Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Danny's BEST OF 2008: The Year's Best Movies

- After 2007 was unanimously heralded as one of the best years for film in modern history, could 2008 hope to compete? While it would be hard for any year to match '07's one-two punch of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the great thing about the movies is that, even in a so-called off-year, there's usually no shortage of great ones. In 2008, it could be argued that, in terms of the big prestige pictures, there wasn't that one great epic drama that won widespread praise as a handful of films did in '07. But this past September, as I wrote my Summer Movie Wrap-Up post, I predicted that this would be a year where the big Summer blockbusters were so strong, so genre-defining, that come December we'd still be talking about them as some of the year's absolute best. And looking back now, I think it's clear that there was truth in that prediction. This was the year that the bar got raised for the genre film. 2008 was to comic book films as 1986 was to comic books - the year that they broke out of the cartoon ghetto and became recognized as legitimate entertainment - the year that a movie like THE DARK KNIGHT became not only one of the biggest grossing movies of all time, but also one of the most critically and popularly acclaimed. And man, is that awesome to write - who would have ever thought that, in the years following crap like Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, a Batman movie would make this kind of an impact? The road was paved with the likes of X-Men, Spiderman, and of course with Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking original, Batman Begins. But as I said, here in 2008, the bar was raised. It feels like there's really nowhere to go from here except, well, WATCHMEN. How else to follow the greatest comic book movie ever made than with an adaptation of the greatest graphic novel ever written? It really is ironic, because it was well over 20 years ago that the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore helped legitimize comics as a respected and adult medium, and now here we are, with adapatations of their decades-old work responsible for similar cultural shifts at the movies.

No doubt, it was a great year to be a movie geek.

And it wasn't even all due to Dark Knight. IRON MAN was a similarly awesome comic book flick, but instead of going dark, it instead embraced the sense of fun of the Marvel Universe and delivered hi-octane action aplenty. Even better, it was followed by THE INCREDIBLE HULK, a smashing good time, which tied-into Iron Man much to the delight of comic nerds everywhere, presenting, for the first time ever, the beginnings of a shared Marvel Universe on the big screen. HELLBOY 2 was another great example of superheroes done right - once again Guillermo Del Toro showed that he is one of the most visionary directors working in film today.

Perhaps the other big story of the summer was WALL-E. Pixar is the studio that can do no wrong, and Wall-E may well be their best and most ambitious movie to date. I recently re-watched the film on Blu-Ray, and was just wowed by the detail and artistry in the animation, as well as the depth and complexity of the film's themes. I'm not surprised that so many are listing WALL-E as the year's best overall movie, and I do think it will endure as a classic for years to come.

It was also a pretty phenomenal year for comedy. Once again, the alumni of a little show called Freaks & Geeks were responsible for some of the year's funniest and most memorable comedies. Last year, Seth Rogen established himself as a bankable box office star, but this year, James Franco and Jason Segal both had beakout comedic roles that couldn't help but make Freaks fans happy. Franco was awesome alongside Rogen in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and Segal was similarly great in FORGETTING SARAH MARHSALL, which he also wrote. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith had one of his funniest movies yet in ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO, and, even though it got its share of criticism, I have to give a shout-out to STEP BROTHERS, which I personally thought was the funniest Will Ferrell movie since Anchorman. I didn't love TROPIC THUNDER as much as some of my friends did, but I was still a big fan and found parts of it to be absolutely hilarious. I also thought that there was something really cool about THE FOOT FIST WAY, which had a great new comedic voice courtesy of Danny McBride. But perhaps the most surprising comedy hit of the year was ROLE MODELS. As a huge fan of The State and Stella, I eagerly awaited this directorial effort from David Wain. As it turned out, Role Models was drop-dead hilarious - perhaps the sleeper comedy of the year.

It was also a good year if you like your action movies pulpy, gritty, and distinctly B-grade - and I mean that in the best way possible. I mean, who doesn't love an over-the-top action movie filled with hardened badasses, killer one-liners, and bouts of videogame-like violence? To that end, RAMBO was the perfect movie with which to kick off 2008 - a crowd-pleasing, old-school style action flick from one of the masters of the genre, Sly Stallone. Soon after, we got another such throwback in the form of DOOMSDAY - an homage to all things cheesy and 80's, Doomsday was one of the best times I had in the theater in '08. And then, the year closed out with the granndaddy of B-movie badasses, Clint Eastwood, showing the young punks how it's done with GRAN TORINO, a vintage Eastwood flick that is as fun as any Dirty Harry movie but with a strong social concious to boot - hey, the guy is entitled to get a little soft in his old age, right?

Of course, not every movie in '08 exceeded expectations. In fact, some of the movies that were most-hyped at this time last year debuted to decidely mixed reviews. To put it one way, a whole lot of bigtime franchise flicks in 2008 turned out to be decent, middle of the road, or just plain mediocre. CLOVERFIELD was hyped as the movie event of last winter, but it was more of a gimicky roller-coaster ride than the next big thing in blockbuster movie-making. Soon after that, VANTAGE POINT turned out to be a waste of several great actors thanks to a time-shift gimmick that proved more annoying than innovative. I kind of liked BE KIND, REWIND, but though its heart was in the right place, the execution was simply lacking. Later on in the early Summer, I looked forward to FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, the first-ever pairing of martial arts legends Jet Li and Jackie Chan - the movie was alright, kind of an 80's kid-flick meets Hong Kong kung-fu fantasy, but it was definitely not the earth-shattering epic it should have been.

Then there was INDIANA JONES. Oy. After the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas had lost a good deal of credibility with his fans, but the continued greatness of Steven Spielberg kept fans believing that this would be yet another great Indy adventure. And yeah, the movie had its moments, and it was great just seeing Harrison Ford back in action and awoken from his years-long slumber. But then a fridge was nuked, a boy swung with monkeys, and CGI aliens made a CGI temple crumble. And it turned out that THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was one of the summer's biggest disappointments. A lot of people felt similarly about the barely-marketed X-FILES sequel. While I argued that the movie had its merits, and praised the work of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in bringing their iconic characters to life, I couldn't deny that I WANT TO BELIEVE did not generate anywhere close to the excitment needed to breathe new life into the franchise. I can only hope that we get at least one more X-Files movie, so that one of my all-time favorite franchises can go out with a bang and not a whimper.

Even some of the big prestige movies couldn't quite live up their Oscar-bait potential. Oliver Stone's W. featured a great performance from Josh Brolin in the title role, but never quite came together as a cohesive movie. Similarly, Clint Eastwood's CHANGELING had a great cast, but suffered from an inconsistent tone and a messy script. I also felt let down by THE FALL, which featured amazing imagery but struck me as painfully bleak, depressing and self-indulgent, and in the end was just plain hard to watch.

What were my *least* favorite movies of the year? I usually make it a point to stay away from movies that have a pretty good shot of being a complete waste of two hours, but sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. For example, early in the year I actually held out hope that Roland Emmerich's 10,000 BC would be a fun-if-campy adventure flick. It wasn't so-bad-it's-good, it just plain sucked. But man, the one movie I saw this year that I most passionately disliked has to be HANCOCK. To me it represented Will Smith at his worst, with Smith playing a version of himself in a movie that veered from slapstick comedy to dark drama in such a messy way that you could almost hear the studio execs arguing in the background about the movie's tone and direction. Ugh. That one was just painful to watch.

Now, one of the biggest hits of the year was undoubtedly TWILIGHT, but in my opinion the movie, while decently enjoyable, was pretty flawed. Featuring spotty acting and poor f/x, I wasn't exactly wowed, although I am certainly curious to see where the series goes from here. But if there was any vampire movie in '08 deserving of critical acclaim and mainstream attention, it's the Swedish indie flick LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. While I won't go so far as to call it the best thing since sliced bread as some reviewers have, I can say that this coming-of-age story is a haunting, disturbing, and artfully made movie that features amazing imagery and atmosphere. Definitely one of the most unique and unforgettable movies I've seen.

Another great coming-of-age movie was also an import, this time from Britain. I'm talking about SON OF RAMBOW, which seems to be getting lost in the shuffle in a lot of critics' Best Of '08 lists. I for one can't say enough about this hilarious and moving movie. "I am the Son of Rambow!" indeed. Surprisingly, a couple of teen movies also impressed me with their intelligence and humor. One was the great documentary AMERICAN TEEN. Some have criticized it for feeling overly-staged, but to me it told some of the most interesting stories of any movie this year. I came away from watching it feeling more impressed and enthusiastic than I did coming out of almost any other movie this year. I was also shocked at how much I enjoyed NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. Michael Cera continues to be one of the best young actors working today, and Kat Dennings really wowed me in a huge breakout role.

A couple of other somewhat under-the-radar favorites: Woody Allen's enjoyable VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, which featured a firecracker performance from Penelope Cruz, and IN BRUGES, a wickedly funny crime movie that I think has definite cult-cannon potential. APPALOOSA, Ed Harris' Western, was another good one that had yet another great performance from Viggo Mortenson. After last year's one-two punch of 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James, this one seemed to complete the trifecta.

Of course, as we rolled into the Fall and Winter, a number of movies did in fact live up to the awards-season hype. The Coens worked their magic yet again with BURN AFTER READING, a hilarious satire that was an underrated yet worthy followup to No Country for Old Men. MILK featured an amazing performance from Sean Penn, and FROST/NIXON an equally impressive turn from Frank Langella. DOUBT was also a real showcase for an amazing cast that included Meryl Streep and Philp Seymour Hoffman, and while BENJAMIN BUTTON had its flaws, you can't deny the great job that both Bradd Pitt and Cate Blanchett did in the leading roles, nor the incredible f/x and makeup work that gave the movie its eye-catching aesthetics. VALKYRIE was enjoyable though not quite as great as it could have been - it will be interesting to see how it stacks up against the next batch of WWII movies slated for early '09. As someone raised on a steady diet of pro-wrestling, I've got to give huge props to THE WRESTLER - an incredible movie featuring an iconic peformance by Mickey Rourke. And if there's one movie that really blew me away this year, one movie that I came away from thinking I had just witnessed greatness - a true movie milestone - it was SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

Finally, I have to mention a little movie called SPEED RACER. Easily the most divisive movie of 2008, I've already seen Speed Racer mentioned on a number of critics' Worst of the Year lists. To which I say: are these critics on crack?! Maybe it's one of those movies that some people simply can't comprehend - but for those of us who had waited for the movies to catch up with the future-shock aesthetics of videogames and anime, Speed Racer was a pixie-stick of sugar-coated glory. It was a zoomway ride to the future and back, and I loved every surreal minute of it.

