MY YEAR IN FILM 2006
MY FAVORITE FILMS
The order of films is a bit arbitrary - after #1 (which some of our more eagle-eyed readers might notice is not even from 2006 at all), it consists of either films that I liked very much, but were heavily flawed and films that I'm not sure I would change in any way, but didn't necessarily strike a deep personal chord. A film like Slither I enjoyed a great deal and can't think of any changes I would make to it, but it isn't nearly as ambitious or thoughtful as something like A Scanner Darkly (a film in which I have preferred several big changes) - in comparison to Slither, A Scanner Darkly has both higher highs and lower lows. So which film did I prefer? Which should be rated higher? Do I reward ambition or do I simply point out which films I like came off with fewer hitches? Ultimately, I'm just going to put them in order of personal affection, but the problem is that this was a particularly weak year for me finding new favorites. Aside from Numero Uno, I'm not sure any of these films would've cracked my top list from the last two years.
1. Army of Shadows.
Made in 1968, but released in the US for the very first time in 2006, Jean-Pierre Melville's engrossing story of doomed French Resistance fighters during WWII is a work of pure virtuosity and unyielding intelligence. Melville has always specialized in stories about folks who operate outside of the system: bank robbers, hitmen, professional gamblers. And what's striking about Shadows is the way in which it eschews predictable maxims about heroism and sacrifice, instead choosing to examine its resistance fighters with the same downbeat fatalism that characterizes his films about thieves and lowlifes: life on one end of a gun or the other is a bleak prospect no matter how you slice it.
Melville's great theme is the tension between the inherent isolation of existence and the hidden connections that unexpectedly draw people together - he's kind of like a non-douchebag version of Paul Thomas Anderson or Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. Ok, that's not very nice. I know a lot of people out there really like those guys: he's more like a talented, intelligent version of those filmmakers, one who makes movies without their infantile obsession with indulgent stylistics. The emphasis in Melville is placed on how people cope with their sense of isolation - and the answer he generally returns to is that they focus on a task at hand. "The task" is the mode through which they interact with the world and are led back into a relationship with it: you may think you are alone, but the red circle draws us together - of course, he understands the Buddhist maxim well enough to know that most connections will be fleeting.
Nowhere in his work is that idea more achingly crucial than in Army of Shadows, where the task at hand draws its characters so tightly together that it also tears them apart. And the filmmaking itself is jaw-dropping. Without exaggeration, I can say that it contains at least two of the most thrilling and intense sequences I have ever seen - its best moments can only be compared to films like Wages of Fear and The Seven Samurai.
2. The Bridesmaid.
Claude Chabrol's latest film is another in his long line of un-thrilling thrillers. The final reveal (what is causing that stink upstairs in the creepy attic?) is delivered more as a sigh than a shriek and, once again, Chabrol seems far more interested in pulling apart the mechanics of middle-class tedium than turning the screws on what amounts to simply a variation on the typical "girlfriend from hell" scenario. The film is dependent on Benoit Magamel's amazingly fluid performance as the seemingly reliable plumbing-fixtures salesmen, Philip. His expressive reactions and line-deliveries push and pull the tone of the proceedings between tense thriller, dark comedy and genuine tragedy. This all-over-the-place-ness works in perfect counterpoint to Laura Smet's unflinchingly monotone Senta (.or Stephanie).
Any description of this film is required to mention that Smet is a former model and, knowing only that about her before I saw the film, her first appearance on-screen is a bit of shock: certainly too chubby for modeling by American standards, Smet is the personification of a certain kind of European opaqueness that's in direct contrast to the openly blank prettiness I associate with typical American models - you can never tell what she's thinking; whether she's angry or sad or crazy, whether she's consciously using her sexual power as a manipulative device or just genuinely consumed with a fatalistic idea of romance and, before you know it, you've been thoroughly seduced and ensnared in her delusional world. However, the film only works because Philip clearly has a plenty active fantasy life of his own: their separate desires, obfuscations, hesitancies and perversions become so entangled that by the end of the film, you're not sure in whose demented fantasy the couple is now living. At the bottom of it, it's film about two people who really believe in the adage that love turns us all into lunatics.
In contrast to his perfectly realized short films, Jan Svankmajer's feature films are extremely uneven: he simply isn't as adept at spinning long coherent narratives as he is at bringing together a wealth of rich, suggestive details. In many ways, Lunacy seems to finally acknowledge this fundamental weakness in his filmmaking abilities: instead of focusing on a single narrative thread (as in Otik, Faust, and Alice), Svankmajer has assembled an omnibus of sorts from a variety of Poe stories and linked them casually together through Marquis de Sade's philosophical ruminations. The result is a film that doesn't need to have a strong through-line; here Svankmajer can focus on individual stories (like a recreation of "A Premature Burial") and let his mind loose on the one-of-a-kind visuals and eerie, visceral details that make his work so brilliantly idiosyncratic.
Svankmajer's rigorous intelligence has also always been underrated facet of his work and in Lunacy his philosophical obsessions are most clearly elucidated: the strange implications inherent in the binary opposition of animate/inanimate. Surely, people are more than pieces of dancing meat? And what if they aren't? What is the kernel of being that moves one? It's easy to overlook how deep and serious he is about these ideas not only because of the free-wheeling, chaotic nature of his work, but also because of his naturally wry/ironic approach. His movies are funny without being unserious and high-art without being pretentious. It's the best of all possible worlds.
