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Rose Byrne

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2016 in Film.

Queso, usually I’d put a bunch of excuses in this opening paragraph about why this is going up so late, when the real question is: nearly ten months into 2017, why even do this Best of 2016 movie list at all? (Answer: I’m a completionist and it was bugging me.) But really the bigger issue here is: I missed a LOT of movies last year.

I missed Oscar contenders (Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge) and Oscar bait (Allied, Florence Foster Jenkins). I missed promising indies (Captain Fantastic, American Pastoral) and movies with cult-cachet (Swiss Army Man, High-Rise, Elle, Kubo and the Two Strings). I missed the big winter dogs (Passengers, Assassin’s Creed), the summer dogs (Independence Day: Resurgence, The Legend of Tarzan), and the just plain dogs (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Deepwater Horizon).

I missed some big tentpole remakes (Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Magnificent Seven, Pete’s Dragon.) I missed a bunch of unnecessary sequels (Now You See Me 2, Ride Along 2, London Has Fallen). I missed the maybe-better-than-you-expect B-movies (The Shallows), the high-rated Disney outings (Moana). I even missed a few movies I still really want to see (Silence, Toni Erdmann).

But of the ones I did see, I suppose these are my…

Top 25 Films of 2016
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015/The Oughts]

1. Moonlight: Damien Chazelle’s meet-cute May-December musical romance featured Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at their…wait, one second. Er…Yeah, I know, a little late for that joke — Anyway, we’ll get to La La Land later on.

For now Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a perfectly-contained short story about a young boy forced to toughen up in a harsh and uncaring world, and a man trying to be brave enough to shed that lifetime’s worth of armor. I have some quibbles with the movie — the classical score can be occasionally cloying, and some of the characters — Naomie Harris’s junkie mom, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae’s saintly neighbors — occasionally felt too broadly drawn. But at a time when too many films feel swallowed by their own ambition, Moonlight told a powerful, personal, memorable, and resoundingly human story on a small and colorful canvas.

2. The Nice Guys: Not to bag on La La Land in every entry, but if you saw Ryan Gosling in one burgeoning (b)romance in the City of Angels in 2016, I hope it was this one. Harkening back to other LA neo-noirs like The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice, and maybe even a smattering of Lebowski, Shane Black’s throwback buddy-cop misadventure was one of the smartest, funniest, and most purely enjoyable movie experiences of the year (even if I saw it on a plane.)

3. Captain America: Civil War: In his last installment, our hero took on the military-industrial complex that had made his beloved country more like Hydra than the New Deal America of his youth. In Civil War, Cap makes the case for free-thinking dissent as the proper form of democratic consent, and punches that billionaire war profiteering egomaniac Tony Stark a few times in the face to boot. (#TeamCap4life).

Clearly Cap is the hero we need right now, even if, in these Hail Hydra times, he’s not the one we deserve. Throw in that ripped-from-the-comics airline melee, Spidey-done-right, and Daniel Bruhl as the best and most nuanced Marvel villain to-date (until the 2017 list, at least), and you have another jewel in Marvel’s gauntlet. Go get ’em, Cap.

4. Green Room: Antifa, meet the Ain’t Rights. Like his first film Blue Ruin — do we have a KieĊ›lowski color trilogy going here? — Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room portrays in naturalistic fashion a bad situation growing increasingly worse. It also provides a final stage for the late Anton Yelchin (meshing well with an ensemble that includes Alia Shawkat and Imogen Poots) and a rich opportunity for Patrick Stewart to play it real dark for once. Sadly, Green Room feels even more realistic now than it did last year, what with the return of Nazis marching in the streets. Tiki torch this, you rat bastids.

5. The Lobster: Since La La Land has been the Rosetta Stone of this list so far, let’s just say The Lobster is the meet-cute rom-com that movie is farthest from. I liked the first third-to-half of this movie, as sad-sack Colin Ferrell navigates the hotel of last opportunities with folks like Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly, more than I did the back-half, where he finds himself caught up in an anti-romantic resistance of sorts, living in the woods with Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, and a bunch of aloof ravers. (There’s also a section in the middle involving Farrell’s brother-turned-dog which I’d like to never think about again, thanks much.) Nonetheless, this weirdo, pitch-black satire about human coupling has moments that will stick in your craw, and makes the uncomfortable, misanthropic squirm-humor that propels (great) shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm seem positively Up-With-People.

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: In its own way, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also the anti-Lobster — a funny, sweet, good-natured foray into the deep New Zealand woods with a gruff Sam Neill, getting ever less gruff as he lets orphan Julian Dennison under his skin. Throw in Rhys Darby for a touch of Conchords zaniness and you have a thoroughly pleasant afternoon hike.

7. Hell or High Water: It’s a credit to the overall experience of David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water that it’s this high on the list, even though there’s some seriously ham-fisted writing in this movie. The most obvious offender is the racist-sheriff-with-a-heart-of-gold, a character that might not have worked at all if it weren’t Jeff Bridges playing him. But the heavy-handedness starts in the very first shot of the movie, with the wall reading “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US.” Ok, ok, I get it.) Still, even if it’s occasionally just No Country for Old Men by way of The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s a crowd-pleasing movie alright, and its heart was in the right place.

8. Doctor Strange: Another quality Marvel outing that’s all the more impressive given how badly it could have turned out. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t the most inspired choice to play Dr. Stephen Strange — he’s basically just doing his Sherlock with an American accent — but it’s great fun to have Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton(!) along for the ride, as well as Mads Mikkelsen playing the heavy. (Obvious highlight: “Mister Doctor?” “It’s Strange.” “Maybe, who am I to judge?”) Now maybe they can find something for Rachel McAdams to do in the next one — she’s as wasted here as Natalie Portman in the first Thor.

