elow are my top ten film lists for every year since 2003. I also wrote reviews of most of the movies I saw between 2003 and 2008. Eventually I got lazy and just started posting short blurbs about films on Twitter instead, so this selection of reviews is sort of frozen in time, but I think some of the writing is pretty good.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2014

Citizenfour
Boyhood
Ida
Blue Ruin
Kill The Messenger
Violette
Inherent Vice
Like Father Like Son
Grand Budapest Hotel
Birdman

HONORABLE MENTION

Chef
Mr. Turner
Jimi: All Is By My Side
Still Alice
A Most Violent Year
Foxcatcher
Wild
Only Lovers Left Alive
The Immigrant

HONORABLE MENTION - DOCUMENTARIES

Life Itself
Afternoon Of A Faun
Looking For Johnny Thunders
Finding Fela
Finding Vivian Maier


FAVORITE REPERTORY FILMS OF 2014

SHACK OUT ON 101 at the Pacific Film Archive

Lee Marvin is a Commie spy working as a short order cook at Keenan Wynn's hamburger joint on the beach near San Diego. This wacked 1955 film was the silliest laugh out loud campfest I saw all year.

THE RESPECTFUL PROSTITUTE at the Roxie

Sartre's 1946 play about racism in the deep South was made into this 1952 French film that is far more explicit and hard hitting than any American movie on the subject around that time.

SMILE at the Castro

A great Altman-esque satire on beauty pageants from 1975 starring Bruce Dern.

THE PAWNBROKER at the Castro

Sidney Lumet's devastating 1964 film about a Jewish holocaust survivor has the best acting performance of Rod Steiger's career, and that's saying something.

BLACK MARKET COUPLE / WHITE POWDER AND NEON LIGHTS at the Great Star

Two very rare dramas shot in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1940s by a Chinese film company using local Chinese opera actors from the neighborhood. Fascinating time capsules of the city.

CHAN IS MISSING at the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts

The best film ever shot in and about San Francisco's Chinatown was this black and white feature by Wayne Wang from 1982.

OTHELLO at the Castro

Orson Welles' impressionistic cinematic take on Shakespeare. Quick edits, brilliantly composed black and white shots, and minimal dialogue.

UNDER THE LANTERN / HARBOR DRIFT at the Castro

Two dramatic silent German films from the late 1920s that screened at the SF Silent Film Festival, both starring an expressive actress named Lissi Arna.

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS FILMS at City Lights Books

An upstairs screening of William S. Burrough's experimental films Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups, and Bill And Tony.

RAMONA at the Castro

This 1928 silent film adaptation of the popular 1884 American novel about racism toward Mexicans in Southern California made me fall head over heels in love with actress Dolores del Rio.

HANDS OVER THE CITY at the New Nothing Cinema

Another great Rod Steiger film, a 1963 drama about political corruption in post-World War II Italy directed by Francesco Rosi.

RESURRECTION at the Castro

A near-death experience leaves Ellen Burstyn with magical healing powers. She received a best actress Oscar nomination in 1980 for this understated, serious, quietly spiritual film.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE at the Italian Cultural Institute

An early collaboration between The Great Beauty director Paolo Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo, a psychological thriller about a bagman for the mob set in a hotel in Switzerland.

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE at the Castro

Josef von Sternberg's scandalous 1941 film noir starring Gene Tierney and Walter Huston, screened at the Noir City festival with a print borrowed from Martin Scorsese.

ANY NUMBER CAN WIN at the Alliance Francaise

A cool French heist movie starring Jean Gabin and Alain Delon as hoods attempting to rob the cash vault of a Cannes casino. Groovy 1960s jazz soundtrack and an obvious inspiration for Ocean's Eleven.

DAUGHTERS OF THE DARKNESS at the Castro

A 1971 Eurovampire nudie flick set in Belgium starring the wonderful Delphine Seyrig. Glamorously elegant and trashy at the same time.

CHELSEA GIRLS / HEDDY at the Castro / Yerba Buena Center For The Arts

Mary Woronov was on hand in person to introduce two of her Warhol films.

THE SERVANT at the Castro

The first of three collaborations between director Josey Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter, starring Dirk Bogarde as a malevolent manservant employed by the cluelessly upper crust James Fox. One of the first British films to satirize the English class system.

BEFORE SUNRISE / BEFORE SUNSET / BEFORE MIDNIGHT at the Castro

I have always adored these talky Richard Linklater films about the ongoing romance between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF at the Castro

A brilliant documentary examining how the City of Angels has been depicted in Hollywood movies throughout the years.



CITIZENFOUR

s I write this, a few days after the film's release, so far only three users have posted reviews about it on IMDb. Given that the film ends with the revelation that 1,200,000 people are on the US government's watchlist of people under surveillance, if you're contemplating adding a positive review, the first question that you have to ask yourself is: will this make me number 1,200,001? I've followed the media stories detailing the contents of the documents Snowden leaked, so that part of the film wasn't new to me, and in fact I felt some of Snowden's more serious disclosures were underexplored in the film, maybe because of their somewhat technical nature. If you're looking for a documentary that lays out in detail all the ins and outs of what the NSA is up to, this isn't it. The main strength of the film lies in its portrait of Snowden as a person. The filmmaker and other journalists basically meet Snowden in person for the first time with cameras running, and it's fascinating to watch them getting to know one another in such a highly charged, high stakes situation. Snowden is very articulate and precise, and obviously motivated by a very moral sense of right and wrong, in much the same way as Daniel Ellsberg. Whether or not you agree with Snowden, the film definitely undercuts criticism of him as being unpatriotic or mercenary. The documentary works well as an introduction to the Snowden story for those only casually aware of it, and also as a tense real world political thriller, sort of like Three Days Of The Condor come to life, but without the gunmen and Faye Dunaway. All in all, a very important film that everyone should see.



JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE

an, I don't know what drugs some of the IMDb reviewers are on. One person seems to be under the impression that the movie claims Jimi didn't play guitar before he came to England. WTF? Another person claims the film is racist because it accurately portrays white people helping Jimi move to London and start his own band. Yet another person claims Eric Clapton didn't walk off the stage when Jimi sat in with Cream because Clapton doesn't mention it when he's interviewed, but plenty of others remember it that way, and Clapton isn't going to go out of his way to bring up something that makes him look bad. Which brings us to Ms. Etchingham. You know, every time you watch a documentary about Hendrix there's an interview with a different woman whose only claim to fame in life is that she slept with Jimi, and they all seem to be self-appointed guardians of his legacy, every one of them was the real true love of his life, and none of them have a single negative word to say about him. But Hendrix was a famous womanizer—how he juggled jealous women is part of the focus of the film—and it is well known that he became angry and violent when he drank. So maybe Jimi beat her and maybe he didn't, but if he did I wouldn't really expect Ms. Etchingham to admit it, and if he didn't it doesn't really bother me that much because the episode can be viewed as a metaphor for a darker side of his personality that really did exist and wouldn't have been explored in the film without that scene.

Artistically I thought the film was a triumph and one of the best rock biopics I've seen. Andre Benjamin nails Jimi. He deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. He obviously spent a lot of time listening to audio of Jimi speaking because he captured the rhythm and inflections of Jimi's speech perfectly. And acting-wise Benjamin was excellent, I thought he got inside Jimi's character more naturalistically than Jamie Foxx channeled Ray Charles. As an actor he was remarkably in the moment and very subtle. And the female leads are with him all the way, especially Imogen Poots as Linda Keith, she's soooo good. The reviewer who said that the "crazy cuts and directing style" gave him a headache would undoubtedly get a cerebral hemorrhage from a Godard film, the editing was artistically innovative and miles ahead of conventional Hollywood music biopics like Get On Up and Ray.

As for the lack of original Hendrix songs, in the end it didn't bother me much. In a way it might have worked to the film's advantage, because it forced the director to concentrate more on creating a character study based on dialogue and narrative instead of recreating one performance clip after another, as in Get On Up. And anyhow, two-thirds of the movie takes place before Jimi put together the Experience and started writing songs. I did wonder why they didn't use "Hey Joe" since Jimi didn't write it and he was playing it onstage when Chas Chandler saw him for the first time. But overall, I loved the movie and thought it rocked hard.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2013

12 Years A Slave
The Wolf Of Wall Street
Before Midnight
To The Wonder
Nebraska
The Trials Of Muhammad Ali
Dallas Buyers Club
Frances Ha
Blue Is The Warmest Color
Her

HONORABLE MENTION

Mud
20 Feet From Stardom
What Maisie Knew
The Sapphires
The Great Beauty
The Grandmaster
Ain't In It For My Health
Stories We Tell
Enough Said


FAVORITE REPERTORY FILMS OF 2013

THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE ... (1953) at Alliance Francaise

Max Ophuls' delectable bon mot starring Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer as an aristocratic French couple whose surreptitious affairs are exposed by a pair of earrings that are secretly traded amongst their illicit lovers. Ophuls' camerawork is dazzling, as usual.

TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (1978) at the Randall Museum

This three hour masterpiece, directed by Ermanno Olmi, is a triumphant homage to an earlier cinematic age of Italian neorealism. A film about 19th century poor Italian peasants in which every role is played not by an actor but by real farmers and locals.

GIVE MY LOVE TO THE SWALLOWS (1971) at the Pacific Film Archive

Czechoslovakian director Jaromil Jires, best known for Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, adapted to the big screen this dramatization of the real life letters written in prison by young Czech resistance fighter Maruska Kuderíková, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, sentenced to death, and beheaded with an axe. Haunting, powerful imagery.

ROLLING STONES VIDEOS (1962-1972) at the SF Main Public Library

Local rock music historian and writer Richie Unterberger often does shows of music video clips around the Bay Area, but this one composed of rare live and studio performances by the Stones in the first decade of their career was exceptional.

FRENCH CAN CAN (1954) at Alliance Francaise

A light-hearted Jean Renoir film about Paris' most notorious dance hall, the Moulin Rouge, starring Jean Gabin. Fun fun fun.

