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2008 U.S. Film Releases

The John Topping List


Director of the Year – Gus van Sant


milkParanoid ParkMilk

Paranoid Park

Gus van Sant is one of the very rare directors who can weave in and out of the Hollywood system, making relatively big movies like Good Will Hunting and smaller, personal, practically avant-garde films without big names attached like Elephant.  In 2008, a sample of each was released - Paranoid Park quietly snuck into art houses at the beginning of the year (and just as quietly slipped away); and Milk –  a highly-deserved Oscar nominee for Best Picture, among other categories, including Sean Penn as Best Actor, giving one of his most brilliant performances in a career brimming over with brilliance (not to mention GvS himself as Best Director) – has been building since its late year limited release.   In addition to being two of the very best films of the year, it is also remarkable to see how much van Sant has grown as a director and as an artist.  What else can one say?  Bravissimo! 



The Lost Gem That Oscar May Save


Frozen RiverFrozen River

The Academy has recognized this film with nominations for Melissa Leo as Best Actress and Courtney Hunt for Best Screenplay!  Did I or did I not say in these very web pages that that’s what should happen?  (Hint: I did.)  I must say I was flabbergasted that my recommendations were taken seriously.  It’s choices like these that make you wonder if the Oscars aren’t just a pile of bullshit after all.






The Gem That's Getting Decent Exposure In The Art Houses


Let The Right One InLet The Right One In

(Låt den rätte komma in)

I’m going to step out on a limb and say that this is the best Swedish vampire movie ever made.  Even though I thought that two of the most “shocking” images in it were kind of lame and almost ruined the rest of it for me (particularly the woman being attacked by ((stuffed)) cats), my companion thought they were as thrilling as they were meant to be, so go figure.  Don’t avoid this film because you wouldn’t normally see a vampire movie or because you abhor violence – it’s not an ordinary vampire movie and the violence is quite minimal.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you saw it.




The Other Best Films of 2008


Gran TorinoGran Torino

The most fun you’ll have spending time with a bigoted racist since Archie Bunker.  And, story-wise, a brilliant solution – I had no idea how the movie was going to resolve the moral predicament it created unscathed.



Rachel Getting MarriedRachel Getting Married

Just damn good filmmaking and superb acting.  What more do you want?


Revolutionary RoadRevolutionary Road

Part of the thrill of this film for me was that it seemed like it was the kind of R-rated film I wasn’t allowed to see when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s – somehow I was able to imagine the tone and content of those unseen films.  So it was, you could say, nostalgia for something I’d never actually experienced.  I have been told by everyone else who’s seen it that it really is as good as it seemed.  And if you only want to see Kate Winslet once, see this instead of The Reader.


Roman Polanski: Wanted And DesiredRoman Polanski: Wanted And Desired

Sometimes you watch a film, and, even if it's thoroughly absorbing, you never imagine that it will make your “best of the year” list months down the road; then you see the full list of films you saw, and realize, with surprise, that it was in the top handful.  Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired is such a film.


Vicky Cristina BarcelonaVicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen’s best film in X years!  This film, which most people who see it love, or at least like a lot, was written and directed by Woody Allen, the guy who fell in love with one of former lover Mia Farrow’s adopted daughters, Soon-Yi Previn.  Yes, that Woody Allen!  The one who was never Soon-Yi’s father or step-father, and of which the affair began when Soon-Yi was over 21, and, by the way, now, 16 years later, they’re still together – married!  Don’t you hate people like him, who find the person they truly love and spend the rest of their lives with them?  It makes my blood boil!  Dammit, dammit, dammit, why did I allow myself to like this movie??!!




Recommendable Films of 2008


Cadillac RecordsCadillac Records

Excellent performances in a good but not great film.  And I’m really sorry to have to delve into the superficial – especially the exact kind of superficiality my mother indulges in – but I can’t stand looking at Adrian Brody’s nose.  I’m not an anti-big nose person; in fact, I tend to love big noses.  However, his nostrils are just gargantuan – the nostrilic equivalent of Angelina Jolie’s monstrous lips or Hilary Swank’s 3-inch long teeth.  And, although a good actor, he doesn’t ignite the screen for me (ever).  It is a mostly black cast of reliably good performers (Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def), but the break-out performance is Beyonce Knowles.  If you ever saw her in an early film like, say, Austin Powers in Goldmember, you would never have believed that she could grow into a good actress.  Here, she is not just good, but amazingly good.  Cedric the Entertainer, who gets me moist indeed, unfortunately has a very small role; I sensed it was larger but got cut (he’s the narrator and yet barely appears as a character).



