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john cribbs


The Worst

1. Redacted

This is a year to dish out some tough love, and I'll start with De Palma. Bri, your "cutting edge" multi-media Blair Witch Project in Iraq is more embarrassing than Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars. It's more of a misfire than Wise Guys or Snake Eyes. And it's certainly nowhere near as competent as Casualties of War, your earlier story of American Soldiers Gone Bad, which you didn't seemto mind resetting in the Middle East, recasting with a local dinner theater troupe, and reshooting in the form of surveillance cameras, Arabic websites, a French documentary, soldier video diaries and videoblogs, Youtube confessionals: jesus De Palma what were you thinking? I know you're mad about the war - a lot of us are - but this is the wrong way to go about criticizing it. Just on a basic level, slamming the soldiers is not going a long way towards getting at the heart of the Big Problem. I don't think anyone said they had an issue with American occupation in Iraq because two psychotic rednecks might join up and target civilians. You're slightly closer to the mark with the French documentary bit about the border patrols, but the whole thing's handled in such a hopelessly phoney fashion it's impossible to believe or care.

And that's before we get to the actors sitting around improvising cheesy dialogue to make their characters seem ridiculously evil, cowardly or stupid. But the worst thing, and it breaks my heart knowing it's coming from a director so renowned for his camera work, is theincredibly dumb use of "live" footage slapped together to try and give it that "realness." The douchebag behind that video camera might not know why his ex-soldier buddy suddenly broke down crying in the middle of his birthday, but it's a good thing he holds that shot on him whilehe simpers and whines (good thing also that all US security cameras apparently have sound.) Of course the infamous internet beheading isreenacted (or reendact-enacted?) however based on the actions of the soldiers you're meant to feel that their punishment fits thecrime. How out of touch can you get? Watching Redacted feelslike you're having an intelligent debate over something you really careabout when suddenly some retarded jackass starts agreeing with you but backs it up with a completely pointless argument that has nothing to do with your own reasoning, kind of like that "South Park" where the boys want to stop Spielberg retooling Raiders but everyone else in the town wants to set a baby killer free.

And when that jackass finally shuts up and leaves feeling all smug inside, you say to yourself Holyshit - didn't he direct Carrie? Wasn't he once on the ball? Why is he even interested in this? To be fair De Palma, you're obviously angry. However earlier when I praised Sidney Lumet for being angry, I should have added that a director shouldn't be so full of rage that it effects his ability to, well, direct. Rather than make me standup and cheer I left the screening feeling embarrassed, like I wanted to go hide somewhere. And of course I felt sad, being a longtime apologist for you and your lopsided career, but I haven't given up hope Bri. In my heart at least, there'll be a big black bar on your filmography between The Black Dahlia and The Untouchables: Hannibal Rising ( I mean Capone Rising.)


2. Goya's Ghosts

It was a bad year for overblown, tedious, fictionalized soap opera biopics of interesting people: at least Gillian Armstrong's dull Death Defying Acts had Guy Pearce playing Harry Houdini. I thought Javier Bardem would be playing Francisco Goya, but instead it's Stellan Skarsgard? Just when the casting couldn't make any less sense, here comes Randy Quaid! Bardem appears in the very familiar role of the lecherous, hypocritical priest during the Spanish Inquisition. He takes advantage of bony Natalie Portman and she gives birth to another Natalie Portman - an interesting take from this point would be to follow the decadency downthrough the various incarnations until it reached Queen Amidala (oh wait that takes place in the past, sorry scratch that.) Instead Milos Forman follows a predictable text (unfortunately co-written byJean-Claude Carriere) in which the famous Cinco de Mayo artist is more a neutral observer than an actual participant, the inspiration for his art regulated to a quick montage of Napolean's invasion. Gotta get that out of the way to make room for the bungled melodrama. There's a scene after Goya has gone deaf (which is depicted by the sound cutting out and him saying "I'm deaf!") when he comes in yelling at Bardem, who has to patiently wait to speak while the painter turns around after every sentence to look at the guys signing for him.This goes on forever, and only a few scenes after it's finally over...it happens all over again! Forman usually leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but Goya's Ghosts is his first flat-out failure, a tepid late-career underachiever second only this year to Roland Joffe's Captivity. Portman, alternatively squealy and stuffy in her dual roles, is comical to look at once she's been turned into a hag with a snaggle tooth but otherwise as believable as a muse to the Old Masters as she is Anne Boleyn. However I bet that queen movie actually had something to do with its historical subject, so it's got that over Goya's Ghostsbusters.


