The Best and Worst of 2008

2008 was a mixed year for cinema and Irish films in particular. My list of best and worst is, once again, in alphabetical order.

If I had to pick one film above all the rest, I wouldn’t be able to. My favourite films this year were The Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Having seen within a couple of days of one other at the start of the year, I still cannot separate them.

Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols)
Claimed as a true story, if only half of Charlie Wilson’s stood up to scrutiny, it would still be an astonishing yarn. Terse, tart and timely.

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves)
A fragmented monster movie that was dumb and fun.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Director Nolan followed his reinvention of the Batman character with this even darker and more dangerous sequel, both beautiful and grotesque, which joins the tropes of the superhero movie to the inky noir of the vigilante film.

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)
Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Julian Schnabel’s inventive and emotionally devastating film brings us inside the mind of the author, paralysed by a stroke, who can only communicate with the world by blinking his left eye.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
A damning indictment of life inside Ceucescu's Romania, framed in a story about an illegal abortion. Devastating.

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
The long reach of the Neapolitan mafia is exposed in Garrone’s brilliantly realised real-life crime saga which carefully examines the venomous effects of corruption on Italian society in five interwoven stories.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
A great central performance from Sally Hawkins makes Leigh’s bittersweet story about a young teacher learning how to drive into something uniquely heart-warming.

Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Turner Prize winning artist McQueen announced himself as a fully-formed filmmaking talent with this brave and unflinching visual poem about the death of Bobby Sands in Long Kesh in 1981. Michael Fassbender’s deterioration as a man making the ultimate sacrifice is hard to watch but the film offers rich reward for those who can bear it.

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
Another crime caper, and another debut feature, playwright McDonagh lets chalk-and-cheese killers Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell loose in the Belgian town of Bruges, throws entertaining obstacles in their way and sits back to revel in the mayhem.

Kisses (Lance Daly)
Dublin writer and director Daly single-handedly restores pride in home-grown cinema with this deft and touching story of two impoverished suburban kids. Brilliantly conceived and satisfyingly complete, Daly’s film is blessed with a pair of exemplary performances from Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry.

Lars & The Real Girl (Craig Gillespie)
Ryan Gosling is in fine form as the emotionally stunted young man who buys a life-like sex-doll on the internet and treats her like a real person.

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud)
Visually hewn from Satrapi’s glorious graphic novel, this is a clever, emotionally honest animated biography that I preferred to the similar, but less artful, Waltz With Bashir.

Man On Wire (James Marsh)
James Marsh’s breathtaking docu-drama about Philippe Petit, a high-wire walker who dared to cross the Twin Towers in 1974, is both a keen character study and a compelling examination of obsession.

No Country For Old Men (The Coen Brothers)
The Coen’s stripped Cormac McCarthy’s already taut novel down to its bare bones for this exemplary modern Western. No Country is another examination of greed but one that owes more to fate than strategy.

Of Time & The City (Terrence Davies)
A beautifully assembled film about loss and regret that has the under-employed director wander through the Liverpool of his youth. Guy Maddin’s surreal, but funnier, My Winnipeg runs it a close second for most elegiac.

Son Of Rambow (Nick Goldsmith)
Genuine, clever and suffused with a delight in cinema.

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Daniel Day Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar for his indelible performance as the oil-mad baron Daniel Plainview, but PT Anderson’s film about greed and God is more than just a one-man show; it is an excoriating condemnation of capitalism wrapped in the sweep of a beautifully photographed and edited epic.

Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
Pixar’s latest cartoon epic, about a cleaning robot left alone on a rubbish-filled earth, is at once a hilarious semi-silent children’s film, a cautionary ecological story and a beautiful marriage of technology and ideas

The Worst


Roger Ebert took flak this year for slating a film called Tru Loved that he admitted to only watching about eight minutes of. I can sympathise. He went back, watched the movie through to the finish, and hated it all the more. Read it here.

Before you might watch any of the movies below, consider Victor Hugo:
"Short as life is, we must make it still shorter by the careless waste of time."

Alarm (Gerard Stembridge)
Stembridge attempt to expose the shallowness of Celtic Tiger Ireland by making a shallow, empty-headed movie was further undermined by a bizarre script and flaccid performances.

Anton (Graham Cantwell)
Cantwell’s independent Irish feature gets full marks for spirit but the result was a mess of soap-opera scripting and hopelessly amateur acting.

Awake (Joby Harold)
Awake? Barely.

Botched (Kit Ryan)
The title says it all really; this was a shambolic, dispiritingly derivative horror comedy that lacked a single moment of genuine cinematic wit.

Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen)
Poor old Woody. They say his new one Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a return to form, but they’ve been saying that since Everyone Says I Love You and that was released in 1996.

College Road Trip (Roger Kumble)
Martin Lawrence makes his by now traditional appearance on this list, with a crushingly cheap and derivative ‘family comedy’ in which the entire human cast was outplayed by a pig.

The Cottage (Paul Andrew Williams)
Director Williams painstakingly wasted the promise shown in his debut London To Brighton with this immediately forgettable horror comedy that grew increasingly desperate with each passing decapitation.

Doomsday (Neil Marshall)
An outright disaster from start to finish, Marshall pisses all over the potential he showed in The Descent. The most annoying film of the year.

Eagle Eye (DJ Caruso)
Indistinguishable from a video game and nowhere near as coherent.

88 Minutes (Jon Avnet)
Al Pacino had a year to forget, with this horribly dated serial killer movie matched in its inanity only by his dull crime caper Righteous Kill. Hoo-ha!

Fool’s Gold (Andy Tennant)
Matthew McConaughey can fuck off for himself.

The Happening (M Night Shyamalan)
Shyamalan’s descent into obscurity gathered terminal velocity with this shrill and vacuous eco-thriller about spooky plants killing off humanity with an airborne virus. Star Mark Wahlberg – who shared a dialogue scene with a pot plant - followed this with Max Payne, just edging out Pacino for 2008’s worst male lead.

Lakeview Terrace (Neil LaBute)
Samuel L shouts his way through another identikit performance in LaBute's shallow and silly reverse-racism drama.

Love In the Time Of Cholera (Mike Newell)
Magic realism without the magic.

Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)
A red soup of eye-watering violence and incomprehensible mumbling from Stallone, who should leave it at that, now, thanks.

Summer of the Flying Saucer (Martin Duffy)
A farrago of crass performances, dull scripting and inane special effects. Wanderly Wagon did this kind of tuppence ha’penny children’s entertainment far better twenty years ago.

Three And Out (Jonathan Gershfield)
A crass story about a loser (Mackenzie Crook) eventually finding the courage to write a novel by saving an old drunk (Colm Meaney) from suicide. Fails utterly to carry the conceit or cadge a decent joke.

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd)
It might have proved popular at the box office and sold billions of DVDs but this hideously up-tempo musical taken from a playlist of Abba songs was the cinematic equivalent of a root canal. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a sparkly platform boot stamping on a human face, forever.

PS I Love You (Richard Gravenese)
Whatever the merits of Cecelia Ahearn’s source novel, Richard Gravenese’s film was an ordeal by candy-floss, a sickeningly twee and unnervingly creepy rom-com that was neither romantic nor comic in any way, shape or form.

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (Denis Dugan)
Adam Sandler. How much is too much? Any at all.

The best movie books I read this year were American Prince: A Memoir by Tony Curtis, Scorsese by Ebert by Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese and Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, originally published in 1995.

Incidentally, the worst movie book I read was Geoffrey Macnab's Making of Taxi Driver, which showed little insight into the film or the filmmakers and was riddled with errors and spelling mistakes.

My song of the year was Talking Head’s 'This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)' which sent a shiver down my spine when it was used, with devastating accuracy, in Lars & The Real Girl.
I love the song but loved the shot of the needle hitting the record almost as much. Outside the picture house, 'Got To Go' from Reflections On Creation And Bass was on heavy iPod rotation.

RIP Paul Newman and Bo Diddley.


Not being a twelve year old girl, I was unaware that Twilight is the most important thing that has ever happened in the world, ever. But apparently it is. The first in a burgeoning franchise of anaemic vampire romances taken from a series of tween-lit books by Stephenie Meyer, Catherine Hardwicke’s faltering supernatural drama crested a tsunami of hype to break box-office records on its American release but the film itself fails to quicken the pulse, being a lumpy splicing of Judy Blume and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Twilight introduces us to teenage loner Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) as she moves to the small north eastern town of Forks to live with her policeman father (Billy Burke). On her first day in her new high-school, she finds herself unaccountably drawn to the local heartthrob Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a moody student who is only ever seen with his similarly glum and pasty adopted siblings. Soon, the two have begun a chaste love affair, she finding his brooding mystery irresistible while he proclaims her to be the most interesting girl he has ever met. But Edward has a secret; he’s a 100 year old vampire, part of a clan of ancient fiends that have haunted the town for generations.

