2000 Ten Best Movies

Yi Yi

Pretty good argument for an alphabetical list, the year 2000 is; I don’t get a movie demanding the top spot with absolute authority, and I also notice that looking through the long list of worthy contenders, I have not seen any of these movies more than once. This is one of the strange side-effects of being a reviewer for a newspaper, where a great deal of movie-watching energy is necessarily devoted to the fierce urgency of now: how can I be expected to watch Yi Yi again when I have to go to The Back-Up Plan tonight, and write about it immediately?

Anyway, it’s not quite right to say I haven’t seen any of 2000’s films more than once; at the time I might have gone back for another look at Almost Famous, which for gentlemen of a certain age group is a crucial little touchstone. And I did see O Brother, Where Art Thou? again recently, althought that’s not really in the hunt for #1.

Whatever the Big One might be on any given day, when you take the year as a whole, it really looks like an exceptionally good one. Strong on Asian films such as Yi Yi and In the Mood for Love and the worldwide smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good on American indies, and the arrival of the decade’s Mexican boom.

I give the edge finally to Yi Yi, which had an almost liquid storytelling fluency about it; but it really is a virtual dead heat with the half-dozen or so that follow.

February 2012 addendum: Just watched Yi Yi again. No more confusion about the top spot; no more dead heat. It’s Yang in a walk. The film’s a masterpiece that shows mastery and insight in every scene.

The ten best films of 2000:

1. Yi Yi (Edward Yang)

2. You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan)

3. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)

4. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis)

5. The Circle (Jafar Panahi)

6. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe)

7. Faat Kine (Ousmane Sembene) and The Day I Became a Woman, middle segment (Marzieh Meshkini)

8. Faithless (Liv Ullmann) and Innocence (Paul Cox)

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee)

10. Beau Travail (Claire Denis) and “Pink Moon” Volkswagen ad

And that’s me cheating by a few titles. The Zemeckis film is remarkable in many ways, not least for its attempt to force the audience back to an older, slower way of watching movies. Panahi’s Circle is an art movie and a social-issue picture, and so blunt it’s a marvel he was allowed to make movies in Iran at all after that (as I write this he is still imprisoned by authorities).

The #7 titles look at women in the Third World, wryly in Sembene’s film and forcefully in Meshkini’s film (the other two segments are fine, but the middle story in this omnibus is a stunning old-school parable involving a woman on a bicycle fleeing male pursuers). The #10 slot is a pair of sensual montages, inspired in the one case by Herman Melville and in the other by Nick Drake; the latter is only 60 seconds long and, yes, is trying to sell you a car, but images and music will do what they do (I believe the Little Miss Sunshine people had something to do with the spot, but am not quite sure about it – if so, it’s their best work).

Look at the stuff that misses: Amores Perros, Memento, Dancer in the Dark, Traffic, Wonder Boys, High Fidelity, Code Inconnu, American Psycho, Best in Show, Jesus’s Son, Gladiator, Sexy Beast. That’s quite a weekend of movies. I also testify on behalf of a couple of disregarded pulp items, David Twohy’s Pitch Black and Christopher McQuarrie’s Way of the Gun, exceptionally good offerings on lowish budgets.

Movie Diary 4/24/2010

The Good the Bad the Weird (Kim Ji-woon, 2008). Uhhh…holy cow. I can hardly argue with a movie that builds to an incredibly extended climactic chase across the Manchurian flatlands that involves a thief on a motorcycle, a bounty hunter on a horse, a hit man and his posse, and a large section of the Japanese army toting heavy artillery, all converging along different vectors at top speed. I mean, I’m human. Otherwise this is a silly and gleefully violent picture that holds your attention pretty much throughout. (full review 5/7)

Losers Through the Gift Shop

Banksy, or not, in Exit Through the Gift Shop

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

The Back-Up Plan. “Lopez gets stuck in another subpar movie.”

The Losers. “A helicopter, a handful of bombs, and one really, really strong magnet.”

Exit Through the Gift Shop. “I don’t know what it is.”

Oceans. “Do NOT mess with a mantis shrimp.”

Ajami. “Battleground in their own back yard.”

Terribly Happy. “Surrounded by the kind of all-consuming marshland Anthony Perkins found so handy for hiding things in Psycho.”

