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Crime of the Century.


A tale of two financial crimes: After the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 80’s and early 90’s — a clear consequence of Reagan-era deregulation, by the way — had run its course, 1852 S&L officials were prosecuted, and 1072 of them ended up behind bars, as did over 2500 bankers for S&L-related crimes. But, when a similarly-deregulated Wall Street plunged the US economy into a much steeper recession two decades later…nobody (with the notable exception of Bernie Madoff) went to jail — In fact, it was barely even admitted by the powers-that-be that serious crimes had even occurred at all. So what happened?

That is the stark question driving Charles Ferguson’s well-laid-out prosecutorial brief Inside Job, which works to explain exactly how we ended up in the most calamitous economic straits since the 1930s. If you’ve been keeping up on current events at all, even if by comic books, stick figures, or Oliver Stone flicks, then you won’t be surprised by the frustrating tale Inside Job has to tell. But unlke the more inchoate and disorganized Casino Jack and the United States of Money earlier this year, which ultimately let its subject wriggle off the hook, Inside Job tells its sad, sordid story clearly, concisely, and well.

The central through-line of the financial crisis by now is well-known. Basically, Wall Steet banksters — relying heavily on “market innovations” (i.e. unregulated toys) like securitization, collaterized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps — spent the first decade of the 21st century engaged in a trillion-dollar orgy of avarice, criminality, and fraud. And, a few prominent casualties like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns aside, the perpetrators of these financial misdeeds mostly walked away unscathed from the economic devastation they wrought. In fact, they’re doing better than ever.

Said banksters got away with this from start to finish mainly becauset they could, thanks to thirty years of deregulation and an absolute bipartisan chokehold on the political process. So, when the bill came due in 2008, these masters of the free market just got the Fed to socialize their losses, thus handing the damage over to the American taxpayer by way of Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs) and his successor, Tim Geithner (no stranger to Wall Street himself.)

As I said recently, my thoughts on the relative necessity of TARP have shifted a good deal since 2008, but, surprisingly, Ferguson doesn’t really get into that debate here. Inside Job is more broad in its focus: It aims instead to show how Wall Street has systematically corrupted both our political process and our economics departments over the course of decades, and nobody is safe from its wrath. Sure, it was probably a tremendously bad idea to let an Ayn Rand acolyte like Alan Greenspan call the shots for the American economy for so long, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are other fish to fry.

After all, it is President Clinton and his financial lieutenants, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, who preside over the death of Glass-Steagall, the original sin that precipitates all the later shenanigans. It is also they who work to keep prescient regulators like Brooksley Born from sounding the alarm. And, after the house of cards has collapsed in 2008, and President Obama steps up to the plate promising “change we can believe in,” who does he pull out of the bullpen to lead us but…the irrepressibly porcine Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, the Chair of the New York Fed? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (But remember, folks, Obama is really an anti-business socialist.)

What goes for the US government goes for the academy as well. As Ferguson shows, Milton Friedman aficionadoes and Reagan/Bush policy guys like Marty Feldstein of Harvard and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia, who now find themselves atop prestigious Ivy League economics departments, are all too happy to give an academic imprimatur to bad bankster behavior, as long as they see a piece of the cut. (Nobody gets it worse than Columbia prof and former Fed governor Frederic Mishkin, who appears here to have walked into a battle of wits completely unarmed.)

In the meantime, Ferguson fleshes out the documentary with related vignettes on the financial crisis and those who brought us low — some work, some don’t. The movie begins with the cautionary tale of Iceland, about as pure a real-time case study into the abysmal failures of deregulation as you can ask for. (If that doesn’t do ya, try Ireland.) But the film ends as badly as it starts well, with an overheated monologue about the way forward, cut to swelling music and images of the Statue of Liberty — a cliche that serves to dissipate much of the pent-up anger of the last 90 minutes. (Perhaps Inside Job should’ve used the lightning strike.)

What’s more, at times Ferguson seems to try too hard to frame guilty men, and never more so than when he has a former psychiatrist-to-the-bankster-stars opine about cocaine abuse and prostitution all over the Street. Sure, it’s unsavory, and I see the ultimate point here — that these petty crimes could’ve been used to flip the lower-level traders if anyone had had tried to bring a RICO case against these jokers. But this sort of bad behavior, however frat-tastically douchey, is extraneous to the real crime at hand, and it seems really out of place when you’re using fallen crusader Elliot Spitzer as a witness for the prosecution.)

Still, overall, Inside Job is a very solid documentary that manages to capture its elusive quarry, and in a better world it would result in more serious consequences for the banksters who put us in this mess. Make no mistake — this is a crime story. As Massachusetts rep Michael Capuano observes in the trailer, and as Woody Guthrie put it many moons ago, “some rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” Thing is, when Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger robbed banks back in the day, they got shot. When the banks rob you…well, that’s apparently another thing entirely.

Counting Sheep.


Baaa. Baaaa. Baaaaaaa. Baa. BAAAAAAAaaa. Baaaaaa. BAAAAAA! Baaaa….BaaaaAAA. BAAAAAA. baaaaa. baaaaAAAAA. Baaa. baaaAAAAA. baaaaaa. baaaaA. BAA. Baaaaa. baAAAAaaaaa. Baaaaaa. Baaa. Baaa. Baaa…BAAAAAAAAAA. baaa. (baaaaAA.) BAAAAAAA. BAAAAAAA! baa. baaaa. baaaaa. baaAAAA? BaaaAAAA? BAAaaaa. Baa. Baaaa. BaaaaaAA. BAAAAA. [Spoiler: Highlight to Read:] Baaaaaaaa!

And so on. Judging from the generally positive reviews, I went into Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s pretty but painfully slow sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass expecting a languid, contemplative rumination on the ancient but fading bonds between Man and Beast. And I guess that’s basically what I got. But, at the risk of seeming like a Philistine, trust me: You really can’t overestimate how slow-moving this picture turns out to be. Sweetgrass has images of undeniable beauty, sure, but I thought its reach far exceeded its grasp. And, while obviously different movies work for different people, some of the ridiculous praise Sweetgrass is getting — “the first essential movie of this young year,” for example (Manohla Dargis, NYT) — has a definite “Emperor’s New Clothes” feel to it.

Billed as “the last ride of the American cowboy” (as in Brokeback Mountain, by cowboy they mean sheepherder), Sweetgrass chronicles the final time a flock was taken into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture on a federal grazing permit, in 2001. It seems like an arduous undertaking, and no mistake — Two men have to corral hundreds of sheep on a journey through forests, across creeks, and up and down steep mountainsides, with only some horses and a few dogs to help them. (Speaking of which, I imagine Berk would’ve loved this flick.) But, just because a job is hard doesn’t necessarily make it compelling for motion picture purposes. And, as a film, Sweetgrass loses the thread in them there hills.

The movie works best in its opening half-hour or so, when the long, uninterrupted takes of sheep and shepherd behavior still seem like a novelty. The herd is shorn, the herd is fed (from a big wheel of grass, basically), the herd reproduces, the herd is driven through the streets of a small town to start its great grazing adventure. All pretty interesting. But, once Swetgrass gets into the actual drive into the mountains, we’re already pretty much inured to strange sheep behavior and the crazy fluid dynamics of the herd, and there’s not enough other story to sustain the enterprise. So after awhile, you just sit there, waiting for something — anything! — to happen: Demon sheep? Killer sheep? Even just a Black Sheep, maybe? Nope, sorry. Instead, we sit through extended shots like “Sheep being Sheep,” “Man Getting on Horse,” “Man Setting Up Tent,” “Sheep Still Being Sheep,” “Man Eating Bacon,” “Sheep Even Still, Not Surprisingly, Being Sheep,” and “Man Complaining about Sheep Being Sheep.” (Yes, I was reminded of this Onion classic.) There’s not much there there.

