Tuesday, December 22, 2009


When the first ads for Avatar came out, promising that the movie would "revolutionize" film, it was the duty of all thinking people to snort derisively. What hubris! But now it is indeed clear that James Cameron is redefining the relationship between film and film audience. Traditionally, film has been a narrative medium, analogous to literature or theater, and designed to engage its audience with a compelling plot and fully realized characters. The interaction between film and filmgoer is, above all, an intellectual one, and a film's capacity to enthrall an audience rests primarily in its ability to generate satisfying plot and character dynamics. The rise of the blockbuster has seen a number of filmmakers (cough!MichaelBay!cough!) who've tried turn film into pure mindless spectacle, but they've all failed. Explosions and gunshots, no matter how grandiose, and no matter how large a screen they're projected on, are always experienced at enough of a remove to prevent the audience from being fully transported by them. Until now. Avatar's fully immersive CGI universe points towards a radically new conception of cinema, one that engages the audience on a purely visceral level. It's a type of cinema where inventive plots and textured characters are, at best, vestigial, and at worst dire distractions from the sensory overload on display. Cameron's 3D wizardry and operatic scale are designed to bypass the intellect and stimulate the reactive senses. The sort of films that will follow in Avatar's path will be so distinctly different from something like, say, Up in the Air, that they won't even be considered the same art form. James Cameron is pioneering an entirely new genre: cinema as theme park ride.

The only problem is that Cameron doesn't seem to know that he's doing this. The stock characters and the plot pilfered straight from Dances With Wolves would be forgivable if Cameron viewed them as regrettable elements that are necessary to build his overwhelming audio/visual universe. Instead, he seems to take the white guilt narrative and heavy-handed politico-historical allegory seriously. And so the movie spends lots and lots of time on the kind of tooth-grindingly patronizing business (a white man discovering that the 'primitive' race is noble and pure, but not quite smart enough to defend themselves without the leadership of a White Messiah) that would give Kevin Costner and Steven Seagal mindboners. It's a painfully earnest and obvious scenario played out by hand-me-down characters from other, better James Cameron films.

But just when you're ready to hunt down James Cameron and kick him in his well-intentioned but privilege-addled nuts...a giant rhinoceros-looking thing charges through a richly detailed jungle and right into your grill, a giant mecha-mercenary crashes through a river and the air in front of you fills with mist, pterodactylesque creatures plunges through the sky and you get a momentary headrush of vertigo. In those moments, Avatar isn't just another muddle-headed exercise in empty spectacle. It's an experience and one unlike anything you've ever had in a movie theater before. It's a full-sense emergence in an exquisitely detailed, fully realized 360 degree alien landscape. And then it's Dancing with Space Smurfs again.

The contrast between the lukewarm cliches of the narrative and the full-tilt techno-gasm of the imagery may cause brain leakage, but it's a byproduct of the protean nature of Cameron's unwitting paradigm shift. Avatar is an intermediate species, like one of those prehistoric fish with wrist bones. In the future, this sort of technology will go towards making hour-long non-narrative films that immerse the audience in exotic and intense environments without bothering with the drudgery and distraction of plot and characters. They'll probably have their own theater, right next to the Food-Pill dispensary and the jet pack repair shop. For now, we must endure the outdated demands of conventional cinematic structure if we want our revolutionary technological innovations.

Of course, whether it's a good idea to turn a movie into a rollercoaster is a whole other question. It might be wise to remember that there's probably a reason that the Iron Wolf only lasts two minutes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

2008:The Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer!

The retrospective won't be finished until I post the 2009 list, but there are still way too many flicks to catch up with on DVD for me to make one yet, so this will be the last one for a while.

1. The Dark Knight

What can be said has been said. Best comic book movie ever and a revolutionary blockbuster.

2. Wall-E

Will always be connected in my mind with The Dark Knight. They're two movies that came out during the same summer popcorn season that redefined what movies aiming for a mass audience are capable of.

3. In Bruges

This movie is the ultimate corrective to all the post-Pulp Fiction movies about super cool assassins and their quippy, murdery ways. Also the rare example of Colin Farrell not being insufferable.

4. Rachel Getting Married

One of the few family melodramas of the decade to contain the emotional multitudes of family life, the drama and resentment, but also the joy and sense of security.

5. Hunger

British artist Steve McQueen set out to make a movie about IRA martyr Bobby Sands and his fatal 1981 hunger strike. He had plenty of film models to work from when it comes to historical docudrama. A good example could have been 2008's other movie about imprisoned terrorists, The Baader-Meinhof Complex. It's a solid film that mixes a assiduous compilation of the exploits of West Germany's Red Army Faction with enough intimate moments with the members to give them shading and depth, but the main focus is documenting the motivations and actions of the group. McQueen goes in a completely different, and vastly more satisfying, direction by ignoring big picture questions and a blow-by-blow documentation of the "troubles." Instead, McQueen sets his film entirely inside the Maze prison in Northern Ireland and focuses entirely on the politics of the human body. The IRA prisoners in the Maze had nothing at their disposal to protest their imprisonment than their own bodies. So they refused to bath, smeared shit on their cell walls, and, in a last ditch effort to gain the attention of Margaret Thatcher's government, stopped eating. The ideology and the strategy of the IRA take a backseat to the day-to-day struggle between the prisoners and the guards over control of the prisoners bodies, and in the process McQueen generates some brilliant imagery in banal and grotesque situations: snow melting on the skinned knuckles of a punch-happy prison guard, intricate designs made from human feces being blasted from walls with a high pressure hose, a prison trustee methodically sweeping pooled urine from a hallway. McQueen has time to investigate the struggle of the flesh in all its poignant dignity because he doesn't have a list of historical incidents to dramatize. If you want to find out what happened with the Bobby Sands hunger strike, you can read his wikipedia page. McQueen offers something much more valuable and interesting than the gloomy details of the IRA hunger strike: perspective, insight and poetry.

So-bad-it's-good doubleheader: Twilight and The Happening

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: The Wrestler. This is kind of misleading, because I actually really enjoy The Wrestler, but I've been seeing it on some best of the decade lists and that seems to be a bit much. Yes, the funny script and Aranofsky's direction and Rourke's performance help elevate the sports-movie cliches, but that doesn't change the fact that much of the film is overly programmatic. And there's something sort of queasy about the way that Mickey Rourke and Randy "The Ram" sort of meld into the same person. Are you watching a great performance or are you just voyueristically grooving on the wasted wreckage of Mickey Rourke? Still, this is the only one of these "modern classic" debunkings that I actually think could qualify as a great movie (especially that fantastic ending), and it's really only here because there aren't any other plausible 2008 candidates for the position. Oh, wait! I forgot about Slumdog Millionaire! And Milk! Nevermind! The Wrestler is great.

Oscar-winning, universally-beloved movie that actually sucks out loud: Slumdog Millionaire. How long is it going to be before we can all admit that this movie isn't good? There isn't a single element of this film that isn't contrived or cliched or frankly insulting to the audience. If it weren't for the alluring "foreign-ness" of the setting, this could be any mechanical exercise in romantic audience manipulation. I mean, the supposed lovers whose relationship forms the spine of the whole movie have barely a dozen lines of dialogue together! There are like a million ridiculous plot coincidences that wouldn't make it into a Kate Hudson movie without the handy "destiny" excuse. Also, Milk.

Guillermo Del Toro achieves apotheosis: the death of the tree monster in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. All of Del Toro's films to date have revolved around the intersection of the mundane and the fantastical, and no single scene has encapsulated that dramatic contrast better than the scene in Hellboy 2 when Hellboy blows the head off of a giant tree god and it's corpse slowly melds with the crumbling tenements of the Lower East Side.

Best comedy performance: Danny McBride in The Foot-Fist Way. With this movie, McBride and collaborators Ben Best and Jody Hill took the Will Ferrell model of the comedic protagonist: oblivious idiots with unearned confidence, and took it to a new level of pathos and aggressive stupidity.

Best horror scene: the swimming pool sequence in Let the Right One In. After two hours of exquisitely slow-burning tension, this brilliant take on the vampire genre breaks out the ultraviolence in such a way that it delivers all the gory payoff a horror fan would want without betraying the film's tone.

Pornography of Violence Award: a tie between John Rambo blowing a dude up with point blank heavy machine-gun fire in Rambo and the Punisher blowing a dude's face off with a shotgun WHILE HOLDING A CHILD IN HIS ARMS in Punisher: War Zone

Line of the Year: "I'm a lead farmer, motherfucker!" --Tropic Thunder

Saturday, December 19, 2009

DVD Roundup: Humpday

The bromance has emerged as it's own genre in the past five years or so, thanks to Judd Apatow and the increasing extension of male adolescence. Most of the humor in your average bromance centers on the narrow line between platonic male camaraderie and full-on cockgobbling. Wringing cheap laughs from gay panic isn't the noblest of comedic endeavors, but the best bromances play with the poignant vulnerability of two dudes who love each other but can't express it frankly. And then there's Lynn Shelton's Humpday, which takes the bromantic comedy to it's logical, and sexy, conclusion. Married career man Ben (Mark Duplass) reconnects with his bohemian artist college buddy Andrew (Josh Leonard) and during a drunken bull session, they basically dare each other into making an amateur porn movie together for a local film festival. The ensuing drama, as the two alternate between trying to find a face-saving way to back out and convincing themselves that their very souls depend on going through with it, is frequently hilarious and always diamond-sharp in its observance of male interaction. Specifically, the delicate balance between intimacy and competition that drives dudley friendships. Ben and Andrew certainly love each other, but their slow, terrifying march towards boner-on-butthole action is driven more by their need to prove themselves to each other. Ben wants Andrew to know that he hasn't become a joyless suburban square just because he's married and has a mortgage. Andrew wants to show Ben that his open-mindedness and artistic sensibility aren't just poses. It all comes together in a fantastically awkward topless show-down in a hotel room that's got to be one of the richest, funniest scenes of the year. All in all, it's sort of the endline for all bromances. It's hard to image any new bromance covering the topic with this combination of wit and insight.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2007: My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

1. There Will Be Blood/No Country For Old Men

Don't make me choose! And I say I don't have to choose, goddamn it. These movies, with their desolate locales, portrayals of boundless evil and the meatgrinder logic of capitalism, their similar visual brilliance, and the fact that they both rocked my ass, will always be linked in my mind. I've written about how awesome these movies are before: ya'll know it! The only thing I want to point out is that the end of There Will Be Blood is sheer genius, and those who deny it can lick my butt. Also, "I'm finished" doesn't refer to Daniel Plainview's life, it refers to his dinner.

