2008 had a slew of wonderful pictures, both summer popcorn fare and those of the dramatic, award winnin' variety (plus exceptional entires like The Dark Knight which managed to be both). So plentiful were the great movies that the Academy Awards made the infuriating decision to expand the number of Best Picture nominees this year from five to ten, only to be met by the cruel irony of 2009's films being on the whole decent, but without nearly the same caliber of highlights. What the hell are they going to do now? Nominate Star Trek for Best Picture?
In any case, however, of what I saw, here's what I liked and what I didn't:
In the first 20 minutes or so, I was concerned that we were in for another horny teenager movie, but I was really surprised by how good it got as it went on. Excellent writing and directing that is as personal and as soulful as it is funny. Everyone involved gives great performances... Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Margarita Levieva (Lisa P), and Ryan Reynolds in a revelatory performance. Expert work all around. My list isn't alphabetical: I've put it at the top for a reason.
My theater experience with this one was so good that I'm hesitant to watch it again on DVD. I usually don't like movies (or life situations) where people are really f'ed up on booze or drugs and acting crazy, but this one was so insane and bizarre that I had to love it. A star making role for Zach Galifianakis... let's hope he learns a lesson from the sad stories of Seth Rogen and Jack Black and doesn't wear out his welcome fast via a mindless stream of lazy follow-ups.
A Serious Man
I have no idea what the hell this movie is about, but I really enjoyed it. My buddy Mike, more familiar with the Bible than I, argues that it's a retelling of the book of Job. Whether that's true or not, it's still a good movie.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
I had not liked a Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tenebaums, and was really surprised by how much I loved this unique, imaginative stop motion romp based on the Roald Dahl short story. The most interesting thing to me is that the picture emulates Anderson's style perfectly without punching me in the face with its smugness and self-importance (I'm looking at you, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited!).
There are a lot of things I admire about this movie, in particular the cultural sensitivity and the unbearable tension in certain scenes. Nevertheless, something about it didn't entirely do it for me. It certainly felt a little bloated, and the dialogue, while always interesting with Tarantino, struck me as even more self-indulgent than usual. The violence was gruesome too (the scalpings in particular made me squirm), but all in all it's an excellent picture that leaves a hell of an impression.
Capitalism: A Love Story
I'm usually a sucker for Michael Moore and the various causes he advocates, but his arguments have gotten increasingly shaky and his recommendations for fixing the problems he addresses even more slim. Regardless of that, it is powerful filmmaking that still manages to make me laugh, cry, and think like no other films do.
The Princess And The Frog
It's formulaic to a fault, but what a wonderful pleasure to see a high-quality traditionally animated picture in theaters again. I love 1920s New Orleans jazz and believe Randy Newman to be one of America's best living lyricists and composers, which probably buttered me up considerably too.
I probably like this one more than I should as well. Not as culturally resonant as Office Space or as brilliant as the first half of Idiocracy, but a funny movie with the same wry observations that Mike Judge always brings to the table.
500 Days Of Summer
A sassier, very modern take on the When Harry Met Sally formula, but geared toward any guy who's ever liked a girl more than she likes him (which characterizes most of my teens and 20s). I felt the style of the movie really got in the way of the storytelling at times. As the movie skips around in time, it's quite easy to get lost thinking about what has and hasn't happened yet, but the whole thing was interesting and soulful enough not set off my date movie gag reflex.
Julie & Julia
My wife really loved this one (in part, perhaps, because of her own love of cooking and her recipe blog). Although "love" is a strong word for me, I was surprised by how deeply I connected to it as well. I liked Julia Child's story because, well, it was interesting and well acted. I liked Julie Powell's story because I know all too well what it's like to be in your early 30s, feeling creatively undernourished and that your friends have passed you by. A rare exception to my Nora Ephron embargo.
