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Charlie Kaufman

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2015 in Film.

Hey, remember 2015? Syrian refugees and the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris attacks and the Paris accords. Taylor Swift had bad blood and The Weeknd couldn’t feel his face. Donald Trump was leading in all the polls, but, lolz, we all knew wiser GOP heads would prevail in the end. And, hey — while it wasn’t a great film year by any means — some movies came out too!

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about getting back on the horse around here is that I never did write up the 2015 movie list, which seems a shame after fifteen years running. (The 2014 list is still on the front page!) So, yeah, this is real late…but since I caught so many of these On Demand, I couldn’t have written this list up at the end of 2015 regardless. And besides, no matter how tardy I am in posting this each year, there’re always still a few more possible additions languishing unseen in the DVR and Amazon Prime queues — right now it’s Slow West and Chi-Raq on the slow burners. (I’ve also tried to watch Jupiter Ascending twice now, but haven’t made it past the first twenty minutes, right around the point Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne starts doing his cut-rate Ming the Merciless bit.)

At any rate, of the films I did see, these below were my…

Top 25 Films of 2015
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/The Oughts]

1. Ex Machina: Having already written a few worthy genre contenders like Sunshine and Dredd, The Beach author Alex Garland put on the director’s hat and and tore up the 2015 dance floor with this perfectly contained sci-fi-noir. A wry amalgam of Isaac Asimov and James M. Cain, Ex Machina is smart all the way through — I thought crowdsourcing AI was a particularly clever touch, until we actually tried to do it this year — and it possesses a secret weapon in Oscar Isaac’s amusingly dickish fratbro billionaire. In a can-you-top-this era of CGI excess, Ex Machina is a valuable reminder that sometimes the most satisfying science fiction tale is simply a small story told well.

2. It Follows: Speaking of simple ideas done well, how about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows? Granted I don’t watch much horror anymore — tho’ I’m looking forward to catching The Witch sometime soon — but this was the first movie in ages that had me unsettled for a good while afterward, suspiciously eyeing slow-moving randoms on the street and keeping an eye to an exit strategy.

It Follows gets under your skin by making the most of a basic premise that’s been a subtext of the horror genre for years (and one that can carry all kinds of allegorical weight as needed, from aging to adulthood to AIDS): have sex and you’re a goner. And like the original Blob — or Death, for that matter — the creature may move slow here, but it is inexorable. Quentin Tarantino has a point about the problems with the goofy third act (tho’ he doesn’t really have a leg to stand on this year — see below), but man is this film creepy. Extra points for the very John Carpenter-y score by Disasterpeace.

3. Anomalisa: If there’s a fear more primal than the slow-stalking beast of It Follows, perhaps it’s the one haunting this business trip to the solipsistic hellscape of stop-motion Cincinnati: Forget not escaping Death for a second, you’re never going to escape you. Without any actors gracing the screen (and Tom Noonan taking up the bulk of the characters), Anomalisa is a bracing shot of distilled Charlie Kaufman — mournful misanthropy with plenty of anxiety and a dash of sweetness, coming right up — and seems like the movie John Cusack’s puppeteer was working toward in Being John Malkovich.

4. The Big Short: The best of this year’s Oscar contenders, Adam McKay’s chronicle of the traders who bet big on America’s financial collapse succeeds in being both informational and, often, quite funny. Even better, McKay vastly improves on the source material by infusing it with no small amount of righteous anger. Michael Lewis is compulsively readable, but he tends to flinch from interrogating his class, and so you end up with books like The Big Short, which are, in essence: “Look at these smart guys who beat the system! (never mind that the system was corrupt to the core.)” [Or, for that matter, The Blind Side: “Look at these great rich white people who took in an at-risk black youth! (never mind they only did it because he was a football prodigy.)”] McKay’s film restores the balance by re-emphasizing that the mortgage meltdown was about more than just hubris and assholery — it was systemic corruption all the way down. And yet, nobody went to jail — The Big Short has the confidence to let that last laugh curdle.

5. Spotlight: Speaking of which, this year’s Oscar winner could stand to have a few more dollops of righteous anger added to the mix as well. Instead, Spotlight chooses to tell this incendiary story of cover-up and corruption in the Catholic Church as a journalistic procedural. So, while it’s all very sober and well-made, the overall experience feels akin to watching Law and Order re-runs. (While it’s a subplot throughout, I also wish they’d done more with how Michael Keaton et al missed this story for so long. There’s a come-to-Jesus moment near the end that felt to me like a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ before getting back to the regularly scheduled media back-patting. The Church isn’t the only once-venerable institution crumbing from within these days.) I don’t want to be too down on Spotlight — I’m putting this at #4, after all — but it’s ultimately high-quality Oscar bait, and doesn’t feel like a movie we’ll be talking about much in years to come.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: ZOMG Star Wars y’all! J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the original fanboy/tentpole universe has the benefit of great casting and instantly likeable characters in Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and BB-8. This is also clearly a labor of love for Abrams — just look how he Wars-ed up Star Trek a few years ago. At the same time — and, to be fair, this becomes more pronounced after the first viewing — The Force Awakens also feels like an exceedingly cautious retread of the original trilogy at times, a sensation exacerbated by both too many unnecessary Chris Farley Show-style callbacks (hey, remember that thing? That was so cool! Here it is again!) and that ultra-stupid, basic-physics-defying Starkiller Base in the third act. (Seriously, do not get me ranting about Starkiller Base. It is a silly place.) Still, the important thing here is, after the prequel misfire, Star Wars feels back. Bring on Rogue One and VIII.

7. Kingsman: The Secret Service: Stardust notwithstanding, Matthew Vaughn films tend to do well on this list –See: Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class— and Kingsman is no exception. This anarchic, occasionally snotty send-up of Bond tropes was a visceral blast that didn’t take itself too seriously, didn’t overstay its welcome, and didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t. (And how about that cuh-razy church melee?) This would’ve been one of the most fun times I had in a movie theater this year, had I not actually caught it on a plane.

8. Mad Max: Fury Road: He lives, he dies, he lives again! Speaking of visceral melee-fueled thrill rides, and given that George Miller has been an excellent filmmaker over the years, Fury Road was a far better Mad Max sequel after thirty years off than we had any right to expect. Miller’s crazy gamble paid off and then some — however hard to shoot, there is some strikingly beautiful cinematography throughout this film. That being said, and with the caveat that I’m not much of a Road Warrior or car guy, I thought Fury Road was a bit overrated by the end of 2015. It was the best of the summer blockbusters by several lengths, but even a chase sequence as masterfully constructed as the one here gets old after two hours. Er…how long are we riding shiny and chrome again?

9. The Revenant: I avoided this movie for awhile since I presumed, like Birdman, 21 Grams, and the rest of Inarritu’s output, it would be interminably pretentious. And, yeah, it is. The story here is also absurd in its Mountain Man, quien es mas macho survivalism. (Twice, Di Caprio’s character goes to town on raw and/or wriggling flesh when there’s a fire literally right next to him.) But, unlike Birdman and its claustrophobic hallways, The Revenant also has the advantage of really first-rate nature cinematography, provided by Emmanuel Lubezki. I wasn’t particularly engaged by the revenge tale here, but this is an often beautiful-looking film, and no mistake.

10. Ant-Man: Some day, Marvel will really drop the ball on one of these B- or C-level hero stories. (Perhaps that’s why they’ve postponed The Inhumans.) Today is not that day. Like its star, Ant-Man is a charming, low-key, and amiable addition to the ever-expanding Marvel-verse, with a secret weapon in consistent scene-stealer Michael Pena. It’d have been nice to see what Edgar Wright was cooking up for this character for, lo, so many years, But, to his credit, gun-for-hire Peyton Reed managed to steer this bug away from the zapper. Best of luck on the sequel.

