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Ewan MacGregor

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B-Movies Go A-List.

In the trailer bin of late:

  • If Contagion wasn’t enough for 2011, Steven Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast for some straight-to-video-ish action in the new trailer for Haywire, with Gina Carano, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. It doesn’t look all that great, but with Soderbergh and that cast, you never know.

  • Speaking of A-list casts down for some B-movie action, Ryan Gosling is a stunt driver by day and wheelman by nightin the red band trailer for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, also with Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman, and Albert Brooks. This got great reviews at Cannes, and, like Haywire, I’m intrigued by the personnel involved. But Oldboy has already cornered the market on hammer shenanigans.

  • In the not-too-distant future, Justin Timberlake has time on his side — or does he? — in the Comic-con trailer of Andrew Niccol’s In Time, also with Cillian Murphy, Amanda Seyfriend, Olivia Wilde, and Vincent Kartheiser. The timestamp thing is rather goofy, but Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show) is usually good for a smart sci-fi premise. I’m in.

  • Luke constructs a lightsaber, Han shoots up a shield generator, and wampas and sandstorms attack in this preview of the Star Wars Original Trilogy deleted scenes, coming soon to a Blu-Ray player near you. Sorry, I think you have to buy the prequels as well to get these.

  • And, not a movie trailer per se, but Rick Grimes and the gang are as ready as they’ll ever be for another round of the zombie apocalypse in the new trailer for Season 2 of The Walking Dead. I’m more excited about S2 of Game of Thrones personally, but this’ll do until the trouble gets here.

Like Martin Luther Zen.


Next up on the review docket: Mike Mills’ indie slice-of-life Beginners, about a Los Angeles man (Ewan MacGregor) grappling with both the recent death of his father (Christopher Plummer) and a budding romance with a free-spirited but damaged French actress (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds.) In short, Beginners is well-made and moderately diverting for most of its run, but it was also a little too self-consciously quirky for my taste. If you wait for IFC or Netflix on this one, no harm, no foul.

Walking out of the theater after Beginners, the film that most sprung to mind was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. So I was surprised to discover soon thereafter that July and Mills are actually married. (It’s a good match — they definitely share a worldview.) Here, as in Me and You, Beginners is occasionally charming and soulful in its off-kilter way. But it also too often flirts dangerously with twee to feel really resonant. At least for me, the story would have more power if the characers — particularly its two lovebirds — were less affected.

The more interesting and successful part of Beginners involves the main character — Oliver — remembering his recently deceased father Hal, and the way Hal, after the death of his wife, consciously reinvented his life to be happy. After forty-four years of marriage, he comes out, finds a boyfriend (ER’s Goran Visnjic) and a new social circle, gets active in politics and gay liberation, and takes on new hobbies like house music, movie nights and lighting fireworks. And even when Hal is ultimately diagnosed with terminal cancer, he chooses to maintain his late-in-life joie de vivre. Because for Hal, quite frankly, life’s too short not to be happy.

By contrast, Oliver-in-the-present is paralyzed — with loneliness and self-doubt, with the weight of carrying other people’s problems, with the burden of, as he puts it, historical consciousness, and, with well, general sadness. He can’t break out of his funk and be happy, even when happiness — in the form of Melanie Laurent’s Anna — is staring him in the face. The grief over Hal’s demise is debilitating enough, but in fact Oliver’s such a sensitive soul that he can’t even bring himself to leave his dad’s Jack Russell, Arthur (who “speaks” in subtitles and more often then not steals his scenes), alone at home. Can Oliver find a way to overcome his emotional obstacles, take a page from his father (and free-wheeling mom (Mary Page Keller), whom we meet in flashback), and grab the reins of his life? Let’s hope so. Neither love nor pixieish yet similarly depressive significant others tend to come round every day.

This relationship side is where Beginners started to rankle. MacGregor and Laurent make for a cute couple (and Ewan’s been working on his American accent — he sounds much better than usual.) But, even allowing for the traditional meet-cute (in this case, at a costume party — he’s Sigmund Freud, she’s a mute Charlie Chaplin), far too many of their interactions together are based on outright quirkiness. When they get in the car, she points, and he drives wherever she has bidden. When they get back to her place, they keep up the “she’s a mute” pretense long after it would have gotten annoying. When the phone rings, they pretend to be each other so we can have portentous revelations about her father (a suicidal depressive, in keeping with the happy/sad theme here.)

Perhaps we’re supposed to take from all this that these are two rare and beautiful flowers who are lucky to have found each other, or that they are both such damaged souls that they can only relate to each other through these distancing mechanisms. But, to me, all of this self-conscious artifice in their dealings just made these two characters seem overdrawn and fake. (At the very least, being these two seems like it’d be exhausting.) The same goes for Oliver’s occasional voice-overs, when, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, he notes the different times he’s discussing with establishing pictures of ex-presidents and shots from LIFE magazine and such. It’s all very pretty, but what do these vignettes have to do with the rest of the tale being told? They feel like an art exercise rather than something emerging organically from the film.

