No Concessions: *Top 10 List 2008

noconcessionsThere was a time, not too long ago, that when the Oscar nominations were announced, I’d seen all the nominated films. Indeed, I’d seen all the significant movies of the year. My Top 10 list would have been signed, sealed, and delivered at least a week ago.

But fatherhood has a way of devouring that moviegoing time. Days spent at double features are instead devoted to bottles and diapers. Where I once had an aisle seat, I now have a blue “Bumbo” at my feet, with a gurgling baby girl as my companion.

This has added a welcome new dimension to my life, but subtracted from my list-building. So I have to put an asterisk by this year’s list, and revisit it sometime this summer, by which I’ll have seen the best of the rest on DVD. Right?

Without further ado, my not-quite-complete, needs-work, snapshot of a *Top 10 list as of right now:

10) Chop Shop. The American Slumdog Millionaire. No, not hardly, but if that gets you to rent it I’ll have done my job and you won’t mind the misinformation. A realistic slice-of-immigrant-life set in the repair shops and garbage dumps of Willets Point, Queens is the second, excellent film from Ramin Bahrani, after Man Push Cart. He makes invisible lives, hidden in plain sight, tangible.

9) The Visitor. The way more commercially successful Gran Torino is like the McCain response to this more nuanced, waiting-for-Obama drama, with Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins suddenly confronting the immigrant underclass, and doing his bit to relieve the war on terror waged upon them.

8) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. David Fincher’s Zodiac was my No. 1 last year. Being a parent really brought this one home; the ending (or is it the beginning?) was completely devastating, but quietly so. Too buttoned-down for some (and not all that “Gump-ian” from where I was sitting), I appreciated its taste, restraint, and exquisite production.

7) Wall-E. Not top-notch Pixar, but satisfying enough to fill a slot for now. It might have been better as an expanded short (the first half is extremely good, then a certain forgivable slack sets in).

6) The Wrestler. For Mickey. For Marisa. And for a morose New Jersey in winter, bleary tableaus of dead-end dime stores and last-chance strip clubs. (What exit? No exit.) Darren Aronofsky specializes in movies most people only want to see once, but this one I’d revisit. The final image haunts me still.

5) Milk. This may need to be higher on this list, but I can’t get it to work. I have list loathing. But the Oscars weren’t wrong.

4) Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The only fully satisfying fantasy picture of the year, and a surprise, given how lukewarm I was about the first installment. Creating the astonishing Pan’s Labyrinth must have given Guillermo Del Toro greater confidence, and a freer hand. I’d follow him anywhere, and look forward like a squealing fanboy to The Hobbit.

3) Let the Right One In. This Swedish vampire film sinks its teeth in deep and never lets go. It left me drained, and wanting more. The American remake is to be viewed with crosses at the ready.

2) Elegy. A film that Penelope Cruz (and Ben Kingsley) should have been nominated for, a gripping pairing (from a Philip Roth novella) that came in under the radar. Catch it March 17 on DVD.

1) Man on Wire. The Oscar nominee never slips off the tightrope. I was enthralled.

Like I said, a work in progress. As solid as ice at 33 degrees, and open to revision later.

Fellow Popdosers were more committed. Lance Berry had this to say about his Top 5:

1) The Dark Knight. The story of how Batman(Christian Bale) must face the darkest aspects of himself when confronting the criminal sociopathic madman known as the Joker(the late Heath Ledger, whose unfortunate passing only added to the film’s mystique before it was released), and how that confrontation affects the lives of every single citizen within Gotham City, touched the minds and hearts of movie-goers from all walks of life, and propelled the film–and it is a film, not just a “comic book movie”–to become the second biggest moneymaker in history, right behind Titanic.

Fans–both proudly proclaimed comic geeks and layfolk, who now hang for any word of a new installment–are dying to know if Nolan will return for a third film (Bale’s already a lock). With the opportunity for Nolan to now do anything he wants within Batman’s universe, does anyone really think he won’t be back? I mean, really…why so serious?

