Looking back on the year in film that was 2008, I’m left with but one question for Hollywood: “Why So Serious?”
I wish I could say it was the best of times, but mostly it was the worst of times. Still even in the worst of times, there are plenty of alcoves to hide treasures. As the world financial markets crumbled, a great depression engulfed the multiplexes from the darkest of comedies (all those alcoves In Bruges) to the darkest of popcorn flicks (The Dark Knight) to the saddest, coldest of Decembers. 2008 produced not only some of the worst films I have ever seen (Be Kind Rewind, The Day the Earth Stood Still), but also some of the most depressing (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Revolutionary Road).
Chopin’s Nocturne seemed ever so fitting a theme for this past year.
Overall 2008 was a stifling and mediocre year for films. There was no There Will Be Blood…no Atonement…not even a Juno. More big-name, big budget, big wastes of time came down the pike than ever before. Films like Hancock, The Happening, and The Day the Earth Stood Still made me wish Hollywood had gone bankrupt along with our economy. Veteran directors returned to their old stomping grounds for better (see Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Oliver Stone’s W. or Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon) and for worse (see Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening). Few chances were taken this year, and those people who did take chances, like Tarsem with The Fall or Baz Luhrmann with Australia, did so safely by celebrating the grandiosity of film images and epic storytelling. For every enjoyable piece of trifle like the wildly imaginative Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, there was an insufferable piece of trash like The X Files: I Want to Believe. And critics seemed far too desperate to proclaim a new indie darling as mediocre films like The Visitor and Slumdog Millionaire received unwarranted praise in the wake of nothing else brewing.
But of course, even in bad years there’s quality to be found. The darkly comic and still resonating In Bruges heralded the arrival of a new talent in writer/director Martin McDonagh way back in February. The summer season witnessed a cultural zeitgeist with the most satisfying event picture of the decade in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a sequel that along with its predecessor packs the strongest one-two punch against the world’s fear of terrorism, mob rule and fascism since Fritz Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse warned pre-WWII Germany of the very same things. Meanwhile, the truly independent Tarsem dazzled us with images never before captured on film in the unfairly little seen The Fall, and those still haunted by 9/11 found catharsis in watching a French man walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers in the inventive documentary Man on Wire. And the end of year proved redemptive for old La-La Land as an orgy of prestige pictures came roaring forth in the final weeks of December. In the twelfth month at the last minute of our darkest hour, successful adaptations of stage plays (Doubt, Frost/Nixon) and literary material (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road) reminded patient audiences that Hollywood can still provide us with much to talk about.
The murky year ended on a melancholy note with the best film saved for last, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While other films staked their claim on being timely, David Fincher’s film about a man aging backwards proved that nothing is timeless. These bad times, too, shall pass, and in what may prove to be ironic in the future, so might the film’s favor.
The Year in Pictures (2008):