But like I said, 2008 will be remembered as the year that the comic book movie grew up. The year that Batman and The Joker reigned supreme at the box-office. The year of The Dark Knight. It was the year that a Pixar animated movie finally got canonized as one of if not the very best of the year. The year that the blockbuster movie came of age. "Why so serious?" asked The Joker - and that indeed seemed to be the question that 2008 asked of 2007.

So let's get on with the show.

- As always, I preface my picks with the warning that I am but one man, and though I do see a fairly ridiculous number of movies each year as time permits, I can't see everything. The one big one I've been dyin' to see but haven't been able to is Synecdoche, New York. I've been a huge fan of Charlie Kaufman's movies thus far, and hope to check this one out soon. I've also yet to see: The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Hamlet 2, Waltz With Bashir, Rachel Getting Married, Shotgun Stories, Man On Wire, Timecrimes, JCVD, Che, Wendy & Lucy, and several others which I'm sure I'm forgetting.

But here it is ...



- This movie hit me like a ton of bricks and never let up once, until its cathartic ending had me leaving the theater feeling elated and joyful and lost in thought. Danny Boyle knocks this one out of the park, and makes the story of a slumdog Indian boy who somehow wins the jackpot on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire into an unlikely-but-gripping epic fairytale adventure. This movie has it all - great characters, coming-of-age romance, action, humor, and a kinetic energy that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The brilliant script is matched by the dynamic direction, and the pulsating soundtrack is as of-the-moment as Trainspotting's was back in the day. SLUMDOG is the single greatest cinematic triumph of 2008 - a movie that will make you think, will make you cheer, and will leave you breathless.


- Thanks to a great script, gritty direction, and an iconic and award-worthy turn from Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler is one of the great movies of its genre. This is a movie that will have you rooting for its unlikely hero, a washed-up pro-wrestler known as The Ram. You feel his pain, both physical and emotional, as Rourke wears it all on his sleeve. This is a movie about doing what you love, about the line between reality and fantasy, about aging gracefully and about proving the critics wrong. It's sad and tragic, yet exhilirating and inspirational. More than deserving of a "Whooo!"


- I don't know what more I can say in praise of The Dark Knight, a movie that told as badass of a Batman story as there's ever been. The cast is universally phenomenal, but Heath Ledger really does elevate the film to whole other level. His Joker is a movie villain for the ages, and it's absolutely tragic to think we'll never get to see Ledger reprise his best-ever role. I still think that the movie's first fifteen minutes might be its best - that William Fichtner cameo makes me smile every time. So why isn't this #1? While part of me says this is the best of 2008, part of me can't fully get over some of the movie's flaws. I still don't get Christian Bale's goofy Batman voice. I still get annoyed at the choppy editing of the fight scenes. And I still dislike the ending - I hate that they needlessly killed Two Face, and that it was a lame, anticlimactic fall-off-a-building death to boot. Still, I freaking love this movie in spite of its flaws. The best superhero movie ever made, hands down.


- It's amazing to me that, with Wall-E, in one fell swoop, Pixar crafted an old-fashioned romance, a family advenure film, and a cautionary science fiction tale. I love that Pixar makes movies for smart people, that they never talk down to their audience and that they layer their movies with stuff for kids, for adults, for men, women, and every brand of movie-goer. That's the stuff that enduring classics are made of, and Wall-E is a beloved classic in the making. Aside from all that, the sheer artistry of this movie is incredible. The animation sets a new standard in quality, and the art design is phenomenal. Wall-E rocked my world in '08.


- Screw the critics, Speed Racer kicked ass seven ways to Sunday. Yes, I gave this movie a flat-out "A" when I reviewed it over the summer, and I stand by that praise. The Wachowski's deserve tons of credit for creating a movie that looks and feels like nothing before it, melding the aesthetics of next-gen videogames, Japanese anime, and old-school cartoons into a movie that to me represents the future of blockbuster filmmaking. All I know is this: during the movie's climactic final race, as Speed zooms towards the finish line through a swirling portal of lights and colors, crashing towards narrow victory, it was a truly visceral movie moment. I said it before and I'll say it again - Speed Racer was ahead of its time. In a couple of years, it will take its rightful place as a favorite to be rewatched over and over again.


- As I said in my original review, Gran Torino is not exactly a traditionally-"great" movie. It's messy, it's dirty, it's visibly flawed. There's shoddy acting and ham-fisted writing. It can be preachy and over-the-top. But hot damn, when Clint Eastwood kicks ass and exudes gravitas as he does here, does it get much better? I think not. Eastwood is a walking classic-quote-generator here, awesomeness on a stick. And you know what? Sometimes, it's the messy, over-the-top movies that stick with you most. I won't soon be forgetting Eastwood's final fate in Gran Torino anytime soon. Though I wouldn't mind forgetting the movie's closing-credits theme song. Yikes.


- They don't make 'em like this anymore - a kids movie that dares to be dark, a coming-of-age story that isn't sanitized and processed through the Hollywood machine. This movie exposes th best and worst of childhood - you cringe at the cruelty and the trauma, but you rejoice at the simple moments of fun and creativity, the innocent urge to create and play. Son of Rambow is one of those movies that makes you want to go out and *make* a movie, because the spirit of its characters is contagious. This movie is hilarious but full of heart - an underrated film that deserves its spot as one of the best of '08.


- I don't get those who only like the Coens when they're being serious. The Coens have now made several amazing films that are in fact off-the-wall comedies, and Burn After Reading is one of them. With their usual knack for brilliant dialogue, memorably oddball characters, and on-the-mark satire, the Coens have crafted another comedy classic in Burn After Reading. It's a darkly funny movie that I suspect will only get funnier and more quotable the more times I watch it. John Malkovich is hilarious here. So is Bradd Pitt. Frances McDormand is great as always. I can't wait to see what the Coens do next.


- I had a lot of internal back-and-forth over which of '08's many great comedies deserved a spot in the Top 10, but in the end I kept coming back to one thing: Dracula: The Musical. Was there any funnier and more classic comedy moment this year than when Jason Segal launches into an operatic number from his vampire-themed passion project, in full-on Transylvanian accent, cursing the name of Van Helsing with vigor and aplomb? Nope, Dracula's Lament was just a fall-down-laughing moment for me. And the rest of the movie was pretty great as well - a funny and clever look at relationships, with great turns from Segal, Kristen Bell, Russell Brand, Paul Rudd, and more. Overall, I'd say one of if not the best overall movie from the Apatow crew to date.


- Another slot where a couple of movies each could have landed. But I thought back to when I saw American Teen in the theater this past summer - at the time, I really was pretty blown away by how funny, moving, and full of heart this documentary was. A complete 180 from the usual MTV teen "reality" shows, American Teen is filled with kids who look like people you knew in high school, and who will undoubtedly remind you of the trials and tribulations of the proverbial teenaged wasteland. You can't help but root for the movie's cast of freaks and geeks to escape their boxed-in worlds and venture out into the great wide open. Hannah, the artsy filmmaker, steals the show. In her, I think any aspiring Hollywood dreamer has to see some of their own hopes and dreams embodied.


11. IRON MAN - An awesome performance from Robert Downey Jr., great f/x, and just an overall feeling that Favreau and co. got it right.

12. MILK - A remarkable performance from Sean Penn highlighted what is surely one of the most timely and relevant movies of the year - Milk is a stirring call to action and an insightful portrait of a pivotal equal-rights figure.

13. FROST / NIXON - Frank Langella is just incredibly powerful as Richard Nixon in this intense and interesting portrait of two men squaring off in the arena that is the media.

14. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS - A hilarious movie that shifts from stoner buddy-comedy to all-out action movie farce, Pineapple Express had an awesome comedic duo in James Franco and Seth Rogen, and some of the year's flat0out funniest moments. Yep, this $#%& just got real.

15. ROLE MODELS - All hail director David Wain and the random, offbeat sense of humor he brought to what could have been a generic Hollywood comedy. In fact, Role Models is absolutely drop-dead hilarious, unabashedly geeky, and features KISS. Too much awesomeness for words.

16. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - A creepy, disturbing, and artfully-shot horror movie that gives a new twist on the vampire legend, this one is unlike any movie I've ever seen before. I'll be haunted by some of its themes and imagery for a long time to come.

17. THE INCREDIBLE HULK - Hulk Smash! This movie was just pure fun, with a great turn from Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and tons of great comic book action.

18. HELLBOY 2 - Featuring some of '08's best costume and set design, Hellboy 2 is an absolutely amazing-looking movie that crafts and epic fantasy adventure for our big red hero. Great action, fun characters, what's not to like?

19. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA - Woody Allen is near the top of his game with this thoughtful movie about romantic relationships. The cast here is great - Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, and Rebecca Hall are all excellent, and the picturesque Spanish setting is just great to take in and get lost in.

20. IN BRUGES - A badass black comedy that's like a slightly chilled-out version of a Guy Ritchie or Tarantino crime-flick, In Bruges was one of the sleepers of '08, in my humble opinion. Funny, engaging, and just a lot of fun, this is possibly the best movie ever set in Belgium.


21. RAMBO - Yo, tough guy, was there any more satisfying action scene in '08 than Rambo rising from the ashes and gunning down hordes of helpless badguys? I think not.

22. DOOMSDAY - An absolutely insane mashup of about 17 different 80's action flicks, this one is 100% badass. If you like over-the-top John Carpenter-style action, it doesn't get much better.
23. NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST - A great John Hughes-esque movie for the emo generation, I found this one to be a smart, funny and absorbing teen flick with two great, very un-Hollywood leads.

24. TROPIC THUNDER - Not the funniest movie of the year, but up there. I particularly got a kick out of Robert Downey Jr. as "the dude playing the dude who's playing a dude." Between this and Iron Man, this was truly the year of RDJ. Plus, Steve Coogan spontaneously getting blown up was comedic gold.

