Rob and Jim go to the movies
ESPN.com's Rob Neyer and Jim Caple discuss the best movies of 2008
Rob Neyer: I love lists. Always have. Once I wrote an entire book full of lists, hundreds and hundreds of them. So in late December when my local paper printed a bunch of movie critics' top-10 lists for 2008, I really couldn't help myself: I had to mash them up and come up with an uberlist. Each movie got 10 points for a first-place vote, nine points for second place, and so on.
Oh, and I did have a practical motive for doing this: I had a whole weekend to myself, I wanted to see some movies, and I wanted to see the best movies. Granted, I could have gleaned essentially the same information from a quick visit to Rotten Tomatoes, but -- and yes, I'm a nerd -- I actually enjoy entering data into a spreadsheet and seeing what gets spit out at the end. And upon looking at the spit, I quickly realized was that I'd seen far too few of the best movies of the year (granted, some of them hadn't played in my city yet).
I wound up seeing 31 movies in 2008 -- or rather, 31 movies that were released in 2008 -- including four in a row the day after getting my spit from the spreadsheet (but that's a story for another time, perhaps). A few results:
• Nine movies garnered at least 30 points in my little scoring system; I eventually saw all of those.
Mark Seliger/Sony Pictures
Sometimes a good movie just needs to give you a few laughs.
• Eighteen movies were named on at least four of the critics' lists; I saw a dozen of those.
• The most highly regarded movies I did not see were "Rachel Getting Married," "The Visitor," and "A Christmas Tale;" about those I don't have anything to say (except that Richard Jenkins, nominated as Best Actor for his role in "The Visitor," was in two other 2008 releases that I did see and enjoy: "Step Brothers" and "Burn After Reading").
• Two movies vied for the top spot in the rankings: "Slumdog Millionaire" (72 points, 10 ballots) and "Wall-E" (73 points, nine ballots). It's a funny thing: I don't begrudge either film its place atop the list, and I loved both of them but I certainly didn't think either was perfect, which I suppose just points out the difficulty of making a perfect movie.
Actually, I'm not sure "Slumdog" wasn't perfect. Sure, everything came with a high gloss, and the female love interest was probably just a tad too gorgeous, and the entire film is built on a conceit built on absurdly improbable coincidences but -- as you sort of suggested in your other piece, Jim -- since when do we expect less from our popcorn movies (and while "Slumdog" is no "Transformers," it most certainly is a popcorn movie)? "Slumdog" is wildly entertaining and suspenseful, and when it ended I thought I might have just seen the best movie of the year. I suppose my only quibble is that it's getting bonus points -- at least from various critics -- for being exotic. Let me ask you: same story, same acting, same everything but shot in America rather than India. Does everyone love it as much?
Jim Caple: First of all, be very, very happy that you didn't see "Rachel Getting Married" or "A Christmas Tale." That means you had five extra hours in your year that I did not. "Rachel" isn't bad, but coming right on the heels of "A Christmas Tale," it was just too much dysfunctional family life for me to handle. "Christmas" is my nominee for the most pretentious, miserable movie of the year. I know three other people who saw it and they all hated it as well. (If, by the way, you want to see a good movie with a slight Christmas theme, check out "In Bruges," a very black comedy for which Colin Ferrell received a very deserved Golden Globe. Pair it with "Bad Santa" next Christmas, and you won't be sorry.)
|Jim Caple makes his picks for best actor, actress and movie. With a special appearance by Jamie Moyer.|
I pretty much agree with you on "Slumdog," though I must quibble with your bonus-points clause. Yes, it gets bonus points for being set in (for Americans) an exotic locale. But isn't that the point of a movie? To transport us to someplace else? To take us out of the multiplex and into a new world? Would "Casablanca" have been as good were it set in America? (True, it would be difficult to set it in America, but you see what I mean.) Would "Star Wars" have been as entertaining if it had been a Western? "Lawrence of Arabia"? "The African Queen"? "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? Isn't that the fun of a lot of movies? Yes, it gets bonus points, and well it should.
As for "Wall-E," I loved the first half and got a little bored by the second half but still liked it a lot (it's in my top 10). I found that a lot this year: Movies entertained me for half to two-thirds of the film and then lost me. Was it that way for anyone else in 2008, or am I just getting old?
