Knock at the Cabin (2022)
M. Night Shyamalan has made roughly a movie every two years since 1998, peaking financially with The Sixth Sense and hitting some rough big-budget choppiness around The Last Airbender ($150 million budget) and After Earth ($130 million), both of which were critical and financial disasters. He then did something very smart, he went low budget with “The Visit” ($5 million budget, made $98 million) and since then has become a consistent money making machine by keeping costs low. Quality on the other hand has always been an issue. The Sixth Sense is undeniably effective, even if like me you figured out the “revelation” about 10 minutes in, “Unbreakable” wasn’t good but was at least an interesting angle into the superhero duality and “Signs” was for an hour a genuine knock out of a movie, milking a brilliant sound design and the inherent creepiness of a landscape choked off by head high corn in late summer. It falls apart fast with some badly written baseball metaphysics and the idea that an advanced race killed by water would invade a planet with a surface that’s 70 percent water and have no plan to deal with that. But from there, it gets iffy fast.
“The Village” was obvious and tiresome, “Lady in the Water” was…something…nothing good and “The Happening” is his idea of what might happen if the trees get pissed at us. As a smart filmmaker whose films keep making money, Shyamalan remains at the top of his game. As a creative force, I’m not sure what the “top of his game” might mean specifically. “The Sixth Sense?” Half of “Signs?”
“Knock at the Cabin” gets sunk pretty early by the arbitrariness of its approach, this idea that four people show up at a family’s house in the woods and say in order to avert the end of the world, one of the three family members (two men and an adopted young girl) has to die. It’s a dilemma of sorts, but who would believe that story? So a smart viewer is watching and thinking every 90 seconds, “This is a stupid idea and a dumb setup” which tends to leach out a lot of the pleasure of watching the film. And it’s essentially earth bound, set mostly in a cabin, it has a theatrical staginess that does it no favors. Shyamalan works well with the actors and gets an empathetic performance out of Dave Bautista, but the angrier of the two men is written in such a way that you find yourself wanting to see the world end just to shut him up. It’s one of those moments common in poorly written TV shows and movies where if the central conceit (that the world is ending unless…) isn’t real, then you have no movie. So watching angry dad #1 rage and rage becomes tiresome about 30 seconds into the first rant. You can see in the original material that there are nods towards faith (the second Dad seems to believe in God and is more willing to buy into what the four people are selling, but the film never really even tries to develop this) and the revelation that the four are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse does little to give shape to the big picture ideas here. In the end, Shyamalan is a sensationalist without real ideas or really, any interest in ideas. He’s looking for the next big revelation, the next big moment, and has little interest in any kind of organic build to that moment. There’s no question he’ll keep making movies, there’s a real question as to whether any of us should care.
Licorice Pizza (2021)
On the whole, a perplexing (not in a good way), disjointed and seemingly random affair by a filmmaker who has little feel for actual human beings. I should say up front, I’m no Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I’m agnostic about Hard Eight, liked but hardly loved Boogie Nights, hated (hated hated) Magnolia, found Punch Drunk Love thoroughly mediocre, was fine but not thrilled with There Will Be Blood and fell asleep twice watching Inherent Vice (a shapeless mess), from a Pynchon book I did like. Nothing felt organic in Licorice Pizza, it felt like a wholly artificial construction of someone not rooted in this world and lurched about to the point where it sometimes felt more like a collection of stories loosely connected than a cohesive whole. For example, I was fine with Cooper Hoffman as an actor, but his character felt like a bunch of ideas rather than a human being. He’s 15, he has multiple businesses, every girl/woman he meets seems in some weird Bogart/Marlowe/The Big Sleep sexual thrall to him, but he’s also apparently an awkward kid who can’t get a date and is in love with someone uninterested in him. Alana Haim makes more of an impression but for half the movie, I wasn’t sure if she was meant to be 25 or 18 pretending to be 25. I often struggled with the tone of the film, unsure how seriously we were supposed to take, for example, Hoffman’s character. He’s an awkward, slightly chunky 15 year old, but hey, he’s also kind of a famous actor and seems to have several businesses that are making money. And Bradley Cooper’s take on Jon Peters is so over the top, unfunny and mean-spirited, I wondered if Peters kicked Anderson’s dog when he was a child or something. And then there is John Michael Higgins’ character and his just plain bizarre Japanese pigeon-English thing that was so strange, off-putting and unfunny, it brought to mind Mickey Rooney’s Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffanys. Like I said, perplexing narratively and character-wise, but also in how critically acclaimed it seems to be.
I was fully on the side of Ti West’s X in a scene about a third of the way in when Mia Goth wearing only a pair of overalls finds a small lake, strips naked (in long shot) and swims. We see her from high above, there’s a geometry to the way she heads out straight from the peer (it looks like a panel from a stylized graphic novel), and when she turns, we see (but she does not) a very large alligator coming after her. Shot from above, it manages to have tension and a burnished, saturated beauty. The rest of the film does too. The outdoor day scenes set around a cabin purposely bring to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a kind of desolate beauty, not because it’s flat and open and endless (a la Badlands) but because the landscape is lush and deserted. It’s not scary exactly or even particularly gory and it handles the porno part of the movie exactly right (in a movie about a bunch of early 70s people making a porno, you have to show some nudity and simulated fucking, but you don’t want to push it into a place where it steps beyond good believable background and into exploitation). At the same time, while there was a sly wit to the perversity of the killers’ reasons (the old woman just wants to get off with her very old and seemingly feeble husband, or really any one of either sex who might be willing), the body horror stuff of what are essentially elderly people is over the top and the same kind of gothic cartoonish that sunk West’s “House of the Devil” dominates here as well.
The Naked Spur (1953)
The best of the five Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart westerns, though all of them (Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Man from Laramie, The Far Country) are first rate. This has one of the most sublime and hyper-romantic endings in all of film history. Stewart and Janet Leigh spend much of the movie slowly getting to know and care for each other (including one scene where he’s out of his head with fever and she comes to learn stuff about him he wasn’t willing to give up when in his right mind). Like all of the Mann/Stewart westerns, it was shot on location and the ending action sequence takes place over a raging river. Stewart is a hard-bitten rancher chasing outlaw Robert Ryan who has taken Janet Leigh with him. Leigh and Ryan have some sort of indeterminate romance and it seems most of all, Leigh’s character just wants out (Leigh looks fantastic in this, she has a boyish short haircut and dresses in pants and seems even more alluring because of it). Ryan is funny, crude, charming and a bad guy all at once, and he has Stewart pegged from the start. Stewart claims to be doing the law’s work in tracking him down, but there’s a reward and pretty soon Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell are in on it, they just have to get Ryan to the authorities to collect and Stewart will have enough money to get his ranch back. In the end, over a raging river shot on location, Ryan drowns and then Meeker drowns trying to collect the body, leaving Stewart and Leigh. Stewart drags Ryan’s body back to the pack mule and he owns up to all of it, it was always about the money, he’s going to take the body back and get the reward and get his ranch back, it was all about the money.
It’s then that Leigh says something extraordinary. She says, okay, take him back, you can get your ranch back and I’ll marry you and live with you on that ranch, you take him back. And Stewart is stricken, “Why?” he asks, on the verge of tears. “I’m going to take him back.” But implicit in what Leigh says is, yes she’ll be with him and she’ll marry him, but if he’s the kind of person who can take Ryan’s body back for money, she’ll never love him. And Stewart chooses love, he buries Ryan’s body and they decide to head for California together. When I showed in a film class I was teaching once, I got choked up and had to turn away. I wasn’t sure the kids would understand.
The Great Escape (1962)
There’s a story that when Spielberg and company were making Raiders of the Lost Arc in Mexico, there was one night where everyone was free of shooting the next day and the entire crew decided to go into town, get a drink, do whatever. Spielberg was going to stay in, he had a video of The Great Escape, and one by one, the guys on the film crew and in the cast stopped, watched a bit and got caught and skipped going to town.
It’s such a boy movie, you have a large group of only guys (with a good reason why there are no women in the camp) bonding over a shared goal, they’re digging tunnels, which is just about the most boy thing a young Boomer lad might do. There’s drama and intrigue and Nazis. And the film drills down into the specifics; of how they get their tools, what they do with all that dirt, how they forge papers and create outfits, and figure out the geography around the prison. God is in the details.
