If you've somehow managed to trick people into letting you write about film for a living (hi, Steve!) but you don't do a year-end top 10 list, I'm pretty sure the vengeful ghost of Gene Siskel shows up in your bedroom, Jacob Marley-style, and, snickering maniacally, brutally rips off your thumbs, damning you to a hell of being forever unable to render verdicts on movies. Them's the rules of being a film writer, folks—vengeful, snickering Siskel doesn't make 'em, he just follows 'em.
In an effort to stave off that fate, I've put together a list of the stuff I most enjoyed in 2008. It's not a top 10, because there aren't 10 of them, and it's hardly authoritative, since I'm not sure how one's supposed to declare what the best films in a given year are if they haven't seen every single goddamn one of 'em. I, for one, am lame, and still haven't gotten around to seeing Frost/Nixon, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Let the Right One In, Waltz with Bashir, Gran Torino, Che, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, or The Wrestler—a slew of films that're on a lot of top 10 lists, but that I've either been too lazy to go out and see or that haven't screened in Portland yet. But after the jump, you'll find my favorites out of the kajillion things I did watch this year, and no doubt some fodder to quibble over and complain about. Plus! Because I'm petty, I'll throw in a quick list of the stuff that angered/disappointed me the most in 2008, from Wanted to Wendy and Lucy to The Happening. Which reminds me: Hey, The Happening? Fuck you.
Let's start with the big ones everyone's talking about this year: The Dark Knight doesn't hold up nearly as well in repeated viewings as it did at first glance, which, yeah, kind of sucks—there's that nonsense with the Scarecrow, that silly courtroom scene, that even sillier scene with the explosives and the ferries, all those dangling plot threads—but still, all of that adds up to a minor blemish on what's largely one of the most slick, exciting, and visceral movies in recent memory. It's dark, brutal, and smart, and it's one of those too-rare films that realize it can be all of those things without sacrificing its entertainment value.
Along similar lines there's Wall-E, a film that's just about as critical of human nature as The Dark Knight, but also makes you feel fantastic by the end of it. It's gorgeous to look at, it's sharp and subtle in its writing, it's gracefully directed by Andrew Stanton, and it conveys more emotion in its 90-minute runtime than almost everything else on this list put together. (I tear up at a couple of points in this thing, every time. SHUT UP.)
Another big favorite this year among critics is Slumdog Millionaire, which isn't quite as amazing as everybody seems to think it is, but is still really, really good, especially in the stretches where Danny Boyle just goes for broke with the smash-montages of music and images. Milk is also raking up a lot of glowing reviews, but it didn't quite do it for me: At times it felt really solid and involving, but there were a couple of crappy scenes—I won't name the chief culprit, 'cause it's a pretty big spoiler—where it felt just shamelessly goofy and melodramatic.
Getting away from the big Oscar contenders, there were other, poppier things I enjoyed even more: the Godzilla-meets-The O.C. mayhem of Cloverfield, Guillermo del Toro's off-the-rails fantasy/action orgy Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and the sadly ignored adventure flick City of Ember. Also, props to some comedies that took the current trend of R-rated comedies and really ran with it: Pineapple Express (which, shockingly, and along with Milk, made for not one but two great James Franco performances this year), The Foot Fist Way, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tropic Thunder, and Rambo. (C'mon. Maybe Rambo isn't meant to be a comedy, but fucking A, that's how everybody who saw it watched it, and between its ridiculous levels of gore and testosterone-y swagger, it managed to skewer the '80s action genre nearly as well as the fantastic JCVD.)
Documentary-wise, only one really stood out for me: Werner Herzog's haunting, melancholy Encounters at the End of the World.
Lucasberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Coens' Burn After Reading, and Jon Favreau's Iron Man all filled more or less the same role for me: Solid stuff, and stuff that served its purpose, but ultimately stuff that didn't offer much lasting value. A lot of people hated Indiana Jones, but it was still a billion times better than Temple of Doom; Burn After Reading was a welcome return to comedy for the Coens after No Country for Old Men; and Iron Man was clever and witty and cool, but if you take out the always-awesome Robert Downey, Jr., you're left with nothing more than a standard superhero origin flick that ends with yet another crappy fight between CG characters.
Because I know they're getting slapped onto on a lot of worst-of lists this year, but I really liked them anyway, I'm also going to include Speed Racer and Death Race here—two films about cars going really, really fast. The giddy, visually breathtaking Speed Racer got a lot of undeserved hate. For what it is—a live-action cartoon that's meant to hypnotize and entertain—it's fantastic. Like last year's much-maligned Transformers, it's not meant to be anything more than that, so if you go in expecting Scenes from a Marriage, of course you're gonna walk out pissed. But go in expecting Speed Racer, and you'll be delighted. Same thing pretty much goes for Death Race—a dumb, bloody update to Roger Corman's cult classic Death Race 2000, this Jason Statham vehicle (HAW! GET IT?! Ka-ZING!) still managed to be a whole lot of fun to watch, especially if you were drunk.
But okay, my favorite thing I saw this year wasn't a movie: It was a web... thing. Not sure what to call it, and I'm not sure if Vengeful Siskel will accept this as an answer to my number one pick of the year, but fuck it, I'll risk it. Joss Whedon's three-part web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was just astounding: hilarious and sad and weird and brilliant and catchy and memorable, with great performances and a killer soundtrack and razor-sharp writing and... well, you get the point. I flat-out love just about everything about Dr. Horrible, and when I think back on 2008, it's the thing I was most impressed and smitten by, though Wall-E comes close. I'm going to embed it below; if you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and hit play.
New Year's is rapidly encroaching, so I'm getting the hell out of the office and wrapping this up. But before I do, a couple of grumpy missives directed at 2008's films that most angered and disappointed me:
I dislike The Curious Case of Benjamin Button more and more the longer I think about it; I'm astonished David Fincher directed this. Doubt might be the most self-sabotaged, Oscar-grabby film I saw all year. Wanted took an amazing comic book and boiled it into the stupidest, saddest action flick in recent memory. Shine a Light paired an amazing director with an amazing band and still managed to do nothing more than remind you how terrible both of them can be. The Happening was the final nail in the coffin of the once-promising career of M. Night Shyamalan. I'd come up with something mean to say about The Love Guru, but honestly, like it needs any more derision. And while Old Joy was one of my favorite films of the last five or 10 years, director Kelly Reichardt's follow-up—the shamelessly manipulative, insistently dour Wendy and Lucy—had the same effect on me as that one needy, ugly, dull, mopey goth girl at that one party who just wouldn't leave me the fuck alone and made me want to go home and hang myself.
So that's that, more or less. I've no doubt made some grievous omissions and oversights; feel free to point 'em out in the comments, or just weigh in on how ridiculous it is that I included Speed Racer, Death Race, and Rambo in a "best of" post. And as we head into 2009, is it weird if I tell you that over the past few nights, languid in a NyQuil haze, I've already started having dreams about Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are, and Inglourious Bastards?