I'm really not that hep on the idea of "best of" lists. Best, worst...I mean, who's to say, really? Is it really possible to make a definitive characterization of something as being "the best" when it comes to art and media? I don't know. Obviously, I don't posting lists of my favorites of things, as I did in the last posts with the "20 Favorite Actresses" meme, or 'round Halloween with my "31 Films of Halloween" posts. So I'm not going to post a "best of 2008" list. I think I posted "best of 2007"- or was it favorites of 2007- last year, but this year, I dunno, I just don't feel as strongly about things that I've seen, but anyway, it begins...
1. Punisher War Zone- I was surprised at how impressed I was by Lexie Alexander's adaptation of this comic book character, the third film about the Punisher and by far the best (although I have a certain soft spot in my heart for the barely released Dolph Lundgren version from 1989, from the director of the Treat Williams-Joe Piscopo horror comedy "Dead Heat," no less). "Punisher War Zone" is a lean and mean action film, really stripped down to the barest of essentials and propelled in large part by a quietly souful performance by Ray Stephenson as the titular vigilante. Never taking itself too seriously, yet never veering off into (unintentional) ridiculousness, this is one of the few comic book movies I've seen that actually kind of feels like a comic book. But it also works as a slightly tounge-in-cheek, splattery action flick as well. I could definitely see this movie, or a very similar version therof, being made with Lee Marvin (ala "Prime Cut") or Charles Bronson (witness "The Mechanic") in the 1970s, or by John Woo in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
2. The Dark Knight- Basically the symetrical opposite of "Punisher War Zone," the shockingly overhyped 2nd Batman film by Christopher Nolan is all excess and self-importance. From the pointlessly overinflated running time (two and a half hours plus) to every single character's constant reiteration in every scene of their basic philosophical intent, pretty much everything about this film rubbed the wrong way (as did the boring predecessor "Batman Begins"). That so many viewers and critics fell for this film is beyond me. Although I enjoyed Aaron Eckhardt as Two Face, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler, none of the other major players made much of an impression or resonated, especially Christian Bale as Batman, who portrays the character with such a ridiculously gruff growling voice it borders on the idiotic, and plays Bruce Wayne, even in candid moments, with such smarminess, I found nothing in the character particarly compelling. It doesn't help that Batman disappears for looooong stretches of the film, and that introspective moments with Bruce Wayne or nonexistant. I don't mean to be rude or speak ill of the dead, but Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker didn't do it for me either, it felt like a thrice removed impersonation of Jack Nicholson from the 1989 film, although to be fair I didn't really care for the way the character is depicted in the script to begin with. It's very far removed from the comic book version and from my favorite non-comics representation of the character, Mark Hammill in "Batman the Animated Series" (still my favorite adapation of the comic book, with the new, very cool "Batman the Brave and the Bold" animated series coming in second). Ultimately, some of these things might have been excusable if the movie had felt like it was actually ABOUT anything, but most of the non-action scenes felt like filler between the action setpieces. I know many people have responded to this more serious version of the Batman character, but "the Dark Knight" felt too violent and joyless. Comic books are colorful and fun, even something relatively serious like "Batman- the Killing Joke" (certainly an influence here) or "Watchmen" has that sense of color and exaggeration. The violence works in something like "Punisher War Zone" because that's what that character is all about, but Batman is supposed to be "the world's greatest detective" as well as a martial artist and gadget afficianado. None of that is on display here. It's just Batman fighting the Joker, the Joker killing people, and some other mafia shit (and, very briefly, Two-Face) for a loooong, grim two and a half hours. And if you're supposedly putting forth such a deep psychological profile of the character, explain to me why someone so deeply traumatized by gun violence as a child, to the extent that he would put on a bat costume and devote the rest of his life to fighting crime (without using a gun or killing anyone), would mount giant machineguns to his motorcycle? (I know pointing out something like that makes me kind of a Dork Knight, but think about it, or don't, I don't really give a fuck, I just wanted to throw that "Dork Knight" gag in here somewhere).
3. "Iron Man"- Since we're on a roll with the superhero movies, here's another one that did absolutely nothing for me, even less than "the Dark Knight." "The Dark Knight" I just found kind of bland and pointless, "Iron Man" struck me as genuinely kind of repellant. It's the superhero movie for fans of Judd Apatow and that general frat culture aesthetic. It's the superhero movie for people who read "Maxim" and watch "Entourage." It's a film, made during wartime, about a millionaire (billionaire?) war profiteer who slaughters Middle-Eastern villagers with a flamethrower (the exact same thing, except with Vietnam, parodied in "Watchmen" twenty plus years earlier)- this is basically the Bush-era Reagan jack-off military industrial complex narratively uncomplex wet dream come to life, or movie life, or whatever, it was a piece of shit, morally disturbing and disturbingly popular. The post credit scene with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was kinda cool, though. But seriously, this movie fucking sucked. And so what if Robert Downey Jr. was good in this, he's good in everything. He was good in "Weird Science." Big fucking deal. I thought Jeff Bridges was good in this too, but if I really want to see a good Jeff Bridges performance in a much better film, I can watch basically almost any other movie he's ever been in. They're good actors, why is it so incredulous to everyone that they'd still be good in a comic book movie?
