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by Bill Gibron

4 Jan 2009

While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at The Top 10 Films of 2008 You Never Heard Of up and including this weekend’s take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. Enjoy!

The Top 10 Films of 2008 That You’ve Never Heard Of

The 10 Worst Films of 2008

The 10 Worst DVDs of 2008

The Top 10 Films of 2008

The Top 10 DVDs of 2008

by Bill Gibron

2 Jan 2009

At least one of the “D"s in DVD has to stand for “diversity”.  As Blu-ray continues to tread water, earning as many converts as distancing disgruntled fans, the digital medium continues to prosper - artistically, at least. Thanks to advances in technology, Internet avenues of self-distribution, and the ability to put one’s own art out on display for everyone to see, the cornucopia of product one can indulge in is simply mind-boggling. A full time critic, on a simple schedule, could watch close to 325 discs a year (six to seven a week). Even those of us who make time for other medium find ourselves struggling at well over 200 (the official SE&L mark is somewhere around 145). Naturally, this makes a Best of list almost impossible. Even worse, some companies we could count on for classic commerce - Something Weird, Troma - were out of the mix all together (or, in the case of the latter, until the Summer of 2008).

Still, it was an interesting year. The au courant bonus feature du jour is, undoubtedly, the “digital copy” - a version of the film you can download to your laptop or IPod for entertainment portability. Of course, something like The Dark Knight clearly suffers from being shrunk down to less than IMAX size. Even worse, the dirty little secret of the high definition format was finally revealed - just because a disc claims to be HD, doesn’t mean the studio shelled out the cash to make over the image to provide more depth. For many, it’s just too cost prohibitive. Thus many a messageboard argument has started over if a revisit to a classic title is worth the hefty monetary reinvestment. For some, no amount of bells or whistles could bring them to repurchase catalog items merely ported over from the standard DVD edition. Thus the big Blu struggles, and probably will continue to do so.

Still, outside the controversy and web-based clamor, a few titles stood out. SE&L chose the ones closest to our heart, while reminding our readers that the best thing about a DVD is still the film (or films) it contains. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating - a Criterion Collection of Crap is still crap. But a barebones version of a masterpiece is still something special. So without further ado, here are the choices for 2008:

#10 - The Cinematic Titanic Collection
Over the last few years, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy have been holding down the MST3K fort by creating audio only commentaries for their Rifftrax project. Now, series originator Joe Hodgson has collected the rest of the cast (Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein) to create a whole new in theater satire. Each of the five self-distributed “episodes” created in 2008 reminds you of why, some 20 years after these Midwestern comedians first decided to dump on bad movies, the formula is as funny as ever. There’s nary a bad installment in the bunch.

#9 - Brand Upon the Brain! - The Criterion Collection
One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. This overview of his childhood, fashioned like a German Expressionistic horror mystery, is supposedly almost 97% psychologically “true”. Of course, what that means to Maddin, and his fans, is anyone’s guess.

#8 - The Three Stooges Collection - Volumes 2 & 3
Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering 1937 to 42, the 47 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.

#7 - Wanted
As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point. A brilliant and baffling action effort, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it. The results are as outrageous as they are transcendent.

#6 - The Mist: 2 Disc Special Edition
It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time - Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make - or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.

#5 - I’m Not There: 2 Disc Special Edition
Todd Haynes has balls. He took on the most difficult of subjects (the life and shapeshifting times of songwriter extraordinaire Bob Dylan) and found a way to be both factual and fanciful. Reimagining the artistic chameleon as one of six distinct personas, and hiring an equal number of actors to play them, Haynes helped put into perspective an important, influential artist whose vocation seemed stuck in a constant state of flux. Now, thanks to DVD, everything confusing is clear as crystal. On a commentary track that should be mandatory listening for any would-be bonus feature participant, the director goes into excruciating detail, explaining almost every facet of his fascinating film.