REVENGE OF THE PEARL QUEEN (1956) at Yerba Buena Center For The Arts

Shintoho exploitation flick with the stunning Michiko Maeda trapped on an island with five horny male castaways. First Japanese film to feature female nudity.

LE JOLI MAI (1963) at Opera Plaza Cinema

Director Chris Marker takes to the streets to interview Parisians about love, life, politics and other social issues, made around the same time as his infamous La Jetee.

KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) at the Castro Theatre

Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Scatman Crothers, Atlantic City, the 70s. Enough said.

STREET ANGEL (1937) at the Pacific Film Archive

A Depression-era Chinese film set in Shanghai about a good-hearted musician who tries to rescue two young sisters from poverty and prostitution. Great black and white cinematography and made by a leftist collaborative.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) at the Castro Theatre

Sam Peckinpah's surreal Mexican bloodbath starring the inimitable Warren Oates. A flop at the time but now considered one of the best cult films of the 70s.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2012

Beasts Of The Southern Wild
The Lady
A Simple Life
Amour
I Wish
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Moonrise Kingdom
The Deep Blue Sea
The Sessions
Monsieur Lazhar

HONORABLE MENTION

Marley
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
A Royal Affair
Found Memories
Rust And Bone



I WISH

f, as many have pointed out, Koreeda is Ozu's cinematic heir, then I Wish is Koreeda's take on Ozu's Good Morning. Both films focus on adorable young kids and Japanese family life, and I have no qualms about saying between the two films, Koreeda easily outdoes Ozu. Not only is Koreeda's depiction of children subtler and more intuitive (no fart jokes here), but he coaxes wonderfully naturalistic performances from his child actors. Is there a director alive who does better work with kids than Koreeda? The movie really takes flight once the kids hit the road on their quest, and I loved the Ozu-ish part where they meet an elderly couple that takes in all the children for a night. Just a wonderful movie with tons of heart. Puts the human in humanistic filmmaking.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2011

Tree Of Life
The Descendants
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune
Tabloid
Hugo
The Names Of Love
Bill Cunningham New York
Poetry
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Margaret

HONORABLE MENTION

Chico And Rita
Of Gods And Men
The Mill And The Cross
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams
Paul Goodman Changed My Life



MARGARET

argaret is a well written coming of age drama, but the protagonist is not a sympathetic character, which is going to alienate a lot of the audience right off the bat. The girl behind me as I left the theater didn't like it, telling her friend, "I just couldn't stand Anna Paquin's character." The screenplay is deft at shorthanding idiosyncratic, complicated personalities with naturalistic dialogue. It also helps that every role in the film, including almost every minor part, is cast with a top notch actor. But for all the big Hollywood names, my props go to J. Smith-Cameron for a theater-grade performance scaled down to fit the intimacy of a close up shot. The movie explores the milieu of affluent teenagers attending an upscale school in New York City, and one of the other reviewers here is right in saying it resembles a French film in that it takes an mature approach to depicting adolescents, showing them as smart, complicated, sexual, uncertain. Most mainstream reviewers seem puzzled as to what they should think about it. I think it's over their heads, the elliptical, dialogue heavy, character driven narrative style, as well as the lack of an easy, simple take-away moral, seems to have befuddled them. Maybe we should rope in some theater critics' opinions instead.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2010

Carlos
Winter's Bone
Air Doll
Mademoiselle Chambon
When We Leave
Barney's Version
The Illusionist
Another Year
The King's Speech
The Fighter



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex
Thirst
Sugar
Up In The Air
Still Walking
Bright Star
Medicine For Melancholy
A Serious Man
The Beaches Of Agnes
Black Dynamite



STAR TREK

was a big fan of the original 60s television show as a kid, although I was never a self-described Trekkie or owned Star Trek toys or anything, so when the Castro ran the Shatner/Nimoy Star Trek movies earlier this year I watched all six of them. I had only seen the first three—Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Wrath Of Khan, and The Search For Spock—and all these years later I found the campy overacting that so many Star Trek fans are fond of hadn't aged well. Even though Khan is often regarded as the best Star Trek film, I enjoyed the more serious and cerebral Star Trek: The Motion Picture better. The corny humor worked better in The Voyage Home when the crew returned to present day San Francisco, but the whale plotline was abysmal. The Final Froniter, directed by Shatner, was truly odd, like a idyosyncratic minor TV episode. But the last one, The Undiscovered Country, was a revelation. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also did Khan, the film is a dark, somber Cold War allegory with the best acting and most thoughtful scriptwriting of the series, and gets my vote for the all time best Star Trek film.

his years' Star Trek reboot was relatively mindless by comparison, rushing along at a modern CGI-heavy action flick pace but with a storyline that ditched many of the sci-fi conventions that evolved in the Star Trek universe over the years to give the viewer a certain sense of internal consistency. Like when the Enterprise approachs Vulcan it apparently can't just scan ahead and see the wreckage of all the destroyed Federation starships until it comes out of warp drive and finds itself dodging debris. Or the idea of Spock existing in two different bodies at the same time in the same place, not to mention meeting each other and having a conversion, is so boneheaded that Harlan Ellison would be rolling in his grave if he were dead. Or when Spock shoots Kirk into space and he lands on a planet where he gets chased by an alien creature into a cave where he randomly encounters—surprise!—Old Spock, who's just hanging out around the fire even though he knows there'a a Federation outpost a few miles away. Best moment of the film: when Spock teleports the Vulcan survivors to the Enterprise and realizes his mother didn't make it. The actor playing young Spock was pretty good, although I'm not sure having his character indulge his human emotions more is such a great idea, but the dude playing Kirk completely lacked the required gravitas, and that guy is obviously not going to grow into the role.



MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY

ou couldn't make a movie that looks more like my day to day life in San Francisco than this. Telling the story of two black twenty-somethings who meet and have a one night stand, they start off the morning after in Bernal Heights, walk over to Noe Valley for breakfast, hop a cab to the Marina to drop her off, then he heads back to his studio on Geary at Hyde, two blocks from where I once rented a nearly identical apartment, down to the rotating walk-in closet door that once sported a Murphy bed. The couple meet again and head to the Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission and then over to Yerba Buena Gardens to ride the merry-go-round, both a block away from where I work. Later that night they buy stuff for dinner at Rainbow Grocery then head down to the Knockout to dance while my pal DJ Paul Paul spins 45s although his oldies singles are overdubbed on the film's soundtrack with obscure but cool indie rock. But aside from the pleasure of seeing all my usual haunts captured on on film, or digital video rather, Medicine For Melancholy is a smart movie that captures not only the vibe of life in downtown San Francisco, but also the subtleties of the changing ethnic and economic demographics of the second most expensive city in the country. The guy—played by Wyatt Cenac, an occasional correspondent on John Stewart's Daily Show—has a deadpan quarrelsomeness that is occasionally hilarious, because not only is he concerned about the ongoing disenfranchisement of the black community in the city, he's also bugged about the pending disenfranchisement of himself from the girl's pants once her live-in boyfriend returns to town. Her boyfriend, by the way, is white, which Cenac's character tries to elevate to a political issue because of his looming romantic frustration, but she's not having it, which leads to one of the film's best exchanges as they argue about the role race plays in forming their sense of self-identity. Lots of clever relationship stuff, like surreptitiously scoping out each other's MySpace profiles and sharp naturalistic dialogue as they continually negotiate and renegotiate the emotional boundaries and ending point of their one day affair. And maybe the scene with the housing activists meeting was a digression, but you know what, if you live here that stuff is very important shit and on everybody's mind, so if you didn't like it, fuck you, it fits nicely given the context of the film whether you know it or not. Highly recommended.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2008

Che
Happy Go Lucky
Milk
The Order Of Myths
4 Months 3 Weeks And 2 Days
Burn After Reading
The Reader
The Dark Knight
Man On A Wire
The Wrestler

HONORABLE MENTION

Encounters At The End Of The World
Stealing America Vote By Vote
I've Loved You So Long
Let The Right One In
Vicky Christina Barcelona
Cadillac Records
Frost/Nixon




W.

ush Jr.'s official biography is riddled with such bogus bullshit, and all the juiciest bits—the drugs and mob connections and illegally rigged elections—are whitewashed to create the image of W. as a benign dolt, as the Bush clan are usually happy enough to be portrayed, disguising their sociopathic behavoir as bumbling Ivy League entitlement instead of calculated homicidal fascism, acting as the advance guard for some of the world's most high powered criminal syndicates. But since writing about that stuff can be hazardous to your health, as evidenced by the unexpected suicides of several abruptly depressed investigative journalists, Oliver Stone decided, Okay, so I'll just goof on the official W. myth, and due to an incredible performance by Josh Brolin, he pulled off a satire that is much more subsersive than most people gave it credit for. Because you watch it and think, this is all so unplausible it's ridiculous, how could this guy ever be elected president twice, and of course the answer is, he wasn't.



BURN AFTER READING

have a theory that Cohen Brothers comedies with likable characters, like Fargo and Oh Brother and The Big Lebowski, are commercially much more succesful than Cohen Brothers comedies where all the charcters are creeps, like this one. Absent someone they can root for, many moviegoers don't appreciate dark humor. I thought this was a first rate black comedy with sterling performances from the entire cast—special props to Brad Pitts and J.K. Simmons—which was unfairly pegged by a lot of folks as minor Cohen Brothers.



MAN ON WIRE

ome crazy French tightrope walker had a lifelong dream to perform on a line stretched between the World Trade Towers and in 1974 actually did it. An amazing documentary, helped immeasureably by the fact that throughout his career, the guy and his pals made home movies of his exploits, including preparations for the illegal World Trade Towers stunt, piecing together the narrative of the heist job-esque mechanics of the caper—sneaking into the buildings, avoiding the guards, stringing the cables with getting caught, wondering if the guy is going to fall off the rope and die . . . very suspenseful and entertaining stuff. Too bad they didn't get to film him during the actual tightrope walk. Too bad also there's such an annoying amateurish music score.



