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).
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):
So schedule a reduction, Golden Globes. Au revoir, Oscars. D. H. Schleicher presents the only awards that matter…to him:
The 3rd Annual Davies:
Awarding Excellence and Idiocy in Film for the Year 2008.
The Top Ten Films of 2008:
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- In Bruges
- The Dark Knight
- Man on Wire
- Revolutionary Road
- The Fall
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Picture: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Director: David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Actor: Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon
Best Actress: Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road
Best Supporting Actor: Ralph Fiennes for In Bruges and The Duchess
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Reading of Dramatic Lines: Meryl Steep’s tete-a-tete with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt concerning her phone call to his previous parish.
Best Dramatic Reading of Comedic Lines: John C. Reilly telling Will Ferrell his singing voice “sounds like Fergie mixed with Jesus” in Step Brothers
Best Original Screenplay: Martin McDonagh for In Bruges
Best Adapted Screenplay: Eric Roth for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Most Underrated Film: Tarsem’s The Fall
Most Overrated Film: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire
Best Franchise Film: The Dark Knight
Worst Franchise Film: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Best Editing: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Worst Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Music Score: Carter Burwell for In Bruges
Best Cinematography: Mandy Walker for Australia
Most Depressing Film: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Most Uplifting Film: Man on Wire
Warmest Film: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Coldest Film: Doubt
Funniest Film: Step Brothers
Most Painfully Unfunny Film That Should’ve Been Funny: Be Kind Rewind
Funniest Film That Was Meant To Be Serious: The Happening
Movie Trend I Thoroughly Enjoyed: Movies celebrating movies and storytelling (Son of Rambow, The Fall, Australia and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Movie Trend I Completely Ignored: Box-office hits targeting young girls (High School Musical 3, Twilight) and their moms (Mamma Mia! and Sex & the City).
Worst Picture: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Results from past Davies Awards can be found by clicking below:
The 2nd Annual Davies Awards in Film
The 1st Annual Davies Awards in Film
We encourage feedback and suggestions for categories next year.
Reviews for many of the films mentioned here can be found under the “Movie Reviews” category.
All of my reviews of this year’s winners, as well as many other insightful critiques, can be found archived on the Internet Movie Database:
IMDB Archived Reviews by D. H. Schleicher
Written by David H. Schleicher
You’re a little harder on the year in film than I would be, but your top 10 and mine share four films — Australia, In Bruges, the Dark Knight and Revolutionary Road. I find even 40 percent agreement can be pretty tough given the hundreds of pictures that come out in any given year.
Forrest, wasn’t Frost/Nixon in your top ten as well? I agree with the agreement, especially in such a disagreeable year.
Perhaps I was a bit harsh…looking back, 2006 (with The Departed and The Painted Veil being the most memorable) was a very similar year in terms of quality. I think in 2008 I accidentally saw more bad films than usual, whereas in the past I was more selective and just didn’t see all the bad films. Still, both 2006 and 2008 pale in comparison to 2007 where a handful of very special films blew me away and still have me thinking of them (There Will Be Blood, Atonement) –DHS
“Frost/Nixon” wasn’t in my top 10, but I liked it a lot. I think I listed it as a runner up. And enough of us in the Las Vegas Film Critics Society at least liked it to let it take the top spot in our awards.
I also found “Doubt” very compelling. The only movies that I wasn’t crazy about on your list are “Benjamin Button” (oddly enough, your No. 1) and “The Fall.”
I really liked “The Fall” visually, but the story just didn’t grip me. “Benjamin Button” I liked and would give a favorable review, but I found the pacing a bit slow. But that’s just me. It’s certainly a very, very well made film. Fincher is a great director by all accounts.
Forrest, I just re-watched The Fall the other day. The story certainly doesn’t hold up very well, and the visuals are meant to be enjoyed on the big screen. But that’s just the kind of year it was. I’m not sure how Benjamin Button will hold up on second viewing, but as an overall package I think it was the year’s most accomplished effort. In another year or so In Bruges might be the only film on the list I continue to revisit as I’ve seen it four times already and find something new to appreciate every time. –DHS
Very happy you are an ATONEMENT fan David! Very fine list here, even if some of my own choices are different. I have warmed up to BUTTON and it will make my Top 10 too. I guess the only real issue I would have was the statement you made in your roiund-up, dismissing THE VISITOR. This deeply-moving and superbly written and acted film (Richard Jenkins is extraordinary) is my own #2 of the year. I do applaud your love for IN BRUGES, even though it will narrowly miss my list.
