The Best of Film, TV and Books in '08

Our critics make their picks

The Best of Film, TV and Books in ‘08


Best Pickup Artist
Javier Bardem, as a painter in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, approaching Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) in a restaurant, commenting on Cristina’s eye colour, then inviting both of them to fly with him for the weekend to the picturesque town or Orviedo, where the three of them can drink wine, eat fine food and sleep together. Nice to know Woody still has a fantasy life.

The two most gorgeous movies on the same thing
The massive environmental and social upheaval of Three Gorges Dam in China was the subject of both a Canadian documentary, Up the Yangtze, and a Chinese feature drama, Still Life. These were among the best films of the year, and would have made my Top 10 list if it were a Top Dozen. Both films captured the quiet horror of slowly rising water levels with the kind of devastating beauty that makes Edward Burtynsky’s photographs so compelling. Up the Yangtze has an extraordinary sequence of an old man strapping a huge old wooden cabinet onto his back and, with Sisyphean effort, clambering up to higher ground—looking for footholds in massive tiles that have been set like scales into the steep riverbank above his home.

Best argument for the Oscars introducing a category for DVD commentary
Robert Downey Jr. deserves some sort of special award for his outrageous commentary on the DVD of Tropic Thunder. True to his character in the movie—an Australian method actor playing an African-American soldier in blackface—Downey remains in character throughout the hilarious chat with director Ben Stiller and co-star Jack Black. Love the way he talks about “T.C.” (Tom Cruise) with barely veiled condescension.

Best Emerging Threat to James Cameron from Kazakhstan
Forget the comic book chaos of Dark Knight. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, who hails from Kazakhstan, pulled off the year’s most spectacular action scenes in Wanted. The movie was so cheesy that the filmmaking never really got the respect it deserved. But given the choice, I’d much rather waste a couple of hours with Angelina Jolie’s dominatrix in Bekmambetov’s Wanted than watch her weep with indignation out in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling.

Best opening and epilogue in a romantic comedy (spoiler alert!)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall was, for my money, the year’s funniest romantic comedy. It starts out with a wonderfully cheap gross-out gag, as its doughy hero, played by Jason Segel, shows his flaccid penis in three successive shots—standing there naked as his girlfriend announces that she’s breaking up with him (a scene apparently based on Segal’s own experience). The film’s epilogue is as sophisticated as the opening is crude. Segel’s character secretly longs to quit his hack composer job and finish his preposterous dream project—a Dracula rock opera with puppets. Once again, this is a slice of real life—Segel just happened to have composed such a thing. And at the end of this riotous beach-resort farce, Segal finally gets to put on his little show, sending the comedy into the Spinal Tap stratosphere of sweet, sophisticated self-parody.


Best non-romantic relationship
Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) on The Big Bang Theory. He’s an asexual scientific genius, she’s a waitress who walks into her neighbour’s apartment in her underwear, and together they have become the funniest odd couple since, well, The Odd Couple. Their interactions are a highlight of every episode: Penny gets frustrated by Sheldon’s lack of familiarity with normal human concepts, and Sheldon is constantly surprised that she thinks he’s weird. Their relationship reached a sort of apex in a Christmas episode when Penny gave Sheldon a napkin that was used by Leonard Nimoy (“I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy”) and in gratitude, Sheldon made the supreme sacrifice and gave Penny a hug. Who needs romance when you can have hilariously awkward platonic friendship?

Best appearance by a ghost
Harry Morgan (James Remar), the adoptive father of the title character on Dexter, died long before the series began. But this season, that didn’t stop him from popping up to talk to Dexter, his sociopathic pride and joy, about the ethics of murder and anything else that was on his spectral mind. Some fans felt that Dexter seeing dead people was just another sign of his sad decline from a fascinating monster to a lovable weirdo with a wacky habit of killing people. But it sure is better than the other high-profile ghost sighting this year, Izzie’s visions of Dead Denny on Grey’s Anatomy. At least the ghost on Dexter isn’t sleeping with anybody.