9. The VVitch: “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” And now we’re back to the woods being terrifying again. While the most memorable part of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch is its (kinda problematic) ending, I was also impressed with the way this movie puts you square in the 17th century, conveying the strangeness, isolation, and religious panic that must have come from living alone along the unexplored frontier. (Kinda what The Village aspired to do, but really, really didn’t.) Sure, it’s a slow-moving affair, but that’s likely how it would be, until Black Philip comes-a-callin’.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane: I thoroughly hated the original Cloverfield, but watched this on the strength of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Pretty good choice! To be fair, this is basically the War of the Worlds reel in Tim Robbins’ basement drawn out to feature length. Still, 1010 Cloverfield makes for a reasonably taut chamber piece for most of its run, as alliances shift among the three main characters who may or may not be waiting out the end of the world in Goodman’s well-stocked bunker. Can you guess how it ends? Probably, but at least you got to see some of old Walter Sobchak along the way.

11. Rogue One: A Star War Story: To be honest, if I’d only seen this movie once, it’d have been much higher on the list. At that opening night show, Rogue One felt like it delivered the visceral thrill of the original films in a much purer way than the prequels or The Force Awakens. Finally, Vader — a character who’s been bogged down by New Age-y family matters for close to 25 years now — was an unstoppable malevolent force again, like he was when I was a kid. Finally, the world of Star Wars developed more much-needed diversity, even as Ben Mendelsohn gets to be the sneering Imperial aristocrat he was born to play.

Speaking of Imperial aristocrats, he gets a lot of grief, but I really liked CGI-Peter Cushing, and, while I get the icky implications for the future, I still thought it was an appropriate homage to a guy who hunted the undead for so long. And, of course, the Death Star’s exhaust port got a brilliant retcon.

But then I watched Rogue One again a few months ago on DVD. And, exposed to the light of day, it’s hard to ignore the movie’s serious pacing and writing problems. Almost all of Felicity Jones’ suicide squad are one-note at best — Alan Tudyk’s quippy droid comes off the best by a large margin. It’s hard to tell what they were going with with Forest Whitaker’s character, but it feels like more than half of his arc got cut somewhere. And, while we’re not at Starkiller Base, doing-violence-to-basic-physics bad, so much of what happens doesn’t make any sense. (If they desperately want to stop the transmission of the plans, why don’t the Imperials just blow up their own radar tower?)

So, in short, Rogue One was a great nostalgia delivery device, but it doesn’t really hold up. Here’s hoping some of the other one-off installments have more intrinsic quality.

12. Arrival: I haven’t read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” so can’t attest to how Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival holds up to the source material. As for the movie, it’s a heady First Contact story that shows a great deal of promise in its first half, before getting derailed by a silly bomb subplot involving Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mark O’Brien — how were these aliens meant to be surprised by a bomb? — and then spending the rest of the movie explaining what you’ve probably already figured out. Still, a good run up to that point.

Much was made of this being the blue state science-fiction movie we all needed after Election 2016. But given that Arrival ends up being more cerebral than smart, and that the basic message ends up being “acquiesce to the inevitable preordained tragedy in your future,” I don’t think that holds up in the way suggested.

13. Louder than Bombs: Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs very much has that indie-arthouse Squid and the Whale, broken family/coming-of-age-drama, I’m-watching-this-on-a-Saturday-on-the-IFC-channel feel about it, and not just ’cause Jesse Eisenberg is back for another round. But this story about a father (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons (Eisenberg, Devin Druid) coming to terms with the untimely death of their photojournalist matriarch (Isabelle Huppert) has a natural, melancholy, lived-in feel and some well-observed moments (and, let’s face it, it’s always great to see Tom Reagan again, with or without his hat.) Definitely comes by its Smiths B-sides title honestly.

14. Hail Caesar: With The Ladykillers being the exception that proves the rule, there are two types of Coen movies: the instantly great ones (most of them) and the ones that’ll grow on you if/when you see them again. For me, Hail Caesar was among the latter.

Set around a decade after Barton Fink burned down the Hotel Earle and disappeared from Hollywood, Caesar continues Fink‘s initial inquiries into the mid-century studio system, fellow-traveling screenwriters, and movies as the spiritual iconography of our time. Also has Channing Tatum dancing, Tilda Swinton playing twins, George Clooney mugging, and Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich doing their “Would that it were so simple” routine. Like I said, my initial reaction to it was around the level of The Man Who Wasn’t There — eh, ok — and like that one, I probably need to see it again.

15. The Birth of a Nation: Both the problem and the potential are right there in the name. The Birth of a Nation is wildly over-the-top and full-of-itself at times. It’s also too self-consciously designed as a star vehicle for its writer-director Nate Parker (who, it has to be said, must go alongside Polanski and Woody in the probable rapist scumbag in real life department.)

At the same time, I appreciated the scale of ambition here — the blatant eff-you to the racist-as-hell D.W. Griffith standard and the attempt to overturn a cultural legacy that’s treated Nat Turner (or Denmark Vesey or John Brown) as criminals rather than survivors who rose up against an American hellscape that we sanctioned here for far too long. If all the turning Nat Turner into a vengeful Christ figure here is laying it on extra-thick, maybe we needed an extreme corrective to get the message out. In that regard, Nation is striking the same vein as QT’s Django Unchained, with a better grip on history to boot.

