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Why 2008 rocked: (Most of) the best films of the year

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

To paraphrase the not-so-late, great Paul McCartney, news of my death was great exaggerated.

Yes, readers, it seems that I am not dead after all. Nor did I fall into a black hole, or fall off the edge of the Earth in an ill-fated journey to discover that the world really is flat (take that, Francis Drake).

What have I been doing for the past two weeks? For one, I’ve been suffering — I mean enjoying — the holiday season. For another, I’ve been pondering (which is much harder than, say, thinking) about the hardest thing I have to do all year: make a “best films of 2008” list. After 2007, I was spent. I mean, how could 2008 possibly offer up anything better than “Juno,” or “Zodiac,” or “Lars and the Real Girl,” or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” or “No Country for Old Men.” I was convinced 2007 was so groundbreaking that nothing could top it.

(I believe this is the part where a stranger pops out of thin air and thumps me on the forehead, thus initiating the newest “coulda had a V-8” commercial.)

Oh, how wrong I was. This year, Hollywood has produced so many mind-blowing films I cannot list them all, cannot wrap my feeble little movie-sucking brain around them. And so, in an attempt to save my sanity, I have compiled a list of just 10 movies that made me laugh, think, gasp, or just generally harbor a secret belief that it’s not too late for me to gain acceptance to a prestigious film school.

Without further adieu, here they are: the Top 10 Movies of 2008….

10. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — Everything sounds better when spoken in a romance language. Apparently Woody Allen caught wind of this and decided to apply it to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his most relaxed, romantic comedy yet. Set in Spain, this little-seen rom-com centers on pragmatic, tightly-wound grad student Vicky (Rebecca Hall, born to be a Woody Allen heroine) and artistic libertine Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who take a vacation in Spain and get wined-and-dined by sensual painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem in F-I-N-E form). Gorgeous scenery, a flamenco-themed soundtrack and a volcanic performance by Penelope Cruz signal that the Woodman seems primed for his second wind.

9. “Sex and the City” — Roger Ebert slammed “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s labor of love. He noted, however, that he wasn’t part of the target audience. Oh, RE, how right you were — “Sex and the City” is as much about men as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was about women. That aside, though it IS a love letter to die-hard fans (guilty as charged), “SATC” also deserves a spot in the best of 2008 because it works as one of the few truly insightful, intelligent films — albeit a highly stylized one — about women and their friendships. Here’s to hoping more directors realize what we chicks have known for ages: If you make smart movies about women, we will buy tickets to see them.

8. “Iron Man” — Listen carefully in “Iron Man” and you can hear the sound of something very, very rare: the improbable sound of a career being reborn. With guidance from Jon Favreau (in danger of becoming one of my favorite directors), a one-liner-lobbing, high-flying Robert Downey Jr. redefined our notion of what makes for a great comic book superhero as Iron Man. His work in “Tropic Thunder” is no less brilliant, but “Iron Man” stands as his own personal Declaration of Independence. Bring on the sequel!

7. “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (three-way tie) — For me, 2008 forever will remain the year that the “blockbuster comedy” got a much-needed makeover. Need more convincing? Check out “Pineapple Express,” an explosion-packed yet wildly funny 21st-century stoner flick that featured the best comic pairing — that would be Apatow vets Seth Rogen and James Franco, criminally underappreciated as a comic actor — in recent memory. But wait; there’s more. Nothing tops Ben Stiller’s “Apocalypse Now”-on-acid metamovie about a ragtag band of sitting-duck actors (including the Divine Robert Downey Jr. and a marvelously cast, googly-eyed Jack Black) fooled into thinking they’re making a war movie. Rounding out this trinity is Jason Segel’s keenly observed, heartfelt and unexpectedly touching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” where the actor bears all — anatomically AND emotionally — as a musician crushed when his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him for a nympho rock star (Russell Brand, giving THE comic performance of the year).

