The best movie of the year just ended was the one about the improbable hero who came from humble circumstances in a far-off land and was transported to Middle America, where he rose to challenge the empire of war and deception with a message of hope and tolerance. Super-President, or Barack to the Future (as a Second City production dubbed it), ran a bit long – almost 11 months – but there's no question it was the feel-good picture of 2008.
In a year when Americans decided to reboot the presidential franchise, it was impossible not to notice how the culture wars played out on the big screen. Two of the biggest films of the year The Dark Knight and Wall·E were overly allegorical films, which dealt, respectively, with the ethics of fighting terrorism and environmental disaster. By year's end, critics were already hailing the beginning of the new Obama-era films, including the multicultural sprawl of Rachel Getting Married and the inspirational life story of gay activist Harvey Milk in Milk.
The worst marketing plan of the year was releasing W., Oliver Stone's biography of George W. Bush, less than a month before the U.S. election. Not only were the results predictable, so was the headline: “W. Bombs at Box Office.”
Action: Complicated Shadows
According to an Associated Press survey of American editors, the No. 1 entertainment story of 2008 was the death of actor Heath Ledger. To market its dark, complex comic-book movie The Dark Knight, the Warner Bros. marketing campaign used ghoulish images of Ledger and the “Why So Serious?” tagline with great success. The film topped the domestic (Canadian and American) box office in excess of a half-billion dollars. As it dramatized the moral dilemmas of violence and torture, The Dark Knight stirred intense passions. When New York magazine critic David Edelstein wrote the first negative review of the film, some Dark Knight fans set on him like a blogosphere mob.
Love, hate or just tolerate them, the cartoonish, exaggerated world of comic books is now the mainstream source for Hollywood profits. The Dark Knight's success overshadowed another big hit, Iron Man (No. 2 at the box office), which provided solid, cynical entertainment, starring Robert Downey Jr. in a role so arch he should have been called Irony Man. Finally, Wanted, a vertiginous, absurd fantasy starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, directed by Russian-Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, proved again that the Hollywood action flick is the modern version of Esperanto.
Animation: Computerized angst
A kissing cousin to the comic-book movie, the animated feature has once again shown Hollywood at its artistic best. Wall·E, the ninth film produced by the remarkable Pixar company, was a children's movie about an orphan robot that borrows the delicacy of Chaplin and the grandeur of Kubrick to build a visionary fable of repairing a ruined planet.
Somewhat less sensitively, Kung Fu Panda is centred on a fight to the death between endangered species. Other movies such as Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who and Bolt were among the most successful commercial releases of the year.
One animated film was definitely not aimed at children: Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, an “animated documentary” about the 1982 Lebanon war. Like Art Spiegelman's Holocaust graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale, it uses the distance of illustration to bring us closer to what we don't want to face.
Canadians: Making Love and War
While Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze and Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg earned international accolades, a lot of media attention was focused on an old-fashioned war romance, Passchendaele, written by, directed by and starring Paul Gross. The film cost $20-million, the most expensive movie ever made in Canada, and though it met with mixed reviews, the film has done well enough at the box office (approaching $5-million) to prove there's a homegrown audience for Canadian films, if you can afford it.
Just don't try to make your films too attention-getting. The immodest sex comedy Young People Fucking helped to inspire changes in the federal government's Bill C-10 that deemed that naughty films “contrary to public policy” would not receive tax credits. Filmmakers and civil libertarians were incensed and eventually the government backed down.
Comedy: Geeks in Love
Sweet and raunchy comedies about slow-to-mature men are still ruling the box office, apparently all made by cliques of writer-actor-producers including Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and his Frat Pack buddies. One way or another, all of this year's top-grossing comedies – Get Smart, Tropic Thunder, Four Christmases, Step Brothers and You Don't Mess with the Zohan – fit the formula.
The best of the lot was the broken-romance comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by and starring Apatow protégé Jason Segel, playing a man who wasn't afraid to show his feelings – or his penis.
Documentary: Real and imagined
Documentaries continue to sprout intriguing hybrids. Folman's Waltz with Bashir was “animated documentary;” Maddin's My Winnipeg was a sad and funny mockumentary fantasia about his hometown. Fellow Canadian Chang's Up the Yangtze mimicked drama in a real-life story. Werner Herzog, as usual, meditated on man, nature and survival, this time with Antarctica as his backdrop in Encounters at the End of the World.
The most dizzying documentary of the year was Man on Wire, which used extensive dramatization, in telling the story of a Philippe Petit, who, in 1974, danced on a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Double Van Sant
Gus Van Sant made two films this year, in entirely different styles. Paranoid Park, which had its debut at Cannes, is a dreamlike film with non-professional actors, about a teenage skateboarder implicated in a security guard's death; Milk is a much more conventional film about assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn. They're both terrific.
