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The 25th Hour

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The Oughts in Film: Part IV (25-11).

Hello again, and a happy New Year’s Eve to you and yours. Well, I thought this Best of the Decade would end up being four parts, but now it’s looking like five. The recaps for this last twenty-five got so long that MT seems to be consuming the bottom of the entry as I write.

So, with that in mind, here’s #’s 25-11 for the Oughts, with the top ten of the decade to follow in due course. If you’re new to this overview, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before moving on to the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade: Part IV: 25-11
[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]


25. Donnie Darko (2001)

From the original review: “All in all, this is a marvelously genre-bending film with wonderful anchoring performances by the Gyllenhaals. I think I liked this movie much more for not knowing a lot about it going in, so I won’t mention the particulars here. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Extra points for the soundtrack, which with ‘Head over Heels,’ ‘Love will Tear Us Apart,’ and ‘Under the Milky Way’…reminded me more of my own high school experience than any other film I can remember. (The Dukakis era setting helped, since that was my own eighth grade year.)

I almost took this movie out of the top 25 on account of its association with Southland Tales and The Box, and even the director’s cut of this film, which snuffs out a lot of this movie’s weird magic by slathering it in needless Midichlorian-style exposition. As I said in my recent review of The Box, Donnie Darko seems to be a clear and undeniable case where studio intervention saved a movie.

Nevertheless, part Philip K. Dick, part John Hughes, Darko was a touching coming-of-age story (thanks in good part to Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s cranky but loving parents), a decently funny satire about the vagaries of small-town life (think Sparkle Motion, “sleep-golfing,” and the Love-Fear axis), and a trippy sci-fi/psychological thriller. (Was Donnie really talking to a demon-rabbit from the future, or was he just off his meds? The original version muddles this question a lot better than the Kelly cut.)

Whether or not Richard Kelly just got struck by lightning here, everyone else involved clearly brought their A-game to this production. Two Gyllenhaals got on the Hollywood board with this flick, although Maggie would have to wait for Secretary to really break out. The Michael Andrews score contributed mightily to the proceedings, as did the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World,” which got a lot of run in the Oughts, from Gears of War to American Idol. And there are plenty of quality performances in the margins, from the late Patrick Swayze riffing on his image, to Beth Grant typecasting herself for the decade, to Katharine Ross coming back for one more curtain call. Fluke or not, the original version of Donnie Darko was one strange and memorable bunny, alright.


24. High Fidelity (2000)

From the year-end list: “An excellent adaptation of a great book, even if I preferred the Elvis Costello britrock emphasis of Hornby’s tome to the indie Subpop scene of the movie.

Charlie, you f**king b**ch! Let’s work it out!” Arguably John Cusack’s finest hour (although 1999’s Being John Malkovich is right up there, and I know many might cite the Lloyd Dobler of old), Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has continued to grow on me over the years. If it counts as one of David Denby’s slacker-striver romances (see the discussion of Knocked Up at #40), it’s definitely the one that hits closest to home for me.

The first thing people usually remember about this movie is all the Jack Black/Todd Louiso banter in the record store. (“It’s a Cosssssby sweater!“) And it’s true — All of that stuff is both really funny and all too telling about the elitism and obsessiveness inherent to the fanboy mentality — “Don’t tell anyone you don’t own ‘Blonde on Blonde’! It’s gonna be okay.” Besides, let’s face it, this entire end-of-the-decade list is really just an extended High Fidelity-style Top 5 (and I had a great time back in July organizing my history books chronologically, a la Rob’s record collection.)

Still, as with the book, High Fidelity‘s killer app is really the dispatches filed from Rob’s romantic life, as he ponders what went wrong with his Top 5 Crushes gone awry. (“We were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.“) There’s a lot of truthiness throughout High Fidelity, from Rob’s catastrophic hang-up on Charlie (Catherine Zeta Jones) to his eff-the-world rebound with an equally besotted Sarah (Lili Taylor), to his single-minded infatuation about whether his ex, Laura (Iben Hjejle), has slept with the loathsome new boyfriend, Ian (fellow Tapehead Tim Robbins in a great cameo) yet.

In short, I’d argue High Fidelity gets the inner-male monologue closer to right than any flick this side of Annie Hall. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, it’s funny because it’s true.


