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Denis O’Hare

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2013 in Film.

A very happy 2014 to you and yours. As always, there are a few 2013 movies I’d still like to catch up on (The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, The Grandmaster, Short Term 12) and a few others waiting to be watched on the Netflix machine (Warm Bodies, Kon-Tiki, Berberian Sound Studio.) Nonetheless, a new year means it’s time for the annual GitM movie round-up, and 2013 isn’t getting any closer in the rear-view.

Like last year, I’ve gone on longer than usual to make up for the lack of reviews throughout the year. Overall, I’d say that, in spite of a disconcertingly bland summer full of films that needed major rewrites, 2013 ended up yielding a surprisingly bumper crop at the movies, as good as last year’s fare and arguably the deepest year since 2007. So without further ado, let’s get to the…

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

1. 12 Years a Slave: As someone who was underwhelmed by Hunger and outright hated Shame, I was as surprised as anyone that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave turned out to be the movie of the year. But as it happened, McQueen’s penchant for cold, painterly compositions of suffering and depravity was a perfect fit for this harrowing descent into America’s peculiar institution.

With all due respect to Michael Fassbender’s turn as the dissolute sadist Edwin Epps, the better performances in 12 Years a Slave are underplayed. As Solomon Northrop, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who first showed he had star wattage to spare ten years ago in Dirty Pretty Things — obviously carries the weight of the film, and he manages to subtly convey his character’s determination losing out to despair. Sarah Paulson’s work may not be as showy here as that of the Bender of Fass, but she is just as effective at illustrating the way antebellum slavery warped the mindset of the master class. (As the Cumber of Batch vignette points out, even a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant.)

And, in a powerful cameo, moving about and berating his room of wares with a heartless dispatch, Paul Giamatti chillingly captures the cruelty and obscenity of the slave trade, in which children become commodities and family ties a nuisance to be overcome. (If the film’s producer, Brad Pitt, really wanted to make a bold statement, he’d have switched roles with Giamatti — As it is, his white savior turn here is the only real misstep in the movie.)

Obviously, this film is a hard watch at times, but, doggone it, it should be. After decades of dancing around the topic in anything from Gone with the Wind to Gods and Generals — even last year’s revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, mitigated the real horrors of slavery by giving its title character so much agency — 12 Years a Slave offers a steady, unblinking gaze at the underbelly of our republic, and underscores the grim reality so often obscured by our founding fictions: Only a century and a half ago, a great and terrible darkness festered in our erstwhile land of liberty, and its ramifications did not just disappear at Appomattox. If the audience ends up feeling like Pippen holding the palantir at more than a few moments throughout this tale, well that’s the point. Our past is complicated, and it’s time we did a better job of recognizing it.

2. Before Midnight: Speaking of truths that hurt, Richard Linklater’s third stanza in the ballad of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) captures another dark and fundamental one: However potent at first, love can be a tricky business after awhile. As I said in the Best of the Oughts list (where Before Sunset clocked in at #8), I can take or leave Before Sunrise — I saw it at an age when I was already far too cynical for it — but adored Before Sunset, and that’s still probably my favorite of the three. But Midnight is right up there, and I really admire Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy’s decision to take us into colder, murkier waters this time.

True, the first hour of this movie can seem a little unfocused: I didn’t mind spending all that time at a dinner party with characters we’ve never met, but it made the film feel a bit more like Linklater’s Slacker or Waking Life, both of which are given to a lot of random philosophical musing at the expense of forward momentum. But when Jesse and Celine go off for a walk by themselves, the movie starts to click again. And the last forty minutes or so are absolutely electric, as [spoiler] our two former lovebirds, ostensibly spending a romantic evening at a couple’s hotel, instead find themselves engaged in a knock-down, drag-out Airing of the Grievances that will ring all-too-true to anyone’s who ever been in a long-term relationship, on the rocks or otherwise.

Instead of giving us anything like a feel-good rom-com this time around (and seemingly much to the horror of some of the dumbstruck-looking couples at my showing…oof, Date Night Fail) — Before Midnight opts for a much more realistic and unflinching portrayal of a romance that, over the years, has accumulated its share of fractures, bruises, and silences. I’m not sure where the story goes from here, but definitely count me in for Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly the river to the one that I love.” Given the confluence of the Coens and the Sixties folk revival here, this always seemed like a good bet to be one of my top movies of the year. As it happened, I did really like Llewyn Davis — but it’s also both a pricklier and jauntier film than I originally expected.

Even by Coen standards, the film has very little plot to speak of. We just follow Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, like Ejiofor another actor who’s been turning in excellent character work over the years) a folk singer as talented as he is unlucky and self-defeating, as he shambles around New York — playing gigs at the Gaslight, herding cats, and generally trying to stay afloat in the pre-Dylan scene. This is partly like the story of Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography the Coens began with, and partly another artist-adrift-in-the-world-of-commerce story akin to Barton Fink — except, this time, Llewyn probably actually deserves to make it.

Especially in the random escapade to Chicago in the middle of the film, you get the sense that the Coens had no real interest in telling a traditional story here. Carey Mulligan (who, as it happens, played Oscar Isaac’s wife in Drive) starts out seeming like an important character and then just fades into that beautifully nostalgic freewheelin’ mist that permeates the look of the film. Other actors — Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham — appear for a few bars and move on.

I suppose the aimlessness of Llewyn could rankle. (One of my gradual school friends has a great theory about this – Llewyn Davis is folk-song as movie, with a deliberately elliptical structure and repeated refrains.) But I myself loved the look and feel of this film (the quality folk renditions don’t hurt either), and I appreciated its basic folk-song conceit: Sometimes, Hard Times are just a fact of life. If Llewyn was operating only a year or two later, he’d be a beneficiary of the Dylan boom (or, at the very least, a Phil Ochs type figure.) As it is, he’s just a unlucky soul, doing what he does best even while likely going under for the final time. I can’t wait to see this movie again, and to see what the Coens have up their sleeves next.

4. The World’s End: In a summer of way too many dumb and bloated duds, Edgar Wright’s third chapter in the Cornetto Trilogy was very welcome counter-programming, and a smart, winsome night out with the lads. Of course, any time you have pros like Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy working in your ensemble, the final product should come out rather droll indeed. Still, this was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, and props to Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for crafting a film that felt fresh even while mining similar territory as their previous installments, Shaun of the Dead (folks being frightfully British in the face of robot/zombie hordes) and Hot Fuzz (strange things afoot, and the elders up to no good, in a wee English village.)

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: At last, the Incident with the Dragon. This is actually the lowest any of PJ’s Middle Earth films have ever been on a year-end list, which is partly due to the strength of the movies already mentioned, and partly because this was the first time in five films that I felt like Jackson et al have lost the thread a bit.

Bilbo facing Smaug in a Game of Wits is the climactic confrontation of this entire story, but here its impact is diminished considerably by (a) the movie suddenly cutting to Legolas squaring off against a made-up end-boss Orc and (b) a long and contrived scheme, right out of Alien 3, whereby Thorin and the dwarves try to confuse the Old Wyrm with a large golden statue of Durin. This plan not only robs Smaug of menace by making him seem like a blind idiot. (Smaug the Terrible, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, can’t manage to squash a single measly dwarf?) It’s another setpiece, not unlike the barrel ride earlier in the film and the escape from the goblin tunnels in An Unexpected Journey, where video game physics have completely taken hold of the picture. (It’s “The Desolation of Mario,” as one wag put it.)

So why is this still way up at #5? Well, I still relish being in Middle Earth, the occasional cartoony antics notwithstanding, and there’s a lot to like here, from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo to the hallucinations and spiders of Mirkwood to Gandalf at Dol Guldur to the character design of Benny CumberSmaug. I could have done without the Team Legolas/Team Kili stuff, but Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is otherwise a solid addition to the saga. And I just have a soft spot for these films — here’s hoping the third film doesn’t drift too far afield into fan fiction.

6. Gravity: [Spoilers in this review] Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is up this high because it (along with Smaug) was the purest eye candy of the year — just a breathtakingly beautiful film at times, and well worth the extra price for IMAX 3D. (It’s also easily the best of the three space-mission-gone-wrong movies in 2013, though Europa Report isn’t half-bad.)

Unfortunately Gravity was also, let’s face it, schmaltzy as all hell — I wish Cuaron had had enough trust in his story and audience to forego, for example, cornball conversations about Bullock’s lost kid. And, even notwithstanding how close all the space stations are to each other here (a plot point I can forgive even though it too is absurd), the ultimate fate of Clooney’s endlessly jabbering astronaut is just a gross violation of basic physics. (And moving from the impossible to the improbable, I’d have been less annoyed by the end if Bullock had splashed down in the middle of nowhere, instead of twenty feet from paradise.)

All that being said, did I mention this film is beautiful? The space walk stuff alone would put it in the top ten.

7. All is Lost: Still, I really wish Gravity had taken a few pages from another memorable survivor story of 2013, J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. (Although to be fair, sailors apparently have gripes about this one also.) We never really find out anything about Robert Redford’s backstory in this movie, except that he’s 1%’er enough to own a spiffy yacht and curmudgeonly enough to be sailing it alone in the Indian Ocean. And, after a scene-setting monologue at the beginning, Redford (“Our Man”) barely says a word in this movie. Instead, his character is defined entirely by his actions, and the film’s considerable suspense comes. not from lathering on excess sentimentality like a paste, but merely from seeing a fellow human in a very bad situation, and witnessing an almost primal retelling of the Old Man and the Sea.

