Friday, January 27, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 2003

Wow, this was a dreadful year for movies. I only saw 26 of them, and only 20 are any good, with only one great movie in the bunch. I hope there are a bunch of gems I haven't seen.

26. American Wedding
25. Matrix Revolutions
24. Daredevil
23. Intolerable Cruelty
22. A Mighty Wind
21. Underworld
20. Angels In America
19. Shattered Glass
18. Old School
17. Matrix Reloaded
16. A Decade Under The Influence

15. Masked And Anonymous - Bob Dylan stars in this weird film he co-wrote along with Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage) as a singer who gets released from prison to perform at a benefit concert. The movie doesn't make a whole lot of sense, there's a bunch of famous actors giving mostly interesting little performances in bit parts: Jeff bridges, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn (RIP), Giovanni Ribisi, Christian Slater, Fred Ward, and Jessica Lange. The whole film plays as one of dylan's old weird character-filled songs, like Desolation Row or Stuck Inside of Mobile. It's isn't nearly as good as those songs, of course, but it's generally fun to watch. The musical parts of the movie are the best part, the soundtracks mostly made up of Dylan covers from around the world, though he gets the band together to do a few numbers himself, including a great version of Dixie. For Dylan fans only, most likely.

14. The Animatrix - A series of short films that take place in-between thee Matrix and it's two sequels. Much like the animated shorts that accompanied the Star Wars prequels, they end up being better than the very expensive films they're supposed to supplement. Not all of the shorts are great, but most of them are pretty good.

13. Pirates Of The Carribean - Very overrated, yet still pretty fun movie based on a theme park ride. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush have a lot of fun hamming it up as the Pirates, Keira Knightley does a good job of looking pretty and Orlando Bloom. . .well, he's pretty too I guess, not much of an actor though. This movie was a huge hit, largely because everything else that summer was even worse. Director Gore Verbinski is also responsible for The Ring, The Mexican and the classic Mousehunt.

12. X-Men 2 - Much the same as the first one, and the two Spider-Man movies, it's a good action movie that is nonetheless lacking in soul, or anything particularly memorable. Perhaps the whole anti-mutant frenzy as an analogy for racism or whatever would be more interesting if i hadn't already read it in the comic book 20 years ago. Still, it's a well-done and competent film, maybe a little better than the first one, though they tend to run together in my memory.

11. Gods And Generals - The second film of the big Civil War Trilogy that's actually the first third of the story, with Gettysburg (#22, 1993) being the middle part. It's not as good as Gettysburg, largely because it spends too much tme of the God part: trying to demonstrate who religious the Southern generals were, attempting to make the case that they really were good people, something I could almost believe if these same people hadn't done everything they could to kill thousands of people in the name of preserving their right to enslave black people. The film depicts Lee and Jackson and the other Generals as essentially good people who made a decision based on loyalty to their home state over their own sense of morality (Lee and Jackson both have black friends, IIRC), but it doesn't condemn them for it, the film seems to think that they made a reasonably moral decision, which is false. Aside from that, the historical recreations and battle scenes are all outstanding.

10. Lost In Translation - Seriously overrated movie, presumably by people who've never seen a movie about alienation before. Bill Murray continues his late career run of disaffected middle-aged man roles, except Sofia Coppola's nowhere near as interesting a director as Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch. The movie's actually pretty good until the last 20 minutes or so, when Coppola cops out and turns the movie into some kind of tragic romance. It's not so much that the romance is lame, as that it's the cheap way out of the movie. And there's the annoying "Sofia Coppola hates Cameron Diaz" character that's more axe-grinding than trying to make a good movie.

9. Down With Love - Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor star in this homage to/parody of the Doris Day sex comedies of the early 60s. McGregor plays the womanizing jouranlist trying to woo the author Zellweger in an attempt to disprove the thesis of her hit feminist abti-love advice book. Schemes and antics abound. It's shot with a lot of style, pastel technicolors, witty split screens and so on, and the cast (which also includes David Hyde Pierce and Rachel Dratch) is great at the screwball comedy dialogue.