I say “Man” because, in a Cormac McCarthy-esque flourish, the film never really introduces us to the two shepherds on this drive. Presumably, this was to add to the “ancient natural rhythms” feel of the film — man, dog, horse, and sheep engaged in a millennia-old ritual or somesuch. The problem is, neither of this pair are engaging or particuarly easy to relate to. (Earlier, a sheephand at the farm gets off a good joke about “cowboy brains,” but unfortunately he’s not on the Big Trip.) The elder fella on the drive has a certain whos-more-grizzled je-ne-said-quoi, I guess, but he’s a mumbler with a maddening tendency to repeat himself over and over and over again. (Did I mention he repeats himself? He repeats himself.) And the other guy, who gets less screen time, probably ends being even worse to hang around with. At one point late in the film, he throws what can only be called an epic hissy fit — screaming vulgarities at sheep and calling his mom to whine about his predicament. I get it, it sucks. You’re still on camera, buddy.

Speaking of getting it, I know what the counterargument to my dismissal here is — As the Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr puts it, Sweetgrass is arguably “about the death of a particular sense of time: slow, profoundly observant, in tune with the larger cycles of nature…If you’re used to the ADD pace of modern filmmaking, ‘Sweetgrass’ will probably drive you crazy. If you can adjust, it could widen your soul.” Well, ok, I plead guilty to ordinarily being a souped-up, Twitter-happy, multi-tasking, Red Bull achiever. And, when it comes to spending my entertainment dollar on discourses about the Death-of-the-West, I highly prefer Red Dead Redemption (or, for that matter, books like Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own) to plodding docs like this. But I also feel like I have a higher-than-normal curiosity about the world, and I don’t think I have the attention span of a hummingbird either. And, despite my best efforts, I was just not feeling this film. To be honest, some of this “you can’t handle a slower rhythm” talk feels like an attempt to make Sweetgrass critic-proof.

As it is, Sweetgrass would’ve probably made for a great one-hour National Geographic documentary or an episode of Dirty Jobs. And, as a “thick-description” anthropological study of a sheep drive, it probably has its merits too. But, as a full-length movie, though, it leaves much to be desired. On the bright side, its glacial pace and studied solemnity actually sent me into 21 Grams-style chuckling fits after awhile, and everyone in the theater got a good laugh at the sheephands onscreen snoring in unison with the guy in the front row. Counting sheep, indeed.

Banksystein’s Monster.

“‘I guess my ambition was to make a film that would do for graffiti art what Karate Kid did for martial arts,’ Banksy said. ‘A film that would get every school kid in the world picking up a spray can and having a go. As it turns out, I think we may have made a film that does for street art what Jaws did for water skiing.’” Sure, the Great Man Albert Barnes may have been a forward-thinking art lover…but did he have a Mr. Brainwash? For those similarly put off by the flawed and exceedingly one-sided screed about commerce-in-art that was The Art of the Steal, I give you the anarchic, artrepeneurial, and thoroughly entertaining documentary-satire Exit Through the Gift Shop, by the enigmatic guerrilla street-artist Banksy.

Ostensibly a documentary about the world of street art in the post-graffiti era, as well as the found story of an artist of dubious talent’s meteoric rise to stardom, Exit Through the Gift Shop, as the name implies, is also a complicated and funny disquisition about the overlapping and almost impossible-to-disentangle spheres of art, commerce, money, and popular taste. Given’s Banksy’s statement on the second day of his 2007 Sotheby’s auction — “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this s**t” — there seems a very solid chance that Gift Shop is a well-crafted put-on. (Is he ‘aving a laff?) Whether he is or he isn’t, Exit is a pretty fun ride, and it definitely gives you an urge to get out there and create something.

Narrated throughout by Rhys Ifans, our story begins with one Thierry Guetta, a French shopowner and family man living in Los Angeles. Thierry, it seems, is one of those possibly-genius, more-likely-just-plain-crazy strange birds that tend to gravitate toward the City of Angels. His particular inflection of weirdness: He starts carrying around a video camera with him everywhere he goes — work, home, the bathroom, the streets, you name it. He doesn’t watch any of the tapes, mind you — he just records them. Having lost his mother at a young age, Thierry is now obsessed with capturing ever single iota of his existence on film, so no moment is ever again lost…like… tears…in rain.

As you can imagine, this constant filming drives everyone around Thierry to the point of distraction. But his hobby gains focus when, on a trip to Paris, he discovers his cousin is the one-and-only Invader, a street artist filling Paris and the world over with Space Invader mosaics. His interest piqued, Thierry soon plunges head-first into this hidden world of expressive ne’er-do-wells and hit-and-run artistry, thanks to a connection made through his cousin: the now-famous Shepherd Fairey. (As an aside, Fairey hails from Charleston, SC, not-so-far down the road from where I grew up, and I and a goodly part of my high-school class spent most of 1992 and 1993 festooning the Palmetto State with his Andre the Giant stickers.)

And so Thierry becomes the video chronicler of an underground movement (or the video recorder, at least — the tapes just pile up in boxes at his house.) But his menagerie of street artists is missing the prize catch: Banksy, the wily, witty British stencil artist known for elaborate stunts like painting up both sides of the West Bank Wall. Having a secret identity and all, Banksy is a hard man to track down, but the obsessive Thierry is not one to be deterred. So, when Banksy comes to town to do some work (and put on a show), Fairey makes an introduction. Indeed, Thierry even manages to gain the reclusive artist’s trust after helping put a Gitmo detainee in Disneyland, and the rest is history.

Ah, but our story is not over yet. Y’see, Banksy finds out about all the tapes, and asks to see Thierry’s movie. Thierry…isn’t so good at making movies. So, while Banksy culls through hours and hours of raw material, he suggests Thierry go have some fun, maybe make some art somewhere. This poses a new challenge for our OCD hero, and Thierry — now remonikered Mr. Brainwash (MBW) — takes it on his inimitable fashion. The result: A ginormous art show in LA entitled “Life is Beautiful”, teeming over with crappy, lowest-common-denominator pop-art that is half-Warhol, half-Banksy, and pretty much all sloppy and derivative. And, as sure as spring follows winter, people love it, Mr. Brainwash is everyone’s favorite new flavor, and Madonna commissions him for an album cover. Wow, this being a street artist thing is easy!

Or is it? It’s an open question whether Mr. Brainwash is another elaborate Banksy hoax, and if I had to bet on it, I’m thinking — despite Shepard Fairey’s protestations — the fix is in. (We never actually see him create anything, and, while I don’t think he himself is Banksy, there’s a reason Thierry looks so much like Tony Clifton.)

