2008 In Retrospect

Introduction

And so 2008 is finally at an end (really this time). It’s always odd, looking back, and seeing just how long ago January was… and yet, at the same time, how close it feels.

The films I’ve watched, numbered as they are, provide an especially concrete example of this. Take this pair: Dark City was just the second film I watched in 2008, but it feels barely months since I first saw it. Atonement, on the other hand, was only the seventh film — barely a month after Dark City — but it feels like years ago. But that’s Time for you: entirely relative.

This is why, as I go through the year watching my new films, I keep a pair of lists. The first, and longest, is the ‘short’ list for my Best Films Of 2008 — being the best films I’ve seen (for the first time) in the year past, not the best films released (for the first time) in that year. The second, mercifully shorter, is the short list for my Worst Films Of 2008 — again, ones I’ve seen. These lists are handy in making sure I don’t forget anything… and meaning I don’t have to trawl through all 100 again!


What follows…

…is quite simple: first up, my five Worst Films, in no particular order; then, my ten Best Films, in a lovely countdown. Each of the latter is accompanied by a further recommendation from this year’s viewing. These aren’t numbers 11 to 20 on my list, but instead films I’ve seen this year that are in some way similar to the one they’re attached to.

With that all over-explained, here goes:


The Five Worst Films I’ve Seen in 2008

The Baskerville Curse
This was only the second single-star review I’ve doled out in two years and 254 reviews (including the shorts). I maintain it’s an overrated Holmes tale, but it can be adapted well — I like the 1939 version more than my review suggests, and also the BBC’s 2002 effort. This needlessly renamed version wastes its short running time on the story’s less important elements (train journeys! letter writing!), depicted through low-quality animation with no atmosphere. Disappointing.

The Invasion
A slow, predictable plot and ludicrous final message scupper this effort, which is a shame because it’s the sort of allegorical sci-fi tale that’s probably ripe for a good retelling.

Superhero Movie
Lazy in every respect (so it can make do with this lazy comment).

Southland Tales
Last year I picked one film for this list that, as well as being weak in itself, stood for all the year’s disappointments. While there weren’t so many this year, this was undoubtedly one. I haven’t seen Donnie Darko for a few years so I don’t know if I’ve grown out of it (some seem to have), but it was a great experience when I first saw it in the cinema and I’ve eagerly awaited Kelly’s follow-up ever since. That he turned in such a confused mess was truly disappointing. Hopefully his next effort will be better.

Cube²: Hypercube and Cube Zero
A slight cheat, I know, but together they took an excellent, original, stand-alone sci-fi film and tried to turn it into yet another horror franchise. One might live with that if they were decent pieces of work, but both are risible, missing all the points that made the first so great. An exceptionally good example of why wholly unnecessary sequels are wholly bad.


The Ten Best Films I’ve Seen For the First Time in 2008

10) Sunshine
As this year ends Danny Boyle is garnering much praise and Oscar buzz for his new flick, but this SF effort is possibly my favourite of his films to date. Yes, it completely loses it in the final stretch — and it’s that ending that held off a fifth star from me, and I think generally damaged its critical standing too — but to that point it’s an exciting yet believable (enough, anyway) space-faring drama.
See also: The Fountain, a more metaphysical space mission as just one part of a no-doubt-meaningful century-spanning narrative.

9) Cloverfield
There’s never been hype quite like Cloverfield’s, and I was surprised as anyone when it actually paid off. Probably a pain on the big screen, it really suits your TV. It’s not the scariest horror ever (its PG-13 rating surely put paid to that) and it’s a bit slow to get going (especially if you’re any older than the protagonists, it seems), but once it does it holds impressively faithful to its high-concept camcorder style and uses it to good effect on several occasions.
See also: Russian Ark, for a whole film shot in a real single take.

8) Hellboy II: The Golden Army
I enjoyed the original Hellboy, but here del Toro perfects the formula. It’s no small feat to balance character drama (where two of the main characters are a giant red demon and a fish-man) with humour (genuinely funny humour at that), spellbinding production design, and thrilling action sequences, but del Toro does it with ease. Pan’s Labyrinth may have captured more critics, but personally I’d rather enjoy this one again. Fingers crossed that a third entry can overcome all the odds, so stacked against it, and grace our screens one day.
See also: Transformers, a surprisingly entertaining blockbuster (narrowly missing out on a place here).

7) Notorious
Notorious was one of those semi-accidental discoveries for me — “there’s a Hitchcock on I’ve not seen on telly? Let’s give it a go.” Packed with incident, and with an unforgettable crane shot, it was certainly worth it. (Hitchcock fans may want to keep an eye on the blog in 2009 — I’ve acquired almost all his films on DVD recently and may get stuck into them soon.) [I didn’t.]
See also: Rebecca, another excellent Hitchcock-directed romantic mystery.

6) Hairspray
A bit of fluff with an incredibly catchy closing number that always turns up on the Royal Variety Performance and the like? Yes — but also so much more. The toe-tapping tunes (there’s a cliché I never thought I’d use) and lovable characters make it an above-average feel-good flick, but it’s the surprising presence and assured handling of A Serious Issue that notch it up to such heights.
See also: Mamma Mia!, if you like your musicals feel-good and familiar.

