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Stephanie Zacharek

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After the Thrill is Gone.

And you thought the iceberg was cold. After watching Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio flail about and suffocate in the suburban purgatory of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, you get the sense that Leo might’ve actually caught a lucky break by going down with the ship. In any event, blessed with award-caliber performances, sober purpose, and stately production values, Road is unfortunately a dry and somewhat lifeless film in the end, one that probably works best as an extended meta-comment on the sadly untenable Titanic vision of romance. If it wins Winslet that long-deserved Oscar, so be it, but otherwise Revolutionary Road is pretty missable.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, the setup is thus: Slumming-it longshoreman Frank (di Caprio) and aspiring actress April (Winslet) meet at a party, fall in love, and get married. So far, so good. (The movie covers this very quickly, since it correctly presumes we all saw Titanic.) But when, following the rules of the game, Frank takes a sales job at his father’s place of work, the Wheelers buy a house in the Connecticut suburbs from the unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), and the two have a few (exceedingly well-behaved, given how much grief they cause) kids, the unmistakable whiff of decay starts to set in.

Weren’t these two meant to travel the world and stay forever enthralled with each other? I mean, the suburbs are great and all for “average” people (say, Shep and Millie, the couple next door), but the Wheelers? And now the only throes of passion these two indulge in are screaming matches about relatively innocuous subjects, like April’s stab at community theater. (Suffice to say, Frank, who starts sleeping with at least one of his secretaries out of boredom, doesn’t much feel like King of the World anymore.) So when April comes up with a plan for the family to move to Paris and start over, they both lunge for it like a liferaft, one last-ditch chance to escape their desperate circumstances. But is venturing across the pond — this time, with no iceberg along the way, presumably — really a feasible plan, and will it change anything anyway? After all, wherever you go, there you are…and that same old spouse is sitting right next to you.

Part of the problem with Revolutionary Road is that, although Richard Yates’ 1961 novel was ahead of its time (no less than Kurt Vonnegut called it his generation’s Gatsby), by now we’ve seen all this before. We saw director Sam Mendes lambast the oh-so-stifling confines of suburbia in 2000’s overripe American Beauty. We saw Kate Winslet wither on the suburban vine in Todd Field’s Little Children. And we can watch beautiful, self-medicating people grapple with suburban ennui, marital boredom, outdated gender roles, and the postwar workplace every week on Mad Men. So, at this point, Road no longer feels all that revolutionary.

The other main problem is Mendes. While word is the man is an excellent stage director, I can’t say I’ve much cared for any of his movies (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead.) And, here, Mendes’ stagy reserve helps undo the film. For whatever reason, Revolutionary Road often feels as cold, sterile, and clinical towards its characters as a boy pinning down butterflies. (This is particularly surprising given that Winslet is Mendes’ real-life wife.) When Leo frets and sulks in his fifties suits, and the tendrils of smoke from his cigarette dance to some mournful period tune or another, it’s impossible not to think of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love or 2046, heartfelt movies that almost burst at the seams with melancholy and ache. But here, everything feels distant and removed, like a reverie on, well, an iceberg. And, when you don’t feel particularly involved with the characters, it’s hard not to notice how slack the film goes in its final third, as we all wait patiently for one of the Wheelers to follow through on the decision they clearly made half an hour before. (And when it finally happens, as Stephanie Zacharek and others have noted, the moment is over-stylized to the point of becoming ludicrous anyway.)

Still, there are small things to admire about Revolutionary Road despite its many flaws. The last two scenes in the movie (one between Shep and Millie, the other involving Kathy Bates and her husband) help to drive home a point which makes the movie considerably more interesting. Namely, that it’s not really the drabness of the suburbs driving the Whee(d)lers bonkers, but their own innate character flaws and inability to comprehend how adult, lifelong relationships often work. Winslet’s self-absorbed April can’t ever get over the fact that she didn’t turn out to be a unique and beautiful snowflake — welcome to the real world, Mrs. Wheeler — and di Caprio’s anxiety-ridden, constantly needy Frank just can’t stop poking at the sleeping dogs in his midst. (Like R.E.M.’s The Apologist, he’s at his most monstrous when he’s just trying “to work things out.”)