WAR INC.

tarts off promisngly as a Dr. Strangelove-esque satire on war profiteering by the Bush administration, with snarky fun like tanks sporting corporate logos and Dan Akroyd doing a better Dick Cheney than Richard Dreyfuss in W. John Cusak's role as an international assassin at first seems like a knowing goof on his Gross Pointe Blank schtick, but unfortunately about halfway through the script starts to take its faux action movie underpinnings a little too seriously, the wit quotient nosedives and the cliched end of movie shoot 'em up we've all seen a million times before undermines the pleasure of what preceded it. But the film's politics are right on, and you get to see Hillary Duff stick a live scorpion down her pants. Thumbs up.



IRON MAN

eminded me of Batman Begins without the angst, a smartly scripted superhero origin tale with top notch acting, but played for laughs instead of dramatic effect. Robert Downey Jr. always rules and the director wisely put him in almost every scene of the movie. And for once there's some genuine romantic superhero chemistry courtesy of Gwyneth Paltrow, probably why most girls I know liked Iron Man much more than The Dark Knight.



PRICELESS

ine French fluff. Audrey Tautou—never sexier as a trashy gold digger bilking affluent gentlemen in the south of France—mistakes hotel bartender Gad Elmale—the hapless dude from The Valet—for a rich guest, seduces him, then finds he's no financial prize. But penniless Gad generates dough to keep things going with her after stumbling into a rich older woman in need of a gigilo. If this were an American flick Audrey's character would have a heart of gold e.g. Julia "Pretty Woman" Roberts, but she's fairly despicable, although of course it's Audrey Tautou and you can't resist forever. Thiings take off in the second act, when she takes her erstwhile suitor under her wing and instructs him on the art of fleecing a mark, at which he excels while her fortunes take a turn for the worse. Oh you know what happens in the end, but it's good fun and great eye candy.



MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS

o Wong Kar Wai's first English language flick with Hollywood celebrities isn't his best movie ever, the usual angst level is toned down to sentimental lovesickness, and the closeup shots of food are over the top. David Strathairn and Rachel Weiss steal the show, Natalie Portman and Jude Law are cute and Norah Jones isn't nearly as bad as reviews would have you believe, wandering about taking in all the craziness of her fellow broken hearts, in sort of a Mazzy Star album mood.



ZOMBIE STRIPPERS

f you don't find anything funny about zombie porn stars with huge breast implants and decaying flesh having a cat fight by firing billiard balls at each other with their vaginas, then this might not be the movie for you. More fun and trashier than the Robert Rodriguez zombie part of GrindHouse, with some amusing anti-Bush/Cheney digs.



SHINE A LIGHT

ver their careers Martin Scorsese and the Rolling Stones have been responsible for so many brilliant pop culture explosions that I'm happy to allow them fluffy vanity projects in their autumn years. This film has like a bazillion edits, Scorsese rarely holds one shot for more than two or three seconds, very few wide shots, lots of tight close-ups on the faces of the band, mostly close-ups of Mick, because Scorsese is trying to create a sense of kinetic energy with all the quick edits and Mick runs around the most. And of course the cinematography and lighting is top-notch, and the Stones still play okay, so that stuff is all good. My big problem with it is that as a musician I like to watch the instrumentalists play, and this film is 90% shots of Mick jumping about and singing while Charlie Watts is almost never seen. And the music sounds muddy, the guitars are way down in the mix except when there's a close up of Keith or Ronnie playing a riff, then the volume on that instrument shoots up to emphasize that shot, and suddenly the guitar sounds bright the way it should, but then drops back down in the mix three seconds later. Scorsese is shooting for personality, and watching Mick run the band and cue the musicians is fun, but I would always rather be watching Keith instead, and while my favorite moment was when Keith walked out in his black vampire coat and stood there without a guitar and sang "You Got The Silver," I was bugged at Scorsese for running over Keith doing "Connection" by inserting interview clips in the middle of the song. Buddy Guy stole the show on "Champagne and Reefer" with the coolest guitar lick of the evening. Jack White sang badly and was annoying, and I'd never seen Christina Aguilera sing live before but she kind of rocked, doing her best Tina Turner, singing loud in a deep register and keeping a growl in her voice the whole way. Watching Bill and Hillary enjoying their celebrity status by bringing scores of friends and family to shake hands with the band was ironically entertaining (especially given their recent temper tantrums during the Democratic primaries), but Scorsese enjoying his celebrity status in the bits at the beginning and end a little less so.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2007

Away From Her
2 Days In Paris
Michael Clayton
The Savages
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Sicko
No Country For Old Men
Lust, Caution
This Is England
Sweeney Todd

HONORABLE MENTION

Zodiac
Once
Control
Rescue Dawn



THERE WILL BE BLOOD

t seems one should state where they stand on previous Paul Thomas Anderson films, so let me preface this by saying I enjoyed Boogie Nights, walked out of Magnolia after about thirty minutes, and thought Punch Drunk Love was stylistically his most consistent, least flawed movie. This film is very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! I love Upton Sinclair and the broad liberal social criticism he brings to his writing. Those expecting to find that political dimension in There Will Be Blood will be disappointed. The film strips the story down to a rather narrow character study of a greedy power-mad oil man named Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems to be channeling John Huston's performance as Noah Cross in Chinatown. Day-Lewis is, as always, flawless and a joy to watch. The last part of the movie, with Plainview living rich, mad and alone in his mansion, invites a comparison to Citizen Kane, but unlike Kane, Plainview is a much more static, one dimensional character who hasn't changed much over the course of the film, except to get even meaner and more misanthropic. His foil throughout the film is Eli Sunday, a young evangelist played by Paul Dano, who struck me as not having quite enough gravitas for the role, but then again the relationship between Plainview and Sunday is increasingly played for laughs as the movie draws to an end, spinning toward a final scene that ends the film on a note of farcical Grand Guignol that represents an abrupt shift of tone from the austere beginning and middle of the film and threatens to thematically undermine what has preceded it, leaving the viewer to wonder what's the ultimate meaning of the film's portrayal of Plainview. The picture is beautifully shot with gorgeous cinematography, and the musical score is effective although it's mixed almost painfully too loud in the soundtrack. A masterfully executed film, but one that in the end simply revels in its depiction of an entertaining psychopath without taking advantage of the broader social and political context inherent in the story, which could have elevated it to the status of a more meaningful work of art.



ATONEMENT

noozzzzzzzzzzz . . . if only in the end it had all just been a dream—the ten bucks I wasted I mean.



SWEENEY TODD

'm not the biggest fan of Broadway musicals. The conventions that permeate them really annoy me—the cloying melodies, the endless repetition of refrains stuffed with lyrical exposition, it's almost as if the things that make a composition function as a Broadway score ruin whatever subtlety and feeling the music had to begin with. Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is sometimes regarded as the peak of the form, and recently I saw a production in which all of the actors were also musicians that performed the score live onstage as they portrayed the characters in the play, which I found impressive, but if this is the apogee of Broadway music then I guess I'm a Philistine. God bless Tim Burton though, he turned it into an impressive movie, the gory Grand Guignol storyline was right up his alley and he stripped the score down a bit and focused on the narrative of the plot. I really dug Johnny Depp's gravelly singing and thought it worked well with his character. It reminded me of another not so good movie I saw this year directed by John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes, a musical on the cheap in which the actors sang along with the original recordings of hit songs, the interesting thing about which was how great actors like Susan Sarandon and James Gandolfini and Kate Winslet, even though you really couldn't hear them singing, really sold their performances of the songs through their facial expressions and body language. Depp and Helena Bonham Carter succeed the same way, since film can visually register subtle emotion much better than a stage performance. The sinister set design, noirgoth costumes, and rich cinematography are all up to Tim Burton's usual standards, plus there are buckets of blood.



MICHAEL CLAYTON

ne of the most hilarious moments of truth in modern cinematic history occurs in Wag the Dog, when Kirsten Dunst—playing a neophyte actress hired to impersonate a refugee in a bogus war video being manufactured for the White House—asks why she can't put the job on her resume or tell anyone about it, and Robert DeNiro replies, Because they will come to your house and kill you. Right there, in a nutshell, is how the world really works: rich powerful people have anyone who gets in their way killed. Look at all the left wing journalists—Gary Webb, Danny Casolaro, Steve Kangas, Mark Lombardi, James Hatfield, and others—who began poking around into the dark misdeeds of our country's corporate/intelligence/mafia underbelly and then suddenly were found dead of an unexpected "suicide." That's what Michael Clayton is about. The plot—which has been compared to 70s political thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor, although since a private corporation is the villain of the movie I also see an affinity to a film like The Insider—gets right to the point about how people who jeopardize the concerns of big money interests get murdered, quietly, efficiently, and undetectably, by right wing high tech black bag operatives who specialize in clearing obstacles out of their bosses' way without leaving any traces. Director Tony Gilroy's script is very smart, the dialogue is concise and taut, and George Clooney turns in by far the best performance of his career, he doesn't mug his way through any of it and he's scary good. Sort of like Syriana but better.



JUNO

he better of the year's two comedies about a young girl who gets knocked up from a one night stand. The script, written by some woman intent on milking her real life stint as a stripper for all the media attention it's worth, works hard at being trendy and smart allecky but never really rises above the level of clever television comedy series writing. The movie's saving grace is Ellen Page as the pregnant girl, she's in almost every scene and rises far above the sitcom joke level of the script. I never bought into it as a drama, didn't get choked up at the end, but did laugh out loud a few times. Some funny lines, a sweet vibe, but ultimately kind of contrived and too self-consciously hip, and not as good as most of the reviews would lead you to believe.



CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

or a change of pace from all those dour über-serious post 9/11 flicks about the Middle East, how about a fun light hearted flick about the covert American war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 80s. Slicker and more entertaining than it sounds, mainly due to Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin's deft script which avoids overexposition at the expense of historical detail, and manages to frame the events as a character study of colorful Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, played engagingly enough by Tom Hanks although I bet the real life Charlie Wilson's skirt-chasing, whiskey drinking, coke snorting lifestyle didn't seem quite so pleasantly wholesome. His CIA counterpart is played the always excellent Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Julia Robert camps it up as a rich Texas socialite, coming off almost like a drag queen Julia Roberts impersonator. Judging from the excerpts I've read of George Crile's biography of Wilson, on which the movie is based, the details are accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Charlie Wilson got obsessed with the Afghan rebellion and used his Congressional position to divert millions of dollars into the covert war, but after the Soviets are driven out, the movie ends rather quickly with only one quick scene to suggest the rest of the story, which is how all those weapons and cash gave rise to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. By shortchanging Afghanistan and Pakistan's political and historical context—and let's not forget about all that opium—as well as the war's aftermath, the film sort of creates an incomplete, if not misleading, take on what Charlie Wilson's legacy really was. But hey, it's all about laughs, right?



JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN

y favorite documentary of the year. Saw it twice and afterward listened to all my Clash records again, went to Amoeba and bought all Joe's albums with the Mescaleros, and read an excellent recent biography about him called Redemption Song. An obvious labor of love on the part of the director—Julien Temple, a friend of Joe's—and everyone who appears in the movie to reminisce about him. In some ways the most interesting part of the film is the section where Strummer wanders about for ten years after the Clash breaks up, the wilderness years he called them, figuring out who he was and what he wanted to do, along the way changing from the sneering young razor-witted frontman of the only band that mattered to a sly, humorous, humble and gregarious middle aged musician who reembraced his hippie roots that he had so contemptuously turned his back on years earlier. Strummer had to very nearly start his career over again, putting together a band of young guys who weren't necessarily all that familiar with the Clash's music, and in some of my favorite scenes—taken from another documentary called Let's Rock Again about the Mescaleros tour in 2002, the year Joe died—he wanders around the streets handing out handmade fliers for his gigs to people who have no idea who he is. Strummer had a poet's soul and his lyrics are some of the cleverest and sharpest around. His solo music reflected his interest in international sounds, evolving into a unique mix of punk, reggae, Pogues and Waterboys influenced acoustic Irish folk rock, Tex Mex, synth dance grooves, and straight ahead garage rock that Strummer realized had no commercial potential in today's corporate controlled music industry, but instead reflected his passion and his heart. And what a heart it was, one that had a defective artery that should have gone around the heart but went through it instead and suddenly killed him in December 2002, just as he warmed up for the second act of his musical career. Temple doesn't identify all of Joe's bandmates and fellow travelers as they are interviewed on camera, so the documentary might be a bit confusing for the viewer not already acquainted at least a little with the career of the Clash, but it's a wonderful and worthwhile tribute to a man everyone would benefit from spending some time with.



NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

am pretty tired of violent psycho killer flicks, but this Coen Brothers adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel has enough originality that it transcends the genre. The devil is in the details, so to speak, and while all of the lead actors turn in top notch performances, especially Josh Brolin, it's the incidental character actors fleshing out bit parts that really give the movie its authentic flavor and moments of rural homespun humor. The down home atmospherics raise the film a cut above another predictably bloody neo-noir, especially Tommy Lee Jones as the aging small town sheriff, who wanders through the film like a hick Greek chorus, befuddled by the nihilism—not to mention the firepower—of modern day drug dealers roaming the Southwest. As he and his law enforcement buddies wax nostalgic and commiserate about how things just aren't like they used to be, good old boys complaining about losing control and their status in the world, you don't know whether to feel sorry for him or laugh at him, or both.



THE HOAX

ne of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is a film purporting to be based on a true events that distorts the facts so much that it winds up bearing little relationship to real life. This movie about Clifford Irving, the writer who scammed the publishing industry in the 70s by pretending he had been hired by Howard Hughes to help write his autobiography, is a good case in point. The framing device of Irving faking Hughes' visit to the publisher's offices in a helicopter—never happened. Irving sending his buddy flying all around the globe to mail postcards to his wife—actually Irving was the one flying around having affairs with mistresses all over the world, making the character's remorse over the affairs in the movie rather ridiculous. But the biggest whatever is Irving's motivation. Clearly the script was tailored to provide a raffish rogue to be played by Richard Gere, but the idea that Irving began to believe his own hype and suffered a mental breakdown is made up out of whole cloth. In 1974 Orson Welles made a clever documentary called F For Fake, about a painter and art forger named Elmyr de Hory. Irving figures prominently in Welles' film as he was hanging around Ibiza at the time writing about Hory and was no doubt inspired by all the attention Hory received for his lucrative fakery. Irving never cracked up or repented, interviews both then and now make it clear he thought the whole thing was a grand joke, making him another of a long line of marginal people who covet notoriety and media attention no matter how much they have to humiliate themselves to get it. All that said, I still kind of enjoyed the movie, Richard Gere and Alfred Molina have a nice camaraderie and should make another, better film together since this one is, well, kind of a hoax.


AMERICAN GANGSTER

hen I read the New York magazine article on which this movie was based—in which the gangster in question, Frank Lucas, recounted his flamboyant drug dealing escapades to a journalist who faithfully transcribed and published the account without apparently bothering to fact check much of it—I thought, wow, they smuggled heroin onto Henry Kissinger's plane? Why wasn't that in the movie? Raging gun battles in the jungles of Southeast Asia? That would've been more interesting to watch than Russell Crowe's divorce proceedings. At first I thought it was because they had to beef up the rather uninteresting character of the cop to justify the parallel police/drug dealer storylines, not to mention Crowe's costarring status with Denzel Washington. As it turns out, not only were most of Lucas' claims bogus, the character of the cop was a composite of a bunch of different investigators as well. In any case, the film was an entertaining, well directed mob thriller, but would it have been as effective and plausible if it had been billed as entirely fictional? Probably not.


ZODIAC

ow here's a film based on a true story that lives up to its billing. A gritty police procedural that remains gripping and suspenseful throughout while staying scrupulously faithful to the facts of the case. The film grimily recreates the feel of late 60s/early 70s San Francisco and is especially atmospheric in its depiction of the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom. The performances are all terrific, especially Robert Downey as the eccentric Chronicle reporter. The attention paid to the investigation, the fragmentary evidence and the mechanics of the predigital era CSI work add to the movie's sense of verisimilitude, as does the suggestive but inconclusive true life ending. The murders are shown for the creepy and brutal acts they were, but without oversensational embellishment. Walking out of the theater I heard a woman behind me say the ending was kind of boring, a complaint echoed by of all people the moronic film critic for the Chronicle, but if you want to see Gwyneth Paltrow's severed head in a box, go watch one of the director's other films. In fact, Se7en was the film where I got fed up with sadistic psycho killer flicks, but for my money Zodiac is the model of how to do one right.



CONTROL

ntil Kurt Cobain came and went, Ian Curtis was rock and roll's most celebrated and cult-inspiring suicide (as opposed to all those rock stars who, self-destructively or not, died from drug overdoses, car wrecks and whatnot). A better movie than I expected given the dismal spate of superficial music biopics lately, well acted by an unknown named Sam Riley as Curtis and especially Samantha Morton as his wife. Shot appropriately in black and white, the film shows Curtis' working class roots, the emotional turmoil he went through after Joy Division became famous and his life began to be torn in two different directions, and most interestingly the onset of his epilepsy which threatened his ability to continue as a performer as his condition worsened. Given that Curtis' widow Debbie was one of the film's producers and the script was based on her memoir, the portrayal of Curtis' mistress Annik is remarkably sympathetic. The director is a photographer and music video director who took pictures of Joy Division when they were together, and the real life closeness to Curtis of the people who made the film shows in its empathetic attention to the emotional details of Curtis' life, as well as the avoidance of sensationalism that mars so many cinematic rock biographies. The recreations of the band performing come off much better than such things usually do, but overall don't capture the intensity and power of Joy Division at its best live, and the band's originality within the context of the music industry at the time isn't fully fleshed out, and a viewer unfamiliar with Joy Division might not understand what the big deal was, but for them there's


JOY DIVISION

his documentary serves as a companion piece to Control and tells the flip side of the story, focusing on the band, its musical development and Curtis' artistic torments and accomplishments. The personal details of his life are more in the background here, as interviews with the surviving band members (who became New Order) and other music industry personages like Tony Wilson go into detail about Joy Division's internal dynamics, recording sessions, and live performances, making good use of what grainy footage and photos remain of the band. One of the most amazing revelations is that the other band members didn't pay much attention to Curtis' lyrics and never really knew what words he was singing until after he died. Music critic Jon Savage, author of the seminal punk history England's Dreaming, wrote the script and does a better job of contextualizing the band's music and artistry than Control, but perhaps Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner sums it up best when he describes their evolution from a run of the mill punk band to the proto-gloom/goth band of all time by saying, "Sooner or later somebody was going to want to say more than 'fuck you' . . . to say 'I'm fucked.' "



LUST, CAUTION

oor Ang Lee, sometimes his films are so understated they go right over people's heads, like this Chinese language film that didn't seem to connect with American audiences. The plot concerns a young Chinese girl who becomes involved in the resistance movement during World War II, and is sent to seduce a Chinese collaborator who is the head of security for the Japanese occupation forces in Shanghai. But this isn't your usual Hollywood espionage thriller, as alluded to by the scene where the girl goes to the movies and weeps watching Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo—in Ang Lee's take on this world, all is not romance and melodrama. He instead focuses on the emotional damage such double agent intrigue would exact on an inexperienced girl thrown into that situation. Much has been made of the semi-explicit sex scenes in the movie, but they are central to showing how her feelings for such a sadistic monster become confused and convoluted, making this a perceptive examination of sexual politics from a realistic feminine perspective. In the film, her character's background as an amateur actress prepares her for the role playing demanded by her deception of Tony Leung and his wife, Joan Chen, but it's her lack of romantic experience that proves her undoing as she slowly loses her ability to separate her hatred for Tony Leung from the newfound passion that their sexual liaison arouses in her. The film's contrast of this explosive carnality against a leisurely Asian charade of manners and social pretense might have been too foreign for American viewers, but I saw it with a mostly Chinese audience in a theater in San Francisco and they dug it. Leung contributes his usual smoldering presence, but newcomer Wei Tang as the girl carries the film with a very nuanced and very accomplished performance.