These vampires are not bothered by daylight, although they tend to avoid it because it makes their skin iridescent. They don’t bare their fangs or bite jugulars or sleep in coffins. They won’t harm humans, only hunting animals for their blood. The only thing that distinguishes them from the rest of the crowd is a faint amber tint in their eyes and a tendency to wear too much make up. By making them ordinary, let alone vegan, Twilight makes them boring.

Both leads are suitably pretty, Pattinson just edging it, but Hardwicke’s effort to connect them as a pair of star-crossed lovers is unsuccessful. The angelic Edward might sparkle in the sunlight, but the film doesn’t. A well-positioned opening act soon flat-lines into endless scenes of semi-conscious moping, the tone dampened further by a series of goggle-eyed staring matches and reams of brainless dialogue. Stewart affects a torturous verbal tic that has her sigh meaningfully after each stumbling sentence, in contrast with her artificially chirpy high-school friends. They are so full of bouncy, sugary enthusiasm it’s not difficult to see why Bella prefers the company of the undead.

The middle section of the film is essentially an interminable fumble around the uncomplicated themes of teenage chastity and social exclusion. Like Footloose, but with less bite. Then, from nowhere, the gang meet a new set of nasty vampires, setting off a shuffling third-act chase, a juddering confrontation in a mirror-lined ballet studio and a ponderous, pointless reunion at the Prom.

In the days following the screening I attended, the news broke that Hardwicke would not be asked back to direct the sequel New Moon, already in pre-production. This can only be good news for the property; her film is laboriously constructed, unevenly performed, crammed with glaring continuity errors (a plaster cast switches legs mid-scene, for instance) and clumsy special effects. Grown-ups who have come to terms with the whole sex thing will find much more interesting meat in the superficially similar Swedish drama Let The Right One In when it opens here in the Spring.


A throwback to the gritty euro-thrillers of thirty years ago, French cop drama Rivals reunites Guillaume Canet and François Cluzet from last year’s gripping Tell No One to tell the story of two brothers, one a cop, the other a robber, circling one another in a brilliantly realised 1970s Lyon.

Loosely based on a true story, Canet plays Francois, an ambitious young detective charged with capturing a gang of dangerous thieves who have committed a series of bank heists around the city. Struggling with a bad reputation among his peers and engaged in a foolhardy relationship with the wife of a convict, Francois’ already complicated life gets even more uncomfortable when fun-loving Gabriel is released from prison and returns home, pledging to go straight.

At his elderly father’s request, Francois gives his older brother a room in his house and promises to support him while he gets a job. But packing shelves in a supermarket was never going to satisfy the fast-living Gabriel, and he is soon back in touch with his old lowlife friends, looking for a big payday.

Writer and director Maillot hews closely to the crime conventions laid down by the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon but cannot inject his own characters with the same sense of urgent cool. His flics and voleurs are outlined in broad strokes, that the actors sometimes struggle to fill in, making them recognisable as archetypes but less interesting as personalities. The drama simmers for long stretches while the pair circle one another, then suddenly bursts to life in a series of conflicts that come, almost without fail, from unheeding blunders. As a result, over time the film loses focus, undermining the carefully constructed air of retro chic, further evoked by a nostalgic score from Stépan Oliva.

For all that, Rivals doesn’t descend into a standardised action picture, even if Maillot never shies away from the tough stuff, throwing his camera around in a restless scrum, effectively capturing the reality of violence in a series of deft, taut sequences.

The performances are excellent, with Cluzet shading the battle between the brothers in part because his Gabriel is a teeming mass of contradictions, brutal and tender, determined to go straight but easily tempted to return to the life he knows best. The rather flat, one-directional story and a rushed ending preclude Rivals from earning a higher recommendation but this is still a decent film, lacking the touch of narrative finesse that the meticulous production design deserves, but essentially sound.


At the tail-end of a year where the only consistent emotion our native filmmakers evoked was disappointment, tinged with despair, comes an enchanting film brimming with heart and humanity. Writer and director Lance Daly’s low-fidelity fairytale Kisses is by some distance the best Irish film of 2008, a captivating story about youth, poverty, fear and Bob Dylan.

In a run-down estate somewhere on the outskirts of North Dublin, two pre-teen kids, Kylie and Dylan (Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry) live next door to one another. Kylie lives with five other sisters and her overworked mother while Dylan tries to cope with his alcoholic father and despairing mother by losing himself in his video games. In the run up to Christmas, following a violent row with his father, Dylan decides to run away and brings Kylie with him. After boarding a canal barge, operated by a philosophical Brazilian, they make their way into the city centre to find Dylan’s older brother, who had fled the family home himself, two years before.

