The pleasant movie surprises of 2008

Martin looks back at the 2008 films of which he had incorrectly low expectations...

True Detective Colin Farrell

Considering the sheer number of new movies I’ve seen this year, many of which were low-budget efforts where creative freedom traditionally flourishes, this is a horribly short list.

Sure, Dark Knight and Iron Man were good – they did a lot of things right and they cost the Earth to make, so I wasn’t surprised to respond positively to them. Likewise the buzz on Cloverfield and the very low-key launch of Jumper alerted me to the kind of quality I could expect from those movies. What I wanted was for a dreaded viewing to turn into a serendipitous moment; to find that a much-hyped movie sidelined to the ‘B’-list launch dates was actually a gem; or to find a low-budget straight-to-DVD movie with limited ambition that had good writing and heart, and truly made an unexpected impression.

But it kept not happening; it was just turning into an endless frog-kissing competition.

More than anything else, this year has been hall-marked by a string of worthless slasher flicks. Earlier in the year, when I was doing more reviews, all my spare time seemed to be taken up watching yet another bunch of kids suffering ripped-off demises in the jungle/forest/garden/whatever. The depressing sociopathy of modern horror movies turned me off to the likes of Blindness and Funny Games. Wit and invention seemed to have been replaced by rote imitation, cookie-cutter cruelty and a species of cynicism far too transparent.

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As a sci-fi fan, I wasn’t expecting much of 2008, and I was right not to – this was the year of superheroes (as I suspect will be the case for the next year or so), and you just can’t do sci-fi on a budget. Well, actually you can, but people seem to have forgotten how in their search for a templated hit.

I must admire the French for being the only country in 2008 to really commit to making genuine science-fiction films. Sadly output such as Eden Log, Chrysalis and Dante 01 proved derivative works that idolised American sci-fi classics like Blade Runner but were unable to recapture their essence. It seems that once the producers are happy that a sci-fi film ‘ticks all the boxes’, the film itself is doomed to be an unsuccessful shadow of the greater works it is aping. A producer’s place is biting his toe-nails in a fit of anxiety, worrying that this madman/woman director is going to ruin him. A producer should have ulcers. That’s their job.

But history proves that it takes a long time for the law of diminishing returns to really set in, and it won’t be until superhero movies hit the string-and-sawdust level of production quality that Hollywood will really start to look elsewhere. Something unusual has to happen – a new Blair Witch, a new Star Wars, a new Tarantino. And it hasn’t happened this year.

These then, are movies that I expected relatively little of, but which turned out to be highlights of the year…

7: The Bank Job Roger Donaldson’s compelling heist-flick revised my former opinion that Saffron Burrows is a very poor actress, and consolidated my slow and reluctant admission that Jason Statham is enjoyable cinema. It’s not all good, though: I hate it when movies go for period and get the details wrong, and unfortunately this one does so pretty much from the first frame, demonstrating only the most cursory attempt to recreate the early 1970s Britain that I remember. Nonetheless, British comedy-writing legends Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais turned in a riveting ‘straight’ script which Donaldson helms with just the right amount of style and flair, and it’s a film I was happy to re-watch on DVD.

6: Death Race I am a bit of a pariah at the Den Of Geek office for hating Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon and finding merit in its predecessor, Soldier. Nonetheless I am no Paul Anderson fan, and expected nothing good of this re-hash of the Roger Corman 70s classic Death Race 2000. I was therefore surprised to find that once again, Statham was compelling viewing, and if he sticks to his limited range (Clint Eastwood has done no less in his own acting career), he could develop a movie persona and career that might outlast the novelty of his rise to fame. Death Race is a better and more focused movie than Corman’s original, with superior action and art direction supporting a compelling prison-break narrative. The crown in the film’s glory is Brit stalwart Ian McShane as the old lag helping framed Statham make his bid for freedom. It takes some ingenuity to combine a prison-break movie with a car-action movie, but the unlikely fusion works very well here.

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5: WAZ (aka W Delta Z) I mentioned in my review that many viewers would not make it past the unpleasantness depicted in this tale of a vengeful serial killer. A damn shame, as this is one ‘torture-porn’ film that is entirely redeemed by its ending, and manages to transcend that new (and very questionable) sub-genre. If Stellan Skarsgård had not been in it, my curiosity might not have taken me anywhere near the end of Tom Shankland’s hard-to-watch yarn. It was a worthwhile journey, though.

4: The Happening Perhaps this is a cheap entry; no-one could possibly have had any reasonable expectation of a decent movie after the pre-release buzz put the knife in. M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated horror was a box-office disaster, despite being an entertaining and atmospheric sci-fi/horror ‘B’-movie. But I’ve already set down my thoughts on the matter elsewhere.

3: Flawless Michael Radford had me at Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1984), but even so I wasn’t expecting much of this 50’s-set heist-movie. I’m not a big fan of Demi Moore and even the presence of Michael Caine is no guarantee of quality, as he is quite able (and quite prone) to phone in a performance. The first real surprise was how much Caine is actually in the movie, as most films that boast his presence never seem to have him on set for more than 48 hours. Secondly, he commits to the part and makes a superb job of it. Finally, Demi Moore proves very likeable as the banking executive trying in vain to break through the glass ceiling in an almost exclusively male preserve. The film boasts little more attention to period detail than heist stable-mate The Bank Job (see above), but remains similarly unhurt.

2: Hancock Almost as pre-doomed as The Happening, Hancock director Peter Berg’s last-minute re-shoots only consolidated the general opinion that this tale of a superhero bum was going to prove box-office poison, even with Will Smith starring. Instead it proved a flawed gem.

1: In Bruges The small amount of buzz I caught for In Bruges led me to believe that there might be something worth watching in this tale of London gangsters hiding out in one of Europe’s most picturesque but least-touristy cities. I wasn’t expecting anything like the writing and acting tour de force on display in Martin McDonagh’s thriller; nor the superb cinematography, deliciously black humour and emotional depth. Neither was I expecting Ralph Fiennes to be in it, much less to be brilliant. Fiennes’ gangland boss owes a lot to Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast, but that only reinforces the old adage about stealing from the best. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are the shining jewels in a film that is already ‘cult’ and likely to stay there.

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24 December 2008