Let’s turn off our cell phones and get to the main event. “Put pants on that hedgehog!”
Until this past week, I did not have a real candidate for the worst movie of the year. Prince Caspian was terrible, certainly. A meandering mess of a movie that removed the plot, the heart, and practically everything else that was right with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in favor of a half-assed action sequel. Indiana Jones 4 was just an embarrassing follow-up, as I’ve discussed at length. And Eagle Eye was easily the stupidest movie I can recall in recent history (if entertaining). But none of these drew the kind of bile necessary to warrant the worst-movie status attained by American Dreamz or The Transporter 2. So I was stuck. And spared.
Then I saw The Tale of Despereaux. I know what you’re thinking. “Wilfred, you’re not 5 years old.” Granted. But I’m a person who has Finding Nemo listed as my favorite movie of 2003. Who’s still eagerly awaiting a Spongebob sequel. Who just this year, enjoyed Penelope, Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, and Bolt. I might not be the target audience, but I really am. And Despereaux is simply awful. It’s weird, it’s creepy, it’s not funny, it doesn’t make any sense, it’s a complete mess, the animation isn’t very good, there’s no urgency or excitement or humor or cleverness or any fucking thing else. It’s about a rat for 20 minutes and they don’t tell you why until an hour later. There’s a vegetable creature who comes to life and they never tell you why. There’s a dark turn completely out of left field. A father-daughter story shoehorned in. Some humans are shocked by talking animals; others aren’t. WHAT IS THIS? Did someone write this garbage when they were high?
Back to the show. In all honesty, there is a plethora of subcategories within the good. For starters, there’s popcorn good, with Quantum of Solace serving as the poster boy. Great action movie, zero plot, and I still can’t tell you what a quantum of solace is (other than, “something better than a Casino Royale”). Rocknrolla is another example: great, empty fun. There’s low-key good. Appaloosa, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Dramedy good. JCVD and Choke. Comedic good. Semi-Pro, Drillbit Taylor, Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Nick and Norah. And then there’s award-season-bait good. Reliably strong, but not as life-altering as Peter Travers would have you believe. Slumdog Millionaire? Good time, but light. Frost-Nixon? Great climax, but flat otherwise. Changeling? Haunting, but scattered. Milk? Well done, but sort of bland. Rachel Getting Married? Real, but narrow. Doubt? Superlative performances, but distracting directing and annoying ambiguity. And so forth. I seriously love Amy Adams though.
The Top Tier
Which takes me to the select few. I begin with Iron Man, the standard bearer for all future comic book adaptations. It’s a great popcorn movie: super-fun and incredibly polished (compare to the original X-Men or Spider-Man). Second, Role Models. Snarky, vulgar, awkward, and random, and all of it works. Exceptionally funny and smart, it’s my favorite straight comedy in a long time. Third, a great documentary, Man on Wire. Fascinating story, fantastic structure, and the perfect subject. Vastly entertaining and funny, wildly enthusiastic, the guy is a born showman. Fourth, The Wrestler. Beautiful. Incredibly sad, brutal, and genuine. It breaks your heart. And fifth, The Hammer, essentially Adam Carolla’s take on Rocky. Understated and affecting, with a cute romance, strong characters, and consistent laughs. Surprise of the year.
I’ve never seen anything quite like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The care and attention provided to every single one of its characters is unmatched. The relationships are beautifully and subtly handled; and the whole endeavor feels so incredibly authentic. There are a couple of standout scenes that took my breath away, but they are not jarring – the film is varied stylistically, yet gently so. Of course, there are elements of the supernatural, but they are woven in gently (in this respect, it takes from Forrest Gump and Big Fish, but is more down-to-earth than either of those two). While the plot of the movie is the story of a life, Benjamin Button is about love – of all sorts. And it handles love impeccably.
It’s a trendy pick, I know. And I apologize for it. But if Iron Man was a great comic book movie, The Dark Knight is simply a great movie. The opening bank robbery sequence sets the tone – it’s taut, smart, and intense as hell. The entire film is a veritable ‘holy shit.’ There’s the unsettling feeling as the Joker sits alone in his cell. The understated reciprocity between Bruce and Alfred. The rush when the Batcycle springs from the Batmobile. The shock and awe when it’s apparent the addresses were switched. The movie provides more than a match for our hero. There’s no cartoony plan of world domination (or water poisoning); even the awkward prisoner’s dilemma delves into the heart of human nature. The movie explores the line that separates good from evil, the line that makes the former susceptible and vulnerable in a way the latter never can be. This is why Dent’s transformation is so central and so tragic. Everything about The Dark Knight feels so real, and that’s what makes it so good. A thrilling, transcendent, even insightful Batman movie. My favorite of 2008.