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|Written by April Yorke|
|Sunday, 04 January 2009 19:00|
I’ve long been a sucker for year-end round ups. I eagerly anticipate what my favourite critics will put on their lists, and I’ve even made a few of my own. But what’s the point? I couldn’t even remember what I thought the best movie of last year was when asked and had to look it up. When it comes down to it, we’re not going to remember 2008 as the year of Definitely, Maybe, Speed Racer, or Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. What we are going to remember is what happened last year that changed the way we think about movies. Fortunately for those who have short attention spans, a catalogue of noteworthy events from 2008: A Year in Cinema follows.
1. Writers matter.
You probably wouldn’t need all the fingers on one hand to name the screenwriters you know that aren’t writer-directors (even Charlie Kaufman, the biggest name in screenwriting, jumped ship in 2008 by directing his own screenplay for Synecdoche, NY). They aren’t the people at whose names your ears perk up, and they aren’t big box office draws. When they went on strike last winter, you probably shrugged. Then shows started dropping off your TV at a precipitous rate, and, lately, the lack of quality at the multiplex has started to show. Suddenly it hit you: writers matter. Guess you’d better start learning their names.
2. Heath Ledger dies.
Not to be too callous, but people die all the time. Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, and Sydney Pollack passed away last year. Brad Renfro, an actor three years Ledger’s junior, OD’d the week before. So why does it matter that we lost Ledger last January? For better or for worse, The Dark Knight made it matter. Disappearing into a character that could so easily be caricature, Ledger made the Joker, an urban terrorist and chaos personified, a haunting, subtle, restrained villain at the centre of the bleakest comic book adaptation/summer blockbuster in recent history. He understood that you could be big without going big, and he did just that. Afterwards, when you walked out of the theatre, after you debated the possibility that Harvey Dent survived that fall, it hit you: that is never going to happen again. Even if they recast, you’ll never again see that iteration of the Joker. All that remains is grief.
3. Jon Stewart melts your heart.
The writers’ strike ended, and Stewart’s team had a whopping week to put together a show for the 2008 Academy Awards in February. Whether it was Stewart’s left coast political bent or the after-effects of the strike, his hosting didn’t come across as quite right. When Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglovà (justly) won for their song “Falling Slowly” from (should have been best picture of the year) Once, Hansard’s ebullient turn at the mic got cut off first by the orchestra and then by a commercial break. After the commercial, Stewart brought Irglovà back out to deliver her own thank you speech. Even if you’re a hater, it’s hard not to look at the gesture and see a decent human being. And if you were already into doodling “Mrs. Jon Stewart” on your Trapper-Keeper, your heart melted.
4. Robert Downey Jr. is your new favourite actor.
It’s not that you disliked Downey before – no matter how coked out or messed up he got, he always seemed a decent chap. You wouldn’t think him a natural choice for the role of Tony Stark, playboy billionaire, weapons engineer, and alter ego to lesser known comic book hero Iron Man. Downey’s in his 40s and well liked, but not known as box office draw. Iron Man debuted at # 1 its opening weekend last May with a massive $102 million draw and went on to become Marvel Studios’ top grossing movie ever. Why? Because Downey’s got talent, plain and simple. While Christian Bale would turn Bruce Wayne into Hamlet later that summer, Downey made Stark completely 3D: charismatic, off-beat, and funny with determination and pathos to spare. It’s hard not to fall for him when he makes being a superhero look like work and fun. Downey could have left it at that, but he followed it up later that summer with a brilliant turn in Tropic Thunder as Kirk Lazarus, an Australian Method actor in blackface who doesn’t break character until after the DVD commentary. It shouldn’t be funny, but, because Downey also understands when restraint is the right path, it’s much, much funnier than you would imagine. Downey is your new movie boyfriend: the one guy you would see in anything.
5. Indie directors go mainstream.
First in August David Gordon Green, a writer-director best known for tone poems like All the Real Girls and Undertow, tackled Pineapple Express. Green doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a stoner comedy about process-server Dale (Seth Rogen) and his dealer Saul (James Franco) who go on the run for fear that they may be identified by the rare strain in the roach Dale dropped at a murder scene. Between the hysterical turn by Danny R. McBride as third-wheel Red and the insanely funny and awkward shoot out that comprises the third act, you start to think that maybe Green is exactly the right director for the arrested development comedies that have become super-producer Judd Apatow’s stock in trade. Then David Wain, the genius behind the under seen, sketch-based Wet Hot American Summer, took on Role Models in early November. Though the plot feels formulaic and the characters rote, Wain, Paul Rudd, and co. manage to make one man’s breakdown feel funny, off-the-cuff, and heart warming. You wouldn’t think you’d want to see your favourite independent directors get sucked into the studio system, but maybe they’d do a lot of good in there.
6. You got over Judd Apatow.
It’s a good thing that they brought Green in on Pineapple Express because the horrible, relentlessly unfunny Step Brothers killed any good will you had left for the man-child sub-genre. It certainly sounds like a good idea: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Adam McKay made Talladega Nights, and that was funny, right? Two grown men that still live with their parents as they approach forty is a premise with promise, but it fell apart because it lacked exactly that which made superior Apatow productions soar: heart. There was nothing likeable about Ferrell or Reilly’s characters and no underlying humanity to ground them. The jokes that worked were so few and far between that it makes you wish Reilly would go back to drama.
7. Vampires are everywhere.
Unless you are a 12 year-old girl (you’re not, are you?) or related to one, the entirety of the Twilight series passed under your radar for the last three years. When teaser trailers leaked in early 2008, one of your friends thought it was about ghosts, and another, who knew it had something vaguely to do with vampires, thought it was about a girl who inadvertently started a vampire war. When the Breaking Dawn backlash caught the Vulture’s attention in early August, you laughed and shrugged it off (N.B.: do NOT read that link if you don’t want the entirety of Breaking Dawn’s plot revealed to you). After you saw the full length trailer, scheudenfraude took hold in a big way, and you resolved to see Twilight in order to make fun of it. But long before the premiere rolled around, you noticed a shift in just about everyone’s approach to the movie. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince turned tail and ran from their scheduled release to July, and Twilight easily moved up from December to take its place on November 21st. Coverage proved Robert Pattinson, the 22 year-old British actor behind brooding and beautiful vampire Edward, reliably crazy. Perfectly sane adult friends admitted to reading the books and anticipating the movie. By the time you actually sat down in a theatre full of squeeing fangirls, Twilight had, improbably, become an event. Every time they cheered the appearance of a favourite character or giggled helplessly under the intensity of Edward’s stare, you found yourself right there with them. Hey, if they want to rain down rose petals, who are you to stop them? Now you find yourself wondering, “When does New Moon come out?” 2010, my friend. Try to hang in there ‘til then.