It’s never easy coming up with a Top 10 list – both for the best movies and the worst. On one hand, some films are just technically better than others, and on the other hand, some are just more enjoyable. I kept this in mind when compiling my year-end lists for 2008, and so while an Oscar contender like “The Wrestler” may seem like it ranks low in comparison to guiltier pleasures like “RocknRolla” and “Tropic Thunder,” I would rather see both of those movies over the former almost any day of the week.
Another problem is that the studios tend to delay the release of their prestige films until the end of the year in fear of being overshadowed by other Oscar bait, and this time around, not a single Best Picture candidate (save for “The Dark Knight”) was released before December. That makes things difficult when you’re a film critic living in Ohio (you see, just because something opens in New York or LA doesn’t mean it opens everywhere else in the country), and when the rest of the year is so exceptionally average, you depend on those types of movies to help fill out your list.
Thankfully, I managed to catch just about everything a respectable film critic should see before year’s end (except for Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”), and though my list may feature a few surprise entries, I’m willing to stand by each and every one. The same goes for my worst-of list, though I doubt anyone will be surprised by what they find there.
1. “The Dark Knight”
Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Batman Begins” will likely get the shaft when it comes to Best Picture nominations, but ask anyone you come across and I guarantee that four out of every five people will not only list “The Dark Knight” as their favorite movie of the year, but the best as well. The late Heath Ledger’s knockout performance as the Joker certainly helped in this respect, but despite a villainous turn so good that the actor himself couldn’t stop licking his lips onscreen, the film was far from a one-man show. Everyone from Christian Bale to Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman made this movie what it is, and if you thought “Batman Begins” was dark and gritty, you ain’t seen nothing yet. “The Dark Knight” is the “Empire Strikes Back” of comic book sequels, and just like George Lucas’ own space trilogy, it’s hard to imagine Nolan topping this one.
I had a feeling that Ron Howard’s big-screen adaptation of the award-winning stage play would be good, but not this good. Staged like a no-holds-barred boxing match between its two stars, “Frost/Nixon” blazes through its tension-filled two hours so fast that you almost forget to breathe. Credit goes to Peter Morgan for writing such captivating material and making it work in movie form, but without its two stars – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen – the drama just wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Langella, in particular, captures the spirit of Nixon without even trying to look like him, and it works surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that if Sean Penn wins Best Actor for his work in the incredibly mediocre “Milk,” the Academy might as well just close down shop and stop giving out awards. The same goes for the movie itself, because “Frost/Nixon” is so good that you’ll want to watch it unfold all over again the minute it ends. And mind you, that’s coming from a 26-year-old with absolutely no interest in politics.
Those who thought David Fincher’s “Zodiac” was too long probably won’t like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” because it’s even longer. Still, there’s an argument to be made as to why both movies needed to be so long, and in the case of the latter, it’s that because the story is about the entire life of one man. That he’s living his life in complete reverse is what makes the film so appealing, and the visual effects that Fincher employs in order to accomplish such a feat (aging and de-aging star Brad Pitt) makes the whole experience nothing short of magical. Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Benjamin Button” has to be one of the most peculiar love stories ever captured on film. The two lead performances may not be extraordinary, but considering the source material, they’re still quite an achievement. Women may swoon at the thought of seeing Pitt in his 20s again, but it’s his time as an old man that proves the most memorable.
4. “Slumdog Millionaire”
“Slumdog Millionaire” is supposed to be this year’s “Juno,” but apart from the fact that they’re both indies being distributed by Fox Searchlight, there’s not a single thing about either film that bears resemblance to the other. This isn’t a knock against “Juno” (it was, after all, my second favorite movie of 2007), but Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is just a far more complex film; and one that, despite its eventual happy ending, doesn’t have too many feel-good moments scattered throughout. This is a movie that doesn’t go easy on its characters – from torture and violence to rape and drugs – and yet to call it anything other than a fairy tale would be to seriously downplay the spectacle that Boyle has created. Dev Patel is clearly a star in the making, but while he’s the one getting all of the credit, it’s the entire cast (including phenomenal performances from the six Indian kids playing the younger versions of the main trio) that makes “Slumdog Millionaire” so amazing.