6. “Doubt” — Released just under the wire (Christmas Day nationwide) to merit inclusion for a slew of deserved Oscars, this meticulously paced, fascinating drama unfolds like a play — which it was originally — with a stunner of an ending (re: don’t expect to be spoon-fed). But the real treat? Watching two of Hollywood’s finest, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, go balls-to-the-wall as a flawed but kind-hearted priest and a by-the-book nun possessed of a stare that would make Hitler tremble. Consider it a lesson in what constitutes “Oscar-worthy acting.”

5. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — Criminally overlooked by Oscar, this gripping Romanian film nonetheless deserves a moment — however brief or unrecognized in this little blog — to shine. Set in Romania in 1987, this flawlessly acted, plotted and paced gem shines a light on the realities of living under a dictatorship. Anamaria Rinca is pull-out-your-thesaurus-good as Otilia, a college student who helps her clueless roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure an abortion from a creepily serene back-door abortionist (Vlad Ivanov). This IFC film offers proof that sometimes, when it comes to thrillers, less is more — and less is much, much more powerful.

4. “Milk” — Anyone who’s followed Sean Penn’s career (that includes this blogger, who has been a devoted fan since “Ridgemont High”) knows he is an actor who revels in risky parts (“Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River,” … I could go on, but I won’t). Penn is pure dynamite as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official, delivering a performance that is every bit as measured as it is electrifying. As Milk, he’s as much a shrewd, system-stroking politician as he is an activist. Josh Brolin deserves props for his subtle but simmering turn as Dan White, the conflicted colleague ultimately responsible for Milk’s death. Still, Van Sant balances the film mostly on Penn’s shoulders, and it’s a gamble that (not surprisingly) pays off big-time.

3. “Slumdog Millionaire” — Within the first 30 minutes, Danny Boyle’s unassuming coming-of-age love story proves why it deserves the title so frequently foisted upon it (that would be 2008’s Little Film That Could, or The “Juno” of 2008). Relative newcomer Dev Patel scores what can only be called a “breakthrough performance” as Jamal Malik, who sees an appearance on a Hindi game show as his chance to win the love of Latika (a first-rate Freida Pinto). It’s the kind of underdog story you can’t help but root for.

2. “WALL-E” — Who could have predicted that a jaw-droppingly colorful Pixar movie about a mostly mute robot would turn into the love story of the year? Certainly not yours truly, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying every last second of this post-apocalyptic love story about a lonely little automaton named WALL-E who finds the love of his life, loses her, finds her again and then discovers he’s got a bigger mission: namely, saving Planet Earth. Part sci-fi adventure, part futuristic fantasy, part romantic comedy, “WALL-E” is nothing less than one of the most charming, imaginative films of the year.

1. “The Dark Knight” — Forget the unfortunate snub by the Golden Globes; pay no attention to the inevitable ignorance of the Academy Awards. For my money, in 2008 there was no better film released than “The Dark Knight.” A dark, nuanced epic tragedy for the ages, this stunner drew viewers to the theater in record numbers — and with good reason. Heath Ledger’s recreation of The Joker as an “agent of chaos” deserves a spot in history. But there’s more to “TDK” than Ledger. Great performances? Check. Breath-snatching cinematography? Absolutely. A bone-chilling score? Please. And all of this makes “TDK” more than the best film of 2008; it makes this creation one of the best superhero movies ever made. Period.

The Best Is Yet to Come: One of the perks — is “perks” the right word? — of living in a glamorous state like South Carolina is that award-gobbling feature films, uh, don’t premiere here until months after New York, L.A., Chicago, etc.-area critics have seen them, wet their pants in delight, praised them to high heaven/beyond and moved on. And so it should come as no surprise that there are three such movies absent from my list: “Rachel Getting Married,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Wrestler.” Rest assured that once I cast my peepers upon these critical darlings, they will (I feel certain) merit addition to my Best Films of 2008. Other films I’m breaking out in itchy hives of anticipation to see: Romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” — starring two of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman — and “Gran Torino,” hailed by critics as Clint Eastwood’s best role since “Dirty Harry.”