4. "Hancock"- Another superhero flick, this one not based on a comic, and really not too bad either. Will Smith, for all the shitty movies he does, is a credible and charismatic performer, and I found him pretty compelling as a drunken reluctant superhero. I also enjoyed Jason Bateman as his sort of sidekick and PR man. But "Hancock" is ultimately uneven, teetering uncomfortably and awkwardly between comedy, which works, and attempts at seriousness and melodrama, which don't. The third act addition of a hook handed villain is pretty pointless, but almost unnoticeable, since everything that happens once Charlize Theron, as Bateman's wife (intentional or not, a welcomed allusion to their ill-fated romance on "Arrested Development"), is revealed as having superpowers and ties to Hancock's past, is basically incoherent, concluding with Hancock inexplicably drawing a giantic red heart on the moon. Seriously. As a comedy, though, "Hancock" really has some moments, whether it's the title character shooting holes in things with his dick, or Donald Gibb's (Ogre from the "Revenge of the Nerds" films) brief cameo as a burly yet sensitive convict in a prison AA meeting. There are also some clever soundtrack clues as well, including th 45 King's "the 1-900 number" (aka the Ed Lover dance song) and Ice T's "Colors."
5. "Step Brothers"- Shifting gears a little, I more-or-less enjoyed this Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly gross-out comedy from Adam McKay, the director of other Ferrell films "Anchorman" and "Tallageda Nights," also with Reilly. The presence of producer Judd Apatow is felt in this film's kind of listless nastiness and thorough devotion to unpleasantness, something of a trademark in Apatow films, and indeed, this is definitely toned-down stylistically but keyed-up in terms of vulgarity in relation to previous Ferrell vehicles. But it strikes a balance that often works, even if the film as a whole is kind of nothing, the individual moments are reasonably hilarious in their absurdity. And it's certainly a credit to the cast that they remain pretty appealing despite the frequent nastiness of the material. AND it's the rare Hollywood film these days that's actually about something, and vaguely subervise if somewhat maudlin in the final reel, but it attacks aggression-driven, late capitalist culture in its' portrayal of supposed "adults" as obnoxious assholes who bow to the most ridiculous excesses of consumer culture. Particularly hilarious is the notion that once Ferrell has "sold out," he enjoys eating at Outback Steakhouse. As such, it's a celebration of the reverse, the sense of imagination and playfulness exhibited by Ferrell and Reilly's men-children characters, and in that respect illicts a certain quality of joyousness as well. Really, not a bad film.
6. "The Promotion"- Even more low-key but less frequently hilarious is this decent yet slight take on the culture of middle management starring John C. Reilly and Sean William Scott, written and directed by Steve Conrad, who also penned the suprisingly excellent Nicholas Cage-Gore Verbinsky film "The Weather Man" a few years back. Like Shawn at Branded in the 80's, I've long associated Scott with his obnoxious role in "American Pie," a film I really disliked, and because have that have offhandedly kind of dismissed him for many years, but lately I've been really impressed by his performances as a non-obnoxious, non-aggressive, very identifiable kind of character. Here he's the assistant manager of a grocery store vying for a managerial position at the chain's new location who suddenly finds himself in competition with Reilly, playing a Canadian transplant, ex-addict, ex-biker (yet really sort of a nerd)-turned-family man after the same position. "The Promotion" avoids cliches by portraying both of its' leads as basically decent, well-meaning people on the verge of compromising their values in order to provide for their families. It's lack of cynicism is welcome, even if the laughs aren't particularly fast and furious, Conrad eschew's exaggeration and outrageousness for a more belieable, intimate feel. That said, this isn't exactly a film that will stay with you long after you've watched it, and although it has the milieu of corporate culture, it's not the kind of parody of corporate culture as found in something like "Office Space" or "the Office" (the American version of which it shares cast member Jenna Fischer), and as such doesn't resonate quite as much as those works. The supporting cast is pretty great, including Lili Taylor, Jason Bateman, Rick Gonzalez (from "Reaper") and Adrian Martinez (Quincy Jones' fake brother from one episode of "Flight of the Conchords").