3. Grindhouse

This is a case of the whole being much, much greater than the sum of it's parts. Planet Terror is a fun gorefest, and Death Proof is a nifty genre deconstruction with a bunch of talking, but taken together, in a theater, with some hilarious fake trailers thrown in courtesy of folks like Eli Roth and Edgar Wright, and you've got a singular cinematic experience. Yes, you can knock it for being a shallow exercise in mimicry, but it's SO MUCH FUN.

4. Zodiac

I saw this movie for the first time at a packed preview screening, and one of the most memorable theater experiences of my life was the hugely audible exhalation of disappointment that burst forth from the audience over the final title cards. It's a whole film built around failure, obsession and lack of catharsis, where the brilliant structure and subject matter come together in such a way that the lack of closure on a story level actually achieves catharsis on an artistic level. Plus, the Lake Berryessa murder scene is one of the most chilling in recent film history. A bright sunny day, a beautiful lakeshore, a young couple at leisure...and who's that guy walking behind that tree? Getting serial murdered has never felt so awfully plausible.

5. Hot Fuzz

You know how Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg made Shaun of the Dead, and were able to hilariously send up the zombie genre while still delivering genuine zombie delights? They did it again with the action genre in Hot Fuzz. They also solidified their status as the makers of the most complete comedies out there. The plot isn't a necessary delivery system for jokes: every scene builds on the scene before it, with allusions, callbacks and parodies thick in the air.

Honorable Mentions in the best film year of the decade:

Margot at the Wedding, Into the Wild, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Michael Clayton, I'm Not There

Biggest gap between talent of filmmakers and quality of film: Charlie Wilson's War. Tom Hanks? Aaron Sorkin? Philip Seymour Hoffman? Mike Nichols? How the hell did this crew, which as collectively made dozens of good to great movies, completely and collectively forget how to make a film altogether?

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Atonement. Half of a great movie.

Best all-time performance by an Affleck: Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This is a beautifully shot movie with moments of pure visual poetry, bu the most memorable part of it is Casey Affleck's turn as the hero-worshiper turned murdered Robert Ford. He manages to convey a 21st century relationship with celebrity while still being credibly Olde Timey.

Best monster attack: The Host. When the amphibious mutant in The Host runs riot through Seoul, the scene is shot without any of the usual tricks and tropes of the monster-attack genre. It takes place under the bright light of day, and the creature is not shown in bits and pieces in close up. No, long range shots of the whole ghastly creature smashing shit up, filmed more like something from an Animal Planet documentary than Godzilla.

Justly-famous scene of badassery: the naked sauna fight in Eastern Promises. Fighting with edged weapons with your junk in the wind is the very definition of badass.

Underrated scene of badassery: bullet-hand scene in Shoot 'em Up. Clive Owen has been shot to hell, his arm is like Swiss cheese, all he's got to defend himself against the villain are some loose pistol shells and a working fireplace. What does he do? He shoves the bullets into his arm wounds, then sticks his arm in the fire to ignite the gunpowder.

Line of the Year: "Edith, I told you, I can't build you a candy house! It will fall down. The sun will melt the candy. It won't work!" --Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

2000 Addendum

3. You Can Count on Me

While looking over my decade-end spreadsheets, I made note of the well-loved movies from every year that I hadn't gotten around to seeing yet. For the hella-weak year of 2000, the one movie that bugged me was this one. I suspected it might have made it on to my best of list, but I couldn't wait to write it because I'm having so much damn fun with these. Well, I just finished watching this, and sure enough, it's easily the third best movie of 2000: brilliantly acted, well-observed, funny, rich, everything you're looking for. Kenneth Lonergan needs to get his shit together and make another movie, post haste.

This knocks Wonder Boys down to 4, O Brother to 5, and gets that unsightly Traffic off the board altogether.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2006: Sexy Time

1. Children of Men

I've written plenty about how great Children of Men is, and I would have just put this one up here without comment if it weren't for a stunningly wrong-headed article Mike D'Angelo wrote for the Onion AV Club a few weeks ago. In it, D'Angelo condemns the scenes that Children of Men is best known for, the car ambush and refugee camp sequences that famously utilize long, uncut tracking shots. His central complaint is that the scenes are too "show-offy," and he can't watch them without thinking about the herculean acts of camera trickery required to pull them off. This is some straight-up bullshit. D'Angelo even admits that a non-film expert would probably not notice the lack of editing unless he pointed it out to them, so he's admitting that it's really his own issue. I like to think I know something about movies, and the first time I watched the car ambush scene, I only realized that the camera hadn't cut away until the very end of the scene. If Mike D'Angelo can't stop thinking about the technical aspects of filmmaking, that's his own hipster-ass problem. D'Angelo also challenges people who claim that the scenes are "realistic" by claiming that editing doesn't lessen realism because the human brain edits together images all the time. I don't know who's claiming that the tracking shots are realistic, but as far as I'm concerned, the lack of cuts doesn't contribute to greater verisimilitude, but to heighten the sense of tension. In an action sequence, every edit is a minuscule reprieve, a chance for the audience to catch it's collective breath and choose a point on which to focus their eyes. By using an unblinking camera eye, director Alfonso Curon doesn't give the audience any time to reorient themselves, thrashing their nerves raw by the time the camera finally turns away.

2. United 93

How the hell do you make a narrative film about the 9/11 attacks that isn't exploitative, mawkish or jingoistic? Hire Paul motherfucking Greengrass to direct it.

3. The Descent

Best horror film of the aughts.

4. The Prestige

This movie left me somewhat cold the first time I saw it, but over the years, I've come to appreciate the performances, the typically Nolan-esque puzzlebox structure and, most of all, the brilliant marriage of theme, subject matter and setting. It ends up making some interesting and ingeniously-presented points about film, performance and the impact of scientific progress on our collective imagination.

5. The Departed

This is sort of the anti-Prestige, in that I loved it when I first saw it, but once the sugar rush faded, some of the film's flaws became more glaring over time. But I still love the super-long opening sequence and most of the performances, especially Jack Nicholson, whose over-the-top shenanigans are a perfect compliment to his character's place in the world, rather than an exercise in failed hammery. OF COURSE he's ridiculously theatrical! He has to be! A mob boss has no legitimacy beyond the appearance of legitimacy, and he generates it be behaving like a swinging dick who deserves to be in charge.

Worst superhero film not produced by Roger Corman: Superman Returns. This pile of turgid mopery makes Ang Lee's Hulk look like Iron Man.

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Pan's Labyrinth. It was pretty good. Let's just not go nuts.

Oscar-winning, universally-beloved movie that actually sucks out loud: The Last King of Scotland. Bugnuts Forest Whitaker or not, this movie is one of the most egregious "Africa-through-the-eyes-of-white-people-because-they're-the-only-ones-who-count" ever. Hotel Rwanda might not have been great, but at least it didn't require a love-struck Caucasian to make the Rwandan genocide meaningful.

Best "gearshift" moment in an action movie: the bizarre, extended child molester scene in Running Scared. This movie is mostly notable for being a particularly grimy example of the undercover cop genre, but halfway through, it achieves a certain left-field audacious brilliance. A runaway kid gets abducted by a creepily wholesome-seeming husband/wife pedophile team. He spends some time in their child-proof, escape-proof house, and, realizing that they're some bad folks, he tries to hide out in the bathroom to stall for time. While in the bathroom, a shadow creeps across the wall behind him that looks eerily like some kind of spider-legged monster. He doesn't notice it, and when he leaves the bathroom, it's never mentioned again. Random weirdness like that is a rare and beautiful thing.

Best awful Nicholas Cage performance: Given the fact that Nick Cage has exclusively trafficked in awful performances ever since winning an Oscar (with the aforementioned exception of Adaptation) , there's a fuck-ton of competition for this award. And yet, The Wicker Man is the hands-down winner here. He actually yells "No! Not the bees! Not the bees!" when he's not punching women in the face. The movie is actually pretty dull until the last twenty minutes...but oh, what a twenty minutes!

Best performance by a otherwise boring old British lady: Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal.

Genuinely effective Clint Eastwood-directed sequence: the grenade suicide scene, Letters from Iwo Jima. As I've written before, Eastwood is usually so overly-fussy and somber in his composition that it's impossible to evoke genuine emotion. But when the scared Japanese soldiers reluctantly (very goddamn reluctantly) kill themselves in their cave in Letters from Iwo Jima, the tight focus on the character's eyes tells a tragic and complex story that second-hand WWII legends about Japanese soldiers who refused to be taken prisoner could never convey.