In short, when dwelling on the father-son story, Beginners occasionally finds a few moments of quiet emotional truth. But I found the love story and framing devices here too crufted over with bric-a-brac to be as engaging. So, one part good, one part not-so-good — Fortunately, for Beginners, tie goes to the talking dog.

2010 in Film.

With Snooki set, and the earth embarking on another tour around the sun, it must be time for the 2010 movie round-up. As always, there are a few contender films I haven’t yet seen — Blue Valentine opens here next weekend, for example. But, as it happens, I did see quite a few more movies than usual this year — an added bonus to having a full-time, non-gradual school income again. In any case, without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2010
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/The Oughts]

1. Toy Story 3: I kept expecting some other movie to come along in the second half of 2010 and knock this lachrymose Pixar masterpiece out of the top spot. But, in a not particularly great year for movies, Lee Unkrich’s surprisingly sad and soulful Toy Story 3 held onto the crown. (As it turns out, the highest grossing film of the year was also the best.) Basically, this is the movie about fleeting youth and fading plastic that Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are wanted to be. And, while I’m still not sure if kids will vibe into the melancholy shenanigans here at all, it touched a chord in more than one aging man-child out there…just ask QT.

2. The Red Riding Trilogy: Amid the moors of the North, there is an evil that does not sleep. Originally a TV miniseries in Britain, the Red Riding trilogy — 1974, 1980 and 1983 — counted as full-fledged movies for those of us stateside. And, while perhaps too grim for some tastes, this three-part, nine-year inquiry into black deeds in Yorkshire was as immersive and transporting a movie experience as there was in 2010. (The problem was, you didn’t necessarily want to be where it transported you.) True, the third film was weaker than the first two installments. But taken as a whole, this was one gritty and impressive crime saga, with a number of memorable turns by Paddy Considine, Andrew Garfield, Mark Addy, Rebecca Hall, Peter Mullan and others.

3. The Secret in Their Eyes: Alas, you will find no respite from the Yorkshire darkness in the Argentina of the Dirty War. Earlier in the year, I had A Prophet ranked above this movie, the Best Foreign Film winner of 2009. (It was released here in 2010.) But Juan Jose Campanella’s haunting picture has grown in my memory in the months since. Like Red Riding, this is another wistful investigation into murder, missed opportunities, and the choices we make, one that sticks with you well after the theater lights come up.

4. True Grit: For the third time in four years, the Coens make the top five. (See also No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.) And while I concede to being a bit of a Coen fanboy, I’m guessing this retelling of the John Wayne classic stands on its own merits. The occasional quirk aside, this is the brothers’ Straight Story, and, as I said in the original review, it feels like an unearthed and quintessentially American coming-of-age tale. The travails of Ree Dolly may have been the cat’s meow to many critics this year, but, when it comes to teenage girls facing a heap of adversity, I myself cottoned to the western adventures of Matty Ross.

5. The Social Network: With top-notch work from David Fincher, Trent Reznor, and the entire cast, The Social Network has a crisp, sleek, and entertaining interface to be sure. On an intellectual level, it’s definitely one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year. But I still find this film somewhat dubious in terms of content. It works better as a Shakespearean tale of ambition and betrayal — Richard III by way of Revenge of the Nerds — than it does a legitimate recreation of the origins of Facebook. Still, given that much of the action takes place at a university whose motto is Veritas (“Truth”) and yet whose most prominent landmark is the “Statue of the Three Lies,” I guess I should probably forgive TSN its many factual screw-ups. Print the legend and all that.

6. A Prophet: Call it the Antisocial Network: Another 2009 foreign film that made it here in 2010, Jacques Audiard’s novelistic, keenly observed A Prophet — about a young prisoner learning to survive and thrive in the interstices of a cross-cultural jailyard — was another of the best films of the year. A Prophet can feel slow at times, and it’s not an experience I’m likely to revisit anytime soon. But it’s this film’s continual attention to the devastating detail that makes it a prison movie to remember.

7. Inception: Just as he did with The Prestige after Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan took a mental health break from Gotham City after The Dark Knight by crafting this mindbending sorbet, the best “summer movie thrillride” experience of 2010. (The only other ones that come close are #9 below and the first-half of Tron: Legacy.) I still wish Inception was a bit more ragged in its dreaming, and, like a dream, it makes more sense when you’re watching it than when you think back on it later. Nonetheless, Inception was great fun throughout, and if nothing else, it spawned one of my favorite new Internet memes.

8. The Fighter: I just saw this one over the weekend, so it has no review up yet. Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised by David O’Russell’s chronicle of the comeback of welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward, the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. In fact, I had the opposite experience here that I had with The King’s Speech. There was a potentially interesting story told extremely conventionally, while this is a tried and tested sports movie formula — a boxer with one last shot at a title — that still felt fresh and invigorating. True, the seven Ward sisters were a bit much — They were the only time this boxing movie veered toward the egregious cartoon rednecks of Million Dollar Baby. But otherwise, solid performances by Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams and especially Christian Bale give this could’ve-been-by-the-numbers film a much-needed heart.

