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As this year winds down, look back on the highs and the lows of 2008

Britney Spears makes a comeback in 2008 with a new album, ’Circus,’ and three MTV Video Music Awards.

AP photos

’Wall-E’ takes a giant leap this year for Disney’s Pixar.

By Times Leader Wire Services

e laughed (or guffawed), cried (or wept.) We puzzled (or resigned) ourselves. Shook our heads in wonderment (and dismay.) We danced, too, and took in TV and film. 2008 gave us nothing if not talking points. Here are just some:

Celebrity shockers

• Heath Ledger: The “Brokeback Mountain” star died at 28 of an accidental prescription drug overdose in January. Many months later, still tough to fathom.

• Jennifer Hudson’s tragedy: The Oscar-winning actress and singer had a new fiancÚ and solo album to boot when her worst nightmare came true. In late October, Hudson’s mother and brother were found shot to death in the family home on Chicago’s South Side. Then her missing 7-year-old nephew Julian’s body was discovered days later in the back of an abandoned SUV. Hudson’s estranged brother-in-law, William Balfour, was charged with the triple murder.

• Travis Barker/DJ AM plane crash: After performing in South Carolina on Sept. 19, the punk musician and celeb disc jockey boarded a private plane bound for Los Angeles that crashed and killed the two pilots and two of their close friends. The surviving duo fled the burning wreckage; DJ AM, whose real name is Adam Goldstein, jumped through a fireball. Back in good form, the pair will reunite to headline a New Year’s Eve party at a West Hollywood, Calif., nightclub.

• Paula Abdul fan death: Paula Goodspeed, an aspiring pop star and obsessed fan of the female “American Idol” judge, was found dead Nov. 12 in a car near Abdul’s Los Angeles home. The 30-year-old expressed her admiration for Abdul during a train-wreck audition on season five of Fox’s “Idol” in which she was ridiculed for the braces on her teeth and a lack of talent. Goodspeed’s family said she struggled with depression and eating disorders as her show-business dreams fell apart. She died of a drug overdose.

• Bernie Mac: The comic actor died Aug. 9 from complications of pneumonia. He starred in his own sitcom and numerous movies.

Celebrity turnarounds

• Britney Spears: What was more stunning — the fact that Spears snagged three MTV Video Music Awards or that she looked like a million bucks doing so?

• Mickey Rourke: Thanks to his leading role in “The Wrestler,” the 52-year-old is reliving the critical acclaim of his work in films such as “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Diner” and “Rumble Fish.” He’s getting strong Oscar buzz to boot.

• Robert Downey Jr.: The charismatic actor went from cautionary tale to bankable movie star last summer for his performance in the Marvel Studios blockbuster “Iron Man,” which grossed $318.3 million domestically. He had trouble finding plum roles that exploited the depth of his talent after some personal trouble, including a crippling battle with addiction.

• “Saturday Night Live:” The NBC sketch-comedy show returned to sharp political satire, and the payoff was big. “SNL” found inspiration in the presidential campaign and a savior in Tina Fey.

• Cloris Leachman: The bitingly funny actress gained a new generation of fans at 82 with her crowd-pleasing run on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

Celebrity train wrecks

With Britney, Lindsay and Paris behaving themselves, other stars angled for the title of Hot Mess of the Year:

• Amy Winehouse: The acclaimed soul singer continues to unravel in the public eye. Drug use, run-ins with the law and a dramatic marriage … all after winning five Grammys for her 2006 album “Back to Black.”

• Gary Busey at the Oscars: Nobody brings the crazy quite like Gary Busey. The actor, 64, turned the Academy Awards’ red carpet into a danger zone this year and is now on the second season of VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab,” where he tried to say he was part of the staff.

• Janet Jackson: The pop star — or is it pop has-been? — sank further into irrelevance as her new album tanked and she cut short her first North American tour in seven years due to health problems.

Heather Locklear: The 47-year-old actress divorced Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora in 2007 and checked into an Arizona rehab facility with anxiety and depression in summer. In September, she was arrested in Montecito, Calif., on suspicion of driving under the influence of a controlled substance. She was later charged with a misdemeanor DUI incurred by prescription drugs and is scheduled for arraignment next month.

• The O’Neal Family: Actor Ryan O’Neal and his children ran into trouble with the law for a series of drug busts. O’Neal, 67, who was arrested in February after a scuffle with son Griffin, found himself embroiled in scandal yet again in September when police discovered drugs in his Malibu, Calif., home. His daughter, Tatum O’Neal, was arrested for allegedly buying cocaine near her New York apartment last summer.