Line of the Year: "I'ma scissor kick you in the back of the head, Chip! I'm all hoped up on Mountain Dew!" --Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2005: "You wanna know how I know you're gay?"

1. The Squid and the Whale

The most painfully accurate kid's eye view of divorce on celluloid. Also, one of the most painfully accurate views of childhood, period. There's none of the dewy-eyed nostalgia that most movies about kids display, where aging filmmakers gaze back to a simpler time in their lives. Noah Baumbach channels all of the raw nerves, confusion and shame that tend to fade in our memories over time.

2. Syriana

I don't care that nobody seems to understand the plot. I don't care that it's didactic. I don't care that "serious people" find the geopolitical analysis puerile. I love Stephen Gaghan's Syriana because it's the only American film to seriously and thoughtfully engage with the "war on terror." Every other Hollywood product either exploits the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an easy background for action scenes or to make rather banal points about the traumatic effects of war on those who fight them. Syriana, on the other hand, examines the moral implications of our oil-based economy with deftly intertwined stories of terrorists, CIA officers and sheiks. There's just enough time spent teasing out the characters to make you care about them, with the rest of the running time devoted to the dispiriting and wholly inevitable bureaucratic machinations that happen when you run your country on a rapidly diminishing resource that largely rests under the sands of one of the world's most unstable regions. No bullshit about defending freedom, or how tough it is to be a solider, or other airheaded pablum; just a serious wrangle with a bloody, amoral foreign policy and the chest-thumping pieties that accompany it.

3. Cache

Michael Haneke's tightly controlled frames, audacious subject matter and mastery of atmosphere make his movies compulsively watchable, but they're also rarely enjoyable in any traditional sense. He's too bent on punishing his audience for having the temerity to seek film entertainment in the first place. Even with the stately pacing, colonial allegory and moments of upsetting horror, Cache still stands as the closest thing Haneke has made to a crowd pleaser.

4. The Constant Gardener

This is sort of the anti-Syriana, in that it takes on global economic and political issues and filters them through an intensely personal prism. Fernando Meirelles' follow-up to City of God, based on one of John Le Carre's post-Cold war novels, Constant Gardner deals with the merciless logic of global capitalism while also telling the supremely affecting story of stuffed-shirt diplomat Ralph Fiennes, who falls in love with his activist wife only after she's murdered by a pharmaceutical company. Fiennes' grief blooms in tandem with the revelation of the company's crimes, culminating in an ending that manages to simultaneously offer a stem-winding denunciation of the exploitation the Third World and a beautiful tribute to Fiennes' failed relationship.

5. A History of Violence

A lot of people posit this movie as some kind of allegory for American foreign policy. I guess. For me, it works more as a family psychodrama, a movie about the limitations of romantic intimacy and the inherent contradictions of raising children who avoid their parents sins. David Cronenberg's direction is his usual deadpan violence, minus the surrealism (unless William Hurt's loopy turn as a gangster counts as surreal), and Viggo Mortensen has never been better as the docile cafe owner with a bloody past.

Worst theatrically released horror film I've ever seen: Boogeyman. Truly worse than Hitler.

Oscar-winning, universally-beloved movie that actually sucks out loud: Crash. What the fuck was up the praise for this movie? Was it some elaborate, Borat-style prank on the public carried out by rogue Academy members and film critics.

Best zombie-scene in a non-zombie movie: the car riot scene in War of the Worlds. Spielberg's allegorical treatment of 9/11 has a lot of scenes of people in distress banding together to survive, but one memorable scene where fear drives ordinary citizens to frenzy and violence. When Tom Cruise's family drives their pilfered minivan into a crowd of fleeing refugees, the previous inhabitants of suburban New Jersey descend on them like a pack of ravenous undead. It's a sobering depiction of the chaos that sleeps below the surface of orderly society.

Insane and insanely memorable scene in otherwise forgettable action movie: Tom Waits as the stigmatic preacher in Domino. Domino is remembered, if at all, as Tony Scott's single most visually incoherent movie, but there's a sequence at the end, scripted by Donnie Darko mastermind and all around nutter Richard Kelly, that stands out for it's batshittery. Before sexy bounty hunter Domino Harvey and her motley gang head off to their doom in Las Vegas, they stop in the desert for a chat with a crazed prophet who happens to be bleeding from his palms. Of course he's played by Tom Waits, and of course he spouts a bunch of gibberish about destiny, and it almost redeems the rest of the movie, which is basically a migraine-delivery system.

Most genuinely shocking moment in a horror film: the scene in the garage, Wolf Creek. I hesitate to write too much about this scene in case people haven't watched it, because if you don't know what's coming, the moment is a gut-punch of surprise. Seriously.

Most ridiculous murder in film history: Christian Slater killed by liquid nitrogen in Mindhunters. Must be seen to be believed. He doesn't just get frozen by a tank of liquid nitrogen that's knocked over by a ludicrously complicated Rube Golberg contraption, but he falls over and smashes into a bunch of Slater-chunks.

Line of the Year: "Why in pluperfect fuck would you pee on a corpse?" --Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Friday, December 11, 2009

2004: "I would have named you Kingsley."

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Charlie Kaufman's screenplays are intensely interior: they're all about the uncharted, dangerous territory between our ears. That can create a challenge for directors looking to give visual expression to such subjective, symbolically-loaded material. Michel Gondry's homemade special effects trickery and ceaselessly moving camera deftly express the Kaufman's vision. And it's a damn amazing vision, brimming with comedy, sadness and an unblinking examination of the perils and rewards of love. Nothing beat that amazing ending, after the memories have been wiped, the connections have been severed, and all Clementine and Joel know is that their love was so traumatizing that it drove them to experimental memory erasure...and they still want to give it another go.

2. Shaun of the Dead

It's almost impossible to make a fully successful parody. You either drop the ball on the comedy, or you drop the ball on making a cohesive, compelling film. Unless, of course, you're Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Then, you're able to consistently send up genres while simultaneously delivering the authentic pleasures that the genres have to offer. I probably can't judge Shaun of the Dead objectively, since I'm a huge mark for all things zombie, but when you consider that this is not only one of the funnier films of the decade, but also one of the very best non-George Romero zombie films ever, I think I'm in the ballpark here.

3. Kill Bill Volume 2

This movie marked the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's run as a master of the cinematic bait-and-switch. After busting out two hours of non-stop bloodletting in Kill Bill Volume 1, setting up his audience for an epic explosion of badassery, Tarantino's sequel spends the bulk of its running time on talky digressions. It' s not just a bit of audience-punking, though. The operatic violence of Kill Bill 1 was criticized by some for being an empty exercise in style, but Volume 2, in addition to featuring style to burn, gives shades and depth to its characters that give retroactive meaning to all that arterial spray.

4. Sideways

Like his earlier film About Schmidt, Alexander Payne's Sideways is a bout a confused, angry man adrift in a sterile, passionless world. Unlike Warren Schmidt, Paul Giamatti's Miles is achingly, punishingly, brutally aware of every way in which the world and his own carbuncular personality prevent him from finding happiness. And yet...it doesn't do a bit of good, because the self-loathing that bubbles up like black tar in Miles' soul can only be soothed by the sweet elixir of alcohol. But if it's fancy wine, it doesn't count as alcoholism! So Miles and his best friend (who, in a great touch, he doesn't really seem to like) Thomas Hayden Church tear up wine country in search of transient pleasures. There's a bit more redemption at the end of this one than About Schmidt, and it comes courtesy of Miles' ability to express his pain artistically. Just like Harvey Pekar. This movie clinched Paul Giamatti's status as Schlub of the Decade.

5. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Will Ferrell was probably the biggest comedy star of the 00's, and this is easily his best movie. It's the most effortless mixture of parody, character work and flat-out absurdism to be found in the decade. There wasn't a funnier sequence in film during the aughts than the news team fight scene and post-fight conversation in Anchorman. It starts with an amusing conceit: rival newscasters rumble West Side Story-style. Then, during the rumble, the absurdism explodes with the introduction of horses, nets and, of course, tridents. Everything comes to a delirious head in the next scene, when Ron's crew dissects the fight and, instead of leaving the super-over-the-top violence as a bit of throw-away wackiness, they bring everything back down to earth, starting with the immortal line "Brick killed a guy." There's an unwritten rule that when a comedy turns the absurdity knob up for one scene, it won't effect the rest of the movie, and Anchorman's decision to abandon that convention made for transcendent comedy.

Horrible movie that forever tarnished the cinematic reputation of the Milwaukee Brewers: Mr. 3000. C'mon, man, can't we retroactively get Major League, please?

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind/Oscar-winning, universally-beloved movie that isn't that great: Million Dollar Baby. At his best, Clint Eastwood movies feel strangely airless and mannered, and the cliche-filled, cartoonishly-dark subject matter of this movie plays to all of Eastwood's worst habits as a director.

Great scene in an otherwise-crummy film: Adrian Brody stabbing Joaquin Phoenix in The Village. When he feels like it, M. Night Shyamalan can control the frame like nobody's business, and that mastery serves him well in an expertly paced, genuinely shocking sequence.

Best dinner-table scene: I Heart Huckabees. This movie is not without it's faults, but it also brims with considerable virtues, the most richly rewarding of which is the clash of ideologies at Richard Jenkins' dinner table. Jason Schwartzman's fervid idealism meets a hostile reaction in the defiant complacency of a family of suburban Christians. What happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk? Nothing and everything.