But, in the end, as one of Banksy’s co-conspirators says in Gift Shop, who’s the joke on? Mr. Brainwash is now a millionaire, and a lot of people spent a lot of money on his mostly uninspired and pedestrian works. But, you know, they seem to like them…so what does that tell us about what constitutes good art in the first place? Banksy never breaks character or show his cards here — He just lets the story play out and lets you think what you want. And say what you will about Banksy and his possible protege, they earned my $10 with this merry, subversive eff-you to the art world, the Sotheby’s crowd and any would-be arbiters of artistic taste. If it is a grift, and I think it probably is, Exit Through the Gift Shop is nonetheless an open-ended and very enjoyable one.

The Ballad of Casino Jack.

The festival was over and the boys were all planning for a fall.
The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gambling wheel shut down.
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts.


Thanks, Bob, I got it from here. As the links above attest, the sordid dealings of “Casino Jack” Abramoff and his GOP associates — most notably Tom DeLay and Bob Ney — made for solid blog fodder here at GitM for several years. So, between that and my current place of work, I probably had more interest than most in Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary recounting Abramoff’s rise-and-fall. And…well, it’s not bad. But, unfortunately, it’s not great either. And in terms of making the points he wants to make, I don’t get the sense Gibney really stuck the landing.

Part of the problem is Casino Jack is a maddeningly mercurial sort — and unlike the recently-released Ney, the soon to trial DeLay, chastened aide Neil Volz, and others, he and “Gimme Five” kickback co-conspirator Michael Scanlon choose not to go on the record here. So, right away, there is a cipher at the center of this ostensibly biographical story. And even more problematic for the film’s narrative and structure: Casino Jack had his fingers in a lot of pies, and if there was any way to game the political system somehow to make money, he was on the case. In short, this is one long, twisted, and convoluted story.

And thus, Gibney is left with the ungainly task of trying to explain how Abramoff turned Northern Marianas sweatshops into a bribe farm for GOP congressmen, and how his shady, playing-both-sides kickback operation gamed Native American casinos. Not to mention how his phantom think-tank on the Delaware coast was in fact a money-laundering outfit. Or how the seemingly Mob-connected takeover of a fleet of Suncruz casino ships — and the murder of its former owner — went down. And, amidst all this, how Abramoff managed to move up the GOP food chain by throwing his money around, and was depressingly successful at it. This is all not even withstanding weird tangents like Red Scorpion. So, while Gibney does an admirable job explaining the details of these various operations, he has to jump through so many hoops to get it all down that the Big Picture often gets lost.

I’m probably being a little too hard on this doc, if only because I went in with very high expectations. I was hoping Casino Jack would be more of a concise and devastating prosecutorial brief about the plague of unfettered money in politics, but it’s more broad and meandering than that. (And, to be fair, whenever you take a subject this broad, there will be some meandering — See also Why We Fight.) Still, as I said, even if the high-level connections aren’t quite nailed down, Gibney does a good job of nailing the specifics of each particular grift — the sweatshops and casinos and whatnot. And, coming across with the nerdy charm of a more buttoned-down, politically-minded version of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, author and ex-Republican Thomas Frank (The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter with Kansas) is an appealing interviewee throughout, and he enlivens the discussion considerably.

Speaking of Frank’s ex-GOP years: If you already knew the contours of this Abramoff story (and I suspect most of the people who bother to see this film will), perhaps the most interesting part of Casino Jack is the first half-hour, which chronicles the old College Republican days of friends Abramoff, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed. And from Reed’s penchant for outlandish stunts at campus protests, to Norquist’s unabashed admiration for Leninist tactics, to Abramoff et al’s abortive attempt to engage the Third World in their free-market fundie ways, it’s seem as if the young Reagan Right of the ’80s were mainly just a cracked-funhouse-mirror version of the ’60’s New Left they so despise. (This is also in keeping with what you might expect from books like Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, about the ’64 Goldwater campaign.)

Still, as we move into the present day and these young conservatives fan out into the political system, Casino Jack and the United States of Money unfortunately gets its overarching message muddled. Is this movie about the former (Abramoff) or the latter (the U.S.M.)? Is Casino Jack a uniquely well-connected criminal mastermind, or, worse, the clearest expression of a political system overwhelmed by cold, hard cash? It’s true the answer to this question may just be “yes,” but the documentary can’t seem to decide at times if it wants to skewer Abramoff (and, by extension, his “unindicted co-conspirators”) or catch bigger game — the whole rotten system — and as a result, both sorta end up writhing off the hook.

At one point, Casino Jack gets caught up recounting the exceptionally douchey e-mail traffic between Abramoff and Scanlon, which is fun and all. (The best laugh in the movie is when the beach bum lifeguard running their Delaware front operation turns out to be savvier than these two would-be Masters of the Universe: “Uh, you’ve been putting this all in e-mails?”) But, even as we delve into these sordid details, the scarier implications of the Abramoff story feel shortchanged — that not only does this pay-to-play stuff seem business as usual for the Dubya White House and DeLay ring, but worse, that this monied corruption festering at the heart of our republic is both legal and even institutionalized.

And so, when the Citizens United fiasco comes up at the end, it unfortunately feels like a bit of a non-sequitur, rather than the sad culmination of the story we’ve been told for two hours. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is an able attempt at muckraking, but, to my mind, it fails to capture the true horror unfolding here: Jack Abramoff may be languishing in prison right now, and for many, many good reasons. But the mess of a system he thrived in is still right here with us — and if anything, after Citizens United, it might soon be getting worse.

Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair.


On the surface, an artist tries to frame his ideals in an image, to challenge his audience and make his vision immortal. But the parasites say ‘NO! Your art must serve the cause! Your ideals endanger the people!’ Lacking its own ingenuity, the Parasite fears the visionary. What it cannot plagarize, it seeks to censor; what it cannot regulate, it seeks to ban. Rapture was founded on an idea, and here they are held inviolate.“Hmm…maybe they should’ve moved the Barnes to Rapture, then. Gamers might recognize the rantings above as those of the Ayn Randish industrial magnate Andrew Ryan, whose Journey to the Surface amusement ride is one of the cleverer setpieces in the recently-released Bioshock 2. But they also reflect the basic conceit within Don Argott’s Art of the Steal, a rather aggravating documentary about the recent moving of the Barnes Collection from Lower Merion, PA into downtown Philadelphia.

Art of the Steal starts off as an intriguing albeit confused retelling of this political story: Intriguing in that there’re a lot of interlocking and complicated motivations at work, and confused in that the documentary assumes certain first principles — and, later, malign intent — without backing them up. And while I was willing to forgive Art of the Steal its imbalance for awhile just because it was so clearly compelled by a sense of injustice done, the documentary gradually becomes so grossly one-sided in its telling that it skips right over myopic and naive and ends up feeling downright corrupt.

The story of the Barnes begins with the rise of our Andrew Ryan figure, Albert C. Barnes, a forward-thinking, working-class Philadelphian who, by dint of extraordinary intelligence and a hole in the pharmaceutical market, was a millionaire by the time he was 35. Considered a curmudgeon and misanthrope even by his friends, Barnes also had an undeniably great eye for art, and he started buying up masterpieces of the Post-Impressionist and early Modern periods — Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse — well before any other museums caught on to the scene. And when his attempts to show off his impressive collection in the town of his birth are ridiculed by the stuffy, conventional Philadelphia swells, Barnes angrily vows that he will never show off his private collection to these philistines, ever again.