8. American Hustle: I feel like, the significantly overpraised Silver Linings Playbooks notwithstanding, David O. Russell’s movies usually come in around the 7 or 8 spot every year, and American Hustle is no exception. Well-made, well-acted, well-written, Hustle is an engaging and entertaining Who’s-Conning-Who story of New Jersey grifters, set against the real-life story of Abscam and a healthy smattering of Seventies glitz. With strong work across the board (and from Christian Bale and Amy Adams in particular), Hustle also happens to contain the first honest-to-goodness performance I’ve seen from Robert DeNiro since…I dunno, Casino? In any case, well worth seeing.

9. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass had also a mulligan with Green Zone, but he’s another director who can be reliably trusted to deliver quality, and Captain Phillips — give or take ten clunky and moralizing minutes at the beginning — is no exception. Like the more resonant United 93, this is another gripping You Are There dramatization of a recent Bad Day on Earth, and like that earlier film, Greengrass makes sure to humanize and contextualize the bad guys — this time, the Somali pirates who are basically plying the only trade available to them.

As per De Niro above, it’s also good to see Tom Hanks giving a real performance here, and not just phoning it in or coasting on his star power. Apparently, he attributes it to his recent experience in last year’s Cloud Atlas, which marks another way that film, an interesting failure, is underappreciated.

10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: He’s not a Russell or a Greengrass, but Francis Lawrence is another director who tends to make genre films — for example, I am Legend and Constantine — that are better than you’d expect them to be. And despite the fact that he’s operating from a more unwieldy book — I have no idea how they’re going to wrest two more blockbuster films out of Collins’ strange, admirably downbeat Mockingjay — Lawrence’s Catching Fire is a more immersive experience than the first Hunger Games movie, which, all apologies to Gary Ross, felt rote and by-the-numbers.

Did I love Catching Fire? No, not really – It hit at about the level of the later Harry Potter films. But much like the movie I have in the “most unfairly maligned” box below, I think you’d be hard-pressed to craft a better film from the source material, particularly given the constraint of continuing with the same actors from the first one. (I know Jennifer Lawrence is America’s sweetheart or whatever, but imho she’s still miscast here. Just because she was in Winter’s Bone doesn’t make her a perfect Katniss.) And, in any event, it’s great fun to see pros like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer work their way into the Panem proceedings.

11. Nebraska: Like the next film on this list, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is an auteur movie I admired but didn’t necessarily engage with. This all feels a bit like deja vu, partly because of similarly-themed road trips like The Straight Story, but more because Payne seems to be covering a lot of the same ground here that he did in About Schmidt, from June Squibb not taking any guff to the goofy, to the point of being uncharitable, extended family of the main character. (Jack Nicholson had to contend with Dermot Mulroney and his mullet; Now it’s Bruce Dern and Will Forte versus two greedy ex-jailbird twins. There’s also elements of The Descendants here, with Forte and George Clooney both discovering secrets about their loved ones after they become their caretakers.)

Still, with its storefront facades crumbling in luscious black-and-white, Nebraska works best as a gentle and elegaic reflection on the passing of a certain kind of small-town, 20th century America — this is probably the most sympathetic argument you’ll find for the Tea Party vision of the USA — and a reminder, a la “That Was Your Mother”, that your parents and grandparents had their own lives that you, as their kids, will never fully “get.” And if nothing else, it’s nice to see Bruce Dern, who’s put in fifty years of solid character work now, get this kind of extended curtain call.

12. Her: I admittedly had stratospheric hopes for Spike Jonze’ Her, which has been billed as a direct descendant of my favorite movie of last decade, Eternal Sunshine. And, well, I really liked the near-future sheen of the production — its light satire of current media, its slightly-out-of-step fashions, and especially its gorgeous hybrid Los Angeles-Shanghai cityscape. This is an artful and mostly well-thought-out piece of science fiction, made with delicacy and driven by ideas rather than special effects, and that’s always welcome.

But as a love story? Er….not so much. Put aside the criticism that this is a movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in love with a box, although I can definitely see why that’d be a dealkiller for some. Even if you accept the science fiction here, and allow that Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is her own free-thinking entity, the vision of love being offered here is basically one never-ending phone call, where both people are constantly talking about their feelings. That’s true love? That…sounds exhausting. (Ask anyone I’ve ever dated – I’m not one for the phone. I text or e-mail.)

Not to say that true romance has to have a physical component, although in my experience it definitely helps. (And speaking of Samantha constantly lamenting her lack of physical form, I call shenanigans on the idea that civilization will somehow develop true AI before creepy love robots, but I digress.) To me, romance is also about simply experiencing things together — movies, music, dinner, travel, in-jokes. I suppose there’s some of that in Her – Theodore and his OS go to the beach and whatnot, but much more often it just seems to be a constant state-of-the-relationship phone call. No thanks.

Put another way, Her ends up being a lot like the fake letters that Theodore (rather improbably) writes for a living: An impeccably crafted simulacrum of romantic connection, Her relies on constant professions of feeling to cover up the fact that it’s really just a well-made artifice.

13. Spring Breakers: Along with survival stories and harrowing space missions, another trend of 2013 were films that used either Youths Gone Wild and/or beach-ready hardbodies as a metaphor for the contemporary (and sickly) American Dream: See, for example, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Don Jon. Of these, the best was, strangely enough, Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory bacchanal, Spring Breakers — a movie that sticks in your head like gum on your shoe.

Spring Breakers is undoubtedly inchoate and repetitive, and it can’t seem to decide if it wants to revel in trashiness, send it up, or go dumpster-diving for the lost innocence underneath. (Watch James Franco and his muses croon Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and tell me what you think.) But there still seems to be a method to the madness. Basically, this is Fear and Loathing in St. Petersburg, a savage and surreal journey into one of America’s playgrounds of frenetic excess, and James Franco is our Raoul Duke. “Spreng brayyke, Spreng brAYYke, forever.”

14. Upstream Color: And speaking of hallucinatory and surreal journeys, Shane Carruth returned from his extended post-Primer hiatus to bring us this bizarre, intermittently captivating disquisition on love in the time of possession by parasites and animal-human hybrids. (Hey, if Joaquin Phoenix can adore an iPhone, why can’t Amy Seimetz and Carruth find fulfillment in their respective ManBearPigs?)

Like Primer, Upstream Color is mostly inscrutable the first time around — if it helps, I can tell you mindworms, acoustics, and pig daemons are involved — and I can see people just finding it pretentious and annoying. But, for what it’s worth, I found segments of Upstream Color evocative and entrancing, even if I had no clue what was going on. Sometimes you just go along for the ride.

15. Prisoners: [Spoilers in this review] It’s been awhile — Sunshine, maybe? — since I’ve seen an otherwise excellent movie crash and burn so miserably in the last reel like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. For the first two hours or so, this film — a story of missing children and their bereft parents, who have their eye on an all-too-likely suspect — is a powerful police procedural and grim disquisition on vigilantism that burns slowly and intensely. If it had ended earlier (and differently), Prisoners would be a top 10 film this year, and could plausibly be mentioned in the same conversation as, say, Mystic River, Zodiac, and even In the Bedroom.

That being said, I got a bad feeling when, late in the movie, suitcases full of snakes suddenly enter the investigation. And, sure enough, soon thereafter, an individual who had only been conspicuously cast up to that point (a la Stellan Skarsgard in the Dragon Tattoo remake) suddenly starts chewing scenery like one of the redneck family from The X-Files, and what had seemed a thoughtful exercise about the agony of un-knowing suddenly becomes a half-baked retread of The Vanishing. Alas, until that last-minute lurch, Prisoners was quite a good film, with Hugh Jackman particularly memorable as a father whose berserker rage would make Wolverine blanch.

16. Iron Man 3: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, which came out the first week of May, looks like an even better film in retrospect, given how many tentpoles stumbled later in the summer. While not as engaging as 2012’s The Avengers, it’s clearly an improvement on Tony Stark’s botched second adventure, and closer to the quality of the first one. And while I don’t want to spoil the (now contentious in fanboy circles) big twist, I actually loved being blindsided by it: Black basically used comic book folks’ foreknowledge against us, and, under everyone’s noses, pulled off a clever switcheroo that also works as very dark political satire. Well-played.

17. The Great Gatsby: Well, to be fair, F. Scott Fitzgerald did call it “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” In 3D, Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed, overlong adaptation of The Great Gatsby is like too-rich chocolate cake — It’s fun for awhile, until you start to feel a little sickly. But that’s also sort of the point of the book, so this adaptation also works in a meta-fashion. In any event, I quite enjoyed this ludicrously busy film for about 45 minutes or so, but began to check out when Gatsby began to court Daisy Buchanan in earnest, and there was still another hour or so to go. But hey, if you’re going to overshoot the mark, why not overshoot it gloriously? Gatsby would be proud.

18. Kill Your Darlings: A.K.A. The Beats: Origins: Rise of Ginsburg, in the modern-day movie parlance. In any event, this New York City coming-of-age story about Allen Ginsburg’s Columbia days made for a solid afternoon arthouse matinee, with quality performances by Daniel Radcliffe (clearly trying, and mostly succeeding, to shake Harry Potter), Ben Foster (doing an uncanny William Burroughs impression), Jack Huston (playing Kerouac with — strangely for Boardwalk Empire viewers — his entire face), and Michael C. Hall. (David Cross, who played a later version of the poet in I’m Not There, also shows up to pass the Ginsburg baton.) I have to say, tho: After only a handful of movies (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), I find Dane DeHaan’s schtick wearing thin. Your mileage may vary.