Most frustratingly great scene: the opening scene in Dawn of the Dead. For all of it's bloody delights, Zack Snyder's remake of the George Romero classic features a number of missed opportunities, none more agonizing than the failure to carry the sense of apocalyptic frenzy that powers the magnificent first ten minutes into the rest of the film.

Best use of Tom Cruise's innate creepiness: Collateral. Seriously, how come more director's don't see that Cruise's laser-eyes and wolf's grin are a natural fit for villainy?

Line of the Year: "America, FUCK YEAH!" --Team America: World Police

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

2003: Turning Japanese

1. Kill Bill Volume 1

Before this movie, Quentin Tarantino was, in some ways, underrated as a director. Even his most vocal advocates almost always cited the dialogue or clever remix of filmic tropes of his screenplays (also the two things his detractors usually cite), but his camera-work went largely unremarked upon. Tarantino finally unleashed the full directorial capability with a masterful piece of lean, mean action filmmaking. The story is a typically regurgitated pulp riff on revenge movies, mostly from Tarantino's beloved 1970s, but it's executed with tremendous verve and creativity. You've got the brilliant O-ren anime sequence, a kick-ass RZA score, and, of course, the undisputed champion of 00's-era action scenes, the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves. Leaving aside the delirious and expertly-staged decapitations, the pacing and blocking of that entire sequence are a thing to behold. The long tracking shot of the Bride making her way to the bathroom to get into her murderin' clothes that switches to follow Sofie Fatale headed towards the same bathroom, to the epic calling-out of the O-ren, tension drawn to the breaking point before the first cathartic gusher of blood.

2. Lost in Translation

This is a movie that seems to have dropped off of a lot of people's radar in the past five years, and that's understandable. Not only is the whole thing played in an achingly minor key, but the Orientalism is doubtlessly problematic, and it is really just the petty carping of a couple of supremely overprivileged whiners. Still, there aren't many films in the decade that communicated the alienating vastness of contemporary life as authentically as Lost in Translation. Most of us can't relate to the problems of being a washed-up millionaire actor or a globetrotting trophy wife, but we all know what it's like to walk alone through the streets of an unfamiliar city, or spend a night on the town with friends you know deep down don't really know who you are. Couple that palpable sense of place and theme with an all-world performance by Bill Murray and a central relationship that's genuinely touching without once succumbing to cliche, and you're dealing with a cinematic triumph, mopey shoegazing be damned.

3. City of God

Fernando Meirelles' epic tale of growing up in the drug-ruled midst of Rio's favelas doesn't suffer from a lack of style. City of God contains some of the most memorable, purely-cinematic sequences of the decade. The kinetic, free-for-all sensibility could come off as insensitive to the hyperviolence and poverty of the setting, but it turns out the be exactly the right choice. Because life in the favelas can't be defined solely by drugs and violence: people live there, they fall in love, they dance, they raise families, and Meirelles' film contains the multitude of that experience.

4. American Splendor

The Aughts were truly the Decade of the Schlub. The two most consistently excellent actors of the 00s were Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, and no film encapsulated the essential predicament of the American Schlub like Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's American Splendor. A schlub doesn't have the most brains, and he's certainly not athletic, and he's painfully aware of each and every one of his shortcomings, without possessing the wherewithal to correct them. The triumph of Harvey Pekar is that he can make his own painful inadequacies into art and, miracle of miracles, have people respond to it. It's the ultimate dream of schlubs everywhere, but in the final, aching twist, even that recognition isn't enough to end his torment, just make it bearable. That's the most a schlub can hope for in this life.

5. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

It's the signal film achievement of the decade, so I guess it deserves some appreciation. This is it.

Most completely and totally horrible movie of the decade: God and Generals. That shit will make you sterile. Revolting pro-Confederate historical revisionism, a turgid screenplay, painful over and/or under acting, lifeless (and criminally sanitized) battle scenes, all stretched out to nearly four fucking hours. Without a single redeeming feature. Well, maybe that hilarious "Southern rights for all" song-and-dance number. Apparently the Confederate army didn't bother with "don't ask, don't tell."

Horrible movies that are kind of fantastic: Dreamcatcher and Identity. Both of these movies brim over with fail, and yet have more than enough laugh-out-loud moments to make them worth watching. Most notably, the "gunphone" in Dreamcatcher and the rise of Evil Timmy in Identity.

Image of singular beauty: Andy Goldsworthy throwing a handful of snow into the air, where it holds for a moment before dissipating into the wind in the lyrical documentary Rivers and Tides

Rousing climax from an animated movie that doubles as an allegory for the labor movement: a school of fish versus a fishing net in Finding Nemo. A school of fish caught in a net. If they all swim in different directions, they're doomed. If they all pull in the same direction (with a little help from a neurotic clownfish), they can snap that fucking net right off the beam. Workers of the world, unite!

Unheralded Johnny Depp performance: Once Upon a Time in Mexico. 2003 was the year Jack Sparrow resurrected Johnny Depp's career as a big ticket Hollywood star with an Oscar nominated bit of weirdness, which overshadowed the excellent weirdness of his turn as a loopy CIA agent in Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The movie itself is a mess, but every time Depp is on screen, it vibrates with unpredictability. It was Depp's last chance to goof around under the radar.

Comedy sequence that made me laugh until I cried and therefore invalidates any credibility I may have as a film critic: the boxing scene from Bad Santa. Yes, it's five straight minutes of guys (and kids, and midgets) getting punched in the junk. As Bob Saget proved many years ago, the shot the groin is the lowest, cheapest form of comedy. It's also deliriously funny when it's done right, and in Bad Santa, it's done right. Also, I'm not on trial here!

Line of the Year: "Talk to the hand." --Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

2002: "Don't say 'pitch.'"

1. Adaptation

I remember the exact moment in Adaptation when it went from being a great movie to one of the my all time favorites: the low speed car chase between the Kaufmans and Susan Orlean. This was the moment I realized that, after two acts spent carefully creating rich, interesting characters and struggling with the difficulties of creating truthful art, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze were going to intentionally set fire to the whole construction with an empty Hollywood-style action ending. It's a ballsy move, and it pays off handsomely: not only does it cut the Gordian knot of the how to deal with the tough subject matter, but it's also a point blank indictment of narrative cinema's inherent limitations. Combine that with Nicholas Cage's last known unironically good performance, and you've got the makings of a post-modern triumph that manages to express real emotion while also undermining the Robert McKee screenwriting model.

2. Punch-Drunk Love

After P.T. Anderson followed the sprawling porn industry melodrama Boogie Nights with the even more sprawling Magnolia, you might have wondered if his next movie was going to be a 16 hour miniseries about every citizen in greater Los Angeles. Instead, he radically rebooted, tapping noted man-baby Adam Sandler to take his psychotic infant schtick to a darker, sadder place. This is a romantic comedy that is less about the birth of a relationship than about the forces of alienation, shame, family resentment and fear that make romantic love necessary and beautiful. Best scene: Sandler trying to juggle his pushy sister, his would-be love, his befuddled employees and an extortion-minded phone sex operator, while John Brion's nerve-wracking score jangles in the background. Contrast that with the sweet, weird moment in bed with Sandler and Emily Watson, talking about how much they want to bash in each other's faces, and it makes you feel blessed and strong to have a love in your own life.

3. Bloody Sunday

This is the first of two Paul Greengrass-directed dramas about horrifying real life events to appear on my list, so let's get it over with: I have no truck with people who complain about Greengrass' handheld camera work. If it makes you nauseated, that's one thing, although if you get a tummy ache from watching a fucking movie, I wonder how the hell you can walk to the mailbox without hurling. Anyway, non-stomach-related complaints can all suck it: the Greengrass approach, more than anything, drains historical events (and, in his Bourne films, the spy genre) of their mythic qualities, cutting everything down to a human scale. The "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland proved to be the opening shots of the IRA insurgency that raged for thirty years, but Greengrass breaks the tragedy down to a series of mistakes and miscommunications, giving everyone involved, from activist MP Ivan Cooper to young Bogside Catholics to the British Paratroopers who carried out the shooting, their moments of quiet humanity.

4. About Schmidt

Warren Schmidt could be a character in Ghost World, maybe sitting alone in a diner booth behind Enid and Rebecca, eating soup and looking out the window at a dry cleaners. The marvel of this movie, Alexander Payne's best to date, is that it channels the same sort of bland, lifeless suburban hellscape as Ghost World, but does so through the eyes of a character who is largely oblivious to it. Jack Nicholson's best "old dude" performance powers the story of a man who knows, deep down, that life has somehow passed him by, but he doesn't quite know how, and more importantly, he can't figure out what to do about it now that he's in post-retirement, widower drift. It's a collection of awkward personal interactions and fumbles towards enlightenment, all topped by one of the best endings of the decade; Ndugu's painting is a disarming bit of pure grace, and the tears that come to Schmidt's eyes are heartbreaking. They're tears of joy for the beauty of the world, and tears of sorrow for all the beauty that he's missed.