3. Juno

Check out hip Ellen Page with her hoodie and striped knee socks, drinking Sunny D out of the carton while talking on her hamburger phone! She's much cooler than you: she scoffs at the sight of something lame like a couple with a framed photo of each other. It makes her grin out the side of her mouth and spew some kind of absurd mouth diarrhea like "pork swords!" and "honest to blog!" Honest to blog? I know they're supposed to be from Minnesota but I don't remember people in Fargo calling each other "homeskillet." I mean this shit might fly if it were purposely goofy like the cheerleader lingo in Bring It On, but sausage berries flipswitch who enjoys listening to people talk like that? Not to mention the lingo that's just planted into the alleged "teen speak." "Shenanigans?" Where did she come up with such a crazy word? And how come they left out "hoopla," "schmorgazboard" and "holyvaginal plug Jersey toll?"

I'm well aware of the anti-Juno train: I hopped on the first time I saw a preview and requested an upgrade to sleeping car by the time Page and Michael Cera had finished crooning doe-eyed at each other. In fact I can't understand why everyone (besides ultrasound technicians) isn't horribly offended by this critical darling. Beyond its psuedo-coolness (Monster A Go-Go is not better than Suspiria!) and untouchable burrito blaster of a heroine, the movie is full of useless side characters like a creepy Jennifer Garner (slumping this year next to her husband's slam dunk), a virtually unused Michael Cera (he eats tic tacs! That's so, holy shit! It's crazy!) and poor JK Simmons as "poopy working class dad" who seems to have wandered in from Little Miss Sunshine.

On the one hand the movie turns itshipster sneakers on conventional morals and values, yet like Jason Reitman's first feature Thank You for Smoking it wants to have its cake and eat it too (sorry, I'll Juno-ize that...it wants to toss its fanny pack yet have ample storage for fruit pies dillwiener!) It doesn't want to be overly pro-life so there's a hilarious foreign kid protesting at the clinic. It doesn't want Juno to seem like she cares enough to keep the kid, yet carefully sets up the premise so that her giving it up is a noble gesture. And so on and so on, lots of two-way screenwriting. I'd say Diablo Cody should go back to exotic dancing, but she's not very attractive. That's something for Roger Ebert to fantasize about as he helps this mularky (ooh, hip/anti-hip word!) ride the "indie" flavor of the month train to inevitable obscurity.


4. The Number 23

Wait a minute! This is the sixteenth movie I'm writing about! It's the seventh-to-last entry on my "worst" list: 16 and 7 is 23! Joel Schumacher made D.C. Cab in 1984: 2007 minus 1984 is 23! Co-star Danny Huston directed Mia Sara in The Maddening, which was released in 1999 on April 19: 4/19 23! The 1998 film 23, which hasn't been acknowledged anywhere by anyone in relation to this shitfest, was made in Germany: there are 11 letters in "Adolf Hitler," and 12 letters in "Fuhrerbunker," which equals 23! The number threecomes right after the number two. 2..3 23!