25. DOUBT - Crackling performances from Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, and Philip Seymour Hoffman highlight this stage adaptation. Ultimately it didn't quite wow me, but the cast is awesome to watch.

26. APPALOOSA - A badass little Western from Ed Harris, this one also has some great performances from Viggo Mortenson and Jeremy Irons. It even has a Lance Hendrickson cameo! The movie's love story never quite makes sense, but overall very enjoyable, with some great, great dialogue.

27. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - This one never quite lived up to my lofty expectations, but it worked well for what it was - a big Hollywood romance movie. I had hoped for more adventure and thematic complexity, but I can't deny the amazing makeup and f/x work or the stellar performances from the leads.

28. ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO - A very funny movie that excelled as a classic Kevin Smith flick. It was perversely funny and at times downright wrong. Rogen, Banks, and the whole supporting cast were great. I just never quite bought into the relationship between the two leads. But otherwise, really enjoyed it.

29. WANTED - A great turn from James McAvoy in the lead, and Angelina Jolie in the kind of femme fatale role she was born to play. The plot sometimes gets a bit absurd, but the over-the-top action was a lot of fun, as was the whole "down with authority", nihilistic message of the movie.

30. KUNG-FU PANDA - Finally, a good animated movie not from Pixar! Kung-Fu Panda is a fun adventure, with a lot of fun homages to the kung-fu movies of old. There are also some really great action scenes in this one, with some amazingly staged scenes that really have you glued to the screen. A fun surprise in '08.


STEP BROTHERS - While there wasn't a whole lot of substance or originality here, there was a hilarious chemistry between Will Ferell and John C. Reilly. I'll freely admit that this movie had me laughing from start to finish.

VALKYRIE - The movie excels when it sticks to being a heist flick of sorts - the tension is palpable and the cast of great actors has you hanging on every twist. But soon, the lack of real characterization comes back to bite this movie, and you begin to lose interest when the movie tries for emotional resonance.

SHINE A LIGHT - There's not much here in terms of a movie, but you can't help but marvel at the sheer energy and presence of The Rolling Stones in this concert-doc. To its credit, I ran out and bought the soundtrack after seeing this one.

THE FOOT FIST WAY - I love a lot of things about this quirky comedy - it has a brilliant and hilarious cast of oddball characters and has an Office-esque ability to highlight the absurdity in the mundane. Even though I thought the movie misfired at times, I can't wait to see what Danny McBride and co. come up with next.



1. Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

2. Frank Langella - Frost / Nixon
3. Sean Penn - Milk
4. Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino
5. Robert Downey Jr. - Iron Man


1. Frances McDormand - Burn After Reading

2. Meryl Streep - Doubt
3. Marissa Tomei - The Wrestler
4. Cate Blanchett - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
5. Gwyneth Paltrow - Iron Man


1. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

2. John Malkovich - Burn After Reading
3. Javier Bardem - Vicky Christina Barcelona
4. Richard Jenkins - Burn After Reading
5. Ralph Fiennes - In Bruges


1. Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

2. Amy Adams - Doubt
3. Tilda Swindon - Burn After Reading
4. Evan Rachel Wood - The Wrestler
5. Viola Davis- Doubt


1. Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire

2. Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight
3. The Wachowski Bros. - Speed Racer
4. Andrew Stanton - Wall-E
5. Darren Aranofsky - The Wrestler


1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. The Wrestler
3. Burn After Reading
4. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
5. Son of Rambow
6. Frost / Nixon
7. Milk
8. Gran Torino
9. Appaloosa
10. Wall-E

- Alright everyone, that's a wrap. Bring on '09, baby. Bring on WATCHMEN, bring on INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, bring on PAUL BLART: MALL COP. Okay, maybe not that last one. But seriously, thanks for reading, and ...


- Stay tuned - next up is my overall 2008 Year In Review!

Danny's BEST OF 2008: The Year In Television

- Is it true? Is the great TV golden age of the early 00's officially over and done with? Is TV on the verge of becoming a vast wasteland devoid of great scripted series, instead overrun by endless hours of vapid reality TV, lowest-common-denominator game shows, and hour upon hour of prime-time Jay Leno? To the doomsayers, it sure looks that way. 2008 was definitely the year that saw quality TV go on life-support.

I mean, a lot of shows were conspicuous by their absence this year. A lot of this was due to the effects of the crippling Writers' Strike, which saw seasons end prematurely, huge shows like 24 disappear off of the '08 schedule completely, and sophomore series like CHUCK and PUSHING DAISIES return to vastly diminished ratings. But it wasn't just the Writers' Strike that left a gaping hole in primetime, because you can't deny that with so many modern classics going off the air in the last couple of years - I'm talking about shows like Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, Arrested Development - there simply was not an abundance of new series that stepped up and picked up the ball. At this point, top TV franchises like LOST and 24 are aging, and yet few new shows emerged to carry their torch. At one point, it was thought that HEROES would be the show to take up that mantle, but in what has to be one of the year's biggest disappointments, Heroes had a dismal second season that left viewers weary and ready to jump ship. For me, as it was with many, I suspect, the Season 3 premiere of Heroes was the chance for the show to come back and impress us - one last shot at greatness. In fact, the show's Fall premiere landed with a thud, and may have been the final nail in the show's creative coffin. A show like PUSHING DAISIES, meanwhile, which was among TV's best and most imaginative, was also one of its lowest rated. This is nothing new in TV land - great shows often fail to attract the audiences they need to survive. But more than ever, it felt like people simply tuned out. The Strike had a numbing effect on viewers, I think. And TV execs still don't quite get the extent that their shows are competing with videogames and home video. TV audiences are getting smaller, older, and more niche than ever. It's why NBC is banking on stripping Leno at 10 pm every weeknight next year - it's cheap programming that will attract the baby boomer crowd who still comprise a large chunk of the primetime audience.

And yet ... you can't deny things like Hulu, like iTunes, like the XBOX Live Video Marketplace. A new generation is finding great TV via these digital portals - but where is the programming that actually appeals to people under 40? Look on iTunes right now, the top-sellers are almost entirely things with distinct youth appeal: Family Guy, Gossip Girl, and The Office. It's why Seth McFarlane is now the highest paid man in TV -- his show isn't just an on-air smash, it's a multimedia franchise that is huge on home video, digital, merchandising, etc.

And therein lies the choice that media entities now face. Do you risk money on a bigtime blockbuster show and hope it becomes the next Lost or Family Guy, or do you simply program me-too reality shows or fill primetime with talk and news, emphasizing cost efficiency over creative risk.

I honestly hope that the latter does not become standard practice. If TV simply stops trying to be a creative / artistic medium, then I think that, ultimately, people like me will just tune out altogether and simply go where the good stuff is - and that might mean to the movies, to a book, to the internet, or to a game console. Was it really only a couple of years ago that everyone was writing about how TV had eclipsed the movies as the go-to place for great scripted storytelling? Looking at the primetime lineups in '08, it was hard to believe that that was once the conventional wisdom.

But I remain optimistic. How can I not be, when in a few short weeks we'll be getting new episodes of LOST and TWENTY-BY-GOD-FOUR? How can I give up hope when shows like 30 ROCK continue to make me laugh harder with each new episode? Sure, it was SNL that got much of the hype this year thanks to the charged political season we experienced, but SNL was a one-trick Palin pony, whereas 30 Rock innovates and surprises each week. I think that it's inevitable that some great new shows are on the horizon, and I think that there is always a place for great entertainment, even if I end up watching it on my computer or on a blu-ray disc. I am optimistic about TV overall, but still, I can't help but look at the year and see one where TV seemed on a very visible downturn. From the Writers' Strike to the unwelcome return of Knight Rider, things at times got downright ugly.

This post, however, is here to celebrate what was good, what was great, and what just plain kicked my ass in '08. Of course, keep in mind - I don't get HBO so only occasionally see their series (like Flight of the Conchords) on DVD, and don't watch some shows like Mad Men, The Shield, How I Met Your Mother, or a number of others that you won't find on my lists ... So, without further ado ...



- No other show blew my mind like Lost did in 2008. I was a defender of the merits of Season 3, but Season 4 took things to a whole new level of awesome. And the key wasn't just huge plot revelations or crazy sci-fi shenanigans - it was *character*. Lost simply has the best and most fascinating cast of characters of any show on television, and at this point most fans are ready to follow their adventures for as long as they are told. Aside from that, Lost is really the only show on TV that delivers big, huge, epic adventure week in and week out. There's a sense of wonder, of imagination at work here, there's great writing and stunning direction. I can't wait to see what happens in '09, brotha.

2. 30 ROCK

- The funniest comedy in '08 just kept getting better and better, with a core cast that brings the funny each and every week. The best thing about 30 Rock may be that its writing fully embracesthe random, the absurd, and the just-plain weird. What other show would reunite the cast of Night Court, just because? What other show would have a subplot about Tracy Morgan convinced that his kids are trying to kill him? What other show would have Oprah Winfrey guest star, only for her to play a mere figment of Liz Lemon's imagination? 30 Rock right now has the same mix of craziness and authenticity that distinguished classic episodes of THE SIMPSONS back in the day. There are few shows I look forward to more.


- Despite faltering a bit in the last couple of weeks, any reader of this blog knows that there was no other show in '08 that got my adrenaline pumping like PB. In the past I've said that PB is like a weekly John Carpenter movie, and this year that was the case more so than ever. From the gripping final leg of Season 3, which saw a daring escape from a Panamian prison, to the height of Season 4, when the show began firing on all cylinders and presenting awesomely pulpy dirty dozen-style action on a weekly basis, Prison Break has been TV's #1 source for GRAVITAS for the last several months. Few protagonists are more fun to watch than Michael Scofield, and few supporting characters more badass than William Fichter's Alex Mahone.


- This one is painful to write, because inexplicably, the great Pushing Daisies is now cancelled after being one of primetime's most consistently low-rated shows. But since Episode 1, PD brought a level of imagination and visual splendor to TV the likes of which has rarely been seen before. It features absolutely great performances from the likes of Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, and Kristen Chenoweth. It has mystery, fantasy, humor, and romance. It has rapid-fire dialogue on par with Gilmore Girls and a look on par with the best of Tim Burton. The facts are these: Pushing Daisies was one of TV's biggest bright spots in '08.