8. The Fog Of War - Errol Morris is by far the best documentarian working today, even if he has only the smallest fraction of the hype Michael Moore gets. This isn't my favorite of his films, I prefer The Thin Blue Line (#16, 1988), A Brief History Of Time (#19, 1991), and Fast, Cheap And Out Of Control (#18, 1997), but it's that kind of year. The film essentially a long interview with Robert McNamera, as Morris pretty much lets him talk and talk in an attempt to justify himself and his actions throughout World War 2, the Cold War and Vietnam. It's the moments when Morris interrupts him and starts questioning him, and sounding pretty angry that are so striking. Morris usually just lets his subjects speak for themselves, so when he does speak up, you know it must be important. Still, the degree Morris allows McNamera to make his own case is what makes this a much better documentary than Eugene Jarecki's The Trials Of Henry Kissinger (#23, 2002), which exists only to indict its subject.

7. School Of Rock - One of the benefits of not paying attention to contemporary music for most of the late 90s and early 2000s was that I managed to not get burnt out on Jack Black before this movie came out. Black's terrifically funny, and his obvious love for classic rock music is infectious as he plays a very annoying, but very enthusiastic wannabe rock star who ends up teaching a class of prep school kids to appreciate the wonders of Led Zeppelin, Rush and AC/DC. The moviee also stars Joan Cusak, Mike White and the great Sarah Silverman. Director Richard Linklater's building an odd career for himself, much like Robert Rodriguez, he seems to be alternating art movies and family films, only with less success on both sides of the spectrum.

6. Hulk - Halfway between a regular Ang Lee movie (dysfunctional families, lots of slow drama) and a modern comic book movie (the Spider-Man and X-Men movies), most people hated this film. The Ang Lee fans hated the comic book elements, the comic book fans hated the complexity of character and slow pace. Few of us, though, like both Ang Lee and comic books. It's easily the best of the recent comic adaptations, and is potentially surpassed only by this year's Sin City in the inventiveness of it's translation of comic to film. Eric Bana is very good in the lead role, and Jennifer Connelly is, well, Jennifer Connelly. Nick Nolte's a bit too over the top as the evil father, though.

5. Once Upon A Time In Mexico - The third part of Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi Trilogy is a lot more Once Upon A Time In China than Once Upon A Time In America (or The West) in that is purely an action movie and not a Leone-esque epic statement about, well, anything. On that level, it works extremely well, though not as much as some of the great action movies of the decade or so, but again, this is a pretty bad year. This is easily the biggest of the Mariachi films (El Mariachi, #17, 1992; Desperado, #18, 1995) and is probably the best, though that's a real tough call. It's got a great, very funny supporting performance by Johnny Depp and good performances by Mickey Rourke and Ruben Blades, among others. There's far too little Salma Hayek though.

4. Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior - Now here's a great action movie. An homage/return/copy of the old, lower budget Hong Kong action movie of the late 80s and early 90s, Tony Jaa stars as the small town kid sent to the big city to recover his villages Buddha, which has been stolen by evil bad guys. Fortunately, Jaa also happens to be a badass Muay Thai expert (this appears to be a martial art that relies a lot on hitting people very hard with your elbows). he meets up with some exvillagers who help things out by functioning as comic relief and bystanders for Jaa to rescue, he takes on an increasingly large segment of the Thai underworld, and performs some spectacular stunts. One of the cool things about the movie (though not necessarily original) is that after he does something really cool, the film will instant replay it in slow motion and from various camera angles. Since spectacle is what these types of films are all about, from Buster Keaton to Jacques Tati to Jackie Chan, it's cool to see these stunts treated as the athletic feats they truly are.

