Written by: Robert Wambold, special to CC2k
Plus Everything Else!!
I normally do this year-end wrap-up right before the Academy Award nominations are announced so as to not be biased by those films that receive too much credit or none at all. So this article arrives much later than normal. The easy reason that it took me so long to do this list was that I didn’t want to write it until I saw both DREAMGIRLS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. I ultimately saw neither, making this the first year in probably ten that I haven’t seen all five Best Picture nominees.
Why was it so difficult to finally write this article? I’ve been doing a wrap-up for ten years now. Some years are better than others. This year was the worst year for movies. At least for me. Only two movies this year deserved four stars. The other movies on my top ten list this year are either of the three-and-a-half or three star variety.
The question then is…have I lost interest in movies or have movies gotten worse? I sincerely hope that it’s the latter but I’m fearful that it’s the former. Has the sheer volume of movies I’ve seen over the years destroyed my overall appreciation for the current crop of films? Is this merely a function of getting older? Honestly, I don’t think I’m the only who thinks movies, I mean the “good movies”, have dropped severely in quality. Where are the Insiders, the L.A. Confidentials, the Incredibles, the Rushmores, the Truman Shows? None of them arrived this year, right? Am I crazy or what? Or is it that movie studios either make movies for morons (e.g. NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM) or finance pretentious pap that features interesting filmmaking but are simply duds (e.g. BABEL)? It says something that the single most fulfilling entertainment I found this year was in the long-ignored TV series THE WIRE.
Anyways, only two movies blew me away this year. And as you will see, they’re not exactly crowd-pleasers. Onto the list:
10. ARMY OF SHADOWS – “She said five minutes, but she'll wait a lifetime.”
Originally released in France in 1969, this film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville is based on a novel that was written in 1943 about the French Resistance in World War II. Imagine a war movie with no end to the war . While equating the War on Terror with World War II is a dangerous thing to do, this movie is as appropriate now than it was in 1969, since it’s about a war that seemingly has no end.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The opening shot of German soldiers marching down Champs-Élysées, framed by the Arc de Triomphe.
MORAL TO THE STORY: It’s just as important to kill your friends if they squeal as it is the enemy.
9. PAN’S LABYRINTH – “You won’t be the first pig I’ve gutted.”
First off, don’t bring the kiddies to this one. There are mutilations, executions, and, basically, all-out despair. Set in Spain during World War II, the film follows a young girl who discovers mystical things in what is essentially her backyard. Whether these things she sees are real or not depends on the viewer, which produces a dynamic very similar to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Again, this is not LORD OF THE RINGS or NARNIA, and actually shares a lot in common with CHILDREN OF MEN. And no, I don’t think I’m a racist for saying that.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: When the traitor breaks her bonds and, well, guts her pig.
MORAL TO THE STORY: Either your bizarre fantasies are real or you were shot through the heart by your crazed stepfather.
8. THE LIVES OF OTHERS – Something in German.
For some reason, I got it into my head that this was going to be the German version of AMELIE. I was all ready with my popcorn ready to enjoy a hopelessly romantic foreign film. Well, it’s not AMELIE. Taking place in East Germany in 1984, it’s about a surveillance expert who decides to protect a playwright from governmental persecution. Tragedy of course strikes several times over. For some reason, while watching this movie, I was reminded of the parody TOP SECRET! since LIVES is set in 1984 East Germany (TOP SECRET was released in 1984 and was set in East Germany). I kept expecting to see Omar Sharif picking up some phony dog poo (“what phony dog poo?”).
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The book dedication.
MORAL TO THE STORY: The fact that you threw away your professional life is okay because an author you don’t know dedicated his book to you.
7. INSIDE MAN – “No, it’s more like in the shower with two guys named Jamal and Jesus…and here’s the bad news; that thing you’re sucking on? It’s not a piña colada.”
A really well put together bank heist movie . Clive Owen again is the British Harrison Ford. Denzel Washington does his thing. Chiwetol Ejiofor once again shows promise. And Jodie Foster is pretty hot. Christopher Plummer plays a Nazi again. And it’s just a really well-made movie. I mean, Spike Lee joint.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The Albanian woman and her parking tickets.
MORAL TO THE STORY: Don’t hide documents that prove you benefited financially off the Holocaust in your own bank.
