Small gems buried by the blockbusters

James Bond without gadgets, Harry Potter and the disappearing film, Disney turning its back on traditional cartoons… what is happening to the world of cinema?

Andrew Clarke

James Bond without gadgets, Harry Potter and the disappearing film, Disney turning its back on traditional cartoons… what is happening to the world of cinema? Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look back at the events of 2008.

It's been a funny old year at the cinema - a year of contrasts - a year of huge print-runs on blockbusters but tragically also a year where smaller films have found it hard to find a screen.

2008 will go down as the year that Bond became brutal, Harry Potter failed to magic himself up on screen and some of cinema's greatest biggest hits split audiences down gender lines.

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Christopher Nolan's Batman movie The Dark Knight and the Liam Neeson kidnap drama Taken brought in largely male audiences, as did the disappointing Al Pacino/Robert De Niro corrupt cop thriller Righteous Kill but the year's real success stories were unashamedly chick flicks. Both Mamma Mia! And Sex and the City: The Movie brought in almost exclusively female audiences - huge audiences which came in groups and returned again and again. The huge ticket sales for Mamma Mia! even persuaded the film company to re-release it in a captioned sing-along version which extended its life still further.

However, it was the summer which threw the movie world's standard release policy into mayhem. The blockbuster season started earlier than ever this year with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Sex and the City being released back-to-back in early May.

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They started the trend for huge opening weekend releases. At one Suffolk cinema they had seven prints of Indiana Jones spread across 11 screens. The following week Sex and the City: The Movie opened on a massive five prints. Although they lost a couple of prints of Indy for the second week, it still meant that an 11 screen cinema was largely occupied by two films.

This was not what was planned when multiplexes first revitalised our cinema-going habits in the late 1980s. The idea was that more screens meant more choice - along with better comfort and better sound.

The summer of 2008 proved that, in some cases, choice was hard to come by. In modern Hollywood the opening weekend is all important. In an effort to maximise the return during those initial three days, this year Hollywood decided to swallow the expense and just go mad with prints. Every big movie was unleashed onto a primed public on an unprecedented number of screens. There was no excuse not to see a film in those oh so important first three days.

For some of us it still seems bizarre that a movie, after years in development, is judged a success or failure after just three days.

We were all going to see the new Indiana Jones film, did it really need to bombard the nation's cinemas with multiple prints? This had the unfortunate effect of preventing smaller films, which ultimately posed no threat to the blockbusters from receiving, even a modest release. This year the idea of counter-programming seems to have been banished from the language of cinema.

Well reviewed foreign language films like Priceless, starring Audrey Tautou (of Amelie fame), and Female Agents, with Sophie Marceau, failed to make any impression on audiences outside London - which is huge pity and is something which will diminish the quality of our cinema-going experience, if it is allowed to continue.

Fortunately, the Oscar season continues to give film fans some cheer and variety. Things started well in 2008 with such films as No Country For Old Men - The Coen Brothers tough, contemporary western starring Tommy Lee Jones, the contemporary Afghan movie, The Kite Runner and the criminally over-looked Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks as the slacker politician who unwittingly enabled the Afghans to expel the Soviet army from their country.

The most press attention, however was reserved for Paul Thomas Anderson's bleak, harrowing tour-de-force There Will Be Blood. It's a cinematic showcase for Daniel Day Lewis, who is in virtually every scene, as an unremittingly evil oil baron. It won a bucket load of awards but it was hard to escape the feeling that this was a film designed for critics rather than audiences.

Much more audience-friendly was the gloriously quirky Juno, a life-affirming comedy about the unlikely topic of teenage pregnancy. It made a star of Ellen Page and flagged up Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody as someone to watch. It was her wise-beyond-her-years dialogue married with Ellen Page's performance that made this such a feelgood gem.

Tim Burton conjured up another gothic left-field winner with a big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Sweeney Todd. Audiences were treated to the sight, and sound, of stars such as Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall bursting into song - far more credibly than Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth did in Mamma Mia!

Surprise of the spring season came in the form of a half decent Jason Statham movie. The Bank Job saw Statham, not surprisingly, as a loveable EastEnd hardman. Based on a true story about a royal sex scandal, Statham is recruited by society girl Saffron Burrows to stage a bank robbery which has been orchestrated by MI5 to retrieve some compromising photos of a senior royal having fun in the Caribbean. It was a well-made crime caper which benefitted from its real-life roots and attention to 1970s period detail.

Major disappointments from the early summer included the JJ Abrams monster-shocker Cloverfield. It was a disingenuous film, shot on 35mm but made to look as if it had been recorded by a shaky, hand-held camera phone. You saw more running feet than scary monsters and more puerile party dialogue than genuine character development. All in all, it was huge let-down but a triumph of marketing over content.

Other waste of precious cinema screen space was the appallingly animated Incredible Hulk - third try unlucky - and the deadly dull Iron Man, which was yet another movie set in Afghanistan. The cinematic desert was not helped by the awful The Other Boleyn Girl, which managed to waste the talents of Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Scott Thomas and David Morrissey.

There was some salvation though in form of Robert Redford's clever war-against-terror movie Lions For Lambs which featured four seemingly disparate stories featuring himself, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Michael Pena but were all subtly intertwined.

