Wall E – This isn’t even close to the best Pixar movie there’s ever been, and none of those have ever made it to number one, so I guess this year didn’t wind up being as good for movies as it felt like it was at the time. But it represents that feeling very well. Just as the movies of 2008, if taken as a whole, hover in the area around Very Good, never transcending into Great, but never dipping into Fair for any length of time either. Wall E is the pinnacle of that sentiment. It’s never very funny, but it has you smiling most of the time. It’s never terribly sad or affecting, but it will have you on the verge of tears for most of it too.
Some people are put off by what they describe as an overt environmental agenda. I guess they would rather their children learn another syrupy lesson about how they should be themselves and everyone will love them anyway. Oh, hey, this has that too, only conveyed by robots that can barely say their own names, never mind spout derivative neutral nonsense.
Appaloosa – Seems naïve now, but coming out of this I didn’t have any doubt that Ed Harris was going to get nominated for at least one Oscar. And as many as four. But I guess the award opportunity for Westerns has forever been closed.
While in no way does Appaloosa reinvent or even elevate the genre, it’s perfectly executed within its own constraints, a feat that is hardly ever recognized for the achievement that it is.
Let The Right One In – There’s a moment somewhere in the middle where two girls discover a body under the ice. There’s not a lot to it, really. They don’t show the body, there’s no screaming, one girl just points to it. And maybe it’s what leads into it (the girls bicker about where to pee) or how it’s shot or just that the one that points has a giant mitten on when she does it, but you don’t know whether you’re supposed to be laughing or crying. And probably, you’re doing both.
That is the precipice you’re placed on for the entirety of this movie.
Wendy And Lucy – About forty minutes in, this movie ends. That’s what it seems like anyway. I mean, it’s not that long anyway, but when the credits come up you’ll think you just paid full price to watch a short. It goes by that fast. And so does the shift Michelle Williams’ Wendy goes through at the end. And in a movie that is entirely carried by one performance, it’s odd that so much of it would hinge on one moment.
Obviously, that’s not to say she isn’t incredible for the rest of it, of course. This movie couldn’t sustain itself if she weren’t. Because really, not much happens. But you’ll be so immersed in Wendy that you feel every moment as she does, even if she never lets you in on exactly why.
Iron Man – Never has such a gigantic event movie been so saturated with fantastic tiny moments. Most of that is due to Robert Downey, Jr.’s ridiculously intricate portrayal of Tony Stark, of course, but it isn’t limited to that. And it isn’t limited to those small moments either. It has everything it’s expected to have as well. It’s the movie that can do anything, really. The action doesn’t have to be violent to be exciting (although it embraces that tact just as deftly.) It doesn’t have to be overly stylized to have a style. It doesn’t have to step outside itself to be cool. It doesn’t have to get political to take a stand. It doesn’t have to demean itself to be funny. And best of all, when two giant robot(ic enhanced human)s fight each other at the end, you can tell what’s going on. I used to think it was missing at least one action sequence, but now I see how stupid that is. Usually, a great ending can overcome a lackluster beginning, but here is the first example of the reverse. Which isn’t even fair because the ending isn’t bad by any stretch, it just doesn’t make sense that the thing that glancingly destroys Obediah’s suit doesn’t destroy Tony’s even though he says it will. And then of course, he tells everyone he’s Iron Man and you forget all about such trivialities and then Nick Fury tells him he doesn’t know how big the universe he just stepped into is and you forget about everything else.
The Visitor – After you’ve seen The Visitor, when you realize you’re not itching to go out and protest some non-descript detention center you never knew was around the corner, you‘ll maybe think it failed. Because looking at it from a distance, it seems as though maybe that’s what it was after. Like it was trying to teach us all a lesson about the world and the country we’ve chosen to make for ourselves. And maybe you’ll need to see it again to realize that it doesn’t want that all. And that there’s quite enough for you to feel without all that posturing.
Because it’s doubtful even Walter (Richard Jenkins) is out protesting right now, even after having lived through all of that. Not because everything he learned, both about his world and his country and about himself, has worn off, but because it was a very specific experience. And that’s maybe the most amazing thing about The Visitor. Because you’ve seen this story before. Every element of it. But the way it is presented, it makes you feel as it never happened to anyone else.
