July 2, 2008

2008 at the Movies: Looking Back on the First Half

Wow, the months sure do slip away don't they? It's hard to believe we are already halfway through the 2008 campaign. It feels like only yesterday that I was sitting down to see Cloverfield, wondering just what we were all in store for. Wasn't it just last week that I was catching up on late 2007 releases like There Will Be Blood, The Bucket List, and El Orfanato. All of those films crossed my eye line nearly six months ago. The months in between have been littered with their fair share of potential classics and definite stinkers. Time will tell where they will all ultimately land, but in the meantime I thought now would be a good time to take a look back on the past six months and filter out the best and the worst. Without any further adieu, let's take a look at the top and bottom six films of the first six months.

Let's start with the top films. These six are easily the best films I have seen on the big screen so far this year. Each of these films have a very good chance of making it to the ultimate "Best of 2008" list at the end of the year.

Before getting to the list, I just want to toss out a few other titles that impressed me, are among the better films of the year, but did not quite make the cut:

As you can see, they cover a wide variety of genres with widely varying target audiences. All of these films are well worth spending some time with. Okay, now we can get to the top films of the first half.

Wall*E. Simply the best film to arrive on screens this year. Here is an animated film that combines adventure, romance, and social commentary into a gorgeous looking passage and told through lead characters who say, maybe, two words the entire movie. Andrew Stanton, the man behind another Pixar classic, Finding Nemo, far outdoes his earlier outing, which is no small feat.

When I sat in the theater watching the film unfold before me, I was drawn in by the childlike innocence and profound sadness that they were able to capture within Wall*E. I found it extremely easy to get caught up in his unending curiosity and desire for romance. Beyond the story, the film is a technical wonder, Pixar continues to show how they are far and away the premiere computer animation house. Going past the technical aspects, this is brave film making, trusting the audience to come along in what is essentially a silent film. What dialogue is there could just as easily been done silently. There were times I was expecting title cards to appear like in an old silent film.

Hands down, Wall*E is the best film of the first six months.

In Bruges. I remember how much I raved about this film when I saw it. Most of my friends and co-workers would stare at me blankly, as if I were crazy (well, that's pretty much most of the time). They had no idea what I was talking about, they had never heard of the film, and they would have this expression of "In what?" on their faces. Hopefully I was able to get through to at least a couple of them.

In Bruges is part comedy, part drama, part action, part travelogue, and all excellence. It is the feature film debut of playwright Martin McDonagh, and he hits it out of the park. He weaves a fascinating story that centers on a pair of Irish hit men who are sent to the city of Bruges to hide out after a hit goes wrong. What makes his story of their hiding out work so well is the way the pace is kept surging forward, not through standard cliches, but through careful character development. The further into the film we go, the more and more we learn about these men, what makes them tick, and possibly most importantly, just why they are in Bruges.

It is a fascinating story that unfolds before us, hints and clues are dropped along the way, begging to be pieced together. In Bruges is on DVD, go and give it a shot.

Iron Man. Easily one of the best superhero comic adaptations yet, right up there with Superman: The Movie, Spider-Man 2, X2, and Batman Begins. The director may not be the flashiest to work in the genre, but Jon Favreau knew what he wanted to do with the movie and succeeded. A good part of that success needs to be attributed to the genius casting of Robert Downey Jr. There is no one that could have been more perfect for the role, when you see the film you will understand why.

Iron Man is a near perfect blend of action, plot development, and character. Sure, only the lead character gets any full-fledged development, but it is more than enough. If you are looking for high flying action with plenty of humor and peril, this is for you.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall. For those of you waiting for a Judd Apatow production to creatively tank, you will need to keep waiting. This feature film screenwriting debut of actor Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother) is near perfection.

The story centers on a guy (Segel) attempting, not so successfully, to deal with being dumped by his television star (Kristen Bell). What follows is a laugh out loud comedy about dealing with separation, rediscovering one's self, and finding the strength to move on. When it arrives at its inevitable conclusion, it ends the way it is supposed to, in a fashion that you likely saw coming. What makes the film special, and places it head and shoulders above many comedies of this type, is the road it travels. It does not take your typical journey from point A to B to C, it bends, curves, and winds in other directions, directions that allow our characters to become more fully developed than one would expect. So, while the concept may seem one-note, it is much closer to an orchestral score, or at least a heart-felt pop song.

Funny Games. This movie is decidedly different in tone from the rest of the top films. This Michael Haneke written and directed film, a near shot for shot remake of his 1997 Austrian film.