19. Enough Said: If you’re looking for a light entertainment, Nicole Holofcenter’s amiable romantic comedy — about a masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who discovers that her new best friend (Catherine Keener) and new boyfriend (James Gandolfini) used to be married to each other — is a small, well-observed, and worthwhile film in the key of The Kids Are All Right. Fair warning, tho’: Some of the gentle ribbing about Gandolfini’s weight here takes on a morbid cast with his recent passing. (Pro-tip: If Enough Said whets your appetite for more Gandolfini comedy, there’s always the estimable In the Loop.)

20. A Single Shot: Much like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, an aura of inexorable doom hangs over this backcountry noir by David Rosenthal, which involves hunter Sam Rockwell accidentally firing at the wrong target and unearthing that inevitable albatross, a giant bag of money. Rockwell — invariably an appealing presence in good films and bad (alas, he had a terrible movie in 2013, which I’ll get to in a bit) — holds the screen even as a very reticent woodsman. But the real pleasure of A Single Shot is that it eventually amounts to an actor’s workshop for some very quality character actors, including Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, and Jason Isaacs.

21. Dallas Buyers Club: Deep in the heart of Texas, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lose weight and buck admirably for Oscars in the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good-ole-boy turned AIDS activist, also with Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, and Griffin Dunne. (Griffin Dunne!) There’s not much to say about this one: It’s an admirable production, and McConaughey and Leto both give 110% and deserve their likely Oscar nods. But this film still has trouble shaking that Oscar-baity, overly earnest biopic feel. And as someone who generally thinks the FDA should be assuring the safety of medical drugs, I had issues with some of the anti-Big Guvmint grandstanding here.

22. Frances Ha: At first, this story of a young woman in Brooklyn (Greta Gerwig) and her attempts to both make it in modern dance and stay besties with her friend Sophia (Mickey Sumner) feels like another variation on HBO’s Girls, a show whose self-indulgence and first-world-problems whining I quickly grew bored with. (Adam Driver showing up here doesn’t help with the differentiation.) But Frances soon establishes its own quirky rhythm, and it’s refreshing, after Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg, to see Noah Baumbach telling the story of a likable New Yorker for a change.

23. Computer Chess: Another quirky, dialogue-driven black-and-white comedy here for the later going, this small-scale indie by “Mumblecore Master” Andrew Bujalski follows a bevy of programmers — the only recognizable one being Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, all grown up — as they lug their Tandys and Commodores to a weekend computer chess tournament in the early 1980’s, hoping to show off the best AI, impress each other, and maybe craft a little bit of the future. Like Upstream Color, this occasionally absurdist tale is more about tone than anything else, but I liked its home-coded, DIY aesthetic and standing-on-the-threshold-of-tomorrow unease.

24. This is the End: If I have to pick a pack of dudebros to await the end the world with, I’d rather hang with Simon Pegg and the lads up above at spot #4 than find myself at the Franco residence, hiding out from the Rapture with the likes of Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride. But to give credit where due, Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic raunchfest will leave no boundary of good taste uncrossed to make you laugh, and they’ve brought along any number of friends and neighbors willing to be involved in a ridiculous cameo or three.

25. World War Z: As always, the last spot here could go to a number of different films, from the admirably strange Chan-Wook Park Southern gothic Stoker to the better-than-expected James Mangold episode of The Wolverine. I went with World War Z, since — despite all the terrible hype surrounding this project beforehand — this Marc Forster/Brad Pitt blockbuster actually turned out to be not-half-bad. It wasn’t much like the book, of course, and I could’ve done without the seemingly grafted-on Harrison Ford-style “My wife! My family!” phone calls here and there. Still, I liked that the movie sprinkled a few moments of quiet creepiness in with the action setpieces — say, in North Korea with David Morse and James Badge Dale, or in Scotland with, er, WHO Doctor…Who. So all in all, no harm, no foul. I just wish they’d sprung for the original bizarro ending.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Star Trek: Into Darkness: The hackadocious ST:ID has already been good and thoroughly eviscerated by the folks at Io9, so I’ll just repost what I said when I posted that worthy link: “The first one had a number of egregious plot holes too, of course, but it at least had a charming cast and the benefit of novelty. The charming cast remains, but since Into Darkness is otherwise just a lousy and ultimately insulting remix of Wrath of Khan with a frisson of 9/11, the extreme dumbness here is even more aggravating.” As one wag put it soon after this disaster, maybe in the rebooted universe it’s the even movies that are terrible.

Man of Steel: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was nowhere near as aggressively insulting as Into Darkness, but it suffers from similar issues — namely a really sloppy script and far too much 9/11ness throughout. I thought Henry Cavill made for a superlative Superman (and I’m not just saying that because he’s a fellow Warcraft enthusiast), but really, what was going on in the writing department? Why does Russell Crowe keep popping up like Basil Exposition? Why was Amy Adams taken up to the Krypton ship? And, even notwithstanding the extremely out-of-character decision Kal-El makes here near the end, why is Superman trying to destroy Metropolis? (Zack Snyder gave his answer for the ridiculous collateral damage here – I don’t think it washes.)

As with Green Lantern, I’m willing to give this movie a mulligan and hope DC rights the ship with Batman v. Superman v. Wonder Woman or whatever it’s called. But right now, DC is lagging far behind Marvel in the world-building-on-film department. And, for now, Cavill is the second Supes in a row, after Brandon Routh, to deserve a better adventure.

To the Wonder: Oof, To the Wonder. It’s great to see Terence Malick becoming a more productive filmmaker in his later years — after making four movies between 1973 and 2005, he’s now made two films the past two years (the other being The Tree of Life) and has two more in the can. Unfortunately, to my eyes To the Wonder — ostensibly the story of Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams’ romantic issues with Ben Affleck (who, other than his back and shoulders, was seemingly left on the cutting room floor) — was an incoherent, disjointed mess that came across like somebody doing a parody of a Malick film. Here’s hoping for better from Knight of Cups.

Elysium: [Spoilers in this review] So it seems here like Neil Blomkamp had a few ideas for a decent science fiction story — The few Haves live in a deluxe orbital paradise in the sky and all enjoy free health care, the many Have-Nots are stuck on a dusty, windswept Earth, have no health care at all, and are always trying to break in to said orbital Nirvana — but no actual plot to speak of.

As a result, Elysium, Blomkamp’s calamitous sophomore effort after the promising District 9, was another movie in a summer full of them that made absolutely no sense at all. Since these magical cure-all health care machines seem to operate without cost, why weren’t a few already sent down to Earth long ago? And if that MacGuffin-y station reboot code is so all-powerful, why didn’t ruthless businessman William Fichtner, who was carrying it around the first third of the movie, just depose Jodie Foster (who’s embarrassing here) and make himself Emperor of Elysium? Makes. No. Sense.

The Last Days on Mars: It’s a bit unfair to include this among the “Most Disappointing,” because this is basically just a bad indie film you might find on Syfy — Nobody was waiting in line at midnight to see The Last Days On Mars. Still, it’s depressing to see the Murderer’s Row of talent assembled for this science-fiction tale — Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Liev Schreiber — and then have the hook turn out only to be The Walking Dead on Mars. Everyone here, and especially Williams and Koteas, deserves better.

MOST OVERRATED:

The Way, Way Back: In the opening moments of this glib, trite Cape Cod coming-of-age story, Mom’s mean new boyfriend (Steve Carell, playing against type) berates a sullen teenager (Liam James) on the drive out to summer vacation, telling him that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s only a 3. Well, that’s about right for this painfully clunky movie as well, which would just be an inoffensive bore if it wasn’t weirdly being hailed in some corners as an underappreciated 2013 gem.

Honestly, it is bewildering to me that this film received such positive attention. All the saccharine dollops of It Gets Better here can’t obscure the fact that, for two uninvolving hours, we’re stuck on the Cape with a whiny, passive protagonist — who never does anything to suggest that Carell, however dickishly, didn’t have him dead-to-rights in the first reel — and a bunch of hackneyed, one-dimensional characters out of an ABC afterschool special.

Why does the Girl Next Door (AnnaSophia Robb) seem to be interested in our hero? Why does Local Cool Guy Sam Rockwell (and you know it’s a stinker when even Rockwell can’t save your flick) take him under his wing? Well, mainly because these are the sorts of things that happen in movies like these. If you’re hankering for a sweet coming-of-age “That One Summer It All Changed” type movie, rent Adventureland (or, if it has to be on the Cape, rent One Crazy Summer). But The Way, Way, Back is Not, Not It.

Stories We Tell: I’ll tread lightly here because I like Sarah Polley as both an actress and director (Take This Waltz was #17 last year), and I’m still interested in whatever she’s up to next. Suffice to say, I could never get over the inherent narcissism of this much-heralded documentary, about Polley slowly discovering that her father (actor Michael Polley, whom I knew from Slings & Arrows) may or may not in fact be her father. For some unfathomable reason (other than, I suppose, a documentary could be made), Polley chooses to interrogate every single one of her family members — except her mother, a flighty soul who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 — about this potential revelation, on camera. Erm…ok.

