be a good idea to re-watch as many potentially worthy titles for “Best of” as possible. I don’t know about Justin, but I’m so burned out on quality pictures that I spent the entire day popping 1940s Bela Lugosi trash masterpieces into the DVD player (Return of the Ape Man coming up). It was comforting.
As usual, I reached the halfway point in the year thinking it was going to be impossible to come up with 10 best films, only to reach the end of the year wondering how to somehow wedge 12 titles into 10 spaces. With apologies to Claude Lelouch’s Roman de Gare and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, I couldn’t make it work. Sorry, guys, you were on my list.
— Ken Hanke
1. Slumdog Millionaire. With Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle moves into a whole new realm as a filmmaker—and he was pretty high on my list before. We’re talking that realm where it’s hard to think of a better filmmaker working today. The blend of explosive cinematic technique and a solid, involving, beautifully crafted story is hard to beat. The question now becomes whether or not Boyle can top it.
2. Be Kind Rewind. Michel Gondry’s quirky comedy—and more—has been on my list since I first saw it last February. That it has remained on the top half of the list is perhaps surprising, but watching it again last week confirmed its quality for me. I unreservedly love this film for its invention, its humanity and its love of movies for their own sake.
3. Milk. Gus Van Sant finds himself in an unusual position here by being the only filmmaker with a title on both my Best and my Worst lists. Regardless, his Milk is a marvel—a stunningly alive biopic that completely captures a place and a time, and then makes it relevant to today in the bargain.
4. The Reader. It’s six years since Stephen Daldry brought us his amazing film The Hours, but The Reader makes that wait at least darn close to worthwhile. Though lacking the degree of heavy layering as The Hours, The Reader is very much cut from the same cloth, and the results are shattering, haunting and yet ultimately hopeful.
5. Doubt. The inclusion of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt on my list actually surprises me a little, if only because I had very little interest in seeing it originally. Now, having seen it three times, I realize I was wrong. It offers strong—and beautifully acted—drama that’s finally about much more than its story of a nun convinced of a priest’s improper relationship with a student.
6. Australia. Magical realism usually seems a pretty clunky proposition to me, but seeing it used in a film where the realism is already stylized is another matter altogether. And that’s the case with Baz Luhrmann’s gloriously romantic, slightly preposterous homage to epic movies.
7. Let the Right One In. Years and years ago, a critic whose name I’ve long forgotten put forth the idea that the “ultimate” vampire film had yet to be made, and that when it was made, it would be hard to sit through. In some ways, I think this is the film he had in mind, even if I don’t find Tomas Alfredson’s film exactly hard to sit through. Still, its depiction of the loneliness of existence—both human and vampiric—is as chilling as the film’s wintry landscapes.
8. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Bharati Nalluri’s alluring 1930s period romantic comedy (from a script coauthored by Simon Beaufoy of Slumdog Millionaire fame) is the year’s most overlooked gem—a beautifully crafted work that’s about much more than its apparent rom-com formula. It’s turned into a thing of beauty by the performances of Frances McDormand, Amy Adams and Ciarán Hinds.
9. In Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s debut feature is as funny and clever as it is wicked. It’s perfect pitch-black black comedy that’s oddly touched with humanity where you least expect it. It’s also one of the most deliciously developed screenplays around.
10. Synecdoche, New York. OK, so no one expected Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut to be exactly normal. This is the guy who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, after all. But did anyone expect anything quite this dense and difficult? For sheer chutzpah—and the fact that I’ll still be tussling with the movie years from now—it belongs on the list.
1. Meet the Spartans. It’s from the guys who made Date Movie and Epic Movie. Later in 2008, they inflicted us with Disaster Movie. Somewhere an electric chair is waiting.
2. Disaster Movie. See above—only now I’m thinking a good Old Testament public stoning is in order.
3. Witless Protection. The idol of illiteracy, Larry the Cable Guy, returned with this opus that fully earns its title, but has maximum appeal for those who find igniting their own gaseous emissions a worthy endeavor that enriches humankind.
4. 10,000 B.C. Altogether now:
When cavemen were in Egypt land
Let my mammoths go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
Let my mammoths go.
Go down, D’Leh,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ole Pharaoh,
Let my mammoths go.
5. Smart People. I saw no evidence of intelligence of any kind in this dismal, dull, unfunny indie outcropping of “quirky comedy” that seems to conclude that all life’s problems can be solved by an unplanned pregnancy. How I originally gave this stinker two stars mystifies me.
6. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Speaking of no signs of intelligence, there was the phony Nathan Frankowski “documentary” Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a badly made piece of propaganda—cowritten by star Ben Stein—that purports to make a case for why intelligent design should be taught in the classroom. Since it’s incapable of making that case, it merely wanders around recounting dubious stories of the scientific community’s attempts at stifling anyone who supports the idea. As corrupt a piece of work as you’ll ever encounter.