Barnes is nothing if not a man of his word. He builds his own palatial gallery-school in Lower Merion, a suburb of Philly 4.5 miles outside the city center, and decides to restrict access to his collection to art students, working-class folks, and anyone else he deems worthy. The good news is Mr. Barnes’ sense of worthy is actually pretty keen: Barnes is a New Deal man well ahead of his time, particularly on the race relations front, and he greatly enjoys ridiculing the Philadelphia glitterati, most notably the Yang to his Yin, the conservative-minded Annenbergs. But even the Great Man cannot live forever, and when he dies in a car accident at an advanced age, the scions of Philadelphia begin their slow, convoluted plot to wrest Barnes’ art from him…for the good of the City, of course.

To his credit, Barnes did anticipate thus, and so his will clearly stipulates that this world-historical collection of art never be shown nor removed from its Lower Merion stronghold. (And, as a final screw-you to the Philly elites he loathed, he leaves it as a last resort to the local African-American college, Lincoln.) But, as time passes, and people die off, and Fortress Barnes itself starts to decay from within, the dead man’s ghostly hold over his property becomes more and more attenuated. To the point where — when a case is made that the art would be better off in Philly — well, the Great Man himself has been gone for fifty years, right?

Art of the Steal is at its best in the first hour, when it sets up the personalities involved and recounts the byzantine, death-by-increments process by which the Barnes collection finally got relocated. But, quite frankly, I thought there were some problems with its central thesis from the start. The documentary goes well out of its way to depict the people in favor of moving the collection as despicable and/or corrupt (and it is clear that some of the shadier operators, like Walter Annenberg, were indeed motivated by personal pique). But, nobody ever presents the counter-argument, that maybe (gasp!) there is really a legitimate case for moving the Barnes to downtown Philadelphia.

For one, the Barnes is an impressive building, and one of the best arguments the Barnes disciples make for keeping the collection there is the Great Man’s — again, extremely forward-thinking — methods of curation. (Unlike most museums, Barnes never subdivided the work by period or artist. He grouped by aesthetic, across cultural, geographic, and chronological lines, thus emphasizing a universality of art which is only now becoming more popular in museums.) But round the decay of that colossal wreck, nothing beside remains. For all intent and purposes, the Barnes really did seem to be falling apart, and attempts to continue using Lower Merion as a home base for the collection — adding parking lots and such — were roundly fought off by many of the same locals (Barnes might call them elites) later shown, when it’s convenient, to be “friends of the museum.”

And if the Ozymandias quote didn’t tip you off, I would also argue there’s a world-historical eminent domain question here that should at least be addressed. Albert Barnes may have been a Great Man, but…Mistah Barnes, he dead. (“God rest his soul, and his rudeness. A devouring public can now share the remains of his sickness.“) He’s as dead as King Tut, who probably would not have signed off on what Howard Carter et al did to his tomb. (In fact, I’d argue Tutankhamun almost assuredly got screwed over worse than Barnes.) And, speaking of which, there’s a reason why Indiana Jones’ usually undisputed refrain is, “It belongs in a museum!

You may disagree, of course, and think that Barnes’ will should be held inviolate from now until the End of Days — Ok, that’s cool, we disagree. But a good documentary would at least entertain this obvious opposing argument. Instead, Art of the Steal keeps making overbroad assertions that merit some serious unpacking. This tale, according to the movie, is a devastating triumph of Unbridled Commerce over the Purity of Art. But wait…wasn’t this about Commerce as soon as Barnes bought the art in the first place? He didn’t paint this stuff. And, according to the movie, the Barnes collection stands for Democracy in the face of the Corporatization of Art. It does? I thought Barnes hated “the mass experience” and wanted to show his collection only to the worthy. That doesn’t sound particularly democratic to me.

And in its final half-hour or so, Art of the Steal just fulminates and rages, barely making any sense at all. It accuses City officials of enacting an elaborate and corrupt scam on the people, and then depicts County officials, as well as the area’s GOP Congressman, as if they’re pure art lovers or something. (Like, I dunno, maybe Lower Merion and Montgomery County, etc., have some financial interests at stake here too?) It accuses the Philadelphia Art Museum’s backers of orchestrating this nefarious plot, but never satisfactorily explains how having a rival art museum moved downtown would benefit them. (Presumably, the argument is a rising tourist tide lifts all boats, I guess. The movie has a better case against the Pew Charitable Trust, who pretty clearly use the Barnes rather dodgily as leverage to improve their tax situation.)

And, with the possible exception of Richard Glanton, an enterprising former Foundation head seen as either the first crack in the Barnes dike or, as he sees himself, Cerberus defending the gates of Hell (Apres moi le deluge), the movie keeps shoehorning everyone involved into either hero or villain, without ever conceding that the issues are more complicated than they first seem. (Julian Bond of the NAACP, for example, is a witness for the prosecution here. But one of his more compelling arguments — that the powers-that-be screwed over Lincoln University, an historically black institution, by Bigfooting them into the move — is mostly elided over.) And the movie generates so much heat in the end that the light is lost. At one point, Governor Ed Rendell says the move of the collection to Philadelphia just seemed like an easy call to him, and after watching this documentary, I didn’t see much to disqualify that claim. Other than following verbatim the will of a man with no heirs who’s been dead for fifty years, what were the reasons again for keeping the collection in Lower Merion?

In choosing to be a one-sided screed rather than an in-depth exploration of the subject at hand, Art of the Steal does its very interesting topic no favors. In the end, the movie works less as a definitive statement on the thorny entanglement of art and commerce than as a sad testament to the narcissism of petty differences. And from the muddled picture one gets of Mr. Barnes here, the Great Man deserved a better advocate.

The Patriot.

As gripping in its own way as a cloak-and-dagger thriller or John Grisham procedural, Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America, by co-directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith and about the famous Rand analyst turned Pentagon Papers whistleblower, is a smart, tautly-made conjuring of recent American history that’s well worth the trip. And, fortunately for me, it’s also a perfect movie to contemplate and write about this President’s Day.

On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)

Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.

But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.

The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)

And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.

I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.

Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)

But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.

Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.

The Oughts in Film: Part II (75-51).

Hello all. Before I head out to pick up a rental car and drive down to the family compound for the holiday, here’s part 2 of the top 100 list for your enjoyment. In case you missed the beginning of the party, read this entry first. And if you’re all caught up to speed, let’s get back to it:

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
Part II: 75-51

[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]



75. The Queen (2006)

From the original review: “Less a paean to ‘the people’s princess’ than a sharp-witted rumination on changing social values and the effect of global ‘Oprahization’ on contemporary politics, The Queen is an intelligent, discerning and enjoyable slice-of-life that’s well worth catching.

From the year-end list: “A movie I shied away from when it first came out, The Queen is a canny look at contemporary politics anchored by Helen Mirren’s sterling performance as the fastidious, reserved, and ever-so-slightly downcast monarch in question…[It’s] the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history.

Unfortunately, this movie came out in 2006, so we don’t get to see Elizabeth II here with her Wii (and a gold-plated one at that.) That aside, Peter Morgan, Stephen Frears, Michael Sheen, and particularly Helen Mirren made The Queen a memorable and multi-faceted disquisition on changing social mores and their respective political impact on the residents of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing St. Morgan and Sheen would continue to expose the real stories behind various famous television interviews throughout the rest of the decade, in 2008’s Frost/Nixon and 2009’s The Damned United. All three are worthwhile films, but The Queen is probably the best of the lot.


74. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Boy, that escalated quickly…I didn’t quote from the original review on this one, because, basically, I whiffed it. I originally saw Anchorman one afternoon in the summer of 2004, soon after a recent dumping, and I clearly wasn’t in the mood for it — Funny is a fragile thing.

That being said, catching it on cable a few years later when not in Debbie Downer mode, Anchorman really came into its own for me. Basically, it’s a movie that will try just about anything to make you laugh, and you have to sorta admire its ambition to leave no joke untried. While I know Talladega Nights has its defenders, this eventually ended up being my favorite Will Ferrell movie of the decade. What can I say? 60% of the time, it works every time.


73. U2 3D (2008)

From the original review: “Anyone who’s ever thrown in The Joshua Tree — that’s millions of people, obviously — and listened to the thrilling opening strands of “Where the Streets Have No Name” can probably imagine the potential of U2 filtered through an IMAX sound system and projected in multiple dimensions. All I can say, it’s pretty darned cool…U2 3D really feels like the future in concert films. As a music experience, it’s better than having the best seats in the house (and the drunk girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders in front of you — while in 3D — never actually obscures your vision.

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

Of course, your enjoyment of this concert film will depend a great deal on how much you like U2 — For my part, they’re not in my personal top tier, but I’ve always had a solid appreciation for them. Nonetheless, as I said above, U23D — even more than the beautiful but ultimately pretty conventional Avatar — still feels like a significant step forward for the art of movie-making. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen that uses 3D-technology as a new visual language rather than just a gimmick. And, rather than another umpteen variations on “OMG that arrow is coming right at me!“, I’d really like to see more filmmakers play with the 3D syntax tested out here in the decade to come.


72. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

From the original review: “Nonsensical, self-indulgent, and occasionally even a tad smarmy, Steven Soderbergh’s much-hyped Ocean’s Twelve is also, I’m happy to report, just plain fun…Twelve turned out to be what Soderbergh tried and failed to do with Full Frontal…As much a riff on stars and stardom as the heist movie we were all expecting, it’s probably the most sheerly pleasurable film experience you’re going to find this side of The Incredibles.

From the year-end list: “Two swollen hours of Soderberghian glamour and inside baseball. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I found it an agreeable improvement on Ocean’s 11.

I’m betting this will be another contested choice, as I’ve even seen Ocean’s Twelve on a few worst-of-decade lists. But while the other two Ocean films are basically just standard-issue heist flicks, I thought this one aimed a little more outside the box, instead trying to amplify the “hanging with the Rat Pack” aspect of the original 1960 film. In short, I just love the sprawling movie metaness of Ocean’s 12: the characters talking about Miller’s Crossing; Topher Grace “totally phoning in that Dennis Quaid movie“; Eddie Izzard’s cliched hot secretary; the gymnast getting lost in the luggage. And, yes, the Julia Roberts-Bruce Willis bit.

Sorta like Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, Ocean’s 12 just feels like a Hollywood lark, one in which the ultra-glamorous movie stars in tow have kindly allowed us to come along for the ride, maybe play a few hands. I guess a lot of people didn’t vibe into Twelve like I did, but I found its jaunty, devil-may-care sense of fun contagious.


71. In the Valley of Elah (2007)

From the original review: “I went in expecting not much more than an over-the-top ‘message movie’ schmaltzfest, or at best a harmless helping of mediocre, inert Oscar Bait like Cinderella Man or A Beautiful Mind. But [Elah] turned out to be quite a bit better than I expected…[It’s] a melancholy rumination on the hidden casualties of (any) war and a somber inquiry into the heavy toll exacted on the wives, parents, and children of military men…And, biblical parallels aside, the film showcases the best work Tommy Lee Jones has done in years.

From the year-end list: “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…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.

In the Valley of Elah wasn’t the best TLJ movie of 2007 — that’ll come later — but, surprisingly given Paul Haggis’ involvement, it was a darned good one. Looking back, the key, I think, was that everyone here from Jones to Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, and Josh Brolin in supporting roles underplayed the material, so that only a few in-your-face Haggisian elements rankle — that bizarre and plot-convenient van technician, for example, or the perhaps too-on-the-nose final shot of the movie. Otherwise, though, Elah cut deeper for staying free of the bombast that marked Paul Haggis’ overwrought Crash, and it boasted arguably the best performance of 2007.


70. Boiler Room (2000)

From the year-end list: “Surprisingly good, not the least because of the charismatic Vin Diesel, Glengarry Glen Affleck, and the great Wall Street scene.

Wall Street for the DVD generation, Ben Younger’s Boiler Room was another nice surprise. Ok, some of the father-son stuff with Giovanni Ribisi and Ron Rifkin is pretty well overcooked. But, as with Ocean’s 12, I like the meta-ness involved here. The fact that all these chop shop Jersey Boys constantly and lovingly quote Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross throughout made the movie seem that much more realistic. And Boiler Room resonates tellingly in the details, like newly-minted millionaire Ben Affleck owning nothing but a McMansion, a giant TV, and a tanning bed. It’s basically a B-movie, sure, but it’s a much better one than you’d ever expect going in.


69. Jackass (2002)

From the original review: “If you’ve seen the ads, you probably already know whether or not this film will appeal to you: You’re either going to find it hilarious or repellent (or probably both). I was sickened and disgusted, and there were times I was laughing so hard that Berkeley thought there was something wrong with me…Alligator Tightrope may just be the dumbest, most nightmarish and cringe-funny thing I’ve seen all year.

If you’ve been reading this list carefully, you may have noticed that I telegraphed this potentially contentious pick back with Borat at #97 (as well as with my caveat about Z-grade comedies in the original intro.) And all I can say is, s/he with the straight face cast the first stone. I know Jackass is barely a movie at all – it’s television on a movie screen, and depraved, zero-budget television at that. It has little-to-no redeeming social value, it spawned a lot of worthless and sub-moronic imitations, and, in fact, it’s mostly just ninety minutes of charismatic lunatics doing patently stupid things. But, lord help me, it is really, really funny at times.

I never saw the 2006 follow-up, so that one might’ve been even more hilarious or the well might’ve run dry by then. Nonetheless, the original Jackass had the uncanny ability to bypass all higher-order thought processes and send my reptile brain into giggling fits. It’s like a shiny toy car, plunged straight into the comedy id.


68. Secretary (2002)

From the year-end list: “A heart-warming romantic comedy about a boy, a girl, and the spankings that brought them together…A lot of the people I’ve spoken with had trouble with the ending, but I thought that it ended the only way it really could…any other way would’ve given the audience the out they wanted to condemn these people as sideshow freaks. By treating this bizarre couple as just another relationship in a weird wide world, Secretary offers a portrait of two people ‘just right’ for each other that is much more touching than the average, vanilla romantic comedy.

So, while I’m getting the sick-and-twisted choices out of the way, can I get a word in for Steven Shainberg’s Secretary? Based on the Mary Gaitskill short story and the film that made Maggie Gyllenhaal a star, Secretary was in essence an attempt to test the boundaries of the rom-com format by seeing if it could accommodate a little BDSM kink. In fact, however naughty-minded at times, Secretary is actually pretty standard fare: Get past the cuffs and such, and what we here is a meet-cute between two people who are surprisingly perfect for each other, some not-insurmountable romantic turmoil along the way, and eventually a marriage and a happy ending — It’s like J. Lo’s The Wedding Planner or Maid in Manhattan, if J. Lo was still wearing her S&M get-ups from The Cell. (Now that I think about it, Secretary may not even be all that outside-the-norm. Let’s remember 1990’s Pretty Woman, a movie oddly considered romantic by tons of aficionados of the genre, is basically the story of Richard Gere up and buying himself a hooker.)