23. In the Mood for Love (2000) / 2046 (2004)

From the original review: “Since I spent Friday evening watching In the Mood for Love — a tale of a romance-that-almost-was, told in furtive hallway glances — and 2046 — a broader and more diffuse disquisition on love and heartache — back-to-back, here’s an Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, or my favorite film of the year, I’m Not There, get their due.

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

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

Can I Quote You on That?

I’m not normally one for blog memes here, but this movie quote game via Divine Comedy of Errors looked like particularly good fun. The rules, as direct from DCoE: “1. Pick 15 of your favorite movies. (Ok, I picked 20.) 2. Find a quote from each movie. 3. Post them here for everyone to guess. 4. Strike it out when someone guesses correctly, and put who guessed it and the movie. 5. NO GOOGLING/using IMDb search or other search functions.” Gotta stress that last one, y’all. That’s not cricket.

1. “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way, sometimes, and I live here.” [SB got it. This is Annie Hall (not Manhattan.) Hard to pick one quote from this great, great film.]

2. “Are we like couples you see in restaurants? Are we the dining dead?” [Tessa pegged it: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from the Chinese dinner scene where Joel and Clementine wallow in quiet desperation. Sunshine, by the way, often gets particularly quality remix treatment on Youtube.]

3. “Sister, when I’ve raised hell you’ll know it.” [sb got this one too: Miller’s Crossing, concluding one of the classic Tom-Verna dust-ups.]

4. “Defeat! Shameful, ignominious! Defeat that set back for twenty years the cause of reform in the U.S.” [An old wooden sled to sb, who correctly identified this as Citizen Kane. The line is from the News on the March newsreel opening the film, when Charles Foster Kane loses the governor’s race, on account of what we would now indelicately call a “bimbo eruption.”]

5. “Three: If asked if you care about the world’s problems, look deep into the eyes of he who asks, he will not ask you again.” [Props to Rob Newland (nee Aaron Jacob Edelstein.) This is one of the “Seven Simple Rules for a Life in Hiding” from I’m Not There, my favorite film of last year (and, still, I think, one of the more underappreciated.)]

6. “Nothing is f**ked? The goddamn plane has crashed into the mountain!” [Mark it eight: CJS correctly conjured up The Big Lebowski, still a treasure trove of hilarity for these dark times.]

7. “I got the *right* man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?” [A bit of a stickler for paperwork, J. Dunn got this one. It’s GitM’s namesake: Brazil. The line is Jack Lint (Michael Palin) rationalizing his murderous interrogation of Tuttle, ‘er, Buttle.]

8. “That Casey. He might have been a preacher but he seen things clear. He was like a lantern. He helped me to see things clear.” [10 points for Gryffindor and Kris. This is Tom talking about the Rev. Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. (Of course, if you’ve never read the book or seen the John Ford film, the Boss can summarize it for ya in 4:24.)]

9. “So I graduate, I call him up long distance, I say ‘Dad, now what?’ He says, ‘Get a job.’ Now I’m 25, make my yearly call again. I say Dad, ‘Now what?’ He says, ‘I don’t know, get married.’” [Kudos to Eric Sipple, despite his breaking the first two rules of Fight Club.]

10. “As Bertrand Russell once said, ‘The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.’ I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that now.” “Was that on a beer mat?” “Yeah, it was Guinness Extra Cold.”” [MattS correctly called it for Shaun of the Dead. Good on ya, mate.]

11. “We were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.” [Also got by MattS, this is High Fidelity, another very quotable movie. Rob (John Cusack) is talking about his dalliance with Lili Taylor’s Sarah.]

12. “Everybody liked me. I liked myself.” [SB knocks it down with Amadeus. Salieri is referring to the good ole days before God’s Instrument arrived in Vienna.]

13. “Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?” [Recognizing the hand of the Good Doctor, CJS got it: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (And it seems the line actually made it into the trailer as well.)]

14. “Daddy what’s gradual school?” “Oh Gradual school is where you go to school and you gradually find out you don’t want to go to school anymore.” [Not even an Ellen Jamesian, mikefromeseattle made the call: The World According to Garp.]

15. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” [Kris beat several others to the punch here: The Empire Strikes Back. This deal is getting worse all the time…]

16. “Have you never heard of situationism, or postmodernism? Do you know nothing about the free play of signs and signifiers?” [Trust an academic and music lover, Ted, to get this one. It’s 24 Hour Party People, as Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) is explaining to a reporter why “Joy Division” aren’t in fact a bunch of Nazis.]

17. “You’re born, you take s**t. You get out in the world, you take more s**t. You climb a little higher, you take less s**t. Till one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what s**t even looks like.” [Welcome to the Layer Cake, claxton6. (This is Michael Gambon explaining the title.) By the way, I just learned very recently that chameleon Ben Whishaw played Sidney in this flick. Must’ve been focused on something else…]

18. “I was told to tell you that you’re a fascist pig.” [Points for Eric & Wendy: This is from Children of Men, when Clive Owen is making contact with Michael Caine’s police “friend.” (My favorite line from the movie would’ve been a dead giveaway: “Well that was even worse, everybody crying. I mean…Baby Diego ? Come on, the guy was a wanker!“)]

19. “You broke into my house, stole my property, murdered my servants and my pets, and THAT is what grieves me the most!” [Stephen recognized this as Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian. But does he know the riddle of steel, and what is best in life? One hopes, or Crom will cast him out of Valhalla!]

20. “You’re going to make yourself a new home out there. You’re a New Yorker, that won’t ever change. You got New York in your bones. Spend the rest of your life out west but you’re still a New Yorker. You’ll miss your friends, you’ll miss your dog, but you’re strong.” [Ted also caught this one. It’s from the final Brian Cox monologue of The 25th Hour, still arguably the best movie yet made about the impact of 9/11 on NYC.]

2003 in Film.

Well, it’s that time of year again, New Year’s Eve. So, without further ado…

Top 20 Films of 2003:
[2000/2001/2002]

1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. If you didn’t see this pick coming, welcome to GitM. Ever since this blog started four years ago, I and it have been breathlessly awaiting Peter Jackson’s trilogy, and, boy, he delivered in spades. Even in spite of the pacing problems mandated by the TE running time, Return of the King is a marvel, the perfect ending to this epic for the ages and easily the best third-movie in a series ever. There’s so many ways these films could’ve turned out atrociously. (To take just three examples, think Brett Ratner doing the Pullman books, or the Wachowskis faltering on the early promise of The Matrix, or how Chris Columbus has made the magical world of Harry Potter so four-color monotonous.) The fact that they didn’t — that they instead shattered all expectations while staying true to Tolkien’s vision — is a miracle of inestimable value. In the post-Star Wars age, when epics have been replaced by “blockbusters,” and most event movies have been hollowed-out in advance by irony, excessive hype, dumbing-down, and sheer avarice, Peter Jackson has taught us to expect more from the cinema once again. Beyond all imagining, he took the ring all the way to Mordor and destroyed that sucker. So have fun on Kong, PJ, you’ve earned it.

2. Lost in Translation. It was fun for a while, there was no way of knowing. Like a dream in the night, who can say where we’re going? I still think Sofia Coppola cut a little close to the bone here in terms of autobiography, particularly given her recent split with Spike Jonze. Still, I find this tale of chance encounters and foreign vistas has a strange kind of magic to it, and it has stayed with me longer than any other film this year. Bill Murray comes into full bloom in a part he’s been circling around his entire career, and while I suspect he’ll get some stiff competition from the Mystic River boys come award-time, I’d say he deserves the Oscar for this one. Lost in Translation has its problems, sure, but at it’s best it’s haunting, ethereal, and touching like no other film in 2003.

3. Intolerable Cruelty. I expect I’ll be in the minority on this pick – This more-mainstream-than-usual Coen joint only got above-average reviews, and hardly anyone I’ve spoken to enjoyed it as much as I did. Still, I thought Intolerable Cruelty was a pop delight, 99.44% pure Coen confection. George Clooney is used to much better effect here than in O Brother (gotta love the teeth thing), and everyone else seems to be having enormous amounts of fun along the way. Light and breezy, yeah, but I thought it was that rare breed of romantic comedy that actually manages to be both romantic and hilarious. In the post-Tolkien era, it’s good to know we can always rely on the Coens for consistently excellent work, and I for one am greatly looking forward to The Ladykillers.