9. Kick-Ass: Capitalizing on the promise he showed in Layer Cake, director Matthew Vaughn brought to life the most engaging comic book reverie of 2010 with Kick-Ass, his warmer, more colorful take on the Mark Millar comic. This film saw Nicolas Cage continue his Bad Lieutenant mini-revival, Mark Strong continue to hone his talent for instant Big-Bad gravitas (see also: Sherlock Holmes, 2011’s Green Lantern), and, like a bat out of Hell (or New Mexico, for that matter), 13-year-old Chloe Moretz become an out-and-out, foul-mouthed, ass-kicking action star. Few films this year were as fun as this one.

10. Exit Through the Gift Shop: As this potentially faux-documentary explains: Before he exposed the sweatshops under Springfield, British provocateur Banksy set the world of street art careening over the shark by encouraging Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, to get in the graffiti game. It’s still an open question whether Banksy’s disastrous creation of MBW was inadvertent or just his latest well-crafted skewering of the powers-that-be. Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about the rise and fall of street art, is a merry prank indeed.

11. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: While the Harry Potter books grew distended and clumsy in the home stretch, the movie series continues to gain steam along that last low road to Hogwarts. In bringing to life the first half of Hallows, David Yates has made arguably the best Potter film yet, and not just because he has the good sense to riff on Brazil therein. The danger feels more palpable, the hopping around the countryside feels less episodic, and, after a decade of doing this, the Big Three wear their characters naturally now. Here’s hoping Harry Potter and the Battalion of Thespians manage to close things out as smoothly this summer.

12. Inside Job: You think Banksy got away with a grift? Check this one out. Pinning its high-profile subject to the mat much more successfully than did Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack documentary, Inside Job impressively lays out the causes and (lack of) consequences of the Great Wall Street meltdown of 2008. Those would be a swollen, rapacious, and unregulated financial services sector, and a government that, even after the Big Bust, still bends over backward to appease it. The only real problem with Inside Job is the feedback loop — The only folks likely to see this film are the same ones who already know the story and are enraged by it. Still, I’m glad it’s there, and at least it’s encouraging economists to clean up their act.

13. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Like I said back in August, Scott Pilgrim seems to have gone the way of the much-maligned Speed Racer. As visually inventive as it was, Pilgrim didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. But even if its fanboy fan service tendencies still rankle, Edgar Wright’s ode to geek crushes and the g4m3r life deserved more love than it got on the first play, so hopefully it enjoys several more lives on Blu Ray and beyond.

14. The Town: Admittedly, Boston is getting a bit peaked as Hollywood’s go-to destination for white working-class crime stories of late (Mystic River, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone.) That being said, Ben Affleck’s “Beantown Heat” was a strong, well-made, and entertaining ensemble film with a good sense of place and charisma to burn. Everyone from Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall to Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite bring their A-game here, with special kudos to Jeremy Renner as Affleck’s crazy-like-a-fox pahtnuh-in-crime.

15. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: After watching Inside Job, you might wonder why our government is in such a furor over Julian Assange and Wikileaks when crimes like constructing an illegal torture regime and, oh, causing an worldwide global economic meltdown seem to go unpunished. And after watching Ellsberg, you might think we’ve seen this movie before anyway. (Just take it from the man himself.) Constructed like a conspiracy thriller, Ellsberg is a testament to the notion that sometimes whistle-blowing — the only “misdeed” our current administration can seem to get angry about these days — may in fact be a higher form of patriotism. However you feel about Ellsberg and Wikileaks, this is a compelling documentary about tough choices in contentious times.

16. Never Let Me Go: Like The Secret In Their Eyes, this quiet, elegiac sci-fi film has risen in my estimation in the months since I saw it. Keira Knightley is still a drag on the production, and all of the characters a bit too locked-in for my taste — If they were so invested in one plan to avoid their fate, they should’ve been more willing to contemplate other avenues of escape as well. Still, also like The Secret In Their Eyes, this is a movie whose mood of reticent mourning lingers on.

17. Terribly Happy: How do you say “Blood Simple” in Danish? This weird Coenesque ditty about a sheriff with a troubled past investigating Something Rotten in Denmark was yet another late arrival to these shores — It premiered in Europe in 2008. And yet, once again, it was among the best 2010 had to offer. Let’s hope the pattern holds and right now, some of the best films of this year are already kicking around other continents, ready to be unleashed.

18. The King’s Speech: I wrote about this one rather recently, so my views on it haven’t changed much. This is a undeniably well-made, well-written, and well-performed film, but I found its sports-movie structure and Merchant-Ivory bromance all a bit pat. Still, Colin Firth in particular is excellent here — With this and A Single Man, he’s aging into a more interesting actor than he was before. Consider it his Baldwinning.