Celebrity hookups

Finding a mate in 2008: That was the theme for many celebrities as they hooked up with new partners and sealed the deal in undercover weddings.

• Jen And John: This year, Jennifer Aniston’s body is John Mayer’s wonderland. Despite his player reputation, a shockingly smitten Aniston followed him on tour as his Public Groupie No. 1. The musician and the movie star have been on and off since last spring; during a break, the loose-lipped Mayer blabbed about how he ended their romance. Yet she’s taken him back, telling Vogue: “Love just shows up and you go, ‘Oh, wow, this is going to be a hayride and a half.’ ”

Lindsay And Sam: After a string of go-nowhere relationships and bad choices, Lindsay Lohan is still going strong with disc jockey Samantha Ronson.

• Jay-Z And Beyonce: Jay-Z liked it, so he put a ring on it. The rap mogul and the singing superstar finally tied the knot in April after six years of unconfirmed dating.

• Mariah and Nick: Mariah Carey found love again with Nick Cannon, an actor 11 years her junior. Mimi wasted no time when it comes to affairs of the heart: She married the “Drumline” star at her Bahamian estate in April after just weeks of dating.

Celebrity births

The celebrity baby boom expanded into 2008 with the arrivals of newborns belonging to A-listers such as Halle, Nicole, J.Lo and the magnetic force known as Brangelina.

• Brad and Angelina: In summer, People magazine and the British tabloid Hello! paid $14 million in a joint deal to publish the first shots of the Jolie-Pitt clan with twins Knox and Vivienne, born in July. As is their custom, Jolie and Pitt traded media access for a donation to charity.

• Jennifer and Marc: Some people think Brangelina stole J.Lo’s twin thunder — actually, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony beat them by four months. The married performers welcomed Max and Emme in February, waiting only weeks to display the twin boy and girl on the cover of People.

• Halle and Gabriel: The daughter of Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry certainly will grow up to be competition for future hotties like Shiloh Jolie-Pitt. A two-time divorcee, Berry ultimately found her Prince Charming in Aubry, a model she met while shooting a Versace ad two years ago. The Oscar-winning actress gave birth to Nahla Ariela Aubry in March.

• Nicole and Keith: Two years after tying the knot, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban welcomed baby girl Sunday Rose in July. The 41-year-old Kidman has called Sunday “a miracle baby,” crediting an unexpected fertility source: the waterfalls of the Australian Outback. According to Kidman, she and six other women who took a dip in the waters of a small town during production of the epic romance “Australia” became pregnant.

• Jamie Lynn and Casey: Pop star Britney Spears’ teen sister, Jamie Lynn, the 17-year-old ex-“Zoey 101,” gave birth to daughter Maddie Briann in June; she sold the photo rights to OK! magazine for a reported $1 million.

Celebrity baby names

The uproar over Gwyneth Paltrow naming her daughter Apple seems downright quaint in 2008. Check out the new additions:

• Bronx Mowgli: Courtesy of Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson-Wentz. He grew up near Chicago, and she hails from Texas — yet, inexplicably, the rock-star couple named their son after one of the toughest boroughs in New York City. The middle name Mowgli was inspired by the scrappy boy hero of Disney’s “The Jungle Book.”

Sunday Rose: Nicole Kidman has said Sunday is her and Keith Urban’s favorite day of the week because it can be both lonely and happy depending on whether “you’ve got your family” around. They also found inspiration in Aussie art collector Sunday Reed, whose first name Kidman’s father suggested. The baby’s second name is a tribute to Urban’s grandmother, Rose.

Zuma Nesta Rock: A child raised by music royalty — Gwen Stefani and hubby Gavin Rossdale — might fully embrace a moniker that spells nothing but embarrassment for regular kids. Stefani grew up in Southern California and loves Jamaican culture, which might explain her choice of Zuma (a beach in Malibu) and Nesta (the middle name of reggae legend Bob Marley).

• Honor Marie: The daughter of Jessica Alba and her husband, Cash Warren should get a lifetime of instant respect, based on her first name alone. Latin in origin, Honor means “woman of honor” and denotes glory, dignity and high rank.

• Buster Timothy: The moniker struck a chord with married actors Jonny Lee Miller and Michele Hicks, who balanced the initial quirkiness with a way more traditional second name.