11. Creed: For all intent and purposes, Creed is basically The Force Awakens of the Rocky world — this is another 21st century update of a 70’s classic — and it suffers from many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Abrams’ reboot. Like Episode VII, Creed boasts a lively young cast and solid support from an aging veteran of the earlier films. And, like VII, it follows the contours of the original story to a fault. Still, worth catching, even if it made me wonder how soon we can expect Richard Dreyfuss teaching Chadwick Boseman or Felicity Jones or the like how to catch sharks. (In fact, they could just digitally insert old Hooper into Blake Lively’s new shark flick.)

12. Inside Out: Like Marvel, Pixar is another corner of the Disney empire consistently churning out quality product. My main issue with Inside Out at the time was that it felt reductive, and needed many more emotions rattling around Riley’s (and everyone else’s) head than just the five presented. But, a year or so later, that seems like a quibble. Yet another excellent Pixar outing.

13. Bridge of Spies: I had hopes this well-made Spielberg prestige picture about James Donovan and the U-2 spy plane would be a little more overtly Coen-y, given that the brothers wrote the screenplay. (The only time it really comes through is when Donovan (Tom Hanks) is introduced to Abel’s fake family.) But, even if it’s a bit staid throughout, what we got here is a worthwhile throwback of a movie, with Hanks well-cast in what would be the Gregory Peck/Jimmy Stewart role.

14. Macbeth: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Foul is fair indeed in this often gorgeous retelling of the famous play, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard headlining as the ambition-wracked titular couple (she’s amazing, he’s a bit much) and several ringers in the wings, including Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis. Another film on this list, like The Revenant and Fury Road, that’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone…tho’ the Bard’s not half-bad either.

15. What We Do in the Shadows: Several good laughs to be had in Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s warm-hearted, cold-blooded mockumentary of Kiwi vampire roommates. Even if early hype had me expecting something even funnier, it’s impressive that Waititi, Clement et al made such a fresh-feeling film out of what’s been one of the more well-mined corners of genre of late. I’m in for We’re Wolves (tho’, with Murray (Rhys Darby) playing the leader of those swearwolves, why wasn’t Bret invited to the plastic pantomime?)

16. MI: Rogue Nation: Chris McQuarrie’s impossible mission doesn’t quite hit at the level of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but it’s right up there. With a smart choice of villain in Sean Harris, more for Simon Pegg to do, and an impressive newcomer in Rebecca Ferguson, MI:RN was the second-best summer ride after Fury Road, and feels like a franchise that, well after the first installment, is still going places. And loath as I am to agree with Donald Trump, what I said about Edge of Tomorrow applies here as well: For all of his personal faults, Tom Cruise remains a surprisingly committed movie star.

17. Avengers: Age of Ultron: A messier and more frazzled foray than the superb first installment, Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron unfortunately carries the weight of its blockbuster-ness around like a sack of potatoes. James Spader’s quippy turn as the Big Bad felt genuinely unconventional — weirdest Less Than Zero sequel ever, by the way — but everything else here felt both rushed and strained, sometimes to the point of incoherence. (I’m looking at you, Thor’s hot tub time machine.) The good news is, if Winter Soldier and Civil War are any indication, the brothers Russo are more than ready to take up this burden for the Infinity War.

18. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter: The first hour of this film is slooooow, and I might’ve felt that way about the second hour too if I had known where we were headed. But lucky for me going in, I had no inkling this tale, about a lonely Japanese woman obsessed with finding the buried suitcase from Fargo, was based on a “true” story. So I had no idea where this movie was going, and was honestly expecting something much more whimsical and magical realist than the depression case study we have here. Either way, the film has some truly haunting moments (Bunzo on the Metro, for example), picks up steam once Kumiko arrives in the Northlands, and has a wallop of an ending that will stay with you after the credits.

19. The Martian: Once again, saving Matt Damon proves the critical spending stimulus America needs. I read the Andy Weir book first and thought, while the science lectures were great fun, the writing and especially the characters were flat-out terribad. (Like, how many disco jokes do we need?) This movie skips over a lot of the fun science that made Weir’s book memorable, but improves on the people part of the equation, so it’s a wash. In any event, seriously, as the Buzzfeed quiz says, “put a bell on this guy”…wait, you lost him AGAIN?!

20. Sicario: Admittedly, this movie gets dumber and more formulaic as Benicio del Toro turns into a gloomy, cartel-smashing superhero. But, for most of its run, Sicario is a surprisingly poetic piece of cinema, and one that manages to keep a frisson of the same sort of this-fustercluck-is-actually-happening-right-now immediacy as Traffic or Syriana. Not sure we need a sequel here, tho’.

21. Carol: I tend to like Todd Haynes movies and was looking forward to this one…so I’m a bit bummed to relate that I was kinda bored by Carol. It has moments of loveliness, but for all intent and purposes this May-December romance felt to me like a less-Sirk-y remake of Far from Heaven. (Forbidden love vs fifties mores, etc.) Therese (Rooney Mara), the ingénue of this story, is a cipher, and thus not very interesting. As for Carol (Cate Blanchett), she not a particularly sympathetic character — if the couple here were straight, she’d seem like a middle-aged predator — and attempts to make her so mostly fall flat. (As Carol’s angry, insecure ex-husband, Kyle Chandler is given one note to play and he just keeps banging on it throughout.) I get that Patricia Highsmith’s novel was groundbreaking for the time, but, in 2016, this story seems a little more rote. But at least Carol feels like the era it’s set in, unlike…

22. Brooklyn: Another well-made fifties love story-turned-tragedy, about a young Irish woman (Saiorse Ronan) who starts a new life in America, but chooses to throw away her only real chance at happiness by marrying an Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) and moving to Levittown. (Sorry, I’m #TeamGleeson all the way.) Seriously, though, this is another throwback picture like Bridge of Spies, and it’s an enjoyable immigrant tale, even if it tends to act like Eilis came to the New World in 1880 or 1920 at various points. (It’s 1952, y’all. Back-and-forth transatlantic travel is an established thing.)

23. Crimson Peak: As all the moths and butterflies everywhere attest, this sumptuous Gothic romance/ghost story is basically Guillermo del Toro playing with his toys, so not in the league of say, The Devil’s Backbone. But, even if the story is all over the place at times — apparitions come and go whenever the movie needs a jolt — it’s all very pretty to look at. It’s just too bad del Toro likes seeing sharp objects slicing and penetrating people so much, since every gory slash ruins the otherwise lush atmosphere here.

24. Room: A well-made adaptation of a 2010 book by Emma Donoghue (which I haven’t read), Room kept me off-kilter throughout mainly because I’m so used to American movie tropes. Here, a woman (Brie Larson) and her child (Jacob Tremblay) ultimately escape from the shed they’re locked in for years, a la Kimmy Schmidt. And yet, the movie never turns into Sleeping with the Enemy (he’s still out there!) or a courtroom procedural (you have to testify against him!) It simply tells the story of their escape and the psychological aftermath. Both Larson and Tremblay are very good here, even if, to be honest, I spent a lot of the shed period of the film rooting for the Babadook to show up.

25. Straight Outta Compton: It was a close race for this last spot between two reasonably satisfying music biopics featuring Paul Giamatti as an industry leech: Love and Mercy and this F. Gary Gray overview of the rise of hip-hop’s N.W.A. I went with Compton in the end since it has more of a social message and, even despite the serious whitewashing here, at least it doesn’t keep telling us in every. single. scene. that the protagonists are musical geniuses. (Yes, yes, Pet Sounds is amazing and ahead of its time, I get it.)

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

The Hateful Eight: Welp, Tarantino has disappeared up his own ass again. This overlong chamber piece purports to have big ideas about history and the Civil War, not to mention the stark chasm between the mythology surrounding American heroes and the inglorious basterds they in fact often were. But there’s no there there – Hateful isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Worse, Tarantino botches the actual story here. Eight ne’er-do-wells trapped in a lodge during snowstorm should’ve played out as a decent Agatha Christie mystery. Instead, the big twist is revealed in the opening credits, and so many suspects end up being part of the ultimate conspiracy that the narrative just feels like a cheat. Of course, QT is more interested in the dialogue than the plot anyway, but, even then, the profane, inane chatter gets old well before everybody start bleeding all over the floor. Maybe Tarantino should pull a Jackie Brown and do an adaptation of someone else’s work for a change.

WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN:

Fantastic Four: I mean, there’s no use to piling on at this late date, but Josh Trank’s FF reboot is just an out-and-out disaster. Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey — there are some very likable actors in this picture. And yet the movie feels both amateurishly-made and as if the studio suits took the keys away in a panic move mid-production. Whatever happened, this FF is so bad it makes the two Tim Story movies feel like modern Marvel…who should really get this property back already.

THE REST:

Worth On Demand-ing::

Best of Enemies: A good documentary on the 1968 Vidal-Buckley feuds, though, to be honest, watching them debate feels like watching the NBA before Bill Russell. You can tell me Buckley is brilliant over and over again, but it doesn’t make it true. Meritocracy killed the Firing Line star.

The Hunger James: Mockingjay, Part 2: Fine and admirably downbeat like the third book, this still seems like it should’ve been one movie with the first part, and that the franchise overstayed its welcome by a year.

Love and Mercy: Well-done, but see Compton, above.

Our Brand is Crisis: Rather preachy by the end, but I still enjoyed it.

Spy: Better than I expected, but, then again, Paul Feig has been admirably consistent.

Tomorrowland: Brad Bird sure does love Ayn Rand, doesn’t he? Still, worth seeing just for Hugh Laurie’s rant about contemporary pop culture.

Don’t Bother:

Aloha: The kerfuffle over Emma Stone’s casting aside, this film is inert from the first reel. What’s happened to Cameron Crowe?

Black Mass: The world doesn’t need any more gangster movies. This one adds nothing new to the mix. The best scene is the one from the trailers, with Depp’s Bulger bullying a Fed at the dinner table.

Dope: Tries too hard, and I found it cloying in the manner of Diablo Cody. Tho’ I did like the section where Bitcoin gets involved.

Fifty Shades of Gray: Terrible. Not even sexy. And yet still an improvement on the book! C’mon, America, get it together – France did this all better sixty years ago.

Jurassic World: Ho-hum. A by-the-numbers product of the reboot machine. But it’s competently made, so Episode IX has that going for it.

The Last Five Years: A not-very-good adaptation of the recent divorce musical. I was bored by it.

Spectre: This is a pretty good Bond movie for awhile, but it completely skips the rails once 007 and his most recent muse end up at that bus station in Africa. Just as Skyfall Bruce Wayne-ified Bond, now we get Blofeld as The Joker. Doesn’t work, doesn’t make any sense, is egregiously dumb.

Steve Jobs: Typical Sorkin walk-and-talk-fest, all in the service of getting to know a guy whose main claim to fame was marketing gimmickry. Not my cup of tea.

Terminator: Genisys: Kind of a disaster, was ruined by the trailers, and feels made for TV. Also needs more Matt Smith and J.K. Simmons. But at least it’s weird.

Trainwreck: LeBron James is a surprisingly good comic actor. This still wasn’t particularly funny however.

    A Good Year For:
  • 70’s Reboots (The Force Awakens, Creed)
  • Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant, Star Wars)

    A Bad Year For:
  • Timely End-of-Year Lists
  • Walks In the Woods (Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, The Revenant)

Unseen: 99 Homes, The Age of Adaline, American Ultra, Amy, Beasts of No Nation, Blackhat, Chappie, Child 44, Chi-Raq, Clouds of Sils Maria, Concussion, Cop Car, Daddy’s Home, The Danish Girl, The End of the Tour, Entourage, Far from the Madding Crowd, Furious 7, Get Hard, The Gift, The Good Dinosaur, Grandma, Hot Pursuit, Infinitely Polar Bear, Insidious Chapter 3, Insurgent, The Intern, In the Heart of the Sea, Irrational Man, Jem and the Holograms, Joy, Jupiter Ascending, Kill Me Three Times, Krampus, The Last Witch Hunter, The Lazarus Effect, The Look of Silence, Love the Coopers, Magic Mix XXL, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Maps to the Stars, Max, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Minions, Mortdecai, Mr. Holmes, No Escape, The Overnight, Paddington, Pan, Pawn Sacrifice, The Peanuts Movie, Pitch Perfect 2, Pixels, Point Break, Poltergeist, Rikki and the Flash, Rock the Kasbah, Run All Night, The Runner, San Andreas, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Secret in their Eyes, Self/Less, Sisters, Slow West, Southpaw, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Stonewall, Suffragette, Taken 3, Ted 2, Trumbo, Victor Frankenstein, The Visit, A Walk in the Woods, The Walk, War Room>, We Are Your Friends, Wild Tales, Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, Woman In Gold

(The Rest of) 2016: The Accountant, Assassin’s Creed, Bad Santa 2, Ben-Hur(?), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Collateral Beauty, The Cure for Wellness, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them, Finding Dory, The Founder, Ghostbusters, The Girl on the Train, Inferno, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jason Bourne, The Legend of Tarzan, Lion, The Magnificent Seven(?), A Monster Calls, Neighbors 2, The Nice Guys, Passengers, Pete’s Dragon, Snowden, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, Warcraft, War Dogs, X-Men: Apocalypse, and…

What will you do when they catch you? What will you do if they break you?”

Deeper Down the Portal.

“When Flemmer gets wind of this he teleports to the theater (freezing Charles Nelson Reillly in time along the way) and takes control of the Truman puppet during the second act of Equus…[It] starts juggling bowling pins while playing the psychiatrist and Malkovich has seizures, levitates and breathes fire while playing Alan Strang. The Truman puppet turns into a giant swan, which bursts into flames, and then from the ashes of the swan the corpse of the real Harry S Truman rises and implores the audience to vote for Mantini.”

As seen at io9, Devin Faraci reveals the originally-planned ending of Being John Malkovich, and it’s out there alright. This reads like the textbook definition of “Too Many Notes” — I much prefer the filmed version, and especially its haunting final moment.

The Oughts in Film: Part V (10-1).

We come to it at last, the great battle of our age. In a perfect world, I would’ve gotten these up before 2010 hit. (Then again, in a perfect world, we’d have had a health care bill last July and I’d be going to work by eco-friendly jetpack.) In any case, here they are. No cheating! Please be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4, before perusing the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
Part V: 10-1

[The Rest of the List: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11 | 10-1]
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009]

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

From the original review: “Holy Catastrophic Wreck of a City, Batman! After two viewings, I’m happy to report Christopher Nolan’s moody, sinister The Dark Knight was well worth the wait, and bears the high expectations set for it quite impressively. In fact, at two and a half hours (which zip along, and even feel somewhat truncated at times — see below), this sprawling Gotham crime saga is almost too much movie to take in the first time around…Most importantly, if Begins, as I said in 2005, was ‘the Batman movie that fans of the Dark Knight have been waiting for,’ this is undoubtedly the Joker movie we’ve all been hoping for as its companion…Heath Ledger here is a true force of nature, embodying to a tee the malevolent, frighteningly insane jester of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns.

From the year-end list: “Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.

And let’s be honest: The Joker’s had a good year in 2009 (and, at least so far, our “white knight” of 2008 has been looking a little more Two-Faced than some of us anticipated back then.) In a decade that saw more comic book movies than even comic book fans might have asked for, Christopher Nolan’s grim and relentlessly-paced crime noir was the pick of the litter. Yeah, some problems here persist — The movie is a little overstuffed in its third act, and Bale’s bat-rasp doesn’t get any less goofy. Still, even more than Batman Begins, this was a full-immersion Gotham experience.

As per Nolan’s usual m.o., The Dark Knight didn’t shy away from grappling with larger themes amid all its impressive action setpieces. For example, there’s much ado here about the compelling need to maintain convenient myths — be it that Harvey Dent is a saint, or that Rachel will come back to Bruce, or that, as the Joker puts it, when bad things do happen, “it’s all part of the plan.”