And then there’s Michael Shannon’s character, who shows up in the middle going as a dinner-guest who’s been through some electroshock therapy, and the guy so crazy he must be sane. The part is a cliche through and through, and (like most truth-tellers, I guess) Shannon overstays his welcome. (I preferred his random “howdy, chico” turn in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.) But, at least for a few moments, he breaks through the pall of stultifying stateliness otherwise cast over this dark corner of the suburbs.

Dangerous Habits.

Well, I never saw the Broadway play, so I can’t evaluate if the source material played any better on stage. But John Patrick Shanley’s half-baked Doubt is one mess of a movie, and I eventually went from mildly intrigued to bored to actively irritated by it. A grab-bag of timely hot-button issues and Oscar-minded lip-quivering, the film is stagy, often contrived, and fundamentally confused, and as a treatise on doubt in all its manifestations, it’s basically all over the place. Worse, it suffers from a glaring oversight at its core — more on that in a bit — that effectively killed the entire movie for me.

Now, I should probably say upfront that, unlike some critics who’ve responded very favorably to the film, I am neither a practicing Catholic nor aggressively ex-Catholic — my family worked all that out in generations prior — and thus I have no personal feelings and/or axes to grind with the church or the accompanying Catholic school experience. As an agnostic if I’m anything, I’d say I’m actually pretty comfortable living in doubt, so it wasn’t the movie’s purposeful lack of resolution that rankled me. As a filmgoer, tho’, I have to give an amen to Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek, who basically nailed this film to the wall: “Nothing in ‘Doubt’…is certain, definitive or clear. Least of all the filmmaking.

The year is 1964, Kennedy’s assassination still clouds the nation in gloom, and, in the Bronx working-class neighborhoods that comprise the parish of St. Nicholas (as in Colin Hanks’ parish a few boroughs over), the times-they-are-a-changin’. Representing this tolerant — some might say permissive — new era of Beatlemania and Vatican II is one Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, good as always but let down by the material.) Flynn is an amiable fellow who’s seemingly won the hearts and minds of both his flock and the boys at the parish school, but he has his enemies — namely the principal of St. Nick, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, hammy and, like Nicholson or Pacino these days, seemingly playing herself playing the part.)

A seriously old-school nun who talks like a Brooklyn street tough and sees it as her divinely ordained mission to keep the kids in a perpetual state of fear, Sister Aloysius doesn’t cotton at all to Father Flynn’s long fingernails and new-fangled ways. (I mean, Christ on a stick, the man even uses a ballpoint pen.) And when the well-meaning, preternaturally innocent Sister James (Amy Adams, making Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music look like Anais Nin) happens to notice some strange, potentially troubling interactions between Father Flynn and the school’s only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), Sister Aloysius has all the evidence she needs to embark on a one-woman crusade against her pastor. What really happened between the man and the boy, and are there any mitigating circumstances that should be taken into account? Well, in the good sister’s eyes, of course not — After all, doubt is a luxury one can ill afford in service of the Lord.

At the film’s opening (and to make sure we all have the study notes), Father Flynn gives us a brief sermon on doubt — how, rather than isolating and dividing us, it can in fact be as sustaining and unifying as faith. Hmm, that sounds interesting…but what kind of doubt does he mean? Doubt as in a state of personal despair? Or does he mean — a pretty dodgy area for a Catholic priest to go in 1964 — doubt in one’s faith, and/or the divinity of Christ? Is he referring to doubts we might have about the intentions of others, or doubts we should have about our own preconceived certainties about them? Should we doubt the circumstantial evidence before us in the Flynn case (and if so on, on what grounds), or should we doubt Flynn’s professions of innocence?

In Shanley’s film, the answer seems to be yes, all of the above. Whenever the movie seems like it’s beginning to dole out a certainty — say, for example, that Sister Aloysius is very definitely the “bad guy” here (after all, nobody expects nor likes the Spanish Inquisition) — it quickly scrambles over to the other side of the deck to keep us guessing. (But she is very solicitous towards the older nuns!) This tendency reaches either its apex or nadir — how’s that for maintaining doubt? — when Sister Aloysius confronts Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, in a justifiably praised turn) about the possible inappropriate touching incident. Even when we think we’ve got a lock on this one — moms don’t usually look kindly on potential child predators — Doubt zags the other direction (The upshot: Surprisingly, she’s ok with it, if it means Donald can still graduate.)