7. Paranoid Park. If there was ever a more pointlessly depressing and boring movie about disaffected youth than Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, I’ve never seen it. For that matter, I have seen very few movies so completely pointless overall. Vacuous non-actors stand around and stare into space, which Van Sant wants us to take as evidence of their depth and inner turmoil. That it might simply be the result of falling on their heads one time too many seems not to occur to him.
8. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. A shameless bid by a man with more money than God to shake down his fan base for even more money. Badly written and even more badly animated, the only marginal excuse for this thing is the inclusion of the bizarre Ziro the Hutt, who appears to be the interstellar version of Blanche DuBois (“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers, Count Dooku” would not have been out of place). What in God’s name were they thinking?
9. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Actually, this moronic assemblage of teen movie clichés only seems infinite. In reality, it’s only 90 minutes—90 long minutes of fraudulent “indie” hipness and even more fraudulent characters who talk like nothing on God’s Earth. The Bill and Ted movies had more connection to reality.
10. Mamma Mia! Two hours of ABBA songs performed by people who really shouldn’t, all put over with more plastic smiles and forced gaiety than a reunion of Up With People. At the same time, it’s train-wreck mesmerizing—or at least it was while it was playing. I have not been compelled to pick up the DVD, and I’m content to leave it that way.
Justin Souther’s Lists
1. Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is really the only film deserving of consideration for best film of the year. Striking, harrowing and ultimately human, it’s the great film to come out of 2008.
2. Be Kind Rewind. Michel Gondry’s love letter to the movies. A reminder of how far a little (or in this case, a lot of) imagination can take you, while proving that great movies can be fun—something that is all too often forgotten.
3. In Bruges. Playwright Martin McDonagh has hit the ground running with his debut film, a clever, stylish and bloody crime thriller that’s as offensive as it is bitterly funny.
4. Milk. Though not a particular fan of Gus Van Sant or Sean Penn, with Milk I was pleased to find out that expectations can sometimes be wrong. Penn finally lives up to his reputation in the most important film of the year.
5. Speed Racer. What started off as a guilty pleasure, I now completely embrace: The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer. Appealing primarily to my inner 10-year-old self, the film’s ambitious, gaudy and vibrant, all the while attempting to push the movies towards something new.
6. Burn After Reading. A clever, bawdy spy yarn with little regard for expectations—especially after the success of last year’s No Country for Old Men. It’s the Coens at their most playful and, better yet, insolent.
7. Synecdoche, New York. Longtime screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York is occasionally depressing, often times hysterically funny and always odd, remarkable and heartbreakingly astute.
8. Let the Right One In. By leaps and bounds the best horror movie to come out this year, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire flick works within the confines of the genre while being one of the more oddly touching films of the year.
9. Miracle at St. Anna. Hated by many and loved by few, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna is an exercise in gall, artistic freedom and jumbled excess that’s maybe the most purely fascinating release of 2008.
10. Australia. Big, flashy and extravagant, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is the kind of overstated romantic spectacle the movies were likely meant to be in the first place, but so very rarely are.
1. College. “So I’ve got this idea for a movie. Remember Superbad? It’s like that, but with more poop.”
2. Sex and the City. Two-and-a-half hours of chit-chatting about shoes, punctuated by the most elaborate diarrhea joke ever committed to film. Combine this movie with Cloverfield and we’re talking box office.
3. Cloverfield. So a giant monster is attacking New York City, and I’m supposed to be worried about the relationship problems of a bunch of affluent, upper-middle class 20-somethings? Right. If someone ever combines the two laziest genres, the first-person shaky-cam thriller and the mockumentary, I’ll have an aneurysm.
4. Jumper. If Samuel L. Jackson is Superman (and I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary) then Hayden Christensen is his Kryptonite. I’d say that the kid has the personality of Cream of Wheat, but I don’t want to accidentally ruin Cream of Wheat for anyone.
5. Eagle Eye. Warmed-over Tony Scott plus refried Michael Bay along with Shia LaBeouf fighting what appears to be a rogue robo-caller is not a good combination.
6. Punisher: War Zone. I have one point to make: The movie features an “Urban Free-Flow Gang.”
7. High School Musical 3. Unreasonably happy teens sing and dance a lot. There’s a circle of hell that looks a lot like this movie.
8. Never Back Down. One day, decades from now, 2008 will be remembered as The Year of Cam Gigandet. Not only did he get to squint and look surly in Twilight, but he also got to squint and look surly in Never Back Down, and deliver classic lines like, “There’s only one way for this to end: with you lookin’ like a bitch.” And like that, a star was born.
9. Made of Honor. So some gross, promiscuous sleaze ball played by Patrick Dempsey spends 90 minutes trying to ruin his best friend’s wedding and it’s supposed to be romantic? If they had called it Made of HPV, I might have bought it.
10. Nobel Son. Here’s what happens when someone who’s obviously not cool or hip tries to make a movie that’s cool and hip. It’s sort of like that time Pat Boone showed up on the American Music Awards dressed like Alice Cooper.