THE DARJEELING LIMITED

dmittedly a minor Wes Anderson effort, but I still liked it. A trio of wealthy, self-involved brothers encounter spiritual enlightenment on a trip to India in search of their mother who's run off to become a nun in Buddhist monastery. The premise is so obvious that's there no subtext to be found, the movie is all surfaces, its heart worn on its sleeve, and its entertainment value lies not in being surprising or deep but in spending time with some engaging actors—Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Anjelica Huston—and watching it play out. There was a one scene prologue with Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman the point of which seemed to be getting her nude, and mind you I don't object at all to seeing Natalie Portman naked but artistically it was rather gratuitous.



MARGOT AT THE WEDDING

know Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for worriedly knitting her brows and furiously scribbling away in her portrayal of Virginia Woolf, but her acting by numbers approach failed to captured any of Woolf's wit, erudition and humor. Margot At The Wedding confirms that she should be forever barred from playing writers, because conveying a sense of literary intellect is beyond her range as an actress. Part of the fault lies with the script, though, director Noah Baumbach's self-penned follow-up to his semi-autobiographical The Squid And the Whale veers between unconvincing overly self-conscious neurotic drama—although his real life wife Jennifer Jason Leigh is the best thing about the film because she lives and breathes overly self-conscious neurotic drama—and slapsticky comedic relief engineered for Jack Black. The whole thing feels contrived and never gels.



LA VIE EN ROSE

ike Forest Whitaker in Bird and Jamie Foxx in Ray, Marion Cotillard is an accomplished actor giving an outstanding performance in an otherwise boneheaded biopic about a drug-addicted music legend. My theory is that actors can't pull off playing characters that are smarter than they are, and likewise hack directors don't have the talent and vision to distill the artistic accomplishments and musical genius of an Edith Piaf or a Johnny Cash onto film, and instead focus so myopically on drugs and dysfunction that the audience has to go home afterward and put on a record to remind themselves why the musician was so brilliant in the first place. La Vie En Rose fits firmly in this movie-of-the-week rut, jumping back and forth almost exclusively between Edith Piaf's difficult childhood and the last morphine-addicted years of her life. I didn't mind the non-chronological script, I did mind that the film rather pointedly skips over a decade or two when Piaf's career was at its height. As near as I could tell, there's not one scene set between the mid-30s and the mid-40s. Maurice Chevalier? Charles Aznevour? World War II? Not here. Lots of scenes of Piaf in decline at the end of her life, though. Lots of them. Cotillard bears up well and delivers a great turn as Piaf, but she's about all the film has going for it.



TALK TO ME

alk To Me is a biopic about the now deceased Washington D.C. radio disc jockey and stand-up comedian Petey Green, who I was completely unfamiliar with before I saw this movie. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, known for her film Eve's Bayou several years back, it's not only a perceptive character study, but an emotionally touching and truthful microcosm of African American life during the civil rights era. You couldn't ask for two better actors than Don Cheadle as Green and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dewey Hughes, the conservative radio station manager who gave Green a job on the air after he got out of prison and later managed Green's nightclub career. Lemons extrapolates the contrasting personalities of the two men into a larger meditation on conflicting attitudes in the black community about mainstream success versus selling out, getting ahead versus keeping it real. Lemmons said in an interview that she pitched herself as a director for the project by telling the producers she understood black men better than they understood themselves. She brings to the film an intelligent perspective that keeps her characters comedic and colorful without being jivey or stereotypical, especially the adorable Taraji Henson as Petey's earthy hootchie mama girlfriend. The film accurately recreates the look and sound of the late 60s and early 70s and incorporates celebrities like James Brown and Johnny Carson into the story without being cheesy about it, and the section of the film dealing with Green's radio show the night Martin Luther King was assassinated is powerful stuff, one of the most affecting dramatic scenes in a film this year.



2 DAYS IN PARIS

ike every other guy who saw Before Sunrise at an impressionable age, I have been in love with Julie Delphy ever since. I knew she was a good singer and guitarist and that she cowrote the script for the Before Sunset, the sequel to Before Sunrise, but none of that prepared me for the wonderfulness of this film, which Delphy wrote, directed, and stars in. 2 Days In Paris is like the best Woody Allen/Diane Keaton movie in decades, except the self-deprecating Jewish humor has been replaced with jokes about how the French are obsessed with sex. Delphy plays a Parisian photographer who now lives in the U.S. and dates interior designer Adam Goldberg. After vacationing in Italy the couple stops in Paris for a couple of days to visit her family, and hilarity ensues. No, it really does, this film is non-stop talkfest that fires off more funny one-liners per minute that anything else in recent memory. Everywhere they go they run in ex-lovers of hers, he starts getting jealous, and since he's insecure and doesn't speak French she starts shading the truth to keep him from getting more upset, he finds out she's hiding things from him and gets even more jealous . . . At first you worry that Goldberg is doing one of those shtick-filled neurotic Jewish New Yorker artist/intellectual surrogate Woody Allen impressions often seen when Woody casts other lead actors in his films, but Delphy wisely lets her own character grow more and more emotionally out of control and less sympathetic, so that you start to empathize with Goldberg's distress. Delphy's real-life parents play her parents in the film and almost steal the movie. Those expecting a lighthearted romantic comedy will find the humor dark and prickly, but trust me, it's a good thing. Hands down the funniest film of the year, makes adolescent crap like Knocked Up and Superbad look like, well, crap.



SICKO

ichael Moore visits France, England, Canada and Cuba to show how state-run, single-payer health care abroad provides more humane, nonprofit-driven health care than the American system run and controlled by insurance corporations. And even if his depiction of other countries' health systems is slightly rosy, his main point is dead on—other nations provide free health care for their people by actually providing value and services for taxes paid, unlike the U.S. where our tax money largely goes to corporate welfare and handouts to Halliburton and every other crony capitalist who can afford to buy a legislator. This documentary is about how corporate greed deliberately kills people for profit and how America's fucked up health system is never reformed because it is intentionally designed to keep workers in debt and dependent on employers and insurance companies for their health care needs. Moore is pretty subdued, less focused on confronting individuals and more on asking what has happened to America's morality. His best film yet, and one everyone should see. Brilliant, and believe it or not funny as hell too.



AWAY FROM HER

ar and away my favorite film of the year. Director Sarah Polley is a 29 year old Canadian actress that I first saw in one of the most perceptive films ever made about May-December romances, Guinevere, and then in a lovely film called My Life Without Me, about a young wife and mother who’s dying of terminal illness but doesn’t tell her family. Polley directs Away From Her—another touchingly humanistic script based on an Alice Munro story about an elderly husband who slowly loses his wife to Alzheimer's disease—with impressive assurance and grace for a first time director. Julie Christie, whose acting career of late has been fairly confined to supporting roles in big budget Hollywood period pieces, goes to the head of the line for a best actress nomination with her accomplished, completely believable performance as a woman whose mind is slipping away. The main plot twist is unique and affecting—the husband, outstandingly played by Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent, is unable to care for his wife at home and together they decide she should go to a retirement home, where she gradually forgets who her husband is, and he watches from a distance as his wife falls in love with another man residing at the facility. Olympia Dukakis has a good turn as the wife of the patient that Julie Christie falls for, and an actress named Kristen Thomson almost steals every scene she’s in as the head nurse. And the film has the funniest, most unexpected laugh of any movie this year courtesy of one patient who used to be a professional sports announcer. Highly, highly recommended.



ONCE

sweet independent film about musicians and the romantic attraction that can grow out of musical relationships. The opening scene is great—a guy singing and playing guitar on a sidewalk in Dublin has his open guitar case full of money swiped by a thief, and he hands his guitar to a passerby and takes off running down the street after the guy to get it back. I can tell you from years of busking that you always keep one eye on your tip jar when you're street performing because that happens all the time. The singer/songwriter/guitarist guy meets a singer/songwriter/pianist gal and they start playing together. Being a guy, he of course immediately hits on her, but she rebuffs him because she's married with a kid, even though her estranged husband is back home in eastern Europe somewhere. They hang out, work up some of his songs, record a demo, and he splits to London in search of his ex and a record deal. That's pretty much the whole movie, but the verisimilitude of the opening scene continues throughout their musical and emotional interaction. I've often been in similar situations, and this film accurately captures not only the dynamics of musicians playing together but the artistic admiration and physical attraction that often springs up between players who are already involved with other people. The original music by the two leads—both musicians in real life who composed and played all of the film's songs—didn't grab me as much as it could've, but I enjoyed the movie a lot anyhow. It's a great idea for a movie, one waiting for another film to tackle it more in depth, especially the jealousy that often complicates relationships between musicians and their non-musical partners. Fleetwood Mac Story, anyone?