McQueen’s Hilts character is almost completely superfluous, he represents on a near textual level the heroic American iconoclast who eschews being part of the larger “digging tunnels” community, insisting on doing his own thing. In a way, this split between the British planning community and McQueen’s heroic loner mirrors one of John Ford’s favorite themes, the split between the heroic iconoclast necessary to bring the violence and brute force necessary to subduing an entire continent of people and the larger community that is only possible because of the hero but also one that doesn’t want him around.
In many ways, seen from today, the stakes seem quaint. Three people make it out, 50 are executed, but the reason it still works is Sturges’ insistence that this is important is infectious. Sure, some 80 million people died** in WWII (says Wikipedia), but this is still a compelling and ultimately tragic story to tell, even gussied up in all its Hollywood finery. And then there’s that Elmer Bernstein score…
**A quick shout out to Tony Judt’s amazing book “Post War: A History of Europe since 1945.” The opening chapter is a real eye-opener, detailing the post 1945 mass movements of people throughout Europe and how hundreds of thousands of people perished in this movement.
The Batman (2022) It was…uh…not good. First off, Robert Pattinson is a disaster as Batman. He just never finds the character or Bruce Wayne, mostly he stares into space a lot and doesn’t say anything. His Bruce Wayne is a petulant emo dude who is shy, lashes out at Alfred and really makes no impression. You could cut 20 minutes out of this (175 fucking minutes!) just by cutting in half the seemingly endless moments where Pattinson’s Batman just stares and doesn’t say anything. The story is the same old tired bullshit, some manic super villain wants to clean up the city of all the corruption. Zoe Kravitz is a pre-villain Catwoman and somehow Pattinson has zero chemistry with her, all because he’s such a dead fish of a human. I swear half the time, the scenes with Batman looked like test reels just to get the blocking right, Pattinson is so stiff, he’s like a stand in just blankly walking through the paces. What action there is is almost all hand to hand combat stuff, which wasn’t terrible but not all that exciting either.
Godzilla vs Kong (2021) Like “Kong: Skull Island” (a better film and a ton more fun), this is built around a “I can’t stand that your dick is bigger than mine” motivation, though at least Demian Bichar has money to throw at it in GvK. Jackson in Skull Island was a 70 year old colonel who couldn’t stand that Kong’s was bigger than his, it ends up going as well for him as it does for Bichar. I didn’t much like the final fight, in those giant “the city is being destroyed” action scenes, I just can’t get past the idea that literally hundreds of thousands of people are dying. Though Kong got to channel a little Crank-era Jason Statham, jump starting his heart and honest to god using a building to pop his separated shoulder back into place (complete with Statham-esque howl of pain). And I’m all for Kong’s tendency to rip the heads off of things and hold them high. Even with all that, there were moments when it was so bat shit crazy, I could watch it. The modern Godzilla movies aren’t very good, the first one (with Bryan Cranston) had a couple of moments but looked like shit, so gray and dark I was squinting the whole time, the second one was so unmemorable I really don’t remember it other than putting front and center the character played by Three Name Millie who was deeply annoying in that one and this one as well. I guess she’s supposed to be the Godzilla whisperer, the counter to the deaf girl’s “signin’ with Kong” thing she has going for her, but hard to see Godzilla signing “home” with his flappers or staring lovingly into that kid’s eyes.
Forrest Gump (1994) A truly scary atrocity, a film that embraces the absolute worst in conservative values. Even apart from the insulting ways in which history is reduced to sound bites, or how the entire 60s counter-culture movement is embodied in a single character (Jenny’s boyfriend), who is also a hypocritical, monstrous creep, the film’s central message appears to be this: Shut up and do what you’re told and you’ll have a wonderful life. If history has taught us anything, it’s how not true that is. The movie’s take on women is deeply conservative and completely lopsided; we see Forrest in Vietnam surrounded by death and destruction, then his “thoughts turn to Jenny” and we cut to her shooting up and having sex with two guys at once. Jenny’s character is only given sympathetic treatment by the filmmakers after she’s rendered socially harmless by becoming a mother and almost immediately, the film kills her off and tosses in a cautionary AIDS bit about the promiscuous 60s to boot. In fact, Jenny’s character line reads like a Rush Limbaugh primer; 60s protest/ free sex hippie turns into 70s coke head who turns into 80s mother and finally into 90s AIDS victim (final, glorious retribution for all that sinning). If there’s a movie hell, Robert Zemeckis is going there for this one.
Badlands (1973) Simply one of the great cinematic achievements; Terrence Malick isn’t interested in what might be considered normal character development, or rather, he allows his endless landscapes to say what he wants to say about the characters. There’s a sense of blank desolation at the center of this film and it’s both literal and emotional — the landscapes mirror the emotional lives of Sheen and Spacek — the characters are operating in a world where moral boundaries are beside the point; murder or drive on, there’s no difference. It captures some essential existential emptiness at the heart of the 50s specifically and Middle America generally. Sheen is purposely channeling James Dean here and it’s important that the film is seen from the eyes of a 15 year old girl. In ways, Badlands says everything “Natural Born Killers” tried to say about the way we objectify and fetishize killers and violence, but by showing that this conception comes from the head of a child, Malick is acknowledging the basic infantilism of this “hero worship” dynamic. The film is not only beautiful, it’s oddly and slyly funny and in some ways, the growing estrangement between the two characters reads much like the dissolution of any relationship. When, after he’s been caught, Sheen says to Spacek (about her father, who he murdered) “Too bad about your dad, we should talk about that sometime” he’s like every jilted boyfriend saying exactly the wrong thing to get her back. Stunning stuff.
To the Wonder (2012) – Confounding in many ways, you can follow it much the way you might an opera, with the large emotional movements of people falling into and out of love abstracted and made lyrical, putting them at an emotional distance from us. In moments, it really did feel like Malick managed to make a modern silent film without resorting to The Artist-like trickery, a film you can sort of follow whether the words are on the screen or not. And there’s almost no dialogue. But I can’t help but think that Affleck was horrified when he first saw this cut; he’s in it as much as anyone but we hardly get a straight on shot of him in the entire film, he’s always framed from behind or the side, and he makes very little impression. What’s interesting to ponder is whether this was Malick’s vague plan all along or whether he looked at the footage he had of Affleck and decided the best thing was to turn him into a non-character, a kind of abstraction more than someone real. Affleck ends up being a problem because two luminous women who seem full of life manage to fall for him in a big way and he’s such a stone figure, it’s hard not to wonder why. Affleck is a fine presence in the right thing, but here given a role that’s essentially silent, he just doesn’t register on screen and drags much of the film with him.
Kurylenko comes out the best, she manages to look luminous, alluring and human at the same time, Malick takes great care to often frame her completely and you can see how small and human she seems, important because he easily could’ve shot her in such a way that she was always a goddess. It remains confounding on a narrative level and by the end, I wasn’t sure what to make of it all.
One disturbing trend in post 70s Malick films is he seems incapable of conceptualizing the women in these films without a fair amount of cavorting. Kurylenko has it the worst, she prances about in several scenes, showing her lively spirit I guess but seeming sort of infantile, at least as she does it over and over again. And even McAdams does a bit of it, as though Malick only imagines woman are happy when they are accessing their pure inner child (see Rooney Mara in Malick’s “Song to Song” for the apotheosis of this cavorting tendency). And it’s odd how in his first film in 1973, Badlands, there’s a lot of sly humor but the post “Thin Red Line” Malick seems utterly humorless.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) A stunningly expressionistic summing up of the western career of John Ford, full of audacious ideas. The casting of the elderly Wayne and Stewart as young men makes the entire long flashback section feel like the feverish remembrance of an aging man, which is what it is. Plus, the entire film is essentially shot on a set, a remarkable change of pace for a man known for his Monument Valley locations. There are funny visual jokes throughout, check out the dinner plates which are the size of a small table and the steaks still manage to hang over these huge plates. This is an overtly mythicized past. It’s also a deeply ironic film. Like in “The Searchers” Ford explores the idea that the very kind of personality necessary to “tame” a wilderness becomes anachronistic once that wilderness is tamed and civilization triumphs. This conflict is still in place today with the red states hawking the triumph of the iconoclast vs the blue states desire for cooperation and community values. There’s hardly a sadder (or more effective) image in all of film history than Wayne’s casket with a desert rose sitting on a top, a beautiful and complicated metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the film’s major themes, with a strong sense of not only what is gained by progress (Stewart’s senator is passing an irrigation bill that will turn the desert into a garden) but a deep feeling for what will be lost. It’s also a remarkably bitter film. When at the end of the movie, the train conductor says to Stewart, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” Stewart seems nearly as destroyed as he did at the end of Vertigo. He’s a moral man whose entire political power and existence is based on him having killed a man which is also a lie and at the end, he (and we) understand there’s no escaping that. Ever.
