A very happy 2014 to you and yours. As always, there are a few 2013 movies I’d still like to catch up on (The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, The Grandmaster, Short Term 12) and a few others waiting to be watched on the Netflix machine (Warm Bodies, Kon-Tiki, Berberian Sound Studio.) Nonetheless, a new year means it’s time for the annual GitM movie round-up, and 2013 isn’t getting any closer in the rear-view.
Like last year, I’ve gone on longer than usual to make up for the lack of reviews throughout the year. Overall, I’d say that, in spite of a disconcertingly bland summer full of films that needed major rewrites, 2013 ended up yielding a surprisingly bumper crop at the movies, as good as last year’s fare and arguably the deepest year since 2007. So without further ado, let’s get to the…
1. 12 Years a Slave: As someone who was underwhelmed by Hunger and outright hated Shame, I was as surprised as anyone that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave turned out to be the movie of the year. But as it happened, McQueen’s penchant for cold, painterly compositions of suffering and depravity was a perfect fit for this harrowing descent into America’s peculiar institution.
With all due respect to Michael Fassbender’s turn as the dissolute sadist Edwin Epps, the better performances in 12 Years a Slave are underplayed. As Solomon Northrop, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who first showed he had star wattage to spare ten years ago in Dirty Pretty Things — obviously carries the weight of the film, and he manages to subtly convey his character’s determination losing out to despair. Sarah Paulson’s work may not be as showy here as that of the Bender of Fass, but she is just as effective at illustrating the way antebellum slavery warped the mindset of the master class. (As the Cumber of Batch vignette points out, even a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant.)
And, in a powerful cameo, moving about and berating his room of wares with a heartless dispatch, Paul Giamatti chillingly captures the cruelty and obscenity of the slave trade, in which children become commodities and family ties a nuisance to be overcome. (If the film’s producer, Brad Pitt, really wanted to make a bold statement, he’d have switched roles with Giamatti — As it is, his white savior turn here is the only real misstep in the movie.)
Obviously, this film is a hard watch at times, but, doggone it, it should be. After decades of dancing around the topic in anything from Gone with the Wind to Gods and Generals — even last year’s revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, mitigated the real horrors of slavery by giving its title character so much agency — 12 Years a Slave offers a steady, unblinking gaze at the underbelly of our republic, and underscores the grim reality so often obscured by our founding fictions: Only a century and a half ago, a great and terrible darkness festered in our erstwhile land of liberty, and its ramifications did not just disappear at Appomattox. If the audience ends up feeling like Pippen holding the palantir at more than a few moments throughout this tale, well that’s the point. Our past is complicated, and it’s time we did a better job of recognizing it.
2. Before Midnight: Speaking of truths that hurt, Richard Linklater’s third stanza in the ballad of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) captures another dark and fundamental one: However potent at first, love can be a tricky business after awhile. As I said in the Best of the Oughts list (where Before Sunset clocked in at #8), I can take or leave Before Sunrise — I saw it at an age when I was already far too cynical for it — but adored Before Sunset, and that’s still probably my favorite of the three. But Midnight is right up there, and I really admire Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy’s decision to take us into colder, murkier waters this time.
True, the first hour of this movie can seem a little unfocused: I didn’t mind spending all that time at a dinner party with characters we’ve never met, but it made the film feel a bit more like Linklater’s Slacker or Waking Life, both of which are given to a lot of random philosophical musing at the expense of forward momentum. But when Jesse and Celine go off for a walk by themselves, the movie starts to click again. And the last forty minutes or so are absolutely electric, as [spoiler] our two former lovebirds, ostensibly spending a romantic evening at a couple’s hotel, instead find themselves engaged in a knock-down, drag-out Airing of the Grievances that will ring all-too-true to anyone’s who ever been in a long-term relationship, on the rocks or otherwise.
Instead of giving us anything like a feel-good rom-com this time around (and seemingly much to the horror of some of the dumbstruck-looking couples at my showing…oof, Date Night Fail) — Before Midnight opts for a much more realistic and unflinching portrayal of a romance that, over the years, has accumulated its share of fractures, bruises, and silences. I’m not sure where the story goes from here, but definitely count me in for Before Noon in 2022.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly the river to the one that I love.” Given the confluence of the Coens and the Sixties folk revival here, this always seemed like a good bet to be one of my top movies of the year. As it happened, I did really like Llewyn Davis — but it’s also both a pricklier and jauntier film than I originally expected.
Even by Coen standards, the film has very little plot to speak of. We just follow Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, like Ejiofor another actor who’s been turning in excellent character work over the years) a folk singer as talented as he is unlucky and self-defeating, as he shambles around New York — playing gigs at the Gaslight, herding cats, and generally trying to stay afloat in the pre-Dylan scene. This is partly like the story of Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography the Coens began with, and partly another artist-adrift-in-the-world-of-commerce story akin to Barton Fink — except, this time, Llewyn probably actually deserves to make it.
Especially in the random escapade to Chicago in the middle of the film, you get the sense that the Coens had no real interest in telling a traditional story here. Carey Mulligan (who, as it happens, played Oscar Isaac’s wife in Drive) starts out seeming like an important character and then just fades into that beautifully nostalgic freewheelin’ mist that permeates the look of the film. Other actors — Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham — appear for a few bars and move on.
I suppose the aimlessness of Llewyn could rankle. (One of my gradual school friends has a great theory about this – Llewyn Davis is folk-song as movie, with a deliberately elliptical structure and repeated refrains.) But I myself loved the look and feel of this film (the quality folk renditions don’t hurt either), and I appreciated its basic folk-song conceit: Sometimes, Hard Times are just a fact of life. If Llewyn was operating only a year or two later, he’d be a beneficiary of the Dylan boom (or, at the very least, a Phil Ochs type figure.) As it is, he’s just a unlucky soul, doing what he does best even while likely going under for the final time. I can’t wait to see this movie again, and to see what the Coens have up their sleeves next.
4. The World’s End: In a summer of way too many dumb and bloated duds, Edgar Wright’s third chapter in the Cornetto Trilogy was very welcome counter-programming, and a smart, winsome night out with the lads. Of course, any time you have pros like Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy working in your ensemble, the final product should come out rather droll indeed. Still, this was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, and props to Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for crafting a film that felt fresh even while mining similar territory as their previous installments, Shaun of the Dead (folks being frightfully British in the face of robot/zombie hordes) and Hot Fuzz (strange things afoot, and the elders up to no good, in a wee English village.)
5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: At last, the Incident with the Dragon. This is actually the lowest any of PJ’s Middle Earth films have ever been on a year-end list, which is partly due to the strength of the movies already mentioned, and partly because this was the first time in five films that I felt like Jackson et al have lost the thread a bit.
Bilbo facing Smaug in a Game of Wits is the climactic confrontation of this entire story, but here its impact is diminished considerably by (a) the movie suddenly cutting to Legolas squaring off against a made-up end-boss Orc and (b) a long and contrived scheme, right out of Alien 3, whereby Thorin and the dwarves try to confuse the Old Wyrm with a large golden statue of Durin. This plan not only robs Smaug of menace by making him seem like a blind idiot. (Smaug the Terrible, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, can’t manage to squash a single measly dwarf?) It’s another setpiece, not unlike the barrel ride earlier in the film and the escape from the goblin tunnels in An Unexpected Journey, where video game physics have completely taken hold of the picture. (It’s “The Desolation of Mario,” as one wag put it.)
So why is this still way up at #5? Well, I still relish being in Middle Earth, the occasional cartoony antics notwithstanding, and there’s a lot to like here, from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo to the hallucinations and spiders of Mirkwood to Gandalf at Dol Guldur to the character design of Benny CumberSmaug. I could have done without the Team Legolas/Team Kili stuff, but Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is otherwise a solid addition to the saga. And I just have a soft spot for these films — here’s hoping the third film doesn’t drift too far afield into fan fiction.
6. Gravity: [Spoilers in this review] Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is up this high because it (along with Smaug) was the purest eye candy of the year — just a breathtakingly beautiful film at times, and well worth the extra price for IMAX 3D. (It’s also easily the best of the three space-mission-gone-wrong movies in 2013, though Europa Report isn’t half-bad.)
Unfortunately Gravity was also, let’s face it, schmaltzy as all hell — I wish Cuaron had had enough trust in his story and audience to forego, for example, cornball conversations about Bullock’s lost kid. And, even notwithstanding how close all the space stations are to each other here (a plot point I can forgive even though it too is absurd), the ultimate fate of Clooney’s endlessly jabbering astronaut is just a gross violation of basic physics. (And moving from the impossible to the improbable, I’d have been less annoyed by the end if Bullock had splashed down in the middle of nowhere, instead of twenty feet from paradise.)
All that being said, did I mention this film is beautiful? The space walk stuff alone would put it in the top ten.
7. All is Lost: Still, I really wish Gravity had taken a few pages from another memorable survivor story of 2013, J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. (Although to be fair, sailors apparently have gripes about this one also.) We never really find out anything about Robert Redford’s backstory in this movie, except that he’s 1%’er enough to own a spiffy yacht and curmudgeonly enough to be sailing it alone in the Indian Ocean. And, after a scene-setting monologue at the beginning, Redford (“Our Man”) barely says a word in this movie. Instead, his character is defined entirely by his actions, and the film’s considerable suspense comes. not from lathering on excess sentimentality like a paste, but merely from seeing a fellow human in a very bad situation, and witnessing an almost primal retelling of the Old Man and the Sea.
8. American Hustle: I feel like, the significantly overpraised Silver Linings Playbooks notwithstanding, David O. Russell’s movies usually come in around the 7 or 8 spot every year, and American Hustle is no exception. Well-made, well-acted, well-written, Hustle is an engaging and entertaining Who’s-Conning-Who story of New Jersey grifters, set against the real-life story of Abscam and a healthy smattering of Seventies glitz. With strong work across the board (and from Christian Bale and Amy Adams in particular), Hustle also happens to contain the first honest-to-goodness performance I’ve seen from Robert DeNiro since…I dunno, Casino? In any case, well worth seeing.
9. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass had also a mulligan with Green Zone, but he’s another director who can be reliably trusted to deliver quality, and Captain Phillips — give or take ten clunky and moralizing minutes at the beginning — is no exception. Like the more resonant United 93, this is another gripping You Are There dramatization of a recent Bad Day on Earth, and like that earlier film, Greengrass makes sure to humanize and contextualize the bad guys — this time, the Somali pirates who are basically plying the only trade available to them.
As per De Niro above, it’s also good to see Tom Hanks giving a real performance here, and not just phoning it in or coasting on his star power. Apparently, he attributes it to his recent experience in last year’s Cloud Atlas, which marks another way that film, an interesting failure, is underappreciated.
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: He’s not a Russell or a Greengrass, but Francis Lawrence is another director who tends to make genre films — for example, I am Legend and Constantine — that are better than you’d expect them to be. And despite the fact that he’s operating from a more unwieldy book — I have no idea how they’re going to wrest two more blockbuster films out of Collins’ strange, admirably downbeat Mockingjay — Lawrence’s Catching Fire is a more immersive experience than the first Hunger Games movie, which, all apologies to Gary Ross, felt rote and by-the-numbers.
Did I love Catching Fire? No, not really – It hit at about the level of the later Harry Potter films. But much like the movie I have in the “most unfairly maligned” box below, I think you’d be hard-pressed to craft a better film from the source material, particularly given the constraint of continuing with the same actors from the first one. (I know Jennifer Lawrence is America’s sweetheart or whatever, but imho she’s still miscast here. Just because she was in Winter’s Bone doesn’t make her a perfect Katniss.) And, in any event, it’s great fun to see pros like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer work their way into the Panem proceedings.
11. Nebraska: Like the next film on this list, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is an auteur movie I admired but didn’t necessarily engage with. This all feels a bit like deja vu, partly because of similarly-themed road trips like The Straight Story, but more because Payne seems to be covering a lot of the same ground here that he did in About Schmidt, from June Squibb not taking any guff to the goofy, to the point of being uncharitable, extended family of the main character. (Jack Nicholson had to contend with Dermot Mulroney and his mullet; Now it’s Bruce Dern and Will Forte versus two greedy ex-jailbird twins. There’s also elements of The Descendants here, with Forte and George Clooney both discovering secrets about their loved ones after they become their caretakers.)
Still, with its storefront facades crumbling in luscious black-and-white, Nebraska works best as a gentle and elegaic reflection on the passing of a certain kind of small-town, 20th century America — this is probably the most sympathetic argument you’ll find for the Tea Party vision of the USA — and a reminder, a la “That Was Your Mother”, that your parents and grandparents had their own lives that you, as their kids, will never fully “get.” And if nothing else, it’s nice to see Bruce Dern, who’s put in fifty years of solid character work now, get this kind of extended curtain call.
12. Her: I admittedly had stratospheric hopes for Spike Jonze’ Her, which has been billed as a direct descendant of my favorite movie of last decade, Eternal Sunshine. And, well, I really liked the near-future sheen of the production — its light satire of current media, its slightly-out-of-step fashions, and especially its gorgeous hybrid Los Angeles-Shanghai cityscape. This is an artful and mostly well-thought-out piece of science fiction, made with delicacy and driven by ideas rather than special effects, and that’s always welcome.
But as a love story? Er….not so much. Put aside the criticism that this is a movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in love with a box, although I can definitely see why that’d be a dealkiller for some. Even if you accept the science fiction here, and allow that Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is her own free-thinking entity, the vision of love being offered here is basically one never-ending phone call, where both people are constantly talking about their feelings. That’s true love? That…sounds exhausting. (Ask anyone I’ve ever dated – I’m not one for the phone. I text or e-mail.)
Not to say that true romance has to have a physical component, although in my experience it definitely helps. (And speaking of Samantha constantly lamenting her lack of physical form, I call shenanigans on the idea that civilization will somehow develop true AI before creepy love robots, but I digress.) To me, romance is also about simply experiencing things together — movies, music, dinner, travel, in-jokes. I suppose there’s some of that in Her – Theodore and his OS go to the beach and whatnot, but much more often it just seems to be a constant state-of-the-relationship phone call. No thanks.
Put another way, Her ends up being a lot like the fake letters that Theodore (rather improbably) writes for a living: An impeccably crafted simulacrum of romantic connection, Her relies on constant professions of feeling to cover up the fact that it’s really just a well-made artifice.
