By Nick Schager
Americans love comebacks, meaning that for all the domestic and international turmoil of the past 12 months, the country must have dug 2008’s cinematic offerings. Sure, typical sequelitis plagued summer cineplexes for better and, more often than not, worse. Yet familiar franchises weren’t the only ones to return to the big screen spotlight — some of the year’s most critically and commercially triumphant films and performances were the handiwork of once-beloved artists attempting to rebound from prior misfires or, in the case of one gifted-actor-gone-to-seed, coming off of decades’ worth of obscurity. So, as we put 2008 to bed, we salute and decry, respectively, the year’s best and worst in return engagements.
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”
The once electrifying Rourke’s slow climb out of obsolescence began with 2005’s “Sin City,” and finished with this, director Darren Aronofsky’s saga about a washed-up wrestler’s last shot at marquee stardom. It’s the performance of a lifetime, in large part because it’s one that piercingly resonates as a self-portrait, though Rourke’s magnificence isn’t simply the byproduct of fiction-mirroring-reality. With a flick of his long blonde locks or the slow, methodical way his battered body grinds into motion, Rourke nails wrestling realities, while also capturing something universal about pain, about sacrifice and about the dignity of knowing, and embracing, one’s inherent self.
Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Having, with “28 Days Later…” and “Millions,” recovered from a string of flops following 1996’s “Trainspotting,” Danny Boyle again somewhat lost his way in 2007 with the part-Kubrick, part-“Event Horizon” sci-fi saga “Sunshine.” The British director found himself back on terra firma, however, with “Slumdog Millionaire,” a boisterous Dickensian tale of childhood, friendship, love and game shows infused with both aesthetic electricity and heart. It’s not as fantastic as its growing collection of year-end awards might suggest, but Boyle’s distinctive, rowdy crowd-pleaser is nonetheless his finest effort in years.
David Wain, “Role Models”
No amount of goodwill wrought from his time on MTV’s ’90s sketch comedy show “The State” or his awesomely funny 2001 film “Wet Hot American Summer” could excuse actor/director David Wain for his 2007 flop, “The Ten,” a slapdash collection of bible-themed skits tied together by a running adultery gag featuring Paul Rudd’s most middling work since his stint on “Friends.” Both Wain and Rudd came back nicely, however, with “Role Models,” an adults-cursing-at-kids comedy that accomplished something that few of its brethren managed this year: generating profane laughter undiluted by Judd Apatow-style sentimentality.
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Virtually no one wanted a fourth Indy adventure starring 66-year-old Harrison Ford, yet in their infinite wisdom, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg pressed forward anyway. The result was a misbegotten summer blockbuster along the lines of “The Phantom Menace,” whose box office success was predicated not on quality but on affection for the series’ preceding classics. With lame extraterrestrial artifacts, lamer Russian villains, and, lamest of all, a tree vine-swinging sequence featuring a pompadoured monkey (seriously) — “Crystal Skull” was so disappointingly “meh” that one wishes the script had remained buried at the bottom of Lucas’ desk drawer.
“Star Wars: Clone Wars”
Speaking of Mr. Lucas, his latest “Star Wars” miscarriage is one that discerning moviegoers should remain far, far away from. An animated adventure that fills in the unimportant gaps between “Episode II” and “Episode III” and serves as little more than a launching pad for a Cartoon Network TV series, this kids’ film featured stilted CGI, a story with no dramatic import and a new, feisty female character whose main positive attribute was not being quite as intolerable as Jar Jar. “Clone Wars” feels like a trivial, creatively uninspired cash grab, making it no different than Lucas’ recent live-action prequels.
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, “Righteous Kill”
Michael Mann’s superlative direction, and specifically his key decision to grant the legendary actors only one face-off, allowed “Heat” to live up to its billing as De Niro and Pacino’s titanic maiden showdown. “Righteous Kill” reteams the two as cop partners, though with director Jon Avnet — he of the equally wretched Pacino vehicle “88 Minutes” — indulging in spastically flashy visual devices and both stars having long since reduced themselves to caricatures of their respective personas (De Niro the raging bull, Pacino the loudmouthed smooth talker), the once-great thespians’ reunion was as painfully embarrassing as any drunken high school anniversary get-together.
[Photos: “The Wrestler,” Fox Searchlight, 2008; “Slumdog Millionaire,” Fox Searchlight, 2008; “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Paramount Pictures, 2008; “Righteous Kill,” Overture Films, 2008