My Movie Year

Andy Hart over at Fandango Groovers has a simple question for all of us movie lovers: what’s the best year in film? Or, maybe more easily answered, what’s your favorite year in film? I being such a notoriously indecisive person had to wrestle with these two challenges– with very nearly a century of film to peruse, how does anyone possibly comfortably pin down five films from one single year as their personally selected “best” year in film? More difficult than the question, strangely, is the answer; after a couple of weeks mulling it over, I knew I wanted to look at modern film history, but that still left me with an incredible array of options to choose from.

So I rolled a 10-sided die, and Lady Luck decreed my movie year to be 2008.

Which feels a lot like kismet. 2008 is one of the strongest release years of its decade, in my opinion, right up there with 2007 in sheer excellence; from The Dark Knight to Towelhead to Redbelt to The Wrestler to Gomorrah to Wall-E, there’s no shortage of wonderful cinema to glean from ’08, and that’s barely scratching the surface. I kept on whittling away, though, and what I came up with follows below.

(Special thanks to Andy for putting this together; you can view the master post, and all of the pieces from participating bloggers, here.)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: I’ve made no secret of my undying effusive admiration and love for everything Guillermo Del Toro does, and if you know me well enough then you’re well aware that as far as I’m concerned, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy ranks among the very best of contemporary comic book fare. (And if you know me even better than that, you know this is all because I just flat-out love monsters, mythology, folklore, and everything in between. But I digress.) In other words, a Del Toro film about Hellboy featuring a nearly unending creature pride parade is a movie that’s tailor-made to earn my cash. Hellboy II is a film for which I have absolutely no capacity for objectivity; I’ll argue that it’s made with superlative craftsmanship and fueled by dizzying imagination, and boasts some of the best creature FX work of the last ten years, but I know at the end of the day that I’m basically programmed to love this film, so every word I write about it will– and maybe should– be taken well-salted.

Milk: To this day I consider Milk to be Sean Penn’s finest hour and a sterling example of what biopics should be. I think far too often, projects of Milk‘s kind tend to get far too wrapped up in info dumping and forget that at the end of the day, they need to be telling a coherent story; of course, when Gus Van Sant is pulling director duty, you know you’re going to get your money’s worth (so to speak). Milk captures a time, a place, and a person all very much anchored to our own world with pitch-perfect clarity, but Van Sant handles the film with such artful finesse that we’re never ejected from the narrative by  overbearingly didactic filmmaking. Biopics shouldn’t read like textbooks; they should read like dramatized recreations of history and life (without, of course, skimping on the facts). But Milk‘s other great characteristic is its timelessness; boil away the details of its period and its focus and you have a yarn about the degradation of political and social discourse, tolerance versus intolerance, and a never-ending fight for equality.

Iron Man: Full disclosure– I originally had The Dark Knight in this spot, until it occurred to me that if any one 2008 comic book movie really changed the game for the future of comic book movies, it’s Iron Man. At the time of this writing, we’re all well aware of what’s coming in just a few short weeks, and with that in mind it’s pretty incredible to trace the upcoming release of The Avengers to a single post-credits scene at the end of Jon Favreau’s surprise smash hit. It all began with a simple meet-and-greet between Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and before we know it we’ll all be watching the culmination of nearly half a decade’s worth of hard work and careful, if occasionally errant, dedication to continuity. You want to talk about objectivity in film writing? Iron Man represents the beginning of what may end up being one of the most game-changing superhero narratives committed to celluloid. If that level of influence isn’t worth acknowledging, I don’t know what is.

Hunger: To this day, British artist Steve McQueen’s feature-length debut, Hunger, remains one of the most difficult to watch films I’ve ever seen. You can read my review here; alternately, you can just read this excerpt below and move on:

Hunger‘s legacy lies in announcing McQueen and Fassbender as two talents at the very height of their respective fields. In other words, it’s an impressive feat for the former, being his directorial debut, and a mark of continued progression for the latter, who has shown his quality in role after role after role ever since (he’s appearing in McQueen’s next film, Shame, in less than two weeks). But the film also stands on its own merits as an unassailable, strong depiction of what people will endure for their convictions and beliefs. Dissent one might have with IRA doctrine should never even surface; this isn’t about Sands’ ideals but about how he’s willing to offer his life in support of them. And while the film proposes queries about the morality of his actions, Hunger‘s ultimate question nevertheless remains: When it’s your values at stake, would you be able to do the same?