- Some have criticized The Office's recent embrace of off-the-wall humor, but personally, I've been loving the show's theater-of-the-absurd style so far this season. The show has gone for pitch black humor at times ("The Dinner Party" episode, anyone?), but the great thing about The Office is that it derives its humor from the bleakest and darkest places. But to me, The Office has simply been funnier of late than it's been in a long while. When the show becomes a soap opera, it loses me. But when it does what it does best - mocking the human condition - it succeeds in carrying on the spirit of the brilliant British original.


- Laugh if you wish, but Gossip Girl is the best soap on TV and the current king of TV melodrama. The show has been remarkably consistent at being OMG-worthy, and I also think that it's self-aware sense of humor is often overlooked. Like The OC before it, GG isn't afraid to poke fun at itself, and it delivers its big twists and turns with a wink and a smile. In fact, Chuck Bass is often the most laugh-out-loud hilarious character on TV. He's one of the best villains of primetime, and one of the characters whose exploits you can't help but be entertained by.


- My opinion of Chuck sometimes fluctuates from episode to episode, but overall I'd have to say that NBC's underdog cult-fave hit it's stride in its second season and in '08. I love everything Chuck stands for - geeky humor, aw-shucks sentimentality, and over-the-top espionage action. It's a great formula, but even better was that in '08, Chuck dared to get a little experimental and shake things up a bit. One such experimental episode was "Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer," that was one of my absolute favorites of '08 - a caper that involved a deadly game of Missle Command, a washed-up videogame champion, and the glorious music of Rush. When it's firing on all cylinders, you can't help but love this show - it aims right for the hearts of fanboys everywhere.


- I began watching this show merely out of curiousity - how would such a salacious script make it onto network primetime? - but it turned out to be the best show of the Summer and one of my overall favorites of the year. The show simply had great characters, and it constantly surprised me by making me root for characters who were initially annoying, and making me hate characters who I originally thought were the heroes of the series. Swingtown was all about defying convention, and I give it a ton of credit - episodes didn't merely get by on scandal and sex - there was a lot of intriguing political and social subtext at play here, and as a whole the show was an interesting look at suburban life in the 70's. Of course, a unique show like this got completely lost in the CBS schedule - figures, it's the first series I've EVER committed to watching on the network in all of my 26 years. You've got to give it up for Swingtown.


- The best new show of the '08 Fall season, it took me a little while to warm up to Fringe, but soon enough I found myself sucked into the world of pseudo-science, corporate conspiracy, and "The Pattern." The show is still kind of hoverin right on the verge of greatness, but what gives it its best shot of getting to that A-level is John Noble as the off-his-rocker mad scientist Walter Bishop. Noble has simply knocked this one out of the park, transforming himself each week into one of TV's strangest, funniest, and most intriguing characters.


- This show finished out its brief run on the CW early in '08, but I have to mention it here because the show was hilarious, poignant, and one of the few comedies to mix its humor with intelligent social commentary. The story of a Pakistani teen living with an American family was an old-school sitcom with new-school humor, great characters, and a quirky comedic sensibilty that reminded me of Malcolm in the Middle at its best. I'd recommend that anyone who missed out go and check this one out online - it's one of the real overlooked comedy gems of the last few years.


1. The Late Show With David Letterman - In a landmark political year, a lot of mainstream news outlets had to dance around the obvious idiocy of the McCain-Palin campaign in the name of evenhandedness. But Letterman knew no such boundaries. Letterman brought a real everyman's perspective to the table, and asked all the right questions in his interviews with John McCain. Obama needed every little bit of help he could get to overcome the many obstacles that potentially stood in the way of his winning the presidency, and I think Letterman gave him that extra push with conviction and humor.

2. Strike-Beard Conan - Conan O'Brien has always been a guy who is at hsi absolute best when he can simply go out there and do his own thing. His natural forte isn't monologues or interviews, it's simply random, crazy humor in whatever form best suits the material. And man, one of the few benefits of the Writer's Strike was that it gave Conan a perfect forum to just let loose. Some of the show's funniest moments in years came when Conan was just riffing, wandering around his office, or spinning his wedding ring.

3. Chris Matthews, Chuck Todd, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow at MSNBC - Sure, Olbermann got a little insane over the last year or so, but his righteous anger was an important part of the ongoing process of rallying America against the Conservative juggernaut. But give MSNBC credit - when Olbermann simply got too over-the-top to be a political anchor, he was removed. MSNBC, unlike FOX News, managed to maintain an evenhanded level of news reporting side by side with a liberal-slanted editorial crew. The distinction between the two was important, and MSNBC deserves credit for what amounted to the best political broadcasts of '08.

4. Tina Fey on SNL - Saturday Night Live was not particularly great in '08. But man, did it get a lot of attention, and I'd say about 95% of that was thanks to Tina Fey's stellar bits as Sarah Palin. The spot-on satire was a much-needed commentary on Palin's joke of a candidacy - the biggest joke being how close Fey's dialogue was to Palin's actual words. It pains me that the rest of SNL never really lived up to the quality of those handful of Palin sketches - here's hoping that in '09 the show can get attention simply for being *funny*.

5. The NBA on TNT Crew - I usually make mention of these guys every year, and that's because every year I find myself looking forward to TNT's basketball coverage as much for the pre and post-game entertainment as I do for the games themselves. Charles Barkely continues to be one of the funniest men on TV, truly one-of-a-kind. There's just something about the fun, friendly, party-like atmosphere of every edition of Inside the NBA that makes it infinitely more enjoyable and appealling than the competition on ESPN and ABC.


1. Swingtown

- I know some might object to hailing an already-cancelled show as the best new series of the year, but the fact is, I loved Swingtown. From an awesome theme-song to great characters to a number of increasingly absorbing subplots, this really was an underrated show that deserved to find an audience. It got stuck in a less-than-ideal Summer timeslot on CBS, but I'd urge you to check out Swingtown if you can - good stuff.

Runner-Up: Fringe


1. Smallville

- Smallville was still nowhere near *great* in 2008, but compared to its previous, abysmal season, this year's Fall premiere was a huge and welcome surprise. Even without Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor, this season of Smallville has just felt sharper, more cohesive, and smarter than the show's been in a long time. It disappointed with its much-hyped Doomsday episode, but other than that, Smallville has been consistently enjoyable over the last few months, which is much more than I could say for it for most of the last few years.

Runner-Up: The Simpsons


1. Lost - "The Constant"

- This fairly self-contained episode of Lost was simply one of the all-time classic episodes of the series and one of the best episodes of television I've ever seen. An epic time-travelling adventure, a star-crossed romance, and a mind-bending puzzle all at once, this episode made me want to stand up and cheer. It single-handedly made Desmond Hume my favorite character on Lost, brother.

2. Chuck - "Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer"

- This episode really surprised me, as it was, I think, the first truly "A" quality episode of Chuck, but what an episode it was. Like a fictionalized version of The King of Kong, this episode was all heart and soul. And it featured the best use of Rush's "Tom Sawyer" ever on television.

3. Fear Itself - "Skin and Bones"

- Here's my left-field pick. I say that because the horror anthology Fear Itself, as a whole, was mostly pretty awful. But whoa-mamma, this one was the exception to the rule, featuring an amazing turn from Doug Jones as a ravenous cannibal who returns home to terrorize his family. Mmm-mmm good.

4. 30 Rock - "Reunion"

- It was hard to pick a single episode of 30 Rock to hold up over any other, but Reunion is the one I keep coming back to - a hilarious ep that saw once-nerdy Liz Lemon attend her high school reunion. Could be standard fare for most TV shows, but in a brilliant twist, Liz was actually hated and feared by her old classmates to hilarious effect.

5. Pushing Daisies - "Comfort Food"

- My favorite episode of Pushing Daisies of '08, Comfort Food exemplified the show's flair for quirky characters, meaty mysteries, and incredible set and art design. As Ned and Olive enter their pies in a comfort-food-cookoff, a murder of a Colonel Sanders-like chicken king sets off a strange series of events. Kristen Chenoweth has never been better in this episode - even though Ned and Chuck are star-crossed lovers, in this ep, Kristen makes you wonder ...

6. Prison Break - "Quiet Riot"

- This one was PB at its best - a last-ditch break-in at the Company's underground bunker to retrieve the mysterious Scylla device finally happened after weeks of build-up, and the result was one of the most intense, nail-biting hours of TV I've ever seen. The choice to have portions of the ep occur in almost complete silence only added to the fun.

7. The Office - "Business Ethics"

- Probably my fave episode of The Office so far this season, this one is a showcase for the hilarious chemistry that Steve Carell and Amy Ryan brought to the table this year. Michael's attempts to teach the office about ethics were drop-dead hilarious, and seemingly every cast member, from Dwight to Andy to Pam to Creed, had a moment to shine.

8. The Simpsons - "MyPods and Boomsticks"

- I listed The Simpsons as my runner-up for Most-Improved Show of '08, and it was modern classic episodes like this one that were the reason why. A hilarious look at how Muslim-Americans can be mistreated was coupled with a spot-on satire of Apple and Steve Jobs to make for one of the best episodes of the show in several years.

9. Aliens In America - "Raja at Sixteen"

- I was always impressed at how deftly this show handled its Pakistani protagonist, and this ep exemplifed that great mix of social commentary and humor, revolving around Raja's interest in a Muslim girl, and the awkwardness that comes from him trying to date her in the traditional Islamic manner. Again, check out this show if you haven't already!

10. Smallville - "Abyss"

- Every so often an episode of a show gets me so amped-up that I immediately call one or two fellow fans after watching. This usually happens with Lost, Prison Break, or 24, but lo and behold, this episode of Smallville, featuring an intense story about Chloe's quickly deteriorating memories thanks to some scheming by Braniac, was right up there with the year's best. It reiterated why Chloe has long been the heart and soul of the show, and had a level of drama and urgency rarely seen on the CW's flagship series. It's eps like this that make you believe a show can fly!


1. Family Guy - "I Dream of Jesus"

- The Surfin' Bird song sung over and over in the show's first half = random hilarity at its finest! Family Guy has been pretty up and down this year for me, but holy lord, the first half of "I Dream of Jesus" was pure comedic bliss.


