A Few Great Encounters: 2008 Cinema in Review

I was browsing through my Facebook notes and I found my write-up on the best and worst films of 2008, so I decided to take that, update it, and post it here. It set up in the same way as my 2009 in Review write up. I might go back and do the same fore every year of the past decade, but I’m not 100% sure right now.

For most people, 2008 was one of the weakest year of the past decade. I can see why they think that, following one of the best years of the decade, but it truly wasn’t’ that bad, especially since my number one movie of this year is much better that most of 2007 and 2009’s (also a very strong year) output. But if you base it on how many great movies there were, then yes, it was a weak year. But still there were a few worth mentioning.

For starters, there is The Dark Knight. It came and took the world by storm when many thought it barely beat the gross of its predecessor, Batman Begins. But that wasn’t the only great superhero movie. Iron Man, while not as epic and amazing as the Batman movie, was still an entertaining ride anchored by a great Robert Downey, Jr. in his comeback year.

There were also quite a few amazing documentaries that made it into the mainstream. Young@Heart was a heartwarming story that taught us that no matter how old we are, we can still do just about everything. Werner Herzog and his voice once again amazed us with Encounters at the End of the World. We also got got a look into the fascinating life of Philip Petite with Man on Wire. And Errol Morris took us into the Abu Ghraib scandal with Standard Operating Procedure by talking with the people that were involved in it.

Besides these, there were a few more great movies, but the rest of the year was filled with movies ranging in quality from very good to mediocre and down right offensive (se my pick for the worst film of the year, and decade).

Here is the year in review:

The Also-Rans

My Blueberry Nights Directed by Wong Kar Wai. I wasn’t expecting much from it based on the bad reviews it got. It does have flaws but when I sat there and watched it I could not take my eyes off the screen. It is so beautiful, plus you actually care about the characters

Young@Heart Directed by Stephen Walker. A Heart warming and sometimes sad documentary about a choir made up of older people who sing rock music. It made want to be as energetic as the people when I reach their age.

Man on Wire Directed by James Marsh. One of the most well-crafted documentaries I have ever seen. The way Petit and co. tell their stories along with the home videos and dramatizations makes you cheer and root for them, even though you already know how it ends.

Kit Kittredge- An American Girl Directed by Patricia Rozema. One of the rare movies that do not dumb down kids, adults (except the criminals), or the situations they go through, as well as being expertly crafted. Abigail breslin continues to show that she is one of the best young performers out there.

Blindness Directed by Fernando Mereilles. While the screenplay lacks the passion and thrill of the Jose Saramago novel, Mereilles and a talented cast, including Julianne Moore in the best female performance of the year, are able to elevate the quality of the movie and make the “moral blindness is worse than physical blindness” moral stick with you days after you watch it.

Changeling Directed by Clint Eastwood. A beautifully shot movie about fighting those who think are above the law and fighting for what’s yours, anchored by a great performancy by Angelina Jolie

Frozen River Directed by Courtney Hunt. Anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance by Melissa Leo and a fine supporting performance by Misty Upham, this movie is a smart and realistic thriller that reveals the hardships that a single mother must go through to take care of her family.

City of Ember Directed by Gil Kenan. Although sold as a kiddie adventure, it is smarted and deeper than the commercials made it out to be. Saoirse Ronan continues to become one of the best young actresses out there while Gil Kenan continues to show he is a director to watch. 

Slumdog Millionaire Directed by Danny Boyle. Entertaining and energetic story set in India about a boy’s destiny. Danny Boyle finally got the recognition he deserved with this.

Honorable Mentions

Speed RacerDirected by the Wachowskis. A visual masterpiece, with an entertaining story, and action that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The Spiderwick Chronicles Directed by Mark Waters. Although it suffers from the clichés of most fantasy movies, a strong literary source, visual effects and performances make it better than other Harry Potter wanna-bes (I’m looking at you Prince Caspian)

Cloverfield Directed by Matt Reeves. It achieved more than other blockbusters on a much smaller budget. While you might not feel for the characters, one cannot deny the excitement we felt during the attacks.

The Visitor Directed by Thomas McCarthy. A charming, but honest look at the life of both lonely people and illegal immigrants. Richard Jenkins gives a great performance as the mans who finds a couple of immigrants living in an apartment he owns but hasn’t visited in a long time. All throughout you hope there can be a happy ending, but as time passes you realized that the best thing we’re going to get is a bittersweet ending, but it works. Also features a standout performance from Hiam Abass.

Standard Operating Procedure Directed by Eroll Morris. The most disturbing film of the year. The revelations made in this documentary about the infamous photos taken in an Iraqi prison make you sick that there are people out there sick enough to carry out things like that and make you wonder why the high-ranked officials were not punished. A must watch, but be ready to be uncomfortable.

