posted January 27, 2009 updated March 17, 2009

 

People seem to ask me every year, “Hey Craiger, why does it take you so bloody long to unveil your list of the Best Films of the Year?”  

My simple and unequivocally answer has always been, “Because I live in Hicksville when in comes to timely film releases.” 

Now, I love my native city of Saskatoon, but when it comes to distinct opportunities to see everything that is released (from big blockbusters to small art house fare to documentaries), catching up with movies here has become prohibitively difficult.  Many of the high marquee films of the Christmas season – like FROST/NIXON, THE WRESTLER, and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, to name a few – that were in “limited release” throughout North America never saw the light of day in Saskatoon in December (it would be well into the third weekend of January before I had an opportunity to see them, whereas some, like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and MILK have still not been released…sigh).  I usually find it intellectually dishonest and shortsighted for me to disclose a TEN BEST list before I feel that I have adequately seen everything that I could possible muster for the respective year.  Alas, I still normally impose a deadline of the end of January, so come hell or high water, here we are (please note, that once I see the two previous films mentioned – and if they deserve mention on my list here, then I will augment it without hesitation). 

Now, going forward, I will be the first to admit that 2008 generally was not a very good and consistent year for great films.  Normally I would characterize a “great” year as one that has terrific entries sprinkled throughout the twelve month period and not just in that agonizingly short span of late November through to the end of December (when studios desperately attempt to release the films they feel will be the best in terms of Oscar consideration).  Frequently I have commented on the dangerously short-sighted attention spans of the Academy when it comes to remembering truly magnificent films from earlier in the year, but 2008 is a point of exception: By the mid-way point of 2007 I found it relatively easy to make a list of nine to ten worthy entries in the "Best Of" sweepstakes; by compassions, I found it next to impossible to do the same at a similar time in 2008.  Many films here are definitely ones that came late in the year, but, rest assured, I have not forgotten about the few marvelous ones that did shine so brightly very early on (take note, Academy voters). 

Three things before I finally reveal my list here: Firstly, this is my list and no one else’s.  I have been accused of lacking objectivity in both my reviews and making these lists (hogwash, I say, considering that film criticism is staunchly a subjective field without any glimmer of objectivity).  Secondly, I aim for variety every single year and pride myself on doing so.  Lastly, I have grown to realize that there are often many worthy films that I have admired and deeply respected throughout the year that I could not, in one form or another, find a way to place in the Top Ten.  The solution to include a detailed listing of the next fifteen best films of the year (to make a Top 25) seemed logical enough.  It allowed me to pay homage to films that I really liked, but it also allows me to let you readers know that I have not forgotten films that you too may have thought were worthy of inclusion on a list of the best achievements of the year. 

Enough from me.  The wait has been too torturously long…here are my…

 

 
 

1.   THE DARK KNIGHT

 
 

Academy voters be damned!

Eight nominations, but none in Best Picture, Director, or Screenplay categories.   In my mind, though, there is absolutely no question about this film’s placement as the best film of 2008.  Writer/Director Christopher Nolan – whose career has spanned one magnificent film after another in the form of MEMENTO, INSOMNIA, THE PRESTIGE, and, yes, BATMAN BEGINS – can now more than easily cement himself among the directorial elite of the film world with THE DARK KNIGHT, which not only emerged as the second highest grossing film of all-time, but also the single best realized and envisioned comic book film ever made.  

Whereas the film’s prequel did a virtuosos job of revitalizing the 70-year-old Bob Kane creation away from the previous languishing film franchise and incarnations (it rightfully, better than any other previous Batman or super hero film, invested in the psychology of its character first and foremost), this follow-up explores ever deeper into more ethically dicey terrain for the Caped Crusader, so much so that the film goes beyond a mere comic book entertainment and into the realm of dark tragedy.  Even more so, THE DARK KNIGHT is a crime epic much in the vein of the best of Michael Mann: a dense and layered multi-character storyline that not only captures the more fantastical aspects of Batman’s dual persona, but it also is daring enough to go even further with the troubling aspects of the hero as a fringe figure of society (When does the ends justify the means?  Is a hero truly heroic when it takes advantage of the civil liberties of those he has sworn a life debt to defend?).  The fact that THE DARK KNIGHT manages to become a shrewd analysis on our post/911 socio-politic milieu – despite its veneer as a glossy comic book film – is only one part of the film’s fatalistic charm.  

