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Olivia Thirlby

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2012 in Film.

Whatever its other faults, 2012 was actually a pretty solid year at the cineplex. In terms of great movies, the crop wasn’t as rich as, say, 1999. (To name just a few from that year: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings, The Iron Giant, Election) But, in general terms, I thought most of the movies that came out this past year avoided obvious pitfalls and delivered at or better than the level they promised.

For example, almost all of the year’s superhero movies were surprisingly good — no real Green Lantern-y whiffs this year. Most of 2012’s unnecessary sequels and even-more-unnecessary remakes — MIB III and Amazing Spiderman, say — turned out better than expected. Horror moved out of the serial killer/torture pr0n ghetto in both conventional (The Women in Black) and unconventional (Cabin in the Woods) ways. Lowbrow, could-be-terrible comedies like 21 Jump Street and Ted actually had some solid laughs to them. And even the intentional B-movies — like Dredd, Lockout, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — all had their moments, even if I can’t recommend some of those in their entirety.

In any case, now that the last few 2012 films have hit DC theaters, and my dissertoral defense obligations are now behind me, it’s at last time for the usual end-of-year list ’round here. Since I didn’t do any individual reviews this past year — I still haven’t decided if those will return for 2013 — I’ve upped the 2012 list to 25 movies, and, at the end, added a few thoughts on some of the others that crossed my field of vision over the past twelve months. Without further ado…

Top 25 Films of 2012
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/2010/2011/The Oughts]

1. The Dark Knight Rises: “Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” I know Christopher Nolan’s TDKR wasn’t as well-received in many circles as The Dark Knight, and for understandable reasons — the Joker will always be Bat’s #1 nemesis. Still, I loved this closing chapter of Nolan’s trilogy — its audacious scope, its Occupy Gotham meets the French Revolution ambience, its tight connections back to Batman Begins, its menacing yet loopy villain, its repudiation of the ends-justify-the-means arguments of TDK. (So much for the contention in that earlier film that “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough…Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” That dubious line of thinking backfires for Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Wayne, and everyone else who partook of it in the last film.)

I don’t know how The Dark Knight Rises plays to the uninitiated, since, like most fans, I went in presuming that (a) Bane would break the Bat and (b) Talia al Ghul was involved in some capacity. And admittedly there are some problems here, as in all of Nolan’s Batman movies. As soon as Alfred starts going on about French cafes in the first reel, it’s pretty clear where the film will end up eventually. (And that closing doesn’t make sense anyway, since billionaire Bruce Wayne is likely recognizable all around the world, certain Chinese prisons notwithstanding.) And speaking of prisons, how, exactly, did barefooted Bruce get back from somewhere in the Middle East into a Gotham City on lockdown?

All that being said, there was a lot to like here. I enjoyed the intricate plotting of TDKR, and how some of its central points hearkened back to lessons learned in the previous films. (For example, Bruce’s concern, in light of Joker-style escalation, about the fusion reactor becoming a weapon.) I liked how Anne Hathaway was introduced as a prototypical Anne Hathaway character — the Nervous-Nellie maid — before revealing her decidedly-unHathawayesque Selina Kyle. I was consistently entertained by Tom Hardy’s sing-songy Bane voice, including goofy flourishes like his admiring the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. (“He has a beautiful voice!” If only Bane had subsequently gotten a chance to freestyle.) And I thought there were moments of real poetry, such as when, to suggest the passage of time while Bruce’s back healed, a Bane-commandeered Batmobile prototype rolls along a snowy Gotham side street.

One common complaint I heard about TDKR is that it’s a Batman movie without Batman — that the Caped Crusader completely disappears in the second act of the film. I don’t get it, and my theory is people who hold this view have never, personally, been broken. Granted, we all expect that Bruce Wayne will get his back fixed and get back in the game. Still, even if it’s weirdly the most mutually supportive prison on Earth (which makes more sense once you realize Bruce throws down a rope once he got to the top), I like the Lazarus Pit detour, and the ultimate payoff of seeing Bruce/Bats back in action in Act III. Fall down, get back up. Get your back broken, have Tom Conti punch that vertebrae back in. Get the s**t kicked out of you, get rid of that rope and rise.

2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I am afraid and he gives me courage.”

I can see why some folks didn’t cotton to TDKR, but I really can’t get my head around all the Haterade that’s surrounded Peter Jackson’s excellent and entertaining first installment of The Hobbit. This was a great movie! And it was easily as faithful to Tolkien’s book in both tone and story as the latter two Rings films. (For people complaining about the inclusions of Radaghast the Brown, Dol Guldur, and the White Council, I submit to you Osgiliath and Far-from-the-Bookamir. Pale Orc, meet Lurtz.)

Particularly bewildering to me is all the whining about 48 FPS. I thought An Unexpected Journey looked amazing. Granted, I spent a childhood watching Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and the like, and so I’m used to suspending my disbelief while watching images that seem video-immediate. But still. All the kvetching about the new standard was, in my opinion, totally over the top. (In terms of snapping my abilty to engage with a universe on screen, I had more issues with the operetta-ness of Les Mis. Er…are they really going to sing every single line of this movie? Russell Crowe too?)

As for all the complaints about the pacing, admittedly this first chapter was languidly told — Three and a half hours and we only got to Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire. But, y’know, I like spending time in Middle Earth — If the dwarves want to sing again, have at it, good fellows. (Just don’t go all operetta on us.) And given that, for example, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books are getting ten hour adaptations each, or Treme or Boardwalk Empire are enjoyable 35-hour stories where, often, not much happens plotwise, I had no problem at all with the expanded length — particularly as the additions were straight from Tolkien’s notes and not, say, 40 minutes of dwarf-tossing jokes. Let’s hope that holds through the third film, which is the one I’m really worried about.

In any event, I thought An Unexpected Journey was a great adaptation of the first third of The Hobbit, and that it threaded the needle quite well between feeling like it took place in the same world as the LotR trilogy and bringing a more lighthearted and jovial tone to Middle Earth, in keeping with the children’s book nature of The Hobbit. Bring on the incident with the Dragon.

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild: “I hope you die and when you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” I tend to consider myself a cynical and curmudgeonly fellow, so I was quite surprised that Beasts of the Southern Wild — a film I expected to find aggravatingly twee — kinda knocked me sideways. I’m not even sure if the movie would hold up to a second viewing — When I reflect on it now, those scenes in Beast that don’t feel like scraps of dream seem like they probably shouldn’t have worked.

But, at least that first time around on the big screen, this fairy tale of a young girl living on the wrong side of the Louisiana levees (a.k.a. “the Bathtub”) had a strange sort of magic to it. I particularly liked the End Times conflation of Katrina and global warming, and vibed with the film completely around the time Hushpuppy feared that the melting ice sheet would inadvertently unleash the four boar-monsters of the apocalypse. Pretty soon, we’ll all live in the Bathtub.

