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

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

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

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

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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

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

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

8. Before Sunset (2004)

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

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

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

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

7. No Country for Old Men (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. United 93 (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

5. In the Bedroom (2001)

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

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

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

4. The New World (2005)

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

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

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

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

3. I’m Not There (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Hottie and the Nottie (2008)

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

It’s coming…

It is…

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, wait a sec, that reminds me

Special Award. The Wire (2002-2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
No-Frills Version

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

The Oughts in Film: Part I (100-76).

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.

And now, the real list. Here we go…

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
Part I: 100-76

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


100. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)

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.


99. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

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.”


97. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

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.


96. The Quiet American (2002)

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.


95. The Savages (2007)

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.


94. About a Boy (2002)

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.


93. The Matrix: Reloaded (2003)

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.)


92. L’Auberge Espagnole (2003)

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.


91. King Kong (2005)

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.


90. Capote (2005)

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.


89. Star Trek (2009)

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.


88. Inside Man (2006)

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.


87. Munich (2005)

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.


85. Sin City (2005)

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.


83. The Squid and the Whale (2005)

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.


82. Primer (2004)

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.


80. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

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.


79. Drag Me to Hell (2009)

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.


78. Michael Clayton (2007)

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.


77. The Fountain (2006)

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.


76. The Fog of War (2003)

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.

Part II (75-51) is now up

Regarding Harvey. | (And Rick.)

It took awhile to get here, but Gus Van Sant’s timely and vibrant biopic Milk, which I caught on Christmas day, is well worth the wait. In a year that witnessed a former community organizer take his message of hope all the way to the White House, and saw a majority of Californians vote for legislating and invalidating their neighbors’ marriages (my favorite pin: “Can we vote on your marriage now?“), Milk couldn’t feel any more of the moment. (If anything, I wish Milk had come out before the Prop 8 vote, when it might’ve done some good.) 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.

My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” So began the oft-repeated speel of the San Francisco city supervisor and “Mayor of Castro Street,” who, in 1977 and after several attempts, became the first openly gay official elected to office in the US. But, seven years before those heady days, Milk (Sean Penn) was just a 40-year-old insurance man (and Republican, even), living a closeted life of quiet desperation in NYC. After a chance encounter and illicit proposition becomes an impromptu birthday party, Milk and new beau Scott Smith (James Franco) fall in love, talk about starting over, and decide to go West. Life is peaceful there…or is it? Even as Milk’s camera shop in the gay-friendly Castro district becomes a salon of artists, thinkers, and free spirits, bigotry is rampant even in the streets of San Francisco, and the cops at best turn a blind eye to — and at worst actively participate in — antigay violence. No more, says Milk. Taking a page from the ethnic political machines of an earlier century, he organizes Castro’s gays and lesbians into first a protest movement and then an organized voting and boycotting bloc. And when a redistricting plan emphasizing community self-rule in San Francisco is put into effect, Milk becomes an actual, legitimate political wheeler-and-dealer, with all the benefits and aggravations attending. (For more on the man and the movement, see the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, now on Hulu for free.)

But, even as Harvey Milk rises to power in San Fran, a parallel movement stirs amid the churches and suburbs of Orange County. Led by former beauty queen, singer, and orange juice shiller Anita Bryant, the ever-so-Christian “Save Our Children” campaign gathers steam across the nation in its quest to roll back what meager protections gays and lesbians have managed to establish over the years. And when conservative state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare, seemingly forever destined to play assholes) brings the fight west in the form of Proposition 6, an initiative that would ban gays and lesbians from public schools, the battle for California is on. And even as Milk becomes the poster boy against Prop 6 and for recognizing gays and lesbians as full citizens and fellow human beings, he has to contend with trouble on the homefront — not only in his personal life (his new boyfriend Jack (Diego Luna) is more than a little erratic) but in his political backyard, where supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), from the Catholic, working-class district next door, is starting to act increasingly unstable. (But, I guess this is what happens when society is so permissive as to let a man get all hopped up on twinkies.)