3. Return Of The King - But for those lame hobbits bouncing on the bed in slow motion, this would be a great movie. Once again, I'm split between loving everything about the Aragorn storyline (the ghost army, the huge final battle scene, the resolution of the Liv Tyler issues) and getting really annoyed with the Frodo story (more Sean Astin speechifying, leaving the Shire untouched, the interminable ending). This is my least favorite of the three movie, though there's a whole lot to like about it. The trilogy taken as a whole is certainly the most significant work this decade thus far, as popular entertainment goes, it doesn't get a whole lot better.

2. Master And Commander - It was always going to be hard for me to like this film, since long before it was announced, I'd read all twenty of Patrick O'Brien's Master And Commander books and really loved them. Russelll Crowe is certainy not the Jack Aubrey I'd imagined, but nevertheless, he does a very good job. Paul Bettany makes a pretty good Stephen Maturin, though they made some annoying changes to his character: in the books, Maturin's a former Irish Revolutionary and works as a spy against Napoleon for the British government and for the Catalan Independence movement. He's certainly not the anti-violence audience surrogate the film makes him out to be. Sure, I understand the necessity of having someone the audience can identify with around to explain the alien world of the British Navy, but Maturin manages to perform that function quite well in the books without being a pacifist. I also would have preferred it if they had just made a film of the first book, instead of mixing up a whole bunch of them into something with such a ridiculously long title. My favorite Russell Crowe movie, and my favorite Peter Weir movie.

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1 - There's not a single year thus far that has a bigger gap between my #1 and #2 movies of the year. That's a reflection of both how good Kill Bill is and how bad a year 2003 was (and maybe of how few movies I've seen from this year). I wrote a long post about this movie early in the life of this blog, back when I occasionally got comments. You can read it here. My opinion hasn't changed in the last few months. Here's most of it "it's the economy of the script that really stands out to me. The way Tarantino can create wholly unique, interesting and memorable characters with just a few lines of dialogue is amazing. For a film with so little dialogue, there are a remarkable number of fascinating characters in Kill Bill: Hattori Hanzo, GoGo Yubari, O-Ren Ishii, Buck, The Sherriff, not to mention The Bride herself.
"And there's more: terrific acting by Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, and, especially, Sonny Chiba, the best use of music of any Tarantino film, and any film at all since Boogie Nights, the great, long steadycam tracking shot setting the scene for the House of The Blue Leaves sequence, the absurd, yet beautiful, snowscape for the final battle between The Bride and O-Ren, the audacity of putting a long (violent) anime sequence right in the middle of the film, and on and on.
"There isn't a filmmaker alive who loves movies more than Quentin Tarantino, and that shows in every frame of this movie. It's a movie for people who love movies by people who love movies. It isn't surprising, then, that film geeks tend to like it a lot more than normal people."

Like I've been saying, there's a lot of movies that'd make this list that I just haven't seen from this year. Oldboy's near the top of my Netflix queue, and someday I intend to watch some Hou Hsao-hsien movies (like Café Lumière) (Jonathon Rosenbaum digs him, and he is my favorite film critic) and Coffee and Cigarettes is the only available Jarmusch movie I haven't seen.

Cafe Lumiere
The Dreamers
Festival Express
Coffee And Cigarettes
Open Water
American Splendor
The Triplets Of Belleville
The Cooler
The Corporation
The Last Samurai
Finding Nemo
Terminator 3
Mystic River
21 Grams
Cold Mountain
Bad Boys 2
Bad Santa
Open Range
Capturing The Friedmans
The Station Agent
The Italian Job
Anything Else
The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill
The Missing
The Company

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Movies Of The Year: 2002

Another mediocre movie year for the 2000s, as there's really only 4 classic movies I've seen from this year. Most of the movies on this list are decent, but almost all of them have real serious flaws, or just aren't anything special.

