Sense of Wonder: The Best Fantasy Films, Horror Movies & Science Fiction Cinema of 2008
The Oscars are just around the corner – this Sunday, in fact – which means that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is about to hand out awards for the best films of 2008. Inevitably, many of the truly best films from last year will be ignored because they fall into the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. With a few exceptions (like WALL-E and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON), most of these films have not received the Academy Award nominations they deserve. This is a genuine shame, because imaginative cinefantastique was among the very best cinema on display last year, offering popular hits and thoughtful art house efforts that matched and in many cases surpassed films nominated by the Academy.
Therefore, Cinefantastique Online is taking this opportunity to set matters straight. Check out our announcement of the first annual Wonder Awards winners for the cream of the crop in genre film-making; it is a list of which we are proud, representing the best not only in cinefantastique but in cinema in general.
Like all awards, however, the Wonder Awards represent consensus, which often omits quirky, interesting choices. That’s why we had some of our voters review films they thought worthy of consideration even though not enough of their fellow voters agreed to warrant a nomination: Jeff Alard of Dinner with Max Jenke thought QUARANTINE deserved a nod in the makeup category; soundtrack columnist Randall Larson believed that THE SPIRIT, contrary to the negative consensus, deserved major consideration; John T. Stanhope would have nominated Liv Tyler for her performance in THE STRANGERS, and he also felt that CITY OF EMBERS deserved something better than the box office oblivion it received.
Finally, it falls to me to present my personal selections for the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror films from last year. As I have indicated, 2008 was an exceptional year, providing more than enough great titles to fill a Top Ten list. With such a variety of good films, the apples-to-oranges comparisons make it difficult to rank them. I have tried as much as possible to list them in order of preference, but many cases were too close to call with certainty. All that I can say for sure is that the titles toward the bottom of the list tend to be boderline genre efforts (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, GET SMART) or films marred by some egregious flaws that I nonetheless enjoyed so much that I felt I had to include them (MOTHER OF TEARS).
1. THE DARK KNIGHT
When I saw this in theatres, I was impressed with the ambition and breadth of the story-telling, but I found the action sequences overdone and the pacing erratic (it felt to fast in parts and too slow overall). However, subsequent viewings on home video have erased most of my quibbles, leaving only the favorable aspects. I might not go so far as to call it a perfect film, but its strengths (for me at least) now eclipse any weaknesses. Heath Ledges’ performance as the Joker has been justly praised, but we should note that much of the character’s strength comes from strong writing: as horrible as his nihilistic philosophy is, it too often sounds like it makes sense, which makes the film more genuinely disturbing than just about all the straight-out horror films released last year. The technical aspecst are superb, and we should not forget the other strong performances from Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Morgan J. Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the under-appreciated Christian Bale, whose stoic Batman/Bruce Wayne combo is the eye around which the Joker’s storm circles.
2. IRON MAN
Having seen this film toward the beginning of the summer season, I never would have believed that another superhero hit would come along and top it. In any other year (one without THE DARK KNIGHT, that is), this would have been the blockbuster that etched itself into the popular consciousness. Without taking itself too seriously, IRON MAN presents a solid, dramatic story with a strong character at its core; the film is both involving and fun, and Robert Downey Jr carries the film so well that it never feels in danger of devolving into silly superhero antics. Jeff Bridges is also great in a supporting role. If you like your comic book movies bright and colorful, instead of dark and brooding, this is the one for you.
This is another film that improved with subsequent viewings: it seemed great to begin with, but much stronger in its first (innovative) half than in its second (more conventional) half. Watching it again, I find it easier to be swept up into the story and overlook the fact that, after the awesome opening, the movie segues into a being a good but relatively typical family film. The characters, animation, and sight gags are more than enough to keep the entertainment level high, even if no new ground is being broken.
4. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
This is easily the sleeper hit of 2008, a Swedish vampire film that combines an art house sensibility with the horror genre and makes the combination absolutely seamless. The cool detachment of the cinematography recalls the best of the J-Horror genre, while vistas covered by falling snow evoke “God’s Silence” from Ingmar Bergman’s work. In the middle of this, two characters meet: a troubled young boy, who wants to even the score against the bullies at school, and his new neighbor, a mysterious girl. In the manner of an Anne Rice novel, the story is told from inside their perspective, so that what happens to them determines whether we perceive the film as having a “happy” ending; ultimately, we are seduced into identifying with them, regardless of the others who die. The morality may be questionable, but the emotional catharsis is undeniable.