6. THE DEPARTED – “Patriot Act, Patriot Act! I love it, I love it, I love it!”
See, this is my point about the decreased quality in movies. This one can’t hold a candle to GOODFELLAS, not even CASINO, and yet it makes my top ten. That being said, it’s the most enjoyable movie I saw this year. It’s morbidly funny, brash, and utterly ridiculous. Chock full of scene-chewing performances, it’s still a relief to see Scorsese directing a movie instead of the dull exercise that was THE AVIATOR.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: Any scene that features the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. Scorsese’s mafia beatdown song…used to great effect in both GOODFELLAS and CASINO.
MORAL TO THE STORY: No matter what you do, you will be shot in the head.
5. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – “Fuck a lotta women, kid, I have no reason to lie to you. Not just one, a lotta women.”
I wish that I hadn’t heard anything about this movie before I saw it. Coming out of Sundance, the hype behind this movie was deafening and I had really high expectations. As such, I didn’t love it when I first saw it , but after seeing it again, it grew on me and I ultimately really liked it. The characters are almost clichéd, but you can forgive it because the movie is really entertaining. What happens to these characters after the movie ends? Who knows. But the time we spend them is worth the price of admission. Side note on Alan Arkin: Now that he’s finally received some accolades, can we look back at how ridiculous stacked GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS was? Every principal actor in that film has been nominated or won an Academy Award, except Jonathan Pryce (a.k.a. Mr. Theatre). I know that this film has been over-praised over the years, but let’s recap the cast once again: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce. Back to Arkin. Even though he didn’t deserve his Academy Award (c’mon two scenes?) I’m happy that he’s back in the limelight. Remember, he was basically Dustin Hoffman two years before THE GRADUATE. In fact, he was the lead in the Nichols/Henry follow-up to THE GRADUATE, the admirable but failed CATCH-22. Anyways, good to see he’s getting his due, which allows me to recommend an oldie but goodie, the original THE IN-LAWS, starring Arkin and Peter Falk. By the way, do you think Arkin looks at Hoffman like Michael Keaton looks at Tom Hanks? Has to, right?
SCENE TO REMEMBER: Any scene that involves Steve Carell running.
MORAL TO THE STORY: Try, then give up, then just go nuts.
4. THE QUEEN – “Move over, Cabbage.”
I’ve already written quite a bit about this movie. But to recap, it’s not just the performances that make this a really good film. It’s also the notion that western society at large today requires their leaders to be showy and emotional when tragedy strikes. Weeping, heartfelt speeches seemingly are more important than policy or judgment. I wish I had something funny to say about the matter.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The opening credits when the Queen poses for her portrait.
MORAL TO THE STORY: Go against your instincts, sell out, and the public will forgive you.
3. VENUS – “I’m impotent, of course, but I can still take theoretical interest.”
The older, dirtier version of LOST IN TRANSLATION. A little known fact: Peter O’Toole is actually younger than both Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood. And only five years older than Dustin Hoffman. Yet, he looks ninety right now. This is your brain, this is your brain on hard liquor for fifty years. By the way, O’Toole is one of my favorite actors to impersonate. Here, try it: hold your lips limp and talk exclusively with your jaw and add a British accent. Say “my boy, can’t we go out for a ride?” Now, admit it, that was fun. Don’t look at me like that.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The limo ride.
MORAL TO THE STORY: Only until you die will you be appreciated.
2. UNITED 93 – “I can’t pull! I can’t!”
I will never see this movie again. But there is no other movie this year that affected me more. Now, some would call it exploitation, I don’t. This movie made me remember that even though 9/11 was a severely tragic event, it started from the actions of only a few people. It made me reflect on the events that have transpired since. Made me angry about the Iraq war. And made me frustrated that all the good will that came from this event was wasted by a guy who wasn’t even elected. Soapbox speech over. I also saw this movie with someone who almost puked on my lap , so there was an extra dose of suspense during my viewing experience.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The final push to re-take the plane.
MORAL TO THE STORY: The actions of so few can affect so many. And don’t depend on Sledge Hammer to fly your hijacked plane out of trouble (anyone else catch that strange casting choice?).
1. CHILDREN OF MEN – “Pull my finger!”
This is a movie about a world in the near future where women are no longer able to have children. I know that this is exactly the kind of movie everyone wants to see on a Saturday night to escape their problems, right? But, this is a great film. It is far and away the best-directed movie of the year as well as the most starkly beautiful. There are two tracking shots that just sneak up on you. And then keep going. And then destroy you. If this is this generation’s BLADE RUNNER, then I’ll gladly state for the record that Clive Owen could become the next Harrison Ford, but British and a better actor. SPOILER in the next sentence: I wish that the movie didn’t end with us seeing the boat and rather just ended with the pregnant woman sitting in the rowboat waiting, not knowing whether the boat will ever come. SPOILER over.