4. Blood Tea and Red String.
Christiane Cegavske's debut stop-motion feature is the type of movie that immediately brings to mind comparisons to Jan Svankmajer, Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, Bruno Bettelheim, and even Jim Henson - and, incredibly, it has the full force of evocative visuals and ideas implied by that list of folks. The simple storyline follows a family of peasant-clothing-clad bird/squirrel creatures and their journey to reclaim a doll stolen by a group of aristocratically-attired albino mice. The bulk of the running time is spent simply living in the bizarre and delicate world created by Cegavske - she's got an obsessive's attention to small details like fabric patterns and background foliage and as much as the story and characters are borrowed archetypes, the project builds to an utterly original whole that has so much shock and suspense that your viewing experience is akin to something like hearing "Little Red Riding Hood" for the first time.
It's a bizarre mélange of melancholy, adventure, psychedelica, and violence - the albino mice in particular are wonderful creations: their demeanor veers from essentially innocuous (in parts they reminded me of a group of unsupervised children) to grotesque and terrifying (in other parts they reminded me of nothing so much as the backwoods family from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The handcrafted feel of the film gives it an immediacy and poetry that it might otherwise lack: on the one hand, it feels like someone explaining their dream to you (complete with gaps in logic and unexplained loose ends), but it also feels deliberate, thoughtful, and well-planned - there are inexplicably poignant moments mixed in with salvos of pure imagination and by the end none of the comparisons to Svankmajer or Carroll quite fit because the filmmaker is something truly unique and unexpected: a new artist with a singular vision.
Most likely, you won't get a chance to see Atom Egoyan's "home movie" documenting a family vacation to his wife's home in Lebanon. For some reason, Egoyan has decided to only screen the film on Saturday afternoons in a tiny bar in Toronto. He may have stopped doing so already. And it's a shame because this was easily the best film I saw at the "Hot Docs" documentary film festival in Toronto last June: it's an elusive, thoughtful film full of painful personal exchanges, an essayistic rumination on Middle-Eastern politics, an interesting tour of Lebanon's history and landscape, and finally a playful critique of documentary film artifice. The movie is structured as a letter to his young son, an epistle explaining the relationship of Egoyan and his wife (the boy's mother); but it never devolves into simple-minded diary purging or seeks to ratchet up the domestic conflicts on the edges of the narrative.
However, the last ten minutes of the film is hands-down the most intense, wracking piece of cinema I witnessed all year (and I include Army of Shadows in saying that) and the ultimate resolution of the film twisted me around so far that I called into question everything I felt about what preceded it. Egoyan claimed to have made the film on whim, to kill time while he tried to get new project off the ground after his financing fell through and it makes you wish he would dick around more often - I wasn't aware that he was capable as filmmaker of this amount of improvisational looseness or goofy charm. The laid-back approach also ultimately serves the more complex material: this isn't a big, self-important tract on the Political Issue and the Nature of History and the intimate air creates a sense of proportion and level-headedness around Big Subjects like religious conflicts and historical perspective of which most cinematic treatments of such things are incapable. This an emphatically "small" film, in the best sense of the word.
6. A Scanner Darkly.
This would have been the best movie of the year if not for the nagging fact of Woody Harrelson's unwatchably terrible performance. Also, I like Robert Downey Jr. very much, but the twitchy affectations in his one-note performance were exacerbated by being paired with Harrelson's ham-fisted gyrations: Downey's performance would have been bearable (maybe even enjoyable) on its own, but in the context of two hyperactive goofballs it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. Those gigantic problems aside, Richard Linklater finally managed to accomplish something that had never occurred in any of the other high profile adaptations of Philip K. Dick's work: he captured the existential spirit of the author. For that reason alone, A Scanner Darkly deserves praise. Dick's novels and short stories were never about their ingenuous, mind-bending plots so much as the over-flowing wealth of ideas and implications that flooded forth with each new narrative twist. Yes, on one level, Dick's stories contain some of the coolest, most eminently cinematic ideas imaginable: police preventing future crimes, vacation memory implants, and androids dreaming of electric sheep.
But what made Dick's novels special were the mesmerizing ideas forged in the explosive collision of those plots with reality - he wrote books the way you'd imagine a charming, articulate M.I.T. graduate would talk when he was high. And feeling really paranoid. No director has as good a track record of listening to folks like Dick and bringing out the most interesting parts of what they have to say; Linklater slogs through their wild delusioneering and shapes it into something palatable so we don't have to. Slacker and Waking Life are explicitly of this mission, but the thread runs through everything he's ever created: his constant theme is how people reveal themselves through their ideas - and how those ideas in turn reveal the world. A Scanner Darkly inverts that notion and examines how ideas obscure the world; it's a thorough dissection of what it means to live too much inside one's own brain. It starts out as a comedic shaggy-dog story with stoned digressions into a sinking, dream-like reality and by then end it has melted into a wistful elegy lamenting how folks can ultimately become lost to themselves.
7. Miami Vice.
The main question driving this film's box-office and critical failure was "if you're just going to change everything anyway, why even bother to call it Miami Vice?" If you were expecting neon pink t-shirts under white suit jackets and the nostalgic kick of an outdated version of cool, then you were going to be sorely disappointed. For a tv show most well-remembered for its style, Michael Mann made the strange decision of discarding that element. However, a great deal of the dialog and plot were, in fact, recycled from episodes of the show - it seems that maybe the only things that Mann discarded were the beloved theme-song and air of 80's kitsch. I have a theory that Mann was induced to return to the project with explicit mission of treating the material the way he actually wanted it to be treated the first time through - and the result is a film that feels more like a piece of Mann's larger filmography than it does a shallow Hollywood rehash of a Don Johnson t.v. vehicle.
