The year started slowly, with your usual slate of romantic comedies that were made under the assumption that female movie-goers are microcephalics who feel incomplete unless they're dating a man who is either mentally unstable or British. We had the obligatory Christian-vegetable movie, some of Aaron Seltzer's horrid "parody" movies which are notable only in that they manage to be less artistically meritorious than nose-picking or self-mutilation, the yearly Eddie Murphy abortion/abomination, Mike Myers' shockingly successful attempt to piss off the world's Hindus, and a couple of misfires by the almost mystically talentless Jack Black.
Then summer rolled around, and we finally got to see what we've been waiting for since Bush was first elected: superheroes who get drunk and fornicate.
Mostly, it was a year of completely forgettable films. Did anyone actually watch 10,000 BC, Doomsday, Leatherheads, 88 Minutes or Space Chimps? I'm not making that last one up. There was a movie called Space Chimps (released by the moral and aesthetic geniuses who put Sean Hannity on television) that grossed $30 million. Our country was rapidly spiraling into an economic black hole, and some Americans spent money to see Space Chimps.
But then autumn rolled around, and we waited for the Oscar fare to save us from the TV-to-movie fodder and Abba-based "entertainment" products that were rotting our theater screens like some corrosive acid dripped out of the corpse of Louis B. Mayer. But the Oscar movies didn't come. Well, late in December, a few of them showed up, but they were strangely delayed and limited in release, and none of them quite rose to the level of 2007's quality duopoly, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men.
But still, amid the morass of feculence and traveling pants, a few gems bubbled to the surface.
Every year, my editor asks me to make a Top 10 list, an endeavor I find pointless and insulting, mostly because I've been filled with impotent rage ever since Secretariat died. But this year, I found a workaround: My list would be numbered in base 2.
1. Iron Man.
10. Milk and Doubt in a tie for second (i.e. 10th) place.
But my editor saw through this ruse, so to hell with it. Here are the Top 10 films of the year in base 16:
1. Iron Man: Whatever, it's not like you can compare Iron Man to Rachel Getting Married or something; they're completely different art forms, but someone needs to mention how meticulous and exacting the directing on this film is. It's a movie that has no pretensions to being anything but an exciting action/superhero film, but within that framework, every cut is perfect; every shot is framed for excitement and information; the script is filleted down to its bare essentials; the acting offers a lesson in how to do melodrama without being melodramatic; and the story is tied together so tightly that even what seem like minor plot holes are later shown to be essential plot elements. Mr. Jon Favreau: I realize no one is going to give you an award for working on what is essentially a popcorn movie, but as one insignificant film critic with notably snobby tastes, let me just say: Bravo!
2. Meet Dave: This Eddie Murphy vehicle about a spaceship that's shaped like Eddie Murphy is pure gold, from Murphy's goofy grin down to Murphy's sizzling-yet-safe spoken-word comedy.
No, not really, just kidding! The real No 2 goes to ...
2. Doubt: A radio host recently asked me if scriptwriting had gone downhill since cinema's classic era, and this film is evidence that it has not. Ambiguity is the hardest thing to successfully maintain in writing, and John Patrick Shanley (who made Joe Versus the Volcano, which I mention because I know he hopes no one will) has nailed it in a film that makes doubt itself the central theme of its religious and human story.
3. Milk: Also perfectly directed and edited, Milk is sort of like Iron Man if it were about the guy who became America's first openly gay elected official. Don't worry; watching this movie doesn't mean you have to stop hating homosexuals or voting for brain-addled demagogues. It's just really good cinema, and if it causes you to notice how stupid and unfair any particular law or policy is, well, you can't blame the movie for that.
4. Happy-Go-Lucky: It's hard to imagine that you could make a deep and engaging film about a woman who is constantly cheery, but director Mike Leigh proves that a character can have depth without angst, and actor Eddie Marsan gives the film some horrifying weight as a cab driver with the emotional stability of a gun-wielding NFL wide receiver and the myopic moral certainty of a Republican vice president.
5. Rachel Getting Married: This is the first time I've seen a film shot entirely with handheld cameras where I was neither nauseated by the effect nor thought it merely a cheap stunt. Instead, I felt like I was actually present at an uncomfortable and weirdly idiosyncratic wedding, kind of like if Condoleezza Rice got married to Mother Teresa while George Bush stewed in a corner because he ordered the chicken and got a recession instead.