The Square. “A downward spiral where men and women do the wrong things for the wrong reasons.” Plus an interview with director Nash Edgerton.

Also, I talked about the culture of the Confederate Pride movement with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday,” archived here. The conversation begins 14 minutes into the program.

Movie Diary 4/21/2010

Night Editor (Henry Levin, 1946). Yeeeooow, a revelation: this is a tough, lurid B-noir with a good eye and a pulpy plot that carries a distinctly Cornell Woolrich feel (although the overall vibe is clearly influenced by Double Indemnity). William Gargan slumps miserably throughout – and he’s the hero – while Janis Carter (Framed) provides juicy stuff as an untrustworthy dame.

One Girl’s Confession (Hugo Haas, 1953). Cleo Moore is the strangely placid quasi-vixen who does jail time for a righteous theft and gets into trouble again when freed; clumsy and cornball, but it hits a lot of nice conventions.

The Back-Up Plan (Alan Poul, 2010). Jennifer Lopez in one of those vehicles that could’ve been shuffled around the usual crowd of chick-flixens; she deserves better, but apparently there’s not going to be another Out of Sight. (full review 4/23)

Soundtrack for a Revolution (Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman, 2009). No matter how many times you’ve seen the footage of the Civil Rights marches and sit-ins, it never loses its power. The only real problem this movie has is trying to weave its new wrinkle into the mix: the importance of music to the movement. That’s a great idea that makes it easy to forgive the awkward stitching. (full review 4/30)

Movie Diary 4/19/2010

The Losers (Sylvain White, 2010). Someone says, “Don’t start none, won’t be none,” but somebody always starts one, at least in this movie. You thought Kick-Ass was amoral? And this thing’s got a PG-13 rating. (full review 4/23)

Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946). Decent version of this from Criterion, a raw multi-episode film that refuses to round off its stories into neat parables, even when they seem to do so. When Ingrid Bergman saw it she was moved to write a letter of admiration to the director, thus setting off Hollywood’s greatest scandal. Location shooting in bombed-out locations is always evocatively right, from the streets of Rome to a seaside hideout at night.

Mid-August Lunch (Gianni di Gregorio, 2008). Directed by and starring one of the writers of Gomorrah – and beyond that, I don’t know what to say about the provenance of this slim, completely charming, seemingly one-of-a-kind picture, except that it might have been made by Jim Jarmusch if Jim Jarmusch had been born in Rome. (full review 4/30)

Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani, 2009). Criss-crossing storytelling about miserable situations in Jaffa, shot in the streets with all too much authenticity. (full review 4/23)

Stage Door (Gregory LaCava, 1937). Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers lead the show as two differing showbiz wannabes, although Lucille Ball steals her scenes and Andrea Leeds drags things down as the suffering serious actress who can’t buy a gig.

1937 Ten Best Movies

The fact that it is possible to debate the nature of the “grand illusion” in La Grande Illusion is a measure of the film’s greatness; and far from being a dusty classic, fit only to represent the arthouse apogee for people of Woody Allen’s generation, the movie ripples with wit and subtlety and suspense. It’s one of those obvious choices for a #1 slot in a year that is somewhat underwhelming in classics, but don’t hold that against it. Tracing Jean Renoir’s films in the 1930s is like watching a train gathering awesome speed, a trajectory that comes crashing to a halt with the outbreak of World War II.

The #2 movie is by a director whose trajectory had already been diverted from Europe to Hollywood: Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, which takes off from the Bonnie and Clyde case but creates its own brand of poetical Thirties realism. It was a big year for Leo McCarey, who won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth but famously stated he should have won it for Make Way for Tomorrow. The latter film, now enshrined in the Criterion Collection and likely to find a whole new audience, is a masterpiece of sympathy and behavior – and timing, too. The ten best movies of 1937:

1. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)

2. You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang)

3. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey)

4. The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)

5. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)

6. Stella Dallas (King Vidor)

7. Angel (Ernst Lubitsch)

8. The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell)

9. Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen)

Barbara Stanwyck reigns supreme in Stella Dallas, Young and Innocent is a fun pre-Hollywood Hitchcock, and Angel is kind of underrated in Lubitsch’s output. Everything comes together just exactly right in Zenda, which ought to be more of a classic. Another Ronald Colman picture, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, is among the also-rans, and I also like Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night, Gregory LaCava’s Stage Door, and William Wyler’s Dead End. Pepe le Moko is pretty good, too, and helped define a certain tendency in French “black” films (black is English for “noir,” you know). Also a vote for the Best Picture Oscar winner, William Dieterle’s Life of Emile Zola, which is generally dismissed as hopelessly square and sober and probably Oscar-mongering. It’s guilty on some counts, but the social-message piece about governments whitewashing the truth is remarkably forceful (even if the film backs away from emphasizing the importance of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus case); somebody should’ve remade it in 2004.