Rob: I don't think it's just you, and I don't think it's just this year. I've recently watched again movies that I liked a lot the first time, and realized just how rarely even a good movie sustains a certain pitch of excellence throughout. I think if we see a movie at the theater and it soars, really soars for just a few moments, we tend to remember it fondly. But how many movies soar for two hours? I had the same issue with "Wall-E," except it's really just the first 20 minutes that truly thrilled me; what I found dramatic was the poor little guy all by his lonesome, and once Eve showed up I just didn't care as much anymore. (And yes, I know everyone else loved their romance. So sue me.)
Sean Penn earned a best actor nod for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.
(Oh, and thanks for the news about "Rachel" and "Christmas Tale;" both of them -- and particularly "A Christmas Tale" -- were especially well-regarded by my local arts section, but I was never really tempted. I must have great instincts!)
The next two on the list are "Milk" (60 points) and "The Dark Knight" (55). I guess it was something of a surprise that "TDK" wasn't nominated for Best Picture, at least in light of its finish here. When I saw it I was fairly blown away, but then again, when you see a well-made action movie with a bit of a brain on a big screen with huge speakers, you should be blown away. But that was last summer, and this winter I'd forgotten what I liked about it (except I didn't forget Heath Ledger). So I saw it again on my small screen. I do believe it's a fine movie, but I can't argue that it's one of the five best of 2008. It's probably 20 minutes too long, and does suffer the same flaw as all other superhero movies: The central conceit is preposterous. What's more, I saw one blogger arguing that "TDK" wasn't better than "Iron Man," and I'm not sure that she's wrong.
As for "Milk," it's fine. And yes, that's one hell of a backhanded compliment. Sean Penn's performance was of course pitch-perfect, and Gus Van Sant takes us back to San Francisco in the 1970s. But does this movie really soar? Does it routinely transcend the natural boundaries of the biopic? I'm just a baseball writer, so I don't know. What I do know is that "Milk" didn't affect me like some of the others here.
Jim: I didn't see "The Dark Knight." Just didn't feel the need to see yet another Batman movie. Don't get me wrong: I'm a big comic-book fan. I think Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" graphic novel -- which I've read several times since it first came out almost a quarter-century ago -- is thrilling, innovative, cinematic and a terrific story. But good Lord. How many more Batman movies must we see anyway? (And I loved reading reviews saying "TDK" is the truest Batman of them all and that Heath Ledger is out of this world as the Joker. Those are the exact same things they said about "Batman" and Jack Nicholson in 1989.)
You brought up "Iron Man," which is another movie in which I loved the first half and was bored silly in the second. Robert Downey Jr. is really fun as a jerk of a weapons manufacturer, but once he becomes Iron Man it just turns into another ridiculous, over-the-top, overblown FX action movie. And good to see that Gwyneth Paltrow has really followed up her Academy Award with yet another fine role.
I really, really liked "Milk." As you say, Penn is spectacular. I would have liked to see a little more of Josh Brolin's character, but that's a minor point. I don't know that it transcends the boundaries of a biopic, but it certainly reaches to the edge of those boundaries and fills them up. It's definitely in my top five.
(P.S. I agree with you on "Wall-E" slowing down when Eve shows up.)
Rob: Well, speaking of top fives, the next two on the list certainly will be in mine: "Happy-Go-Lucky" (51 points) and "The Wrestler" (49). My biggest gripe about the Oscar nominations was "Happy-Go-Lucky" nearly getting shut out. No love for Sally Hawkins in the lead? Really? None for Eddie Marsan as the psychotic driving instructor? I don't know it's not like the Academy hasn't appreciated some of Mike Leigh's other movies. I just think they missed this small masterpiece.
Of course, they didn't miss on "The Wrestler," which might be considered another small masterpiece if Mickey Rourke weren't so big. I saw your take on Rourke winning the Oscar, and I get your point about him perhaps "acting" less than the other guys but man, can't you give the guy a little extra credit for getting plastered all over with a staple gun? Heath Ledger's Joker was probably the most striking character of the year, but I do believe that Rourke's was the most affecting. Do you remember what I said about a movie soaring? Well, this one soars more than once. And did any 2008 release finish better? When it was over, I said to myself: "Perfect" and that was before the perfect Springsteen song that played over the credits. Just an immensely powerful film, and deserving of every honor it's received (with the possible exception of Marisa Tomei's Oscar nomination; she was fine, but c'mon).
