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December 23, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | December 23, 2008 |

Most folks probably don’t know this, but Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” issue began in 1927 because it was a slow news week and they needed to fill some space.

Welcome to Christmas week at Pajiba!

Actually, it’s a kind of a fun idea for a movie site, even if the choice for Pajiba’s Man of the Year is little in doubt. I don’t think it’ll be a particularly controversial choice, but before we get to this year’s Pajiba Person of the Year, here are the two also-rans:

tommcarthye.jpgThomas McCarthy: McCarthy’s name is not one most folks know, though his face is certainly one that many will recognize. He’s a character actor, a generic looking guy who has bumbled around in small parts in movies and television for over 15 years, including most notably until 2008, a stint on David E. Kelley’s “Boston Legal.” But he’s also a little known writer/director who is responsible for two of the best indie flicks this decade, one of which was 2003’s Station Agent.

2008 was a break-out year, of sorts, for McCarthy, though he seems so modest and unassuming that, in 2009, I doubt many more people will know who he is. He began the year as the star of the last season of The Wire. He may have been the highlight of the season, playing Scott Templeton, an ethically challenged, Jayson Blair type reporter for The Baltimore Sun, a guy who lied his way into a Pulitzer Prize while the newspaper industry crumbled around him. He was the lynchpin to the entire season, representing not just the downfall of the print industry, but the extremes a reporter will go to in order to keep his job in the profession. He also mirrored the McNulty’s character arc, as the two character’s lives weaved together, culminating in one of the best series’ finales of all time, regardless of what you thought of the season up until that point.

But more importantly, Thomas McCarthy also wrote and directed a movie that will, no doubt, be included among our year-end lists (having seen the list, I can confirm it’ll appear on at least one): The Visitor, a movie Dan called “an engaging, expertly drawn, and moving examination of one man’s empty life and the way he comes to fill it again. ” It was also made an incredible statement about the United States’ post-9/11 immigration system, and it did so without being a political movie. It was easily the best film of the first five months of 2008 and, along with The Station Agent, quietly made McCarthy one of the best writer/directors in the business.

heath-ledger-photo-1.jpgHeath Ledger: The year started tragically for Ledger, who died of a drug overdose in January. His death cast an odd pall over the marketing for The Dark Knight — seeing him as The Joker in images and clips all through the spring felt eerie, and the idea of watching The Dark Knight, at first, felt mildly morbid. But it was an impossible movie to resist, and probably would’ve been even without Ledger (it was a Batman movie, after all). But Ledger turned in an unholy performance, making a complete mockery of three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson’s Joker. In fact, Ledger’s Joker will go down as the best comic-book villain in the history of cinema — maybe the best villain, period — and — for my money — it was one of the most remarkable performances ever put on film. Whenever he was onscreen, the air would escape you — without even knowing it, you’d realize 30 seconds into a Joker scene that you hadn’t been breathing. He was pure evil — a homicidal sociopath — and yet, somehow, he was a sympathetic character. It was a haunting, vibrant, riveting performance. Add this to his turn as Enis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, and you’ve got, arguably, the best actor of his generation. It’s just a shame he won’t be around to strengthen that title.

And now: Pajiba’s Person of the Year — Robert Downey, Jr.


Oh, come on. Was there any doubt? Even before Iron Man was released, Robert Downey, Jr. had nearly completed a comeback (with stellar performances in Zodiac, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night and Good Luck) that put that Travoltian comeback to shame. And yet, before Iron Man, RDJ’s main storyline was still the five-year hole in his career attributed to drug dependence. Now? Hardly anyone brings it up. Indeed, here’s a guy who began in the 1980s on the fringe of the Brat Pack and now he’s the most popular member of the group.

Downey began the year with a meaty, supporting turn as an alcoholic principal in the overlooked and under-appreciated coming-of-age teen dramedy, Charlie Bartlett. But then, in May, he blew the doors off the place, starring at the title character in Iron Man, a movie I called “the perfect storm of badassary, debilitating wit, tester-octane explosives, and tongue-in-cheek gnarliness. And Robert Downey, Jr. was in the eye of it, motherfuckers.”

Has there ever been an actor who blends together narcissism and self-deprecation as well as Downey? And, as modern superheroes go, it’s nearabouts impossible to imagine a better actor to don a costume — he’s got Batman’s brooding good looks, Hellboy’s smartass attitude, the brains of Bourne and the cool of Wolverine. And, come on: He could squash emo Spidey beneath his iron foot. (Best of all, Iron Man has no need for tights or capes, thank you very much). Granted, a superhero movie that could contain Robert Downey, Jr. does not exist, and — given the limitations of big-budget action flicks — I doubt any script could match his talents. But Iron Man is a pretty goddamn decent vehicle for displaying a fraction of them. To wit: Downey owns Iron Man and, for once, this superhero movie is not about a man with a suit, but the man behind the suit.

Thanks to Downey, the Boozehound even contended that Iron Man as a better movie than The Dark Knight, a position I disagree upon, though I do agree with this sentiment:

RDJ blows Bale off the fucking screen. Robert Downey Jr. is to acting as a Stradivarius is to music. His face and body are instruments upon which a good story becomes a great story, upon which a wiseacre one-liner becomes a comment on the overlay of humor over tragedy. At this point in his career, with his physical presence a combination of grizzled and chiseled, he also brings a weathered gravity to even the most frivolous of situations.

But if Charlie Bartlett and Iron Man were all that RDJ had brought to the table in 2008 (not to mention, third place in our Most Bangable Celebrities of 2008), he’d probably fall in line behind Heath Ledger in our Person of the Year. But RDJ followed up his remarkable performance in Iron Man with, perhaps, the best comedic performance of the year, starring as “a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.” As I wrote in my review:

Robert Downey, Jr. steals just about every second within every minute of every scene he is in. Even when he’s given mediocre material to work with, he transcends it while firmly maintaining a supporting role, so the shtick blessedly doesn’t get old and, assuming there’s not an unnecessary sequel, you can find comfort in the knowledge that Downey has created one of the great characters in comedic history (and there is no one, I’d argue, that could’ve come close to pulling it off as well as Downey — anybody else and it would’ve been laughable, over-the-top, and offensive, instead of silly, ridiculous and, in its implicit commentary on the hubris of white America and the egotism of actors, pretty insightful too).

I don’t remember a year when an actor turned in two performances that brilliant and yet so different from one another. And though he’s likely not going to earn any Oscar gold for either performance, in 2008 Robert Downey, Jr. became more than just an incredible actor with a troubled past, he became a motherfucking box-office force. And after a 25-year career, he’s finally where he belongs: A leading man in Hollywood’s best movies.

Guides | December 23, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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