Monday, December 12, 2011

'Movie Roundup' Roundup: An Introduction / Table of Contents

December 12, 2011:
From December 2008 through October 2009, at the height of my movie-watching (back when I was still seeing many new releases, renting tons of older stuff, taking film classes, and my friends' weekly movie night that, for better or worse, I mostly dominated was still going strong), I was struck with the idealistic notion that it would be a good idea to write a short-ish capsule about literally every film I watched and post it to my blog. Well, it turns out it was a good idea, albeit one that I could never sustain. The blog sputtered out after a brief supernova of activity (during which I was called "the best writer on the internet" -- you know who you are -- as well as a whole slew of other far less complimentary, and likely more accurate, things). Over two years have passed since my final entry and, upon revisiting some of those reviews, I realized I still regard them fondly and that they deserve a more accessible and user-friendly retrospective.

So, in my spare time (which, as a slacker with a college degree and no good job or foreseeable future, I seem to have an abundance of), I set to doing just that. Every mini-review I wrote during those ten months has been archived here, alphabetical by title. It's a fun little time capsule.

It more or less goes without saying that, seeing as how all of this writing is dated by two or three years, the opinions expressed therein may not necessarily reflect how I feel today (I clearly overrated Slumdog Millionaire, probably underrated Argento, etc.). Movies have a curious way of changing with you. Many opinions, however, I am certain I still stand by.


The Scale
100-90: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
89-80: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
79-70: A very strong film well worth seeing.
69-60: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
59-50: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
49-40: A mediocre or lackluster film. Not painful, but conspicuously flawed.
39-30: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
29-20: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
19-0: Hooooo mama.

Also, if a film title appears in orange, it just means that, when I wrote the review, I had seen it at least once before. Not sure why, but it seemed an important distinction at the time. Titles in white bold italics represent a film I had not previously viewed.

The Reviews
17 Again
The 39 Steps
(500) Days of Summer

Ace in the Hole
American History X
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The Apartment
Ashes of Time Redux
Attack the Gas Station!

Barton Fink
Battle Royale
Better Luck Tomorrow
The Big Lebowski
The Big Sleep
Big Trouble in Little China
The Birds
Bottle Rocket
Broken Wings
The Brothers Bloom
Bubba Ho-Tep
Burn After Reading

Children of Men
The City of Lost Children
Clean, Shaven
A Clockwork Orange
The Conversation
Crows Zero
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Deep Red
The Devil's Backbone
District 9
Do the Right Thing
Down by Law
Drag Me to Hell
Drugstore Cowboy

The Edukators
Eternal Summer
The Experiment
Eyes Wide Shut

Fear(s) of the Dark

Ghost World
The Godfather
The Graduate

The Happiness of the Katakuris
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hidden Fortress
The Hurt Locker

Ichi the Killer
Igby Goes Down
Inglourious Basterds
Inland Empire
In the Company of Men
In the Loop
I Sell the Dead

Jackie Brown
Jacob’s Ladder


The Lady Vanishes
Lady Vengeance
La Femme Nikita
La Haine
Layer Cake
Let the Right One In
The Lives of Others
The Lodger
Lost in Translation
The Loved One

Made in U.S.A.
Man Bites Dog
The Man Who Wasn't There
Mysterious Skin

No Country for Old Men


Pan’s Labyrinth
Party 7
Peeping Tom
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Pig Hunt
The Princess and the Warrior
Public Enemies


Repo! The Genetic Opera
Revolutionary Road
Rocket Science
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
Run Lola Run
The Rutles

Scandal Sheet
Scotland, Pa.
Seven Pounds
Seven Samurai
Shadow of a Doubt
Shallow Grave
The Shining
Sin Nombre
Six-String Samurai
SLC Punk
Slumdog Millionaire
Some Like It Hot
The Spirit
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring
Star Trek
Sukiyaki Western Django
Sunset Blvd.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Synecdoche, New York

The Tenant
Terminator Salvation
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
The Third Man
This Is Spinal Tap
Tokyo Gore Police

The Vanishing
Waltz With Bashir
Where the Wild Things Are
The Wrestler


9 (Shane Acker, 2009) 62
If looks were everything, 9 would be one hell of a movie. The thing is beautiful: from its broad strokes to its minute details, every aspect of its (admittedly very eerie) animation style is just about perfect. I just wish the story had been ... well, a little more engaging.

17 Again (Burr Steers, 2009) 54
In my defense, I didn't really watch this of my own volition. I was hanging out with a group of females and, in the interest of not spending five hours just trying to agree on something to watch, I settled back amenably and just let this one drift by me. It's an inoffensive but completely unspectacular fantasy-rom-com thing that, while mildly entertaining and amusing, can't help but call to mind the vastly superior Big and a slew of other films. Basically, the film just exists as an excuse to gawk at Zac Efron (whom I am sure, true to the film's high capacity for realism, we all looked like when we were 17). It's his star vehicle, which I guess I'm cool with. It's just not a film aimed at my demographic. Still, not awful, and I'm sure it quite easily could have been. So that's something.

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935) 75
Probably the first Hitchcock film that's regarded as a bona fide classic, and it's easy to see why. It's entertaining, suspenseful, intriguing, and just a lot of fun to watch. Robert Donat is great as the film's droll protagonist, and everything here just seems to fit together really, really well.

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) 85
Now this is my kind of romantic comedy. Everything that can work about this does, and everything that shouldn't work is precisely what pushes the film out of standard-issue "relationship movie" fare into something much more effective and poignant. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch, really, to call this an anti-romantic comedy: you know within the first couple minutes that Tom and Summer aren't going to live happily ever after; the film all but spells it out. The journey, then, is seeing how they end up not being together, and for what reason, and what happens in the meantime. And if I've somehow made this sound dull and dry, nothing could be further from the truth. It's rich, warm, funny, clever, and creative, with characters I genuinely cared for and an insightful script that hardly ever hits a wrong note. Even the film's more self-conscious conceits, such as a nonlinear timeline or a practically winking-at-the-camera musical sequence, work beautifully in creating what is simply the sharpest and most honest movie of its kind to come along in quite some time. It may not be the sort of thing that will ever pack theaters, but it's one of those small films that's bound to give warm fuzzies to just about everyone who goes out of their way to catch it.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004) 44
Gorgeous. Well acted. Amazingly directed. Pretentious. Boring. Depressing. That's pretty much all you need to know about 2046, should you ever want to watch it. It's dense and complicated and, despite an abundance of eye-popping visuals, almost entirely dialogue-driven. And at the end of the day, especially with the lack of a satisfying emotional payoff, it's really just not worth it. I remember watching this few years ago and finding it really interesting. Upon revisiting it, it doesn't hold up nearly as well. There are plenty of strong ideas here (it's not a case of style over substance by any means; there's definitely a story, its episodic nature just fails to hold interest), but it doesn't seem quite like Wong Kar-Wai knows how to properly execute them. Still, pretty as hell. Those futuristic sequences are lovely eye candy.

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951) 85
It's a talented director who can make a movie so nasty that its sting hurts just as much almost 60 years later. Of course, Billy Wilder was one of the greatest directors who ever lived, but even the other greats of his time weren't making movies as dark and vicious as this. The reason it works so well is because it's so damn unrelenting: Wilder takes perfect aim at his target and skewers it. In hindsight, it's not hard to see why this was unavailable on DVD until 2007. It's just way too meanspirited for most casual viewers. Still, it's an important film and a great one, and by all means it should have been available sooner. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more pitch-perfect media/journalism satire than this, and would certainly find it difficult to pinpoint one as unforgiving and as topical.

Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002) 88
There is a novel by Italo Calvino called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, wherein the reader almost immediately becomes aware that he or she is is the main character and that the book is, in fact, about a person attempting to read a novel by Italo Calvino called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Adaptation, the second of two (and hopefully not the last) brilliant Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaborations, plays with similar ideas of reality: it is fundamentally a movie about a screenplay that the viewer quickly discerns is the screenplay of the film they are watching. And despite the fictional (or at least semi-fictional -- I hope the guy isn't this neurotic in real life) Nicolas Cage-Kaufman's insecurities about writing something structurally solid and satisfying, there is literally not a single level that this film does not work perfectly on. It's one of the most airtight scripts I can think of, to the extent that it becomes a functional self-contained universe that keeps feeding into itself over and over (something which it's only too conscious of, see: Ouroboros). It's everything a movie ought to be, despite ultimately being nothing that Cage-Kaufman initially wants it to be ("I don't want to make it into some Hollywood thing"). It's a meditation on desire and hope and frustration, it's a biting satire of Hollywood, it's a super stylish exercise in cinematography and direction, it's a showcase for fine acting (Cage, Streep, and Cooper -- who won an Oscar for his role -- are all extraordinary), and -- yes -- it has one hell of a brilliant, original, thought-provoking screenplay. In other words, yeah, it's ridiculously good.

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009) 73
Wow, this is not the movie the trailers advertised. As I'm sure was the case with many other folks, I immediately dismissed this when I saw the preview last winter: it looked like yet another juvenile gross-out flick, albeit one set in an amusement park, and I wouldn't have been caught dead going to see it. And then when the movie actually came out it was met with some alarmingly positive reviews. Well hell, thought I, perhaps there is more to this. I never got a chance to catch it in the theaters, but now here it is on DVD, and you know what? It is a very good movie. Far from what I was expecting, this is a pretty straightforward romance flick. And while it definitely still falls under the umbrella of "comedy," it takes itself far more seriously than I would've imagined, and the result is a surprisingly strong emotional component to counterpoint the occasional laugh-out-loud moment (the "Rock Me Amadeus" thing really amused me, for some reason). While not as audacious or as clever as the more recent (500) Days of Summer, it shares a lot of its insight, and that alone should be enough of a recommendation. Adventureland was directed by Greg Mottola, the man also responsible for Superbad. While not as gaspingly hilarious as its predecessor, this is arguably the more mature product. It's smart, it's sweet, and it's absolutely nothing like you were led to believe.