5) Rashomon
My first encounter with Akira Kurosawa was undoubtedly belated, but certainly worth the wait. Rashomon is a seminal work, its title now a byword for multiple-perspective narratives, and the reputation this affords it is certainly deserved. Modern films may attempt to trade off this style, but are often nothing of the sort (Vantage Point, I’m looking at you) — Rashomon is the one true version.
See also: Throne of Blood, another brilliant Kurosawa adaptation, this time of my favourite Shakespeare.

4) Stardust
Dubbing this “the British Princess Bride” rather undersells it. Stardust is a truly magical film, packed with wit, action, delicious villains, a star-packed cast, a stirring score, genuinely special effects, British locations that look as stunning as anything New Zealand had to offer, and — of course — more. The odd duff note (Ricky Gervais, I’m looking at you) can’t detract from the pure fun on offer.
See also: Enchanted, a beautifully executed riff on a similar fantastical genre.

3) Dark City
It was a close call which film landed third and which second, and on another day it might’ve been the other way round, but Alex Proyas’ dark sci-fi was narrowly pipped at the post. It’s all but forgotten, which is a shame because it does what it does amazingly — including much of what the Matrix sequels had to offer, only five years earlier and in a way that makes sense. To say too much would be to ruin it, and I definitely don’t want to do that. A long-awaited director’s cut was finally released on DVD this year — reportedly now the only decent way to watch the film, it will surely find a place on next year’s list. [It didn’t.]
See also: Cube Zero, pretty dreadful but with a similar(ish) retro-industrial-SF production design.

2) Zodiac
David Fincher is a wonderful director, currently adding another string to his bow with the highly praised Curious Case of Benjamin Button (see #10 on this list for a similar situation). For me, Zodiac is possibly his best film yet, a thoroughly atypical serial-killer thriller that sticks to the facts over a lengthy running time, yet manages to hold your attention too. Again, the (only marginally longer) DVD-released director’s cut is likely to find a place on the 2009 list. [It didn’t, but did in 2011.]
See also: L.A. Confidential, more period-set investigation of brutal crimes thick with conspiracy.

1) The Dark Knight
No surprises here. I’m unashamedly one of those who believe The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the best films of 2008, it’s one of the best films ever. There’s little else to say that hasn’t already been said — especially as I’ve already reviewed it twice.
See also: Iron Man, this year’s other billionaire-in-a-suit superhero, with less plot but more laughs.


Special Mentions

I can’t end this without mentioning the 16 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. Seven of them made it into the top ten (much better than last year, I think). Those were: Dark City, The Dark Knight, Hairspray, Notorious, Rashomon, Stardust, and Zodiac. Last year I commented that I’d since rethought some of the 5s I’d handed out; not so this year, and most of the following came very close to making the top ten: Atonement, Cathy Come Home, Double Indemnity, The Green Mile, L.A. Confidential, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Rebecca, and Throne of Blood.

There was also a 5 for Leon: Version Integrale. I’ve singled it out because it’s one of my favourite films ever, and I felt this cut was different enough from the original version to number it individually… but not different enough to include in my Top 10. Here’s a whole honorary paragraph instead.

Additionally, two shorts scored full marks for the first time this year: Pixar’s Presto, which preceded WALL-E on the big screen and can now be found on that film’s DVD; and Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death, a Christmas treat that will be getting its own DVD release. There were also 5-star re-watch reviews for Bond re-boot Casino Royale and inadvertent franchise-starter Cube. And finally, the ubiquitous Dark Knight earned itself a second full set of stars thanks to its stunning IMAX version.


The Films I Didn’t See

As has been noted, this isn’t a Top 10 of 2008 in the traditional sense (at all), but new films do feature, and with that in mind there were a number of notable releases this year that I’ve yet to see.

So, after the intense interest of doing this last year, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films listed as 2008 on IMDb that I’ve missed. These have been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim, from fame to infamy. (Most of the alphabet’s covered too, but, frustratingly, not quite all of it.)

10,000 BC
Australia
Babylon A.D.
The Bank Job
Body of Lies
Burn After Reading
Changeling
Che Parts One & Two
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Defiance
Doomsday
Doubt
The Duchess
The Edge of Love
Frost/Nixon
Get Smart
Gran Torino
Hancock
High School Musical 3: Senior Year
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
In Bruges
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D
Jumper
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Man on Wire
Max Payne
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
The Other Boleyn Girl
Rambo
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Righteous Kill
RocknRolla
Sex and the City
Slumdog Millionaire
Speed Racer
The Spirit
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Transporter 3
Tropic Thunder
Twilight
Valkyrie
W.
Waltz With Bashir
The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Yes Man
Zack and Miri Make a Porno


Final Thoughts

I didn’t think I was going to make it to 100 films this year (as I may have mentioned), but it shows what a little determination — in the final stages at least — can do for you. Better luck next year, perhaps.

Maybe I’ll be able to pack in a few more unseen classics too — looking back over this year’s films to choose my top ten, many seemed almost like total-boosting placeholders. That’s not quite the truth of the matter, but it may have skewed the top ten a little (“no WALL-E?” some may ask, for just one oddity).

Still, what’s done is done. Now, to catch up on the reviews left hanging from ’08 (eleven!), and then it’s on to ’09…

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