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

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

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

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



75. The Queen (2006)

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

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

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


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

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

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


73. U2 3D (2008)

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

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

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


72. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

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

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

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

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


71. In the Valley of Elah (2007)

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

From the year-end list: “Paul Haggis’ surprisingly unsentimentalized depiction of the hidden costs of war for the homefront, Elah benefits greatly from Tommy Lee Jones’ slow burn as a military father who’s lost his last son to a horrific murder…There was something quintessentially America-in-2007 about Jones this year. In every crease and furrow of this grizzled Texan’s visage, we can see the wounds and weariness of recent times, the mask of dignity and good humor beginning to slip in the face of tragic events and colossal stupidity.

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


70. Boiler Room (2000)

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

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


69. Jackass (2002)

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

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

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


68. Secretary (2002)

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

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

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


67. (500) Days of Summer (2009)

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

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

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

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


66. Lord of War (2005)

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

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

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


65. Bamboozled (2000)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


63. Mystic River (2003)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


61. Iron Man (2008)

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

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

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


60. Batman Begins (2005)

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

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

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

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


59. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

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

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

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


58. District 9 (2009)

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

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

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

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


57. Wonder Boys (2000)

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

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


56. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

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

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

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


55. The Descent (2005)

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

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

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


54. Ballets Russes (2005)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


52. Zodiac (2007)

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

From the year-end list: “The best film of the spring. What at first looked to be another stylish David Fincher serial killer flick is instead a moody and haunting police procedural about the search for a seemingly unknowable truth…Reveling in the daily investigatory minutiae that also comprise much of The Wire and Law and Order, and arguably boasting the best ensemble cast of the year, Zodiac is a troubling and open-ended inquiry…Whatever Dirty Harry may suggest to the contrary, the Zodiac remains elusive.

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

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


51. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

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

From the year-end list: “Sir, we appear to have lost control of the Green Zone…Shall I send in the air support? Zombie flicks have been a choice staple for political allegory since the early days of Romero, but one of the strengths of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s merciless 28 Weeks Later — perhaps the best horror sequel since James Cameron’s Aliens — is that it foregoes the 1:1 sermonizing about failed reconstructions and American hubris whenever it gets in the way of the nightmare scenario at hand…There’s little time for moralizing in the dark, wretched heart of 28 Weeks Later: In fact, the right thing to do is often suicide, or worse. You pretty much have only one viable option: run like hell.”

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

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

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

Academy Double Dip. | My Trouble with Oscar.

“‘After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,’ said academy President Sid Ganis. ‘The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.’” Most likely realizing that a nod for The Dark Knight last year would’ve doubled their television ratings, the Academy Awards pads out to ten Best Picture nominees.

Ten, really? I know I pick 20 movies for my review round-up every year, but still: most years it’s hard to come up with five or six worthy nominees, much less ten. It’d be better if they went to a system where “up to” ten movies were chosen, but not necessarily that many if the pickings were slim that year. In any case, maybe Hollywood needed an “Oscar Stimulus Package,” but given that it’s still the same people voting for the winners, I tend to think the Academy will probably continue to get it wrong most years regardless. Just looking at the past decade:

1999: American Beauty wins. Not a particularly poor choice by Academy standards, I guess, but the other nominees include a sop to the box office (The Sixth Sense) and by-the-numbers drek like The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile. (Only other worthy nominee: The Insider.) Meanwhile, many of the best and most groundbreaking films of the year — Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix — are all overlooked.

2000: Gladiator. Terrible choice. The worthy nominees are Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and *possibly* Erin Brockovich. Chocolat makes the cut thanks to the Miramax machine. Left unnominated: Requiem for a Dream, Wonder Boys, O Brother Where Art Thou, and High Fidelity.

2001: A Beautiful Mind. A stunningly bad choice, and easily the worst of the five films nominated. The Oscar should probably have gone to In the Bedroom or Fellowship of the Ring, although Gosford Park and (tho’ I didn’t like it much) Moulin Rouge! are respectable picks. Left off the wheel: Mulholland Drive, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Ghost World, Amelie, and Sexy Beast.

2002: Chicago — I never saw it, but not a particularly good year for film anyway. Gangs of New York, The Two Towers, and The Pianist all make sense as contenders. The Hours (another Miramax film)…not so much. Possible adds: The 25th Hour, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Far from Heaven, About a Boy.

2003: Return of the King runs away with everything, which is deserving but also feels somewhat dutiful after the previous two years. (FotR is easily the best film of the three, imho.) Most of the other nominees are well-chosen — Lost in Translation,
Master and Commander, Mystic River — with the possible exception of Seabiscuit. Other possibles include The Quiet American, Finding Nemo, Dirty Pretty Things, House of Sand and Fog, Monster, City of God, and L’Auberge Espagnole…but it’s probably more likely that extra nods would’ve gone to the heaps of middling Oscar bait that year, like Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, or 21 Grams.