American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) 84
The movie that made Edward Norton a star, and deservedly so. His work here as a violent skinhead who gets a taste of his own medicine is nothing less than riveting. It's a prime example of a single performance (still Norton's best, by a long shot) elevating an already well-made film into the realms something much greater. The movie as a whole is likely the most brutal examination of racism I have encountered in a film (as much as I like Crash, this makes that one look like Sesame Street), and its impact is indelible. This is only my second time watching the film, but even after the first time I think I'd have had immense trouble forgetting the infamous "curb scene." It's among the nastiest, most mirthless acts of violence I've ever watched onscreen; it gives me chills just thinking about it. But that's a testament to how well done this is: it's sobering as hell and it tugs at the heartstrings unapologetically, but it never feels ingenuine. It's that believability that makes it such a forceful, potent piece of work. Factor Norton's should've-won-an-Oscar performance (he was nominated, but lost to Roberto Benigni) back in there and you have an unsettling film that's every bit as great as everyone says it is.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2009) 56
Unfortunately mismarketed as a "real-life Spinal Tap" (or, more to the point, lazily pigeonholed as such), Anvil! is well put-together but alarmingly dreary. It's all about expectations. I expected this -- like the film it's being played up against -- to be funny, entertaining, and incisive; instead, what I got was melancholy and sometimes flat-out depressing. I likewise expected there to be some sort of triumph in Anvil's never-say-die career history to make all the unpleasantries worth sitting through. There isn't. The film attempts to fabricate one (and it's disturbingly close to the ending of Spinal Tap), but it doesn't take much at all to blow a giant hole in it. It's just a big ol' fat cheat on the face of a documentary that is perhaps a bit too lifelike. I realize the ridiculousness of this criticism, but I can't think of any other way to put it. Watching Anvil! is a miserable experience. If I wanted to be reminded about how life is a harsh, cruel, difficult exercise in following fruitless dreams, I would've just, ya know, spent the evening living.

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960) 83
One of my biggest movie credos is that a good film should never be watched just once. I saw The Apartment for the first time, I dunno, about a year ago. Its reputation builds it up to be a comedy, something which the re-teaming of Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon (fresh off Some Like It Hot) does nothing to dispel. So I was all geared up for a comedy. What I got was one hell of a depressing movie. It caught me completely off-guard. Sure, there were touches of much-needed humor to alleviate the darkness, but more often than not it was a bleak, cynical affair. My opinion of the film suffered as a result. As it turns out, the opportunity to go back and re-watch it with advance knowledge was exactly what was necessary for me to fall in love with it. Yes, everything I just said is still true, but what I failed to see before -- regardless of genre or tone -- is that it's a great film. All of its elements click into place flawlessly, and it emerges hugely satisfying. It's still a total downer, to be sure, but it's an extremely well-orchestrated downer. You have no idea how much that counts for.

Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994/2008) 51
A gorgeous trainwreck. I realize the film probably deserves much lower than what I'm giving it, because it really is pretty awful, but I'm a sucker for visuals. I realize this is the cinematic equivalent of liking someone 'cause they're hott and leaving personality on the backburner, but sue me. I'm shallow. And regardless, I still hate this damn movie. Ashes of Time is well-shot to an extent that it actually makes the incoherence of the rest of the film even more frustrating. Why would Wong Kar-Wai waste such excellent cinematography on such a jumbled, indecipherable, and frankly disinteresting mess? And then, why would he feel the need to resurrect said mess to do a "redux" version? Given the assumption that his new "definitive" cut is an improvement, god help me if I ever have to sit through the original. According to IMDb, the original is seven minutes longer. You don't understand the weight of this. Time is a vacuum with this film. Seven Samurai feels shorter than this thing. An extra seven minutes might very well kill me. But hey, at least they'd be pretty.

Attack the Gas Station! (Sang-Jin Kim, 1999) 74
This is every bit as ridiculous as I remembered it, and that's a very, very good thing. There's not really much to say about it; it's the sort of movie that seems to actively avoid discussion in favor of just being watched. So watch it. Just as long as you know exactly what you're signing up for before you watch it, I can't even begin to imagine how you might be disappointed. It's colorful, hilarious, absurd, bizarre, and fuckin' fun as hell.


Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991) 64
Barton Fink is a very, very strange movie. It's strange even by Coen Brothers standards, which should mean something if you've ever seen one of their films. It's so strange, and certain events come so abruptly out of left-field, that while I was watching I was absolutely sure the film didn't work. Now, thinking back over it, I am not so convinced. I think it does work, albeit in a very unconventional and not entirely successful way. The film more or less follows the tried-and-true "writer's block" story for its first two thirds; insofar as this takes us, the movie is excellent. The Coens take dead aim at the movie industry and those who populate it: John Turturro is perfect as the tortured, struggling screenwriter, Michael Lerner is gleefully reprehensible as the studio exec, and John Mahoney is uncanny as the alcoholic trainwreck who is obviously supposed to be William Faulkner. It's when the film takes a sudden left turn in its final act that the story threatens to go off the rails. I'm not entirely sure what the Coens are getting at via this resolution, though I'm familiar enough with their output to be sure they did it for a very specific reason. Even so, it's confounding and at odds with everything that's come before it. Despite that flaw, though, it's still an interesting film. Though far from their best work (which was, of course, still yet to come), it's the work of two talented men with an offbeat agenda and an excitingly unusual way of looking at the world.

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) 37
A big ol' bloody disappointment. I had really high hopes for this, but I found myself becoming more and more frustrated as those hopes were continually stepped on. From the beginning it certainly feels like it's going to be great, and maybe it could have been, but as soon as the Most Dangerous Game is underway the film slips into a monotonous (and frankly uninvolving) torrent of bloodshed that steadfastly refuses to end. And when it does end, it's murky to an extreme that I find difficult to reconcile with the clean-cut, in-your-face tone of the rest of the film. This is the sort of thing you expect to provide some sort of crushing coup de grace in its final frames. Instead, it takes that left toin at Albuquoikey and opts for a resolution that had me going, "Huh?" I think its problem is that it asks us to become interested in characters who, at least for my money, are never developed enough (I mean, god forbid it take time away from its grenade-wielding decapitated heads in order to actually construct a backstory). So we get unsatisfying snippets that hint at the sort of pathos required for this to work, but it never quite gets there (Kitano in particular needed to be fleshed out a whole lot more; as it is, he's just a creepy bastard, and confusingly so). And I understand that I'm criticizing a film ostensibly about senseless bloodshed for having too much senseless bloodshed, but the blood itself isn't my issue: it's just that I wanted more than that. I wanted a deeper insight into the senseless bloodshed. I liked the Lord of the Flies-esque "inherent savage brutality" theme as far as it took me, but I got the gist pretty quickly; after that, the film just didn't have anything else to offer aside from crotch-stabbing, blood-vomiting, and all sorts of other colorful ways to die. To wit: it's an intriguing idea for a film (even though, yeah, the central concept is a fairly contrived plot device that must be bought into in order for anything to work), well-made, and I can easily see why lots of people love it. I just had too many personal issues that got in the way of, er, enjoyment ... or whatever the proper word is.

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2003) 78
There's a lot to be said for loving a movie unconditionally, for just unquestioningly accepting it for what it is. I know Better Luck Tomorrow is a very flawed film. Its flaws become more and more apparent to me every time I watch it. But you know what? I don't care. I love it. I think it's a great film. The best I can figure is that it appeals to some sort of unconscious impulse, because it's not usually my position (at all) to just overlook rather noticeable shortcomings. But rather than dwell on what it might not be, I prefer to admire the film for what it is: an affecting, well crafted high school drama that -- despite several plot developments that seriously stretch the bounds of believability -- seems to capture a particular teenage mindset surprisingly well. That's why I like it so much. Not because it's some tough, gritty, realistic teen crime saga, but because it works as a fantasy. It bottles the oft-unspoken desires of a generation of overachievers and plants them onscreen in a way that is watchable, entertaining, and stylish. Need I ask more of it?

The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998) 91
This has become such a cult film that I really don't have much to say about it anymore. Either you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and find that immensely irritating, or you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and realize that that's pretty much what's so damn brilliant about it. The movie's just fucking bizarre, almost to the extent that you have to watch it multiple times before you've assured yourself it's safe to laugh at, but each viewing just makes it funnier and funnier. Not the Coens' best (sorry to be a traditionalist, that honor still goes to Fargo), but certainly among their finest work, and one of my favorite comedies ever.

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) 68
Tell me if this doesn't sound like a recipe for success: the biggest movie star of all-time and his wife (Bogart and Bacall) in front of the camera, one of the best directors of the so-called "Hollywood era" (Hawks) behind it, working off a screenplay penned by one of the finest writers who ever lived (Faulkner), which was adapted from a novel by arguably the finest mystery novelist of his time (Chandler). By all accounts, the movie should be tremendous. It's become a huge classic, naturally, but is the movie as great as all that? Well, er, as much as it kills me to say it, not really. Let me explain: the film is notorious for having a convoluted plot. At one point during production, Bogart showed up on-set and asked who was responsible for one of the murders; neither Hawks nor Faulkner knew, so they called up Raymond Chandler, who admitted he had no clue either. In other words, the plot isn't just convoluted, it's damn near impenetrable. You can make sense out of it if you're patient enough and want to, but I can't imagine it'd be a very rewarding quest. So this is a ridiculously confusing film, and despite its many huge strengths, I have a hard time forgiving it for this (especially when so many other 40s noirs actually clear up their twisty plotlines). Still, it's a classic for a reason: Bogart and Bacall are wonderful, and they deliver that oh so deliciously crunchy noir dialogue like they were born with the script in their hands. They're excellent enough to make the whole thing work. Their off-screen chemistry becomes tangible onscreen, and they make for an endlessly beguiling couple. The rest you can throw out. Despite bazillions of characters with unclear motives doing all kinds of crazy things, the film is really all about its two stars. Watch it for them. If you glean anything else from the film, well, good for you. It's a fringe benefit to watching two of the greats doing what they do best.

Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986) 79
We've all seen Big Trouble in Little China, right? So I really don't need to discuss it in any sort of depth (as if such a thing were possible in the first place). It's just ... man, everything about this movie just makes me feel so damn happy to be alive: Kurt Russell's brilliantly awful one-liners and John Wayne impression, the floating eyeball and hairy beast, the neon escalators. It's one of the funnest movies of any kind ever made. I can't even imagine someone not getting into this. It's just so damn enjoyable.

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) 60
Yeah, I know it's considered one of Hitchcock's classics, but especially now that I'm older (I first saw this when I was, like, ten) it just comes across as kind of silly to me. It's well made, as pretty much all of Hitchcock's films are, and there are a couple scenes that really stick with you (the iconic playground sequence, of course, comprises the best few moments in the film), but overall this is just a shadow of what the man was truly capable of producing. Add that to the fact that, unlike lots of people, I'm really not frightened of birds whatsoever, and you have an intriguing if flawed curiosity. Of course everyone should see it once, but it's certainly not among the Master's finest.

Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929) 57
Hitchcock's first talkie (and, indeed, the first talkie in Britain) is interesting from a historical setting (both in the way Hitchcock adapts to the changing medium, and in the way he comments on late-20s British society), but isn't quite as captivating plotwise as several of his other early films. The chase scene through the British Museum, for instance, becomes a bit tiresome. Not bad, though; just something that I'm sure the man could have done better.

Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) 55
There's a saying, too clever for its own good, that goes, "If you remember the 60s, you weren't there." Well, I don't remember the 60s either, but I missed being around for them by about 20 years. Still, regardless of whether or not my memory might have escaped me, films like this make me wish I had been there. It just looks like so damn much fun. Really, all Blowup amounts to is two hours of entertaining, but completely ridiculous nonsense. I get the feeling it's a classic not in spite of this, but because of it. Really, there's nothing even bordering on meaningful here. Right as you think a plot is finally about to emerge, the protagonist drops it immediately and instead rolls around on the floor with some anonymous chicks. A random succession of events takes place. Things just happen. By the time the film reaches its final scene, wherein a group of car-crusin' mimes invade a tennis court and pretend to play a game, nothing has been accomplished or resolved or even introduced. Things have just happened. And dammit, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't captivating in its own demented way. It's a total hodgepodge, but it's such a peculiar and trippy hodgepodge that it's hard to actually say anything bad about it. Whatever the point may be, one thing's for sure: it's an Experience, and anyone who's interested should step right up.

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996) 61
All right. I have successfully collected the entire set. Having now seen all of Wes Anderson's movies to date, I can finally make the definitive claim I've been inching towards for ages: I just really don't like the guy all that much. His droll, self-consciously quirky films (the most popular of which are probably Rushmore and The Life Aquatic) seem to really strike a chord with some people, but I just find them smug and irritating. They're never bad, really (with the exception of Rushmore, which I find insufferable), and the judicious helping of (clearly influential) absurdist humor that defines each one is always good for a few laughs, but at the end of the day none of them really add up to much more than pointless excursions into self-aware peculiarity. Bottle Rocket, his first film and possibly his most solid, suffers all the same pitfalls. It tells a story that tries so desperately to be clever and peppers its every scene with so much smirking jokery that I almost wished I could've taken Anderson and Owen Wilson aside and told them, begged them, to just ... relax a bit. Don't try so damn hard to make something "different." The desperation shows, and it impacts what could've been a highly enjoyable, unique little comedy. It is still entertaining, but I also feel like it could have been a lot more than that. That's the feeling I get from all of Anderson's films, really. Maybe one of these days he'll get that feeling, too, and do something about it.

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) 86
Terry Gilliam is extremely hit-or-miss. For every film of his I love (this, Holy Grail, 12 Monkeys), there's another I actively despise (Fear and Loathing, Brothers Grimm, Tideland). His problem is his habit for overindulgence. Far too often he throws restraint to the wind and lets his work carry him away, often resulting in a jumbled and unpleasant mess. Brazil remains his best work not because it isn't overindulgent (it is -- OH GOD, it is), but because some divine presence manages to make Gilliam's "throw everything at the screen, see what sticks" approach come across as brilliant and visionary instead of merely frustrating. There's so much going on here that it's easy (and in some cases recommendable) to ignore the story and just let the torrent of visuals and crazy ideas wash you away. Still, even the convoluted plot starts to make sense after a few viewings (for instance, I finally got that there's no connection whatsoever between Jill and Tuttle; Lowry just assumes there is, and in acting on this assumption becomes more of a so-called "enemy of the state" than either of them), and the film as a whole never stops being delightful. I can definitely see how this could be considered an acquired taste, and it certainly has the potential to put off people who aren't willing to grant it the patience it demands (which is quite a bit), but nothing's going to change my bottom-line that this is just a fantastic film.

Broken Wings (Nir Bergman, 2002) 63
I think this is one of those films that one has to look at in a certain way in order to appreciate. From a strictly narrative standpoint, it is surprisingly empty: characters talk, a central event occurs, characters talk some more, the central event resolves itself completely independently of any of said talking, movie ends. This doesn't exactly amount to a compelling storyline. So where the film does work is on an emotional plane. There's a good deal of socioeconomic and familial conflict at work here, and while I never got the feeling that the film ever actually solves any of it, I was also keenly aware that -- to use a cliche -- the journey is more important than the destination. Bergman wastes no time throwing his viewers into the lives of this family, and slowly we become involved enough to legitimately care about what happens to them. The film is perhaps a bit too short and the details a bit too underdeveloped to provide the full range of emotion I think Bergman is going for, but nonetheless I finished the film feeling uplifted and satisfied, and that makes Broken Wings something of a small victory.

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009) 43
A very confused film. It has no clue what it wants to be. Comedy? Drama? Thriller? Mystery? Adventure? Romance? In its indecision it elects to be all of the above, but instead of emerging in the form of some genre-bending brilliance (the sort of thing I'd frankly have expected from the guy who made 2005's excellent 40s noir throwback Brick), it just winds up a confounding and muddled mess. And I hate that it does this to itself, because parts of it -- for instance, the majority of the droll, absurdly humorous bits -- work really well. But then whenever it starts to really get going with something, it pulls another card out of its sleeve and effectively shoots itself in the foot. By the time the film is over (roughly thirty minutes past the point where I thought it was going to end, and likely the place where it should have), it has twisted and turned and conned and crossed and double-crossed and genre-hopped and tone-shifted so many times that you just kind of want it to put itself out of its misery. And so it does, but unsatisfyingly. The Brothers Bloom is the very definition of a sophomore slump: a follow-up to a very successful, clever debut that tries way too hard to outdo its predecessor and ultimately just gets lost in its own pretensions. Rian Johnson is clearly a talented guy. He knows what he's doing. Hopefully by film #3 he'll have gotten his bearings together and will have the right stuff to knock us out again. I'm counting on it, anyway.

Bubba Ho-tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002) 68
I'm serious: if the idea of Elvis and a black JFK battling mummies in a nursing home doesn't strike you as the best thing ever, we can't be friends anymore. Because guess what: it is the best thing ever. This was, I believe, the first movie I ever saw at the Guild (back during its initial release in '02 or '03). I loved it then, and I still have a soft spot for it now. I mean, seriously, though. Bruce Campbell as Elvis. And a black JFK. Battling a mummy. How can you not be cool with that? This should be, like, the most popular movie ever made or something.

Burn After Reading (The Coen Brothers, 2008) 73
Maybe the funniest thing about the Coen Brothers' uniformly hilarious Burn After Reading is how much of a flip-off it is to the world of "serious cinema." After cleaning the floor at the Oscars with No Country for Old Men (which may very well be their best film; it's been a while since I've watched Fargo, the current holder of that title, so I couldn't say for sure), I'm sure everyone expected them to try to one-up themselves with another serious Statement about the human condition in contemporary America. Instead, they gave us this delightfully irreverent political farce that, while obviously not up to the jaw-dropping standards of their best work, is just about as entertaining as one could hope for. The Coens have a knack for creating immensely memorable characters: from The Dude to Carl Showalter to Anton Chigurh, almost every one of their films seems to possess at least one singularly striking individual. Here, the terminally underrated Brad Pitt steals every scene he's in as uber-doofus Chad Feldheimer. It's the rare performance that, no doubt, is as much fun for the audience to watch as it was for the actor to embody. But to be honest, everyone looks like they're having a good time here. I think they realize that this film was never meant to change the world or even really "say" anything (other than the government is incompetent -- gee, what else is new?). It's just meant to be a fun, lighthearted trifle for the Coens as they gear up for another home run. I have no clue how long it'll be until that film hits us, but until then I'm pretty sure Burn After Reading will suit me just fine.


