Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Complete #YouTube2009 Best-Of Video Collection

Here's my full list of 2009's Best YouTube videos.  I've been sending them out slowly, one by one, via Twitter, but I barely made a dent in the list.  So now here's the entire thing, put together at last, for your continued enjoyment.  Use it wisely, kids.

Foar Everywun Frum Boxxy
Aretha Franklin Crazy Inauguration Hat

Christian Bale Freak-out:

[PARODIES: Charlie Loses it, Michael Cera Freakout on the set of "Youth in Revolt", Christian Bale meets David After Dentist]

David After Dentist
Crazy Asian lady misses flight
32 songs in 8 minutes
Twouble with Twitters
Snakes on a Plane (TV Edit)
Prop 8: The Musical

Play him off, keyboard cat:

[PARODY: Super Keyboard Cat Bros.]

"Blame It" Spoof with Barack Obama
Stephon Marbury Crying
Billy Mays: The Rap Tribute

2012: It's a Disaster!:

I'm Not Here to Make Friends '09
Teen Girl Falls in Open Manhole While Texting
Do You Wanna Date My Avatar?
Understanding Automatic Door Fail
8-bit trip
Inglourious Plummers
Taylor Swift VMA Award Moment Ruined by Kanye West

Roman Polanski on To Catch a Predator:

Jon LaJoie: I Kill People
Best drunk dude ever attempts to buy more beer
Cat Ladies trailer
Bat (Remi Gaillard in a Bat Costume)

Poker Faces (Lady Gaga vs. Cartman vs. Christopher Walken):

Pigeon: Impossible
JK Wedding Dance
Evian Roller Babies
Bizkit the Sleep Walking Dog
Forklift smashes massive vodka stock

Auto-Tune the News #8:

Tosh.0 Why Must I Cry Remix
DJ Steve Porter: Slap Chop Rap
DJ Steve Porter: Press Hop
Goldberg calls Beck "lying sack of dog mess"

I'm on a Boat:

[PARODY: I'm in a Box]

Two Guys Who Spend Too Much Time Together
Vanilla Ice Apology
Celtics Jumbotron Fan Dance
911 Eucalyptus Call
Nunchuk Fail
Saturday Morning Watchmen

Flight Attendant Rap:

Patrick Duffy and The Crab
P Twitty
Paris Hilton Loves Things and Stuff
Star Wars-Dallas Opening
Jesus Pwn3d U

C Me Dance Trailer:

Let Me Twitter Dat
Learning Guitar to Get Laid
PS22 Chorus Eye of the Tiger
Moms on the Net
My Little Pony: Live Action Trailer
Obnoxious Groundhog
Wanda Sykes White House Correspondents Dinner
Paulina Wild and Crazy Nights

Mr. T Take Me Out to the Ball Game:

The Boyfriend Experience
Han Solo PI
New Moon Trailer Reaction
Sarah Silverman Webby Awards
Bret Michaels Tony Awards

Jay-Z Cure Mash-up:

World of Warcraft Freakout
Hamster in a Wok
Squirrel in Woman's Cleavage
White Girls Bill Cosby Impressions
Nirvana vs Rick Astley
Shake Weight

Make The Girl Dance:

[PARODY: Naked Girls Get Interrupted]

Biz Markie Just a Friend Literal Video

Hitler Subtitle Meme: FriendFeed, Avatar, Balloon Boy
While I Was Away
It's Time for the Percolator
Mad Men in 60 Seconds

Paper Towels Infomercial:

56-Year-Old Virgin
Bus Fight Chinatown San Francisco
Breakdancer Kicks Cat
Parachute Fail
Sittin on Tha Toilet
Jones' Cheap Ass Prepaid Legal and Daycare Academy

Puppy Snooki Punch:

Sex Offender Shuffle
The Juggalo Gathering 2009
Sasquatch Festival Dance Party
inspector Gadget theme song played on beer bottles
Hammer Pants Dance
Redneck Wants to Impeach Obama
Hey! Jurassic Park Video

Amazing Ball Flip:

Danny MacAskill Inspired Bicycles
Kutiman ThruYou
Her Morning Elegance Oren Lavie
Deadline Post-It Stop Motion

Grizzly Bear - Ready, Able

Voca People
100 Greatest Hits of YouTube in 4 Minutes
The Golden Age of Video (Ricardo Autobahn)

Posted via email from Lon Harris

There's always room for vodka encased in gelatin!

Mahalo's page on How to Make Jello Shots is blowing up the spot right now.  I guess a lot of you are still into these things?  Personally, I'm not much of a fan...I like my alcohol drinkable, and without a lot of preparation time required.  But that's just me. 

One other thought...Has anyone ever considered making, like, frozen cocktail treats?  Like how you can make those orange juice pops by freezing OJ in an ice cube tray with some toothpicks?  You could do a whole variety.  Frozen Daiquiris.  Frozen Margaritas.  Frozen Greyhounds and Sea Breezes.  The possibilities are limitless.  Think about it.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

The 50 Best Films of the Decade, 50-41

If you missed the start of the list, which opened with Honorable Mentions and other introductory material, it can be found in all its overly-long, needlessly-complex glory here.  Now on to the proper list...

50. The King of Kong (2007)

It's hard to believe that one of the most popular and enduring documentary films of the past 10 years involves a controversy over who got the highest score in "Donkey Kong."  But, of course, the movie's not really about "Donkey Kong," or arcade games more generally, but the archetypal face-off between the two men competing for the high score title - lovable loser Steve Wiebe and self-described "Sauce King," massive dickbag Billy Mitchell.  Wiebe's such a classic movie underdog, and Mitchell such a despicable nemesis, they at times come across like scripted characters, a nerdy incarnation of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.  There are plans to adapt the documentary into a fictional film, but it's hard to imagine how any actors could bring any additional resonance to this struggle or insight into these personalities that we don't already get from seeing the real people involved.

49. The Hurt Locker (2009)

Kathryn Bigelow's monstrously intense Iraq War film does 2 things extremely well - capture the chaotic, occasionally nightmarish day-to-day existence of a member of the US Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit serving in Baghdad, and explore the psychological impact this experience can have on the men and women who live through it.  Most war movies, even good war movies, don't really try to do either of these things.  Typically, we see the life and death of American soldiers as a kind of highlight (or lowlight) reel - basic training, shipping out, bonding with brothers in arms, the carnage of modern combat and, finally, the hell of Post-Traumatic Stress or long-term injury.  But "Hurt Locker" is more about the small, quotidian details, the way that even facing death by shrapnel-heavy explosion becomes a job after a while, and how some people get hooked on the adrenaline rush in spite of themselves. 

48. Before Sunset (2004)

"Before Sunset" is a wonderfully humorous, melancholy romance that culminates in one of the decade's best final scenes, a perfect encapsulation of the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) and a really potent use of dramatic ambiguity.  After meeting 9 years earlier on a train to Vienna, and failing to make a pre-arranged rendezvous afterwards, the American Jesse and French Celine suddenly reconnect in Paris and spend about 90 minutes (in real time) dissecting what, if anything, it all means.  Romantic comedies often have, at their core, a simple message about spontaneity, jumping in head-first when something feels right and never holding back when it comes to love.  But rarely do these films ever capture the gravity and potentially tragic consequences of this sort of behavior.  "Before Sunset" is smart enough to realize that it's not always as easy as "thinking with your heart," and that when adults make sudden, spontaneous decisions, lives literally hang in the balance.

47. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The best of the "Harry Potter" films is also a tragic story about families being ripped apart, a fleet and exciting fantasy adventure (with just a dash of science-fiction) AND something of an advertisement for traveling the English countryside.  The previous entries in the series were like bloated Hollywood kiddie films; the later "Potter" films tend to get a bit overstuffed with incident and outsized, almost Shakespearean, theatrics.  "Azkaban," and director Alfonso Cuaron, hit all the series' now-familiar notes just right, from the pale-green, stately grounds of the Hogwarts Academy, the ethereal wonder of the Patronus spell and the mind-bending horror of the titular prison and its Reaper-esque wards, the Dementors. 