5. Full Frontal

Of all of the low budget, digital experiments Steven Soderbergh directed in the 00s between Ocean's movies, Full Frontal is easily the best. Unlike pretty much every other inside-Hollywood movie, Full Frontal goes beyond easy satire of the superficiality and lack of creativity of the industry (although there is plenty of that) and actually engages with the psychological transference by which film directors and writers take the raw material of their own lives and neuroses and put them on the screen. It also features one of the funniest supporting turns of the decade, with Nicky Katt as a struggling actor/pilates instruct playing a yuppie version of Hitler in a play when he isn't complaining to the director that his co-stars don't get him. "You know what, fuck her. And here's why. Number One-anyone who's offended by drinking blood, obviously doesn't drink blood. Number Two-anyone who drinks as much blood as I do knows that it has no effect. Number Three-there is absolutely no scientific connection between drinking a shot of blood a day and being an extraordinary actor. And Number Four-it is impossible to prove Number Three." Big ups to Baron Von Hugecock.

Worst movie that also doubles as an endorsement of serial murder: Frailty

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Time Out. It's on a bunch of best-of-the-decade lists, but this flavor of quiet desperation is a bit too quiet, and not desperate enough.

Oscar-winning, universally-beloved movie that actually kinda sucks: Chicago. Sure, it looks good, and some of the musical sequences are brilliant, but still...it's just a goddamn musical! Seriously!

Movie that makes me wish I had a time machine: Gangs of New York. Give me access to a time machine, and the first thing I'm doing is grabbing a DVD of There Will Be Blood (and a portable player, of course), going back to, say, 1995, finding Martin Scorsese and making him watch it. Afterwards I would say to the man: "Marty, you're going to get Daniel Day-Lewis to star in this Gangs movie you've been trying to get made for the past twenty years. THIS is what he's capable of. For the love of God, don't waste a bunch of screen time with some bullshit teenybopper love story and some pissant kid whining about his dead daddy. You made Goodfellas, ferchrissakes! You know how to build an entire film around an unsympathetic character! Look at There Will Be Blood! This punk kid Anderson stole half your shit to make Boogie Nights, then he took Day-Lewis and made the movie that you COULD have made if you didn't waste precious screentime on weak-ass shit!" Just imagine a cut of Gangs of New York that did away with DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz completely, and focused on Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher. I think my brain melted from the very notion of such concentrated awesomeness.

Scariest scene of the decade: the Brazilian birthday party sequence from Signs. The only time I got goosebumps watching a movie.

Most perverse scene in a Steven Spielberg film: Peter Stormare as the creepy eyeball doctor in Minority Report. With that unhealthy yellow light, Stormare's sleazy demeanor and a disoriented, eyeball-less Tom Cruise, you'd never guess that it was directed by the maestro of childlike wonder.

Best sex scene: the three way in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Alfonso Curon creates such a vibrant atmosphere of in-the-moment pleasure that two dudes kissing doesn't feel "gay" some much as an expression of the complete loss of inhibition.

Line of the Year: "Just look at the greatest Jewish minds ever. Marx, Freud and Einstein. What have they given us? Communism, infantile sexuality and the atom bomb." --The Believer

Monday, December 07, 2009

2001: Now THAT'S more like it!

Ah...much better. Now's the time to point out that, officially, the first year of the 21st century was really 2001. So let's just say that the 20th century in film ended with the whimper of dying harp seal, while the 21st started off with the mighty roar of a mildly syphilitic lion.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums

I know that "real" Wes Anderson fans are supposed to like Rushmore the most, and the smart-ass pick is Life Aquatic, but goddamn it, my favorite is still The Royal Tenenbaums. It's the movie that most successfully balanced Anderson's whimsical artificiality with earnest emotional catharsis. Few film moments in the decade packed the richly-earned wallop of Chas Tenenbaum's quivering voice saying "It's been a hard year, Dad." And Anderson's artifice is here at its most rewarding, from the intense detail of that fantastic opening sequence to the funny, sharp digressions sprinkled throughout the film: Dudley Heinsbergen, the disastrous Tenenbaum v. Gandhi tennis match, Pagoda...and, of course, we can't forget Margot Tenenabaum meeting her brother at the gangplank. And this from a guy who generally finds Gwyneth Paltrow about as appealing as red tide poisoning.

2. The Man Who Wasn't There

THE underrated Coen brothers movie. Written off at the time as some kind of half-assed Miller's Crossing, this movie features the Coens at their most empathetic and contemplative. The film noir trappings aren't simply another slick genre goof. The Man Who Wasn't There is an examination of the alienating forces at work in post-war America that made film noir possible, and one man's struggle to define himself in the face of them. Considering the Coen's penchant for deliberately obscure endings, the graceful, elegiac finale of Man is even more impressive.

3. Ghost World

This movie is so deliberately low key, that it ends up getting slept on by a lot of people, but for me, it's one of the most haunting films of the decade. Mostly because of director Terry Zwigoff's absolute mastery of the banal: every detail of his gray little suburb feels lived in and, at the same time, drained of life. That palpable atmosphere makes Enid Coleslaw's fitful attempts at entering an adult world that she can't bring herself to take seriously even more recognizable. Steve Buscemi's Seymour is a creature of pure tragi-comedy, and a perfect encapsulation of the "geek" mentality: he's a person at once invigorated and entrapped by his petty obsessions. As the poor bastard says "Maybe I don't want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests." Could any other movie have a middle-aged misanthrope have sex with a sexy 18-year-old, and have the viewer end up feeling like the guy is being used?

4. In the Bedroom

Another super low key movie that's easy to forget in the avalanche of films to sift through for the end-of-decade retrospective. It's also a movie chock full of closely-observed moments and visual poetry. The grieving parents in the office of the district attorney charged with prosecuting their son's killer, looking at the pictures on the shelf of the man, his wife and their dogs: the DA doesn't have children, and can't know the parent's pain. That wreath of smoke twisting out of the killer's chest wound, catching the headlights of a nearby car. The breath-taking crack of Sissy Spacek's hand on Marisa Tomei's face.

5. Memento

Christopher Nolan's breakout film, and a marvel of stylistic gimmickry complimenting thematic content. It's easy to focus on the ingenious backward plot structure, that manages to generate genuine suspense even after it begins at the end of the story. But the real triumph of Memento is how it comments on the nature of memory and the necessary human capacity for self-deception, using the structure to underline the point.

Movies that take a giant shit on the Greatest Generation: 2001 saw the release of two awful movies about World War 2. Michael Bay's monstrous Pearl Harbor and the painfully botched retelling of the battle of Stalingrad, Enemies at the Gate. The latter includes one of most hilarious sex scenes in film history, with Jude Law furtively banging Rachel Weisz in a Red Army dugout. The look on her face is priceless: either her vagina is broken, or Jude Law's penis is made out of hornets.

Worst film I've ever seen in the theater: Scary Movie 2. Blame my sister.

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Mullholland Drive. Like most David Lynch movies, I can' appreciate what he's going for, but still not find it terribly engaging. But that lesbian sex scene is definitely a modern classic of film nudity.

Oscar-winning, universally-beloved movie that actually sucks out loud: A Beautiful Mind. Goddamn, two in a row, and both starring Russel Crowe, no less! Ron Howard is in the exact middle of the directorial PH scale. He is the cinematic personification of beige.

Credit sequence in a biopic that's so good it makes the rest of the movie superfluous: Ali Too much of Michael Mann's Mohammed Ali biography is disappointing boilerplate, but the very first minutes are a galvanizing array of impressionistic images that build the world of Cassius Clay frame by frame. Sam Cooke rocking a black nightclub. A young Clay jogging down the road, getting bird-dogged by a cop car. Clay's father painting a portrait of an aggressively Caucasian Jesus. It's the sort of approach that's hard to sustain over the course of a whole movie, but that kind of non-linear, musically-edited energy should definitely be a feature of more biographical films.

Best British bad-asses: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, and Ian Holm in From Hell. I'm on record as saying that Ben Kingsley usually bites it as whatever mannered, stick-up-the-ass yutz he's playing, but he's flat out awesome as psychotic criminal Don Logan. Less funny, but somewhat more terrifying is Ian Holm as Jack the Ripper in the otherwise crummy Hughes brothers movie From Hell. His black-eyed monologue while cutting out a woman's heart conveys the lucid, controlled madness of the character.

Worst British bad-asses: the parade of Brits trying their best to sound like American crackers in Blackhawk Down. It's ridiculous: Ewan MacGregor, Jason Isaacs, Ewen Bremner, Ioan Gruffudd, and the Australians (who are honorary Brits, after all) Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana, all doing some sort of vague, twangy accent for no discernible reason.

Stupidest action scene: the flying bus in Swordfish. Novel! Bold! Retarded!

Line of the Year: "You taste like burger. I don't like you anymore." --Wet Hot American Summer

2000: The decade begins with the whimper of a dying harp seal

Looking at my trusty 2000 spreadsheet, I'm once again reminded of how inauspiciously the 21st century began, film-wise. If you only had this year to go on, you could make an argument for shutting down Hollywood all together. Shit, Traffic is on my top ten of the year, and I don't even really like that movie. Still, there were one or two truly memorable films from that year, as well as some movies that remain, to this day, stunningly overrated.

Top Five

1. Requiem for a Dream

As a testament to the lameness of 2000, I haven't seen the top film of the year since I saw it in the theater. In the case of Darren Aranosfky's Requiem, though, that's really more of a compliment. Beyond the brutally grim subject matter, the imagery is so vivid and terrible that you can't unsee it, so repeat viewing is really beside the point. It's been nearly a decade since I saw Requiem for a Dream, and when I close my eyes to conjure it, I can still see Ellen Brustyn's carnivorous fridge, Jared Leto's sore-covered arm, and, of course, "ass-to-ass." Film can be the most ephermeral of art forms: film images tend to degrade in your head over time, whereas a piece of music, for example, can haunt your brain for years. Requiem for a Dream is filled with some of the most devastating and indelible pieces of visual poetry, horrible, horrible visual poetry, of the decade.

