Commentary: Saluting most-welcome diversions of '08

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It's that time of year: Film critics are making their lists and checking them twice, ignoring most of the movies they consider "naughty" while championing those they consider "nice."

As an annual exercise, there's nothing wrong with the process: It's worth sending out reminders that such popular entertainments as "WALL-E" and "The Dark Knight" aspired to something more than just packing multiplexes during the summer months.

And amid the crush of year-end films with serious aspirations, it's fine to argue about the relative merits of such rewarding fare as "Slumdog Millionaire," "Milk," "The Wrestler" and "Gran Torino."

But inevitably, all those top-10 lists -- even when critics manage to hedge their bets by squeezing in an extra three or four titles -- overlook most of the movies that kept moviegoers if not always entertained then at least somewhat diverted.

Consider the following highly subjective sampling of some of the movies, or at least moments, that brightened the slogs through the predictable and uninspired.

Certainly, if there's a candidate for the most underrated comedy of the year, it's the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading." True, a handful of critics championed it, and the film has earned two Golden Globe nominations -- one for best motion picture/comedy or musical and one for Frances McDormand's performance as a franchise-gym employee who seizes upon a computer disk, supposedly packed with CIA secrets, as a way of financing the plastic surgery that will boost her profile on the dating scene.

But after the near-universal praise that was showered on the Coens' Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," with its despairing take on human nature, many of the same critics turned thumbs down on "Burn" for its unapologetic misanthropy as, trapped in a corner, John Malkovich's downsized CIA analyst Osbourne Cox rails against "the league of morons" that surrounds him.

Still, if there was an A-list star who spoofed his own golden-boy image this year, it wasn't Tom Cruise's somewhat heavy-handed goof as a profane producer in "Tropic Thunder." It was Brad Pitt's genially dim-witted turn as a private trainer who isn't half as bright as he thinks he is. As a bonus, the movie played like a balloon-puncturing antidote to all the tech-crazy spy movies like "Body of Lies" that treats the CIA like some all-knowing satellite eye in the sky: In "Burn," nobody knows anything.

Meanwhile, the most underrated superhero movie arguably was "Hellboy II: The Golden Army." Yeah, it earned some appreciative reviews, but coming in the wake of "Iron Man" and "Dark Knight," it didn't achieve blockbuster status, settling for $76 million domestically.

The sequel was refreshing, though, because it never took itself too seriously. Compared with captain of industry Tony Stark/Iron Man and millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ron Perlman's Hellboy is something of a working-class hero, one who goes about his job of ridding the world of mythic creatures with a grudging shrug. But it was those bizarre creatures -- more rich imaginings from director Guillermo del Toro's overflowing bestiary -- that raised the movie's game.

Then there are the cases of those sequences that proved fun even if the movies that surrounded them were problematic. Early in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," for example, Harrison Ford's Indy stumbled into a weirdly perfect 1950s track home only to discover that it is the target in a nuclear testing site. The gag has a "Twilight Zone" creepiness to it -- right down to the "Howdy Doody" show playing on the black-and-white TV.

("Howdy Doody" has become one of the signifiers of the '50s as it shows up again in "Revolutionary Road." Someone quick should create a mash-up with Indy bursting in on "Road's" battling Frank and April Wheeler just in time to see them destroyed by a mushroom cloud.)

"Mamma Mia!," even though it proved a commercial hit, had most critics rolling their eyes. They weren't necessarily wrong, but the movie eventually beat most moviegoers into submission. What cinched the deal were those curtain-call production numbers in which Meryl Streep and the cast suddenly returned in glittery spandex for one more chorus of "Dancing Queen." It's so wacky, all you could do was surrender.

The same can be said for "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." Forget the movie itself; for many moviegoers this summer, the endless coming attractions were brightened by the "Chihuahua" trailer, which ignored the movie's plot in favor of a Busby Berkeley-esque musical fantasy full of dancing, singing canines.

Now that's entertainment.
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