Funny Games is a daring film that is an exercise in excruciating terror. It is a graphic, disturbing journey into a situation that feels almost too real. One could almost imagine a situation like this actually happening. For all I know, something like this may have already happened, and if not, I am sure someone could be contemplating such a dark deed. Scary isn't it? Michael Haneke takes us into the darkness with no chance for escape, no comic relief, no hope for salvation. It is a black hole of despair, the likes of which the big screen has not seen in some time.

The film is audacious and uncompromising in the manner with which it breaks the rules of cinema and implicates the audience and our relentless pursuit of entertainment in his demented exercise.

Cloverfield. Here is a movie that elicited a strong love it/hate it reaction from audiences and critics alike. I remember the audience I saw the film with booing once the credits started to role. I sat there in stunned silence, in awe of what I had seen and listening to the great piece of music from compose Michael Giacchino entitled "Roar."

Cloverfield is a fantastic monster movie that isn't a monster movie. Sure, it has a monster, but we are embedded with the small band of New Yorkers attempting to survive, stick together, and rescue one of their own. We are forced into the awkward perspective of a handheld camera that never really points where we want it to point. It is an interesting look that really worked for me.

This is a film that works on a few levels, there is the level of emotional response to their flight, there is the feeling of being one of the group, and then there is the desire to figure out what the monster is and where it came from. In other words, there is a lot that you can take away from this film, adding to its replay value.

That wraps up the best of the first half, all films that you should check out, some are still in theaters, while others ore on DVD, get out there and start watching!

Before you go and rush off, there are a few films that you need to be aware of so that they can be avoided (unless you are like me and like to watch anything and everything you can). This should go much quicker.

Strange Wilderness. Perhaps you need to be under some herbal influence to enjoy this movie, for I cannot see anyone sober enjoying this outside of the occasional giggle. It is a poor production all around with little in the way of redeeming value. I was happy when the credits rolled and so will you be, should you choose to be parted from your money.

Prom Night. Dull, bland, uninspired, dumb, and unnecessary: All these words accurately describe Prom Night. There are a lot more that can be used, but they are not very nice. I am not one to write off remakes as automatically unnecessary or guaranteed to be bad, but this one turned out to be both. There is no reason for it to exist other than to dupe those who choose to see it out of their ticket money. I cannot think of a way to defend the film, but I guess it is not really my place now that they already have my money. It is poorly written and executed.

One Missed Call. The script, acting, direction, and scares are all second rate, if not worse. This was not a good way to start the new year. If you want to make any actual sense of the movie, I am afraid you are going to have to write it yourself. It seems that the only thing screenwriter Andrew Klavan was doing was getting the characters from one scene to the next. It does not appear that he had any grasp of what the story was or any desire to give it any life. Seriously, with some of the things that go on in this movie, no one takes the time to actually talk about what is going on. Everyone just sleepwalks through their roles, spouting dialogue that has nothing to do with anything and explains nothing.

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. The infamous Uwe Boll has struck again. He has unleashed his latest creation. Let me begin by saying that if you have a love for all things that are good about the movies, do not see this. However, if you derive perverse pleasure from bad films, or cannot help yourself when it comes to a Boll film, or if you just happen to like Mystery Science Theater 3000, by all means, go and spend your hard earned money on this bloated "epic." As I sat in the theater, I could not help but shake my head and roll my eyes (even if it was only for my personal benefit) as the nonsensical story played out in front of me.

The Love Guru. I like Mike Myers, I really do, but this is not a good movie. My initial reaction to the trailer was along the lines of "What was that? That looks terrible!" Those thoughts were followed by "Well, maybe the film will be better, I do like Myers." Now that I have seen the movie, my initial reaction to the trailer appears to be the most appropriate. This is a sad film that offers little in the way of genuine comedy. There were a couple of minor chuckles, primarily involving supporting cast members, and one moment of out loud laughter, but that did not occur until the outtake in the credits. It is not a good sign when the trailers (for Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder) are funnier than the feature.

Semi-Pro. Will Ferrell fails to deliver the goods in his latest sports spoof. Pointing to the reason for this film's failure is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There was a certain alignment of the planets, increased sunspot activity, a bend in the space/time continuum, any number of things conspiring in perfect union to bring this film down. What should have been a laugh riot turned out to be about as much fun as sitting through Cat in the Hat again (yes, I had the misfortune of seeing that as well). Ferrell's spotty filmography takes a hit here, meaning his next one is likely to be funny. I hope.

Well, that about wraps up my look at the best and worst films of the first half of 2008. Here's hoping for a whole mess of good films in the second half! (I personally cannot wait for The Dark Knight)


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