Anyway, Schumacher's Bug for Dummies gets a special mention for failing even to suck the way it was supposed to suck: it was fun mocking the preview, but the movie wasn't nearly as fun as it was very, very stupid, one of those movies that has math in it and therefore considers itself instantly smart. What I expected was to just watch Jim Carrey going ape shit over the number - pulling out his extra teeth until he has only 23, maybe murdering anyone aged 23 or stalking Michael Jordan because his jersey is cursed - but it's just some stupid revolving plot with twists and reveals that don't make any sense. How did this book know about a murder he committed? Oh he wrote it. And of course it's nowhere near the "heart-wrenching odyssey into paranoia" the unshowered and therefore serious Carrey promises in the trailer. Number movies in general didn't fare well last year (except 3:10 to Yuma) but Schumacher's incomprehensible mess is gayer than 300 and more ridiculous than 1401 (3x4=12, +11=23!) The only thing missing from the movie before it digresses into complete idiocy is a literal gigantic number 23 chasing Carrey down a flight of stairs or something, like in an animated sequence. Hopefully when it finally caught up to him, it would force him to take a bath.


5 . Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

That'sright: it was such a good year, I actually had to go out and pay money specifically to see a bad movie! And I can't help feeling like got my money's worth: it was so good to see Charlie Kaufman-acolyte Zach Helm go from instant critical darling with Stranger Than Fiction to living joke by trying to rip off Roald Dahl, inventing a whimsical wonderland run by a fabtabulous foreman of his own. Dustin Hoffman plays the magical toymaker who wants to make the children happy while simultaneously stopping his military brother from manufacturing weapons in the factory and marketing them to the kiddies. One of the military guys is played by LL Cool J. Oh wait a minute...that's Barry Levinson's Toys. But this might as well be Toys, with Hoffman as a 240-year old magical toymaker who frolics around with a goofy lisp and whacked out hair trying to save his amazement outlet. This kind of thing is always a hopeless shambles: if you can't come up with a genuinely creative and exciting world, don't try to pass off some stupid effects camp fueled by actor's awed reactions and set a puffy-haired child molester loose in it. I don't know, maybe I'm being too hard on the movie, I'm sure Fred Claus was worse.


6. The Tracey Fragments

I guess I could have spent the last 2 hours of the Toronto Film Festival watching reality shows set in the porno industry (they eat that shit up in the Great White North), but I figured I came all the way to see some movies so I'll see one more, no matter what it is. Serves me right, but I've got no regrets. It would be, appropriately, a Canadian movie, one that uses split screen montage as empty as Lumet's tricks in Devil are successful. Ellen Page, here given the chance to misplay a persecuted teenager, rides around in the back of a bus looking totally bummed out man. Her parents just don't understand, and her shrink totally doesn't get her. But it's ok because, once again, she's much better than everybody else. She says things like "shut your cunt mouth cocksucker" instead of "cheese-banana shut yer frickin' gob" because she's playing edgy this time instead of hip/cutesy/retarded. Speaking of the dialogue, I've read that the script has been praised for its "shocking use of obscenities," but I can't imagine the movie came up with as many as I did after walking out of it. Broken Social Scene contributed to this disaster, squandering the good grace I afforded them after scoring Half Nelson.


7. Grindhouse/Deathproof

I'vegone off enough about what is and isn't a proper "grindhouse" movie, how true exploitation films are defined by their featurelessness and obscurity, and that exploitation/cult films are made by audiences not studios. I like those movies too, doesn't mean I'm going to churn out some schlock called Video Nasty starring Josh Lucas and Sco-Jo that costs $50 million and talk in interviews about how important those movies are to our culture, man. So instead let's focus on the product itself: without peer the most amateurish screenplay of 2007, endless scenes of girls yacking on about things no girl on earth is interested in (certainly not good looking girls) while very little else is actually going on. You've got to respect Tarantino's devotion to his favorite trash movies, his ode to all those tantalizing scenes in exploitation films past where characters barter over a used car for twenty minutes. That scene in the diner (the one that felt like Kevin Smith directing the beginning of Reservoir Dogs) made me literally scream aloud in the theater for it to be over (I was the only one there, shockingly.) Kurt Russell could have brought so much to Stuntman Mike, but as written the character isn't so much a horror heavy as an oafish bore. And that final "twist," after the underwhelming chase scene, where it turns into a Russ Meyer movie is such a "girl power!" sellout there's no way to take the whole project seriously for all its "shitty print CG" intentional scratches and glitches.