Casshern (Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004) 27
Apparently Kazuaki Kiriya has never heard of visual excess. It's important for a film to have a well defined visual style; necessary, one might even say. Like all components in filmmaking, though, there is a limit, and at that limit exists a line that should not be crossed. Casshern nonchalantly ignores that line early on and spends the next 117 dreary minutes becoming one of the most tedious, overdirected pieces of crap I have seen in a good long while. It's about time, too; rewatching all these favorites, I was starting to fall under some delusion of universal goodness. And of course it's not enough that Kiriya's D-grade video-game-on-acid aesthetic is so damn pervasive that it's impossible to tell what the hell is going on: no, we need an equally impenetrable story about war and genetic mutants to really seal the deal. The unfortunate thing is, there are some good ideas here. In the right hands, I have no doubt this could be a compelling sci-fi story. But Kiriya clearly has no damn clue how to handle any of this, and the result is a preachy, pretentious mess. I really wish I had not been born with the compulsion to follow movies out to their bitter end, because I would have loved to turn this off: by the end of the first hour, I was bored out of my mind; by 90 minutes, I was paying more attention to the timer on my DVD player than I was to the film; by two hours, I was just praying for quick and painless death. There are bad films, and then there are bad films. This fits comfortably into the latter category. Even in the realm of terrible films, though, you have to watch out for your blurbs. Maybe, as the case says, it is "better than both Matrix sequels put together." That still doesn't mean it's any good at all.

Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) 14
Look, I've seen some bad films in my time -- films I wouldn't touch again with a 10-foot pole if you paid me, but I reserve a special kind of hatred for Steven Soderbergh's bloated, dull, and damn near unwatchable Che. Let me preface this by saying my assessment has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Guevara himself, and absolutely everything to do with the way Soderbergh chooses to depict his life. If you take this film as your only source of information, Che Guevara will be nothing more to you than a man who sits around in various jungles and coughs a lot. There's no conflict here. There's no story. This movie is so damn boring I can't even begin to put it into words. This in itself is a cardinal sin: if you're going to make a movie about anything, at least have the decency to make it somewhat interesting. But it doesn't stop there, oh no. Not only is Che far more excruciatingly uninteresting than the vast majority of other films, indie or mainstream, it is also over four hours long. I did not know it was possible to make a four-hour feature film wherein nothing happens, but I have now seen the light (or the heart of an immense darkness, depending). Yeah, sure, maybe Benicio del Toro gives a good performance. Yeah, sure, maybe the movie is skillfully shot and assembled. Yeah, sure, maybe Matt Damon does have a brief Spanish-speaking cameo. I DON'T CARE (well, actually I kinda do about that last one). I could have watched my favorite movie two and a half times in the stretch it took me to get through this. On the bright side, there was an intermission. On the not-so-bright, the second half is significantly worse than the first. Considering the first is already a step or two below watching paint dry, I'd definitely beware those last two hours. You might slip into a coma. Though really, it'd probably be a hell of a lot more interesting.

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) 86
Proof positive that good movies should never be watched only once. Before now, the only time I had seen Children of Men was during its theatrical run. I liked it, but it didn't register in my head as anything other than just a good, solid sci-fi film. Who knows what happened in the two intervening years, but upon rewatching this, I was floored. Absolutely fucking blown away. This was the same film, unquestionably, but somehow this time it was just better. So, so, so much better. First off, I don't remember it being this emotionally harrowing; I remember it being dark and bleak, but nowhere near as affecting. And second, everything you've heard about this film's cinematography is true; I just can't even comprehend how they pulled some of this shit off. Though there are several amazing sequences (the "egg-spitting scene," for lack of a better description, being one), the now-famous six-minute warzone take near the end of the film is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. I'd say it has to be seen to be believed, but I've watched that scene by itself several times and I still don't believe it. Just like how I still don't believe I could have seen this the first time and not just gone apeshit for it. It's fuckin' amazing.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) 92
I saw this at The Guild two days before Polanski got arrested in Switzerland. I feel strangely guilty, like my doing so upset something in the cosmos. But hey, whatever happens to the man himself, nothing can erase the fact that this stylish, edgy, bleak-as-all-hell film is just stone-cold brilliant (and stone-cold is, indeed, the right way to describe it).

The City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1995) 79
Take what I said in my capsule for The Apartment about never watching good films only once, only substitute "weird" for "depressing." I watched The City of Lost Children once about three years ago, was taken aback by how beautiful its visuals were, and was left cold because it was just too damn weird for the mood I was in. Now I've come back to it. And having seen Jeunet and Caro's other collaboration, the equally bizarre and delightful (and maybe even slightly better) Delicatessen, I rewatched this fully prepared to embrace whatever strageness it might throw my way. Predictably, I found it to be quite excellent. I love being able to say things like "there's nothing else quite like it," and this much is obvious if you've ever seen the film. "Hallucinatory" and "surreal" don't even begin to describe the tripped-out otherworld created by this film, but this time it was a place I actually wanted to be. I became involved with the characters, was thrilled by how original the story was. It's still definitely not something for all tastes, but I'm glad I can finally say it's something for mine. I'm happy I finally listened to that voice in the back of my head telling me to give it another shot. It's awesome, and no fan of sci-fi or intriguing foreign films should go without seeing it.

Clean, Shaven (Lodge Kerrigan, 1993) 55
I know why this has been called a great film. I see exactly what Kerrigan is trying to do. And now that I see this, it's time for him to move on and make a better movie. Its problem is that it plays out more like an art school exercise than it does a feature meant to be viewed by real people. Sure, as a psych student I can attest that it probably is the closest filmic representation of schizophrenia yet put onscreen, but that doesn't necessarily make it interesting. It just makes it very, very difficult. And I have nothing against difficult films. Some of the greatest movies ever made are notorious for being such. It's just that Clean, Shaven, much like schizophrenia itself, provides no in for the unafflicted. It's an isolated entity, cold and detached not necessarily by its own choosing but just by nature. That's what makes it so hard to warm up to. If all of the action is on the inside and we the viewers have no way of getting in there, what's left for us? An unsettling but ineffective curiosity. Oh well. Even still, I wish we'd watched this in my abnormal psych class instead of Diary of an Anorexic or whatever; this is much better.

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) 100
I've said it once before: there are exactly five films I've seen that I would give a perfect score. This is one of them. Stanley Kubrick was an inhumanly gifted filmmaker, and he's responsible for some of the greatest movies ever produced, but this is hands-down his greatest achievement. It's also his most notorious. Over the last four decades, the film has amassed almost as many detractors as it has avid supporters. And while the naysayers' points may be valid, I will defend this film to the ends of the earth and back. The one argument I will not buy, though, is that it's just an empty, excessive excuse to shock its audience. Kubrick's approach is very forceful, but to accuse him of doing it without a solid agenda completely undermines the fact that this film dishes up lots of provocative philosophical questions. There is quite a bit to chew on here. Alex is an evil, sadistic sociopath, but isn't what the "good, clean" society/government does to him even more evil and more sadistic? Is robbing a person of his free will not an even more cruel, violent act than anything Alex does for fun? Isn't the capacity for decision what makes a person truly human? This is just scratching the surface. These are not empty, easy questions. This is a film with something to say. Many find the way it says these things objectionable, but I assert that it has to be unrelenting to make the impact that it does. It's unquestionably one of the nastiest, most vicious and unforgiving movies ever made, and many will hate it for this reason, but I think it's all the better for it. And even stripped to its basics, it's still wonderful: it's a boldly original story very well-told, Malcolm McDowell gives one of film's great performances as little Alex, and Kubrick's talent for direction and cinematography is -- as always -- unparalleled (the calm, surreal, tripped-out way he filmed this creates an atmosphere quite unlike any other in film history). This is why I love film. Everything's here, and it's perfect.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) 77
A very, very sad movie. It's not at all what I expected: from the DVD case and, indeed, from the film's reputation, I was anticipating a highly-charged political thriller about surveillance and bugging. What I got, however, was a meditative, deliberately-paced character study about a very lonely man consumed with guilt about the immorality of his profession. Frankly, it's a better movie for it. In a performance that can only be described as stunning, Gene Hackman basically sells the film: Harry Caul is a complex, aching, utterly believable individual; the emotional valence of the entire story rests on his shoulders, and Hackman knocks it out of the park. Coppola's script is entirely in tune with Hackman's strengths, too: instead of placing the character in the middle of a dangerous situation like most other films would, it sets things up so that Harry Caul is the conflict. His psychology, not the titular conversation, is the main focus, and we delve so deeply into it that, by the film's excellent final minutes, we're not entirely sure what's real and what's fictional, what's fact and what's paranoia. It's a clever little setup, and in many ways it makes the proceedings even more tense. In a society driven by spying and surveillance, who can you trust? Can you even trust yourself? And even if you're just an impartial third party, are you still responsible for the ramifications of the information you're collecting? Coppola forces his audience to consider some very difficult questions, but -- like any skilled storyteller -- stops just short of answering them. Instead, he offers a quietly harrowing portrait of a man who is likewise unable to find these answers, and how it slowly but surely destroys him. Powerful stuff.

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) 39
An aggressively unpleasant film. Despite tirelessly searching for its entire runtime, there's just no fun in this thing for me. It's dark, oppressive, and off-putting (especially for a younger audience), but to what end? If you're going to have your main character endure such an ordeal, shouldn't she get something out of it? The film provides no evidence that little Coraline's life is going to be any different after this whole to-do than it was before. Her asshole, "you broke my favorite snowglobe" parents certainly haven't changed. So what could have, and should have, been a film about familial love and redemption and Wizard of Oz-style "there's no place like home"-ness inadvertently becomes a film about a neglected child who learns to appreciate that she's a neglected child. A lovely message, especially for the kiddos. Now in lifelike 3D, so they can almost touch the bitter reality! Despite being a harsh and unrewarding film, though, it's certainly a good-looking one: Selick's trademark stop-motion is as eerily effective as ever, and the aforementioned 3D -- to the extent that I even noticed it (it was much more subtle than a lot of other big-screen 3D fare) -- was well integrated, if inessential. But really, that's not going to win me over. Coraline is a dreary experience. Big-screen escapism is dependent on there being something worthwhile to escape to. If an ugly, dissatisfying story wherein the only compassionate character is a mangy, dead-looking alley cat is your idea of solid entertainment, be my guest. I should have stayed home. There's no place quite like it.