Point Break (1991) A complete hoot. Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze meet cute and woo each other through the movie; Lori Petty as the nominal love interest is noticeably (and purposely) less attractive than either of her male co-stars, which is the point. This is a buddy movie where the homoerotic subtext is so blatant, it’s practically text. The action scenes are beautifully shot (a foot race through a neighborhood, shot mostly with Steadicam, is amazing), and the final skydiving scene where the two men hurtle through the air with their legs wrapped around each other, one with a (very large) gun in his hand, is a perfect little sex scene from foreplay (drop the gun, pull the cord, drop the gun, pull the cord) to orgasm (they hit the ground together hard, rolling and coming to a rest, both completely spent). If you look at the film as a love story between the two guys, it’s funny and has great action.
The Matrix Resurrections (2021) The new Matrix movie is not very good. The worst part ultimately is the action sucks, like really poorly done in this generic ‘cut the shit out of every scene’ way. It just seems a mess. In a lot of ways, it’s a remake of the first one (including an ending that is almost identical to the first movie’s ending, same music and all). Reeves seems comatose and really the only character who has any life is Jessica Henwick. There are some ideas here but they’re all so poorly developed, you’re not sure what to make of them. At one point, it feels like it’s going to be a satire. Keanu is in the matrix and is the creator of a video game called The Matrix and he doesn’t realize his game is history, not a game. Later, there’s a discussion about how the powers that be are forcing a new Matrix game on the world simply to make money (like it’s a joke about the decision to make this particular movie), but this really doesn’t go anywhere and the movie plays things mostly earnestly.
Don’t Look Up (2021) is the Leo/JLaw movie about an approaching comet. It’s at least a half hour too long. It works best when it’s really really broad (the very ending where Streep’s Trump-esque president is eaten is just about perfect and that satirical tone is when the story works best), but it also is trying hard to be about climate change and they have to really twist up logic and common sense to make their points. Leo is good as the main scientist who turns out to be totally neurotic and gets caught up in the giant lie and becomes part of it (Don’t Look up is the catch word of the far right because even after the comet appears in the sky, they say don’t look up, it’s all a lie, which does sort of capture the spirit of the far right on a lot of things). There’s a lot of intelligence here but also seems super preprogrammed to appeal to the already converted.
Free Guy (2021), which I was shocked to discover was a medium hit of sorts. It was awful. The idea is relentlessly stupid (non playing characters in video games start doing stuff on their own — of course there is an explanation at the end but it’s still a massively stupid idea), it’s big and dumb and loud and cribs from a half dozen much better movies, often overtly (there’s even a Star Wars riff, though it also hits Matrix notes and is a lot like the Truman Show). It’s not funny, not fun, not smart, the kind of expensive, cameo-filled shite Hollywood likes to put out. After I watched it, I was sure it was a huge flop, like who could like this thing, but no, it wasn’t and even the reviews mostly skew positive. I have officially aged out of prevailing critical thought.
No Time to Die (2021) Not terrible. It’s competent in a lot of ways, but it’s also really gloomy and there’s not much fun. Most of the action is more in the John Wick vein and the villains are barely there. Rami Malek makes no impression, and Blofeld is in prison. And Malek’s bad guy has the most generic “I want to kill everyone on earth” reason possible, I never understood what the fuck the point was. I admire that Craig’s Bond never sleeps with a bunch of “Bond girls” and really his whole romantic life across all the movies centered around two women. This Bond in particular seemed to have a lot of central women characters, a new 007, Ana de Armas for a great little 10 minute cameo, and Bond’s girlfriend who is central to the story. So I’ll give it that. There was some world-weary humor that was so low key, it barely registered. Weird Bond for sure.
Dirty Harry (1971) A fascist classic that’s genuinely creepy; in particular the grainy night scenes have a nightmare quality to them. The film seems to reflect the dark turn our culture took in the late 60s. Andy Robinson is particularly effective as one of the most reptilian creeps in the history of film, but what differentiates this from later Dirty Harry efforts is that, despite an obvious right wing take on things, the director Don Siegel (who in retrospect seems to have been the biggest influence on the development of Eastwood the director) adopts an ambivalent view of Harry’s antics. He’s not the avenging hero he was in later films and the scene where he tortures Robinson on a football field is treated by Siegal as a screeching horror show that’s meant to turn our stomachs not only because the killer is such a monster, but because Harry is too. Such moral distinctions were lost in later years when Harry became a cartoonish action hero whose missions and methods were always righteous.
Sudden Impact (1983), the only Dirty Harry movie directed by Clint Eastwood, it’s a strange mix of buffoonish comedy and brutal, rape-revenge story line that feels audacious without actually being good. All the Harry Callahan stuff is the broadest comedy. This includes:
- An early scene of a murder where one of the techs eats a bouncing hot dog while describing how the victim had his dick shot off. Harry’s only response is to tell him what really sickens him is anyone who can eat a hot dog with ketchup
- Seemingly endless dick jokes and imagery, ranging from a scene where he and his African-American partner compare their guns in terms of size and effectiveness to the final part where we see Harry in silhouette holding a huge phallic gun (and the main big bad ends up impaled on a very phallic merry-go-round unicorn).
- An actual close up of Harry’s dog farting in response to a neighbor’s complaint.
- A moment late in the story where Harry returns to his motel to find his partner dead which sort of troubles him until his dog limps out. Only then does Harry get really mad. Kill my partner, okay, not good, but make my dog limp? You fuckers are so dead.
All the Sondra Locke stuff is decidedly unpleasant and Eastwood the director never shies away when she first shoots her victims in the groin and in the head, he shows it every time like he’s doing a public service, showing rapists nationwide what awaits them. And it suffers from Eastwood’s long obsession with rape (in High Plains Drifter, the movie opens with him dragging a woman into a barn and raping her, though the movie suggests despite her complaints, she enjoyed it, and after that, in film after film, his character is someone who either prevents or avenges rapes). So fun to talk about conceptually but much less so to actually watch.
Dracula (1979) John Badham’s masterpiece, which isn’t actually saying very much, given his pallid career, but this is a completely worthy attempt at an old fashioned vampire movie. The sets are appropriately gothic (everything has a dusty bones feel to it), the landscapes are of the brooding English hedgerow sort, the women are of the heaving bosom kind and Frank Langella is still thin and sexy here. Laurence Olivier chews scenery as Van Helsing, but that’s pretty much intrinsic to his late career as a character actor and when he says dramatically that if Dracula survives, “there is no God”, you can’t help but think that Badham’s raised the stakes a bit (the great late Robin Wood made much out of this moment), especially considering that the Count, well, does make it (Welcome to a Godless universe). The final image has a kind of hopeful, perverse beauty to it as the Count, free from his body, floats off on the wind and Kate Nelligan’s Lucy smiles her little smile as she realizes she and the Count may be opening that joint bank account together after all.
Heat (1995) No director working today has a stronger visual sense than Mann, or a more precise way of laying out an action sequence (each of the three major action sequences in this film are stunningly shot and edited). The problem with Heat is twofold. For one, the gimmick of the DeNiro/Pacino pairing is a non-starter. Their one scene together is contrived and pointless with cringe-worthy dialogue. And secondly, though it’s obvious Mann was attempting to make a “relationship” crime drama, where every character is struggling with the realities of the day to day maintenance of being a couple, he fails because Mann is not a particularly gifted observer of the idiosyncracies of male/female relationships. The DeNiro/Amy Brennaman coupling is an embarrassment, I didn’t believe it for a second and Pacino and Diane Venora resort to a lot of screeching and hair-pulling. Only in the Val Kilmer/Ashley Judd relationship is anything interesting allowed to play out, significantly, he’s the only guy who goes back for his woman and Kilmer’s the only one who gets away. DeNiro’s character is free and clear with Amy Brennaman but ends up rejecting the feminine to indulge in male violence, a big picture idea that works wonderfully well. A worthy failure.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Hardly worth the praise it has received; apart from the opening and closing actions sequences, this is standard stuff, a compilation of moments and ideas from a dozen other war films, infused with that self-important (even self-righteous) tone that colors everything Spielberg does anymore. The characters in particular are so stock, they barely register. Only Hanks makes any impression. The vaunted opening scene is mostly smoke and mirrors; why a filmmaker thinks the way to show chaos on-screen is to shake the camera a lot is beyond me, but the final tank assault is well-done and has that Spielbergian attention to quirky detail (like the sticky bombs). The whole thing is nearly ruined by truly awful bookend sequences where we see the real Spielberg; Ryan’s lived a valuable life because he’s managed to spit out a gaggle of pasty faced white kids who appear respectful; it’s enough to send a diabetic into convulsions.
