A common theme among entertainment aficionados is to compile a list of either the best or worst examples of a particular subject. Movie critics have their list of the top 10 movies of the year, while fashion watchdogs have a list of the best and worst-dressed celebrities. Even Maxim, which I like to call "The Essential Guide To Understanding Modern Man" has their own list (The 100 Hottest People).
While my own contributions may not matter much in the long run, a part of trying to stand out against a large landscape of voices is to do something different, especially when it comes to things that I feel passionate about (in this case, movies.) So, in homage to both this "listing" tradition and to my mother's favorite superhero team, I am proud to present to you...
Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2008#4. Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller's dissertation about a group of actors who, during the course of shooting their war movie, mistakenly stumble into a similar real-life situation was truly a breakout hit of the summer movie period. This film made me a staunch believer in the notion that "casting is half the work." Judging by this movie's cast, the other 50% couldn't have been all that hard.
I have to be honest here. Never did I expect to be as entertained as much as I was by this film. One thing I was drawn to immediately was the performances of the actors. Stiller's contribution of his action-adventure star fast approaching career burnout might have been a bit of a stretch, but he succeeded. Jack Black turned in yet another noteworthy performance as a drug-addled comedy star, which made me a bit worried (perhaps this role was a bit of ominous foreshadowing as to the future of his career?) Previously unknown actors Jay Baruchel & Brandon T. Jackson rise to the challenge and match up well against their A-list co-stars, but the true stars of the movie are Robert Downey Jr and Tom Cruise, with their scene-stealing performances as an African-American soldier and the narcissistic studio chairman, respectively.
#3. Iron Man
I've been a fan of Robert Downey Jr. since Chaplin, and I'll admit that his name was the last one that I would've expected to see in the cast list for a comic book movie. And I agree that comic book/superhero movies have gotten a bad reputation as of late (thanks in no small part to the train wrecks that were Spider-Man 3 and Hancock.)
Characters like Iron Man (aka Tony Stark), Spider-man and ANOTHER comic-book icon that I shall not name (See #1 on this list for more info) were always appealing to me because I understood that beneath the suit/powered armor exterior was an ordinary man trying to do the right thing. The final result, after years of effort (and directors like Quentin Tarantino & Joss Whedon being considered for the job eventually filled by Jon Favreau) does not disappoint. Robert Downey Jr. owes a debt to this movie, which has triggered something of a career Renaissance, but only time will tell if this is truly deserved. There was some discussion of the wisdom in setting this movie in the present-day (Post 9/11) world, instead of its original Vietnam-era landscape, but I agree with this choice (Besides, I've heard enough arguments to understand that these two historical periods are startlingly similar.)
Pixar Animation Studios has emerged as an entertainment powerhouse. Their efforts exceed those of their great predecessor, Walt Disney Studios, but are equivalent with the films produced by Studio Ghibli, co-founded by legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle.)
Pixar's commitment to producing quality entertainment (mostly in the form of "message movies" - a type of film that, while entertaining in itself, has a particular idea or theme they wish to convey to the audience) appeals to both young and old, and they are on already on my short list to becoming THE animation studio of the 21st Century. When it was announced back in 2006, I was immediately drawn into WALL*E's premise: What if humanity had left Earth, and someone had forgotten to turn the last robot off? Upon seeing this film, I was once again convinced that I had seen something very special - a film that illustrates Pixar's ability to show the poignancy and determination of the human spirit, embodied in the most un-human of figures.
#1 The Dark Knight
As much as Spider-Man 3 lowered the bar for all other comic book movies, this film would raise the bar to nearly unattainable heights. From Christian Bale's portrayal of Bruce Wayne to the late Heath Ledger's career-defining (as well as career-ending) performance as The Joker, this film not only leaves its predecessor (Batman Begins) choking in the dust, but it makes me as a fan more than a bit apprehensive. Where can they possibly go with the franchise from here?
When Begins was released, the attitude of comic book fans were something along the lines of: "I'll see the sequel, if it's any good." Well, the time came, and not only did most comic book fans see this movie, they saw it multiple times in the theaters (As of this writing, I have seen the movie 5 times in theaters.) Equally remarkable is that while this is a movie based on a comic-book character, it appealed in some way to every other type of movie fan. Romance fans got the "love triangle" between Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes (superbly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal of Secretary fame) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, whose career I've followed since his 2005 film, Thank You for Smoking.) Action/Adventure fans got the "highway sequence", in which The Joker tries (unsuccessfully, thanks to interference from Batman) to kill Harvey Dent. Drama/Suspense fans got the tense "social experiment" sequence (you all know what that sequence is, and why it's so cool.) This is truly the best film that we'll probably see for what's left of the year, and I look forward to watching this many times more on DVD.
Well, there you have it. I hope that you have enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. In the meantime, please stay tuned for the episodes of the podcast as they are released.
See you at the movies!
~Totoro (Otaku 5-0 Creator, Executive Producer)