7. "The Ex"- Yet another film with Jason Bateman, that dude certainly gets around. This flick was horrible though. As a comedy, it wasn't just trite and unfunny, it had a genuine kind of ickiness to it, revolving around the physicality of the characters and everyone's relationship to their bodies and, particularly, their gentials, or something. This is the kind of generic, thoughtless, charmless by-the-numbers junk churned out by the dozens, but it doesn't even make it to the most basic level of depicting some form of recognizable humanity, nor does it have the kind of unbridled enthusiasm or vulgarity that can wring laughs from even the most rote of screenplays or the most bland of sub-sitcom level direction. Fuck, even the presence of the likes of Charles Grodin, Mia Farrow and Amy Poehler fail to raise this movie to a level of adequacy. (whoops, I just looked this up on imdb and realized it came out like 2 years ago. I'm leaving the capsule up just because, and seriously, don't watch it, because it's awful).
8. "Baby Mama" I reviewed this here and don't have much else to say about it. Another icky, mostly unfunny film with Amy Poehler.
9. "Tropic Thunder" I reviewed this here and haven't gained any particular insight on it in the interim. Yes, I laughed, but at the expense of a small piece of my soul.
10. "Hamlet 2" Another film, reviewed here, I enjoyed but didn't really like, and felt like maybe I was supporting something, both philosophically and financially, kind of horrible and culturally cancerous by going to see, be it Steve Coogan's drug habit or Hollywood's casual antisemitism. Still, better in many ways than the somewhat similar "Tropic Thunder."
11. "Role Models" Finally, a comedy that's actually good. No caveats, no "I liked it but..." or "I liked it despite..." this movie I just liked. Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott are perfect as the lead pair of misfits, Rudd a disenfranchised misanthrope, Scott a self-involved partier, co-workers who are thrust together in a "big brother" type program in order to avoid going to jail. They're paired with two equally misfit kids, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the socially retarded, D&D obsessed Augie, and Bobb'e Thompson as the anarchically rambunctions, titty-obsessed Ronnie. Aside from great performances- and all four leads Rudd, Scott, Mintz-Plasse and especially the young Thompson are totally perfect- "Role Models" benefits, I think, from the lack of involvement of Judd Apatow, who seems like he would have had a hand in here somewhere, but doesn't, thankfully, and, as written (with Rudd and several others) and directed by David Wain of "the State" and "Wet Hot American Summer," it lacks the Apatow brand's signature nastiness. Yeah, I know I've been harping on this point alot, and I don't even feel like I've really fully expressed it, but there's something just kind of grim and joyless about Apatow productions, even when they're funny, even when they resonate, they come from a deeply non-comedic place, not so much as products of misanthropy or depression (both of which can be very funny), or something, I dunno...Kafka-esque, an examination of the absuridty of life, I guess you'd say existential, which can also be very funny. No, Apatow's films, both as director and producer, emanate from something deeply flawed yet ingrained in our culture, in the collective psyche, not as an examination of it or a reaction from the outside of it, but as a product of it. They are deeply inside the mainstream. Y'know, he makes DMV films, films that just plod through the horribleness of everything with no opposition, no self-reflexivity...Anyway, "Roles Models" is thankfully an outsider film, though more conventional than Wain's "Wet Hot American Summer," he and Rudd and company are really vigorously interrogating popular culture and even the conventions of linguistics and human interaction here. One of the film's more subtle and clever threads has many of its' characters, including Scott and a very funny Jane Lynch as the big brother program's head, speaking in incomprehensible platitudes, cliches, misquotes and generally thoughless, meaningless non-communicative attacks on language. Rudd goes off on a coffee shop clerk for calling a large coffee and "vente." Little Ronnie cuts to the message bluntly, when admonished for his language, he replies, "Motherfucker, my language is English..." But more than a cute film with an admirable message, "Role Models" is frequently hilarious. All the leads give really believable, intuative performances, I think most audience members will indentify with at least one of them (I felt a particular connection with Rudd's self-hatred reflected outwards toward the world), and they're well aided by a supporting cast including Ken Marino, Kerri Kenny, Joe Lo Truglio and Wain himself (all from "the State"), AJ Miles, Matt Walsh, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Jeong, Nicole Randall Johnson, Vincent Martella and Alexandra Stamler. I dunno, I should have written a longer review of this after I saw it, because I think the whole commincations aspect is really interesting and worthy of discussion, but to put the charm and humor of this film in perspective- I hate Kiss, the band. I fucking hate them. I hate their music, hate their schtick, their crass commercialism, and, from watching them on various TV shows and "Decline of Western Civilization 2- the Metal Years," I think they're horrible awful fucking people. But towards the end of this film, as the lead quartet take to the field of Augie's live action role playing game all dressed out in Kiss costumes, with little Ronnie in a Gene Simmons wig, it was such a triumphant moment, that I forgot what has been basically a lifelong disgust and contempt for one of the world's worst, most overrated and overexposed bands, a group that I will amost not be friend with people who like, and just sort of basked in the glory of it all. "Role Models" is funny and touching without being maudlin or schmaltzy, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film and hands down the funniest comedy I saw all year.
More to come. Happy Holidays!