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Garret Dillahunt

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Gone Daddy Gone.

Well, admittedly, I’m probably much more of a City Mouse these days than I was back during my Carolina youth, so take that for what it’s worth. And I will fess up to having grim flashbacks to the stultifying experience of Sweetgrass in the “realistically”-portrayed opening moments of this film, so that didn’t help either. Still, I have to say, I just did not cotton to Debra Granik’s gritty Ozark noir Winter’s Bone like it seems a majority of critics did. (Some have even called it the “best American film of the year.” I reckon I’d seen a better American film not 24 hours beforehand.)

This “dark as a dungeon” Missouri folk tale is well-made, to be sure, and it includes both impressive, nuanced performances — most notably from the Zellweger-esque lead, Jennifer Lawrence — and some very likable actors (John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt of Deadwood; Sheryl Lee, nee Laura Palmer, of Twin Peaks) shading in the margins. But, for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get into a moment, I didn’t find the main through-line of the story particularly engaging. And, in its depiction of mountain folk living on the economic razor’s edge, I can’t help feeling that the movie veered dangerously close to stereotype, if not outright Precious or Slumdog Millionaire-style poverty pr0n at times.

First, the story. After a few minutes of soaking in the three R’s of life-as-it-really-happens in an economically marginal Missouri town — ROTC training, ramshackle cabins, and (jus’) regular folk — the young woman we’ve been following around, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), is approached by the local sheriff (Dillahunt) with some very problematic news. Apparently, her daddy — who, like all-too-many men in this poverty-stricken region, is a meth cook of some renown — has skipped bail. (Paging Heisenberg!) And if Pa Dolly doesn’t show up for his scheduled hearing a fortnight or so hence, the bond he posted will be taken by the county — in the form of Ree’s house. There isn’t enough money to go around on a good day, and since Ree is already neck-deep in raising her two little siblings and caring for her ailing mother, who’s not quite right in the head, getting turned out of the only home the Dollys have would basically be tantamount to a death sentence.

And so, with only a quick mind and sheer doggedness at her disposal, Ree starts trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the prodigal father, before this deadly eviction hammer falls. Trouble is, the extended community — who are more often than not related by blood ’round these parts — take none too kindly to Ree’s asking tough questions about a central participant in the local, lucrative criminal enterprise. Even Ree’s uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), her father’s brother, tends towards the unhelpful or abusive whenever she comes by for another round for questioning. But what can she do? Ree’s back is to the wall, and the only thing she can do to save her family from certain starvation is to push forward and find her dad, with all the ugly consequences that’ll entail…

Part of the reason Winter’s Bone didn’t work for me, I think, is I felt like I’d just seen a more engaging version of this movie — a regional neo-noir with a bleached-out aesthetic, involving working-class folks in a tight-knit community dabbling in crime to get by — in Nash Edgerton’s The Square. But even that film aside, and with all due respects to the wanderings of M. Lebowski, I get a bit irritated with noir-offerings that put a puzzle before you (in this case, where is Ree’s Pop?), but then don’t really give you the tools to play along.

Put another way: For all Ree’s gumption, only in the occasional scene here — like, when she’s shown a burned-out meth lab where her dad supposedly died — does she get to put two-and-two together in a way that moves the story forward. Instead, she’s more often relegated to being a passive figure in her own tale, at which point some other character will swing by her endangered home and dole out whatever info is needed to get the plot moving again. Perhaps this is by design — one of the best scenes in the movie is when Ree tries to sign up for the Army for an infusion of much-needed cash, and is very kindly told that her options right now are even more limited than they already seemed. Still, this passive tendency makes Winter’s Bone feel like a movie where this happens, and then that happens, and this happens, rather than an engaging mystery. There’s a sense of urgency, sure — the ticking clock of impending eviction — but there’s still no narrative drive to this story.

At which point a fan of this film might say: You’re missing the point. Winter’s Bone is less about typical noir plotting than it is about character, social realism, and establishing a strong sense of place. Well, convenient straw-man fan, I’m glad you got brought this up, because this actually gets to my bigger problem with the movie. From its Welcome-to-the-Real-America opening moments, Granik’s film goes out of its way to establish its versimilitude — but that’s exactly where the movie increasingly felt off to me. And while I think it’s uncharitable to say of Winter’s Bone that it’s the tale of Cletus (or Brandine) the Slack-Jawed Yokel told as tragedy — at times it really does feel like we’re hunting possum in that same hillbilly-stereotype trailer park.