6. The Wrestler: This film has a weakly sentimental subplot about a father trying to reconnect with his daughter, but the main thrust of it, about the camaraderie and struggles of small-time semi-pro wrestlers, is effectively heartwarming and sort of oily. The low-res video imagery suits the topic perfectly, bringing out every line and wrinkle in Marisa Tomei's face and Mickey Rourke's butt. Seriously: You get to see his butt, and it's awe-inspiringly lumpy, like the way you imagine the face of God must be.
7. Wendy and Lucy: My biggest gripe about modern cinema is the excess of emotionally manipulative music, mostly violins. Wendy and Lucy has no musical soundtrack, so based on that fact alone, it deserves Top 10 (base 16) mention. But it's also got a stomach-achingly beautiful, sad and slow story, and it gets special bonus points for featuring actors who look like human beings and, paradoxically, act like them, too.
8. Waltz With Bashir: This film, about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Phalangists took place under the guard of Israeli troops, is the rare documentary done in animation. The animation's not a gimmick; when you get to the end, you see that it epitomizes the central point of the film. Chilling and painfully timely.
9. The Fall: This is like an acid trip edited into a children's movie, and then given more acid and turned into a painting by Odilon Redon, and then bathed in mescaline and made back into a movie. With cowboys!
A. The Exiles: Technically, this is a 1961 release, but it wasn't widely distributed until last year. This non-sync-sound, black-and-white exploration of a night in the life of a group of Native Americans in Los Angeles is one of the best human-level movies ever made. If you missed it, don't worry; I'm sure it'll get another run in 2056.
B. Revolutionary Road: That Sam Mendes sure hates the suburbs. Also, Roger Deakins' cinematography is so good that someone should give him one of those awards, what are they called? Olivers? Ottos? Oswalds? Seriously: How can the man who shot Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Kundun, Barton Fink, Sid and Nancy and Jarhead not have a goddamn Academy Award? Now that Sven Nykvist is dead, there's no question that Roger Deakins is the world's greatest living cinematographer. Just cast a fucking statue of a bald man, and engrave Deakins' name on the bottom, ferchrissakes.
C. Frost/Nixon: I don't know how many movies Frank Langella has left in him, but if Frost/Nixon is any indication, they're all gonna be good, even if they're just Langella reading aloud from Dianetics while Tom Cruise licks his wrinkled, hairy nipples.
D. In Bruges: More great dialogue. With Doubt, Happy-Go-Lucky and In Bruges, this was a banner year for putting words in movies, something I objected to in 1927. I mean, who knew "talkies" would be anything but Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd saying, "Oh no, I've fallen upon my bum in a comical manner!"
E. About half of Synecdoche, New York: Some 45 minutes into this film, I thought, "This is easily going to be the best film of the year." An hour later, I thought it might be one of the worst. But its good parts are so good, they deserve their own entry on the Top 10 (base 16) list.
F. The Dark Knight: I think it'd be great if someone actually made a movie of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but nobody's gonna do that, so in the meantime, we can geek out as Heath Ledger nails the Joker. It's too bad he's dead, not because of the loss to cinema, but because, you know, a guy died. Sad. Oh, also, this movie is too long and includes too many elements, just like the last Batman movie, but it's still one of the best films of the year. And Christian Bale is terrible as Batman. Awful. But still: excellent film.
10. Kenny: It's too bad no non-Australians saw this movie, because people from the Northern Hemisphere would probably enjoy its subtlety and sadness and overwhelming sense of hope. I usually don't like movies about the triumph of the human spirit, but since the lead character in this mockumentary/docucomedy runs a portable-toilet business, I guess I'll make an exception. You should totally rent it, too, unless you're afraid of Australian poop workers. You cowardly little sissy.
Sadly, I'm limited to 16 movies in my Top 10 list, unless I were to resort to something crazy like numbering in base 20, which I wouldn't do, because I respect the process too much. But here are some runners-up which almost made the cut:
Teeth: I dunno, maybe I should have put this in the Top 10 (base 16) list. It's so low-budget and so clever that it just goes to show you that money might not buy you love, but you only need a few million dollars to make a movie about a teenager with teeth in her vagina.
Blindness: People seemed to hate this movie. I can see why: It's relentlessly unpleasant, but it's also thoughtful and beautifully photographed and really captures a sense of degradation. If you don't want to see blind people sliding around in their own feces, then, by all means, go rent The Notebook and light a bunch of candles and eat some bon bons. No, really. Have a good time.