The Band’s Visit Directed by Eran Kolirin.The movie is about an Egyptian police band that gets lost in Israel and are forced to communicate in English because the Israelis and the band do not understand each other’s languages. It is funny, entertaining, and it makes you realize that you might have more things in common with other people than you might imagine.

Definitely, Maybe Directed by Adam Brooks. Finally a romantic comedy where the leading man is not some irresponsible, immature jerk, and where the women are not extremely good looking hopeless romantics that can’t get a date. Add to this a good script with a somewhat original story and good performances from everybody, especially from Isla Fisher, who gives the most underrated performance of the year. Studios can make as many stupid rom-coms as they want, but as long as they churn out one like these every once in a while I’ll be happy.

Tropic Thunder Directed by Ben Stiller. A good movie with funny jokes that is elevated to near greatness thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s great performance as a method actor so intense that he changes his skin color to play a role.

Encounters at the End of the World Directed by Werner Herzog. A surprisingly engaging documentary that gives us insight into what the people in Antartica do, and how important their work is to us. I especially loved the segment about the penguin walking towards his death.

Son of Rambow Directed by Garth Jennings. One of the best family movies of the decade. It thoroughly shows how important it is to have friends and the importance of family. Great performances all around but the best thing about it is that it doesn’t dumb down what it is like to be a child, that is being curious about some things and how frustrating being over protected can be.

The Duchess Directed by Saul Dibb. The story is the kind that didn’t have to be told on the screen. There are possibly more interesting stories that happened during this time period. However, the high quality production and great performances from Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes make the movie an above average movie that you’re better off watching than skipping.

Revolutionary Road Directed by Sam Mendes. A Powerful story led by two even more powerful performances. It is sometimes difficult to watch, and I would not recommend that a couple that is married or about to be watches this, at least together, but that does not take away from this perfectly crafted film.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona directed by by Woody Allen. Woody Allen script+Woody Allen direction+Scarlett Johanson+Rebecca Hall+Penelope Cruz+Javier Bardem+ a sprinkle of Patricia Clarkson+Barcelone= One sexy, exotic, and extremely enjoyable movie.

Top 10

10. In Bruges

Directed by Martin McDonagh

The trailers would have you believe that this was another Tarantino rip-off, but thankfully it was not. This movie is a dark, sometimes hilarious, but ultimately though provoking film about regret and the things that we would do to fight that feeling. Brendan Gleeson and Collin Farrell have great chemistry together, but it is the former who stands out as the fatherly figure, who like any dad, makes the ultimate sacrifice to give the ones he cares about a chance at a better life

9. The Wrestler

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Driven by Mickey Rourke’s performance and Aronofsky’s direction, this is one of the most impressive character studies that I have ever seen. It is raw and sometimes hard to watch, but you just can’t help but feel something towards The Ram and you want him to succeed, and ultimately question whether or not he made the right choices towards the end. Powerful stuff.

8. The Dark Knight

Directed by Christopher Nolan

In 2008, this movie wowed audiences unlike any movie after Titanic. It was an epic superhero movie unlike anyone had ever seen, or expected. Like Batman Begins, it is perfectly crafted and feels like a true Batman movie, but Heath Ledger’s performance, the script, and the direction makes it the superhero movie to beat (although I do like Begins more).

7. Let The Right One In

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

2008’s other vampire love story. However, it is much better than Twilight. Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, also based on a best selling novel, is about a twelve year old boy who gets bullied everyday at his school. One day, new neighbors move in next to his apartment. Later on he finds out that the girl that lives next door is a vampire. Unlike the other vampire movie, this one is not shallow. It is about two lonely people falling in love, not a moral tale about staying abstinent. The performances and technicalities are also much better than Twlight’s. Overall a very compelling movie that will stay with you for days after you watch it.

6. Australia

Directed by Baz Luhrman
So…this movie was one of the biggest box office and critical (to a certain degree) bombs of the 2008. Well, frack the critics and frack those who wasted their money washing movies like Four Christmases and Twilight. Sure this movie did not break any new ground like Luhrmann’s previous film, Moulin Rouge! but it excelled at what it was going for. It brought back the old fashioned epic with their cheesy romances, cartoonish characters, beautiful scenery, and ludicrous larger-than-life plots. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman give their best performances since Moulin Rouge and The Fountainrespectively. However, the true standouts in the movie are Mandy Walker, the cinematographer, who showed us the Outback as we have never seen it before (unless you have been there), and Brandon Walters who gives the second most natural child performances of the year as Nullah, the mixed aborigine who helps with the cattle drive and steals everyone’s heart. It may not be perfect, but I don’t expect perfect from Baz Luhrmann. I wouldn’t want his movies any other way.

