Year in Review – 2008: It… It… It… Had Its Moments

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Wow, 2007 was an amazing year for entertainment, wasn’t it?! So it was inevitable that 2008 was going to disappoint. Yeah, there were some bright spots, but 3/4s of the way through the year, I worried whether or not there would even BE TEN MOVIES I LIKED, let alone say they would be in my top ten. The crop of prestige films at the end of the year also largely failed to impress. When I’m rooting for Frost/Nixon at the Oscars, things are grim, folks. But hey, when you get down to it, there were some good things in 2008, too! A few really good things! In the mainstream, even!!! Let’s get to it~

Top Ten Movies

10. Let the Right One In

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a vampire that looks like a little girl moves into a quiet Swedish town and befriends the troubled boy next door. The boy starts to develop a tender romance with the vampiress even while dead bodies drained of their blood pile up all around him. And she just may be the answer to his problems with his school’s sociopathic bullies. What’s that? You haven’t heard that one before? Maybe that’s why the movie’s so good. It’s a breath of fresh conceptual air that’s aided by the fact that, hey, it’s a pretty well-done movie. And the little kid bullies are surprisingly more frightening and creepy than the vampire. The chilly Swedish setting is a perfect match for a chilly undead body. Just… be sure you invite her in. D:

9. The Fall

After years of production that were almost more interesting than the movie itself (the director Tarsem had to piggyback filming the movie onto the commercial shoots that actually made him money; an elaborate ruse to make everyone think the lead actor was really paraplegic), The Fall finally came to theaters. Where nobody watched it. Which is a shame, since if there’s any reason to see the movie, it’s to watch the stunning cinematography. It’s one of the most gorgeously-filmed movies I’ve ever seen, with outlandish costumes, exotic locations and at least one thing that will make you ask, “How the hell did he do that?” Guaranteed. The fact that there’s a story (featuring a disabled stuntman, a trusting little girl, and the adventures of Charles Darwin and his monkey companion) almost comes second to the visual splendor heaped upon this film. Watch this movie on the biggest screen with the highest definition that you possibly can.

8. Cloverfield

When something is marketed as heavily as Cloverfield was with the whole “What could it possibly be?!” mystique behind it, it’s almost begging you to be disappointed. But Cloverfield definitely delivered a thrilling, even heartfelt experience. It’s clear that this was a love letter to monster movies of yore (Gojiraaaa!!) as much as it was an exhilarating vision of where monster movies can go from here. Yeah, there’s shaky cam and some people thought the characters were too obnoxious to be “realistic,” but I take exception to that. The whole “found footage” conceit may remind people too much of The Blair Witch Project, but I thought it only helped in making me bond with the victims that were being put in such impossible straits. Too many horror movies lose sight of the fact that to make people scared, they have to make people care about the characters they’re putting in harm’s way. Well, mission accomplished, Cloverfield. I hope your theme song gets played at many more Oscar ceremonies to come!

7. Funny Games

There are movies you watch and they slide right off of you, designed to be disposable, destined to be forgotten. Then there are movies that worm their way into your mind and stick to your gullet, their ideas festering inside you for days, weeks, even months to come. Funny Games is more in the latter category. It’s a sick, deplorable look at a couple of WASPy psychopaths torturing an upper class family with their deranged mind-games. And god, do I love it. While it seemed other viewers and critics were just revolted and turned-off by the movie’s ideology and storytelling devices, I ate it up. I think it’s a jolting, incendiary,  fourth-wall-breaking work of cruelty that more people should see than, sadly, ever will. I’m not saying they’d like it, but then again, a movie like Funny Games wasn’t made for you to like it. For me, it just seems to be a happy side effect!