A “love it or hate it” movie.  I loved it. Beware: entire film is super-shakey camera.  Running from seat and almost vomiting was part of the experience. 


The CounterfeitersThe Counterfeiters

(Die Fälscher)

When this was released in the U.S. early in the year (and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), who knew we were going to be bombarded by Nazi films at the end of the year?  Totally understandable to miss if you’re on Holocaust-overload. 



Although Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are among our finest living actors, they could not match the impact that Cherry Jones and Brian F. O'Byrne had on stage.  Nevertheless, the play was the play, and this movie is this movie, and it's not often that a film comes this close to being as good as its source material.


The Edge Of HeavenThe Edge Of Heaven

(Auf der anderen Seite)

This is one of the films that should probably be moved up to the “very best” list.  I guess the reason I don’t is that I am unable to explain what it’s “about,” or what it “means.”  But it’s definitely worth your time. 



I found the first 20 minutes so boring that I didn’t think I was going to last all the way through.  Then suddenly everything changed and I loved it from minute 21 to the end.


Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal SkullIndiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Not great, but, like Hilary Clinton, it was likeable enough.  And come on, it was better than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.


Kung Fu PandaKung Fu Panda

A surprisingly good animated film from Dreamworks.  (Psst – and better than WALL-E.) 


My WinnipegMy Winnipeg

It had to happen someday – a Guy Maddin film that I liked thoroughly from beginning to end.  Mad, loopy fun and a thorough delight. Warning:  about as far from mainstream as you can possibly get.


The ReaderThe Reader

Interesting story but definitely questionable morals.  Is it time to forgive the Nazis?  On the other hand, as we have seen with GWB, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib - not to mention Milgram's Electric Shock Experiment, recently repeated with the same results - Americans would not hesitate to commit the same atrocities if their leaders told them to.  It's a human response to authority.  So come over here, you Nazi, and give me a big hug!



A good old-fashioned thriller. 


The WrestlerThe Wrestler

I actually loved this film, but it’s not on the higher list for a couple of reasons:  (1) I live with someone who hated it, and our marriage might be compromised if I put it in the same league as Rachel Getting Married; and (2) it is not without some screenplay problems and dopey plot devices.  But if you can put its flaws aside and just go with it, it’s an exhilarating ride. 






Recommendable Family Films of 2008



Okay, all you Kung Fu Hustle fans – and I know there are a lot of you – your hero, director Steven Chow, released a film this year that you didn’t even know about; or if you knew about it, you probably didn’t see it.  Not the most enticing title, to be sure (even the original Cantonese title, Cheung Gong 7 hou, is catchier).  And not as good as KFH, but much better, in my opinion, than Shaolin Soccer.  How many movies do you see that have touching father/son bonding moments of killing cockroaches?  A must for KFH fans;  all others, see Kung Fu Hustle first.


The Spiderwick ChroniclesThe Spiderwick Chronicles

Counting voice work, this film marked the first of 7 – seven! – film appearances by Seth Rogan in 2008.  Talk about overexposure.  This is a really fun movie, and is in English.







Recommendable Documentaries of 2008


Chris & Don. A Love Story

Chris & Don. A Love Story

It would be difficult not to be moved by this documentary.


Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. ThompsonGonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

See why Bill Murray and Johnny Depp have portrayed Hunter Thompson in two different films (respectively, Where The Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  Fascinating and sorry he's not still around.


Young at HeartYoung@Heart

I think that more than one review I’ve read has used the adjective “irresistible” to describe Young@Heart.  And that’s what this movie about a group of mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians singing punk, rock and soul is – irresistible. 







Movies I Liked, But I Have To Be Over The Top With Enthusiasm And Say They Were Absolutely Outstanding, Or Else You’ll Think I’m Stupid


Man On WireMan On Wire

I liked it, okay?  Cheeses!  In fact, it was ... uh ... it was absolutely outstanding!