46. I'm Not Scared (2003)

In Italian director Gabriele Salvatores' gripping, virtuoso thriller, a nine-year-old boy makes a shocking discovery in a hole in the ground, near a wheat field, on the edge of his small town.  It's a discovery that will forever alter the way he sees himself, his home and his family.  Salvatores' story (based on a novel which itself was based on a real-life incident in Milan in the '70s) isn't so much about young Michele's discovery and how it eventually gets resolved, though he handles the machinations of the plot with ease and impeccable style.  Instead, it's something of an experiment in telling a complex story entirely from the perspective of a young boy, who is himself struggling to understand not only what is happening but why and how, questions most adults would not even bother to ask themselves.  Everything in Salvatores' film, particularly the cinematography of Italo Petriccione, which takes in the rough, monochromatic countryside almost exclusively from a child's height, pushes the viewer to filter these troubling, sometimes horrifying, events as they would appear to an innocent, just starting to understand that the world can not only be cruel, but also indifferent.

45. American Psycho (2000)

In the Bret Easton Ellis novel that inspired this film, decadent homicidal maniac Patrick Bateman is an insatiable monster, a maniac whose dark, uncontrollable urges push him to commit acts of savagery so heinous as to be almost indescribable in mere prose.  Accurately sensing that there's no way a film audience could withstand 2 hours in the company of such a villain, director Mary Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner turn his story into a gleefully perverse satire of '80s corporate culture, misogyny and the masculine insecurity that powered both.  Here, Bateman's never actually terrifying, but more a comically pathetic brute who happens to have a good tailor, particularly when star Christian Bale is delivering self-aware, caustic, "rehearsed" monologues about business cards and disaffected pronouncements of his urgent and immediate need to return some videos.  Bale, dressed in a raincoat, attacking women with axes while discussing the semiotics of Huey Lewis and the News albums will forever remain one of the iconic images of '00s film.

44. Lost in Translation (2003)

Those who criticized this somber indie comedy (a som-com!) as depicting Japan and the Japanese negatively, as exotic caricatures and profoundly "foreign," basically missed the point.  Sofia Coppola's film isn't so much about visiting Japan, though the country does provide a lovely and colorful backdrop for the leisurely narrative.  It's about the way that travel, particularly perfunctory or enforced travel stemming from business rather than pleasure, robs us of our feeling of personal security and our sense of self.  Our homes are places where we surround ourselves with creature comforts - we enjoy being there, because we've stuffed it full of things we like - and even the swankiest hotel can't really live up to that standard.  For Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray), wandering around so far out of their element has an even greater and more disconcerting impact. By taking them away from their usual distractions, Tokyo won't allow them to escape thinking about their problems.  Watching them take comfort in one another's (platonic) company is pretty much a non-stop delight, highlighted by Murray's more-deadpan-than-deadpan delivery, Coppola's steady, patient hand at the helm, one of the cinema's great karaoke sequences and Lance Acord's swooning, kaleidoscopic cinematography.

43. Sexy Beast (2000)

Ben Kingsley gives arguably his career-best performance in this unpredictable, frequently hilarious twist on the British gangster film.  Sir Ben so completely disappears into the role of frustrated mad-dog criminal Don Logan, it's almost surprising he was ever able to pull himself back out and resume his normal life.  The film opens with Logan flying out to Spain to visit Gal (Ray Winstone), an old colleague who has retired along with his ex-porn star wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), in order to strong-arm him into returning to London to pull one last heist.  Logan's in the employ of the suave Teddy Bass (the always-stellar and perfectly cast Ian McShane), and they need one more experienced guy, and Gal really doesn't have a say in the matter.  Just as the situation - complicated by Logan's longstanding feelings for Deedee - comes to a head, writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto cut to the heist itself, leaving us to piece together the events that transpired during the time jump ourselves.  It's a daring move, but the film pulls it off, mainly because Jonathan Glazer's full-throttle pacing (the film has a relentless, almost manic energy) and the terrific lead performances don't give us time or inclination to worry about such minor details as the resolution of the film's main conflict.

42. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" seemed to promise a major comeback for writer Shane Black, the king of '80s action screenplays.  He made his directorial debut with this film, the...wait for it...BEST ACTION-COMEDY OF THE DECADE.  Instead, Black didn't go on to direct any more movies, and it was star Robert Downey Jr. who embarked on a fabulous and fully-revived career immediately afterwards.  (To be fair, Downey's career is stronger than ever at this point.  He's freaking Tony Stark.)  There is not a film in the entire rest of the Top 50 for which the specifics of the plot matters less than this one.  Suffice it to say that the movie is a send-up of buddy cop movies AND Raymond Chandler novels at the same time, and that RDJ and Val Kilmer play the unwitting partners at the film's center, solving a needlessly-elaborate crime.  Black's intensely ironic sense of humor (Downey Jr. narrates in voice-over that's constantly cracking wise and calling attention to itself) and fondness for bathroom humor could have easily turned on him, but he consistently hits the perfect balance between the sophomoric and the clever, like your best friend from college after 4 and a half beers.  Plus, it's exceptionally rewatchable, and really holds up to repeat viewings, a true sign of a great comedy.

41. Best in Show (2000)

Christopher Guest's improvisational ensemble comedy "Waiting for Guffman" is funny, but it's almost too incisive.  Its observations about small American towns and the somewhat simple folks who live there are often funny, but twinged with mean-spiritedness.  His folk rock send-up, "A Mighty Wind," was a bit too affectionate towards its subjects, and felt toothless as satire, more an excuse to write silly songs than anything else.  "Best in Show" represents the high water mark for the Guest & Co. mockumentary formula, looking at the Dog Show circuit with a combination of enchantment and despair.  Fred Willard's performance as the sort of clueless, increasingly desperate TV commentator, rightfully gets a lot of praise, but nearly all the Guest regulars get a chance to shine.  (Two of my favorites: Ed Begley Jr. also gets a lot of mileage out of a brief appearance as the cautiously optimistic hotel manager dealing with a variety of canine-related issues, and Jane Lynch winningly captures the essence of a hyper-competitive poodle trainer.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Best Movies of the Decade: Honorable Mentions

Okay, so now that we've got the Worst Films lists done with, it's time to move on to the good stuff.  For those of you who have fallen behind, here's where the find those lists:

Worst Movies of the Decade:

So before I actually list the Top 50, which I'll do in groups of ten, the same way, I wanted to do some "Honorable Mentions." These are films that occurred to me when I was writing the Top 50 that just didn't make the final cut.  I've also put some of these films into a category called "Unseen Gems."  These are great little movies that didn't quite hit my Top 50, but that I wanted to highlight because I feel like they are underseen or underappreciated.  So here are the best little movies from the past 10 years that never had a breakout moment, but should have.


Owning Mahoney (2003)

A fascinating true story about a bank manager with a devastating, out-of-control gambling addiction who sort of backs into an embezzlement scheme.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is truly brilliant as the hapless anti-hero, whose love of risk-taking quickly turns obsessive and dangerous.

3-Iron (2004) / Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003)

Two films by Korea's Kim Ki-Duk that both rather brilliantly look at people living on the fringe of society, who seem to share a desire to disappear completely.  "3-Iron" is a study of a man who squats in stranger's homes while they are away, but who ends up secreting living with, and spying on, a beautiful woman stuck in a failed marriage.  "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" looks at the life of a monk from childhood to adulthood through scattered sequences set during the titular seasons.  Both films have such a steady, deliberate pace and such careful, intense attention to detail, they develop a lyrical, almost hypnotic quality, like a visual Zen koan.

May (2002)

When I saw "May" theatrically in 2002, it felt like the introduction of Lucky McKee as a new cult icon for horror fans.  99% of the horror films released in this past decade were generic by design, reassuring viewers that they knew exactly what to expect by borrowing the name and concept of an older film or extending an already-tired franchise.  "May" relentlessly refuses to clue you in on what's coming next, or to follow pre-conceived notions about character development.  The story of a deeply troubled young woman and her increasingly gruesome personal fetishes, "May" borrows heavily from '80s horror movie tropes and even classic stories like "Frankenstein," but does so in a way that's ceaselessly inventive, tongue-in-cheek and darkly hilarious.  Plus it features not one but TWO breakout performances, from Angela Bettis and Anna Faris, the latter of whom was up until this point known exclusively for pretending to be Neve Campbell in the reprehensible "Scary Movie" series.