Review: “Run Lola Run” (1998)

The choppy bright-red wigs that popped up everywhere, the increased female desire to own Doc Martin-style boots, cargo pants and wife-beater tanks, the pithy parodies on VH1’s “I Love the ’90s” … all of it mystified yours truly, perhaps the one member of the MTV generation who did not see pop-culture phenom “Run Lola Run” in 1999.

It’s hard to say what my initial reasoning was, really — it wasn’t playing anywhere; I didn’t like foreign films; I hate running. Then a few of the alternatives (the “crew” I stuck with in high school) raved about it. Then everyone raved about it. Then I decided it was too mainstream and refused to see it. For a few years after that resolve deepened, and then I forgot about this wildly inventive post-modern music vid/feature-length film.

But the Powers that Be — also known as Netflix — had different ideas for me last week when I finally clicked on my “Movies You’ll Love” tab. Lo and behold, listed there with “Goodbye, Lenin!” and “Mostly Martha,” was “Run Lola Run.” I sensed, in that way one sometimes does, that the universe — again, also known as Netflix — was trying to tell me something … namely, “Quit being a self-righteous, holier-than-thou snob and watch this.”

So I did … and the universe was right. I was a dope; “Run Lola Run” is a schizophrenic, time-warping, reality-bending work of genius. Apparently the Beck’s commercials were wrong; Germans can do two things: beer and movies.

Part of the brilliance of “Run Lola Run” exists in the wish-fulfillment plot. Here we have Lola (Franka Potente, who delivers a fine performance despite the fact that all she’s asked to do is, uh, run), an ordinary 20something woman in an ordinary live-in relationship with Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). Except things get extraordinary really, really quick when Manni loses the 100,000 Deutschmarks he owes his mobster boss. He demands Lola find the money in 20 minutes or he will put the gun in his back pocket to good, practical use.

Enter the wish-fulfillment fantasy/time-bending technique. Director Tom Tywker presents, in rapid succession, three possible storylines, each ending with Lola essentially hitting the “do-over” button no one else in the known universe has discovered. And each scenario is equally gripping — behind doors one and two, Lola goes to drastic measures to secure the 100,000 she needs and the results are as unpredictable as they are violent. In scenario three, wild circumstances reunite Manni with the homeless man who lifted his score … yet still the pieces don’t fall into place as we expect.

So in essence what Tykwer does is present his leading lady, Lola, with the ultimate human desire: a chance to change her fate by altering her choices. But this power, he reminds us, doesn’t mean we control the direction and shape our lives take. It just sends us down another path, another fork in Frost’s “yellow wood,” where we end up like Lola — berating ourselves for doing what we did, choosing what we chose, believing we could control fate.

Granted, this technique — called the time loop or reset-button technique — has the potential to get really old really fast. (See “Vantage Point” for a prime example of this.) That’s where Tywker ups the ante — with kinetic, damn-near frenetic action sequences (all of which, of course, involve Lola running) perfectly choreographed; with a suitably energetic techno soundtrack (which includes Potente on several songs); and with film slicing techniques that let us see how, in each scenario, the lives of people Lola encounters are changed. It’s a fascinating reimagination of the Butterfly Effect.

Potente deserves heaps-o-praise for making Lola into a flawed, layered character we care about, even root for. Somehow, in the few quiet moments we see between Lola and Manni, she communicates emotions in tiny, almost imperceptible gestures. (Note the bedroom scene and Lola’s expression when she sides with Manni in the first run.) She may spend an inordinate amount of time running, but we spend just as much time caring where she’s going and why. A thriller about a character we like who has almost no dialogue? That’s a miracle almost as impressive as Netflix putting me in my place.