As in Mann's other films, there is an unparalleled sense of place and atmosphere - it's uncanny how the film is able to capture what it's like to be outside at night in a large, temperate city like Miami. Walking home on a warm clear night after the midnight screening where I first saw it, I felt like I was still in the world of the film. There are elements of being that no other filmmaker I can think of captures as succinctly as Mann, the contemplative mood of personal isolation is rendered in short, clear moments - it doesn't waste time an inch of celluloid building up the cool, lone-wolf feeling that characterizes the film. And all the better, because it has more time to devote to the actions sequences, which are deeply satisfying on a Hollywood blockbuster shoot 'em up level. Again, in these sequences - like the final shootout and showdown in the trailer park - Mann's preternatural sense of place is to the film's advantage: no modern director has a better sense of space and time in their action set-pieces. What would be blurry and incoherent in a standard Hollywood action movie is a complex web of strategic movement in Vice. For example, the scene with the explosive collar hinges on understanding the implications of the positioning of several virtually motionless characters. As a result, the split-second resolution of the scene is jump up in your chair and exclaim "holy shit!"-level awesome.
Granted, the movie does have some flaws, most notably Colin Farrell giving a typically dour and bland performance. Also, to steal line from Eric Pfriender, most of the dialog seems like it was written by Roadblock from "G.I. Joe" ("Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time!"), but ultimately the film has enough up its sleeve to overcome the obvious deficiencies: Gong Li all but forces Farrell to act in their scenes together and the movie is far more concerned with the physical elements of the world than the nonsense pouring out of characters' mouths. It might not reach the level of The Insider or Ali, but it's definitely a notch higher up from his more simplistic potboilers like Heat and Collateral.
The bastard child of Frank Henenlotter, Lloyd Kaufman, and about sixty different gory, 80's creepy-crawly films, this is the rare homage movie that works totally in its own right and, consequently, stakes its claim to a piece of vomit-cinema history. Despite a cast loaded with t.v. actors and mainstream cast-offs, the movie surprisingly succeeds mostly because of its actors and characters: it's not simply the story of a bunch of interchangeable meat-bags who get set up for gruesome deaths. Elizabeth Banks (who Hollywood seems to be lining up for Bigger Things) stars as an average housewife caught in a banal marriage to the always excitable, gravel-mouthed Michael Rooker. When the Rook gets infected by an outer-space wormpod, he slowly devolves into a horrifying flesh-eating mess intent on spreading his disease via squirming, wormy nasties.
Director James Gunn knows when to lean on the rules of the genre and when to subvert them and he's also blessed with a flair for comedic relief: he's like Hitchcock - only not an over-rated, self-important douchebag. The comedy never undermines the scares: he's the rare horror director who can make slimy flesh-eaters goofy in one scene and then terrifying in the next. The central story of Banks and Rooker (with Nathan Fillion's decent regular-Joe cop thrown in between them by circumstance) reaches a climax that is improbably touching and also a great metaphor for failed relationships and how couples change over time. Plus, there are some truly disgusting dismemberments, a squirm-inducing bathtub scene, an endless supply of throwaway references, and a cameo by Troma's founder as a hobo. What more is it that you wanted?
9. Jack-ass 2.
There is a strange, sublime pleasure to be had in the machinations of the Jackass crew's willingness to put themselves into the most awful positions. Ultimately, this film is all about skirting the line between "dumb fun" and just plain "dumb" - who hasn't rolled themselves down a hill in a tire or ingested something repulsive on a dare? This movie is like a paean to the inherently self-destructive nature of the id and it has the effect of making you never wonder why they're putting themselves through a series of acts dependent of physical suffering and humiliation: it seems like it might be fun. I want to ride the rodeo bull see-saw, dammit! Granted, I don't want to take a bong full of beer up my ass or get hit by riot control pellets, but there's definitely a big part of me that's curious what it would be like - and that's another underrated element of Jackass: there's an almost innocent spirit of curiosity running throughout the series.
Other than resident douchebag Bam Margera, there's scarcely an ounce of mean-spiritedness in the film. While seeing Margera get tortured by a snake is very satisfying, acts of retribution and cruelty are few and far between - the prankish atmosphere captures with accuracy and affection how groups of young dudes interact. There are a few small moments of regret and hesitation (such as when Knoxville has to convince the others to get annihilated by the riot control equipment) and those moments do threaten to ruin the proceedings: the movie would be unbearable if everyone involved didn't seem to be having such a great time. I won't spend too much time over-analyzing the film, but I really think there's something deeper going on with this movie, something beyond simple hidden camera pranks (which don't really figure into things that much, save the final sequence) or delight derived from violence happening to others. Certainly, it was the most raucous, crazy, deranged, fun film-going experience I had all year.
10. Inside Man.
Spike Lee's most audience friendly film also happens to be one of his sharpest satires and most convincing morality plays. It reminds me not just of the gritty thrillers of the 70's (such as Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3) by which it's clearly inspired; but also the social comedies of the 30's and 40's (like in Preston Sturges or George Cukor) which squeezed their controversial satire into wildly popular crowd-pleasers; and further still, westerns like Red River or Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which presented some the most convincing moments of moral clarity ever captured on film: in more ways than one, Inside Man is a true heir to the "Hollywood Style" mantle. Morally, this is a film about how it's not acceptable to simply "get rich or die tryin'" and how there are stakes higher than simple profit. It's also a film about how when, in a tense situation, everyone's motivations are cloudy and actions are baffling, if you just stay focused then it's usually plenty clear who the bad guys are.