2004: Million Dollar Baby. A certifiable stinker, and arguably Clint Eastwood’s least-deserving movie of the decade. (Mystic River or Letters from Iwo Jima are closer to caliber.) It beats out The Aviator and Sideways, as well as Finding Neverland (Miramax) and Ray (never saw it). Off the board: Hotel Rwanda, Before Sunset, Garden State, Kinsey, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Spiderman 2, In Good Company, The Incredibles, and — most egregiously — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If I had to guess, Closer and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Miramax) might’ve snagged undeserving nods in a field of ten.

2005: Crash. Another woeful pick, it won over a respectable field of contenders (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich.) That being said, Syriana and the best film of 2005, The New World, weren’t even nominated. Neither were Layer Cake, Ballets Russes, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale, Cache, Match Point, The Constant Gardener, Grizzly Man, Batman Begins, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. All these — and many others — were better than Crash.

2006: Scorsese wins a charity Oscar with The Departed, beating out worthwhiles Letters from Iwo Jima (the best choice of the 5) and The Queen, as well as more dubious picks Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. The best film of the year, United 93, isn’t nominated. Nor is Children of Men, The Lives of Others, The Prestige, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Inside Man. It’s reasonable to suspect that additional Oscar nods might’ve gone to the likes of The Last King of Scotland, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, and The Pursuit of Happyness.

2007: No Country for Old Men — A fine choice. I’d say this year Oscar almost got it right…but the other nominees are still somewhat suspect. Michael Clayton, ok, There Will Be Blood, sure. But Atonement and Juno? I’d rather have seen The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Zodiac, The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, In the Valley of Elah, The Assassination of Jesse James, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, or my favorite film of the year, I’m Not There, get their due.

2008: Slumdog Millionaire (ugh) beats out Milk, Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and The Reader. Of those, Milk and F/N are solid, and ideally would’ve been paired with The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Let the Right One In, and/or WALL-E. Other possibles include Man on Wire, Snow Angels, Waltz with Bashir, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Iron Man, and The Visitor…although it seems more likely Oscar would’ve gone with Gran Torino, A Christmas Tale, Doubt, Revolutionary Road, or Valkyrie.

So, to review, in only one of the past ten years (2003) did Oscar pick the movie i’d argue was actually the best that year, although even that one feels a bit de rigueur. (Admittedly, they came close in 2007 as well.) In six of those ten years (1999, 2004-2008), my best film of the year wasn’t even nominated. In four of those ten years (’01, ’04, ’05, ’08), a — to my mind, of course — certifiably lousy film won Best Picture. And in three other years — ’99, ’00, and ’06 — an at best middling movie won the top prize. Not exactly what you’d call a record of distinction.

2008 in Film.

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2008

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hrm.

Iron Giant.


As far as Marvel characters go, I can’t say I ever really cottoned to Iron Man in my comic-reading youth. Sure, I was aware of his backstory and his rogue’s gallery and all that, just by dint of sheer osmosis. But, other than when he was hanging around the Avengers or engaged in some huge crossover like Secret Wars, I don’t think I ever picked up an issue. (Besides, with his industrial-techy side and all the paramilitary hangers-on, Iron Man seemed a hero designed for the GI Joe/Transformers kids, which was never really my scene. Inasmuch as I read Marvel, I usually preferred the angst-ridden, verbose types (Spidey, the X-Men, etc.))

All of this is a long way of saying that, given I have no real reservoir of nostalgia for its titular hero, Jon Favreau’s crisp, surprisingly fun Iron Man seems that much more of an achievement. (Yes, I’d say the movie of the trailer holds up.) Sure, it suffers from having to tell yet another variation of the increasingly worn origin story, and thus slips below the top tier of recent comics films freed from that obligation (X2, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles.) And it’s possible that Iron Man‘s sheer, unapologetic summer-blockbusterness may rankle a few viewers out there. (Note the not-very-subtle Burger King and Audi product placements.) But, as far as origin stories go, I’d say Iron Man can hold its helmet proudly alongside Batman Begins and the Donner Superman, thanks mainly to its superb cast (and inspired casting). And, as the kickoff to what’s by all accounts an absurdly-stocked fanboy summer, Iron Man sets an auspiciously high bar for the many features to come.

In this updated incarnation, Iron Man begins as a sequel of sorts to Charlie Wilson’s War: A troop convoy containing genius weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), nursing a scotch, is upended and undone on a dusty road in Afghanistan, and the ne’er-do-wells responsible are somehow armed with Stark Industries’ finest. Cut to the title card, then to 36 hours earlier, when we meet Stark in his natural locale, Vegas. The son of a famous “ironmonger” and member of the Manhattan Project, Tony is basically a cross between Bill Gates and Howard Hughes, an acerbic, alcoholic, womanizing billionaire who always knows he’s both the smartest and the richest guy in the room.