Grade: B+

The Curious Case (of the Movie Blackout)

Though I don’t possess much Christmas spirit (see earlier post), this year December has killed off what little bit I had left. Why? I’m choosing to remember this December as The Great Movie Blackout of 2008.

That’s because all the movies I’ve waited the entire year to see — critical darlings like “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — never materialized in friendly neighborhood theaters near me, or made such a brief appearance I couldn’t get there fast enough. (And I live near Charlotte, the 19th largest city in the U.S., people!) Sigh. Well, I suppose this is one of the many perks of living in the Deep South. Great left-of-center movies don’t get released here until months after the rest of the world has forgotten about them.

So that answers the question I’m sure (not really) has been lingering as to why I’ve posted no reviews of NEW movies in, oh, weeks. I’m protesting.  It was my version of civil disobedience. It didn’t work, and I suppose now’s the time to throw in the proverbial towel.

Over the Christmas holidays, I’m hoping to catch up with “Nobel Son” (I love Alan Rickman), maybe see “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” force myself to sit through the year-long epic “Australia” and listen to Miley Cyrus sound like a 40-year-old with emphysema in “Bolt” (that’s a last resort).

However, in the meantime I have begun stockpiling my list — minus all the great films you’ll see on every other critic’s Top 10 of 2008 list — of this year’s best movies. Here are the frontrunners thus far: “The Dark Knight”; “WALL-E”; “Pineapple Express”; “Tropic Thunder”; “Iron Man”; “Sex and the City”; “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; “The Bank Job”; “Body of Lies”; and “Changeling.” Brad Pitt’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” still looms on the horizon, and so does “Revolutionary Road” (but does the world really NEED another Winslet/DiCaprio rom-trag?).

And, finally, this post would not be complete if I did not give a shoutout to my friend — the one who believes he is a very witty comedian, the one who pushed me to start this blog in the first place — on this, his birthday. I will not reveal his age … except to say he is older than me. Happy b-day, Comedian, and I hope it’s a great one!

Globes to “Dark Knight”: “FYC”

In what can only be described as a move unparalleled in sheer stupidity, absurdity and complete, all-assuming lack of good taste (or anything resembling good taste), the Golden Globes have all but shut out “The Dark Knight” — perhaps the best superhero movie ever done — from taking home a few coveted gold statues.

Yes, this will go down in history as the ultimate “FYC” move. (Note: See Dave Chappelle’s brilliant Rick James skit to unravel exactly what “FYC” means.)

That’s correct, “TDK” fans: This summer’s dark, brooding smash hit got but one Globe nod (which, appropriately, went to Heath Ledger for his beyond-fantastic supporting actor turn as the Joker). No props to director Christopher Nolan for creating this dark masterpiece. No entry into the “Best Drama” category. No mention of the awe-inspiring cinematography or sweeping score.

I think I speak for everyone everywhere — inside my generation and out — when I say: “WTF?”

The reason for this snub is obvious: “The Dark Knight,” awesome as it is, is a a big-budget, action-packed thriller guaranteed to put butts in seats and hands in popcorn buckets. And Golden Globes and Oscars, as we all know, very rarely land in the hands of anyone involved in a summer popcorn movie.

But this is what makes this year’s H-U-G-E snub all the more infuriating: Yes, “The Dark Knight” is a blockbuster, but it’s also a chilling meditation on the nature of evil, chaos and hope, an intensely psychological character study and an ensemble drama studded with top-notch performances. Denying this work a chance at several well-deserved Golden Globes was like ripping the Oscar from Ellen Burstyn’s hands and plopping it in front of Julia Roberts (see earlier post). It’s craziness, pure and simple.

Sigh. Take a deep breath. Stop pounding fists on keyboard in sheer anguish.