19. The Ghost Writer: As he pieces together the memoirs of England’s ex-PM, boilerplate and boredom are the least of Ewan MacGregor’s worries — He also has surveillance men and femmes fatale to contend with. Ghost, welcome to the Machine! This conspiratorial yarn isn’t a particularly deep film — more just a cheeky throwback to 70’s paranoia thrillers and an extended screw-you to the departed Tony Blair. Still, whatever his other sins, Roman Polanski fashioned a brisk and entertaining cloak-and-dagger flick here.

20. The Kids Are All Right: I thought about Get Him to the Greek, Greenberg, and Shutter Island for this last spot. But, in the end, I gave the nod to this, Lisa Cholodenko’s well-observed slice of family life in 21st century California. This is a small and unassuming film, but one that does what it does quite well — It takes a number of well-drawn characters and lets them breathe and bounce off each other.

Most Disappointing: Alice in Wonderland: An embarrassment to the Carroll book: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have never seemed so uninspired together.

Worth Netflixing: 44-Inch Chest, The American, A Single Man (2009), Crazy Heart (2009), Daybreakers, The Eclipse, Get Him to the Greek, Greenberg, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), Knight and Day, Let Me In, Life During Wartime, The Lovely Bones (2009), Shutter Island, Splice, The Square, Tron: Legacy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Winter’s Bone, Youth in Revolt

Don’t Bother: The Art of the Steal, Black Swan, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Casino Jack and the USM, Catfish, Clash of the Titans, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Green Zone, Hot Tub Time Machine, Invictus (2009), Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Legion, The Losers, Machete, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Sweetgrass, The Tourist, The Werewolf, The White Ribbon

Best Actor: Ricardo Darin, The Secret In Their Eyes, Tahar Rahim, A Prophet; Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, Haylee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Andrew Garfield, The Social Network/Never Let Me Go
Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Moretz, Kick-Ass, Amy Adams, The Fighter; Charlotte Rampling, Life During Wartime

Unseen: 127 Hours, The A-Team, All Good Things, Animal Kingdom, Another Year, Blue Valentine, Buried, Burlesque, Carlos, Casino Jack, Centurion, Chloe, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, Conviction, Cop Out, Country Strong, The Crazies, Creation, Date Night, Despicable Me, Devil, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, Eat, Pray, Love, Edge of Darkness, The Expendables, Extraordinary Measures, Fair Game, Fish Tank, Four Lions, From Paris with Love, Get Low, The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, Gulliver’s Travels, Harry Brown, Hereafter, How Do You Know?, Howl, I am Love, The Illusionist, I Love You, Phillip Morris, I’m Still Here, Jackass 3D, Jack Goes Boating, The Karate Kid, The Killer Inside Me, The Last Exorcism, The Last Station, Leap Year, Little Fockers, MacGruber, Made in Dagenham, Micmacs, Monsters, Mother, The Next Three Days, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Other Guys, Paranormal Activity 2, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Please Give, Predators, The Prince of Persia, Rabbit Hole, Rare Exports, Repo Men, Secretariat, Shrek Forever After, Skyline, Somewhere, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Step Up 3D, Survival of the Dead, Takers, Tangled, The Tempest, Tiny Furniture, Twilight: Eclipse, Unstoppable, Valentine’s Day, Vincere, When In Rome, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

    A Good Year For:

  • Abduction as Seduction (Knight & Day, Red, The Tourist)
  • Andrew Garfield (Red Riding, The Social Network, Never Let Me Go)
  • Aussie Noir (The Square, Animal Kingdom)
  • Charlotte Rampling (Life During Wartime, Never Let Me Go)
  • Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In)
  • Ghostly Ex’s (Life During Wartime, The Eclipse)
  • The Dude’s Paternal Side (Tron: Legacy, True Grit)
  • Working-class Bay Staters (The Town, The Fighter)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Angelina Jolie (Salt, The Tourist)
  • Art Museums (Exit Through the Gift Shop, Art of the Steal)
  • B-level DC Heroes (Jonah Hex, The Losers)
  • Eighties Remakes (Karate Kid, Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland, The Tourist)
  • Leo’s Sanity (Inception, Shutter Island)
  • The Street (Inside Job, Wall Street 2)

2011: 5 Days in August, 30 Minutes or Less, The Adjustment Bureau, Albert Nobbs, Amigo, Anonymous, Arthur, Arthur Christmas, Bad Teacher, Barney’s Version, Battle: Los Angeles, The Beaver, Beginners, Bernie, The Big Year, Black Gold, Brighton Rock, Caesar: Rise of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cars 2, Cedar Rapids, Colombiana, Conan the Barbarian, The Conspirator, Contagion, Coriolanus, Cowboys and Aliens, Damsels in Distress, A Dangerous Method, The Darkest Hour, The Debt, The Deep Blue Sea, The Descendants, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Drive Angry, The Eagle, The Factory, The Fields, Friends with Benefits, Fright Night, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, The Guard, The Hangover Part 2, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Haywire, I am Number Four, Jane Eyre, Larry Crowne, Limitless, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, The Muppets, Paul, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Rango, Sanctum, Scream 4, Season of the Witch, Sherlock Holmes 2, Source Code, Straw Dogs, Sucker Punch, Super 8, The Thing, Thor, The Tree of Life, The Way Back, X-Men: First Class, Your Highness, and…

Thundering Son of a Sea-Gherkin! It’s Tintin!

