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Saturday, January 3, 2009

So long 2008, here comes 2009.

2008 was one hell of a year. Not exactly an awe-inspiring 12 months of joy. It was a year of uncertainty. The US Presidential election was more entertaining and nerve-wracking than a penalty shoot-out. While the more serious matter of who’d lead the ‘free world’ for the next four years was being questioned, we had someone actually dumber than Bush in the running. Sarah Palin’s antics did entertain us all. There were wars, natural disasters and Zimbabwe became even more of a shameful oversight by the world powers. Right in the middle of all this, the world economy became a giant shit sandwich we’re all going to have to take a bite out of. And then when you didn’t think things could get any worse, this man admitted to having sex with 1,000 cars. Had the world taken leave of it’s senses?!

In the movie world, it was an odd year. An indie director released a film that went on to be the second highest grossing film of all time. Spielberg, Lucas and Ford, once the most powerful cinematic team in Hollywood, proved once and for all that they had lost their mojo. Here in Europe, the year started off very strongly. We got a slew of films that the US had had their time with and were treated to There Will Be Blood, Juno, No Country For Old Men and Lust, Caution. Summer brought the usual crop of blockbusters. Some were instant classics. Others will be quickly forgotten. Autumn and winter, usually a pretty strong period for film, limped by with few films really standing out. It seems the best of this period is coming out in the next few weeks. It is coming close to awards season, after all.

2008 was also a sad year, seeing the loss of, among others, 4 names that were huge in the industry. January saw the shocking death of Heath Ledger. Ledger had just finished work on the role he will forever be associated with. His turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight will go down as one of the great cinematic villains. Ledger was just beginning to hit the big time, having delivered some brilliant performances in Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There and A Knight’s Tale. In April, NRA spokesman and enemy of everything simian, Charlton Heston died at the age of 84. Heston had courted controversy in his later years due to his association with the NRA, and some selective editing done by Michael Moore for the documentary, Bowling for Columbine. But Heston will always be fondly remembered for his roles in Planet of the Apes, Ben-Hur and Soylent Green.
Stan Winston, creator of some of cinema’s most iconic monsters, died in June. Without his incredible talent for creating creatures, films such as Aliens, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park would have been a lot less awe-inspiring. And then, in September, we lost one of the greatest actors of all time. Paul Newman, Oscar-winner, humanitarian and one of the few genuine movie stars died at aged 83. Newman was a quintessential film icon, having those movie star looks as well as the talent to back it up. His roles transcend the films they were in with names such as Butch Cassidy and Fast Eddie Felson being among Newman’s most famous creations. A sad year when it came to losses.

But onto the meat of this report. The top 10’s. I haven’t seen everything that was released this year. Due to the global economic downturn, coupled with the frankly ridiculous price of cinema tickets, I can’t possibly have gone to see everything! But from what I’ve seen, I’ve managed to compile the... Critical Mass Top 10 Films of 2008-

10. Tropic Thunder- What can I say? I liked it. I don’t usually like Ben Stiller movies. He’s a name that has brought a little bit of sick to my throat every time I’ve heard it in the last few years. But here, he’s redeemed himself somewhat. The cast were all on top form. Robert Downey Jnr. continued to have the year of his life after the massive success of Iron Man, and Tom Cruise proved that he’s not just Scientology poster boy. Sure, it ran out of steam in a few places. But laugh for laugh, it was one of the best comedies of 2008.

9. Man on Wire- People love lunatics. And they don’t come crazier than Phillipe Petit. In 1974, this crazy Frenchman set up a tight-rope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre. And then spent 45 minutes larking about on the rope. A stunt that was incredibly dangerous and fairly illegal. And in James Marsh’s documentary, it makes for utterly compelling watching.

8. Son of Rambow- We love movies. There’s no other way about it. We just love the escapism and fantasy fulfilment of sitting in front of a big screen. And essentially, that’s what Son of Rambow is all about. A film that is whimsical and doesn’t contain an ounce of cynicism, it’s a tale of friendship that grows between two boys with vastly different backgrounds, brought together by the goal of recreating First Blood. With two brilliant central performances, Son of Rambow is overlooked by many. And criminally so.

7. In Bruges- The only other comedy on the list, this one is vastly different from Tropic Thunder. The screenplay, by playwright and director Martin McDonagh is incredibly dark in places. But everywhere in the film, it’s very sharp. Two hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and a career-defining Colin Farrell are hiding out in Bruges, Belgium. One of them wants to see the sights, the other wants to party. But when a call from their boss comes in, things get ugly. It’s a sleeper hit, but one of the best-written and performed films of 2008.

