December 25, 2008

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Year of the blockbuster
Popcorn summer beats 'serious' movies in 2008
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

Popular movies can also be good movies.

I know, I know, it sounds like crazy talk but hear me out.

In this season of Oscar wannabes, I have so far only seen one movie that, as a piece of entertainment (which last time I checked is what movies still are), stands up to the movies released this summer. Even the not-so-great movies this summer were not-so-bad (The Love Guru being one of the eye-bleeding exceptions). On either side of the summer, the soda seems to have gone a little flat, the popcorn tastes a little stale.

As usual, there are a good number of the Golden Globe nominees and buzz-garnering end-of-the-year movies that I haven’t seen yet. As of this writing, that list includes The Reader, Doubt, Cadillac Records, Frost/Nixon, Gran Torino, The Wrestler, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road, Che and Wendy and Lucy. But, so far, it’s been a strange year, with only a few standouts, only a few disasters and a lot of stuff somewhere in the middle.

• Best romantic comedy: Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It was an extremely low bar, the “best romantic comedy” ranking in 2008, but I’m a sucker for a Kevin Smith movie and this had quite possibly the best sex scene all year.

And now for the worst, in three parts:

• Creepiest romantic comedy: Definitely Maybe. Ryan Reynolds tells his daughter all the gory details of his love life before she was born. Who does that?

• Best reasons for Kate Hudson to stop being in romantic comedies: Fool’s Gold and My Best Friend’s Girl. The latter is also a good reason why Dane Cook needs to take a breather.

• Examples of why people from Grey’s Anatomy don’t need to be in romantic comedies: Made of Honor — an extremely unfun-to-watch Patrick Dempsey plays the Julia Roberts role from My Best Friend’s Wedding, though that movie had a better ending. 27 Dresses didn’t do Katherine Hiegl any favors either, but after last year’s Knocked Up I’m willing to believe it’s not her fault.

• Best movie about kids that is not a kids’ movie: Under the Same Moon. A nine-year-old boy sneaks into the U.S. from Mexico to find his mother, who’s been working in the states. A charming movie about family, immigration and what happens when you can find kids who can really act.

• Worst movie about kids that is not a kids’ movie: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. This Holocaust movie, based on a young adult book, has its heart in the right place but just plays it a little too cute ,with squirm-inducing results.

• Documentaries that can duke it out in a dark alley: I had problems with both Religulous and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Bill Maher’s argument against religion and Ben Stein’s argument for intelligent design, respectively. Maher’s smugness and the easy pickings of his interview subjects kind of get in the way of his argument — that religion has no place in politics and political decision-making. But Stein’s rant about why creationism — excuse me, intelligent design, not that he ever explains the difference — should be given scientific legitimacy is absurd. Advantage: Religulous.

• Most successful introduction of a comic book superhero: Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. is awesome — flawlessly pulling off both the smirk and the metal suit. It was a great start to a solid summer.

• Least successful introduction of a comic book superhero: The Incredible Hulk. Maybe the Hulk just doesn’t translate well to the big screen. I should say that this movie, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t a bad movie (I gave it a B-) but in a summer that offered some good action/adventure/superhero antics, this one was the weakest.

• Best crime caper movie: Flawless and The Bank Job. It was all about the French when it came to mysteries this year but somehow the English got the crime capers. Or, at least English settings. The Bank Job starts off as a playful bank robbery in London in the 1970s but turns into something more serious. Flawless is that rare gem, an engaging diamond heist (and, even rarer, a movie with a subtle Demi Moore performance).

• Worst crime caper movie: Nobel Son. Dull and strange, this script needed many more revisions.

• Best example of why the kids are alright: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. I’m sure we’ll all burn out on Michael Cera sometime next year but for now he’s still the nerd-girl’s nostalgic fantasy about the boy she wishes she could have met in high school. In this sweet “one night on the town” movie, Cera and Kat Dennings are the perfect emo geeky couple — with, of course, a great soundtrack. Runner up: Twilight. This glittery vampire tale is absurd and yet so, like, totally gets it.

• Example of why the kids may not be alright: High School Musical 3: Senior Year. All this wholesome singing and togetherness will leave tweens woefully unprepared for the actual experience of high school, which is a little closer to the musical episode of Oz.

• Best older-teens-behave-inappropriately movie: Sex Drive. Somehow a giant donut costume and two really strong supporting actors elevate this teen-looking-to-score movie above all others. Plus, Seth Green.

• Worst older-teens-behave-inappropriately movie: College. It’s every cliché in the college movie handbook (the inexperienced pre-frosh, the mean frat) but so unfunnily done.

• Best bodice-ripper: The Duchess. Apparently Georgiana Spencer, distant relative of Princess Diana, was quite the proto-feminist, involving herself in politics and the like. Not that you would know it from this movie, which is deliciously all E! True Hollywood Stories about her love life.

• Worst bodice-ripper: The Other Boleyn Girl. Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman take turns being Henry VIII’s best girl but we never get a sense of the history-changing nature of their romances and we get no steamy bedroom scenes. Plenty of whining, though. The movie leaves you wondering why Henry didn’t start lopping heads earlier.