That scene with Viola Davis, probably the most powerful in the film, inadvertently points toward what I thought was the key problem with Doubt, and why after awhile it began reminding of the interminable and (to me) insufferable post-structuralism seminars I sat through in early grad school. (The subaltern cannot speak!) Here’s the problem: Amid all the weeping and teeth-gnashing and rending of garments (by the privileged white folk in positions of authority) about what might or might not have happened here, nobody ever seems to think to ask Donald about the incident. (This is despite the fact that the film makes a joke out of how often children who act out-of-turn are sent up to the hellish confessional that is Sister Aloysius’ office.)

Now, as a friend of mine pointed out when I mentioned this, if somebody had asked Donald, that would more than likely remove all doubt from the equation, and thus ruin the movie and its intellectual purpose. Well, maybe so. But if your story is such a house of cards that it can be brought down by such an obvious and central lacuna, then maybe it should just go back to rewrites. Now, I’m in general sympathy with Shanley’s relativistic vision here — Don’t ever think you know anything for sure, because you don’t. But when such obvious, real-world empirical evidence about the problem at hand is basically ignored so people can continue to fret about Doubt, Unknowability, and Other Big Important Ideas, then the whole movie starts to feel like a long, empty intellectual exercise.

So, in brief, if you want to see a play-turned-movie that flirts with Big Ideas, while engaging the question of whether a potential pedophile can be a good teacher and/or worthy human being, skip Doubt and rent The History Boys. And if you want to catch a well-made, well-acted film about living with the exquisite agonies of inescapable unknowability, skip Doubt and rent David Ficher’s Zodiac. Either way, this movie is eminently missable.

You know, for kids!


So, last night, after deciding on a whim to go catch the midnight IMAX showing of the Wachowskis’ hyperkinetic, candy-coated Speed Racer, I had a bit of a Gob Bluth moment. (As in, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) For, after the ticket had been purchased, Metacritic informed me that Racer is currently rocking a lowly 35, and some critics are really hating on it. (See, for example, wry film-snob Anthony Lane, who calls it “pop fascism” and ridicules the anti-corporate message as “faux-leftish paranoia.” And even critics I tend to agree with, like Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein, seem to have loathed it.) And once i got to Lincoln Square, matters looked worse: As compared to every other midnight showing I’ve ever been to, the crowd was sparse to the point of non-existent. Did, I wonder, the Wachowskis have a Matrix: Revolutions-level bomb on their hands?

Maybe, maybe not, but Speed Racer really doesn’t merit all the contempt being heaped upon it this morning. Mind you, Racer is definitely a movie for children, but that in and of itself shouldn’t argue against it. (I’ve sat through considerably worse kids’ movies in my day.) Basically, Racer is a preteen-friendly, maybe slightly overlong, summer pop confection, and it’s no better or worse, narratively-speaking, than the Spy Kids flicks (all three of which did significantly better with critics.) And, in terms of eye candy, it pushes the envelope and showed me things I’d never seen before in a film, and at breakneck speed to boot. What, exactly, were all these critics expecting? Did they miss that this movie was based on a 1960’s Japanese cartoon, and that one of the characters was a chimp wearing overalls? Speaking of which, I have even less fondness for Racer as a pop-culture product than I did Iron Man — I wasn’t born when the cartoon aired, I was living overseas at the age when I would have enjoyed it, and found it kitschy, dated, and dumb when MTV brought it back in 1993. So, this isn’t the “nerdstalgia” talking: If I was between the ages of 5 and 11, I’d probably think this movie was just about the coolest thing I’d seen since…well, since Iron Man, I guess, but I still would’ve dug it. And, as a 33-year-old, there were more enough splendidly weird wipes, flashbacks, and fades to keep me interested through the rough spots.

If you’ve never seen the cartoon before, the gist is this: Boy drives fast, family applauds, monkey does something funny.