Plus, Spike Lee continues to be effortlessly funny when he wants to be and it's clear he's having a ball with this one - the parody video game (with it's on-screen exhortation to "kill dat nigga!") is another signature Lee dig at America's ubiquitous gangsta-fied pop culture. Denzel Washington is utterly charming as the shit-listed detective trying to unravel the intricacies of a bank heist in which nothing makes sense - the laid-back ease with which he absolutely nails his role again reminds me of classic Hollywood. As far as auteur/actor pairings go, would anyone really argue at this point if I said Lee/Washington can without a doubt be mentioned in the same breath with Mann/Stewart or Hitchcock/Grant? Jodi Foster's crisis expert was a bit much for my tastes, but I guess I can't come down too hard on her when I enjoyed Christopher Plummer's scenery-chewing war profiteer as much as I did. Plus, the intricate heist scheme at least made some sense when all was said and done, even if I'm in no hurry to try it out.
This is a movie that was more or less despised by the small number of folks who actually saw it and, in a way, it's easy to understand why. On about three different levels, it seems like such a stunt: it was the first release in an industry-baiting distribution paradigm (it was release simultaneously on dvd, in theaters, and on cable), yet another return by Steven Soderbergh to his indie roots, and a film self-consciously cast with non-actors, all-in-one. With all of this superfluous distraction around the movie, it's easy to see how the bubble might have been popped for most audiences - it's too small and quiet a film to withstand the pressure of excessive media attention and pre-release backlash. It is emphatically not a Great Work and Soderbergh's willingness to try on a new stylistic hat is not 100% successful.
But, it really worked for me and the intimate, aimless air reminded of Richard Linklater's Slacker or Kevin Smith's Clerks in its good-natured sympathy for folks stuck in lives with no apparent point. Bubble is funny without cracking jokes and bleak without being defeatist, it's amazingly attuned to the rhythms of working class life: the half-mumbled, go-nowhere dialog, the attention to the details of factory life, and the cycle of "days all the same" enrich the atmosphere to a point that when the supposed "murder mystery" plot kicks in, you've completely bought into the world of the film. The film of which it reminded me most was Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, another tale of working-class suffering and crime that places the emphasis on "working class" rather than "suffering and crime." They both have deeply sympathetic matriarchs at the root of the crime stories and subtle endings that approach something like The Transcendent. Both are slightly too modest to make a big deal of it, though, and you leave the theater having experienced something hushed and meager that grows in your mind in retrospect, the further it gets from the pointless controversy surrounding it.
B-MOVIE ROUND-UP. A JAMBOREE OF SORTS. THE SORTS? B-MOVIES.
Despite a weak year for ambitious, upscale quality flicks, there was plenty of enjoyment to be had with movies that I would be hard-pressed to categorize as "good." I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth and I'm no elitist, so I decided to pay proper respect to the disposable b-pics with which I enjoyed an hour and a half. Even if they weren't very good, they were still better than any hour and a half of television I could've watched instead - and, yes, I considered "Lost," "The West Wing," "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," and "Deadwood" in that reasoning.
Borat. When I first saw this film, I thought it was brilliant. What happened? I don't know, man, get off my back - it just makes more sense here than in my Top Films List. I still think it was the funniest movie I saw all year, that it really did contain a great deal of well-observed, intelligent satire, and that Sacha Baron Cohen deserves the comparisons to the incomparable Andy Kaufman. I'm not part of the backlash or even the backlash to the backlash and I'm certainly not one to walk around saying things like "Niiiice" and "High five!" in a stilted nasally voice or one to claim that the film isn't bracingly dynamic or to deny that Cohen has some pretty huge fucking balls to pull this shit - so let's leave it at that: this movie is fucking funny and I believe in my heart that the motivations of the creators were to create a sharp cultural satire and make boatloads of money. End of story.
Final Destination 3. The Final Destination series is not only easily the best modern horror franchise, but also one that has the endless potential to avoid the pitfalls of serialization: there's no villain to be softened into a cartoon and made the "hero" of the films (à la the wise-crackin' late period Freddy Krueger or the tediously unstoppable Jason Vorhees) and no risk of the formula growing stale (think of Halloween's make-out, stab, repeat cycles or J-Horror's slinking, raven-haired moppets): the very idea driving the Destination films is an unhinged inventiveness predicated on the notion of unpredictability. Numero 3 doesn't reach the vertiginous heights of squirmy tension and hairpin-turn reversals that were achieved in 2003's exemplary FD2, but it does stay assiduously faithful to wicked sense of fatalism and Rube Goldberg-ish contortions of violence that make the films such a raucous pleasure.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is good enough as the central death-dodger that you won't even bother to think about the complete cast turn-over. But the film also doesn't skimp on building the characters up in a charmingly caricatured shorthand that makes them all both a bit stereotypical and a bit likable - you like them enough that you don't want them to see them die, but the film flirts with total absurdity just closely enough that their deaths are never too traumatizing. I would say it also featured the best character name of the year with "Texas Battle," but that's the actor's freakin' name, so once again reality tops fiction. Anyway, what cheap-o horror franchise can boast three films of the same level of gleefully perverse quality? The Evil Dead? All this and young naked ladies frying to death in tanning beds.
Crank. I mean, Crank is pretty fucking terrible - but if you didn't know that coming in, I'm not sure which version of the trailer you saw. Regardless of quality, who wouldn't enjoy watching the estimable Jason Statham punch, sneer, and twitch his way through about 75 minutes of the punchiest, sneering-ist, twitchiest "filmmaking" ever committed to celluloid? It's the old "dude injected with a slow-acting poison must get vengeance before he dies" plot - and I don't mean that sarcastically: that more than faintly ridiculous plot dates at least as far back as 1950's D.O.A. and it turns up in everywhere from the opening sequence of The Temple of Doom to an episode of "MacGyver." The filmmakers are just naïve enough to think they're breaking new ground (and have the mid-90's music-video editing chops to support it!), but you really can't argue with Statham joyously bellowing "I'm alive!" while nailing Amy Smart in the middle of broad daylight on crowded street in Chinatown while the locals cheer him on (with a touching enthusiasm). Also, he punches some dudes in the head and snorts coke off of a filthy bathroom floor. Case closed.