#4 - Ken Russell at the BBC
Before he became the “bad boy” of British cinema, middle aged maverick Russell was making amazing musical biographies for UK television. This masterful boxset contains six of his best - Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always on Sunday, Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World, Dante’s Inferno, and Summer of Song. Sadly, his slam on Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils, was pulled at the last minute. Still, with famous faces like Oliver Reed and Vivian Pickles along for the ride, this collection is a revelation, and a testament to one of the most criminally underrated directors of all time.

#3 - Hellboy II: The Golden Army - 3 Disc Special Edition
Sometimes, the most outrageous vision is the most personal. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation we hear director Guillermo Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.

#2 - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead Tromasterpiece Collection
If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ - and it most certainly is - then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.

#1 - Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom - Criterion Collection
In some ways, it’s better to begin by discussing what Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló is not. It is not the most horrific or grotesque movie ever made. Certainly, the revolting elements used by the filmmaker to fashion his “power = corruption” rants are truly disturbing, but they are often buffered by an aesthetic detachment that’s so remote it leaves their impact suppressed. Similarly, this is not a complicated cinematic screed. From the moment we witness the forced marriage of the libertines’ daughters to the madmen in charge, we realize that Pasolini is offering a very obvious allegory. By moving de Sade into the 20th century, and using Mussolini and his complicit populace as metaphors, the notion of authoritarianism as an ugly aphrodisiac for all manner of debauched behavior is crystal clear.

Finally, it is not child pornography. Granted, the sight of several underage actors posing in various stages of undress (including copious full frontal nudity) will be alarming to our post-millennial PC posturing, but again, this director doesn’t sensationalize sex. Instead, it is handled in such an impartial, almost inert manner that only the most psychologically disturbed pervert would find this film enticing. Upon reflection, Salo is really nothing more than political commentary carried to outrageous, unsettling extremes. The result is repulsive, artistic, and memorable indeed.

by Bill Gibron

31 Dec 2008

2008 was the year of the auteur. It was the time for the mind behind the lens. While previous seasons have seen hit or miss offerings from the best and brightest of the artform’s directorial gods, this year was different. Original celluloid voices like Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy II), Clint Eastwood (Changeling) and Michel Gondry (Be Kind, Rewind) delivered some of their finest flourishes, while new voices like Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), Steve McQueen (Hunger), and screenwriter turned filmmaker Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) brought their new and novel ideas to the motion picture party. In 2008, it was all about the vision, storytelling supported with big ideas, wild ambitions, and all the technical tools one could muster to realize both. Yet there was also room for more personal approaches, pictures where the only moviemaking magic needed was a great cast, a solid script, and someone to make sure both got showcased.

In looking over the 200 plus films SE&L reviewed this year, a few that didn’t make the final ten deserve more than an honorable mention. Man on Wire proved that individual drive and daring-do can overcome even the most outsized architectural aims, while Trouble the Water offered a searing documentary denouncement of the post-Katrina relief efforts of the Bush Administration. Iron Man catapulted Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Marvel Comics to the frontlines of the Summer popcorn parade, while Tropic Thunder and The Pineapple Express proved that comedy didn’t have to be pretty, or always joking, to make its merry point. We even got the final installment in Dario Argento’s long gestating Three Mothers trilogy - and wouldn’t you know it, The Mother of Tears was a terrific return to form. Even the universally touted titles that didn’t come close to breaching the Best (Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Reader) argued for the talent of the individuals calling the shots.

While you may argue with a few of the choices (and the placement of a couple more), the following collection of neo-classics represents SE&L‘s selections for the year’s superior cinematic experiences. They may not all be serious. Some may cross the line when it comes to movie mastery. And at least one is oft cited as one of 2008’s worst. But for our metaphysical money, these were the titles that made the year in film worth watching, starting with: 

#10 - Zack and Miri Make a Porno
In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

#9 - Speed Racer
Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.

#8 - Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

#7 - The Dark Knight
Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.

#6 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director David Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.

#5 - Milk
So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.

#4 - The Wrestler
Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.

#3 - Slumdog Millionaire
There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.

#2 - Let the Right One In
With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Thomas Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.