I just don’t get it. It’d be one thing if the House of Polley’s deep dark secret was something more interesting or world-historical than illegitimate parentage. (Nazis in the attic or somesuch.) But, as it is, Stories We Tell is just the documentary equivalent of a Selfie. It doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy to say, other than, ok, a lot of families have “lies mutually agreed upon,” and I grew bored and eventually a bit disturbed by the egoism and exhibitionism of the whole enterprise. No shame if Polley wants to go digging in the family dirt, but I’m not sure why I really need to be involved.

The Wolf of Wall Street: So this was my birthday movie this year, which basically means that, alas, my girlfriend and I recently spent the afternoon of December 29th with a bunch of insufferable douchebags. Let our terrible mistake be your good fortune — This one can be skipped. (At least know what you’re in for: As an early Spike Jonze cameo telegraphs, this is essentially an unfunny three-hour episode of Jackass.)

Scorsese’s Wolf would’ve been innocuous enough if it had been 90 minutes long or so: In fact, a first-act power lunch with DeCaprio and Matthew McConaughey gets all the “these guys are nihilistic, worthless wastes of space” points across fine enough, no need to belabor it. But at three ever-lovin’ hours, the film wears out its welcome well before the end, and somewhere in that third hour — around the time DeCaprio is screaming at and gut-punching his second wife (Margot Robbie), so that we all leave knowing the asshat behavior we’ve witnessed for 180 minutes is actually not ok — I’d joined the douchebag train myself and was idly scrolling through my phone in the theater, waiting for somebody to give this dire Wolf the Grey Wind treatment, or at least throw him in the clink already.

Anyway, like all too many fratboy and/or Wall Street types, the film is not nearly as hilarious or as transgressive as it thinks it is — for example, the too-long-by-far traveling-on-Quaaludes scene was more funny and more concise (with ether) in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing. And, as I said up above, there were plenty of other movies mining this “grotesque excess is the new American independence” vein in 2013 — just go see Gatsby or Spring Breakers instead.

Blue Jasmine: This one’s not terrible or anything — it’s no Cassandra’s Dream — and Cate Blanchett is a pro as always. But Blue Jasmine is no Midnight in Paris either: It’s basically just Woody riffing on (re: cribbing from) A Streetcar Named Desire by way of the financial crisis — There’s not a lot of there there. Also, even though he must know a lot of uber-rich Manhattanites, Allen seems as clumsy about class here as always: Blanchett and Baldwin’s spoiled Ivy League kid here seems like he’s a member of Harvard’s Class of 1942. (On the blue collar side, Sally Hawkins and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay, do better at crafting real people out of class stereotypes.) Again, Blue Jasmine isn’t a travesty or anything, but it’s not top-shelf Woody by any means, and has been significantly overpraised.

MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:

Ender’s Game: The long-awaited movie adaptation of this science fiction standard got quite a bit of bad press before release because, well, author Orson Scott Card is a terrible human being. (That’s why I have “unfairly” in brackets up above: Card has been a malignant enough presence over the years. Malign away!)

All that being said, if you’re not inherently averse to all things Card at this point, I thought Gavin Hood’s film was a surprisingly decent adaptation of the once-acclaimed novel (which I enjoyed enough in high school — I haven’t read it since.) Despite being a bit long in the tooth for the part, Asa Butterfield made for a quality Ender, with the necessary streak of amoral darkness about him. (We could’ve used Butterfield for Anakin Skywalker back in the day — but even in that Phantom Menace era, the very similar Lucas Black was always available.) And, speaking of Star Wars, hey, Harrison Ford is alive here! Always good to see.

WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:

The Counselor: So, The Counselor. In a nutshell, Michael Fassbender is a slick Texas lawyer — everybody keeps calling him “Counselor,” Counselor — who, while wooing good girl Penelope Cruz, gets involved in a shady Mexican cartel-connected drug deal with two acquaintances who definitely know better, Javier Bardem (along with his bad girl wife, Cameron Diaz) and Brad Pitt. Naturally, as a result of some unfortunate happenstance — and side-dealing by one of the parties involved — Bad Things Happen. But you knew they would, didn’t you, Counselor?

Was The Counselor actually a good movie? Well, that one’s easy: No, no it wasn’t. Was it terrible? Well, Counselor, I think so, but to be honest I’m not even entirely sure. Just as To the Wonder seemed like a Malick parody, this one reads and watches like a parody of Cormac McCarthy — We have the macho posturing, lots of misogyny of the madonna/whore and vagina dentata variety, no small amount of Old Testament speechifying, and plenty of cartoon nihilism, Texas-style. Of course, I think, No Country notwithstanding, most of McCarthy’s stuff reads like parody — Blood Meridian was terrible; there, I said it — so your mileage may vary.

What I do know is that The Counselor was completely cuckoo-bananas, that it did linger in my mind for several days after watching it, and that, if nothing else, I remain sort of impressed that an A-list movie this strange, verbose, and relentlessly dark made it to the screen in this form. But am I recommending it? God, no, Counselor, you’ll sue me…or worse.

Only God Forgives: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which has Ryan Gosling playing a Hamlet of sorts in the Thai boxing underworld, is an easier mark: This is definitely not a good movie. (Ok, the lighting’s not bad.) I liked Drive less than most people, but still thought Refn’s Bronson was an impressively savage little number. But this movie, which plays like a film school homage to David Lynch, is a nearly unwatchable mess, and I feel terrible for Kristin Scott Thomas that she wasted her playing-wildly-against-type movie moment (See also: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges) in this drek.

Now You See Me: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.

THIS JUST IN | UPDATE | BREAKING NEWS | MUST CREDIT GITM:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: I was just reminded that I totally forgot to include Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues anywhere on this list. Mistakes were made, I regret the oversight, and I just want to take this moment to apologize in full to Mr. Burgundy and the entire Channel-4 News Team. (If it’s any consolation, I went to your Newseum exhibit. Also, what do you want me to do? I’m bliiiind!)

In any event, there’s too much Brick and far too little Baxter, but if you enjoyed the first one, this chapter — which has Ron and his crew taking their talents to CNN and the Big Apple, partying like Wolves of Wall Street, and learning the world a thing or two about car chases — hits at about the same level of hilarity: Maybe slot this somewhere in the late teens/early twenties? I dunno, I immediately regret this decision.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012), Don Jon, Europa Report, John Dies at the End, Monsters University, Oblivion, Pain and Gain, The Place Beyond the Pines, Side Effects, Stoker, Thor 2: The Dark World, West of Memphis

Don’t Bother: Admission, The Bling Ring, Closed Circuit, Drinking Buddies, The Fifth Estate, Gangster Squad, Kick-Ass 2, Much Ado about Nothing, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim.

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Robert Redford, All is Lost, Christian Bale, American Hustle; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Best Actress: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Amy Adams, American Hustle; Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club; Jeffrey Wright, A Single Shot; Ben Nelson, Kill Your Darlings; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; June Squibb, Nebraska; Maria Bello, Prisoners; Amy Adams, Her

Unseen: 2 Guns, 21 and Over, 42, 47 Ronin, The Act of Killing, After Earth, Aftershock, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, August: Osage County, Austenland, Bad Grandpa, Baggage Claim, Beautiful Creatures, Berberian Sound Studio, Black Nativity, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Book Thief, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, The Call, The Canyons, Carrie, CBGB, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Croods, Dead Man Down, Delivery Man, Despicable Me 2, Diana, Epic, Escape Plan, Fast and Furious 6, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Getaway, GI Joe: Retaliation, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, Grown Ups 2, Grudge Match, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Hangover Part III, The Heat, Homefront, Identity Thief, In a World, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Insidious 2, The Internship, The Invisible Woman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jobs, Kon-Tiki, The Last Stand, Last Vegas, Laurence Anyways, The Lone Ranger, Lone Survivor, Machete Kills, Mama, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Movie 43, Mud, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Out of the Furnace, Paranoia, Parker, Parkland, Percy Jackson 2, Philomena, Planes, Post Tenebras Lux, The Purge, Red 2, Redemption, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Riddick, R.I.P.D, Romeo and Juliet, Runner Runner, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Smurfs 2, The Spectacular Now, Stand-Up Guys, Trance, Turbo, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Warm Bodies, We’re the Millers, White House Down, The Wind Rises, Winnie Mandela, You’re Next.

    A Good Year For:
  • Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel)
  • Ben Kingsley Reveals (Ender’s Game, Iron Man 3)
  • Black and White (Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Nebraska)
  • Character Actors in Lead Roles (12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis. A Single Shot)
  • De Caprio Blinging (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Fassbatch (12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
  • Harrowing Tales of Survival (12 Years a Slave, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The American Dream (The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Javier Bardem (The Counselor, To the Wonder — but he’s very watchable in both.)
  • Cumberbender (The Counselor, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness)
  • Maersk (Captain Phillips, All is Lost)
  • Making it in NYC (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Missions in Space (Europa Report, Gravity, The Last Days on Mars)
  • Symbols of Presidential Power (Iron Man 3, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down)

2014: 3 Days to Kill, 22 Jump Street, 300: Rise of an Empire, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Annie, That Awkward Moment, Bad Words, Big Eyes, Birdman, Blended, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, Child 44, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Draft Day, Dumb and Dumber To, Edge of Tomorrow, Endless Love, Exodus, The Expendables 3, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, The Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Fury, The Giver, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Grace of Monaco, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, How to Catch a Monster, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1, I, Frankenstein, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, The Interview, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jane Got a Gun, Jersey Boys, The Judge, Jupiter Ascending, Labor Day, The Lego Movie, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Maleficent, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Monuments Men, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, Noah, Non-Stop, The Nut Job, Nymphomaniac, Paddington, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Pompeii, The Purge 2, Ride Along, Rio 2, Robocop, Sabotage, Serena, Sex Tape, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, St. Vincent de Van Nuys, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, This is Where I Leave You, Transcendence, Transformers 4, Unbroken, Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters, Veronica Mars, Welcome to Yesterday, Walk of Shame, Winter’s Tale, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Zero Theorem, and

“So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible…”

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

Soap Spies and Soapbox Conspiracies.