29. Red Dragon
28. Sweet Home Alabama
27. Austin Powers: Goldmember
26. Ice Age
25. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
24. Resident Evil
23. The Trials Of Henry Kissinger
22. Frida
21. Spellbound
20. The Business Of Fancydancing
19. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
18. 28 Days Later
17. About Schmidt
16. The Bourne Identity

15. Attack Of The Clones - Some of the worst scenes in any Star Wars film are the "love" scenes between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christiansen in this film. They're truly abysmal. But everything else in the film is great. There's an exciting opening chase sequence, followed by an interesting detective mission by Ewan McGregor, and the last 45 minutes or so of the film are great action scenes. If not for those God awful attempts at romance, this would be a great movie.

14. 8 Mile - I'm not an Eminem fan at all, and don't really know much about him, beyond the broad generalizations you overhear in the media. So I came to this film largely ignorant of all that backstory that more up-to-date audiences would know. So to me, the movie is simply a coming-of-age story set in a world I'd not yet seen depicted in film. Good direction by the uneven Curtis Hansen, along with effective acting by Eminem, Mekhi Phifer and Brittany Murphy (not Kim Basinger) help make the setting interesting and the generic story successful.

13. Spider-Man - The best of the recent slew of comic book movies, if only it's sequel had actually been a sequel instead of a remake, but that's another year. Sam Raimi has always been an interesting director, but I can't say there's anything interesting about his style anymore. He seems to have moved into a Howard Hawks period in the wake of the negative reaction to The Quick And The Dead (#11, 1995), making conventional movies in a more invisible style. As such, his Spider-Man films are notable among comic book movies only for their competence in execution.

12. Gangs Of New York - Another film that might have been great. There are parts of this film that are outstanding: the opening battle scene, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, the brilliant recreation of 19th century New York, the draft riot scenes. The problem is Cameron Diaz. Her character is annoying and pointless. If every scene with her, and every reference to her character had been cut out, this film would be great instead of the bloated mess it unfortunately is.

11. The 25th Hour - Is there ay director working today more uneven than Spike Lee? This is one of his better recent films, the good part of the pattern along with He Got Game (#21, 1998) and Summer Of Sam (#18, 1999). In this case, it's the great cast that makes it worthwhile. Edward Norton is typically great in the lead as a man spending his last day of freedom before going off to jail. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin also star.

10. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind - George Clooney's directorial debut is a fun, albeit flawed, film about a game show host who may or may not be a hitman for the CIA. Sam Rockwell is great as Chuck Barris, the guy with the delusions, and the rest of the all-star cast is, well, all-star: Drew Barrymore, Juliia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney. The screenplay's by Charlie Kaufman, and this, while not as good as his other top 10 film this year, is certainly his most fun movie, the one that least made me want to hit something, or someone (usually Charlie Kaufman).

9. 24 Hour Party People - That's two straight films featuring virtuoso lead performances of 70s cultural icons by largely unknown actors. This time, Steve Coogan plays Tony Wilson, the impressario influential in the Manchester music scene in the late 70s and through the 80s. The film is about Wilson, and only incidentally about the music, which is fine because, despite the typical rise and fall structure of his story (drugs are bad!) he's just such an interesting character. The music is great, mostly feature Wilson's bands Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, along with the requisite period appropriate music (ie, The Sex Pistols). Directed by Michael Winterbottom, who some think is great. I can't say if he is though, because this is the only one of his films I've seen.

8. Minority Report - Another great year for Steven Spielberg, as he's got 2 of the top 8 films of the year. This is the darker one of the two, though it's not as twisted as AI (#6, 2001), you can definitely see Spielberg slowly starting to mature in these two films, perhaps under the influence of Stanley Kubrick and Philip K. Dick (who wrote the short story this film is based on). This film, I think, is actually hurt by having Tom Cruise in the lead. While I like Cruise, and think he's a terrific movie star, he just doesn't have enough depth as an actor to bring a believable sense of despair and ultimately, desperation to the lead character in this film. Still, the movie is visually brilliant, some of Spielberg's most inventive work. And the other members of the cast are very good, especially a breakthrough performance from Colin Farrell and typical great work from Samantha Morton.