6. The Wrestler

Director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) isn’t known for his sympathetic characters. And try to imagine someone less sympathetic than Mickey Rourke. Give up? I thought so. But even when the movie makes you look at Rourke’s ground-beef buttocks, the down-on-his-luck wrestler just trying to reclaim his lost fame and the love of his estranged daughter is compelling. More than that, it’s magnetic! You will cry tears for the beatings this man is willing to take, emotionally and physically. Marisa Tomei’s middle-aged stripper character drops some lines about The Passion of the Christ, and with good reason. THIS is The Passion of the Christ for the rest of us. And, dammit, Mickey deserved that Oscar. Maybe next time, Pork Lips.

5. Speed Racer

You might be looking at this and asking yourself, “Why the hell is a self-proclaimed grump putting Speed Racer in his top five?!” Because it’s easily one of the most entertaining movies put out last year. It reaffirmed my belief that popcorn movies CAN be entertaining. The candy-colored cornucopia of whirling, zooming racing action, the bizarre Wachowski touches, the overly-earnest acting… WOO!

4. The Orphanage

Again, a movie little-to-no people saw in theaters, but still one that deserves to be sought out on video. I’m usually not one for ghost stories, but this happens to have brains, scares and, surprisingly enough, heart. It’s an impressive horror movie that can have me gripping the armrests in anxiety one minute and blubbering womanly tears the next. And it’s a foreign film, so you can show it to your friends and be all snooty and cultured!

3. The Dark Knight

Oh, wow. There’s been so much ink spilled on this movie, digital or otherwise, that I’m not even sure what I can add to the discussion. You’ve heard of this movie. You’ve probably seen this movie. You probably loved this movie. Well I do, too. My dogs are HUNGRYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

2. WALL-E

waaaaaall-eeeeeee

1. Rachel Getting Married

I went into this movie with close to zero expectations. I had seen a commercial on TV for it that featured Anne Hathaway saying something snarky to her sister, so I imagined something like Ghost World but set at a wedding. Boy, I was pretty far off. Rachel Getting Married is an incredible film about a recovering addict that gets released from rehab days before her sister’s marriage. She’s the black sheep of the family, and with good reason, since she’s more of an emotional hurricane than a woman. In the short time she’s there, she manages to dredge up the family’s dark history and reopen old scars while at the same time remembering how lucky she is to have a family at all. Now, the story’s meaty, but that’s not all the movie has going for it. Apart from the heavy themes and terrific acting (you stole that Oscar, Kate!), the execution of the film is fairly unconventional. Shot more like a documentary than a fictional film, not only do you get all the grittiness of a handheld camera, but there’s also passages of the film that seem to almost set the main plot to the side and just ride the flow of a family gathering. You get to see all the goofy toasts at the practice dinner, the dancing at the reception, hell, there’s even a sequence where they challenge each other to see how many dishes they can fit in the dishwasher. Some people might roll their eyes at sequences like these and call them boring filler, but I disagree. I think this would be an very different, poorer film without them. This isn’t just a film about the literal story. It’s a film about family, and all the little candid touches they fit in work beautifully in reminding the viewer of their own. It’s like the movie’s ads said. “This isn’t your family. But this is your family.”

Unfortunately, there were some things I missed from the previous year that deserved a place on my list for 2007 that I only saw after I had made my list, partly because things reach my market so late. So I thought it only fair to at least mention them.

Movies I Left Behind in 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

There Will Be Blood

Michael Clayton

Those three definitely deserved to be on a top ten list, so I hope you all go back and check them out, too. And again, there were movies I wasn’t able to see in 2008 for one reason or another. Here are some of the movies that are missing from the list simply because I haven’t seen them yet!

Movies Still Left to See in 2008

Synecdoche, NY

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Blindness

Waltz With Bashir

Let me know how those were, ‘kay?

Top Five Video Games

5. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

The most eagerly anticipated game of 2008 (move over, Brawl) turned out to be… a pretty darn good game! With a much easier to play control system, show-stopping boss battles, clever little touches and nooks and crannies… it’s a hell of a technical achievement, and occasionally really fun, too! Then there’s all the stuff you do inbetween. If you can take everything in the cutscenes with a HUGE grain of salt, MGS4 is the most Hollywood-like video game yet released. A must-play.

4. No More Heroes

HEAD… FOR ZE GARDEN… OF MADNESS!!!!

