Monday, January 31, 2005

The Films of 2004: Part One

The Worst Movies of 2004

If there's a running theme amongst the worst cinematic drivel thrust upon us this year, it was the recurring instances of the dead returning from their graves to torment the this case, cinema audiences.

I'd like to present a worst ten list -- it seems a common number for these things. The problem (if you want to call it a problem) was that I didn't see ten truly bad movies. Some of the more obvious dreck -- Catwoman, White Chicks, Anchorman, etc. -- I deftly managed to avoid. These, then, are the six worst films I saw...either out of morbid curiosity or misguided optimism.

6. The Chronicles of Riddick
It wasn't as bad as Pitch Black, but not for lack of trying. David Twohy's laughably self-indulgent, insanely incoherent tale of evil "Necromongers" (undead religious zealots who worship the infinite darkness of something or other...or something like that, who knows) vs. Vin Diesel (as Vin Diesel) is like a video game movie without the video game. (From what I hear, the actual Riddick video game is a great deal more impressive than this.) Twohy allegedly "wrote" the "script," but everything's really just an excuse to watch a series of over-designed, scientifically impossible planets drift past the screen. A shadow puppet show would have had the same depth. And, probably, would have more entertaining. Extra shame goes to Judy Dench, who must have needed the cash really bad.

5. The Forgetten
Speaking of actresses who should have known better. Julianne Moore -- my precious Julianne! -- trapped in this hellhole of a film, which plays like the worst episode of The Twilight Zone you never saw. She's a depressed mom, torn apart with grief over the son she lost in a plane crash...or did she? Soon, everyone (like Gary Sinise, who should also know better, and Anthony Edwards, who finds a very special kind of bad in his two or three scenes as the clueless husband) is telling her that her precious child never even existed at all, and the photos and videos she kept of him have vanished. From there, The Forgotten leaves our world and plunges directly into the Land Beyond Mad, as the story flies in the most preposterous direction at maximum warp. Even the internal story logic doesn't hold up -- the Evil Force behind everything can wipe everyone's memory, erase her videotapes and replace her photographs, but they cover up damning evidence by just wallpapering over it? Huh? If you can hang in there, though, the film's climax is absolutely hilarious -- the script puts forth the idea of an actual measurable psychic connection between a mother and child ("We can measure its energy," someone says) and features "YOU...MUST...FOOOORGEEEEEET!!!" as actual dialogue. And in the end, everything turns out happy because Julianne Moore is the Most Powerful Mother in the World. Seriously.

4. The Manchurian Candidate
These troubled times would seem ripe for a film about paranoia, one that analyzes the way we are programmed into fear and submission by shadowy forces more powerful than ourselves. (That ended up being this movie over here.) Jonathan Demme's exhumation of The Manchurian Candidate, however, is a clumsy, stylistically awkward mess. Denzel Washington brings it, as he always does, and Liev Schrieber does as well, but Meryl Streep -- ye gods! She doesn't chew the scenery, she swallows it whole, like a giant vacuum cleaner of horrible showiness. And Demme's shooting style -- jamming the camera right in everyone's face, like they're performing for a toothpaste commercial -- doesn't quite garner the same results he achieved in The Silence of the Lambs. Instead, he winds up with a dull, headache inducing nightmare. At least he managed to stay out of the bottom three...


George Lucas, eat your heart out. Shallow, idiotic, boring, and incomprehensible, this a CGI orgy that only writer/director Ken Conran could possibly find entertaining. His script gathers together an annoying group of characters, throws them into a completely nonsensical storyline, then coasts the rest of the way on his washed-out special effects. I'd feel bad for Jude Law, who deserves better than this tripe, but he can at least comfort himself by saying, "Hey, it was my sixth-best performance this year." No one will remember him grinning and quipping his way through Sky Captain. And hey, Ken -- was there a good reason for shoving the quite deceased Laurence Olivier into the movie? I mean, other than "Because I could?"

Um...I remember seeing this movie. I remember sitting in the dark for two hours. I know this had to have happened, because I wrote about it. But...nothing else has stuck in my brain. This may be the most vapidly boring movie ever made. I think. I can't really remember. I originally had this down as the prime offender of the year, but since I can barely remember it, I should probably go with...