Our Brand is Crisis (2005)

Probably the most devastatingly cynical look at how exactly political campaigns go about their day-to-day business I have ever seen, Richard Boynton's harrowing documentary looks at the impact an American consulting firm (which includes well-known campaign strategist James Carville) had on the 2002 Bolivian presidential election.  I have no idea why the owners of Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS) would agree to allow their work to be filmed for posterity, as most of it consists of intentionally making things up in order to deceive Bolivian people about issues they (the consultants) only half-understand, but thankfully for film fans everywhere, they did agree.  The result is as shocking and disheartening as it is entertaining.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

Miranda July's quirky, twee independent comedy-drama about love, family and relationships is like the anti-"Garden State."  Whereas that film uses quirk as a replacement for actual conflict or drama, a shorthand so audiences know who are the "good guys," July sees a world in which we all suppress and hide our individuality, for fear that others will misunderstand and reject us.  Which is not only more authentic, but also more engaging, relateable and charming.  We come to love her anti-social misfits, each of whom is seeking a connection while simultaneously afraid to go out and make one, not because they look cute in a helmet or they like the same bands that we do...but because they remind us of ourselves and the odd peculiarities we keep hidden from one another.

Surfwise (2007)

Doug Pray's documentary about the life and family of philosopher and health guru Doc Paskowitz reminds us that madness and intelligence often go hand-in-hand, and how creative, spiritual, well-meaning people can sometimes turn out to be monsters.  It's a simple film that tells a true story, but also turns into a surprisingly deep and troubling study of contradictions.  Paskowitz and his large family lived for years on end in a camper, spending their days surfing, foraging and studying Dad's far-out theories on health, biology and medicine.  There's a real romance to the scenario at first, but before long, it becomes clear that all of the children and their mother were permanently damaged by this upbringing, and suffered extreme hardship in service of their (unrepentant) father and husband's ideals. 

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Stephen Frears' grim, gritty film effortlessly combines 3 genres - it's a wrenching tragedy, a gripping thriller and a thoughtful piece of social commentary about the immigrant experience in London, all at once.  Nigerian Okwe (the always-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Turkish Senay (Audrey Tautou) stumble upon an illegal organ harvesting scam in the hotel in which they both work, but their second-class status and need to remain under the radar prevents them from steering clear of trouble.  The great Sergi L√≥pez (probably best known in America as the villain from "Pan's Labyrinth") does some fantastic scene-chewing as the heavy.

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Another great, underseen movie with Audrey Tautou, this WWI-era epic from Jean-Pierre Jeunet may be his best work to date.  Amazing visuals and a unique take on the style of the period (which has an almost steampunk, hyperreal appearance) whisk us through the story of a French couple divided by war yet desperate to reunite.  Though the filmmaking itself is thoroughly contemporary, and heavily reliant on digital effects, this is the sort of sweeping, romantic storytelling that essentially died with the old studio system.

Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Okay, the so-called "mumblecore" films of Andrew Bujalski aren't going to be for everyone.  (The term refers to ultra-low-budget movies with largely improvised dialogue and amateur actors, typically focused on interpersonal relationships).  But if the trend has one standard-bearer against which all other mumblecore movies should be judged, it's 2002's "Funny Ha Ha."  The story of a confused, sort of meek girl named Marnie who has recently graduated college and is trying to find her way in life, the movie begins as just casual, disconnected conversations, but very unassumingly and lackadaisically sort of coalesces into a pretty observant coming-of-age comedy.  Sometimes, it's refreshing to see a comedy that's just about smart people saying funny things, and that isn't always hurtling back-and-forth between set-ups and punchlines.

And here's the rest of the "Honorable Mentions," films I would have included on the Top 50 List if it were a Top 76 instead.  (These are not ranked...The order is random).


Black Book (2006)

Paul Verhoeven's bold, sexy, harrowing WWII spy adventure brings back the days when war movies could be both sad and exciting at once.  The thrilling (mostly fictional) tale of a woman's exploits in and out of the Dutch Resistance is unabashedly pulpy, with a zeal for foiling Nazi plots that would make Lt. Aldo Ray proud.  Verhoeven's films just have a liveliness and energy that are fairly unmatched among contemporary directors, and he really sinks his teeth into this material, making for one of his very best films.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Werner Herzog's travelogue chronicling his time spent in Antarctica is probably the most uplifting movie ever made about the end of the world.  Herzog makes a few disarming discoveries at the South Pole - mainly, that the southernmost continent is a place of immaculate beauty and wonder, filled with lovable, brilliant eccentrics, almost all of whom believe that the human race is doomed for extinction in the near future.  In between the iceberg-themed doomsday prophecies, we hear the strange, psychedelic music of the Ross Sea seals, meet a man whose fingers prove he's descended from Aztec Kings, follow a volcanologist as he explores an ice cavern created by an explosion of magma and hear Herzog dismiss a botanist as a quack and a freakshow in voice-over narration WHILE THE GUY IS STILL SPEAKING!  This movie is brilliant, as one would expect from a true master and living cinematic legend.  Watch it on Blu-Ray if that option is open to you.

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

David O. Russell's madcap metaphysical farce, "I Heart Huckabees," was like a Monty Python sketch stretched out to feature length, and I mean that in the best way possible.  An anarchic, delightfully silly story about "existential detectives" investigating the life of a corporate-hating environmental activist, the movie, like the Python group's best work, expertly mixes the high-brow and low-brow without ever really hitting a false note.  (Okay, maybe once or twice).  It works as well as it does almost entirely due to the chemistry and ace timing of the fantastic ensemble of actors, including Dustin Hoffman, Naomi Watts, Lily Tomlin, Jason Schwartzman, Isabelle Huppert and, yes, Mark Wahlberg in one of his 2 great performances this decade.  (The other was "The Departed.")

WALL-E (2008)

PIXAR was, for the most part, kicking ass throughout this entire decade, churning out a series of all-around great entertainments - funny movies with solid storylines, genuine emotion, memorable characters, terrific action scenes and comedy that works equally well for audiences of all ages.  That's no mean feat.  But "WALL-E" was the PIXAR film that packed the biggest emotional wallop, for me, and that struck me as the most daring, visionary film the studio has yet released.  The story of a garbage-compactor robot stranded on a dystopian future Earth who falls in love with a visitor from another world, "WALL-E" is almost a silent film for a full half-hour.  It really focuses on character development, and the use of small gestures and carefully-observed details, more than any other contemporary animated film I can name.  In that way, it's closer to preserving the legacy of Walt Disney animation than anything they've done under their own brand since "The Lion King."

Waking Life (2001)

Richard Linklater's experiment into rotoscoped animation is a gimmick, sure, but it's a wacked-out, fun gimmick that's probably the decade's best "head" movie.  We follow the main character (modeled and voiced by Wiley Wiggins) through a dream, or more accurately a successive series of dreams, from which he can not awake.  And though each sequence is realized using the same animation technique - of having artists literally animate over digitally-shot live action film - the visuals itself take on radically different styles depending on who's animating.  There's no real narrative at all, save a repeated suggestion that the character may be unable to awaken because he has died.  Some of the bits are funny, some are familiar (one monologue about a shooting at a gas station is taken from the little-seen Scorsese documentary "American Boy"), some are thoughtful (in a Metaphysics 101 kind of way), some are strange and unsettling, but the final effect of seeing them all together is pretty goddamn deep, man. You dig?

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

I like Michael Moore's more recent documentaries, like "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Sicko," but those feel more like polemics and less like real FILMS than "Columbine," a movie that's more about asking questions than providing one person's insights and answers.  Moore identifies a problem, or at least a situation - a lot of people in America are getting killed by guns, despite the fact that we're not the only country that has guns - and then just sets about examining it from a variety of perspectives.  Sometimes, yes, he goes a bit over-the-top and actually hurts the case he's trying to make, as when he chases down and harasses a somewhat disoriented Charlton Heston, but the majority of this film is a pretty fair-minded, even-handed look at America's gun culture.  And it's also humorous and fun to watch, a rarity for political documentaries of any stripe.

Gosford Park (2001)

Robert Altman's last great film was really two movies in one - a dissection of the inner-workings of two communities occupying the same English manor house over the course of a long weekend in the '30s, and a murder mystery.  It was an ideal set-up for an Altman film, as so many of his films are pre-occupied with looking into how people operate socially in groups, studying human interaction almost anthropologically, but it does mean that the Agatha Christie-style whodunit plot kind of gets the short shrift.  A massive ensemble cast of legendary British actors are all given just enough to do to maintain their interest, and Andrew Dunn's elegant, understated cinematography is like a delicate high-wire act.  Some movies, you can just tell that you're in the hands of a true master, and you can just relax and enjoy what comes, knowing that everything will all fit together. 