Waist Deep. Good bless Tyrese Gibson's character (a beleaguered dad) for taking the time to pause from his hair-raising race against the clock and the police (a race to save his kidnapped son from a blood-thirsty gangster) in order to make sweet love to the prostitute with a heart of gold who decided to help him commit a series of wildly ill-planned robberies to get the money to pay the snarling gangster and also avoid going to jail with a third strike. Even though a brother can't catch a break, Tyrese still has the sensitivity to know that women have needs too. Fucking-related needs. Needs that demand to be satisfied immediately in the big house in Hollywood hills which they've broken into and holed up in to avoid their pursuers. I would also like to say that The Game (real name "Theodore Gamington." true story) deserves a Golden Globe for his turn as Meat, the drug lord who isn't afraid to employ the Code of Hammurabi as a method for improving workplace productivity. Also, he carries around a machete and has really nice sneakers. Easily 2006's winner for "Most Shirtless Movie of the Year."
Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Lucas Black? Lucas Black! Forget Vin Deisel and Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson, Lucas Black is the best thing that ever happened to this franchise and, I dare say, the handsomest of that bunch. Put that in your workout and crunch it, Walker! I have no idea what connects this film to the rest of the series, but folks on internet chat boards assure me they share some of the same characters. Who cares? There's a great race through a suburban construction site that features the marble-mouthed Southern drawl superstar Black taking on the ugliest kid from "Home Improvement." It's either back to Juvie Hall or shipped to Tokyo for Black after the cops ruin the proceedings (stupid cops); so before you know it, Black is learning a crazy new style of driving that involves careening into walls and destroying piece after piece of expensive Japanese racing-style machinery. It contains such priceless dialog exchanges as:
Japanese gangster type with a fruity haircut who is staking Lucas Black: The Red Evo's yours.
Lucas Black: What do you mean?
Japanese Guy: You're representing me now. What you think, I'm gonna let roll in a Hyundai?
Non-descript blonde girl: Nice car.
Lucas Black: It does the job.
Non-descript blonde girl: Doing what? Delivering pizzas?
Lucas Black: It's not the ride, it's the rider.
Indeed, Mr. Black. Indeed. Actually, the main thing to be learned from FATF:TD is that the ride is all that matters. It's a great piece of car-fetish porn and if you care at all about that sort of thing (I don't), I'm sure you will be writhing in your seat upon finding out that one of the foreign cars in the film was never before seen on American TV or Film, called the Toyota Chaser - a Camry-sized sedan powered by a 2.5 liter in-line six single turbo that also powers the Japanese version of the Lexus SC300/400, which is called the Toyota Soarer. That's a whole lot of gibberish for such a little movie. Thanks internet! Fortunately, it also features a lot of car races and Lucas Black could make deciding what to order for dinner seem like an intense, soul-shattering ordeal. I'd watch that movie: Lucas Black in Thai or Italian 3: I Thought Someone Mentioned Mongolian Barbeque.
Accepted. Don't deny that Justin Long is going to be a real movie star someday or that the Animal House template for fart-swilling college comedies will never grow stale. Instead, listen to your heart and don't resist this tale of a group of lovable losers who find a place for themselves they never knew existed outside of a world of over-privileged frat-boys and snooty administration officials. They'll find pretty blondes with hearts of gold (and very low standards) and party until they puke and learn to laugh and love and be themselves dammit, regardless of the humiliations reality would so cruelly inflict. Seriously, though, this film was written by Steve Pink who also wrote Gross Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, it's overloaded with charming, funny supporting cast members, and directed with the good sense to hit both the jokes and plot points with the right timing and force. Sure, it's the definition of "low-brow derivative junk," but have you seen shit like Van Wilder or American Wedding? Getting in a big laugh in every couple minutes and keeping the proceedings charming while moving at an admirable clip is like writing a good blog: if it's so fucking easy, how come nobody does it?
Beerfest. A nice rebound from the essentially laughless Club Dread, the Broken Lizard comedy troupe focuses on their strength: juvenile antics. There are wall to wall jokes in this film and I dare say at least 50% of them hit - that's a pretty great ratio. You can't go wrong with a group of talented comedic performers willing to humiliate themselves for the cheapest of laughs and Sutter Kane as the villain. The main virtue of these guys is that have a genuinely great rapport: the best scenes in the movie are when the five of them get together in a room and dick around. Kevin Heffernan scores the biggest laugh of the film simply by distracting Steve Lemme with a puppet. Plus, it gets a lot of points for an extended Legend of Curly's Gold parody - a bit rivaled only by The Great Race's equally drawn-out Prisoner of Zenda send-up for it's head-scratching dedication to a concept that's more bizarre than funny. Jay Chandrasakher's direction gets more fluid and laid-back with each film and it's only a matter of time before these dudes create a film that really belongs on a "Best of" list, not just a film that would be solidly labeled a "guilty pleasure" by your dad or something that "fuckin' rocks!" by your teenage brother.
The Marine. Being a marine is all John Cena knows. Dammit, world - why must you deny him even that!? Just go to my 200 movies blog and read about it there. In that blog, however, I did fail to mention the classy shot that starts behind the dark-haired, over-tanned femme fatale as she begins to strip and then tracks in between her black-stocking adorned legs to focus on Robert Patrick's lecherously bug-eyed reaction. I half-expected a "boing!" sound effect to accompany the camera movement.