16. Knight of Cups: So we’re getting to the part of the list where I’ll freely admit that some of these probably played better on my TV than they would’ve in the theater. I grew a bit bored by Tree of Life in its second hour and absolutely loathed To the Wonder from start-to-finish, perhaps because I was trapped in. (Loved The New World, tho.) But, watching Terence Malick’s equally languorous Knight of Cups at home felt like less of an imposition on my time, and I could just roll with its impressionistic beauty. Christian Bale takes long walks on the beach and wrestles with deep spiritual malaise about the meaning of life, his many romantic escapades, and (Malick, natch) the wisdom once bestowed to him by his father (Brian Dennehy)? Go with it, my man. It helps that, like its milieu, Knight of Cups looks like a million bucks, with a captivating, sensual sheen (provided by Emmanuel Lubezki) throughout.

17. The Neon Demon: Here, again, if I’d seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon at the multiplex, I think I’d just be waiting for this hyperbolic, cut-rate-Aronofsky madness to end. (Then again, I saw Only God Forgives on the small screen and lordy it did not help.) But for whatever reason, at home I could take Refn’s ludicrous, pulsing disco-club beautiful-people-are-vampires story for what it’s worth, and just enjoy the trippy visual stylings without being unduly burdened by plot, character, or the usual elements that make, y’know, a decent movie. Bronson and even Drive are far better, but this one’s oddly entertaining in its weirdo midnight movie Cat People sorta way.

18. Midnight Special: Speaking of midnight, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is another movie with great promise that kinda falls apart in the final act. In its opening moments, as Michael Shannon (also in Nichols’ Take Shelter) and Joel Edgerton cruise along at high speed with night-vision goggles on, the film immediately feels like an lost and underrated Stephen King short story, a sensation helped along by Sam Shepard and Bill Camp showing up as conflicted cult leaders and Adam Driver playing against type as a nerdy government agent. But as the Very Special Kid (Jaeden Lieberher) moves to the fore and we get to the Very Special Ending, Special loses its punch, and begins to feel less like an original sci-fi story and more like one of the many so-so ’80s Spielberg knockoffs these days, a la Super 8 or Stranger Things.

19. Lion: Lion is a true story about Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who accidentally left his village as a child and spends his days haunted by what he left behind. It is also well-made and perfectly cromulent Oscar bait, with solid performances all around, especially Dev Patel as the young man in question, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his supportive, if not totally understanding adoptive parents, and Divian Ladwa as his resentful adoptive brother.

Still, even if they’ve added a mid-movie romance with Rooney Mara to pad the running time (and which doesn’t contribute much to the film), we’re talking about a two hour movie here that basically builds up to a Google search. Lion was…fine, I suppose, and would probably appeal more to more sentimental types.

20. A Bigger Splash: A remake of La Piscine (which I haven’t seen), updated for modern times to incorporate the European refugee crisis and accommodate folks’ desire to hang out with Tilda Swinton, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash‘s main asset is Ralph Fiennes’ manic turn as an extroverted, cocaine-fueled record producer on Italian holiday. Fiennes has played against his usual clipped-and-distant type before, most notably in In Bruges, but he’s still a jolt of delirious energy throughout A Bigger Splash, which feels a bit like the first third of Sexy Beast before taking a turn — as I now know, like the original movie — in the late going. (It gets a bit long in the tooth after that.)

21. La La Land: City of Stars, why do you have to be so white? Alright, so La La Land — or, as Amy and I began calling it as soon as it was over, “white people shit.” To be fair to the film, I thought it got better as it went along — I was on the verge of walking out during the big frenetic “let’s put on a show!!” traffic jam-boree at the start — and Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone are both appealing enough, even if Gosling can’t dance without looking at his feet.

But the real issue here is: Why should I care? Stone wants to be a megastar? Gosling wants to open a jazz club (presumably so he can keep whitesplaining it to anyone who walks in)? Gosling is worried his fusion breakthrough with John Legend might make him a sellout? Honestly, who gives a shit? C’mon, people, it is — sorry, was — the year of our Lord 2016. This is like the poor King of England having a stutter all over again. Please come at me with real problems.

22. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: I never read the books (I know, I know, we’re a long way from The Leaky Cauldron days), and I’m not sure we need an all-new multiple-film foray into the expanded Potter universe. But a Harry Potter prequel spinoff set in 1920’s America? Now you’re speaking my language! (Also, not to give the ending away, but I think I’d prefer Colin Farrell as the multiple-movie nemesis rather than He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named-On-Account-Of-Spoilers.)

23. Don’t Breathe: Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe was one of those horror movies getting It Follows, Babadook, and VVitch-level hype in some corners, and I saw it after it had been rather intensely hyped. Given that, the second act twist didn’t particularly impress me, and I was expecting more memorable all around than just a reverse-Wait Until Dark. Still, it’s always good to see Stephen Lang getting his due — unless you’re watching Gods and Generals, in which case dear god why?

24. Star Trek Beyond: a.k.a. the one where Kirk’s big contribution to the endgame is popping wheelies on a motorcycle. Idris Elba and Sofia Boutella are both wasted behind the extensive make-up, but at least this third installment of nu-Trek sidestepped the stupid remix brain of Into Darkness and focused on telling a fun, small-bore TNG-ish adventure. Beyond isn’t classic Trek or anything, but it does lend credence to the theory that, in the reboot universe, it’s the odd ones that don’t suck.

25. Deadpool: Like I said for a few years now, I like to give the last spot to a genre movie that knows what it is and does it well. This year, that was Deadpool. I have no connection to the character and frankly find him kinda irritating — he’s a sophomoric Liefeldian (re: many pouches) knockoff of the DC’s funnier, more-meta Ambush Bug. And much like Ryan Reynold’s very similar comic hero in Blade: Trinity, he also “appears to have learned English from reading AICN talkbacks” (or Reddit, for the kids out there).

Still, Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and co. embraced the guy, pouches and all, and gave him a movie that suited the character. Besides, it was fun to actually have Colossus running around a X-Men movie for once — but not sure this will get me in the theater for Josh Brolin’s Cable.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Warcraft: Look, I know that you probably weren’t disappointed by Warcraft. But I sure was. Duncan Jones of Moon and Source Code bringing the game I’ve literally spent a year in to life? This could’ve been pretty good!