I’ll admit it: I had my hesitations going in to “WALL·E.” Though Pixar has proven in the past that they can do just about anything, the fact that there would be virtually no dialogue had me worried that they could pull it off again. Based on it’s placement on my list, however, you can probably deduce that, well, yes, they did do it again, and it’s one of the best movies they’ve ever made. Though the first act is unquestionably the most enjoyable part of “WALL·E,” as the junk-compacting robot embraces his inner Buster Keaton, the movie offers plenty of laughs throughout. Some have complained that the film is little more than a two-hour lecture about the environment, to which I say, so what? Pixar has always prided itself on telling stories that appeal to people of all ages, and what better way to learn something than to watch a movie starring one of the coolest robots ever?
6. “Gran Torino”
Clint Eastwood is a legend. There’s no question about it. And if this truly is his final onscreen role, then at least he made it a good one. “Gran Torino” is one of the funniest movies of the year, and it’s all thanks to Eastwood’s performance as a grizzled Korean War vet who spends his days growling at the insensitivity of his kids (they buy him a Gopher and a phone with giant buttons for his birthday) and muttering racist comments at his Asian neighbors. Though it’s easy for a character like this to come off as extremely unlikable, Eastwood somehow manages to turn him into a charming old man who doesn’t take shit from anybody. This is a role that, in any other year, Eastwood would be a lock for a Best Actor nod. The same could be said of the film as well. The screen veteran has a tendency to under-direct his movies, but it’s exactly this simplicity that makes “Gran Torino” so good. It’s original, heartfelt, and above all else, the most intentionally funny dramatic thriller you’ll ever see.
7. “Iron Man”
Those who were lucky enough to attend the “Iron Man” panel at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con already had a pretty good idea nearly a year in advance of how much the movie was going to rock, but I don’t think anyone thought it would be as cool as what Jon Favreau delivered this past May. As the first blockbuster of the summer season, “Iron Man” didn’t just exceed expectations at the box office – it demolished them, all while assuring Marvel fanboys that life after Spider-Man wouldn’t be so bad after all. Robert Downey Jr. is flawless as Tony Stark, and his supporting cast is just as great, but what ultimately makes “Iron Man” such a fun ride is that it took everything great about film (comedy, drama and action) and made it work in the context of a comic book movie. Granted, “The Dark Knight” did it even better just a few months later, but that doesn’t make “Iron Man” any less of a success.
Say what you will about Guy Ritchie, but the dude makes entertaining movies. Unfortunately, it looked like the crime caper specialist was all but done after marrying Madonna. Ritchie wasted ten years of his life into with the music superstar, and with the exception of his son Rocco, the only other things he had to show for it was a BMW short film, the atrocious “Swept Away,” and the clusterfuck “Revolver.” Thank God for “RocknRolla,” then, the director’s long-awaited return to the world of the London underground and arguably his best and most mature film to date. Sure, Ritchie still seems to favor style over substance, but film’s eccentric cast of characters more than makes up for it. Gerard Butler and Tom Wilkinson, in particular, are both fantastic in their respective roles, and Thandie Newton takes part in one of the funniest dance scenes ever recorded on film. Word is Ritchie is just itching to make a sequel, and if it’s even a fraction as good as the original, then it’ll likely wind up on whatever year-end list it’s eligible for.
9. “American Teen”
Nanette Burstein’s film about high school life in the “mostly while, mostly Christian, and red state all the way” town of Warsaw, Indiana is about as close to home as any movie is ever going to get for me (I grew up about 200 miles away), which is probably why I’m so willing to look past the obvious favoritism that was shown to certain subjects during filming. Then again, it’s hard not to fall in love with Hannah Bailey, the unofficial star of the movie. Whether it’s her unconventional beauty, her free-spirited lifestyle, or the fact that she just doesn’t seem to belong, the audience gets behind Hannah from the moment she’s introduced. “American Teen” is smart, funny and downright entertaining, and whether you’ve just graduated from high school or are about to attend your 20-year reunion, you could only be so lucky to have a video yearbook as impressive as this.
