The best (& worst) films of 2008

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)--At the end of the year, the studios bring out their big guns -- the pictures they hope will garner prestige and award attention.

Most of these are not on my list for the best films of 2008. The reason? Though that's where you usually find the best acting, directing, etc., all too often these films dwell on negative aspects of nature, many containing huge amounts of profane language and excessive everything else.

I chose films I believe uplifted the spirit of man as well as entertained. They are in no particular order. Before viewing, please visit previewonline.org for full reviews and the reasons for the ratings.

THE BEST MOVIES:

-- "Wall.E" (rated G). The most original film of the summer, Wall.E was both funny and touching. Despite a rather hypocritical handling of environmental issues (Disney & Pixar, each renown for non-biodegradable excess), the makers of Wall.E gave the public a fascinating, cuddly and humorous adventure. Both Disney and Pixar remain dedicated to the premise that an involving story is central to a great movie. These two studios make sure that special effects and CGI sparkle add to -- rather than replace -- interesting characters or thought-provoking narrative. Wall.E contains an overall sense of wonder missing in most films aimed at families.

(Honorable mention: "Bolt", rated PG for mild action and peril). Many find this film about a TV star dog who discovers he doesn't really have superpowers more amusing than Wall.E. And in my opinion Bolt is a perfect family film. But that first half hour of Wall.E is adroit craftsmanship. It harkens back to great episodes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.

-- "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" (PG for thematic material and some disturbing images. Also, there is some mild language.) I may be the only critic in America with this one on a "best of" list. It mocks man's all-knowing, all-seeing intellectual conceit. The provocative film unnerves by pointing out that our nation's universities, many of which once embraced a reverence for God, are now helmed by those who don't.

-- "I.O.U.S.A." (PG for some thematic elements). This documentary examines the rapidly growing national debt and its consequences for the United States and its citizens. Before attending the screening, I couldn't imagine a film I'd rather not watch. So, I suspect that might be your first reaction, too. But if there's a tiger in the room, you need to know it. This film tells you how big the tiger is.

-- "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (PG for epic battle action and violence). Though this sequel is more action driven than the first episode, character development has by no means been abandoned. Between the many armchair-grabbing battle sequences, the intricate plot and the growth of the main characters, the film will likely serve to open a rewarding dialogue between parent and child. The Christ-like symbolism found in the pivotal character Aslan and the meaning of God's silence at times in our lives are addressed with transparency.

-- "Valkyrie" (PG-13 for violence and brief strong language). Based on the true story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), the film tells of the daring plot to kill Adolph Hitler. Aided by a sophisticated camera drive, the director's clever visceral style, and a fine supporting cast, Valkyrie becomes a topnotch action thriller. It's a testament to the writer/director that we're sitting there fully believing the would-be assassins might just achieve their task. Now, that's good cinema technique, when it causes us to hope for a new outcome.

-- "Steep" (PG for extreme sports action and brief language). Steep is an interesting documentary about men -- and women -- who live for danger. Like surfers searching for the tallest wave, extreme mountain skiers attempt to conquer the highest and most inaccessible adversary. Best moment: Three skiers are photographed from a helicopter while getting caught in an avalanche. Not only a thrilling, armrest-grabber of a moment, the aftermath also shows a camaraderie known only to those who risk their lives together. Now, that's awesome, dude.

Now, for the worst movies. It's difficult for me to say something negative about the work of others (a unique temperament for a movie reporter). So, even though I'm going to go all Addison DeWitt (the acerbic critic from "All About Eve") in this article, I want to stress that those involved in these monstrosities, I mean films, are talented and I mean nothing disrespectful toward them or their abilities. It's the concepts of these movies and their final cuts with which I take exception. So beware: In the words of Bette Davis, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

THE WORST MOVIES:

-- "27 Dresses" (PG-13 for language, some innuendo and sexuality). This wasn't a movie, it was a lab experiment. It's as if Dr. Frankenstein spliced together parts of unsold sitcoms, then jolted his monster to life with bolts of crudity and crassness. By film's end, I wanted to lead the angry mob to torch the castle.

-- "The Love Guru" (PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some comic violence and drug references). Mike Myers is a funny man. But he also admits to digging up a laugh wherever it can be mined. With his latest film, Mr. Myers is not content with potty humor; he spends much of his time in the sewer.

-- "Over Her Dead Body" (PG-13 for sexual content and language). Over her dead body was a comedy about a dead woman who haunts her man's new girlfriend. It was an attempt to make a movie star out of a TV star (Eva Longoria Parker). She attempts to rise to the big leagues by playing an obnoxious ghost (the most unlikable screen character of recent memory).

-- "Religulous" (R for some language and sexual material). Religulous follows political humorist Bill Maher ("Politically Incorrect") as he travels around the globe interviewing people about God. "Religion must die so mankind can live." So says Mr. Maher at the end of his docu-diatribe. In his polluted assessment of religion, Bill Maher managed to avoid discussions with theologians or folks versed in public speaking. Not once does he give an example of religious people adding anything positive to the culture or our world. Never does he see the life-changing transformation of knowing Christ, but only the corruption by those who use religion for their own ends. What's more, one gets the impression that Mr. Maher would have people of faith boiled with their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through the heart. Bah, humbug.

-- "Rachel Getting Marriage" (R for language and brief sexuality). This film is making most critics' best lists. Well, I've been wrong many times in my life. Now it's their turn. It just doesn't seem that long ago that I viewed another wedding movie steeped in family conflict: "Margot At the Wedding." What an uplifting little charmer that was. (I'm saying this with an air of sarcasm). While I am desperate for an insightful drama from the land that giveth an abundance of superhero action adventures, both Margot and Rachel disappoint because they revel in their melancholy spirit. They do, however, serve a purpose. Both these movies remind the filmgoer that unless your patriarch is Dracula and Jeffrey Dahmer is your cousin, your own family ain't all that bad.

THE MIGHT-HAVE-BEENS:

-- "The Dark Knight" (PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace). Writer/director Christopher Nolan breathed new life into a stale franchise with his "Batman Begins" back in 2005. Alas, my main complaint with his follow-up is a familiar one, having to do with the film's violence. (I'm not sure how they managed a PG-13 with its overwhelming amounts of intense, brutal and sadistic savagery.) As I've said several times, it just seems to take more and more desensitizing screen tumult to make audiences feel something. What's that say about us?

-- "Leatherheads" (PG-13 for strong language) George Clooney and Renée Zellweger star in this romantic comedy set against the backdrop of America's nascent pro-football league in 1925. With its brassy score, golden hue look, and award-worthy art and set decoration, plus a witty script that incorporates the right touches of zaniness, whimsy and heart, the production is one of the best of the year. Now for that ointment-covered fly. Mr. Clooney profanes God's name in nearly every film he stars. He does it here, as well. And to prove that women are just as emancipated as men, Ms. Zellweger also uses the profane term.


Phil Boatwright reviews films for previewonline.org and is a regular columnist for Baptist Press.

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