Best use of a TV show for political purposes
This scene from the 1967 Batman episode “Dizzonner The Penguin,” where the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) debates Batman during a mayoral election and accuses the Caped Crusader of “concealing his past” and “hobnobbing with crooks.” Placed on YouTube, it became a viral sensation, as several news anchors and hundreds of thousands of viewers pointed out the eerie similarity of the Penguin’s campaign rhetoric to John McCain’s (right down to calling the audience “my friends”). what was once considered just a campy ’60s series became, ironically, more politically relevant to our time than The Dark Knight.

Best speech
In the next-to-last episode of The Shield, “Possible Kill Screen,” rogue cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) agrees to confess to all his past crimes in exchange for immunity. As other characters listen in horror and disgust, he proceeds to recount every horrible thing he’s gotten away with in the series, starting with his murder of a fellow police officer in the pilot. (“They just couldn’t prove it. I was too good.”) It could have been a silly laundry-list of villainous deeds, but through the power of the writing and Michael Chiklis’s acting, it became a truly scary moment as well as a kind of meta-analysis of the show and its lead character. Like Vic’s interrogator, we in the audience finally had to confront the unvarnished truth about what kind of a monster we’ve been following for the past seven seasons.

Best-looking Canadian on TV
This is almost as difficult as choosing the most depressing news story of 2008; there are so many beautiful Canadians on television that many U.S. message-board posters have become convinced that Canadians are all beautiful. Which we are. But Cobie Smulders, the impossibly tall ex-model who plays Robin on How I Met Your Mother, still laps the field; Robin is so attractive that even bimbo-magnet Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) is hopelessly in love with her. It doesn’t hurt that the Vancouver-born actress is one of the funniest members of a very funny cast.


Longest gestation, best baby:
Now 69, Patrick Lane had been an iconic poet for decades and, more recently, the author of an exquisite memoir, before writing his first novel, the brilliant, scarifying Red Dog, Red Dog. A grim story—dead infant narrators will do that—about proud, bitter and surprisingly loyal characters in the B.C. interior in the 1950’s, the beautifully written story was inexplicably left off all the national prize lists.

Best rewrite of modern history (actual):
How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Columbia university historian Mark Mazower not only shows in greater detail than ever before the casual as well as systematic murderousness of Nazi rule, but it’s equally brutal incompetence: while half the Third Reich clamoured for more and more (slave) workers, the other half was killing them by the millions. More remarkable than that well-known story, though, is Mazower’s persuasive case that the Nazis were depressingly less anomalous than anyone would wish. Much of what they did in Eastern Europe—from vast population transfers to mass hostage executions—was not revolutionarily evil but more an escalation of past wars there.

Best rewrite of modern history (alt-universe):
Half a Crown concluded Montreal writer Jo Walton’s subtle and compelling trilogy, Small Change, three fine, subverted Golden Age detective stories about life in a Britain that made peace with Hitler in 1941, and was sliding into fascism ever since.

CanLit Rookie of the Year:
Just about everyone, prize juries apart, loved 30-year-old Rebecca Rosenblum’s book of short stories, Once. Granted, it’s possible that many critics, older and better off than Once’s characters—mostly young people leading seemingly random lives in dead-end jobs—thought it was the sort of realistic fictional world they ought to appreciate. But if that’s what drew them, it’s Rosenblum’s strong, spare writing that kept them immersed in it.

Uncategorizable (again):
As it began, so it continues. The Gargoyle, by Winnipeg author Andrew Davidson, is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole by genre: a centuries-spanning love story about a suicidal narrator, burned beyond recognition in a car crash, and the schizophrenic sculptress of gargoyles who entices him back to life. And, oh yes, she claims they were lovers before, in 14th-century Germany, when she was a nun and he was a mercenary. But if publishers didn’t know what it was, they knew what they liked—26 of them gave Davidson an eye-opening $2.5 million in advances, and set a massive marketing machine in motion. The book did reasonably well, and if you discount the hype, was a success; factor in publishers’ high hopes, and it’s more of a bust. Maybe everyone is waiting for the paperback.

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