True, James Spader had already played a bizarro-perv way too often to be taken seriously here. And, in fact, you can see him slowly, inexorably turning into the Brundlefly version of William Shatner he would eventually become as the movie grinds along. Still, as far as rom-coms go, I thought Secretary went down more easily than most. Say what you will about the bondage on display here — I’d argue there are dozens of rom-coms out each year — say How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or The Ugly Truth, to name just two — that are the real cruel and unusual punishment.


67. (500) Days of Summer (2009)

From the original review: “This won’t be a film for everyone — It’s often too cute or clever by half, and I’ll concede that it probably reeks of forced Little Miss Sunshine or Juno-style indie cachet to people who don’t roll with it…For me this definitely goes on the Garden State ‘vaguely-guilty pleasure’ pile…It’d be hard to sum up (500) Days better or more succinctly than the tagline: ‘Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.’ If this has ever happened to you, and lordy has it happened to me, I suspect you’ll enjoy [it] quite a bit as well.

From the year-end list: “Speaking of sad British pop music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and Summer’s lease hath all too short a date…500 days, in fact. But, hey, at least we’ll always have the memories. Despite the way it was sold, (500) Days of Summer is barely a love story at all, nor is it a dissection of how a particular romance — that of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) goes sour. It’s more about how Tom is, despite himself, driven to romance in the first place (Hint: It’s Morrissey’s fault), and about how the desire to be in love can sometimes be mistakenly substituted for the real thing.

If that sounds a bit heavy, well, it’s not — (500) Days also includes a musical number, a Han Solo cameo, lots of goofy shenanigans involving Geoffrey Arend (a.k.a. Mr. Christina Hendricks)…in short, there’s a lot of sugar to help soothe all the break-up angst here. I doubt (500) Days makes for a very good date movie in the end, but it’s a good one to cue up if and when that date goes south. (And since all early word seems to indicate that Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass will make a star of Chloe Moretz in 2010, let’s remember she did the preternaturally mature pre-teen schtick here first.)


66. Lord of War (2005)

From the original review: “At once a character study of an amoral arms dealer, a bitter tirade againt third world exploitation, and a dark comedy that may run too sour for some tastes, Lord of War is an above-average entrant in the satirical muckraking tradition. And its occasional preachiness is leavened by Nicolas Cage’s consistently-amusing and deftly-written performance, most of which is voiceover, at the center of the film.

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

Lord of War is one of those movies that’s moved up in my estimation over the years, partly because later attempts at political satire, such as Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, couldn’t ever seem to find the delicate balance of this mordant and spirited tirade against the arms industry. There are some excellent performances here from the likes of Ian Holm and Eamonn Walker, but in the end this is Nic Cage’s show, and, as with this year’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, this film shows how good he can be when he’s not just working for a paycheck. And like The Wire, Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War is both very angry and very funny: Its sensitivity to obvious injustices in the world — “Thank God there are still legal ways to exploit developing countries” — fuels its dark brand of humor, and vice versa.


65. Bamboozled (2000)

Speaking of which, Spike Lee’s overlooked and much-maligned Bamboozled works very similarly to Lord of War in its anger-to-humor quotient, and it is, possibly up until its last act, a very funny satire. (It also makes for a great double-feature with Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America, which Lee executive-produced.)

Most obviously, Bamboozled sheds a harsh light on aspects of America’s pop-culture past that we still remain eerily silent about. But it’s also a ruthless, equal-opportunity lampooner, calling out Michael Rappaport’s white-boy sports fan (“I’m blacker than you, brother-man!“) as mercilessly as Mos-Def’s crew of would-be gangsta rappers, the Mau-Maus. (There’s a devastating joke at the end of the movie involving the cops and “1/16th” (a.k.a. MC Serch of 3rd Bass), the “light-skinned” member of the Mau Maus: Everybody else gets shot, he — despite his best attempts — can only get arrested.)

Not even the main character, Damon Wayans’ Pierre Delacroix, is safe from Lee’s scouring here. A guy who for all intent and purposes lives his life in “whiteface,” DeLa eventually gets his comeuppance from his dad, in a choice cameo by Paul Mooney. (“Boy, where the f**k did you get that accent?”) More than just call out the old embarrassing traditions of blackface and minstrelsy, Bamboozled casts blame all around. It very plausibly suggests how blackface notions have remained alive in recent decades (Good Times, anyone?), while noting the artistry of the performers so often forced into such lowly affairs (in this case, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, and the Roots, who put on a good show despite the sordidness of it all.) Sure, Bamboozled gets a bit lost in the weeds in its final moments, but a lot of satires have a tendency to ride off the rails in the last act. Until then, Bamboozled will make you angry, it will make you laugh, and it will make you think.


64. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

From the original review: “Like pretty much all of Weir’s other films, Commander is an extremely competent piece of work, in some ways even masterful…[T]he historical details seemed right to my landlubber’s eye, and I thought the languid, episodic pacing of the film…helped to convey the rhythm of life at sea in the Napoleonic era…kudos go out to Peter Weir & crew for making a picture as engrossing and transporting as this one.

From the year-end list: “It’s a long title, it’s a long movie. But a good kinda long…in fact, as I said in my initial review, it seemed to move to the langorous rhythms of a long sea voyage, one that I may not take again for awhile, but one that I still thoroughly enjoyed. And I’ll say this for Russell Crowe…somewhere along the way in each of his films, I tend to forget that he’s Russell Crowe. His Capt. Jack Aubrey was no exception.

I haven’t watched Master and Commander since it first set sail in 2003, and I have a feeling I should probably give it another go. The movie seems to have floated to the higher echelons of a lot of other Best-of-Decade lists and, If nothing else, Weir’s film made for the other quality Star Trek reboot we saw this decade. In fact, particularly given how sequel-crazed Hollywood tends to be these days, I’m sorta surprised we never saw any of the other Patrick O’Brien seafaring novels made into movies after this film, even if they had to recast Crowe and go with someone other than Weir to direct. (I assume Paul Bettany would still be game — the man did just make Legion, after all.) Who knows? Perhaps the studio suits got scared off by a Jonah somewhere along the line.


63. Mystic River (2003)

From the original review: “[W]ith its crisp, no-nonsense direction and a glut of extraordinary performances…it pretty much has to be considered an Oscar contender…To paraphrase the son of an altogether different neighborhood, sometimes the world is a monster, bad to swallow you whole.

From the year-end list: “The waters of the Charles are disturbed, something is rotten in the outskirts of Boston, and it’s safe to say the Fates are wicked pissed…Mystic River is inhabited and propelled by a spirit of lumbering, impending, inexorable doom…what Legolas might call a ‘sleepless malice.’ It is that existential malice, rooted so strongly in local color, that gives this River its considerable power.

What with Scorsese’s The Departed and Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, several crime sagas of the Oughts went to the Hub for their local color. (I guess the trend might’ve started with 1994’s Blown Away, although I’ve tried to willfully forget that movie.) In any case, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (like Gone, originally a novel by Dennis Lehane) was the best of the lot. There are some elements of the story that don’t really work on film — Kevin Bacon’s silent phone-stalker of an ex-wife, for example, or Laura Linney’s Lady Macbeth routine near the end of the film. Nonetheless, most of Mystic River is very worthwhile.