3. Left 4 Dead

This is pretty damn shocking. Not only is a FPS on my top five, but it’s a Valve game… on the PC! But really, there shouldn’t be anyone that can’t get into this incredibly appealing online shooter. Being put into your very own zombie action-horror adventure is more than most gamers could ever ask for, but Valve delivered in spades. The special zombies are perfectly designed to change up the players’ strategies, the AI director is an evil son of a bitch that throws out zombies with an expert touch, the set pieces are fun to play through over and over again… It’s just an incredibly entertaining game that begs to be played through over and over again with three of your pals. The versus mode is an incredible value in and of itself that I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of. But the one thing that I think helps make this an experience you want to revisit are the player characters. Valve brought just the right design touch to each of them, making them all appealing, but in different ways. Magus loves to play as Louis, but I’m staunchly a Francis man. I don’t think I would’ve been drawn to this game if it wasn’t for the strong presence of character personalities. Kudos, Valve, you finally made a game I finished!

2. Persona 3 FES

Games in the Shin Megami Tensei series can be deeply rewarding, but also completely cold and unapproachable for the uninitiated gamer. I almost quit SMT: Nocturne because of its punishing style of play. And I actually DID quit Persona 2: Eternal Punishment years before when my entire party died in one turn during a random battle. But the buzz this sequel had been generating made me perk my ears and wait for this special director’s cut to get released. And boy am I glad I gave it a second shot. This game takes the concept of what a SMT game can be in a completely new, attractive direction. Instead of a minimal, sterile, austere interface, P3‘s menus are bursting with color and style. Instead of standoffish characters, you’re surrounded by NPCs you WANT to try to get to know. And the most unexpected and successful change to the formula makes you do just that: Social Links. Powering up the personas you fuse together by making friends with your party members, classmates and other assorted NPCs scattered throughout the game is surprisingly involving. I WANTED to see how the swim team captain would reconcile his injured leg with the promise he made to his ill cousin to win the big swim meet. I genuinely felt SORRY for the fat, unpopular kid who joins a cult because they told him when he dies, he’ll receive a perfect body in heaven. Although sometimes it can give you the cynical feeling of just telling people what they want to hear, it’s a perfect addition to the Persona series, considering its namesake. Yeah, you just travel through one big dungeon and the whole game is basically planning dungeon crawling and social fraternizing around a calendar which is probably what you already do in your REAL life, but hey. It works! And I hear Persona 4 is even BETTE–BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY

1. Valkyria Chronicles

If you come up to me and say that Playstation 3 has no games, I will show you my copy of this gem and promptly kick you in the balls. When you think strategy RPG, you probably think Final Fantasy Tactics. This game takes all of FFT’s rules and throws them out the window. Valkyria Chronicles is technically a strategy-RPG, but it feels more comfortable wearing the mantle of a tactical-third-person-shooter-RPG. It feels like the first REAL step out of FFT’s shadow in all the nearly 11 years since that game’s release. Action still is turn based, but the player takes all his turns at once, using alloted Commander Points to move troops around. Only they don’t move via grids, but in real 3D space. Their movement is limited by their class, giving them a preset distance they’re able to move around in before they’re stuck in place. If you move in front of an enemy troop, they’ll try to shoot at you and you will take damage. This is where the real tactics comes into play, making you find paths with cover between you and the enemy, or sneaking behind them, or planting yourself so that the enemies have to run across YOUR crossfire. And I haven’t even gotten into the tanks you can pilot! There’s just so much that Valkyria Chronicles fixes from old strategy-RPGs, and even RPGs in general! Instead of leveling up individual troops, you can level up by class of troops. You can save at any time in battles. Cutscenes are divided up into bite-sized chunks that are skippable and dump you back to the main menu so you can save inbetween them if you like. The graphics are absolutely stunning, looking like a colored sketchbook come to life. And the charm, my GOD. You can tell this was made by the team that did Skies of Arcadia, because that was another Sega RPG that oozed heartwarming charm through its every pore. The characters are so damn likable. And you can mix and match pretty much any of the several dozen troops to fit your own personality. And the troops’ individual quirks come into play during battles, such as the neat freak getting a stat drop when he gets his uniform messy. The more you use people, the more the game fills in their biography pages. It’s… This game… It’s almost too much of a good thing! Best alternate reality WWII RPG ever.