Standard Operating ProcedureStandard Operating Procedure

Errol Morris revisits Abu Ghraib by interviewing most of the “bad apples” who caused the mayhem, including the infamous Lynddie England herself, she of the thumbs-up gesture.  Amazing to hear their side of the story and the reconstruction of events.  In fact, absolutely outstanding!


Waltz With BashirWaltz With Bashir

(Vals Im Bashir)

I always have trouble with war films, because I never understand why they are at war, and am lost as to what their motivations are for doing almost anything they do.  I’m sure I would have been killed if I’d ever gone into combat.  This I had a little less trouble with than the usual war film, not just because of the startling animation, but because the narrator/filmmaker could not remember anything of his days in combat, and through interviews and introspection goes through the process of jogging his memory.  I still have no idea why they were at war, though.  Nonetheless, it was absolutely outstanding!



Best Comic Performer of the Year - Danny McBride


The Foot Fist WayThe Foot Fist Way

2008 was a great year for Danny R. McBride.  Who?  He was the hilarious guy in the neck brace in Pineapple Express, and, although far less funny as a crew member in Tropic Thunder, it kept his profile high.  (He was also in Drillbit Taylor, which I didn't see.)  But before those releases, he starred in this bizarre indie comedy about the world’s most obnoxious Tae Kwon Do instructor.  The movie is uneven and weird and very obviously low-budget, but Danny McBride is extremely and strangely watchable.  And, although some of the humor falls flat, it is still better than Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder combined.




The Most Overrated Films Of The Year


Slumdog MillionaireSlumdog Millionaire

I’ve had to stop myself from the inclination to call this one of the worst films of the year.  It’s not actually a terrible film, just an ordinary one;  but the more and more overpraised it gets, the less and less I like it.  So these days I’m practically seething with hatred.  I obviously take this shit way too seriously.  I am gratified to know, however, that there is an ample number of moviegoers and critics who agree with me that it’s no great shakes, and this makes it much easier to tolerate. 



I actually like this film, but the zeitgeist of its most ardent admirers is to elevate it to being a much better and more important movie than it actually is.  It definitely aspires to greatness, and that’s noble.  But it doesn’t reach the heights it aims for, and that’s forgivable.  So what’s with this notion that it both reached and surpassed its aim?  Seems like wishful thinking to me.








The Films To Which I Was Most Neutral And Most Prone To Summarize By Saying, "WhatEVer"


Charlie BartlettCharlie Bartlett

Both interesting and not interesting at the same time.


The Curious Case Of Benjamin ButtonThe Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Although I was not enthralled with Benjamin Button, I am mystified at the sheer hatred that is being heaped upon it.  Except for those 13 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.

Liev Schreiber has always been an excellent stage actor, but this marks the first time I have seen him turn in an excellent film performance.  Daniel Craig – good actor, but I totally don’t get why people think he’s drop-dead gorgeous.  The movie – interesting insofar as it’s a true story, but doesn’t really grab and shake you.

Miracle At St. AnnaMiracle At St. Anna

Wow, this is one supremely boring film.  Doesn’t help that it’s a war film – I never get why anyone does any particular thing in war films, remember?



Lots of fighting, cool blood spattering. 


The Other Boleyn GirlThe Other Boleyn Girl

I actually kind of enjoyed this, and yet have nothing but bad memories about it. 



Good intentions. 









The Most Confusing Film of the Year


Tell No OneTell No One

(Ne le dis à personne)

I’m told this was a top-notch French thriller, and I believe it.  But I wish they’d hired actresses who didn’t look so much alike, so that I could have sorted out the characters and kept track of what was happening.  Or maybe I’m just stoopid. 







The Movie That, More Than Any Other, Made Me Glad That I Don’t Live In Romania


4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days

(4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile)

Or at least that I wasn’t a woman who lived there in the 1980s and needed an abortion.  A very unpleasant little film (which is not the same as a bad film) that the highbrow critics flipped over.







The Most Disappointing Films of 2008


A Jihad For LoveA Jihad For Love

Boy, if there was ever a time that we needed to see a deep exploration about how gay men function in the Muslim world, this is it.  But, unfortunately, this film does not satisfy.  Still, it’s better that it exists than not. 