10. “Son of Rambow”
Movies like “Son of Rambow” don’t get nearly as big of an audience as they deserve, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best and most wildy inventive family films that I’ve seen in a long time. And who better to make a movie that incorporates animated doodles into its character’s imagination than the director-producer duo that created the wacky, stop-motion music video for Blur’s “Coffee and TV”? It’s a match made in heaven, though much of the film’s success is thanks to newcomers Bill Milner and Will Poulter, who give child actors a good name. Anyone with a young son needs to watch this right away – just don’t forget to let them watch it with you. Animated movies shouldn’t be the only source of entertainment for parents looking to teach life lessons, and though it does feature its share of smoking, “Son of Rambow” does more good than harm.
1. “Strange Wilderness”
In all my time as a film critic, I’ve never given a zero-star rating. That is, until this giant piece of turd marked with Adam Sandler’s stamp of approval crawled into theaters nearly three years after it was made. From recurring gags about joke-shop hand buzzers to dreadfully unfunny set pieces involving gay turkeys and guys named Dick, there’s not a single redeemable moment in the entire film. The script is so lazy that the two main characters are actually named after the writers, and though it technically qualifies as a comedy, there’s nothing about “Strange Wilderness” that will actually make you laugh. Even those terrible parody movies usually have a good joke or two hiding within them, but this is a new low. Speaking of parody movies…
2. “Meet the Spartans”
Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are surely Angels of Death sent from Hell to destroy Hollywood. Their latest parody film, “Meet the Spartans,” is so lazily constructed that Fox should be fined the entire box office gross for releasing it in theaters. This a movie that attempts to take all of those gay jokes about “300” and turn it into a 67-minute movie whose biggest highlight is the end credits. I always wondered how these kinds of films even got greenlit, and now I know the answer: in-movie advertising. “Meet the Spartans” is jam-packed with shameless plug after shameless plug, including not-so-subtle commercials for Subway, Gatorade, Krispy Kreme, Budweiser, Dentyne Ice, Red Bull, and, well, you get the point. The people running Fox are clearly greedy idiots, but even they must see the errors of their ways by now.
3. “Disaster Movie”
Unfortunately, Lionsgate has not. Just when you thought one Friedberg/Seltzer parody movie was too much, they went and made another one… in the same year. What makes “Disaster Movie” worse than “Meet the Spartans,” however, is that half of the jokes are based on references to films that weren’t even in theaters when the movie was being shot. Guys dressed in Wal-Mart-quality Iron Man, Hellboy and Incredible Hulk costumes are hit with plastic cows for three straight minutes, Carrie Bradshaw is played by a dude, and Beowulf pops up to continue the tirade of gay jokes started in the last film. So why the slightly better ranking? Frankly, because “Disaster Movie” has brief moments of hilarity. Namely, a bit involving Alvin and the Chipmunks singing death metal that will have you rolling on the ground in laughter. Granted, it’s one of the only times you’ll actually be laughing with the movie, but at least there are no commercials in this one.
4. “Over Her Dead Body”
It’s a pretty clear indication that your movie sucks when the funniest bit involves a talking parrot. One could even argue that it’s the only funny bit of the movie, but that wouldn’t change the fact that “Over Her Dead Body” is one the worst romantic comedies ever made. It’s not that ghost stories can’t work in that context, either. The Ricky Gervais vehicle “Ghost Town” is the exact same movie, and though much of that film’s success is thanks to the comedian’s unique brand of humor, he receives great support from screen vets like Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni. Paul Rudd, on the other hand, is partnered up with Lake Bell (she’s been better) and Eva Longoria, who is not only a major reason why the movie sucks, but also gets top billing for what is essentially the third lead. Sorry honey, but appearing in every rag in town does not a star make.