Except — and here was the big issue — Jones didn’t make a World of Warcraft movie, which would probably involve a bunch of D&D-like classes on a quest to level up and gain loot or somesuch. Instead, he made a movie of the original Warcraft, a.k.a. the RTS game from twenty years ago, which means…orcs bashing things for two hours. (And I don’t even recall a single “ready to serve!”) The story of the entire movie should’ve been a LotR-like prologue.

It also doesn’t help that, with the exception of Paula Patton and Team Preacher (Ruth Negga, Dominic Cooper), most of the human actors — I’m looking at you, Travis Fimmel and Ben Schnetzer — are 110-level charisma voids. By contrast, there are some good, fun actors among the orcs — Toby Kebbell, Clancy Brown — but they’ve been literally turned into cartoons. And Ben Foster, who can be fine in other things (Hell or High Water, for example) is operating on his own mad level of terrible here, like he method-trained for this by watching Jeremy Irons in D&D or Brando in Dr. Moreau. Just an all-around missed opportunity.

WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN:

Suicide Squad: Remember how I said Rogue One seemed like a disjointed mess the second time I saw it? That’s Suicide Squad right from jump street. The whole movie has that Tranktastic Four, “we rewrote this in the editing room” and “eh they’ll see it anyway” haphazardness to it. Margot Robbie acquits herself fine as Harley Quinn, I suppose, and this may be the most likable Jai Courtney has been in anything. But Will Smith is bored, Viola Davis seems ashamed to be there, Joel Kinnaman, as the-absence-of-Tom-Hardy, just plays his cop from The Killing, and Jared Leto is a completely egregious misfire as The Joker.

On top of everything else, the film is just ugly — everything looks like it got storyboarded by Ed Hardy, not the least the Clown Prince of Crime, who we know is damaged because…it says “Damaged” on his forehead. Trust me, this movie isn’t even fun bad — it’s just an amateurish disaster. In other words, exactly the type of movie you’d expect from executive producer Steve Mnuchin.

THE REST:

Worth On Demand-ing::

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: MARTHA!! Why am I (barely) recommending this deeply flawed sequel to (the even worse) Man of Steel? Well, mainly because of Batfleck and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred. Zack Snyder can’t seem to understand that Superman should not be a tortured, emo character — he’s more like Chris Evans’ Cap, boy-scout to the bone. But, yeah, Batman sure is — maybe they should write “damaged” on his head — and that stuff here works pretty well.

Don’t get me started on Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor — rein it in, Jesse — or Snyder’s absurd love for slow-motion bullet casings, or the truly awful ways Diane Lane is employed here. (I’m not just talking about the Stepbrothers-esque “Did we just become best friends?” part — Zack, get Martha Kent away from your creepy-ass Polaroids.) But still, y’know, Batman, Wonder Woman, there’s some stuff to like here.

Keanu: Keanu, about Key & Peele trying to get their cat back from some stone-cold gangsters (including Method Man) is…ok. To be honest, given its creative team, I expected something much funnier, but then again I saw it well after the hype machine had kicked in. A nice send-off to George Michael, if nothing else.

Loving: Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells an important story in a rather drab and by-the-numbers fashion — there was considerably more energy in his Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton basically mumbles his way through the movie and even Ruth Negga, such a spitfire in Preacher, is rendered inert here. But, y’know, it’s fine for what it is, no harm no foul.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising: Did you like the first Neighbors? Well, here’s more of the same, now with Chloe Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez, and Kiersey Clemons in the mix as well. Rose Byrne is the secret weapon of these movies, but give Zac Efron credit: he’s surprisingly game for anything.

Manchester by the Sea: Hey ma, look heah: we gawt moah white people praw-blems. I had this in the “don’t bother” section for awhile but eh, it’s competently made, I guess. The main problem here is Casey Affleck’s bitter janitor (an Oscar-winning performance?!) is so emotionally recessed that he doesn’t register — he just mopes his way through scene after scene. (Lucas Hedges gave us a more layered character here, I thought.) I really like Kenneth Lonergan’s other movies, but this one, like Inarritu’s 21 Grams (which is more fun, because it’s so much more pretentious), just assumes that misery is a substitute for character.

Don’t Bother:

Fences: My wife and I saw Dave Chappelle here in DC this past week, and his opening act was Donnell Rawlings, who you may remember from Chappelle Show or as Clay Davis’s chauffeur in the The Wire. Anyway, he basically summed up the problem with this movie in his act: “Denzel, it’s been two and a half hours! Get out of your backyard! Stop looking at the fence!” In other words, this is not really a movie of any kind. It’s a filmed play — which is fine, if it had any sort of energy. It does not — just go see the play.

Ghostbusters: I’m bummed about this one because every MRA asshole on the planet has been whining about an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters somehow ruins his childhood. (To which I say: First, obviously, grow the fuck up. Second, the original Ghostbusters is wildly overrated and wasn’t even one of the ten best fanboy movies of 1984, so develop some taste.) All of which is to say that I was rooting for Paul Feig’s reboot — but, alas, it’s just not very good. Kate McKinnon gets in a few zingers, and they make solid use of Chris Hemsworth, but Kristen Wiig is wasted as the straight woman, and too much of the movie feels like it’s being improvised on the fly, like one of those interminable 11:45am trial-run SNL sketches. I’m glad this Ghostbusters is out there so future fangirls have some role models to look up to, and because this movie’s sheer existence deeply angers many of the worst people in the world. But in the end, sadly, it’s just not all that funny.