5. The Fall

Directed by Tarsem

The Fall, was released independently with the help of David Fincher and Spike Jonze to poor critical reception after being shelved for two years. The main complaint was that the movie was all style and no substance. Only a few critics, like Roger Ebert, saw it for what it really was: an experimental, visual extravaganza, supported by a story we have seen a thousand times before but we never seem to get tired of. And the final result worked. We see images that we only could have thought of in our wildest dreams, which seem even better when we realize that all these places actually exists. It introduces us to places that we would have never thought existed. Also, we have a couple of great performances to accompany the beautiful images. Lee Pace continues to prove that he should be in more movies or TV (Damn you ABC!) as Roy, the charming, but troubled stunt man who just wants all his troubles to go away. Catinca Untaru, who plays Alexandria, gives what I think is the best child performance of the decade, and arguably one of the best of all time. From the moment you see her you want to say “AWWW” and as she develops a father-daughter relationship with Roy, you want him to get his act together just so that Alexandria can be happy. Even if you want to listen to the critics, you are better off seeing this than skipping it.

4. Happy-Go-Lucky

Directed by Mike Leigh

No other movie in 2008 made me feel as happy in the end as this movie. The movie is about Poppy, a woman that makes the best of every situation she’s in and tries to be happy all the time. Also, she feels it is her responsibility to make others happy. But in certain moments, you can see the sadness within her, something that could not have been achieved by any other actress than the one playing her. Sally Hawkins makes Poppy a likeable character. No other actress that I can think of could have pulled off this kind of performance, no matter how good they are. Hopefully this movie will make a star out of Hawkins. However, this would not have been possible without Mike Leigh’s amazing direction and screenplay. By the end, when you have witnessed everything that Poppy goes through and still manages to be bubbly, you realize that everything can be alright if you try hard.

3. The Class

Directed by Laurent Cantent

This is not the kind of movie that blows you away from the first frame. Rather, it is a slow-burning study that when it end you feel like you just witnessed something amazing. It tells the story of a teacher (Francois Bégaudeau) and his multi-cultural class througout one school year. We see personalities clash, power struggles, and pretty much everything you can find on a school. It might now sound impressive, but the script somehow makes it that way. It’s a beautiful movie.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Ficher

Upon hearing about this movie, I went out and read the original story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story was fantastically written, like everything else written by Fitzgerald, however it left me wondering how the story would be translated into the big screen and why David Fincher would be interested in this silly fantasy. In the end, the movie turned out to be a great drama about growing up, love, life, and death that grabs you and does not let go for days. This all thanks to Fincher’s resistance to focus on the love story when it was not needed and making it about the other themes. The players are also a great part of it. Brad Pitt sells the character of Benjamin well despite a lack of emotion. However, the movie belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). They give the movie all the emotion it needs to make the audience feel for Benjamin and want him to survive through everything he faces just to see him reunite with his momma and the love of his life.

1. WALL-E

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Pixar once again proves that it is the best studio making movies today. Who would have thought that a movie about a lonely robot that develops a personality and embarks in an adventure across the universe would be so compelling, inspirational, and yet so darn entertaining. Upon repeat viewings you find details that make you appreciate so much more. This is especially true for the references to movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and many of Chaplin’s works, which, if you have seen them, make you appreciate the work of the writers, producers, and the director. Truly a powerful and entertaining movie that will stand the test of time due to its timeless and universal themes.

The Superlatives

Best Director:
1. Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
2. David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
3. Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
4. Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
5. Andrew Stanton, WALL-E

Best Actor:
1. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
2. Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
3. Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
4. Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
5. Collin Farrell, In Bruges

Best Actress:
1. Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
2. Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
3. Kristin Scott Thomas, Il y a long temps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long)
4. Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
5. Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Best Supporting Actor
1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
2. Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
3. Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
4. Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges
5. Brandon Walters, Australia

Best Supporting Actress:
1. Alexis Zeggerman, Happy-Go-Lucky
2. Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
3. Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4. Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
5. Sophie Okonedo, The Secret Life of Bees

Best Original Screenplay:
1. Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
2. Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, WALL-E
3. Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
4. Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
5. Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor

Best Adapted Screenplay:
1. Eric Roth, The Curious case of Benjamin Button
2. John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One in
3. Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
4. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight
5. Saul Dibb, et al, The Duchess

Best Cinematography:
1. Collin Watkinson, The Fall
2. Roger Deakins, Revolutionary Road
3. Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
4. Mandy Walker, Australia
5. Eduardo Serra, Defiance

Best Costume Design:
1. Eiko Ishioka, The Fall
2. Catherine Martin, Australia
3. Lindy Hemming, The Dark Knight
4. Albert Wolsky, Revolutionary Road
5. Michael O’Connor, The Duchess

Best Art Direction:
1. Catherine Martin, Australia
2. Ged Clarke, The Fall
3. Owen Paterson, Speed Racer
4. Karen Wakefield, The Duchess
5. Nathan Crowley, The Dark Knight