JCVD: Jean-Claude Van Damme turns out to be far more intelligent than Steven Seagal, which is like saying "far more sane than Sarah Palin," but still, this is a thoughtful film, which is odd, because, as I may have mentioned, it stars Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Transsiberrian: My favorite kind of thriller: A Hitchcockian thriller. With a train and everything.
Roman de Gare: My favorite kind of thriller: A Hitchcockian thriller. Only in French, and starring the people who brought you oral sex: the French.
Encounters at the End of the World: Director Werner Herzog once rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash. He's also been shot in the stomach by a sniper during an interview, and he finished the interview. So, basically, he's Batman. Actually, he'd make a great replacement for Christian Bale. Oh, and this documentary he made about life in Antarctica is funnier than a penguin who can't finish his Ph.D. thesis on Thoreau, because he no longer believes in transcendentalism.
American Teen: People didn't like this documentary, because it focused on the most stereotypical teens the directors could find. That's a valid complaint, but the film is so invasive and creepy, anyway, that I found it riveting.
I don't see most of the truly awful movies, but among the ones I did catch, the following deserve special notice:
Standard Operating Procedure: Fuck you, Errol Morris, for using your prettier-than-a-sunset film technique to glitz up the Abu Ghraib tortures, and for allowing all the scumbags who participated to excuse themselves on camera, and especially for never showing any of the links to higher authorities who actually authorized this treatment. Here's a hint: their names are John Yoo, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.
Honeydripper: Hey, John Sayles, could you please stop making your highly white-ified movies about the travails of African Americans? This one was as stiff and preachy as Ted Haggard giving a sermon to a room full of male models.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The weird thing is, George Lucas is so rich that he can't possibly be doing this for the money anymore. He must actually think the product he's producing is inherently worthwhile.
Smart People: You know who's so pretty? Sarah Jessica Parker. At least that's what the script of this film constantly asserts. So imagine that level of irreality and stupidity stretched out to feature-length, and then do the world a favor and rent this movie and don't watch it; just throw it away. I mean, the video store will replace it, but how many times?
88 Minutes: The title is a trick. The film is actually 108 minutes of Al Pacino bad-touching women one-third of his age. For money.
Then She Found Me: The strange, desiccated thing that's left over from what used to be Helen Hunt makes a vanity film. Unfortunately, it suffers from a fundamental flaw in that it assumes that Helen Hunt is talented.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army: I'd like it on the record that I hated the first Hellboy, so I was way ahead of the curve on this.
Finally, in the overrated/underrated category, I'll note that Slumdog Millionaire did not live up to its hype, as it's essentially a one-dimensional romance with a zero-dimensional female lead. Also, unlike most critics, I didn't hate The Happening. Though it wasn't one of the best of the year, and it needed some editing, it was nonetheless a clever and loving salute to 1950s sci-fi movies, from the ridiculous fake-science explanations through the crazy, wide-eyed, shouting performances given by all the actors to the telegraphed, fizzle-out ending. I get that most Americans would rather listen to Keanu Reeves say "whoa" in a robot voice than actually watch the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, so most Americans probably won't enjoy The Happening.
But then again, most Americans believe that heavier objects fall faster than light objects, that seasons are caused by the Earth moving closer to the sun in the summer, and that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were best friends who tongue-kissed each other while ululating, so should we really care what most Americans think?
BOB SAYS: This is not going to be one of those years when I make fun of James a lot. Our lists, as you will see, have a lot in common, and I commend the man on his taste in film and dishware. He has an impressive set of Sango stoneware from Bed, Bath and Beyond: stylish, yet not too decadent. I haven't seen the dishes in person, but he did send photos of a party I couldn't attend as a means of rubbing it in, and I noticed his dining-room selections. Impressive.
I hate him.
Even so, nothing on his best list jumps up and screams "WTF!" at me. I even concur on his runners-up list. Transsiberian and Teeth are very good movies available on DVD that didn't quite make my list, but come recommended. That is, unless you are planning to take a Russian train trip or have sex in the near future. In which case... AVOID BOTH FILMS AT ALL COSTS!
The best movies of the year were:
1. In Bruges: The Batman movie was stellar, but this demented comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh (his feature-directorial debut) takes the top prize. Colin Farrell, a Golden Globe winner for his remarkable performance, makes you forget Alexander. He's a dark-comic marvel as a hitman having a crisis of conscience. Ralph Fiennes owns it as Farrell's boss, employing a thick-accented, mumbling-line delivery that is never short of hilarious, and Brendan Gleeson is heartbreaking as Farrell's partner.