4. The Avengers: “Shakespeare in The Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” In the 2011 list, I voiced my sneaking suspicion at #14 that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers wasn’t going to work. Consider that crow eaten. Even despite a bland opening sequence and a third act alien invasion that felt weightless, this was a surprisingly fun time at the movies, and perhaps the best popcorn film of the summer.

In particular, I liked that this was never a particularly “dark” movie. The Avengers aren’t tortured souls like Batman or even the X-Men, and Whedon, a former X-Men writer, didn’t portray them as such. Instead he was able to capture the voice of each of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — Cap the boy scout, Thor the thunder god, etc. — throw them in a hovering aircraft carrier together, and let shenanigans and shawarma ensue.

True, Hawkeye in particular got short shrift, Scarlett Johansson was still woefully miscast as the Widow (Olga Kurylenko anyone?), and Cobie Smulders, a.k.a. your Aunt Robin, just isn’t much of a film actress. (Exhibit A: this alternate opening.) Still, I liked the balance Whedon came up with here, where Robert Downey’s Iron Man was given the dramatic arc befitting his star wattage, but Chris Evans’ Captain America still ended up leading the team. And, arguably for the first time on film, Whedon got the Hulk exactly right.

5. Looper: “I’m from The Future. You should go to China.” Speaking of Marvel comics, Looper [moderate spoilers] may just be the best Franklin Richards movie we see in awhile. In any case, I wasn’t much for either Brick or especially The Brothers Bloom, but I thought Rian Johnson’s third film was a smart, well-crafted science fiction story that was very worthwhile.

As in most time travel tales outside of 12 Monkeys, Looper‘s final few scenes don’t make any sense. (Spoiler: JGL’s decision at the end would seemingly have to result in everything Bruce Willis did being rolled back — Thus, none of that carnage at Jeff Daniels’ compound or along the road would ever have happened, and there would be no money lying around, etc. etc.)

But until then, Looper is a satisfying and stylish mishmash of time travel, telekinesis, and the Chandler and Hammett-isms (by way of Miller’s Crossing) that inspired Johnson’s Brick. It also included the creepiest time travel outcome I’ve seen since people were ‘porting into walls in The Philadelphia Experiment. (That would be the grim fate of Paul Dano’s future-self.)

6. Lincoln: “I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.” I’ve already noted my problems with the history here: It’s rather ridiculous to argue that the lesson of the Civil War is that compromise is awesome, or that the constitutional amendments that emerged from it are a product of such. Quite the contrary, really. Spielberg and Kushner also vastly overstate the danger that the Thirteenth Amendment would not pass here, and Kushner, given the comments cited in that earlier post, unfortunately doesn’t seem to understand Reconstruction at all.

That being said, Daniel Day-Lewis’s eerie evocation of our sixteenth president is the performance of the year, and I remain impressed that this film, while a touch too Spielberg-y in its opening and closing moments, nonetheless forewent the traditional biopic route and embraced a narrowcast, nineteenth-century CSPAN aesthetic instead.

7. Oslo, August 31st: “Look at my life. I’m 34 years old. I’ve got nothing. I don’t want to start from scratch.” A movie that made it here via Netflix, Oslo, August 31st is a well-observed day in the life of a recovering heroin addict (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he returns to his old haunts and tries to make peace with the shambles he feels he’s made of his existence.

Looking desperately for a way to reconnect to the world at large, or at least to transcend his current despair, Anders has a series of conversations with former friends and enemies, during which he discovers that even those who didn’t miss the train of life going by are, by and large, just going through the motions. Everything here feels uncomfortably true, from Anders’ visit to see a former partner in crime, now a married academic, to his self-defeating job interview, to his plaintive calls to the woman who disappeared, to his falling back into old habits. A quietly devastating film.

8. Moonrise Kingdom: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” True, this Wes Anderson film could not be any more Wes Anderson-y — I’m looking at you, Bob Balaban the omniscient narrator — so if that’s a problem for you, I wouldn’t expect Moonrise to change your opinion of the man’s work.

As with the less-successful Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, Anderson is ensconced in his usual sandbox. Nonetheless, this story of two tweenagers enjoying a summer love, and the problems this causes for all the conflicted and compromised adults around them, ranks up there with Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (#46), and The Fantastic Mr. Fox among Anderson’s best. It’s also a beautifully shot film, redolent of the sun-drenched afternoons of years gone by.

9. Cabin in the Woods: “Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of – Am I on speakerphone?” When it comes to Joss Whedon, I’m not at all what you’d call a browncoat. I liked Firefly and Serenity alright, but much prefer Farscape when it comes to Blake’s 7 knockoffs, and neither Buffy nor Angel spoke to me like it speaks to many. (The West Wing is another show I never understood all the love for, but I digress.)

At any rate, consider me as surprised as anyone that both of Whedon’s 2012 films ended up in this year’s top ten. Sure, this outside-the-box take on teen slasher tropes is a gimmick movie, and one that’s more wry than it ever is frightening. Still, at least the first time around, what a ride Cabin turned out to be — It’s rare to watch a third act of a film feeling like just about anything could happen. I just wish we’d seen more of “Kevin.” (see pic above)

10. Killing Them Softly: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f**kin’ pay me.” This is another movie that racked up a lot of negativity for some reason, presumably due to it being mis-marketed as an action/gangster film.

Since I knew going in that this was Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the strange and languid Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I got about what I expected – a dark character piece that almost-but-not-quite-successfully tries to fuse Cogan’s Trade with a commentary on the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and general disillusionment in the Age of Obama. Personally, I liked spending time with these guys — Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn’s twin screw-ups, Richard Jenkins’ officious middleman, Gandolfini’s broken assassin. And, while the political angle didn’t quite gel, I still admired what Dominik tried to do here.

11. Amour: “Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” Not exactly the best time you’ll have in a theater this year — Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days comes to mind as a similarly unrelenting two hours at the movies. Still, Michael Haneke’s unflinching study of an elderly couple staring dementia and death in the face has a grim power to it, as well as two mesmerizing performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.

I can assure you, I don’t plan to sit through this film again any time soon. Still, Amour puts the lie to so many other depictions of love you see at the movies, and I left E Street afterwards both somewhat shaken by it and thinking it was time to carpe some diem (or as the kids say, YOLO) right now, before it’s too late.

12. The Grey: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.” And if old age doesn’t get ya, there’s always wolves, y’know? First, let me be clear: This movie is as wrong about wolves as another film I’ll get to in a bit is wrong about torture. All the Canis lupus stuff in here is abject nonsense.

But, to me, the wolves were really just the dispatching agents in this often-gripping existential drama. The real story of The Grey isn’t about wolves at all. It’s about Liam Neeson and his pack of tough-guy survivors coming to grips not just with their looming mortality, but with the reasons they wanted to live in the first place. In the Alaska wilderness, as in Paris or anywhere else, nobody gets out alive.