1. The Passion of the Christ
This one I can recall quite vividly. The cinematic equivalent of watching autopsy footage. Mel Gibson's crazy religious tract was supposed to be a moving, transcendent experience, but instead collapses under the weight of the makeup and the four-hour scenes of flogging and punching and kicking and stabbing and more flogging and here's a whip and oh yeah look at the blood! The conservatives always blast Hollywood for the gratuitous violence in movies today, but then turn around and applaud this hideous piece of death-porn as a masterpiece? There's no deeper emotional context, no big message -- it is, quite literally, a bunch of guys kicking the shit out of another human being for two hours. And then, of course, the Jesus Christ: Terminator ending, when he stalks out of his cave to a martial drumbeat and gets ready to lay the smackdown on all us sinners, Old Testament-style. Thanks, but no thanks, Mel.

The Films of 2004: Part Two

The Honorable Mentions

There was a lot of really, really good stuff at the box office this year. As opposed to last year, when it became a struggle to fill a top ten list, I find myself struggling to confine my list to less than 20 or so.

I'll get to the very best movies shortly, but here are some of the less-than-perfect flicks that are still worth remembering.

The one that just barely missed: Hero
Make all the comparisons you want to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Hero eclipses that film easily. A glorious vision of beautiful cinematography, splendid action, and gorgeous swordfight choreography, this is a film that cannot be missed. Swordplay becomes a thrilling ballet in these fight sequences, less about physical reality and more about the undercurrent of emotions running through the fighters. Director Zhang Yimou paints with color as he orchestrates the almost musical battles, turning them into true art. A film for the ages.

The sound of one man clapping: The Village
Hey, I know -- you probably hated it. So did everyone else. I have no problems being among the few who got a kick of this one. The understated score, the wonderous performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, and the little nuances packed into the script that only really register on a second viewing -- I thought it was brilliant. Mr. Shyamalan probably does need to turn it down just a little, though: next time, no twist, whaddaya say?

One man's genius: Ray
Take Jamie Foxx out of this movie, and you're left with an emotionally flat, generic biopic with a child's idea of psychoanalysis. But Foxx's performance is so grand, so full of life and energy, that he single-handedly brings the film to the brink of greatness. He'll bring home the Oscar for this one, and he probably deserves it.

Preaching to the choir: Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Bush's Brain
The tragedy of these very good documentaries -- both of which blast the conservative right -- is that the people who need to see them (like the ones who blindly allow Fox to tell them everything they need to know) won't. So they only get to people like me -- people who already know that Fox News is a blight on the face of the media, and that George Bush is a mere puppet in the hands of his political advisors. Their triumph is bittersweet, but a triumph nonetheless.

The sequels that shouldn't work: Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The common logic is that sequels always suck, but here's a trio of movies that blows that out of the water. Azkaban takes off largely thanks to the efforts of director Alfonso Cuaron, who brings an emotional immediacy that the previous two films (helmed by corporate hack Chris Columbus) severely lacked. Shrek 2, meanwhile, towers over the embarassing, raunchy predecessor -- give part of the credit to a much-improved script, part of it to less of a focus on Disney-bashing, and a substantial piece to Antonio Banderas, who achieves greatness as Puss-in-Boots. Sam Raimi, meanwhile, creates what is easily one of the best superhero movies ever made in Spider-Man 2 (which I seriously underrated on first viewing, and it gets better every time). If only all sequels could be as wonderful as these, right?

Next: The Best Films of 2004.

The Films of 2004: Part Three

The Twelve Best Films of 2004

Like I said before, this was a very good year. So good, in fact, that I must admit to being a weak-minded, spineless fool: I can't hack my list down to just ten movies. I've thought it over, and I decided to cave and go with a Top Twelve. If it makes you feel better, consider these first three a tie for tenth. In any event, these twelve movies are the ones from this year I couldn't live without -- cinematic heaven.

12. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson is some kind of crazy, but it's my kind. Like his previous works -- the excellent Rushmore, the glorious The Royal Tenenbaums -- he perfectly straddles the thin lines between reality and fantasy, between comedy and drama, joy and melancholy. Helped along by a magnificent ensemble (especially Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray), Anderson has created another remarkable gem.

11. I Heart Huckabees
"How am I not myself?" David O. Russell's goofy existential comedy is a hilarious philosophical jaunt, shining with perfect performances from Mark Walberg, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, and the ubiquitous Jude Law. But it's the film's centerpiece sequence -- in which the innocent query, "How am I not myself?" turns into a mantra-like chant of self-examination -- that seals it as an instant classic.

10. Collateral
Michael Mann's smoky little film is smarter than the average action film, with performances to match: an icy Tom Cruise and a brilliant Jamie Foxx (in a role I didn't truly appreciate until a second viewing). Add in the sharp dialogue and the rich cinematography, and you've got a near-masterpiece.

9. Fahrenheit 9/11
It's a little more depressing in the wake of Dubya's reelection, but Michael Moore's ringing condemnation of the Bush Adminstration still packs a punch. Make this to the main course to the appetizers of Bush's Brain and Outfoxed and have fun torturing a conservative.