1. Michael Scofield - Prison Break
2. Chuck Bartowski - Chuck
3. Desmond Hume - Lost
4. Cameron - Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
5. Jack Bauer - 24: Resistance


1. Gretchen - Prison Break
2. Chuck Bass - Gossip Girl
3. Ben Linus - Lost
4. T-Bag - Prison Break
5. Keamy - Lost


1. Tina Fey - 30 Rock


1. Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock

Runner-Up: Amy Ryan - The Office


1. Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock

Runners-Up: Steve Carell - The Office, Adhir Kalyan - Aliens In America


1. Adam Baldwin - Chuck

Runners-Up: Tracy Morgan - 30 Rock, Ed Helms - The Office


1. Miriam Shor - Swingtown

Runners-Up: Molly Parker - Swingtown, Anna Friel - Pushing Daisies


1. Kristen Chenoweth - Pushing Daisies

Runners-Up: Elizabeth Mitchell - Lost, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe - Prison Break


1. John Noble - Fringe

Runner-Up: Matthew Fox - Lost, Grant Show - Swingtown


1. Henry Ian Cusick - Lost

Runners-Up: William Fichtner - Prison Break, Michael Emerson - Lost

Special Mention: Doug Jones' incredible and scary turn as a murderous cannibal in FEAR ITSELF - in what was the miniseries' sole standout episode.


1. 24 - Bauer is back!
2. Lost - They're going back to the island!
3. Fringe- Are there two Walter Bishops?!
4. Flight of the Conchords - Back for Season 2 - the premiere is already online, and it's hilarious!
5. Smallville - Will the Clark vs. Doomsday rematch finally deliver?

Also: I have to give a shout-out / plug to the upcoming KINGS series set to launch on NBC in March. I'm extremely curious how this one will pan out, but I can say that I have read the pilot script and Kings indeed has the potential to be the next big thing in epic TV drama. A story about an alternate reality in which medieval monarchies continued into modern times, this one could be badass. Look for it in March.

- And that about sums it up as far as TV in '08 goes. Up next: The Best Films of 2008!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Danny's BEST OF 2008: Games and Comics

Hey everyone! Hold the phone, it's practically 2009 already! And here I am just getting started on my 2008 Year-End lists. Yikes - time flies, that's for sure. But what's also certain is that 2008 has has been a year for the record books, both personally and in a larger, more global sense. And you can be sure, I'll talk about all of that soon enough, but to start with, as is tradition here on the ol' blog, it's time to run down the best and worst of the year in the world of entertainment.

So here's the plan:

On the agenda for this post are the year's best in Games and Comics. Coming up soon afterwards will be the best in television. After that, movies. And finally, the traditional year-end wrap-up in which I wax nostlagic about the year that was, and look ahead to what will be. So keep checking back often over the next several hours, because there's a lot more year-end blogtastic goodness still to come!

Alright, enough with the intros ... in case you didn't get the memo, I'm kicking things off with an extra dose of geeky fanboy flavor, so let's get to it!


- Well, for me, 2008 was a year of technological upgrades here in the Danny Baram household. I admit it, I get sentimental and defensive when it comes to clinging to all my old stuff. I still have a VCR hooked up to my TV, and I was still trying to get the most out of my aging Playstation 2 even as a number of my friends moved on to bigger and better consoles. Plus, being relatively poor is not exactly conducive to being on the technological cutting edge. But hey, we are the Nintendo generation, right? We're *supposed* to throw savings accounts to the wind and blow our measly salaries on techno-junk ... right? Hmm, well, suffice it to say, after cashing in several years' worth of accumulated spare change and receiving my "so-sorry" present from our President (aka my government stimulus check), it was finally time to enter 2008 and make a couple of much-needed upgrades to the Burbank pad. And so I took the plunge, purchased an LCD HDTV, and also, the glory of glories known as the PS3. And it was gooood.

It's funny, then, to think that '08 saw Sony lose tons of ground in retail to both the XBOX 360 and the juggernaut that is the Nintendo Wii. For those of us who have been gamers since the NES days, it's mind-boggling to think that in 2008, Nintendo did not release a single legitimate first-party action/adventure game for the Wii, and yet sales-wise, the system remains unstoppable.

With this came the buzzwords that now define this console generation - "casual" vs. "hardcore" gaming. Personally, I hate this stupid distinction. Apparently anyone who picked up a joystick between 1979 and 2007 is now lumped into the hardcore category, and a whole new legion of teenaged girls, yuppie parents, etc. now comprise the casual market. Well, if that's the case than it's a scary scenario indeed. Because the gaming industry has long been unique in that it catered to a dedicated and knowledgable fanbase. In gaming, players could take pride in the fact that, most times, the best games would also rise to the top of the sales charts. Sure, there are a lot of notable examples of great games that at some point fell under the radar, but by and large, the great games have always found an audience, and the crappy games, even those that flaunted licensed IP's, have usually been retail failures.

But now look at where we are. The Wii barely had a single great, exclusive game this year, especially in the latter half of '08, and yet it sells like hotcakes. Go to the Wii section of a Best Buy though, and it's a sad sight indeed. Rows and rows of me-too shovelware, half-assed ports of old PS2 games, etc. At this year's E3, Nintendo had what has to be considered one of the all-time embarassing showings, with not a single promising game shown for the system - no Mario, Zelda, or Metroid. No sweet-looking original IP's. Nada, except Wii Music and Animal Crossing.

So, um, WHO is buying this thing? Everyone, I guess. Nintendo has created the ultimate "safe" system - innocent, non-threatening, a great, gotta-have-it gift for wives, kids, and grandparents. But how many Wiis are used for a couple of months and then tossed out like yesterday's news? Is it a system that will truly grow the medium, that will turn people not just into "casual" gamers, but get them hooked on the great entertainment medium of the modern era?

Personally, I've been having tons of fun on my PS3, playing the kinds of games I love - imaginative, character-driven adventures. This year I found myself immersed in UNCHARTED: DRAKE'S FORTUNE, and am chomping at the bit to play the sequel in '09. I played RATCHET & CLANK: FUTURE, and essentially played a living, breathing Pixar movie. I was reacquainted with an old friend in Solid Snake, and guided him through one more epic adventure in METAL GEAR SOLID 4. I customized my own personal Sackboy in LITTLE BIG PLANET, unleashed hell as Darth Vader and Yoda in SOUL CALIBUR IV, and staged Batman vs. Superman in MORTAL KOMBAT VS. DC UNIVERSE. I went old-school with the likes of MEGA MAN 9, BIONIC COMMANDO REARMED, and STREET FIGHTER II HD REMIX. And I traversed an underwater city in BIOSHOCK, and jammed out along with Joe Perry on GUITAR HERO: AEROSMITH. And that's just to name a few of the kickass games I played in '08. What can I say - I'm not an XBOX guy, because I'm just not a big first-person shooter fan. Games where I can't see my character turn me off. I don't like floaty-tank bodies. I like a sense of scope and scale, of traversing huge environments and exploring fantastic worlds. I don't like games that are brown and grey. Give me thecolorful techno-cartoon worlds of Ratchet and Clank, the sweeping vistas of Heavenly Sword, or the lush jungles of Uncharted. That said, I've long been averse to delving too much into online play, but that changed a bit this year with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. Going online and facing off against fellow street fighters in a simulated arcade showdown is something I've always wanted to do. Sure, my skills may not be quite up to par quite yet, but I can throw down a shoryuken or two with the best of 'em. For us non-shooter fans, online play has never been all that compelling, but yeah, in 2008, I'm starting to see the appeal.

So I know that Sony is struggling a bit with marketshare, but with several killer exclusives and many more on the way in '09 (God of War, anyone?) and the added bonus of blu-ray disc movie playback abilities, I'm happy with my PS3 purchase. Sure, HOME is still in beta and kind of useless / creepy, and once-Sony-only franchises like GTA and Final Fantasy are now multiplatform, but as I've said before on the blog, I feel like the PS3 is the system that's still carrying the torch for everything I love about games. Still, it saddens me that a brilliant game like Little Big Planet isn't a top-seller. Part of it is the less-than-stellar marketing on Sony's part, but part of it, unfortunately, is the state of the industry right now. Gaming used to be about embracing all things quirky and odd and imagination-driven - be they mushroom-gobbling Italian plumbers or fantasies that were never quite final. Now it seems like there's one extreme of ultra-violent shooters over in XBOX land, and another extreme of Wii Fit and Wii Music in Nintendo's new casual kingdom. Personally, I am a guy that was raised on the Mario's, the Zelda's, the Metal Gears and Castlevanias. On the Resident Evils, the Tomb Raiders, the Final Fantasies and the Street Fighters. Those are the kind of landmark games I still want to play - games that combine imagination with great control, memorable characters, eye-bleeding graphics, and groundbreaking innovation. And the great thing is that, you might not know it from looking at the sales charts, but there were plenty of games like that in 2008.

And hey, even if it wasn't quite the spectacle it might have been in previous years, in 2008 I got to go to my first-ever E3! Livin' the dream, baby!

- Now, there are tons of games out there that were released in '08, and I being only one man, played just a tiny handful of 'em. So here is my very personal list of favorites from the year that was:



- With another insane storyline, ridiculously immersive gameplay, and the most badass videogame hero of all time in Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 4 is everything a MGS fan could want, and the defining exclusive for the PS3 in '08. Snake? Snake?! SNAAAAAAAKE!!!


- Talk about innovative, LBP is like Super Mario meets YouTube, and is a giant step forward for user-generated content in games. But the art style, aesthetics, and level design are all amazing as well. All hail Sackboy!


- It could be argued that Street Fighter II is the greatest videogame of all time, and here we have SFII perfected. With stunningly redrawn HD graphics and easy-to-use online play, this is essentially the ultimate Street Fighter game, downloadable right to your console for $15. In other words, epic win.


- Gorgeous graphics, a huge roster of fighters, and an incredible musical score make this the best "Soul" game yet. Now bring on Tekken.


- An awesome sleeper hit from Level 5 and Nintendo, Professor Layton makes brain-teaser puzzles more fun than they've ever been. Addictive, fun, and with great music and graphics, this is the ultimate DS timewaster.