6. In The Shadow of The Moon- These days, I think we take for granted what a monumental achievement putting a man on the moon is. Man hasn’t travelled to our closest neighbour in some time, so maybe that’s why we don’t see it as possibly the greatest achievement man has ever completed. But as this brilliant documentary shows, sending a man nearly 385,000 kilometres to the moon is a monumental achievement. While it doesn’t feature Neil Armstrong, In The Shadow of The Moon remains a compelling and inspiring story of human endeavour.

5. The King of Kong- Many documentaries deal with big, world-changing events. And then you have documentaries like The King of Kong, that deal with small, somewhat insignificant things, like the attempt to break the Donkey Kong world record. In The King of Kong, we have Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, the forces for light and dark; one holding the record, one trying to break it. While the subject matter might turn some viewers off, they’d be wrong to dismiss this film. Full of characters you couldn’t write, it’s compelling, bizarre, hilarious and absolutely entertaining.

4. The Mist- Frank Darabont will always be remembered for his most famous film, and one that tops many best-of lists, The Shawshank Redemption. A tale of hope and salvation, it is the polar opposite of The Mist. Once again, Darabont adapts Stephen King. But this time, the result is a dark, paranoid horror about a group of average Americans trapped in a store while a seemingly world-ending mist surrounds them. In terms of horror movies, The Mist is probably the best American horror movie of the last twenty years. Darabont refused to compromise when the studios pushed for a more optimistic ending. And we, as the audience are better for it.

3. Wall-E- In other years, this film would be top of my list. It just is beaten by two films that, for me, edged it out by a nose. Pixar are world-beaters when it comes to animation. But here, they don’t just create one of the finest animated movies of all time, but they also create a modern classic. The first forty-five minutes feature barely a word of dialogue, and this is where the film is at it’s finest. For plot purposes, humans are introduced, and that’s where I found the film lost a bit of the magic. However, in a film that is of such high quality, this loss is barely noticeable. And as an animator, the animation alone is a marvel. As a film lover, the story is just so utterly fantastic.

2. The Dark Knight- I sat at the end of this film just staring at the screen, jaw agape. Batman Begins was a brilliant reinvention of a series that had become a bad imitation of itself. The Dark Knight took everything that was right about the previous film and pushed everything even further. Heath Ledger’s Joker is no doubt the star of the show. But the rest of the ensemble cast, in particular Gary Oldman, are all on top form. The Dark Knight is the finest comic-book adaptation put to film. But transcends the genre by being one of the finest thrillers put to film.

1. There Will Be Blood- Few films smack you so hardly in the face and leave you reeling for days afterward. Few performances are so instantly awe-inspiring that they will be talked about for years afterward. There Will Be Blood, however, creates both these things. A story of greed, obsession and oil, Daniel Day-Lewis’ role as Daniel Plainview is the embodiment of ambition at any cost. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! is a career-defining moment for all involved. Rarely do films come along like this. But when they do, they leave their mark.

So there’s the best. But films are only good when you have the awful to sit through too. And 2008 sure had some stinkers. And while I had the foresight to avoid some obviously awful ‘films’ such as Disaster Movie, there were things about these films that made me think ‘they can’t be THAT bad.’ Oh how wrong I can be. The Critical Mass 10 Worst Films of 2008-

10. Martyrs- Again, I still find myself asking ‘where do I start with this film?’ I sat down to it knowing it was the most controversial movie of 2008. And I finished it with a sense that I’d just been raped in the eyeballs. While I don’t agree with the term ‘torture porn,’ Martyrs does for that particular sub-genre of horror movies what Resevoir Dogs did for Otolaryngology. It’s a well-put together movie, but one so inherently nasty that there is very little in it to redeem it. The filmmakers put the audience through 97 minutes of brutality and leave you with nothing other than shock. I’ve never seen so many people walk out of a cinema before the film has ended.

9. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull- The only reason this film isn’t higher on the list is that there were flashes of the old Indy in there, and that alone warrants bonus points. But otherwise, this abomination is not worth more than one watch. And that in itself is a disaster. The Indiana Jones trilogy, despite one or two minor faults, is one of the greatest of all trilogies. But this piece of shit isn’t worthy of the name. Full of jaw-droppingly awful creative decisions, it’s proof that George Lucas should be placed into a home for the creatively retarded, Steven Spielberg should be locked to a chair and made watch his own early films over and over and over again until he sees where his career’s gone wrong, and Harrison Ford should retire quietly before his dignity is entirely gone. Terrible. And it pains me to say that.