This was simply not worthy as a theatrical release.  But Bill Maher should be commended for pushing for the atheists’s point of view (for the record, I am not an atheist, but nor am I religious).  In the same way that, even if you didn’t vote for Barack Obama, you should be glad to live in a country where a black man can be elected president, it also holds true that, even if you are decidedly not a Bill Maher fan, you should be happy to live in a country where an atheist can speak his mind and defend his position.  Isn’t that what part of American freedom is about? – not just freedom of religion, but freedom from religion?  Still, shoulda been an HBO special.




Oh, Oliver Stone, you big silly.  Lefties didn’t want a fair and balanced portrait of Dubya, and righties didn’t want any portrait of him done by you at all.  And by the way, thanks for ruining my pot brownie, on which I thought it was going to be fun to watch this.








I Changed My Mind – Some.  Happy Now?


The Dark KnightThe Dark Night

It turns out that it makes a big difference to see this movie in the afternoon when you’re wide awake rather than a Sunday night 10:30 p.m. show on a day you’re exhausted but committed because of tickets purchased in advance.  I will no longer say it’s incomprehensible.  I will still say that Heath Ledger’s performance is by far the best thing about it.  And, even though my opinion has been raised, it still doesn’t grab me.  It still seems a bit nihilistic.  I guess I still don’t “get” it.  Sorry.  Oh, and yes, I did see it in IMAX the second time, since I’d been told that since I didn’t see it in IMAX, I didn’t really see it.  Now I realize this doesn’t hold true for all IMAX movies, but where I saw it (AMC Empire 25 in NYC), it was a video projection, and not a particularly high definition one.  I was quite surprised to see video lines; they were ever so noticeable and distracting.  Pretty disappointing, to say the least. 




Movies I Paid To See But Slept Through Too Many Sections To Honestly Evaluate Them


Boy ABoy A

I think this might have been good if I’d been awake.


No RegretNo Regret

(Huhwihaji anha)

I think I probably didn’t miss anything here.



I remember this was about two writers, right?


Synecdoche, New YorkSynecdoche, New York

I was really sorry that I couldn’t stay awake for this, because it seemed really interesting before my eyes refused to stay open.








I Will Resist Putting This Film In The “Worst” Category (And Why)


Tropic ThunderTropic Thunder

Because, as bad as it was, there were perhaps 10-15 minutes of actual funny; and because Robert Downey, Jr.’s acting was outstanding; and because Tom Cruise’s cameo was brilliant.  That is certainly a lot going for it.  But it’s still mostly tiresome and unfunny. 








The Worst Films of 2008


Burn After ReadingBurn After Reading

Since their last film, the Coen Brothers have graduated from evasiveness to pointlessness.


Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3DJourney To The Center Of The Earth 3D

It was a foregone conclusion that this was going to be one of the worst films of the year.  But we’re in the age of several-3D-films-per-year; what's the point of treating it as mere novelty? 


Last Chance HarveyLast Chance Harvey

What drugs were the movie executives on who made this a late-year release, with the impression that it was going to ratchet up a slew of nominations during awards season?  The only award it should get is Lamest Prestige Movie. 


Mamma Mia!Mamma Mia!

Give me a break. 


Pineapple ExpressPineapple Express

Did you ever see Gremlins?  And you know how those little creatures were so cute at first, but then when they got wet, they turned into terrifying monsters?  Similarly, Pineapple Express starts as a delightful comedy, but soon turns into an infuriatingly loud and stupid action flick.








Beyond Bad – The Most Unwatchable Films Of The Year


Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Movies like this are the reason Robert McKee’s story seminars are so vital – so that films this poorly conceived, underwritten and contrived never get made.  A proverbial textbook example of how not to write a screenplay, and why not to shoot a screenplay that hasn’t been properly written.


Speed RacerSpeed Racer

A lesson in how to throw expensive technological wizardry down the drain:  by making every scene unimportant and unconnected.  You would have to see Speed Racer yourself to get a taste of how uniquely and indescribably clueless it is – even without the “cute”(not!) kid and his monkey – but don’t.  You’ll never know how big a cinematic favor you’re doing yourself.






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