In retrospect, it would have been that much nicer to see Bill Murray win the Oscar that year for Lost in Translation, given that Sean Penn ended up winning again for Milk later on. But Penn, as with the rest of the cast, is very good here. (Consider the scene of him breaking down on his Dorchester porch, in front of Tim Robbins.) Hard times in Beantown, alright.


62. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

From the original review: “Mike Newell’s dark and delectable Goblet is brimming over with energy and suspense, and, to my surprise, it’s probably the best Potter film so far. (And this is coming from someone who actually preferred Book III to Book IV on paper.)

From the year-end list: “[G]ive Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Beginning with 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Young Mr. Potter had many filmed adventures over the course of this decade — six in all. And, while I know Alfonse Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkhaban has its supporters, I thought this fourth installment by Mike Newell was the closest the movie series ever came to capturing the magic of the (first several) books.

We’ve moved pretty far afield here from the flat, colorful, and thoroughly boring Hogwarts of the Chris Columbus iterations — In Goblet, Dumbledore’s academy of magic possesses the menace and grandeur it was missing earlier on. Meanwhile, a lot of the original cast, most notably the kids, have found their groove by Act IV (as has Richard Harris’ replacement, Michael Gambon), and they pick up some key reinforcements in Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Poesy, and even the Doctor himself, David Tennant. Throw in the ironic pre-Thatcher haircuts, an early sighting of Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson for the fangirls, and our first real interaction with He Who Must Not Be Named, and Goblet had a little something for everybody.


61. Iron Man (2008)

From the original review: “[G]iven I have no real reservoir of nostalgia for its titular hero, Jon Favreau’s crisp, surprisingly fun Iron Man seems that much more of an achievement…As far as origin stories go, I’d say Iron Man can hold its helmet proudly alongside Batman Begins and the Donner Superman, thanks mainly to its superb cast (and inspired casting)…[I]f you allow for the constraints of the genre, Iron Man is basically everything you’d want in a summer-y superhero blockbuster.

From the year-end list: “Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe.

Heavy boots of lead fills his victims full of dread. Running as fast as they can, Iron Man lives again!” As, for that matter, does Robert Downey, Jr., who began his recent career reinvention as a box office A-lister (see also: Sherlock Holmes) with his turn here as alcoholic Marvel billionaire Tony Stark. Throw in a very enjoyable Jeff Bridges as the Big Bad and Jon Favreau keeping an admirably light touch in a summer of darkest knight, and you end up with a surprisingly fun comic book outing, one that largely sidestepped the “origin story” doldrums that mar a lot of films in the genre. Now, let’s hope Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, and Scarlett Johansson can take Iron Club up a notch in this summer’s sequel.


60. Batman Begins (2005)

From the original review: “I’m happy to report that, while Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins has some minor problems — each character gets a few clunky lines and the final action sequence isn’t all that memorable — this is the Batman movie that fans of the Dark Knight have been waiting for. There’s no Schumacher statuary in this Gotham City, and nary a Burtonesque Batdance to be had. Nope, this is just straight-up Frank Miller-style Batman, scaring the bejeezus out of the underworld in his inimitable fashion.

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

Without warning, it comes, crashing through the window of your study…and mine…I have seen it before somewhere…it frightened me as a boy…frightened me…Yes, Father. I shall become a bat.” Speaking of the Dark Knight, 2005’s Batman Begins was another very solid “origin-story” comic book film, one that long-suffering fans of the Caped Crusader had waited for for a good long while. Yes, Begins has some problems — there’s probably too much “fear is the mindkiller“-type patter throughout, the elevated railcar climax is goofy, the villain’s plan makes no sense (people, after all, are bags of mostly water — they’d be blowing up right along with the sewer mains), and Batman’s farewell to Ras Al Ghul (“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you“) is totally and utterly out of character. (I blame co-screenwriter David Goyer, who should’ve known better.)

All that being said, you finally got the sense here that Batman was in the hands of a director who just wanted to figure out what makes a ridiculously rich guy want to dress up like a bat and fight crime. (Tim Burton is a good director, and I’m particularly fond of Batman Returns. But while Returns is a great Tim Burton movie, it’s not a particularly good Batman flick, some of the Catwoman romance notwithstanding.) And if Nolan could get this close to capturing the spirit of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, it just made you wonder what he could do once he got his hands on The Killing Joke


59. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

From the original review: “While perhaps a bit too black-and-white in terms of the history, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck is nevertheless a somber and captivating paean to Edward R. Murrow, his televised expose of Joe McCarthy, and, by extension, the Pioneer Days of Television Journalism…[W]hat could have been an above-average History Channel documentary is instead a powerful and intelligent work of cinema that’s easily one of the better films out this year.

From the year-end list: “A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

Enemy sighted, Enemy met — I’m addressing the realpolitik: In a decade that saw television journalism continue to devolve into a morass of apple-cheeked automatons doling out substance-less blather, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck was both a refreshing tonic and a wistful remembrance of the days that were. Yes, folks, there was apparently a time when the Fourth Estate didn’t necessarily act like court stenographers for the people in power. Although, as the black and white cinematography would suggest, that time seems like a million miles from now.


58. District 9 (2009)

From the original review: “The head of the film, its first forty minutes or so, feels like a Paul Greengrass movie such as Bloody Sunday: a grim, gripping tale of social and political injustice…told in naturalistic, faux-documentary style. But the thorax of District 9 delves deeper into old-school David Cronenberg territory, with all the gooey orifices, transformational anxiety, and throbbing gristle that usually portends…And, by the time we get to the abdomen, we’re suddenly watching a George Miller or Jim Cameron-style actioner, with more than enough visceral excitement to keep the antennae twitching. All stitched together, District 9 is quite a remarkable feat of summer sensation.

From the year-end list: “Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) [film was the] South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and…was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

Now that we’ve reached a stage where CGI can create pretty much anything, and for relatively cheap, it’s good to know we’ll still sometimes get unique and original sci-fi movies like District 9, in between the extended toy commercials and sequels based on board games. Neil Blomkamp’s film is more than just Invictus with space bugs instead of rugby. It was a certifiably kick-ass sci-fi action film that never let its timely political parable get in the way of the entertainment at hand.

District 9 also works better than most thanks to Sharlto Copley’s turn as one of the more memorably conflicted government bureaucrats in sci-fi since Sam Lowry of Information Retrieval. Let’s hope Hollywood finds more to do with him than just Mad Dog Murdoch of The A-Team.


57. Wonder Boys (2000)

From the year-end list: “Perfectly captured the rhythms of campus life. The Dylan song didn’t hurt either.

I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road, if the bible is right, the world will explode. I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can…” If nothing else, you could argue that Wonder Boys should be on this list just for helping Bob Dylan out of his two-decade rut, and delivering one of the best songs in his entire canon. But even “Things Have Changed” notwithstanding, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel has its merits. I haven’t seen it since it first came out, but I remember thinking Wonder Boys got both the collegiate and the novelistic feel exactly right. At the same time, Hanson’s movie felt like both wandering aimlessly around a campus (a diner, a kegger, a faculty party) and reading about someone doing as much. And I remember Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand both being particularly good here. I should probably see it again.


56. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

From the year-end list: “The Coen brothers stay in form with this beautifully shot film noir.