13. Spring Breakers: Along with survival stories and harrowing space missions, another trend of 2013 were films that used either Youths Gone Wild and/or beach-ready hardbodies as a metaphor for the contemporary (and sickly) American Dream: See, for example, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Don Jon. Of these, the best was, strangely enough, Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory bacchanal, Spring Breakers — a movie that sticks in your head like gum on your shoe.
Spring Breakers is undoubtedly inchoate and repetitive, and it can’t seem to decide if it wants to revel in trashiness, send it up, or go dumpster-diving for the lost innocence underneath. (Watch James Franco and his muses croon Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and tell me what you think.) But there still seems to be a method to the madness. Basically, this is Fear and Loathing in St. Petersburg, a savage and surreal journey into one of America’s playgrounds of frenetic excess, and James Franco is our Raoul Duke. “Spreng brayyke, Spreng brAYYke, forever.”
14. Upstream Color: And speaking of hallucinatory and surreal journeys, Shane Carruth returned from his extended post-Primer hiatus to bring us this bizarre, intermittently captivating disquisition on love in the time of possession by parasites and animal-human hybrids. (Hey, if Joaquin Phoenix can adore an iPhone, why can’t Amy Seimetz and Carruth find fulfillment in their respective ManBearPigs?)
Like Primer, Upstream Color is mostly inscrutable the first time around — if it helps, I can tell you mindworms, acoustics, and pig daemons are involved — and I can see people just finding it pretentious and annoying. But, for what it’s worth, I found segments of Upstream Color evocative and entrancing, even if I had no clue what was going on. Sometimes you just go along for the ride.
15. Prisoners: [Spoilers in this review] It’s been awhile — Sunshine, maybe? — since I’ve seen an otherwise excellent movie crash and burn so miserably in the last reel like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. For the first two hours or so, this film — a story of missing children and their bereft parents, who have their eye on an all-too-likely suspect — is a powerful police procedural and grim disquisition on vigilantism that burns slowly and intensely. If it had ended earlier (and differently), Prisoners would be a top 10 film this year, and could plausibly be mentioned in the same conversation as, say, Mystic River, Zodiac, and even In the Bedroom.
That being said, I got a bad feeling when, late in the movie, suitcases full of snakes suddenly enter the investigation. And, sure enough, soon thereafter, an individual who had only been conspicuously cast up to that point (a la Stellan Skarsgard in the Dragon Tattoo remake) suddenly starts chewing scenery like one of the redneck family from The X-Files, and what had seemed a thoughtful exercise about the agony of un-knowing suddenly becomes a half-baked retread of The Vanishing. Alas, until that last-minute lurch, Prisoners was quite a good film, with Hugh Jackman particularly memorable as a father whose berserker rage would make Wolverine blanch.
16. Iron Man 3: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, which came out the first week of May, looks like an even better film in retrospect, given how many tentpoles stumbled later in the summer. While not as engaging as 2012’s The Avengers, it’s clearly an improvement on Tony Stark’s botched second adventure, and closer to the quality of the first one. And while I don’t want to spoil the (now contentious in fanboy circles) big twist, I actually loved being blindsided by it: Black basically used comic book folks’ foreknowledge against us, and, under everyone’s noses, pulled off a clever switcheroo that also works as very dark political satire. Well-played.
17. The Great Gatsby: Well, to be fair, F. Scott Fitzgerald did call it “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” In 3D, Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed, overlong adaptation of The Great Gatsby is like too-rich chocolate cake — It’s fun for awhile, until you start to feel a little sickly. But that’s also sort of the point of the book, so this adaptation also works in a meta-fashion. In any event, I quite enjoyed this ludicrously busy film for about 45 minutes or so, but began to check out when Gatsby began to court Daisy Buchanan in earnest, and there was still another hour or so to go. But hey, if you’re going to overshoot the mark, why not overshoot it gloriously? Gatsby would be proud.
18. Kill Your Darlings: A.K.A. The Beats: Origins: Rise of Ginsburg, in the modern-day movie parlance. In any event, this New York City coming-of-age story about Allen Ginsburg’s Columbia days made for a solid afternoon arthouse matinee, with quality performances by Daniel Radcliffe (clearly trying, and mostly succeeding, to shake Harry Potter), Ben Foster (doing an uncanny William Burroughs impression), Jack Huston (playing Kerouac with — strangely for Boardwalk Empire viewers — his entire face), and Michael C. Hall. (David Cross, who played a later version of the poet in I’m Not There, also shows up to pass the Ginsburg baton.) I have to say, tho: After only a handful of movies (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), I find Dane DeHaan’s schtick wearing thin. Your mileage may vary.
19. Enough Said: If you’re looking for a light entertainment, Nicole Holofcenter’s amiable romantic comedy — about a masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who discovers that her new best friend (Catherine Keener) and new boyfriend (James Gandolfini) used to be married to each other — is a small, well-observed, and worthwhile film in the key of The Kids Are All Right. Fair warning, tho’: Some of the gentle ribbing about Gandolfini’s weight here takes on a morbid cast with his recent passing. (Pro-tip: If Enough Said whets your appetite for more Gandolfini comedy, there’s always the estimable In the Loop.)
20. A Single Shot: Much like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, an aura of inexorable doom hangs over this backcountry noir by David Rosenthal, which involves hunter Sam Rockwell accidentally firing at the wrong target and unearthing that inevitable albatross, a giant bag of money. Rockwell — invariably an appealing presence in good films and bad (alas, he had a terrible movie in 2013, which I’ll get to in a bit) — holds the screen even as a very reticent woodsman. But the real pleasure of A Single Shot is that it eventually amounts to an actor’s workshop for some very quality character actors, including Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, and Jason Isaacs.
21. Dallas Buyers Club: Deep in the heart of Texas, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lose weight and buck admirably for Oscars in the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good-ole-boy turned AIDS activist, also with Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, and Griffin Dunne. (Griffin Dunne!) There’s not much to say about this one: It’s an admirable production, and McConaughey and Leto both give 110% and deserve their likely Oscar nods. But this film still has trouble shaking that Oscar-baity, overly earnest biopic feel. And as someone who generally thinks the FDA should be assuring the safety of medical drugs, I had issues with some of the anti-Big Guvmint grandstanding here.
22. Frances Ha: At first, this story of a young woman in Brooklyn (Greta Gerwig) and her attempts to both make it in modern dance and stay besties with her friend Sophia (Mickey Sumner) feels like another variation on HBO’s Girls, a show whose self-indulgence and first-world-problems whining I quickly grew bored with. (Adam Driver showing up here doesn’t help with the differentiation.) But Frances soon establishes its own quirky rhythm, and it’s refreshing, after Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg, to see Noah Baumbach telling the story of a likable New Yorker for a change.
23. Computer Chess: Another quirky, dialogue-driven black-and-white comedy here for the later going, this small-scale indie by “Mumblecore Master” Andrew Bujalski follows a bevy of programmers — the only recognizable one being Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, all grown up — as they lug their Tandys and Commodores to a weekend computer chess tournament in the early 1980’s, hoping to show off the best AI, impress each other, and maybe craft a little bit of the future. Like Upstream Color, this occasionally absurdist tale is more about tone than anything else, but I liked its home-coded, DIY aesthetic and standing-on-the-threshold-of-tomorrow unease.
24. This is the End: If I have to pick a pack of dudebros to await the end the world with, I’d rather hang with Simon Pegg and the lads up above at spot #4 than find myself at the Franco residence, hiding out from the Rapture with the likes of Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride. But to give credit where due, Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic raunchfest will leave no boundary of good taste uncrossed to make you laugh, and they’ve brought along any number of friends and neighbors willing to be involved in a ridiculous cameo or three.
25. World War Z: As always, the last spot here could go to a number of different films, from the admirably strange Chan-Wook Park Southern gothic Stoker to the better-than-expected James Mangold episode of The Wolverine. I went with World War Z, since — despite all the terrible hype surrounding this project beforehand — this Marc Forster/Brad Pitt blockbuster actually turned out to be not-half-bad. It wasn’t much like the book, of course, and I could’ve done without the seemingly grafted-on Harrison Ford-style “My wife! My family!” phone calls here and there. Still, I liked that the movie sprinkled a few moments of quiet creepiness in with the action setpieces — say, in North Korea with David Morse and James Badge Dale, or in Scotland with, er, WHO Doctor…Who. So all in all, no harm, no foul. I just wish they’d sprung for the original bizarro ending.
Star Trek: Into Darkness: The hackadocious ST:ID has already been good and thoroughly eviscerated by the folks at Io9, so I’ll just repost what I said when I posted that worthy link: “The first one had a number of egregious plot holes too, of course, but it at least had a charming cast and the benefit of novelty. The charming cast remains, but since Into Darkness is otherwise just a lousy and ultimately insulting remix of Wrath of Khan with a frisson of 9/11, the extreme dumbness here is even more aggravating.” As one wag put it soon after this disaster, maybe in the rebooted universe it’s the even movies that are terrible.
Man of Steel: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was nowhere near as aggressively insulting as Into Darkness, but it suffers from similar issues — namely a really sloppy script and far too much 9/11ness throughout. I thought Henry Cavill made for a superlative Superman (and I’m not just saying that because he’s a fellow Warcraft enthusiast), but really, what was going on in the writing department? Why does Russell Crowe keep popping up like Basil Exposition? Why was Amy Adams taken up to the Krypton ship? And, even notwithstanding the extremely out-of-character decision Kal-El makes here near the end, why is Superman trying to destroy Metropolis? (Zack Snyder gave his answer for the ridiculous collateral damage here – I don’t think it washes.)
To the Wonder: Oof, To the Wonder. It’s great to see Terence Malick becoming a more productive filmmaker in his later years — after making four movies between 1973 and 2005, he’s now made two films the past two years (the other being The Tree of Life) and has two more in the can. Unfortunately, to my eyes To the Wonder — ostensibly the story of Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams’ romantic issues with Ben Affleck (who, other than his back and shoulders, was seemingly left on the cutting room floor) — was an incoherent, disjointed mess that came across like somebody doing a parody of a Malick film. Here’s hoping for better from Knight of Cups.
Elysium: [Spoilers in this review] So it seems here like Neil Blomkamp had a few ideas for a decent science fiction story — The few Haves live in a deluxe orbital paradise in the sky and all enjoy free health care, the many Have-Nots are stuck on a dusty, windswept Earth, have no health care at all, and are always trying to break in to said orbital Nirvana — but no actual plot to speak of.
As a result, Elysium, Blomkamp’s calamitous sophomore effort after the promising District 9, was another movie in a summer full of them that made absolutely no sense at all. Since these magical cure-all health care machines seem to operate without cost, why weren’t a few already sent down to Earth long ago? And if that MacGuffin-y station reboot code is so all-powerful, why didn’t ruthless businessman William Fichtner, who was carrying it around the first third of the movie, just depose Jodie Foster (who’s embarrassing here) and make himself Emperor of Elysium? Makes. No. Sense.
The Last Days on Mars: It’s a bit unfair to include this among the “Most Disappointing,” because this is basically just a bad indie film you might find on Syfy — Nobody was waiting in line at midnight to see The Last Days On Mars. Still, it’s depressing to see the Murderer’s Row of talent assembled for this science-fiction tale — Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Liev Schreiber — and then have the hook turn out only to be The Walking Dead on Mars. Everyone here, and especially Williams and Koteas, deserves better.
The Way, Way Back: In the opening moments of this glib, trite Cape Cod coming-of-age story, Mom’s mean new boyfriend (Steve Carell, playing against type) berates a sullen teenager (Liam James) on the drive out to summer vacation, telling him that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s only a 3. Well, that’s about right for this painfully clunky movie as well, which would just be an inoffensive bore if it wasn’t weirdly being hailed in some corners as an under–appreciated2013 gem.
Honestly, it is bewildering to me that this film received such positive attention. All the saccharine dollops of It Gets Better here can’t obscure the fact that, for two uninvolving hours, we’re stuck on the Cape with a whiny, passive protagonist — who never does anything to suggest that Carell, however dickishly, didn’t have him dead-to-rights in the first reel — and a bunch of hackneyed, one-dimensional characters out of an ABC afterschool special.
Why does the Girl Next Door (AnnaSophia Robb) seem to be interested in our hero? Why does Local Cool Guy Sam Rockwell (and you know it’s a stinker when even Rockwell can’t save your flick) take him under his wing? Well, mainly because these are the sorts of things that happen in movies like these. If you’re hankering for a sweet coming-of-age “That One Summer It All Changed” type movie, rent Adventureland (or, if it has to be on the Cape, rent One Crazy Summer). But The Way, Way, Back is Not, Not It.
Stories We Tell: I’ll tread lightly here because I like Sarah Polley as both an actress and director (Take This Waltz was #17 last year), and I’m still interested in whatever she’s up to next. Suffice to say, I could never get over the inherent narcissism of this much-heralded documentary, about Polley slowly discovering that her father (actor Michael Polley, whom I knew from Slings & Arrows) may or may not in fact be her father. For some unfathomable reason (other than, I suppose, a documentary could be made), Polley chooses to interrogate every single one of her family members — except her mother, a flighty soul who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 — about this potential revelation, on camera. Erm…ok.
I just don’t get it. It’d be one thing if the House of Polley’s deep dark secret was something more interesting or world-historical than illegitimate parentage. (Nazis in the attic or somesuch.) But, as it is, Stories We Tell is just the documentary equivalent of a Selfie. It doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy to say, other than, ok, a lot of families have “lies mutually agreed upon,” and I grew bored and eventually a bit disturbed by the egoism and exhibitionism of the whole enterprise. No shame if Polley wants to go digging in the family dirt, but I’m not sure why I really need to be involved.
The Wolf of Wall Street: So this was my birthday movie this year, which basically means that, alas, my girlfriend and I recently spent the afternoon of December 29th with a bunch of insufferable douchebags. Let our terrible mistake be your good fortune — This one can be skipped. (At least know what you’re in for: As an early Spike Jonze cameo telegraphs, this is essentially an unfunny three-hour episode of Jackass.)