Jackie: Yeah, sorry, I don’t understand the love for this one at all. I was bored, as was our entire party. JFK getting shot is not new information, so please find something more to say about it than “then Jackie came up with Camelot.” And maybe Natalie Portman nailed the accent to some extent — moah white people praw-blems — but you can see the Herculean striving throughout her performance, and it makes her Jackie seem weirdly graceless. This was just a ponderous film throughout, tho’ it was nice to see John Hurt give one final, brief curtain call.

Jason Bourne: Have you seen any of the other Bournes? Yeah, you’re good, then. This is basically a Gus Van Sant Psycho remake.

Money Monster: The ubiquitous, beat-for-beat trailer spoiled this movie several times over well before I saw it. And despite the impressive pedigree here — Jodie Foster, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Giancarlo Esposito, Dominic West — here’s no other part to the movie that you’re missing.

Snowden: I’m very sympathetic to Edward Snowden and his predicament. This dull, hagiographic Oliver Stone outing still misses the mark by a country mile. That being said, Rhys Ifans does a pretty good CIA sinister, Nicolas Cage is here as NICOLAS CAGE!, and it’s kind of a funny kick to see Zachary Quinto playing Glenn Greenwald. Still, you’re better off watching CitizenFour.

X-Men: Apocalypse: Weirdly lifeless for a number of reasons. First, this movie makes the Willem Dafoe-as-Green-Goblin mistake of casting a fun, engaging actor (Oscar Isaac) as the Big Bad, but then burying him so deep in make-up that his personality disappears. Second, a lot of the new X-Men here, like Sophie Turner/Sansa as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan/Ready Player One as Cyclops, are more than a little on the stiff side, while some of the better actors from the last outing — Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters — aren’t given enough to do. (That’s especially true for Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, who gets one scene from a much better movie involving an attack on his family, and then just delivers exposition the rest of the time.) Third, maybe standards have changed, but this film looks really cheap for some reason. Bryan Singer delivered one of the best X-outings with X2, but this one’s only for completists.

Unseen: The 5th Wave, 13 Hours, Absolutely Fabulous, The Accountant, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Allegiant, Allied, American Pastoral, Assassin’s Creed, Bad Moms, Bad Santa 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Beauty and the Beast, Ben Hur, The BFG, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Blair Witch, Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Brothers Grimsby, Captain Fantastic, Central Intelligence, Collateral Beauty, The Conjuring 2, Criminal, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Deepwater Horizon, Demolition, Dirty Grandpa, Eddie the Eagle, The Edge of Seventeen, Elvis and Nixon, Eye in the Sky, Fifty Shades of Black, Finding Dory, Florence Foster Jenkins, Free State of Jones, The Girl on the Train, Gods of Egypt, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden, Hardcore Henry, Hidden Figures, High-Rise, A Hologram for the King, How to Be Single, The Huntsman Winter’s War, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Invitation, I Saw the Light, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jane Got a Gun, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Legend of Tarzan, Live By Night, London Has Fallen, Love and Friendship, The Love Witch, The Magnificent Seven, Me Before You, Miss Sloane, Moana, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Now You See Me 2, Office Christmas Party, Passengers, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon, Popstar, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Race, Ride Along 2, Sausage Party, The Shallows, Silence, Swiss Army Man, Sully, TNMT: Out of the Shadows, Toni Erdmann, War Dogs, Where to Invade Next, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Why Him?, Zoolander 2, Zootopia, pretty much anything else you can think of.

(The Rest of) 2017: It’s September, y’all already know what’s coming out over the next few months. And while if I’d done this list nine months ago The Last Jedi or Blade Runner 2049 would probably get the pole position here at the end, I have to say at this point I’m most excited about…


The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming…

Maids of Dishonor.


Norse comic-book gods not your thing? Well, as I am sure you know, the movieplex has also been offering some decently funny counter-programming for the past fortnight with Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, and they too can bring the thunder.

I’ve noted a couple times here that I find comedies hard to review, as what folks tend to laugh at is highly variable. But, speaking for myself, Bridesmaids was a respectable-enough entrant in the Feig-Apatow wheelhouse. (Apatow is a producer here.) It’s not as memorable as Knocked Up or The Forty Year-Old Virgin, but the film is amusing enough that I had a smile on my face throughout. And, even amid the occasional gross-out sequence, Bridesmaid has the same sweetness, sense of humor about everyday foibles, and fundamental decency towards its characters that marked Feig & Apatow’s magnum opus, Freaks and Geeks. All in all, a solid summertime matinee — go ahead and RSVP yes.

Not to overstate the F&G angle, Bridesmaids is also the brainchild of co-writer and star Kristen Wiig, who claims the spotlight here after several years of ubiquitous, scene-stealing, and often thankless character work in the movies. (See, for example, Extract, MacGruber, Walk Hard, and Whip It.) How much you enjoy Bridesmaids will probably depend heavily on how funny you find Wiig. I’ve heard people complain that much of her schtick just involves awkward pauses, but I think she’s both an amusing and appealing comedienne, and that, like most people on SNL these days, she deserves better material than she usually gets. Good on her to take matters into her own hands and, with fellow Groundling Annie Mumolo, finally just write that star vehicle for herself.

From the outside, Bridesmaids seems like, and is being billed as, the double-X counterpart to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover: This time, it’s the women going wild before the big nuptials. And, to be sure, there is some of that here: For example, Melissa McCarthy’s role as brother-to-the-groom Megan, a.k.a. “the X-Factor” member of the bridal party, feels very broad and Galiafanakis-y at times. (And partly because she’s given the freest rein, McCarthy ends up running away with most of her scenes, although it helps her case that the two other “minor” bridesmaids in this story — Elle Kemper as the goodie-too-shoes and Wendi McLendon-Covey as the haggard mom looking to get disreputable — are underwritten.)