5. KUNG FU PANDA
This is one of those highly entertaining films about which I fail to find much to say, except that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed. The concept seemed too high – an opportunity for some easy laughs and some dull psuedo-eastern philosophy – but the film turns out to be simply excellent, almost from beginning to end. I particularly like the way the villain manages to free himself from his high-security imprisonment using nothing more than the quill of a feather to pick a lock: I just know in my gut this is inspired by Hannibal Lecter’s using a pen for a similar purpose in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, yet without making any ham-handed references, the filmmakers manage to elevate their antagonist to truly impressive proportions, ensuring that the confrontation with our titular hero will be a suspense-filled life-or-death struggle, not just some easy-going cartoon ass-kicking.
6. DIARY OF THE DEAD
George Romero returns with a reboot of his zombie mythology, updated for the Internet age. As I said when I first saw the film at a preview in 2007, DAIRY feels like the work of a young filmmaker attempting to take the familar zombie paraphernalia and twist it into something relevant on a thematic level, instead of merely updating the action for contemporary audiences. Which is to say, the zombies are the same, but Romero uses them as a mirror to reflect upon modern society, which makes his film feel like much more than a rehash – and much more imaginative than the typical “fast” zombie we have come to expect. (Romero cleverly spoofs his modern competitors by having one character note that dead things have to move slow; otherwise, their ankles would break.) Some critics have objected to the preachy tone Romero has adopted in recent years, but I find it acceptable in context (these characters would make these statements; they don’t just sound like mouthpieces for Romero). The film is slightly marred by the pacing (Romero structures it like a road movie, but the road seems rather long) and by some ill-placed humor (the jokey tune that plays when the blond woman from Texas kicks zombie ass).
Like WALL-E, this is an animated film that begins great and then drops off. The difference is that the beginning lasts only for one sequence, not half the film. The remainder is also lots of fun, but I was left with a lingering feeling that I wanted more of the opening. The film is still thoroughly enjoyable, but after WALL-E and KUNG FU PANDA, BOLT tends to look very good rather than absolutely great. But instead of damning the film with faint praise, we should just be thankful that animation is raising the bar so high.
This is a funny, demented satire about a teenage girl whose unique mutation offers an infallible protection against sexual assault. In the manner of good speculative fiction, the film follows its lead character from the “what if?” premise, tracing her emotional development, instead of simply using the idea as an excuse for gore. However, that doesn’t not mean the film shies away from the potential for graphic excess; in fact, writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein exploits the castration anxiety inherent in the scenario for some gruesomely over-the-top scenes that will have male viewers reflexively reaching between their legs to protect their private parts. My main reservation about this film is the cartoony tone in the opening , which seems to be part of Lichtenstein’s strategy for emphasizng his theme, regardless of whether the drama makes sense. He wants his heroine to grow from naivety to sophistication, but we never believe that her family situation or upbringing could have made her the dewy-eyed near-simpleton we see at the beginning. On the other hand, maybe dramatic realism is not what one should expect from a film about a woman with teeth in her vagina.
9. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
This is such obvious Oscar-bait (it earned a ton of nominations and will probably win several awards) that it is tempting to reject it in a knee-jerk fashion, and the temptation is increased by a weakness in the screenplay, which overemphasizes the appearance of age rather than the fact of it: the title character (Brad Pitt) ages in reverse, but the effect is seen mostly in his face, not in his behavior, so the film seems to be saying that, no matter how much he has in common with the woman he loves (who is in fact only a few years younger than he), a relationship is unsustainable because they don’t look the same age. For that reason, the film gets pushed down toward the bottom of my list. The reason it remains on the list is that in spite of this flaw, Eric Roth’s screenplay must be described as “rich” – rich in character, events, and dialogue that convey the sweep and breadth of life. Ultimately, one should read Benjamin’s condition not as something literal, but as a dramatic device that provides a different perspective, allowing us to look at ordinary events – events that might even be typical and common – and see them in a new light, with renewed warmth and appreciation. This film succeeds so well at this that I am forced to forgive it for not dealing with Benjamin’s condition in a more sophisticated manner; I simply have to accept that he is our eye upon the world – not a real character or a believable one but a fictional construct who serves his purpose well.