Top Five Anime

5. FLAG

I’ve gushed about it before, but to reiterate: FLAG is basically everything I want anime to return to, as an art form. It’s mature (not in the sex and violence sense), it has a unique story, and it tells it very well. Whenever anyone tells you that anime is just about lolita complexes and catgirls and slapstick, slide this puppy across the table and watch their pupils dilate.

4. Moribito

The director of Stand Alone Complex‘s follow-up series is a radical departure from the cyberpunk he’s immersed himself in for the past six years.  Based on a young adult novel, Moribito is about a wandering female bodyguard who happens to save the life of a prince one day. Brought to the palace to receive a reward, instead she’s asked to take the prince away and guard him for the rest of his life, because he has been possessed by a water spirit and their tradition says his father must kill him. So she agrees and takes the young prince along with her, avoiding all the parties that would kill him, in order to honor her commitment. Kamiyama brings his trademark precision directing skills to the table, making an Asian fantasy that’s as austere as it is compelling. The relationship between the bodyguard and the boy starts to take on genuine layers as the story progresses and the animation, as if there was any doubt, is luscious. If you enjoyed the feel of Stand Alone Complex and you don’t mind a medieval Asian fantasy backdrop, you could do a lot worse (a LOT worse) than Moribito.

3. Fantastic Children

You have not heard of Fantastic Children. I can say this with certainty because even within the diehard otaku community, this was released with nary a peep of buzz. That’s okay, though. This show isn’t trendy or flashy. It makes is living by solid storytelling and it’s all the better for it. Fantastic Children weaves an incredibly complex narrative that spans thousands of years about a group of pale children who don’t seem to age and their influence as they appear throughout history. At the same time as this central mystery is unfolding, we’re also shown the adventure of a young boy who meets a mysterious young girl looking for an unknown place from her memory that she keeps painting. Eventually, of course, the two plot lines meet each other and questions are answered. And not always in the way you’d expect them to. The real talent behind the series is in the palpable sense of atmosphere they’re able to create through simple, well-animated character designs, gorgeous backgrounds (seriously, it made me pay attention to how poor they are in other series) and haunting music. If you’re a fan of great storytelling, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not checking out this hidden gem.

2. Gurren Lagann

On the other side of the coin, no series this year has been trendier OR flashier than Gurren Lagann. The latest release from Neon Genesis Evangelion studio GAINAX, Gurren Lagann starts as a story about a timid boy and his confident mentor breaking free of their underground society, learning the humans on the surface world are being repressed by anthropomorphic baddies and using their robots to rebel… and then halfway transforms into something a lot more poignant, meaningful, epic and, well, badass. Because badass is what Gurren Lagann trades in. It will make you say, “Whoa, what I just saw was badass!” at least once. It doesn’t even know what the term “over the top” MEANS. The stakes are ludicrous, the battles jaw-dropping, the characters hot-blooded… it’s just INVIGORATING.

ROW, ROW, FIGHT THE POWER!

1. Macross Frontier

MOTTEKE!!

Top Five Disappointments

Quantum of Solace

Wow, really? After the incredible reboot that was Casino Royale? I blame almost every awful thing in this movie on the director. Does he even know how to film an action scene?! Was there a WORSE way for the movie to start out than with that stupid, unwatchable car chase? You can’t tell who’s where and what they’re doing to each other. Which, you know, is sort of crucial if you want the audience to care about what’s happening. The same could be said of basically every action scene in this goddamn movie. The geometry of the shots make no sense. Yeah, there’s some weak acting and the script could be a lot stronger, but if this douchebag could’ve shot a single action scene in a way that was watchable, it could’ve at least been decent. When you go into a James Bond movie and cringe every time action happens, you’re doing something wrong.