The year also had Shall We Dance, not the best Astaire-Rogers picture but the one with the Gershwin songs. And I need to see The Hurricane again, because it’s been about thirty years; it’s even longer for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which I understand is significant but which I somehow never got around to re-seeing in adulthood. Sorry, animation.

Kick-Ass Warlords at a Funeral (Weekly Links)

Chloe Moretz and Mark Strong: truly Kick-Ass.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Kick-Ass. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Just in the last few days the cultural commentators of the world have noticed that the new movie “Kick-Ass” features a little girl who dresses as a super-hero, kills bad guys by the handful, and swears like a U.S. vice-president.

Yep, the movie’s being provocative. Way provocative.

That outrageous character, Hit Girl, was already in Mark Millar’s popular 2008 comic book series, so everybody had warning. It’s just that the movie’s R-rated trailer left no doubt about how far the cinematic “Kick-Ass” was ready to go.

And the petite assassin Hit Girl isn’t even the protagonist. “Kick-Ass” looks at a socially awkward teen, Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson), who wonders why more normal people don’t try to be secret crime-fighters, like Batman.

So he mail-orders a mask and suit and goes out to protect the innocent. He calls himself Kick-Ass, although the posterior being booted is most often his own. Still, thanks to the quickness of Internet notoriety, he becomes something of a hero. This is annoying to Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who are effective in chasing criminals while wearing capes and masks.

Their main target: a wealthy crime boss (Mark Strong), whose whiny son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, from “Superbad”) will play a role in how the plot works out.

Ye of delicate sensibilities will want to steer clear, but the decision to play the material as a R-rated, foul-mouthed melee was actually kind of appropriate. Context is everything, and the amoral spree that “Kick-Ass” presents has a giddy quality that comes from certain boundaries being smashed. Tame it down to a PG-13 rating, and there’s no reason for it to exist.

The director is Matthew Vaughn, who did the smartass Brit gangster flick “Layer Cake,” with which this movie shares a spirit, as well as a few gargoyle-like supporting actors. Vaughn’s attitude is too smirky by half, and his most annoying tic is blasting wacky pop songs while mayhem erupts. Want Hit Girl to slay half the room? Play a hyper version of the “Tra La La Song,” aka the theme from “The Banana Splits.” (Of course, I can’t get the Prodigy’s infectious “Stand Up” out of my head now, which is not a bad thing.)

Give Vaughn credit for getting spirited work from the tiny, profane Chloe Moretz and the taller, less profane Aaron Johnson (who’ll play John Lennon in a coming biopic). And for giving the whole enterprise such a daft, ridiculous energy.

This movie is a real triple-shot mocha espresso with whipped cream: totally empty calories, but providing a lot of buzz as you knock it back. This is the kind of movie people think they’re complaining about when they complain about Quentin Tarantino movies but haven’t actually seen one: it’s violent for fun, and superficial in its sensations. I can’t recommend it as a healthy meal, but I can’t deny the buzz, either.

Death at a Funeral. “Slapsticky excuse for some very broad gags.”

The Warlords. “You’d better be into this kind of movie.”

The Joneses. “The scalpel is replaced by the soft soap.”

The Eclipse. “A character study with a few otherworldly moments thrown about.”

Barking Water. “A gentle mood that feels authentic.”

I talk about the jailing of Jafar Panahi on KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher, here. The movie bit starts about 17:30 in.

And Rotten, the 184-page trade paperback, is available for pre-order; Amazon.com has it here, for instance. It’s probably a good idea to order your copy now, don’t you think?

