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.