• Best example of directors showing off: Burn After Reading. The tone and look are of a serious and suspenseful spy drama but the innards are all Joel and Ethan Coen wackiness. Replace all the smart characters from a Hitchcock movie with morons and you have the wonderfully fun Burn After Reading.

• Worst example of a director showing off: Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I could watch Penelope Cruz chain-smoke and rant in Spanish all day long but otherwise this latest Woody Allen dramady is often insufferable.

Runner up: Synecdoche, New York. Writer and director Charlie Kaufman needs to pay a visit the world outside his own head.

Second runner up: The Happening. M. Night Shyamalan gives us attack of the plants!

• Best long-awaited adaptation of a TV show: Sex and the City: The Movie. I wasn’t an enormous fan of the TV show but the movie (mostly) wasn’t painful to sit through and gave the fans the fairy tale capper they’d wanted.

• Worst long-awaited (and much feared) adaptation of a TV show: The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Thanks, Chris Carter. After slowly killing your once great series, you actually dug it up, electrified life back in to the rotting corpse and then killed it again. No amount of Mulder/Scully cuddling makes up for all the moments they aren’t in bed together.

• Best beginning: Tropic Thunder. The first five or so minutes — the “trailers” that introduce the characters — had me laughing so hard I think I might have broken ribs. The dance that runs over the credit sequence will also have you choking on your Milk Duds

• Best first act: Hancock. This Will Smith superhero flick went all strange in its final half but its introduction of a bad-ass reluctant crime fighter was great summer fun.

• Best middle: Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The Hellboy and Abe Sapien drunken duet is one of the best movie moments of the summer.

• Best end: Soul Men. A thoroughly OK movie ends with a touching set of interviews and some behind-the-scenes footage of the late Bernie Mac.

• Best Bromance: Role Models It might have been Seth Rogen’s Pineapple Express that created the word “bromance” but this Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott comedy was, in its own funny-sad, low-key way, much goofier, much bro-ier.

Runner up: Step-Brothers. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly were made for each other.

• Best Sis-mance: Baby Mama. This Amy Poehler/Tina Fey comedy didn’t exactly blow the Judd Apatow crowd out of the water but it did show that girls could be funny. Perhaps with Fey’s newfound fame and Poehler’s retirement from Saturday Night Live, the ladies could reunite for another, even funnier go. (How funny can they be? Go rewatch Fey as Sarah Palin and Poehler as Hillary Clinton from an SNL cold open earlier this fall. Or, just check out Poehler’s delivery of “deal with it” during Fey’s commentary “Bitch is the New Black.”)


Top 10 movies of the year
With some cheating

10. Role Models/ Mamma Mia! Two movies that have no business being here — a throwaway bromance and a guilty pleasure musical — and yet both reminded me of why I love going to the movies.

9. Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. gave the first of two great summer performances this year in this superhero movie (which kicked off this glowing popcorn season). The Dark Knight might be the better movie but Iron Man was more fun.

8. Tell No One/Roman De Gare. Somehow, it was France’s year for good, beach-read-type mystery movies.

7. Young@Heart/Man on Wire.  Two documentaries that will give you chills.

6. Slumdog Millioniare/Happy-Go-Lucky. Modern fairy tales — the first set in the slums of a booming Mumbai and the second featuring a smart yet relentlessly optimistic English woman.

5. Frozen River/The Visitor. Two very good, very small movies about different aspects of immigration in the U.S.

4. Tropic Thunder. Tom Cruise’s best performance ever.

3. Milk. First serious Oscar-contender-type movie of the year to live up to its hype. Sean Penn is electrifying as Harvey Milk.

2. The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger gave the performance of his life in the best superhero movie of the year.

1. WALL-E. A beautiful-looking cartoon, a charming group of characters and a delightful story. And it’s G-rated.

Worst 10 movies of the year
With some cheating

10. Mad Money. Part of a continuing campaign to make Diane Keaton look ridiculous.

9. Definitely Maybe/My Best Friend’s Girl/Fool’s Gold/Made of Honor/What Happens in Vegas. Romantic comedies and yet not romantic, not funny.

8. Bangkok Dangerous. Is it the hair that’s made Nicolas Cage so untalented?

7. Proud American/An American Carol. Just because movie-goers don’t like preachy liberal movies doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy weird jingoist “patriotic” movies like these two clunkers.

6. Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Your modern 8-year-olds will love it but that doesn’t mean the inner-8-year-olds of Gen X-ers will ever forgive George Lucas.

5. The Flight of the Red Balloon. Just because it’s French and about a balloon does not make it meaningful.

4. Expelled: No Intelligence Required. I propose a new rule: unless you are making a documentary about the Holocaust no using the Holocaust in your documentary, especially to make cheap political points.

3. Meet the Spartans/Disaster Movie. How about this, lame parody movies, from now on you just have to threaten to make another “spoof” and I’ll just send you the $10 and nobody has to get hurt.

2. The Love Guru. Never has a comedy made me so sad.

1. The Hottie and the Nottie. Paris Hilton stars. What else do you need to know?