13. The Deep Blue Sea: “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” Just as past years have seen dueling underwater monster movies (Leviathan/Deepstar Six), asteroid disaster flicks (Armageddon/Deep Impact), and Truman Capote bios (Capote/Infamous) and 2013 will have two separate attacks on 1600 Penn (Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down), 2012 featured three quite good movies about women forsaking their kind, boring husbands for passionate, simpleton lovers, and subsequently running into a social buzzsaw as a result.

All of ’em made this list, but in the end The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ lush evocation of postwar England, garners the top spot among them. Along with memorable turns by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally dream-like scenes like Londoners awaiting the Blitz in the subway tunnels or singing along to “You Belong to Me” have stuck in my memory this year.

14. Argo: “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old f**ks from The Muppets.” Ben Affleck’s well-made chronicle of a successful CIA operation along the fringes of the Iran hostage crisis often felt like transparent Oscar bait to me. The Hollywood stuff felt it like needed to be more fleshed out and, since the history is well-known, the many attempts to ratchet up the suspense in the third act just didn’t work for me personally. (YMMV.)

Still, I was impressed by how well-balanced Argo came out — From its opening storyboard sequence, the movie doesn’t mince words about our many misadventures in Iran, making what could have been simply a depressing jingoistic exercise into a more thoughtful story of diplomatic blowback. Overall, I prefer Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town — Still, as a director, he’s now 3-for-3.

15. Celeste and Jesse Forever: “You know what your problem is? Contempt before investigation. You think you’re smarter than everybody else.” Full disclosure: Writer-star Rashida Jones was an acquaintance of mine in college, so I went in to Celeste and Jesse hoping more than usual that I would like it. Nonetheless, after a rough 10-15 minutes at the outset, this well-observed and wistful after-the-rom-com, about the break-up of a longtime couple, gradually gets to work on you.

It seemed like bit players like Elijah Wood (as Rashida’s gay boss/BFF) needed more to do, and Chris Messina has played the surprisingly wise frat-bro so many times by now that I can’t really take him seriously anymore. But otherwise, Celeste and Jesse earns it emotional beats and, by the time the final reel rolled, I felt quite invested in it.

16. Cloud Atlas: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

Here’s yet another 2012 film where it feels like critics just began to pile on mercilessly at a certain point. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s high-brow sci-fi novel doesn’t quite gel, and some of the plotlines — Ben Whishaw’s amanuensis, Tom Hanks after the Fall — were more interesting than others, most notably Jim Sturgess in the South Pacific and Jim Broadbent’s nursing home jailbreak. (Also, no nice way to put this, but much like Keira Knightley, Halle Berry is an A-list actress who’s never all that good.)

But even if it doesn’t live up to its ambition, Atlas is still an impressive and intellectually (if not emotionally) engaging feat. Granted, it wasn’t subtle about its message, but the degree of difficulty here should count for something. At least Atlas was reaching for something totally new — and every so often, especially during the occasional montage bringing together the six tales, you can catch a glimpse of it.

17. Take This Waltz: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” The second of this year’s adulterous love triangles — this one set to one of Leonard Cohen’s many classics and The Buggles — Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her has a low-key, natural, and lived-in feel that’s hard to fake.

True, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen felt a little too baby-talk-schmoopy in their scenes together, and Luke Kirby’s handsome pedicabbie always just seemed like a self-absorbed creepshow to me. But one of the strengths of this film is how all the characters here seem like three-dimensional human beings, with all the needs, vulnerabilities, and suspect decision-making attending.

18. Rust and Bone: “We’ll continue…but not like animals.” Speaking of follow-ups, Jacques Audiard’s second film after A Prophet felt like the movie the much-hyped Silver Linings Playbook wanted to be. This rough-and-tumble romance between a street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a damaged whale instructor (Marion Cotillard) after a terrible accident is never as good as A Prophet, and it goes seriously off-the-rails in its third act, around the time Cotillard tattoos her leg-stumps “gauche” and “droit.” But up until then, Rust and Bone manages to sidestep a surprising number of movie-of-the-week pitfalls and keep its gutter-punch rawness intact.

19. Seven Psychopaths: “No, it doesn’t! There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?” I didn’t like In Bruges as much as a lot of people, and occasionally this new film by playwright Martin McDonagh suffers from the same outrageousness-for-its-own-sake. (Case in point: the scene where Woody Harrelson interrogates Gabourey Sidibe.)

Still, I kinda liked how this increasingly loopy and laconic film seemed to realize it would be more fun just to hang around with its gaggle of likable actors (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Ferrell, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek, Harrelson) for awhile and just dropped the plot. I only wish McDonagh had found more to do with Olga Kurylenko and especially Abbie Cornish, who are (literally and figuratively) wasted here.

20. Anna Karenina: “Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.” Like Killing Them Softly and Cloud Atlas, Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a film I admired for its ambition, even if the conceit — here, that all of the Russian society scenes take place on a nineteenth century stage — doesn’t end up quite working. And even if there’s some of the same unnecessary grandstanding that marred Atonement‘s Dunkirk scene (intricate shots are fun and all, but they should serve the story), this is quite a beautiful picture.

While Keira Knightley unfortunately doesn’t make much of an impression in the title role, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and Savages just seems out of his element as Vronsky, Jude Law brings pathos to a character that could’ve just seemed like the villain, and there are a number of enjoyable turns in the margins of this story, from Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) covering the sociopolitical elements of the book to Matthew MacFadyen — who seemingly jumped right into late-Alec Baldwin mode right after his stint as Mr. Darcy in 2005 — as the oafish Oblonsky.

21. Skyfall: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” Speaking of beautiful films, Daniel Craig’s third outing (and Sam Mendes’ first) as 007 doesn’t match the heights of Casino Royale, but it’s looks like the billion dollars it made, and it’s a far sight better than the sophomore misstep of Quantum of Solace. (It also features an instant classic Bond song in Adele’s title track.)

My biggest problem with Skyfall, and it’s a hard one to overlook, is that, in a transparent effort to capture some of that Dark Knight cachet, they effectively turned James Bond into Batman here. So Bond is now a rich orphan who grew up in Scotland’s version of Wayne Manor? Erm, ok. It doesn’t help matters that Javier Bardem’s ridiculous villain — The Joker + gay panic, basically — has exactly the same goofy plan as the Clown Prince of Crime did. (The next Big Bad to get captured on purpose, apparently? Gary Mitchell Garth Khan Gruber.)

But this is a Bond movie, so set your low expectations accordingly. Even if it feels like we’re already approaching Moonraker or Octopussy territory only three movies into the Craig era, this is still among the better outings in this long and storied franchise.