2) Iron Man. It was the comeback star Robert Downey Jr. needed: after years of personal failings–drugs, alcohol, being arrested and even becoming the butt of a joke on The Simpsons–he had the chance to play an honest-to-gosh hero, and he wanted that part! Any of a dozen actors could have played the part of billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, a man whose capture in Afghanistan and subsequent escape make him realize the value of human life and the worthlessness of his business as an arms dealer…but no other actor could have been Tony Stark, and made the role so thoroughly their own. It was this film–and The Dark Knight, released shortly afterward–that elevated “superhero movies” out of the metaphorical parents’ basement and allowed them to forever sit at the adults’ table.

3) Appaloosa. Just because a movie makes a ton of money (2007′s Transformers, for instance) doesn’t make it the best…and just because audiences turn a blind eye to a particular type of film doesn’t make it the worst. With only $5 million in profit (net profit: not enough to recoup its losses, as it would have had to make $40 million to break even), Appaloosa was the best film that almost no one went to see.

Ed Harris is Virgil Cole, and Viggo Mortensen is Everett Hitch: two lawmen-for-hire who come to the titular town in 1889, at the behest of the town council, who are at their wits’ end as to the state of fear they’re living in at the unnerving whims of ruthless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).  The two friends’ partnership is put to the test however, when a young woman named Allie French (Renee Zellweger) blows into town and a romance is struck up between her and Virgil. As the tagline on the poster reads, “Feelings get you killed,” and there’ll be a lot of both before the sun sets.

4) Kung Fu Panda. Kung Fu Panda wasn’t just an achievement of technical wizardry, with some of the most life-like CGI creatures and environments yet…it was a simple, elegant, moving story that doled out little heaps of wisdom and morals to the kiddies as well, with the simplest possibly being that it’s not right for someone to pick on another just because they’re different.

Taking place in an ancient Chinese realm called the Valley of Peace, Kung Fu Panda gives us the silver screen’s unlikeliest hero in a good long while: Po (voice of Jack Black), a panda with a good heart and dream-filled intentions. An ardent fan of martial arts masters The Furious Five—Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen)–Po dreams of fighting alongside his idols. He gets his chance when a vision by elder master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) helps to elect Po to take up the mantle of the fabled Dragon Warrior, the only one who has been foretold to be able to stop a reign of terror that will be instigated by the vengeful snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane). This course of action by Oogway doesn’t sit well with the Five’s own teacher, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who attempts to get Po to quit, until he realizes the best way to deal with a conventional threat is to go with an…unconventional solution.

5) Changeling. Yet another great film that virtually no one saw, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling isn’t just another film “based on a true story”…it is a true story, and one of the most shocking missing child cases that almost no one had ever heard of.

Written by J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, Changeling tells the real-life story–without clever Hollywood alterations–of Christine Collins, a phone bank  manager whose son inexplicably goes missing one day. After a five month search, the police bring her a boy whom they claim is hers, and coerce her into initially going along with the lie, in order to show the public the department does some good. When Collins begins to reject the child and attempts to search for her real son, she is declared insane by the police chief and forcibly dragged to an asylum. Only with the aid of a Presbyterian reverend (John Malkovich in a stirring performance) and a powerful attorney moved by her plight (Geoffrey Pierson, excellently cast) can Christine Collins be set free and the truth about the LAPD and its mishandling of her son’s case be revealed.

Clint Eastwood has always had a knack for making films that manage to find an audience and resonate with them. Unfortunately, such was not the case with Changeling, a movie that by all rights should have fared better. On the plus side though, while it didn’t succeed at the box office, it was still a movie to cheer about, and one of the best films of 2008.

(I’m not saying a word about The Dark Knight. Except…no, I have moved on. Closure. But I would not have been upset had it gotten a Best Picture nomination.)

