Best film no one in Detroit saw
The Edge of Heaven
Fatih Akin is the shit. Hollywood filmmakers only wish they had half the juice this German-Turkish director has. His Head On took the No. 1 slot on my "best of" list three years ago, and this heartbreaking tale of parents and children desperately trying to reconcile is nearly its equal. Fatih makes you care about his characters so much it hurts.
The other best film no one in Detroit saw
Without a single computer-generated image, director Tarsem Singh delivers the most spectacularly cinematic film of the year. The story may be a bit wan, but the real-life locales will take your breath away. Shot in 18 countries over four years, this ramshackle fable about an injured stuntman (Lee Pace) who regales a young girl (amazing non-actor Catinca Untaru) with fantastical tales in order to manipulate her into assisting his suicide is bursting at the seams with eye-popping imagery and lyricism.
Death by jellyfish?
I'm not saying it's good. But it sure was ... interesting. Yes, they were creepy in Finding Nemo, but you have to wonder which studio exec read Will Smith's latest weepy, Seven Pounds, and thought "Suicide by jellyfish. Christmas audiences. Greenlight this SOB.
This year's Where's Waldo award
It used to be that Michael Caine showed up in every other crappy film to hit the multiplex. This year's honor goes to Ben Kingsley, who chewed his way through the scenery of five flicks (War, Inc., The Wackness, The Love Guru, Transsiberian and Elegy) and an Irish thriller that was never released here. And, like Caine, the bald-headed thespian only seemed to take one of his assignments seriously (Elegy). Though Elizabeth Banks technically appeared in more releases (six), she pretty much played the same role over and over again (Laura Bush in W, aside). Anyone want to lay bets on who'll dominate in 2009? I've got my eye on Nicolas Cage.
Best homage to the Twin Towers
Man on Wire
James Marsh's exuberant and enthralling Man on Wire was not only one of the best films of the year, it was a touching tribute to the now and always iconic World Trade Center. With nary a mention of 9/11, this terrific documentary honors the ambitiousness of the towers' birth by following deranged French aerialist Philippe Petit and his 1974 plot to string a tightrope between them and walk across. Though we know the outcome, it's as suspenseful as any caper movie.
Forget Jesus, let us ask "What Would Poppy Do?" Poppy is, of course, the terminally optimistic subject of Mike Leigh's wonderful and deceptively insightful Happy Go Lucky. Sally Hawkins does the near impossible, creating a relentlessly positive character that never crosses into cartoonishness. For those who find her too ridiculous to believe, consider this: Are Hannibal Lecter, the Joker or Gordon Gecko any more Oscar-worthy? Your cynicism has been put on notice.
They should just take his director card away
M. Night Shyamalan
Yes, Sixth Sense was great. And Unbreakable is the only reason the hit TV show Heroes even exists. But enough is enough already. With each movie M. Night Shyamalan makes, he gets closer and closer to invading Ed Wood's airspace. The Happening's ridiculously awful title should have been the first clue that this once-happenin' filmmaker has been consumed by his own hubris.
Most ambiguous examination of Bush administration policies toward terrorism
The Dark Knight
Is Batman a Republican? Is the Joker a terrorist? While there's little doubt of the latter, Christopher Nolan's ambitious The Dark Knight leaves its audience guessing as to whether his pitch-black examination of identity, sacrifice and the consequences of choice is an indictment or defense of our War on Terror's tactics. And that's the real genius to his sly superhero premise: that the hero and the villain in this unwinnable conflict are really two sides of the same demented coin.
Best use of black face in ... well, ever
In a move that's almost too audacious to believe, Robert Downey Jr. proves that he's more than just an insanely talented actor, he verifies that he's got 10-pound balls. In Tropic Thunder, Downey Jr. plays a white actor who undergoes "radical pigmentation surgery" to become his black character. It's a hilarious and convincing performance that's beyond wrong in its politics but succeeds because of the actor's deadpan conviction to the role. If only the rest of this fitfully inspired comedy were as brave and bold.
And the rest
Here are some films that made being a critic in 2008 worth every minute of Pacino's dreadful 88 Minutes. Check 'em out.
The Wrestler, In Bruges, Stuck, Roman De Gare, The Visitor, Tell No One, Cloverfield, Kung-Fu Panda, Encounters At The End Of The World, Milk, Wall-E, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, Rachel Getting Married, The Orphanage, Frost/Nixon, Iron Man, Hellboy 2, The Bank Job.