Jailbirds in Love.

After languishing in the can for awhile now (at least stateside — it came out in Europe nine months ago), I Love You, Phillip Morris gets a red band trailer. Based on the story of serial imposter Steven Jay Russell, the film stars Jim Carrey as Russell, Ewan MacGregor as the titular prison paramour, and Leslie Mann as Russell’s long-suffering wife. Hmm. Ok, I’d see it.

Quixote v. Kenobi.

‘Robert Duvall is one of the greats, no question – and he can ride a horse!’ laughed Gilliam. ‘And Ewan has gotten better over the years. He was wonderful in The Ghost. There’s a lot of colours to Ewan that he’s not been showing recently and it’s time for him to show them again. He’s got a great sense of humour and he’s a wonderful actor. He’s wonderfully boyish and can be charming – when he flashes a smile, everybody melts. He wields it like a nuclear bomb!

While currently busy with The Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera, Terry Gilliam reveals he has a cast ready for his second attempt at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: Robert Duvall and Ewan MacGregor, in the Jean Rochefort (Quixote) and Johnny Depp roles respectively. Shooting begins this September.

A Ghost in Blair House.


Tho’ I doubt it will get much favorable play in Tony Blair’s household, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which I caught last Saturday, is a brisk and competently-made 70’s-style paranoia thriller that also manages to be subversively amusing for most of its run. If you enjoyed the “noir exercise” aspects of Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and you have no strong moral qualms about throwing money Polanski’s way these days, I’d say it’s definitely worth checking out. (Note: I briefly discussed my thoughts on Polanski’s criminality in my nod to The Pianist (#41) on the Best of the Oughts list two months ago. That’s still about all I have to say on that ugly subject.)

Like Shutter, The Ghost Writer is a highly cinematic thriller in-the-key-of-noir that probably works better as a mood piece than it does in terms of plot. (For that matter, once again we have a cast of ne’er-do-wells at a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts, acting suspiciously under gray, portentous skies.) The film is also, not to put too fine a point on it, a resounding eff-you to Tony Blair. Based on a 2007 book by Robert Harris (Fatherland, Enigma), it clearly sets it sights on the ex-PM for getting-in-deep with Dubya and subsequently greenlighting torture in the UK.

If that makes The Ghost Writer sound heavy or preachy, it isn’t, really. The torture and “Special Relationship” stuff forms the background and connective tissue of this particular 70’s-style conspiracy, yes. But the movie cares less about the details than its does just the existence of a nefarious plot at all. In other words, just like Marathon Man or Three Days of the Condor, most all of the political content here is really just a device to get Ewan MacGregor’s low-key, amiable, and boozy-but-talented “Ghost” slowly and inexorably in over his head…and increasingly having to look over his shoulder.

Here, unlike the last time we saw him, MacGregor’s scribe isn’t looking for “the Story” at first so much as a fat paycheck. So, when the ghostwriter for former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) washes up dead off the coast for America, he — after being talked into it by his unctuous agent (Jon Bernthal) — puts his name in the hat as a well-paid replacement, even though he doesn’t give a whit about politics. And after getting looked over by a gruff Haldeman-ish aide (James Belushi) and an obviously sleazebag lawyer (Timothy Hutton), he somehow, miraculously, ends up with the job.

But, be careful what you wish for: Within an hour of landing the gig, Ewan’s Ghost gets mugged on the street for carrying what appeared to be a copy of the current manuscript. (It was a ringer — Nihilists, dude.) Soon thereafter, he finds himself whisked away to Lang’s Island, where he spends his days with a distracted and often visibly angry ex-PM, the beautiful-but-distant missus (Olivia Williams, who I love, but she’s too young for the part), a sultry top assistant (Kim Cattrall, doing her thing), and more security than you can shake a stick at. And when Lang becomes the center of a huge media maelstrom, on account of revelations that he authorized illegal detentions and torture when he was prime minister, well all of a sudden Ewan’s Ghost finds himself trapped in a very well-oiled and dangerous Machine…

Speaking of ghosts in machines, I’ll concede I was probably more tickled by The Ghost Writer than a lot of people might be, just because this is a movie about my trade. Who knows? Maybe cops, lawyers, and doctors feel like this all the time. Still, his irritating penchant for reading everything out loud notwithstanding, when Ewan was puttering around the island on his bike and/or typing away in his schoolboy sweaters, I confess I felt a twinge of happiness that here was a thriller-type movie where I could actually see myself in the predicament. (Speaking of which, yes, there are a lot of dramatic licenses taken with the job of ghostwriting here, but you’re not going to see me complaining to Newsweek about it. That’s what movies do.)