What makes this film the single best reason to enter a theatre in 2008 is simple the fact that, when all is said and done, THE DARK KNIGHT is the best example of a film truly transcending the often ridiculed and belittled genre it finds itself within.  What Nolan has done so flawlessly here is to take the basic essence of the Batman comic universe and weave it into a complicate film noir that examines the convoluted grey areas of right and wrong within the confines of both the morally questionable hero and villains.  No other comic book film has ever attempted to be so richly invigorating, thought-provoking, and challenging with its handling of its characters.  And the late Heath Ledger gives the decade’s single most iconic and chillingly unforgettable performances as Batman’s arch nemesis.

 

2.   THE WRESTLER

 

THE WRESTLER is not another cliché filled underdog sports genre film with predictable plot developments and a rousing and upbeat conclusion.  No, Darren Aronofsky’s film (a major stylistic change of pace and personal triumph after the much maligned debacle that was his 2006 film, THE FOUNTAIN) not only finds a gritty verisimilitude with its loose, carefree, documentary-styled filmmaking approach, but it also does a bravura job of focusing squarely on the film’s sense of touching melancholy and nihilism with its characters and story.  

In what will be cherished as one of the great iconic performances of raw, gutsy physicality and deeply introverted psychological grief and sadness, Mickey Rourke’s towering work as a washed-up and left for dead pro-wrestler was one of 2008’s defining accomplishments.   The film is a masterstroke work on two distinct levels: (1) it dives head on with a stunning level of realism and detail into the backstage proceedings, dealings, and planning that goes on in pro wrestling (it’s a “staged sport”, but with unmistakable physical consequences to the men that perform in it) and (2) it is a heart-wrenching and discretely sad tale of a man who’s completely incapable of having any semblance of a relationship with people outside of the squared circle, but when assuming his wrestling persona in front of legions of strangers that chant his name, he has found his only truly understanding “family.”  The way the film goes rigidly against our preconceived expectations of its climax (it’s almost poetically ambiguous in its final shot) is to its credit, because THE WRESTLER overcomes some of the rudimentary, dime-a-dozen conventions of its genre and – like the #1 film of the year – manages to approach disquieting tragedy, and one with no audience pleasing compromises, solutions, or easy payoffs or resolutions.

 
 

3.  THE FALL

 
 

Tarsem Singh’s THE FALL is one of the most audaciously imaginative, hauntingly surreal, and astoundingly creative visual odysseys I have ever seen.  With a film shoot that involved 26 locations across 18 countries over a period of four years and – get this – is said to have used almost no computer generated imagery or visual effects – THE FALL is one of those very rare filmgoing experiences that has rekindled the long lost magic of movie artifice, where viewers simple just don’t lazily gawk at the screen at the pixalized artifice of the shots, but rather are stunned and awestruck as to the actual methods behind them.  Gathering up his own funding, Tarsem trekked the world to achieve the otherworldly and luminously gorgeous and sumptuous exterior footage for years and pieced all of these divergent pieces together to tell an offbeat and frequently moving fantasy story within the story of a suicidal 1920’s stuntman that is befriend in a hospital by a wide-eyed and infectiously enthusiastic young girl.  What’s crucial to note here is that there is never one instance of THE FALL that feels half-baked and cobbled together from all of its differing elements and time periods; Tarsem’s flawless and insatiably innovative eye and overall vision has resulted in a film that triumphantly is an unapologetic visual feast, containing bewitching and beguiling shots of such beauty and miraculous showmanship that you kind of revere with euphoric awe for its near two-hour running time.  THE FALL is one of the great achievements of glorious film resourcefulness and innovative craft, one where its epically constructed and evocatively rendered compositions will stay with you long after a first viewing.