2. American Psycho

If Mary Harron's American Psycho were just the business card exchange scene, Paul Allen's Huey Lewis-aided death scene, and a bunch of clips from Hee Haw, it would still be among my favorite films of the decade. Thankfully, those gems are surrounded by a bunch more great stuff, starting with Christian Bale's magnificent performance, easily the best of his career. It's hard to believe that the self-important, scowling stiff who glowers his way through blockbuster after blockbuster is the same dude how does that amazing shimmy with the raincoat and ax in this movie. The goofs on 80s superficiality are kind of glib, and the overall theme of Wall Street as a playground for sociopaths seems obvious, but in a country that continues to worship wealth regardless of how it is acquired, and chase status symbols regardless of the cost, American Psycho continues to be trenchant, in addition to being hilarious.

3. Wonder Boys

And now the serious drop off the cliff begins. Wonder Boys is another movie I haven't seen in ages, but have fond memories of, largely due to Michael Douglas's schlubby charisma and a general air of creative paralysis and, eventually, acceptance of limitations and failures, which I tend to respond strongly to in films.

4. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Not one of my favorite Coen brothers films, but still pretty good, and it holds up very well when half-watched on TV whilst interneting. Highlights: Stephen Root as the blind, crazy radio station manager, the Wizard of Oz Klan rally, "Ah, George, not the livestock!"

5. Traffic

What did I say about this being a crummy year?

Movie so awful that it's amazing: Battlefield Earth. "Before you could even SPELL YOUR NAME, I was being TAUGHT to CONQUER GALAXIES!!!!" Aaaaand, scene! Star wipe to Barry Pepper in a caveman outfit. It almost makes Scientology worthwhile.

Movie so awful it's just...awful: The Ninth Gate. On paper, this should have been fantastic: Johny Depp, Roman Polanski, Satan worshipers, portals to hell...and yet...hot ass on celluloid without the camp delights of a Battlefield Earth. Could have used some Travolta.

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Almost Famous

Oscar-winning, universally beloved movie that actually sucks out loud: Gladiator. Yes, there's nothing better than an action film with incomprehensible action scenes! Don't we put up with enough of that shit from your brother, Ridley?

Brilliantly-rendered shot from a largely-sucky film: the horse dissection from The Cell

Best action scene: final shoot-out from The Way of the Gun. This is mostly a weak-tea Tarantino ripoff, made even more ridiculous by the attempt to make Ryan Phillippe into a badass, but the climactic shoot-out in a Mexican brothel manages to transcend cliche for a few minutes. No music, no slow motion, just a bunch of tubby hired guns awkwardly absorbing shotgun blasts.

Worst failed provocation: the rape scene from Baise-Moi. I'm sure directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie (just Coralie? Really?) thought that showing real penetration during a rape would shock viewers from their comfortable, titillated voyeurism, but it ends highlighting the artificiality of the enterprise and turns the whole movie from that point on into a numbing, alienated series of cheap shocks. Maybe that was supposed to be the point, but if so...who gives a shit?

Comedy sequence that made me laugh until I cried and therefore invalidates any credibility I may have as a film critic: the demon saying "Popeye's chicken is the shizznit" in Little Nicky. I can't defend Little Nicky as a comedy, as a film, as anything other than a painful bag of shitwiches, but that line, said by a snarly hellspawn...it just set me off. I can't explain it, and I certainly can't justify it. All I can say is: comedy is subjective, and I'm not on trial here!

Line of the Year: "You're the man now, dog!"--Finding Forrester

The Aughts in Film

The decade draws to a close, and every cultural commentator worth an ounce of bandwidth feels the urge to look back and start ranking shit. This includes cultural commentators whose waste of bandwidth is a crime against technology and the very notion of taste. So over the next couple of weeks, I'll be doing a year-by-year retrospective of the films of the expiring decade; the good, the bad, the comically bad and the random but memorable. There probably won't be too many surprises, but since I made a spreadsheet for every year and listed every single movie from a given year that I've seen, it will at least be relatively comprehensive.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

So it has come to this. Wes Anderson's meticulously staged camera set-ups, whimsically detailed sets, and lush autumnal colors have found their natural expression: a stop motion animated adaption of a Roald Dahl children's book. The results are interesting, if mixed, in that the switch to animation is a natural fit for Anderson's aesthetic, while also undermining some of the emotional elements that makes his best work so memorable. Fantastic Mr. Fox feels like Anderson reaching a crossroads: from here, he'll either move on to a more expansive, penetrating cinematic palette, or continue to construct his delicate and increasingly sterile family dioramas.

If animation is in some ways Wes Anderson's perfect medium, then stop motion animation is even more perfect. The charming, hand-crafted feel of Mr. Fox makes the movie feel like something Max Fischer would have put together in middle school. Intricate set and character design, complete with animal hair that moves with the wind, offer the ultimate expression of Anderson's intensely composed film vision. It always felt like those pesky humans actors and were the thing standing between Wes Anderson and the movies he really wanted to make. Using animal puppets also does the work of justifying a visual fussiness that can feel artificial and lifeless when applied to actual people. In Mr. Fox, cross-sections of farmhouses and whimsical, choreographed heist scenes feel perfectly natural. It's easy to look back at the Wes Anderson filmography and imagine all of his previous characters as claymation figures bouncing around in Technicolor. 111 Archer Avenue is basically a giant dollhouse to being with.

And yet...while the animation makes Anderson's more contrived visual motifs easier to accept, it also ensures that the film can't reach the sort of emotional heights that Anderson, at his best, is capable of. The story is children's-book simple: Mr. Fox (George Clooney, reprising Danny Ocean for the woodland set) gives ups stealing chickens when his wife (Meryl Streep) gets pregnant, but a few years later, the itch comes back, leading to an escalating battle with three sinister farmers who live near Fox's treehouse. Along the way, Mr. Fox bonds with his alienated son (Jason Schwartzman) and comes to terms with his responsibilities as a husband and father. The character interplay echoes one of the themes that have dominated all of Anderson's work: overbearing father figures and the disaffected children left in their wake, but the emotional beats and dialogue are played so broadly that they fail to register with the poignancy of movies like Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums. That's to be expected when dealing with what is ostensibly a kid's movie, but the overdetermined nature of the character arcs call to mind Anderson's last live-action film, The Darjeeling Limited. This suggests that Anderson has told all the stories of upper class family discord he can, and that it's time to move on. That, or he can simply occupy himself with finding new ways to control every centimeter of every frame of his hermetically sealed entertainments.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


California is going to have a gubernatorial election in 2010. Arnold Schwarzenegger, having served two terms, is ineligible for reelection. And yet, somehow, there's a scene in 2012, set in the titular year, where the governor of California calls a press conference, and sure enough, he's a giant dude with a thick Austrian accent. Yes, it's a small goof in an epically long, epically stupid movie riddled with jaw-dropping distortions of physics, astronomy and common sense, but it's emblematic of the slapdash, kitchen sink approach of German schlockmeister Roland Emmerich, or, as I like to think of him, Uwe Boll with a 200 million dollar budget.

Everything, literally everything, about this movie is ridiculous: the premise that the Mayans predicted that the world would end in 2012, the idea that the sun starts emitting "mutated" neutrinos that heat up the earth's core (who knew neutrinos had DNA?), the fact that a movie in which 99.9999% of the world's population dies horribly in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis spends most of its running time detailing the petty relationship issues of science fiction author John Cusack and his estranged wife and children. And, of course, the continual and downright laughable defiance of basic plausibility. The first two hours of this seemingly endless movie feature three (THREE!) separate instances of an airplane taking off just in time to avoid, in turn, a massive earthquake, a supervolcanic eruption, and a massive cloud of ash. It's all part of Roland Emmerich's mission to film people outrunning the four elemental forces in his movies. First, Air Force One narrowly escapes the incineration of Washington D.C. in Independence Day (fire, natch), then Jake Gyllenhaal outruns a burst of supercold air in The Day After Tomorrow (wind), and now, in 2012, John Cusack's plane takes off just as California splits in half and sinks into the ocean (earth!). For the life of me, I can't figure out why the hell none of these close-call take-offs couldn't have dodged one of the film's many massive tidal waves. I guess Emmerich is adhering to a consistent One Element Per Film rule in order to make it more of a challenge for himself.