Femme Fatale (2002)

Like all of Brian De Palma's best work, "Femme Fatale" is ludicrous, completely over-the-top and just a bit sleazy.  He proudly combines Hitchcock's eye and innate understanding of pacing with the sensibility of an '80s Skinemax erotic thriller and I love him for it.  "Femme Fatale" opens with one of the most invigorating, crackerjack sequences of De Palma's entire career, a bold diamond heist amidst a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.  We follow one of the thieves, Laure Ash (played by Rebecca Romijn) as she double-crosses her cohorts and skips the country.  Years later, she will return as the wife of a diplomat...only to be recognized and thus pursued for the stolen loot.  And that's just the beginning of this twisty, stylized, thoroughly ridiculous but always-amusing mindfuck of a movie.  Highly recommended for people who don't need movies to always color within the lines or, you know, make sense.

Amelie (2001)

I'm not really into "adorable" movies, which are too often self-consciously trying to charm, or "cute" you to death.  But I have to say, "Amelie" and its plucky, post-ironic heroine just sort of work on me.  After finding a box of toys and knick-knacks that once belonged to a young boy, and tracking down its now-adult owner, Amelie decides to dedicate her life to doing good and helping others, and in the process, she learns that it's sometimes okay to help herself, too.  I know, it sounds saccharine and irritating.  And that's without even mentioning the use if impressionistic special effects to highlight Amelie's inner thoughts and fantasies, or the long list of quirky eccentrics that fill out the supporting cast.  But the story is told with a sincerity and a clarity of purpose that makes the more "delightful" and twee aspects feel sort of earned...the characters are all whacked-out goofballs, you could say, but they are carefully thought-out, three-dimensional goofballs.  Anyway, years later, it's still a charming film.

The Proposition (2005)

John Hillcoat's gritty, dark Australian-set spaghetti western recalls some of the classics of the genre, particularly Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."  Essentially a story about people in impossible, filthy, hopeless surroundings who nevertheless attempt to hold on to some basic element of humanity amidst all the chaos, the film is most memorable for its violent set pieces and the melancholy soundtrack by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).  Guy Pearce stars as an outlaw presented with the titular bargain - hunt down and execute his older brother (played with a barely-concealed, seething rage by Danny Huston) or see his younger brother hang.  Unlike a lot of the great spaghetti westerns, the details in "The Proposition" all feel right for the period, from the ramshackle sets to the dust-coated costumes, even the once-immaculate tea sets of the villain, English gentleman Captain Stanley (an intense, brooding Ray Winstone).

A Serious Man (2009)

"A Serious Man" is the most nimble and effortlessly entertaining dark comedy the Coen Brothers have made in a long time; it's probably their best comic film since "The Big Lebowski."  It's a story about how Judaism, like other faiths, offers far more questions than answers, and fails to really resolve any of the Great Mysteries of Human Life on Earth, despite elaborate promises to the contrary.  Which doesn't sound like a hilarious premise, necessarily, but as we watch Larry Gopnik's somewhat idyllic suburban life slowly begin to unravel, culminating in a series of utterly defeating personal tragedies, there's really no possible reaction except laughter.  Special kudos to Fred Melamed for portraying one of the most awkward, uncouth individuals in recent cinematic history, the preening Sy Ableman, with whom Gopnik's wife embarks on an ill-fated affair.

The Others (2001)

Alejandro Amenabar's atmospheric, spooky haunted house flick, "The Others," proves that a talented director with a nimble touch and an eye for the interplay between light and shadow can whip up a compelling horror movie from a whole lot of nothing.  "The Others" has Nicole Kidman before she overdid the face injections to the point of resembling the Caucasian cousin of the Avatar aliens, one surefire gimmick - children who must not be exposed to natural light - and one plot twist - which I will not mention here.  There's not much else, but then again, Amenabar doesn't need much besides a pretense to build a gorgeously sinister mansion set.  The resulting film is entertaining and surprisingly frightening, at least for a period-set haunted house movie. 

A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg's idiosyncratic "History of Violence" begins with a relatively simple premise...A Philadelphia mob enforcer (Ed Harris) arrives in a small town and informs the owner of the local diner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet and unassuming family man, that he's been recognized as a long-lost criminal colleague, and they have come to take him back home to answer for his varied past betrayals.  The film has an intriguing first act, during which we wonder whether this same guy, who seems to mild-mannered, could possibly be the criminal these guys are after.  We then move into an intense second act, where we see some consequences of Tom's refusal to go along quietly.  And then, the film becomes totally unexpected and absolutely brilliant at the end, as we watch the two men, Tom and his other self, collide into each another.  These scenes represent the best film acting I've ever seen from Mortensen, who instantly switches between terror and menace, and a genuinely provocative examination of the fleeting, schizophrenic nature of human identity.  We are whomever we say we are, when you get right down to it, and the ability of an individual to show one face to some people and a vastly different face to others can be truly chilling.

Collateral (2004)

Okay, so the final act of Michael Mann's crime thriller/character study kind of falls apart, substituting dumb action cliches for a satisfying conclusion.  The movie still earns its spot on the honorable mentions list for the dazzling nighttime LA cinematography and the terrific performances from leads Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.  Cruise, who was not better than this in any movie this decade, save possibly "Tropic Thunder," plays a hitman who takes a cab driver captive for an entire night, forcing the stranger to assist him in making his homicidal rounds.  The film could easily have turned hokey if both leads didn't play it with such sincerity, utterly dropping their typical movie star routines and just letting the material speak for itself (which is unexpected in an action film).  A sequence in a jazz club between Cruise's assassin and the club's owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) is among the most stripped-down and minimalist in Mann's entire filmography, and also one of the best.

You Can Count on Me (2000)

One of the essential movies about male-female siblings, Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" tells a melodramatic story in such a simple and poignant way that it feels universal.  Single mom Sammy (Laura Linney) reunites with her wayward brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) after several months with no contact.  Close ever since losing their parents at a young age, Sammy and Terry share a complex relationship, made even more difficult by Sammy's young son - struggling with the loss of his own absent father - and her various other faltering relationships.  Yet Lonergan manages to strip away all of these specifics, using them largely as devices to drive the conflict along, and keeps the bond between Sammy and Terry at the film's core.  Ruffalo kind of irritates me these days in movies...It feels like he tends to fall back on ticks and mannerisms a lot, and can't ever really disappear into a character.  But he's pretty sensational here, and I defy anyone who has a sibling, or any close family member, to make it all the way through this one without getting at least a little misty.

Watchmen (2009)

Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" films does what I had thought no comic book movie could do.  It accurately bring Alan Moore's epic meta-comic to life on the screen PLUS it manages to make this nearly 20-year-old material seem relevant once more.  NO previous Moore adaptation, including the largely-successful "V for Vendetta," had actually done this, and I had grown cynical, scarcely believing it possible, let alone from the director of the wholly loathsome "300" working with some of Moore's most medium-specific and, yes, dated material.  I think the secret, or one of the secrets, is that Snyder doesn't let the grandiose scale of the thing overwhelm the little details...The way Rorschach pulls up his mask to eat beans, or the way Daniel Dreiberg fidgets around nervously when making love without a costume on.  These little touches remind you that the larger-than-life heroes are still human, which is kind of the whole point anyway, right?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar Review (IMAX 3D Version)

I sense it would be impossible to issue just one review for the film "Avatar" that would be equally accurate and insightful about everyone's experience.  Having only seen it in 3D on an IMAX screen, I was perfectly willing to ignore the slower patches, the mediocre lead performance from Sam Worthington, and the generally predictable, formulaic plotline.  The film works so extremely well as spectacle that it feels churlish to even consider how poorly it fares at some other basic aspects of cinematic storytelling.  I'm certain that, projected as a more conventional film, or viewed as it will appear on DVD and television, a lot of its lesser qualities would be brought into greater relief, and it would most likely, overall, prove a far less satisfying experience.