Jesus’ Son (1999) Worth a look, but really, it’s mostly a total failure. As an adaptation, it’s pointless since the beauty of Denis Johnson’s writing is in his use of the language. The film takes a mostly light, episodic tone, and since it doesn’t bother to get at the emotional core of any of its characters, it becomes a quirky freak show that’s hollow. What’s worse, it never captures Johnson’s brand of absurdist, gallows humor and Crudup is awful, a collection of shuffling jiving, and shoulder-hunching tics rather than a performance. At one point, he channels Ratso Rizzo to such an extreme, it reads like a SNL parody. Johnson himself gets a small cameo as a man with a knife stuck in his eye, taken from Johnson’s story “Emergency” but the casting of Jack Black in a key role is so misguided, it sinks this entire section of the film. It’s beautifully shot in the kind of Midwestern landscapes you rarely see on film, but it was still a disappointment.
Isle of Wight Festival (1970) If Woodstock is traditionally seen as the last wondrous gasp of hippie idealism and Altamont the culmination of a decade of bad karma, the Isle of Wight concert seems in retrospect, the perfect beginning of the age of cynicism, aka the 70s. The film documents an angry crowd’s (one of the highlights, reducing Joni Mitchell to tears) insistence that the concert be free and the promoters desperate attempts not to lose everything. Both sides are angry, joyless and strangely pinched; it’s a bunch of creeps hassling a bunch of creeps. But because this was only one year after Woodstock, the musical guests straddle a fence, with The Who (in top form), Hendrix, the Doors, Joni Mitchell, 60s icons all and also 70s art rockers like Jethro Tull and ELP. The music sounds great and is gorgeously shot with a steadiness that seems revolutionary in today’s quick-cutting world. Great stuff.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) An expressionistic masterpiece, full of dream imagery that has a looming, banshee quality. Mitchum’s brand of virulent menace is truly unique; his first appearance as a huge hatted shadow falling across the two children’s beds is one of the great moments in film and that shot of Shelley Winters sitting in her car at the bottom of the pond with her hair floating around her one of the great nightmare images, it has a way of giving you the under-the-skin crawlies. Even with its gothic funhouse feel, Charles Laughton (his only film as a director) manages to find emotional warmth and even humor amidst all the shadowy menace and he gets two solid kid performances in a time when good kid performances were rare. If you have any interest in film as an art form, this film is essential.
Romance (1999) The title is certainly meant ironically and there’s the husk of a first-class black comedy here — the men involved are all types. The main character’s boyfriend is a closet case, her Italian lover is a dream stud, her third man is a father figure who ties her up in curiously asexual bondage sequences. But the director infuses her material with that particularly French brand of romantic angst. How anyone in France manages to procreate without deciding it’s way too much trouble is one of life’s enduring mysteries. Romance is certainly not without value or insight about male/female interactions and the curious disconnect many women feel between their bodies and their heads, and even though it flies a bit off the rails in the last third, I was never bored.
Frances Ha (2012) – Painful to watch for much of the movie and in the end, it really doesn’t add up to much, it seems lighter than air, and because of that, is dependent upon Ha/Gerwig’s charms and here we hit an interesting snag. On the one hand, Gerwig is a lively and compelling screen presence, there’s a pleasing impulsiveness that feels real. And the movie does a good job of capturing a character who in her frustrations and awkwardness and kind of goofy, speedy charm, talks and talks, saying whatever pops into her head. Her emotions are always right there on the surface.
But I can’t help but think there’s a subtextual narrative running alongside where Noah Baumbach is making a vanity showcase for Gerwig, his partner. The film often reads this way, there’s an arrogance about Baumbach’s assumption in specific moments that she’s utterly charming, which often elicits the opposite reaction in this viewer. It doesn’t help that Baumbach loses control of the last third of the movie. He awkwardly gets all the characters together fast, as if to wrap it up, and that takes away from the naturalistic feeling of the film that was its greatest strength. And not only does not much happen to her, she ends up in a great place with a job, an apartment and choreographing dance performances that people come to and clap after. It feels like Baumbach has shied away from anything but a generic happy ending in deference to the vanity project aspect of this.
American Hustle (2013) Is it possible to be entertained and also think bullshit? Of course it is and this is how I feel about a whole range of movies. With American Hustle, I felt this but in trying to put words to my feeling about the film, I can find little room for this ambivalence. Bale was as good as I’ve seen him, more human than is typical of him, and in a way, the moral center of the film. Amy Adams manages to do sexy and vulnerable quite well, Bradley Cooper is the most obvious 80s character as he seems coked up much of the time, and Jennifer Lawrence just makes everything she’s in feel lively and alive. Oh, Renner is great as well and manages to exude a kind of humanity and morality that makes what happens to him painful. Yet it all doesn’t add up to much, not really, and seems strangely inert and forgettable.
Mama (2013) Up and down for most of the running time until going fully down in the last third. On the plus side, Chastain is fantastic and is in fact the kind of character you don’t often see as a lead; someone meant to be edgy without maternal instincts trapped in a situation not of her making. And when the movie just goes with suggestion and shadow, it can be quite creepy. There’s a scene early in where it’s framed so that we can see the hallway and the girls’ room and we see the youngest playing with a blanket, someone on the other end pulling, her sister we assume, until we see her sister standing in the hallway and realize she’s playing with Mama. At the very end of the scene, as the sister goes into the room, we see the younger daughter’s feet levitating up near the ceiling. All those kinds of suggestive moments were effective. The problem is, we see the CGI Mama in the very opening and we see her a lot along the way and it’s not scary and it’s not effective and when the film turns into a CGI monster movie, it completely loses its way.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) A real slog and beyond tiresome about three quarters of the time. As a morality tale, it seems hopelessly programmatic and 25 years behind the times. As a dark comedy, it occasionally works but most of the time simply is not funny. The (now) famous quaalude scene left me cold, it seemed like frat boy Hunter Thompson, though I chuckled when it turned out the next day he’d hit basically everything with his car rather than nothing. It didn’t help that this guy next to me in the theater was laughing loudly at a lot of it (he guffawed the loudest at the scene where the gay guy gets his nose broken and Jonah Hill pukes) in between bitching to his girlfriend about how terrible the seats where, which was mystifying since for me, I was sitting where I would’ve sat had the theater been completely empty, but it was clearly too close to the screen for this dude. The movie is also freaking endless and to my eye on the doddering side. Greed is bad? Really? 1990 called and wants its insight back. I also found myself annoyed by the scenes with his wife and kid at the end; it was such a cartoon to that point that to suddenly ask us to give a shit about this guy was jarring. And I hated that final dolly through the expectant crowd at his post jail seminar in NZ, as though the film was capturing something essential about the human condition.
Blue Jasmine (2013). I was surprised and a little appalled by how bad this was. Not that I’ve ever been a fan of Woody Allen’s 21st Century films but this script was terrible and Allen’s directing doddering. It never felt like it took place in the real world, making Allen as a writer seem out of touch. His conception of working class people was absurd and a little insulting, it meandered all over the place, it often went out of tone, and by the end, I had no idea what I was supposed to think about Jasmine. I really didn’t expect to dislike it that much, even the background music in scenes set my teeth on edge.
The Harder They Fall (2021) A black-directed and written western with an all black cast (I can’t remember even one significant white character, which was one of my favorite things about it) and it’s got some style and verve, though tonally it’s all over the place. It’s often brutal and bloody, but also they mix in rap soundtracks and even the characters sometimes break into song (which mostly worked), but then out of nowhere, the director will have a 45 second shot of characters riding their backlit horses in slow motion in a moment so hackneyed, I was sort of embarrassed to be watching it. The film doesn’t really work as a whole, but I appreciate that black filmmakers are trying to do something with the western since black cowboys have largely been written out of our popular culture western history. Idris Elba is the bad guy and he’s scary and majestic, but he in the end doesn’t have all that much to do. He glowers a lot and I suspect his whole appearance was shot in a few days tops, it feels like a cameo. The biggest problem is the film is often boring. Long sections of a lot of pointless talking and even the final shootout which goes on for a full half hour or so is full of talk and stupid visual ideas and somehow is just as boring as all the talky parts. So I’m on its side in theory but the reality is not pretty.