8. 14e Arrondissement

Turnsout Alexander Payne doesn't need two hours, or his partner in crime Jim Taylor, to perpetrate his particular brand of mean, unfunny satire of dumb American schlubs. He's perfectly capable of doing it in five minutes, as in his closing segment of the collectively "meh" collaboration Paris, Je T'aime. While other directors used the project to produce vignettes set in classy Parisian locales, Payne took the film's title at face value and produced a pointless short about a doofus falling in love with the City of Love during a lonely trip abroad. The evil white trash mom from Million Dollar Baby walks aimlessly around Paris like a catatonic walrus, all the while narrating her cleverly inane travelogue in bad French. Hilarious! I don't know why actors submit themselves to Payne's vapid, condescended-to characters, but I guess she at least got a nice free trip to Paris. Good for her. Also for those paying attention this is technically the third Natalie Portman movie to make it onto this year's "worst" list. Instead of complaining about being forced to do the nudity, she should kiss Wes Anderson and Jason Schwarzmann for being asked to appear in Hotel Chevalier. Don't worry, she's directing a segment for the Je T'aime follow-up New York I Love You, for which they managed to snag Fatih Akin...and Brett Ratner.)


9. The Brave One

I wasn't aware that Neil Jordan was responsible for this (and I obviously was, or I never would've given it a thought) I wouldn't have any idea who made it. Or rather I would have assumed it was directed by Jodie Foster, as every movie she's starred in post-Silence of the Lambs has felt exactly the same: a feature-length jeans commercial obsessed with the tight features of its the middle-aged queen of vulnerable butch. After the weirdly unmotivated murder of her beau, she buys a gun and starts looking for criminals to cap in the heartless city. She even pulls a Bernard Goetz on the subway, but the novelty of Foster becoming Travis Bickle wears off fast and we're left with mopey Jodie spilling her wounded heart out to listeners from her bitter platform at a talk radio station while Terrance Howard leads around Nicky Katt, featured in a thankless role, as cops from a magical police department that has jurisdiction in all five boroughs. The ending of this shockingly pro-vigilantism fluff made me throw my hands up. The similar Death Wish-redux Death Sentence may have been over the top, but at least it was more honest, and did not include a scene of Kevin Bacon looking at the cello-playing ghost of his lover and saying "You left a hole in me "


10. The Walker

The Walker! My eyes twinkled when I first saw it listed in the TIFF schedule. Paul Schrader, humiliated after what was announced as his retirement film (the Exorcist prequel) was unceremoniously shelved and re-shot, has made a comeback! I speculated what it might be about: memories of Walking Tall and Alex Cox's Walker got me thinking about a man yeah, a tough motherfucker walking down a street, perhaps with a shotgun at his side! Where's this walker going, and who's going to be seeing the business end of that fowling piece? Premature predictions of this being his first all-out masterpiece in 30 years swam through my head.

Turns out, it's time formore tough love. The Walker is like Infamous except with Woody Harrelson in the Truman Capote role, and no story about massacre and redemption and literary responsibility. I mean look at the poster for this movie. This poster says, if you couldn't wait for the movie where a foppish Woody Harrelson plays bridge with old women, the wait is over! True, there is a crime mystery plot, but it's strictly "Murder She Wrote." Schrader, up to five years ago, used to be intested in subjects that were interesting. Now it feels like he's just happy to still be in the game, though with material like this he's just barely staying above water. For some reason Kenneth Anger gets thanked in the credits, which I guess would count as the best part of the movie. Definitely Schrader's second worst move of the year, the first including Into the Wild among his top films of 2007. Oh Schrader not Wild, anything but Wild!