Lance also submitted a Worst 5:

1) Speed Racer. Just how bad is Speed Racer? It’s so bad, that while reviewing the films I’d reported on for this list, I had actually blocked Speed Racer out of my mind! Yes, I hated this film–a garish CGI nightmare of flash-over-substance storytelling–so much that I deliberately forced myself to forget that I had even seen it.

Filmed in patented Wachowski VomitVision, the tale is set somewhere in the future, in an unnamed city where Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), a driving phenomenon, lives for nothing but the race and the thrill of victory. He’s being courted by a mega-corporation to race for them, all the while trying to find out what really happened to his departed brother Rex and whether the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who seems to have the inside dope on the syndicate that supposedly killed Rex, can be trusted.

The film is a horrific blend of CGI and fake sets, with barely two feet of anything remotely concrete or real in any scene. This has the unsettling effect of causing good actors such as John Goodman, Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon to turn in abominable performances, as none of them know exactly where to look at any one time, in order to project their belief in Speed’s world outward to the audience. And since audiences couldn’t connect with either the actors or the nearly incomprehensible story itself–is it a kids’ film? Is it a thriller? Is it a movie intended for grownups?–Speed Racer crashed and burned at the box office. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not at all.

2) The Spirit. It’s not fair that in the age of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, which have elevated the genre of comic book movie adaptations to a new level of mainstream appreciation, that a film like The Spirit can even exist, to virtually wipe out all good graces bestowed by those two films.

The Spirit–written and directed by comic writer/artist Frank Miller–is the Anti-Dark Knight. It’s the stain on Iron Man’s metal drawers. It’s a film that’s almost worse than Halle Berry’s Catwoman, if such a thing could even be possible. Taking place in Central City, The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is a former police rookie returned from the dead on a mission of vengeance to hunt down and stop the criminal mastermind known as the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), before he can find and drink the blood of Heracles, and thus become an immortal. Along the way, The Spirit must fight off the siren call of Lorelei (Jaime King), the embodiment of Death, who seeks to reclaim him, and pines for his lost love Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) and her ferocious ass (which we do get to see in the buff…the ONLY good thing about this movie).

3) Doomsday. It’s actually hard to believe that not one, but two films came out this year that were worse than this aborted tale which is something of a wannabe Mad Max, post-apocalyptic, Dawn of the Dead/Resident Evil ripoff. The film, centering around the efforts of a small tactical group led by wannabe Kate Beckinsale, Rhona Mitra (who just happened to star in Skinwalkers, one of the losers on my Best & Worst list from last year), as they attempt to bring a cure for the dreaded Reaper Virus back to one of the only surviving barricaded British cities to survive the early 21st Century plague, steals liberally from nearly every big name sci-fi/action/horror/thriller film of the past two decades. Escape from New York, Star Wars, Underworld, Aliens, Robin Hood…they’re all represented here, only in the worst way possible.

The slipshod production value, the blaring rock soundtrack, and abominable performances from respected thesps such as Malcolm McDowell and Bob Hoskins, places Doomsday on a lopsided pedestal with the collected works of Uwe Boll. I’m actually surprised Boll’s name didn’t turn up in the credits as a co-producer of this crapfest, which makes having your teeth pulled out with pliers, a la Oldboy, seem preferable.

4) Wanted. Based on the comic book, Wanted follows the path of small-time loser Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) from geek to super-freak as he comes under the tutelage of Sloan (Morgan Freeman), Fox (Angelina Jolie) and their cabal of assassins who possess unique abilities such as heightening their blood rate and adrenaline flow to be able to move faster than ordinary humans, and “curve” bullets so that they can curve around objects in their path and still hit their intended targets. Their primary method of training poor Wes? Humiliating and beating the living crap out of him every time he makes a mistake.