Crows Zero (Takashi Miike, 2007) 62
An electrifying, if sometimes muddled, adrenaline-shot of nihilism. There's something about the simplicity of this story that just appeals to some sort of masculine ideal. Quite simply, this is a film about no-holds-barred physical dominance that seems to take place in some stylish alternate universe where literally the only conflict is which high school punk can kick the most ass and take the most names. As such, it's basically just two hours of tough guys beating the shit out of each other in the hopes that they will become the ultimate badass. And it works. It's exhilarating. It's when the film tries to complicate matters with useless subplots (in no way is the brain aneurysm thing necessary at all) that it starts to lose its edge, sometimes feeling like a couple unrelated movies cobbled together (and unfortunately this happens a bit too much in the last 45 minutes or so). On the whole, though, it's a success: anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese cinema knows that Miike is a dude who knows what he's doing, and the film exudes style and badass. Despite its almost nonstop violence, it's not hard to watch. It crackles on a special kind of energy that holds its thrills at a satisfying level throughout. And really, you've gotta admire a movie ballsy enough to deliver a moral, then turn right around and say, "But fuck it, let's rock."

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) 82
I don't get it. I don't understand the already-huge backlash against this. This is a wonderful film, one that affected me profoundly on an emotional level that very few movies even get close to. For a long time, David Fincher has been one of the best directors out there; whether his films are good (Se7en, The Game) or not (Fight Club, Panic Room), they're always directed with a dizzying proficiency that puts most others to shame. Benjamin Button is no different -- from its first frame to its last, it's visually stunning in ways few other films this year have been. And the story itself is wonderful: it's NOT your run-of-the-mill Hollywood romance, and it's the implications of this unusualness that give it such an emotional potency. The acting, likewise, is stellar: Brad Pitt once again proves that he's one of the most underrated actors out there (the man can ACT, dammit!), while Cate Blanchett -- as is her custom -- is a superb counterpart. The majority of the film's heartstring-tugging rests on her shoulders, and in the film's final act, she's really something to behold. So all in all, I don't buy any of the complaints I've been hearing. It's not too long (it's 167 minutes; lengthy, sure, but I think it requires that length), the pacing isn't flawed (does it not match the goals of the story very well?), it doesn't have "too many morals" (wait, this is a complaint?). It's just a fine, fine piece of cinema. It's different, it's striking, it's entertaining, and it's moving. The amount of people who don't seem to see it this way is, to my way of thinking, the most "curious" thing about it.


The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) 94
I've always been fascinated by how quick and skillful the Joker is for a man who supposedly has no plan. I imagine it would take some firepower indeed to blow up an entire hospital, but somehow the guy manages to rig it all up in under an hour. What a resourceful son of a bitch. In other news, this movie is still fucking fantastic. I have now seen this film four times. It has been out six and a half months. I almost never rewatch movies with that sort of frequency. Something about this one just compels me to. I live in constant fear of the day its follow-up inevitably gets released; even if Christopher "God" Nolan is onboard again, there's no way it's going to be anywhere near as good as this. I mean, how could it be? What sort of villain could ever compare to Heath Ledger's Joker? What sort of tragic story arc would ever measure up to the decline and fall of Harvey Dent? Nothing. Nolan may be divinity among directors, but some water is just too fickle to walk on. But you gotta admit, he brought it on himself. We love him oh so dearly for it, but -- as they say -- no good deed goes unpunished.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Scott Derrickson, 2008) 32
I finally have a definitive answer: "Klaatu barada nikto" is, in fact, extraterrestrial for "really fucking bad remake." Words can hardly do justice to how atrocious this truly is. The only reason I'm springing for the 32 instead of anything lower is because John Cleese, no matter how small of a part, is a badass. But the rest of this is trash. Keanu Reeves gives a performance that probably would've been thrown out of a Keanu Reeves impersonation contest for being too wooden, Will Smith's offspring is constantly annoying, and Jennifer Connelly spends the entire time looking like she's wondering, "Wait a minute, I can actually act. What the HELL am I doing HERE?" Oh, and the story sucks. Nothing happens. Until the end, which isn't actually an ending because it doesn't resolve anything. Man, this was terrible.

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) 59
I don't know. I guess I'm just not cut out for this Argento fellow. I don't want to say the movies are bad, really, because they aren't. I just don't like them very much. Deep Red straddles an awkward line between absurd played-for-laughs humor (a tiny car with a sinking passenger seat) and moments of pointlessly excessive gore (a man's head -- unnecessarily, I might add -- gets run over and crushed by a car). Truthfully, I can understand the appeal; it just doesn't tickle my fancy all that much. At least the soundtrack is bangin'.

The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) 66
Let's face it: if you make one of the best movies ever, it really doesn't matter how good the rest of your filmography is; everything else is going to seem like a bit of a letdown. Such is the sorry fate of Guillermo del Toro, whose The Devil's Backbone is a satisfying exercise in wartime ghostliness that nonetheless has absolutely nothing on his later triumph Pan's Labyrinth. Which isn't to say the two films have that much in common: aside from sharing a timeframe and dipping into themes of youthful isolation, they're very much distinct from one another and by all means should be experienced on their respective terms. It's just easy to point out what this film lacks that del Toro's later endeavor would eventually correct: the somewhat unexpectedly low chill factor, the absence of a particularly detestable villain, and a protagonist who is likable but never fully capable of being embraced emotionally. Still, it's very much a good film: the story is unusual and well told, and del Toro has a knack for peppering the proceedings with alluringly odd details (the undetonated warhead is, by all means, both badass and symbolic). In the end, though, it still feels like a well-placed stepping stone in the career of its maker than it does a definitive Statement: even though the journey itself can often be thrilling, it's really more about that final destination.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) 46
Again, the advance buzz baffles me. This has been heralded as "surprisingly original," "a novel creation," "ingenious and creative" -- the whole gamut. And not by people who don't know what they're talking about. This kind of talk gets a fella like me excited, see, and it makes me all the more disappointed when the damn thing turns out to be exactly like dozens upon dozens of movies I've seen before. This could have been something special: its mockumentary-style intro flirts with the kind of excitement and originality that, had the film sustained it, could've made this into an exceptional slice of sci-fi. Unfortunately, the clever stylistics go away as the story unfolds and we're left with what I found to be a very pedestrian shit-blows-up action movie. Far from being a captive audience, I spent much of the last hour rather bored. Even worse than that, the script pretty severely loses focus as the affair rolls on. What exactly gets resolved at the end? Who's the real hero here? How is the nutty Nigerian gun cult even necessary to the proceedings? And why, oh god, why does something as potentially intelligent as this feel the need to cop fighting machines from Transformers in order to get cheap thrills? So, I'm sorry. It seems like I'm a dissenting vote on this one, but I was far from impressed. There's nothing here that hasn't been done before a whole lot better, and it's just depressing to see something that could be thoughtful and poignant (obviously they're shooting for an apartheid allegory) streamline itself into a loud, handheld-ridden actionfest just to turn a buck.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) 70
A provocative, if not especially surprising portrait of race relations in late-80s Brooklyn (and, I'd be willing to wager, inner-city anywhere in 2009). I appreciate what Lee is doing here, and the cinematography in particular is out of this world (you can almost feel the heat and sweat pouring out of the screen), though I do feel as if more recent films like La Haine and City of God cover similar territory more successfully. Still, the cut it makes is a deep one and I don't think anyone's going to argue that it's a very important film. Also: the opening credits sequence is among the best I've ever seen.

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008) 72
All told, this was probably my 11th favorite film of 2008. In other words, this is the one that got screwed for inclusion on the illustrious best-list. So it goes. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's a very small film. That is, unlike Benjamin Button or Slumdog or any of the other late-year Oscar hopefuls, it seems to exist in its own self-contained universe. It doesn't have much to say about anything outside its bubble; it's strictly concerned with its characters. This isn't a bad thing, mind you; it just wants a bit for that all-encompassing "oooh, this is life!"-type universality that Fincher's film embodies. That being said, everything about the production is very good. I know the story is supposed to be open-ended and ambiguous about answering the central conflict, but in my mind at least there's very little "doubt" about which series of events actually occurred (and, to my way of thinking, the film works better this way). Just the way Shanley presents his characters (Streep in particular) really makes me opt strongly for one particular viewpoint. But hey, there are clues a-plenty for either interpretation. That's why it's called Doubt, you see. I could be wrong. But I don't think so. See it and decide for yourself. It's a good one.

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) 72
It's very easy for me to see how someone could get really turned off by Jarmusch. He's definitely an acquired taste. Not only are his films very slow, but they also have an odd sense of humor and very rarely arrive at any sort of conventional resolution. Still, I don't know why, but I really like the guy. Every one of his films I have seen has wooed me in some way or other, and Down by Law is no exception. This is one of those movies where the experience is far more satisfying than any sort of synopsis. Really, all that happens is that three deadbeats get thrown in jail, hang out in jail for a while, and then escape to a bizarre deus ex machina, but nonetheless I still had a lot of fun watching it. Roberto Benigni, an almost complete unknown at the time, is a hoot as the ingratiatingly optimistic Italian tourist, and it's always interesting to see Tom Waits show up in a film, regardless of what it might be. So, yeah. I don't know. If you like Jarmusch, give this one a try. It's really entertaining. If you don't like Jarmusch, this isn't going to do anything to change your mind. And if you don't know Jarmusch, I'd rather you hit up Stranger Than Paradise first. But be sure to come back to this one. It's a goodie.