SCENE TO REMEMBER: The two tracking shots: one that takes place in a car and the one at the very end of the movie. No details. See the movie.
MORAL TO THE STORY: Black babies bring hope.
LADY IN THE WATER
Once every few years a movie comes along that is so bad that it’s good. The last example of this for me was the brilliantly idiotic THE CORE in 2003. Most studio movies today are either re-shot or test-screened to death so as to remove as many terrible things as possible from the final print. This strategy results in movies that are bad but not so kitschy bad that they fall into a special, rarified territory I call Honorable Mention. Thankfully, this year we got LADY IN THE WATER, exhibit A in the case proving whether or not M. Night Shyamalan’s head is completely up his own ass. The movie plays like a screenwriting handbook. There is so much discussion about what makes story, who the hero is, etc. that I thought I was watching the filmed Reader’s Digest version of a Joseph Campbell treatise on heroes. Added on to thisoh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-someone-paid-70-million-dollars-to-make- a-movie-about-a-simplistic-analysis-of-story is the fact that the central conflict, if you want to call it that, revolves around finding someone in the apartment building who will end up writing what basically becomes the new Bible. The actor who plays the guy who writes this Bible and is apparently killed for his efforts is none other than M. Night Shyamalan. Yes, he cast himself as Jesus. I am not making this up. And our heroes’ wrong choices are pinned solely on an arrogant film critic who is then eaten by a wolf monster thing. This same film critic spends most of the film criticizing M. Night’s directorial choices in his past films and is constantly making fun of how the characters’ dialogue is inauthentic.
MOVIES THAT I REALLY LIKED:
AFTER THE WEDDING – Though it doesn’t know what movie it wants to be I alternately wept and laughed through most of it. Also, Mads Mikkelsen’s face defies gravity. It’s like his face was whip cream and someone ran a butter knife across it a few times. (Mikkelsen was the baddie in CASINO ROYALE.)
DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY – Never thought I was such a big fan of the Fugees until they took the stage for this concert’s finale.
DEVIL WEARS PRADA – Really enjoyed this one though the resolution made no sense. Anne Hathaway decides that it all wasn’t worth it, but then she gets what she wants because she was Meryl Streep’s assistant. So then, um, it was worth it. The math just doesn’t work with this one.
HALF NELSON – If I hadn’t seen THE WIRE, I don’t think I would have liked this movie as much.
IDIOCRACY – Mike Judge’s follow-up to OFFICE SPACE that was banished by the studio over a battle of egos.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH – Could have done without the “I was a boy growin’ up in Tennessee” angle, but the doc served its purpose.
NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD – Not that I’ve seen many concert films, but this one is particularly intense and personal.
MOVIES I LIKED OKAY:
BORAT – Am I missing something? Wasn’t this just an extension of the TV show? With a JACK-ASS sequence tossed into the mix?
BRICK – At times reminded me of the Coen Brothers, also at times reminded me why I occasionally hated film school.
CASINO ROYALE – Great Bond film up until the main villain, Mads Mikkelsen (the buttery-faced actor who was in AFTER THE WEDDING), dies. There’s a good half hour left in the movie after. Just a bad, bad, bad choice.
FRIENDS WITH MONEY – Any movie that ends with someone basically winning the lottery does not get a full recommendation from me.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD – For a three-hour epic about spies during the Cold War, nothing actually happens. Really. I dare you to find me something that actually happens in this movie. Past Matt Damon being quiet, Angelina Jolie being an unhappy wife, and there being a sound recording they’re trying to decipher. Nothing!
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND – Forest Whitaker’s owes as much of his performance to himself as he does the guy or gal who spritzed him with water before every take. Seriously, the guy was drenched the entire movie. I want to be that guy or gal.