Aside from the fact that it’s completely unbelievable that anyone like Angelina Jolie’s Fox would ever be attracted in the slightest to a milquetoast like Wesley–in this reality or in any parallel world–the movie doesn’t adhere to its own internal logic. The assassins’ creed is “Kill one, save a thousand”, yet halfway through the film Wesley and another hitman fight to the death aboard a train carrying hundreds of innocent passengers, and Wesley risks his life to save his opponent (who turns out to be his father), and allows the passengers to take their ride to a last stop in hell, as the train plummets into a gorge! Way to go, hero!

The final act extends the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, and allows whatever sanity remains to follow that train right down into the pit of inanity. I did say above that just because a film makes a lot of money, that doesn’t make it the best…and Wanted is proof positive of that.

5) Meet Dave. Meet Dave will have you questioning everything you know about Eddie Murphy, and chief among these brain ticklers will be the question: Was Eddie Murphy ever really funny? That is just how pathetically unfunny this film–about a miniature alien crew coming to Earth in a human-sized space-ship in order to find water to save their dying world–truly is.

The cast is terrible, with the exception of Gabrielle Union; the storyline is bereft of any original ideas, the effects are sub-par, and the film also manages to be horribly offensive to homosexuals with a performance by Pat Kilbane that is so completely stereotypical, that Webster’s Dictionary should include it as an example for the word in their next edition. The most damning aspect of Meet Dave is that it’s yet another wasted opportunity for Eddie Murphy to get back on track with his fan base, and prove that he’s still The Man after all these years.

Unfortunately, Eddie isn’t The Man anymore…after Meet Dave, he’s just some punk going face-first down the ladder of success.

(I’m glad to know someone with the guts to say he saw Meet Dave. Some of my cinematic dumpster dives: Funny Games, The Happening, Mother of Tears, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, My Blueberry Nights, and 10,000 B.C.)

Scott Malchus, who questioned whether he had actually seen 10 quality movies, was short and sweet in his picks:

1) The Dark Knight

2) Milk

3) Role Models

4) Kung Fu Panda

5) Iron Man

6) The Wrestler

7) Wall-E

8) Changeling

(How did The Wrestler and Wall-E place exactly the same on our lists?)

I like Zack Dennis’ answer: “Since I only actually saw four movies that came out last year (Dark Knight, 
Wall-E, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Iron Man), here’s a list of the top 10 movies that I *wish* I had seen last year.” Here they are:

1) Let the Right One In

2) The Wrestler

3) Slumdog Millionaire

4) Forgetting Sarah Marshall

5) Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

6) Hellboy II: The Golden Army

7) The Class

8) Burn After Reading

9) Towelhead

10) The Counterfeiters

Hmmm…I may have to compile one just like it to help keep up, though I have a whole slew of those bring-your-baby matinees planned. (The Reader should be perfect for one of those.) Feel free to add your picks in our common cause of cinematic quality control.

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.




  • Dusty

    Hey Bob,
    I'm so glad you dug 'Chop Shop.' Be sure to check out Bahrani's latest film 'Goodbye Solo' when it opens in theaters on March 27th. Roger Ebert calls it “a force of nature” and The New York Times' A.O. Scott says it has “an uncanny ability to enlarge your perception of the world.” You can check out the trailer and theater listings at http://www.goodbyesolomovie.com.

  • Dusty

    Hey Bob,
    I'm so glad you dug 'Chop Shop.' Be sure to check out Bahrani's latest film 'Goodbye Solo' when it opens in theaters on March 27th. Roger Ebert calls it “a force of nature” and The New York Times' A.O. Scott says it has “an uncanny ability to enlarge your perception of the world.” You can check out the trailer and theater listings at http://www.goodbyesolomovie.com.

  • Dusty

    Hey Bob,
    I'm so glad you dug 'Chop Shop.' Be sure to check out Bahrani's latest film 'Goodbye Solo' when it opens in theaters on March 27th. Roger Ebert calls it “a force of nature” and The New York Times' A.O. Scott says it has “an uncanny ability to enlarge your perception of the world.” You can check out the trailer and theater listings at http://www.goodbyesolomovie.com.

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