Jim: Yeah, I give Rourke extra points for the staple gun. My favorite scene in "The Wrestler" was when the camera follows Rourke as he walks through the back hallways of the supermarket to work the deli counter for the first time. It's a play off him walking into the ring, and is every bit as powerful as the similar scene of DeNiro entering the ring in "Raging Bull."
But here's what I want to know: It's bad enough Springsteen didn't even receive an Oscar nomination after winning a Golden Globe in this category, and that "Slumdog Millionaire" received two nominations for songs you could not possibly name even if they played the notes and flashed the title in big neon letters (while not an original song, the best piece in "Slumdog" is M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes"). No, the really puzzling thing is that only three songs were nominated, rather than the usual five. What's the deal with that? That's like the managers and coaches only giving out four Gold Gloves and ignoring the catcher, the third baseman and two outfielders.
Rob: I meant to scour the Web for some explanation of that I mean, I talk about the credibility of the Hall of Fame voting, but any deficiencies there pale next to the issues with the processes used to determine the nominees for Best Song and Best Foreign Language Film.
Merrick Morton/Paramount Pictures
Brad Pitt's makeup did a great acting job in "Benjamin Button."
Anyway, moving on next on the list is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," in seventh place with 50 points. I didn't really know what to expect, and I probably wouldn't have been eager to see it if a good friend hadn't given me his highest recommendation. So I sat down in a dark theater with my popcorn and was utterly captivated for nearly three hours.
You weren't, and I'm not going to try to convince you that you should have been. But I do want to address the "Forrest Gump" thing for a moment. I have to admit that I didn't really "get" the comparison until I saw this hilariously devastating bit from Spike Feresten: "It's just like 'Gump,' but no AIDS. Playing at a theater near you. Again."
So, yeah. But I despise "Gump," I love "Button," and I believe that once you get past the superficial similarities, you'll find that they're fundamentally different movies. "Gump" wasn't about Forrest Gump; it was about college football and desegregation and Vietnam and pingpong in China and dirty hippies and Watergate and smiley-face T-shirts. The movie's not about Forrest Gump; he's simply a tree from which to hang all those shiny Baby Boomer ornaments, with golden oldies playing in the background. When I watch "Gump" now, it makes me angry. They told me it was a movie about charming Forrest and big-hearted Lieutenant Dan, but it's really just an expensive exercise in blathering nostalgia. Yuck.
"Button," though, is timeless. Yes, we know we're passing through the decades thanks to visual and aural clues. But the story really takes place in a vacuum, with the settings and the times practically irrelevant. You might not believe or care about the characters, but -- and granted, the central conceit is always there -- it's a movie that does concern itself with the characters. If Benjamin Button is Forrest Gump, then he's Forrest Gump for grownups.
I could go on (obviously), but won't, except to say that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" should be viewed without a single thought of that earlier, far-less-interesting movie.
Jim: I didn't have "Gump" in mind before I saw "Button," but my wife and I sure did while watching it, and that fantastic clip shows why. But I did like "Button" (just not as much as you did). One problem I had with it, though, was the inconsistent timeline.
OK, I buy the initial conceit: He grows younger as he ages. I accept that. Just as I accept that birds and mice talk and do our laundry in a Disney movie. But they imply Button was about 85 when he was born in 1918 and that he dies in 2003. Yet remember the scene where he returns to Cate Blanchett when he's looking like a teenager? The film needlessly shows a clip from "Fernwood 2 Night," which was a damn funny show with Martin Mull and Fred Willard that aired in 1977-78. And yet he lived another 25 years after that. But even if he was 25 for that scene, it brings up another question. Why did he have to go away if they had their child in the late 1960s? In theory, he wouldn't have been a teenager until the daughter was nearly 20.
Rob: Have to admit I completely missed the timeline problem. But then, when I'm in the theater, if the movie's well-crafted I tend to get lost in the story.
Finally, the eighth and ninth movies -- I didn't see Nos. 10, 11 or 12 -- on the list were a couple of critics' darlings that hardly anyone saw: "Let the Right One In" (37 points), a super-creepy Swedish vampire movie; and "Man on Wire" (34 points), a documentary about the guy who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in 1974. The latter is nominated for Documentary Feature; unbelievably -- or rather, far too believably -- the former is not nominated for best Foreign Language Film. But if you're going to see one vampire movie or one subtitled movie released in 2008, you should let "Let the Right One In" in.