Not that the movie wouldn't still be visually impressive without 3D.  Director James Cameron, a bonafide special effects pioneer who already helped to usher in the era of digital effects with "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2," has done a genuinely amazing job at creating an original, believable alien environment from whole cloth, and filling it with expressive, tactile creatures.  The planet of Pandora feels rich, diverse and detailed, a testament to the imagination of Cameron himself as well as the massive team I'm sure it took to animate everything and bring it to lush, vivid life.  The motion-capture, giving us a humanoid race of blue creatures known as the Na'vi, ranks among the best ever done, on a par, I'd say, with Peter Jackson's work on Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films.  These days, most big-budget studio films have prominent, colorful, outsized special effects sequences, but it's rare to see animated characters who appear to have a genuine physical presence in a scene, who carry themselves and move realistically.

With 3D, however, you have the added bonus of making this environment remarkably immersive.  One trick Cameron comes back to constantly is to have floating objects, such as insects, ash or debris, swirling around the characters, and thus, the audience, subconsciously binding you to the world of Pandora. It's extremely effective, and has an almost uncanny, goosebump sort of quality to it.  Almost more-real-than-real, cause you rarely even experience the actual physical world in this fashion.)  There's a shot where the protagonist, Jake, falls down a waterfall, and underwater, and you genuinely do get a visceral sensation for the tangible weight of the water.

Having said all that, I was a bit bugged by a few things visually.  There are a LOT of sequences that look too much like a blacklight poster, with the environment sort of designed to have a hallucinatory, trippy effect, rather than to resemble an actual environment.  I had no trouble investing in Pandora as a real place during daytime sequences, but sometimes at night, when everything is translucent and neon pink, it comes off a bit cartoonish.  Also, I'm always bugged by science-fiction movies in which whole planets have identical features and terrain (a la the "Star Wars" films.)  This is the desert planet, this is the jungle planet, this is the water planet, etc., when we all know first-hand of at least 1 real planet that has a tremendous amount of physical diversity.  I wanted a few cut-away scenes where we see some other parts of Pandora.  Even when we visit some other Na'vi tribes, the whole place seems like an endless forest.  With all the world-building Cameron was doing, you'd think he'd jump at the chance to design a few more Pandora settings, but we really just get two - the forest and the floating mountains.

Anyway, fairly minor quibbles. 

It's also impossible to discuss the film's aesthetic without talking about the phenomenal action sequences, particularly the final battle that takes up about 30-40 minutes of screen time.  It's SUCH a delight to see an action scene directed by someone who knows what the fuck he's doing.  The cinematography is extremely fluid, and I love how you get a real sense of the Na'vi's incredible speed and the confidence with which they move about their environment.  Michael Bay can't pull off a scene that's 1/8th as intense or exciting as the Na'vi assault on the helicopters, and Cameron's raised the stakes and added an entire extra dimension!  (Again, I'd love to see the movie in 2D, and may try to do so theatrically, but I'm sure this scene is still excellent in any format.)

So, yes, it's a very good film, almost assuredly the best action-fantasy film since the "Lord of the Rings" series.  But you do have to take into account, I think, that the film is pretty much identical, both narratively and thematically, to a whole host of other films, most of them mediocre.  From "The Last Samurai" to "Dances with Wolves" to Disney's "Pocahontas," everyone's seen a few versions of this story before.  A disillusioned white man comes into a foreign society, at first as an adversary or a spy, and slowly comes to realize that his new community's way of life is more pure, simple, essential or innocent than his own.  Eventually, possibly due to becoming romantically involved with a woman from this new culture, the man turns on his former partners and joins the struggle from the opposing side.

In this case, our hero is Earthling Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who through an accident of fate has been drafted into a diplomatic mission on the planet of Pandora.  A human corporation wants to mine the territory underneath the home of the planet's native population, the Na'vi, a race of blue 9-foot-tall creatures who share an emotional and spiritual bond with their land.  The humans are basically torn between two options: negotiating with the Na'vi, and convincing them to leave their home behind, or exterminating them militarily.  Sully controls a Na'vi Avatar, genetically based on his own DNA, in the hopes that he will be able to blend in with the natives, learn about them and convince them to allow humans to drill beneath the ancient, sacred tree where they all live.  Naturally, he soon falls in love with the Na'vi princess assigned to teach him their ways (played through motion-capture by Zoe Saldana) and finds himself torn between doing his job and saving his new friends and family.

Cameron has a few fun little twists on it that he throws in there - the Na'vi's unique way of connecting themselves physically to the other lifeforms around them, the use of the Avatars themselves (though he could have done a better job of setting up important info like "what happens to you when you're suddenly unplugged from your avatar, or if your avatar is killed while you're connected" early in the film).  But it's not enough to make a lot of this material feel less familiar.  It's such a far-out premise and such a different-looking film from almost anything else I've seen, it's a bit disappointing when the plot kicks in and everything's SO generic and predictable.

Performance-wise, Sigourney Weaver is solid as the mastermind behind the avatar program, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi are totally 100% recognizable behind the motion capture technology as the Na'vi leaders, which is pretty impressive when you think about it, and the bad guy (an actor I don't recognize) did as good a job as can be done with SUCH a cliched character.  (I kept thinking of Rod Steiger in "Mars Attacks," who's playing a parody of this exact character.  "Annihilate! Kill! Kill! Kill!")  I still don't really get why everyone is all about Sam Worthington, though.  This is the second film I've seen him in, and I doubt I'd recognize him on the street.  He's bland, doesn't look as "tough" or "badass" as the characters he plays and seems incapable of expressing a genuine emotion, or at the very least unwilling to. 

This is the sort of stuff I'm thinking will bug me more on subsequent viewings, and without getting as distracted by the epic IMAX 3D imagery.  There's no doubt that, on the level of pure spectacle, Avatar gets an A.  It is worth spending the money and taking the trouble to catch in 3D (or especially IMAX 3D, where the incredible amount of detail built into the film's backgrounds can be fully appreciated).  But it's a film I can't see revisiting too often, once the thrill of the technological innovations wears off.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

The 50 Worst Films of the Decade, 10-1

Sorry for the delay, everyone...Christmas plans interrupted the movie-list project.  But we're back on track.  Keep an eye out for the "50 Best Films of the Decade" list, coming your way each day until the new year!

I'll tell you right now, long-time readers of this blog, the pick for Worst Film, #1, is going to be a surprise.  Hatred of Zach Braff and his film, "Garden State" was a MAJOR theme of this blog, back in the early days of Crushed by Inertia.  At one time, this site was high-ranking indeed in search engines for keywords relating to Braff and his self-serving little movie that sort of single-handedly killed the whole concept of an "indie film."

It's good enough for #2 on this list, but something I saw after "GS" managed to be EVEN MORE EXCRUCIATING.  What could it be?  Press on, dear reader, and let's find out together...

10. Elizabethtown (2005)

"Garden State" was not an isolated phenomenon in the realm of shitty romantic comedy-dramas, but adhered to a tried-and-true formula, an entire sub-genre, if you will, about straight-laced sad sacks who meet free-wheeling, twee, gorgeous fantasy women living life unpredictably.  It has come to be known as the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" phenomenon, and "Garden State" is merely its most self-important and odious manifestation.  This ridiculously-poor Cameron Crowe outing is the runner-up.  Orlando Bloom has had some problems at work, and is about to kill himself when he gets a call informing him his father has passed away.  En route to his hometown for the funeral, he meets flight attendant Kirsten Dunst, not so much playing a character as a masturbatory fantasy for sad loners.  She has absolutely no life of her own, and decides to devote all of her energy to making Orlando happy again, usually with bromides about how life is for the living.  But that's when she's allowed to speak...for most of the movie, the couple falls in love in the background while contemporary popular music (a Crowe staple) plays on the soundtrack, so we don't actually get to hear what they're saying.  Which is probably just as well.  This is not exactly a movie about ideas to begin with, but rather a cinematic Hallmark card, recycling worn cliches yet again out of more tradition than anything else.  For when you care enough to send...SOMETHING.