 
 

4.  RACHEL GETTING MARRIED >

 

Here is a film that is a stupendous achievement of unflashy showmanship.  Jonathan Demme – perhaps our most versatile and underrated directorial minds – throws away any semblance of big budget Hollywood artifice and shoots this wedding film with bare boned and stripped down aesthetic values.  Using hand held cameras, natural lighting, jerky and simplistic shot setups, and no musical score, he gives RACHEL GETTING MARRIED a jarring and messy truthfulness to the proceedings, so much so that I found myself fully immersed and a part of its world.  Large scale dramas with similar themes and plots go to unfathomable levels to create a sense of realism with their stories, but Demme’s less-is-more approach is so fitting for how it captures all of the subtle nuances, chronicles the characters' intimate trials and tribulations, and gives viewers an uncanny sensation like there are actively eavesdropping on every moment.  By the time the film concludes, you feel less like a casual film viewer and more like a participatory quest to one of the more sublime – and hauntingly troubled and emotionally thorny – wedding weekends ever committed to film.  The film is an absolute triumph of immersion, which is made all the more agreeable because of Demme’s appropriately low key direction and Anne Hathaway’s career-redefining work here that just may have been 2008’s most brazenly assured and broodingly confident performance.  > added March 17, 2009

5.  DOUBT 

 

John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT – based on the Pulitzer prize winning off-Broadway play of the same name – is one of the most hypnotically intoxicating and observant character dramas in a long time, thanks largely because of the methodical way it traverses between two distinct possibilities when it dealing with the guilt of one of the main characters (the film ostensibly dealt with accusations of child molestation by a Catholic nun/school principle levied against a priest).  This is one of those atypically daring and intelligent films for the manner in never once makes up viewers’ minds, nor did it slavishly go out of its way to instruct them as to how they should react.  Beyond that, DOUBT also is a deceptively sly dissection of the racial politics, gender inequities, and the overall power structure of the Catholic Church as a whole, which stratifies women to be obedient and subservient under men.  

Yet, at the real heart of the film are performances of miraculous passion, determination, and vigor by most of the film’s ensemble.  Meryl Streep goes beyond broad caricature by crafting her cast-iron-bitch of a nun as a ruthlessly strong-minded and unwavering figure that has explicit reasons for her distrust of her superior, played in a very tricky role by the always dependable Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has the near-impossible task of simultaneously conveying this man as both potentially guilty and innocent (the tantalizing facet of the film is that we never really know).  Amy Adams is also note-perfect as a naïve new recruit at the Church that comes to grips with the scandal that rocks the school, and Viola Davis gives an utterly heart-breaking portrayal of the mother of the possibly molested child that reveals some shocking insights of her own.  DOUBT is purely one of 2008’s most meticulously mounted dramas, and will inspire water cooler debate for weeks after a first viewing.

 
 

6.   IN BRUGES 

 
 

IN BRUGES just may the best least seen film of the year, which unfortunately has fallen off of the radar of many filmgoers and critics because of its early release in 2008.  An overly simplistic look at the film could result in labeling it as yet another in the long line of would-be PULP FICTION inspired entertainments that involve low life degenerates and criminals and a healthy combination of dark and acerbic humor with violence and bloodshed.  

Yes, IN BRUGES (pronounced “broozh”) has many of the elements that several pale-by-comparison Tarantino rip-offs have in abundance, but Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut even manages to outdo both Tarantino and his imitators in the arena of effortlessly marrying madcap and hilarious laughs with a bitter level of gloomy pessimism and tragedy.  Much like PULP FICTION, the language and its colorful flavor and dichotomy is felt through every creative pour of IN BRUGES, which involves two of the best written disenfranchised hitmen characters in many a moon (played with such a stunning and difficult combination of warmth, amiability, introverted anger, and inner pathos by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell).  The two engage in a WAITING FOR GODOT-inspired film where they slum it through the picturesque Belgium city on a mission that, as the film progresses, takes unexpected turns that unavoidably build up to a final act that is both brutal and uncompromising in terms of its outcome.  McDonagh is the real star of the film, though, and his expressive, lively, and articulately brazen use of wordplay easily deserves comparisons with the best of Tarantino and Mamet, and IN BRUGES absolutely revels in revealing this new audacious, innovative, and invigorating voice to the movies.

 
 

7.   FROST/NIXON

 
 

FROST/NIXON – director Ron Howard’s finest hour – does a marvelously assured job of depicting the infamous 1977 series of interviews between British TV personality David Frost and resigned President Richard Nixon, just a few years removed from the Watergate Scandal that all but solidified the public’s mistrust in political figures and their utter condemnation of the 37th President on the whole.  Basing its story on the 2006 play of the same name written by Peter Morgan (also responsible for another fascinating real life political drama, 2006’s THE QUEEN), Howard’s film is rock solid and stellar in the way it captures the pugilistic verbal battle of wits between two men, both vying for rehabilitation in the public eye, but one (the very inexperienced and out of his league Frost) sensing the inherent difficulty with matching wits with a cunning and savvy ex-president.  