It is a shame that Dimension dumped this film into only a few theatres before shipping it off to video. As far as killer croc movies go, it is one of the best – far better than 2007’s PRIMEVAL – and its production values, including fantastic location shooting in Australia – would have looked lovely up on the big screen. Greg McLean, who made a name for himself among horror fans with WOLF CREEK, shows that he can set aside the psycho killers in favor of crafting a JAWS-type monster movie full of suspense and graced with a solid ensemble cast of characters, some of whom even surprise you (the tour guide’s old boyfriend, introduced as a complete jerk who you want to see eaten, turns out to be the guy willing to take a risk when the shit hits the fan, and you end up rooting for him). The only weakness here is that , working with a creature instead of a human killer, McLean’s cannot ratchet up the suspense quite as high; the horror here feels slightly on the safe side. It’s not quite a “fun” monster movie, but it does not go far outside the comfort zone, allowing you to relax to a certain extent and enjoy the mayhem, instead of biting your nails to the bone from beginning to end.
11. THE RUINS
Like ROGUE, this depicts how badly a vacation into the wild can turn out, although in this case the antagonist is a killer vine instead of a killer croc. The clever strategy of the screenplay is that most of the actual pain and suffering is dished out by the humans in their scrabbling attempts to protect themselves (e.g., moving a character with a back injury). Ultimately, the film is a portrait of characters trapped in a dire situation from which there may be no escape, and the scenario deserves credit for following through on its premise without offering easy cop-outs. The only problem is that the apparent inevitability of doom eventually urges the viewer to withdraw emotionally, for fear that the situation really is entirely hopeless. The filmmakers tried to squeeze their way out of this dilemma with a couple of alternate endings (seen on DVD), none of them fully satisfying.
12. QUANTUM OF SOLACE
This second James Bond adventure starring Daniel Craig does a good job of continuing the story from 2006’s CASINO ROYALE; it works well as a sequel, showing Bond dealing with the fallout from the earlier adventure, and Craig is great once again. Where it trips up, ironically, is in the action department. The film seems to be trying to hard, but the big set pieces don’t integrate so well with the drama (a failing the plagued 1989’s LICENSE TO KILL as well). Consequently, QUANTUM OF SOLACE emerges as an engrossing piece of entertainment that never fully lives up to its potential. Fortunately, this is a not a case of the martini glass being half empty but of it being three-quarters full – and as anyone who has ever enjoyed one of Bond’s “Vesper Lynde” dry martinis knows, three-quarters packs more knock-out punch than two of any conventional drink.
13. GET SMART
This spy spoof qualifies for genre status (like the Bond films) thanks to its techno-gadgets. Updating the old television series, GET SMART is consistently funny and clever, and you don’t have to be a big fan of Steve Carrel or THE OFFICE to enjoy it.
14. MOTHER OF TEARS
This movie has so much inexplicable weirdness (a monkey that is, according to director Dario Argento, a witch) and so many ridiculous flaws (the hokey scene of the heroine and hero laughing with relief at the end) that some readers may think I’ve lost my mind, but I have to insist that what works…works so well that the title absolutely deserves a slot in a year-end list. Argento goes way over the top with the horror, but he manages to make the gore feel like manifestations of ancient evil erupting in modern times; the horror does elicit a shiver of fear, not merely a gag of disgust. Fans can argue about whether this sequel lives up to its predecessors, SUSPRIRIA and INFERNO, but it is Argento’s best work in a while, one that shows him more than a match for the younger practitioners, whose work fills multiplexes these days. Despite its flaws, MOTHER OF TEARS stirs up a dark brew of intriguing elements (witch witchcraft, evil sorcery, archeology, alchemy, and Christianity) that ferment in the mind like dimly remembered nightmare come back to the conscious mind. Is it sometimes silly? Yes. But it also stirs the soul with its old-fashioned depiction of Good and Evil.
Want more? Here ya’ go…
- We tally up the big winners in this year’s Wonder Awards.
- Read the complete list of Cinefantastique’s 2009 Wonder Awards Winners here.
- John Morehead explains his picks for winners and losers Rational of a Conflicted Contrarian.
- Drew Fitzpatrick looks at 2008’s best DVD and Blu-ray releases in this Laserblast column.
- Randall Larson enumerates the best sci-fi soundtrack CDs of the year in The Score.