But, ultimately, that Hangover comparison is misleading. (And, as my brother noted: If anything, these bridesmaids leave opportunities for obvious Wolfpack-like shenanigans on the table. They [spoiler] never actually make it to Vegas, for example.) Despite its billing — and despite one memorably repugnant sequence involving food poisoning at a dress fitting — Bridesmaids is more traditionally rom-commy and, well, chick-flicky than the trailers let on. Instead of indulging in no-holds-barred comedy mayhem just for the sake of it, the movie more often chooses to dwell on the slow-burn courting between Wiig’s Annie and an Irish cop who pulls her over one evening (Chris O’Dowd), and/or the “love” triangle of Annie the Maid of (dis)Honor, her childhood best friend and bride Lillian (Maya Rudolph), and the newcomer/interloper to their BFF twosome, Helen (Rose Byrne).

And that’s totally ok. In the end, I probably preferred the more mellow and humanistic Bridesmaids to the fratty antics of The Hangover anyway, although I realize I liked the latter film less than most people. (I’m about 50-50 on seeing this week’s sequel.) Once you accept that, yes, we are occasionally in rom-com territory here, and thus make allowances for some of the more irritating tropes of that genre — like, say, the inevitable second-act blow-up (Gee, I hope these crazy kids work it out before the end of the film!) — Bridesmaids is a solidly entertaining summer movie. Sure, the wild swings in tone can be a bit jarring at times — at one point near the end, the film jumps from a shot of two adorable golden retriever puppies to McCarthy and her real-life husband doing unspeakable sexytime things with a sandwich — but, all in all, Bridesmaids is not a half-bad attempt at fusing the gross-out comedy with the girls’ night out.

[One semi-unrelated note: If you do happen to check out a matinee of Bridesmaids, make sure beforehand your showing isn’t “reserve-seating.” I caught the film out in the Fairfax burbs, and it was my first experience with this new — and highly stupid — phenomenon. Basically, they have you on the hook for a $3 markup per ticket, even if the show is nowhere close to selling out. Have America’s moviegoers really been clamoring for reserve seating for afternoon matinees? Somehow, I doubt it.]

The Warriors Three (and a Team of X.)


Lots of action on the Marvel movie front this past week. The powers-that-be have granted us our first looks at Chris Evans as Captain America, and Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker, along with another shot of Chris Hemsworth as the Mighty Thor. Hmm…three-for-three, I’d say, although I still have a bad, straight-to-video-y feeling about the god of thunder.

Update: Just as I finished posting this, a promo image leaks from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class. From left to right: “Michael Fassbinder as Magneto, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost, Jason Flemyng as Azazel, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Lucas Till as Havoc, Zoe Kravitz as Angel Salvadore, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and James MacAvoy as Charles Xavier.” Looks…crowded.

Hey Now, You’re a Rock Star.

When seeking out an immediate frame of reference for Nick Stoller’s enjoyably absurd, hard-R romp Get Him to the Greek, about the road trip misadventures of a hedonistic rock god and a well-meaning, long-suffering agent from his record label, you could easily place it within one of two recent traditions: The current surge in Men Behaving Badly burlesques (The Hangover, Hot Tub Time Machine) or among its fellow raunchy-sweet forays from the Team Apatow factory (Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard.)

Of those two, I’d say Greek falls more agreeably into the latter than the former camp. (Probably no surprise — Apatow is a producer here, and he and Stoller go back to the days of Undeclared.) For all the rock-star depravity on display during this sordid bender of a road trip, the film feels smarter and less fratty than the Todd Phillips oeuvre. (As our Odd Couple race down a Vegas hallway to escape an amphetamine-fueled P Diddy: “This is the longest hallway of all time!” “It’s Kubrickian!“) And it keeps its aw-shucks Apatow humanism at heart even amid all the thoroughly reprehensible behavior — the binge-drinking, drug muling, public vomiting, green musing, threesomes, jeff-smoking, and whatnot. (In fact, Greek gets positively Lost Weekend-wistful at times, which is not a setting you saw much of in Old School.)

And amid the raunch, Greek also hearkens back to earlier influences. In its basic plot outline, this is sort of a remake of the Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker comedy My Favorite Year (a movie I saw multiple times growing up, since my grandfather loved it and it was kicking around the house on VHS back when videotapes were still a novelty.) And with its two industry men on a mission, its easy drug use and hero worship, its deft early wise-cracking about music video and celebrity culture, its absurdist pulse, and its ultimate fanboy fondness for all things rock-n-roll, Greek also reminded me of the under-appreciated Cusack-Robbins vehicle, Tapeheads — Aldous Snow, meet the Swanky Modes. (Spinal Tap is pretty obviously in the mix too.)

I should say on a note of full disclosure that Stoller’s brother is a friend and colleague of mine here in town, so I went into Greek predisposed to warm to it and enjoy myself. But, even if there wasn’t any personal connection, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been sold by the first ten minutes or so. After some mild concern that one has wandered into the wrong movie — we at first seem to be in Blood Diamond territory — it turns out we are in fact on the music video set for an atrocious (yet globally-conscious!) new single “African Child,” by ex-rock-god and frontman of Infant Sorrow Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, reprising his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Talking about his newest magnum opus to the interviewers about, Snow decidedly does not compare himself to an “African White Jesus from Outer Space.” (“Well, that’s for other people to say, really. That I remind them of Christ.“)

All the while, the crush-worthy, genre-friendly Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Sunshine) is vamping and skee-bopping around behind him as Snow’s girlfriend, international pop star Jackie Q — a vaguely cruel, often devastating send-up of, at various times, Lady Gaga, M.I.A., Lily Allen, and Alicia Keys. As with Hot Fuzz, this first ten minutes is so gleefully over-the-top and frontloaded with celebrity cameos that it gives you the sense that [a] folks had a great time making this movie and [b] pretty much anybody might show up over the course of this flick — a feeling compounded by the likes of Pharrell, Tom Felton (nee Draco Malfoy), and Paul Krugman popping up at various times throughout the ride.