Marley & Me
A manipulative dog movie in which the dog meets the same fate that befalls the dog in pretty much every other dog movie, resulting in buckets of tears, no matter how unmerited. Against all odds and known logic, the dog story actually takes a back seat to an unexpectedly good performance by Owen Wilson as he goes through life and develops a career and family. From the director of The Devil Wears Prada. He doesn't make the kind of movies that I would normally go to see, but I have seen them both and must admit that he knows how to make good ones.
Many signs of a troubled production: Choppy, weird editing. Certain subplots disappear mid-way through the movie and are never heard from again. Nevertheless, I love Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and the rest of the cast, and the movie had enough heart to stick in my mind for the rest of the year.
Up In The Air
I was harder on this one in my review than I probably should have been. My main beef with it is that it's a good movie that many people are mistaking for a great one, but that's certainly not the movie's fault.
THE AVERAGE (ranging from slightly above to slightly below)
Where The Wild Things Are
A movie I admired, but did not especially enjoy.
I liked this when I first saw it, but it doesn't hold up on video or when you... oh, I don't know... think about the plot for more than a few seconds. It relies on some biiiiiiiiig goddamn coincidences and events like the evil Romulans sitting around doing nothing in space for nearly 25 years in order for the story to stick together. It's a better Trek movie than we've had in a long, long time, but it bothered me that tonally it's much closer to Star Wars than the series has been before.
I've gotten a lot of flack for not loving this one, but I'll still maintain it feels like the folks at Pixar had a lot of unrelated ideas sitting around and decided to find a single movie to park them all in. Dogs with collars that make them talk? Why the f**k not! Coming after 2008's Wall•E and 2007's Ratatouille (which ties with Toy Story 2 as the best Pixar movie in my book), I just expected a lot more, and certainly a lot less shameful pandering to kids. My gripe might be similar to that of the similarly titled Up In The Air - it's not that it's bad, it's just insanely over rated in a way that makes me grumble.
Away We Go
I never got around to writing a review about this one. I thought the scenes between expectant parents Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski were realistic and endearing, but the highly episodic story structure kept having them interact with more and more ridiculous caricatures as the film went on, the most artificial and irritating of which was Maggie Gyllenhaal as some kind of new age earth mother. I have a major axe to grind against director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), whom I'm sure thinks of himself as an Artist with a capital 'A.' I usually find his movies to be beautifully designed and photographed, but condescending, pretentious and devoid of anything I would describe as recognizable human behavior. A healthy percentage of this movie actually works a little, which for him is a monumental achievement.
Origin story in which we meet Wolverine's even white-trashier brother played by Liev Schreiber. There are many reasons why this movie should be declared awful and skipped without a second thought. I will say, however, that Hugh Jackman is great in his signature role and the X-Men world is intriguing enough to help me get past how insanely stupid everything else about the movie is.
Angels & Demons
Exciting. Pretty photography and good editing. Certainly better than The Da Vinci Code. Still, though, it's kinda mechanical and by-the-numbers. This and Da Vinci are the only movies I can think of where Tom Hanks seems to be miscast and puts in a kinda sucky performance.
A cut down and repackaging of BBC's Planet Earth series with new, blood-thirsy narration by James Earl Jones (replacing the series' Richard Attenborough). It was nice to see something like this in a theater, but it's not especially noteworthy otherwise.
My love of Larry David has me holding this in higher esteem than I probably should. David plays a weird amalgam of himself, Woody Allen (who wrote and directed), and Zero Mostel, for whom Allen originally wrote the script in the 70s. If Allen really had the script sitting around that long, it's a shame he didn't put much effort into making it more coherent.
The Men Who Stare At Goats
I almost put this one in the next category. A highly uneven movie with some actors that I really like. Otherwise, I think you can skip it unless it happens to be playing during an airplane flight.
THE UGLY (I'll list the worst first)
WatchmenSo, that's it! My list is, as always, incomplete. I haven't gotten around to seeing Avatar or Crazy Heart or Terminator: Salvation or Saw VI, all of which I'm sure are destined for multiple Academy Award nominations. On to 2010!
Holy shit. 3 hours of solid agony and pain culminating in even more confusing, tedious blandness. The most memorable part of the movie was seeing Billy Crudup's blue, radioactive junk, and I don't mean that in a good way.
