Chicago is Gotham City, and Gotham City is Chicago.
That was made very clear in “The Dark Knight,” the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s masterful reinvention of a “Batman” franchise that had collapsed under the weight of nipply bat-suits and hammy cameos and the addition of Robin, who’s like the Keebler Elf of Superheroes. On Nolan’s watch, Batman is the best super-anti-hero in modern film history—and he lives here. With “Batman Begins,” one could recognize bits and pieces of Chicago in Nolan’s version of Gotham—but in “The Dark Knight,” that city was Chicago, albeit with some CGI enhancements.
When the Joker and his henchmen rob the Gotham City Bank in the opening sequence, that’s the old Chicago Post Office. When Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes show up at the ballet only to learn it’s been canceled—that’s the Chicago Theater. Bruce Wayne’s penthouse is at Hotel 71 on Wacker Drive. Gotham City Hospital is the old Brach’s Candy factory. The uncompleted Trump Tower is the site of the climactic battle between the Batman and the Joker. When the city honors Gotham City’s slain police commissioner, the procession goes down LaSalle Street. And when the Batman contemplates Gotham from above, he stands atop Sears Tower, where else.
Nolan’s stylized vision of Chicago was the local highlight of the year in movies—but the city also played a starring and/or featured role in big-budget actioners “Wanted” and “Eagle Eye,” and in the candy-cane-sweet but effectively entertaining Christmas movie “Nothing Like the Holidays,” in which Humboldt Park was practically a character unto itself. (Then there was “Cadillac Records,” based on the legendary Chess Records and set on the South Side of Chicago, but filmed in…New Jersey.)
Let’s take a look back at the year in film, from Chicago to the “Center of the Earth,” from “10,000 B.C.” to modern-day superheroes.
Performance of the year. Meryl Streep and Sean Penn are arguably the most accomplished film actors of their respective generations—and they each added an Oscar-caliber performance to their resumes in 2008.
In Streep’s first few scenes in “Doubt,” she seemed to be courting strict-nun stereotypes from the early 1960s playbook, but the character and the performance offer a bounty of surprises and jolts the rest of the way. It is a magnificent piece of work.
Penn channels the titular character in “Milk,” but this is so much more than an impersonation of the San Francisco activist who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. There’s no coyness or look-at-me theatricality in Penn’s performance; he gives us a three-dimensional human being, who has his flaws and his ego but is a good man, a funny man, a caring man, a passionate man.
I was also knocked out by the work of Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Kate Winslet (what’s new?) in “The Reader” and “Revolutionary Road,” Will Smith in “Seven Pounds,” Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon,” Josh Brolin in “W.,” Melissa Leo in “Frozen River” and Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married,” among many other lead performances.
But the acting turn that resonated most memorably with me in 2008 was Kristin Scott-Thomas’ performance in “I’ve Loved You for So Long.” That the British native is starring in a French film is no trick; Ms. Scott-Thomas is fluent and is utterly comfortable with the language. As the beautiful, 45ish Juliette, recently released from prison after serving 15 years for a horrific crime, Scott-Thomas creates a fascinating portrayal of a woman who is neither martyr nor monster. She did what she did, and we’re not sure why until the very end of the film—and then we understand, and we ache for everyone involved in this tragedy. Whether she’s eyeing a man in a bar—after all, it’s been 15 years—bonding with her sister’s children, gingerly exploring the possibility of a romance or exploding with sorrow and anger as she finally reveals the circumstances of her crime, Scott-Thomas is profoundly effective. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better performance in any film this decade.
Good sequels of the year:
“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”
“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2”
Just OK sequels this year:
“Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
“Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa” (Was Prince involved with this? What’s with that second “2”?)
“High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
Worst sequels of the year:
“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”
“Step Up 2 the Streets” (Again with the “2”)
“Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”
It wasn’t exactly a sequel, but whatever it was, it sucked:
“Star Wars: the Clone Wars”
Don’t forget the lyrics. Pierce Brosnan, who is the 234,567th best singer in the world, warbles in “Mamma Mia!” Kristin Chenoweth, Tim McGraw and Dwight Yoakum, who actually can sing and have done so with great professional success, don’t sing in “Four Christmases.”
Bourne-again Bond. The leaner, meaner James Bond of “Casino Royale” was such a smash with audiences and critics that we gave a bit of a pass to “Quantum of Solace.” All right, so it wasn’t as gritty or intense as the Daniel Craig’s Bond debut, but there were some terrific action scenes, and the Bond girl was hot, and, and, and…
Oh, let’s face it. “Quantum of Solace” played like a second-rate imitation of the “Bourne” franchise. This was a virtually humorless action picture with a fairly ridiculous plot and a forgettable villain. It’s almost as if the guy shooting the crooks, dodging bullets and engaging in death-defying stunts just happened to be named James Bond. Nobody wants to see the Bond franchise return to the leering, near-lampoonish days of Roger Moore—but next time around, we could use some wit and a few gadgets.