Also, did you idiots think something so insignificant as a deadly swamp was going to keep him from cacthing up with his wife's captors? Are freakin' kidding me?
The Complete Mr. Arkadin. I've never been much of a Welles enthusiast and, certainly, I wouldn't consider this one of his best efforts; but the care and extensiveness with which Criterion have packaged this 3-dvd set makes it an amazing pick-up. To steal a description from Noel Murray: "Each disc contains a different version of the film: the European cut, which streamlines a narrative that has American schemer Robert Arden investigating the past of an amnesiac millionaire played by Welles; the so-called "Corinth" cut, which tells the same story through a series of jumbled flashbacks; and a new "comprehensive" cut, which retains the flashback structure, but includes some scenes that make it earlier to follow. All the versions riff on post-war corruption while introducing a string of colorful characters anchored by the relentless Arden, a shiftless Yank trying to find a place in the Old World."
Also, Welles ephemera is almost always as interesting as his work and there's plenty to go around here: there's a novelization of the film included in the package, a couple episodes of the source radio show and a featurette that talks about the various versions of the film floating around - it's probably more interesting than the movie itself (a la the A Very British Psycho featurette on Criterion's release of Peeping Tom). The Jonathan Rosenbaum (along with some other dude) commentary track is a mixture of enlightening and boring: Rosenbaum is an absolute Welles devotee, so he spends a lot of time extolling on Welles' genius - but he also knows his shit, so he's constantly revealing strange bits of trivia and recounting various Welles lore.
Final Destination 3. An idea so simple, you can't believe it hasn't been done before: FD3 features a kind of "Choose Your Own Adventure" mode where you can alter to outcome of the film by choosing whether characters avoid death or step right into it. It's hard to say just how different you can actually make the film, but a word of advice: make sure Frankie Cheeks lives. In the original version, Cheeks is a one-note buffoon who you can't wait to get offed, but the new material with this sleazy would-be playa is pretty priceless. "Quick - find out if there's a law against impersonating a slut!" For a film that relies on the uncertainty of not knowing who is going to die next or how it's going to happen, the branching narrative is a perfect development - there's no themes to be derailed by making changes and the plot is so straight forward that any changes won't really set it off course: anyone can die at any time and everyone dies in the end.
The Michael Haneke collection. Three of Haneke's early films were finally made available to the American dvd-buying public with Kino's release of Benny's Video, The Seventh Continent, and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of a Chance. These three films were all but impossible to find (and even then, only in cruddy PAL transfers) before the box set came out, so for Haneke enthusiasts it was a godsend. From the very beginning, Haneke displayed a cool, intelligent mastery of his camera and actors - The Seventh Continent has to be one of the most fully-formed auteur debuts in history. It builds to a scene as shocking, upsetting and weird as anything in any other Haneke's other films. Benny's Video has a lot in common with both Cache and Funny Games, insofar that it is a merciless critique of violence, viewership and responsibility - so what if it's probably the weakest of the three, it's still head and shoulders above most movies.
71 Fragments has an "intersecting lives" set-up not dissimilar to Code Unknown, but I found it to be actually even better than that later film: once again Haneke works through his notions of what connects people to the world and to each other as well as how civilized folks devolve into uncivilized behavior. The style is every bit as tight and tense as in his later work, but with a sprawling messiness that makes you wish he would loosen up a bit more occasionally. I guess it shouldn't have surprised me that one of modern cinema's most self-assured directors would have come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, but it's still very stunning to see just how little he had to develop his style and ideas before reaching his current status of international renown. Throw in his completely obscure t.v. version of Kafka's The Castle and you've got an unbelievable haul.
Janus 50th Anniversary Box Set. Featuring films by greats from Antonioni to Polanski to Wadja and billed as a "film school in a box," this gigantic release of the highlights of Janus' long and venerable history contains some of the most essential film in the history of cinema as well as bits of the more offbeat work that characterize Criterion's (with whom they are partnered) dvd release pattern: for every film like The Seven Samurai included in this 50 film set, there's a film like Haxan or Spirit of the Beehive. This mixture of classics, should-be classics and oddities gives the set an expansive feeling that it would almost certainly lack if it just stuck to the canon.
As is, it really does live up to the notion of a home-viewing film education: you don't feel like it's all a slog through films you should be getting familiar - it's dedication to idiosyncrasy gives you the feeling that you've been granted a peek into an offbeat cineaste's personal collection or a lecture from a particularly eccentric professor. The smaller gems (of which there are many) like Il Posto and Fires on the Plain definitely hold up next to the towering classics like Jules and Jim and The Third Man; the result being that the smaller selections feel every bit of mind-blowing as the noted works, while the noted works regain some of the intimacy and personal meaning that can be drained by notions of "legacy" and "historical relevance." I'm sure you don't need it explained to you why this box set is awesome - that's obvious enough - but don't make the mistake of thinking the selections themselves (the films that are included in the set) are obvious and staid.
When compiling this list, I thought about how I didn't really want to single out movies for simple incompetence or crass commercialization. Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj gets enough shit without me also taking a dump on it - and, really, who needs it pointed out to them that something like Failure to Launch is a smoldering pile of garbage? Instead, this list is the film that I either found to be a gross personal affront, an insult to the idea of art in general, or stupid some bullshit in love with its own cleverness: a smoldering pile of garbage masquerading as something meaningful or intelligent. Most of these films actually fit all three categories.
Marie Antoinette. I won't even dignify this film with a response. I'm not sure I am willing to bother conjure up the words to express my distaste for this particular mess. Succinctly: the film is a dramatic realization of the thoughts and feelings Sophia Coppola has about life that make her a terrible person.