Special Recognition for sucky-ness

Rob Zombie's Halloween


It was such a surprisingly remarkable year for western remakes, it actually feels good to get back to being deeply offended by typically bad horror retoolings. Almost. While this one wasn't as offensive as Michael Bay's raping of 'Saw, it's almost a more superlative travesty considering what a fan of John Carpenter Zombie claims to be. But even moreso for its grotesquely overwritten characters, blood-splatteringly bad dialogue and gut-rending ignorance of simple logic (why is Loomis still the only one going after Michael Myers, portrayed in Zombie's movie as an infamous butcher who killed seven people to escape a high-security mental institution? It made more sense when he could just miraculously drive out of there. It would have been a nice touch if they had at least kicked in the line: "What makes you think he's going to slaughter lots of people?" "He was doing very welllast night!")

The appeal of the original Shape is that he's just that:an abstraction, a faceless demon that came out of nowhere to kill and kill again. The original portrayed "the night he came home," but Zombie's film feels the need to take us all back for a very special episode of "The Wonder Years" in which little Mikey wears KISS T-shirts and tortures tiny woodland creatures while "Love Hurts" plays. What Zombie has done is, he's taken the scene in the Bay's 'Saw remake where Leatherface sees the chainsaw in the slaughterhouse for the first time... and made it an hour long. It's shocking that little Mike doesn't sit down at a piano and casually start figuring out the keys of the "Halloween" theme. Whereas things like the Hitcher remake are clearly a case of recycling movies Hollywood assumes everyone's forgotten, this is a case of the director raising a flag, declaring "And now I, Rob Zombie, shall make my bold mark on Halloween! Forget everything you know about Halloween, this is Halloween!" I'm not too broken up about it: I like the original, but it's probably not even in my top five Carpenters. Just stay away from Big Trouble, Hollywood and Rob Zombie!

You know what is worthwhile about this wasted effort? The outtakes. "This canary has been raped!"


And of course there's The Devil's Chair. If you ever see an ad asking "Would you like to SIT...in The Devil's Chair?" Well I would advise against it.


The Most Over-rated

1. Juno


2. Knocked Up

Of the four pregnancy films this year, I liked Waitress best, Juno least, and was most disappointed with Knocked Up (as a Palme d'or winner, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days already had "overrated" stamped on it in the form of that telling little leaf.) After all this is Judd Apatow's follow-up to The 40 Year Old Virgin, which turned out to be a charming love story filled - pregnant, you could say - with lots of good jokes. Knocked Up had a great Munich jab and good appearances by Harold Ramis, Kristin Wiig and Alan Tudyk to save it from the "suck" pile, but it was wrongheaded and unfunny enough to turn me from Apatow enthusiast to wary follower. For one thing Judd, hire an editor: two hour comedies are not going to cut it (no pun intended, though I'll probably reuse that "accidental" wording when I get to Sweeney Todd) every time, especially when 80% of the jokes are improvised by guys sitting around bullshitting. Granted, Jason Segel and some of those other dudes are usually enjoyable to listen to but that's what deleted scenes are for. At leastget rid of the damn Seacrest cameo.

Still in this movie that kind of thing is a relief from the unbelievable premise that a young, attractive LA career gal would ever force herself into a relationship with a hideous loser from a drunken one night stand just because she got pregnant. Apatow sets it up like this is the responsible plan, that bringing two strangers who aren't right for each other together is a good scenario for raising a kid (it's not! Listen to the "Growning Pains" mom, she knows what she's talking about!) It's ludacrious, but it fits in with the movie's lazy characterizations which border on misogynistic: even Katherine Heigl admitted the lead females are portrayed alternatively bitchy, demanding, castrating, whiny and pathetic (to paraphrase.) And Seth Rogen's Canadian slacker is completely unlikable, especially in two of the film's three "revelation" scenes in which someone gets in another character's face shouting "the truth" at them, and that person walks away miraculously changed by it. Guess what Rogen, Paul Rudd's character is not a shitty father (why didn't Rudd punch him out?) and Leslie Mann has every right to be in the delivery room during the birth. She's Heigl's lamassepartner!