Most of the intrinsic fascination comes during the interview sections (which are about as nail-biting and tense as any scenes involving talking heads allows), but the real coup de grace of FROST/NIXON is how Howard subverts the typical big budget and glossy sheen of his previous productions and instead lets the story and compelling personas grab the spotlight.  Both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are extraordinary at immersing themselves in their respective personalities (perhaps even more so for Langella, who has the tough task of not making Nixon feel like a broad caricature), but the film also greatly benefits from abandoning any portrayal of Nixon as a one-note political villain.  If anything, FROST/NIXON is a surprisingly humanistic portrayal of a man that history has blackballed, but the film reminds viewers that he was a flawed, deeply prideful, and ultimately humble man that understood and accepted his responsibilities for one of the greatest attempted political cover-ups in US history.  Coming out of the film, you grow more respectful of Nixon as a figure of tragic pity, not unremorseful and scandalous duplicity. 

 
 

8.   CHANGELING

 
 

At an age when many directors have thrown in the towel and called it a career, the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood is astoundingly still hitting a serious artistic stride as one of the cinema’s most respected and consistent film craftsmen.  Having sat through two of his films late this year, it’s clear that the thematically complex and densely scripted period drama CHANGELING towers well over Eastwood’s good intentioned, entertaining, but flawed anti-racist parable, GRAN TORINO.  

The film – which features yet another spirited, affecting, and heartfelt performance by Angelina Jolie (a gifted actress that frequently gets overlooked because of her off-screen tabloid-centric marriage) is an epically mounted retelling of a scandal involving police corruption in the early 1920’s, which is held together by Eastwood’s trademark simplicity in execution and focus.  What it does – and does so via a thoroughly involving and masterful script by J. Michael Straczynski (whose previous credits include creating and writing the cult sci-fi series BABYLON 5) – is give us a nerve-wracking and emotionally tumultuous narrative on four levels: It’s a story of a child abduction and one woman’s efforts to find him; it’s a story of early 20th Century police corruption; it’s a moving parable of a woman wrongly imprisoned by a male dominated society that subverts her gender; and it’s finally a ghastly and tense serial killer thriller.  That Eastwood manages to take all of these divergent story avenues and have them coalesce so seamlessly together is astounding enough, but the most resonating aspect of the film is how it tells a story of a simple woman trapped in a complex web of impenetrable societal odds on her journey to find peace within herself...and justice.

 
 

9.   REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

 
 

Much as he did is his 1999 Oscar darling film AMERICAN BEAUTY, director Sam Mendes once again zones in on the fragility of the suburban American family unit.  This time he situates his story – based on the Richard Yates 1961 novel of the same name – in a cozy 'burbs of the 1950’s, a period when post-WWII conformity was hopelessly placing standards on families that were silently expected to be maintained, often at the burdensome psychological price of the people involved.  

Desperately trying to eke out their own version of the prototypical American Dream are the Wheelers (featuring the long-awaited re-teaming of TITANIC stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, each giving riveting, ferocious, and ruthlessly empowered performances), a pair that fell in love, married, and sacrificed their ideals, dreams, and personal aspirations to settle down to a picket-fenced house and a life for the husband in the white collar rat race that he personal loathes.  Mendes has considerable patience and sense of tactful precision with showing this once respectable relationship totally implode from the societal norms of the day, which the film slyly reveals was a suffocating force that drained away the hopes of people.  At the heart of the film is its deconstruction of the myth of 50’s suburban life by posing thought-provoking questions (how happy can two people really be while slowly going crazy with trying to maintain the veneer of a well adjusted and content couple…and at what personal cost?).  The film is a performance paradise, with DiCaprio and Winslet more than equal to the task, but REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is even more fascinating for how it looks at the collapse and failure of the family without wasting time dwelling on the origins of the couple’s love, which makes the film more gut-wrenchingly unsettling.

 
 

10.   THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

 
 

Cynics have narrow-mindedly cited David Fincher’s ambitiously mounted fantasy fable as a neo-FORREST GUMP, which is a bit unfair.  Yes, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – based on the 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald – does have some superficial similarities to that 1994 Oscar winner: Both films involved peculiar main characters misunderstood by society that engage in a series of life-changing and world-spanning exploits, but the key difference between Tom Hank’s loveable idiot and Brad Pitt’s unusually maturing man is that the latter’s exploits have a solemn sadness and poignancy to them.  Whereas Gump was an odd duckling that seemed humorously unaware of how his actions touched and dramatically altered the lives those around him, Benjamin Button's existence is typified by the understanding that his life – which began under extraordinary circumstances – is that of a wounded onlooker and observer of his times.  