Thank you for Smoking. If this movie were a person, I would punch him in the face. It's the cinematic embodiment of snarky, self-satisfied "Libertarian" equivocation. It's a film that sets out to ridicule the Liberal point of view (as though that's one unified thing) on hot-button topics like cigarettes, advertising and corporate responsibility by proposing that there are no easy answers to such complicated questions... and then offering up facile, obvious satire to makes its point. The villains are who you'd expect: Senators from Vermont (he's wearing sandals with a business suit, tee-hee!), whorish media vultures (who literally prostitute themselves for a story), and self-absorbed Hollywood types (Rob Lowe's superagent wears a kimino. That's Hollywood for you, I guess!). Aaron Eckhart's public relations savant is supposed to be a charming rascal but he's neither charming nor intelligent. Self-satisfied, smug, dumb, and always on the winning end of things without earning shit - the filmmakers are so in love with their protagonist they become one and the same thing.
The Fountain. Boring, repetitive, unimaginative. This film has the nerve to present itself as a visionary work and then proceed to crib moments and moods from everything from like obvious sources such as 2001 and The Matrix to more obscure works like The Little Prince and Princess Mononoke to b-movie refuse like Troll and Creepshow. That's a huge mistake if the sole virtue of your film is its "startling originality." Certainly, nothing else in this movie is worth the celluloid on which its printed: the love story is a monotonous melodrama a la Dying Young and Sweet November, the action sequences are tedious and ineffectual, the pseudo-contemplative moments leave you with nothing to actually contemplate, and the central conceit is approached with a kind of vapid laziness that undermines whatever greater meaning it might have had. It's a big idea: a man across time experiences the eternal cyces of love and discovery, only it's executed without an ounce of dramatic tension, emotional resonance, wit, or (most glaringly) originality.
Little Children. Smug self-satisfaction, now in film form: just view and suddenly feel better than everyone around you. Seriously, though, I'm glad someone finally had the guts to satirize banal suburban living - that way of life has been getting a free pass! Bravely, this film specializes in taking on such over-looked topics as internet pornography, infidelity, suburban conformity, and married-life malaise. Wait, what's that? This film has the balls to make a statement about pedophilia? In an independent comedy?! Now I've seen everything! One of the most dishonest projects imaginable, it's a satire of middle-class suburban white folks designed to be consumed by suburban middle-class white folks. He's right: we're so lame! Honestly, who goes to see a movie like this and doesn't feel dirty afterwards? It's an exercise in hypocritical condescension, smug aloofness, and stylistic onanism. Director Todd Field throws every hot-button, sure-to-get-a-reaction element into one big, intellectually evasive stew and proceeds to act like he's not merely being controversial for controversy's sake - only there's literally no point to a film like this other than to make you believe you'd experienced something you haven't, to make you feel like you've understood a subject you haven't even addressed, to feed you bullshit to make you feel above the bullshit.
Hard Candy. This film is like Little Children, Jr. and not just because they share Steven Soderbergh as a leading man (wait, that wasn't Steven Soderbergh?). A one-act play stretched to 90 excruciatingly idiotic minutes and needlessly committed to film, Hard Candy flails erratically at an audience's buttons and succeeds in occasionally pushing them to an indecipherable effect. What is this movie getting at, exactly? That child murderers are bad? Glad we cleared up that vexing moral dilemma. Oh, great, but at least we get to see yet another music video director go nuts with reduced shutter angles and freeze frames.
V for Vendetta. Would everyone please stop trying to convince me that there are comics out there that reach the level of real art? If this is the best the medium has to offer (I know, I know, it's actually The Watchmen that I need to read - shut it, fatty!) then perhaps an entire generation of prim librarians was right: comics are a waste of time that will rot your brain. Written with the subtlety, nuance, and arrogance of a particularly smart and socially awkward eighth grader, Vendetta is full of half-baked ideas about Fascism and Freedom wrapped in a cheesy superhero storyline. Natalie Portman wanders scowling through the ridiculous narrative while a bunch of sub-Matrix special effects swirl pointlessly around her. Since it's a comic book movie, scientific logic and dramatic coherence are stomped flat in favor of one-dimensional villains and absurd action set-pieces. Theoretically, creator Alan Moore's erudite dialog and perceptiveness about history are what separate his work from Spiderman and Ghost Mutt, but those facets of this film are exceptionally weak. The dialog confuses "cutesy" with "witty" and "self-important" with "dramatic" and the historical insights are strictly George Orwell-lite, while being rendered in a broad, flat, blocky style that mirrors their comic book origins.
Clerks 2. This film is as wrong-headed as it could be - it feels like an outside director trying to cash in on a successful franchise, rehashing the ostensible reasons for success while totally missing the spirit that made the original so popular. I have a lot of personal history with the original Clerks and I think that's normal: Clerks is exactly the type of movie with which one can have a personal relationship - that's what separates it from the rest of Kevin Smith's ribald, drab oeuvre. Except for Clerks (and maybe Chasing Amy), Smith has made pop entertainments, movies (probably unintentionally) designed to be consumed and maybe mulled over for moment, but then ultimately discarded like a greasy fast-food wrapper. It's not necessarily that they're un-enjoyable (I personally enjoy Mallrats quite a bit), but they're certainly not worth thinking about. Some attempt to use bigger issues like religion as fuel, while some have nothing on their mind beyond playing in a self-contained sandbox of familiar characters and jokes; but they all are simply "movies."