The botched attempt at getting you on Rogen's side and making you care about the harpy women's self-centered behavior seems to have been misconstrued as good story-telling by the same people who stand by all the google gags and Seacrest cameos and other failed attempts at humor. For example people swear by the Vegas scene. Yeah I love Paul Rudd - that scene sucks, it's not funny. Rogen being in the movie makes me think of the "Freaks and Geeks" episode where his character falls for the hermaphroditic tuba player - so much more honest and interesting a love story, and it was a fucking TV show. Knocked Up was a big let down, and based on this and Superbad, which is much better but still wasn't quite what I hoped for (please stop saying "McLovin," movie), the Apatow crew had better come up with something less utterly implausible and with more actual jokes. Segel, don't let us down with Forgetting Sarah Marshall.


3. There Will Be Blood

I expect the most flack to come from this entry, but let me ask this film's overwhelming fanbase: really? This is the movie that should be considered universally exceptional, unquestionably flawless? PT Anderson "pictures" look great, sound great, if movies had an odor they'd probably smell great, but what's it all add up to? Once upon a time there was a guy named Daniel Plainview who sounded like John Huston. He was greedy and manipulative and pretty much remained that way from cradle to grave so far as we know. And he was pestered by a young evangelist who acted like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein who you pray will someday get bludgeoned to death by a bowling pin. But sowhat? A rich oil tycoon's kind of a jerk, huh?

PTA's a Big Idea filmmaker, but in everything he's done besides Punch Drunk Love there aren't enough moments. In Blood, when they do appear they're usually flagrantly over the top, and I genuinely can't tell when Anderson is being serious and when he's having us on. There's that final scene, which I almost don't want to touch upon it’s become so universally parodied, but have to mention since Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano indulge in the worst case of ham-fisted tug-of-war since the time Rod Steiger accused his mirror reflection of eating all his cupcakes (that probably happened at least once in his life.) And I've liked Day-Lewis in the past: his grand excess served him well in Last of the Mohicans and The Crucible, he was even enjoyable to watch when he played Snidley Whiplash in Gangs of New York, but here it's out of control. And I've read no mention of Kevin J O'Connor's sad, subtle performance in any of the glowing reviews praising the two leads - is it because he was in the Mummy movies? Don't get me wrong, Blood is far from terrible - miles above Magnolia - but nobody's reinventing cinema here. Even the few who have complained about it focus on the wrong things, "the movie's too long and Day-Lewis is mean." It's a case of overwhelming work from a film crew on an underwhelming movie, one with very little to say. But I like talking to people about it and would love to be convinced, so lovers of the movie let me know what I'm missing.


4. Zodiac

It's hard to say why I'm not on the Zodiac bandwagon. I'm a longtime follower of the actual case, a fan of several of the supporting actors, and very much into David Fincher's obsession with the stacks of paperwork, mountains of boxes and number of phone calls to various jurisdictions required to compile a single police investigation. But at the risk of offending Kent Jones and other Fincher zealots, it's got a lot of problems. Not the least of which is one champions of the film are quick to identify and footnote: the dweeby, unlikable performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as cartoonist-turned-Zodiac stalker Robert Graysmith. I care as much about Graysmith's marital problems as I do Ryan Seacrest cameos and that stuff is total dead weight, thrown in to get Chloe Sevigny from turning the movie into a sausagefest (I kept thinking "Why does her character exist? Does she turn out to be the Zodiac?")