9. A Sound of Thunder (2005)

"A Sound of Thunder" was never actually finished.  The production essentially ran out of money before the effects work was completed, so a lot of the CGI is INCREDIBLY unpolished and malformed.  But it's not like the movie was going to be good, even if it had more time to gestate.  So it's basically like watching a Behind-the-Scenes featurette for a really awful science-fiction film that never came out.  The movie-that-could-have-been was about a future where time travel is possible, and thus hunters use it to travel back and shoot dinosaurs for sport.  (Obviously!)  But though they can kill one dinosaur over and over again safely, without it impacting anything else in the space-time continuum, when one hunter steps on a butterfly, it causes the future to get constantly interrupted by "time waves." (Read: convenient plot devices that crop up at exactly the moment needed to move things along, and cause exactly the sort of change/crisis that works within the story at the time.)  These largely consist of monsters suddenly appearing, which I guess now exist because time has gotten all screwy.  Ben Kingsley, the patron saint of awful, high-concept science-fiction movies, has a few theories.  So, as you can see, this would have sucked regardless.  In fact, it's probably a bit more watchable now when it's essentially some mock-ups and test shots that have been loosely patched together to get back at least a fraction of the up-front costs on DVD.

8. Wicker Man (2006)

I sort of feel bad even PUTTING "Wicker Man" on this list, because it really is one of those movies that's so terrible, it's kind of spellbinding.  Neil LaBute's completely insane redo of the campy British horror-comedy original starts by making the movie deadly serious and sincere, a straight-forward horror film. LaBute then proceeds in putting Nicolas Cage through some of the most wild-eyed, overly-theatrical hysterics of his or anyone else's career.  A montage of brief Cage scenes from this film, with no commentary or outside material added, is one of the most hilarious videos on all of YouTube.  The fact that we're watching a recognizable, award-winning movie star putting on a bear suit, riding around on a bicycle, stopping only to punch women, and screaming about being covered in bees, is funny enough, but the fact that the movie actually means to SCARE US with this material just moves it into an entirely new realm of batshittery.  How could any filmmaker be so disconnected from his audience, to think something so ridiculous could be frightening?  It would be like watching "Sesame Street" and then having Frank Oz explain to you that it was supposed to be about the Irish potato famine.  ("See, it's not EASY being GREEN!")

7. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

I'd say "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is a bad sitcom standing in for a film, but even bad sitcoms know better than to employ this extremely tired, hacky style any more.  In fact, they tried to turn the movie INTO a sitcom afterwards, a natural fit, and they couldn't even keep it on the air.  "According to Jim" was just too much competition for Nia Vardalos...She's not up to taking on the J-Man.  Nominally a story about a very Greek family from Greece, it really doesn't offer much in the way of genuine cultural observations; "we're tight-knit!" "the guys are softies but they try to act tough!" "we love to eat!" "we talk with our hands!"  What ethnic group DOESN'T identify with these kinds of tired tropes, and indeed, what ethnic (read: non-Anglo-Saxon) character in any mainstream comedy already doesn't behave in this way?  Even when the film abandons the "my crazy family!" schtick, it just falls back on more trite conventions, right down to the pretty but insecure girl who comes out of her shell by taking off her glasses.  You get the feeling Vardalos hasn't really updated her act since a 1987 open mic, and ran out of her go-to bits halfway through the first act.  Why mainstream audiences ate up this crap 7 years ago, I will never know.

6. 300 (2006)

I found "300," a much-beloved celebration of blood, guts and preening masculinity, highly distasteful on two levels. (1) Its worldview and political perspective is a monstrous, top-down confirmation of all the worst impulses of the Bush Era/Oughts, making this really one of the key films of the past decade.  It takes a specific, real historical event  - The Battle of Thermopylae - robs it of any and all genuine context, and sets it in a modern reality where it can serve as an "Us vs. Them" rallying cry for xenophobic Westerners living in fear of immigrants and homosexuals waiting to invade their countries and fundamentally alter their sheltered, privileged way of life.  The film depicts Spartans, its white manly-man heroes, as forthright, brave Adonises and their foes, the Persians, as a variety of mutants, perverts and deviants.  It insists on repeatedly criticizing homosexuals (the Persian army brings lesbians along with them for some reason, and the Spartans at one time deride Athenians as "boy-lovers") for reasons totally unconnected to the film's theme or plot, and in spite of the fact that the real historical Spartans themselves engaged in hot, steamy acts of boy-loving pretty regularly.  Finally, the movie is just a glorification of violence of the most despicable kind, "war porn" that equates the notion of being patriotic with committing wanton acts of savagery.  There is no honor, no patriotism, no masculinity at all divorced from bashing other men's heads in.  Which, when you get right down to it, is just gross, and should be enough to turn off any action movie fan, no matter how prettily-rendered some of those head-bashings might be.

5. The Happening (2008)

No movie in the Top 50 Worst Films of the Decade list has a lamer premise than "The Happening."  Not a single one.  Do you have any idea how DIFFICULT that must be?  To get a movie made with a premise that's more banal and insipid than "K-Pax," "Gigli," "Rollerball," "Rat Race," "Evolution," "The Fountain," "Righteous Kill" and "The Dukes of Hazzard"?  HOLY SHIT.  I mean, despite his Wile E Coyote-esque success rate over the past few years, you've got to give M. Night Shyamalan some credit just for willing this movie into existence.  In the film, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel take to the road, hoping to outrun killer plants that have gone haywire and started emitting a toxin that makes people commit suicide.  At one point, Wahlberg tries to reason with a plant, before discovering it's made of plastic.  They have a series of grim, not very believable or interesting encounters with other survivors that don't really go anywhere, and then the whole thing just ends as quickly and inexplicably as it begins.  That's all that happens, making the film's very title into a cruel joke at the viewer's expense.  This was also the first Shyamalan film without a twist ending, probably because the twist comes at the beginning...You've actually agreed to devote your time to a movie about murderous plants.  Ha ha ha ha ha!  I got you!

4. The Spirit (2008)

What can you say about something like "The Spirit"?  It's either an experiment gone awry, or a parody of the very notion of adapting comic books into films, or a desperate cry for help from writer/director Frank Miller.  Whatever the initial intent, what has resulted is one of the most amateurish, and frankly baffling, movies I have ever seen, a joyless, shrill, disjointed mess that was nominally inspired by Will Eisner's classic series of comics but really just stems from Mr. Miller's twin loves of the sophomoric and grotesque.  (An extended fight scene finds villain The Octopus hitting The Spirit with an entire toilet.  Ba Dum Bump, Ba Dum Bump, SPLAT!)  I'm VERY RARELY tempted to walk out of movies, as clearly, I have a fascination with shit cinema, but I thought about little else for this film's final hour.  I wavered between "I have to see the whole thing so I can speak intelligently later about why this is the worst thing ever" and "Oh man I have to get out of here oh my god now they're dressed as transvestite Nazis why this makes no sense I hate you Frank Miller I'm leaving."

3. Crash (2005)

Screenwriter Josh Olson summed up Paul Haggis' "Crash" more succinctly than I ever could, which is why he's the author of "History of Violence" and I write snarky blog posts about "The Spirit."  He said, and I quote: "It's like Paul Haggis just discovered there was racism YESTERDAY, and now he just HAS to tell you about it."  Haggis' film really has to be seen to be believed...It's so intensely naive, so myopic in its child-like view of racism, and so completely alien for any Los Angeles native, it almost has the feeling of a parody, like how a real fighter pilot might feel while watching "Hot Shots."  A series of interconnected characters, each given such BIG OBVIOUS roles to play that they may as well wear labels and nametags ("Hi, I'm Chris Bridges, I'll be portraying your Erudite Black Thug this evening.  Can I tell you about our specials?"), play out overblown mini-melodramas each dealing with some overly-simplified notion about race, none of which approach any insight deeper than "prejudice...BAD!"  I mean, forget even exploring anything provocative about class and race in modern-day Los Angeles...Haggis instead obsesses about the fact that even MINORITIES, who aren't even WHITE, can sometimes be racist themselves!  Whoa!  Also, you'd hope that a movie written by a grown man, a professional writer with previous credits to his name, would come off a little less plodding and forced. It's as if Haggis felt that discussing a serious issue gets you out of having to invent plausible narratives where one sequence logically follows another.  In order to make his insipid mish-mash hold together, Haggis has to resort to random spills down staircases, vans full of Asian slaves AND a little girl who can jump 4-feet into the air, into the pathways of bullets, without a running start.