Halloween Kills(2021) Uh…not good. The earlier David Gordon Green/Danny McBride Halloween didn’t exactly encourage me to seek this out, but then it was just sitting there for free on my TV set. The script sucks and the ending is so perfunctory (because there’s one more planned), I read it as a dream sequence or a fantasy or some such bullshit. Jaime Lee Curtis’ bad ass survivalist is barely in it and the whole idea of an evil creature killing dozens of people has never felt so pointless or played out. It was a lot bloodier than the original and a couple of the murder set pieces were okay (there was one where a character ends up shooting herself by accident which was literally the only inkling of wit in the entire movie) and there were moments where it looked good (long shots of a saturated night in deep focus, the killer in long shot moving through the landscape) but other parts were so badly directed, it looked like it was digitally panned and scanned in post.
Riders of Justice (2020), a Danish film with Mads Mikkelsen is an odd piece of work all around. Mads is some badass military dude whose wife is killed in what seems at first a train accident. Three nerdy guys with serious mental health issues approach him, certain she was killed as part of a larger hit by a gang called the Riders of Justice. They have arcane proof they’ve gotten via hacking and other computer related things. At the same time, Mads’ daughter really wants to talk to someone about her trauma but Mads is a stoic motherfucker who puts the kibosh on that. In the meantime, the three nerdy dudes are around all the time and form a kind of defacto therapist for the daughter. Mads goes Mads on the gang and basically offs like thirty of them, the action scenes are cleanly done and brutal in their efficiency. Much of the nerdy guy stuff is comedy (though dark, this being a Danish film, it doesn’t back away from how mentally ill a couple of these guys are), the action is all fast and hard and in the end, it has some of that “Outlaw Josey Wales” narrative – you know, stoic unstoppable killing machine slowly and against his will becomes a tiny bit more human as he collects this exceedingly offbeat family (besides the nerdy dudes, there’s a guy who had worked as a prostitute who settles in nicely with the group).
Nobody (2021) If you were to tell me that Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame (oh yeah, and Breaking Bad but still…) would play a “John Wick adjacent” ass kicker, I’d laugh out loud. But against all odds, he mostly pulls it off. He’s a family man with a secret who backs down during a home robbery (eliciting his son’s disgust) and later in a triumph of the repressed moment, starts a fight with five clearly bad guys on a bus. This is one of the best scenes in the movie, it’s shot straightforwardly and Odenkirk gets the shit kicked out of him, but gives better than he gets. There’s a fine, almost humorous moment after they’ve tossed the old man (Odenkirk) out the bus window and they sit around and look at each other and they’re completely fucked, broken arms, busted heads, the whole thing. Then the bus door opens and the old man reappears and things only get worse for them from there. There are a lot of action scenes in this, most of them well staged, even if the baddies are the ever present Russian evil dudes. It goes a bit flat near the end when Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) as Odenkirk’s father kills like a dozen of the bad guys with a shotgun, the bad guys doing the time honored movie thing of standing still in the open waiting for the geriatric to shoot them, but still, as a whole, I was on this movie’s side in a way I would’ve never imagined when I started it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). I had to look up the title, so generic are these late era Star Wars movies. I have to say, for having such a large cultural footprint, these are some serious shit movies. The first one is an embarrassment, The Empire Strikes Back is the only one of the original three that has anything going for it, the three Lucas directed are abysmal, and the most recent trio of movies are all…okay I guess, but not much more. I’m often mystified as to how much people go crazy for Lucas’ shit world. I’m trying to think of a good analogy. Lemmings to the cliffs? Salmon heading up stream? A pimply teenager trotting out his disturbingly well-worn issue of Oui magazine for the 25th night in a row? This particular movie was mostly a dis-spirited affair with a lot of callbacks to the other movies (including what seems like a lot of ghostly talking presences, though where Carrie Fisher’s character fits into that is not clear, her being ostensibly real in context of the movie but, you know, dead in real life), including wheeling out the same exact villain and giving Driver the Darth Vader ending.
The Irishman (2019) Man it took me a long time to finish this thing. I stopped it like four different times and when I looked, I was only an hour and 20 minutes into it, which is a full two hours from the end. I remain perplexed the praise has been so universal. The CGI stuff seems a real mistake to me, the old man movement is one thing (and in the scenes where age-appropriate actors like Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham go physically ballistic, it only highlighted how frail seeming DeNiro and the other “young-made” oldsters were), but I found myself looking at every closeup and trying to see past the facade. And while there are undeniably some good moments, I didn’t give a shit about these people and DeNiro seemed like an empty cypher at the center. And what the fuck is up with Anna Paquin’s character? It’s like Scorsese realized there were no women in his movie but he couldn’t actually be bothered to write a female character. So she just stares and doesn’t speak? Look, I could see the attempts at a sometimes subversive humor (that didn’t work for me at all but that’s another thing) so I’m not surprised the movie has gotten a smattering of good reviews. I’m just amazed there are no vocal naysayers at this point.
Free Solo (2018) is something. Just the footage Alex Honnold climbing makes it worth seeing. And the filmmakers do a good job in detailing how tenuous his foot and hand holds are. There are great details throughout, including moments where he cleans a potential hand hold with a toothbrush. The camera people find ways to get in close to him throughout the final climb.
And the filmmakers manage to lay down multiple narratives throughout. The level of preparation surprised me though it makes perfect sense,, Honnold mapped out every part of the route while on a rope over a period of weeks, and wrote it all down in a journal. There’s a boy/girl narrative as well (they lucked out here, she seems sane and is almost distractingly gorgeous) and the film never romanticizes their romance. Often it barely exists, even when it is obvious she’s living with him in a van or looking at houses with him. She clearly wants more from him than he wants to give (which is a classic boy/girl construct and here it makes some sense – seems like if you climb smooth rock walls thousands of feet high without ropes, you’re going to have a developed sense of fatalism that doesn’t play well with a relationship), we can see the difficulty of being with a guy like that, though the film never overplays it.
How the climb plays out fits easily into a recognizable narrative shape; you have about an hour of preparation (think of it as a prison break or heist movie, where planning takes up the first hour and the break/heist comes in the last half hour), a small setback, a couple of problems to solve (parts of the route that are particularly difficult) and of course the final triumph. It really is a well-constructed film on a narrative level. And for a movie where everyone knows he makes it, the final climb is surprisingly tense and in the end, strangely moving, I didn’t expect to get choked up at the end but…
Favorite Films of the Decade, 2000 to 2010 (posted on Facebook in 2010)
NOTE: Though this may be a specious distinction, this is not my attempt to create a “best of the decade” list but instead simply a list of films I liked. The holes in my film viewing are too large anymore to even try to create something more comprehensive. I often try to blame the twin demons of “life intruding” and “New York City $12.50 per movie ticket prices” as to why I see far fewer films than I did in the 90s (when I was living in much cheaper Chicago), but the truth is I just don’t care to subject myself to movies I’m not interested in.
Hell, I see enough films I’m not interested in already, why seek out more? Which maybe betrays a different level of intellectual defensiveness but I can live with that.
In chronological order:
Dancer in the Dark
2000 (Lars Von Trier) – The last half hour was the most wrenching 30 minutes of cinema of the decade. I’m up and down about the first hour and a half with its goofy dance sequences that seem as much mocking as anything else, but once it settles in the notion of executing Bjork’s character, it’s as if Von Trier is saying, “You think I can’t do classic movie melodrama? You want it, here it is,” and proceeds to make the most drenching, melodramatic ending in recent memory and because of all that came before, this manages to be both an embracing of the emotions at the center of such melodrama and a sly critique of the same. Bjork is so present in these sequences, I was reminded of Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a performance so totally of the moment, so occupied body and soul, Falconetti never acted again and it’s difficult to imagine Bjork will either.
Honorable mention to Von Trier’s Dogville, which I took as his rendering of Greek myths with Kidman’s character the daughter of Gods come down to prove to her Zeus father that humans are not the horror show the Gods believe them to be. Which works out at first, then spectacularly does not, at which point the Gods (i.e. James Caan) step in and squash all the humans and take their child back.