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) 77
It's easy to get excited when a director manages to make a good film from an oft-abused formula. It really is. And this explains why Drag Me to Hell has gotten almost ridiculously hyperbolic reviews. All of us geeky film buffs are just happy to see a horror film that not only doesn't suck, but is actually rather excellent. Just don't let the 93% on RottenTomatoes usually reserved for Important Films trick you into believing it's something greater than what it is. Drag Me to Hell is a schlocky gross-out horror flick and nothing more. It just also happens to be a really fucking good one. I don't know what else to say about it, really. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll probably love it. If you're not, you probably won't. If you're like me and don't really swing one way or the other, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how clever, funny, icky, and sometimes flat-out exciting it can be. Bravo, Mr. Raimi. Bravo. You've just absolved yourself for Spider-Man 3.

Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989) 87
A superb addiction drama. Gus Van Sant is an eclectic and fascinating filmmaker, and over his career he's traversed the very good (Milk, My Own Private Idaho), the all right (Elephant, Paranoid Park), and the just plain awful (Last Days, the Psycho remake). After years of digging, I have finally found the masterpiece I always knew he had in him. Who would've thought it'd turn out to be one of the first films he ever made? This is one of those godsend movies where everything falls beautifully into place: the very straightforward story, despite being nothing we haven't seen before, is never anything less than engrossing; the performances -- especially Matt Dillon's, which should have at least been nominated for an Oscar, if not awarded the trophy -- are tremendous; and the preaching and moralizing, which always inevitably creep into this sort of affair, are more or less nonexistent (which makes the proceedings all the more potent). It's grimly amusing when it needs to be, suitably tense when its situations call for it, breathtakingly poignant at all the right moments (there's a scene where Dillon is talking to a secretary about entering a methodone program that shows more truth and humanity over the course of two minutes than some entire films have), and just about as satisfying overall as it could possibly be. I loved this film.

Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009) 75
About a year and a half ago, Tony Gilroy -- in his then-directorial debut -- brought us a deliciously complex and twisty little thriller called Michael Clayton, which even in a bumper-crop year like 2007 was one of the best films around. If anything, his follow-up Duplicity ably demonstrates that the strengths of his previous effort were no fluke. This is, much like the Clooney vehicle, a structurally unusual but deadly intelligent film that is at once remarkably well written and possesses the power to keep its audience guessing up until the very end. We're still deeply enmeshed in the corporate world, although this time Gilroy treats the affair more like an extended Spy vs. Spy, thus making the goings-on even more playful and enjoyable. So yeah, clearly I liked the film a lot. I understand how the timeline and the barrage of plot twists/unexpected developments could become wearying for some, but I was able to adjust to Gilroy's speed without too much difficulty, and as a result I had a lot of fun. The interplay between his hero and heroine works really well, the central "secret" is just ludicrous enough to lend it some warped sense of credibility (an important aspect of the story, it turns out), and the pieces just seem to fit together into something both satisfying and clever. The year is young, so it's hard to tell how this will fare in the long run, but for right now one thing's for sure: in the typical spring doldrums, Duplicity is a welcome reprieve. That, and Clive Owen is infinitely more badass than George Clooney. Just sayin'.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


The Edukators (Hans Weingartner, 2004) 78
A whole lot smarter than I would've given it credit for, and consequently a whole lot better. The problem with social commentary is its propensity to glorify one side of an argument while demonizing the other, but while The Edukators clearly allies with its trio of protagonists, it also does a very good job of humanizing the opposition. This is important, because despite having an interesting and creative storyline (a couple of young activists break into rich people's homes, but instead of stealing anything, they just rearrange furniture and leave cryptic notes as wake-up calls), this is very much a dialogue-driven film. Many of its most lucid, perceptive moments come during the scenes where the characters just sit around and talk to one another. Some might be tempted to call this verbose and preachy, but I found it fascinating. It delves maturely and honestly into socioeconomic topics that, frankly, are very rarely handled with such care, all the while developing a cast of characters I actually cared about (even Hardenberg, who is probably the most well-defined of the bunch). There are a few shortcomings here and there, but for the most part this is an excellent film. It's deliberately paced, but never boring, with an intriguing idea and a payoff that I found very satisfying. No, really: the final shot -- a simple note pinned to a wall -- is one that will stick with you for a while. I promise.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) 81
Lynch has gotta be the biggest love-him-or-hate-him affair in contemporary cinema. Those who love him (myself included) are guilty of a rabid, almost cultish following, while those who hate him will dismiss his work as pretentious bullshit without even the slightest hesitation. It's just the sort of material that provokes these kinds of reactions. Even though I'm enamored of what Lynch can accomplish, it's easy for me to see how he could seriously rub someone the wrong way. It was kind of fun in a perverse way watching Eraserhead (Lynch's first, and in some ways still his most challenging) for Movie Night and collecting responses: some admired it, some were bored to tears by it, some were terrified. None of these are unexpected. I love Eraserhead just because it's so unlike any other film in existence, but even I draw the line at saying I enjoy watching it. I doubt such a thing is possible. It merits appreciation, and from me it gets quite a lot of it. But it's still not the sort of thing I'd turn on just to kick back and watch something. There needs to be a purpose. Breaking it out for Movie Night to share with others was a good, strong purpose. Now I have no problem returning it to the shelf for a while.

Eternal Summer (Leste Chen, 2006) 83
This gets better and better the more I think about it. This is a beautiful, understated gem that is, I think, doomed to be misunderstood due to the way it's been marketed. Far from being exclusively the "gay film" the case makes it out to be, this is really more a poignant examination of human relationships, platonic, sexual, or otherwise. Sure, one of the protagonists is gay, but the other isn't. Therein lies a large portion of the film's conflict (which proves itself to have far more depth than one might expect from such a setup), but it also takes care to explore hugely credible themes of loneliness, longing, jealousy, and intimacy. Shane's reasons for doing what he does are entirely believable (though steeped in a certain melancholy desperation), while Jonathan's gradual realization of the impossibility of what he wants is very effective. Yes, the film does have its flaws, and it's certainly not for all tastes, but I found it both engaging and incredibly moving.

Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994) 89
Holy shit. And here I was, absolutely sure I would not be seeing a more rewarding film than Drugstore Cowboy for months to come. That I had the pure luck of watching Exotica just a few hours later adds up to the single most satisfying movie-watching day in longer than I care to think about. This is an incredible achievement, more assured and affecting than I ever would have expected, even granted its barrage of glowing reviews. I've fallen prey to critical overhype plenty of times before, but this time the accolades are just fucking true. Exotica is a tour de force of human emotion, slithering deftly from isolation and loss to hopefulness, and back again. I can't even begin to express my scorn for the person who thought it'd be a good idea to market this as a sultry, sexy, erotic thriller. Despite occurring largely within the walls of a strip club, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a film about pain and suffering, about the richness and three-dimensionality of its characters; sex is the last thing on anyone's mind. The puzzle-like narrative is constructed somewhat out of linear order not as a means by which to fool or one-up the audience, but as a way to slowly develop its characters and shine light on the connections between them. As more and more details come into focus, the better we understand these people, and the better we're able to relate to them. It is not until the very last scene that the film has divulged everything, and even then it doesn't condescend to spell everything out; there's plenty of ambiguity and mystery left over, as well there should be. This is brilliant stuff: Egoyan's script is exhilaratingly unconventional, but impressively accomplished. The way he translates it to the screen shows the same caliber of talent. The cinematography is lush and dark and gorgeous, the performances he draws from his actors are top-notch, and the emotional impact of the film as a whole far surpasses anything I can reasonably put into words. It's a damn masterpiece. That's all there is to it.

The Experiment (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2001) 35
An extremely unpleasant film. I don't mean to imply it's unwatchable or it isn't well-made, but it's a hell of a chore to sit through. Look, I'm a psych student. I know about the Stanford Prison Experiment. I know about the procedure, the findings, how it very quickly got out of control, and so forth. I really don't need to sit through two torturous hours of a fictionalized, exaggerated version of the same set-up. This is especially true if it doesn't go anywhere. It just kind of haphazardly wallows in some of the darker pools of human depravity. It's unrelenting, grim, and predictable. The only way I can imagine deriving entertainment value out of this would be if the viewer is as sadistic as the film's sociopathic antagonist. And with the entertainment element factored out, the only way a film like this can get by is on message alone. When the credits finally rolled, I didn't feel enlightened. I didn't feel any grand revelation. I just felt sickened by the human condition. If that was the filmmakers' agenda (and, yeah, it probably was), then bravo, but I'd like them to know this much: I didn't have to watch their film to get that feeling. There are plenty of opportunities every day, and at least I'm off the couch for those.

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) 75
You've got to understand that I'm a big Kubrick fan. I'm willing to defend the guy well past the point where many others would give up in frustation. That being said, I'll admit Eyes Wide Shut is far from his best film (it wouldn't even make my top five), but it's still a very solid and assured piece of filmmaking. There's also a certain air of finality about it that makes me not dissatisfied that it was his last film. Still, its flaws are very apparent: first of all, at 159 minutes, it's way damn too long. Even at his best, Kubrick was always deliberately paced (go back and revisit 2001 or The Shining -- you'll see what I mean), but rarely has his work seemed as unnecessarily protracted as it does in some of these scenes. Also: the story is appallingly thin. Taken one scene at a time, the film is positively mesmerizing. Taken as a whole, it really does not add up to much. So I suppose that's the secret to the enjoyment of the film: just lose yourself, and when it comes time to reflect on the film as a whole, simply regard it on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Kubrick was a master stylist, and he creates a strange, surreal, potent atmosphere with Eyes Wide Shut that, frankly, I don't think could have been pulled off by anyone else. The very tripped-out gothic orgy scene in particular should go somewhere in the pantheon of cinematic brilliance, and for my money there are enough moments like this and enough of a sexually-charged undercurrent to make the film incredibly compelling despite all of its flaws. Whether or not you agree depends entirely on the amount of goodwill you're willing to grant its creator.