Pop music

Music sales continued to plummet. Just as a new economic model was being tested — making up for lagging sales by selling more concert tickets — the industry was hit by skyrocketing gas prices, and then the recession. But on to the best-of list:

1. Lil Wayne, “Tha Carter III” (Cash Money). In so many ways, 2008 belonged to Dwayne Carter Jr. The dreadlocked, demented New Orleans rapper’s third CD outsold and outreached the competition.

2. TV on the Radio, “Dear Science” (Interscope). The Brooklyn quintet maintains the experimental spirit of 2006’s “Return to Cookie Mountain” while upping the accessibility factor.

3. Santogold, “Santogold” (Downtown). Santi White couldn’t get arrested when she was with the excellent Philadelphia ska band Stiffed. But as Santogold, she’s been transformed into a future-pop Woman of the Year, alongside M.I.A.

4. Girl Talk, “Feed the Animals” (Illegal Art). Nobody delivered on the pleasure principle this year like Pittsburgh DJ Gregg Gillis, who flouts copyright law while concocting hook-happy laptop mash-ups for the no-attention-span generation.

5. My Morning Jacket, “Evil Urges” (ATO). The fivesome fronted by Jim James excel at no-vibrato soulfulness.

6. Hayes Carll, “Trouble in Mind” (Lost Highway). On his first major-label album, Hayes Carll steps up his scruffy, Texas-troubadour game into Guy Clark-Steve Earle-Townes Van Zandt territory, with a dash of John Prine for good measure.

7. Erykah Badu, “New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War” (Motown). “Welcome to Amerykah,” a demonic voice intones at the start of Erykah Badu’s first album in five years. “All the freaks are here.” Indeed they are, beneath Badu’s bountiful Afro wig.

8. Vampire Weekend, “Vampire Weekend” (XL). The quartet of collar-popping Columbia grads had their every cultural appropriation dissected long before their album debuted in January.

9. She & Him, “Volume One” (Merge). Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward’s ungrammatical retro-pop and folk collaboration gets major points for surprise.

10. Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, “Two Men With the Blues” (Blue Note). The history of American popular music is about the blending of black and white cultures, and these two Southern gentlemen come together in a delightful collaboration that works wonders for both.

Television

In these rocky times, television should provide us with uproarious sitcoms, escapist dramas, light-as-a-feather variety shows — anything to take our minds off our shrinking wallets. It didn’t, but programmers have managed to offer key moments:

Tim Russert dies (June 13): The political season went on without the “Meet the Press” moderator, but it wasn’t the same.

Reality TV goes oof! splat! ouch! (June 24): You can’t imagine reality TV getting any more sordid, then along comes “Wipeout,” ABC’s summer hit that hinged solely on viewers’ desires to watch everyday Americans experience excruciating pain and embarrassment on an obstacle course.

Reality TV goes ooh! aah! wow! (June 25): You can’t imagine reality TV providing us anything substantial, then along comes “The Baby Borrowers,” NBC’s sorely misunderstood series that provided high-schoolers a safe and eye-opening opportunity to see what it really takes to be a young parent. Shame on us for not watching.

Michael Phelps gets a mighty assist (Aug. 11): Phelps may have been the hero of the Summer Olympics, but his aquamate Jason Lezak provided the Games’ most thrilling moment, coming up with a golden comeback as the anchor in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

The circus is back in town (Sept. 7): Britney Spears made an incredible comeback, capped by three wins during the MTV Video Music Awards. As much as we love to trash our stars, we get even more satisfication building them up again.

• “The Mentalist” blows our minds (Sept. 23): Network TV laid a big, fat egg this fall. The exception: “The Mentalist.” Simon Baker’s dreamy eyes and wicked smile are strong draws, but the fact that CBS is relying on yet another crime procedural — and that we’re eating it up — is evidence programmers and audiences are unlikely to take many risks any time soon.

Ring around the Rosie (Sept. 28): It’s only fair she get props for her outstanding cameo on HBO’s “Little Britain USA”’ In a skit that poked merciless fun at her image, O’Donnell reminded us she’s more viable as a deft comic than as a singing-and-dancing disaster or a talk-show windbag.