Best "war on clothing"
After years of teasing and frustrating her legions of My Cousin Vinny admirers, brunette hottie Tomei finally started shedding her inhibitions and her wardrobe in grown-up roles. Now it seems as if the fortysomething sexpot refuses to get dressed on camera, and her bravely naked-as-a-jaybird performance as a single-mom stripper in The Wrestler is earning her heaps of praise and millions of Internet searches
Honorable mention: Kate Winslet
Best reason to leave the basement
While comic book movies have been destroying box-office records and studio ad budgets for years now, it has still been a battle for the caped set to shake the vinyl-nipple-suited, talking-duck horrors of bombs gone by, and earn respect. Well, face front, true believers! Because 2008 was the best year for geek flicks yet, with a very cool Hellboy sequel, the dazzling gunplay of Wanted and even a pretty smashing Hulk pic, covering the stink of The Punisher. From the jaunty alcoholic playboy antics of Iron Man, to the mesmerizing gothic gloom of The Dark Knight, the genre proved it was not just popular, but, at long last, relevant.
Best wedding to crash
Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway's drugged-out neurotic mess of a maid of honor might've been a bummer, but there was no escaping the sheer exuberance of the other partygoers spinning around Jonathan Demme's crazy multiculti wedding party. What other wedding featured a glorious Indian buffet, uptight suburbanites getting down with a Dixieland band, and a guest list that included Roger Corman, Fab 5 Freddy and Debra Winger? With TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe as the groom, and the amazing Rosemarie Dewitt as the luminous bride, it made for a frantic, funky celebration of love, chaos and diversity that looked a whole lot like the dawn of Obama's America.
Best cutie in bad movies
Oh, Zoey, you make bookish, four-eyed indie-rock dudes strain jeans with a bat of an eyelash and you furthered your street cred with a winning country, folk and pop album that's equal parts Nancy Sinatra, Tammy Wynette and the Ronettes, forever assuring you big winnings in the indie-darling sweepstakes. So why can't you pick a movie project to save your soul? Yes Man was mostly harmless fluff, but The Happening? What. The. Fuck?
Best appearance by a once-great industrial city
Hey, Detroit (and Royal Oak, Highland Park, Grosse Pointe, etc.) ... take a bow. Your gritty-yet-quaint neighborhoods were readymade for a Clint Eastwood close-up in his grumpy old man drama Gran Torino. Now get ready for overexposure in dozens more upcoming titles as the massive tax breaks for film production have quickly transformed Woodward Avenue into the Rust Belt's Hollywood Boulevard — and are poised to put Toronto out of work as a D stand-in.
Worst abuser of our collective childhood
Like a vengeful Sith Lord bent on destroying any traces of his glorious former life, Lucas set about annihilating any residual Star Wars love with a shockingly shoddy and just plain idiotic attempt at brand extension, a stiffly animated tragedy called Clone Wars. Did you hate Jar Jar Binks? Well you'll be begging for more of his silly salamander space-ass, after you get a peek at Jabba's cuddly blob of an infant son nicknamed "Stinky." And if that wasn't enough, he decided to wheel out a geriatric Indiana Jones for a desecration of memory lane. Actually Indy 4 had at least a dose of the old magic — most of which was probably Spielberg's doing — but Shia Leboeuf as a greaser sidekick playing Tarzan with Elvis-styled monkeys, stank of emperor Lucas at his cash-gobbling worst.
The Al Pacino "Hoo Yay" award for career suicide
You think that the great Pacino himself would nail this one, for his ridiculous, peacock-on-nose candy preening alongside De Niro in Righteous Kill, or his hammy yet oddly wooden work in the atrocious 88 Minutes. But no, the dishonor goes to Mark Wahlberg, for the devastatingly bad one-two punch of The Happening and Max Payne. Does he even have an entourage anymore after twin crap attacks like that? Quick, call the Funky Bunch.
Sure, you couldn't really tell over the eardrum-rupturing screams of the adoring throngs of adolescent girls packing theaters, but Twilight was a passable bit of swoony teen fantasy. However, the object of those kids' affection, played by the anemic and brooding Bowie-doppelgänger Robert Pattison, had to be the least threatening vampire since Count Chocula. It didn't help that the rest of the movie's vamps looked like they were busy primping for an Abercrombie calendar shoot, and that whole "the sun makes us twinkle like diamonds" garbage, was far and away the weakest rewrite of Vampire mythology ever. Where's Blade when you need him?