(3. The Pianist.) A 2002 film that I caught in March of this year, The Pianist is a harrowing and unique survivor’s tale that’s hard to watch and harder to forget (and I can’t have been the only person who thought post-spider-hole Saddam bore a passing resemblance to Brody’s third-act Szpilman.) Speaking of which, I said in my original review of Adrien Brody that “I can’t see the Academy rewarding this kind of understatement over a scenery-chewing performance like that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.” Glad to see I was wrong.

4. Mystic River.: 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. Much like In the Bedroom in 2001 (and Clint Eastwood’s own earlier Unforgiven), 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. And unlike Cold Mountain, where stars stick out here and there with showy turns, the ensemble cast of Mystic River never overwhelm the strong sense of place at the heart of the film — indeed, they sustain it with consistently excellent and nuanced performances. Big ups for all involved, and particularly Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden.

5. X2: X-Men United. Laugh if you want, but I can’t think of any other movie where I had more fun this year. Arguably the most successful comic film since Superman 2, X2 improved over its rather staid predecessor in every way you can imagine. From Nightcrawler in the White House to the assault on the mansion to Magneto’s escape to Ian McKellen and Brian Cox chewing the scenery in inimitable fashion, X2 was ripe with moments that seemed plucked directly out of the comics, if not straight out of the fanboy id. To me, my X-Men.

6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. 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.

7. The Matrix Reloaded. If we can, let’s try to forget the resounding thud on which the Matrix trilogy ended. For a time there, five short months, the fanboy nation was abuzz in trying to figure out exactly where the Wachowskis were going after the second chapter. Previous Matrices, previous Ones? How was Neo manipulating the real world? What was Smith up to? It all seems kinda pedestrian now, of course, but at the time Reloaded was a sequel that outdid its predecessor in pizazz while building on the questions that animated the first film. I won’t defend the first forty-five minutes or the ridiculous rave scene. But, right about the time Hugo Weaving showed up to do what he does best, Revolutions found a new gear that it maintained right up until the arc-twisting Architect monologues at the end. And, as far as action sequences go, it’s hard to beat the visceral thrill of the 14-minute highway chase.

(7. The 25th Hour.) Another 2002 hold-over, and the best film yet made about the aftermath of 9/11, (which only seems natural, given that it’s by one of New York’s finest directors.) Haunted by might-have-beens, what-ifs, and what-nows, The 25th Hour feels real and immediate in its attempt to grapple with both 9/11 and the slamming cage in Monty Brogan’s future. Only once, with the Fight Club-like fracas in the park, does the film flounder. Otherwise, it’s a thought-provoking meditation throughout.

8. The Last Samurai: Breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, furious suicide cavalry charges, rustic untainted pre-modern villages…no, it’s not Return of the King, just the warm-up. [And, as I said earlier, I prefer my anti-modern nostalgia hobbit-like (peaceful, environmental, epicurean) rather than samurai-ish (martial, virtuous, stoic)] While I think Cold Mountain got the Civil War right, I ultimately found this film to be the more engaging historical epic of December 2003. So take that, Miramax.

9. Finding Nemo. Oh, my…I almost forgot about Nemo. (Just like Dory sometimes.) Pixar’s films have been so consistently good that there’s a danger of taking them for granted. They hit another one out of the park in this tale under the sea. As with the Toy Stories and Monster’s Inc. before it, just an all-around solid kid’s movie filled to the brim with eye-popping wonders.

10. Dirty Pretty Things. Although it becomes more conventional as it goes along, DPT starts very well, features a star-making turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and manages to include a Audrey Tautou performance that isn’t fingernails-on-the-blackboard bothersome. As with Hugh Grant in About a Boy last year, that deserves plaudits if nothing else.

11. L’Auberge Espagnole. Hmm…two Tautous in a row….perhaps I should stop playa-hatin’. At any rate, while Lost in Translation trafficked in existential detachment, L’Auberge Espagnole showed the fun Scarlett Johannson could’ve been having, if she’d just lighten up and get out of the hotel once in awhile. This paean to the pan-Continental culture of the EU captured the excitement and possibilities of youth in a way that was both sexier and funnier than any of the teen shock-schlock emanating from our own side of the pond. Road Trippers, take a gander.