Once in the city, the earlier black and white images giving way to full colour, the kids spend their money on wheelie-sneakers, allowing them to roll their way through the streets, followed by Daly’s roving camera. These suburban kids are entering a strange world; they don’t know the city at all. They buy clothes, steal food and wander around the backstreets, but cannot find Dylan’s brother, although they discover he has been kicked out of a squat and is now homeless. As the night wears on, the kaleidoscopic images of a city filled with life and light taken on a darker tone as the two huddle together, swapping stories about the dreaded Sackman, a puca who bundles unguarded children into a black bag and steals them away to another world.

The two children give astonishingly natural performances, lacking all guile or pretension, their innocence and fear perfectly communicated by Daly’s carefully modulated emotional scheme and a script that crackles with razor sharp dialogue. Throughout, the director hints at the classics of children’s literature, from 'Babes in the Wood' to the old Walter Macken classic The Flight of the Doves, but his film is a entity all to itself, far more precise in its intentions and acutely observed than any contemporary Irish film. Winner of the Best Feature award at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this year, Kisses is a terrific achievement, a fascinating film well worth seeking out.


He’s might be coming up on his 80th birthday, but Clint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down. Currently preparing his Nelson Mandela biopic in South Africa and with culture-clash drama Grand Torino already in the bag, Eastwood tells another story of a woman in trouble, following Million Dollar Baby, Changeling. Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) lives in a suburban street in Los Angeles with her nine year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), a quiet, obedient boy who loves movies. When she is called into work unexpectedly one Saturday, she has to leave Walter by himself for the day, with the radio on and a sandwich in the fridge. When she gets home, later that evening, the boy is gone.

The initial response of the Los Angeles Police Department is unhurried and faintly condescending, a chill indication of what is to follow. Five months later, the city’s publicity-seeking police chief (Colm Feore) reveals that the boy has turned up in a small town in the Mid West, and stages a reunion. But this boy is clearly not Walter. When Christine points this out to anyone who will listen, she is treated first as a hysterical fool and then as a dangerous lunatic. With the help of a campaigning minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Christine confronts the authorities and exposes the corruption and incompetence in the LAPD in order to continue the search for her son.

At its best, Changeling is a frightening and effective parable of stained innocence and endemic corruption. Time and again, the people charged with protecting Christine; the arrogant police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), the sneering doctor (Peter Gerety), the sadistic psychiatrist (Denis O’Hare), reveal themselves as misogynistic and self-serving bullies. Christine’s trial at the hands of these men is enough to carry the entire film but in switching from her point of view, the film overburdens itself.

What begins as a mystery-thriller becomes an impassioned issue film when Christine is thrown to the wolves of the LAPD, then transforms into a Cuckoo’s Nest style medical drama. Later, in another change of tone, Eastwood skirts around the tropes of the serial killer film before climaxing in a series of courtroom scenes that bring us from a condemnation of corruption to a pointedly one-sided discussion on the death penalty. It is interesting to read that Eastwood shot Changeling from the first draft of J. Michael Straczynski’s exhaustively researched script, something almost unheard of in Hollywood where scripts can go through dozens of revisions from various writers. Another point of view might have retained the same elements but arranged them in a less awkward form.

The innovation shown in bringing 1920s Los Angeles to the screen in recreating entire streets, cityscapes and generating crowds of digital background actors is not fully matched by the story which carries the ring of truth but is perhaps too conventionally told. Ambitious and affecting, Changeling just fails to cohere as the epic tragedy it wants to be, the sad saga of Christine’s battle with the authorities overshadowed by the adjoining history of the Chicken Coop Murders, the two stories connected by history but uncomfortably crushed together here.

We are interested in Christine, in her struggle for truth and justice, and once she achieves that, the actuality of the case, the hows and whys and whens, carry very little meaning. In attempting to widen the scope of his story, Eastwood loses track of his central focus, ultimately attempting to bring both sides to a conclusion in an unwieldy double court case, cross-cutting between both in a muddled rush of endings.

Regardless, at the centre of the film is a brilliant performance from Angelina Jolie, a shy, tender woman whose life is shattered and mounts a ferocious battle to put it back together. Jolie’s intimate, emotional turn works because we endure it with her; it is not just a series of events. Changeling is not ‘based on a true story’, the title card bravely announces it is as ‘a true story’, every scene is based on an attributable historical record. This shocking veracity gives Jolie’s performance even more power, and she wields it with tremendous ability.

I have abandoned my increasingly strained efforts to craft punning headlines for the reviews. It was all getting a bit stupid. I'll use the film's title from now on.