As per the norm of late, I seem to be well behind on both my movie-watching and movie-reviewing these days. (It’s been awhile since Watchmen.) In an attempt to rectify the former, at least, I hit up the multiplex a few weekends ago with a decision to make. Eventually, and based mainly on which projected path would involve the least amount of downtime between shows, I decided to forsake an Apatow-ish afternoon with the old Freaks & Geeks gang (I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Observe and Report — still haven’t seen any of those) in favor of the latest batch of conspiracy-minded thrillers. Well, at least one of ’em was worth it.

First up was Tony Gilroy’s frothy but entertaining Duplicity, a tongue-firmly-in-cheek, corporate espionage rom-com of sorts that sadly didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. After a meet-cute in Dubai involving MI-6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and CIA asset Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), we cut to rival cosmetics company CEO’s Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson going mano-a-mano like it’s Paris in 1778. Both looking for a leg up in the cutthroat world of shampoo, hand cremes, and lotions — not to mention a chance to roundly humiliate the other in corporate combat — these two masters of the universe have invested enough into their respective espionage and counter-intelligence departments (run by Milk/Michael Clayton‘s Denis O’Hare and writer-director Tom McCarthy respectively) to make Mossad blush.

Enter (once again) top-notch professional spies Ray and Claire, who discover they’ve both been hired by Giamatti’s intel outfit years after their earlier falling-out in Saudi Arabia. Will these two photogenic spooks be able to bury the hatchet long enough to fulfill their mission objective of screwing over Wilkinson good? Or was that particular hatchet perhaps buried on an earlier Roman holiday? As you might imagine from a movie called Duplicity (by the writer of the Bourne films, no less), nothing is what it seems at first. And most everyone, not the least our two protagonists, is playing more than a few angles.

Blessed with charismatic performances from its two leads — I don’t usually cotton to Julia Roberts much, but she’s fine here — Duplicity is a jaunty bit of fun that mainly works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sure, the wheels-within-wheels of the plot don’t quite always catch — They’re often contrived and sometimes needlessly convoluted. (If anyone out there saw the movie, could you explain what the significance of the marked bench was? I missed it.) And some of the setpieces definitely take too long, and don’t make much sense regardless. (See for example, the hunting-for-a-fax-machine sequence, which even the characters eventually call out as ludicrous.) But Duplicity gets away with much of this because it’s so goofy and good-natured about it all. If the cosmetics angle didn’t tip you off from jump street, the stakes of the game here are purposely hokey and overwrought — People talk about the MacGuffin here, a possible cure for baldness, like it’s the Ark of the Covenant.

In the end, Duplicity is probably 15-20 minutes too long, its final couple of twists are pretty easy to see coming, and the film then spends too much time showing us all the myriad details we could’ve worked out on our own. But it’s an amiable production through and through, and there are worse ways to spend two hours than watching Owen and Roberts sally sharp-edged barbs back-and-forth, debate the economic possibilities of frozen pizza, and occasionally tumble into the sack. At the very least, I didn’t leave Duplicity feeling cheated.

Which brings us to Kevin MacDonald’s State of Play, a movie that was sorely lacking the state-of-play that exuded from every soap-scrubbed pore of Duplicity. No, this is a Big Serious Film, about Big Serious Issues, like Sinister Political Corruption and the Decline of Newspapers and such. Now, I unfortunately missed the original BBC miniseries version of this tale, but from the cast alone (John Simm, Kelley MacDonald, Bill Nighy, Marc Warren, James McAvoy, Polly Walker) I have to bet it’s pretty good. But, as far as this American retelling goes, I found State of Play thoroughly ham-handed, mostly unbelievable, and often risible.

Darkness sets in early in State of Play, as the film begins with two seemingly unrelated deaths in our nation’s capital. First, a homeless bagsnatcher is hunted down in Georgetown and — conspiracy alert — executed with a ruthless, professional precision. Then, a comely Capitol Hill aide falls in front of a subway train in the middle of morning rush hour. (DC-area folks might find themselves pondering why said aide walked through Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan to board a train over in Roslyn, Virginia. Everyone else will just wonder why the fact she fell in a small security camera “blind spot” is so important when there had to have been several dozen eye-witnesses at the scene.)

We are then introduced to gruff, slovenly beat writer with a heart-of-gold Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who lumbers around the rest of the movie like a newspaperman out of Sesame Street — he not only knows every single working-class-joe in the District, but they all seem to want to do him favors. The yin to McAffrey’s yang over at the Washington Globe is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the smart, attractive, but unfortunately surface-skimming blogger at the new online desk. McAffrey and Frye are assigned to cover the two murders for the Globe respectively, but there’s a catch. For the dead aide, it turns out, happened to be having an affair with her boss, the up-and-comer Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who was currently leading a congressional investigation into Pointcorp, a Blackwater-style private military contractor.

What’s more, Rep. Collins was once none-other-than newsman McAffrey’s college roommate, and, complicating matters even further, both have shared the attentions of the congressman’s wife (Robin Wright Penn). Will Cal use his journalistic pull to smooth things over for his two old friends in the press? Will Della be able to renounce her bloggeriffic tendency to wallow in scandalous ephemera and find the real story buried here? And, when it comes out that the murders are inevitably linked and that there’s something very Dark and Troubling going on in the corridors of Washington, will Cal take Della under his wing and find a way to make her a “real” journalist? I mean, that’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Even with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, who were originally cast as McAffrey and Collins respectively, gone from this production, State of Play has all the marks of a Big Important Film, including respected name actors popping up all over the place. The supremely talented Helen Mirren is passable as the hard-nosed, tough-talking editor/doyenne of the Globe, but she isn’t done any favors by the script, which keeps forcing her into goofy, Prime Suspect-style exclamations of Britishness. Jeff Daniels has some fun as a smarmy, probably-Republican Senator (“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain around me“), David Harbour of Revolutionary Road shows up as our slightly-off-kilter Deep Throat, Harry Lennix and Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis briefly play a detective and coroner respectively, and Jason Bateman just about walks away with the film as an oily club promoter caught in the middle of all the shenanigans. (He plays it broad, and seems to be the only person involved who recognized what a B-movie this is.)

But even all the talent on-screen can’t save State of Play from its very significant flaws. For one, the film clearly purports to be a paean to investigative journalism a la All the President’s Men, but the conspiracy that drives the story is outlandish in several ways. Basically — moderate spoilers here — it involves corporate and para-military thugs at the Blackwater outfit doing whatever is required to achieve their ultimate goal of “privatizing national security.” Now, I have no doubt that Blackwater and its ilk are shady as they come. And — given everything we’ve seen from them as lawless mercenaries in Iraq — it doesn’t take an extreme suspension of disbelief to envision a fictional Blackwater doing what they do here, engaging in under-the-table wetworks to protect some sizable market share.

But, and this is where the movie began to lose me, I’m not at all convinced that the Bad Guys here would even have to break the law as currently written to achieve their ultimate goal, and they definitely wouldn’t have to go to the sordid lengths suggested in State of Play. Maybe it’s news to the good people at the Washington Globe, but corruption has been effectively legalized for awhile now in DC. Why would Pointcorp be involved in such nefarious black-bag operations to ensure their pound-of-flesh profit margins, when they can just spread some money around legally and accomplish much the same objective? After awhile, I found the spy shenanigans here about as plausible as those of the evil soap corporations in Duplicity. (Honestly, did the writers not hear of Halliburton? They were bagging enormously lucrative no-bid military contracts for years the old-fashioned way.)

This brings me to my other major problem with State of Play — its depiction of journalism and what ails it. But, before I move on — and I’ll tread lightly here — State of Play makes a turn very late in the game that completely subverts the All the President’s Men conspiracy argument it’s been making up to then anyway, and it basically lets the air out of the entire movie. You can’t have it both ways, y’all.

Moving on, as most every single review will tell you, State of Play closes with a loving montage of each stage in the process of making a daily newspaper — the type being set, the rolls of paper being loaded, etc. etc. (They skip over all the crucial cutting-down-trees and paper-mill parts, of course — Let’s not get in the way of nostalgia.) And, yes, State of Play is very conspicuously crafted as a heartfelt ode to the newspaper industry in twilight, as mainly evidenced by the narrative tug between “good” journalist Cal, who pounds the beat relentlessly and tracks down every possible lead, and “bad” blogger Della, who — at first — opines without all the facts at her disposal and dishes out snark by the shovelful. (But don’t worry, it turns out she’s very trainable.)