Which reminds me: A word of appreciation for Josh Brolin’s work here. Sean Penn is garnering kudos across the board, and a likely Oscar nod, for his portrayal of Milk, and they’re very well-deserved. It’s really an astonishing transformation Penn accomplishes here — not so much because he’s playing someone who’s gay (homosexual), but because he’s playing someone who’s gay (happy).This is the same guy who sulked through Mystic River?) And, while Brolin will likely — and, imho, justifiably in the end — get edged out for Best Supporting Actor by Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, his work here suggests he’s got some serious chops. At first it seems as if Brolin will just be coasting on his recent Dubya impression — another good-natured, hard-hearted conservative fratboy for the resume. Then, just as you think Brolin’s endangering himself in terms of typecasting, it’s suggested Dan White might also be a deeply repressed closet case. (I tend to find the argument that all frothing-at-the-mouth homophobes are in reality trapped in the closet to be too simplistic by half, but apparently there’s some grounding for it in White’s story. In any case, Brolin underplays it beautifully ) As Milk progresses, we begin to sense other reasons why White is such a strange and ultimately homicidal bird — he’s envious of Harvey, he feels personally screwed over by him, he’s something of a friendless wonder, he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree anyway, he feels trapped by, and powerless before, the authority figures in his life (his wife, his cop buddies, his church). Brolin lets all of this play out without tipping his hand in any one direction. It’s a subtle, complex, and very worthwhile performance, and it’s a testament to the film’s heart that it extends such empathy even to its ostensible antagonist.

Speaking of empathy, this isn’t at all a surprise coming from Gus Van Sant, always a very humanistic director, but it should be noted regardless: When it comes to full recognition of gays and lesbians, Milk laudably practices what it preaches. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was good for its time, but nowadays (it’s on heavy rotation on AMC) it gives off a distinctly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? vibe. And, as I said when it came out, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain often seemed “as somber, restrained, and delicate as Kabuki theater.” By contrast, the couples of Milk are passionate — both physically and emotionally — messy, flawed, and alive. Of course, there have been other well-rounded depictions of gays and lesbians in film in the past — in Van Sant’s earlier work, in the films of other gay directors like Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, and Kimberly Peirce, and in countless others. Still, Milk feels like an event of sorts. Unlike many of its forebears, it’s a mainstream Oscar-caliber movie that just takes its characters’ sexuality at face value and without apology. In that sense, it feels like a film whose time has come.

*****

I said earlier that Dan White was ostensibly the villain of Milk, but that’s not entirely true. Rather, to its credit, the film is pretty bold about pointing the finger where the trouble really lies: at the conservative-minded legions of organized Christendom — or at the very least its right-wing, for-profit flank — who’ve decided that arbitrarily upholding one proscription mentioned in passing in the Old Testament (shellfish, anyone?), and then ruthlessly enforcing it on the backs of their neighbors and co-workers, is more important than upholding the central tenet of the actual teachings of Jesus: “Love one another.” (Along those lines, expect a good bit of “godless liberal Hollywood” bluster from the usual corners if this film gets any Oscar buzz.)

Which brings us to that Wal-Mart of spirituality, Rick Warren, who as you all know will be delivering the invocation at Obama’s inauguration this month, and who has said all manner of intemperate things about gays and lesbians (as well as jews, pro-choice voters, and others) in the past, even going so far as to campaign for Prop 8 in California two months ago.

Now, when the Rick Warren pick first came out, I didn’t say anything here for two reasons. One was deeply selfish: That was the week I was finishing up my speechwriting app, and it didn’t seem like the most opportune time to be too critical of the administration around here at GitM. (In the end, it didn’t matter anyway, of course.) More importantly, though, I am — and still partly remain — of the mind that the bigger picture needs to be kept in mind here. If it keeps the right-wing fundies relatively happy and docile, and helps them to buy into the notion of a post-partisan Obama presidency, then Rick Warren can give all the one minute ceremonial speeches he wants, so long as Obama ultimately shows himself a friend to gay and lesbian rights in his presidential actions.