But, all that being said, I think The Ghost Writer has enough of a sneaky sense of humor to it that it would’ve worked for me even without the j-o-b connection. For example, one running gag throughout is that, as per movies of this type, all sorts of shady operators desperately want their hands on Lang’s manuscript. But, like the vast majority of political memoirs in real life, this ghostwritten Maguffin is so platitudinous and vapid (“My years at Cambridge…”) that Ewan’s character can’t figure out why the hell anybody wants to go near it.

And, while the actual conspiracy here is even more implausible than the last turn in Shutter Island (and, again, doesn’t make much sense given what’s come before in the movie), I chuckled at the sheer screw-you audacity of it — You’ll know what I mean if you see it. So, all in all and despite its occasional goofy turns, I found The Ghost Writer a pretty fun afternoon at the movies. I just wish that one of the film’s other driving conceits — that the world will rise up and demand criminal accountability for Dubya-era torture — didn’t seem quite so far-fetched to me as it does these days.

2009 in Film.

Merry Christmas, everyone. As we’re at the halfway point of the big decade list — Pt. 1, Pt. 2 — now seems like a good time to uncork the usual end-of-year movie list. Think of it as a new-stuff sorbet before we move to the final fifty.

I should say before we start that there are a few movies I’ll very likely see from 2009 — most notably The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — that aren’t included due to their limited release schedule — most don’t arrive around these parts until 2010. The better-than-expected Sherlock Holmes, which I saw yesterday and have not yet reviewed in full, is also not here, although I did think of slotting it in at #20 before the Victorian-era tazer and remote-controlled cyanide bomb showed up. And there are still a few other stragglers I wouldn’t mind catching at some point, most notably Invictus and The Messenger. But if any of these are really, really great, they’ll either get backdated in or show up in next year’s list, as per usual. So don’t worry — credit will get paid where due.

In the meantime, as has been the standard — and although the decade list has been working differently — we start at #1 and proceed from there. And without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2009
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008]

1. In the Loop: “Tobes, I don’t want to have to read you the Riot Act, but I am going to have to read you some extracts from the Riot Act, like: Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind and then burst in late, smelling like a pissed seaside donkey.” Even if I hadn’t moved back to DC this year for a ringside seat to the clusterfrak, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop would’ve been at the top of my list. I’m not normally a huge laugher at movies, but this flick had me rolling.

Basically, In the Loop is Office Space for people in politics, and it’s a smart, wickedly funny entertainment. And like Judge’s film and The Big Lebowski, I expect it will enjoy a long, happy, and very quotable renaissance on DVD. If you find The Daily Show or Colbert Report at all enjoyable, this is a must-see. And, even if you don’t, well the choice Scottish swearing should get you through.

2. Moon: While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon‘s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.

3. A Serious Man: Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you“) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.

4. The Hurt Locker: Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockersorry, King of the World — was the action movie of the year.

5. Coraline: In an auspicious year for both regular (see #10) and stop-motion (see #13) animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) 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 (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said 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.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. 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.

9. Star Trek: 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. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

10. Up: If the movie were just the first ten-fifteen minutes, this might’ve been in the top five. But even more than WALL-E, the good stuff in Up is front-loaded. And, after the story of a lifetime ended a quarter hour in, I wasn’t much in the mood for talking dogs and big, funny birds (even birds named Kevin) anymore. Still, Pixar is Pixar, and Up carried their usual mark of quality.

11. The Damned United: Frost/Nixon for the futbol set, Tom Hooper’s ballad of Clough and Revie was a low-key character study that made up for an awkwardly-frontloaded bromance with another great performance by Michael Sheen and plenty of “Life in a Northern Town” local color to spare. You can practically smell the mud off the cleats in this one.

12. Duplicity: Perhaps I’m giving too many props to well-made breezy entertainments this year (see also Nos. 8 & 9). Nonetheless, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity was a sleek espionage caper and a decently sexy love story that was all the more amusing because the stakes were so small. As it turns out, Clive Owen had just taken on evil corporations with a global reach a few weeks earlier in The International (a movie I caught on DVD, and which was most memorable for its Gunfight in the Guggenheim) — He’s more fun when he’s on the payroll.

13. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: If you see one clever stop-motion adaptation of a sardonic children’s novel this year…well, see Coraline. Nonetheless, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was also one of the better entrants in the 2009 line-up. It was ultimately a little too Wes Anderson saccharine for my tastes, but, of course, your mileage may vary. And at least Fox didn’t wallow in the emo like, you know.

14. Inglourious Basterds: After a decade of languishing in the shallows, Quentin Tarantino found a bit of his old magic in this sprawling alternate history of WWII. Yes, it needed a good and ruthless editor, and some rather longish scenes don’t really work at all (I’m thinking mainly of Shoshanna’s lunch with Goebbels and Linda.) But at certain times — the basement cafe snafu, for example, or the memorable finale — Basterds is the best thing QT has done since Jackie Brown. Let’s hope he stays in form.

15. Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s high-def retelling of The Last Days of Dillinger was a strange one, alright. Like Basterds, it was long and languid and sometimes seemed to move without purpose. But, like Mann’s last grainy-digital foray into tales of manly men and the women they love, Miami Vice, Public Enemies has stuck with me ever since. Say what you will about the hi-def video aesthetic, it somehow seems to match Mann’s haunted, Hemingwayesque sense of poetry.