Unfortunately for Aldous, “African Child” is very quickly deemed “the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid, and that — coupled with Jackie’s absconding away into the arms of Lars Ulrich (“Why don’t you go sue Napster, you little Danish twit!“) — sends him careening off the wagon and back into rock star excess. Enter Aaron Green (Jonah Hill, looking ever more like the late Chris Penn), an inveterate Infant Sorrow fan, now record label guy, who comes up with the grand idea of a tenth anniversary comeback concert for Aldous Snow at the Greek Theater. His tyrannical boss (P Diddy, funnier than you’d think) signs off on the gambit, and so Aaron is sent forth to London to acquire Snow for the gig. Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose the compass — but get him to the Greek on time…

And there you have it — The rest of the movie consists of Aaron going through all manner of hedonism and indignity to get Aldous Snow across the world, on stage, and in-the-zone. Over the duration, this dissolute duo bond, cavort, discuss their girl trouble, hide and remove things in sundry body cavities, and ingest enough drugs and alcohol to kill a small donkey. To be honest, the film does go shapeless at times, and it works best before [obvious spoiler] they reach their final destination city. (Without the road trip and ticking clock giving form to the tale, it feels like it rambles all over the place in the last twenty-five minutes or so.) And some of the characters — most notably Aaron’s sweet but overworked girlfriend Daphne — seem on the underwritten side (partly because she’s played by Elisabeth Moss of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, and so we expect her to be given more to do.)

Still, in the end, the film works thanks to the chemistry and comic timing of its two leads, and Brand and Hill have both in spades. (So, for that matter, does the supporting cast — Byrne, Moss, Diddy, and the venerable Colm Meaney as Snow’s gone-Vegas pop.) Your mileage may vary, of course — this would be an easy movie to deem tasteless, and at times, it’s a hard argument to refute — but I still found Greek, like The Men Who Stare at Goats last year, a light, frothy, druggy and funny jaunt sustained by its amiable characters and smart, self-aware writing. Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock and roll to me.

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

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

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

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



75. The Queen (2006)

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

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

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


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

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

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


73. U2 3D (2008)

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

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

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


72. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

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

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

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

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


71. In the Valley of Elah (2007)

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

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

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


70. Boiler Room (2000)

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

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


69. Jackass (2002)

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

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

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


68. Secretary (2002)

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

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

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


67. (500) Days of Summer (2009)

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

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

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

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


66. Lord of War (2005)

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

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

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


65. Bamboozled (2000)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


63. Mystic River (2003)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


61. Iron Man (2008)

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

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

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


60. Batman Begins (2005)

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

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

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

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


59. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

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

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

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


58. District 9 (2009)

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

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

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

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


57. Wonder Boys (2000)

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

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


56. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

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

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

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


55. The Descent (2005)

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

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

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


54. Ballets Russes (2005)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


52. Zodiac (2007)

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

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

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

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


51. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

2007 in Film.

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

Top 20 Films of 2007

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

Sunshine, directed by Trainspotting‘s Danny Boyle and written by The Beach‘s Alex Garland, is an absolutely maddening film. Even more than their (and star Cillian Murphy)’s last collaboration, 28 Days Later, Sunshine ends up being a movie of two parts. The first hour and change of this flick is as intelligent and gripping a science fiction film as I’ve seen in years. Borrowing liberally from 2001, Alien, The Abyss, Solaris, and other sci-fi classics, it establishes both the terrifying sublimity and rickety U-boat-style claustrophobia of space travel from its opening moments. But, near the end, the movie takes a wildly wrong turn — you’ll know it when it happens — and Sunshine spins off uncontrollably and irrevocably into the yawning darkness of mediocrity. If you’re a genre fan at all, I have to recommend this movie just for its captivating, unsettling first eighty minutes or so — it’s really some of the best hard sci-fi I’ve seen in awhile. But, be advised — sadly, the mission gets compromised well before the end.

Very quickly in Sunshine, we’re given the set-up. Earth’s Sun is dying, an endless winter covers the lands, and the last, best hope of our planet rests on the shoulders of eight young astronauts, who are undertaking what amounts to a suicide mission: They will fly the solar-powered, bomb-carrying Icarus-2 to the Sun and reignite our star with a controlled nuclear blast. (The Icarus-1 tried seven years earlier and failed — apparently, nobody warned these people about the logical consequences of naming your ship thus.) These reluctant heroes include a number of likeable actors: Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later), Rose Byrne (padding out her genre cred again after 28 Weeks Later, and on whom I think I’m developing a crush), Chris Evans (the only good thing about FF, and very charismatic here), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, always good), Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things), Cliff Curtis (Live Free or Die Hard), Troy Garity (Steal this Movie), and Capt. Hiroyuki Sanada (Ringu, The Last Samurai) But, even early in the mission, some of these otherwise-amiable spacefarers are displaying Ash-like symptoms, and that’s even before the crew receive a long, lost distress signal from the Icarus-One. Tense meetings are held, important decisions are made, but faster than you can say the Mars Orbiter, human error has further complicated an already complicated situation, and soon the entire mission — and thus by extension the survival of Humanity — has been jeopardized…

