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."