Best Visual Effects:
1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Speed Racer
3. The Dark Knight
4. Iron Man
5. Cloverfield

Best Makeup:
1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Synecdoche, New York
3. The Dark Knight
4. Tropic Thunder
5. The Wrestler

Best Original Score:
1. Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, The Dark Knight
2. Thomas Newman, WALL-E
3. Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4. James Newton Howard, Defiance
5. Thomas Newman, Revolutionary Road

Best Original Song:
1. “Little Person” by Jon Brion from Synecdoche, New York
2. “Down to Earth” by Peter Gabriel from WALL-E
3. “The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen from The Wrestler
4. “O Saya” by A.R. Rahman and M.I.A. from Slumdog Millionaire
5. “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” from Hamlet 2

Best Animated Feature That is not WALL-E:
1. Kung Fu Panda
2. Bolt
3. Horton Hears a Who

Best Foreign Film:
1. Let the Right One in
2. The Band’s Visit
3. I’ve Loved You So Long

Best Documentary:
1. Young@Heart
2. Standard Operating Procedure
3. Encounters and the End of the World
4. Man on Wire

Other categories

Most Original: Encounters at the End of the World
An interesting look at the lives of researchers in Antartica

Biggest Surprise: City of Ember
Sold as a kid’s movie, it is much more thoughtful and deep than it is given credit for

Biggest Disappointment: Be Kind, Rewind
The only funny part was the montage of them making the sweded films, the rest is boring

Best Scene: The Stampede in Australia
“As Lady Ashley, the Drover, and their companions in the cattle drive rest, the bad people scare the cows which causes them to run toward the edge of a cliff. Lady Ashley and company tried to stop the cows with futile results. Only Nullah, the mixed aborigine boy was able to stop them before they fell off the cliff”

Most Overrated: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Not a bad movie in terms of quality, performances, and storytelling, but it was a little too heavy for me

Most Underrated: Speed Racer
A breakthrough in visual effects that will be considered as such in the future

Most Wasted Potential:Hancock
Making a movie about a superhero in the real world facing real consequences is a great idea. However, in this movie, the plot is paper thin, the dialogue is horrible, too comedic, and it needed a better director and story

The Worst:

#1
Miracle at St. Anna
Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee is a talented director, no doubt about it. However, this movie made me question this. How could the guy that complains about the representation of minorities in movie make a movie so full of bad stereotypes of EVERY race?! Plus, technically, it is like if any crappy director had made it. The script is horrible, FX look fake, and the score… don’t even get me started on the score. Shame on you Spike Lee!

#2
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Directed by Rob Cohen

The same as the previous two, except it has Maria Bello doing a horrible English accent, a stupid story, and huge lack of fun

#3
What Happens in Vegas
Directed by Tom Vaughan

Typical “romantic comedy” about two a-holes fighting over money and eventually fall in love. It has been done before with better results

#4
You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
Directed by Dennis Dugan

Adam Sandler can be a good actor but this makes you think otherwise. Offensive and lacks what I like to call humor. Honestly, is it funny to see old ladies wanting to get it on?

#5
21
Directed by Robert Luketic

It had the story and the cast to be a great movie. However, a weak script and mediocre directorial choices makes it a ridiculous movie.

#6
The Love Guru
Directed by Marco Schnable

Seems like Mike Myers used all the disposable jokes from his other movies and put them into this. Lots of potential, but the result was painful to watch

#7
The Other Boleyn Girl
Directed by Justin Chadwick

Saw this after having experienced the greatness of “The Tudors” so anything less than that was going to be disappointing. The production values are great, but the miscasting of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as the Boleyn girls and a weak script makes the movie worst than disappointing.

#8
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Directed by Eric Breving

Sacrifices story and production quality to wow you with the 3D, and the former two things are more important than the wow factor.

#9
Vantage Point
Directed by Pete Travis

I get it. They are trying to tell the story from many points of view, eight to be exact. We see the same situation eight times. EIGHT TIMES! And the ending is so disappointing. Simply a horrible movie.

#10
Mamma Mia!
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Had a couple of good things going for it, but because of poor directorial choices and a paper thin plot the movie fails. See Across the Universe if you want to experience a better musical based on a popular group’s music.

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2 thoughts on “A Few Great Encounters: 2008 Cinema in Review

  1. That was a good review of the year, I will be reading if you do other years in film. I thought it was interesting that you have Cruz for best supporting actress nomination but VCB is not an honorable mention or something similar. What are your thoughts on Allen’s film?

    • I loved it, but I just forgot to put it there. I’ll correct that soon.

      And I’m for sure doing write-ups for 2007, 2006, and 2005. Beyond that, it will be more work since I didn’t keep a record of the movies I watched back then, but we’ll see.

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