My own list:
2. The Visitor
3. The Last Mistress
4. The Pool
5. The Reader
6. Slumdog Millionaire
7. My Blueberry Nights
8. The Dutchess of Langlaise
9. Synchedoche, New york
10. Decision still to be made between THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, DEAR ZACHARY or BENJAMIN BUTTON.
Going back to your own list I applaud your boldness in including AUSTRALIA, which I agree was better than the reviews. I like all your choices to vaying degrees. certainly MAN ON WIRE is a great doc.
Of the actors, I again mention Jenkins and also Hanna Schygulla, a Fassbinder luminary who is one of the world’s great actresses. She was tops in supporting actress in EDGE OF HEAVEN.
Beautiful work here david.
Sam, thanks as always. Richard Jenkins was very good in The Visitor, I just didn’t care for the way the film handled its politics and how its overt message took away from the character drama. Interesting you chose Wall-E as number one considering the rest of the list. There’s something about the anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects that unnerves me, and I’ve never cared for robots, but many have extolled the wonders of Wall-E to me and I will be sure to rent it now. Many of the films you list are at the top of my “to see” as a great number of them were even too obscure for my local art-houses sadly. The Pool and The Last Mistress look especially interesting. –DHS
It seems, with each passing year, the number of movies I see theatrically declines. Unless ticket prices come down (which I doubt they will—I only forsee them rising higher and higher), I may end up not even going all together.
That being said, to me, the most visually stunning movie I saw in the theater all year was “WALL-E.” It may not be up your alley, but I’d say it’s worth a rental. So much is done with so little in that film and the visuals were breathtaking to see on screen. The story had tons of heart too. Interesting, considering that the main characters are robots.
“Dark Knight” is still tops for me, though.
Chris, amidst all the hubbub from many reputable sources including yourself and Sam above, I think I will give Wall-E a chance. –DHS
You may be right about “In Bruges” standing the test of time better than most pictures. It really is well written. That said, I generally try to populate my lists with films that will play time and again.
I think “Australia” has a classic feel that will make it work even years from now. Of course, that was part of the point. I also loved “Changeling” and “Revolutionary Road,” which I think will hold up.
I third Chris and Sam’s comments about “WALL-E.” It didn’t make my top 10, but it is very, very good. And, since you like movies that pay homage to the art of filmmaking, I think you will enjoy the fact that it is essentially a silent movie.
Forrest, as a writer I tend to think the films that are well written (Revolutionary Road and In Bruges) hold up much better over time. In Bruges also has a cultish appeal with all the great dialog people will want to quote years from now. I agree about Australia (though that wasn’t terribly well written)…but it has a “timeless” look and feel to it that should bode well over the decades. It seems like one of those films people will write about twenty years from now saying, “When it was first released reviews were mixed, many critics hated it, and it was considered a disappointment at the box office, but now it’s widely appreciated and considered a classic.” –DHS
Oh my, I have so many films to catch up on! I like how you give your own awards 🙂
Looking back on 2008, it seems like everyone was taking a break from making meaningful or beautiful films and decided to go with big blockbusters and other franchise movies. I agree with a lot of what you say, and I wonder if filmmakers were intimidated by last year’s There Will Be Blood or No Country, or if they were trying to join the hype and piggyback on The Dark Knight audience in some way.
The sudden rush to release films in December was bizarre and a tad overwhelming…and yet, not many of them are even that great to close of the year. I am still a Benjamin Button advocate, and I would consider many films to be better than Slumdog, even though they might not have been that great without something as over-rated as Slumdog to compare it to.
I agree with you that In Bruges was a great film, probably one of my favorites, and sadly underrated. Perhaps many films this year were overanticipated, causing them to be overrated, and consequently leaving the better films to be underrated and unseen.
Sorry for the rambling……good list though!
Kuro, I think you may be right about the intimidation and over-anticipated factor in 2008. I fear it will continue in 2009 and there won’t be many chances taken. –DHS
It’s funny to look back on these – in hindsight…In Bruges continues to age well and was most assuredly the film of the year. However, Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven (which may have technically been a 2007 release) would have been a great contender as well.