Oh, you want more? Ok, well, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, eventually), the second son of a car-crazy family (conveniently named the Racers), spends his school hours day-dreaming of the track and hanging with his pixie-cute (girl)friend, Trixie. (Christina Ricci, eventually.) But Speed’s life takes a tragic and Kennedyesque turn when his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) is vaporized in an ugly car accident, some time after he’d left home angry with Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). As such, Speed grows up to inherit the family racing mantle instead, and, as it turns out, he’s pretty darn good at it, so much so that the ruthless head of an obviously evil corporate conglomerate (Roger Allam of V for Vendetta, still looking exactly like Chris Hitchens) wants Speed to race for his well-funded team. But, when Speed decides to stick with the mom-and-pop outfit instead, he incurs the wrath of the insidious Bad Guys, who now set out to destroy him. But, with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox…I think that’s his jawline), the racing scion Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop star Rain…shouldn’t this be Stephen Colbert?), and, of course, his loving family (also including little brother Spritle, handyman Sparky, and monkey Chim-Chim), Speed sets out to beat the odds regardless. And, hey, maybe he’ll learn a few things about racing — and life — in the process.

And that’s about it, folks…Like, I said, it’s a kids’ film. (And while maybe Speed Racer and his friends versus the Big Bad Oligarchy isn’t nuanced enough for the likes of Anthony Lane, I’m guessing it’ll resonate well enough for eight-year-olds.) Helping things along are a bevy of solid performances: Hirsch is a bit of a cipher as Speed, but it’s hard to see how it could’ve been otherwise. Better are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as the Racers. Both are excellent actors in their own right, of course, but it’s good to see neither suffer from the Portmanitis that has afflicted other otherwise-respectable thespians in heavy-green-screen productions. And then there’s Matthew Fox as Racer X, which is funny for several reasons. Not only is it absurdly perfect casting — Fox looks and sounds exactly like the cartoon character — but the sight of Fox intoning blandly (and occasionally bringing the kung-fu) in his leather Racer X outfit almost seems like it has to be a self-deprecating knock by the Wachowskis on their earlier franchise. (Well, at least I hope they’re in on the joke. The Neo-isms of the final act are way over the top, and a lot of the secondary performances, from Speed’s teacher to the goons dressed like From Hell extras to the fellow playing Inspector Detector, often seem like Eurotrash rejects from the heady days of Zion raving too.)

All that being said, you’re not going to walk out of Speed Racer talking about the performances. The real star of the show is the hypersaturated, zippity-quick look of the whole enterprise. And, while I easily see how people could feel overstimulated to the point of nausea by it (or that it might very well be less captivating on a non-IMAX-sized screen), I was consistently diverted by the look of Speed Racer, and particularly when the brothers Wachowski experiment with some all-new tricks. The cartoonishly-integrated flashback wipes, while perhaps overused, are definitely a neat effect, as are the squiggly-enhanced kung-fu/romance scenes and the “radio” zooms. And the whole movie just has a bizarre wonder to it: Note the sequence just before the start of the desert race, for example — It’s like something out of a fever dream, The Sheltering Sky by way of mescaline-laced Skittles.

So, after all this, am I recommending the film? Well, it really depends on how much you [a] prize visual invention over everything else and [b] can hang with a story pretty clearly pitched at pre-teens. (Having played and enjoyed F-Zero, Wipeout, or SSX will help too, I’d wager.) As I said above, however cotton-candy-thin and dumbed down the plot, I’d never seen a movie that looked like Speed Racer before, and that counts for something in my book. Whatever its faults as a film, I feel I saw something…quite new…last night, and as such I’m willing to forgive Speed Racer probably having too many notes. In any case, it’s definitely not as uniformly terrible as the press is making it out to be.

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.

From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea.

I know, I know. This ship has sailed, with its filthy hoard of ill-gotten box office lucre already stashed under decks, so get to Knocked Up and Ocean’s Thirteen already. At this point you really don’t need me to tell you that Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean III: At World’s End, despite having Johnny Depp and $100 million in special effects at its command, was a bloated, washed-up, and mostly boring two hours of needless exposition and empty spectacle. But, there it is. One might remember that I kinda loathed the second Pirates movie last summer, and that was with a stash of bootlegged spirits and a good woman at my side to help relieve the remorseless tedium. So, why did I even bother seeing At World’s End? Well, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon summed it up perfectly: “[A]t this point, the ‘Pirates’ franchise is essentially collecting a tax from moviegoers: See it and like it, matey, or you’ll be out of step with the whole universe! And who wants that?” Well, I paid my movie-tax tribute, you bottom-line buccaneers and covetous corsairs, now avast with ye.