Be Kind, Rewind

C’mon, a new Michel Gondry pic. How could I not be excited? The premise seemed right up his alley, too: recreating blockbuster movies that we all know and love with do-it-yourself effects. The meta message of fighting slick, soulless digital media with hand-crafted, lossy analog media was totally a perfect fit, too. So where did it go wrong?! First of all, casting. Jack Black goes over the top in this film so far that I think he actually reaches orbit. I mean, he’s known for playing obnoxious (yet affable) losers, but I think they forgot to include the affable part in this one. He’s just a bumbling, borderline retarded maniac in this. And he has an incredibly bizarre subplot where he becomes magnetic and pisses electromagnetic piss. And then there’s Danny Glover. Someone should remind casting directors that it’s not 1985 anymore and Danny Glover isn’t a desirable (or good) actor. Then there was the lack of focus. The stupid plot about the city foreclosing on Mos Def’s VHS store and them trying to raise money to save it as a historical landmark is boring as hell. The stuff that attracted the audience, the “sweded” films, is only a fraction of the runtime. The hell?! Gondry is apparently taking over the long-suffering Green Hornet film. Maybe it’ll be better than this disaster since he’s not writing it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I wanted to like this. It’s an interesting concept, someone aging backwards! I even came away from the theater with dewy eyes and a sigh in my chest from the emotions it put me through. But then I began reflecting on it. And something wasn’t adding up. Had I been manipulated, both by Fincher’s plot devices and an ad campaign proclaiming this was an Important Film©? Turns out… yes, I had! An article in a newspaper I happened to see a few days later laid bare my second thoughts: This movie basically copies the arc of Forrest Gump. They even share the same screenwriter! Then the flaws were obvious to me. Characters that acted more like plot devices than real people. A protagonist that goes on a long journey but never really evolves. Schmaltzy symbolic devices like hummingbirds to symbolize the fragility and transience of life or whatever. So yeah, Benjamin Button let me down. But I still really like the theme song. :3

Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes, quit trying to recapture American Beauty. Especially if you’re going to attempt to do so with scripts that have 1/100th of the insight and humor and with characters that are so far up their own asses that I am repulsed by them.

In Bruges

I rented this expecting a breezy, clever, funny British mob movie. Instead I got a weirdly dark, lumbering, mopey film about guilt and redemption that has a few moments of gallows humor amid the gorgeous Old World cinematography. I’m not saying In Bruges is a horrible movie, but it’s definitely not the movie I wanted to see. And I don’t think it deserved the Oscar nod, either, so nyah.

Grump Factory’s Old Gay Butler from Spider-Man 3 Award

In 2007, a little movie called Spider-Man 3 was released that revolutionized the face of film by being the first absurdist superhero movie. And the most absurd character, by far, was the bafflingly cast butler of Harry Osborn, who stumbled his way into our hearts. To honor his contribution to cinema, each year we will pick a secondary character in a film that outshines his or her peers in the ability to make us go “What the fuck?!” This year, the award goes to the insane inclusion of the viking race car drivers from Speed Racer that smear animal pelts all over their meat-stained faces. If that description doesn’t explain to you why they deserve the recognition, then I don’t know what to say!

Sooooooo, that about does it! Let me know in the comments what you liked the most in 2008. But I’ve saved the best for last: the piece of entertainment I loved the most in 2008. Take it away, Youtube!!

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5 Responses to “Year in Review – 2008: It… It… It… Had Its Moments”

  1. KJ Says:

    If you want to see Waltz With Bashir, just watch the trailer again instead. Go see the foreign film that actually won the Oscar.

    Doesn’t it warm your heart to see everyone on the spirit of Christmas?

  2. John Mora Says:

    No.

  3. em Says:

    One of your grumps will do a Watchmen review. Think you should see this!

  4. Rick Says:

    Why is the entire thing on the main page?

  5. John Mora Says:

    I FIXED IT :c

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