Fear(s) of the Dark (A Bunch of French Dudes, 2008) 71
A very cool, stylish collection of French animated shorts. The overarching concept, as I understand it, is to tap into and -- to a certain extent -- exploit some of our primal fears: creepy crawlies, mad scientists, swamp monsters, Republicans (is that redundant?). And while none of these films are genuinely scary or even a little bit creepy, they are all shades of Highly Entertaining and Satisfyingly Badass. My personal favorite is the final vignette, in which a man suspects he may be at the tender mercies of a murderous housewife, but truly all of these are quite cool in their own ways. The film falters a bit with its short, female-voiced interludes, but even so, these banal middle-class "fears" provide an interesting contrast to the darker and more legitimate affairs of the full-length stories. So, all in all, a very worthwhile venture. It's different (which is always a plus), it's not "French" in the pejorative film-snob sense of the word, and it's honestly a lot of fun. Definitely recommended.

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008) 75
Yup, the central historical/political film of this particular Oscar season actually managed to make it onto my end-of-year Top 10 List. And if you scroll down to #6 in the next-most recent entry I posted here, you can read all about what I thought of it! (Except now you know the numerical score, too.)

Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) 58
I did the appropriate backtracking. The one and only time I saw this, I was in 9th grade. So that's, like, 2003-2004 territory. Much has changed in the last five-to-six years. More, really, than my little freshman self could ever have comprehended. When I saw Ghost World then, I loved it; its bratty, anti-establishment snarkiness struck a note with the rebellious adolescent. Now, though, actually being in the post-high school position held by Enid and Rebecca, I found this kind of difficult to sit through. Its derisive sarcasm has, for the most part, ceased to be endearing; instead, its portrayal of directionlessness and alienation hits a little too close to home for me to be able to fully embrace it like I once did. Does this mean it's a bad film? No. It just means it's not a terribly pleasant one. Terry Zwigoff's world is uniformly pessimistic: despite the characters' efforts, nobody really wins, and malaise is more or less a constant in life. Maybe that's true, but in a film designed to make us laugh, it's not a message that goes down easily. Still, there are some good things: Steve Buscemi is always welcome in any film, and the presence of a pre-glamorized-to-death Scarlett Johansson occasionally makes the screen a little easier to look at. Maybe in another five-to-six years I'll be able to return to this and find greatness in it again. I certainly hope so. For right now, though, Chris The Ennui-Stricken College Student does not need to be reminded of these all-too-obvious aspects of his life.

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) 99
Yep, it's still that good. I have this fear -- sometimes justified, sometimes not -- of rewatching favorite films and finding that something has been lost between viewings; that I don't care for it quite as much as I did before. In the end, with The Godfather, I probably never had anything to worry about. This is filmmaking at its finest. Very few films can purport to working flawlessly on every level, but it happens here: the gold-hued cinematography is gorgeous; Nino Rota's mournful music has become iconic; there's tons of both implicit and explicit symbolism; there's a tremendous message about the corruptive influence of money and power (the once-virtuous, "that's my family, Kay, not me" Michael Corleone is, in my view, one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema); and, for the more straightforward audiences who just want an entertaining story well-told, the one on display here is as nuanced, multifaceted, and air-tight as can be hoped for. The first time I ever saw this, I was wary. I was thinking there was no way it could ever stand up to its one-of-the-best-ever hype. It does. It is one of the best. Second only to The Shawshank Redemption, of course.

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) 96
An astoundingly wonderful film that just seems to get better and better, both as I age and it does. No movie has ever taken the boredom, confusion, and society-instilled claustrophobia of twentysomething masculinity and handled it as pitch-perfectly as it is handled here. That its final scene is one of the most excellent endings in all of cinema is merely one of the reasons that this one of the best movies ever made.


The Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2001) 79
If not the best, it's really hard to argue that Takashi Miike is far and away the most fascinating of Japanese directors. Not only is the man capable of directing three or four features per year, but each one is so radically different that, were it not for his very distinctive fingerprints, it'd be difficult to guess they were the work of the same person. While I shy away from calling it the best of his films, I can say without hesitation that The Happiness of the Katakuris is most certainly the most flat-out entertaining (and, consequently, my favorite thus far). I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard at a film. It's beyond absurd -- things happen at random without any sort of logical progression, there are unexpected outbursts of song, anybody can (and often does) die at any minute, and nothing really makes terribly much sense. At all. And yet somehow the damn thing is kind of brilliant. It's anarchic in the same way The Ruling Class might have been 35 years ago: it knows it's hilarious, but it exists to amuse itself instead of amusing anybody else. In the wrong hands, this is disastrous (Mars Attacks! comes to mind). In Miike's, it's riveting. I can't really explain it. There's nothing about this movie that should be brilliant, but dammit -- that's just what it is. And what a far cry it is from, ya know, anything else the man has ever made. But I guess that's a good thing. I mean, I can't imagine there could ever be two movies quite like this one. The world might explode.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) 85
I'm going to share my controversial opinion. I think the Harry Potter movies are incalculably better than the books. I've read all the books and seen all the movies thus far, and nothing is going to change my mind. Whereas the books are turgid, overlong, and occasionally dull, the films take Rowling's source material and condense it into something genuinely exciting. Half-Blood Prince is not just one of the crown jewels of the Harry Potter film canon (Azkaban is still probably my favorite, but this is a close second), but a great movie by any standards. By now, we've all been immersed in this universe long enough to not require introductions. Knowingly, the film plunges us straight into the action. With its typically arresting visuals (seriously, these are some of the best-looking movies ever made) and veritable who's-who of British actors (Jim Broadbent is excellent as Slughorn, and Alan Rickman continues his series-dominating role as Snape) in tow, the movie plows ahead breathlessly for its 153 minutes. Many other films would make this runtime seem interminable (scroll down to P), but if anything this film almost feels too short. But I think they've made the right cuts and applied the appropriate changes; the final product is lean and easily digested, without the ponderousness of the 600+ page novel to throw around. In short: this is dazzling mainstream entertainment. It hits all the right notes, it's compulsively and joyously watchable, and -- series placeholder or not -- it's one of the best films of the year.

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) 69
Let me take a moment to set the record straight on this one: Quentin Tarantino did not direct Hero. In fact, the man had nothing whatsoever to do with it. He was just the go-to guy who put up the money for its American distribution (which, no doubt, we all thank him and his pocketbook for; the US was actually among the last countries this thing ever got released in!). In reality, it was directed by Chinese filmmaker extraordinaire Zhang Yimou, who probably in large part because of this film is undoubtedly one of Asia's most famous living directors. And while I still prefer both of Yimou's more recent martial arts excursions (House of Flying Daggers and especially Curse of the Golden Flower), it's impossible to deny this is a very good film. Few men have a sharper eye for the visually arresting and downright beautiful than Yimou, and every last frame of this thing is something I wouldn't be ashamed to hang on my wall. The he-said/she-said narrative is a bit of a jumble and lacks any particular emotional resonance, but of course that's not really why you'd watch a film like this. It's purty, the fight scenes are awesome, and it holds up to repeat viewings. 'Nuff said.

The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958) 79
Er, how had I not seen this before? This is the film that George Lucas openly admits he took most of his ideas for Star Wars from, and while not a direct copy, it's very easy to see where he drew his inspiration. Truth be told, this is much more lightweight than the bulk of Kurosawa's work. His usual themes of humanity, redemption, and honor are present, but displayed under the guise of an adventure/comedy instead of a deeply moralistic samurai parable (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, etc.). Even still, it feels inherently Kurosawa, and like nearly all of his samurai collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, it's pretty much awesome. Honestly, this thing's just a lot of fun. Mifune's always a badass, the bumbling peasants are consistently amusing, the cinematography is great (but of course), and overall it's another gold star for one of the best-ever filmmakers. If there's one minor quibble I have, it's that the duel scene seems to go on for a really long time. Other than that, this is rockin'. And to think I got the Criterion disc used at Hastings for, like, $7 or something. Whatta steal.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) 68
To date, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is probably the most "critically acclaimed" movie of 2009. There's been nary a bad review to be found. I want to set the record straight, though. Is it a good film? Absolutely. Is it one of the greatest war movies ever made, as some have said? Well, lest we be so eager to discount the likes of Apocalypse Now and Schindler's List, not hardly. I think the reason why critics have gone so apeshit for it isn't because it really is some sort of masterpiece, but because -- like it or not -- it's still way better than the majority of the wannabe-didactic Iraqi bullshit Hollywood has been putting out. I'm as opposed to our actions in Iraq as anyone, but if I have to sit through one more sneering cinematic diatribe on the subject, I might just kill someone. The Hurt Locker, like an angel, avoids politics. It's a film not about the war, but about the smaller things that happen within it. When its action scenes get going, things get really tense really fast. This is the distinction between action in the blockbuster sense and action in the sense of something more satisfying; the difference between wanting to see shit blow up and, in this case, praying to god it doesn't. There are at least three or four edge-of-your-seat suspense sequences here, and it is to these that the film is anchored. Where it falters is in its unwillingness to properly develop its main character: the reckless, borderline psychotic Sgt. James is one of the most compelling protagonists in a good long while. Given the right motivation and backstory, this could be a zinger of a film. As the film presents him, though, he's merely an intriguing curiosity who serves to get the adrenaline pumping. And that's a shame. The good news is, there's plenty of adrenaline and tension to go around. If that's what you're in the mood for, step right up. I wanted a little bit more, but even in my mild dissatisfaction I can't deny that this is a very strong film.