Of course, such trifling concerns are beside the point when dealing with a gigantic piece of nihilistic spectacle like this. The only real question worth asking is: is it a reasonably good time? On that score, 2012 delivers, like most Roland Emmerich movies. It's entertaining mostly because of the ridiculousness and the absurdity and the brain-bending continuity errors. Like a buttoned-down Michael Bay, Emmerich makes movies where the majority of the fun is in seeing how far the filmmakers will go to insult your intelligence as a viewer, and how many hundreds of millions of dollars of special effects wizardry they'll spend to do it. In this case, there's plenty of fun to be had, and even though most of the big disaster set-pieces are cribbed from other Emmerich (and James Cameron) movies, there's still a mad grandeur to unleashing every megadeath-causing havoc on the planet's landmarks all at once. As usual, the fact that these spectacles of mayhem are meant to represent the near extinction of the human race, including the horrifying deaths of almost every person (not to mention animal) on earth is given little consideration. Josef Stalin supposedly said, "one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic." Roland Emmerich might have added "and six billion deaths is a 65 million dollar opening weekend."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Serious Man

About halfway through the Coen brother's new movie, there's a shot of hapless physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) standing in front of his class. He is a tiny figure at the bottom of the frame, nearly consumed by a comically oversized chalkboard covered the obscure equations that constitute the mathematical proof for Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. You know the Coens are in the mood to grapple with the absurdity and loneliness of existence when they reference Heisenberg. In A Serious Man, this image encapsulates Gopnik's internal crisis, whose life is rapidly unraveling and who can't figure out why. In the frame, he's practically being crushed by a vast expanse of complex, inscrutable equations, all of which add up to one big question mark. Most of the film consists of Gopnik suffering various travails and his attempting to make sense of what is happening to him. In his struggle, Gopnik has two coping tools at his disposal: his understanding of the explanatory power of science, and his Jewish faith. These are two twin intellectual pillars of Gopnik's life, but once his trials begin, he discovers how shaky they really are. The mystical nature of quantum mechanics undermine any ability to trust conventional cause-and-effect reasoning. Even more troubling to Gopnik, Judaism doesn't offer much in the way of comfort. The film is organized around Gopnik's discussions with three separate rabbis at his synagogue. The rabbis attempt to offer solace, but what they cannot offer is any sort of explanation for Gopnik's plight. Unique among Western religions, Judaism embraces the essential mystery of the universe, which doesn't give Gopnik much comfort when it seems that the universe is conspiring against him.

Superficially, this is the Coen brother's most personal film: it's setting (the Twin cities) and period (the late 1960s) are the setting and period of their childhood, and their protagonist is modeled on their college professor father. But there is little in the way of personal frankness on display here: this is the most intentionally obscure, cerebral Coen movie since Barton Fink. Given the theme of struggling with the unknowable emptiness of existence, it's appropriate, but at the same time it's hard not to feel a sense of deja vu. A Serious Man trodes much of the same ground of not only Barton Fink but also of their vastly underrated Man Who Wasn't There. The only real innovation, and it's admittedly a dozy, is the immersion in Jewish lore and theology. For those interested in Judaism, A Serious Man offers an arresting glimpse into a religion that concentrates much more on the social and traditional than on questions of "belief," and how this stance can leave people in crisis with more questions than answers.

Larry Gopnik joins a small group of Coen protagonists which includes Marge Gunderson, and Ed Crane, who are not appallingly venal and/or stupid. He is heaped with a slew of baffling personal problems, from his wife's bolt-from-the-blue divorce demand to his socially retarded brother's legal troubles to a Schrodingerian Korean student who may (or may not!) be trying to bribe him for a passing grade. His troubles are, of course, played for laughs, but they also offer a platform to explore the spiritual collapse of a person who reaches for a rope to save himself from drowning only to discover that it's made of sand. There's no catharsis and no redemption, just a steady descent to the bottom of the ocean. A Serious Man offers the usual bracing jolt of a Coen brothers movie, but once again, the brothers have opted not to provide much in the way of solace: life is a bewildering minefield of absurdity and humiliation, and nobody, not G-d, not Einstein, and least of all some smart-aleck filmmaker, can make it okay.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On second thought....

When I saw Inglourious Basterds in August, my initial reaction was mild disappointment. After months of hype, I'd built up a fantasy movie in my head featuring wall-to-wall Nazi-killing courtesy of Brad Pitt and a cadre of bad-ass Jews. and when Basterds turned out to be an altogether more oblique, experimental film, I held it against the movie that my baser urges weren't satisfied. But then, I found that i could not stop thinking about the movie, about Tarantino's bold use of off screen action, long stretches of dialogue, and mostly about the fact that Basterds marked the first Tarantino film to take the director's preoccupation with cinematic history and use it to provide genuine insight. Then, I listened to an interview with noted cinephile and comedic genius Patton Oswalt, who condemned above all the film viewer who rejects a movie just because it doesn't give them exactly what they were expecting going into it. Within a few weeks of thinking and writing and reading about the movie, and I was convinced that Inglourious Basterds marked Tarantino's best movie since Pulp Fiction. Tonight, I watched it again at a dollar theater in a mall (whose sign actually said, in Brutalist block capitals: DOLLAR THEATER) and seeing it again, I have to revise my thoughts further: Inglourious Basterds is definitely Tarantino's best film, period.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The House of the Devil

Writer-director Ti Law's retro-horror film The House of the Devil plays like the third part of Grindhouse. Actually, it plays like an actual "grindhouse" 80s horror film, as opposed to the mimetic subversions of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. There's no gratuitous nudity and a relative dearth of blood, but The House of the Devil positively drips with period detail and boasts a visual pallet instantly recognizable to anyone who spent sleepless nights during the Reagan administration watching co-eds get slaughtered.

The period detail goes beyond rotary phones and high-waisted jeans; House boasts a plot featuring one of the great boogeymen of the 1980s: the Satanic cult. A young college student looking for rent money takes a one-night, high-profit "babysitting" gig at a scary old house in the country that just so happens to be the base of operations for a family of be-robed Satan worshipers. The vast majority of the film consists of the young woman, played by Jocelin Donahue, walking from room to room in the big, creepy house, accompanied by a needling, pensive score. These long stretches of anticipation work wonderfully at creating suspense as the audience waits...and waits...and waits for something to happen; the waiting never slides into tedium because the sense of imminent, horrifying danger never slackens. Law achieves this effect with all the tools in horror directing kit, voyeuristic shots, as well as extreme low and high angles that highlights Donahue's vulnerability. More interestingly, Law repeatedly holds a shot of an empty room or space after a character has walked out of the frame. That use of negative space puts the viewer further on edge as they wait for something to fill it. Then, the tension explodes in a bloody, hysterical climax that ends with a nice, Twilight Zone-worthy sting.

While The House of the Devil works as a piece of sustained tension and bloody supernatural horror, that doesn't address whether the 80s trappings are strictly necessary. Perhaps not strictly, but there is something about the grimy aesthetic of 80s horror films that gives them a nasty edge that slick, big-budget contemporary horror films simply can't match. Watching underwear models and the third lead from One Tree Hill get chased by a killer on glossy film stock can be entertaining, but it rarely scares. Ti Law and company keep the visuals and constraining reality of 80s horror (a scary old house is a lot scarier when you don't have a cellphone), jettison the ugly misogyny and cheap shocks while pushing a sustained sense of doom to riveting lengths.

The Box

Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button" is a short, punchy bit of business that consists almost entirely of an intriguing set up and a sad-trombone twist ending. Richard Kelly, the cracked visionary behind Donnie Darko and Southland Tales takes the intriguing set up (a couple can press a mysterious button that will kill someone they don't know and in return they get a briefcase full of cash) and takes it into a typically Kellyesque exploration of free will, altruism, grace, the afterlife and extraterrestrial life. Along the way, the viewers are treated to a bunch of bloody-nosed, creepily staring strangers, foreboding musical cues, and people in tight close-ups reciting semi-obscure spiritual dialogue.

Kelly's philosophical ruminations never amount to much, and they're made taxing by Kelly's failure to settle on any consistent tone. The Box is never scary enough to qualify as a horror movie, and the stakes for the characters aren't clear enough for it to work as a thriller. Really, the only thing it feels like is a Richard Kelly film; he's creating a singular cinematic landscape of oblique conspiracies, unexplained cosmic forces, and terminally befuddled protagonists, all ambling at a sluggish pace towards a surprisingly mellow annihilation. Kelly deserves credit for carving out such a distinct niche, especially one that stubbornly refused to adhere to conventional narrative and genre beats, but at some point, he's going to have to come up with something that offers a cumulative impact more powerful that the gentle sigh that ends The Box

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Last House on the Right

For all their hatred of communism, American right-wingers tend to have a rather Stalinist view of art. If a film or song or book or television show doesn't ratify their beliefs, it's crap. I understand that the liberal hegemony of the entertainment industry is probably annoying for them, but living in a constant state of outrage over liberal brainwashing in mainstream media must be truly exhausting. It also leads them to write really embarrassing lists of "politically correct" pieces of popular culture, like bloated pile of man-dough John Hawkins did for TownHall.com. Intent on providing his fellow teabaggers with inspiring Halloween viewing, Hawkins has furnished a list of the top ten "conservative" horror films to enjoy during the season of the witch.

Hawkins shows himself to be a cinematic illiterate before he even gets into the list, writing that "there are almost no truly 'conservative' horror flicks." Now, if he means that there aren't a lot of horror films that feature a pointed critique of the estate tax, he's right, but in tone and structure, horror is by far the most reactionary film genre going. Almost every horror film features some terrifying external threat that cannot be reasoned with by pointy-headed intellectuals (or understood by pointy-headed scientists, if it's a supernatural evil), and must be destroyed by the naked and merciless application of violence at the hands of a steely-eyed lawman, a pious virgin, or a man of the cloth. Along the way, drug-users and/or the sexually active suffer painful and deserved deaths. If it weren't for that commie George Romero, Hawkins claim would seem completely incoherent.

Some of the entries are indisputable; pretty much any horror movie with a some variation of the word "exorcism" in the title, like the two Hawkins mentions, The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, can reasonably be construed as "conservative," in that they affirm the existence of Satan and, by extension, God, while also affirming the value of traditional beliefs and values.