<End rant.>

The Globes, however, did get a few things right: James Franco got a nod for his strong work as a child-like pot dealer in “Pineapple Express,” which entered itself into the stoner movie canon, and Tom Cruise got tapped for his cheerfully profane performance as a power-hungry, disgruntled Hollywood superagent in “Tropic Thunder.” Also nominated were Sean Penn (best actor, drama, “Milk”), Frank Langella (best actor, drama, “Frost/Nixon”) and Anne Hathaway (best actress, drama, “Rachel Getting Married”) — three movies I’m foaming at the mouth to see that don’t seem to be playing anywhere in upstate S.C. And I’m beyond stoked to see newcomer Rebecca Hall has been nominated for her comic-yet-vulnerable performance in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Still, as Alanis might say, it’s a jagged little pill (the worst kind) that “Dark Knight” got the shaft. And while I’m sure the actors would take the higher route and eschew criticism, I will do no such thing.

So, Golden Globers, I have two words for you: Suck it.

Screw the eggnog: Cheerless movies for the Season of Cheer

badsanta

Billy Bob Thornton isn't your average Saint Nick in the delightfully twisted "Bad Santa."

I know that Christmas is the time of good tidings and cheer, of wassailing and sleigh rides, of snowman building and eggnog, tree trimming and family togetherness and overall spectacularly warm-hearted merrymaking.

But so help me if I have to hear “Feliz Navidad” one more time I am going to have a meltdown of cataclysmic — no, make that Britney Spears — proportions. I will shave my own head, procure a few random tattoos and then do a press junket where I convince everyone I’m old and boring and, like, a TOTALLY fit guardian for two children.

Yes, you caught me — when it comes to the Season of Cheer, I am something of a grinch, a harbinger of bah humbug apathy. Perhaps I was born without the Christmas spirit, or maybe I had one once but I stopped feeding it, so it wandered away in search of sustenance.

(Don’t worry; I’m not a complete lost cause. A quick viewing of “Elf” or the claymation Rudolph/Abominable Snowman special whips me into a minor Xmas frenzy.)

So this year I figured I would run with this grinch-like spirit in the hopes that a few of you out there share my dilemma. Thus, I offer up a list of anti-Christmas movies — you know, the kind that leave you feeling sick, horribly depressed or dumbfounded and numb. If you’re in the mood to scare off any holiday merriment, play one of these at top volume:

* The Todd Solondz trilogy: “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” “Storytelling” — Nobody makes better soul-killing films than Solondz, and this is the Holy Trinity for his fans. “Dollhouse” offers a brutally honest and painful glimpse at adolescence; “Happiness” is an ensemble drama about everyday people trying (and failing miserably) to find joy; and “Storytelling” offers up two cringe-with-laughter vignettes, one involving something resembling a professor/student date rape and the other about a family who learns too late what happens when you mistreat the hired help. My advice? Don’t watch all three in rapid succession unless you have a hearty supply of uppers — or at least a few dozen SSRIs — within arm’s reach.

* “Bad Santa” — OK, OK, you caught me. I threw in a Christmas movie, but only because “Bad Santa” gets my lusty, wholehearted vote for its gleeful and unapologetic lack of anything resembling warmth or Christmas cheer. Billy Bob Thornton delivers a dementedly clever performance as Willie T. Soke, a grumbling, last-stage alcoholic safecracker who poses as Santa to get access to store safes and rob them. “Miracle on 34th Street”? Please. Give me a movie about a Santa who gives plastic reindeer a beatdown and spends his lunch breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing room any day.

* “The Pledge” — Somehow this bone-chilling, taut little thriller starring Jack Nicholson as a detective hunting a serial killer and Robin Wright Penn as a harried single mom slipped under everyone’s radar in 2001. No matter — those who saw it (including, of course, yours truly) never forgot the ominous tone and the make-your-skin-crawl final act. This film serves up the kind of resolution that’s twice as unnerving as it is comforting. Bonus: Benicio del Toro turns in a cameo that will haunt your dreams. Believe it.