Now, I won’t profess to be any kind of expert on what a life of grinding poverty in the Ozarks looks and feels like — I’ve never been to that part of the country, although I have spent time in some very broke regions of the Carolinas, West Virginia, and the Deep South. So, maybe I’m wrong, and Winter’s Bone is actually witheringly acute in its depiction of the ways of dirt-poor rural folk here. But when there are more scenes of hootenannies and squirrel-hunting in your movie than there are of people doing “normal” things like, say, watching TV or driving to Wal-Mart, I really start to wonder. And that goes double when your characters tend to speak in a near-Milchian poetic argot about their kin and the ways of menfolk and the like.

To be clear: I wasn’t offended by this Othering of them there Mountain folk, but I didn’t really buy into it either. And so the more the film strived toward versimilitude — look at how poor (and yet noble!) poor can be! — the more Winter’s Bone just felt like a hyper-stylized, and even downright artificial, Ozark requiem by way of Cormac McCarthy to me, and the more I disengaged from it. Call me uncouth (I blame mah upbringin’), but, without feeling much of either the story or the milieu, I basically spent the majority of Winter’s Bone — even its ostensibly shocking culmination — just dutifully waiting for it to end.

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

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

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

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

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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

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

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

8. Before Sunset (2004)

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

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

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

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

7. No Country for Old Men (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. United 93 (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

5. In the Bedroom (2001)

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

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

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

4. The New World (2005)

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

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

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

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

3. I’m Not There (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Hottie and the Nottie (2008)

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

It’s coming…

It is…

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, wait a sec, that reminds me

Special Award. The Wire (2002-2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
No-Frills Version

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

Takin’ That Ride to Nowhere.

Gray. Ash gray. The sky was ash gray, and the air was heavy. Yes, the air tasted like rust and the tang of remorse. And the ground, it crunched like gravel under a boot, tho’ all the boots were long gone — they had marched on into that last blinding sunset, without remorse and without complaint. Soon it will be black, deepest black, like charcoal or the souls of thieves or the eyes of dead men in their shallow graves, stinking of rot and putrefaction.

And so the Man sighed. For it was Thanksgiving, a good time to repent. To forgive, even, and be forgiven. (But, no, ye will not be forgiven, not in this lifetime, nor the next.) And so the Man sighed again. And with that sigh that carried a whiff of the Old West and better, simpler times when Men were Men and were good with their hands and knew the old tongues, he leaned to his Sister (for it was Thanksgiving) and said, wearily, “Ok, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was pretty solid. Let’s go hit up The Road.” And so they went, into that ash gray, charcoal black in-between, where violent men prowl and shriek and beg for forgiveness (it will not come), and the good dreams cough up their last.

Or something like that. I wouldn’t say Cormac McCarthy is a bad writer, because he quite obviously isn’t. (Tho’ Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek does seem to have his number.) But his voice, and his penchant for wallowing in He-Man pretension, definitely don’t speak to me, and my enjoyment of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men notwithstanding, I tend to find his books significantly overpraised. I’ve heard people call Blood Meridian the best American novel since Moby Dick. But, personally, I found it overwrought and tedious, and I put it down in boredom after 150 pages of meticulously detailed vignettes involving blood spatter, entrails, scalps and the like. (Of course, your mileage may vary.)

That was also my sense going into John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road. As post-apocalyptic sci-fi goes, I thought the book was a solid foray into the genre, and I thought it a well-done, if very depressing, beach read. But I was a bit surprised to find it heralded thereafter as a Big Important Book, when, to my mind, it didn’t seem any more or less deserving of acclaim than, say, On the Beach or Alas, Babylon or The Death of Grass or The Stand or (probably my fave of the bunch) A Canticle for Leibowitz. As I said here, “I thought The Road was post-apocalyptic sci-fi for people who normally condescend to the genre, and thus haven’t read/seen very much of it.

If I’ve gone on at length here about my thoughts about the book rather than John Hillcoat’s movie, it’s because Hillcoat’s film version felt more than most adaptations like its source material, with all of its strengths and weaknesses. The Road is not as moody, evocative, and weirdly twisted as Hillcoat’s The Proposition, a movie I caught on Netflix and for several weeks thereafter felt like I had dreamed. But it does set a strong and consistent tone, even if that tone is one of grim, monochromatic despair. And, while it’s hard not to conjure visions of Aragorn of the Dunedain when a scruffy Viggo Mortensen leads a small child ’round the wilderness, he’s pretty good in the part, and it’s hard to think of very many other actors who could have pulled it off as well. (Although Guy Pearce makes his case as a contender for the role, late in this film.)