Drillbit Taylor – Granted, My Bodyguard was one of those movies I watched constantly when I was little, so I was probably predisposed to enjoy this. But that almost sounds passive. Besides which, despite the Adam Baldwin cameo and the obvious story elements, this does not feel anything like the original. And at first, that difference is off putting. It’s too much a comedy of this time, where no danger is really real, even if it’s kid danger, and things are so much… bigger (is the only way to describe it) than they ought to be. And while that turns out to (mostly) be true, it never detracts from the rest of it.
Of course Owen Wilson is funny. But whereas his crookedness can be off-putting in otherwise mainstream movies, it works perfectly here. He should seem off. His charm shouldn’t work on us. But it should work on the kids, and it does. The adult world is a little too far into the ridiculous, but whenever it comes in contact with the thrust of the story, it succumbs to its dominance instead of insisting on an injection of its cloyingness. And best of all, when these kids take their stand, there isn’t anybody you’re going to root for more.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall – As the Apatow tree grows ever larger, you would think it would become less and less able to sustain itself. But even as the trunk suffers, the branches seem to be flourishing. There seems to be an innate ability in these offshoots to tread the beaten (and plowed and paved) path comedies have taken recently without losing me to the groans and sighs that generally accompany them, and yet venture just far enough off without losing everyone who has made that path so viable.
It helps that most of these movies are full of appearances by effortlessly funny people (in this case: Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Jack McBrayer, Bill Hader and apparently, William Baldwin), but of course it takes a lot more. There are great performances, even surprising ones from people you didn’t otherwise expect them from (Mila Kunis) or didn’t know at all (Russell Brand) but again, that alone isn’t enough. There’s a painful realness to the romantic half of this romantic comedy that resonates more deeply than it probably could if it didn’t have that other half. And even though (writer/star) Jason Segel most likely learned that from Woody Allen and Albert Brooks than anything he actually lived through, seeing as how he’s been on TV most of his life, he’s somehow able to translate it almost as well as they did.
Kung Fu Panda – Remember that thing I sad about every kids movie having the message of be yourself and everyone will love you? Well, here it is again. But this time, being oneself isn’t so easy. There’re a lot of reasons not to be. Good reasons. And it’s not as if Po (Jack Black) goes all that out of his way to change his course. In fact, he’s literally thrown onto it.
Somehow, Po’s delusion that he’s finally doing what he has always supposed to have been doing, despite ubiquitous contempt, makes his eventual self-doubt much more profound than any kids’ movie should ever be. And even if that was all this movie had going for it, it might make this list. But it decided to make a bunch of incredible fight scenes without being any more ridiculous than any non-animated kung fu movie’s and to be funnier than (almost) any other non-animated comedy this year.
Happy-Go-Lucky – Like Wendy And Lucy, it’s one performance that propels this movie much further than it ought to be. Unlike, Wendy And Lucy though, things do happen and other people are involved. And considering how much further up Wendy And Lucy is, you’d assume that these things and people aren’t very good. But that isn’t the case. I suppose it’s just that Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is someone you’ve probably never seen before, whereas Michelle Williams’ Wendy is someone you already know pretty well.
But this shouldn’t be about why Happy-Go-Lucky is number 10 instead of number 3, but rather why it’s number 10 instead of not on the list. Because to be negative in any way would completely go against everything it stands for (that’s just rhetoric, it doesn’t really stand for anything, don’t get weird.)
It takes awhile to figure out that Poppy isn’t using her aggressive positivity as a façade and even longer to figure out that, though faced with the opportunity, there won’t be a time when she will allow herself to be stripped of it. It probably won’t take you as long, but it took me even longer to accept that of a movie. But even before I did, it was undeniable that Mike Leigh had constructed yet another fascinating, albeit tiny, world of inherently watchable characters.
Paranoid Park – Probably the scariest movie of the year. Makes you wish Sex Drive was the more accurate depiction of teenage life.
Son Of Rambow – You will never feel dumber for having not done anything with your life. And that is beautiful.
Hancock – If this had actually been about Will Smith mountain climbing, as I stupidly interpreted from the original poster, it probably still would have been great. But with the well thought out consequences of being (and knowing) a super hero it is as good as guaranteed.
Role Models – Hopefully, everyone has learned that a movie doesn’t have to have an alien, a curse, a ghost or a cartoony-accented lead to be the funniest of the year.
Slumdog Millionaire – It’s difficult to ignore the novel approach to telling this otherwise ridiculous story. And I have tried.