In the Mood for Love
2000 (Kar Wai Wong) – A film made for the theater because its languorous rhythms are too slow for DVD (where a viewer’s attention span must compete with the detritus of everyday life), but once you settle into it, it’s a completely involving world with its own value systems and rules. Involving and ultimately emotionally devastating.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou
2000 (The Coen Brothers) – My favorite Coen brothers film by some distance, it manages to mock its characters in classic Coen brothers style while somehow finding a tone that renders this mocking part of a larger, overall tone that is both respectful and ultimately affectionate. A film in which George Clooney comes to seem like the unholy child of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, an utterly charming performance that’s not only very funny and likeable, he has no problem allowing himself to look the complete and utter fool. A wonderful folk tale of the south.
2000 (Curtis Hansen) – Michael Douglas’s performance here is so lived in and “there” (for lack of a better word), this one film managed to turn me around on that actor’s entire career (funny how that works). I’m not sure how much this has to say about the literary world or even writing (though the observation that smoking dope constantly can distort your ability to make literary decisions is absolutely true), but it’s so sweet-spirited throughout that it’s a great place to spend a couple of hours.
2001(Steven Spielberg) – Jonathon Rosenbaum has a wonderful essay on this film that captures the strengths of it far better than I can. This is Spielberg’s darkest film and despite some mis-steps (the flesh fair and the over-programmed metaphor to slave trades), the vibe is relentlessly downbeat and strange. Rosenbaum sees in it a meta-critique of the filmmaking (and film viewing) process itself, but for me, the power of it lies in the idea that the film is ultimately about obsession masquerading as love and how the two things are not the same.
Viewed this way, the much derided ending is devastating as the little boy robot finally gets to fully settle into his delusion, but there’s no joy in it and in context, it comes to seem THE representation of what love meant to a species (humans) now thoroughly extinct, as if the aliens will for all time mis-interpret what love actually meant to humans. Despite what critics of the film said, the ending is the opposite of saccharine, it’s dark and creepy.
2001 (David Lynch) – Maybe on more top ten of the decade lists than any other film, I don’t have a lot to add other than the five minute scene between Watts and Chad Everett may be my favorite five minutes of cinema in the entire decade, a wonderful moment where Lynch turns the entire narrative and character arc on its head. MD is a film that amply rewards multiple viewings and in fact it was on a second viewing that the logic of what I was seeing really clicked in, making for an even richer viewing experience.
2001 (Hayao Miyazaki) – Dream-like in the best way possible, with that sense of dread lingering just around the corner. It’s difficult to say exactly what works in a Miyazaki film when it does other than to say his worlds are captivating and all-involving.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
2001-2003 (Peter Jackson) – A stunning achievement from beginning to end, perfectly cast (even if Viggo Mortensen isn’t what you had in mind for Aragorn/Strider, he so inhabits the role that you end up not just believing him, his presence anchors the film) and lovingly filmed. Manages to feel like a film for adults, which is no small feat given the circumstances.
The Piano Teacher
(Michael Haneke)– like a stomach cramp that makes you suddenly alive to life itself, to a sense of time passing; when it’s over, you’re not exactly sorry but you also understand that something elemental has been lost.
Honorable mention to
Cache, which conjures a similar feeling of suffocating dread, yet is marred by an ending that deadens all that came before it.
2002 (Brian DePalma) – Felt like the DePalma of old — sleazy, incoherent, conceptually daring — and yet somehow sentimental at the same time, and great fun besides. You have to love any movie where the incredibly elaborate heist plan depends upon one beautiful woman convincing another that a naked make-out session in the bathroom is a fine idea.
2002 (Lynne Ramsey) – Samantha Morton has never seemed more compelling and in films like this, seems the most watchable actress working today (see “In America” for a more traditional but no less captivating turn by Morton). Watching her navigate her new life is never less than fascinating and the soundtrack is consistently excellent and interesting.Along with 1999s Ratcatcher, Movern Callar makes me wish Ramsey had been allowed to develop and film her version of The Lovely Bones(Peter Jackson’s version introduced us to Saoirse Ronan but was mostly a disaster.)
Capturing the Friedmans
2003 (Andrew Jarecki) – One of those stories that simply could not be invented (or rather, we wouldn’t bother to believe it if it was), Jarecki manages to explore all kinds of ideas including police misconduct, group hysteria, along with a possibly unhealthy (possibly something else) interest by the Friedmans in filming themselves. By the end, you feel sympathy for the Friedmans while remaining uncertain exactly what happened. An unsettling documentary in which nothing is really settled.
Memories of Murder
2003(Joon-ho Bong) – It’s to Bong’s credit that it’s difficult to say exactly why this film ends up feeling so haunting.
It’s the story of a serial killer in Korea (reportedly based on the first known Korean serial killer in the middle 80s), it ends up being a very nuanced police procedural looking at tensions between local and big city cops and ultimately with the ruling authoritative government (which comes to seem the final obstacle in solving the murders), but what lingers is a disquieting sense that they were close to catching the killer and yet did not.
This is not a “Criminal Minds” kind of brilliant serial killer but one who is able to keep killing through a series of mis-steps and missed connections by those in charge.
Honorable mention to Bong’s The Host, which falls apart about halfway in but still has a great nightmare image wherein a group of Koreans watch something unfurl from a bridge and drop into the water, then they gather and throw cans and food into the water. Suddenly one of them looks and down at the end of the pier, something huge and scary is loping its way in their direction and Bong allows us to watch it in long shot. It reminds me of those airplane crash dreams you have when you’re watching a giant plane crash in the distance only to realize the wreckage has shifted and is rolling towards you.
2004 (Michael Mann) – Michael Mann did not make an uninteresting film in the decade and I could’ve as easily picked Ali (Will Smith was not given enough credit for his depiction of Ali), Miami Vice (my choice for most stunningly photographed film of the decade, though Collateral
comes close) or even Public Enemies. If this decade has proven anything about Mann, it’s that he’s a mega-budget art director whose characters walk the walk and talk the talk, yet Mann seems increasingly interested in visuals that come to seem closer to abstraction than text. He’s also the most unironic of filmmakers, which is something to be treasured in this era of the snarky aside.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2004 (Michael Gondry) – a frankly wonderful central metaphor, one of the best since the immortal Leos Carax and Mauvaus Sang (Bad Blood — where you contract an AIDS like disease if you kiss someone you don’t love), that begs a seminal and endlessly fascinating question. If you could erase the memory of something truly awful that happened to you, would you, even knowing that this event is likely central to you being you? The movie tips the scales a bit by making the thing you erase Kate Winslet, which isn’t fair (no matter how much a woman like that fucked you up, you wouldn’t want to forget her) but the elegiac tone is pervasive and winning, leaving you feeling as you do when you think back on a time in your life and wonder where all that energy and connection went.
House of Flying Daggers
2004 (Yimou Zhang) – I felt like one of the Americanized high flying Chinese/Hong Kong movies of the decade (Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, etc) needed representation and this was my favorite, not only because it’s physically beautiful and often less than enamored of narrative logic/cohesion (at the end, the two rivals for the heroine’s affections stage a sword fight that starts with a background of colorful Fall trees and ends in a blizzard), and has wonderful action, but also because it has that peculiar form of Chinese hyperbolic emotions/romance (first on display in my world in The Killer) where all those flying bodies, streaking across the screen a la an abstract expressionist painting, came to seem (like AE) the embodiment of the characters’ roiling emotions.
The tender delicacy of what the characters feel for each other is always on the edge of exploding into lyrical violence.
Honorable mention to
Crouching Tiger, if for no other reason (though there are other reasons) than its sublime ending, which immediately positions the story firmly in the category of fable.
2006 (Guillermo del Toro) – Doesn’t ultimately add up to a coherent political parable and falters at the end, but remains a deft and scary representation of childhood terrors (with an extra level added because the reality in the form of the child’s brutal step-father is actually more frightening). Consistently visually inventive and always involving.
Del Toro should get some credit for
Hellboy, though it was a bit too much of a CGI film to make this list.
I Heart Huckabees
2004 (David O. Russell) – One of the most audacious films of the decade in terms of attempting to genuinely deal with existential notions of spirit and purpose and place. Takes seriously the question “who am I” and if it’s rambling and not always coherent, it is a genuine attempt at something original and succeeds more often than it fails.
2005 (Werner Herzog) – A fascinating story made more so by the spectre of watching (and hearing) one megalomaniac (Herzog) weigh in on another (Treadwell).
The tragedy here isn’t so much that Timothy Treadwell died – his whole later life was aiming in this direction – but that he managed to in his ignorance and arrogance get his girlfriend killed and eaten. It’s painful to listen to Treadwell on the edge of tears talk of saving his bears when the bears he’s “saving” aren’t in any kind of danger. It’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that those of us who have done absolutely nothing to save the bears still did more than Treadwell in his “who’s your buddy” walk-with-me bear treks.