2. Garden State

OK, my complaints about this film are, by now, well-known, and any casual search of the blog archives can turn up numerous, lengthy discussions as to what exactly upset my so much about Zach Braff's salute-to-himself.  I think, to cap off all of this discussion once and for all, I'd just like to point out how "Garden State," to this day, really does represent the least progressive, romantic, optimistic or uplifting view of love I have ever seen at the cinema.  Love, for Zach Braff, is when a drug-addled loser, permanently broken due to a severe childhood trauma, meets a hyperactive, insecure bundle of quirks who is willing to dote on him, fawn over him and generally provide him with all the maternal attention he's long been craving without expecting anything in return, and the two of them embark on a series of grim, largely inconclusive adventures during which they engage in undergraduate discussions of metaphysics, listen to popular music of the day and try to convince one another their lives are worth living despite the mound of evidence to the contrary.  If love were actually anything like that, we'd all be eunuchs.

1. Revolver (2006)

Yes, Guy Ritchie's completely nonsensical attempt at the "psychological thriller" genre is not just the worst film of the present decade, but quite possibly the worst film ever made.  Jason Statham stars as...well, okay, that's about it for actual summary. "Revolver" defies any attempt at paraphrasing.  Statements are made, things happen (or seem to happen) and then they are all sort of repeated and jumbled together, until the entire movie slides entirely into possibly-Kaballah-inspired gibberish.  There's a variety of decent actors trying their best here (plus Andre 3000!), but none of them seem to know what to make of these scenes, possibly because no two ideas thrown out in the movie ever seem to proceed to a logical conclusion or connect to one another.  So Ray Liotta just starts screaming, Vincent Pastore pretends like he can hold more than a single thought in his head at the same time and Jason Statham runs around and makes sexy tough guy faces.  Watching the movie is such a frustrating experience, it's almost like Ritchie designed it to disappoint at every turn.  Plotlines are established but not developed, characters are discussed but never introduced, and after investing an hour in trying to piece everything together, the movie basically just restarts from the beginning, finally cluing you in that nothing you have seen, up until now, actually was supposed to mean anything, and it's all just going to cycle through again anyway.  There are films like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Lost Highway" that employ absurdity and repetition to great effect, enhancing certain themes or developing a compelling sequence by revisiting the same image, sound or idea again and again.  But Guy Ritchie is not playing on this level AT ALL.  He's just jerking us around hoping to stumble on to something profound.  He doesn't. 

HONORABLE MENTION: Swordfish (2001)

"Swordfish" is far too entertainingly bad to make a "worst films of the decade" list.  But I couldn't just ignore it or leave it off, either.  "Swordfish" presents just about every stupid cliche and dumb convention of the Mainstream Action Movie this decade, from "Matrix"-inspired bullet time trickery to crazy logic-defying "plot twists" to gratuitous hacking sequences that demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of computer science to villains who wear teeny tiny designer sunglasses.  The action is all shot in that Michael Bay-inspired quick-cut choppy style that really doesn't let you see much of anything, but here that matters a bit less, because most of the action is too physically improbable and cartoonish to inspire any real thrills or excitement.  Finally, some trivia: In 2001, "Swordfish" gained notoriety because it features a quick shot of Halle Berry's boobs, which also made a special guest appearance in another really terrible movie that very same year..."Monster's Ball."

Monday, December 21, 2009

The 50 Worst Films of the Decade, 20-11

The Top 20 was REALLY hard to divide up.  I can honestly say that I hate every single movie between now and the end.  For some, part of that hatred stems from disappointment...There are a few entries in the next list of 10 that I sort of figured I'd enjoy, only to be bitterly disappointed.  For others, there was really never any hope for them, and yet they've come out WORSE than anticipated.  Once again, I feel like there are 2 films, maybe 3, in this list that many readers enjoy.  I'm not saying they are wrong...Only that...Okay, no...I guess, I guess I'm saying they are wrong.  But I forgive them.

The 50 Worst Films of the Decade, 20-11

20. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

I have heard ALL SORTS of defenses and apologias for the awe-inspiringly poor job the Wachowskis did of following up their surprise action mega-hit, "The Matrix."  The most ridiculous?  "You really have to know a lot about computer science to fully appreciate it."  Really?  Really?  That's like saying you need 3 years of culinary school to appreciate the intricacies of "Julie and Julia."  The movie's not boring, plodding and near-impossible to watch because it's so deep, but because the filmmakers have disappeared so far up their own assholes, you'd probably need to be a proctologist to fully appreciate it.  They've never really been that good at writing dialogue throughout their careers, but here, Larry and Andy force their actors to ramble on ceaselessly, like mental patients, taking eons to say absolutely nothing, yet constantly looking delighted with themselves all the same.  Abandoning pretty much the entirety of the first film's premise, and 100% of the promises implied by the final 30 minutes or so, "Matrix Reloaded" and its possibly-even-more-loathsome sequel set about creating a world of pointless, uninspired arcana, and build to what is, without a doubt, the most defeating and unsatisfying conclusion in big-budget trilogy HISTORY.

19. Appaloosa (2008)

Watching "Appaloosa" is sort of like watching a mediocre old school Western with all of the cool parts edited out, like when they show "Tombstone" on TBS.  I'm not sure Ed Harris (who wrote and directed the film, as well as starring in it) has ever SEEN a Western, and if he has, he was obviously distracted by something else at the time, cause he sort of missed the basic idea.  Here is a movie that sets up a lot of semi-interesting conflicts, but lacks sufficient interest or energy to actually follow up on any of them.  We're left with a series of gunfights that are called off at the last minute, face-offs that don't materialize, an exceptionally lethargic love triangle and...not much else.  The performances are just slack, so mellow that they barely even register, and Viggo Mortensen in particular would have to inject a few shots of adrenaline into his solar plexus to be considered somnambulant.  Harris seems to barely know where he is or what movie he's making half the time, and he's the writer/director.  Also, a word about Renee Zellweger's face.  GAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!  I mean, what's going on there?  She looks like she was stung in the face by about 18 bees before appearing in every shot.  I'm not sure if she's had too much work done or if they were going for a sense of realism, creating a world where Benadryl did not yet exist, but something went very very wrong.  Also, casting Renee Zellweger as a femme fatale makes roughly the same amount of sense as casting Shelly Duvall as the World Heavyweight Champion.

18. Baby Boy (2001)

With "Baby Boy," John Singleton takes a very straight-forward, simple observation and literally extends it to feature-length through purely the power of repetition.  "Though there are clearly external factors at play, some potential reasons that many young black men struggle through life is that they are lazy, immature and lack good role models."  There, see what I did?  I saved you the trouble of watching "Baby Boy."  Because there's only so many ways you can make that point, and Singleton makes them all, and then doubles back and makes them all again 100 more times.  You have scenes where protagonist Jody (Tyrese Gibson, in the first of a long string of forgettable performances in shitty movies) is called lazy to his face by supporting characters, scenes where he behaves in an immature fashion only to suffer negative consequences AND scenes where he behaves in an immature fashion, and is then called lazy to his face by supporting characters.  So eager is Singleton to demonstrate his strong feelings on Jody's laziness and immaturity, he visually depicts Tyrese curled up inside a mocked-up version of a womb.  Cause he never really grew up!  Because, apparently, though there are clearly external factors at play, some potential reasons that many young black men struggle through life is that they are lazy, immature and lack good role models!  Did I mention that already? 

17. Speed Racer (2008)

Watching "Speed Racer" is like eating a handful of Runts, then running around in a circle SO FAST and SO LONG that you start to throw-up, but instead of tumbling to the floor, the vomit is pulled by centrifugal force right back into your face.  So immersed is the film in a spastic, computer-generated universe of whiz-bang, it quickly becomes totally untethered from any kind of physical reality.  The actors disappear entirely into the florescent backgrounds, and to call the action sequences "cartoonish" would be an insult to the careful mimicry of reality and intuitive understanding of the world's physical properties demonstrated by the animators of "Snagglepuss."  This means that NOT ONLY do the endless racing sequences (it is nominally a film about car racing) lack any kind of visceral impact, but the dramatic scenes, which seem to last even longer, are just completely dead on arrival.  And let's not even get into the atrocious attempts at "comic relief," most of which consist of an unfortunate child actor named Paulie Litt, who has been encouraged to bug out his eyes and mug for the camera incessantly in lieu of giving an actual performance.  It's literally painful to watch, like what would happen if the Hot Wheels Corporation were given 3 hours of network airtime to hawk their product as they wished.