Now, I posted briefly on this last month, but there are a lot of reasons newspapers are going under right now — market pressures, obviously, but also over-consolidation, a decline in local-area coverage, papers following the cable TV herds into surface-skimming irrelevance. And, for an equally loving, but more resonant critique of why it’s happening, I’d direct you to Season 5 of David Simon’s The Wire. As Simon says here: “In every episode, what’s being depicted is a newspaper that’s actually not connecting with the problems that exist on the ground. It’s not noticing that the police department has been cheating stats for years and making crime go away. It’s not noticing that the third grade test scores are being hyped so that No Child Left Behind is not exposed for what it is. That’s the critique, and very tellingly, almost perfectly, I think, with the exception of maybe one or two guys out there, everybody missed it.” Or, as Simon’s Gus Haynes puts it at one point when dissecting newspaper’s Pulitzer-hungry mentality: “It’s like you’re up on the corner of a roof and you’re showing some people how a couple of shingles came loose, and meanwhile a hurricane wrecked the rest of the damn house.

Now, whatever you think of this critique, notice it doesn’t have much if anything to do with bloggers. Ok, sure, the blogging mentality spilling over into “real” journalism perhaps hasn’t helped matters any — I said as much here. But the idea that the Della Fryes of the world — or Ana Marie Coxes, if you want to bring it home — are the main reason newspapers are in trouble right now, or the main reason newspapers miss the “real” conspiracies in our midst, is so facile as to be insulting.

State of Play tells a story of a “good” journalist at a “good” DC newspaper uncovering sordid scandal and “bad” corruption at the highest levels of government, all the while making a “good” protege out of a “bad” blogger. Well, sure, it’s a nice fairy tale, but let’s get real. I don’t remember bloggers having anything to do with Judith Miller, the NYT, and every other newspaper of note enabling Dubya’s whole fake-WMD fiasco in 2002 and 2003. I don’t remember bloggers telling the NYT to sit on the illegal and warrantless wiretaps story for an entire year, and an election year at that. I don’t remember bloggers convincing the likes of Bob Woodward or Tim Russert to circle the wagons around Scooter Libby when he outed Valerie Plame. And I definitely don’t remember bloggers encouraging the establishment media to declare Dubya-era torture a non-issue that we all need to just get over, in the name of a false “looking forward” reconciliation based on willfully ignoring illegality, corruption, lies, and moral atrocities.

So, thanks for the civics lesson, State of Play, but I’m not sure I can hold those wretched, superficial bloggers entirely accountable for the decline of paper-and-ink newspapers these days. Look, I’m as sorry to see journalism in the woeful financial state it’s in as the next guy. But — when it comes to enabling and cooperating with manifestly corrupt behavior in Washington — y’all might want to look at your own hands too. Not all of those stains are ink.

Spy vs. Spy.

As seen several times over the weekend, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts play cloak-and-dagger in the world of corporate espionage — and cat-and-mouse with each other — in the trailer for Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity, also starring Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Denis O’Hare, and Tom McCarthy. (Gilroy’s last project, Michael Clayton, was good enough to give this a run, even if it does look a bit Mr. & Mrs. Smith-ish.)

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.

2007 in Film.

Happy New Year, everyone. So unlike last year, when I took an extra month on account of my travels in New Zealand, the Best of 2007 Movie list seems ready to go out on schedule, and it’s below. (If you’ve been reading all the reviews around here, I’m betting the top few choices won’t be a surprise. Still, organizing the 5-15 section was more tough than usual this year.) At any rate, 2008 should be a big orbit around the sun in any event, what with grad school winding down and it being time — at last! — to pick a new president. So a very happy new year to you and yours, and let’s hope the movies of the coming year will contain to sustain, amuse, baffle, and delight.

Top 20 Films of 2007

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

1. I’m Not There: “There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.” 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 (although Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek also put it up top, and the Sun-Times‘ Jim Emerson has been championing it too), 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. Everybody knows he’s not a folk-singer.


2. No Country for Old Men: It probably won’t do wonders for West Texas tourism. Still, the 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.) People sometimes refer to Coen movies as “well-made” as a dig, as if the brothers were just soulless clinically-minded technicians. I couldn’t disagree with that assessment more. Still, 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. Bring on Burn After Reading.


3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Through the wonders of cinematic alchemy, Julian Schnabel took the sad real-life account of Vogue editor Jean-Do Bauby’s horrific imprisonment within his own body and made it soar. No other film this year put the “locked-in” experience of taking in a movie as inventively in service of its story (although I kinda wish Atonement had tried.) Special kudos to Mathieu Almaric for conveying so much with so little to work with, and to Max von Sydow for his haunting turn as Bauby’s invalid father. And, lest someone holds “arthouse foreign film” against it, Diving Bell is both much funnier and more uplifting than anyone might expect of a tale about hospital paralysis. Salut.


[3.] The Lives of Others: The one hold-over from 2006 on the list this year (I was pretty thorough about catching up before posting last January, although I still never did see Inland Empire), The Lives of Others is a timely and compelling parable of art, politics, surveillance, and moral awakening in the final days of the Stasi. In a way, Lives is an East German counterpart to Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how even small political acts of individual conscience can change the world, even (or perhaps especially) in a decaying Orwellian state. With a memorable central performance by Ulrich Muhe and a languid conclusion that ends on exactly the right note, the resoundingly humanist Lives of Others is a Sonata for a Good Man in Bad Times. We could use more of its ilk.


4. Knocked Up: Judd Apatow’s sweet, good-natured take on modern love and unwanted pregnancy was probably the most purely satisfying film of the summer. As funny in its pop-culture jawing as it was well-observed in its understanding of relationship politics, Knocked Up also felt — unlike the well-meaning but overstylized Juno, the film it’ll most likely be paired with from now herein — refreshingly real. As I said in my recent review of Walk Hard, an eventual Apatow backlash seems almost inevitable given how many comedies he has on the 2008 slate. Nevertheless, we’ll always have Freaks & Geeks, and we’ll always have Knocked Up.


5. The Bourne Ultimatum: The third installment of the Bourne franchise was the best blockbuster of the year, and proved that director Paul Greengrass can churn out excellent, heart-pounding fare even when he’s basically repeating himself. Really, given how much of Ultimatum plays exactly like its two predecessors on the page — the car chase, the Company Men, the Eurotrash assassin, Julia Stiles, exotic locales and cellphone hijinx — it’s hard to fathom how good it turned out to be. But Bourne was riveting through and through…You just couldn’t take your eyes off it. I know I’ve said this several times now, but if Zack Snyder screws up Watchmen (and I’d say the odds are 50-50 at this point), the lost opportunity for a Greengrass version will rankle for years.


6. Zodiac: The best film of the spring. What at first looked to be another stylish David Fincher serial killer flick is instead a moody and haunting police procedural about the search for a seemingly unknowable truth, and the toll it exacts on the men — cops, journalists, citizens — who undertake it for years and even decades. Reveling in the daily investigatory minutiae that also comprise much of The Wire and Law and Order, and arguably boasting the best ensemble cast of the year, Zodiac is a troubling and open-ended inquiry that, until perhaps the final few moments, offers little in the way of satisfying closure for its characters or its audience. Whatever Dirty Harry may suggest to the contrary, the Zodiac remains elusive.


7. 28 Weeks Later: Sir, we appear to have lost control of the Green Zone…Shall I send in the air support? Zombie flicks have been a choice staple for political allegory since the early days of Romero, but one of the strengths of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s merciless 28 Weeks Later — perhaps the best horror sequel since James Cameron’s Aliens — is that it foregoes the 1:1 sermonizing about failed reconstructions and American hubris whenever it gets in the way of the nightmare scenario at hand. (Besides, if you wanted to see explicit muckraking about current events this year, there were options aplenty, from In the Valley of Elah to No End in Sight, although plenty of this year’s politically-minded forays — Rendition, Lions for Lambs — looked rather inert from a distance.) There’s little time for moralizing in the dark, wretched heart of 28 Weeks Later: In fact, the right thing to do is often suicide, or worse. You pretty much have only one viable option: run like hell.


8. In the Valley of Elah: Paul Haggis’ surprisingly unsentimentalized depiction of the hidden costs of war for the homefront, Elah benefits greatly from Tommy Lee Jones’ slow burn as a military father who’s lost his last son to a horrific murder. In fact, it’s hard not to think of Jones’ inspired performances here and in No Country of a piece. There was something quintessentially America-in-2007 about Jones this year. In every crease and furrow of this grizzled Texan’s visage, we can see the wounds and weariness of recent times, the mask of dignity and good humor beginning to slip in the face of tragic events and colossal stupidity. Jones is masterful in Elah, and while Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be garnering most of the accolades for There Will Be Blood and Philip Seymour Hoffman stunned in three pics this fall (all on the list below), I’d put Jones’ work here as the best of the year.


9. There Will Be Blood: Ah, the maddening There Will Be Blood. I just reviewed this one yesterday, so it’s doubtful my opinion on it has changed much. But what Anderson’s film reminds me of most at the moment (and not only for the Daniel Day-Lewis connection) is Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a movie I reviewed at the end of 2002 and then bumped up a few spots a week later when writing the 2002 list, thinking that its flaws would diminish over time. They haven’t — if anything, they’re just as noticeable as ever. So it may well be with TWBB. Even despite its somewhat unseemly pretensions to greatness, the first hour or so of There Will Be Blood, from the Kubrickian opening to the Days in Heaven-ish burning oil rig, is as powerful and memorable as you could ever want in a film. But TWBB loses its way, and the second half is a significantly less interesting enterprise, ultimately culminating in that goofy, illogical bowling alley ending. I’d characterize Blood as a significant step forward for PTA, and there’s something to be said for getting even this close to a masterpiece. But he hasn’t struck black gold yet.