16. The Informant!: The tragedy of The Insider retold as farce, The Informant!, like many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, was experimental in a lot of ways. Some things worked (the ADM-buttery sheen); Others didn’t (the distractingly peppy Hamlisch score); Others still were hit-or-miss (the in-head bipolar voiceover). Nonetheless, The Informant! is mostly a success, and it’s good to see Soderbergh out there trying new things — I wish I’d gotten around to catching The Girlfriend Experience. (Ahem, the movie, that is. Sheesh, some people.)

17. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: I had definite doubts going in, but Werner Herzog’s Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly fun gonzo trip. After years of hanging with the Kinski, good ole Werner sure knows his way around the crazy, and by pairing Nicholas Cage on a savage burn with hyperreal iguanas, voodoo breakdancers, and the like, he’s done Abel Ferrara’s Gloomy Gus version of this tale one better. There’s no Catholic angst for this Lieutenant — just reveling in sordidness…but then again, isn’t that the whole point of Carnival?

18. Watchmen: “At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crews go and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” True, Zack Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Alan Moore graphic novel on film is flawed in a lot of ways. (The longer DVD version smooths out some of these issues while introducing others.) And I still wish the project had stayed in Paul Greengrass’ hands. But, give credit where it’s due — For all its many problems (most notably the fratboy-indulgences into “cool” violence), Snyder’s Watchmen got a lot of things right, from Dr. Manhattan sulking on Mars to Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Rorschach. Snyder couldn’t match the degree of difficulty involved in the end, but Watchmen was still a worthy attempt.

19. The Road: In the Future, There Will Be Cannibals: John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s dabbling in the apocalyptic form definitely captured the resonances of the book. And this is a quality production through and through, with solid performances by Viggo, the kid, Charlize Theron, and all of the HBO All-Stars (with particularly big ups to Robert Duvall.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of the book either, and in its monochromatic grimness, The Road never seems as memorable as Hillcoat’s earlier film, The Proposition. All work and no play makes Hobo Viggo somethin’ somethin’.

20. The Men Who Stare at Goats: I’m sure a lot of lists would’ve found room for Avatar or Up in the Air in their top twenty, and both have their merits (even if Avatar‘s are almost completely technical.) But if Avatar was too flat and Air too glib, The Men Who Stare at Goats was a frothy excursion that delivered on basically the terms it promised at the onset. Ok, there’s not much there there, but sometimes a couple of likable actors having an extended goof will go farther than Big, Oscar-Worthy Messages and World-Beating Tech. Hmmm, if you think about it, the “sparkly eye” technique probably would’ve gone over better with the Na’vi than all those Aliens-loaned cargo-loaders anyway. Score one for the First Earth Battalion.

Most Disappointing: Where the Wild Things Are, Terminator: Salvation

Worth a Rental: An Education, Avatar, Cold Souls, Eden (2006), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The International, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, Taken, Up in the Air, Zombieland

Don’t Bother: 2012, The Box, The Brothers Bloom, Extract, A Girl Cut in Two (2006), The Hangover, Invictus, Jennifer’s Body, State of Play, The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Whip It, World’s Greatest Dad

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Robert Duvall, The Road
Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies; Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Unseen: 9, Nine, Adventureland, Angels & Demons, Amelia, Antichrist, Armored, Astro Boy, Black Dynamite, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bright Star, Brothers, Bruno, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Crank: High Voltage, Crossing Over, Everybody’s Fine, Funny People, Gentlemen Broncos, GI Joe, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, The Education of Charlie Banks, The Great Buck Howard, Hunger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Invention of Lying, It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Land of the Lost, The Limits of Control, , The Lovely Bones, I Love You Man, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, New York I Love You, Notorious, Observe & Report, Orphan, Pandorum, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Proposal, Push, The Soloist, Surrogates, The Taking of Pelham1-2-3, Taking Woodstock, Thirst, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Two Lovers, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Year One

    A Good Year For:

  • The Apocalypse (2012, Zombieland, The Road)
  • Demons (A Serious Man, Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, Paranormal Activity)
  • George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)
  • Going Undercover to Play Both Sides (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Duplicity, The Informant!)
  • Guy Pearce Cameos (The Road, The Hurt Locker)
  • Hipsters with Unresolved Childhood Issues (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are)
  • “The Jews” (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man)
  • Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man)
  • Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air, The Informant!)
  • Stop-Motion (Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Goats (Drag Me to Hell, The Men Who Stare at Goats)
  • Robots from the Future (Transformers 2, Terminator: Salvation)
  • Pithy Movie Titles: (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
  • Summer blockbusters: (GI Joe, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2, Wolverine)

2010: Alice in Wonderland, All Good Things, The American, The A-Team, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Clash of the Titans, A Couple of Dicks, Daybreakers, The Expendables, Greenberg, The Green Hornet, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, I Love You Phillip Morris, Inception, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, The Last Airbender, Legion, The Losers, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Morning Glory, Predators, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Season of the Witch, Shanghai, Shutter Island, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toy Story 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, The Wolf Man, Youth in Revolt, more needless ’80s remakes than you can shake a stick at. (Footloose, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn), and…

TRON 2. 2010, y’all. It’s the future, and no mistake.