So those were nine of the best-reviewed films of 2008, and I have to applaud the collective wisdom of the critics, because I loved most of them and liked the others.
A few other personal favorites before our top-10 lists
• It was another great year for Judd Apatow, who didn't direct anything but produced "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Step Brothers," both of which made big money and deserved to (I should mention here that nothing makes me laugh more deeply than Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly riffing.)
"Ghost Town" may have been the most underrated movie of the year.
• I'm disappointed that Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" didn't do better with the critics or (especially) the crowds. Granted, an existential take on art and mortality is a pretty tough sell, but the movie is wildly inventive and sticks in your head for days afterward. Or at least it stuck in mine.
• Two big English comedians were featured in lead roles for the first time, and I loved both movies, neither of which made any money in this country: Ricky Gervais in "Ghost Town" and Steve Coogan in "Hamlet 2." I suppose everyone reading this knows Gervais because of "The Office," but Coogan's also as funny as anyone you'll see in an Apatow movie (which I mean as a compliment). If you missed these in the theater, get the DVDs (and "Ghost Town," in addition to being pretty funny, isn't a bad date movie).
Jim: I loved "Man on Wire" which comes off as a brilliant caper pic/documentary. Unfortunately, I somehow missed that Swedish vampire movie. I did, however, see "Twilight," which probably doesn't compare with your vampire flick, but it isn't all that bad, just about what you would expect from a movie based on a cheesy teen vampire romance novel. In fact, there is a surprising amount of baseball in "Twilight." The lead character's mother is dating a player with the minor league Jacksonville Suns. Not sure why she would be dating someone that young, but I forgive that because there is an important scene where the vampires play a baseball game -- no, I'm not making that up -- across the Columbia River from Multnomah Falls in Oregon, not that far from where you live and where I grew up. (Speaking of which, if you haven't read "The Brothers K," I don't know why I'm even talking to you.)
My top 10:
1. "Slumdog Millionaire"
2. "Frost/Nixon" I might have enjoyed this as much as any movie of the year, but I'm a sucker for movies about journalism.
4. "Ghost Town" (I love Ricky Gervais, and he somehow pulled off a romantic comedy in which nobody kisses anyone else.)
5. "The Wrestler"
6. "Bigger Stronger Faster*" A fun documentary asking the crucial question of whether steroids really are bad for you. Should be must viewing for every sports fan, especially those outraged by the current "scandals."
7. "In Bruges"
8. "Man on Wire"
10. "Be Kind Rewind" Filled with some very funny bits, and in the end a simple homage to the power of movies.
Rob: You're a comic-book fan but didn't bother seeing "The Dark Knight," and yet I'm supposed to have read "The Brothers K"? Well, you know what? I have read it and loved it. One of my all-time favorite novels, and I'm due for another read soon.
I didn't like "Ghost Town" as much as you did, but I'm thrilled to see it so high on your list. And "Frost/Nixon" I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. Ron Howard is a fine director who's almost incapable of making a bad movie, but he seems nearly as incapable of making a great one. Frank Langella was fantastic as Richard Nixon, of course, and maybe it didn't help that I'd seen the play and so knew exactly what was going to happen at almost every moment. Just not a lot of soaring in there for me.
Anyway, here were the 10 movies released in 2008 that really did soar, for me:
10. "Step Brothers"
9. "Tell No One"
7. "Synecdoche, New York"
6. "Man on Wire"
5. "Benjamin Button"
4. "Let the Right One In"
3. "Slumdog Millionaire"
2. "The Wrestler"
Haven't mentioned "Tell No One," a fantastic suspense film from France, which, due to the Academy's silly rules, wasn't eligible for a nomination; run (don't walk) to your Netflix queue. And I know the cineastes out there will kill me for including "Step Brothers" here, and I'm sorry but thanks to repeated viewings, no movie released in 2008 has given me more pleasure this winter during some rough personal stuff. I don't know what makes a great movie, but I'm happy to start with deep belly laughs.
When Rob Neyer isn't watching movies, he's writing about baseball for ESPN.com.