Honorable Mentions:


- MEGA MAN 9 - PS3



Best Game From '07 Played By Me in '08:


Most Anticipated Games of 2009: Infamous, Street Fighter 4, Resident Evil 5, God of War III, Final Fantasy XIII, Brutal Legend, Little Big Planet PSP, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2.


- I still loved comics in 2008, but man, sometimes it was very much tough-love. There were plenty of bright spots over the course of the year, but overall you can't help but look back and see a number of high-profile disappointments that stand out as some of the year's defining stories.

2008's high point was actually a bittersweet one, in that perhaps the best ongoing comic of the last 10 years, Y: THE LAST MAN, had its final issue see print. The series finale was one hell of an issue, standing out as easily the best single-issue comic book of the year, closing the book on Yorrick and company with style, emotion, humor, and a number of unexpected twists - aka all the great things that Y was always known for. Sadly though, no other ongoing comic in '08 quite picked up Y's torch, although a few did try. For example, Brian K. Vaughan's remaining book, EX MACHINA, has always been a great read, although it only came out sporadically this year as Vaughan focused in on his new gig as a writer for Lost. That's not to say there weren't some other awesome reads this year - FABLES continues to be an incredible, epic narrative month in and month out, and it continues to entertain with one great story-arc after another. Bill Willingham always surprises with his willingness to shake things up, and Mark Buckingham has an awesome, distinct art style that fits the book to a T. Not to mention the stunning covers by James Jean, so remarkable that they were recently collected into their own hardcover volume. Its spinoff book, JACK OF FABLES, is now nearly as anticipated by me as the original. Also, no book has gripped me over the last couple of years like THE WALKING DEAD. I've been reading it in trades, but each time I get ahold of a new volume I become completely immersed in the latest chapter of Robert Kirkman's sometimes disturbing and always shocking zombie odyssey.

As far as superhero comics go, as a longtime DC fanboy, I couldn't help but feel disappointment in some of the big, hyped-up events of '08. Following on the coattails of 2007's superb weekly series, 52, COUNTDOWN limped into '08 seemingly sucking more and more each week. A giant mess of a series, Countdown mercifully ended after a disasterous run that contradicted concurrent books like DEATH OF THE NEW GODS and was all but ignored later on, in FINAL CRISIS, the very series it was counting down to. Countdown gave way to another weekly series, TRINITY. While it has occasionally shown signs of life over the last several months, all in all Trinity has been pretty underwhelming - a convoluted, poorly-written throwback to the cheesy adventures of yesteryear. Trinity has had moments of real fun and imagination, but it's never come close to capturing that "must-read" feel that 52 had during its acclaimed run.

As for FINAL CRISIS ... hoo boy, where to begin? Grant Morrison's big DC event has turned into one giant cluster. It's not working as a cohesive part of the DC Universe, and its story is so far a random, jumpy mess that has had a few cool moments, but has so far read like Grant Morrison at his self-indulgent worst. As a cornerstone event, it can't compare in scope or intensity to Geoff Johns' Infinite Crisis from a few years' back, and adding insult to injury, the book has been plagued by delays, artist changes, and tie-in books that are tie-ins in name only. The sad part is, the tie-ins have often been better and more entertaining that Final Crisis itself, with Geoff Johns in particular contributing a couple of great reads in LEGION OF THREE WORLDS, RAGE OF THE RED LANTERNS, and most especially the stellar Flash-related miniseries, ROGUES' REVENGE. One last note about Final Crisis: it's Morrison-penned tie-in, SUPERMAN: BEYOND, was easily one of the most WTF comics I've ever read. This 3-D mind-trip likely only makes a lick of sense if you read it under the influence of extremely strong mind-altering substances.

Yep, once again it's been Geoff Johns who has singlehandedly carried DC Comics on his back. Johns had another great year as DC's go-to guy, continuing to write great, epic stories in consistently must-read books like GREEN LANTERN, JUSTICE SOCIETY, and BOOSTER GOLD. However, if anything, 2008 might be remembered as the year that Geoff Johns reinvigorated the Superman franchise. After a somewhat slow start, Johns' ACTION COMICS cranked things up a notch as 2008 progressed, delivering an epic and memorable Braniac storyline leading into the current New Krypton arc. Along with Superman writer James Robinson, Johns' work on Action made the Superman titles must-reads once again, and generated more excitement for the Man of Steel than we've seen in years. While Green Lantern continued to build up to 2009's most-anticipated sotryline, "Blackest Night," it managed to churn out consistently solid storylines and tantalizing teases for upcoming arcs. Meanwhile, JSA, one of the best overall superhero comics of the last decade, continued to be a great read each month, with the "One World Under Gog" storyline dragged out a bit long but remaining intriguing nonetheless. Meanwhile, Johns closed out his run on Booster Gold in style, bringing back the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle via some time-travel shenanigans, and reteaming Blue and Gold for one last great adventure - an awesome story for any longtime DC fan.

Indeed, Superman comics kicked serious ass in 2008. Not only because of Johns' run on ACTION, but also thanks to the latter part of Grant Morrison's landmark run on ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. While I give Morrison a lot of flack for some of the crazy, nonsensical $#%* he subjected us to this year, there's no denying that each and every ish of his All-Star run was an instant classic, full of wonder, awe, hope and tragedy (not to mention amazing art from Frank Quietly). When looked at as a whole, there's no question that All-Star Superman will go down as one of the all-time great works in the Superman canon.

But while Superman enjoyed a great '08, the same can't be said for Batman. I know, at the movies, Batman had one hell of a year. But box-office success did not always translate into comic book greatness. Okay, that may be a bit harsh. The great Paul Dini, of Batman: The Animated Series fame, did continue an awesome run on DETECTIVE COMICS, which produced a classic storyline in '08 in the form of "Heart of Hush." And there was some really solid stuff in books like BATMAN: CONFIDENTIAL, which published a memorable Joker story by Michael Green ("Lovers and Madmen") and a couple of other excellent arcs. Peripheral titles like ROBIN, NIGHTWING, and BIRDS OF PREY were all pretty decent with solid creative teams at the helm. But the fact remains - the most-hyped Batman story of the year, Grant Morrison's "Batman: RIP," turned out, much like Final Crisis, to be a total mess. Sure, it was temporarily fun to get lost in Morrison's psychedelic storyline, but after a few issues, when nothing seemed to add up and the story went nowhere ... it was clear that this was one ugly misfire of an "event." Morrison implemented his usual everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, but showed little of the restraint or tight plotting he used in books like JLA or Animal Man. Instead we got a villain whose origins were never revealed, Batman in a yellow and purple suit, and Bat-Mite. Like I said, sort of a cluster. It's crazy to me that DC didn't go all out to make the Bat-titles appealing to fans of THE DARK KNIGHT, with storylines and themes that echoed those of the wildly popular film. Instead, we got a few flimsy tie-in books and a Morrison-penned Batman event in Batman: RIP that was one of the strangest, most incomprehensible, and incoherant Batman stories ever told. Way to attract new readers, DC. If anything, this was a year that proved that while he can be one of comics' greatest storytellers, Grant Morrison is best suited to play in his own little corner of the comics world - he is not a go-to guy when it comes to penning continuity-heavy, company-wide events.

Speaking of huge events, 2008 was another year in which characters died, returned, or mysteriously disappeared seemingly at random, without strong storylines to back up the hype. Barry Allen returned and no one really cared - over the last 20 years, Wally West became the stronger character, so why should we? J'onn J'onnz was killed off panel in a very "meh" moment - luckily Peter Tomasi wrote an awesome eulogy in his REQUIEM one-shot. And Batman ... um ... went missing? Retired? Went insane? I don't have a clue, thanks to the mess that was "RIP."

As usual though, a lot of the best stuff this year wasn't found in the books with all the hype. DC's underappreciated MANHUNTER, for instance, quietly returned from a hiatus with more of its girtty, adult superhero stories. It's a real shame that that one wil lsoon be coming to an end due to low sales. And JONAH HEX continued as one badass Western book, with everyone's favorite horribly-scarred Old West bounty hunter providing reliably entertaining monthly adventures.

Meanwhile, Mark Millar followed up on the success of the WANTED movie adaptation with a new series, KICKASS, that is already being made as a big-budget film despite only 4 issues of the series coming out in comic book form this year, with the first story arc of the series yet to even see completion after numerous delays. It's emblematic of the rather obnoxious trend of some comics being created as springboards for Hollywood movies first and great comics second.

That being said, here's hoping for a 2009 filled with events that live up to the hype as well as solid storylines that remind us how great comics can be. With hugely promising stories on tap like "Blackest Night" and "Flash: Rebirth," we may see just that. And maybe we'll even get a new book that picks up the torch from Y: The Last Man, maybe we'll be treated to the next true classic. Well, one can dream ...


1. Fables

2. The Walking Dead

3. All-Star Superman

4. Y: The Last Man

5. Action Comics

6. Booster Gold

7. Detective Comics

8. Manhunter

9. Green Lantern

10. Ex Machina

Honorable Mentions: Jonah Hex, Jack of Fables, Secret Six, Superman/Batman


1. Y: The Last Man #60 - The best comic book series of the decade wraps up its run by flashing forward in a shocking, heartbreaking, amazing finale.

2. All-Star Superman #11 - One of the best issues of Grant Morrison's landmark run, a memorable look at Lex Luthor.

3. Fables #75 - The culmination of the epic war of the Fables versus the armies of the Adversary, this was a huge issue that changed Fables forever.

4. Ex Machina #40 - a great bit of meta-commentary from Brian K. Vaughan, one of the best issues of Ex Machina to date.

5. The Walking Dead #48 - Everybody dies! One of the most shockingly violent, intense, and game-changing issues of a comic I've ever read.

6. Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge #1 - Geoff Johns kicked off this miniseries in style with a brutal, gritty look at the Flash's blue-collar enemies.

7. Booster Gold #1,000,000 - Johns wraps up his Booster run with a funny and heartfelt farewell to Ted Kord that is also a great time-travel epic.

8. Jonah Hex #36 - a kickass tale of rascism in the Old West, this one gives the backstory of why Jonah Hex wears his confederate uniform long after the end of the Civil War.

9. Final Crisis: Requiem #1 - an awesome farewell to J'onn J'onnz, even the most hardened fanboy will get misty-eyed when they read Batman's final tribute to his Martian friend.