#1 - Revolutionary Road
Apparently, in order to enjoy Sam Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.

by Bill Gibron

31 Dec 2008

It’s been said before, but it really does bear repeating - making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.

So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. For the most part, we are dealing with dull, lifeless movie macabre. But there is at least one example of company-based callousness - a fine film flummoxed by a significantly subpar presentation. And don’t forget: a Criterion Collection version of crap is still crap.

So grab hold of your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2008 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:

#10 - Sukiyaki Western Django
On one hand, it’s hard to include this DVD as part of the year’s worst. The film, a saucy spaghetti Western homage by Japanese cult legend Takashi Miike, is magnificent. It literally vibrates off the screen with visual flare and motion picture majesty. But when deciding to release the title on the home theater format, First Look Pictures cut nearly 35 minutes out of the movie, in essence, destroying Miike’s tone and narrative pitch. While the film was hard enough to follow originally (all the actors speak in awkward phonetic English), this edit makes it almost unfathomable. A true crime against cinema.

#9 - Dead and Gone
Oh here we go again - another wannabe thriller in which a proposed psychological twist in the last ten minutes is supposed to salvage the previous 80 minutes of homemade horror tedium. In this case, a young lothario carts his terminally ill meal ticket up to a mountain cabin to “relax”. Naturally, things take a fatal turn. The “who/what/where” of this Sci-Fi channel like chum is never more important than the “why”? Why did anyone think this script was something other than awful, and why did they let someone named Yossi Sasson direct it. Sadly, we will never really know.

#8 - Sharp as Marbles
In a clear case of being able to judge a lame indie comedy by the title company it keeps, this slacker Three Stooges knockoff makes Moe, Larry and Curly look like members of MENSA. There is nothing worse than a movie that thinks its banging on all satiric cylinders when, in actuality, it threw a humor rod several telegraphed jokes back. From the amateurish acting to the shorthanded style of characterization (gold chain = loverboy), writers Eric and Steve Vilio match the dunderheaded direction by former camera operator John Banovich blow for befuddling blow. Some may find this funny. Most will experience a different kind of ‘gagging’.

#7 - Diaries of the Living Dead: Dead Summer/ Deadhunter: Seville Zombies
The poor zombie. All it wants to do is wander around the countryside aimlessly and snack on the occasional human victim. Mess with this monster too much, however, and it will come back to metaphysically bite you in the butt. The two excuses for terror here try to bring a novel approach to the living dead archetype: Summer is Slacker with skin snacking, while Deadhunter is a Tarantino- esque Terminator rip-off. But neither are inventive or professional enough to resemble anything other than camcorder crap. If there was something similar to supernatural slander, the entire undead race should sue.

#6 - Nigel Tomm’s Hamlet
Tomm is one of those “artists” who mandate that said term be used very, very loosely. In the case of his DVD interpretations of classic works of literature (including The Catcher in the Rye and Waiting for Godot), this purveyor of post-modern meta-mung offers up nothing but blank screens. That’s right. Zip. Zilch. Nada. For this seminal Shakespeare work, we are treated to 63 minutes of white. White. No dialogue. No context. Just a $15.99 bunch of emptiness. Clearly this critic wasn’t sufficiently smart, or adequately hip, or schooled in the ways of avant-garde hucksterism to “get it”., Frankly, it’s hard to imagine who would be.

#5 - Primal
Primal is a great big batch of pickled turds. It’s a hackneyed excuse for terror that doesn’t understand the first thing about film. It is obvious that writer/director Steffan Schlachtenhaufen just doesn’t get horror. He believes that one note characters, thrown into a vague and unexplained situation, can be made macabre by simply adding some guy in a gorilla suit. While the credits proclaim the individuals in charge of the creature effects, it looks like something the local costume shop rejected as too ratty. Add in some Commodore 64 CGI effect and you’ve got the most trying direct to DVD experience since Disney stopped making their unnecessary animated sequels.