Because of this, Fincher’s film becomes more of a sorrowful odyssey for the way it manages to take the fantastical tale of Button’s life – who was born old and de-ages throughout his entire life – and use it as a portal into exploring the desire for and the inevitable fragility of love.  He does this in a remarkable outburst of stunning art direction, staggering period detail, sobering performances, and arguably the finest utilization of cutting edge computer generated images ever conceived on film (largely to make the mid-fortyish Pitt look convincing as an elderly and diminutive boy; the strings to these magical visual marvels are never once apparent).  Ultimately, all of the film’s glorious imagery and ingenuity with creating its incredible world becomes secondary elements to the film’s universal themes; using the real life tragedy of Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop and bookend to the film’s underlining story, the sheer expansiveness and immediacy of the film’s themes about how all things, at some point or another, come to an end becomes something relevantly profound...something most films with extraordinary premises frequently fail to muster.

 
  ...and now to round off my BEST FILMS OF 2008 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11.  THE VISITOR: Jason Segal wrote and starred in the single funniest comedy of 2008; intelligent, bawdy, warm-hearted, and sentimental in just the right combination. 

 

12.  FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL: Jason Segal wrote and starred in the single funniest comedy of 2008; intelligent, bawdy, warm-hearted, and sentimental in just the right combination. 

13.  RECOUNT: Terrifically compelling fact-based retelling of one of the single biggest voter controversies in recent US Federal election's history. 

14.  SHINE A LIGHT: Martin Scorsese pays homage to his frequent musical muse in this bravura, show-stopping concert documentary; amazing footage only Scorsese could muster, and the music alone speaks volumes for the group's astounding longevity.

15.  STOP LOSS  Kimberly Pierce's long awaited follow-up to 1999's BOYS DON'T CRY is an enrapturing drama about the psychological effects of the US government's policy of stop-lossing (re-enlisting) men back into combat in Iraq...often without much of a say on their part.

16.  THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS: Bruce McDonald's hauntingly original Canadian-made production was a masterpiece of editorial ingenuity; works amazingly well as a film to be experienced, not just watched

17.  THE STONE ANGEL: Another Canuck helmed effort, this time a searing, frequently moving, and heartfelt adaptation of Margaret Lawrence's beloved novel; Ellen Burstyn's amazingly underrated performance here dominates every frame.

18.  SPEED RACER : Yes...SPEED RACER...the unusually critically maligned Wachowski Brothers' tribute to the classic anime of the same name; on its intended levels of appropriating the aesthetic dynamism and kinetic visuals of the source material, the film is a giddy triumph.

19.  IRON MAN: Robert Downey Jr. made his comeback quite clear in the second best comic book adaptation of 2008; Jon Favreau's thankless direction and a smart script made this film a remarkably enjoyable escapist entertainment.

20.  VALKYRIETom Cruise plays an eye-patch wearing Nazi that conspire to kill Hitler in this fact-based WWII thriller; his performance is so solid that it transcends criticisms of his unrealistic casting.

21.  W. Remarkably empathetic portrait of the life and times of George W. Bush, with surprisingly even-handed direction by Oliver Stone and a true, break-out, Oscar caliber performance by Josh Brolin as the Commander-In-Chief.

22.  PINEAPPLE EXPRESSThis love letter to classic stoner comedies of the past - scripted by SUPERBAD's Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - was like PULP FICTION meets CHEECH AND CHONG...and had a career rejuvenating performance by James Franco as the film's lovably and perpetually high drug dealer.

23.  JCVDJean-Claude Van Damme gives one of the best performances of the year in a heart-wrenching and self-critical 8-minute monologue that is the highpoint of this deconstructivist action film; remarkably inventive and smart with its satiric jabs.

24.  RELIGULOUS: Bill Maher may not be everyone's cup of tea - nor does his anti-religion message in this film have a lot of admirers - but his scathing, consistently funny, and sharp satiric-documentary thankfully never pulls punches.