2. The Dark Knight: Yes, Christian Bale's delivery got a little grating at times (it sounds like there's a ferret in his throat chewing on his larynx), but he's still an awesome Batman. Heath Ledger got his Golden Globe, sending Tom Cruise off empty-handed. Aaron Eckhart was also good as the conflicted Harvey Dent, and the makeup effects for his deformed face deserve Oscar consideration. Christopher Nolan is the maker of history's best superhero flicks. (OK, I know Batman isn't technically a superhero, because he has no superpowers. Shut up, geeks!)
3. Revolutionary Road: This is a movie that you will probably only watch once. The marital bloodbath that is the union of Frank and April Wheeler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) is the year's greatest horror story. The two partake in exchanges so brutal and blistering, you'll fear for their health off-camera. It's high time DiCaprio got an Oscar.
4. The Wrestler: Before Mickey Rourke's career and facial structure imploded, he excelled in great movies like Barfly and Angel Heart. He experienced a mild resurgence with Sin City, but this one, from director Darren Aronofsky, shows that Rourke is still the real deal. Rourke plays a Hulk Hogan-type who must keep wrestling way beyond his prime to pay the rent.
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: You love it, or you hate it. David Fincher is the kind of director who doesn't let a frame go by without showering tremendous care upon it. This tale of a man born as an 80-year-old infant who ages backward (played wonderfully by Brad Pitt) is the year's most enchanting fable.
6. Wall-E: The most twisted G-rated movie ever made, Wall-E portrays a bleak future in which our planet becomes uninhabitable, with all humans forced to live on a giant spaceship where they become obese. Kids can watch it, though, because it's a cartoon.
7. Milk: Director Gus Van Sant has made his best film yet with this alternately joyous and devastating biopic about Harvey Milk (played with genius by Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. If you have any doubt about the talents of Penn, just watch his range of facial expressions during his final scene. He's incredible.
8. Pineapple Express: After watching this film on Blu-Ray, I love it even more. Seth Rogen and James Franco are one of 2008's best onscreen duos as stoners on the run from a murderous drug dealer. Rogen has the riffing abilities of a young Bill Murray, and Franco is now cinema's all-time-great pothead (surpassing Sean Penn's Spicoli). Getting indie director David Gordon Green helped this film become far more than your typical stoner movie.
9. Burn After Reading: John Malkovich is my pick for this year's Best Supporting Actor (sorry, Heath) in this characteristically funny film from the Coen brothers. Brad Pitt and George Clooney also get constant laughs in this CIA comedy that really isn't about anything.
10. Funny Games: James saw the original ... I did not. I've seen this one ... James hasn't. Lots of critics who saw both are calling this garbage. To me, no actress delivered better work this year than Naomi Watts, who killed me as a wife and mother who must watch a couple of soft-spoken psychos (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) torture her family.
I have plenty of space left, so let's go to 20, shall we?
11. Synecdoche, New York: I found this film to be a little more consistent than Sir James and loved the casting of Samantha Morton and Emily Watson in the same role. I used to confuse those two all the time.
12. Doubt: Meryl Streep plays a stubborn nun who suspects a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of abusing a young boy. Streep (who was also wonderful in the so-so Mamma Mia!) hasn't been this fearless with her acting in years, and she'd better find herself among this year's Oscar nominees.
13. Role Models: Paul Rudd is a comic god, and this is the first movie that really let him shine in a leading role. Seann William Scott delivers perhaps his best work as Rudd's sidekick. Director David Wain, the man responsible for Wet Hot American Summer, helms his most commercial film yet, but that's not saying this film is anything but fantastic. Recently, I actually saw Wain after a performance of his wonderful comedy troupe Stella (with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter). As he signed my poster, I congratulated him on his great movie. He looked at me like I was some kind of dick or something. It sucked.
14. Choke: Best handjob scene ... ever!!! Sam Rockwell plays a sex addict tending to his senile mother (Anjelica Huston) and passing his days as a historical interpreter (at a colonial-times amusement park). This adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's best-seller had some of the year's most subversive humor, and Rockwell was the right man to deliver it.
15. Tropic Thunder: A nasty take on actors who take themselves too seriously. Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Ben Stiller (who also directed) have never been funnier.