Or, to take another example, TDK dwells more substantially than most any other comic films out there on the heavy price of vigilantism. Consider the bad behavior “the Batman” engenders among gun-toting do-gooders in hockey pads. And once Gordon, Dent, and Bats bend one rule — extradition — to get the mob’s moneyman back from Hong Kong, it’s Katy bar the door, basically. Next thing you know, Bats is “burning down the jungle” to get his man, including setting up a warrantless wiretap operation over in the basement at Wayne Enterprises. After all, once you’ve decided to go outside the law — say, to fight crime in a big bat suit — where does it all stop?

Of course, in the end the most memorable aspect of TDK was Heath Ledger’s twisted, anarchic, and thoroughly menacing take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Mark Hamill’s cartoon work notwithstanding, this was the Killing Joke-type Joker I had wanted to see on-screen since before the original Burton Batman. Particularly as compared to Jack Nicholson’s indulgent performance back in the day, Ledger brought us a better class of criminal — I just wish he could’ve stuck around for more.

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

From the year-end list: “Amazing film. Nothing bad to say about it. Go now.

I haven’t seen Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in many years, so I can’t really vouch for how well its blend of wire-fu enhanced wuxia and ancient Middle Kingdom lore holds up in 2009. (I do know it’s better than Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Fearless, and Curse of the Golden Flower, to take several later examples of the genre.) Still, even coming as it did after The Matrix, also choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, Crouching Tiger was an absolute jaw-dropper. And unlike Quentin Tarantino in the uneven Kill Bills, Lee wisely let Yuen’s choreography provide the kinetic energy here, rather than opting for frenetic and choppy editing.

Speaking of QT, I’m sure he and countless other kung-fu aficionados out there could plausibly tell you that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nothing compared to Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Fist of Legend, or any number of other wuxia epics I haven’t seen. Point conceded. Nonetheless, I found Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a breathtaking movie experience. And, with Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi on hand, I’d put the acting (tho’ not necessarily the martial arts) talent here up against any possible contender.

8. Before Sunset (2004)

As with Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, I first saw Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset back-to-back on DVD a few years ago. And, while Before Sunrise didn’t do much for me (I’m guessing the problem is that I should have seen it back in 1995, when I was a more idealistic 21), I thought Before Sunset was stunningly good. (For this one, I was juuust right.)

Basically told in real-time one Paris afternoon, Before Sunset brings Jesse and Celine, the lovers of the first film, back together ten years after their fateful night in Vienna. As it turns out, one of them didn’t show up for the romantic rendez-vous made at the end of Sunrise, which complicates things from the start. And, with ten years passed, both are now a little older and wiser in the ways of love. And by that, I mean they’ve become damaged, compromised, brittle, and gun-shy around each other.

Nonetheless, they shared something once upon a time in Vienna, and so they spend the next ninety minutes together — getting up-to-date, confessing recent disappointments, licking old wounds. Life didn’t turn out at all like they figured…and why is that, honestly? When and where did everything start to slip, and what might’ve happened if they had followed through on the promise made, and broken, ten years earlier?

In a way, there isn’t much “movie” here at all — It’s just two old lovers, chatting for ninety minutes as they stroll about the City of Light. Still, Before Sunset is a powerful film if you let it work on you. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both engaging and excellent, and not a false note is struck as each, slowly and almost despite themselves, lets their guard down around the other again. Ok, the great in media res ending of Sunset may veer a bit toward wish-fulfillment mode. But, y’know, why the heck not? After all this time, they still believe. (In fact, the ending to Before Sunset is remarkably like another film coming up…soon.)

7. No Country for Old Men (2007)

From the original review: ““Seen the arrow on the doorpost, saying, ‘This land is condemned’…” Well, Bob, East Texas may seem rough, but trust me, West Texas is even worse. I’m always going to have a soft spot for Miller’s Crossing, and The Big Lebowski is its own strange and beautiful beast, but the Coen Brothers’ tense, brooding No Country for Old Men, which I caught this morning, is right up among their best work, and that is no small thing…[I]f you harbored any doubts about the Coens after their botched remake of The Ladykillers, fret not. The brothers are back in form.

From the year-end list: “[T]he Coens’ expertly-crafted No Country works as both a visceral exercise in dread and a sobering philosophical rumination on mortality and the nature of evil. (And in his chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem has crafted a movie villain for the ages.)…No Country for Old Men seems so seamless and fully formed, so judicious and economical in its storytelling, that it reminds me of Salieri’s line in Amadeus: ‘Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.’ A dark journey that throbs with a jagged pulse, No Country for Old Men is very close to the best film of the year, and — along with Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski — yet another masterpiece sprung from the Coens’ elegant and twisted hive-mind.

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.’” The Coens’ best film in a decade full of superior offerings, No Country for Old Men, as Matt Zoller Seitz eloquently argued in Salon last week, was a culmination of sorts for the brothers.

On its face, No Country is another sordid crime saga like Blood Simple or Fargo. But it’s also, like Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man, and much of the Coens’ oeuvre, a philosophical rumination on what propels people along the paths they choose. When Anton Chigurh flips a coin to decide Carla Jean’s fate, who, really, is doing the deciding? Chigurh or the coin? “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” “Well, I got here the same way the coin did.” Um, ok then. Is it Carla Jean, perhaps? After all, she could’ve picked tails. And, for that matter, Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn could never have taken the money in the first place. In fact, as soon as he does, he starts referring to himself as a dead man…So he knew the score.

But then again, as Tom Reagan asks in Miller’s Crossing, “Do you always know why you do things, Leo?” So maybe it was always out of their hands to begin with. After all, Ulysses Everett McGill’s travels through the South in O’Brother are dictated by the Fates. The Dude…The Dude abides. And Anton Chigurh himself takes a side-impact car crash like he takes anything else — It’s simply the way things are. As another character reminds us in No Country, “You can’t stop what’s comin’.” Or, to switch back to A Serious Man, that whirlwind’s getting closer, and you can’t stop it. So heed the words of the Jefferson Airplane, and find Somebody to Love…

The world of the Coens is all of a piece, and, for all its darkness, No Country is one of its purest expressions. (There’s a good bit of overlap in the world of Cormac McCarthy as well. No Country ends with Tommy Lee Jones talking about a dream he had, one in which his father carries fire into the dark. A father “carrying the fire” also figures very prominently in The Road.) In the Coens’ world, as in ours, the only predictable thing about life is that it is finite, so take things as they come and live it well. As Marge Gunderson puts it in Fargo, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.” Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you. Abide.

6. United 93 (2006)

From the original review: “Whether or not the world really needed a film about the events that took place on United Flight 93 the morning of September 11, 2001 is, I suppose, still an open question…That being said, having run the gauntlet earlier this week, I can now happily report that United 93 is magnificent, and arguably the best possible film that could’ve been made about this story. Both harrowing and humane, it’s the movie of the year so far.

From the year-end list: “A movie I originally had no interest in seeing, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docudrama of the fourth flight on September 11 captured the visceral shock of that dark day without once veering into exploitation or sentimentality…While 9/11 films of the future might offer more perspective on the origins and politics of those horrible hours, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or humane film emerging anytime soon about the day’s immediate events. A tragic triumph, United 93 is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

If ever there was a counterpoint to the cosmic shrug favored by Anton Chigurh, it can be found in Paul Greengrass’ harrowing docudrama United 93. Here, as we all know, ordinary Americans refused to simply accept the dismal hand fate dealt them. Inasmuch as they could, the passengers of United 93 turned to face events square on — They rose up, fought back, and, at the cost of their lives, saved the United States Capitol that Tuesday morning in September.