But after being near-fatally wounded by shrapnel of his own making and captured by an Afghan warlord in the aforementioned raid (Stark was in-country, with his Air Force pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard), to pitch his newest lethal invention to the Brass), the playboy industrialist undergoes a not-unanticipated moral awakening, thanks in part to the saintly doctor (Shaun Toub) who saves his life with an electromagnet and a car battery. After building a suit of armor to break out of his Tora Bora captivity, Stark eventually returns stateside a changed man. He’s got an arc reactor (don’t ask) for a heart, he’s getting out of the Merchant of Death trade for good, and he’s thinking about taking that whole suit-of-iron idea to the next level. This (literal) change of heart, however, doesn’t sit altogether well with Stark Industries’ chairman-in-regency, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who — despite his long relationship with Stark and his father — may have his own ideas on how to proceed. Y’see, the weapons trade really tied the company together, so Stark’s new digression will not stand, man.

The Dude’s turn toward unctuous corporate villainy is one of the most potent secret weapons in Iron Man‘s arsenal. (Speaking of which, look for the explicit Lebowski name-drop.) A bald, bearded, leering, and obviously untrustworthy achiever, Bridges is great fun here as the eventual Big Bad — he takes the film up a notch in every scene he’s in. (There’s long been rumors of a Tron 2.0 script involving Bridges’ character having gone all Col. Kurtz somewhere up the datastream. I was thinking of that quite a bit during Iron Man.)

But Bridges is not alone — He’s matched here every step of the way by Robert Downey, Jr., who’s both a brilliantly unconventional superhero and a note-perfect Tony Stark (indeed, so much so that my brother tells me the recent Ultimate reboot has basically ret-conned Stark into Downey, Jr.) It’s really hard to imagine any other actor in the role, or anyone else working as well. In fact, as with Batman Begins (give or take Katie Holmes), Iron Man is basically overstocked with talent at every position, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (Stark’s Moneypenny) to director Favreau as Happy Hogan (Stark’s Foggy Nelson) to Clark Gregg (In Good Company) as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (although not that onehe comes later.) I mean, when you’ve got Paul Bettany playing the voice of the computer (also a nod to Jarvis, Stark’s Alfred), you know you’re working with an embarrassment of riches.

If Iron Man has a problem, it’s that, despite the prodigious talent on display, the movie is still somewhat hampered by the now-rote conventions of the origin-movie genre. I mean, I’m definitely of the fanboy temperament, but even I grew ever-so-slightly bored as Iron Man moved us through the usual paces (the awakening moment, the learning to use the new powers, the big reveal of the new suit, the final mano a mano, etc.)

Still, Favreau and Downey leaven these moments as best they can, and — as you might’ve guessed from Lebowski, above — there’re plenty of knowing winks throughout to keep the base happy. (Like I said, I’m pretty unfamiliar with Iron Man canon, but even I could figure out the nods to War Machine and the Mandarin.) In short, if you allow for the constraints of the genre, Iron Man is basically everything you’d want in a summer-y superhero blockbuster. And if they bring Downey et al back for the sequel, I’d definitely look forward to seeing Iron Man live again.

Furious Glances.

A fanboy programming note: If you’re like me and the many others celebrating May Day (and the unofficial start of summer) tonight by reveling in the adventures of a dissolute American weapons manufacturer, don’t forget to stay until after the credits

…and Stretched Iron.

By way of Bitten Tongue, the Onion reports on the questionable decision by Paramount to make a movie based on the Iron Man trailer. It’s funny because it’s true…just remember how the film made from this preview turned out. (By the way, one scene they’ll be shoehorning in that surprisingly solid Iron Man trailer: two minutes of Robert Downey Jr. getting cute with repulsorlifts. Um, ok.)

This aggression will not stand, Stark.

Robert Downey, Jr. suits up to face Obadiah Stane (a.k.a. the Bald Lebowski) in a spiffy all-new trailer for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. As with the two previous teasers, this looks surprisingly enjoyable, and may hopefully end up being Marvel’s best product since Spiderman 2 and X2.

Blood and Iron.

I can’t keep doing this on my own…with these people.” Making it online of late, a new domestic trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and a new international teaser for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. (The original clips are here and here.)

But in time you see things clear and stark.

In Marvel news, the the teaser for Jon Favreau’s take on Iron Man, with Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges, is now officially online. (Basically, it’s a shortened version of the Comicon clip.) And has Matthew Vaughn found his Thor in Kevin McKidd of HBO’s Rome and Trainspotting? Possibly maybe…if so, that’s not half-bad.

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