But, there’s a sequence in Milk that brought me around a bit. When Dan White mentions the “issue” of gay rights in one crucial scene, Harvey replies: “These are not issues, Dan. These are our lives we’re fighting for.” And, put that way, the calculus changes. To straight progressive folk such as myself, one can easily — too easily — get to thinking of gay rights as an “issue” among many. But, for gays and lesbians all around the country, this is their lives. And, when considered thusly, the president of these United States — least of all a president who ran and won on a campaign of hope — should not be legitimizing bigotry, such as that continuously expressed by Warren without apology, in any kind of forum, let alone the most portentous and culturally significant inauguration in at least fifty years, perhaps ever.

In an eloquent column last week, the NYT‘s Frank Rich articulated basically where I stand on Obama’s decision at this point: His choice of Warren is “no Bay of Pigs. But it does add an asterisk to the joyous inaugural of our first black president. It’s bizarre that Obama, of all people, would allow himself to be on the wrong side of this history.” Let’s hope that Obama doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the last Democratic president, who very quickly started backpedaling on gay rights once in office, vis a vis “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And, while I’m sure he’s pretty busy these days, the president-elect (apparently a movie buff of sorts) could do worse than spend a few hours to reflect on the story of another community-organizer who believed in the transformative power of hope, who carried the hopes of his constitutents into higher office…and who faced unflinching and unwavering contempt from an irreconcilable opposition once he got there.

Lust in Translation.

Attempting to be Last Tango in Shanghai by way of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, or at the very least to cast straight sex in as taboo a light as the gay love of Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is, the lurid promise of its NC-17 rating notwithstanding, sadly a bit dull. As with most of Lee’s oeuvre, the film is ravishingly beautiful throughout, and it recreates WWII Shanghai much more evocatively than, say, Soderbergh’s The Good German did Berlin. But, at two hours and forty minutes, the film also feels overlong, and its central conceit — female agent deep undercover, deep under the covers — is burdened with entirely too much in the way of backstory. Lust, Caution isn’t a bad film by any means, but, its occasional explicitness notwithstanding, it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable one either.

As Lust, Caution begins, it’s 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, and four wealthy women, seemingly above the harsh impositions of wartime, exchange gossip and veiled state intel over a friendly game of Mahjong. Among this quartet are Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen), wife of the secret police chief (Tony Leung), and one Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei), the young and beautiful spouse of a Hong Kong importer. But, as we soon discover (after she leaves the game and makes a suspicious phone call in an English cafe), Mak Tai Tai does not in fact exist. Rather, we are to learn in a very extended flashback (it’s Michael Clayton all over again), she is Wong Chia Chi, a resistance agent whose journey to that Mahjong table began four years earlier, as a displaced schoolgirl in Hong Kong. Falling under the spell of a handsome, earnest young patriot (Wang Lee Horn) then, Wong, a lover of movies, begins appearing in nationalistic plays to much acclaim. And, when it is decided by her schoolyard coterie of six that more drastic action should be taken to fight the Japanese invader, she takes on the role of an importer’s wife to lure a key collaborationist, the aforementioned Mr. Yee, to his demise.

But trapping Mr. Yee poses several quandaries for these budding freedom fighters. For one, there is the rather delicate matter of how an inexperienced virgin could pass for a married woman. For another, this Yee is no provincial rube, but a man who’s at once deeply careful and extremely untrusting. Most problematic, Mr. Yee is no ugly, oafish lout, but the one-and-only Tony Leung, and hardly anybody in this world looks better smoking artfully in period suits than Tony Leung. Nevertheless, the kids go for it…with mixed results. And, when a spy is needed by the real Resistance to trap Mr. Yee a few years down the line, they find one ready-made in Wong, who takes on her role anew with even higher stakes. Only now, she discovers, Mr. Yee is more cruel than he first lets on, and very much into the rough stuff, sexually speaking. And, more to the point, once the Pandora’s Box of her own sexuality has been jarred open by Yee, Wong begins to lose herself in the part, to the detriment of all…