22. Django Unchained: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.” From the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it’s clear this film is going to be a bit of a mess. (Our title card reads: “1858. Two Years Before the Civil War.” Uh…that’s three years before the war, Quentin.) And, to be honest, I liked this movie better when it was called Inglourious Basterds — Here, we have basically the same experience, with QT once again righting history’s wrongs with a blood-spattered vengeance.

I actually liked that Tarantino decided to put the evils of American slavery front and center in this film, since it’s an ugly underside of our history that, cinematically, has been pretty much buried. (One admirable exception to prove the rule: CSA.) The funniest scene in the movie is probably QT riffing off both Blazing Saddles and Birth of a Nation with his Klansmen complaining about their eyeholes.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure why, given all the very real horrors of slavery QT often draws from, we ended up with the exceedingly fake Mandingo Fighting as a centerpiece of this story, other than it was in some blaxsploitation films QT used to enjoy. With that in mind, and more egregiously, a good hour of this movie makes absolutely no sense: Why wouldn’t Schultz and Django just be like, “I’m a lonely German guy who will pay top-dollar for a slave that speaks German?” (Tarantino tries to address that particular question here. I don’t think it works.)

Still, however sloppy and self-indulgent, Django was a decently enjoyable movie for most of its run. It would be nice, tho’, to see Tarantino take a stab at another Jackie Brown-style project at some point. As it is, it feels like he’s continuing to disappear up his own ass.

23. Holy Motors: “Weird! Weird! Weird!” I’m usually not one to end a movie once I’ve started it, but I turned off David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, via OnDemand, well before the end. (I hear Paul Giamatti shows up at some point.) Far more entertaining — and much, much stranger — was Leo Carax’s bizarro stab at the wandering limousine genre this year.

As with Django, it seemed like there was a lot of name-dropping and inside baseball, of the cinema history variety, going on in Holy Motors, which is behavior I find irritating a lot of the time. But I found Denis Lavant’s mad misadventures here compulsively watchable, even if we passed basic coherence two or three lefts ago.

24. The Woman in Black: “I believe even the most rational of minds can play tricks in the dark.” This wasn’t a Cabin in the Woods-style reinvention of horror tropes by any means. That being said, I quite enjoyed this played-straight Hammer films throwback, with Daniel Radcliffe unwisely investigating ghostly happenings at a mansion along the moors.

Rather than relying solely on blood, guts, and jump cuts, The Woman In Black resurrects classic cinema techniques and all the old standbys of this particular genre — rocking chairs, Victorian dolls, creepy children and whatnot — to put the audience ill at ease for ninety minutes. In sum, a slight but effective scare machine.

25. Dredd: “In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law… I am the law.” As with every year, a lot of films could have gone in this final spot on the list — Bernie, Life of Pi, Savages, Marley, ParaNorman. But I’m giving it to Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s Dredd, because it’s a good example of what went right at the movies in 2012.

There are better movies than Dredd this and every year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Dredd movie. Travis and Garland took what was distinctive about this character – give or take his Watchmen-like satire of American superheroes — and transported an issue of the comic to the screen, no more, no less. Extra points for a likable cast (Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey) and for Karl Urban — unlike Stallone back in the day — never taking off the helmet.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Prometheus: Pretty much everything that needs to be said about the dumb-as-dirt disaster this turned out to be has been encapsulated by the Red Letter Media guys. Whhhhyyyyyy? Why does a movie with such a terrible script ever get greenlit? Why does Damon Lindelof, after putting out an idiotic film like this, continue to get work in Hollywood?

It’s sad, since even notwithstanding the greatness of Alien and Aliens (and I’d submit that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are more admirable failures than this film), there are elements of a much better movie here — most notably Michael Fassbender’s T.E. Lawrence-loving android and the sheer look of the picture. Otherwise, however, this was just a terrible, nonsensical movie, and I ended up just feeling embarrassed for Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and everyone else involved. For shame.

MOST OVERHYPED:

Silver Linings Playbook: I like David O’Russell. I like Jennifer Lawrence. I have no issues with Bradley Cooper. But, Lordy, I hated this film, and I just can’t figure out where all the hype is coming from. Granted, SLP falls into a very specific genre of movie I despise, whereby some severely damaged dude is suddenly saved from loneliness, madness, and/or general despair by a perfectly unique and perfect girl for him. (See also: Sideways, Punch-Drunk-Love, and all the other many iterations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) Honestly, all of you who keep making this same movie, go see Amour or something.

But even notwithstanding that sort of ubiquitous rom-comminess, SLP just seemed really by-the-numbers to me. The only variation on the same-old stale tale, as far as I could tell, is that this time there’s a really important game AND a really important dance competition at the end. And while Jacki Weaver does some memorable things as Bradley Cooper’s long-suffering mom, I didn’t take DeNiro seriously here at all. Just a bad movie.

Zero Dark Thirty: As it happened, I kinda hated Zero Dark Thirty too, but at least here I get where the positive reaction is coming from. To be honest, I expected going in that I’d leave ZD30 conflicted — that it would be a good movie undone by its egregious lies about torture. As it turned out, this is not even a good movie — it’s strongest pleasure consists of watching quality character actors — Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane – in brief turns as suits. (Tom Donilon is English?)

For one, ZD30 is far too blatant in its CIA embeddedness. Every CIA character here is a well-meaning tortured soul, heavy-hearted with the burden of saving the world. There’s no mention of, say, Tora Bora. The CIA’s egregious, world-historical fuck-ups, like arguing there were WMD in Iraq, are brought up only in passing. The agency’s outright crimes, like, say, waterboarding a guy 180 times to obtain a false positive, aren’t even mentioned. Watching Type-A go-getter Jessica Chastain and her ponytail flounce around for America for two and a half hours, you’d have no idea that her real-life counterpart and her ilk have been found guilty of, among other things, torturing and sodomizing an innocent man.

Admittedly, it could be because this pro-torture distortion of the history put me in an increasingly foul mood. Still, even as a movie Zero Dark Thirty has serious problems. As one of Chastain’s co-workers, poor Jennifer Ehle has to offer up some of the most ridiculous telegraphs of her impending death since Lt. Deadduck in Hot Shots. And I found the last forty minutes or so of the film, which depicts the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound in excruciating detail, to be a total snooze.

We know what’s going to happen here. And since we’re already in Fantasyland as far as the efficacy of torture goes, why not add sharks or tigers or man-eating bears to this war pr0n raid on OBL’s Afghan fortress? Or how about a badass female #2 (Maggie Q? Olga Kurylenko?) to fight Chastain, martial-arts style, over a deep chasm or conveyor belt or something? Might as well, since we’re already far afield from anything approaching the Real World. In sum, this film is sheer propaganda, and ham-handed agitprop at that.