The Strangers: Being perfectly honest, I don’t know if there’s anything about The Strangers that identifies it as being “special”. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not game-changing, it’s not one of a kind. Taken on its aesthetic, stylistic merits, it’s a film that fits into a very specific and very classical milieu of horror filmmaking. Put bluntly, The Strangers is a quiet, unassuming slice of slick, real-world horror, but none of that means that it doesn’t stand among the best  contemporary horror films and very well may be the best horror film of 2008 entirely. Bryan Bertino, at the time a complete rookie, guides this callback to the Manson family with so much confidence and precise technique that it’s easy to mistake him for a veteran director instead of a first-timer; through his self-assured direction, The Strangers ends up serving as a masterclass in building suspense and anxiety through a slow-burn approach and a high-end sense of aesthetics. And honestly, that’s more than enough to single the film out as thoroughly excellent and unfailingly frightening.

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24 thoughts on “My Movie Year

  1. I like the opening and ending to The Strangers, the rest of that movie dragged hardcore. Iron Man is one of the most over rated super hero films ever. It’s a fun movie and all, but the mass praise feels unwarranted, particularly when you compare it to other films in the genre. It may have got the ball rolling on The Avengers, but it really isn’t that impressive. For all we know, The Avengers might suck hard. Milk and Hellboy are both good films, but they don’t stick out to me when I think 2008 the same way films like The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, Doubt, Wall-E, and Tropic Thunder do.

    • Disagree about The Strangers; it’s a slow-burn between the beginning and the end, but it builds tension and suspense constantly and never really “stops” at any given time. That’s why it’s such an effective horror flick.

      And Iron Man being overrated or not isn’t really the point. It’s the start of something nobody else making comic book movies is doing, has done, and, possibly, will ever do. Apart from the positive early word about The Avengers— which again isn’t part of the point– we’re talking about a pretty massive undertaking in set-up, narrative, and continuity, and even if the experiment fails it’s still something massively valuable to superhero fare as a genre.

      I almost put The Dark Knight on here, like I said, but I really can’t get past its craftsmanship and crushing bloat. Everything else you mention– except for Doubt— I think could be on this list, but unfortunately I only had 5 slots!

  2. 2008 came very close to being my year with The Dark Knight, The Hurt Locker, In Bruges, Let the Right One In, Gran Torino but on reflection Iron Man may have snuck in ahead of Gran Torino. Nice list, thanks for taking part.

    • Thanks for letting me in on the whole shebang, Andy! It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. And I agree, 2008 is just an amazing year– I really had my work cut out for me with choices here. Clearly I went for unexpected picks but I could just as easily have gone with most of the ones you brought up.

    • I really don’t think he’s ever been better than he was in Milk. He brings Harvey to life so, so well; it’s hard to tell that it’s a performance at times. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Baffled by your selection, especially with the vast, expansive knowledge of film you have Andrew.

    But hey, I’m always up for originality my man.

    • I used that expansive knowledge to pick 5 movies most of you probably wouldn’t pick yourselves– that also happen to support the idea that 2008 is a really, really good year for movies. I’ll definitely peg Hellboy 2 as a “one for me” pick, even though it’s pretty damn great, but I’m baffled myself at some of the response to the other four.

  4. LOL @ Sam!

    I can’t say I agree with the picks but I will be more diplomatic 😉 Hellboy 2 didn’t do much for me. I still prefer the first one. I liked Iron Man, it was a breath of fresh air at the time when comic book movies were starting to go too heavy-handed with the Batman Begins mold. Hunger had a great central performance but seriously, it dragged like crazy through the mid-section. And The Strangers, nope The end was shocking, I will give you that 😉

    • What dragged about Hunger? When people say “dragged” I immediately take it to mean “nothing happened during X section”, but McQueen always has something relevant happening on screen.

      Like I said about Hellboy 2— I’m programmed to love it. And the one thing it has that the first doesn’t (apart from a truly compelling villain) is the Troll Market scene, which easily marks one of the best scenes GDT has ever directed. I heart the movie just for that sequence.

  5. Creepy … I was just thinking about The Strangers last night 🙂
    The one thing I am discovering as I read everyone’s entries is that despite all criticism and naysaying, we can all extract some good out of many (if not all) years in film.

  6. Hunger is an excellent selection. If pressed to pick four more of my favorites from 2008, the list would include In Bruges, The Dark Knight, Revolutionary Road, and Wall-E.

  7. Great selection of films. I adore Milk, it’s one of my favourites; actually on a recent podcast about biopics it was my film of choice. I really want to watch Hunger after loving Shame, not only to see more of Fassbender but also to see what else Steve McQueen can do. Iron Man is obviously awesome, but I’ve not seen The Strangers. I’m a total horror wuss.

    • I think Milk is the rare biopic that actually works successfully as a narrative; more often than not they just feel like giant lectures lacking any sense of structure. Great to see someone else feels so strongly about the film. And don’t worry about being a horror wuss; it’s not for everyone!

  8. Helboy II FTW! I’m pretty sure I adore that film as much as you 😉 How can you resist the visionary that is Del Toro!? I love the campy elements just as much. Just so much fun. Hunger is one of the most devastating films I have ever seen. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it a masterpiece. And of course the long take with Fassy and Cunningham is straight up brilliance.

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