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

Paranormal Activity.

Less a scathing Catch-22-type satire than it is just a jaunty road movie-type yarn, Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which I caught last weekend, is basically a Coen-lite cinematic bon-bon for the fanboy-inclined. It’s never really laugh-out-loud funny, and something much more dark, resonant, and Strangelovian could (and probably should) have been made from this choice material, particularly as the story moves into Iraq mode. After all, this is basically the true story of how we, the United States of America, ended up torturing people with Barney the Dinosaur.

But however frothy about its subject at times, The Men Who Stare at Goats manages to sustain a low-key whimsy and amiable weirdness for most of its run. If anything it feels a bit like the much-maligned and underrated Ocean’s 12: a bunch of exceedingly likable actors — George Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick — all enjoying an extended goof. Consider it the Road to Iraq, Hope and Crosby-style. David Crosby, that is.

Loosely based on the book by British journalist Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stares at Goats begins with an ambiguous disclaimer (“More of this is true than you would believe“), a Kitty Pryde-experiment gone awry, and a voiceover by one Bob Wilton (MacGregor), a down-on-his-luck reporter for the Ann Arbor Daily-Telegram. (Wilton, unlike Ronson, is an American, although MacGregor’s scattershot accent may make you wonder. Ewan’s a fine actor, but, lordy, he can’t get the Yankee patter down to save his life — yes, it’s worse than Peter Sarsgaard’s British accent, although it’s still better than Don Cheadle’s cockney.)

Anyway, after a chance interview with a psychic hamster-killer (Root) and a falling-out with his cuckolding wife and their mutual boss, Bob alights to Iraq, where he presumes he’ll learn how to impress his now-ex with grim tales of life as a veteran war correspondent. But unfortunately, he can’t even get into the country…until he happens upon Lyn Cassady (Clooney). Disguised as your run-of-the-mill private contractor, Cassady in fact turns out to be a psychic spy, a master of the “sparkly eyes,” a, as he puts it, “Jedi warrior.” (To which MacGregor consistently responds, “Jedi?,” with an arched eyebrow. Like, who in their right mind would spend years doing that?)

Cassady, it turns out, was trained in the psychic arts by his very own Qui-Gon, Bill Django (Bridges). A Vietnam veteran who discovered his own psychic powers through a rigorous regimen of Hippie indulgence, Django managed to convince the Pentagon powers-that-be back in the day that the Age of Aquarius would soon eclipse the Atomic Age on the battlefield — we’re talking peace warriors, psychic samurai, astral projectors, the awesomely unstoppable power of good vibes, brah, you know? (Put simply: “This aggression will not stand, man.”)

Some of the brass (mainly Lang) become fervent believers in Django’s New Age warfare. Others figure, heck, if there is something to this paranormal business, we’d really hate to be on the wrong side of the ball when the psychic shooting starts — Let’s throw some money at it just in case the Russkies are reading our minds right now. And so the First Earth Battalion is born. (And, yes, it really was born — your tax dollars at work.) But, of course, problems emerge — Not all the recruits have Django and Cassady’s intrinsic shamanic gifts. And once the Jedi are founded, there is naturally a Sith waiting in the wings…and, he (Spacey) has no compunction about using the team’s psychic powers for evil. Ya fook one goat…

The rest of the story involves Wilton and Cassady having crazy misadventures in Iraq, while Lyn fills us in on the rise and fall of the First Earth order…which may or may not be gone for good. (After all, someone’s gotta put the psy- in psy-ops.) I presume much of the Iraq narrative was added by Heslov, and sometimes it’s a bit hit-or-miss, frankly. There are brief encounters with Iraqi bounty hunters, ne’er-do-well Blackwater types, and even the infamous Barney-fueled detention chambers, but the tone is too breezy to sustain any kind of edgy or cutting critique of this stuff — It’s more like Syriana on nitrous oxide. (There’s also a sequence involving a LSD-crazed soldier shooting up his army base, which feels more uncomfortable than probably intended, coming right after the tragedy at Ft. Hood.)

Still, while Syriana, or Three Kings, for that matter, — My, Clooney has done a lot of tours in the region now — offers more in the way of food for thought, The Men Who Stare at Goats has its own low-key charms. As I said, the actors are all top-notch and clearly having fun with this project. It’s always good to see the Dude again, even in passing. And the script is relentlessly witty, with wry jokes that slowly creep up on you like a psychic ninja — For example, Spacey talking about the power of subliminal messages, then being distracted by Twizzlers. Mmm, Twizzlers.

Speaking of subliminal messages, I’ve had Boston’s “More than a Feeling” stuck in my head for over a week now thanks to this movie, and I really can’t stand Boston. So, well-played, Jedi, well-played.

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