The Master: Going into this film, I was rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson to build on the promise of the first hour of There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, The Master is a pretentious bore, and not nearly as deep as it thinks it is. Get past all the Kubrickian grand-standing — Kubrick has clearly replaced Scorsese and Altman as PTA’s object of homage these days — and Anderson has made another variation of the same movie he’s always made, from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to TWBB: People create fake families for themselves, look for validation in those families, and are ultimately let down by those families. It wasn’t a very interesting point three movies ago.

Poor Joaquin Phoenix sweats Method blood to give his character some resonance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams have their (brief) moments of note — To his credit, PTA always does seem generous with his actors. But none of them can do anything with what they’ve been given. The Master, unfortunately, is yet another solid case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:

John Carter: Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit could go here, as could Cloud Atlas. But, in the end, it seems like no movie got a tougher racket this year than Andrew Stanton’s estimable adaptation of John Carter. True, I watched this on Netflix rather than in the theater, which tends to be a more forgiving experience. But still, this film was a well-made, decently intelligent, and reasonably faithful and engaging adaptation of its source.

It wasn’t my favorite movie of the year or anything — it wasn’t even in my top 25, as we just saw — but it was totally fine for what it was. I have no clue why everyone pounced on this movie like they did. But, as with all the detest in some circles for An Unexpected Journey, it speaks poorly of what the Internet has done to movies in some ways. There’s a rush-to-judgment and piling-on effect that, at least in this case, wasn’t merited at all.

2011 LEFTOVERS:

Coriolanus: Not sure if this would have broken the 2011 list last year or not. Still, Ralph Fiennes’ bloody cover-version of a relatively unknown Shakespearean history, modernized by way of CNN and Afghanistan, has a lot to recommend for it. Along with Fiennes himself, Coriolanus features fine performances from James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler and especially Vanessa Redgrave (as the general’s scheming mother) and Brian Cox (as the most hail-fellow-well-met of Senators). Definitely worth a Netflix.

Margaret: Whether you want to call it a holdover from 2011 (when it came out) or from the 2005 list (when it was filmed), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is also worth catching up with sometime. Here, Anna Paquin — better than I’ve ever seen her — is a self-absorbed NYC teenager forced to come to terms with the ramifications of a terrible bus accident she helped to precipitate. Along for the three-hour ride through this distinctively New York tale are Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Kieran Culkin, and Rosemarie DeWitt. (FWIW, the provenance of the film’s name is also the best tell for what it’s ultimately about.) Well worth seeing.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: 21 Jump Street, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, The Amazing Spiderman, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, Detachment, Haywire, The Hunger Games, The Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Magic Mike, Marley, Men in Black III, ParaNorman, The Raid: Redemption, Savages, The Sessions, Snabba Cash, Ted, To Rome With Love

Don’t Bother: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, Dark Shadows, Flight, The Hunter, Hyde Park on Hudson, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killer Joe, Lawless, The Loneliest Planet, Lockout, Rampart, Red Hook Summer, Safe House,Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Liam Neeson, The Grey; Dennis Lavant, Holy Motors; Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour

Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas; Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly; Jude Law, Anna Karenina; Clarke Peters, Red Hook Summer

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Frances McDormand, Moonrise Kingdom

Unseen: 2 Days in New York, Act of Valor, Alex Cross, American Reunion, Arbitrage, Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, Butter, The Campaign, The Cold Light of Day, Contraband, Deadfall, The Devil Inside, The Dictator, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, End of Watch, The Five Year Engagement, For a Good Time Call…, Friends with Kids, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Guilt Trip, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Joyful Noise, Not Fade Away, One for the Money, Man on a Ledge, The Man With the Iron Fists, Mirror Mirror, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, On the Road, Parental Guidance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Premium Rush, Project X, The Raven, Red Dawn, Red Tails, Robot and Frank, Rock of Ages, Safe, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret World of Arietty, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Step Up: Revolution, Taken 2, This is 40, The Three Stooges, Tim & Eric Billion Dollar Movie, This Means War, Trouble With The Curve, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II, The Watch, W/E, The Words, Wrath of the Titans

    A Good Year For:
  • The CIA’s Publicity Department (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty)
  • Existential Despair (Oslo, August 31st, The Grey)
  • Domnhall Gleeson (Anna Karenina, Dredd)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin (Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson)
  • Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables)
  • Limousines (Holy Motors, Cosmopolis)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly)
  • Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly)
  • Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street, Haywire, Magic Mike)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The 1% (Cosmopolis, Les Miserables, The Dark Knight Rises)
  • Dull Husbands & Dim Lovers (Anna Karenina, Take This Waltz, The Deep Blue Sea)
  • Hi-rise Apartment Buildings (The Raid: Redemption, Dredd)
  • Slavery (Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

2013: 2 Guns, 42, 47 Ronin, 300: Rise of an Empire, About Time, After Earth, All is Lost, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, As I Lay Dying, August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Better Living Through Chemistry, The Black Marks, The Bling Ring, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, Captain Phillips, Carrie, Chavez, Closed Circuit, Closer to the Moon, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Congress, The Counselor, The Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Devil’s Knot, Diana, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers, Dom Hemingway, Don Jon’s Addiction, The Double, Elysium, Ender’s Game, The Europa Report, Evil Dead, Fading Gigolo, Fast Six, Filth, Foxcatcher, The Frozen Ground, Gambit, Gangster Squad, Girl Most Likely, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Gods Behaving Badly, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, Grand Piano, Gravity, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Heat, Her, Homefront, Horns, How I Live Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hummingbird, I, Frankenstein, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Inside Llewellyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack Ryan, Kick-Ass 2, The Last Stand, The Lone Ranger, Lovelace, Mama, Man of Steel, Monster’s University, Monuments Men, Movie 43, Oblivion, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Only God Forgives, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, Parker, The Place Beyond the Pines, Red 2, Riddick, R.I.P.D., Side Effects, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Stoker, This is the End, Thor: The Dark World, The Tomb, To the Wonder, Trance, Twelve Years a Slave, Upstream Color, Warm Bodies, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, World War Z, and

You have nice manners for a thief and a liar…

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

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

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

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

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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

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

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

8. Before Sunset (2004)

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

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

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

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

7. No Country for Old Men (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. United 93 (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

5. In the Bedroom (2001)

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

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

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

4. The New World (2005)

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

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

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

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

3. I’m Not There (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Hottie and the Nottie (2008)

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

It’s coming…

It is…

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, wait a sec, that reminds me

Special Award. The Wire (2002-2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
No-Frills Version

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

2008 in Film.

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

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

Top 20 Films of 2008

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hrm.

Little Miss Sonshine.


Update 1/7/08: If you’re visiting from Electrolicious, Ypulse, or elsewhere today, welcome. In case you’re interested, the main site is here, and the other collected movie reviews are here (including the best of 2007 list.)