Herzog is hilarious throughout, without ever exactly meaning to be, showing us a Treadwell-videographed long shot of some waving bushes and telling us Treadwell had the soul of a great cinematographer or waxing on about looking into a bear’s eyes and seeing (imagine the German accent) only “the cold dead eyes of nature.”
War of the Worlds
2005 (Spielberg) — The first half is one of the fiercest, most emotionally battering films in recent memory. Apocalyptic (obviously) with the feel of a screaming banshee nightmare, the intensity of the destruction is jaw-dropping. Dakota Fanning gives a performance so eerily dialed in and immersive, you fear for her sanity (hers, not the character’s). The imagery is startling and horrifying and beautiful in its way: the moment when Fanning sneaks to the river to pee and sees one corpse floating by, then another, and another, then dozens conjures a palpable sense of a world gone to shit. The burning train is handled with the restraint of a filmmaker used to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an effect that appears for about five seconds.
In other words, he has the stature to stay subtle in a moment that is anything but. Critics accused him of political appropriation in scenes that manage to evoke both 9/11 and the holocaust but it seems to me that if you’re going to play a scenario like War of the Worlds straight, then you have to be willing to tap into the largest resonances in our culture. Aliens have landed and they’re not only trying to wipe us out, they seem committed to using us for fertilizer (we’re not even worthy of being food – “it’s a cookbook!” – we’re simply the shit the aliens scrape off their feet, the by-product…) and if you’re going to play that, do we really want the filmmaker wink wink nudge nudging us to let us know, “Hey really these aren’t aliens really and I’m not making anything more than a popcorn movie so I won’t bother trying to immerse you in the horror and the history of the moment, I’ll make sure it never cuts too deep.” As if we didn’t understand what we were seeing. It seems to me that Spielberg is being blamed for approaching his material seriously and without irony.
What I can blame Spielberg for is how quickly and completely the film falls to pieces. The extended scene in the basement where Tim Robbins appears to reprise his creepy pedophile role from Mystic River (he’s like that character if he’d escaped the unrighteous killing and decided, you all think I’m a creepy child fucker, I’ll show you creepy child fuckers) in a scene that’s tonally off and unnecessary and it skews the whole thing and by the time we get to the blood fertilizer part, we’re completely lost.
It doesn’t help that his annoying son who in a scene that works and shows an evolution of Cruise’s fathering in the film (he lets his child go because he has to give his son the respect of his wishes) re-appears at the end, everyone is OK, and whatever horrors have been wrought on the world, this family managed to escape them.
But it’s a knockout half of a movie.
The New World
2005 (Terrence Malick) – Critics have long talked of Malick’s connection with and affinity for a silent film style, but while I’ve seen it before (most notably in Days of Heaven), The New World
is the first film of his where it really makes complete sense. It’s also the first Malick film I’ve seen where the narration was, if not beside the point, then not a major force thematically or otherwise. You could’ve removed the narration and the dialogue (and where I saw it, both narration and dialogue were mixed so low, it often sounded more like a murmur than actual words, like the characters were whispering, like their voices were always in danger of being swept away by the wind) and the film would’ve lost very little.
His editing style is elliptic; it’s basically linear temporally in that it starts at the beginning of the story and ends at the end, but within scenes, he cuts around both temporally, sometimes referring to events in the past or the future, and aesthetically, cutting in shots of nature that don’t function so much as some sort of glorified travelogue, but as a representation of a feeling, of a tone, of what that particular character is feeling at that moment, as a way for us to understand the scene as a whole, understand without words what is going on, what we’re being shown. That’s why it feels so much like a silent film, he’s cutting in the way the early Russians cut, putting seemingly dissimilar shots together to create a larger meaning.
So when he, for example, cuts to Smith in Newfoundland seemingly out of the blue and Farrell looks around for just a brief moment at the cold, wind-swept, treeless landscape, we understand that he’s comparing it to the lush, almost tropical landscape of Virginia because we the audience are doing the exact same thing and that he’s thinking of her. I felt transfixed the first time in the theater and if on DVD it’s not as effective, the sense of it being a dream poem of the past comes through (I should also note that there are at least three versions out there and overall, I prefer the most recent DVD release version, though I’m not sure I can say exactly or specifically why).
Those who have argued this is just a series of haphazardly put together lyrical shots cut to maximize the cinematic beauty seem to be missing the point. For one thing, The New World, while certainly striking looking (Jack Fisk does amazing work here, the depictions of Jamestown as a kind of denuded, depopulated, diseased hell where colonists wander about without purpose other than the most basic – greed, hunger, survival – is perfectly reflected in the ramshackle, half-finished, wood-chip-scattered look of the place) is hardly beautiful for its own sake. Malick doesn’t seem to be trying to wow us cinematically in the way he obviously is in his first three films. By not overplaying the visual lyricism, he actually adds to the verisimilitude, the sense that we are seeing a 17th century wilderness populated by a few hundred natives and 50 or so Europeans whose prospects for survival are tenuous at best.
Why I think this is ultimately Malick’s best film (though I continue to believe that Badlands is one of the great cinematic achievements of at least the 70s, if not the century) is that it has a well-designed and executed character arc for its central character; in fact, the development of Pocahontas (a name thankfully no one ever says on screen, not that I heard anyway – it’s too loaded not to raise a snicker or two) forms the structural backbone of the film and when we reach the end, I found it genuinely moving at least partly because of what this character has gone through and who she has become.
I also found it a very assured piece of filmmaking, there are a couple of moments near the end that are breath-taking in their economy and effectiveness, a moment where she, while meeting the queen, bends down and looks at a raccoon in a cage. That’s it. There’s no awareness on her part that she’s making a connection, that she’s just one more animal on display, and Malick doesn’t hold on it even an extra beat, just long enough to understand this is a point, then he moves on.
Even better is a scene with Wes Studi walking through a very formal English garden/arboretum, surrounded by gorgeously sculpted trees, it’s a representation of nature rather than nature itself, a nature zoo of sorts, and completely lifeless (no birds, Studi seems confused, trying to figure out what this English forest is all about), yet Malick never lingers here, he stays just long enough that we get the point.
And he does something similarly effortless with the final Smith/Poco meeting, never overplaying it (I would never say Farrell and Filcher are accomplished actors, but they both look fantastic on screen and would’ve made amazing silent film stars), we understand without words and without histrionics that whatever Smith once was for her he is no longer and that there’s some peace for her in that.
As much as I admired The Thin Red Line, The New World seems a significant step forward in his late filmmaking career, a far more streamlined and less clunky piece of work.
The Squid and the Whale
2005 (Noah Baumbach) – Was there a more realistically loathsome character in the decade than Jeff Daniels’ intense intellectual? Loathsome is possibly too strong a word because his character always feels real and I tend to not want to label characters who feel real as loathsome, but it’s horrifying in a very real way to watch Daniels and Linney attempt to stay true to a bohemian intellectualism when raising their children, an approach that too often manifests as misanthropy and a kind of over-arching contempt that eats at the lives of those two children. Along with Adventureland, this film marks Jesse Eisenberg as one of the more subtly interesting young male actors of the decade, an actor who seems to be everything Shia LeBeauf is not, while vaguely resembling him both physically and in terms of on-screen affect.
Both actors seem to have the lightweightness of sitcom stars, yet when the movie tweak comes, for LeBeauf, it comes in the form of an ill-fated attempt to turn him into an action star (witness the Transformer films and the embarrassing Indiana Jones movie where Spielberg in full doddering mode puts LeBeauf in a Marlon Brando “Wild One” outfit and does so without irony) while Eisenberg finds the darkness and reality under the sitcom façade.
Honorable mention to Baumbach’s Margot’s Wedding, which is marred by the ever inappropriate and clueless presence of Jack Black (how many more films can this guy fuck up is a question I hope is not answered anytime soon, see Peter Jackson’s King Kong for further evidence), but takes the dysfunction at the center of Squid and manages to send it into orbit.
2006 (Martin Campbell) – a film that self-consciously (“Do I look like I give a damn,” Craig says in response to the classic “shaken or stirred” martini question) re-invents Bond in a way I wasn’t sure was possible. Even though the Brosnan Bond movies were the biggest money makers of all the Bond films, the films themselves seemed increasingly beside the point. We didn’t really go to see Brosnan’s Bond be Bond, we went for the stunts, in much the same way we’d go see a Die Hard film.