7. Adaptation - My favorite Charlie Kaufman film, depending on how much I allow myself to be annoyed by the ending. I get the idea, the joke. I get the idea in all of Kaufman's film. that's kind of the problem: he's not as smart as people seem to think he is, and it seems he tries to be clever to cover up for that. His films end up being both too cute and too pretentious, and perhaps unrelated, very misanthropic. Being John Malkovich (#30, 1999) is the worst offender in this regard. But this, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind suffer from this flaw, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind much less so. What redeems this film for me are the great performances: Nicholas Cage in the dual lead role, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Tilda Swinton. The cast also includes Brian Cox, Ron Livingston, Judy Greer, Steven Tobolowsky and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

6. Catch Me If You Can - Speilberg's film about the hunting down of a con artist is told with a light and breezy touch that's very much a contrast to the darker sci-fi films that preceded it. Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom hanks are pretty good in the leads as the con man and the detective who spends years tracking him down. It's got one of the best credit sequences ever, and it's style nicely echos that 70s modern style of the film itself. The big problem, though, is that the film's sheer length counteracts the effect of that lightness. The film drags toward the end, and it never really gives us anything to make that 141 minute length worthwhile. And I like long movies, generally speaking.

5. Bowling For Columbine - Yes, another flawed film, another film whose ending prevents it from being great. Just one of those years, I guess. Up until that ending, this is easily Michael Moore's best, and most balanced (though I don't especially care about that) film. The film has been pigeonholed as an attack on guns by a left wing wacko, an opinion that can only be reached by not actually watching the film. Instead, Moore questions whether or not guns are the problem, examines it from a number of angles, and ultimately concludes that they aren't, that it's our news media and politicians and the "culture of fear" they've created that's the problem. This is why the attack on Charleton Heston at the end of the film is gratuitous and just plain mean-spirited. It does nothing to further the thesis of the film, or our understanding of the issue. All it does is make Heston look bad. But the cartoon's hilarious.

4. The Two Towers - This one os tough to rate, because half of this movie are some of my favorite parts of the whole LOTR trilogy, while the other half are some of my least favorite. Put succinctly: Aragorn good, Frodo boring. More specifically, as an enormous geek, I hate how they changed the Frodo storyline to make the Faramir character more like his brother and less awesome. If you don't know what I mean, you haven't read the book and probably should stop reading this and go read it right now. The extended version of this one is essential. The storyline involving (the fairly dreadful) Liv Tyler only makes sense in the long version, and actually approaches being interesting as the love triangle between Aragorn, Arwyn and Eowyn is fleshed out. In the theatrical release, it was just confusing and annoying. The big battle scene at the end is, of course, worth the cheesy Sean Astin speeches at the end of the film.

3. Punch-Drunk Love - Director Paul Thomas Anderson followed the amazing, yet depressing Magnolia (#3, 1999) with this bizarre film starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. Generically, it's almost impossible to place. It's a romantic comedy that doesn't try to be funny. A romantic drama that's totally absurd and unbelievable. An Adam Sandler film that doesn't have any jokes. The best I can do is call it a musical. It's the music and the colors that matter. There exists the basic necessities of a plot and really only one character, Sandler's, is developed in any kind of detail, albeit obliquely and never entirely satisfactorily. The film is all emotion, something that's better conveyed with music and color and tone than backstory and psychology and jokes. A beautiful film, I can't think of any I'd compare it to. . .maybe The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, or a Powell and Pressburger masterpiece like The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus? Truffaut's "joy of making cinema" at it's finest.