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) 67 [edited US version] / 72 [int'l version]
I'm still not entirely sure why I like this film so much. I mean, really. It's psychosexually perverse, graphically violent for no reason other than it can be, and lacking any especially strong storyline that might somehow justify the first two. By all accounts, I should not like it; in most cases, I wouldn't. But I do. A lot. So I return to my original assumption that Miike is somehow tapping into a subconscious, ideological impulse that -- by all accounts -- is probably better left alone. God knows, if I explored further, what I might find out about myself. And yet, as potentially objectionable as some of the film's content might be, I paradoxically find myself incensed that an edited version exists. The first time I saw this, I rented the original, uncut version; the second time, with friends, we picked up the "heavily cut" one. From memory, it seems to omit most of the really grotesque stuff (for instance, pouring boiling water on the guy who gets hung by the hooks) and even a couple fairly important nonviolent scenes. Not unexpectedly, the movie becomes noticeably inferior. Not by any significant amount or anything -- I mean, the gist is still there -- but even so, what's the point? In a movie that thrives on its nasty details, what purpose could it serve to cut anything out? It hardly becomes a squeaky-clean, family-friendly romp as a result. So just leave it alone. It was fine before. Too fine, actually. I'm still bothered by how fine it was. I'm going to go off and wrestle with this one some more. Or maybe watch something else to put it out of my mind. You talk amongst yourselves.

if.... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) 61
Very, very, very weird (and utterly British) social commentary that doesn't really succeed at anything it tries to do, but somehow remains bizarrely captivating. It drifts freewheelingly between fantasy and reality (even though they're handled with exactly the same tone, I think it's pretty easy to tell which is which), switches randomly between B&W and color for no reason whatsoever, and fails to arrive at any kind of satisfying resolution (as mentioned before, I'm of the firm belief that the last five minutes exist solely within the imaginations of the three main characters). And yet, somehow, it's entirely watchable. I really can't explain it. Nonetheless, one indisputably good thing came out of it: this was the film that led Kubrick to cast Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (in which he gives one of the all-time great performances), so there you go.

Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002) 48
A dull, unexceptional, storyless tale of rich-kid angst. Those of us who have read The Catcher in the Rye have had all of this before, and infinitely better. At least Holden Caulfield is identifiable; Igby's just kind of a prick. More to the point, there's really no one at all in this film worth caring about. It's mildly funny throughout, but so what? It doesn't really have anything else going for it, and for what it's trying to do it really needs to. It's not a bad film, perce; it's just a startlingly mediocre and forgettable one. I mean, I watched this thing three days ago and I can't remember half of what happened. That can't be good.

Imprint (Takashi Miike, 2006) 17
There is a fine line between scary and disgusting. Imprint is disgusting, in every sense of the word. While you're at it, add pointless, ludicrous, and hateful to that list. Miike is a talented filmmaker; I can only wonder what he could have possibly been getting at by making this. Originally intended for Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series, Miike's delightful 63-minute romp was banned from cable broadcast because it's, ya know, fucking disgusting and has no cinematic merit whatsoever. Any skill at all that went into the making of this (and there's unfortunately lots of evidence that some very good people worked on it; Miike's direction, for one, is in top form) is immediately nullified by how extremely unpleasant the damn thing is to sit through. I can't even see how this would entertain someone: it's got a graphic torture scene that rivals the infinitely better Audition (even though I still wasn't a fan) at its most sadistic, a meanspirited tone that is offputting in ways I find hard to describe, and a twist ending that amounts to the biggest "WHAT?!" I've had in a very, very, very long time. So, yeah. Even if you're like me and are currently on a Miike kick, do yourself a huge favor and actively avoid this. It's fucking terrible. See Ichi the Killer instead. Or Sukiyaki Western Django. Or even the above-reviewed Crows Zero. They may be just as bloody, but they all have something Imprint sorely lacks: anything whatsoever to justify its existence.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) 94
Simply put, films like Inglourious Basterds are why I love movies. This is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, overflowing with audacity, originality, and straight-up adrenaline. It is everything I could have wanted from it and more, and when it comes time to count down the best films of 2009, I have a really strong feeling about what's going to be #1. Not that I didn't expect this: when I see a film by Quentin Tarantino, I expect nothing less than a masterpiece. Of course there was the usual amount of trepidation about the film living up to expectations and so forth, but I quickly forgot about this as I settled back into the most immersive and satisfying moviegoing experience I've had in more time than I care to think about. It's rare to see a movie where everything clicks. It's even more of a treat when everything clicks in such a dazzling, invigorating sequence of events that you wish the film would never end. I've endured some interminable 90-minute films; Inglourious Basterds' 152 minutes almost seem nonexistent. The way Tarantino deliberately crafts his characters and skillfully builds his storyline is a testament to his mastery. The film never rushes anything, but it never feels drawn-out; it is entertaining from scene one (and scene one is, perhaps, the single finest scene from any film all year), funny when it needs to be, shocking and ruthlessly tense when the ever-escalating story calls for it, and never anything less than an absolute joy to behold. If Christoph Waltz is not given Oscar consideration for his performance as Hans Landa, the Academy needs to have their collective head examined. Likewise, if this film does not do tremendously well at the box office, the world at large just won't know what they're missing. Especially after enduring so many bad sequels and cheap retreads, everyone of a like mind needs to behold what Tarantino has accomplished here. It does the soul good.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) DNE
In a sense, this is the film Lynch has been destined to make his whole career: a dense, thick, disturbing, utterly incoherent labyrinth of remarkably well-composed moments that winds on and on and on through an astonishing, WTF-worthy 179-minute runtime. I regard it fondly as an Experience, but assinging a numerical score to it is just as impossible as recommending it to anyone who isn't already really confident in their Lynch fandom. And if you aren't sure or haven't seen a Lynch film, dear god don't start here: Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are much, much, much more user-friendly.

In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute, 1997) 74
A fucking vicious piece of work, which is exactly what's so damn good about it. I'm always slightly irritated by potentially incisive films that self-consciously strive to be soft around the edges in order to make themselves more marketable. In the Company of Men is a film that doesn't care. It's nasty, hateful, brutal, and mean. And while it's the sort of thing that's more or less impossible to sit through without feeling some pretty intense discomfort, it's also sobering and refreshing. For all its meanspiritedness, one cannot accuse the film of being bad (LaBute definitely overuses the long shot, I think, but that's a total trifling nitpick). In hindsight, it's easy to see why this was the film that put Aaron Eckhart on the map: his character, more so than the vast majority of screen villains I have ever seen, embodies a natural, coldblooded evil that simply cannot be put into words. The performance is dynamic, and the shining center of what is overall an incredibly ballsy production. Even twelve years later, the film has absolutely zero potential for wide recognition, but all film buffs should do themselves a favor and check it out. It will never ever ever be referred to as a feel-good movie, but at the same time it's so nice to watch a film that not only has teeth so razor-sharp they draw blood, but one that actively enjoys doing so.

In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) 83
Vicious, meanspirited political satire that is every bit as hilarious as it is nasty. It deftly combines the fly-on-the-wall atmosphere of something like The Office with the abject idiocy of Dr. Strangelove to form the best movie of its kind in years. Highly recommended.

I Sell the Dead (Glenn McQuaid, 2009) 55
A very uneven, but amusing and entertaining horror-comedy flick. McQuaid is far more interested in getting laughs than actually telling a story, so he throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Sometimes it works (the awesome vampire scene), sometimes it doesn't (yeah, okay, the so-called twist is really lame). On the whole, though, it delivers what is expected of it. It could be a whole lot better, but that's sort of beside the point.

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) 82
I guess my own personal hero-worship of Mr. Tarantino leads me to overestimate how much other people like him. The group I watched this with, as a whole, did not seem to enjoy it quite as much as I expected. But hey, that's what makes for horse races. I love it. I'm giving it an 82, which -- despite how many high ratings I've been giving out lately (a misleading consequence of rewatching favorites and not watching new ones) -- is still a ridiculously good score. And it's really only my third-favorite Tarantino flick (Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are, of course, firmly embedded in the uppermost tier of my rating scale, while the still-awesome Reservoir Dogs is in my opinion his weakest). Still, like it or not, this has got his fingerprints all over it. Despite being his only adapted screenplay to date, the film is still unmistakably his, and personal responses are no doubt going to hinge on that. It is long and it is deliberately paced, but for my money it never once stops being entertaining or enjoyable. So there we are.

Jacob's Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990) 47
An intriguing, well-directed, and even slightly creepy thriller that unfortunately suffers from a script that doesn't know how to handle these strengths. It isn't that the film is plagued by a lack of ideas -- on the contrary, there's practically an overabundance of them, and that's what makes it so damn hard for the script to reconcile all of them into a decent conclusion. Between war flashbacks, drug conspiracy, vivid hallucinations, and elaborate dream/reality confusion, there's a lot going on here; it's just a shame that the cleanest, tidiest interpretation of the ending (and thus the one I'm assuming is the "right" one) is actually the least satisfying. Oh well. While the film is unspooling, at least, it's captivating. I don't think there was a moment throughout when I wasn't engaged in Jacob's story and all of the bizarre, unsettling things that were happening to him. It's just ... ya know, when you get involved like that, you kind of wish the story would come full circle and really give you something to write home about. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, also in reference to wartime death: "So it goes."