25.  HAMLET 2: Second funniest film of the year with a go-for-broke performance of high hilarity by Steve Coogan as a struggling - and remarkably untalented - former actor turned drama teacher that writes a sequel to one of Shakespeare's greatest works....complete with time machine, the son of God, and an infectious, Oscar nomination worth song "Rock Me Sexy Jesus."

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
 

10,000 B.C.: Roland Emmerich's pre-historical action spectacular...as written by horny, prepubescent boys; all this fun and unpretentious film lacked was Rachel Welch wearing next to nothing cavorting around with dinosaurs. 

21: Very loosely based on the real life story of MIT students trying to cheat their way to millions in blackjack at Vegas, 21 was a passably enjoyable gambling thriller.

AUSTRALIA: Baz Luhrmann's long awaited follow-up film to his Oscar nominated MOULIN ROGUE! is heavy on opulent eye candy and enthusiastic gusto; a flawed epic, but Luhrmann's passion shows through at every pore of the film.

BODY OF LIES: Ridley Scott's competent brand of epic high tech production values is an exciting and consummately directed spy thriller; Mark Strong gives one of the year's most quietly chilling and authoritative performances.

CHARLIE BARTLETT: Good high school teen comedy is marred by many predictable elements and routine genre formulas, but the film works well with its under-the-radar and credible performances; it also has one of Robert Downey Jr.'s least seen performances of the year as as a high school principal that reveals subtle layers to his fragile emotional state.

CLOVERFIELD: As audacious and inventive as it was derivative, the pseudo-documentary styled direction made this monster film a cut above recent examples of the genre.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: The reliably wooden and emotionally vacant Keanu Reeves playing an alien named Klaatu that has assumed human form when he arrives on earth;  two words: perfect casting.

DEATH RACEJason Statham is unreservedly cool and collected in this effective grindhouse homage to the 1970's Roger Corman classic; a guilty pleasure exploitation film if there ever was one in 2008.

DEFINITELY, MAYBE  Yet another splendid romantic comedy that more than achieved its Herculean goals of transcending the monumentally overused conventions of the genre; it's willingness to tell a conventional love story via unconventional means was refreshing.

DOOMSDAY: Gory, chaotic, and brutalistic dystopian splatter-house ode to John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK; Rhona Mitra is effective as a icy demeanored and effeminized Snake Plisken character.

FLASH OF GENIUS: Criminally under-valued docudrama about Robert Kearns, the man that fought a lifetime for patent and creative rights to the intermittent windshield washer blades; Greg Kinnear's melancholic performance is this film's inspirational heartbeat.

GET SMARTWonderfully funny and surprisingly action packed big budget remake of the classic and cherished Mel Brooks and Buck Henry Cold War spy satire. 

GHOST TOWN: The best romantic comedy of the year was also the most avoided at the theatres, but British comedian Ricky Gervais makes his characteristic brand of caustic comedy blend well with the sincerity of the film's love story. 

GRAN TORINOClint Eastwood's legendary status as one of the immovable icons of the cinema is utilized to maximum effect here, which helps the film overcome its lackluster and routine storyline.

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE:  Misleadingly labeled as a poor man's DEVIL WEARS PRADA, this adaptation of British writer Toby Young's memoirs is much more droll and ambitious and has a performance of high hilarity by Simon Pegg.

 

THE INCREDIBLE HULK: Effective reboot of Ang Lee's 2003 HULK, this time with an all new cast and production team; not as dramatically fulfilling and thoughtful as Lee's version, but as a Hulk-smash action spectacular, the film delivers in spades.

 

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: I am cheating a bit here: I initially gave this fourth film in the George Lucas created homage to 1930's adventure serials a lukewarm review, but a subsequent viewing has allowed me to rethink the film as a fairly pleasurable and well intentioned return for Ford's legendary globetrotting archaeologist.

 

KUNG FU PANDAGorgeously rendered animation and a very funny premise makes this Dreamworks' animated tribute to martial arts films a real hoot.

 

LAST CHANCE HARVEYElements of the script are hooky and manufactured, but the great Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson work fluently together in this endearing romantic comedy.

 

MAMMA MIA! THE MOVIE:  'Tis true...Pierce Brosnan is lethally bad as a singer of classic ABBA jingles here and the song/dance choreography is uninspired, but the real stars of this musical film is the infectious catalogue of tunes from Sweden's greatest pop import.