Movie Diary 4/14/2010

Death at a Funeral (Neil LaBute, 2010). LaBute? Funny, this sounds like perfect material for Frank Oz. Wait, Frank Oz already made this movie? Virtually a scene-for-scene re-do, retaining Peter Dinklage and most of the jokes. (full review 4/16)

Babies (Thomas Balmes, 2010). Well, nobody ever went broke photographing babies, a principle this film’s makers understand all too well. Four babies in different parts of the world are tracked by video cameras, and guess what? Babies are damned funny. (full review 5/7)

Movie Diary 4/12/2010

Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976). You probably know this movie. DePalma’s usual mix of elegance and clumsiness laid very bare. The bravura stuff still works really beautifully. Though set in the Seventies, it feels much more like the adolescent turf of DePalma and Stephen King, the 1950s.

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). This will end up being a movie to put on every now and then. It all works, even McDonagh’s reaches. A fine-tuned watch: even a man coming up short of coins at a tourist stop will pay off later.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (Bhaman Ghobadi, 2009). An offbeat film for the blunt but talented Ghobadi, full of contemporary Iranian pop music. (full review 4/30)

Barking Water (Sterlin Harjo, 2009). It’s all pretty earnest, but the road-movie aspects of this Native American indie are beguiling and non-glamorized, and the whole thing has a nicely-judged rhythm. (full review 4/16)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983). I remember seeing Matthew Broderick sprint up the stairs at Red Square on the University of Washington campus one day while they were filming this thing. The rest of it looks kind of silly now.

The Eclipse (Conor McPherson, 2009). The low-key nature of this Irish literary satire/ghost story is appealing, and the turns by Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle (I always think I’m going to spell her name right without checking IMDb, but I never do), and Aidan Quinn make it watchable. (full review 4/16)

1998 Ten Best Movies

Hou’s on first? That’s right. Movie Year 1998 is led by an uncannily beautiful film from Hou Hsiao-hsien, Flowers of Shanghai, which is arguably the most accessible work by this commanding director. Flowers of Shanghai is set in a “flower house” – well, a brothel – in late-19th-century Shanghai, and while claustrophobic and specific in its burnished interior world and its ceremonial behavior, it somehow manages to be about your life, and my life, as far away as our lives may be from this location. The music, the supple use of long takes, the delicate negotiations involved in the emotional world of the central character played by Tony Leung, all fall into place with something like terrible authority.

And there are other fine titles in 1998. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan would sit atop the list were it not for a single central contradiction I’ve never quite been able to solve: on the script level the film seems to have been conceived as a play on the absurdity of war – of sending and probably sacrificing eight men to save one man whose value has mostly public-relations value – and yet for all its brutality, Spielberg’s film is behind the mission. But on ground level, where the movie mostly operates, what Spielberg captures in a completely masterly way is that such contradictions are not relevant in this small patch of land that represents the next spot to cross: there is only the mission, and the platoon, and the rest will have to be sorted out by someone else. And one other thing: in a role that appears tailored for more of a Mitchum/McQueen kind of actor, Tom Hanks is superb.

And there’s Autumn Tale, merely one of the wisest and most gorgeously satisfying films of Eric Rohmer’s career (which, despite his recent death, I’m still not entirely convinced is over – and here is my life measured in Rohmer movies). And Rushmore, the Wes Anderson movie that goes into the vault – yes, quite a decent year. With apologies to Abbott and Costello, the ten best movies of 1998:

1. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

2. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)

3. Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer)

4. Rushmore (Wes Anderson)

5. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)

6. Affliction (Paul Schrader)

7. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan)

8. The General (John Boorman)

9. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)

10. The Big Lebowski (Coen brothers)

Took a while for that last one to worm its way up my list, but now I like it. Some interesting things in the misses: Richard LaGravenese’s Living Out Loud is an under-appreciated picture, Pecker is the best (and most unexpectedly delightful) film of John Waters’ later career, and He Got Game might be the only Spike Lee film I really, really like. The Last Days of Disco isn’t the best Whit Stillman film but it’s very good, and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries has a forcefulness rare in the Merchant Ivory catalogue. And there’s Ronin and The Truman Show and Run Lola Run and the Oscar-winner, Shakespeare in Love, which I stil find pretty charming. At the time, A Simple Plan and A Civil Action struck me as well-wrought throwbacks to middlebrow movie-making. In the end, Don McKellar’s Last Night presents a fresh take on the world-is-ending genre, finding just the right place to leave off.