• Sarah Palin reads every newspaper on earth (Sept. 30): Katie Couric had been considered a lightweight who would be out the door by January while the Alaskan governor drove a dog sled right into the White House. After this in-depth and, at times, incoherent, interview ran, it was clear Palin had a lot to learn about handling the press and Couric was more than capable of handling the anchor chair.

• The summit of the Queens (Nov. 6): Tina Fey pulled off one of the season’s most satisfying impressions — and we’re not talking about her Sarah Palin. Her most memorable moment came as a drugged-up Liz Lemon on “30 Rock,” befriending Oprah Winfrey (or so she thinks). The episode was the finest in the show’s run.

• Vic Mackey puts on a tie (Nov. 25): “The Shield” may have overstayed its welcome, but the series finale was fresh and furious with shocking deaths, deep-cutting betrayals and a final shot of the conflicted, corrupt Mackey suffocating in a business suit.

Movies

’Twas a good vintage, 2008. Let’s savor it.

• “Slumdog Millionaire:” The edgy Danny Boyle of “Trainspotting” meets the heartfelt, romantic Danny Boyle of “Millions” in a glorious parable of slums-to-success in modern India.

• “Milk:” Recent history recalled, brilliantly, in a perfectly cast, handsomely mounted biography of an American folk hero, Harvey Milk. Sean Penn could win another Oscar.

• “WALL-E:” The director disavowed this glorious, mostly dialogue-free cartoon’s anti-consumption message, but audiences didn’t. The best Pixar film since “Finding Nemo.”

• “Happy-Go-Lucky:” Two brilliant performances highlight Mike Leigh’s latest, a fiercely upbeat Sally Hawkins matched against the spittle-rage bitterness acted by Eddie Marsan.

• “The Duchess:” A new-fangled old-fashioned 18th-century costume epic that many read as a parallel to the life and death of Princess Diana.

• “In Bruges:” Martin McDonagh’s compact, sardonic and abrasive travelogue takes two Irish hit-men to Belgium to atone for their sins.

• “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas:” Some attacked this film, based on the acclaimed novel, for the very idea behind it. It’s the Holocaust as viewed by a German boy “shielded” from the horrors facing those people his SS daddy has imprisoned.

• “Rachel Getting Married:” Anne Hathaway’s coming-out party was this Jonathan Demme shot-on-the-cheap hand-held (shaky camera) account of a weekend-long wedding in the modern American hip family style. Touching, wrenching, fun.

• “The Visitor:” A subtle, sad but life-affirming tour de force performance by Richard Jenkins makes this timely comedy about coming out of your gloom and meeting the world the warmest picture of the year.

• “Trouble the Water:” This is the only Hurricane Katrina documentary that matters, one filmed by the working poor who lived through it.

Theater

Nothing quite as satisfying and thoroughly American as “August: Osage County” arrived on Broadway in 2008, but then Tracy Letts’ corrosive family drama, which opened in late 2007, remained a strong presence in New York throughout the year. Still, fine new American plays weren’t missing in action, though you had to go off-Broadway to find them.

• “Blasted.” The year’s most disturbing play — filled with graphic physical and sexual violence.

• “Billy Elliot.” Stephen Daldry made theater magic, transforming his superb 2000 film about a coal miner’s young son who yearns to dance into a warm-hearted, stirring musical.

• “The Seagull.” The disappointed souls who populate Anton Chekhov’s exquisite tale of regret never looked or sounded better.

• “Road Show.” It was a long journey to New York, but the astringent Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical about the Mizner brothers and their avaricious pursuit of the American dream was worth the wait.

• A Catered Affair.” The story of an unfulfilled marriage and its effect on a couple’s daughter’s wedding is distilled into an adult, emotion-drenched musical.

• “Speed-The-Plow.” The bilious business of moviemaking remains as hilariously nasty as ever in this revival of David Mamet’s play.

• “Farragut North.” Beau Willimon’s entertaining political morality tale follows the dirty doings of a young press officer enmeshed in the Iowa presidential primary.

• “Port Authority.” Recollections of regret are the soul of this series of interlocking Conor McPherson monologues.

• “reasons to be pretty.” Neil LaBute’s latest examination of contentious relationships and their perceptions of physicality. The off-Broadway production will resurface on Broadway in April 2009.

• “Hughie” and “Krapp’s Last Tape.” The Eugene O’Neill classic about a down-on-his-luck gambler and the Samuel Beckett masterpiece of memory both featured Brian Dennehy in the year’s most memorable twin performances. A New York visit from both productions is imperative.

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