HENRY FOOL and FAY GRIM

n director Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, an ex-con named Henry Fool—an annoying gadfly and relentlessly self-aggrandizing, self-proclaimed writer—stumbles into the lives of taciturn garbageman Simon Grim and his sister Fay. Henry encourages Simon to take up writing poetry, and Simon turns out to be the most acclaimed writer since James Joyce and eventually wins the Nobel Prize. When he finally gets around to reading some of Henry's writing, Simon discovers that Henry is a talentless blowhard. Henry marries Fay but when his criminal past catches up with him, Henry flees the country at the end of the movie. Henry Fool has some of the best literary in-jokes and hilariously lofty and overblown discussions of art and poetry in recent memory. In one of my favorite scenes, Henry encourages Simon to approach girls by writing them poetry. Sitting in the school library one day, Simon writes some verses and gives them to an attractive girl sitting next to him. Later he finds out the girl has informed everyone at school that he's a rapist and murderer. Henry Fool is the only film that gets the Cyrano routine right.

en years later Hartley revisits these characters in Fay Grim, with the same cast intact, and stands the story on its head. It turns out Simon wasn't really a terrible writer bragging about imaginary exploits, but in fact he was an intelligence agent who by writing in code embedded sensitive security information into his many journals. Jeff Goldblum arrives as a CIA agent to convince Fay—Parker Posey—to go to Europe in search of her husband. Fay's not too bright, but she goes and eventually outwits everyone and . . . well, it's a sardonic goof on spy movies and Hartley writes some of the smartest deadpan dialogue around. While all the actors are uniformly excellent, it's Posey's movie, her best in some time, reminding us of why she's so good.



COMEDY OF POWER

f all the French cinema I've seen this year, my favorite film was Comedy Of Power, Claude Chabrol's umpteenth film starring Isabelle Huppert as a French magistrate prosecuting a wealthy, influential group of corporate executives for fraud and embezzlement. The events are based on the Elf Aquitaine scandal of the 1990s in which extensive corruption was exposed in France's largest state-owned energy company. Huppert's character is closely based on Eva Joly, the judge in that case, down to details like the magistrate having married one of the sons of the wealthy couple she worked for as an au pair when she was a teenager. The film assumes a familiarity with these details on the part of the viewer. In the movie, her husband is very upset with the social ramifications of her prosecution of these upper class businessmen, but the differences in the class backgrounds of the couple are only passingly alluded to, obscuring the motivation for his anger to the uninformed viewer. Huppert has a hella good time tormenting the smug fat cat businessmen, she's the whole show, as always ferociously impressive once she gets rolling, and the interrogation scenes in her office are gems.


THE PAGE TURNER

well-done psychological thriller with vintage Chabrol flavor, The Page Turner is about Mélanie, a young French girl who fails her piano exam at a music conservatory because of the inconsiderate behavior of one of the judges, a renowned concert pianist named Ariane Fouchécourt, who interrupts Mélanie's concentration by signing an autograph for a fan during the girl's recital. Mélanie never plays piano again. Ten years later she lands a job at a law firm in Paris working for Ariane's husband and insinuates her way into their home as an au pair, helping Ariane with her young son and eventually assisting Ariane at concert performances by turning pages of sheet music for Ariane as she plays. Ariane is completely unaware of her encounter with Mélanie years before, and unsuspecting of her motives as Mélanie cooly and methodically begins to destroy Ariane's marriage and professional career. The film creates some suspense about whether Mélanie will ultimately follow through on her plans, but most of the fun is watching her go about her quietly malicious maneuvers, which culminate in a nicely dramatic conclusion. Director Denis Dercourt, also a musician and music teacher, takes pains to portray the musical dynamics of the movie accurately, lending credibility to the proceedings, and the acting is top notch.


THE VALET

s I've said before, I'll watch Daniel Auteuil in anything, even fluff like The Valet. He plays a slimy French CEO cheating on his wife, Kristin Scott Thomas, with a glamorous blond supermodel. When a tabloid prints a picture of him together in public with the model, he has to convince his wife that the model is really seeing the parking valet who was walking by and ended up in the photo next to them. He pays the model and the valet to move in together, and hilarity ensues. Minor French hilarity, with lookers like Alice Taglioni and Virginie Ledoyen along to brighten things up. Could've been better, could've been worse. Sort of cries out for a Julia Roberts or Richard Gere remake.


AVENUE MONTAIGNE

arnest working-class young French girl, nice looking of course, gets a job working in cafe in an upscale section of Paris. Meets lots of local neighborhood types—millionaires, theater people, concert pianists, you know, just plain folks. Slick mainstream French comedy/melodrama, appealing, well-written, smarter than your average American film but not too edgy. Oh, and she falls in love with a wealthy guy at the end. But you knew that already, didn't you?


PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES

he French name of the film is Coeurs, or Hearts, and it was adapted by English playwright Alan Ayckbourn from one of his plays titled Private Fears In Public Places. The lives of a half dozen lonely-hearted Parisians intertwine in a predictably theateresque fashion as it snows nonstop outside. The film has that small scale, interior set piece quality that filmed plays often do, and starts slowly but builds interest along the way. The characters—an ex-military guy and his girlfriend, a real estate agent and his sister, a quietly demented religious fanatic, and of course a bartender—aren't that original, but Sabine Azéma excels as the repressed Bible reader. Nowhere near as good as some of director Alain Resnais' other films like Hiroshima Mon Amour.


PARIS, JE T'AIME

n anthology of eighteen short films set in Paris, each only a few minutes long and done by different directors, including Olivier Assayas, the Coen Brothers, Gus Van Zant, and Alexander Payne, among others. Some of the actors involved are Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Natalie Portman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and a host of others. The consensus is that Alexander Payne's segment is by far the best, undoubtedly why it ends the film. Titled "14th arrondissement," the voice-over narration is that of a middle aged Denver woman telling her French class—in hilariously halting French—about her trip to Paris. At first broadly humorous in its depiction of an uncultured Midwesterner feeling out of place in Europe, it skillfully turns into a sympathetic portrait of a lonely woman meditating on her lack of closeness with others, which at the end is brightened by the connection she eventually feels with Paris during her visit. The segment is touchingly funny and sad at the same time. The Coen Brothers' segment is the laugh out loud funniest, as Steve Buscemi is terrorized by locals in an underground Metro station. The quality of the level of the other short films varies tremendously, some are a waste of time and others are very affecting, like Alfonso Cuarón's piece featuring Nick Nolte and Walter Salles' segment with Catalina Sandino Moreno. Like all anthology films it's uneven, but worthwhile especially if you're a Francophile.



SPIDERMAN 3

oy, this was the summer of lame threequels. The Spiderman series has been aimed at kids from the beginning and while the first one was sort of fun, each successive Spidey flick has been less interesting than the one before, and the preview for the Spiderman 3 video game that screened before the movie—along with the scene of little kids wearing Spiderman Halloween costumes—pretty much summed up the raison d’être for the latest installment.


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3

itto for the third Pirates movie, which I thought was a major disappointment. Granted, the second one wasn’t as light on its feet as the first, but I liked its dense effects-laden art direction and new characters. But At The World’s End adds nothing interesting to the mix except for about two minutes of Keith Richards and ten minutes of Chow Yun-Fat. We had enough interminably long cannon-blasting ship battles the last time, even without the video-game-friendly whirlpool. At least Johnny Depp has more screentime, but his mugging seems increasingly less swashbuckling and more buffoonish with each picture. When he informed everyone in the first film "I'm Jack Sparrow, savvy?" there was bravura and a bit of menace behind it; by now Jack Sparrow is a pretty much a cartoon.


OCEAN'S THIRTEEN

nd there’s nothing to Ocean’s Thirteen either. Ocean’s Eleven made a nod toward constructing a traditionally suspenseful heist film, but the real fun was in the introduction of the characters. Ocean’s Twelve dispensed with believable plot mechanics altogether and let the cast ham it up, making it a lot closer in tone to the old Sinatra Rat Pack films while alienating fans of caper films in the process. Ocean’s Thirteen tries to have it both ways, pretending that its implausible plotline isn’t absurd and reining in the smirking a bit, but in the end the only person any fun to watch is Al Pacino.



GRINDHOUSE

am so over Quentin Tarranino, his cool-if-you’re-a-nerdy-fourteen-year-old scriptwriting, his foot fetishes, and his brutalizing of women. The dialogue for his female characters sounded so much like horny adolescent teenage boys talking that it was positively cringe-inducing, as was the snuff film ickiness of the slow motion close-ups of girls being dismembered in a car wreck. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s supposed to be a trashy B-movie homage, but unlike Robert Rodriguez’s segment—which so accurately recreated the vibe of a cheesy exploitation flick that its gross-out scenes were campily funny—Tarantino’s film was so self-consciously smart-allecky, especially his own cameo, that it was just smarmy and annoying. And the car chase wasn’t all that either. The best parts were the fake trailers and retro title cards—I vividly remember seeing that psychedelic COMING ATTRACTIONS clip all the time as a kid. Too bad the execution wasn't as clever as the concept.



THE HOST

ontrary to the hype, this is not the best monster movie since Jaws. This South Korean movie is loads of fun when the reptilian creature (created by a group of San Francisco Industrial Light And Magic alumni called The Orphanage) comes up out of the Han River in Seoul and goes on a rampage, but the bumbling Park family—who spend the entire film trying to find their daughter after the monster snatches her and stashes her in a sewer—wear out their welcome fast. They're not nearly as humorous or entertaining as the director thinks they are. Maybe it helps if you're Korean. The heavy handed digs at the American military are mildly amusing, though. Rent the DVD, watch the monster scenes, fast forward through the rest.



THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY

run across leftist British director Ken Loach's name all the time, but I've never seen one of his films until this one, which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes. The film is a sympathetic look at the Irish Republican resistance to violent British subjugation during the early 1920s. Apparently right wingers in the UK press attacked the film as being biased and overly anti-British, but when your country sends its soldiers abroad to colonize and tyrannize people in other countries, it's rather unseemly to complain too loudly when such brutality is critically portrayed, especially nearly 100 years after the fact. And while it's true that ne'er were there assembled a nobler group of upstanding Irish lads with nary an unflattering personality trait, from what I gather about the historical background of the events, it's depicted pretty accurately, even if many of the characters seem to be composites of real people. The cinematography makes the countryside look suitably anachronistic, and while the characters may be drawn bit two-dimensionally, the best thing about the film is that it perceptively plays out the dilemmas inherent in revolutionary politics that have been similarly explored in Reds and Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon—namely, when do you jump off the revolutionary train? At what point does pragmatism force an individual to abandon revolutionary rhetoric in favor of real world governance and political compromise? The central plot device in the film is that two Irish brothers start out fighting together for independence, but after a compromise treaty with the British is reached, one brother supports it and allies himself with the government while the other continues to lead the rebellion. I'll spoil the ending for you right now—one brother is eventually forced to capture the other and execute him, and emotionally I just didn't buy the way that incident played out. Loach uses the conflict between the brothers to make a larger ideological point, but to my mind at the expense of a more naturalistic approach to character development. Still, it's a fine film and well worth seeing.