12. The Quiet American. A bit by-the-numbers, perhaps, but Phillip Noyce’s take on Graham Greene’s novel was blessed with timeliness and two great performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, both of whom expertly exemplified their homelands’ diplomatic tendencies without becoming overly tendentious. I’m not sure if giving away the end before the credits was the right way to go, but otherwise the film rarely falters.

13. The Fog of War. From Alden Pyle to one of his real-life counterparts, Robert McNamara, who now only remains quiet when questioned about his own culpability over Vietnam. Despite this central failing, a spry McNamara succeeds in penetrating the fog of time to examine how he himself became lost in the maze-like logic of war. If you can withstand the frequent Phillip Glass-scored barrages, it’s worth a see.

14. Pirates of the Caribbean. My initial upbeat opinion on this one has faded somewhat over the autumn and winter months. Still, at the time PotC was a surprisingly good summer popcorn flick, and rollicking fun for about two of of its two and a half hours. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were great fun, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom make for great eye candy, and Sam Lowry was in it. I’m just going to assume it was much, much better than The Haunted Mansion.

15. The Station Agent. Ok, it’s got Sunday afternoon bored in front of the IFC Channel written all over it. And not much happens for the last forty minutes or so. Still, The Station Agent proves that if you write a few interesting, well-rounded, complicated characters and throw them in a situation together, the story almost writes itself.

16. American Splendor. The first of a couple of movies that I seemed to like less than most people. Sure, I thought Splendor was well-done, but it never really grabbed me, and I’d be more impressed by its breaking-the-fourth-wall daring if it hadn’t already been done twenty-five years ago in Annie Hall. (Similarly, I thought this kooky underground comic world was captured better in Crumb.)

17. Spellbound. Could you use it in a sentence? Again, people seemed to love this flick, and I was definitely entertained by it. But, when you get right down to it, what we have here is kids spelling for two hours…I couldn’t imagine ever sitting through this one again. And, as I said in my original post, I thought Spellbound was more manipulative than it lets on. Less kids and more complexity would’ve made the film more satisfying. S-A-T-I…

18. Cold Mountain. I’ve already written about this one at length today, so I’ll just refer you to the review. To sum up, occasionally beautiful but curiously uninvolving and way too top-heavy with star power distractions.

19. 28 Days Later. Great first third, ok second third, lousy finish. The film was much more interesting before our team makes it to Christopher Eccleston’s countryside version of Apocalypse Now. And I can’t stand horror movies where the protagonists make idiot decisions, like driving into tunnels for no reason or taking downers when surrounded by flesh-eating, spastic zombies. But the cast — particularly Brendan Gleeson — do yeoman’s work, and the opening moments in an empty London are legitimately creepy.

20. T3: Rise of the Machines. Before he was the Governator, he was the T-1000 one (last?) time. Let’s face it, this movie is mainly here by virtue of not being bad. I mean, c’mon, it was better than you thought, right? Well, me too. Claire Danes was insufferable, but Nick Stahl and Kristanna Loken give it the ole college try, and the story takes a few jags that weren’t immediately apparent. Bully to Jonathan Mostow for not running James Cameron’s franchise into the ground.

As Yet Unseen: 21 Grams, Bad Santa, The Cooler, House of Sand and Fog, In America, Love, Actually, Something’s Gotta Give.

Best Actor: Bill Murray, Lost in Translation. Sean Penn, Mystic River. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things. Michael Caine, The Quiet American.

Best Actress: Scarlett Johannson, Lost in Translation (who’s sort of here by default…I expect competition from Diane “Something’s Gotta Give” Keaton, Samantha “In America” Morton, Jennifer “House of Sand and Fog” Connolly, and Naomi “21 Grams” Watts.)

Best Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River, Sean Astin, Return of the King, Billy Boyd, Return of the King, Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai.

Best Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain, Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River, Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent.

Worst Films: 1. Gods and Generals, 2. Dreamcatcher, 3. Scary Movie 3. 4. Underworld.

Worst Disappointments: 1. The Hulk, 2. The Matrix: Revolutions, 3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

Ho-Hum: 1. LXG, 2. Bubba Ho-Tep, 3. Big Fish, 4. Masked and Anonymous. 5. Tears of the Sun. 6. Veronica Guerin, 7. The Core.