8. Shaun of the Dead
Take two genres I generally don't like -- romantic comedies and zombie flicks -- add them together, and you have one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Extra credit for the intelligent script, which manages to make a fart joke -- a fart joke -- not only funny but, so help me, poignant.

7. Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Quentin Tarantino finally finishes his revenge opus, and does it in style. Uma Thurman's masterful as the Bride, David Carradine is just as good, and the script shines with the great touch that only Tarantino can bring. On the downside, no one gets chopped in half with a samurai sword, but I guess you can't have everything.

6. The Incredibles
So here's the Pixar pattern -- make a masterpiece, then make a very good but unremarkable kid's movie, then make another masterpiece. Toy Story, then A Bug's Life, then Toy Story 2, then Monsters Inc., and now...The Incredibles, a roaringly funny examination of the way the world treats the exceptional. It never ceases to amaze the philosphical depths Pixar can explore by using such (supposedly) childish concepts -- first it was toys, and now superheroes. But isn't Dash right? Isn't saying "Everybody's special" just a way of saying that no one is? The world where the Incredibles live, in which the talented are forced to hide their gifts for fear of ridicule, often looks eerily like our own.

5. Garden State
If you've ever felt like screaming into an infinite abyss, this is your movie. Zack Braff's writing and directing may occasionally seep into the overly quirky -- the guy in shining armor who speaks Klingon? -- but that seems to fit perfectly into the slightly-off-center little world the film inhabits. And for anyone who often feels that life is an endless, mind-numbing exercise of banging one's head against a wall, Garden State can be mesmerizing.

4. Sideways
Alexander Payne (director of the wonderful About Schmidt and the flawless Election) has done it again. This hilarious little film covers ground we've seen a million times -- the buddy road movie -- but the smart, literate script (based on an -- ironically -- unpublished novel by Rex Pickett) and the genius performances elevate it above the pedestrian and into the realm of greatness. Paul Giamatti, especially, is transcendent as Miles, the painfully overanalytical wine snob, and Thomas Haden Church hits all the right notes as his out-of-work actor best friend.


Bronze: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
He flirted with it in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but Charlie Kaufman finally achieves genius with the folding, complex screenplay for Eternal Sunshine. Michel Gondry, director of some of the most mind-bending music videos ever, applies his unique talents to magnificent ends. And at the end, it has a wonderful message about love: that the good times will always outweigh the bad. I think Miles from Sideways needs to see this movie.

Silver: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
He probably needs to see this one, too, if only to know that it isn't just unsuccessful artists who go throw crises of confidence. What could have been an overblown Behind the Music special ends up as so much more -- Some Kind of Monster is a moving portrait of insecurity, fear, and -- ultimately -- triumph that ranks as one of the very best movies I've ever seen.

Gold: Dogville
The best movie of 2004 is also the most unlikely. The crazy Dane, Lars Von Trier, strips away set design and production values and leaves us only with bare, unpolished humanity, in all its hideous and cruel glory. Don't listen to those who call it un-American -- this is an examinantion of the evil and coldness that lay dormant in the hearts of all of us. Though painful to watch at times, Dogville is clearly a masterpiece, and the most unforgettable film out of a year full of them.

Next: The Oscars are stupid.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Smile, you're at Mr. Smiley's!

I've been neglecting this website. I've been neglecting friends with whom I share e-mail correspondence. I've been neglecting the stuff I have to do for this other website over here. Lots of neglect.

I am heartily sorry for the neglecting (neglection?). Really. Even though one could make the argument that the neglecting isn't totally my fault, I feel bad.

(A voice rises from the back: "Hey, maybe if you spent more time doing the things you should be doing, and less time apologizing for not doing them, we'd all feel better!" Thanks, jackass. Good advice. Security!)

Anyway. This is the part where I promise never to do it again, and even though I'm typing and not speaking, I can hear my voice saying these words in my head...except it's not my voice, it's my father's voice, and he's telling my eight-year-old self that he's so sorry he hasn't called me in two years, he's just been so busy, you understand, right, son? And "Cats in the Cradle" is playing in the background.

Okay. I'm a jackass. I won't promise to make it better, or that I'll update this page or write my friends more often or put together all the things I need to make that other website happy, because I'll probably fuck that up, too. I'll just say...yeah. I'm a jackass. Some events were beyond my control, but some were not, I fucked up, and tumbleweeds are now rolling across my website and my friends probably think I've forgotten they existed.

Just thought I'd put some sunshine into your day. Thank you, drive through.