#4 - The Wailer II
The Wailer II should be subtitled The Waste of Time Too. It commits the biggest sin a scary movie can commandeer - it’s a horror film that forgets to be frightening. So busy building local Mexican color and unnecessary mythos that it constantly loses focus, director Paul Miller obviously believes that bloodshed, along with occasional stopovers at Sentimentality City, will carry his culturally correct dread. Clearly, he’s a few frijoles short of a chimichonga. Atmosphere and tone are one thing - spending inordinately large amounts of time establishing one characters’ love of dominos is another. Pure South of the Border bullspit.

#3 - Shutter (Unrated)
Shutter is more than merely derivative. If you looked in the dictionary under ‘subpar ethnic horror’, it would exist somewhere between some Lithuanian torture porn and Seytan, the Turkish Exorcist. For director Masayuki Ochiai, it’s a ‘can’t win’ situation. On the one hand, if he delivers a wonderful and ethereal fright flick, he must face the fading fortunes of the already DOA J-Horror category. If, on the other hand, he creates some stool - which this movie certainly is - he’s put yet another nail in the fad’s already over-spiked and mostly buried coffin. Time to call the coroner - Asian fright is official dead.

#2 - Chronicles of an Exorcism
There is nothing worse than an idea with a lot of potential being sideswiped by filmmakers who have absolutely no idea how to realize it. So when someone came up with the notion of taking the now overused first person POV, ‘you are there style’ of camera work to cover a supposed “actual” case of demonic possession, the frightmare possibilities appeared endless. Unfortunately, only the movie seemed to last forever. Aside from the dopey demonology and the grade school level performances, there is nothing remotely “real” here. Even the scenes that are proposed to shock are stale and uninteresting.

#1 - Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.

by Bill Gibron

29 Dec 2008

Talk about tough. After carefully scanning the over 200 movies SE&L experienced this Cineplex season (and that’s not counting the numerous DVDs), choosing a mere ten titles to represent the year’s worst cinematic stool samples was hard…and not for a lack of candidates. Without a doubt, this was one junk filled 12 months. Everyone’s favorite Teutonic whipping boy - Dr. Uwe Boll - offered not one but two terrible trifles in 2008, with only one being ‘so bad it was kinda good’ (Postal). In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale was pure garbage. Similarly, Meg Ryan and a bunch of menopausal actresses gave Women everywhere an incredibly lame name, while that classic combo of Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer provided their own double dose of drek - Meet the Spartans and the appropriately named Disaster Movie.  And let’s not forget Larry the Cable Guy and his should be career swansong Witless Protection. On second thought, let’s.

So in the end, with numerous examples of awfulness to choose from, how did we pick between losing friends and alienating people? The answer, oddly enough, takes a page out of the Best Picture paradigm: quality. No, not the inherent value in a project, but the innate noxiousness and nausea a terrible movie creates. A really bad film fumes like an overripe puppy pile and stays with you like the stink of a dead deer carcass. It rots your brain and boils your aesthetic, doing more damage internally than drugs, alcohol, and George Bush’s social policies combined. Still, scanning over nearly 30 entries that could be included here (like What Happens in Vegas…, Baby Mama, Doomsday, and the horrendous 88 Minutes), the final selection seems incomplete. Like any kind of crapshoot, the collateral damage is often more compelling than the target taken out.

So without further ado, here are Short Ends and Leader‘s choices for the worst films of 2008. Argue with them all you want, but here’s betting there’s more common ground than complaints. We begin with:

#10 - Nights in Rodanthe
Sometimes, source material says it all. A luminous cast and a worthy director will still have a hard time making a cinematic silk purse out of a literary sow’s ear. This Windstorms of North Carolina Counties is so overwrought and Harlequin-ed that only the most susceptible of spinsters or inexperienced poetry majors will fall for its faux passions. While Diane Lane and Richard Gere are a great onscreen couple, the set up stunts their appeal. There is so much hand wringing and heart sickness here, so many unexplained subplots and unclear character motives that by the time the death/denouement arrives, we’re too confused to care.

