I should probably, in good conscience, amend the name of this category to read Best of 2008: Movies (That I’ve Seen). I am notoriously slow at getting around to seeing newly released films in theaters. It’s not just because I hate crowds, and hate crowded theaters even more, but that there just isn’t enough time to get out there and see them all. Especially films rush-released late in the year in order to qualify for the Oscars, which I despise. To expect anyone to get out there during the madness of the holiday crunch and see four or five deadly serious films, all starring Kate Winslet, that they can critically consider the merits of is pure, indefensible madness. And they wonder why no one takes the Academy Awards seriously anymore.
Luckily, there may or may not be such a thing as a Screener Copy, which may or may not be made available to interested parties. Not that I have any idea where such things come from or how one might be able to aquire a copy of such a thing, should it actually exist but, well. They might be a helpful thing for a guy becoming more and more psychotically adverse to leaving his heavily fortified bunker. I’m just saying.
Anyway, here are my top five films for 2008 (that I’ve bothered to watch).
5. Tropic Thunder
Full credit to Ben Stiller on this one. His career choices have not always been brilliant of late (though the list of actors unmanned by a Jennifer Aniston date movie is long and illustrious) but I’ve always believed that this was a guy who understood The Funny. Tropic Thunder, in the way it mercilessly and hilariously skewers Stiller’s own habitat and livelihood, is as whippingly good as it gets for a film of that high a profile. Robert Downey Jr. is pure, scene-gobbling goodness as the self-important Kirk Lazarus but it’s the script that really earns the rewards here. Crude, daring and spot on, it’s an impressive comedy in all aspects and, one has to admit, genuine laughs can be very hard to find on the big screen sometimes with the fluff and drivel Hollywood regularly produces. Stiller obviously understands that notion quite well, thankfully, and this film is the gleeful result.
4. Iron Man
I enjoyed the hell out of this one, I fully admit it. It’s not Godfather II, I know, it’s popcorn fare but it’s just done so well and, especially in the eyes of comic book lovers, it hits the mark that so many other superhero films have missed. I’m someone who counts the David Micheline/John Romita Jr./Bob Layton run on Iron Man as not only a defining take on the character but an important building block in the evolution of serious, adult comic book storytelling. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.’s effort here seems to bring out the same feel of those stories, giving us a deeply flawed yet brilliant, self-confident hero who operates the gold and red suit like it’s a ferrari. It’s the right approach and it wasn’t until I saw Favreau on Iconoclasts with Tony Hawk and heard some of his thoughts about making the film that I really appreciated what he did. He understood his responsibilities to the character and the fans implicity, as well as the importance of the film’s success to the viability of Marvel’s film studio. With all that in tow, he delivered a fantastic, funny, entertaining, can’t take your eyes off it movie experience. No easy task but it is accomplished here with style.
3. Burn After Reading
This is very much an essential Coen Brothers film, if not quite exactly in the same way last year’s much heralded, and completely brilliant, No Country For Old Men was. It may, in fact, have more in common with a film like Fargo in that it sneaks up on you in some very subtle ways. You think at first that you’re watching a rather broad, almost light comedy effort, something you might excuse the Coens for considering some of the weighty elements in their previous film. Brad Pitt and John Malkovitch’s characters embody polar opposites and the scenes in which they interact with one another are utterly hilarious. It isn’t until late in the film, when things take a decidedly dark turn, that the viewer realizes they have been watching something more than they thought all along. Within the increasingly black comedy there is woven a thread that implores us to examine the very human motivations of these characters, the weaknessed and faults that bring them to the completion of their respective journeys. When you start to really see just what it is that drives George Clooney’s obsessive, paranoid philanderer, you almost feel dirty for him. In the end, the film is another subtle and sublime commentary on the human condition, warts and all, and, as such, is about as entertaining as can be in the process. Should we expect any less from the Coens at this point? I think not.
Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary is not actually as bitter and scathing as I thought it might be, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The topic of religion is a difficult one, especially in America, as can be seen in one of the opening scenes when an angry truck-driver, just clueing in to the potential direction of the film he’s agreed to be in, angrily stands up and leaves, shaking a fist at the notion anyone might doubt “his god”. Maher responds quietly to the remaining group, almost apologetically, “I’m just asking questions.” That sort of sets the tone for the rest of the film as he goes from place to place, simply asking questions that force people to actually think about and defend some of the more absurd notions proposed by religion and accepted as fact by so many. There is much insight gained on the journey and there are laughs aplenty. Highlights being the moral disrobing of an wealthy televangelist claiming that Jesus never spoke against the rich, an adorably odd Vatican priest who seems to be throwing up his hands with Catholic heirarchy and the way the church operates. There’s also a nice bit where Bill gets high with a stoner in Amsterdam who accidentally sets his own hair on fire, but I digress. The final scenes in the film are powerful and incisive as Maher makes the essential connection between religion’s fatal obsession with apocalypse and the ability that has, when infused into an unthinking populace, to allow humanity to resign itself to it’s doomed fate without any effort to avert it. “Religion must die for mankind to live,” he tells us. Amen to that, brother.
1. The Dark Knight
What more can really be said about this masterpeice that hasn’t been already? Surely anyone reading this has seen it, possibly multiple times, and understands what a profound peice of filmmaking this is. From the amazing IMAX photography, to the breakneck pace and the razor sharp script, the amazing sound design elements and Heath Ledger’s life defining performance, it’s all in place and placed perfectly. This is a film that will last forever and will sustain viewing after viewing over the years and hold up easily under future scrutinization. This is filmmaking on a grand, awe-inspiring scope that also contains enough subtle human elements and sheer intelligence to make it something truly profound to watch. It’s epic, it’s essential, it’s iconic. All that and more and that’s why it’s the Best of 2008.