2. City Of God - I avoided seeing this film for a long time, despite it playing my theatres in two separate runs and rave reviews from anyone who saw it. I had the mistaken impression that it would be another social commentary film about how tough it is to be a poor kid in the third world, a fact I empathize with but don't feel the need to see a depressing film about. Imagine my surprise when I finally got around to watching it and discovered the best pure crime movie since Menace II Society (#7, 1993) or even Goodfellas (#2, 1990). The Goodfellas comparison is more common as both films cover a long stretch of time (the same stretch IIRC) and track their subjects from childhood through a rise to criminal power and eventual disastrous fall. It does have the richness in setting, style and characters that Goodfellas has, but in mindset it seems much closer to Menace to me, in that it's more about escaping the senseless, chaotic violence of street gang life than it is a psuedo-glorification of the Mafia lifestyle. Seu Jorge's character Knockout Ned is the character those other two films really lacked: the decent guy who gets sucked into the gang lifestyle but tries, but never really succeeds, to assert a sense of honor into it. He's the opposite of Larenz Tate's O-Dogg, the nihilistic psychopath. Seu Jorge is also the Brazilian singer who did all the great David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic.

1. Hero - I almost swapped this and City Of God for ideological reasons. I have a feeling that Hero is perceived in the PRC as a justification for totalitarianism. The problem is Tony Leung's rationale for renouncing his lifelong attempt to assassinate the evil Qin Emperor. He comes to the conclusion that "Our Land" needs to be unified, and that Qin is the only one who can unify it. Thus, an evil leader is to be tolerated because we need that powerful ruler to control us, otherwise, we have chaos. You can see how the present Chinese government might find that a comforting thought. Ultimately, though, I was convinced to let the film's aesthetic merits overcome my objection. And the film truly is beautiful, certainly the most visually stunning martial arts movie ever made, which is saying a lot given the recent competition of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (#1, 2000) and director Zhang Yimou's own follow-up to Hero, The House Of Flying Daggers. The cast is equally outstanding, with Jet Li finally getting the chance to star in an art movie, along with the great Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and, of course, Zhang Ziyi. One of the higher priorities on my film to-do list is to watch Zhang Yimou's earlier films, none of which I have, to my shame, ever seen.

Another year where the Unseen outnumbers the Movies I've seen. Despite playing My Big Fat Greek Wedding at my theatre for a year, I'm proud to say I have never, and will never, see it:

Infernal Affairs
Far From Heaven
In America
The Scorpion King
Whale Rider
The Transporter
Talk To Her
Bend It Like Beckham
Changing Lanes
Roger Dodger
The Quiet American
Dirty Pretty Things
Bubba Ho-Tep
Igby Goes Down
Death To Smoochy
The Good Girl
The Hours
One Hour Photo
About A Boy
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Panic Room
Road To Perdition
The Ring
The Pianist
To Be And To Have
The Powerpuff Girls Movie
Mr. Deeds
The Kid Stays In The Picture
Lost In La Mancha
The Four Feathers
The Truth About Charlie
Auto Focus
Femme Fatale
Personal Velocity
Star trek: Nemesis

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Super Sunday

The Seattle Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl.


In other news, I saw a couple movies this weekend. Terrence Malick's latest film, The New World, managed to just about live up to my immense expectations for it. It's very hard to describe if you haven't already seen it, or seen any other Malick movies. The plot revolves around the relationship between Pocahontas and the colonists John Smith and John Rolfe. But, as with every Malick film, plot is never really what the movie is about. It has everything you expect from one of his films: poetic, sometimes ridiculously so, voiceovers, long shots of nature being nature (or not), very little dialogue and a way of looking at a familiar subject that I, at least, had never quite thought of before. In this case, the film seems to be playing with the idea conveyed in the title: for the English, America is The New World, but for Pocahontas and the Indians, it's England that's new. The film only becomes truly extraordinary when Pocahontas and Rolfe travel back to England, and we see that world though her eyes. What results is the idea, contrary to the superficial view of Malick as a tree-hugging anti-modern freak that's the easy way out of interpreting The Thin Red Line, that there's magic in both chaotic and overgrown America and in urban, manicured England. That the Old World inevitable leads to the New, and that there isn't really much difference between them anyway.
At least that's my early, rather incoherent impression of the film.

We also watched Melinda and Melinda today. it was alright. Nothing all that interesting though. Will Farrell's Woody Allen impression was annoying. The rest of the film was basically just bits and pieces of other, better, Woody Allen films all chopped up and mixed together.