The worst well-past-their-primetime players
Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy
Together these once-beloved SNL comedians make a delightfully animated pair as Shrek and Donkey, and the sound of their zany voices are a surefire way to spike merch sales to tots. Separately, any acting job they can't perform in pajamas has been pretty much hot poop on a platter for years. Murphy immediately tossed aside the good will he got from Dreamgirls by making Norbit, and then followed that gem with the profoundly lackluster flop Meet Dave. Myers, meanwhile, managed to offend both the pious and the dipshit frat boys who still quote Austin Powers with his — once in a thousand lifetimes — epic disaster The Love Guru. Watch your back Will Ferrell, it'll happen to you next.
Best bright-side looker
As Poppy, the irrepressibly upbeat and adorable schoolteacher at the heart of Happy Go Lucky, Sally Hawkins shot a big giddy beam of light through the clouds that usually hang over director Mike Leigh's grimy London street scenes. Her exhaustingly chipper persona was annoying, endearing and totally beguiling all at once; an amazing feat of acting from a talent surely on the rise to stardom. This peppy bird also shattered British dental stereotypes, with a smile so bright its glow could cure seasonal affective disorder.
Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch of Appaloosa
The conflicted Irish hit men who bond in In Bruges breathed new life into a tired cliché — men with guns who develop a sudden conscience — with pitch-black humor in an unexpected setting: a medieval town at Christmas time. But they don't hold a candle to Ed Harris's Cole and Viggo Mortensen's Hitch, the hired guns who become the law in Appaloosa. The History of Violence co-stars make a formidable pair in this taut Western. Cole and Hitch share a frank, unsentimental bond forged by mutual respect and comfort in their ascribed roles. Men of few words who mean what they say and say what they mean, with no subtext but plenty of depth, they are archetypical gunmen. Fast on the trigger, and even quicker to cover each other's backs, these peerless shooters became exponentially better by working as a team.
More twists than loot
The Bank Job
Heist films enjoyed a resurgence, but they weren't populated by the wise-cracking confidence men of Ocean's Eleven. This was the year of the inspired amateur with an ax to grind, like the overlooked, low-level Federal Reserve employees of Mad Money, or the whip-smart, passed-over diamond-exchange executive in Flawless (all women who weren't expected to ask for anything more). The Bank Job shares their sense of desperation and defiance, and ups the ante. Based on a brazen 1971 break-in at a Lloyds Bank, where well-connected minor criminals accessed safe deposit boxes containing some very major secrets, The Bank Job soon becomes more about the exercise of power than the accumulation of wealth. This cheeky caper film is sleek but still feels as if the stakes are life or death, as deceived thieves desperately comb through Swinging London looking for its last honest man.
Fueling the imagination
Taking The Fall
Perhaps it's residue from the Tolkien ring cycle, or blowback from the Harry Potter phenomenon, but fantasy films have become a persistent presence in theaters. One recent crop has emphasized feeding the imagination of kids as a way to foster independent thinking. When it works, on Nim's Island, there's a seamless blend of introspection and adventure. When it doesn't, as in The Spiderwick Chronicles, heavy-handed special effects are wielded to fix basic family conflicts. In The Fall, a precocious Romanian girl befriends a bedridden stuntman at a rehabilitation hospital in the early days of Hollywood, where he regales her with elaborate tales of derring-do in far-off lands. Made more for adults than kids, The Fall is a stunning exploration of the filmmaker as fabulist and storyteller as manipulator, with clever allusions to the way the burgeoning movie industry would affect our collective imagination.
Toughest border crossing
The St. Lawrence of Frozen River
This land of immigrants became acutely aware of borders after 9/11, and with that came new permutations of distrust, hostility and fear. British films about Asian immigrants like Brick Lane take the view that assimilation can only go so far, but the recent American movies Under the Same Moon and The Visitor espouse a "Yes, we can" transnational egalitarianism. By focusing on the sordid process of human trafficking and downtrodden citizens who can't understand why anyone would come halfway around the world to live like them, Frozen River offers a testy counterpoint about the limits of the American dream. This tale of a woman driving illegal immigrants across a frozen river between the United States and Canada in the trunk of her car so she can save her home may have seemed extreme last summer, but perfectly encapsulates our current climate.