That ain’t no etch-a-sketch. That’s one doodle that can’t be un-did, homeskillet.” If you find people talking in such overstylized hipster-speak for ninety minutes witty and/or adorable, you’ll probably enjoy Jason Reitman’s Juno quite a bit more than I did. While it’s not a bad film, and it has the advantage of clever repartee and appealing performances across the board, Juno — like everyone’s favorite indy comedy last year, Little Miss Sunshine — is, IMHO, being significantly overpraised. Suffering from dialogue that’s been stylized within an inch of its life, and with every scene festooned with kitschy pop culture bric-a-brac and scored to uber-sensitive indy rock, I came to find Juno cloying to the point of claustrophobia. (And hearing The Kinks (“A Well-Respected Man”) and those overlords of twee, Belle & Sebastien (“Piazza, New York Catcher”), at various points on the soundtrack only confirmed the sensation that I’d somehow wandered into a Wes Anderson after-school special.) Speaking of Wes, I feel about this film much as I did about The Darjeeling Limited — if this is your sort of thing, have at it. But I for one eventually grew exhausted and even somewhat annoyed with Juno, even as I found myself in sympathy with its denouement.

Juno begins with a chair. A recliner at a yard sale, in fact, which is being eyed by a Sunny D-chugging teenager named Juno MacGuff. (Ellen Page of Hard Candy and X3 — This role will no doubt cement her status as the new sassy, quick-witted, adorable-but-approachable brunette that middle-school fanboy types will crush over, a la Princess Leia, Winona Ryder, and Natalie Portman in their day.) As it turns out, this chair has a special meaning for Ms. MacGuff, since it was one quite like it where she and her nerdy best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera of Arrested Development and Superbad, in his wheelhouse and terrific) lost their virginity in a fit of (what’s being billed as) boredom. And now, two months later, Juno is, as the sayings go, knocked up, preggers, in the family way, with a bun in the oven. (She later memorably deems herself “the cautionary whale.”) What to do?

At first, Juno considers “procuring a hasty abortion,” but something about the waiting room at Women Now! gives her the heebie-jeebies. And so, after some discussion with her best friend (Olivia Thirlby of United 93, an appealing presence), Juno decides to go for it and have the baby. She informs her parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, both excellent) and finds a baby-craving couple on the right side of the tracks (Jason Bateman and an impressive Jennifer Garner — she and Cera are the best parts of the film) to handle her spawn in its post-born phase. But, of course, it’s never that easy. For one, it turns out the Lorings may not be as ideal a couple as they first appear. (The wedding pics everywhere should be a tip-off, as they were in In Good Company.) For another, Juno slowly comes to discover that certain things — bearing a child, falling in love — are actually much harder than they’re made out to be on the TV and the Internets, and all the clever comebacks in the world aren’t going to protect you when life takes a painful turn.

Now, some caveats. First, Ellen Page’s Juno is basically a pop-culture variant of the hyperliterate teenagers you find in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan or Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and, as I’ve said before, I am really not a big fan of that genre. Page is as good as she can be in the role, but the character as written is drowning in self-conscious quirk. Now, as my brother pointed out, so was Ferris Bueller back in the day, so perhaps I’m just getting old. Still, every time Juno emotes wildly over seventies punk rock acts like Iggy and the Stooges or namedrops Dario Argento movies, all I heard was screenwriter Diablo Cody unrealistically foisting her own pop culture bona fides on a sixteen-year-old character. (I had the same problem with Scarlett Johansson karaokeing Roxy Music and The Pretenders in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.) To borrow from I’m Not There, “Live your own time, child.

For another, and as Lauren Wissot pointed out at THND, every character in the film — with the exception of Jennifer Garner’s earnest yuppie mom-wannabe, who is defined mostly by its absence — speaks with the same arch, cynical, highly referential voice, spewing forth peppy bon mots and pop-culture zingers that tend to read a lot better on the page than they sound on screen. “Silencio, old man,” “I have to pee like Seabiscuit,” “The baby looks like a Sea Monkey right now,” “Thundercats are go!” Everyone from Juno’s parents to her girlfriend to her lab partners to Rainn Wilson at the Circle K indulge in this hyperstylized quipping to the point of exhaustion, including the director. (Check out the “jocks really love goth librarians” scene, for example.) Now, this is the exact same problem I have with most of Joss Whedon’s output and particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so undoubtedly fans of the latter may have more of a tolerance for Juno‘s endless string of impeccably-crafted, unrealistic-as-delivered witticisms. Still, Juno eventually reminded me of the exchange in Fight Club when Ed Norton makes the crack about people on planes being “single-serving friends.” Says Pitt: “Oh I get it, it’s very clever. How’s that working out for you? Being clever. Great, keep it up then…

Now, this reaction posed a bit of a quandary for me, since, as y’all probably know, Juno is not the first unplanned-pregnancy-for-a-hipster-parent comedy to come down the pike this year. And when musing on Knocked Up over the summer, I put its many knowing pop-culture references — jokes involving Matthew Fox and Robin Williams’ knuckles, for example — in the plus column. So why can’t a 16-year-old girl make the same sort of wry cultural asides to her friends as a 23-year-old man-child? I guess the main difference is that I don’t remember Knocked Up being so wall-to-wall with the punchy quips, or the dialogue feeling so writerly or artificial throughout. (For example, there’s nothing that feels as true-to-life in Juno as the automobile argument in Apatow’s film.) Until I see Knocked Up again, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Also, while Juno is being billed in some corners as the female response to Knocked Up, it is and it isn’t. Obviously, the parent drenched in pop-culture irony this time is female, but in other ways the films are rather similar in their gender portrayals: The relationship dynamic between Garner and Bateman for example, plays quite a bit like the one between Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in Knocked Up — She’s the Voice of Responsiblity, he wants to keep playing with his toys. At any rate, while I prefer the former, Knocked Up and Juno would probably make a quality double-feature in the future. If nothing else, they’ll help pop-culture aficionados of both sexes figure out what to expect when they’re expecting. Just make sure you have insulin or ipecac handy in case the overwritten, indy-pop sentimentalism of Juno proves too sugary-sweet, as it did for me.

2006 (Finally) in Film.

Well, there are still a number of flicks I haven’t yet seen — David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for example, which I hope to hit up this weekend. But as the Oscar nods were announced today, and as the few remaining forlorn Christmas trees are finally being picked up off the sidewalk, now seems the last appropriate time to crank out my much belated end-of-2006 film list (originally put off to give me time to make up for my New Zealand sojourn.) To be honest, I might’ve written this list a few weeks earlier, had it not happened that I ended up seeing the best film of 2005 in mid-January of last year, thus rendering the 2005 list almost immediately obsolescent. But, we’ll get to that — As it stands, 2006 was a decent year in movies (in fact a better year in film than it was in life, the midterms notwithstanding), with a crop of memorable genre flicks and a few surprisingly worthy comebacks. And, for what it’s worth, I thought the best film released in 2006 was…

Top 20 Films of 2006

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

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

[1.] The New World (2005): A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel, and (sorry, Syriana) the best film of 2005.

