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2008: A Few Good Films

In an unfortunate year, here are my lucky seven.

By Steve Burgess 12 Dec 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Scene from Hunter S. Thompson doc 'Gonzo.'

Even the most diehard movie buffs will be forced to concede that in 2008, the show of the year was on TV -- all the way from the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses to election night on Nov.14. Thrills, tears, joy, monsters, folksiness, Tina Fey, pantsuits, and a happy ending -- it was a great year for entertainment.

At least until you went to the movies. Thrills were in somewhat shorter supply there. While not exactly an abysmal year for cinema, 2008 will not leave much of a legacy. Caveats: Among the many films I never did get around to seeing was Wall-E, which is topping some critic's year-end lists; Synecdoche, New York, which according to reviews is either a work of epic genius or a felony; and Beverley Hills Chihuahua, which made a lot of money. But then, so did Mitt Romney.

Some ruminations on stuff I did see:

Let The Right One In

2008 offered up a very interesting flick about vampires and high school, based on a popular book. Best of all, you can see it without fighting through the hordes of panting teenagers who flocked to Twilight. The movie is called Let The Right One In -- still in town, in fact. The movie benefits from sheer novelty -- it's just flat-out odd to see a vampire in a bleak Scandinavian winter setting. The payoff turned out to be more conventional than I had hoped. But Let The Right One In is a quietly captivating experience.


Director Ed Harris's Western reinvents nothing, but neither is it a cinematic cliché. Blessed by the central duo of Harris and the great Viggo Mortensen (aided by Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, and the king of character actors, Lance Henriksen), Appaloosa is just a solid, well-crafted oater that rarely puts a foot wrong. The ending may be a bit rushed but in hindsight it makes emotional sense. If you like Westerns, or even just Viggo Mortensen, you can't go wrong.

'Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson'

Alex Gibney's documentary is by no means a classic of its kind. It's just that the subject was so well chosen. There's not a whole lot new in this recounting of the Raoul Duke Story, but those who worshiped the guy or simply watched him in morbid fascination won't want to miss it. So long Hunter, and thanks for everything.

'The Dark Knight,' 'Iron Man'

Faithful Tyee readers will know I enjoyed Iron Man and considered The Dark Knight arguably the pinnacle of the superhero genre. I've since heard from Knightly nay-sayers who have pointed out flaws and annoyances with the second installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise. But I still feel it deserves the praise I showered upon it last summer. For all their popularity in Hollywood, good superhero movies are actually quite hard to do. They usually dissolve into silliness, excess, and comic book cliché. There's really only so much you can do with the big hero archetypes. The Dark Knight managed to rise above most of those chronic problems. Kudos to Nolan and farewell to Heath Ledger, who should be around to bask in it.

'Burn After Reading'

This year I finally made myself watch The Big Lebowski, intrigued by its growing cult status. Can't say I get what the fuss is about -- perhaps movies about stoners naturally engender loyal cult followings -- but it was a Coen Brothers comedy, all right. A well-told tale of idiots up to nonsense that ultimately amounts to diddley squat -- see also this year's Burn After Reading, another beautifully made, often funny, highly watchable, and in the end, emotionally uninvolving movie. Perhaps The Big Lebowski has become a classic because people love Jeff Bridges' Dude, just as they love Marge in the enduringly popular Fargo. In Burn After Reading, Frances McDormand is great as usual, and funny. But she's no Marge. Still, the Coens, who ruled 2007, stay golden.

'The Bank Job'

Not a classic by any means. But a solid popcorn flick and a good rental if you missed it.

(I don't think I needed to see Love Guru to know that it sucked. But technically I guess I can't say so.)

Still to come this year: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Valkyrie, among others. They better be good. Time's a wasting, 2008.

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