Duds and Dumber
The vacuous materialism of Sex and the City made the economic collapse feel deserved. Diane English's The Women felt more like The Stepford Divas; the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer sputtered and stalled. Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull felt like Harrison Ford and the Quest for a Pension. M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening was funny but didn't mean to be, while Mike Myers's The Love Guru was the opposite. Ben Stein's pro-creationist doc Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed forgot that God gave us a brain.
The French: Freedom flicks
French films kept alive a tradition of poetic realist dramas that Hollywood has mostly left behind. Critics loved The Duchess of Langeais, by 80-year-old new-wave pioneer Jacques Rivette. Mid-career filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin brought us his inventive A Christmas Carol; Taiwan master Hou Hsiao-hsien made his first French film, The Flight of the Red Balloon; Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne offered another study of life on the margins, The Silence of Lorna. Guillaume Canet's thriller Tell No One was a dip into vintage Hitchcock, and novelist turned first-time filmmaker Philippe Claudel brought us I've Loved You So Long with Kristin Scott Thomas.
Early in January, we'll get a chance to see Laurent Cantet's Palme D'or-winning The Class; it's about a school room, though the title could serve to describe French cinema in general.
LIAM LACEY'S TOP TEN
The following list is in descending order, starting from top pick:
An animated children's animation meets visionary sci-fi story about the last robot on Earth and his quest to repair the planet in Pixar's latest masterpiece.
British director Mike Leigh's study of a primary-school teacher nicknamed Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a philosophical feel-good film and parable about education.
The Flight of the Red Balloon
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's Paris-set film about an actress (Juliette Binoche), her young son and his nanny is all about ebb and flow – a dance of images more than a conventional story.
Man on Wire
James Marsh's documentary about Philippe Petit, the wire walker who walked between the newly built World Trade Center towers in 1974, is an inspirational heist film.
Gus Van Sant's tale of a murder near a teenager's skateboard park is tender and loopy, with an intricate mix of sound, image and music that depicts the subjective bewilderment of adolescence.
Waltz with Bashir
Ari Folman's animated documentary about his experiences as a young Israeli soldier slides between genres as a truly original anti-war film.
Heartfelt and hilarious, Guy Maddin's love-hate visual poem to his hometown is fantastic in every sense of the word.
A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)
Mythic and realistic, full of slapstick comedy and scalding drama, Arnaud Desplechin's film immerses us in a family film that feels like The Royal Tenenbaums as directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Gus Van Sant's look at gay activist Harvey Milk's life is a richly relevant history lesson, tightly written and directed, and superbly acted by Sean Penn and an ensemble cast.
Up the Yangtze
In this poignant documentary, Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang deftly explores the upstairs-downstairs drama of life on a farewell cruise to the site of China's Three Gorges Dam.
RICK GROEN'S TOP TEN
The following list is in no particular order:
A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)
It sure ain't the Christmas of Dickens's imaginings – the Vuillard family make the Royal Tenenbaums look like candidates for a Hallmark card. Happily, if not merrily, their weapons of choice have a knife-edge sophistication dipped in playful irony; never have enmity and ennui seemed so sprightly.
The Pixar animation is state of the art, but, more important, so is the story – the first act, especially, unspools like a silent film classic.
Rachel Getting Married
Many movies have used the focused lens of a wedding to peer into the dysfunctions of a troubled family, but none better than this. Linking the dramatic flair of his fictional work to the hand-held immediacy of his documentaries, director Jonathan Demme has forged a unique marriage of his own.
I've Loved You So Long
Only very, very rarely does a single performance not only dominate our attention but actually elevate a film beyond its intrinsic merit. Without Kristin Scott Thomas, this would be a watchable yet hardly a memorable movie. With her, it's both.
No one other than Guy Maddin, reared in the frigid burg that doubles as his inspiration and his prison, could have made this film. It's unlike any documentary you've ever seen – mock-heroic yet still lyrical, faux-mythic but honest too, uniquely and absurdly and often hilariously Canadian.
The Edge of Heaven
Born in Germany of Turkish ancestry, Faith Atkin is a one-man European Union whose work reflects his heritage, exploring the tensions in culture's global clash. In his first film, he proved himself a young director to watch – here, already, he's a mature director to admire.
Up the Yangtze
Travelling upriver on a cruise ship, before China's Three Gorges Dam completes its legacy of human upheaval, Yung Chang's illuminating documentary probes above and below decks, finding there a bounty of rich stories, heart-rending chronicles of turmoil and hope.
Writer-director Mike Leigh dares to go where even Shakespeare feared to tread – this is a character study of a good person, a delightful peek into the complex heart of simple happiness.
Waltz With Bashir
Ari Folman's animated documentary goes far to resolve the dilemma of every war film – how to dramatize war without aestheticizing it. Here, paradoxically, the artifice of the animation actually illuminates and deepens the tragic realities of the carnage.
Great title, darn good movie – Danny Boyle's Dickensian ramble through Mumbai is a crowd-pleaser that truly pleases, decidedly and deliciously.