Mad World.


Over a long day of movie watching yesterday, I caught one of life’s strange yet serendipitously appropriate double features, The 25th Hour and Donnie Darko. While at first glance very different, both were excellent films dealing with some eerily similar themes – the fickleness of catastrophe and the fleeting nature of our relationships, for example – and involved similar protagonists, grappling with a fixed future, pondering choices made and opportunities lost. Together, they evoked a reflective melancholy that even xXx (really dumb, almost Gymkata-esque in its leaps of logic sometimes, but Vin Diesel is an out-and-out star, and he makes this tired stuff occasionally seem fresher than over in the Bond franchise) and Mean Machine (a disappointing and needless Lock Stock futbol update of The Longest Yard) couldn’t break.

I should probably say up front that I’m biased toward Spike Lee – With few exceptions, I’ve liked almost every one of his movies (and I also think he’s been on a roll of late, what with He Got Game, Summer of Sam, and Bamboozled.) As with Oliver Stone, I think people’s problems with Lee’s politics have unfairly undermined the reputation of a great director, so much so that he even has trouble getting funding for his pictures, which is ludicrous. A lot of critics seem to be faulting Spike for inserting 9/11 into this film, arguing that is was either ham-handed or unnecessary. I couldn’t disagree more. Not only did it make thematic sense (for example, when Monty [Ed Norton] Brogan’s friends steel themselves to have a blast on his last night and pretend “nothing is wrong”), but it perfectly captured the feeling of life in New York after the fall. Everyone’s trying to go on with their business and pretend to move on, and yet everywhere you look there are grim reminders of that day’s events, and somehow it’s all you end up talking about. And the last fifteen minutes of the film, which tread a very fine line between hokey and surprisingly touching, are a haunting representation of what was lost that day (and, Lee seems to suggest, what could be lost if further attacks necessitate a New York diaspora.) In effect, this is Lee’s ode to NYC’s magic and resilience, and I think there were very few other filmmakers that could have pulled this off. (And even fewer could have gotten so many nuances right, from the myriad details of Norton’s over-hyped mirror rant to Barry Pepper’s jackass of a boss having courtside Knicks tix.)

Speaking of which, all the performances are noteworthy, with Barry Pepper as a stand-out – he may have successfully shed the opprobium of Battlefield Earth with this performance. (As the schlub tied up in sexual knots, Phillip Seymour Hoffman has been down this road a couple of times now, but it still only seems like he’s repeating himself half the time.) The film has some problems, of course (the not-so-gripping denouement of the Pepper-Hoffman story seems ripped from another Norton movie – you’ll know what I mean when you see it), but well worth seeing if you get a chance.

Which brings us to Donnie Darko. It’s probably unfair to a film as unique and consistently surprising as Darko to force a comparison with 25th Hour, but that’s the way the day went (to say nothing of Farscape 4.12, which also felt strangely apropos, being about trying to avert death on the Challenger on an ’80’s Halloween night.) At any rate, a lot of blogs out there adore this film, and I now see what the fuss was about. Again, this movie also had problems (Drew Barrymore was noticeably worse than everyone else in the film, the Jim Cunningham sidestory was funny but a bit pat, and the payoff doesn’t quite live up to the riveting setup), but that’s missing the forest for the trees. All in all, this is a marvelously genre-bending film with wonderful anchoring performances by the Gyllenhaals. I think I liked this movie much more for not knowing a lot about it going in, so I won’t mention the particulars here. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Extra points for the soundtrack, which with “Head over Heels,” “Love will Tear Us Apart,” and “Under the Milky Way” (and the reworked “Mad World“- a nice surprise), reminded me more of my own high school experience than any other film I can remember. (The Dukakis era setting helped, since that was my own eighth grade year.)

All in all, two very rewarding film experiences. I was reminded of the night in high school when (while working at Blockbuster) I saw Glengarry Glen Ross, Reservoir Dogs, One False Move, and A Midnight Clear all for the first time on the same night. I love it when movie nights take on strange subtexts of their own (To force one, in a weird way, xXx and Mean Machine both dealt with the fear-of-prison undergirding The 25th Hour), and the two standout films last night have lent a rich and bittersweet minor key to the weekend.

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The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer

Uphill All the Way

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