10. Action Comics #869 - With all his power, Superman triumphs over Braniac, but can't act in time to save Jonathan Kent! Ouch ...


1. Superman/Batman - For some reason, this book still seems to get a bad rap among fans, when the reality is that for the last several months it's been an awesome rollercoaster ride, thanks to epic writing by Michael Green and strong art from the likes of Shane Davis, Rags Morales, and other great artists. I've really enjoyed the last couple story arcs, which saw Lana Lang and Lexcorp vs. Superman, Superman and Batman confronting pint-sized doppledangers, and Batman going off the wall after gaining all of Superman's powers. A consistently fun read.

Runners Up: The Flash, Manhunter


1. Secret Six - Gail Simone has done a great job continuing her darkly humorous look at some of DC's most badass villains in her new series, Secret Six. With great art by Nicola Scott, Secret Six came out of the gate on fire, and has yet to let up.

Runner Up: Kickass


1. Gary Frank - Working with Geoff Johns on Action Comics, Gary Frank made Superman look cooler and more alive than he has in years. I loved Frank's previous work on Supreme Power, but this year saw him produce his best work yet.

Runner's Up: Tony Harris (Ex Machina), Pia Guerra (Y: The Last Man), Frank Quietly (All-Star Superman)


1. Geoff Johns - Like I said, Johns once again carried DC on his back this year. He produced great runs on ongoing series like JSA, Green Lantern, Action Comics, and Booster Gold, and also penned some of the year's best miniseries, like Rogues' Revenge and Legion of Three Worlds. The guy simply knows how to write great superhero stories, period.

Runners Up: Bill Willingham (Fables), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man)


1. The Dark Knight

- Plain and simply the best superhero movie ever made, this one raised the bar for the genre and finally, finally brought the dark and serious tone of the great Batman comics to the movies, giving us a Joker for the ages and one hell of a Batman story.

Runner's Up: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2

- Alright, hope you enjoyed reading - stay tuned for THE BEST TV SHOWS of 2008!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Blog of the VALKYRIE's - Singer's Latest - Reviewed - Plus: IN BRUGES and THE FALL

Oh man, I am on a movie-watching tear of late. Not only have I re-watched a few soon-to-be classics from '08 on glorious BLU-RAY disc over the last several days (WALL-E, anyone?), but I've also tried to see as many movies in the theater as humanly possible. Not to mention, I've been watching a few flicks from earlier in the year that I missed out on. So let's get to it, I've got some reviews for ya' ...


- Oh, Bryan Singer ... When I first saw The Usual Suspects while in college, it was one of those life-changing movies that absolutely blew me away. Now THAT was a movie, I remember thinking. It was one of those quintissential college flicks that is passed on from dorm to dorm - "you've gotta see this one, man, it will leave your jaw on the floor." And so it did. But since The Usual Suspects, I don't know if we've really seen Singer live up to the potential that he showed with that landmark effort. Sure, X-Men was pretty decent and one of the first "serious" comic book adaptations to come along, helping to usher in the modern era of superhero films. And yeah, any geek worth his salt will be happy to extoll the relative virtues of X-Men 2 - not a perfect movie by any means, but still one heck of a superhero adventure, and a movie that raised the bar for the genre, to be sure. But then came the (shudder ...) Superman Returns, which, well, any longtime reader of my blog knows exactly how I felt about that best-left-forgotten misfire. But anyways, what I'm leading up to here is some excellent news: Valkyrie is a clear return to form for Bryan Singer. This is once again the Singer of Usual Suspects fame - the guy who could craft tension so thick it was palpable, the guy who could make leave you hanging on ever word, every twist, every cut. No, unfortunately Valkryie is not exactly the second coming of The Usual Suspects, but it is an exciting and well-crafted WWII movie that is a nice history lesson as well as an entertaining thriller.

The fact-based plot is certainly an intriguing story - detailing the last plot to kill Hitler from within the Nazi ranks towards the end of World War II - an elaborate plan led by disgruntled and frustrated German generals that involves panting a bomb in Hitler's bunker and using his assassination to trigger a hostile takeover of sorts of the German government.

The first thing I was worried about going in here was the much-talked about decision to refrain from having characters speak in German accents, instead opting to allow each actor to pretty much use his or her natural dialect. It turned out this wasn't a problem at all - in fact, I thought the movie rather eloquently introduced this conceit in its title sequence, transitioning from German to English in a very nice touch. But really, the quality of the cast here is so uniformly good that you can't complain. For one, you've got a pretty darn good turn from Tom Cruise in the leading role as Claus von Stauffenberg, an eye-patched German colonel who is convinced to lead a secret anti-Hitler conspiracy made up of various Nazi politicians and military men who can't turn a blind eye (so to speak) at all of the atrocities committed in Hitler's name. Cruise is really good, but man, he's surrounded by a boatload of top talent to boot. Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terrance Stamp, and Eddie Izzard, to name a few. I mean, wow, that's some heavy duty thespian right there. All are excellent, and give the film a real feeling of class and yes, gravitas. You even have Carice van Houten, who I praised last year for her excellent work in the WWII thriller BLACK BOOK, as von Stauffenberg's wife. Carice isn't used to nearly the effect that she was in Black Book, but it's still a testament to Valkryie that even a relatively minor role is occupied by such a talented actress.

Where Valkyrie really excels is in its middle section where Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators plot out their plan of attack. At this juncture, the pacing is air-tight, and the movie takes on the intensity of a great heist flick. However, once the resistance's attempt to takeover the German government begins, the political infighting becomes the focus and the movie really begins to lose a lot of momentum. Part of the problem is that so much of the movie has that bank-robbery feel to it that there's little time to focus in on the clashing ideologies, on the inner motivations for these characters that makes them for or against Hitler and his Nazi party. At times, the lineup of characters becomes a semi-confusing array of generals and lieutenants, some of whom seem to fade away into the background and then pop up again with little explanation. The result is that the fina lact of the movie sees Singer and co. trying for a big, powerful finale, but instead creating a finish that feels somwhat tacked-on and listless. You can't go almost the whole movie without really focusing on character, and then expecting us to fully invest in these characters' ultimate fates. And in a way that's what keeps the movie from being great - because we already know from history that the characters' plans are doomed to fail, we need something extra to keep us fully-invested in the plot - we need epic drama, deep characters, a fresh perspective on story being told. To some extent we get that, but there's also that feeling of inevitabilty - we knew this wouldn't end well ... and the movie lacks the grand thematic ambition to really put that exclamation point on the story and make us realize what this was all supposed to mean. I think of Steven Spielberg's MUNICH, for example, which brilliantly tied the 1970's era events to the problems of *this* decade. In contrast, Valkyrie works incredibly well as a heist thriller, but doesn't quite hit a home run when it comes to everything else.

My Grade: B+

- I'd like to quickly mention IN BRUGES. This was a movie which I missed out on when it was released earlier in the year, but one which I recently caught on DVD. And wow, what a great little movie. It stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hitmen assigned by their slightly-insane boss (Ralph Fiennes) to lay low in the quiet Belgian city of Bruges after a botched job, in which Farrell's character accidentally killed a young boy in addition to his assigned target. The two run into all kinds of oddball trouble while in Bruges, from drug-addicted dwarves to local femme fatales, and the result is a quirky, violent, and oftentimes hilarious crime movie that I'd compare to the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Snatch, and Boondock Saints. It has that same black humor, razorsharp dialogue, and lineup of badass badguys as those cult-favorites, although the style is a bit more laid back, picturesque, and easy-going. Definitely one to check out - perhaps one of the more overlooked gems of '08.

My Grade: A -

- I also managed to finally watch a movie I had been dyin' to see in the theaters when it received a limited release earlier in the year - and that movie is THE FALL. I was completely intrigued by the colorful and fantastic imagery and surreal look of the movie, directed by the guy who did The Cell, Tarsem Singh. This one is a movie I really want to love, but, I just don't know ... my impression is that there is some startling imagery here (that looks GREAT on blu-ray!), but not a whole lot of substance. I'd call it the MYST of movies - the imagery is striking, hypnotizing, and yet strangely static and cold. It doesn't help that the storyline is very odd and off-puttingly dark. It concerns a paralyzed Hollywood stuntman in 1920's Los Angeles, who in the early days of cinema gets in a horse-riding accident and finds himself stuck in a hospital bed. The patient, played by Lee Pace of PUSHING DAISIES fame, befriends a young girl who is also in the hospital with a broken arm, and begins to tell her a story of epic adventures and heroes and villains, which he continues piece by piece each time they meet. Of course, the girl is msotly unaware, at first, that Pace's character is depressed and suicidal. His friendship with her is actually a fairly manipulative one - and I have to admit, it's one aspect of many in the movie that I found depressingly bleak and just plain hard to watch at times. I don't know, in the end I found the movie a bit of a pretentious mess, and I just could not believe how inappropriately, self-indulgently dark it was given the fairy-tale like subject matter. Definitely a pretty big misfire, in my opinion.

My Grade: C

- Alright, next up: my picks for the BEST OF '08!

The Curious Blog About BENJAMIN BUTTON. No DOUBT. And Israel Thoughts ...

Alright, it's back to the grind for a bit, back at work for a couple of days prior to the New Year. But rest assured, it will be a big week here on the blog - with some huge BEST OF 2008 specials coming up. Hope you guys have checked out my reviews over the last couple of days of movies like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THE WRESTLER, and, of course, keeeeeep reading for the final word on two more buzz-worthy flicks, BENJAMIN BUTTON and DOUBT.

First though, I of course have to comment on the situation that is currently unfolding in Israel. I'd typically reserve comment until things have played out a bit more, but I am now forced to closely monitor the situation since I am going to Israel on my Birthright trip in a week! Oy, I guess everyone in the Middle East didn't get the memo that I am set to make my much-anticipated arrival in their region on January 6th. I think that warrants a little respect, you know?

Seriously though, I'm still excited for the trip and am not overly worried, though it is crazy how terrible the timing of this latest outbreak is. Couldn't Hamas and Israel have waited a couple more weeks to start killing each other? Ugh ...