5. “Meet Dave”
After Eddie Murphy’s fantastic performance in “Dreamgirls,” it looked like the comedian might actually begin taking his career seriously. Who knows, he could have even strung together a comeback so good that everyone would finally forget about “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” Unfortunately, Murphy went the other route by making “Norbit,” and one year later, he re-teamed with director Brian Robbins for a movie just as bad. “Meet Dave” was supposed to be big summer comedy for the family, but all it proved is that Murphy isn’t funny and Robbins is a shit director. Lame jokes about printing money out of the ass aside, “Meet Dave” has got to have some of the worst special effects work I’ve ever seen. True, that’s not the reason the movie flopped, but if you’re going to make a film as painful to watch as this, at least make it look good.
If there’s one studio that just doesn’t seem to understand the inner workings of the film industry, it’s Screen Gems, who continues to put out direct-to-video-quality movies every year. Their techno thriller, “Untraceable,” is a sloppy genre flick that’s equal parts good (“Se7en”), bad (“Saw 3″) and ugly (“Feardotcom”). What it lacks in originality, however, it more than makes up for with gaping plot holes, silly clichés, and enough product placement to make you sick (though not as sick as “Meet the Spartans”). How typically good actors like Diane Lane and Colin Hanks managed to get roped into this movie is beyond me, but they must have thought that they were making something a little less trashy than this. When the “Saw” series features a stronger moral code than the one that appears in your film, however, there’s something horribly wrong.
Contrary to what you might have read in fellow BE editor Will Harris’ review of the film, “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” is not an average comedy. Nevertheless, there are a few things that you can learn from watching a movie like this. For starters, Martin Lawrence is just as annoying as you remember. I can’t think of another high-profile actor who is as consistently unfunny as Lawrence is in every one of his headlining roles, and yet somehow, he continues to get work. Secondly, while Lawrence may have stopped trying to mimic Eddie Murphy’s career, he’s chosen a less superior replacement (if that’s even possible) in Tyler Perry. And finally, Michael Clarke Duncan is one funny dude. It’s certainly been hinted at in past projects, but the hulking actor is one of the only genuinely funny things about the film. Pity he wasn’t in it more, because then maybe the film would have been ranked eighth instead of seventh.
8. “Nim’s Island”
The makers of “Nim’s Island” clearly don’t believe that a movie has to make sense for kids to understand and enjoy it, and when those kinds of films make $100 million while far superior ones like “City of Ember” tank, well, it really grinds my gears. This has got to be the worst movie Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler have ever made, and they should know better. Butler’s crimes aren’t nearly as bad as Foster’s, however, who should never step foot near anything even remotely resembling a comedy for the remainder of her career. Abigail Breslin isn’t as much to blame as her adult costars, but it still sucks to see such a talented young actress wasted in kiddie fodder like this.
9. “The Love Guru”
Some people will surely have my head for not placing Mike Myers’ latest costumed comedy higher up on the list, but while “The Love Guru” really is as terrible as everyone says it is, there’s something strangely entertaining about watching the former “SNL” star bomb for 88 embarrassing minutes. Not to give Myers more credit than he deserves, but “The Love Guru” simply shouldn’t have been this bad. The inspired casting of Justin Timberlake as the film’s villain, Jacques “Le Coq” Grande, proved once again why the musician should quit his day job and become a full-time cast member on “SNL,” while the commentator team-up of Stephen Colbert and Jim Gaffigan had the potential to be so much better. Unfortunately, their limited screen time falls just as flat as all the dick and fart jokes that Myers hurls nonstop at the audience. And did we really need to see two elephants fucking on screen? Yeah, didn’t think so.
10. “One Missed Call”
“One Missed Call” isn’t a particularly scary movie, which is kind of like making a comedy that isn’t funny (see above). It is pretty creepy, however, and it’s a shame that director Eric Valette didn’t have a better story to work with. I mean, really, cell phones? Didn’t Jason Segel and Russell Brand make fun of a similar movie in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall? It was no doubt inspired by this one, because I can’t imagine an idea that stupid could be thought of more than once. And what the hell is Ed Burns doing in a horror movie anyway? He’s not the greatest actor of his generation, but I thought he had a more taste than this. Even Margaret Cho was smart enough to get in and get out before anyone recognized it was her, and she probably bought a new house with the paycheck.