Besides those problems,which pretty much eat up the second half of the movie, I just wasn't hugely impressed by most of the stuff lots of people seemed to love about the film: the soundtrack, the period haircuts, the silly suspense scene in the basement of the guy's house. I liked the murder sequences best because of their portentous tranquility and the use of different actors to play the killer, especially the attacks at Lake Berryessa, but those scenes made everything happening at the Chronicle and police department less interesting to watch. Then of course there's the problem the film shares with its source material, the condemning of Arthur Lee Allen as the de facto suspect (they leave out that several witnesses described the killer as having a crew cut, which doesn't fit the physical profile as Allen was bald...or that Allen passed a 10 hour polygraph test...or that his blood failed modern DNA tests...or that the key witness' son had been molested by Allen.) Still I think this is a good movie, definitely Fincher's best, a huge leap after Panic Room, and retroactively deserves the first Oscar they give out for digital photography, I just thought it was a little overrated. That's all.


5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Considering it's a musical about slashing throats, this movie's surprisingly bloodless (sorry about that.) Burton knows all the right technical people to hire, but doesn't seem to be able to communicate visual ideas beyond his go-to pancake makeup and dark architecture. The best scene in the film, a montage of awesome art direction and Oscar-winning production design set to Helena Bodham-Carter singing the boppy jingle "By the Sea," works against the rest of the film as a stand-alone example of what could have been. Depp's an interesting actor but he's got limited range (not to mention vocal range), and this role is beyond him. Things that should have been fun - Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival barber, the darkly comedic duet "A Little Priest" - fall absolutely flat. And Sondheim's music, though I like it, really doesn't translate well to film: most of it's too busy and offsets the tone. Only Alan Rickman, as a high ranking pervert, comes off as particularly exceptional although to be fair he's pretty dynamite, his singing voice is great to listen to (and I like Timothy Spall in true character actor form as his beadle.)


6. La Vie En Rose

Theofficial entry in this year's faceless foreign release comes from France, who served America an Edith Piaf biopic as generic as it is indistinguishable from your standard Ray/Walk the Line/Tip Toe Through the Tulips: The Tiny Tim Story tortured musician melodrama. Following her life from rejected whore-raised cherub to fish-mouth chanteuse, the movie coasts on Amelie-style charm until it has to get down to business and show why this person deserves scrutinizing in an overblown biography. Yet by the end, what have we learned about Piaf? She's any combination of loud, shaky and obnoxious. But apparently that's why we're supposed to love her. Marion Cotillard does display a good penchant for chameleon-like transformation from 20 to 40 to 60 and while I'm glad she beat out Ellen Page for the Oscar, it's really more an achievement in makeup (which, to be fair, also won an Oscar.) The film's a checklist of scenes you can pretty much write yourself before the credits are over with the occasional timeline shake-up to make it seem like a masterstroke of structure, but it's just following the numbers.


7. American Gangster

The true story couldn't be more interesting or rife for adaptation. The characters so conflicted, the environment so heated and deadly. I speak of course of 2001's Black Hawk Dawn, another real life adaptation Ridley Scott managed to overcook and thoroughly gut of relevance. Technically this movie split audiences, but the people who liked it loved it and praised it to the hills. Everything's a miscalculation, from Josh Brolin's soulless corrupt cop (who literally indulges in the "kick the dog" method of audience identification) to Cuba Gooding Jr's flashy pimped-out dealer, the latter of whom is barely part of the story. Coming long after various films inspired by Frank Lucas' MO - New Jack City, Blow - it seems cliché, and is overstuffed with useless subplots (more marital problems!) that seem to exist solely to make the film longer (re: more epic) rather than create a tight, enjoyable crime drama. The lead actors are fine (especially Denzel, natch) but after the fifth scene of Lucas going crazy on a brother we get it, he's dangerous but charming and unpredictable and a brilliant drug czar yadda yadda.