Low budget, Brit comedy The Son of Rambow, was a nostalgic delight. It was a delicious trip back to the 1980s that featured no big stars but rejoiced in a first-class script and a love for a young cast who were trying to make their own version of Rambo: First Blood for TV's ScreenTest competition.

Less satisfying were a number of the big summer releases. While Indiana Jones was able to hold its head up high, films like The Happening, a paranoid doomsday style thriller, with the ever-wooden Mark Wahlberg, just didn't happen. Hancock, the drunken super-hero movie starring Will Smith fell flat on its face while The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor should have remained buried.

There were some bright spots in the summer season - perversely provided by two of the darker films. Both The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Heath Ledger's outstanding portrayal as The Joker, and the Angelina Jolie/James McAvoy adrenaline fuelled hitman movie, Wanted showed that a lot of care and thought had gone into creating a pair of mainstream masterpieces.

It proved that you could produce a mainstream film and still approach it with a dash of originality. The Dark Knight centred on Batman's duality and the line: “Die a hero or live long enough to discover yourself as the villain.” It dared ask the question is Batman any different to his arch-nemesis The Joker?

Meanwhile, in Wanted Russian director Timur Bekmambetov put James McAvoy through his paces as a natural born hitman who didn't know he was a hitman. Angelina Jolie played his recruiter and Morgan Freeman once again grounded the action as the reassuring voice of experience.

As a story it didn't really break new ground but the manner of its telling was entirely new and stunningly presented. It literally took your breath away as the camera zipped about the action.

But the summer didn't just belong to dark, brooding movies for adolescent males, the summer of 2008 also belonged to sunshine-soaked days in the Greek islands and the music of ABBA as Mamma Mia! became the biggest hit of the year.

As films go, it was an atrocious hotch-potch of clumsy, romantic piffle, acted out by stars who were too old for their roles and the male-cast were chosen for a curious inability to sing. Nevertheless, the film's core audience didn't mind a bit. It was wonderful, care-free, escapist stuff and the largely female audience came back to see it again and again. At a time when the news was full of the credit crunch, Mamma Mia! provided a joyous escape to a land of romance and sunshine.

2008 was also a year when computer-generated animation really took hold. Pixar, the makers of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, the reigning kings of CGI, merged with Disney and prompted the House of the Mouse to announce the end of traditional 2-D animation. Among the animated hits of the year were the day-glo travesty Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Horton Hears A Who, based on the Dr Seuss book, Kung Fu Panda, essentially a Jack Black movie but rendered as an animated feature and, the biggest success of all, WALL-E, Pixar's climate change parable about a junk-cleaning robot, who is busily tidying a deserted Earth until he discovers true love.

WALL-E was virtually two movies in one. The first half was an inventive, contemplative look at what we had done to pollute the world and the second a cheesy, sci-fi romance featuring the Earth's overweight population floating around on anti-gravity airbeds.

The autumn ended the year much as it began with a clutch of blockbusters and Oscar-worthy films fighting for space on our screens. You wait a year for a new Keira Knightley movie and then two come along at once. Keira played Dylan Thomas' lover in John Maybury's affecting The Edge of Love opposite Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys and then turned in a stunning performance as Georgiana opposite Ralph Fiennes in The Duchess.

A much smaller film but an absolute winner was Pierce Brosnan's smouldering tale of murder and marital infidelity Married Life. Set in the late 1940s and co-starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams, this was a real atmospheric tour-de-force. The only pity was that it struggled to find a screen. It is well worth catching on DVD.

The autumn was defined by the arrival of Daniel Craig's second outing as James Bond in the disappointing A Quantum of Solace and Harry Potter's non-appearance. James Bond lost its way a bit, trying to be a little too much like Jason Borne for its own good. Bond is an original, so you don't make him a copy of something else.

A Quantum of Solace also suffered from being not enough of a stand alone movie. If you hadn't seen Casino Royale recently you were really struggling to make sense of what was happening on the screen.

Meanwhile, release schedules were thrown into confusion when Warner Brothers shunted Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince off into next July to give the studio a big summer release. Cinema abhors a vacuum and it didn't take long for Clint Eastwood to fill the void with The Changeling. It was a stunning tale of a mother, played with fierce intensity by Angelina Jolie who battles a corrupt Los Angeles police department to try and secure the release of her son. They have returned a boy who answers her son's description but it is obvious that he is not her son. Bizarrely, this film was based on actual events in 1920s LA.

As the year draws to a close the world is being swallowed up by Australia - the latest epic from Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann. Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, it has been described as an Antipodean Gone With The Wind - mixing a mis-matched love story against a huge landscape and a vast war as the Japanese bomb the coastal town of Darwin.

So as 2009 dawns, what lies in store? We know a few big name titles but as with every year, the real winners are the smaller movies that somehow just arrive from nowhere.

Andrew Clarke's Top Ten for 2008

(in no particular order)

1. Happy-Go-Lucky

2. Married Life

3. No Country For Old Men

4. Sweeney Todd

5. Juno

6. Changeling

7. Female Agents

8. Priceless

9. Wanted

10. The Dark Knight

Bubbling Under: The Kite Runner, The Duchess, Of Time and the City, Charlie Wilson's War, The Last Mistress

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