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Julia Roberts

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2009 in Film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks.

9. Star Trek: There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A Good Year For:

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

    A Bad Year For:

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

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

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

The Oughts in Film: Part 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!

Soap Spies and Soapbox Conspiracies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy vs. Spy.

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

2007 in Film.

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

Top 20 Films of 2007

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Wilson Goes to Washington.


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

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

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

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

Charlie Wilson Said.

Congressman Tom Hanks bends the House rules for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the new trailer for Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War (from the book by George Crile), also starring Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, and Ned Beatty. Hmmm…it looks a bit like Volunteers.

Thirteen Hosts.

Another preview I haven’t seen: This time, it’s the new trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen, starring Clooney, Roberts, Pitt, Damon, and the usual assortment of Hollywood cads and roustabouts. I quite liked Twelve (and thought Eleven was so-so), so I’m up for another go.

Slaughter, Infidelity, Donuts.

In the movie bin, Homer J. Simpson gets stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place in the trailer for The (long-awaited) Simpsons Movie; Edward Norton (brandishing a surprisingly lousy accent) and Naomi Watts struggle with a loveless marriage by way of W. Somerset Maugham in the trailer for The Painted Veil (also with Liev Schrieber, Toby Jones, and the always lovely Dame Diana Rigg); and Wilbur the pig picks up a “spin” doctor with a way with words in a new Internet-only teaser for Charlotte’s Web (Between Julia and Buscemi, it seems like the voice-work is going to be really distracting.)

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