As I said at the time, I wasn’t entirely sure a film should be made about United 93, particularly so soon after the events at hand. But, if a movie was ever going to be made about that flight, let it be this one. With clarity, conviction, and compassion, Paul Greengrass manages first to bring the horror and chaos of the day back to life here, in a way that is as non-exploitative as possible. (Unlike Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which pretty much recreates the collapse from the inside, the initial impact on the towers here is shown merely as a blip on a radar screen.) And with the wave of fear and sheer confusion of that day vividly recreated — you can feel it gnawing at your gut at this point — Greengrass then lets the tale of United 93 unfold, so you really understand the dimensions of those passengers’ heroism that day, a heroism borne of survival instinct and a horrible recognition of the stakes involved.

It really is an amazing achievement how well Greengrass threaded the needle here. While being respectful of those lost that day, United 93 works as both art and history. It doesn’t go out of its way to demonize the terrorists or lionize the passengers — he just lets their respective actions that day speak for themselves. (The fateful words “Let’s roll,”, for example, are muttered almost as an aside, and are all the more powerful for it.) In short, what could’ve been a needless and even offensive film in other hands became, under Paul Greengrass, an outright classic.

5. In the Bedroom (2001)

From the year-end list: “I can’t remember another film this year that resonated so strongly. While I think last year’s award hoopla erred too far toward the histrionics of Sissy Spacek and away from the nuanced performance of Tom Wilkinson, the moral center of the film, In the Bedroom nevertheless powerfully depicts how ostensibly ‘good’ people eventually find themselves contemplating and acting out evil deeds. Plenty of complex and memorable scenes throughout, such as Wilkinson watching the distracted guests at his son’s funeral, or his pained attempt to forge a connection with Marisa Tomei, a woman he has nothing in common with except loss. A very, very good film that, if anyone has the stomach for a double dose of grief, bookends nicely with Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.

Ok, 2006’s Little Children was a bit of a dud. Still, In the Bedroom, based on the Andre Dubus short story “Killings,” was an extremely auspicious debut for writer-director Todd Field, previously best-known for his small role in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. With a strong sense of place — in this case, a small Maine lobster-town, probably not too far down the road from various Stephen King short stories — In the Bedroom is a powerful and morally complex study of how “good” people are, through rage, grief, and slowly curdling despair, eventually driven to dark deeds.

As I said above, Bedroom is a movie that resonates strongly in the details — say, Tom Wilkinson eyeing his son’s girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) with a combination of atta-boy pride and vague jealousy, or the nervous silence that descends around Wilkinson’s usual poker table after his son’s murder, or the way Wilkinson and Spacek tend to bury their grief — and their eventual plot — under mounds of everyday routine. More than most movies I can think of, In the Bedroom felt like a literary experience, one crafted by a filmmaker with a discerning, novelistic eye. So if any director can salvage something out of Cormac McCarthy’s heavy-handed Old West Grand Guignol, Blood Meridian, it might well be Field — It’s slated for release in 2011.

4. The New World (2005)

From the original review: “[A] masterfully crafted tale of discovery and transformation, passion and misunderstanding, intimacy and heartbreak, love and loss, and worlds Old and New. In short, it’s the best film of 2005.

From the year-end list: “A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel.

The best way to sum up Terrence Malick’s achievement with The New World is to go back to the Gatsby quote I used in the original review: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

That’s the extraordinary sensation at the center of Malick’s film. I’m still not quite sure how he pulled it off, but The New World feels like arriving on the threshold of some strange, danger-ridden, and wondrous alien planet called…America. (Put another way, before Pandora, there was Jamestown.) The New World is a First Contact story that somehow manages to maintain the momentous portent of this historic moment, when Old and New Worlds collided. And, perhaps as impressively, it does it without taking sides. Half the time we’re as inclined to side with Pocahontas and the sensible Powhatans, who, unlike the new, scurvy-ridden English arrivals, have the sense to prepare for winter (or at least to stop panning for non-existent gold when the frost sets in.) More than The Thin Red Line, more than Badlands, more even than Days of Heaven, I would say this is Malick’s magnum opus.

3. I’m Not There (2007)

From the original review: “[T]o be honest, it’s hard to imagine how this film plays to people who aren’t all that into Dylan…But, if you do have any fondness for Bob, oh my. The short review is: I loved it. Exploding the conventional music biopic into shimmering, impressionistic fragments, Todd Haynes has captured lightning in a bottle here. The movie is clearly a labor of love by and for Dylan fans, riddled with in-jokes, winks, and nods, and I found it thoughtful, funny, touching, and wonderful. Put simply…I’m Not There is my favorite film of the year. I can’t wait to see it again.

From the year-end list: “Admittedly, it was a wonderful confluence of my interests. Nevertheless, Todd Haynes’ postmodern celebration of Bob Dylan, brimming over with wit and vitality and as stirring, resonant, and universal as a well-picked G-C-D-Em progression, was far and away my favorite film experience of the year. It seems to have slipped in a lot of critics’ end-of-year lists…but so be it — You shouldn’t let other people get their kicks for you anyway. A heartfelt, multi-layered, six-sided puzzle about the many faces and voices of Dylan, l found I’m Not There both pleasingly cerebral and emotionally direct, and it’s a film I look forward to returning to in the years to come. Everyone knows he’s not a folk-singer.

I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spot some land…” Speaking of the New World, welcome to Bob Dylan’s Old, Weird America, here brought to life as the Halloweentown-like hamlet of Riddle, where Richard Gere hides out as the sixth and oldest Bob among us. Hiding, as always, right there in plain sight.

So, in retrospect, Todd Haynes’ ode to the many facets of Bob Dylan probably turned out to be more inside baseball-ish than I originally assumed. I’ve since watched the movie with various folks who couldn’t care less about the man, and they just found the whole enterprise weird, inscrutable, and mostly uninvolving. And, hey, if you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it. Still, for those of us who’ve imbibed the Dylan Kool-Aid (See also: J. Hoberman)…wow. Haynes’ movie is a lovely gift, and way more intriguing than any standard-issue biopic I can imagine.

Basically, I adore this film. Each fragment of Bob here feels perfectly cast — Marcus Carl Franklin as the impossibly talented wunderkind…and fake, Christian Bale as the take-no-prisoners true-believer with his finger-pointin’ songs, Heath Ledger as the womanizing romantic and survivor of Blood on the Tracks, Ben Whishaw as the know-it-all, Rimbaudian interviewee, Richard Gere as the John Wesley Harding, Old Weird America Bob, and, of course, Cate Blanchett as the electric Blonde on Blonde non-blonde. Not to mention Charlotte Gainsbourg as Suze/Sara, Bruce Greenwood as Mr. Jones, Julianne Moore’s riff on Joan Baez….it’s an embarrassment of riches here.

To me, I’m Not There is a fascinating, inspiring movie, one as much about Dylan’s primordial American landscape as it is about the man from Hibbing, Minnesota. In defiance of the usual staid biopic routine, Haynes managed to create an ambitious, open-ended film that does justice to both a notoriously mercurial artist and his impressive body of work, one that deserves its place on the shelf right next to Dylan’s music. So, yeah, I’m Not There may be preaching to the converted here somewhat. But as a member of the choir, I say press on, brother Haynes, press on.

2. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

From the original review (FotR): “Post-Film Update: They did it! They pulled it off!

From the extended edition review (FotR): “The Galadriel/Lothlorien stuff works much better now, with both Galadriel and Celeborn taking on the flavor of Tolkien’s tome. Moreover, all of the underutilized members of the Fellowship – Boromir, Gimli, Merry, Pippen, and even Samwise – are given more characterization. And it just seems to take longer to get from place to place, which might take away from the film’s dizzying pace, but definitely captures more of the feel of the book.

From the year-end list (FotR): “ Suffice to say, it was everything I had hoped for and more. NOT for fanboys and fangirls alone – In fact, given its epic breadth and cinematographic sweep, I’d put it up as a worthy successor to the works of David Lean. Mr. Lucas, the bar has been raised.

From the original review (TTT): “After two showings yesterday, I must say I’m delighted and (still) surprised at how wondrous this second chapter turned out…[O]verall a deliciously good second installment in the Tolkien trilogy. And, with the ends of both the Isengard and Cirith Ungol storylines to be packed in with all the multitudinous events of ROTK, I see no way the next one can clock in under 210 minutes. Should be grand!