Scorsese’s Wolf would’ve been innocuous enough if it had been 90 minutes long or so: In fact, a first-act power lunch with DeCaprio and Matthew McConaughey gets all the “these guys are nihilistic, worthless wastes of space” points across fine enough, no need to belabor it. But at three ever-lovin’ hours, the film wears out its welcome well before the end, and somewhere in that third hour — around the time DeCaprio is screaming at and gut-punching his second wife (Margot Robbie), so that we all leave knowing the asshat behavior we’ve witnessed for 180 minutes is actually not ok — I’d joined the douchebag train myself and was idly scrolling through my phone in the theater, waiting for somebody to give this dire Wolf the Grey Wind treatment, or at least throw him in the clink already.
Anyway, like all too many fratboy and/or Wall Street types, the film is not nearly as hilarious or as transgressive as it thinks it is — for example, the too-long-by-far traveling-on-Quaaludes scene was more funny and more concise (with ether) in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing. And, as I said up above, there were plenty of other movies mining this “grotesque excess is the new American independence” vein in 2013 — just go see Gatsby or Spring Breakers instead.
Blue Jasmine: This one’s not terrible or anything — it’s no Cassandra’s Dream — and Cate Blanchett is a pro as always. But Blue Jasmine is no Midnight in Paris either: It’s basically just Woody riffing on (re: cribbing from) A Streetcar Named Desire by way of the financial crisis — There’s not a lot of there there. Also, even though he must know a lot of uber-rich Manhattanites, Allen seems as clumsy about class here as always: Blanchett and Baldwin’s spoiled Ivy League kid here seems like he’s a member of Harvard’s Class of 1942. (On the blue collar side, Sally Hawkins and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay, do better at crafting real people out of class stereotypes.) Again, Blue Jasmine isn’t a travesty or anything, but it’s not top-shelf Woody by any means, and has been significantly overpraised.
MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:
Ender’s Game: The long-awaited movie adaptation of this science fiction standard got quite a bit of bad press before release because, well, author Orson Scott Card is a terrible human being. (That’s why I have “unfairly” in brackets up above: Card has been a malignant enough presence over the years. Malign away!)
All that being said, if you’re not inherently averse to all things Card at this point, I thought Gavin Hood’s film was a surprisingly decent adaptation of the once-acclaimed novel (which I enjoyed enough in high school — I haven’t read it since.) Despite being a bit long in the tooth for the part, Asa Butterfield made for a quality Ender, with the necessary streak of amoral darkness about him. (We could’ve used Butterfield for Anakin Skywalker back in the day — but even in that Phantom Menace era, the very similar Lucas Black was always available.) And, speaking of Star Wars, hey, Harrison Ford is alive here! Always good to see.
WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:
The Counselor: So, The Counselor. In a nutshell, Michael Fassbender is a slick Texas lawyer — everybody keeps calling him “Counselor,” Counselor — who, while wooing good girl Penelope Cruz, gets involved in a shady Mexican cartel-connected drug deal with two acquaintances who definitely know better, Javier Bardem (along with his bad girl wife, Cameron Diaz) and Brad Pitt. Naturally, as a result of some unfortunate happenstance — and side-dealing by one of the parties involved — Bad Things Happen. But you knew they would, didn’t you, Counselor?
Was The Counselor actually a good movie? Well, that one’s easy: No, no it wasn’t. Was it terrible? Well, Counselor, I think so, but to be honest I’m not even entirely sure. Just as To the Wonder seemed like a Malick parody, this one reads and watches like a parody of Cormac McCarthy — We have the macho posturing, lots of misogyny of the madonna/whore and vagina dentata variety, no small amount of Old Testament speechifying, and plenty of cartoon nihilism, Texas-style. Of course, I think, No Country notwithstanding, most of McCarthy’s stuff reads like parody — Blood Meridian was terrible; there, I said it — so your mileage may vary.
What I do know is that The Counselor was completely cuckoo-bananas, that it did linger in my mind for several days after watching it, and that, if nothing else, I remain sort of impressed that an A-list movie this strange, verbose, and relentlessly dark made it to the screen in this form. But am I recommending it? God, no, Counselor, you’ll sue me…or worse.
Only God Forgives: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which has Ryan Gosling playing a Hamlet of sorts in the Thai boxing underworld, is an easier mark: This is definitely not a good movie. (Ok, the lighting’s not bad.) I liked Drive less than most people, but still thought Refn’s Bronson was an impressively savage little number. But this movie, which plays like a film school homage to David Lynch, is a nearly unwatchable mess, and I feel terrible for Kristin Scott Thomas that she wasted her playing-wildly-against-type movie moment (See also: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges) in this drek.
THIS JUST IN | UPDATE | BREAKING NEWS | MUST CREDIT GITM:
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: I was just reminded that I totally forgot to include Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues anywhere on this list. Mistakes were made, I regret the oversight, and I just want to take this moment to apologize in full to Mr. Burgundy and the entire Channel-4 News Team. (If it’s any consolation, I went to your Newseum exhibit. Also, what do you want me to do? I’m bliiiind!)
In any event, there’s too much Brick and far too little Baxter, but if you enjoyed the first one, this chapter — which has Ron and his crew taking their talents to CNN and the Big Apple, partying like Wolves of Wall Street, and learning the world a thing or two about car chases — hits at about the same level of hilarity: Maybe slot this somewhere in the late teens/early twenties? I dunno, I immediately regret this decision.
Worth Netflixing:Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012), Don Jon, Europa Report, John Dies at the End, Monsters University, Oblivion, Pain and Gain, The Place Beyond the Pines, Side Effects, Stoker, Thor 2: The Dark World, West of Memphis
Don’t Bother:Admission, The Bling Ring, Closed Circuit, Drinking Buddies, The Fifth Estate, Gangster Squad, Kick-Ass 2, Much Ado about Nothing, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim.
Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Robert Redford, All is Lost, Christian Bale, American Hustle; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Best Actress: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Amy Adams, American Hustle; Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club; Jeffrey Wright, A Single Shot; Ben Nelson, Kill Your Darlings; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; June Squibb, Nebraska; Maria Bello, Prisoners; Amy Adams, Her
Unseen: 2 Guns, 21 and Over, 42, 47 Ronin, The Act of Killing, After Earth, Aftershock, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, August: Osage County, Austenland, Bad Grandpa, Baggage Claim, Beautiful Creatures, Berberian Sound Studio, Black Nativity, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Book Thief, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, The Call, The Canyons, Carrie, CBGB, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Croods, Dead Man Down, Delivery Man, Despicable Me 2, Diana, Epic, Escape Plan, Fast and Furious 6, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Getaway, GI Joe: Retaliation, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, Grown Ups 2, Grudge Match, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Hangover Part III, The Heat, Homefront, Identity Thief, In a World, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Insidious 2, The Internship, The Invisible Woman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jobs, Kon-Tiki, The Last Stand, Last Vegas, Laurence Anyways, The Lone Ranger, Lone Survivor, Machete Kills, Mama, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Movie 43, Mud, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Out of the Furnace, Paranoia, Parker, Parkland, Percy Jackson 2, Philomena, Planes, Post Tenebras Lux, The Purge, Red 2, Redemption, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Riddick, R.I.P.D, Romeo and Juliet, Runner Runner, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Smurfs 2, The Spectacular Now, Stand-Up Guys, Trance, Turbo, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Warm Bodies, We’re the Millers, White House Down, The Wind Rises, Winnie Mandela, You’re Next.
A Good Year For:
Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel)
Ben Kingsley Reveals (Ender’s Game, Iron Man 3)
Black and White (Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Nebraska)
Character Actors in Lead Roles (12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis. A Single Shot)
De Caprio Blinging (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Fassbatch (12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
Harrowing Tales of Survival (12 Years a Slave, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity)
A Bad Year For:
The American Dream (The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Javier Bardem (The Counselor, To the Wonder — but he’s very watchable in both.)
Cumberbender (The Counselor, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness)
Maersk (Captain Phillips, All is Lost)
Making it in NYC (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis)
Missions in Space (Europa Report, Gravity, The Last Days on Mars)
Symbols of Presidential Power (Iron Man 3, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down)
2014: 3 Days to Kill, 22 Jump Street, 300: Rise of an Empire, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Annie, That Awkward Moment, Bad Words, Big Eyes, Birdman, Blended, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, Child 44, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Draft Day, Dumb and Dumber To, Edge of Tomorrow, Endless Love, Exodus, The Expendables 3, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, The Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Fury, The Giver, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Grace of Monaco, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, How to Catch a Monster, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1, I, Frankenstein, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, The Interview, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jane Got a Gun, Jersey Boys, The Judge, Jupiter Ascending, Labor Day, The Lego Movie, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Maleficent, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Monuments Men, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, Noah, Non-Stop, The Nut Job, Nymphomaniac, Paddington, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Pompeii, The Purge 2, Ride Along, Rio 2, Robocop, Sabotage, Serena, Sex Tape, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, St. Vincent de Van Nuys, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, This is Where I Leave You, Transcendence, Transformers 4, Unbroken, Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters, Veronica Mars, Welcome to Yesterday, Walk of Shame, Winter’s Tale, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Zero Theorem, and
“So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible…”
Finally out of The Master‘s clutches, a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, for all intent and purposes, Siri (Scarlett Johansson) in the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her, also with Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Rooney Mara. I believe this is called going the full-Lars. (Also, I’m never not going to hear the name of this film as “Her?”)
Alan Rickman and Donal Logue — now there’s one of the best buddy pairings on film since Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson in Beowulf — meet a lot of 24 Hour Party People American-style in our first look at CBGB’s, with Ashley Greene, Freddy Rodriguez, Johnny Galecki, Bradley Whitford, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Stana Katic, and Malin Ackerman (as Debbie Harry?) I see Severus is now teaching young Mr. Weasley a completely different set of Dark Arts. Hrm, maybe.
Michael Fassbender finds he’s taken a wrong turn into Cormac McCarthy land in the newest trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, with Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic, and Dean Norris. Looks very McCarthyish, and no mistake. The good news is Ridley Scott still owes Fassbender a solid film after Prometheus.
Lowry? Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Er, sorry, that would be Mitty, as in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine. I have to admit, this looks much fresher than I anticipated. Definitely maybe.
A terrible accident, an unexpected boon, and A Simple Plan all add up to another bad day for Sam Rockwell in the trailer for David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, also with William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, and W. Earl Brown. A great cast through and through, but you had me at Rockwell.
Where’s a mermaid when you need one? Tom Hanks is in considerable peril on the sea in our second look at Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, also with Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.
I thought Greengrass’ most recent film, 2010’s Green Zone, was an overly preachy dud — I get annoyed with edutainment that aggressively berates me to endorse opinions I already hold. (I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.) But Greengrass has a lifetime pass after United 93, Bloody Sunday, and theBournes, so hopefully this is a return to form.
Thor Odinson, meet Clarice Starling: In a tight spot with a new Big Bad, Earth’s mightiest Asgardian (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to enlist help from his brother in the joint in the second trailer for Thor: The Dark World, also with Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ray Stevenson.
After The Dark Knight, Skyfall, and ST:ID, I’m not sure we need any more villains unfolding their master plans from behind prison bars this decade — Heck, even Loki himself was doing this same shebang in The Avengers last year. Still, the first Thor was better than expected, and Marvel’s on a pretty consistent streak at the moment. I’m in.
I also thought the Nick Stoller’s 2011 reboot of The Muppets was decent enough, but I’m not getting good vibes at all from this first teaser for James Bobin’s Muppets: Most Wanted, with Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Salma Hayek, Frank Langella, Till Schweiger, Debby Ryan, Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Christoph Waltz. Early yet, and I do like Stoller and Bobin’s prior output, but right now this looks like it’ll hit at about Smurfs 2 level.
So, yeah, Harrison Ford hasn’t gotten all that much better at voiceovers since Blade Runner, has he? Anyway, there’s also a new trailer for Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game, also with Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and a ridiculous number of clichés (the Inception BWOMP, “We’re running out of time,” etc.) Everyone wants a Ford comeback, but it’s hard to imagine this one getting my money, even if Orson Scott Card wasn’t a jackass. Oh well.
In the trailer bin, Asa Butterfield gets trained for interstellar war by a grizzled Harrison Ford and a tattooed Ben Kingsley in the first trailer for Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, also with Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, and Abigail Breslin. Eh, seems a bit big and busy for this particular book, but I guess Ford should gets his reps in before Episode VII.
Meanwhile, Simon Pegg’s plan to get the lads together for a pint or twelve is muddled by an altogether different alien invasion in the first trailer for Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, closing out the trilogy started by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Along for the ride: Nick Frost (naturally), Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, David Bradley, and Rosamund Pike. I’m in.
Update: Another arrival today: Paul Greengrass of Bloody Sunday and United 93 dramatizes another bad day on Earth in the first trailer for Captain Phillips, a.k.a. the true story of Somali pirates vs. the MV Maersk Alabama, with Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.
And finally, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney experience mechanical difficulties at the ISS — er…was ammonia involved? — in the first teaser for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile, but I gotta say, all the noisy explosions in space vex me. It’d be a much more powerful trailer if you couldn’t hear any of that.
Not set in stone yet, but it sounds like director Paul Greengrass (BournesII and III, United 93, Green Zone) may be talking with producer James Cameron about a 3-D remake of Fantastic Voyage. Not sure if the Greengrass shakicam would translate to 3-D very well, but it’s definitely an interesting pairing…and about a thousand times more intriguing than the long-rumored involvement of the hackmeisterly Roland Emmerich.
I don’t mean to be too harsh — There’s nothing terribly wrong with this edutainment-y attempt to explain de-Baathification, highly dubious detainee procedures, and most notably the faked WMD casus belli to disinterested laypersons by way of action-thriller. And, in a way, I sorta admire the gutsiness of the the attempt. But, if you were already well aware of these grim developments, and I assume most GitM readers are, then it’s hard to escape the sensation that one is mainly just being talked down to for two hours. Wait, there were no WMD in Iraq? You’re kidding me, right? And, while I’m a great fan of Greengrass’ previous output — I said over and over again in this space that I wish he had stuck with Watchmen, and on the Top 100 films of last decade list, Bloody Sunday was #84, his twoBournes were at #49, and the exemplary United 93 was at #6 — The Green Zone feels quite a bit more leaden than usual.