10. Hot Fuzz: While I personally still prefer Shaun of the Dead, this fish-out-of-water, buddy-cop action spectacle proved the droll British team of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright can’t be considered one-hit-wonders (and that they’re as savvy about certain pop culture tropes as their American colleagues in the Apatow camp.) And, while I didn’t see Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Hot Fuzz may well include the second-best Cate Blanchett performance of the year.


11. Gone Baby Gone: First-time director Ben Affleck acquits himself well with this chronicle of missing children and seedy n’er-do-wells in working-class Boston, wisely choosing to stick with a town and a leading man he knows like the back of his hand. His brother Casey holds his own, and crime author Dennis Lehane’s original source material provides some compelling twists-and-turns throughout. And, as the drug-addled, quick-to-dis Townie mom who’s lost her baby, The Wire‘s Amy Ryan gives arguably the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year (although she’ll likely get some run from Blanchett’s Jude Quinn.)


12. Michael Clayton: Clooney’s impeccable taste in projects continues with this, Tony Gilroy’s meditation on corporate malfeasance and lawyerly ethics (or lack thereof.) The bit with the horses still seems a convenient (and corny) happenstance on which to hang such a major plot point, and I found Tilda Swinton to be overly mannered and distracting for much of the film’s run. But most else about Michael Clayton, from Sidney Pollack’s Master of the Universe to Michael O’Keefe’s snide, unctuous #2 to Tom Wilkinson’s last scene to Clooney not rebounding as well to events as, say, Danny Ocean, rang true. A small film, in its way, but a worthwhile one.


13. Charlie Wilson’s War: Another one I wrote on in the past 24 hours, so I don’t have much to add. Perhaps the best thing about Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Crile’s book is that it “gets” politics like few recent Washington thrillers I can think of. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows impeccable comic timing as the gruff Gust Avrakotos, and he works very well with Hanks here, who’s gone from being overexposed a few years ago back to a guy I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, particularly if he continues along the Alec Baldwinish character actor path Wilson sometimes suggests could be his future.


14. The Savages: I actually thought about putting Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages higher on this list, and few other movie endings this year hit me in the gut quite like this one. But, there are definite problems here, such as the wheezy Gbenga Akinnagbe subplot, which compel me to keep it here in the mid-teens. Still, this 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.


15. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Now, Before the Devil is a movie I did end up seeing twice, on account of Brooklyn friends who were looking to catch it, and the film didn’t bring much new to the table on that second viewing. Still, Sidney Lumet and Kelly Masterson’s lean family tragedy benefits from several excellent performances — most notably by Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney, but also in supporting work by Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, Brian O’Byrne, and Rosemary Harris — as well as a memorable Carter Burwell score. (Also, it’s just a coincidence that the three Hoffman movies ended up in a row like this — Still, it’s a testament to the man’s ability that he seemed unique and fully formed in each. Then again, the only time I can think of that Hoffman was actually bad in a film was Cold Mountain, which was pretty glitched up regardless.)


16. Sunshine: Along with There Will Be Blood, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s exasperating Sunshine is the other film this year that saw an amazing first hour become undone by breathtakingly poor choices on the back end. Unlike the halting, confused slide of TWBB, though, the moment where Sunshine slips the rails is clear-cut and irrefutable: It’s when what had been a heady science fiction tale about a near-impossible mission to the heart of the sun became instead an unwieldy space-slasher flick, i.e. basically an Armageddon variation on Jason X. The wreckage this subplot makes of what had been a superior hard-sci-fi film is more than a little depressing…Still, for that first hour, Sunshine is really something, perhaps the best realistically-portrayed outer space voyage we’ve seen on-screen in years.


17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Andrew Dominik’s sprawling psychological western about the end of the West and the early days of American celebrity-worship is every bit as ambitious and flawed as PTA’s There Will Be Blood. Still, maybe it’s the often stunning Roger Deakins cinematography, or the lively character actors (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt) in the margins of the film, or maybe it’s even the terrible omniscient voiceover, which is every bit as distracting as the similarly ham-handed one in Little Children, and so goofy at times it verges on endearing. Whatever it is, I warmed to Jesse James more than I probably should, and for whatever reason I feel more willing to forgive it its considerable problems. If you blinked, you probably missed its theatrical run…but maybe it’ll find new life on DVD, when the 160-min running time won’t seem so off-putting.


18. I am Legend: When the film focused on Will Smith and his dog fighting blood-sucking and badly rendered CGI Infecteds (whose level of social deevolution changed back and forth solely to accommodate turns in the plot), Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend could seem pedestrian and forgettable. But, when the movie focused on Will Smith and his dog fighting interminable loneliness in an eerily abandoned New York City, which was most of the first two-thirds of the film, I am Legend was a surprisingly melancholy and resonant blockbuster. What can I say? This one hit me where, and how, I live.


19. Ratatouille: There’s no review of this one up — I actually only saw it on DVD last week. And yet, while Ratatouille is a visual marvel (and Brad Bird and the PIXAR gurus don’t seem to make bad films), I found this nowhere near as inventive or entertaining as their last collaboration, 2004’s The Incredibles. (I’d put this one at about the level of Cars.) Now, this may in part be due to the fact that I have much more interest in comic book conceits than the culinary arts. (I’d even go so far as to say that I find many foodies — particularly those who blather on endlessly about Parisian cuisine — kind of insufferable.) Still, even given my relative lack of interest in the subject matter, Ratatouille bugged me. If “anyone can cook,” as Chef Gustave proclaims, why is no one’s input ever important but the rat? If it’s bad to make money selling pre-cooked (and affordable) food to the teeming masses, as Ian Holm’s character tries to do, why is it any better to do what Remy does? (And why should we care then when he and Gustave Jr. move into a deluxe apartment in the sky? I thought this enterprise wasn’t about making money.) In short, I thought Ratatouille wanted to have it both ways, cloaking a rather elitist, even snobbish story in the trappings of democratic tolerance. And the closing monologue by Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego, which I thought ostensibly tried to make the movie critic-proof, irked me too. But, all that aside, it does look real purty.


20. Atonement: There were several contenders for this last spot on this list, including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Simpsons Movie, and Jason Reitman’s Juno. But in the end I went with Joe Wright’s take on Ian McEwan’s novel, partly because people I trust who haven’t read the book beforehand haven’t shared my issues with the film. If nothing else, Atonement looks ravishing, and it features breakout performances by James McAvoy, Romola Garai, and Saiorse Ronan. Still, in a year that saw No Country and Diving Bell, I wish Wright had been less conventional in its approach to the story, and found a way to do the gloomy, misanthropic ending of McEwan’s novel justice.

Most Disappointing: The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Spiderman 3, Southland Tales

Worth a Rental: 3:10 to Yuma, Beowulf, Eastern Promises, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Juno, Live Free or Die Hard, Lust, Caution, Ocean’s 13, The Simpsons Movie, Stardust, Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Don’t Bother: 300, Across the Universe, American Gangster, The Darjeeling Limited, Interview, The Invasion, Margot at the Wedding, The Mist, Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, Transformers, You Kill Me

Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Best Actress: Ellen Page, Juno
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

    A Good Year For:
  • Casey Affleck (Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone)
  • Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard)
  • Josh Brolin (American Gangster, Grindhouse, In the Valley of Elah, No Country)
  • Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno)
  • Garret Dillahunt (No Country for Old Men, Assassination of Jesse James)
  • Full-Frontal Parity (Diving Bell, Eastern Promises, I’m Not There, Walk Hard)
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages)
  • Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah, No Country for Old Men)
  • Man’s Best Friend (I am Legend, The Savages)
  • Pregnant Hipsters (Knocked Up, Juno)
  • Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, Superbad)
  • Amy Ryan (Before the Devil, Gone Baby Gone)
  • Texans (No Country for Old Men, Charlie Wilson’s War)
  • The Western (3:10 to Yuma, Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood)
    A Bad Year For:
  • The Beatles (Across the Universe, Walk Hard)
  • Josh Brolin’s PETA standing (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men)
  • Great Cities (28 Weeks Later, I am Legend)
  • Kidman/Craig Pairings (The Invasion, The Golden Compass)
  • The Male Derriere (Charlie Wilson’s War, Margot at the Wedding)
  • Standard-Issue Music Biopics(I’m Not There, Walk Hard)
Unseen: Away from Her, Black Book, Black Snake Moan, The Brave One, Breach, Control, Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Enchanted, Grace is Gone, The Great Debaters, Goya’s Ghosts, The Host, Into the Wild, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, The Kingdom, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The Kite Runner, Lars and the Real Girl, La Vie En Rose, Lions for Lambs, Love in the Time of Cholera, A Mighty Heart, The Namesake, No End in Sight, Once, The Orphanage, Persepolis, Redacted, Rendition, Rescue Dawn, Reservation Road, Romance and Cigarettes, Shoot ‘Em Up, Sicko, Sweeney Todd, Talk to Me, This is England, We Own the Night, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Year of the Dog, Youth Without Youth

2008: Be Kind, Rewind, Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Funny Games, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, In Bruges, The Incredible Hulk, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, James Bond 22, Jumper, Leatherheads, My Blueberry Nights, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Revolutionary Road, Run, Fat Boy Run, Speed Racer, Star Trek, Valkyrie, Wall-E, Wanted, The X-Files 2…let’s see, am I missing anything…?