A couple of Hawkins' suggestions are downright headscratching. The Fog? Silence of the Lambs? Apparently, there's something inherently conservative about fighting ghost pirates and serial killers. Choosing The Mist seems really odd considering that the main human antagonist is a hysterical holy-roller who whips up religious fervor and hatred in an effort to appease God with a blood sacrifice. Hawkins choses David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone due to it's depiction of "a deranged politician and the man who was willing to stop at nothing to to try to stop him from launching a nuclear war." Let's take the Wayback machine to the mid-80s, do a headcount of politicians and pundits seemingly eager to kickstart World War Three, and see how what party they're from. Hell, the right wing nearly revolted against Reagan for starting arms reduction talks with Gorbachev instead of more mindless nuclear saber rattling. If John Hawkins wants to place a bet that Greg Stilson wasn't a Republican, I'll give him great odds. And yet the real howler is Reanimator. I didn't know that movement conservatives were keen to watch a disembodied zombie head go down on a naked woman strapped to a table.

The schizophrenic attitude of conservatives to the federal government is displayed by two recent movies endorsed by Hawkins, Cloverfield and Quarantine. About Cloverfield Hawkins writes, "the military was in the thick of the action, bravely fighting against the Cloverfield monster and handling the situation the best way they could." Regarding Quarantine, he writes "when zombies infected with super-rabies are trying to kill you and the government shows up, count on them to to stand outside, picking their noses and trying to figure out what to do, while you struggle for survival. It's a timely and true message: Don't count on your government in a crisis." Unless, of course, it's the military, which, for some inscrutable reason known only to the acolytes of Reagan, doesn't count as the government. Bear in mind that the "government" forces in both of these cases react to the crisis in basically the same way: they isolate the affected area and write off everyone still alive within it. The only difference is that the very sight of the gun-toting manly men of the US military give conservatives instawood. It makes you think we could have fully socialized medicine in this country tomorrow if they just had the government-paid doctors wear camoflauge and carry M-4 rifles.

The crown jewel of the list, though, is the last film: The Tripper. I haven't seen this movie, because it's a straight-to-DVD slasher film directed by David Arquette, but according to John Hawkins, it's a GREAT conservative horror movie. Why? Because, in Hawkins' deathless prose, it features the "sweet, sweet joy of watching a guy in a Ronald Reagan mask taking an ax to dirty, drug addled hippies." Hawkins seems aware that the movie is supposed to be a joke at the expense of conservatives, but he doesn't care because the mere sight of a pseudo-Reagan murdering hippies is enough to send in off into a rich, vivid fantasy of bloody vengeance wreaked on those with the temerity to wear their hair too long. Hawkins calls it a "horror" film, but the way he talks about it, The Tripper might best be described as one of the top ten conservative porn films.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

When evaluating Spike Jonze's long-awaited film adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children's book Where the Wild Things Are, one thing needs to be stipulated from the jump: this is not a kid's movie. It's not that that 'wild things,' which are a nifty combination of Henson-studios designed costumes with CGI facial expressions, are too scary for kids, it's that they're too neurotic. Angst features much more prominently than wild rumpusing because this is a movie about growing up, from the perspective of grown-ups, featuring themes and insights that kids, mired in the same state of hyperactive narcissism as the protagonist, Max, are largely incapable of appreciating.

So, the question becomes: does Where the Wild Things Are work as a movie for adults, about kids? By that metric, Wild Things succeeds brilliantly. Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers mine the scant source material to create an effective allegory about the process of growing up, of recognizing the fragile and finite nature of the world, of discovering self-awareness and empathy. Jonze evokes the overwhelming emotions and exuberance of childhood with a kinetic, low-angle camera and channels the vaugely apocalyptic feeling kids have as they come into awareness of entropy with a crisp, autumnal visual pallete. Most impressively, Jonze and Eggers fill over an hour of screentime with Max cavorting with the Wild Things that manages to have a forward narrative momentum without succumbing to obvious plot mechanics.

The chilly late-fall environment of Max's wild island, with dead trees and dusty arroyos, mirrors the generally cold feeling of the movie itself. Max's relationship with the wild things, led by the mercurial Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), is a constant clash of personalities, with hurt feelings and resentment far outweighing moments of unbridled childlike joy. It's in his vain attempts to rule as King of the Wild Things, who represent different facets of his own hyperactive, frustrated pre-adolescent personality, that Max discovers just how his childish antics appear to the people like his exasperated mother (played by Catherine Keener). The visuals are stunning, the explication of difficult-to-convey notions like empathy and self-awareness is deft, but the film occasionally feels brittle. It's appropriate given the direction Jonze and company have taken the material, but there's something vaguely offputting about a bunch of navel-gazing adults hijacking a children's classic in an effort to examine the fleeting grace of their own childhoods. And yet, a Where the Wild Things Are adaptation aimed squarely at kids would probably have featured more rapping badgers and fart noises, and everyone should be happy that a brilliant piece of children' s literature was spared such a fate. Jonze and Eggers may have rendered Where the Wild Things Are somewhat inaccessible to a generation of children raised on the book, but at least they take Sendak's work seriously enough to engage with it as art, and not an easy way for parents to distract their kids for a few hours.

Paranormal Activity

As readers of this blog, all six of you, know, I love it when two movies with the same basic premise come out within months of each other. Such occasions allow for an illuminating glimpse at the zeitgeist (ZEITGEIST!) as well as the chance to contrast and compare film techniques and sensibilities. Now, on the heels of Sam Raimi's triumphant return to splatstick horror, Drag Me To Hell, comes another movie about a young woman stalked by a soul-hungry demon while her skeptical boyfriend tries to use science to fathom the unfathomable. Oren Peli's micro-budget scare-fest Paranormal Activity offers a useful contrast with Raimi's movie. Drag Me To Hell relies on a hysterically over-the-top tone and an escalating series of operatic shocks and gross-out gags, while Paranormal Activity uses Blair Witch-style first person video cameras and cheap practical effects. As a consequence, Drag Me To Hell is relentlessly entertaining, frequently hilarious, but never really scary, unlike Paranormal Activity, which creates a mood of gut-churning dread that deepens as the movie progresses, culminating in a series of wrenching, upsetting shocks.

The story is simple: Kate and Micah are an upwardly mobile twentysomething couple in a nice condo in San Diego. They've been experiencing weird sounds at night, so Micah, like a good consumer and media-addict, buys a digital camera to record what happens and examine it. The film alternates between shots of the couple's bedroom at night, with the camera on a tripod recording an escalating series of unnervingly realistic apparitions, and footage of Kate and Micah freaking out and arguing during the day. The arguments have that same true-to-life, improvisational edge as The Blair Witch Project, but the characters never come close to being as unpleasant and inarticulate as those jagoffs. They're relatable and likable and their relationship has a welcome degree of texture. Also, the sterile suburban surroundings and Micah's technofetishism raise the issue of how people raised in a secular world would attempt to deal with forces beyond scientific understanding.

More than anything, Paranormal Activity shows how important it is for a horror film to create a sense of palpable reality for it to be truly frightening. The cheap gimmicks that most horror films use to generate tension; an overbearing score, predictable fake-out scares, disorienting camera moves, only serve to disperse tension. They remind the viewer that they're watching a movie, that the people in danger are just actors, that the threat is wholley imaginary. Movies that succeed at creating real moments of unease and fear, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Descent, and now Paranormal Activity, do so by making the audience forget that they're in a movie theater. There's a place in the horror universe for gleeful gore-fests and exercises in blood-camp, but the only way to really scare the shit out of a group of strangers sitting in the dark is by making them feel the fear of the protagonists, and the only way to do that is to make the protagonists, and their world, feel as real to the viewer as the person sitting next to them.

The Invention of Lying

In many ways, Ricky Gervais' directorial debut is remarkably unassuming. The direction is sit-com flat, the setting is clearly some small town in Manitoba with generous tax credits for filmmakers, and nothing flashy gets in the way of Gervais' extremely inventive comedic premise: a world where people did not possess the ability to tell a lie. For the first hour or so, Lying takes this premise and mines it for bucket after bucket of gold comedy nuggets. Watching people bluntly tell each other exactly what their thinking is endlessly amusing, and the humor becomes even sharper and more satirically pointed when Ricky Gervais' schlubby everyman discovers that he, alone in the world, has the power to say things that aren't true. Gervais uses his new power to gain wealth, fame, and, in the film's most inspired sequence, invent the concept of religion.

It's amazing, then, that a film so seemingly intent on keeping the focus on its comedic premise could feature the single most disastrous, painful, poorly conceived romantic subplot in the history of cinema. The second half of the movie comes to a miserable crawl as Gervais attempts to woo Jennifer Garner, a woman who he dated before his transformation who has bluntly told him that she doesn't find him attractive enough to have a relationship with. The plotting is mind-numbingly familiar (it's spoiling nothing to reveal that at one point, Gervais has to stop a wedding!?!), the scenes of a heart-broken Gervais moping around are glacial and unfunny, and the object of Gervais' affection is a vacuous, superficial void. Her insistence on an attractive mate (so as to create genetically advantageous offspring) is taken to be a manifestation of her unchangeable honesty, but the world of the movie contains intangible qualities such as love and humor, and Gervais' love seems completely unwarranted, especially since she acts more than anything like a lazily-programmed robot. The only reason Gervais could possible want her is that Garner is attractive, and Gervais projects positive qualities onto this person who shows no evidence of possessing them. It's the sort of unthinking misogyny that one would hope an incisive comic mind like Gervais would be immune to. One thing The Invention of Lying teaches us is that the sharpest male mind is no match for Botoxed lips and a tight butt.