As with the political edutainment project Greengrass aspired to here, I like the idea of fusing his highly visceral action work (the Bournes) with his fly-on-the-wall discursions into recent history (Sunday, ’93)…on paper. But The Green Zone gets lost somewhere in the interstice, and lacks the gripping power of either of these previous Greengrass grooves. Instead, Zone ends up mostly being two grainy hours of watching Matt Damon run around at night, as he tries to uncover an insidious government plot that our nation has been fully aware of for years…and has chosen to greet with a yawn.
More on that depressing problem in a bit, but, first, to bring y’all up to speed: Loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a non-fiction examination of Dubyaite imbecility and excess in post-war Baghdad, Green Zone begins with a brief sequence set amid the original Shock-and-Awe period of the war, followed by, a few weeks later, a tense raid on a possible WMD storehouse by American soldiers. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), this crack MW2-ish assault ends up finding, well, bupkis, just like the time before and the time before that.
To Chief Miller, the problem here is obvious — the intel must be rotten. But, when he brings this up at the next briefing for high-level military muckety-mucks, he is basically told to shut up and do his job. Nonetheless, events soon conspire to introduce Miller to the “Jack of Clubs” in the Dubya deck, a Baathist general (Yigal Naor) with a still-clearly extant power base in Baghdad. And, when our hero digs deeper to figure out how this Jack might know “Magellan,” the top-secret source of all this lousy intel, he soon finds himself trapped — along with a very Judith Miller-y reporter (Amy Ryan) — in a power play between a slimy executive branch bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear, stuck no more) and a grizzled CIA hand (Brendan Gleeson), one that might just end up getting Miller fragged by the creepy Special Forces guy (Jason Isaacs, with great accent) who keeps popping up…
Along the way, there’s a digression into a detainee facility with all the makings of an Abu Ghraib waiting to happen, the tearful homecoming of the administration’s hand-picked Iraqi stooge (re: AhmedChalabi), some rather pained attempts to make the decision to de-Baathify an action beat…In other words, Green Zone is basically an attempt to dramatize the Iraq war for people who, for whatever reason, weren’t paying much attention the first time ’round. And, to be fair, it’s done with solid acting all around (including several folks recognizable from United 93), quality production values, and a reasonable degree of versimilitude throughout. (Note also the brief Paul Rieckhoff cameo, which should nip any IAVA whining about dramatic license right in the bud.)
But, for all its edutainmenty truths to tell, Green Zone still ends up feeling rather fake and film-ish to me, perhaps in part because — unlike Greengrass’ other recent histories — it seems to subscribe to a very movie-like All the President’s Men view of things, where, once word of misdeed gets out, justice will be done tho’ the heavens fall. Not to get all Debbie Downer up in here, but that’s not really the way the world works anymore, is it? One of the saddest and scariest moments in the recent and very worthwhile Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America is when Ellsberg explains how he thought everything would change once the Pentagon Papers got out…and then he finds that, in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence of government wrongdoing, most people just shrugged.
This is the uncomfortable horror that Green Zone almost seems willfully designed not to recognize. The whole premise of the movie seems to be that, if We the People knew what really went down in Iraq (or could just be taught via action-movie), we would be totally livid about the corruption involved. But, is the problem really that the American people don’t know what happened in the build-up to Iraq? Or is it that we know pretty well what happened and don’t much seem to care?
One of the main reasons Bloody Sunday and United 93 work so well is that they offer complex, nuanced portraits of complicated times. But, as Green Zone moves along, it just ended up feeling more and more like a cartoon to me, and one predicated mainly on wishful thinking. Like I said, I guess I admire what Paul Greengrass & co. were trying do here, but Green Zone as an action film feels flat and mostly uninvolving. And Green Zone as a political enterprise — Iraq War: The Movie!, basically — often seems at best condescending and at worst dangerously naive.
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…
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.
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 KillBills, 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.“
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.
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.“
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…
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…
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.
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 Wirewas 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.
Hello all. This got sidetracked a bit on account of holiday rest, birthday carousing, and such — Yep, as of yesterday, I’m now 35 years young. (“I’m old, Gandalf. I may not look it, but I feel it…“) In any case, hopefully everyone has had time to check out part I and part II by now. And, just in time for New Years’ Eve, I’ve gone back to the movie-reviewing salt mines to dredge up Part III of the…
“Australia. What fresh hell is this?” As I noted in my review of his 2009 follow-up, The Road, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition was a movie I watched via Netflix late one night and felt like I had dreamed. There’s something very strange and ethereal at work here in this Nick Cave-penned western about an outlaw (Guy Pearce) sent to kill his ne’er-do-well brother (Danny Huston) by an equally ne’er-do-well lawman (Ray Winstone). (Well, I think that’s what it was about…I have a vague recollections of a filthy John Hurt talking his way in and out of trouble quite a bit too.)
Nonetheless, something about The Proposition makes it feel weirdly ancient and Biblical, like poetry and prophecy wrestling it out over an Outback campfire. I liked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford quite a bit — it’s on my almost list. But I get the sense that, in its heart of hearts, The Proposition is the movie Dominik’s sprawling epic really wanted to be.
49. The Bourne Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007)
From the year-end list (I): “Another surprise…Matt Damon is believable, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox do excellent character work here, and Franka Potente and Clive Owen help lend the film an authentic European flavor that’s gone completely AWOL over in the Bond series…If the first film’s any indication, I’d rather see another Bourne than another Bond“
From the original review (II): “[T]hankfully The Bourne Supremacy is just as intelligent, fast-paced, gritty, and near-plausible as the first outing…The surprise here is how well everything’s executed — until the last fifteen minutes or so…the film moves at a kinetic, captivating clip.“
From the year-end list (II): “[A] better Bond than anything we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Paul Greengrass’ shakicam work here bodes well for Rorschach in The Watchmen.“
From the original review (III): “If you see him, say hello, he might be in Tangier. Or Paris, Madrid, London, New York, Moscow…uh, sir, we have Jason Bourne popping up all over the grid here. Shall I put it on One?…[I]t’s clear that Greengrass is firing on all cylinders right now. I was already impressed with him, but Bourne further suggests that Greengrass is among the very best directors working today — Let’s hope he shares with us more surveillance intel in very short order.“
From the year-end list (III): “The third installment of the Bourne franchise was the best blockbuster of the year, and proved that director Paul Greengrass can churn out excellent, heart-pounding fare even when he’s basically repeating himself. Really, given how much of Ultimatum plays exactly like its two predecessors on the page — the car chase, the Company Men, the Eurotrash assassin, Julia Stiles, exotic locales and cellphone hijinx — it’s hard to fathom how good it turned out to be. But Bourne was riveting through and through…You just couldn’t take your eyes off it.“
True, Agent 007 received a much-needed 21st-century reboot in the Oughts with Casino Royale. But the decade belonged to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, who yielded three exemplary cloak-and-dagger entertainments between 2002 and 2007. The Bourne Identity was the highlight of director Doug Liman’s decade, wherein he established the international flavor and CIA-professional mien that would characterize the rest of this spy trilogy. And Paul Greengrass brought it home, first with The Bourne Supremacy and then The Bourne Ultimatum. I know Greengrass’ brand of kinetic shaky-fu isn’t for all action tastes, but I find it totally absorbing. And, hey, while Bourne III might’ve been a lot like Bourne II in the end, at least there were no invisible cars anywhere in the picture.
From the original review: “[W]hile I can’t vouch for how well Nolan conceals his own prestiges from the audience here, I found the movie a dark, clever, and elegant contraption, one that suggests razor-sharp clockwork gears and threatening pulses of electrical current, all impressively encased in burnished Victorian-era mahogany. If you’re a fan of Nolan’s previous work, or of sinister mind-benders in general, The Prestige is a must-see film. Either way, it’s among the top offerings of 2006 thus far.“
From the year-end list: “[A] seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation…Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.“
Having read the Christopher Priest novel beforehand, I was in on the trick with this movie going in. So I still don’t know how Christian Bale’s putty nose played to the uninitiated. (The nose plays?) Nonetheless, I found The Prestige one of the most satisfying genre entertainments of its year. And, while I haven’t seen it since, I expect this Christopher Nolan conjuration should hold up quite well. (And a special bonus for Nolan’s introducing us therein to one of my current movie crushes, Rebecca Hall.)
From the original review: “Andrew Stanton’s ambitious, impressive WALL-E is definitely in keeping with the high standard we’ve come to expect from the Pixar gang…That the reach of WALL-E’s ambition ultimately exceeds its grasp in the second hour, when the movie becomes a much more conventional family flick, can’t be held too harshly against the film, I think…Still, after centuries of wandering around by himself, gazing at the stars, the Last Robot on Earth has fallen in love. Did we really need to contrive a second act to top that?“
From the year-end list: “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.“
If WALL-E were just the opening forty-five minutes or so, it’d probably shoot up into the top 25, where it would rest next to another Pixar movie on this list. (Yes, in the immortal words of Yoda, There is another.“) But WALL-E started to lose me once our lovelorn robot left the junkyard and headed into space, and all the Starship Titanic goofiness on the back-end just can’t match the heart of the early going.
Still, in another decade of quality Pixar offerings, the first half of WALL-E was right up there among its finest productions. And, as I said in the year-end blurb above, this was the Slumdog Millionaire story of 2008 that i think will have the most staying power in the end.
46. The Royal Tenenbaums (2000)
While The Fantastic Mr. Fox will no doubt have its advocates in the years to come, the question up until this year has been whether 1998’s Rushmore or 2000’s The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s finest hour. Well, I can take or leave Jason Schwartzman, but it’s hard to bet against Bill Murray or Olivia Williams in a fight. Fortunately, for the purposes of this list, I don’t have to choose between them.
In a way, Tenenbaums is Exhibit A for a lot of Anderson’s usual extravagances, and they would definitely lose their lustre for me by the time The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited rolled around. Still, Tenenbaums works. The various idiosyncracies of each wing of the family don’t seem too belabored, not even the matching tracksuits. The hipster pop — be it Nico, the Velvet Underground, or Elliott Smith — seems pretty well-placed. And all the kitsch — and lordy, there’s a lot of it — still doesn’t quite overwhelm the story, as it would in later Wes Anderson offerings.
Plus, the basic point of Tenenbaums in the end is a sound one: All families are a bit weird when you get right down to it…ok, some more than others. But that doesn’t make them any less family. It’s an argument Paul Thomas Anderson tries to make in pretty much every one of his movies. This Anderson got it right here with The Royal Tenenbaums.
45. 24 Hour Party People (2002) / Control (2007)
Ok, fair enough, I’m cheating a bit with this double-feature. Aside from their subject matter — both involve the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, the clinically-depressed, epileptic Tory-leaning poet of the post-punk generation — these two films could hardly be any more different. Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which centers on Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, is mostly farce, one that would introduce a lot of us outside England to the mad genius of Steve Coogan. Anton Corbijn’s Control, on the other hand, is a moody and naturalistic black and white piece following the rise and fall of a tortured artist that Corbijn knew personally, almost thirty years earlier.
Yet, for all their differences, both are superior and resonant films. And, taken together, they suggest how differently two movies can successfully approach the same tale. (Ok, 24 Hour Party People suggests Curtis was overwhelmed by Joy Division’s popularity among British neo-Fascists, while Control pins Curtis’ suicide more on girl trouble and general depressiveness – I tend to think Corbijn is closer to the mark.) Of course, out of the ashes of Joy Division came New Order, and while Bernard Sumner was never really the lyricist that Curtis was, that recombinated outfit has an admirable pedigree over the years as well. Endless talking, life rebuilding, don’t walk away.
From the original review: “Made with as much care and attention to detail as the best of Pixar…Selick’s clever Coraline is a children’s fable that moves with purpose, bristles with dark humor, and snaps together with satisfying, text-adventure logic. Like Dahl, Carroll, del Toro, and Rowling, Selick and Gaiman get that kids have more of an appetite for the unsettling and creepy than they’re often given credit for, and that the best fairy tales are often dark, scary places. Coraline is no exception…And in terms of the sheer wealth of imagination and meticulous craftsmanship on display, it’s hard to imagine that very many other films this year will be in Coraline’s orbit“
From the year-end list: “In an auspicious year for both regular and stop-motion animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD. “
As I said just above, Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s dark stop-motion fable “gets” a simple truth about kids that much conventional children’s fare misses. A lot of little tykes — dare I say most? — are more than a bit twisted. They thrive on weird and scary and grotesque. And Coraline produces — It has the unsettling dream logic and elemental sense of scary that you find in Roald Dahl or the tales of the Brothers Grimm. And the stop-motion looks amazing — It manages to fashion an eerie, home-spun look that was perfect for the story and that CGI-sheen can’t (as yet) muster. Definitely worth a rental.
43. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
From the year-end list: “To be honest, I wanted to like it more. Nevertheless, this amusing Coen paean to American folk and Faulknerian absurdity holds its own this year.“
Like every other Coen movie, O Brother is a film that rewards repeat viewings. And this Southern gloss on The Odyssey, by way of Preston Sturges, has definitely grown on me over the years. As with so much of the brothers’ output, things that tend to come off as bizarre non-sequiturs at first eventually seem like inspired lunacy once you vibe to it. (“Do not seek the treasure…“) Here’s hoping Burn After Reading ages similarly.
From the original review: “A friend of mine saw the trailer for Shaun of the Dead and noted it looked like a zombie movie written by The Kinks. That’s actually a pretty good shorthand for this wry, witty film, although it eschews Ray Davies-like bitterness for a romantic comedy sweet that, for the most part, fits quite well. In fact, for the first hour or so, Shaun of the Dead is a total gas, particularly as Shaun and his couch-potato roommate Ed (Nick Frost) verrry slowly get wise to the shambling undead amidst them.“
From the year-end list: “Although it lost its footing shambling to its conclusion, Shaun of the Dead was great fun for the first two-thirds of its run, and it’s now probably my favorite zombie movie (everyone should have one.) A much-needed dry British humor fix to tide us over until Hitchhiker’s Guide.“
Zombieland may have aspired to the throne in 2009, but Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead remains the original and undisputed king of the “rom-zom-coms.” Few movies this decade have been as endlessly rewatchable, and, if nothing else, Simon Pegg’s Shaun has provided me with a great Halloween costume over the years. (It’s worked much better than my stab at Donnie Darko, and makes for a great lithmus test to find the movie-people at any given Halloween party right away — not to mention the women-who-find-men-who-look-vaguely-like-Simon-Pegg-fetching, which, as you might have guessed, is a key demographic for yours truly.)