WWII spies, steamy, illicit sex…this seems like it should be an enticing concoction, to be sure…obviously it was right up Verhoeven’s alley in Black Book. But, as several reviewers have put it, Lust, Caution turns out to be much more cautious than it is lustful. Even if you factor out the extra hour of padding here, that’s a problem. Ang Lee’s films, among them Crouching Tiger, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback, have always been noted for their delicacy and artful restraint, which is frankly why he may not have been the best choice for this material, about a couple who lose themselves in sexual passion. The much-discussed sex scenes aren’t as puritanically minded as the nightmare visions of Requiem for a Dream, but there’s a definite coldness and frigidity about them, as if neither participant is having very much fun. They’re not so much erotic as they are animalistic, all acrobatic contortions and grunted yelps. I guess you could argue that’s the point — the two are driven not by love at all but by an inexplicable earthy necessity, and Lee even cuts to a growling German shepherd to forward that idea along. But, if that’s the case, if it’s all just physical — then why — spoiler here — when a key slip-up is made by one of the lovers, doesn’t it happen while in the throes of passion, rather than when one is presented with the sight of a shiny (dare I say gaudy?) bauble?

The acting in Lust, Caution is universally good, with special plaudits going to Tang Wei and Tony Leung. And sex is usually handled so sophomorically in films that I feel bad for faulting Lee’s unabashed use of it to further the story along here. But take away those few explicit scenes, and you’re left with a rather conventional snooze of a cloak-and-dagger movie, however lusciously filmed. And even the sex here could’ve used some of the sensuous warmth of Shanghai-born Wong Kar-Wai’s work. Sadly, when it comes to lust and caution in this film, Lust, Caution pretty much foregoes the red-light, and ends up raising more red flags than a Mao rally.

Go Tell It on the Mountain.

The 2006 Oscar nominations are announced, with, to noone’s surprise, Brokeback Mountain leading the pack. Most of the major categories seem to be already locked up — Picture (Brokeback), Director (Ang Lee), Actor (Hoffman for Capote), Actress (Witherspoon for Walk the Line, barring a Huffman upsurge), Supporting Actress (Weisz, The Constant Gardener.) Of the Best Picture candidates (Brokeback, Capote, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck), the only one I haven’t seen is Crash, but given its very mixed reviews, I’d be extremely surprised if it’s a better movie than Syriana or The New World.

Biggest snub? Jeff Daniels should be in Best Supporting Actor for The Squid and the Whale (William Hurt took his slot for A History of Violence.) Speaking of Supporting Actor, that category’s a two-man race between Clooney for Syriana and Paul Giamatti for Sideways. Giamatti’s been nominated for Cinderella Man, but many of his votes will be for the prior, passed-over film, just as Jim Broadbent won for Iris (over Ian McKellen as Gandalf) because of his performance in Moulin Rouge. Also, say what you will about Episode III, but it should be nominated in the visual effects category, even if Kong should win.

The most competitive of the major awards looks to be in the original screenplay division (Adapted will go to Team Brokeback, McMurtry & Ossana). If Clooney doesn’t win director or supporting actor, he could very well win here for GN & GL. Or, the academy might decide to reward a movie they otherwise overlooked: Syriana, Squid & the Whale, or Match Point. Hard to say — I guess I’ll go with GN & GL for now.

Golden Year.

As you probably saw, the Golden Globe winners were announced, with Brokeback Mountain (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay) and Walk the Line (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, all on the Comedy-Musical side) cleaning up. (Other winners included Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote, Felicity Huffman for Transamerica, George Clooney for Syriana, and Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener) With the exception of Weisz, no real surprises. I’d like to have seen Jeff Daniels take something home for The Squid and the Whale, but Phoenix was a fine choice too.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: 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.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: 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.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. 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.