A comedy with zero laughs. I've been debating if this is worse than Watchmen, and I still don't know. It's an hour shorter, yes, but it feels just as long. I'm leaning toward this because when you consider the talented cast and the fact that it's Harold Ramis (director of Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation and Groundhog Day), you realize that there's more tragedy in a guy like that making something like this than if the asshole who made Dude Where's My Car? had done it.
Observe & Report
We went to a test screening of Brüno which filled up before we could get seats. Our consolation prize was a free ticket to Observe & Report, which, although we did not know it at the time, added significant insult to the injury. It's an unbearable movie about a mentally deranged mall cop on heavy medication. During the film I realized that whatever it was about Seth Rogen that made me laugh once is dead and gone. Christ, is it messed up, painful and torturous. We never did see Brüno, though, so maybe they did us a favor.
I just saw this on DVD and it really rubbed me the wrong way. Feels like two or three movies smashed together, and is packed with nothing but loathsome, unlikable characters. Adam Sandler is playing Rodney Dangerfield or something, and doesn't seem to realize that the shitty movies his character has been appearing in for the last several years aren't all that different than the garbage he himself has been sleep walking through since 2000 or so. I think there's a problem with making a movie about people who are trying really hard to make you laugh. If you have a sense of how much effort they're putting in, you don't, which I didn't. And I didn't buy it as a drama either. I caught part of The 40 Year Old Virgin on TV last night. Apatow was so much better when he didn't fancy himself in the same league as Cameron Crowe or Paul Thomas Anderson (the latter of which supervised an uncredited recut of the move, which is probably part of the reason that I found it to be so goddamn drawn out and bad). Get your head out of your ass, Judd!
Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen
I stand by every word of my original review. I again want to emphasize, though, that the movie is every bit as head-ache inducing and nauseating as I knew it would be going in. It's hard to be too angry when I knew I was getting into.
Land Of The Lost
Shitty. Really shitty. The movie is simultaneously aimed at children (dinosaurs, little people in alien suits, etc), teenagers (action scenes, drug and sex jokes, Danny McBride), and 40 somethings who might have fond memories of the 1960s TV show. I can't imagine that any of those groups would like the end result, and I certainly don't either.
Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince
The books get better as they go along, but the films have steadily gotten worse. Such a curiosity is David Yates. He handles some aspects of the books better than any of the other directors have, but mangles others needlessly. His two Potter films are so goddamn dour and joyless, almost mechanical. Someone needs to remind him that this is still a fantasy story about teenage wizards, intended for children. It's not J.R.R. Tolkien, damn it, and it shouldn't be treated that way!
A great trailer for a movie that overstays its welcome by at least an hour (and it's only 90 minutes or so). It did confirm for me that Michael Jai White is an amazingly charismatic actor with some mean comedic chops, though.
Monsters Vs. Aliens
Dull and unimaginative. What kid is going to get the references to all these crappy 50s monster movies? What parent isn't going to think about hiring someone else to take their children to movies from now on?
I like Ang Lee movies, and I like Demitri Martin. I found this lengthy, meandering movie to be pretty excruciating, however, and nearly unwatchable. Maybe if I had a background that included a lot of drugs and/or any particular affection for this era of music I'd feel differently. Also, this movie spoke to my extreme hatred of big crowds and long lines, neither of which existed at theaters where this sucker was playing.
I hated every second of this movie. I hate what it's about, how it's told, the quality of the photography, the chipper musical score by Marvin Hamlisch... everything. I liked Steven Soderbergh until he sold out as upsettingly as any gifted filmmaker can and started making unwatchable, tension-free studio shit-buffets that all had the word Ocean's in the title. This movie was the last straw. Not only will I skip any movie with his unholy name on it in the future, but I will avoid re watching his pre-2001 output that I used to like. Thanks a lot, Steven Soderbergh. Thanks for all the pain and the suffering for the whole decade, you asshole.