2. Letters from Iwo Jima: Having thought less of Flags of our Fathers and the woeful Million Dollar Baby than most people, I was almost completely thrown by the dismal grandeur and relentless gloom of Eastwood’s work here. To some extent the Unforgiven of war movies, Iwo Jima is a bleakly rendered siege film that trafficks in few of the usual tropes of the genre. (Don’t worry — I suspect we’ll get those in spades in two months in 300.) Instead of glorious Alamo-style platitudes, we’re left only with the sight of young men — all avowed enemies of America, no less — swallowed up and crushed in the maelstrom of modern combat. From Ken Watanabe’s commanding performance as a captain going down with the ship to Eastwood’s melancholy score, Letters works to reveal one fundamental, haunting truth: Tyrants may be toppled, nations may be liberated, and Pvt. Ryans may be saved, but even “good wars” are ultimately Hell on earth for those expected to do the fighting.

3. Children of Men: In the weeks since I first saw this film, my irritation with the last fifteen minutes or so has diminished, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has emerged for what it is — one of the most resonant “near-future” dystopias to come down the pike in a very long while, perhaps since (the still significantly better) Brazil. Crammed with excellent performances by Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, Children is perhaps a loosely-connected grab bag of contemporary anxieties and afflictions (terrorism, detainment camps, pharmaceutical ads, celebrity culture). But it’s assuredly an effective one, with some of the most memorable and naturalistic combat footage seen in several years to boot. I just wished they’d called that ship something else…

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year. Verry nice.

5. The Prestige: I originally had this in Children of Men‘s spot, as there are few films I enjoyed as much this year as Christopher Nolan’s sinister sleight-of hand. But, even after bouncing Children up for degree of difficulty, that should take nothing away from The Prestige, a seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation. (There seems to be a back-and-forth between fans of this film and The Illusionist, which I sorta saw on a plane in December. Without sound (which, obviously, is no way to see a movie), Illusionist seemed like an implausible love story set to a tempo of anguished Paul Giamatti reaction shots. In any case, I prefer my magic shows dark and with a twist.) Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

6. The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. (In a perfect world, roughly half of the extravagant praise going to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth would have been lavished on this film.) Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.

7. The Queen: 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. (Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is no slouch either.) In fact, The Queen is the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history. Indeed, between this and United 93, 2006 proved to be a good year for smart and affecting depictions of the very recent past — let’s hope the trend continues through the rest of the oughts.

8. Inside Man: The needless Jodie Foster subplot notwithstanding, Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply “crashing” into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.) At any rate, Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.

9. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Speaking of enjoyable New York-centric movie experiences, Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s block party last year felt like a breath of pure spring air after a long, cold, lonely winter — time to kick off the sweaters and parkas and get to groovin’ with your neighbors. With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.

10. Casino Royale: Bond is back! Thanks to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007 as a blunt, glitched-up human being rather than a Casanova Superspy, and a script that eschewed the UV laser pens and time-release exploding cufflinks of Bonds past for more hard-boiled and gritty fodder, Casino Royale felt straight from the pen of Ian Fleming, and newer and more exciting than any 007 movie in decades.

11. The Departed: A very good movie brimming over with quality acting (notably Damon and Di Caprio) and support work — from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and others — Scorsese’s The Departed also felt a bit too derivative of its splendid source material, Infernal Affairs, to merit the top ten. And then there’s the Jack problem: An egregiously over-the-top Nicholson chews so much scenery here that it’s a wonder there’s any of downtown Boston left standing. But, despite these flaws, The Departed is well worth seeing, and if it finally gets Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (despite Greengrass deserving it), it won’t be too much of an outrage.

[11.] Toto The Hero (1991): Also sidelined out of this top twenty on account of its release date, Jaco Von Dormael’s Toto the Hero — Terry Gilliam’s choice of screening for an IFC Movie Night early in October — is definitely one for the Netflix queue, particularly if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s oeuvre. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age/going-of-age tale that includes thoughts of envy, murder, incest, and despair, all the while remaining somehow whimsical and fantastical at its core. (And, trust me: As with Ary Borroso’s “Brazil“, you’ll be left humming Charles Trenet’s “Boum” to yourself long after the movie is over.)

12. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: I guess this is where I should be writing something brief and scintillating about Michael Winterbottom’s metanarrative version of Laurence Sterne’s famous novel, one which gives Steve Coogan — and the less well-known Rob Brydon — a superlative chance to work their unique brand of comedic mojo. But I’m growing distracted and Berk has that pleading “I-want-to-go-out, are-you-done-yet” look and Kevin’s still only on Number 12 of a list that, for all intent and purposes, is three weeks late and will be read by all of eight people anyway. (But don’t tell him that — In fact, I shouldn’t even talk about him behind his back.) So, perhaps we’ll come back to this later…it’s definitely a review worth writing (again), if I could just figure out how to start.

13. Miami Vice: Michael Mann’s moody reimagining of the TV show that made him famous isn’t necessarily his best work, but it was one of the more unique and absorbing movies of the summer, and one that lingers in the memory long after much of the year’s fluffier and more traditional films have evaporated. Dr. Johnson (and Hunter Thompson) once wrote that “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I guess that’s what Crockett and Tubbs are going for with the nightclubs and needle boats.

14. CSA: The Confederate States of America: I wish I were in the land of cotton…or have we been there all along? Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history of a victorious Confederate America is a savvy and hilarious send-up of history documentaries and a sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed piece of satire with truths to tell about the shadow of slavery in our past. With any luck, CSA will rise again on the DVD circuit.

15. The Science of Sleep: Not as good or as universally applicable as his Eternal Sunshine (the best film of 2004), Michel Gondry’s dreamlike, unabashedly romantic The Science of Sleep is still a worthy inquiry into matters of the (broken) heart. What is it about new love that is so intoxicating? And why do the significant others in our mind continue to haunt us so, even when they bear such little relation to the people they initially represented? Science doesn’t answer these crucial questions (how can it?), but it does acutely diagnose the condition. When it comes to relationships, Sleep suggests, all we have to do — sometimes all we can do, despite ourselves — is dream.

16. Rocky Balboa: Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! I’m as surprised as anyone that Sly’s sixth outing as Philadelphia’s prized pugilist made the top twenty. But, as formulaic as it is, Rocky Balboa delivered the goods like a Ivan Drago right cross. Ultimately not quite as enjoyable as Bond’s return to the service, Rocky Balboa still made for a commendable final round for the Italian Stallion. And, if nothing else, he went down fighting.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth: A fantasy-horror flick occurring simultaneously within a Spanish Civil War film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth ultimately felt to me like less than the sum of its parts. But if the plaudits it’s receiving help to mainstream other genre movies in critics’ eyes in the future, I’m all for it. It’s an ok movie, no doubt, but if you’re looking for to see one quality supernatural-historical tale of twentieth-century Spain, rent del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone instead.