From the extended edition review (TTT): “All in all, as with Fellowship, the extended Two Towers DVD includes a better, richer film loaded with tons of fascinating extras. If you’re a fan, I’m sure you’re getting it anyway…but if you’re a casual Rings admirer, the TTT:EE is just as worth picking up as the FOTR:EE.

From the year-end list (TTT): “No surprise here. Although Fellowship may have delivered a bigger emotional impact, Peter Jackson and co. handled massive expectations with aplomb and deftly translated J.R.R. Tolkien’s most unwieldy tome (Silmarillion notwithstanding) into the action-epic of the year.

From the original review (RotK): “Return of the King is an amazing conclusion to a trilogy that’s surpassed all expectations and, I say this without hyperbole, redefined the medium — From the technical breakthrough of Gollum to the seamless intertwining of jaw-dropping FX and character-driven emotion throughout, these films have expanded our vision of the possible and set a new standard for epic filmmaking.

From the extended edition review (RotK): “As with the FotR:EE and the TTT:EE, the Extended Edition is clearly a better film than the theatrical cut, with richer, denser characterizations, more Tolkien lore, and an improved sense of flow…All in all, RotK:EE, like its predecessors, is a wonderful gift to the fans of Tolkien and Middle Earth. And, although we have come now to the end, these three DVD sets (which look great on the shelf together) will now live on forever as a beacon of hope to fandom.

From the year-end list (RotK): “If you didn’t see this pick coming, welcome to GitM…Even in spite of the pacing problems mandated by the TE running time, Return of the King is a marvel, the perfect ending to this epic for the ages and easily the best third-movie in a series ever. There’s so many ways these films could’ve turned out atrociously…The fact that they didn’t — that they instead shattered all expectations while staying true to Tolkien’s vision — is a miracle of inestimable value. In the post-Star Wars age, when epics have been replaced by ‘blockbusters,’ and most event movies have been hollowed-out in advance by irony, excessive hype, dumbing-down, and sheer avarice, Peter Jackson has taught us to expect more from the cinema once again. Beyond all imagining, he took the ring all the way to Mordor and destroyed that sucker. So have fun on Kong, PJ, you’ve earned it.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky. Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone. Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die. One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

If you get any goosebumps while listening to J.R.R. Tolkien read the last paragraph, then, you were probably like me at the start of this decade: looking for any news you could find about the forthcoming (live-action) movie version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson of Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners, and Bad Taste. On January 12, 2001, you probably also filed into the earliest possible performance of New Line’s (very quality) Thirteen Days to catch the highly anticipated trilogy trailer.

And when December 19, 2001 at long last rolled around, you may too have buried your Phantom Menace butterflies deep down inside, took up what fanboy or fangirl standards you possessed (I myself wore the One Ring…on a chain, of course), and filed in to Fellowship to see what Jackson had come up with. At which point we — you and I both — were confronted with…blackness.

I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen…The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” And just about right then and there, it was clear: Holy Sh*t! They did it!

Yes, there would be gigantic battles soon thereafter, massive CGI-enhanced affairs to rival the most vivid fever dreams of Led Zeppelin. And, of course, there would be elves, dwarves, and right twee little ‘obbits. But the decision by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens to start their grand adventure with that sharp, Tolkienesque twinge of melancholy indicated right away that they had not been turned by the Nazgul of Hollywood, nor by the power of the effects at their disposal. Rather, they had stayed true to the sad and cautionary spirit of Tolkien’s tale.

Do I have quibbles about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? Of course. Fellowship of the Ring is just about perfect to me, with the small-but-notable exceptions of Weathertop and the Ford at Bruinen. (Aragorn just should not be able to take out five Nazgul like that. And — weirdly, given his horror background — PJ somehow missed the real darkness of Frodo’s turning after his Morgul wound: A growing part of him wants to go with the Riders. “Come back, come back…to Mordor we will take you.“)

And, as the story moves forward into The Two Towers and Return of the King, more minor problems emerge. (The “Choices of Master Samwise,” Denethor’s lack-of-palantir and the too-bright-by-half Shelob’s lair, for example.) Plus, however anti-climactic and un-filmic, a strong argument can be made that the excised Scouring of the Shire — nobody wins a war, the thing you fought for is destroyed by the fighting for it — is half the point of Tolkien’s tale…although I can see why it got left out.

But those quibbles aside, The Lord of the Rings was so much better than any of us really had any right to expect. In fact, the trilogy has so many secret weapons that it’s hard to enumerate them all. There’s the variegated natural beauty of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth, as photographed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. (I would argue that the most powerful moments in the Fellowship prologue are those accompanied by simple nature shots: “Darkness crept back into the forests of the world. Rumor grew of a Shadow in the East, whispers of a nameless fear…“)

There’s Ian McKellen’s turn as Gandalf, a performance that’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else pulling off as well. There’s the hauntingly beautiful music of Howard Shore, who was operating on another plane in these films. There was the art direction help by John Howe and Alan Lee — two artists who had spent their lives dreaming up Middle Earth. With PJ, RIchard Taylor, and the enterprising elves of WETA, they helped bring Tolkien’s words to life as never before. And, speaking of WETA, they and Andy Serkis brought us Gollum, a CGI-creation like none we had ever witnessed.

Ultimately, Lord of the Rings is the story of creatures, living long after the calamitous events that shaped their age, that now must face the End of their World. And, more than the calamity itself, the real story is about the characters’ various responses to this time of testing. PJ et al got this. More than most films of its ambition, its crafters understood that emotional scale was as important as visual grandeur — that, at its heart, the trilogy isn’t so much about wizards and warriors as it is about friendship, the nature of evil, and persevering in dark times. And because they got that right, The Lord of the Rings is an epic unmatched in fantasy cinema before or since.

A final footnote: While the tone and thematic weight of the story is quite different, one hopes the old gang — with their new Hobbit friend, Guillermo del Toro — can bring about similar magic when they tackle “the incident with the dragon” in short order. The road goes ever on…next stop, December 2011.

Speaking of which, here we are at the Crack of Doom at long last. So, to number 1 and the end of this Oughty Age…

1. The Hottie and the Nottie (2008)

A surprising heartwarming tale about body image and the perils of celebrity, The Hottie and the Nottie is…pretty obviously not on this list. To be honest, I never saw it. But I feel totally ok about presuming that it was an abomination in the eyes of the cinema Gods. Sorry, just seeing if anyone made it down this far. Ahem. #1 is in fact…

It’s coming…

It is…

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

From the original review: “I thought Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lived up to the hype and then some. One part Annie Hall, one part Sliding Doors, three parts Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine is an exceptionally strange take on the romantic comedy…(It probably helped that I tend to be a fan of almost all the folks at work here…Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah “Bad Frodo” Wood, and David Cross…Sunshine is a fun, thought-provoking look at relationships and memory.

From the year-end list: “The one true classic of 2004, Eternal Sunshine has only grown in my estimation since its initial release in March. (David Edelstein’s take on it as one of Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell‘s remarriage comedies is well worth reading.) A heartfelt examination of love, loss, and memory, Eternal Sunshine was also a strikingly adult take on romance and relationships…With great performances from a caged Jim Carrey and an electric Kate Winslet, the film managed to be both an earnest, passionate love story and a wistful paean to those person-shaped holes we all carry in our hearts and memories…(Why even bother? We need the eggs.)

Happy is the blameless vestal’s lot, the world forgetting by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.” That poem by “Pope Alexander” is the epigram of, in my humble opinion, the best movie of the decade. I first saw Eternal Sunshine, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s second collaboration after 2001’s smart but very uneven Human Nature, in the stress-case period just before my orals exams, so I didn’t give the film the review it deserved. (Although I tried to rectify that oversight some with 2004’s end-of-year list.) Suffice to say, Eternal Sunshine is a masterpiece — beautiful, heartfelt, incisive, and humane.