The Pegg-Frost-Wright follow-up Hot Fuzz didn’t make this list, alas, although it is a very entertaining village romp through cop-movie cliches. But here’s hoping that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and, whenever it gets off the ground, Ant-Man, will make next decade’s top 100, come 2019.
From the original review: “The first half plays out as a well-done and unflinching (non-Spielbergized) look at life and death in the Warsaw ghetto. (Watching Adrien Brody step over the bodies of starved children on his way to work, I was briefly reminded again of how unbelievably unrealistic and offensive I found Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.) The second half, however, is a different story. When through a combination of luck and timely aid Szpilman finally manages to escape the ghetto, the film enters (at least to me) novel territory and becomes a strangely riveting and unfamiliar survival story.“
From the year-end list: “A 2002 film that I caught in March of this year, The Pianist is a harrowing and unique survivor’s tale that’s hard to watch and harder to forget (and I can’t have been the only person who thought post-spider-hole Saddam bore a passing resemblance to Brody’s third-act Szpilman.) Speaking of which, I said in my original review of Adrien Brody that ‘I can’t see the Academy rewarding this kind of understatement over a scenery-chewing performance like that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.; Glad to see I was wrong.“
Just as I don’t ever cover Hollywood gossip here at GitM, I don’t really want to get into the kerfuffle that has reignited over Roman Polanski this past year. On one hand, what Polanski did was disgusting, reprehensible, and certifiably criminal, and there’s no getting around that. On the other hand, we just spent much of the past year basking in the afterglow of Michael Jackson’s contributions to music, and the King of Pop, by most plausible accounts, indulged in similar predilections. Imho, what’s good for the goose is good for the, uh, goose.
My point being, their personal lives aside, I still think Thriller is one of the best pop records of the past three decades, and The Pianist is one of the more powerful and engaging entrants in Holocaust cinema out and about. This is the story of the Holocaust outside the camps, and without that telltale Spielberg gloss. For most of the movie’s run, patently craven behavior and sheer blind luck are as crucial life-or-death determinants as anything else. And even if Brody’s pianist gets his own personal Oskar Schindler late in the film, the remorseless existentialism that drives Polanski’s worldview here — and most likely everywhere else, given the personal nature of this flick — has already been well-established by then. Not for the faint of heart, The Pianist feels sadly and uncomfortably true.
From the original review: “Well, as you’ve probably heard, Knocked Up is both very, very funny and surprisingly real. For one, it’s got a funky, down-to-earth, DIY, lived-in feel that helps make it, along with Hot Fuzz, the most satisfying comedy of 2007 thus far. But Knocked Up also manages to be rather touching by the end, in a way that feels totally earned. The film doesn’t rely on cutesy baby antics or wildly improbable romantic flourishes to garner your affection, but rather on showing flawed, realistic, well-meaning people trying to make the best out of the complicated situations that make up life, be they modern love, marriage, or an unplanned pregnancy. As such, Knocked Up turns out to be a knock-out, and a very welcome special delivery.“
From the year-end list: “Judd Apatow’s sweet, good-natured take on modern love and unwanted pregnancy was probably the most purely satisfying film of the summer. As funny in its pop-culture jawing as it was well-observed in its understanding of relationship politics, Knocked Up also felt — unlike the well-meaning but overstylized Juno, the film it’ll most likely be paired with from now herein — refreshingly real. “
I almost put The Forty-Year-Old Virgin here, which is also very worthwhile in its way. But in a decade where American comedy seemed to be verging toward all-Apatow, all-the-time in its latter stages, Knocked Up was the former Freaks & Geeks auteur’s most fully-realized creation of the decade. (FWIW, F&G came out in 1999.)
It is also, as David Denby pointed out in one of his better moments, the apotheosis of the slacker-striver romance that characterized countless rom-coms and quasi-rom-coms of late, from About a Boy to The Break-Up to, for that matter, the next movie on this list. And more than 40-Year-Old-Virgin and more too than Juno, the other unintended pregnancy fable of 2007, Knocked Up — Seth Rogen’s palatial digs therein notwithstanding — felt like life in the Oughts as it really went down.
From the original review: “In sum, Miles is almost completely beaten down by life…so of course he attracts the attention of a smart, beautiful woman (Virginia Madsen) who shares all his important interests and remains fond of him, even and despite his awful behavior. If you can get past this one critical and wholly improbable plot point (and I did, eventually), Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a trip to California wine country well worth taking. The movie basically plays like an approaching-middle-age version of About Schmidt (right down to the unfortunate nude scene), but this seemed a more well-rounded and generous film than its predecessor.“
From the year-end list: “Like a fine 1961 Cheval Blanc, Alexander Payne’s elegiac toast to California wine country and the regrets and indignities of middle-age has a tendency to linger in the senses. Paul Giamatti must tire of playing depressive, barely sociable losers, but he’s great at it here…Sideways isn’t as funny as Election, but it is a memorable trip.“
To be honest, I still find it hard to forgive Sideways its central conceit. Speaking of slacker-striver romances, what on earth would Virginia Madsen ever see in Paul Giamatti’s character? But that aside, Sideways was still one of the more memorable indy-dramedies of the decade, and, like wine and O Brother, it too has improved with age. (That being said, I still prefer Payne’s Election, but that was also part of the season of riches that was 1999.)
From the original review: “A Swedish import that combines elements of the age-old vampire mythos with My Girl, My Bodyguard, and Morrissey (hence the title), Let the Right One In moves and feels like a particularly well-crafted Stephen King short story (or perhaps a bleaker version of one of Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War fairy tales), and definitely makes for a compelling nightmare before Christmas if you’re in the mood for it…[A]t times it feels as naturalistic, character-driven, and hyperliterary an endeavor as In the Bedroom or Little Children. There’s definitely some gore here and there, but as with the best horror stories, Let the Right One In is most frightening in the realm of ideas, and for what it doesn’t ultimately show or explain.“
From the year-end list: “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.“
Y’all can keep your sparkling emo-Mormon vampires, thank you very much. (Although we would like Michael Sheen back when you’re done with him.) This creepy and understated Swedish horror story of 2008 pretty much filled my own quota for teenage nosferatu love for the decade. Yep, it’s a doozy, alright. And, not to get all Glenn Beck up in here, but you may leave as scared of life in Swedish socialist-style public-housing in the dead of winter as of the actual vampyrer at hand.
From the original review: “I’m pleased to report that the Coens’ first foray into full-fledged romantic comedy (although one could argue for The Hudsucker Proxy) is an out-and-out winner. I’d heard earlier that the Coens had diluted their trademark zaniness for the sake of a mainstream audience this time around, but I found the reverse to be true — the brothers have instead juiced up what could have been a tired genre exercise (Imagine this film with Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Kate Hudson, or Sandra Bullock) with their unique flair and managed to create one of the best, funniest romantic comedies I’ve seen in some time.“
From the year-end list: “I expect I’ll be in the minority on this pick – This more-mainstream-than-usual Coen joint only got above-average reviews, and hardly anyone I’ve spoken to enjoyed it as much as I did. Still, I thought Intolerable Cruelty was a pop delight, 99.44% pure Coen confection…Light and breezy, yeah, but I thought it was that rare breed of romantic comedy that actually manages to be both romantic and hilarious…[I]t’s good to know we can always rely on the Coens for consistently excellent work, and I for one am greatly looking forward to The Ladykillers.“
Ok, so The Ladykillers didn’t work out so hot. Still, Intolerable Cruelty is a much-maligned film, in my opinion. Featuring George Clooney at the top of his Coen game and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a natural foil for his throwback, matinee idol looks, Intolerable Cruelty was a rom-com that, I thought, zinged with some of that old-Hollywood, His Girl Friday-type pizazz.
Ok, Geoffrey Rush is over-the-top here, and so are a lot of the jokes, from the Tenzing Norgay, “Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy” business to Wheezy Joe’s fatal inhaler problem. (For that matter, Cedric the Entertainer’s part seems tailor-written for Jon Polito, and the Coens eventually re-used the really-old law partner joke in here for the Rabbi Marshak in A Serious Man.) Still, the cat-and-mouse romance at the center of Intolerable Cruelty works quite well, and it’s a great deal of fun to watch play out. Try it, you’ll like it.
From the original review (X2): “I’m not sure how it’ll play to people who didn’t grow up on the comic, but last night’s midnight showing of X2 was much better than I had anticipated. Offhand, I can think of three setpieces (Nightcrawler at the White House, the assault on the mansion, and Magneto’s escape) that were the closest thing to fanboy pr0n I’ve seen in ages (LOTR notwithstanding), and that’s not counting all the great little flourishes and knowing winks throughout…Sure, the film drags a bit in the last twenty-five minutes or so (as they set up X3), but overall Singer & co. hit this one out of the park.“
From the year-end list (X2): “Laugh if you want, but I can’t think of any other movie where I had more fun this year. Arguably the most successful comic film since Superman 2, X2 improved over its rather staid predecessor in every way you can imagine…X2 was ripe with moments that seemed plucked directly out of the comics, if not straight out of the fanboy id. To me, my X-Men.“
From the original review (S2): “Here he comes, watch out bud. He’s got genetically engineered blood…and a frozen run of bad luck like you read about. After a series of underwhelming summer films so far, Spiderman 2 is a happy surprise, and a distinct improvement on the decent original. After an up-and-down first outing, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire (as well as the gaggle of writers on board, among them Michael Chabon) have clearly settled into the rhythm of Peter Parker’s struggle-filled existence, and the result is the most enjoyable and faithful comic book adaptation this side of X2.“
From the year-end list (S2): “A definite improvement on the first adventure of your friendly neighborhood wallcraller, Spiderman 2 was a perfectly made summer film that stayed true to the spirit of Peter Parker. Along with X2, this is the gold standard for comic book-to-film adaptations right now.“
Eh, you know, in the end, I just couldn’t decide. With the onerous origin stories out of the way in each of their respective first films, Bryan Singer’s X2 and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 were both a chance to let these beloved characters’ freak flags fly. And, taken together, they were the highlight of Marvel movie-watching in the Oughts. Even more than Batman’s much-heralded second outing this decade (still ahead of us on this list) there are scenes in both X2 and Spiderman 2 that feel like four-color panels come to life, from Spidey crawling on the ceiling while talking smack to Doc Ock to Magneto chuckling with glee while floating away from his until-recently-inescapable glass prison.
Both franchises hit a serious wall in their third outings, of course — the poor, long-suffering mutants more so than our friendly neighborhood wallcrawler. Still, both X2 and Spidey 2, like Stephen Norrington’s Blade, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and hopefully Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Thor, proved that certain Marvel franchises can be very translatable to the screen when left alone in the right hands.
From the original review: ““I’m an old broken-down piece of meat and i deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.” If that’s your man, then tag him in: The final and best film of lastFriday’sfour, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a downbeat, moving, and resonant character study of a man past his moment. If Frost/Nixon was the ‘feisty underdog takes on the champ’ Rocky movie of the day, The Wrestler captured the other half of that famous story — the aging athlete shuffling around his ‘real’ life, looking for any place he can make sense of himself outside the ring…I wouldn’t cry foul if The Wrestler manages to pin down Oscars for Rourke and/or Tomei, and it’s too bad Aronofsky got locked out of Best Director contention this year — dabbling in the ‘rassling form has clearly been good for him.“
From the year-end list: “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.“
Displaying an understatement and naturalism one wouldn’t guess he possessed after Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky hit one out of the park with The Wrestler, thanks in large part to Mickey Rourke’s turn as, well, Mickey Rourke. With key support by Marisa Tomei (who had a much-better decade than 1992’s My Cousin Vinny would ever have predicted), The Wrestler was an-almost perfect match between actor and role, and a small but very effective movie about the indignities accompanying an aging and forgotten warrior’s latter days. Another round to the Ram.
From the original review: “A taut, minimalist “men-in-combat” thriller that immediately goes up on the top shelf of Iraq flicks next to HBO’s Generation Kill (and, if you’re counting Gulf War I, Three Kings), The Hurt Locker is also that rare thing in the summer of Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, and GI Joe: a war movie for grown-ups…In vignette after vignette, The Hurt Locker ratchets up the suspense by degrees, until you find yourself — like the EOD team we’re following — living out each moment in a heightened state of tension, endlessly waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s an impressive moviemaking feat, and it helps to make The Hurt Locker one of the best films of the year.“
From the year-end list: “Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker…was the action movie of the year.“
Of course, warriors’ glory days aren’t all that much better, as evidenced by Kathryn Bigelow’s tense and sparing The Hurt Locker. But, as with Randy the Ram, Jeremy Renner’s Staff Sgt. William James has a taste — some might say addiction — for the ring.
Like the IED team it follows, Bigelow’s movie succeeds mainly because of its attention to detail — not only in ratcheting up the unbearable tension throughout, but in the little moments. Say, for example, the scene with Jeremy Renner in that suddenly ridiculous-looking American supermarket, or his interactions with the locals (both the kid selling DVDs, and the “safe” house he finds himself in later.) The Hurt Locker doesn’t really offer three-part character arcs or easy-to-digest answers — It just puts you right in the thick of danger, with all the fear and excitement that portends. War is a drug, indeed.
From the original review: “He may seem cruel and indifferent. He may even be vain and jealous (Exodus 20:5.) Still, thank HaShem for the Coens! Like manna from Heaven, the brothers are the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. At this late date, you probably know if you vibe to the Coen’s mordantly kooky aesthetic or not. And if you do, A Serious Man, their sardonic reimagining of the Book of Job set in late-sixties Jewish suburbia, is another great movie in a career full of them…A word of warning, tho’ — Despite the funny on hand here, and there is quite a bit of funny, in a way this world may be the Coens’ darkest yet.“
From the year-end list: “Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.“
In another decade of solid-to-great offerings, A Serious Man was Joel and Ethan Coen’s best comedy of the Oughts, particularly for those who like their Coen craziness straight from the tap. Going home to Minnesota for this inquiry into Judaism, mathematics, and the meaning of it all clearly brought out the best in the brothers, and the Coens ended the decade as they began, in lean, fighting trim. Whether it’s Hail Caesar! or True Grit, keep ’em coming, guys. Each Coen movie is a mitzvah for the rest of us.