This is all well and good. There are a few narrative quibbles one might make in the early going — Why, for example is Murphy the only person who knows how to work the payload? Seems like you might train a back-up — but, for the most part, everything holds together with some moderate suspension of disbelief. More importantly, the threats seem dire, the tension palpable, the vastness of space awe-inspiring and horrible, the machinery somehow alien and calculating, the odds of success tremendously unlikely. But, at a certain point in the story, just after the dwindling crew of Icarus-2 is forced to weigh the type of heady moral quandary that all good sci-fi is based on, a new threat to the mission emerges — which I won’t give away but which is eminently guessable — and it’s at this point Sunshine just leaps off the rails. The last half-hour of the movie is stylishly done, to be sure, and there are a few good flourishes (such as [spoiler] the final fate of Chris Evans’ character), but it’s assuredly not the movie we started with, nor is it the film Sunshine had been building to so tremendously to that point. (And this isn’t like me griping about the last ten minutes of Children of Men, which in retrospect and after repeated viewings seems uncharitable to an otherwise amazing science-fiction outing– this misstep really alters the mood, character, and ultimately the final experience of the film.) Again, if you enjoy science fiction, I’d give this movie a go regardless — its setup is that good. But, unfortunately, this Sunshine isn’t spotless by any means, and ultimately ends in eclipse.

Update: I’ve since discovered after taking a look at referrals that the film’s official site linked back to this review. Hey, thanks (particularly considering the review is mixed one. Mixed-positive…but mixed.)

Hitmen, and Solar Power.

Another slew of trailers: Tim Olyphant goes Wild Bill (to the strains of “Ave Maria”) in the teaser for Hitman (which I appropriately saw before Live Free or Die Hard yesterday — review on the way), Jason Bourne wants answers from Stiles, Allen, and Straitharn in the full trailer for Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum, and astronauts Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh and others attempt to reignite the sun in a spoileriffic “synopsis” trailer for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (I’m linking to it ’cause it’s there, but if you have any interest in this flick, I probably wouldn’t watch it.)

Anarchy in the U.K.


So I’m still catching up on movie reviews of flicks I saw a few weeks ago, and, while I don’t really care about letting Pirates 3 languish without comment for a fortnight, I do wish I’d written something faster about Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s surprisingly excellent 28 Weeks Later. I thought Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was a so-so enterprise, a very chilling and effective first forty-five minutes undone by the poor decision-making and Col. Kurtzian tangents which comprise the second and third acts. But this outing holds together much better, I thought, and remains intelligent and fearless from frightening beginning to inexorable end. As my brother aptly noted, this installment is the Aliens of the franchise — everything’s been taken up a notch, and the military training of some of our heroes and heroines this time around is, as per Cameron’s flick, only intermittently useful. And, if you like your zombie films awash with social commentary, as they’ve tended to be from Night of the Living Dead to They Live to even Shaun of the Dead, there’s plenty of grist for the mill here, no matter what your political persuasion. If it’s still playing in your neighborhood, run to catch it if you can…just watch out for the fellow sitting next to you.

If you didn’t catch 28 Days Later, no worries: The eerie prologue of this film, which takes place back in the early days of the “Rage Virus” outbreak, will give you the basic gist. We begin with a couple (Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting, Catherine McCormack of Braveheart) holed up in an English cottage somewhere in the countryside, counting their canned goods and waiting, with a handful of other survivors, for the storm to pass. But, pass it doesn’t, and soon enough the virus, which turns one almost instantly from well-meaning human to ferocious, bloodthirsty monster (Think the Black Smurfs. Gnap!), is extant in the cottage, and tough split-second decisions must be made. Flash-forward to 28 weeks later, as this couple’s two children (Mackintosh Muggleton, Imogen Poots) — thankfully at summer camp in Spain during the outbreak — are returned to the “Green Zone” of a nearly-empty London. England’s capital, as it turns out, is now being run and reconstructed by the United States Military, under the auspices of a no-nonsense Gen. Stone (Idris Elba, a.k.a. Stringer Bell. No Slim Charles around, tho’, which is too bad for everyone else.) Life proceeds somewhat normally in the Emerald City, thanks to the watchful eyes of army snipers such as the Cpl. Hicks-ish Doyle (Jeremy Renner of Dahmer) and savvy military doctors such as Scarlett (Rose Byrne of Troy.) But, partly due to an ill-advised expedition by the children to their old home — you just knew somebody was going to do something stupid — the Rage Virus breaks loose in London again, and the American military presence finds that really drastic actions may be necessary to win the worldwide war on zombies…

Reconstruction, an American occupation gone horribly wrong, Green Zones irrevocably infected by viral terror from the surrounding areas…I don’t really need to draw a map, do I? Still, one of the strengths of Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, like BSG and the best in sci-fi social commentary, is that it doesn’t really align to any easy 1-1 reading of current events. When the US army stops distinguishing between zombie and civilian and shoots at will, or firebombs the city in an attempt to stem the outbreak (not a huge spoiler — it’s a major selling point in the trailer), it’s hard not to grimace ruefully and think of other occupations-gone-bad in our recent history. Yet, things aren’t so simple here: One of the things I admired most about this very dark film is its sheer remorselessness. From its opening moments and throughout, it instills a visceral fight-or-flight dread in the audience and refuses to let us off the hook, inviting us less to tsk-tsk about the hubris of American military overreaching and more to ponder what measures — moral, immoral, amoral — we might take to ensure our own survival in this nightmarish universe. Time and time again in 28 Weeks Later, compassion is absolutely the wrong answer to the problem at hand, and — though there’s less of this as the characters crystallize into horror-movie stereotypes over the course of the film — people surprise you with the decisions they choose to make with their backs to the wall. Maybe the scariest thing about Fresnadillo’s film — and the zombies are at times pretty damn scary — is its dark take on human nature, and what it ultimately suggests about the usefulness of good intentions under extreme pressure. To wit, they’re not very useful at all — if anything, they’re the road to Hell on Earth. So before you offer that helping hand, the relentlessly grim 28 Weeks Later suggests, buy some good running shoes.

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