But Craig and company announced from the start that this was a different Bond; while chasing Sebastien Foucan doing his parkour thing, deftly slicing through a narrow opening above a wall, Craig simply slams through it, sheer brute force. Can anyone imagine any other Bond actor doing that? Connery maybe and that’s the other thing Craig brings, he’s the first Bond since Connery who feels genuinely like a dangerous guy, you can feel how his ability to be in the moment and brutally efficient isolates him and this Bond is in some ways a pitiable figure.
Now it’s fair to ask if the Bond franchise isn’t so played out that it doesn’t much matter if it’s been intelligently reinvented. I certainly feel susceptible to this argument, my only answer is I found this one of more viscerally exciting films of the decade and part of that came from seeing an old tired brand re-invigorated.
Children of Men
2006 (Alfonso Cuaron) – Exciting, gripping, this reminds me in no way but affect of Andre Techine’s great Thieves from the previous decade in that this is what action movies should be; exciting, gripping with enough of a subtext and story to keep our interest. The first half hour presents such a lived in, real-seeming world free of hope that when it turns into a war movie, we not only don’t mind, we find it exhilarating.
Cuaron had a fine decade and I could’ve easily put Y Tu Mama Tambien on this list along with what still stands as the best of the Harry Potter movies, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. You might say Cuaron saved the Potter series from the clutches of the ever-dull Chris Columbus, turning Hogwarts and the grounds around it into something mythical, frightening and alive.
The Lives of Others
2006 (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) – Fascinating look at the insidious ways the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, worked. What elevates this film is that the East German agent becomes the center of the film and our sympathies, while never shifting away from his target (a popular and seemingly patriotic playwright), slowly drift towards the agent who in his under the table support of the playwright (without the playwright’s knowledge) comes to seem much less of an agent but more of a human being as he allows his career to be ruined by refusing to ruin another man’s. The
end the result where the playwright after the fall of the Berlin Wall figures out that he had a protector is pitch perfect and allows a catharsis that we the audience desperately needs (or at least wants).
I’m Not There
2007 (Todd Haynes) – Only sections of this film really register – most notably the Cate Blanchett parts where Dylan is a Don’t Look Back-era star – and parts that frankly don’t work (Richard Gere as some sort of aging Billy the Kid-like Dylan), but it’s never dull and remains conceptually audacious, admirable and always watchable. This last is the key. It sounded like an interesting project from the start which you could easily imagine could devolve into something messy and confusing and off-putting, but it’s none of these things and works as basic entertainment.
Some films I want to note without being forced to label them “best of the decade”
The Claim (2000) and 24 Hour Party People (2002), Michael Winterbottom — Has Winterbottom ever made a truly dull film, one without interest? The Claim explores some of the same feelings as The Lives of Others, a man suffering for the suffering he has inflicted on others.
2002 (Lukas Moodyson) – Emotionally involving and completely manipulative melodrama about a young girl being unwittingly pushed into prostitution, Moodyson goes for the melodrama with every fiber of his being and we react to that and ultimately don’t feel manipulated as much as moved emotionally. Or maybe it’s that we like the bite of that manipulation on the backs of our throats. Whatever the truth, I was totally with this film every step of the way and felt what the director wanted me to feel at all the appropriate moments.
We Were Soldiers
2002 (Randall Wallace) – Unabashedly conservative in its basic approach and including scenes at home that are tough to take (and I mean that in a bad way) including a distressingly plastic surgery-disfigured Madeline Stowe as Mel Gibson’s wife, it approaches Vietnam in general and this battle in particular with a respect to the North Vietnamese and to the history involved and the shifting battle scenes are bloody, chaotic and intense.
Too many mis-steps to call this a great war movie, it manages to be for a good amount of its running time a very good one and even after Gibson’s Colonel Harold Moore inflicts a terrible defeat on the enemy, there’s no triumph in it and you as a viewer can understand why the real Moore went back to his superiors and suggested getting out of Vietnam because he didn’t believe the Viet Cong and the NVA would ever be defeated.
2004 (Matthew Vaughn) – Featuring a wonderful cast of British character actors and anchored by the presence of Daniel Craig as a major drug dealer who wants out (and who increasingly seems unlikely to get out), I can’t say I always understood what was happening, but it’s great fun to watch.
2005 (Peter Jackson) – A debacle in many ways; it’s ponderous for much of its running time, takes too long to get to the island, spends too much time on the island, manages to throw not just hordes of marauding dinosaurs at the men but giants bugs of every kind to the point where it’s bludgeoning. Besides that, it’s badly cast in one of the central roles.
Adrien Brody manages to be better than I would’ve thought (he’s like secondary love interest Greg Kinnear to Kong’s George Clooney), but Jack Black is a disaster in the central role of the guiding force behind the mission, you never for a minute believe this guy could lead anyone anywhere but the buffet table.
But it makes up for it in the spectacular casting of Naomi Watts and the scenes between her and Kong are so good, they make the rest of the film tolerable. The whole second New York City section is first rate and contains THE tear-jerk moment of the decade when Watts goes looking for Kong. The moment when he sees her and realizes it is HER (after tossing side a host of “potentials”) is sublime. It’s possible I identify with Kong a bit too much, he’s an old guy, all scarred up and hurting in places and kind of ugly and he didn’t really believe he’d ever find love, and certainly not in the form of her. And you can see all that play out on the ape’s face when she’s standing in front of him in luminous white. He can’t quite believe it, he’s a little put off because, well, she ran off with some other guy, but he’s also touched and grateful and…well, happy.
2006 (Mike Judge)– I’ll freely admit this film works only occasionally and probably doesn’t belong on a best comedy list, much less a best of the decade list, but the central idea is so witty and elastic and the decade in which it appeared so dominated by behavior – celebrity, politician…hell, human — that proves the central point of the film, I had to put it on the list. Has an inspired early montage where we see time passing via the name of a restaurant. In the present, it’s Fuddruckers, but keeps changing and by the 500 year mark where the entire population is full of the dimmest of bulbs, the restaurant is simply Buttfuckers.
30 Days of Night
2007 (David Slade) – A great idea for a vampire film and well handled, it deserves mention if for no other reason than we don’t get sexy vampires here, these are not vampires anyone wishes they could become. There’s no real sense that they can be fought or defeated either, simply endured, which gives the film a creeping claustrophobic dread.
Has one great shot from a Gods eye view in which most of the town gets wiped out in a single take as the vampires spread out and the blood sprays in long shot across the white snow.
2008 (J.J. Abrams) – OK, so it contains a collection of possibly the most annoying 20-something yuppies in recent memory, though this is at least partly the point.
As one positive review I read said, this is a very efficient yuppie killing machine of a movie. Why it’s on my list is I’ve always been a sucker for rampaging huge monster movies (see my earlier comments on The Host) and the remake of Godzilla so thoroughly fucked it up (managing to miscast the lead and turn it into Jurassic Park in NYC). On that level, Cloverfield gets it exactly right.
There are some nightmare images here: the head of the Statue of Liberty careening down a NYC street, the monster looming large and roaring above us, and later the monster seen from high above rampaging through the skyscrapers.
2008 (Guy Ritchie) – More dialogue fun in these two hours than in weeks of other films, it’s a pure joy just to listen to the various British accents going on the way they do, with a beefcake and maybe slightly dim Gerard Butler leading the way.
What is it about the Brits that allows them to fill their films with so many fine, idiosyncratic and interesting actors (I feel the same when I watch the Harry Potter series) from Tom Wilkinson, Mark Strong, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Toby Kebbell, on and on. I could sit and listen to them talk to each other all day long.
And finally a simple listing of films I liked:
2000 — Battle Royale, Memento, X-Men
2001 — Amelie, Lantana, Gosford Park
2002 — The Bourne films, 28 Days Later, Minority Report, Spiderman
2003 — Elephant, Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2, The Fog of War, Old Boy, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
2004 — Before Sunset, Control Room, Dawn of the Dead, District B13, Downfall, The Incredibles, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Kings and Queens, Spiderman II
2005 — Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, A History of Violence, Wallace and Gromit, Curse of the Were-Rabbit,
2006 — Blood Diamond, Crank, Happy Feet, Stranger than Fiction
2007 — 28 Weeks Later, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Michael Clayton, Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac
2008 — Appaloosa, The Bank Job, Wall-E, A Christmas Tale, Let The Right One In
2009 — Adventureland, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Girlfriend Experience, The Hurt Locker, Public Enemies, Thirst, Up, The White Ribbon