Welcome, 2008. I’ll see y’all on the other side.

Mr. Wilson Goes to Washington.


At one point in Mike Nichols’ smart, surprisingly enjoyable Charlie Wilson’s War, the freewheeling, fun-loving Representative Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks), he of the Texas 2nd Congressional District, tells his schlubby, foul-mouthed partner at the CIA, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), “You ain’t James Bond.” Deadpans Avrakotos, “You ain’t Thomas Jefferson, so let’s call it even.” True, Bond and Jefferson they’re not, but that’s actually part of the appeal of Nichols’ lively little film. A strangely optimistic, almost Capraesque movie about the covert proxy war in Afghanistan (and, ultimately, the inadvertent role played by the U.S. in fostering the Taliban), Charlie Wilson’s War — adapted by The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin from the book by the late George Crile — is no grim, sober-minded edutainment. Moving at a brisk clip and maintaining a light touch — too light, some might argue — throughout, the movie instead depicts how a few (relatively) ordinary, committed people can change the world…provided one of them is sitting on the House Defense Subcommittee, and has stacked up a sizable amount of chits.

When — after a quick flash-forward setup — we first meet Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks, eschewing the Pvt. Ryan earnestness for his more sardonic Bachelor Party/Volunteers side), he’s lounging in a Vegas hot tub with a coke-snorting television producer, a Playboy bunny, and two strippers. In short, he seems like a out-and-out cad. But there’s something endearing and even statesmanlike about his piqued interest in a 60 Minutes report, playing in the corner, on the mujahideen in Afghanistan. (Maybe it’s the Dan Rather Texas connection.) Delving further into the issue back in Washington, Wilson — exercising the power of his crucial committee position — singlehandedly doubles U.S. funding of the mujahideen from $5 million to $10 million. This by-all-accounts token gesture draws the attention of the wealthy Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, solid), a woman with money, connections, and a fervent commitment to anticommunism, and she sends Wilson off to Pakistan to meet with President Zia-ul-Haq about the situation in neighboring Afghanistan. There, Wilson is moved to the cause by the sight of a dismal refugee camp, and soon enough, he’s enlisted an important ally in Avrakotos, a profane Langley veteran (Hoffman, showing yet another side after Before the Devil and The Savages this year, and nearly running away with the movie.) Together, these three — Wilson, Herring, Avrakotos (John Rambo’s unique contributions to the cause of Afghan freedom are sadly overlooked — set in motion a scheme not only to increase funding radically for the war but to funnel Soviet weaponry owned by Israel and Egypt to the freedom fighters there. Of course, some delicate diplomacy is required, and, in any case, giving Afghan youths an arsenal of helicopter-slaying RPGs doesn’t seem like such a great an idea in retrospect…

While nodding to the dismal events that follow American intervention in the region, Charlie Wilson’s War hardly dwells on the blowback, or on anything — a few refugee camp horror stories and a Pavel Lychnikoff cameo notwithstanding — that might interrupt its tone of hearty, back-slapping jocularity. (Supporting turns by Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Ned Beatty, Denis O’Hare, John Slattery, and Peter Gerety help speed things along in a comfortable groove.) And yet, however feel-good, Wilson ultimately feels more ripped from the headlines than even the filmmakers could’ve guessed. Some lawmakers have trouble distinguishing between Pakistan and Afghanistan at one point, and Herring begins an introduction of Pakistan’s President by saying, “Zia did not kill Bhutto.” (Leavening the chill that follows this now-eerie moment, Rudy Giuliani and John Murtha also come up at various times as punchlines.)

But, its timeliness and prescience aside, what I found most impressive about Charlie Wilson’s War is how aptly it portrays the feel of Washington. This was somewhat surprising to me as, while I liked Sorkin’s The West Wing decently enough as a TV drama and admired its general idealism about politics, the show always felt rather fake to me. But, be it due to Crile or Sorkin or Nichols, Wilson conveys a lot of the telling details of life inside the Beltway quite well — the hallway horse-trading and neverending quid pro quos, the simultaneous meetings, the bland, institutional cafeterias; the bevy of youngish staffers (and inordinately pretty administrative assistants) on Capitol Hill, the deals crafted over dinner or drinks, the conference calls, the memory holes, myopic thinking, and CYA behavior. Outside of The Wire‘s nuanced take on the compromises of Baltimore city politics, it’s hard to think of a more on-target recent portrayal of the (non-campaigning) political process. Sadly, for Congressman Wilson as for today’s legislators, fiddling with the internal dynamics of far-flung nations we barely understand for short-term gain is All in the Game. Still, as Charlie Wilson’s War proves, don’t let it ever be said that nothing gets done in Washington.

Feet of Clay(ton).

Move over, Erin Brockovich. The skimpy blouses and truth-to-power sass isn’t going to phase these corporate ne’er-do-wells in the slightest. 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. (Gilroy previously wrote the Bourne movies and that TNT new classic The Devil’s Advocate, with Keanu Reeves as a hotshot lawyer who ends up working for Satan (Al Pacino in full hoo-ah mode), and the influence of both can be seen here.) I didn’t really buy every element of the film, to be honest, but for the most part Michael Clayton works. It’s an adult, believable thriller that’s well worth checking out, and George Clooney, as per the norm, is excellent.

When we first meet Clooney’s Clayton, he’s in the middle of an illicit Chinatown poker game, wearily enduring the taunts of a toupeed yokel at the end of the table, when duty calls. A fixer for the legal firm of Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen, Clayton must venture out to Westchester in the middle of the night to reassure a high-end client (Denis O’Hare) who’s just committed a hit-and-run. (This being the real world, there’s not much he can do, Clooney or no.) On the way back, Clayton, in the grip of an ethical crisis that will later be explained, is briefly mesmerized by three horses standing in the early morning light. And, just as he reaches out to pet one of these chestnut mares, BAM! His car explodes. What turned Michael Clayton’s ride into an unlikely fireball? For that, we’ll have to venture four days into the past, when he was sent to Milwaukee to pick up Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior litigating partner who, a la Peter Finch in Network, has blown a fuse somewhere and can no longer handle his lifetime role as a corporate stooge. This poses a particular problem, as Edens was the architect of a $3 billion class-action defense for the agribusiness behemoth U/North, and his coming to Jesus, mid-deposition, couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the company. And, when Edens, in-between his flights of insanity, starts brandishing a smoking-gun memo and threatening to give it to the plaintiffs, elements at U/North decide they must take extra-legal action…and if Clayton gets in the way, well, he should know the score by now.

Perhaps it’s a failure of imagination or just willful naivete, but, as with The Constant Gardener, I tend to have trouble believing corporations, however undeniably shady, have assassins on the payroll. (Blackwater notwithstanding, of course.) And, though it’s not entirely her fault, Tilda Swinton is wholly unbelievable as the fastidious, insecurity-wracked Karen Crowder, chief counsel for U/North (i.e. what passes for the Big Bad here.) From the moment her OCD character is introduced, practicing a television interview over and over again in the mirror, she feels more like a writerly construct than a person, and that feeling never goes away. (That being said, one of the funnier scenes in the movie involves Swinton and one of said assassins “taking a meeting” on a street corner, and trying to negotiate a kill-order in corporate legalese.)

Still, there are a number of noteworthy performances throughout Michael Clayton. Sydney Pollack is almost too convincing as Marty Bach, the firm’s take-no-guff man in charge. Thoroughly accustomed to the entitlements of power, Pollack’s Bach exudes a ruthlessly professional mien, and doesn’t suffer people who waste his time gladly. Equally scene-stealing is Caddyshack‘s Michael O’Keefe as Barry, Pollack’s #2. He doesn’t get a lot of run, but O’Keefe personifies the lifetime corporate comer who’s made it all the way up the ladder by dint of hard work and sheer weaselling, and will be damned if anyone’s going to screw it up for him now. And then there’s Clooney, who continues to surprise as an actor and shows us something different here. When we first hear Michael Clayton is $75,000 in the hole with some unsavory types who bankrolled his (and his alcoholic brother’s) failed restaurant — hence the card room — it’s hard not to think, “Oh, just get the gang together again and do another job.” But Clooney here — haggard, puffy, furtive — is no Danny Ocean. When he turns on the know-it-all charm here, it seems a suit of armor Clayton dons to do his job, so as to mask the stench of failure and compromise that threatens to leak out of every pore. If Michael Clayton turns out to be a rather conventional tale by the end, Clooney’s Michael Clayton still makes the trip worthwhile.

The Burdens of Power.

In case you didn’t get your trailer fill earlier today, here’s a few more for the independence day blitz: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise take aim at the GWOT in the teaser for Redford’s muckraking Lions for Lambs; Lawyer George Clooney bites off more corporate conspiracy than he bargained for while helping crazy Tom Wilkinson in this look at Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, also with Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack; and Cate Blanchett returns to the throne (and does expect the Spanish Inquisition) in the trailer for Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, with Geoffrey Rush (returning), Clive Owen (as Walter Ralegh), Rhys Ifans, and that famous Armada.

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