* “Apartment Zero” — Here’s yet another first-rate pitch-black number very few people saw (to be fair, I found out about it through a fellow film buff). Set in the volatile political climate of 1980s Buenos Aires, this one stars Colin Firth as a nervous, antisocial theater owner who befriends a charismatic sociopath (Hart Bochner, who should have become wildly famous) who may be a ruthless hitman. The humor is so bracingly black it draws more nervous chuckles than laughter, and the final scene will freeze your blood. Prepare to lose some sleep.

* “House of Sand and Fog” — This quiet film plays out, scene for scene, like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps a grim retelling (or retooling) of what we consider the American Dream. Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley are note perfect as a recovering alcoholic who loses her house to a red-tape snafu and the determined immigrant who purchases it, free and clear, in an auction. The intersection of these two lives initiates pure chaos, sending both characters steamrolling toward an end so bleak it will have you reeling for weeks (trust me). Be careful with this one.

* “Mystic River” — As a director, Clint Eastwood has created near-flawless films that peek into the dark hearts of mankind. Apart from “Unforgiven,” it doesn’t get much darker or more disturbing than this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime thriller. The performances are astounding; in particular, watch Tim Robbins shrink himself inside and out to play Dave, a man whose demons are slowly and stealthily eating him alive. Sean Penn, too, is unforgettable as an ex-con hungry to avenge his teen-age daughter’s murder — and it’s that revenge that sets off a chain reaction of grim events that lead to soul-deadening conclusion.

* “Requiem for a Dream” — This adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s dismal novel takes the top spot in this list because, quite simply, I have never — and probably will never — see another film that presents such an unrelentingly bleak (but realistic) view of drug addiction. Observe the addicts in question: There’s Sara (Ellen Burstyn, who was ROBBED of the Oscar by Julia Roberts), an overweight retiree hooked on speedy diet pills who watches as her son, Harry (Jared Leto), hocks her possessions for smack money. His friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are smackheads, too, and before long every player in this drama realizes the particularly cruel paradox of addiction: When you can stop, you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t. Here’s a film guaranteed to leave you awestruck and, at the same time, completely, utterly numb.

*** HONORABLE MENTIONS ***

Thanks to some prodding by a reader (I won’t name names; you know who you are), I realized there was at least one movie I left off this list. Maybe that’s because I forgot it, but I suspect it might be because the movie was so wholly disturbing I’d blocked it from recent memory.

* “Mysterious Skin,” “Manic” — Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how far ye have come since “Third Rock from the Sun.” This former alien has blossomed into a first-rate dramatic actor, and these two films attest to that undeniable fact. In the first, he capably portrays a troubled teen who’d prefer to bury memories of a childhood trauma with RSEs (Random Sexual Encounters); in the second, JGL is downright frightening as a high school student with an anger management problem that lands him in the local psych ward. Don’t expect mindless happy endings; here are two indies that leave you with that sinking feeling (or is it nausea?) in your gut.

* “O” — Shakespeare buffs, please prepare yourself by putting away your quill pens; I warn you that you will not like what you are about to read. This powerful movie (shelved because of its controversial nature) gets my vote as the most creative and disturbing recreation of a Shakespearean play. Based loosely on “Othello,” this drama — set in a modern-day private Southern high school — does the Bard proud by digging deep into the issues that made his play so timeless: jealousy, greed, need for acceptance, trust, deception. The body count alone is unsettling, but it’s each character’s personal dissintegration (particularly Odin as played by Mekhi Phifer) that makes your head spin.

* “Heavenly Creatures” — Forget “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t even mention “King Kong.” Peter Jackson’s spooky project (based on the true story of two New Zealand teens involved in a brutal matricide) remains, in my mind, his definitive work. Thanks to Jackson’s free-wheeling directoral style (he employs creeptastic fantasy scenes) and outstanding acting by then-newcomer Kate Winslet and “Two and a Half Men’s” Melanie Linskey, this is one movie that digs its way into your subconscious and calls it home. If you don’t walk away profoundly disturbed, it’s too late to save you from the psychotic break that looms in your future.