8. Quantum of Solace- Casino Royale was entertaining. Daniel Craig proved, as I maintained since he was announced as the new Bond, that he can be Bond. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was a grand romp. Quantum of Solace, the direct sequel, however is awful. Bloody awful. Sure, the second unit director was the stunt co-ordinator on the Bourne sequels. But that doesn’t excuse Quantum of Solace from ripping off that series.

7. Mirrors- The Mist is one of the finest horror movies of the last twenty years. Mirrors is one of the worst. And it has a laughably stupid climax that basically lifts the endings from three types of horror movie- supernatural, monster and action horror. Fucking dreadful.

6. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian- So desperately wants to be Lord of The Rings, that I almost feel sorry for it. Director Andrew Adamson did such a bad job directing this film that he seems to have killed the franchise. Not even Disney wants to hang onto it. And we’re all better for it.

5. Drillbit Taylor- The Judd Apatow school of filmmaking must be held accountable for this. It’s so bad, I think it’s the real reason Owen Wilson thought of doing something drastic. And as tasteless a joke as that is, it’s still better than anything in this terrible, terrible film.

4. Pathology- I was looking back over the list of films I’d seen this year, and as soon as I saw this title, I instantly became angry. Not just that I’d wasted money on a ticket, but that anybody had wasted money on making it. Full of terrible creative decisions, one of which was to cast Heroes star, the charisma and talent-free Milo Ventimiglia as the hero, it’s a thriller that fails on every level. Worse than actually having an autopsy performed on you while conscious.

3. Max Payne- Every year, at least one computer game adaptation makes it onto the list. Last year it was (s)Hitman. This year, it’s Max Payne. Director John Moore really wishes he made Sin City. So to make up for not making that film, he decided to make Max Payne as if it took place in the Sin City universe. Oh, and throw in some supernatural bullshit for measure. Special mention for Mark Wahlberg who makes it onto the Worst of 2008 list twice. Here’ he mumbles his way through the entire sorry affair.

2. The Happening- Lordy, lordy, lordy. It’s all gone wrong for M. Night Shyamalan. In 1999, he was the next Spielberg. Now, he’d be lucky if he was the next Uwe Boll. Lady In The Water was an unmitigated disaster. Probably the worst film of 2006. Shyamalan can console himself this time as he just missed out on the worst film of 2008. The Happening is so bad, it ends up being laugh out loud hilarious where it’s meant to be horrific. A ridiculous script, terrible direction and some of the worst acting seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

1. 10,000 B.C.- How does Roland Emmerich still have a career in the film industry? I guess his films do bring in the dough. But really, the guy should be held accountable for his shocking disregard for the audience’s intelligence. Which doesn’t really say much for me, as I paid to see this crapfest. Firstly, he tried to convince us that an Apple Mac could interface with alien technology. Then came The Patriot. A laughably unconvincing re-imagining of American History. After that, he tried to convince us that another ice-age could happen overnight. And this time, he brings us some sort of utterly ludicrous version of prehistoric history. The film is packed full of dreadful CGI, preposterous story events and gaping plot holes. And with yet another potentially imbecilic film coming out this year with 2012, Roland, we’re reserving this spot on the worst films of 2009 just for you.

That was 2008. Not dreadful. And yet I find myself wondering if it even managed to be better than 2007. Sure, there were no Pirates of the Caribbean films. Thankfully. But it did manage to have a bad Indiana Jones film. Which in itself is pretty awful. Again, the list of films released this year read as depressingly average. Some of the films weren’t even 2008 films, but 2007 releases that only made it to these shores after the new year. The beginning of 2009 looks promising. But again, things could go horribly wrong with remakes, reimaginings and sequels spread pretty liberally throughout the year.

So what is there to look forward to? Well, for us in Europe, the year starts off pretty strongly. With (sigh) awards season just around the corner, the major studios have unleashed all the big contenders. January sees the release of part one of Steven Soderberg’s epic biography of Che Guevara in... Che. Coming hot on the heels of this film is Danny Boyle’s highly praised Slumdog Millionaire. Mickey Rourke is being tipped for Oscar glory for his portrayal of a retired professional wrestler who’s trying to get his life on track in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, released on January 16th. The following week is pretty packed with the screen adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon hitting screens, as well as Gus Van Sandt’s biography of California’s first gay elected official Harvey Milk in Milk and Valkyrie, the story of an attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life starring a hit-needing Tom Cruise all being released simultaneously. It should prove to be an interesting few weeks.