If you haven’t read the book, basically it is the near future — let’s say 2013, after John Cusack and co. have dipped out on their arks — the End has come and gone, and the tattered remnants of mankind have been cast back into the primeval wild. Through this bleak and battered valley of the shadow walks a Man (Hobo Viggo) and his Child (Kodi Smit-McPhee, also quite good.) Unlike so many other of the remaining survivors, they forego cannibalism and scrounge to survive, with the Man remembering the good old days and the Boy sweetly, perhaps mercifully, oblivious of life before the Fall. And so, bereft of the Woman (Charlize Theron) in their life — she took the quick ticket out — they traverse south, hoping that a new, better life might await them somewhere along the coast.

And that’s about it, really. Our father and son run into various HBO all-stars along the way (Garrett Dillahunt of Deadwood is still a skeez, and, even amid the ruins of human civilization, Omar comin‘! (Michael Williams)). And they encounter Robert Duvall, who damn near walks away with the film in a jaw-droppingly good cameo. For my part, the movie conjured up a few new questions for me (why isn’t anybody using bicycles?) to go along with the ones I still carried from the book (why would you ever leave that bomb shelter?) But, it’s basically The Road, filmed. For better or worse, it has that’s book’s melancholy soul, its occasional moments of horror, and its grim sense of inevitability and cynicism about the last days of Man.

Now, I personally happen to think there’d be a bit more banding together and ad-hoc families created a la Zombieland and, I hate to say it, 2012, than the blistering, relentless pessimism in evidence here. But I suppose McCarthy would just argue I’m flinching in the face of God’s indifference to our plight. Eh, we’ll manage. You may think Man has no sense of decency, sir, but don’t worry — It’s alright, baby, it’s alright.

Road to Whatever.

Well, we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been: In the trailer bin this week, Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee scrounge for food, shelter, and solace amid the post-apocalyptic ruins — while fending off the highly dangerous HBO all-stars (Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams) — in the trailer for John Hillcoat’s long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, also with Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. Having seen Hillcoat’s poetic, weirdly dreamlike The Proposition, I have to think the actual movie is better than this godawful trailer would suggest. (That Survivor-ish “outwit outlast” word game is particularly dumb, and seems grifted from the much more elegant trailer for I am Legend a few years ago.)

Also new this week: The mind-meld of Larry David and Woody Allen is at last complete with the trailer for Allen’s Whatever Works, also starring Evan Rachel Wood, Rebecca Clarkson, Ed Begley, Jr., Michael McKean, and Conleth Hill. Try to curb your enthusiasm.

Road to Nowhere.

“‘It’s tangible, the misery and hopelessness and the bleakness,’ Mortensen says. ‘It gives you much more to work with if you’re filming in that world instead of a green screen.‘ Well, they know where they’re going, but they don’t know where they’ve beenUSA Today scores the first official still from John Hillcoat’s take on The Road, with Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, and Garret Dillahunt. I found McCarthy’s book decent enough but considerably overpraised — As with mainstream critics’ overheated embrace of Pan’s Labyrinth, I thought The Road was post-apocalyptic sci-fi for people who normally condescend to the genre, and thus haven’t read/seen very much of it. And, more than most McCarthy, I found the style seriously grating after while: “The Man, ashen-faced, sifted through the ash-gray ash. The Child whimpered. His mouth tasted like ash.

All that being said, I really like the cast they’ve put together here, and, given The Proposition, John Hillcoat sounds like an intriguing choice for this. So, count me in.

2007 in Film.

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

Top 20 Films of 2007

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

1. I’m Not There: “There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.” Admittedly, it was a wonderful confluence of my interests. Nevertheless, Todd Haynes’ postmodern celebration of Bob Dylan, brimming over with wit and vitality and as stirring, resonant, and universal as a well-picked G-C-D-Em progression, was far and away my favorite film experience of the year. It seems to have slipped in a lot of critics’ end-of-year lists (although Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek also put it up top, and the Sun-Times‘ Jim Emerson has been championing it too), but so be it — You shouldn’t let other people get their kicks for you anyway. A heartfelt, multi-layered, six-sided puzzle about the many faces and voices of Dylan, l found I’m Not There both pleasingly cerebral and emotionally direct, and it’s a film I look forward to returning to in the years to come. Everybody knows he’s not a folk-singer.