And yeah, I'm sorry, but I can't help but condem both sides in this latest wave of violence. I in no way equate Israel to Hamas - Hamas is a terrorist organization, one which took it upon itself to break the cease-fire with Israel by viciously launching rockets at random Israeli homes. Not good. But what I will say is that I hold Israel to a higher standard, and more so than that, I simply don't quite see the practical reasoning behind bombing the $%#* out of the Arabs. Yes, retaliation is warranted, and yes, it sends a message of "don't #$#% with us." But isn't that pretty much exactly what Hamas wants? Hamas gets off on exactly two things: a.) ensuring that the Palestinian people hate Israel, and b.) swaying worldwide public opinion against Israel. It seems to me that Israel's latest retaliation just did exactly what Hamas wanted it to.

Now, in many ways it's a lose-lose situation for Israel. For decades, the Palestinians have made demands for land in exchange for peace. The only catch is, their leaders don't actually want peace, so it's all a moot point. Bill Clinton seemed to take the peace process about as far as it can go, only for Yassir Arafat to throw all of the work right back in his face. Would other leaders react differently to an Obama-led roadmap to peace? That's the big question mark. But with a lameduck Bush in office for another 25 days, crucial days and weeks are slipping away.

All I'm saying is, Israel's current war is as much about generating good PR as anything else. It can't keep pointing to America to justify its actions - the world soundly rejected American aggression during the Bush years, so the comparison doesn't hold much water. Israel has to go before the world with a clean slate and make its case - I have enough faith in the global community to think that, in the end, Israel's principles will win out on the world stage over those of terrorism and hatred. Israel just needs to have that same trust in its own moral compass.

- Okay, that's about all I have to say about that for now, so ... onto some movie reviews ...

DOUBT Review:

- Doubt is one of those fun-to-watch stage adaptations that lives and dies on the quality of its performances and the back-and-forth dialogue fed to its talented group of actors. On these attributes alone, Doubt is an extraordinarily top-notch film. The cast is comprised of pretty much the best in the business, and a number of scenes crackle with intensity and intrigue. There are also a lot of interesting questions posed to the audience in the film, and therein lies my one problem with the movie - it puts a lot on the table but never quite ties everything together in a satisfactory manner. They say that it's usually a good sign when a movie leaves you wanting more, but in this case I think it's not necessarilly to the movie's credit.

To sum up the plot of the film, it deals with a Catholic seminary in the 1960's that, like much of the country, is stuggling a bit with the culture wars of progressive values versus traditional old-time religion. There's a relatively new priest who runs the show - Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn - a jovial, well-liked guy who nonetheless rouses the suspicions of one of his most respected nuns and teachers. It seems that Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the school's only African-American student, and has become somewhat of a protector and guardian to him. Most simply see it as kind and altruistic behavior, but there are hints that there is something more going on, even if there's no proof. This is the central question at the heart of the film - the role of gossip and rumor-mongering, the basis on which one can make an accusation of wrongdoing, the challenge of following one's leap-of-faith beliefs versus waiting to support them with hard facts and evidence.

But let me go back for a minute and talk about the performances here. They are brilliant. I know it's cliche at this point to go on about Meryl Streep, but she's as good here as in anything I've seen her in. There just aren't many other actresses who commit to a role like she does and make sure that ever accented word, mannerism, and motion are in service to the part. As Sister Beauvier (no relation to Marge ...), Streep is one tough cookie, but what slowly becomes apparent is that there's deep conviction behind her stern exterior. It also helps that Streep has a more-than-worthy sparring partner in Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman gives one of those great, nuanced performances where you alternate between being sure that he's innocent and joining with Meryl Streep in comdemning him. Hoffman has that unique talent to escalate the intensity of a scene until you can cut the tension with a knife, and he does that here in a number of instances. Again, with Hoffman at this point, it's a given that he's going to be great whatever the role, but he really is absolutely on top of his game here as a guy who you want to like but can't quite get a read on. Is he hiding something or not? That uncertainty is part of the genius of the performance.

Two other performances really stand out as well. One being that of Amy Adams - playing the part of the naive and innocent nun Sister James, Adams' part is deceptively simple. But her character is an essential part of the film and the key go-between from Streep to Hoffman. In a way, Adams plays the entry-level character who the audience can msot relate to - caught between these two towering personalities in Streep and Hoffman, Adams is torn between who she believes and whom she sides with. The other breakout acting comes from Viola Davis as the mom of the child who may or may not be engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Father Flynn. Davis only has a few short minutes on film, but she delivers one of the movie's most jarring emotional twists, and does so in an absolutely riveting exchange with Meryl Streep. It's one of those short but memorable performances that is absolutely critical to the story.

With all of this praise, you might be wondering why I'm not absolutely raving about the movie as a whole. This is quality stuff, no doubt (pun intented) ... I don't know, I just felt like in the end it left me hanging. I realize that the entire point of the movie is to cast doubt, so to speak, on who's right and who's wrong, to keep what really happened between that priest and that boy ambiguous. But to me, that narrative decision just fell kind of flat. I get what the movie is going for, I just don't know if it works that well. Because the fact is, you can't just fire someone from their job based on innuendo and rumor - there HAS to be proof and/or a confession. To me, the movie sort of dances around this issue in the name of making Streep and Hoffman these opposing elemental forces. But there's never any real trial - their arguments never get into specifics and things never really get taken to their logical extremities. Each side just kind of argues their case, there are a few intense scenes, and then - bam! - end of movie. Because of that, it's a movie that I'll remember much more for individual scenes and performances than for any lasting ideas it put into my head. In the end, I'm not sure what this movie really had to say, except to pose a few interesting questions and then leave it at that - it never had the exclamation point it needed. And that's why this is a very good movie, but not quite a great one.

My Grade: B+


- Here is a movie that I really wanted to love, because, man, it had in it moments of true-blue, old-school Hollywood magic. But what kills me about Benjamin Button is that it's a movie that kind of presents itself as a film that wants to be this big, giant, epic, sprawling fantasy adventure. It certainly has a unique enough premise to support that, and its style and structure call to mind all kinds of imaginative stories - it's the classic "oddball boy goes out to see the world and become a man" set-up. And yet, for all it's promise, Benjamin Button turns out to be pretty much just a quirky love story, with extra doses of tug-at-the-heartstrings pathos for good measure. And that's all well and good. But man, it's a movie that you can't help but watch and think that it could have been something more, a true classic - because all of the ingredients are there - a stellar cast, grounbreaking f/x work, stylish direction ... but the movie struggles to be the kind of epic that it should. It settles. For that reason, Benjamin Button turns out to be, in fact, a really well done love epic romance of sorts. But those going in looking for huge adventure, eye-melting fantasy, and great insights into the human condition - well, look elsewhere. Do a marathon of The Shawshank Redemption, Big Fish, and Season 1 of Pushing Daisies, and you'll be just fine.

Again, all of the ingredients are there. Bradd Pitt, for one, is really great as the title character ... kind of. Pitt to me is always at his best playing quirky, odd, or just downright psychotic characters, and that's why in theory he's the perfect choice to play Benjamin Button, who as you probably know was born an old man and ages backwards towards infancy. So what happens is that Pitt is really awesome as old man Benjamin, but I found that the more he began to resemble regular old Bradd Pitt, the more bland his character became. Sure, he still had Benjamin's thick New Orleans drawl, but it felt like we were watching a devolution from Bradd Pitt he great character actor into Bradd Pitt the *movie star.* For a mainstream audience, that was probably a welcome shift, but I think it just kind of symbolized the movie's gradual slide from imagination-fueled epic into generic romance.

Oftentimes, the film just feels like a random series of events, a bunch of thrown-together scenes that don't always add up to a lot. And only a couple of parts of the movie really venture into imaginative territory, and even those that do at times feel like retreads of other similar films (such as Forrest Gump).

But give credit to director David Fincher - even if the script is sometimes uneventful, the tone of the movie feels spot-on. The whole film has an awesome look to it that veers from the stark, naturalistic look of the modern framing device, set during Hurricane Katrina, to the storybook feel of Benjamin's story, told in flashback via his diary. There is that great, slightly surrealistic / fairy-tale feel to everything that is augmented by some really cool f/x work. The aging and de-aging makeup and f/x on Pitt and his co-stars like Cate Blanchett are some of the best of their type yet seen at the movies. The results are whimsical yet realistic, and Ben, particularly when he's a young boy trapped in an old man's body, is often fascinating to watch.

To go back for a second, Cate Blanchett is almost as strong as Pitt here, and it's another case where it's hard to think of any other actress who could pull of her role. Blanchette already has that uncanny ageless look to her, so that combined with the subtle makeup work really makes you buy into her slow but steady journey towards middle age and beyond. There are a number of other very good performances here, though to be honest a lot of the peripheral characters are ultimately pretty one-note (the one exception being Tilda Swindon in a nice role as a stiff upper lip Englishwoman who takes a liking to Benjamin). I again look to the script and wish that there was a little bit more depth to some of these characters. And I also wish that the narrative had more of a real flow to it, more of a sense of urgency and that Benjamin was on a great and epic journey, and less a feeling that it was just meandering from scene to scene.

What the film does do really well thanks to Pitt, Blanchett, and the direction of Fincher is to evoke sentiment from the audience. It makes you buy into the central romance and itmakes those who are prone to crying at movies get misty-eyed over its various twists and turns and tragedies. I definitely got caught up in the whole thing and like a lot of others was eagerly wondering what would become of Benjamin and his star-crossed yet seemingly impossible romance with Daisy, his childhood love. But it wasn't until after the movie was over that I realized it left me feeling a bit empty. It never quite made an impact in the way that a Big Fish did - maybe it's just that this is the female version of that movie? Is it that Benjamin Button focuses so much on tragic, star-crossed romance that it does so to the detriment of its sense of fun and adventure? The simpler answer may just be that the movie has a lot of threads and they just don't add up to anything other than a by-the-numbers movie. We've got the elderly-person framing device a la Titanic or Big Fish, the weird kid who goes off to sail the seas and see the world a la Forrest Gump, and the fateful, seemingly impossible romance that was probably done with more aplomb in this summer's Wall-E.

Benjamin Button is a movie that is lovingly-crafted, superbly acted, and has a lot of wonder, humor, and romance to its credit. It just never feels as imaginative or original or epic as is should be, and in that respect it is, I think, a slight letdown, even if it does stand in its own right as an enjoyable, fun film.

My Grade: B+

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