So, as you may or may not remember if you labored your way through Dead Man’s Chest, this installment of the Pirates franchise begins with Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) among the recently deceased, or at least trapped in the pirate Underworld that is Davy Jones’ Locker, while the rest of the team (Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly et al) finds they must band together with first-film villain Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to break Sparrow out, Jabba’s-palace style. But before that plot resumes, we witness a series of grisly civilian hangings undertaken by the East India Company’s Big Bad (Tom Hollander), who now has the supernatural man-squid Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in his thrall. (It’s a long story.) These executions happen not only to weed out the pirate insurgency and win the war on (naval) terror but, more ominously, to provoke a particular seafaring ditty in the unwashed masses, one that, once uttered, must provoke a meeting of the Pirate Council, whose nine lords are known by their special Pieces of Eight. But, let’s not forget, there’s also the matter of an enchanted compass on Jack’s person which points the way to one’s heart’s desire, and, for that matter, a magical heart thumping in a special chest that grants power over Davy Jones, and some very important charts on the person of Lando-ish pirate Chow Yun-Fat, and an undead monkey and a scorned sea-goddess and Gareth from The Office and…oh, I give up already. Just go see the movie. Or better yet, don’t.

To be fair, At World’s End isn’t as depressing or disappointing an action-packed threequel as, say, The Matrix: Revolutions, if only because expectations were so much lower heading into these already-muddy waters. And, ’tis true, Pirates of the Caribbean III is a marginally better film than the last outing — Instead of beating you into submission with blunt, numbing spectacle, this film mostly just tries to exposition you to death, which strangely enough I found preferable. Still, this is a bad film. Even Depp, who is an inordinately gifted actor who can make almost anything watchable, starts to grate here (as, alas, does Geoffrey Rush.) In fact, Depp’s once-fresh and funny mannerisms as Jack Sparrow have badly calcified by this point — at times, particularly when the movie steals a page or three from Being John Malkovich, he looks like he’s just phoning in his Hunter schtick. (For their part, Bloom and Knightley, pretty as they are, have no other schtick. It’s Legolas and Love, Actually, all over again.)

Turn You Inside Out.

Hearkening to the halcyon days of Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a clever contraption indeed — a sleek, intelligent, well-acted NYC heist flick whose central scheme is more about subterfuge, cunning, and misdirection than technical gimmickry. (In too many films in the genre — The Score, or Ocean’s 11, for example — the robbers seem to be spending more on state-of-the-art equipment than they’d actually make in the grift.) To be sure, there are some implausibilities throughout, including pretty much all of Jodie Foster’s character and [Spoilers] the idea that Christopher Plummer would keep that Nazi paperwork lying around for sixty years, and the film’s last half-hour takes too long to put the story to bed. That being said, for the most part Inside Man is a slick caper film that offers both legitimately surprising twists and the satisfaction of seeing parts of a well-crafted scheme fall into place like tumblers in a lock. In the immortal words of Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Is that a spoiler? Well, no, not really. The movie (and the trailer) begin with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, charismatic as ever) telling us he has conceived and executed “the perfect bank robbery.” Very soon thereafter, we watch Russell and three accomplices, dressed as painters, walk into a ritzy downtown Manhattan bank, bar the doors, and take hostage of the 20-30 unfortunate New Yorkers therein. Soon, led by detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, in top form) and Bill Mitchell (the always-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) as well as a by-the books captain (Willem DaFoe), the NYPD surround the bank, and a protracted stand-off begins. Meanwhile, the bank’s president (Christopher Plummer) adds an X-factor to the equation by hiring a Fixer of sorts (Jodie Foster, as good as anyone could be in this goofy role) to resolve the situation to his own satisfaction. With the board thus set, the rest of the film involves the pieces moving — We watch the heist unfold over the course of a New York City day and night, punctuated by clips of Washington and Ejiofor interrogating the bank hostages after the fact.