The original Clerks is a film that genuinely (seemingly inadvertently) engages reality, not some hermetic universe. It kind of sucks that Jersey Girl is so bad because it at least attempted to engage some kind of outside world - and that's what makes Clerks 2 such a fucking shame: Clerks didn't exist in the Askewniverse and Smith's attempts to shoehorn it into that pointless un-reality are a waste of two characters that it's possible to care about on a human level. Painfully, he ditches virtually everything from the original film, starting with making the two protagonists fast-food employees. Forget that he has to offer up an absurd back-story to get them to the fast-food joint, the problem with the new scenario is that there's a world of difference between working in a Mom-and-Pop video store (where you manage yourself, no less) and working on the bottom rung of a faceless, corporate fast-food conglomerate. Honestly, have you ever seen a white, 30-something guy as a cashier at MacDonald's? As a manager, maybe, but as cashiers is a stretch and implies that Dante and Randall have passed beyond aimless or blue-collar into truly pathetic. Next, the film neglects any mention of Veronica in favor of a spoiled Rich Girl - who would see what, in Dante exactly? Maybe a thirty-something white guy works as a cashier at MacDonald's somewhere, but he sure isn't engaged to a skinny blonde chick with a beach-house in Florida. What happened to Veronica? What happened to Dante's plan to go back to college?
Listen, there are a million little missed notes in this film and I don't want to go through any more of them - I only want to say that this film slashes and burns anything and everything meaningful and intelligent and true about the original. So, maybe you just came for the dick jokes and want a good time - well, listen up: this movie sucks on that level, too. Forget that Smith can't direct (which is the running joke of his career), Smith is also a terrible writer - he doesn't know how to structure a film, how to set-up convincing dramatic situations, how to write believable characters, how to convey characters' thoughts or emotions through anything other than point-blank dialog. He's just fucking hapless. A potty mouth and some bland pop cultural meditations might've gotten you some notice in 1994, but the world is now overflowing with wanna-be Chuck Klostermans and armchair Quentin Tarantinos and closet Bill Simmons, so you had better bring something to the table other than discussions of how Lord of the Rings sucked and stories about a kid in high school who stuck a pickle up his ass. Dick jokes are now everywhere and, quite frankly, everyone from Trey Parker to Danny Leiner does them better. Plus, negative points for trying to ruin my favorite Talking Heads song. No kudos!
Da Vinci Code. Boring! Bo-Ring! Also: stupid, gay, and lame. Nice haircut, dude - go back to Canada!
Dreamgirls. This movie reminded me of the Mr. Show sketch "Rap: The Musical" about a musical based around accoutrements of hip-hop - only pleasantly devoid of any rap music whatsoever, so the whole family can enjoy it! In that sense, Dreamgirls is "Soul: The Musical," a musical based around the accoutrements of soul music - only pleasantly devoid of even an ounce of soul! Sure, it has an endless parade of blow-out ballads from which every ounce of "singing" is wrung from every single note, but it's as insipid and square as Pat Boone. The disorienting thing about the film, though, is that it understands the history of black culture well enough to know that the "whitening" of black culture is an essential element of American pop cultural's arc. So you end up with the "whitest" movie imaginable feigning authenticity about "black history" like the Detroit riots and Motown, while simultaneously mocking the "white" knock-offs of the "authentic" black pop cultural products featured in this film. It's enough to make Gilles Delueze's head explode - well, that and the screeching high volume singing that papers this film wall to wall throughout its interminable, inexcusable 2 hour and 40 minute runtime. There's scarcely a stretch longer than 3 minutes not overloaded with song after forgettable song, done up with "American Idol"-style blandness, hackneyed humdrum hokum aping the feel of the R&B, soul, and disco hits of yore. It's pretty unbearable.
Duck Season. But why would you single out such a gentle and inoffensive film? What did this low-key tale of unsupervised youngsters ever do to you? It wasted my motherfucking time! That's time I could've spent fucking my mother. Will that comment make it out of this rough draft and up onto the internet? Only time will tell. Anyhoo, this movie is bereft of ideas as well as any sense of humor or comedic pacing. It is also bereft of any hint of talent in the writer, director or performers: it's exactly the type of film that shouldn't get a free pass precisely because it aspires to so little and then misses the mark by such a wide margin. It's neither charming nor smart nor well photographed nor imaginatively directed - it's a perfect representation of that species of film known as "harmless crap." Only, it wasn't dumped onto multiplex screens (like the comparable Unaccompanied Minors) or sent directly to cable. For some reason, it clogged up hundreds of the meager few art-house screens in America - and consider that great films like Lunacy and Blood Tea and Red String could barely get released and David Lynch couldn't find a distributor to take on Inland Empire. I'm not one to be overprotective of the concept of art cinema or to ignore the realities of film distribution in a winner-take-all capitalistic system, but, goddamn, don't waste my time on this garbage!
The Van Helsing award for beautiful awfulness: Nic Cage's headless bear-suit punch-o-rama, The Wicker Man. Honestly, when they shot this movie, there must've been a hundred people standing around on set - did nobody pull Neil LaBute aside and say, "Neil. Really?" I'm glad they didn't though, because I otherwise wouldn't haven't gotten to see Mr. Cage dress up in a bear-suit and punch, not one, but three women in the face. I'm not sure this will help LaBute deflect the charges of misogyny that have plagued him, but, hey, sometimes you just have to recycle an over-rated, one-note twist-ending film into a woefully misguided, brain-dead vanity project dedicated to Joey Ramone.
Biggest Disappointment: Hal Hartley's misguided Fay Grim, another sequel that inexplicably seeks to undermine and ruin the original. It distorts and caricatures Hartley's best batch of characters for the sake of an inane, muddled plot about international espionage and coded messages hidden in novels. It does its damnedest to destroy the memory of Henry Fool, so it's probably better if we all pretend like it doesn't exist.
(continues on next page with some MISSES RATHER THAN FAILURES from 2006)
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