16. I Know Who Killed Me (2007)

"I Know Who Killed Me" seems to have been based on the principle that a movie's popularity is directly proportional to how unpleasant it is to watch (possibly due to the massive success of the "Saw" franchise?)  If judged by this standard, it's clearly a huge success; a lurid, unrepentantly sleazy, gruesome and ugly tour de force of unpleasantness.  Lindsay Lohan takes on the dual role of a suburban good girl and a lonely, desperate stripper; when the suburban girl is kidnapped by a serial killer, the other one appears in her stead.  Is she the same girl, suffering from amnesia or other post-traumatic stress?  Or has there actually been some kind of Stripper Swap, which would also, I should note, be a great set-up for a reality series? That's about it for the basic set-up...For some reason, suburban Lohan can't be found, or thinks she's stripper Lohan, or something.  I'd call Lohan out for bumbling distractedly through the movie without ever once investing in the scenario...but I can't really blame her.  There's nothing here to maintain her interest, and she was getting invited to what I'm sure were some kickass parties at the time.  But unfortunately, that doesn't give the audience much to hold our attention save some totally unnecessary and completely tasteless torture sequences, and a climax that may be the most inane, stupid "plot twist" imaginable.  I promise that you'll never guess the secret behind the Double Lohan Convergence, but that's because it's entirely ludicrous, as opposed to, say, oh, I don't know, clever.  (So ludicrous, in fact, that the movie has to have radio personality Art Bell appear in the movie on a TV assuring us that, indeed, there have been reports of this plot twist happening.)

15. K-PAX (2001)

"K-PAX" is just another retread of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next," but with aliens!  $20 says that was the pitch meeting in its entirety.  I've really yet to see a post-"Cuckoo's Next" movie set in an insane asylum that doesn't, on some level, just rip off that movie's basic dynamic.  ("12 Monkeys" gets sort of close, but it's really not about the mental institution for long).  "K-PAX" adds the element that one of the crazies, who thinks he's an alien (and is played by Kevin Spacey), may actually be telling the truth.  At least, he spins a yarn well enough to fascinate his doctor (played by Jeff Bridges).  Now, at this point, you're probably saying to yourself, "hmm...I wonder whether he really is just a crazy guy or an alien...What an intriguing puzzle!"  Ha ha!  Not really!  Because the movie basically refuses to make up its mind, at all, and therefore can't ever actually DEVELOP.  To have a complete story in which we could emotionally invest, and that would inspire some genuine emotion or discussion, we'd need to basically decide at some point whether this is a movie about a mental patient or an alien in a human body.  But "K-PAX" refuses to pull the trigger, apparently thinking that setting up an unsolvable scenario (for how can you DISPROVE someone is an alien if they have a witty rejoinder for every hole you'd try to poke in the scenario?) is enough momentum for an entire film.  So you get the 1 hundred billionth movie about the fun of life in the nuthouse, that treats crazy people like adorable pets, cute cuddly objects that make you feel better about yourself but have no real inner life of their own, and then it sort of ends, ponderously.  It's a good thing people in mental hospitals probably don't watch movies set in mental hospitals.  I'd have to think even they'd know well enough to be insulted.

14. Lady in the Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan needs to fucking check himself.  I'm not sure anyone has ever made a more egomaniacal, self-serving film than "Lady in the Water," and it's not like he was coming off of the "Apu Trilogy" just before or anything.  I'm not sure if, after making "The Village," you've really earned a victory lap.  But I'm not even exaggerating when I say that Shyamalan has made a film in which he himself stars as the greatest writer in the history of the world, whose work will inspire a global, positive change.  Not only that, but he takes time out to show a scene of a film critic - a character who, in the reality of the film, doubts the supremacy of the character played by M Night Shyamalan - get brutally eviscerated by a cartoon wolf.  In case, you know, we missed the point, that he's a genius and those who doubt him should die like pigs in hell.  Barely-concealed subtext aside, the movie is just shoddily made and poorly conceived.  The main characters are presented with very few challenges and no conflict beyond a fear of invisible creatures...The sole action taken by the film's janitor protagonist (gamely but half-heartedly played by Paul Giamatti) to solve the mystery of the creature who has shown up in an apartment building's pool is to convince one of the resident's to tell him the plot.  For real.  This leads to a string of sequences SO TRANSPARENT, clunky and lazy, in which a pointless supporting character with no inner life just explains from memory what's going on, that I was frankly shocked.  This should really get Manoj kicked out of the WGA.  A beginning screenwriting teacher would not pass this, and suggest that the writer think of ways to INTEGRATE these details into the actual story itself, lest the audience get bored or restless.  At least, if you're going to craft a 2-hour fantasy film as an homage to your own power of imagination, come up with a way to get some exposition out there without a character just telling the audience the story, "Night."

13. Transformers (2007)

Not the sequel, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"?  No, I think that film's a good deal better than its predecessor.  Here's why: With "Transformers 2," Michael Bay has essentially moved beyond the narrative film.  He dispenses with storytelling convention entirely.  Dialogue is not discernible.  Plots are reduced to their most barebones, minimalist formulation possible, almost to the point of breaking down the fourth wall and explaining to the viewer what's coming next.  Many scenes begin with characters literally starting sequences by announcing they have to find something (usually called by a semi-English word, such as "energon") and then proceeding to look for it.  Characters are identifiable only by insignia, or name, and even sometimes they're not given that much.  The first "Transformers,' on the other hand, actually still tried to work like a real movie, and therefore is much more notable as a disgusting, grating failure.  Here are my two largest complaints: (1) Michael Bay has no sense of humor.  It shouldn't be too hard to get a chuckle out of the far-out concept of an alien species of robots that can make themselves look like cars, but literally every single joke feels drawn-out and hacky.  (2) The Transformers don't really look like much, have terribly-designed unexpressive faces and all look identically the same.  They are so poorly designed, it makes all the action impossible to follow and the fight scenes meaningless...You can't even tell who's winning. Everything is reduced to a sharp metallic blur streaking across a screen for 160 minutes.

12. Battlefield Earth (2000)

Movies that aim for an epic scale, in this case a story about mankind's revolution against an alien race that has enslaved them in the Year 3000, without the resources to really deliver on their promises, are seemingly designed, from birth, to frustrate and disappoint audiences.  It'd be like putting a Slinky in a PS3 box.  Now, I've nothing against the Slinky.  It can be a fine toy that, theoretically, provide a child with tens of minutes of fun.  But it's not going to seem like much if you already got your kid excited for "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2."  That's setting up the toy to fail. "Battlefield Earth" aims to be a spectacle on the level of "Avatar."  Only without the $300 million.  Or circa-2009 effects technology.  Or James Cameron. What were they thinking?  Most of the blame was shifted to star and producer John Travolta at the time, who worked tirelessly to get this novel, written by his religion's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, adapted for the big screen.  But in truth, dozens of people must have come together at some point in time in the mid-to-late-'90s thinking that they could put one over on audience's everywhere. And I'm not just talking about "budget" here...You sense that, with $500 billion, director Roger Christian (the auteur behind, um, nothing else of note, ever) wouldn't have been capable of realizing 9-foot tall dreadlocked aliens played by Travolta and Forrest Whitaker or a scene where an entire planet is destroyed.  It's just beyond his capacity.

11. Nacho Libre (2006)

"Napoleon Dynamite," a Sundance hit that became one of the decade's biggest sleeper comedies, was beloved in part because it was so unassuming.  A simple story about a not particularly bright or confident teen, the movie felt personal, even poignant, and though it was often goofy, there was also a carefully-realized, observant quality, like getting a look at some bigger-than-life characters who inhabited a very real, small American town.  Director Jared Hess' massively wrong-headed follow-up, "Nacho Libre," abandons every single one of these principles.  It's a loud, stupid, obnoxious, totally absurd un-comedy in which Jack Black throwing himself around while speaking in a bad Mexican accent is meant to substitute for writing comical set-ups or jokes.  If I had to pick one word to describe the movie, that would be "offensive."  Not just offensive to Mexican people, though it is certainly that, depicting all of them as bizarre, antiquated stereotypes, and sometimes just using their physical appearance as, itself, a joke.  And not just offensive to overweight people, though it is certainly that as well, even stooping so low as to make a running joke out of the existence of an overweight CHILD.  (Ugh, even years later, I'm still upset by that.)  Nope, it's just offensive to common sense, decency and good taste, a slapdash attempt to substitute childish cruelty for humor, like a 6th grade bully trying to do stand-up.