Like the best science fiction, Eternal Sunshine uses a sci-fi premise — a friendly neighborhood clinic that can erase bad relationships for you — to capture something elusive about our human condition, in this case about memory, love, and regret. Is it better to have loved and lost, or never to have loved at all? While various techs (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson) handle the details of the medical procedure at hand (and conduct their own affairs of the heart), that’s the question Jim Carrey’s Joel wrestles with as he remembers — one final time before the lights go off — his days and nights with Kate Winslet’s Clementine.

I’ll concede that certain dream-elements of Eternal Sunshine don’t quite work — the baby-Joel under the table and in-the-sink stuff, for example. And you could argue, and some do, that all of the techie shenanigans outside Joel’s mind are superfluous, although I enjoy them all the same (and, of course, they set up the final payoff involving the leaked tapes.) In fact, I tend to like the film’s ragged, organic, and hand-crafted feel all around.

Still, the movie’s real strength is its acute inquiry into the Ballad of Joel and Clementine (not to mention Joel-and-Clem, as a unit, and Joel’s in-head Clem to boot.) And this is where Eternal Sunshine is dead-on and so often devastating. Note the perfectly-selected bric-a-brac stuff — all the random, built-up detritus of a life together — that Joel must collect and hide away forever to get his mind wiped. Or his gloomy gus, self-lacerating inner monologue when he first meets Clem on the Montauk train. Consider the moments that signify the end is near — such as the usual jokes getting old, or that grisly conversation in the Chinese restaurant. And consider too the details Joel remembers and cherishes, like their trip to the frozen Charles, or that night they saw the elephants, or kissing under the sheets, or just Clem resting her cheek on his, one bright and lazy winter morning.

Given that the bottom eventually drops out, was it all worth it, in the end? Both Joel and Clementine have to answer that question with open eyes as Eternal Sunshine comes to a close. And this is where people tend to either find the movie dark and gloomy or legitimately romantic, in a way few movies are. I go the latter route — Joel and Clem know what’s 99.44% likely to happen this time: The same thing that happened last time. “I don’t see anything I don’t like about you.” “But you will! But you will, and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped, because that’s what happens with me.

And, yet, they take the plunge anyway, partly because the good times were good. Partly because love in the real world is never a meet-cute ’til the happily-ever-after anyway. It’s negotiation, conversation, laughter, and crumbling defenses, a give-and-take process of two people slowly falling together. And partly because maybe, just maybe, the bad times were not inevitable, and things will break a different way this time. Screw Anton Chigurh –There’s no fate but we make.

In all too many ways, from 9-11 to the Great Recession, the Oughts were ten years to forget. (And, on a personal level, it’s safe to say I spent much of the past decade glum about one break-up or another.) But would we be better off forgetting the Oughts completely? Surely, there were flecks of gold throughout these past ten years, however dismal and Dubyaesque the decade often turned out to be. Regardless of how things pan out at the macro level, whether for good or ill, there are always small moments to cherish, days to remember fondly, and films to treasure. In fact, I’ve put one hundred of my own here. And of those, for me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shone the brightest.

So, we finally made it. That’s the end of the list, folks, hope y’all enjoyed it. Fare thee well, gone away, there’s nothing left to say.

Hey, wait a sec, that reminds me

Special Award. The Wire (2002-2008)

From the series-finale review: “Pour a glass of Jamesons and give the devil (way down in the hole) his due: The Wire, a television show with a better claim than most to the title of “Best Ever” (and definitely the best show ever made about American politics), ends this evening…And you know the only thing better than having enjoyed all 60 hours of the show? Having never seen it at all. If that’s you, pick up Season 1 and start from the beginning — you’re in for a real treat.

I’m not about to do a Best of the Decade TV retrospective here at GitM, partly because I don’t feel like I watch enough TV to really judge. (Although, looking at other lists, it seems I caught a lot of the good stuff: Deadwood, Arrested Development, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, etc.) Besides, after this ridiculously extended movie project, I’ll be damned if I feel like going to the pop-culture-nostalgia well again just yet. Still, call it a 60-hour-movie if it helps square the circle, but The Wire must get its props.

With a journalist’s eye for detail and the gallows humor of good homicide po-lice, David Simon, Ed Burns, & co. used the rhythms of a cop show to hook us on an in-depth, comprehensive, and scathing diagnosis of life in the 21st century American body politic, as represented here by the failing city-state of Baltimore. Here, the Institutions are the new Gods, and people get crushed whenever they try to flout their dictates. In fact, people are worth less and less every day — Because, wherever you are in the game, there’s always someone else younger, hungrier, and/or less principled gunning for your spot.

That may sound heavy and edutainmentish, but it wasn’t. Week after week, The Wire was also the funniest hour-long on television. It built, slowly, gradually, inexorably — By the end of Season 1, I liked the show quite a bit but thought Deadwood probably edged it out in terms of quality. By the end of Season 3, I thought it was far and away the best show on television and was awestruck by its ambition. And we still had two more seasons to go.

David Simon and the gang eventually got so sick of being called “Dickensian” all the time that they turned it into a joke in Season 5: The Baltimore Sun is only interested in “the Dickensian aspect” of the streets, meaning simple, manageable problems that could be solved if, as per many Dickens tomes, only some highly convenient and thoroughly implausible Benefactor came out of nowhere to take the trouble.

Heh, point conceded. Still, as many others have noted, the term applies regardless. Just as Dickens brought industrial corruption and the plight of Victorian London’s social underclass to life at the close of the 19th century, The Wire is the piece of journalistic fiction generations one or two hundred years hence will look to to understand the urban landscape of the Oughts. And more likely than not, then as it is now, the game will still be the game. Always.

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
No-Frills Version

100. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.
99. SW: Revenge of the Sith.
98. Unbreakable.
97. Borat.
96. The Quiet American.
95. The Savages.
94. About a Boy.
93. The Matrix: Reloaded.
92. L’Auberge Espagnole.
91. King Kong.
90. Capote.
89. Star Trek.
88. Inside Man.
87. Munich.
86. Meet the Parents.
85. Sin City.
84. Bloody Sunday.
83. The Squid and thr Whale.
82. Primer.
81. American Psycho.
80. Brokeback Mountain.
79. Drag Me to Hell.
78. Michael Clayton.
77. The Fountain.
76. The Fog of War.
75. The Queen.
74. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
73. U2 3D.
72. Ocean’s 12.
71. In the Valley of Elah.
70. Boiler Room.
69. Jackass.
68. Secretary.
67. (500) Days of Summer.
66. Lord of War.
65 Bamboozled.
64. Master & Commander.
63. Mystic River.
62. HP IV: Goblet of Fire.
61. Iron Man.
60. Batman Begins.
59. Good Night, and Good Luck.
58. District 9.
57. Wonder Boys.
56. The Man Who Wasn’t There.
55. The Descent.
54. Ballets Russes.
53. Battle Royale/Infernal Affairs.
52. Zodiac.
51. 28 Weeks Later.
50. The Proposition.
49. The Bourne Trilogy.
48. The Prestige.
47. WALL-E.
46. The Royal Tenenbaums.
45. 24 Hour Party People/Control.
44. Coraline.
43. O Brother Where Art Thou?
42. Shaun of the Dead.
41. The Pianist.
40. Knocked Up.
39. Sideways.
38. Let the Right One In.
37. Intolerable Cruelty.
36. X-Men 2/Spiderman 2.
35. The Wrestler.
34. The Hurt Locker.
33. A Serious Man.
32. The Cooler.
31. Moon.
30. Requiem for a Dream.
29. Sexy Beast.
28. Milk.
27. Layer Cake.
26. Garden State.
25. Donnie Darko.
24. High Fidelity.
23. In the Mood for Love/2046.
22. The 25th Hour.
21. Mulholland Drive.
20. The Diving Bell & the Butterfly.
19. The Incredibles.
18. Memento.
17. In the Loop.
16. Traffic.
15. Lost in Translation.
14. Syriana.
13. Children of Men.
12. Letters from Iwo Jima.
11. The Lives of Others.
10. The Dark Knight.
9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
8. Before Sunset.
7. No Country for Old Men.
6. United 93.
5. In the Bedroom.
4. The New World.
3. I’m Not There.
2. Lord of the Rings.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Special Award. The Wire.