Then comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The film, directed by the incredibly talented David Fincher has had some mixed reviews in the US. But the trailer looked gorgeous, and Brad Pitt is delivering the best performances of his life at the moment, so it should have something going for it.
When it comes to the big blockbusters, March is the first notable mention. Watchmen is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year, and already it’s controversial. 20th Century Fox are seeking to delay the release of the film as it retains distribution rights for the property. The film is financed by Warner Brothers and they are fighting Fox’s legal action. While it’s Warner’s mistake, Fox’s timing is a shitty, cynical attempt to get money from a property they sat on for nearly two decades. But then, that’s business for ya.

April has a new Hayao Miyazaki film for us to marvel at. Ponyo on The Cliff hits screens on the 8th, and if it’s anyway as good as Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, it’ll be pretty special. Also released the same day is Monsters vs. Aliens, from Dreamworks. While it’ll top Ponyo in the box office, I doubt it’ll be a better film. Pixar also weigh in this year with Up, their animated film about a man who uses balloons to bring his house to South America. No doubt it’ll look amazing. Something quite different in terms of animation is the Henry Selick directed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Selick directed the brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas and uses this three-d animation style for the film. It hits screens in May.

The blockbuster season kicks off in May with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X3 was an awful piece of crap, so it’s up to Gavin Hood to redeem the franchise. Luckily for him he’s got the most interesting character to work with, so we get to see how Wolverine became the angry, adamantium killing machine he is in X-Men. But the production had it’s share of problems, so how this affected the film remains to be seen. Competing with Wolverine will be J.J. Abram’s reimagining of Star Trek. Anticipation for this film has reached fever-pitch, and the trailer looks good. Advance word is very positive, so hopes are high for this one.
A month later sees the release of Terminator: Salvation. The series took a serious blow with the terrible Terminator 3. While the film is directed by McG, it also features Christian Bale as saviour of mankind, John Connor. And Bale is known for his ability to pick quality projects. However, it remains to be seen if this film is any good. Quentin Tarantino finally brings his long-awaited World War 2 epic, Inglorious Basterds to the big screen in June. Rumours of this project have been flying around for the better part of a decade, so many will be salivating over this one. However, a bizarre cast led by Brad Pitt and Tarantino’s penchant for delivering films for himself over anyone else means that this project could go either way. Expect 1940’s pop culture references.

The rest of the blockbusters released are dodgy at best. Michael Bay’s sequel to the awful Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen hits screens in June. No doubt full of empty headed slow motion bullcrap. Roland Emmerich’s stupid-looking 2012 arrives in July. And August sees the release of G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, directed by the talentless Stephen Sommers. And of course, there’s Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. No doubt it’ll look amazing and will make a truck load of cash for everyone involved. And with the story getting more and more dark and engrossing, hopefully this will be a pretty good Harry Potter movie.

One of the most anticipated, nay, hyped films of the year arrives pretty late. December sees the release of James Cameron’s Avatar. Hyperbolically touted as the film that will change the face of the art form, it’s a sci-fi epic that is an incredibly closely-guarded secret. Whether it’s worth the hype remains to be seen. But it’s still 11 months away, so don’t hold your breath too long!

The rest of the year is peppered with some pretty interesting sounding films. The adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s prize-winning novel, The Road is due at some point. While McCarthy’s last book to be adapted, No Country For Old Men was a massive success, I doubt the same ill happen for The Road. It’s a very dark grim book, and will make for a very dark film. Also due is the final film in Heath Ledger’s career, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ledger’s untimely death meant he couldn’t complete the role. So in stepped Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp. Which in accordance with the fantasy plot will make sense. And it’s directed by Terry Gilliam. Which always means something to look forward to.
Depp also leads the cast in Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s story of John Dillinger. Depp plays Dillinger, with Christian Bale playing Melvin Purvis, the man trying to take Dillinger down. It’s a lot to expect a 1920’s Heat, but with a strong cast and Mann behind the camera, it should be pretty spectacular. And finally, Peter Jackson’s new film hits screens in December. The Lovely Bones, adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel of a young girl who watches over her family from Heaven, the book is described as un-filmable. So who better to tackle it than Jackson? But don’t expect family-friendly. The book is very dark, with subject matter that will be very uncomfortable. But it should look gorgeous.

So will 2009 top 2008? Theoretically, it shouldn’t be hard. But the state of the film industry isn’t very healthy at the moment. Money is sought more than creativity, so films that look good on paper may end up being awful. We can but hope.

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