9. Sin City: 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.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, 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.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: 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.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): 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.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Mountain of Gold.

The 2005 Golden Globe nominees are announced, with Brokeback Mountain (7 nods) and Good Night, and Good Luck (4 nods) the big winners and Syriana (2: Clooney for Supporting Actor & Best Score), King Kong (2: PJ for Best Director & Best Score), and Munich (2: Spielberg for Director and Best Screenplay) for the most part overlooked. (Despite what the official website says, All the King’s Men has been kicked to 2006.) Brokeback seems to have the early lead, but I’d say the field is pretty open in most categories (although Philip Seymour Hoffman as Best Actor for Capote seems likely.)

Brokedown Palace.


Brokeback Mountain, which I caught last night, is a somber, slow-moving, and ultimately rather mournful film, but a worthwhile one, and it’s a return-to-form for Ang Lee after his atrocious attempt at The Hulk. In fact, you can see shades of his Hulk, and particularly The Ice Storm, in this tale of two young men who meet, fall in love, and subsequently spend their lives trying to escape the constraints of society once or twice a year amid the photogenic peaks of Wyoming. All three Ang Lee films are stories about the calamitous consequences of repression, and how readily it can become redirected into anger, bitterness, and melancholy, with the elemental forces of the natural world as a backdrop. As such, Brokeback (which was filmed in Alberta) includes some amazing Western landscapes throughout. And, to borrow from my Cold Mountain review back in the day, they also act as a pretty solid metaphor for this film, which is absorbing and gorgeously shot, yet in the end also somewhat cool and remote.

Both the strength and the weakness of the film lies in Heath Ledger’s performance as Ennis Del Mar, the more reticent of the pair. (Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as Jack Twist, a much more communicative character — in a way, and particularly in the early scenes, when Gyllenhaal hoops and hollers like a natural-born extrovert, he doesn’t seem all that far removed from his recent stint in Jarhead.) 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. (As a child, Ennis is quite literally “scared straight” by his father, who goes out of his way to show him the gory consequences of an anti-gay hate crime.) At the same time, though, Ledger seems like he’s underplaying an underwritten character, and as such it becomes harder than it might should be to get inside his head and feel the story. (That being said, the very last scene in the film is a masterstroke, far more powerful than a somewhat similar sequence at the end of A History of Violence.)

So, how will this movie play in Middle America, where gay-camp has hit the mainstream (“Queer Eye,” “Will & Grace”) but, at least judging by ballot initiatives, gay marriage is still bizarrely considered a threat to the American way of life? To be honest, I don’t know. Perhaps the “gay cowboy” angle will keep people away, which would be unfortunate. Speaking of which, the “gay cowboy” thing is a bit of a misnomer — For one, they’re sheepherders, not cowboys; for another, they don’t identify themselves as gay or straight, so much as simply in love. That both partners are men is a quirk of Fate…At times, both are mystified by the powerful connection between them. And, one early sex scene excepted, the film is really rather staid about the relationship between the two. (As J. Hoberman noted, “Brokeback Mountain is the most straightforward love story — and in some ways the straightest — to come out of Hollywood, at least since Titanic.“) Yet, even in bluest of the blue NYC, many in the audience cracked up at the sight of Michelle Williams (Ledger’s real-life love interest, here his wife) catching Ennis and Jack in full embrace. And, as least as I could tell, there’s nothing funny about this scene of infidelity, and you could hardly say it was played for laughs.

At any rate, Williams and Anne Hathaway (as Jack’s wife) are both good here as well, although like Ennis they seem underwritten and (particularly Hathaway) at times inscrutable. (And keep an eye out for Anna Faris and Linda Cardellini, both of whom are actresses I root for and was surprised to see here…hopefully better roles will soon be in the offing for Lindsey Weir.) 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. Still, I think it would’ve made the central dilemma between our two lovers that much more trenchant and tragic if we glimpsed more potency of feeling from these often expressionless people. But perhaps that’s just the code of the West: As Ennis says, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.

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