16. Happy-Go-Lucky: Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins will steal your heart in the latest from director Mike Leigh, a guy who always does a fine job of catching human eccentricities. Hawkins plays Poppy, a happy-as-all-heck elementary-school teacher looking for a boyfriend and taking driving lessons from an uptight instructor (a scary Eddie Marsan).
17. Changeling: Clint Eastwood directed two movies this year, and this one, by far, is the better film. (Gran Torino was kind of shitty.) Angelina Jolie is sensational as a mom looking for her missing boy.
18. The Reader: Kate Winslet had a great year, and her work here might actually be better than the knockout performance she gave in Revolutionary Road. (She won Golden Globes for both.) She plays a woman having an affair with a much-younger man (David Kross) in the 1960s. She also has some dark secrets, and it all leads to very intriguing drama--not to mention lots of scenes with Winslet naked.
19. Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. is stellar in the second-best comic-book movie of the year. He adds the sort of depth that Christian Bale and Tobey Maguire (minus Spider-Man 3) have added to their comic-book-movie franchises.
20. The Fall: James brought this one up, and I agree that it is very good. Tarsem Singh is now a director to be reckoned with, and Frost/Nixon has officially been bumped from my list.
Whittling down the list of bad movies this year was quite the task, for there were many stinkers from which to choose. There were actually 10 movies worse than Speed Racer, and at least 20 worse than Eagle Eye!
1. 88 Minutes: How does shit like this happen? You have Al Pacino in your movie. He was in The Godfather. He was in Dog Day Afternoon. Jesus, the man was in Heat! And now he's an inhabitant of one of the worst movies ever made. I'm embarrassed for him, and I'm embarrassed for his director. Oh, hell, I'm embarrassed for everybody.
2. Bedtime Stories: I used to call myself an Adam Sandler fan, but I'm quickly losing faith in the guy. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Reign Over Me and this year's You Don't Mess With the Zohan show he's in a nasty rut, and this latest movie is the king of the turds. His next film will be with Judd Apatow, and I'm praying for a comeback.
3. 10,000 BC: Apparently, in the olden days, when wooly mammoths roamed the Earth, our ancestors were styling it with awesome dreadlocks, and Egypt was right next door to the North Pole.
4. The Happening: In this film, Mark Wahlberg talks to plants, and the mother from Eight Is Enough tries to kill him. M. Night Shyamalan made Signs, his masterpiece, and then he went nuts. He's officially lost it. I don't understand how James thought this movie was OK. This is not something I will soon forget.
5. The Love Guru: Mike Myers makes jokes about his dick while he's wearing a funny moustache. This man has been isolated in sound booths doing Shrek voices for too long, because he's officially out of touch. My coffee mug is funnier than him. No, seriously, it is. It has coffee-addicted zombies on it, and it makes me laugh every time I take a sip.
6. Bangkok Dangerous: Remember when Nicolas Cage films dominated good-movie lists? Now he's a perennial presence on the crap roster. He's a fucking ugly weed!
7. Strange Wilderness: I laughed hard at the preview for this thing, specifically at the footage of the shark with Steve Zahn giving it a stupid voice. Alas, that was the only laugh in the film. I almost died watching this.
8. Twilight: The dreariest girl in high school falls in love with a lethargic vampire who is brooding 'cause he wants to eat her. The dumbest vampire movie ever--and I've seen The Lost Boys sequel.
9. Star Wars: The Clone Wars: I stuck with George Lucas through the Ewoks. I stuck with him through the prequel trilogy. I can't hang with this crappy, slapdash, mess of a movie.
10. Made of Honor: I hate Grey's Anatomy. Oh, it's an OK show and all, but it's also responsible for putting Patrick Dempsey back on the map. All Dempsey does in this film is prove that he can bring the suck--and he brings it hard.
Films topping the Most Anticipated List for 2009 would be Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Will Ferrell and dinosaurs in a big- screen update of Land of the Lost, and the J.J. Abrams re-launch of the Star Trek franchise. Others on the way include Watchmen (if Warner Bros. and Fox can work their crap out), Terminator Salvation and Avatar (with the return of James Cameron).
Harry Potterheads, you can take your cloaks and wands out of the closet and get ready for the latest installment this coming summer--that is, if you didn't burn your cloaks and break your wands when Warner Bros. screwed you and moved the opening date from November 2008 to this coming July.
Make sure to compare these lists to the Oscar nominations, and see how we match up. I'm confident that this compare-and-contrast activity can be the basis for all sorts of lascivious drinking games.