 

MILKThe film's script was almost too self-congratulatory at times, not to mention that it felt like it a recruitment film, but Sean Penn's astoundingly transformative performance as the real life civil rights activist rings true all throughout Gus Van Sant's biopic.   [added March 17, 2009]

 

NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST:  Michael Cera continues to hit a serious stride effectively playing understated comedic roles in this modestly funny and endearing teen comedy.

 

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRLCould have easily been retitled MEAN ELIZABETHAN GIRLS, this sultry and lurid period-costume drama/soap opera was enjoyable for its schmaltz and sinful intrigue.

 

PRIDE AND GLORYGritty and incredibly well acted ensemble, crocked cops/action drama that benefits from its dreary verisimilitude, textured direction, and a high caliber cast.

 

RAMBOSylvester Stallone completes his effective one-two comeback by following-up his respectably decent ROCKY BALBOA with the fourth John Rambo entry, which is a gruesome and wholeheartedly satisfying tribute to grindhouse action films.

 

REDBELTDavid Mamet gives this film about Mixed Martial Arts a more compelling edge - at least as far as the genre goes - thanks largely to his great dialogue and a winning performance by Chiwetel Ejiofer.

 

THE ROCKER:  Rainn Wilson is funny in this breezy, spirited, and simple minded tribute to...rockin' your brains out.

 

ROCK N ROLLAGuy Ritchie returns to fine directorial form in this violent, stylish, and fairly sure-footed British gangster flick.

 

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIREEgregiously overrated, but its terrific direction, great performances, booming soundtrack, and its impeccable eye for realistically capturing the harsh brutality of India's most dilapidated areas makes the film a mesmerizing, feel-good odyssey.  [added February 3, 2009]

 

SMART PEOPLE: Uncommonly smart dramedy about a highly dysfunctional family with universally strong performances by most of the lead actors;  Ellen Page continues her hot streak of consistently great performances.

 

SWING VOTEKevin Costner does what he does best - play an affable and relatable everyman schmuck - in this Capra-esque fantasy about one man whose vote will decide the US Presidency.

 

ROLE MODELS:  Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott are remarkably funny in this shocking enjoyable bromance that has the pair serving as Big Brother figures in a youth mentorship program; the comedy does a great job of playing up to Rudd's natural comedic strengths.

 

TRANSPORTER 3Jason Statham + incredulous action and martial arts mayhem = giddy and unpretentious joy.

 

TROPIC THUNDERRobert Downey Jr. gives arguably the funniest - and ballsiest - comedic performance of the year playing an Australian actor that, in turn, plays an African-American that never breaks character until he's done recording the DVD commentary; BTW, Tom Cruise is a comic tour de force in the film in his cameo as the F-bomb throwing, hip-hop loving producer.

 

UNTRACEABLE:  Dreadfully underrated and effective serial killer thriller that was able to generate legitimate tension and thrills; definitely miles removed from the torture porn genre that short-sighted critics compared it to.

 

VANTAGE POINT: It's RASHOMON meets TV'S 24, but it mostly works, thanks largely to its riveting pacing and involving story, which manages to work beyond the head-scratching incongruities of the final act.

 

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA: Categorically decent Woody Allen rom-com that hones in squarely on the auteur's snappy and playful dialogue and gives us two memorable performances by Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall, the latter who should definitely replace Scarlet Johansson as Allen's muse.

 

WALL-EThe opening act of this eye-popping animated epic is so spot on perfect in tone and execution that it sure is hard to find as much interest with the latter half of the story, but this Pixar film is one of their most beautiful looking.

 

WANTEDWickedly violent and intensely exciting adaptation of the Mark Millar comic book series that lovingly flips the bird to logic and improbability with its relentlessly imaginative action stunt pieces; never promises to occupy a real plane of existence...which is to its credit.

 

THE X FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE: Uniformly chastised by X FILES fans and film critics alike, this long-awaited sequel to the 1998 film does what all great sequels should do:  retain the prequel's strengths while taking characters and themes into new thematic waters. 

 

YES MANSure, this comedy feels like LIAR, LIAR redux, but Jim Carrey is reliably funny here and Zoeey Deschanel is as infectiously adorable as ever.  

 

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO: Another small scale triumph for New Jersey writer/director Kevin Smith, who continues to show how to effectively balance raunch with sweet sentiment with the best of them.

 
 

 

 

 
     
 

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