There are still some 2008 releases that have yet to to make it to the hinterlands. (Most of these I’ve seen, not a single one got near whelming me. One — Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road — I positively loathed.) For that matter, there are some movies that were slated for 2008 and moved to 2009. (Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom is a potentially interesting such film. The Accidental Husband is less so.) But for all intents and purposes, 2008 is a done deal cinematically speaking. And despite the fact that that means we’re staring down the barrel of the studios’ January White Sale of movies no one is likely to want to see, I don’t think anyone is all that sorry to see it go.
The movie year of 2008 just happens to mark the 70th anniversary of 1938 (imagine that!), which has long tended to be viewed as the worst year the movies ever had. That’s as much a box office assessment as an artistic one, but it was no great shakes on either level. I recently got suckered into a discussion of doing “Ten Best by Year” lists — starting with 1930 and going forward — and I was fine till I got to 1938, at which point I had to do some stretching to find 10 films that struck me as really qualifying as the best, except on a wholly relative basis.
At least that wasn’t a problem with 2008, which is kind of amazing since it was a year that found us with many of our best filmmakers — Alfonso Cuaron, Pedro Almodovar, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Neil Jordan, Julie Taymor, David O. Russell — absent. What we did get from Michel Gondry, Danny Boyle, Gus Van Sant, Stephen Daldry, etc. certainly offered something far more than mere consolation.
And there were more good films than those that made my Ten Best list. A couple of them — Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna and the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading—made it onto co-critic Justin Souther’s list. (And while I can’t quite share his enthusiasm for the Wachowski’s Speed Racer, I do appreciate what the film attempts and am glad to see it on a list.) I mentioned that Claude Lelouch’s Roman de Gare and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla nearly made it onto mine.
Still, there were even more truly worthy films — Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit (one day I may regret its absence on my list), Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters, Michael Raford’s Flawless, Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, Pierre Salvadori’s Priceless, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Anand Tucker’s When Did You Last See Your Father?, Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead Revisited. In fact, at various points in the year, all these were on my tentative Ten Best list. And for that matter, I really liked Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (most of it anyway), Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job, and I have a hunch I’ll be one of the first in line for the DVD release of Frank Miller’s much-maligned The Spirit.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice a “glaring” omission on the lists and the also-rans. This is deliberate on my part, but we’ll get to that in due course. Staunch supporters can fume about it for a while.
What surprises me about 2008 more than the high number of worthwhile films (it sure didn’t feel there were this many while living through it!) is the scarcity of middle-ground entertainment. It was a year that largely fell into one of three categories—the really good, possibly great, films, the ambitious failures (think Eastwood’s Changeling), and the fairly-to-completely dreadful. The modestly entertaining film was not in huge supply — though some highly-praised films that were “good for what they were” in my book (Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, anyone?) probably belong there. The usual run of good, but less than stellar romantic comedies just weren’t in evidence. The only exceptions that come to mind were David Schwimmer’s Run Fatboy Run and David Koepp’s Ghost Town, both of which fell through the cracks—probably due to their unconventional leading men.
Even for a somewhat unspectacular year, the movies were not without their educational value. Consider what useful things we learned over the course of 2008. In 10,000 B.C. Roland Emmerich taught us that the pyramids were built with the assistance of woolly mammoths — and this was done some 7,000 or so years earlier than pyramids existed. (Darn those pesky timelines!) Jeff Wadlow clued us in to the fact that engaging in a fight with Cam Gigandet could only end with us “looking like a bitch” in Never Back Down. (I know a couple folks who’d pay good money to end up that way, but we’ll let that pass.) Dr. Uwe Boll introduced us to the concept of leather-clad arboreal lesbians and Burt Reynolds as an ancient kingdom monarch in In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, inadvertently proving — at two-plus hours — that it is indeed possible to get too much of a so-bad-it’s-good thing.
M. Night Shyamalan (taking a page from Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow) proved that it’s possible to outrun the wind in his cosmically silly The Happening—a film that’s so big and dumb and worthless that it’s as hard to hate as a blundering Newfoundland puppy. At the same time, he offered the valuable warning that if you’re involved in a head-on collision and John Leguizamo is seated in front of you, you’ll fly right over him and through the windshield. The moral is clearly that one should not sit behind Mr. Leguizamo in a moving vehicle. This is knowledge that could one day save your life.
The animated Belgian film Fly Me to the Moon proved once and for all that European culture is not automatically superior to American culture. Howard Deutch’s My Best Friend’s Girl demonstrated that, yes, it is possible to make Dane Cook appealing—all you have to do is cast Jason Biggs as the alternative. (This is known as an experiment in the relativity of things.) On the other hand, Steven Spielberg’s torturously titled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull offered conclusive proof that Shia LaBeouf could be out-acted by CGI monkeys.