With the definite exception of 2004’s The Ladykillers (and, depending on your point of view, 2008’s Burn after Reading), Joel and Ethan Coen had another banner decade in the Oughts — we’re just starting to sing their praises on this list.

Their 2001 outing, The Man Who Wasn’t There was one of three attempts by the brothers these past ten years to explore the rules that govern their existential universe, and it’s arguably their least successful of the bunch. Nonetheless, it looks absolutely stunning, and, like all Coen movies, there’s a lot of great stuff in and around the margins of the film, from Richard Jenkins’ alcoholic attorney to Tony Shalhoub’s Perry Mason-ish Freddy Riedenschneider.


55. The Descent (2005)

Like District 9, Neil Marshall’s satisfying B-grade horror flick The Descent has the good sense to grift from a lot of great movies. The mote-in-God’s-eye opening through the mountains is basically lifted directly from The Shining, and there’s more than a little Ripley and Vasquez to Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Jackson Mendoza’s characters respectively.

Nonetheless, Marshall’s film about an all-female spelunking trip gone horribly wrong eventually works on its own terms. Ok, the subterranean homesick rednecks are never particularly scary, and one of the endings works better than the other. But if you’re in any way claustrophobic, some of the underground business in the caves will definitely set your teeth on edge.

I never saw 2002’s Dog Soldiers or 2008’s Doomsday, but have heard they’re not as good. (There’s also a straight-to-video sequel to this movie, which I presume is terrible.) Still, for most of its run, The Descent operates at about the level of a quality, old-school John Carpenter movie like Prince of Darkness, The Thing, or They Live! It’s a hard groove to pull off decently, but with this film, Marshall nailed it.


54. Ballets Russes (2005)

From the original review: “It’s a stunning film, one that I’d even recommend to people who have little-to-no interest in ballet. Like the best documentaries — and this is the best I’ve seen in some time — Ballets Russes transcends its immediate topic to capture larger and more ephemeral truths…Like a perfectly executed ensemble piece, Ballets Russes can take your breath away.

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

Documentaries are almost assuredly under-appreciated on this list, mainly because I tend to miss a lot of the very well-reviewed ones, like No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side. Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s Ballets Russes I did see, tho’, and it’s a definite keeper. As much about both the inexorable passage of time and the eternal joys of dance (note the Russian octogenarians reliving their old duets) as the story of how ballet became a widespread pastime in America, Ballets Russes feels like it manages to capture something elusive about the human condition during the course of its run. True, I have more of a connection to the ballet world than a lot of moviegoers, but I still think this film will strike a chord with almost anyone with an open mind and a tendency to tap their feet.


53. Battle Royale (2000) / Infernal Affairs (2002)

There can be only one. Those of you similarly disappointed with how Quentin Tarantino mishandled Go-Go-Yubari (a.k.a. a “homicidal Japanese schoolgirl with a tricked-up mace“) in Kill Bill, Vol. I need only go back to the source: Battle Royale. If you’ve never heard of it, this 2000 film by Kinji Fukasaku involves dozens of schoolchildren forced into a death match by an evil government program and a ticked-off teacher, the villainous (and iconic) Takeshi “Beat” Kitano.

Ok, yes, the film may be in questionable taste here in the post-Columbine era, and it’s spawned much concern about copycat behavior in Japan. (For those outraged by this film, I recommend Gus Van Sant’s Elephant as a tonic.) Take it for what it is, tho’, and Battle Royale is pretty solid entertainment, vaguely similar in a way to The Great Escape in wondering which characters are going to make it through the maelstrom. (The answer: Not many.)

Now, what does the Hong Kong “deep undercover” cops-and-robbers flick Infernal Affairs have to do with Battle Royale? Well, not much at all really, other than both being examples of quality Asian cinema (albeit from different nations.) But it occurred to me over the course of writing this second installment of the list that I’d forgotten about Infernal Affairs — I originally thought it came out in the 90’s — and so I had to slot it in somewhere. (This isn’t unprecedented. As you’ll see, there are a couple of times in the final 50 where films share the same slot.)

In any event, Infernal Affairs in, in my opinion, a superior film to its much-vaunted 2006 American remake, The Departed. To put it crudely but effectively, Infernal Affairs is old-school Jack Nicholson. It’s sharp and fast and lean and lethal. The Departed, on the other hand, was modern “Jack.” It was bloated and hammy and self-mocking and probably should’ve been reined in a tad. IA also had the benefit of getting there first, of course. And, if nothing else, Infernal Affairs has one of the coolest men in the world in its favor in Tony Leung (in the eventual di Caprio role), which is no small thing.


52. Zodiac (2007)

From the original review: “[A] somber and engaging character study of the cops, journalists, and suspects caught up in the hunt for San Francisco’s most famous murderer, and a moody meditation on how, as months yield to years without a definitive answer, the long, tiring search for truth comes to haunt and drain their lives away…The film is kind enough to give the audience something of a sense of closure at the end, but Zodiac is most intriguing when it leaves all doors open, and lets its characters get thrown about in the bruising wind that ensues.

From the year-end list: “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…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…Whatever Dirty Harry may suggest to the contrary, the Zodiac remains elusive.

(For what it’s worth, this film and the next one were flicks I traded back-and-forth for awhile, and both moved in and out of the top fifty.) A movie that makes for a good double-feature with one of the forgotten gems of 1999, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, David Fincher’s Zodiac works best when it foregoes the Se7en-like machinations of the actual San Francisco murders and concentrates on the Grail-like quest for certainty in an uncertain world.

Over the course of a draining decade of looking for “The Truth,” Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and the other cops and journalists on the trail all go slightly mad. The archives become a maze, the police records a bewildering thicket of potential clues and possible leads. In the real world, Zodiac suggests, Dirty Harry doesn’t solve the case, and Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach don’t get to the bottom of it all in 48 minutes + commercials. In the real world, you never know…you just never know.


51. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

From the original review: “One of the things I admired most about this very dark film is its sheer remorselessness. From its opening moments and throughout, it instills a visceral fight-or-flight dread in the audience and refuses to let us off the hook, inviting us less to tsk-tsk about the hubris of American military overreaching and more to ponder what measures — moral, immoral, amoral — we might take to ensure our own survival in this nightmarish universe. Time and time again in 28 Weeks Later, compassion is absolutely the wrong answer to the problem at hand, and…people surprise you with the decisions they choose to make with their backs to the wall.

From the year-end list: “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…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.”

A considerable improvement over the uneven first installment by Danny Boyle and Alexa Garland, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later is an absolutely ruthless film. Beginning with Robert Carlyle’s Hobson’s choice in the English countryside (Well, what would you do? Really? Are you sure?), Fresnadillo’s film thrusts you into several ghastly and viscerally immediate situations where morality isn’t much of a guide. Is General String (Idris Elba) right to order the immediate death of Alice the found survivor (Catherine McCormack)? Should Sniper Jeremy Renner be shooting civilians or not? Should doctor Rose Byrne really be helping these two children, also potential carriers of the virus?

There are no easy solutions in 28 Weeks Later — That’s part of what makes it so horrible (and the film so good). As with District 9, Fresnadillo doesn’t let the political parable (here, the American reconstruction of Iraq) interfere with the story he wants to tell. And that story is very dark indeed.

Halfway there, folks. Part III to follow sometime on the other side of Santa…In fact, it’s here!

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

2008 in Film.

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2008

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hrm.

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