2. No Country for Old Men: It probably won’t do wonders for West Texas tourism. Still, the Coens’ expertly-crafted No Country works as both a visceral exercise in dread and a sobering philosophical rumination on mortality and the nature of evil. (And in his chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem has crafted a movie villain for the ages.) People sometimes refer to Coen movies as “well-made” as a dig, as if the brothers were just soulless clinically-minded technicians. I couldn’t disagree with that assessment more. Still, No Country for Old Men seems so seamless and fully formed, so judicious and economical in its storytelling, that it reminds me of Salieri’s line in Amadeus: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” A dark journey that throbs with a jagged pulse, No Country for Old Men is very close to the best film of the year, and — along with Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski — yet another masterpiece sprung from the Coens’ elegant and twisted hive-mind. Bring on Burn After Reading.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


14. The Savages: I actually thought about putting Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages higher on this list, and few other movie endings this year hit me in the gut quite like this one. But, there are definite problems here, such as the wheezy Gbenga Akinnagbe subplot, which compel me to keep it here in the mid-teens. Still, this comedy about an ornery lion in winter, and the battling cubs who have to come to his aid, is a worthwhile one, and particularly if you’re in the mood for some rather black humor. As Lenny the senescent and slipping paterfamilias, Philip Bosco gives a standout performance, as does Hoffman as the miserable Bertholdt Brecht scholar trapped in deepest, darkest Buffalo.


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Country of Last Things.

“Seen the arrow on the doorpost, saying, ‘This land is condemned’…” Well, Bob, East Texas may seem rough, but trust me, West Texas is even worse. I’m always going to have a soft spot for Miller’s Crossing, and The Big Lebowski is its own strange and beautiful beast, but the Coen Brothers’ tense, brooding No Country for Old Men, which I caught this morning, is right up among their best work, and that is no small thing. Admittedly, in some ways the Coens don’t seem quite right for a Cormac McCarthy adaptation: They usually thrive on witty, motormouth dialogue, but McCarthy’s men (Woody Harrelson’s character notwithstanding) are invariably strong, silent types. And you can feel the brothers trying to restrain their usual mordant sense of humor through much of the otherwise bleak No Country. (It still leaks out here and there: the mariachi band, “I pre-visioned it,” “these look to be managerial types,” the constant noting of the dead dog, and so on.) Nonetheless, for all intent and purposes, they nailed it. No Country is easily one of the better films out this year, and, if you harbored any doubts about the Coens after their botched remake of The Ladykillers, fret not. The brothers are back in form.

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.No Country opens on the arid, forbidding landscape of west Texas, as we hear local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, doing a lot of soul-searching this autumn between here and Elah), in voiceover, lament what the world has come to. As if to prove his point, we are then introduced to one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, unforgettable), a chilling, wide-eyed psychopath with a lousy haircut, an air-powered cattle gun, and a penchant for making coin tosses with weighty implications. While Chigurh calmly breaks out of police custody (by strangling a deputy to death and murdering an unlucky motorist), a down-on-his-luck local named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon the scene of a horrific shootout in the middle of the desert, one which has all the markings of a drug-deal-gone-bad…including $2 million in a black briefcase. Thinking his ship has come in, Moss decides to takes the money and run. But, he’s savvy enough to expect some blowback, and thus sends his wife (Kelley MacDonald, of Trainspotting) off to her mother’s place in Odessa and vacates his old trailer park before hitting the road, traveling from motel to motel across west Texas. But right behind him, ruthless, inexorable, is Chigurh, armed with a transponder that follows the money. And, if Moss can’t stay one step ahead of the madman, or if Sheriff Bell doesn’t find a way to reach him before Chigurh does, there’ll be hell to pay like West Texas hasn’t seen since…well, probably since this morning.

Having read the novel a few summers ago, I knew what I was getting into here, and thus (as with Chris Nolan’s The Prestige) I was prepared for a third-act jag that’s irritated a few moviegoers out there who expected a more conventional resolution. But, frankly, that’s the book. Near the end of No Country, one of the men we’ve been following tells us about two dreams he’s had recently: While it may seem in the early going that this movie is about the first, it’s actually more about the second. (Put another way, I’m guessing people who saw Lord of the Rings and thought the story was about the ring found all the endings to Return of the King more unnecessary and unsatisfying than those who thought the story was about Frodo and the fellowship.)

Yes, No Country is a crime yarn a la Fargo and Blood Simple, but it also has bigger game in its sights. One of the scariest aspects of Anton Chigurh is that he seems to believe himself an Agent of something else, something completely and utterly out of his control, and perhaps the scariest notion of all is that he might be right. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” Chigurh tells one victim, “what was the use of it?” And would following any other rule have made any difference? Sheriff Bell is heartsick over the madness and grotesque violence that seeps out of the corners of society, and another aging lawman tries to lay the blame for “the dismal tide” on “kids with green hair and bones in their noses.” But, as another character reminds us, the West, and the world, has always been like this. You can’t stop what’s coming. At best, all you can do is light a fire in the dark.