8 . Into the Wild

"I'm canceling Christmas!" - William Hurt

Sean Penn as a filmmaker is a hard to get. He's definitely talented in coming up with weird and interesting visuals: I think immediately of the scene in the barn in The Pledge, and this movie's got its share (the guy shaving in the middle of a watered field, the 3-wheeler hauling a christmas tree in the trailer park.) But I don't think he's much of a storyteller, and I'm not just saying that because he tricked me into seeing a Vince Vaughn movie. He fails to offer one good reason to care about Emile Hirsch's arrogant anus of a self-righteous windbag, and while the final consensus seems to be "yeah well he didn't really have it all figured out after all did he?" Penn still reveres the character's self-dependence and "simple beauty" (funny coming from a guy who refused to attend the Thin Red Line premiere unless they sent him a private jet.) I think what the film really needed was yet another shot of Hirsch spreading his arms triumphantly from the top of a hill/rock/plateau while Eddie Vedder warbles along sanctimoniously. That "homeless in LA" sequence, holy god that was ridiculous, and why weren't the riots happening as he panhandled his way about town? He could have been killed in the riots and saved us an hour of movie viewing drudgery. At least with someone like Timothy Treadwell you kind of understood his deluded self-image, but if this real life guy was anything like the way he's portrayed here, he was just a douchebag. Like a picaresque only with no interesting characters - all hippies and sentimental oldsters - and a philosophizin', Jack London-worshipping retard of a hero, Wild never manages to be more than a Discovery Channel travelogue, the only suspense involved is wondering when the would-be survivalist will finally get eaten by a squirrel or something.


9. This is England

I am not on the Shane Meadows train for the simple reason that his films feel like Alan Clarke Lite. Clarke's Made in Britain is still the only effective portrait of skinheads, and although This is England is better than Romper Stomper, American History X and The Believer, it doesn't really have anywhere to go once its young protagonist joins up with the National Front and follows the inevitable road to tragic conclusion, which I think the movie actually would have been more interesting without. It is interesting to see how something like the Falkland Island invasion, which we Americans pretty much take for granted, effected the youth of England and was used as propaganda for recruiting neo-Nazis, how to others being a skinhead is more of a punk/fashion statement than a political stance, and the film is an interesting companion piece to Son of Rambow where instead of becoming white supremists the outsider English kids remake First Blood. But Meadows is still too slick a filmmaker to achieve the gritty realism he's interested in. I know it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek (since they're skinheads and all) but aren't slow motion shots of a group strutting passively forward kinda long over?


10. No Country for Old Men

You didn't think you'd get off that easy, did you Coen Brothers? That Blood Simple comparison swings both ways. Simple is a movie that feels perfect, but not like it's trying to be perfect. The further along their career the Coens move, the more their technical neurotisim threatens to numb their once energetic, more experimental style in both shooting and writing. I'd trade any line of Country's finely-tuned, emotionally cold dialogue for one line that felt nearly as effective as when M Emmet Walsh asks Dan Hedaya's corpse "Who looks stupid now?" This obsession with perfect shots and camera movements and calculated speech leaves the people populating their painstakingly constructed world in the dust. Do they care about them? Should we? Unlike Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, No Country feels so nihilistic that character fates are practically weightless(these guys are close to starting a band named Autobahn.)

Clearly theapproach has huge merits - the film's inclusion on my own top list is clear indication of that - but it isolates the audience and makes them second guess the honesty of the filmmaking. Then you've got the mischievous brothers' seemingly uncontrollable need to throw in their cute little comedy: the Norteño band, the fat landlady, and most distractingly the casually racist mother played by Beth Grant. At least there weren't any Polka King posters behind any of the hotel room doors. After I saw the movie a second time I was able to let some of these nagging concerns go, but I'm still worried that the Coens blew their load (see above photo), got everyone trailing obediently after their droppings, and will probably go back to the kind of indulgent crap they churned out between Lebowski and this with next year's Burn After Reading.


(continues on next page with Awards and Memorable Moments from 2007)

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