18. Little Miss Sunshine: Another film which I think is being way overpraised, Little Miss Sunshine is still a moderately enjoyable evening at the movies. It felt overscripted and television-ish to me, and I wish it was as way over yonder in the minor key as it pretends to be, but Sunshine is nevertheless a cute little IFC-style family film, and one that does have a pretty funny payoff at the end.

19. The Last King of Scotland: I just wrote on this one yesterday, so my impressions haven’t changed much. Still, Forrest Whitaker’s jovial and fearsome Idi Amin, and an almost-equally-good performance by James McAvoy as the dissolute young Scot who unwittingly becomes his minion, makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing, if you can bear its grisly third act.

20. Thank You for Smoking: It showed flashes of promise, and it was all there on paper, in the form of Chris Buckley’s book. But Smoking, alas, never really lives up to its potential. What Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire, to my mind. But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda. Still, pleasant enough, if you don’t consider the opportunity cost.

Most Disappointing: All the King’s Men, X3: The Last Stand — Both, unfortunately, terrible.

Worth a Rental: A Scanner Darkly, Brick, Cache, Cars, Curse of the Golden Flower, Glory Road, The History Boys, Marie Antoinette, Match Point (2005), V for Vendetta, Why We Fight

Don’t Bother: Bobby, Crash (2005), The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Mission: Impossible: III, Night Watch (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Men’s Chest, Poseidon, Scoop, Superman Returns, The Wicker Man, World Trade Center

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed; Michael Caine, Children of Men/The Prestige
Best Supporting Actress: Pam Farris, Children of Men; Vera Farmiga, The Departed; Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth

Unseen: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Clerks II, The Descent, The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, Fast Food Nation, Hollywoodland, An Inconvenient Truth, Infamous, Inland Empire, Jackass Number Two, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, The Notorious Betty Page, A Prairie Home Companion, The Pursuit of Happyness, Running With Scissors, Sherrybaby, Shortbus, Stranger than Fiction, Tideland, Venus, Volver, Wordplay

2007: The list isn’t looking all that great, to be honest. But, perhaps we’ll find some gems in here…: 300, 3:10 To Yuma, Beowulf, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, FF2, The Golden Age: Elizabeth II, The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Live Free or Die Hard, Ocean’s Thirteen, PotC3, The Simpsons Movie, Smokin’ Aces, Spiderman 3, Stardust, The Transformers, Zodiac.

Spirit of 93.

Whether or not the world really needed a film about the events that took place on United Flight 93 the morning of September 11, 2001 is, I suppose, still an open question. I can see both sides of the argument: that it’s too soon for a movie about 9/11 and that our current involvement in the war on terror demands we come to terms with what happened that day. (As my father pointed out, the WWII generation saw plenty of war flicks come out while the conflict still raged in Europe and the Pacific.) For my own part, even despite the stellar reviews for Paul Greengrass’ film, it took me a few weeks to crank up the nerve to sit through a movie that I figured would be at best chilling and heart-rending and at worst deeply exploitative and repellent. That being said, having run the gauntlet earlier this week, I can now happily report that United 93 is magnificent, and arguably the best possible film that could’ve been made about this story. Both harrowing and humane, it’s the movie of the year so far.

United 93, like 9/11, begins like any other day. For most of the first third of the film (the opening scenes, where we watch the four terrorists make their final prayers and preparations, notwithstanding) we simply follow people beginning their work day: air traffic controllers look at the weather and discuss possible delays, pilots make small-talk on their way to the cockpit, flight attendants prepare the cabin, and sleepy, anonymous passengers sit around Newark airport, making phone calls or waiting with blank, thousand-yard-stares for their turn to board. It looks exactly like every single airport terminal you’ve ever seen, and, if you had no sense of what’s to come next, you might be deadly bored by all this reveling in mundanity. But, there’s a method to Greengrass’s madness — not only do these early scenes root the film in our world (as well as foster some sickening suspense — we’re obviously waiting for the other shoe to drop), but they take us back to what Karl Rove might call a “pre-9/11 mentality.”

It’s no small testament to the film’s intricate set-up that, when quintessentially Bostonian and New Yorker ATC guys start noticing some planes acting quirky, we sense their palpable confusion even though we know exactly what’s going on, and — when the second plane hits the World Trade Center (which is never shown, except on CNN or in long shots from the Newark control tower) — we feel as shocked as they do, all over again. From there, the film’s second act involves civilian and military air traffic officials (some of whom are played by the real people involved) struggling to make sense of a increasingly horrifying situation for which everyone was totally unprepared. ATC men feverishly watch the wrong planes for signs of a hijacking, FAA authorities put together a board of possible suspect flights and try to track down an AWOL military attache for some answers, a plane that was thought destroyed pops up again on the radar dangerously close to Washington, unarmed fighters (the best anyone could find on short notice) scramble in the wrong direction over the ocean, and NORAD waits desperately for the presidential authorization to fire on hijacked airliners, to no avail. (Think My Pet Goat.)

And, in the meantime, United 93 begins its own hellish journey, as the four terrorists on that plane (who, to Greengrass’ credit, are portrayed as multifaceted as they could be, given their vile plan), after some silent soul-searching, spring into action: They take over the cockpit, scare into submission the passengers (all of whom are played by relative unknowns, although some — such as David Rasche of Sledge Hammer — look vaguely familiar), and set a course for the Capitol. Thrust to the back of the plane by a “bomb”-carrying hijacker, having little-to-no sense of what’s going on in the cockpit, and wracked with fear, grief, and confusion, the passengers of United 93 — operating with even less knowledge than the people on the ground — eventually piece enough to discover that they must act. This all takes place in real time, and isn’t played as cheap film heroics in the slightest. Like everything else in United 93, it all feels terrifyingly real, making the passengers’ final, collective, desperate lunge for survival one of the most visceral and cathartic movie sequences in years — it, like the final shot, will linger in your memory for days to come.

In short, United 93 is undeniably hard to watch at times, and I can see why many folks out there would steer clear of it like the plague. Still, if you feel like you can handle the subject matter, United 93 is a must-see film. While it doesn’t even really attempt to offer a broader perspective on the events of 9/11, it’s hard to imagine a movie that could reconstruct the emotional experience of that day as faithfully and without cynicism or exploitation as this one.

Let’s Roll.

The teaser for Flight 93, first of the 9/11 movies out of the box, is online. Normally, I wouldn’t be interested in this project, but the presence of Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, the aborted Watchmen) at the helm is an X-factor. (Expect lots of shakicam.)

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