With the end of the year quickly approaching, it's time to start tallying the box office results and handing out the awards for the films of 2008. Critics and entertainment journalists are going to start spending a lot of time talking about whether or not it's been a good year for movies, both critically and commercially speaking.
But here's the thing that's made 2008 so interesting. So far, it's been a great year for commercial movies, critically speaking.
Traditionally by Thanksgiving, at least one or two movies have popped up with enough critical acclaim to garner Oscar buzz, like last year's Michael Clayton. But so far this year, films that looked like Oscar bait on paper, like The Duchess and Body of Lies, have already fizzled out both at the box office and in the blogosphere.
The only movie that's been seen by the general public this year that's been able to hold on to any serious Oscar buzz so far is summer blockbuster The Dark Knight. And people who have been championing Robert Downey Jr. as an Oscar contender for either of his roles in Iron Man or Tropic Thunder haven't been laughed out of the water yet, either.
Does this mean that 2008 could go down in history as the year where the most commercially successful movies were also the best ones?
Now, there are a few examples that can help argue against this point. Hancock and Wanted did well at the box office this summer, much to the annoyance of many critics. The impressive figures for High School Musical 3: Senior Year and Twilight will be dismissed as mere teenybopper inflation. And many movie lovers are still completely baffled by the phenomenal success of Mamma Mia!
But even though prestige pieces like Revolutionary Road, Milk, or Frost/Nixon could (and most likely will) swoop in during December and scoop up all the awards, I still think 2008 will mostly be remembered as the year when superheroes turned in Oscar-caliber performances, and Robert Downey Jr. managed to entertain more people than he offended when he dared to don blackface in Tropic Thunder.
I'm looking forward to the epic Australia this weekend, and the upcoming round of serious, grown-up dramas in December, but I'm also feeling surprisingly satisfied by what I've already seen this year. A movie about Batman could very well turn out to be the personal favorite to win this year's Best Picture race, and that is not at all a reflection on a lack of weak competition. The commercial hits just happened to bring it this year.
Of course, my loyalty to Batman could dissipate if a film like Revolutionary Road or Doubt happens to blow me away. Not many people have seen these films yet, so there's no reason to believe that they couldn't top the summer hits in terms of quality. But even if they do turn out to be better movies than Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it's pretty much a given that they won't be as commercially successful.
We may have seen commercial hits get critical raves this summer, but seeing a critic's darling become a commercial smash in the winter is still probably too much to ask for.