Most enjoyable superhero
Big Red brought back the snark — and the fun — to the superhero movie with Hellboy II: The Golden Army by not forgetting the genre's pulp origins, just as Cloverfield revived the monster movie by taking the audience on a genuine thrill ride. Iron Man was too gadget-heavy and guilt-laden to really soar, and The Dark Knight will probably be analyzed by future generations as America's embrace of our brave new dystopia. This visually astounding sequel offers wit, romance, slapstick, and a genuine sense of wonder along with gravitas and sense of duty. As the cigar-chomping demon, Ron Perlman is steadfast and mercurial, able to juggle a human infant and his Big Baby gun with equal aplomb. Alternately sardonic, compassionate, hotheaded, tender and frustrated, Hellboy is the destructive force who wants to save the world. Even he finds that a kick in the head.
Most animated animals
Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five
The robots WALL-E and Eve are receiving the lion's share of the animation accolades for their touching post-apocalyptic pas de deux, but animals ruled the roost: The zoo-raised creatures of Madagascar made a successful Escape 2 Africa, and the boisterous Bolt threw light on the future of 3-D animation. Despite the gimmicky concept, Po was no one-trick panda. This doughy oaf proved a formidable foe, going to battle alongside his kung fu idols after being trained by their taskmaster guru. DreamWorks made a great leap forward with this lush animated adventure, an effortless blend of comedy (verbal and physical, subtle and broad) and kick-ass action that was anything but cartoony.
Most charismatic narcissist
Philippe Petit of Man on Wire
The most fascinating documentary subjects are often flawed individuals who espouse moral absolutes, like French attorney Jacques Vergès (Terror's Advocate), whose personality shifts to complement whichever notorious client he's representing, or Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz (Surfwise), who gave his nine kids a truly bohemian childhood but denied them the skills to be self-sufficient adults. But it's the utterly unapologetic Philippe Petit, who performed a tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, whose self-involvement is utterly enthralling. As his co-conspirators recall in Man on Wire, Petit was pathologically persuasive, an artist defying convention as much as gravity. They joined Philippe to share in the heady blend of anxiety and joy that his high-wire acts elicited. But it was Petit alone who was suspended in mid-air. Everyone else could only look up and try to feel his singular thrill.
Buffalo Soldiers of Miracle at St. Anna
The allure of World War II is unmistakable, with its massive scope and theaters of battle, and recent films highlight the fierce last year before V-E Day. Valkyrie takes a thriller approach to the plot by Nazi officers to assassinate Hitler, and The Counterfeiters reveals a pernicious German plan to destabilize currency by producing fake funds in a concentration camp. The Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 92nd Division were fighting long before they ended up in segregated units and sent to Italy in 1944, where the retreating Germans are scorching the earth of their former Axis partner. Between scenes of carnage made all the more brutal by a sense of desperate futility, Miracle at St. Anna allows enough breathing space to ponder the repercussions of the violent breakdown of rock-solid traditions, and seeing what can be salvaged from the rubble.
Coolest retro spy
Agent 117 of OSS in Cairo, Nest of Spies
After his losses at the Casino Royale, James Bond receives a Quantum of Solace, and becomes even glummer. Agents 86 and 99 are revived in a reboot of Get Smart, but it had no comedic kick or action chops, paling beside the inspired lunacy of the Cold War television series. Enter Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka Agent 117 in the Office of Strategic Services, to save the day in the loopy, candy-colored French import OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. A myopic, misogynist, xenophobic egoist, Agent 117 is a marvel of insensitivity who embodies everything wrong with arrogant tuxedo-clad superspies, embedded in a film that captures with pitch-perfect precision all the style and attitude that still keeps audiences shaken and stirred at the very thought of espionage conducted over games of baccarat and chilled martinis.
Patriotism's slippery slope
In Nothing Like the Holidays, sheepish parents admit to their soldier son recently arrived from Iraq that they rented Coming Home, but they could just as easily have watched films about contemporary veterans like the post-combat road-trip odyssey The Lucky Ones. Unlike the 'Nam movies that came out after the fall of Saigon, these films arrive while troops are still active in Iraq and Afghanistan, and none have achieved critical or box office success. But what Stop-Loss captures so well is that almost imperceptible shift under the returning soldier's feet, from the solid American soil he or she remembered to the unstable sand they thought they left behind over there.