2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007]


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.


2. Milk: What with a former community organizer turned “hopemonger” being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.


3. The Wrestler: Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.


4. Let the Right One In: As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.


5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.


6. WALL-E: If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm. Ah well, bring on Up.


7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.


8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)


9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”


10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.


11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.


12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.


13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.


14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.


15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.


16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.


17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.


18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.


19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.


20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,

Hrm.

Whose Line is It, Anyway?

“People you love will turn their backs on you. You’ll lose your hair, your teeth, your knife will fall out of its sheath, but you still don’t like to leave before the end of the movie.” Couple that sentiment by Cake with a more famous passage from Shakespeare — “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” — and you’ve got a decently good starting point for approaching Charlie Kaufman’s wildly ambitious, often poignant, occasionally inscrutable, and ultimately somewhat uneven Synecdoche, New York. The film has been garnering breathless raves from some corners (Ebert is a particularly big fan), while other reputable critics have utterly loathed it. I’m closer to the positive camp — I don’t think the movie works at times, and it definitely takes some digressions that don’t cohere with everything else going on (the bizarre Hope Davis and “George C. Scott in Hardcore” tangents, for example)…but so does life, I guess, right?

At its start, we meet our protagonist, playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), near the end of the rope. He’s a struggling, mostly miserable theater director in Schenectady, New York, with an increasingly distant artist wife (Catherine Keener), a distracted. self-promoting therapist (Davis), and a rash of new and rather disturbing health problems. (In short, Hoffman is about as happy in Schenectady as he was in Buffalo.) The only bright spots in his day, basically, are his adorable, inquisitive daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and his half-hearted flirtations with Claire (Samantha Morton), the buxom girl who runs the box office, and Hazel (Michelle Williams), his lead actress in a youthful reimagining of Death of a Salesman. Depression, thoughts of (and worries about) infidelity, useless bouts of therapy, clinical hypochrondria, dwelling on mortality…If this all is starting to sound like a more expressionistic version of your standard-issue Woody Allen film so far, you’re in the right ballpark, at least for the first forty minutes or so. (And I mean that in the best way possible.)

But then, things get stranger. As Caden’s wife Adele lights off to Germany with Olive in tow, and Caden manages to lock down a MacArthur genius grant for his next project, Synecdoche begins to venture deeper into Kaufman territory. Caden relocates to NYC, manages to negotiate an impossibly-large warehouse as his new theater space, and begins work on his magnum opus, a play that — through hundreds of thespians acting out daily victories and defeats — tries to recreate, and thus comment on, every facet of our quotidian existence. But where does the play stop and life begin? Caden soon finds he needs to cast an actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself directing, as well as actresses to portray the various women in his life. (In a clever bit of casting, Emily Watson ends up playing faux-Morton, which makes perfect sense given that they’re respectively the Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney of indy British cinema.) And, later, when it seems individual identities might be getting in the way of the abstract universalism of the piece, well, maybe it’s time to just recast or rewrite Caden Cotard completely, don’t you think? It’s fine with him, to be honest — He’s gotten pretty damn sick of playing himself anyway.

I’ve told you before, this is not a play about dating, it’s about death,” argues one character in Synecdoche near its conclusion. Caden demurs. “‘It is a play about dating. It’s not just a play about death. It’s about everything: dating, earth, death, life, family, all that.‘” Well, to be honest, that may be part of the ultimate problem here. Kaufman’s exquisite earlier effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is pretty much just a movie about dating (ok, and love, and loss, and memory…but bear with me here), and it’s all the more focused and moving because of it.

By contrast, Synecdoche is kinda all over the place, and gets increasingly sprawling and messy as it goes on. The film is sometimes too clever by half and sometimes needlessly maudlin, and it barely keeps one foot on the ground in any event. Still, I definitely admired the degree of difficulty here, and applaud Kaufman for even attempting to say something profound and meaningful about the human condition, when most films just want me to feel satisfied that all the Act 2 loose ends were cleared up by Act 3. (Wow, those two crazy cats who met-cute in Act 1 got back together? Who woulda thunk it?) In that regard, I’m very glad I saw this movie — even if, as with, say, Primer, I’m pretty sure a lot of what was going on eluded me the first viewing — and I find my thoughts still returning to it several weeks later. While you may find Synecdoche boring and/or bewildering, and you may even end up hating it, I’m willing to bet dollars-to-donuts you haven’t seen a movie like it in quite some time, if ever.

Once (or Twice) in a Lifetime.

“A man only gets a couple of chances in life. It won’t be long before he’s sitting around wondering how he got to be second-rate.” Lots of choice stuff in today’s trailer bin: First up, President Josh Brolin braves pretzels, Poppa Bush, and enough JD to kill a small horse in this fun extended trailer for Oliver Stone’s W. (I can’t wait.) Elsewhere, Frank Miller borrows from Robert Rodriguez, who, of course, borrowed from him, to mine Will Eisner’s back-catalog in this short new teaser for The Spirit. (I’m still not sold.)

Also up recently, Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio forsake the Titanic to suffocate in the suburbs in the first trailer for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. (Ok, altho’ it looks Little Children-ish.) Tom Cruise leads an all-star team of character actors in a plot to kill Hitler in the second trailer for Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. And Brad Pitt moves from age to wisdom in the second trailer for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Not as haunting as the teaser, but close.) I gotta say, it’s good to finally hit the Oscar stretch for 2008 — I haven’t seen nearly enough movies this year.

Update: One more, via LMG: Philip Seymour Hoffman puts on a play — and gets stuck waiting in the wings — in the trailer for Charlie Kaufman’s much-anticipated Synecdoche, New York, also starring Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, and Michelle Williams.

Update 2: Ok, what with Marky Mark, Ludacris, Bridges the Lesser, the lousy whiteboy angst-metal, and the highly Matrix-derivative gun-fu and explosions throughout, the recent trailer for John Moore’s Max Payne looks Skinemax bad. But, then again, it does have The Wire‘s Jamie Hector (Marlo) briefly playing Exposition Guy with an island accent, so that’s enough for a link. Hey, I’m easily amused.

Twenty-Five for Fanboys.

EW lists the top 25 sci-fi offerings (in tv and film) of the past twenty-five years. Pretty arbitrary, really, but it includes Brazil (at #6), BSG (at #2 — these two should have switched places), Children of Men (#14), Eternal Sunshine (#17 — same problem), Aliens (#9), The Thing (#10), The X-Files (#4), Galaxy Quest (#24), and Blade Runner (#3), so it’s by no means a bad list. (Both Lost and Heroes should be replaced, however.) Just from what’s missing above, you can probably guess #1…can’t you, Mr. Anderson?

Five Hands for Kaufman’s Pen.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, and Tilda Swinton line up behind Charlie Kaufman’s next project, Synecdoche, New York. “Hoffman will play a theater director who ambitiously attempts to put on a play by creating a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse…Keener is set to play his first wife, Williams will play his second wife, Morton will appear as his sometime lover, and Swinton will portray Keener’s best friend and the dubious mentor to the daughter of Hoffman and Keener’s characters.

Eternal Crossing of the Spotless Fink.

In between film projects, the Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman have teamed up for Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear, a pair of radio plays recently performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The cast includes Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, and Philip Seymour Hoffman for the Coen’s “Sawbones,” and Meryl Streep, Hope Davis, and Peter Dinklage (taking time off from Lassie, I presume) in Kaufman’s “Hope Leaves the Theater.” (These apparently were also performed in Brooklyn two weeks ago, but tickets were hard to come by.)

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