Call it, Friendo.

[Update 3/26/08: Welcome. My review of No Country for Old Men is here, and the film review archive is here.]

The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, my most anticipated movie of the fall season, has a new trailer out. The film stars Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelley MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, and Garret Dillahunt, and it looks frickin’ fantastic. (And, also up this evening, a new trailer for Aliens v. Predator: Requiem. It looks…less fantastic.)

Ford’s Theatre.


On a Saturday in late September, the gray hours were marked by occasional rains, and Kevin, having completed his affairs of commerce the evening prior and having no social prospects on the calendar, traveled to the theater on 68th St. to bask for a day in the fulgor of the cinematograph. And so it was that, three films into his personal odyssey, he came upon Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, a recount of the last days of one of the Old West’s most famous killers, and an analysis of the man who laid him low. Kevin found it to be an overly protracted and ultimately uneven work, to be sure. But he also found the movie often striking and occasionally beautiful, and — even if its reach exceeded its grasp — he admired the film for its ambition, and its confidence in taking extended, leisurely digressions. Kevin applauded Dominik’s attempt to pay homage to the films of Terrence Malick and to the sprawling psychological westerns of the 1970s. That being said, he found the interminable voiceover by Basil Exposition — which often needlessly described the action Kevin could witness for himself on the screen — more than a little irritating…

Thanks, Basil, I’ll take it from here. As Assassination begins, the James gang — or, more to the point, the gaggle of local toughs Frank (Sam Shepard) and Jesse (Brad Pitt) James have assembled for one last train heist in Blue Cut, Missouri — are waiting out the day in the woods. During this stopover, the weaselly wannabe Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), nursing a lean and hungry look, tries desperately to ingratiate himself with the celebrity brothers in turn. (If we couldn’t figure out from the title what part Ford will play in all this, he seems like trouble right from the get-go: one part Mark David Chapman (“I can’t shoot him like this. I wanted to get the autograph.“), one part Sirhan Sirhan (“I have achieved in one day what it took Robert Kennedy all his life to do.”)) And yet, through sheer dogged obsequiousness, Ford eventually manages to fall in with younger brother Jesse, who seems both amused by his blatant hero-worship and nonchalant about the quality of his riding partners. So, for the next two hours plus, we follow the twists and turns of Jesse and Robert’s doomed relationship, particularly as it becomes strained by James’ increasing (and justifiable) paranoia and Ford’s own delusions of easy immortality. And, as we eventually get to that fateful day when the shot is fired (and the years beyond), Ford slowly comes to discover that it’s one thing to kill a man. It’s another to live with yourself afterward.

Assassination definitely isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and, to be honest, it’s really not at the level that its pretensions seem to warrant: The film never achieves the psychological depths it purports to plumb — Ford in particular seems a pretty straightforward nutjob — and it runs for several beats too long. (The movie should already have ended two or three times over by the time Zooey Deschanel shows up.) And, then, of course, there’s that awful narration, which comes across as screenwriting on autopilot and nine times out of ten feels jarring and unnecessary. (I assume the passages come from the book by Ron Hansen, but they don’t work here at all. They either repeat — or worse, contradict — what we’re seeing. For example, the voiceover tells us in the first ten minutes that Jesse James was a constant blinker, after which Brad Pitt stares at things with an unfaltering, steely blue gaze for three hours.)

That being said, with some wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (who also shot In the Valley of Elah) and a solid, colorful cast, Assassination does have its moments. It’s always grand to see Sam Rockwell, and he’s quite commendable here as Bob’s older brother Charlie. (And, while he at first appears to be a mere buffoon, there’s more to him as the movie goes along.) Deadwood‘s Garret Dillahunt also adds another finely-honed cowboy to his western repertory here: His Ed Miller, an outlaw sadly operating a few cards short of a full deck, is a far cry from both Jack McCall and Frances Wolcott, but memorable nonetheless. And there’s plenty of other good work here, including outlaw turns by Jeremy Renner (of 28 Weeks Later), Paul Schneider (looking like the lost Fiennes brother), and, of course, Affleck and Pitt, both of whom bring their A-games to the table (even if Pitt’s motivations in his final moments escaped me.) Also, I’m forced to admit, I was rather tickled by the mean old cuss they acquired to play the Governor of Missouri

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