From the original review: “True, you can guess where this is basically going from the opening moments. The Cooler is ultimately a brief genre exercise in noir romance – It’s not reinventing the wheel. But the wry script takes a few jags I wasn’t expecting, and Kramer, Macy, and Bello succeed in fashioning two lovebirds who veer from playful to amorous to desperate for each other in a way that belies the cookie cutter courtship of so many other films…[I]f you can stomach the occasional burst of Old Vegas-style mob brutality (usually at the hands of Baldwin), The Cooler is a testament to the notion that even perennial losers can sometimes catch a lucky break, and a touching character-driven romance well worth checking out.“
Word is the rest of the decade didn’t go so hot for director Wayne Kramer, what with 2006’s Running Scared and 2009’s Crossing Over. (I didn’t see either…did Crossing Over even come out?) But The Cooler, a magical-realist tale about the mystifying blessings of Lady Luck, was one of my favorite movie romances of the Oughts…and one that side-steps the Madsen-Giamatti Sideways problem with a key second-act twist. William H. Macy and the very underrated Maria Bello both bring their A-game to this Vegas fable, and Alec Baldwin does yeoman’s work in the type of meaty character role he’d make his own as the decade unwound. Who knows? Maybe luck was just shining on Kramer that year.
From the original review: “Granted I tend to be a sucker for these sorts of films, which are far too rare nowadays…Nevertheless, I found Duncan Jones’ low-key, hard-sci-fi rumination Moon to be really, really great — exactly the sort of small-budget ‘big think’ science fiction production that it feels like you used to see a lot more of back in the day. (Silent Running, Outland, even stuff like Capricorn One and Soylent Green.)…Sure, I probably saw this film under ideal conditions for the subject matter — by myself at the 11:45pm showing — but I was riveted by it. And if you’re a science fiction fan (or a fan of Sam Rockwell, who’s showcased here to great effect), Moon is a must-see.“
From the year-end list: “While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon’s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.“
I feel like I’ve been chatting up this movie quite a bit lately. Still, in case y’all missed the thread, I really dug Duncan Jones’ Moon. It’s all of a piece — A small, well-thought-out, and low-fi flick that just aims to tell an interesting science fiction tale and get you thinking, no more, no less. And amid the sturm und drang of Bayhem and McG’s killer robots and Cameron’s Pandora in 2009, I thought Moon‘s relative silence spoke volumes.
From the original review: “Technically, Requiem is a masterpiece. Darren Aronofsky pulls out every visual effect and cinematic sleight of hand he previewed in Pi, and then some, to great effect. There are some truly unforgettable moments in this movie, although I must admit that — very occasionally — the technical razzmatazz does get in the way…[D]espite…substantial problems, Requiem is a powerful, enthralling film that invites comparison with such downer classics as A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver. Two days later, I’m still mulling it over in my head. I’m not sure if I completely enjoyed it, but I do know I must recommend it.“
From the year-end list: “Powerful, dazzling, and a technical masterpiece, despite the flawed ending. Gets stuck in your head like bits of food get stuck in your teeth.“
Ah, Requiem for a Dream. In many ways, I tend to think this flick is wayyyy too over-the-top to be taken at all seriously. And by hyperaccentuating the extreme negatives of drugs here, what with the gangrenous limbs and heroin-fueled whoredom and whatnot in its final act, it sorta misses out on the reasons why people tend to take drugs in the first place. (Hint: They may in fact be enjoyable at times.) In that sense, at its worst moments, Requiem for a Dream can be as hyperbolic, monotone, and quite frankly ridiculous as a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” ad.
But, for all of its occasional this-is-your-brain-on-drugs ludicrousness, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem is undeniably a powerful and hypnotic movie experience. Between Ellen Burstyn even outdoing Bale’s American Psycho that year in a just-go-for-broke performance — I still think she got cheated out of the Oscar — and the droning, brain-slashing score by Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet (now a staple of movie trailers, thanks to The Two Towers), Requiem has moments that are still burned into my skull a decade later.
And with one clever film conceit, Aronofsky vividly captured one facet of addiction that rings all too true, whether your vice is cigarettes, heroin, TV, or Oreo cookies: Half of the draw — well, maybe not half, but a sizable chunk, at least — is the comfortable routine of a process. I guess that’s why they call it a habit.
29. Sexy Beast (2000)
True, Ben Kingsley’s surprising turn as a foul-mouthed Cockney madman is a bit of a gimmick. (In fact, Ralph Fiennes later used said-gimmick himself in 2008’s In Bruges.) Still, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast was a smart and funny crime thriller that introduced many of us to the venerable Ray Winstone (although Wikipedia now informs me he’s been around since Quadrophenia) and that anticipated Ian McShane’s later breakout/comeback as Al Swearingen of Deadwood. (Spoiler alert: It’s also one of two movies here in the twenties that involve supernatural leporids.) And to my mind, some of the inspired England v. Spain riffing herein just never gets old.
From the original review: “Arguably the best film about the realities of politics since Charlie Wilson’s War, Milk is blessed with excellent performances across the board — most notably Sean Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin, but also supporting turns by Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and others. And as a chronicle of a key moment in an ongoing civil rights struggle, Milk also feels like a watershed film of its own in its approach to its gay and lesbian characters. In short, it’s one of the best films of 2008.“
From the year-end list: “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.“
A film that put the lie to Brokeback Mountain‘s Kabuki-theater austerity to some extent, Gus Van Sant’s Milk featured gay couples that were more passionate, more realistic, and, perhaps most importantly, more matter-of-fact than those decidedly not co-habiting in Ang Lee’s Wyoming. Unlike the tragedy of Jake and Heath (or 1993’s Philadelphia, for that matter), it showed mainstream (straight) audiences that being gay isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a matter of life and death. In fact, gay couples are a lot like straight couples — varied, heterogeneous, often in lust, sometimes in love.
And its sexual politics aside, Milk was also a smart and insightful film about our American political system as a whole — maybe especially in the year of Candidate Obama and Prop 8, but just as much so today. After all, the struggle for real change in America didn’t end when Harvey Milk got elected. It was only just beginning.
From the original review: “[A] smart, stylish, and sublimely smooth British crime film that does Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch one better…Essentially, you know the drill — this is a puzzle film in which you’ll have to listen carefully and learn to distinguish between various delinquents with names like Tiptoes, Kinky, Slasher and Shanks. And, while the final few grifts just get a bit too big to be believable, for the most part the story holds together with intelligence and verve, in no small part to Daniel Craig, who’s a magnetic presence here, and Matthew Vaughn, who displays a crisp, confident direction that’s all the more impressive for being showy without ever seeming flashy.“
From the year-end list: “If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)“
In retrospect, Casino Royale should probably have been listed as one of the honorable mentions in the first quarter of this list. Nonetheless, Daniel Craig first proved he had the chops for 007 — and then some — with his star turn in this well-made and very entertaining Cockney crime drama. And he’s only the pick of the litter here: Layer Cake also includes wily hands Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney, Jamie Foreman, Kenneth Cranham, and George Harris, as well as able performances by others soon-to-break-out like Ben Whishaw, Tom Hardy, and Sienna Miller. (Sure, one could argue Tom Hardy of Bronson “broke out” as the evil Picard clone in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. But did you see Star Trek: Nemesis? Being in that movie should be considered the opposite of breaking out, I should think.)
True, Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust turned out to be amiable and mostly forgettable for me. But, if I’m holding high hopes for his Kick-Ass in 2010, it’s because of Layer Cake, a movie that just got edged out of the top twenty-five. Along with…
From the original review: “Seduced in by this teaser (and the accompanying song, Frou Frou’s “Let Go”, which has been flitting about my head for days now), I entered expecting a stylish but showy and self-indulgent film, as befitting a first-time triple threat. (At worst, I feared something along the lines of a Whit Stillman or P.T. Anderson flick.) But Garden State feels not only intelligent and confident but grounded, understated, and, like its dazed, over-medicated protagonist, even somewhat self-effacing. More than anything, I found the movie a sweet, quirky, and good-natured tone poem about awakening to both the pain and the possibilities of the life around you.“
From the year-end list: “Writer-director Zach Braff’s ‘anti-Graduate’ debut was a small but touching ode to home that, along with reviving Natalie Portman as an actress and offering the best soundtrack of the year, delivered exactly what it promised. A bit hokey at times, sure, but Garden State wore its heart on its sleeve and, for the most part, got away with it. It was a witty and eloquent voyage to the Jersey burbs and a testament to the proposition that as Paul Weller put it, it’s never too late to make a brand new start.“
As I’ve said many times, Zach Braff’s Garden State is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but perhaps I should stop making excuses for it. It had the closest thing to a Pulp Fiction-like era-defining soundtrack that the Oughts saw, with cuts by Frou Frou, The Shins, Colin Hay, and Iron & Wine. It had a cast stocked with quality, A-list talent like Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, and the inimitable thespian Method Man. (Where my cheese at?) It managed to bring Natalie Portman back to life after her near-fatal submersion in George Lucas’ green-walled CGI prequel tank. And, like Moon, it was a small film that delivered about exactly what it promised.
In short, Garden State is pretty close to a modern version of the movie it so often references, The Graduate. (Or, at least, it’s a heck of a lot closer to The Graduate than 2005’s Rumor Has It, which more explicitly tried to make that claim.) What can I say? For me, at least, Garden State delivered.
Hey all. So, this has turned out to be a rather massive undertaking, one that’s had to be split up into five parts so as not to destroy Movable Type. And, while the 2009 list hasn’t yet been posted (although I have written it, pending a few more films I expect to see in the next week, such as Sherlock Holmes and The Lovely Bones), I thought I’d go ahead and throw out the first installment of my promised Best-of-Decade list right now. A few caveats before I start:
1) This is my list, obviously. Meaning these are the movies I enjoyed, cherished, or otherwise been entertained by over the past decade. So, if you vehemently disagree, that’s cool, but that’s just like your opinion, (wo)man.
2) Movies are being judged — in part — on how well they succeed on their own terms. So, to take an example below, am I really saying that Drag Me to Hell (#79) is a better film than Brokeback Mountain (#80)? And I’m saying yes, it’s either [a] more entertaining or [b] to my mind, accomplishes better what it sets out to do.This way, a really funny Z-grade comedy might just beat out an expensively manicured piece of Oscar bait. Ya never know.
3) Since I’ve already posted extensive reviews of most of the movies here, I’ve gone ahead and included excerpts from those in the gray boxes for each film. Feel free to re-read or ignore these as you see fit.
4) Speaking of those reviews, some of the movies below may do better or worse than they did in their respective end-of-year lists. Some move up, some move down, such is the passage of time.
5) Finally, before we begin and in alphabetical order, some honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the top 100 list, with brief explanations:
The Almosts (in Alphabetical Order)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (2008): I probably should have found a place for this somewhere, but it just kept slipping, mainly because I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to sit through it again. 4 Months is a very impressively-made movie, but I guess (like The Road) I flinch a little in the face of its unrelenting — some might say one-note — darkness.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): Tiger Woods, meet Jesse James. Andrew Dominik’s sprawling meta-western looks gorgeous (thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins), and it definitely has truths to tell about the trials of celebrity in American life. It could stand to lose an hour, tho.
The Constant Gardener (2005): Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is topping a few of the Best-of-Decade lists I’ve seen out and about, but I’d be more inclined to put this, his follow-up film, somewhere on the list. Neither made it in the end, but, nonetheless, The Constant Gardener has its merits.
Dirty Pretty Things (2003): I originally had this as high as #74 on account of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s breakout performance. But, although Ejiofor became one of the most consistently reliable actors of the decade, the rest of Stephen Frears’ movie doesn’t quite hold up enough to be counted in the end.
Gangs of New York (2002): What with Daniel Day-Lewis, Jim Broadbent, and few of the vignettes therein, there probably was a great movie in here somewhere. But the final version of Scorsese’s Gangs has serious flaws — not only major historical ones (see the original review) but cinematic ones too. Particularly with a fellow like Bill the Butcher stomping around, did anybody care one whit about Leo DiCaprio’s character? Not me.
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004): As I said at #92, this almost made the list. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it’s more Ought-ish in its multicultural, Age-of-Obama outlook than a lot of movies that actually made it on here. But, it slipped. Sorry, y’all.
I am Legend (2007): I loved the “Man and his Dog” part of this movie — it hit me where I lived. The not-so-scary CGI-beasties, not-so-much. The director’s cut ending helped resolve some of the movie’s second-half problems, but still not quite good enough to crack the century mark.
Man on Wire (2008): A bit of a one-trick pony. Amazing trick, definitely. But, there it is.
Snow Angels (2008): David Gordon Green’s movie has grown in my memory in the year since I saw it, but I still couldn’t find room for it.
There Will Be Blood (2007): In previewing this list on some film boards, I got more grief for not including TWBB somewhere in the mix than any other movie that came up. But, while there are other films that made my list on the basis of a strong first or second half (WALL-E comes to mind), I thought the slippage was too great from Blood‘s astonishing first hour to its meandering second to its ludicrous close. So it’s only on the coulda-been-a-contender list. Still, it was a step up for PTA, so maybe next time.
The Virgin Suicides (2000): I remember Sofia Coppola’s dream-like vision of Jeffrey Eugenides’ book to be pretty on the nose, and it boasts a great soundtrack. If I saw it again, it might move up, but as with a lot of the early-decade movies, I’m mostly going on memory, and my memory was that the book didn’t translate to film so well.
The Visitor (2008): The better of Tom McCarthy’s two writer-director projects thus far (the other being The Station Agent), this movie was a bit too cloying in the beatific immigrant regard to make the century list. Richard Jenkins was really great, tho.
From the original review: “[I]t’s hard to come up with a better ‘first-day-of-spring’ movie than th[is] wickedly funny, rousingly optimistic hip-hop concert flick…Block Party bounces with cool, infectious verve and power-to-the-people, DIY exhilaration…Chappelle’s wry irreverence and broad, encompassing good humor are contagious. Often, it seems, he can’t believe his luck at becoming the jester-king of Brooklyn for a day, and he grounds and permeates the film with his antic enthusiasm and sardonic, puckish charm.“
From the year-end list: “With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.“
A case could be made that Michel Gondry’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party should be even higher on this list — Few movie experiences of the decade were as out-and-out pleasurable as my spring afternoon viewing of this flick. That being said, Block Party seemed like a good way to kick off this best-of-decade list — It’s just a happy, goofy, groovy, fun movie, teeming with great music, optimism, and the open possibilities of any given day. Particularly if you have any affinity for hip-hop, give it a whirl.