Where’s the love (for Vince Vaughn)?

Yesterday, as I was dreaming up some weekend plans, a friend posed a revealing question: “Do you want to see ‘Four Christmases’ on Sunday?”

This question presented me with a dilemma of existential proportions. Why, you ask? Well, you see, Vince Vaughn is one of those actors whose career seems as jumpy as a virgin at a prison rodeo. He slam-dunks zany buddy comedies (re: “Old School,” “Dodgeball”), then drops the ball with paint-by-numbers clunkers like “Domestic Disturbance” or “Fred Claus.” (Yes, I’m aware I’m working the sports metaphor here. Go with it.) And when he tries genuine sincerity and emotion? Oh, the results will have you wishing your popcorn bucket was an airsickness bag (see The Onion A.V. Club’s review of “Four Christmases” for a more complete — and comical — take). And don’t even get me started on “The Break-Up.”

All this begs the question: Is Vince past his expiration date? Should I be worried that he is, in fact, a sociopath incapable of expressing anything more difficult than a sarcastic one-liner? Maybe so; after “Four Christmases” things aren’t looking so hot for VV.

Then I wandered back into the dark recesses of my mind (yikes — where’s the Swiffer when I need it?) and remembered three movies — all released in 1998 — where he stepped outside the bud-com box and succeeded. Nailed it, really … and I mean nailed in that “Wedding Crashers” way.

So, Vince, this list goes out to you from a fan who’s still hoping you can tap into that magic you had in 1998. Here are the Top Three Most Underrated VV Performances in a Motion Picture:

3) “Psycho” — Hitchcock snobs, if you put away your machetes and remained calm for 10 seconds you’d see the only reason you’re angry is because, deep down, in your heart of hearts, you know Vince’s take on Norman Bates is make-your-skin-crawl creeptastic. He puts his own stamp on the iconic character; he’s equal parts lost little boy and simmering madman. It’s like watching Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory come alive.

2) “Clay Pigeons” — This one’s proof that if VV plans to quit his day job, he’d make a damn-fine serial murderer. As Lester Long, Vaugh plumbs the damp, ill-lit depths of his psyche and comes up with a performance that tops his Bates turn in terms of sheer, unparalleled creepiness. He’s extremely unnerving and possesses the kind of high-pitched laugh, as Roger Ebert put it, “that, when you hear it, makes it seem prudent to stop whatever you’re doing and move to another state.” It sticks with you, and so does Vaughn’s creation.

1) “Return to Paradise” — Call this one the Best Movie No One Saw in 1998. This Hollywood take on the philosophical Prisoner’s Dilemma deserves its top spot in this trifecta because it is, quite simply, the best serious performance VV has ever given. His Sheriff is a complicated fellow, one who projects both amorality and ambivalence when he discovers a buddy he partied with in Malaysia is on death-row for hash possession. He wants no part of accepting responsibility, doing time to lessen his sentence, and yet … I will say no more, except that this is Vaughn’s best work. Period.

Quick Pick: “Quantum of Solace”

“Quantum of Solace” (Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric)

In real estate, location is king; in a Bond movie, it’s chemistry that makes for sly, sexy fun. But Agent 007 (Daniel Craig, bluntly handsome as ever) and new Bond girl Camille – dull-as-dishwater Olga Kurylenko – can’t spark enough heat to toast a Pop-Tart in “Quantum of Solace.” (Plus there’s a Freudian father-protecting-daughter undertone that makes the possibility downright creepy.) What’s worse, bad guy Dominic Greene (a bug-eyed Mathieu Amalric) comes across like a quippy Dandy who reads Oscar Wilde, not a supervillain. But even he somehow sizzles hotter with Kurylenko than Craig ever does. My suggestion, Mr. Bond? Next time go after M (Dame Judi Dench, who’s never looked better). Talk about working out your mommy issues.

Grade: C