In Catherine Hardwick’s Twilight we discovered that vampires love baseball (they even have the uniforms to prove it), but that they can only play during thunderstorms because then the sound of their bats smacking the ball will be mistaken for thunder. A friend asked me yesterday how it was possible that such a powerful hit wouldn’t pulverize the baseball. I could only conclude that vampires have very resilient balls. I’ve yet to decide whether this or — Spoiler Alert! — Gabriel Muccino’s Seven Pounds with its suicide-by-jellyfish is the damn stupidest thing I encountered all year. It’s a tough call, but both make me more ready to accept Burt Reynolds as the king of some ancient mythological country.
Education to one side, I think the most striking thing about the year lies in the strange dichotomy of hopeless nihilism and a more optimistic outlook. In this regard, the movies seem to present a snapshot of the times we live in. This, by the way, is where we’re going to get to my notable lack of appreciation for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film I am supposed to find quite wonderful — only I don’t.
Yes, The Dark Knight was the big hit of the year. That’s undeniable. Is it well made? Yes, I think that’s undeniable, though I stop far short of thinking it’s brilliantly made. My feelings toward it are the same as they were when it came out—it’s a solidly crafted movie in most regards, but it’s also a wildly unbalanced one that makes most of its points by virtue of one showy, but admittedly effective, performance. How effective and faithful it all is in terms of comic books is here beside the point. A film doesn’t end up with this kind of box office or this degree of critical acclaim solely on that score alone.
In broad terms, The Dark Knight is a singularly long variant on the last Batman/Joker outing, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), and it comes equipped with the same internal problem as that film—a wildly over-the-top Joker who overbalances the film itself. Much as with Nicholson’s Joker in the older film, Heath Ledger’s Joker is so much more alive than the rest of the movie that the movie just kind of lies there and dies there whenever he’s offscreen. There is a difference, however, and that’s what makes the film an off-putting experience for me—even a disturbing one.
I was quite shocked when several people told me how much “fun” they thought The Dark Knight was—and I wondered if they’d seen the same movie I had, or if they’d actually thought about what they’d seen. Taken overall, The Dark Knight struck me then and strikes me now as the most thoroughly depressing comic book movie ever made. Nolan flirted with this in Batman Begins where the only person in the film who seemed to be in on the fact that he was in a comic book movie and not a Shakespearean tragedy was Cillian Murphy.
In The Dark Knight this is taken to new heights—or lows, depending on your outlook—with Ledger’s Joker. Yes, the old Nicholson Joker was a homicidal sociopath, but it was leavened by a larger than life silliness. The Ledger Joker is still larger than life. He’s as manic as Nicholson—maybe more so—but it ends there. This Joker is merely sadistically insane. The humor here isn’t dark—it’s black. And it’s mean and a total downer, which perfectly fits the film that houses it, but I’m not sold on the greatness of it all. What—besides embracing rampant nihilism—is the point? At the risk of coming across all Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I’m simply not getting the good out of it. But then I’ve always had a problem accepting the downbeat as important just because it’s downbeat.
Setting aside all questions of the quality of the film or its accurate portrayal of the comic book, I do find its popularity fascinating, since it’s quite the grimmest motion picture I can recall to attain anything like this level of popular adulation. What intrigues me—and what I’m not about to try to answer—is what it says about us as a society. Anyone who wants to tackle that one, have at it.
There’s a similar hopeless mindset at work in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, a film I much prefer to The Dark Knight. Why it doesn’t bother me in the same way may lie in the fact that it’s presented in a wholly satirical manner. However, I think the biggest differences have to do with the fact that neither the Coens, nor anyone else is taking its dark view of humanity as heavy drama of deep significance. More to the point, though, is the movie’s portrayal of the monumental vanity and ineptitude surrounding us. There are no clear sociopathic monsters here. The closest thing to one is the completely deluded John Malkovich character, and he’s too much of a bungler to pose that much of a threat. Evil geniuses need not apply in the world of Burn After Reading. The “controlling” forces of society are just as much clueless bozos as the rest of us. There’s something oddly comforting in the concept that even if we are being driven over a cliff, it’s more from bumbling stupidity than outright evil.
That these dark, dark movies are the product of the same year that gave us such blessedly non-gooey hopeful—utterly un-nihilistic—movies as Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Gus Van Sant’s Milk poses a duality of tone worthy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oh, sure, things like it have happened before, since both types of films always coexist, but rarely in such stark contrast. It’s a contrast that seems to me to represent us both sociologically and politically. Again, yes, this isn’t in itself unusual, because movies—most art, in fact—tend to be a reflection of the eras in which they were made, but judgments on that are generally more easily made years after the fact. Not so here. It’s easy to see without historical perspective. That the year ended on the hopeful notes rather than the nihilistic ones is to my mind as encouraging as the films themselves. Regardless of what comes next either in the real world or the reel one, this where I’m content to leave 2008.