Of course, this isn’t just a well-crafted crime film, but a Spike Lee joint, and it resonates in the details. (In its own way, I’d say this is as strong as Lee’s last movie, The 25th Hour.) As Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek notes in her positive review, “Inside Man is a movie that practices what Crash preaches.” It may be considered bizarre and even Oscar-noteworthy for people of different races and backgrounds to interact in the hermetically-sealed car-culture of Los Angeles, but New Yorkers have been colliding up against each other for some time now. And — unlike in Crash — Lee gets the feel right. (This is his thematic territory, after all.) Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the scenes involving a Sikh bank teller (Waris Ahluwalia) whom the robbers send out with their demands. On sight of turban, the cops immediately treat him like a terrorist bomber, and Ahluwalia manages to sound both terrified and fed up at the same time with the post-9/11 indignity of it all. True, some of the plot mechanics in Inside Man could be considered contrived, but, Jodie Foster’s corporate ninja notwithstanding, at least here the people seem real. (2nd Crash link via Listen Missy.)

The Oil Down the Desert Way.

While perhaps a bit too dry and convoluted for some tastes, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is, IMHO, a top-notch political thriller that’s easily one of the best films of the year. Admitedly, the movie is missing some of the Soderberghian visual flourishes that made the very similar Traffic so memorable, and the movie definitely can be tough to follow. But, in a way, that’s part of its charm — Like the film’s protagonists, we only occasionally glimpse the shadowy tendrils of the beast that is Big Oil, and come to share their despair that it can ever be subdued. In sum, like the other recent Clooney outing, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana is both an intelligent, compelling work of cinema and a enthralling piece of social commentary, one that not only feels pertinent but necessary.

As you probably know, the movie jetsets around the globe following several facets of the oil trade and its consequences. In Beirut, an aging, disgruntled CIA agent (a stout George Clooney, resembling in Stephanie Zacharek’s words a “depressed circus bear”) starts to ask questions above his pay-grade about the collateral damage from a recent operation. In Geneva, after a family tragedy, a fresh-faced energy analyst (Matt Damon) becomes consigliere to the ambitious heir (Alexander Siddig) of a Middle-Eastern emirate. In Washington DC, a resourceful lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) begins due diligence work on an merger between two oil firms (the smaller headed by Chris Cooper). And, on the oil fields themselves, an increasingly desperate Pakistani emigrant (Mazhar Munir) begins to contemplate drastic action to change his fortunes, and those of his family.

Along the way, Syriana‘s narrative is further fractured by the comings and goings of other famous faces, including Amanda Peet as Damon’s suffering wife, William Hurt as another grizzled agency vet, Tim Blake Nelson as the poster child for Abramoff‘s America, and Christopher Plummer as an insider among insiders. But, even though Plummer comes closest to being the Cigarette Smoking Man of this particular conspiracy tale, Syriana doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy answers to the often grim story that unfolds. Some of our heroes find redemption or closure, true, but others become resigned to their fate, or even corrupted. And, ultimately, there is no Big Reveal or cathartic Speaking-Truth-To-Power scene to offer solace to the audience — Instead, we’re confronted with a system that, for better or worse, lumbers on, oblivious to either the machinations or the protests of mere individuals.

Depressing, indeed, even despairing at times, this film still feels like a story that must be told. And while viewers may quibble with some of the details of Gaghan’s Tarbell-esque expose of the political economy of oil, hopefully most will agree: We need more movies like Syriana.

There’s Always One.

In the interests of equal time, a dissenting opinion on RotK: “The final entry in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy reveals once more that what the chick flick is to men, this trilogy is to women…The well-calculated hype and exaggerated praise…has obscured what the series really is: an FX extravaganza tailored to an adolescent male’s fear of sentiment and love of high-tech wizardry…Who would have thought that Peter Jackson would direct such soulless films?” Sigh…I figured somebody would write a piece like this, but I didn’t expect it to show up in the Times, of all places. Just goes to show, there’s no accounting for taste. Update: Stephanie Zacharek responds.

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