From the original review: “Well, that was a happy surprise. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is by no means a perfect film. But, the reviews are right — this one’s miles above the other two prequels, and definitely can be considered in the same breath as Jedi. Sure, there’s a bad movie occasionally lingering in the shadows like a Sith, but for the most part this entry manages to capture some of that ole Star Wars feel.“
From the year-end list: “Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the ‘let’s take a meeting’ second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.“
How George got his groove back. In a perfect world, the Star Wars prequels would’ve carried some of the vim and verve of Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy or the first Matrix. Alas, as you all know, that didn’t happen. Like many SW fans of my generation, I walked out of 1999’s middling The Phantom Menace confused about where George Lucas was intending to go with all this, and desperately trying to convince myself that, Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and pod racing notwithstanding, I’d just sat through a really good movie. (The still-very-good Maul/Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon duel helped a good bit with the denial.)
Alas, the atrocious Attack of the Clones of 2002, the pre-Clone Wars nadir of the Star Wars franchise (Holiday Special notwithstanding), put that reverie to bed. Something terrible had happened — disastrous, even. All across America, millions of fanboy and fangirl voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.
But, with expectations suitably lowered, then came Sith in 2005, which at least carried some small glimmers of the old magic. I won’t try to defend the film’s many faults — they’re there, all right. But every so often during Sith, you could feel something, as if Lucas had finally managed to take his first step back into a larger world.
98. Unbreakable (2000)
From the year-end list: “A little slower than I would have liked, and it had no second act, but this languid, contemplative film spoke to the comic fan in me.“
It seems weird from the perspective of 2009, after drek like Signs and The Village. (I didn’t see Lady in the Water or The Happening, but…I’ve heard bad things). Nonetheless, back in 2000, M. Night Shyamalan still seemed like he had the potential to be a first-rate genre filmmaker, maybe even the new Spielberg. True, 1999’s The Sixth Sense ended up being massively overhyped — Due mainly to box office, one presumes, it even bypassed The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, and Fight Club for an Oscar nod. But it still came out of nowhere to make for a surprising and unsettling ghost story that year.
And, belying the usual curse (that would come later, in spades), Shyamalan turned out a quality sophomore follow-up in Unbreakable. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, but I still remember it as a unique take on the superhero origin story in a decade that would be full of them. True, the Mr. Glass monologuing at the end should have telegraphed to us Shyamalan’s overreliance on the 11th-hour plot twist. But that wouldn’t really come to seem a problem until later films. As it was, Unbreakable showed that M. Night wasn’t afraid to follow-up a box-office monster with a movie that felt quite different in tone, and it suggested — probably wrongly, it turns out — that he might have a few more tricks up his sleeve after “I see Dead People.”
From the original review: “I don’t really feel the inclination to write the usual three-paragraph review for Borat…so I’ll just leave it at this: It’s really funny…[U]nless you’re offended by ridiculously over-the-top anti-semitism or have a problem with truly grotesque displays of male nudity, you should find it verrry nice. (But leave the gypsys at home.)“
From the year-end list: “True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year.“
The Cotton Kingdom of the Dubya era. I had this quite a bit further up the list at first, but decided to switch it out with one of its memorable antecedents. (More on that demented travesty later.)
I missed Bruno this year, so I don’t know how it compares. Still, Borat has slipped quite a bit from its 2006 ranking, if only because [a] I’m not sure a lot of the comedy holds up on repeat viewings, and [b] I still think Cohen went for mostly easy targets here. In its picking off the low-hanging fruit in the Red States — bible-thumpers, rednecks, and whatnot — the movie also feels very much an artifact of the post-2004 election grimness. Although, now that I think about it, a strong case could be made that Cohen was just prepping us for the teabagger vanguard.
From the original review: “All in all, very well done, and a battered, despairing Michael Caine deserves an Oscar for this much more than he ever did for his turn in the schlocky Cider House Rules.“
From the year-end list: “A bit by-the-numbers, perhaps, but Phillip Noyce’s take on Graham Greene’s novel was blessed with timeliness and two great performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, both of whom expertly exemplified their homelands’ diplomatic tendencies without becoming overly tendentious.“
I watched about half an hour of The Quiet American again a few weeks ago while flipping through the channels, and I still think it has a bit too much of an austere, “from-the-classic-novel” feel to it, the sort of movie one might be forced to watch in a high school class (be it English or History). Still, it’s very well-done, Caine and Fraser are both exceedingly well cast, and you could do worse as a quality intro to our blundering in Vietnam than Graham Greene’s ripe and pungent allegory here.
From the original review: “[W]hat Six Feet Under is to dying, The Savages is to the final stages of aging. It’s something we don’t really want to think about, but it’s there, somewhere over the last ridge. If we’re going to dwell on this subject, it’s probably best to confront that fact with the mordant humor of [this film] (while keeping in mind that, however inevitable that final end, it’s never too late to teach an old dog some new tricks.)“
From the year-end list: “[F]ew other movie endings this year hit me in the gut quite like this one…[T]his comedy about an ornery lion in winter, and the battling cubs who have to come to his aid, is a worthwhile one, and particularly if you’re in the mood for some rather black humor. As Lenny the senescent and slipping paterfamilias, Philip Bosco gives a standout performance, as does Hoffman as the miserable Bertholdt Brecht scholar trapped in deepest, darkest Buffalo.“
Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages is an uneven film, and at times it gets overwhelmed by its televisionish tendencies (be they sitcom or Lifetime movie-of-the-week-oriented.) But when it’s on, it’s on, and it’s a film that’s stuck with me in the two years since I caught it on the back-end of an Angelika double-bill (along with another mortality-drenched movie further down the list.) I still have some issues with its Bagger Vancing of The Wire‘s Gbenga Akinnagbe, but in its depictions of siblings, senescence, and seriously bummed-out academics, The Savages rings true.
From the original review: “[W]hile it was quite good for its genre (and Hugh Grant was surprisingly palatable), I do have some problems with its underlying premises…Since when is one’s identity primarily formed by holding down a job you hate?…I don’t remember the protagonist of Hornby’s book being nearly so shattered by his presumed nothingness.“
From the year-end list: “A surprisingly good translation of Nick Hornby’s third book. A bit fluffy, perhaps, and…I’m not sure how I feel about some of the underlying premises, but very well done nonetheless. After all, making both Hugh Grant and a precocious young British lad palatable at the same time is no easy task.“
Now this one to me is almost exactly the opposite of The Savages, in that — more than any other film on this list — I can barely remember About a Boy at all, other than Toni Collette being very good, the kid (Nicholas Hoult, soon of A Single Man and Clash of the Titans) also being quite solid, and Hugh Grant singing acapella, drinking a lot of Red Bull, and somehow magically not getting on my nerves. And because of this memory hole, I came very close to putting another very similar-feeling Weitz production, In Good Company, here instead. But just because the high has mostly evaporated doesn’t mean the initial experience wasn’t grand. So I’m trusting my notes here somewhat (which had About a Boy at #3 for 2002) and putting it here at #94. Hopefully, I know what I’m talking about.
From the original review: “To be sure, the first forty minutes of the film, including everything that takes place in Zion, is almost unwatchable…But, right about the time Neo gets a call from the Oracle and reenters the Matrix in Chinatown…the film finally starts to find its rhythm…Alas, Neo and Trinity still don’t really work as an onscreen couple, but most of the action setpieces are breathtaking (particularly the highway chase and truck fight…in the midst of all the new characters showing up, it’s nice to see the Agents still getting their due.) And as expected, Hugo Weaving is just wicked good fun as Agents Smith…they steal every scene they’re in.“
From the year-end list: “I won’t defend the first forty-five minutes or the ridiculous rave scene. But, right about the time Hugo Weaving showed up to do what he does best, Revolutions found a new gear that it maintained right up until the arc-twisting Architect monologues at the end. And, as far as action sequences go, it’s hard to beat the visceral thrill of the 14-minute highway chase.“
I can envision getting some grief for this one, but what I said in these two reviews stand. As a whole, this first sequel to 1999’s The Matrix has serious problems in its first hour — I’m looking at you, Bacardi-Benetton rave. But once you get to the (now rather dated looking) “Burly Brawl,” (i.e. Neo vs. a legion of Smiths) The Matrix: Reloaded kicks it up a notch.
Sure, nothing could match the initial shock of seeing Neo wake up in that gooey biopod in the first movie — That was the first indicator that the heretofore unknown Wachowski brothers (Bound notwithstanding) were really playing on a broad canvas here. But from the Burly Brawl on — through the Merovingian and Swiss Chalet stuff, the albino Milli Vanilli twins, the highway chase, and on to the Architect’s rambling in the final moments, Reloaded is easily as propulsive and occasionally mind-bending as the second half of the first film. (And, without a doubt, it’s far better than the woeful Matrix: Revolutions, out later that year.)
From the original review: “L’Auberge was funnier, sexier, and more intelligent than any of the assorted American Pies or their ilk…This movie seems to understand that it’s possible to capture the joys of youth and friendship without resorting to a constant stream of lame, mostly unfunny gross-out jokes.“
From the year-end list: “[W]hile Lost in Translation trafficked in existential detachment, L’Auberge Espagnole showed the fun Scarlett Johannson could’ve been having, if she’d just lighten up and get out of the hotel once in awhile. This paean to the pan-Continental culture of the EU captured the excitement and possibilities of youth in a way that was both sexier and funnier than any of the teen shock-schlock emanating from our own side of the pond. Road Trippers, take a gander.“
Now, having roundly derided domestic gross-out comedies, I should say that I just came very close to pulling an audible and putting the very funny Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle in this spot. (Sorry guys, you got screwed. A few Sliders should help ease the pain.) Nonetheless, L’Auberge Espagnole is a jaunty European escapade that matched the sexy frankness of Y Tu Mama Tambien (minus its existential pretensions — remember that goofy car crash?) with the joy and possibility of foreign travel you find in, say, Before Sunrise. I remember seeing this flick on a dismal Match.com date, and even that couldn’t diminish the experience. Salut.
From the original review: “In essence PJ’s King Kong is the Mother of All B-Films — the Skull Island action sequences are spectacular, Kong’s adventures in New York seem appropriately mythic, the special effects throughout (particularly the Great Ape himself) are mind-blowing…[But] the film has some serious pacing problems, particularly in the first hour, and at times I thought it seemed almost too reverent of its source material. At the very least, Kong, while definitely a Wonder of the World and no mistake, could have benefited from some minor grooming.“
From the year-end list: “I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.“
Yep, that about covers it. Like The Matrix: Reloaded a few spots ago, King Kong is an eye-popping visual feast that ultimately falls several steps shy of greatness thanks to all the excess baggage on the front end. I don’t have much of an attachment to the 1933 version (or the 1976 Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange/Charles Grodin version for that matter, although Lange looks stunning in it), but almost all of the Kong-in-NYC stuff in PJ’s version is marvelous, give or take the ice-skating, and feels like something ripped from the pages of myth.
That being said, it feels like we’re on Skull Island for a really long time in this Kong, and that doesn’t even get into all the deadly dull happenings before they even reach the King’s domain. For all its strengths, this Kong is too self-indulgent to go down as one of the decade’s greats. It’s clearly a labor of love by PJ (and he earned it after knocking LotR out of the park), but the movie would’ve benefited from quite a bit more tough love at some point in the process.
From the original review: “[A] somber and compelling character study of the eponymous author…Hoffman’s Capote cuts a complex and striking figure that’s hard to take your eyes from — He’s at once vainglorious and needy, extroverted and remote, compassionate and manipulative, convivial and detestable.“
From the year-end list: “I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.”
“Every artist is a cannibal. Every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief.” In fact, I haven’t seen Capote since it came out in 2005 (nor did I ever see Infamous, with the Trumanesque Toby Jones.) But the moral darkness of this film lingers, as does Clifton Collins, Jr.’s haunting portrayal of Perry Edward Smith, who, to Capote, is both the Spider and the Fly.
From the original review: “Blessed with a charismatic and appealing cast that smooths over much of the choppy writing turbulence therein, Abrams’ Trek reboot isn’t only a rousing, over-the-top, sometimes patently absurd space opera that borrows as much from Lucas’ original trilogy as it does from its erstwhile source material — It’s also probably the best of the Star Wars prequels. The more I’ve thought about it over the past few days, the less sense the movie makes, and the more and more shamelessly derivative Trek seems. But darned if I didn’t have a good time during the Big Show itself, which, of course, is what really matters in the end.“
From the year-end list: “There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale.“
Sure, it’s a cotton candy movie, but, like I said, Star Trek had more of that Star Wars magic than any of the prequels, including Sith. I haven’t seen Trek again since that first time in the theater, and it’s entirely possible a lot of the general dumbness of the movie — Spock hanging ’round the ice cave, all the nonsensical red matter/black hole stuff — will weigh everything down more on a second viewing. Still, it was definitely fun that first go. Bring on Javier Bardem as Khan.
From the original review: “Hearkening to the halcyon days of Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a clever contraption indeed — a sleek, intelligent, well-acted NYC heist flick whose central scheme is more about subterfuge, cunning, and misdirection than technical gimmickry. (In too many films in the genre — The Score, or Ocean’s 11, for example — the robbers seem to be spending more on state-of-the-art equipment than they’d actually make in the grift.)…True, some of the plot mechanics in Inside Man could be considered contrived, but, Jodie Foster’s corporate ninja notwithstanding, at least here the people seem real.“
From the year-end list: “[A] fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply ‘crashing’ into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.)…Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.“
I love it when a plan comes together. In a decade that sometimes seemed full of them, Spike Lee’s crisp, no-nonsense Inside Man was one of the most purely entertaining heist movies of the oughts. And with primo talent like Willem DeFoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor working as support, you know you have an A-list cast on your hands.