Best villain of the year. Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” The zombified walk in the nurse’s outfit as he walks away from the exploding hospital. The licking of the lips. “I’m going to make this pencil disappear.” The ever-changing explanation for how he got that scar. “Why so sssssserious, son?” Funny. Insane. Brilliant.
Worst villain of the year. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane in “Iron Man.” I loved the film—but come on, that last showdown was just silly.
Bravest performance of the year. Despite (or maybe because of) his numerous off-screen problems over the years, Robert Downey Jr., seems to have built up an enormous amount of good will with his peers and with movieogers. He’s one of the few actors in the world with enough likability and talent to play a role in blackface in the year 2008. As an Australian method actor playing a black soldier who refuses to break character in “Tropic Thunder,” Downey created one of the most hilarious characters of the decade. His explanation to Ben Stiller of why an actor never goes “full retard” was politically incorrect comedy at its finest. Downey deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this work.
I’ve seen this film before. From “What Happens in Vegas” to “Four Christmases,” from “Over Her Dead Body” to “My Best Friend’s Girl,” this was a particularly uninspired year for romantic comedies, with many scenes giving this viewer a distinct sense of déjà vu:
“27 Dresses” – Katherine Heigl and James Marsden start singing “Bennie and the Jets” in a bar—and everyone in the place joins in. Of all the everyone-in-the-bar-sings-along scenes in movie history, has there ever been a more ridiculous choice of song than “Bennie and the Jets”?
“Made of Honor” – You have to stop her before she marries the wrong guy! Run! Take a boat! A horse! Whatever! Just get there in time!
“Fool’s Gold” – Hey you crazy, divorcing kids—as you’re constantly squabbling, you think there’s a chance you might still be in love?
It was a very good year for: Brad Pitt (“Burn After Reading,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Elegy”), Josh Brolin (“W.,” “Milk”) Kate Winslet (“Revolutionary Road,” “The Reader”), Meryl Streep (“Doubt,” “Mamma Mia!”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder,” “Iron Man”), Scarlett Johansson (“Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “The Other Boleyn Girl”), Amy Adams (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” “Doubt”), Angelina Jolie (“Wanted,” “The Changeling,” “Kung Fu Panda”), Will Smith (“Hancock,” “Seven Pounds”), Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Synechdoche, New York,” “Doubt”).
Not so much for: Will Ferrell (“Step Brothers,” “Semi-Pro”), Mark Wahlberg (“The Happening,” “Max Payne”), Bette Midler (“Then She Found Me,” “The Women”), Paris Hilton (“Repo! The Genetic Opera,” “The Hottie and the Nottie”), Ashton Kutcher (“What Happens in Vegas,” those annoying camera commercials), Katharine Heigl (“27 Dresses,” bitching about her TV role), Vincent Chase (“Medellin,” the uncompleted “Smoke Jumpers”).
How dare you! I’m still hearing from people who were shocked that I said “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was among the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Well guess what, I think “Blazing Saddles” is overrated, how do you like them apples!
It’s the stupidest quote of the year! Despite the presence of five Academy Award winners, “Four Christmases” is a DOA holiday comedy that relies on projectile vomiting, retread-Stooges slapstick and some unbelievably unfunny set pieces, e.g., Vince Vaughn as a line-hogging Joseph in a Christmas pageant.
And yet Shawn Edwards called the film “The perfect holiday treat!” and “The funniest movie of the year!” Tell you what. If they released only one movie in 2008, and that movie was “Four Christmases,” it still wouldn’t have been the funniest movie of the year.
Totally sexist list of the three most beautiful newcomers:
Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”)
Olga Kurylenko (“Max Payne,” “Quantum of Solace”)
Odette Yustman (“Cloverfield”)
The best movies of 2008:
1. “Slumdog Millionaire”
2. “The Dark Knight”
3. “The Wrestler”
4. “In Bruges”
5. “I’ve Loved You For So Long”
6. “Gran Torino”
8. “The Visitor”
9. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”
10. “Frozen River”
12. “Snow Angels”
14. “The Reader”
15. “Seven Pounds”
16. “Iron Man”
17. “Vicky Christina Barcelona”
19. “Henry Poole is Here”
20. “Burn After Reading”
21. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
23. “The Bank Job”
24. “Tropic Thunder”
The worst movies of 2008 (with #1 being the worst):
10. “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”
9. “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”
8. “Over Her Dead Body”
7. “Fly Me to the Moon”
6. “Funny Games”
5. “88 Minutes”
4. “10,000 B.C.”
3. “The Women”
2. “What Happens in Vegas”
1. “The Love Guru”