#9 - Babylon A.D.
Mathieu Kassovitz is livid. Not just angry, mind you, but completely pissed off. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. closed the Summer 2008 season with the kind of wounded whimper and no preview punishment that comes with abject studio hatred. Knowing they had a bomb on their hands, Fox wrenched the film away from the La Haine director and monkeyed with it a bit. The result is perhaps the biggest load of speculative shite ever to be argued over by supposedly smart people. Now Kassovitz is just embarrassed.

#8 - Four Christmases
Flailing like a dying fish out of water and smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny. It’s rotten mistletoe over a condemned homestead’s archway. In fact, it’s such an unbridled waste, such a horrifying amalgamation of inept attempted laughs that you wonder what the capable cast was thinking during the filming of certain scenes. And this is a group who collectively own five Oscars, mind you. Between the painful pantomime of the various slapstick sequences, to the complete lack of emotional truth or temperament, this is holiday cheer for the stupid and stunted. And yet it has made over $100 million. Sigh.

#7 - The Eye
Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Our directors obviously suffered from some kind of cinematic amnesia after hitting LaLa Land. With this Jessica Alba atrocity, they definitely forgot everything that made Ils so wonderful.

#6 - The Love Guru
Former funnymen have had a tough time this year. Jim Carrey barely survived Yes Man with his disintegrating dignity intact, and Eddie Murphy proved that science fiction and floundering talent just don’t mix. But no one undermined their own box office legacy better than Mike Myers. Clearly needing some cash to pay for his pending divorce, the one time Wayne Campbell took the worst parts of his Austin Powers franchise, fluffed them up with some Hindi hate crimes, and delivered a deathblow to everything he ever had a hand in. Being dumb and disgusting is one thing. Being hateful doing it is par for this pariah’s new course.

#5 - The Happening
If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be laughable. Former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan finally spent the last bit of his Sixth Sense/Next Spielberg credentials making a movie in which plants went on a rampage against mankind. No, not in a Day of the Triffids kind of carnage. No, our friendly neighborhood vegetation decided to release a neurotoxin which caused humans to kill themselves. Huh? Anyway, with questionable scripting and even more specious acting, this was a truly terrible attempt at terror. Leave it to the freefalling filmmaker to make things even more unintentionally hilarious by touting this as the scariest movie ever. Huh?

#4 - What Just Happened?
A really bad movie, that’s what. Proving that whatever creative cache he accumulated during the ‘80s and ‘90s is just about used up, Barry Levinson takes Art Linson’s self-absorbed and referential mess of a memoir and tries to turn it into a mid-naught version of The Player. What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. Now that’s tough to do.

#3 - Towelhead
Oh boy - a 14 year old girl gets molested and finger-raped on camera and we’re supposed to see it as some manner of post-modern sideways sexual awakening…with War on Terror/9-11 overtones. Right. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder, did writer/director Alan Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Larry Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Instead, it feels like sickening exploitation without any redeeming value whatsoever.

#2 - Blindness
There is a lot of critical support for this lamentably awful faux-fable, with many pointing to the powerful message buried within Fernando Meirelles’ reading of José Saramago’s novel. The only problem with such an excuse is that you have to get through the dark, dim muck to even begin to appreciate what is, in the end, a pretty simple “society sucks” statement. As a look at what happens when civilization breaks down, we do indeed learn a very valuable lesson. The world will not end with a whimper or a bang. It will just fester in a pool of its own filth. Yuck!

#1 - Funny Games
Okay, okay, we get it. American’s love violence. We crave the brutality and support all cinema that substitutes death blows for discussions. But just like rubbing a bad dog’s nose in his own self-styled entertainment excrement, smirk-filled preaching isn’t going to get us to change. Someone needs to tell German jester Michael Haneke that like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, wallowing in the very genre excesses that you want to foil is hypocritical at best. Even worse, the director then purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor for the “all time” title.

//Mixed media

Players Lose Control in ‘Tales from the Borderlands’

// Moving Pixels

"This is an interactive story in which players don’t craft the characters, we just control them.

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