To be honest, his von Trapp roots notwithstanding, Christopher Plummer seemed a bit young to be plausible as a ex-Nazi in the 21st century. (Max Von Sydow might’ve worked, I guess, but he also was born in 1929.) But take that — and Foster’s Fixer — with a grain of salt, and Inside Man made for a great afternoon at the movies. It was a seventies cop yarn set in 21st-century Gotham, expertly assembled by one of NYC’s great directors.
From the original review: “Munich is a movie well worth-seeing, the rare thriller that’s not afraid to grapple with today’s thorniest political questions, and without insulting the audience’s intelligence by giving easy, simple-minded answers to seemingly insoluble problems. The film may at best be a long triple, but, to his credit, at least Spielberg is swinging for the fences.“
True, Steven Spielberg’s Munich includes some major missteps. I still wince when I remember Eric Bana and a pregnant Ayelet Zurer trysting while the Munich kidnappings go south. (The only equally terrible sex scene I can think of offhand would be Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Watchmen.) Nonetheless, Munich was a decently compelling thriller with its heart in the right place and an important message to convey in these dark times: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
The memorable last shot of the film, with the World Trade Center in the background, suggested that Munich was also intended as a pointed response to our foreign policy, post-9/11. But, of course, given how we ended up in Iraq soon after 9/11, a closer movie parallel would have shown Israel responding to the 1972 Olympics massacre by killing a bunch of random Belgians.
86. Meet the Parents (2000)
From the year-end list: “[S]urprisingly good. I expected schlock, and got a genuinely funny fall film.“
I didn’t see the sequel (Meet the Fockers), and definitely don’t plan to see the threequel (Little Fockers), which is on the dock for next year. But I remember Meet the Parents being a pretty quality time at the movies, all in all. (FWIW, other than Robert DeNiro generally hamming it up by trading in on his Taxi Driver cachet, the scene that first comes to mind these days is the water polo scene involving Owen Wilson and a slow-motion spike.) Maybe Noah Baumbach can give him a lift in next year’s Greenberg, but, as it is, this was also as funny as Ben Stiller got all decade.
From the original review: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…and, whatsmore, I liked it. Without a shred of redeeming social value, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City is a film very noir. It’s a sick, depraved, and smutty ride into a crime-ridden hellhole of a metropolis, exactly as it should be…Sin City turned out to be a visual marvel and easily Rodriguez’ best film since El Mariachi.“
From the year-end list: “One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)“
The movie that anticipated Mickey Rourke’s later Wrestler resurgence, Sin City was a crazy-sexy-cool stylistic experiment that remains the best thing Robert Rodriguez has ever been involved with. I missed The Spirit, which obviously went for a very similar look, and from everything I hear that was probably for the best. But in a perfect world, this is what Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy would have looked like back in 1990.
84. Bloody Sunday (2002)
Bloody Sunday was the first of many great movies made by Paul Greengrass in the Oughts, and it ably showed off the hyperreal, you-are-there documentary style he’d use to such great effect throughout the decade. True, it’s as yet unclear whether Greengrass has any other trick in his stylebook: Both of his forthcoming movies — Green Zone (Bourne IV, basically) and They Marched in Sunlight (on Vietnam-era protests) — sound very close to his previous projects, in terms of lending themselves to this hi-def documentarian conceit. Still, it’s a neat trick alright, and one I never grew tired of from Bloody Sunday on.
From the original review: “The movie is mostly episodic vignettes in the life of a broken family and at times suggests a more misanthropic Me, You, and Everyone We Know. But it also feels scarily authentic and is probably one of the most convincing — and wryly funny — depictions of divorce I’ve ever seen on film, with particular kudos going to Jeff Daniels as the sad sack father in this outfit.“
From the year-end list: “The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.“
He went off the rails a bit with 2007’s Margot at the Wedding, but Noah Baumbach (also the co-writer of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and a few other Wes Anderson projects) struck inky black gold with The Squid and the Whale, loosely based on his semi-famous parents’ smash-up. Squid is a bit broad at times — I’m thinking of Billy Baldwin’s tennis instructor in particular — but Jeff Daniels’ Oscar-overlooked performance as the poster child for pretentious (and miserable) academics makes up for a lot of mistakes.
From the original review: “We never really understand what’s going on, and I could see some folks getting frustrated with this film — usually, incomprehensibility is not a strong suit in movies. Still, for some reason, Primer works as a heady sci-fi tone poem about the cryptic (and dire) consequences of mucking about with the timestream. Mostly unfathomable, sure, but if you’re a fan of the genre, it’s definitely worth catching sometime…perhaps yesterday.“
From the year-end list: “A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible“
2009’s Paranormal Activity made the bigger box-office splash this decade, but Shane Carruth’s Primer was the original no-budget movie that could. A weird and trippy little number alright, Primer once again proved that smart ideas usually trump expensive FX when it comes to memorable sci-fi, even when those ideas are devilishly complicated. Who knows? If I ever write one, it might make my best of the Nineties list too.
81. American Psycho (2000)
Before Christian Bale was the Dark Knight, he made his (adult) name as another deeply nutty rich fella. Mary Harron’s jet-black satire of ’80s yuppie-dom, American Psycho, is one of those rare adaptations that improves on the source material (in this case, a rather lousy book by Bret Easton Ellis) in pretty much every way. It’s ultimately a slasher flick, sure, but from disquisitions on the Huey Lewis back-catalog to the high-stakes status war of business card fonts, there’s a lot of humor to be had amid the slaughter. And to his credit Bale, displaying the intensity he’d henceforth be known for both on-screen and off-, just goes for it, naked chainsawing and all.
From the original review: “Heath Ledger’s performance is engrossing, in part because you spend much of the film just trying to figure out what he’s thinking. At times, his character is taciturn to the point of being inarticulate. This speaks in favor of the film’s realism, I suppose — Ennis’s whole life after Brokeback is about caution, misdirection, and concealment….At the same time, though, Ledger seems like he’s underplaying an underwritten character…And that’s ultimately the modest problem with Brokeback Mountain, which is otherwise an excellent film — at times, it feels as somber, restrained, and delicate as Kabuki theater. Particularly in a film that warns of the dangers of bottling up passion, it’d be nice to have seen less Big Sky Country pageantry and more emotion from all the characters on-screen. If that wouldn’t have played in Peoria, so be it.“
From the year-end list: “A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.“
If “the Batman” broke out of the Newsies ghetto with American Psycho, the portrayer of his eventual arch-nemesis moved into the A-list with this Ang Lee romance. With its breathtaking Wyoming vistas, Brokeback looks amazing, and it has moments of real grace (like the haunting closing moment.) But, as J. Hoberman so well put it, this was also the “straightest love story since Titanic” Even more than Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, Brokeback seems like it won’t age very well. And, even if bottled-up passion is Ang Lee’s usual m.o., the movie’s demureness seems less an artistic choice than a product of its time, particularly when put up against Gus Van Sant’s more vibrant Milk, made only a few years later.
From the original review: “A loving throwback to the director’s Evil Dead days, and an audience film if there ever was one, [it] delivers a solidly entertaining two hours of low-budge comic mayhem, if you’re in the mood for it. It doesn’t really aspire to be anything more than what it is — a B-movie carnival funhouse. But taken as such, Drag Me to Hell offers thrills, chills, and (gross-out) spills with plenty of Raimi’s old-school tongue-in-cheek.“
From the year-end list: “Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks“
Drag Me to Hell isn’t up to the caliber of Sam Raimi’s magnum opus, Evil Dead 2. But it’s in the same goofy-scary key, even without Bruce Campbell around this time. Basically Drag Me to Hell works because it’s unabashedly no more or less than what it aspires to be — a fun, turn-your-brain-off, midnight B-movie. And taken as such, it’s pretty darned entertaining.
From the original review: “An intelligent, well-made throwback to the conspiracy-minded thrillers of the 1970s (such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor), first-time director Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton is a withering and mostly plausible excursion into the ethical dead zone that can emerge at the top levels of the money game…It’s an adult, believable thriller that’s well worth checking out, and George Clooney, as per the norm, is excellent.“
From the year-end list: “Clooney’s impeccable taste in projects continues with this, Tony Gilroy’s meditation on corporate malfeasance and lawyerly ethics (or lack thereof.)…A small film, in its way, but a worthwhile one.“
Here’s a movie that one could argue should be higher on the list. A study in grays, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton is an adult movie about conspiracy and compromise that has a lot going in its favor, including a solid anchoring performance by George Clooney and great work in the margins by Tom Wilkinson, Danny O’Keefe, and the late Sydney Pollack. I take off points for the convenient business with the horses and some of the artsy kerfuffling surrounding Tilda Swinton’s character, but Michael Clayton is nonetheless a very good film.
From the original review: “I found it a bit broad at times, particularly in the early going, and I definitely had to make a conscious decision to run with it. That being said, I thought The Fountain ultimately pays considerable dividends as a stylish, imaginative, and melancholy celebration of the inexorable cycle of life, from birth to death ad infinitum…I’m not sure you’ll like it — it’s very possible you’ll love it — but I’m willing to bet, either way, that it’ll stick with you.“
From the year-end list: “Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year…Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.“
Here’s another one I haven’t seen since that first screening in 2006, and I have a suspicion my positive reaction may not hold up so much on a second viewing. (Sitting next to Famke Janssen generally makes a movie seem better, no doubt.) Still, I admire The Fountain for what it tried to do, even if it doesn’t all quite work at times. There’s something to be said for a movie that so nakedly wears its heart on its sleeve.
From the original review: “As a documentary, The Fog of War sometimes gets clouded by its own cinematic devices…[but] the film works best when it’s simply an engaging monologue by an intelligent, evasive, and often frustrating Cold Warrior as he muses over a life perhaps not-so-well lived. “
From the year-end list: “[A] spry McNamara succeeds in penetrating the fog of time to examine how he himself became lost in the maze-like logic of war. If you can withstand the frequent Phillip Glass-scored barrages, it’s worth a see.“
Robert McNamara may have left us this past July, but his ghost haunts us still. The Oughts saw America engaged in two long wars that have moved in directions their planners did not intend or anticipate, and that we continue to wage this very moment. And, like almost all wars in human history, they’ve both been easier to start than finish. With another conflagration on his mind, T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Between the Idea and the Reality falls the Shadow.” Well, as McNamara and Errol Morris remind us here, when it comes to conflict, Between the Planning and the Execution lies The Fog of War. It’s something we’d do well to remember in the decade to come.
If you see him, say hello, he might be in Tangier. Or Paris, Madrid, London, New York, Moscow…uh, sir, we have Jason Bourne popping up all over the grid here. Shall I put it on One? As you have likely heard, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum — which I caught last Friday — is a top-notch surveillance thriller that’s easily in keeping with the high standard of excellence put down by Doug Liman in Identity and particularly Greengrass himself in Supremacy. In fact, if there’s a downside to this smart, visceral action flick, which is as excellent as any one can hope for, it’s that it serves to remind us how amazing a Greengrass Watchmen might’ve been. After Bloody Sunday, United 93, and the Bournes, all films characterized by their in-your-face immediacy and gripping visual realism, the man seems incapable of making a bad movie. In any case, he brought the goods here — The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t have much of a plot, but frankly it doesn’t need one. Like Yen in the suitcase, Jason Bourne is “the Modern Man, disconnected, frightened, paranoid for good reason.“…or at least the Modern Man as he’d aspire to be, if he could speak eight languages fluently, kick all kinds of ass with a library book, and always stay two steps ahead of the great Eye in the Sky.
As Ultimatum begins, we’re back in Moscow at the end of the last film: Bourne (Matt Damon) is on the run from Russian police (as a result of his bravura car chase with Karl Urban), he’s still walking with that limp (suffered from jumping off a bridge in…Amsterdam, was it?), and he’s still confused, amnesic, and obsessive about his origins as a lethal global assassin. So, when he begins experiencing flashbacks involving paunchy government bureaucrats — one of whom speaks with a well-known, recognizable croak — and an abusive interrogation involving hoods and waterboarding, Bourne, like a Frankenstein’s monster of the surveillance age, sets out anew on his mission to discover and confront his creators. (Uh, why doesn’t he just eliminate the middleman and head for Dick Cheney’s office?) In this quest for self-knowledge, Bourne is inadvertently aided by a crusading Guardian reporter (Paddy Considine, of In America and Hot Fuzz), who’s discovered that the super-secret government agency known as Treadstone may have been superseded by a new “sharp end of the stick,” Blackbriar. As you might imagine, this leak does not sit well with VIPs at Langley, so the CIA director (Scott Glenn, more craggy than ever) dispatches suits old (Joan Allen, returning as Pamela Landy) and new (David Strathairn, exuding intelligence in the Chris Cooper/Brian Cox role) to track down and eliminate the source, the reporter, Bourne, and anyone else who gets in their way. And thus the game is on…but who’s the cat and who’s the mouse here? This particular superspy wasn’t Bourne yesterday.
The rest of the film involves Bourne on the run, engaging and evading his would-be captors as much as possible in various scenic vistas around the globe. Yes, you could argue that we’ve seen this all before in the first two films — the CIA suits chattering away in vaguely menacing organizational jargon, the occasional hand-to-hand fisticuffs, the crunchy car carnage — Ultimatum definitely follows a template: Edgar Ramirez shows up in the Clive Owen/Karl Urban role, and Julia Stiles is back as Julia Stiles (and, I’m happy to say, does her best work of the series.) Or one might quibble that Bourne is a bit overpowered — even notwithstanding his superior reflexes, astounding peripheral vision, and brilliant gamesmanship, Bourne’s most powerful weapon might be his ability to induce convenient pangs of conscience among his adversaries at just the right time. But, the play’s the thing, and Greengrass succeeds in making Ultimatum an almost completely immersive experience regardless. Shadowy conversations are filmed from behind the shoulder, drawing attention to furtive eyes and pained grimaces. Observation cameras trace dangerous lines of sight across chaotic crowds, relentlessly seeking out their suspect. And, when the action breaks out…hoo boy. (I think I might’ve preferred the car chase in Supremacy to the very good one here, but there’s a fight in Morocco at one point that is a flat-out doozy.) By the final shot, which not brings the story full circle but recalls a haunting image of Franka Potente’s Marie from II and III, it’s clear that Greengrass is firing on all cylinders right now. I was already impressed with him, but Bourne further suggests that Greengrass is among the very best directors working today — Let’s hope he shares with us more surveillance intel in very short order.