LITTLE CHILDREN – With Daniel Craig in the Bond movie and now Patrick Wilson in this one, I now understand what it feels like to be a woman looking at these ridiculous superbabes on the covers of magazines. I mean, I was drooling over Patrick Wilson in this movie and I’m not the least bit gay. Side note: there should be a lifetime achievement award given to Jane Adams for her full body of work. You know who she is, but not by name. She’s a cute, somewhat mousy woman with dark curly hair who always plays a character who has bizarrely tragic things happen to her. Ever since HAPPINESS, I’ve always felt sorry for her and expect the worse things to happen to her character. So when she’s out on a blind date with Jackie Earle Haley, the pedophile, it was like watching Olivier acting out a Shakespearean role. No one else does slack-jawed sadness like Jane Adams. And yes, I’m referring to the scene where Jackie Earle Haley starts masturbating in her car while staring at a children’s playground, saying “You…(groan)….tell….anybody about this…(groan)…I’ll git you…(moan, groan)…I’ll git you!”
NOTES ON A SCANDAL – Cate Blanchett had more chemistry with the kid in this movie than she did with Brad Pitt in BABEL and George Clooney in THE GOOD GERMAN.
STRANGER THAN FICTION – What a lame, cop-out ending. Ruined the whole movie.
V FOR VENDETTA – Mostly terrible , but oddly made me feel great when the British Parliament was blown up. Imagine that applied to America…exalting in Washington, D.C. getting blown up. Actually, maybe it’s not that odd.
MOVIES I DID NOT LIKE:
ACCEPTED – The continuing decay of Hollywood comedies.
BABEL – I liked the Japanese story but nothing else. I’m beginning to despise movies that depend on editing and mixing up chronology to tell their story. It’s not brilliant, it’s lazy. Also, Cate Blanchett had more chemistry with her bedpan than she did with Brad Pitt in this one (I know I’m repeating myself).
THE BREAK-UP – A big ol’ who cares. This is the movie version of a bad stand-up comedian pointing out the differences between men and women.
THE BRIDGE – I’m going to Hell for this, but some of these assholes should just kill themselves already.
THE DA VINCI CODE – A $150 million Powerpoint presentation .
FAILURE TO LAUNCH – I can’t believe I paid money for this one either.
INVINCIBLE – Least charismatic underdog ever. Or maybe that’s just Mark Wahlberg’s performance.
PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION – It’s a shame that this was Altman’s last because it stank of old people smell.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS – Seriously, why hasn’t anyone called out this movie for that horrible Rubik’s Cube scene? The whole movie swivels on it. It may be true, but c’mon!
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING – I only liked the scenes involving the Hollywood, the rest was just kind of dull.
X-3 – Brett Ratner . Asshole.
MOVIES I FELL ASLEEP DURING:
CARS – Red state baiting.
FREEDOMLAND – Blue state baiting.
TALLEDEGA NIGHTS – Red state baiting.
VOLVER – I should give this one another shot, but I have to be honest, I fell asleep.
MOVIES I HATED:
BOBBY – Every scene in this movie involves a character walking into a room, stating their life problem and then commenting on how Bobby Kennedy can change things for him/her. This, twenty-two times. The scene between Demi Moore and Sharon Stone almost made my head explode.
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS – War. Bond tour. Adam Beach drunk. War. Bond tour. Adam Beach drunk. War. Bond tour. Adam Beach drunk. I’m surprised I didn’t fall asleep during this one either. Also, Clint Eastwood should never shoot another hospital scene again. He’s simply terrible at it. “Son, I just want to apologize for not being a good father to you.” Pause. “Dad. You don’t understand. You’re the best father a guy could ever have.” I then leaped from my seat and gagged in the nearest trash receptacle.
GLORY ROAD – The movie consists of 3,000 fifteen-second scenes. And you think I’m kidding. It’s like one long Scorsese montage.
THE GOOD GERMAN – About as interesting as reading coffeemaker instructions. It’s a good thing no one saw this because Tobey Maguire deserved a Razzie for his performance.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM – Oh my. This is the movie that made me absolutely depressed. It’s an unwatchable movie that did $250 million domestic. Reminder. It’s unwatchable. I spent the entire time with my jaw dropped, convinced I just had a lobotomy.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST – About 45 minutes of this is bearable, but most of it is not . Johnny Depp does his gay Keith Richards thing again, but even more story is devoted to those two pieces of wood – Bag o’ Bones and Orlando Bloom.
SUPERMAN RETURNS – How could someone make such an austere, poorly cast version of SUPERMAN ? A lot of blame to go around here, but my god, they just killed the franchise again. The sun guy in the fourth one was better than Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane.
WORLD TRADE CENTER – A major movie star and a major studio trying to profit off everyone’s grief over 9/11 by making a movie about the true story of two guys who survived a building falling on them. I cannot think of any other reason for this movie being made other than gross exploitation.