UGLY BETTY

K, so Ugly Betty isn't a movie, but it's the only television series I've made a point of watching in years and years. I wound up at ABC's website one day and found I could watch the entire season online, so I clicked on an episode and was completely won over. I watched all eleven shows in one day—without the broadcast commercials, each episode only runs around forty minutes. The series is adapted from a popular Colombian telenovela that has been serialized in several countries around the world, and while the plot and supporting characters are pretty much standard Hollywood sitcom stuff, the character of Betty Suarez is a wonder. Betty is a young working class Latina from Queens who lands a job at a chic Manhattan fashion magazine, but she's overweight, has braces and big eyebrows and wears tacky clothes, and all the fashion snobs at work ridicule her, oblivious to what a beautiful person Betty is inside. The magic of the show is that it transcends this clichéd premise entirely due to a sublime performance by actress America Ferrera as Betty.

rought to life by Ferrera's subtly expressive eyes and million dollar smile, Betty steals your heart. She is so big-hearted and vulnerable it makes you want to cry. She embodies the hopes and dreams and insecurities and nervousness of anyone who has ever been an outsider, who ever dealt earnestly and openly with others but was made fun of instead, who didn't fit in but ached to belong and be accepted. I empathize with Betty. I am one with Betty Suarez. Down with the fashionistas! Viva Betty Suarez! She's the only television character I've had a crush on since Claire Danes in My So Called Life, even though Betty is so perfectly heartwarming largely because she's a fictional character created by scriptwriters careful to smooth away any too-human rough edges. Expect a huggable Ugly Betty™ doll at a Wal-Mart near you.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2006

The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu
The Departed
49 Up
Half Nelson
The Libertine
Volver
The Good Shepherd
Le Petit Lieutenant
An Inconvenient Truth
Pan's Labyrinth

HONORABLE MENTION

Friends With Money
When The Levees Broke
The World's Fastest Indian
A Prairie Home Companion



PAN'S LABYRINTH

exican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is best known for directing big budget Hollywood fantasy/horror movies like Mimic, Hellboy and Blade II, but his best work has been his Spanish language films Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and now Pan's Labyrinth, which all have certain recurring motifs—insects, Catholicism, orphaned children, violent fascists and jack-booted thugs. The Devil's Backbone, set in an orphanage in Spain in the late 1930s against the backdrop of Franco's takeover of the country, is a wonderful film that operates on many levels—political thriller, children's story, and horror/suspense tale—and is my favorite ghost story since The Innocents. Pan's Labyrinth—also set in Franco's Spain, a few years later than The Devil's Backbone—is about a young girl whose widowed mother marries a sadistic fascist soldier, causing the girl to retreat into a world of fantasy and make-believe. While The Devil's Backbone revolved around the creepy, supernatural spirit of a drowned young boy, Pan's Labyrinth relies more on real world brutality and torture for its horror quotient, which to me makes it a less subtle and effective film, but still Pan's Labyrinth creates an eery, fantastic world whose artistic design is much more inventive than that of most other horror/fantasy films around today.



RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER

wo Zhang Yimou films landed stateside this year. Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles is a welcome return to his more intimate, humanistic films like Not One Less and The Road Home. Ken Takakura plays a father attempting to reconcile with his estranged son, which involves traveling to a rural Chinese province, where he encounters many warm and memorable characters who help him with his journey. Along the way he bonds with a little boy who causes him to consider his relationship with his own son, and the film is sentimental and heartwarming in Yimou's signature style without being schmaltzy. Curse of the Golden Flower, on the other hand, is the third of Yimou's recent Crouching Tiger-style KongFu epics, following Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, but isn't as good as either of those previous two films. Despite a cast including his ex-wife and former muse Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat, as well as the extravagant backdrop of the Forbidden City, the movie falls rather flat. The script was based on a Chinese novel originally set in the 1940s, but Yimou recast the story into an imperial family drama set around the 9th century. The palace intrigue reaches overwrought heights of Shakespearean proportions, and Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li almost pull it off, but are undone by one of the fakest looking CGI battle scenes in recent cinema history. Still, there's a good ninja assassin sequence earlier on, the set design inside the palace is striking, and as far as I'm concerned, Gong Li wearing low-cut costumes and a push-up bra is worth the price of admission.



THE GOOD GERMAN

uch has been made about how Steven Soderbergh shot this film with old cameras and lighting equipment to achieve a modern day take on retro grainy high contrast black and white cinematography. But to expect some type of homage to old Hollywood classics like Casablanca and The Third Man and Chinatown would miss the point. The Good German rather obviously alludes to all those films, but isn't interested in creating sympathetic characters or wallowing in star-crossed romance. Soderbergh is crafting an anti-classic, a film that looks and feels like old hardboiled movies but stands them on their head to mock their underlying sentimentality. In a way it sort of reminds me of a humorless cousin of Robert Altman's revisionist take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, in which Elliot Gould reinvents tough guy Philip Marlow as a sort of wisecracking goofball who gets beaten up all the time. George Clooney's performance in The Good German seems off somehow until you realize that he's not a charismatic leading man so much as a blustery dumbbell who's letting himself be taken for a ride despite repeated (and accurate) admonitions from everyone in the movie that he's being an idiot. If, say, Brian De Palma had made this movie, the acting and plot would have been so over the top and campy that it would have been hard to miss the intentional irony (The Black Dahlia), but Soderbergh goes to such great lengths to make his film look feel and move like an old film that one is tempted to keep looking for that cornball emotional payoff at the end that just isn't going to happen.



VOLVER

n Almodovar's latest, a scene where Carmen Maura watches an Anna Magnani movie on television provides an overt allusion to what's up with Volver, a gay writer/director crafting a cinematic valentine to an actress—Penelope Cruz—as lovingly as Tennessee William did for Magnani with The Rose Tattoo. Cruz has never looked so voluptuous, thanks in part to the prosthetic padding Pedro made her wear to fill out her ass, and turns in the performance of her career. Thematically the film is all about women, a tribute to the resilience and strength of working class Spanish women that reminded me of early Sophia Loren films and Jorge Amado's lyrical homages to Brazilian women in novels like Tereza Batista and Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands. Working again in a gently humorous, melodramatic vein, it's almost on a par with recent Almodovar films like All About My Mother and Talk To Her.



SHUT UP & SING

've never been much of a Dixie Chicks fans, as far as I'm concerned any country group successfully operating within the confines of corporate Nashville major labeldom kind of sucks, but once lead singer Natalie Maines mouthed off against Bush and the entire country music scene turned on the band, I got more interested in them. This documentary chronicles that whole flap, and the film would have had more depth if it had more fully explored the dynamics of the intersection of politics and country music and used less footage of the girls playing with their children and running around their ranches with their husbands. Still, watching these relatively naive musicians coming to grips with the right wing backlash of their conservative fan base is fascinating stuff, and Maines' refusal to back down and the group's subsequent efforts to commercially redirect their music and careers makes for compelling viewing if you're at all interested in the business side of the music world.



ALL THE KING'S MEN

hy the fuck does Jude Law keep getting roles portraying a Southerner? His Southern accent sucks, as does that of Kate Winslet and Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins and Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor. Brits don't do Southerners any better than Americans do Brits. Sean Penn is predictably the best thing about this film, and when he's onscreen it's pretty interesting, but the movie mostly focuses on a lame romantic angle involving Law and Winslet, and it's a waste, especially since an updated film about Huey Long and the corruption of Louisiana politics should have been ripe for allusions to the modern day post-Katrina Bush era.



THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON

e was a counterculture revolutionary, and the government takes that kind of shit really seriously historically. [My father] was dangerous to the government. If he had said, 'Bomb the White House tomorrow,' there would have been 10,000 people who would have done it. These pacifist revolutionaries are historically killed by the government. Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests is insane, I think, or very naive."

—Sean Lennon, 1998

ccording to conspiracy buffs, in the 1970s Mark Chapman worked for World Vision, a right-wing Christian evangelical organization that performed overseas missionary work, as well as espionage and intelligence recruitment for the CIA. The president of World Vision around this time was John Hinckley Sr., a reputed CIA officer and the father of John Hinckley Jr., who was also employed at World Vision and tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981. World Vision reportedly conducted aggressive religious indoctrination and mind control experimentation, and Chapman and Hinckley Jr. both underwent intensive psychological treatment in the years directly preceding their respective assassination attempts. John Hinckley Sr. and George H.W. Bush used to live down the street from each other in Houston, and Hinckley regularly contributed the maximum amount allowable to Bush's campaigns, while Bush's oil company, Zapata Oil, once bailed out Hinckley's failing oil company, Vanderbilt Oil. The day after the assassination attempt on Reagan, Hinckley's other son, Scott Hinckley, brother of John Jr., was scheduled to have dinner with Neil Bush at his home in Denver. Although the Houston Post initially reported on the connection between the Bush and Hinckley families, the story immediately disappeared, but not before the governor of Texas complained that if reporters didn't stop writing about Texas' connection to various assassination attempts the state's reputation would be damaged.

he documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon doesn't go into any of that. Sean doesn't make an appearance, except as a toddler in home movies. Yoko does say at one point in the film that she and John backed off from doing anti-war concerts because they felt that their lives were in danger, but the movie lays out the case for the government's paranoia about Lennon without exploring the mechanics of how he was eventually murdered. Which is okay, most people don't believe conspiracy theories, and going there would have considerably diminished the audience for the film. That said, this is a wonderful movie which recreates an era for those too young to understand how divided the country had grown over the Vietnam war, and how influential and widespread was the reach of John Lennon's celebrity and cultural impact. He was at the time one of the most recognizably iconic faces in the world's collective consciousness, along with Nixon, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King. If he sneezed in public it was front page news, and he was one of the first pop stars, and certainly the most famous, to decide to use his high media profile to support left wing political causes. His songs from this period strike me as the most impassioned, committed and heartfelt music he ever recorded, and the documentary makes you understand why his albums released in later years felt like a retreat into more circumspect commercialism. As the film makes clear, Lennon was forced to choose between being a musician and being an activist, and in the end he opted for music, but perhaps too late.


JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PEOPLE'S TEMPLE

irector Stanley Nelson's films all explore various aspects of African-American life, and while he doesn't shy away from the ugly side of the Jim Jones story, this film largely focuses on how the People's Temple created a sense of community that fulfilled the needs of its congregation, which was 80 percent black. Using archival video footage and audio tapes recorded during the assassination of U.S. Congressman Ryan during his visit to Jonestown and the subsequent massacre of the People's Temple members, the documentary chillingly recreates the events of November 1978 with nightmarish detail. However, the film lacks an omniscient narrative point of view, as almost all of the film's commentary is provided by interviews with former members and their families, along with others involved in the events at Jonestown. As a result, a much broader historical perspective about Jonestown is left out or avoided, perhaps out of deference to the survivors interviewed onscreen, whose recollections I suspect were sometimes self-serving and even deliberately misleading about their experiences. At one point an ex-member implies that Jones' security thugs (all white males) suddenly appeared on the day of the massacre and says he wondered where they came from, an inconceivable bit of ignorance on the part of a long-time People's Temple member.

he documentary tends to support the officially accepted story of mass suicide and entirely ignores, for example, evidence acquired by an independent Guyanese coroner who examined the bodies at the site and found that 80 to 90 percent of the victims were murdered by needle injections in their backs, probably of cyanide, while many others were shot or strangled. Also unmentioned are the connections of Jim Jones to various shadowy CIA figures—one of whom was wandering around the compound on the day of the massacre—and to the aforementioned World Vision (see The U.S. vs. John Lennon above), which after the Guyana massacre developed a scheme to repopulate Jonestown with CIA-linked mercenaries from Laos. Enough psychotropic drugs—including sodium pentathol, chloral hydrate, demerol, thalium and many others—were found at the compound to dose over 200,000 people for up to a year. Conspiracy theorists contend that after the CIA's MK-ULTRA research into using these types of drugs for mind control met with unfavorable publicity and Congressional investigation—spearheaded, incidentally, by Congressman Ryan—intelligence agencies offloaded these experiments onto religious cults acting as overseas CIA fronts, such as World Vision and Jonestown. Whatever the case, as compelling and disturbing as this Jonestown documentary is, the larger unexamined context is even more frightening.



RUNNING WITH SCISSORS

had to Google Augusten Burroughs after I got home from the film, because I had no idea who he was. Apparently he's an author who wrote a bestselling memoir about growing up with a mentally unhinged mother, on which this movie was based. I thought the film's narrative suffered from a weakness similar to that of another recent cinematic memoir, The Squid And The Whale, in that much of the film felt too personal, idiosyncratic and arbitrary, with events and details seemingly included because they happened in real life, not necessarily because they were carefully chosen, well crafted scenes representing the most skillful and creative way to communicate an artistic theme or larger idea. In fact, I'm not exactly sure what the point was, exactly, other than it sucks growing up around crazy people, but given the People magazine/Oprah level of discourse in our culture, maybe marketing yourself as a personality with a Jerry Springer-ready backstory is enough. To me, the more sophisticated artistic accomplishment would be to shape the material into a more focused, cohesive, ambitious fictional novel, or movie or whatever, plus you wouldn't have lawsuits from the real life parties. But then I haven't read his book and maybe he did fictionalize the story, but in the movie many things feel shorthanded, like the character of the father, played by Alec Baldwin, which was completely underdeveloped—maybe because pop has another whole memoir/movie in the works devoted to him? And his mother's girlfriend toward the end, what was her story, her motivation was completely obscure. Having said all that, though, I must say by the end I kind of liked the film. Thanks less to the script and more to stellar performances on the part of the cast, including Jill Clayburg and especially Annette Bening, the movie does gather some heavy dramatic momentum toward the end, and while the film may not have much more to say than it sucks growing up around crazy people, there's one scene that cuts from character to character, all simultaneously screaming in pain and frustration, that I thought said it pretty well.



THE QUEEN

could hardly be less interested in the ongoing real life British monarchical soap opera, so I can't vouch for the film's factual authenticity, but Helen Mirren is a knockout as Queen Elizabeth II and is often touted as leading the best actress contenders next year (although my vote goes to Annette Bening in Running With Scissors). The stuffed shirt cluelessness of the Royal Family is well scripted and amusingly captured by James Cromwell as Prince Phillip and Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother, but the rest of the film reminded me of a sentimental TV movie, and the portrayals of Prince Charles and Tony Blair seemed rather simplistic.


MARIE ANTOINETTE

nother film about out of touch European monarchy, although perhaps the most clueless person here is the director, Sophia Coppola. The movie looks gorgeous all the way through, and the first half hour is actually very good, promising to be a sort of impressionistic Dangerous Liaisons riff, and the biggest surprise is how effectively the soundtrack of modern underground rock contributes to the atmospherics. But once France's future queen settles into Versailles, the film goes completely off the rails. What little drama that can be found centers entirely around whether Marie will ever have kids, other than that it's interminable costume changes and masquerade balls and adoring close ups of French pastries. Coppola's celebration of—not to mention obvious identification with—the teenage princess' world of privilege and excess is a bit mind-boggling, and rather squarely lines up the film's sympathies opposite the French Revolution. Kirsten Dunst's inadequate performance brings this folly into sharp relief—while the rest of the cast manage to affect accents derived from some European nationality or another, every time Dunst opens her mouth a bland, dimwitted suburban American drawl issues forth, so distracting as to take the viewer right out of the picture. Starving, rioting Frenchmen—barely mentioned until the film's last ten minutes, although students of history will know they were lurking about outside the palace gates—eventually arrive, big meanies who ruin Marie's tea party and drag her off to prison, leaving Marie sad about having to leave her pretty little palace. The events surrounding Marie's subsequent incarceration and execution are left to the viewer's imagination, an excellent opportunity for an interesting dramatic turn lost—the movie avoids such gravity at all costs. Even if Coppola was trying to make the case for Marie being an innocent caught up in the tide of history, those endless Hallmark card shots of angelic golden locked children playing with fuzzy baby goats and yummy French soldiers who show up for no reason other than a dreamy romance novel moment never add up to anything more than royalty porn for chicks, and in the end it all manages to be embarrassingly vapid, as well as historically myopic.



ALICE IN WONDERLAND

n Mission between 18th and 19th, a few doors down from the Beauty Bar, is a hole in the wall theater called The Dark Room, which looks to have once been a divey drinking establishment, now a narrow space with an aisle running down the middle separating a bar along one side from about twenty rows of theater seats, each four chairs wide, and a makeshift movie screen on the rear wall. Performances alternate between low budget live theater productions and old movies, and the third Wednesday of every month is Bad Porn Night—free popcorn, bring your own booze—which shows X-rated classics from the 70s like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones.

ctober's feature was a 1976 porn musical version of Alice In Wonderland. The audience was about half guys and half girls, or as close an approximation as you'll get in San Francisco, and the blond lesbian selling tickets at the door introduced the film by encouraging the audience to drink, talk on their cell phones and generally be as loud as possible, at which point someone yelled at her to show her tits. She graciously obliged, then turned the microphone over to the emcees for the evening, one guy, one girl and one tranny who narrated the entire film with snide comments and rude jokes, abetted by enthusiastic interjections from the crowd. Sort of a live Mystery Science Theater, with porn instead of sci-fi, and raunchier hosts. I don't think the preppyish young girls sitting next to me had seen much porn, they eeeewed at ejaculations and complained when Alice straddled her costar that she was doing all the work.

his was the softcore version of the movie, which also apparently had a hardcore release. Alice was played by a perky former Playboy model named Kristine DeBell, who went on to a semi-legitimate acting career, appearing in Meatballs, Barnaby Jones, CHiPS, BJ And the Bear, and a Jackie Chan flick playing his girlfriend. I wanted to hear the cheesy musical numbers, but the soundtrack was completely drowned out by the hosts, the jeering audience and occasional songs blasted by a DJ during slow scenes. The director, a guy named Bill Osco, was so enamored with his porn musical Alice In Wonderland concept that a few years ago he staged it as an Off-Broadway production, which royally flopped. The 70s flick is pretty tame and mildly campy, and when Alice goes down on the goth attired Queen, as one host opined, you got your five bucks worth right there, folks.



49 UP

he most profound reality series ever. In 1964, some English filmmakers including then-researcher Michael Apted assembled a group of fourteen British children from various economic and social backgrounds, all age 7, and made a documentary about them called 7 Up. Every seven years afterward, Apted—who later went on to direct Hollywood films like Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas In The Mist—revisited the same children and each time directed another documentary about them, chronicling their lives at the ages of 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and now 49. The first installment that I watched, 28 Up, made me fall in love with these films. Much has been said about the series' initial aim of depicting the rigidity of the English class system, but as the decades went by and British society changed, the drama inherent in the lives and personalities of the individuals involved took the films in a more humanistic direction. After seeing 28 Up and 35 Up, I remember feeling very bad for one kid who grew up coping with mental health problems and eventually wound up homeless, and thought leaving the theater that he wouldn't be alive for 42 Up. But by then he had moved to London and involved himself in local politics, a rewarding turn of events for him, and for the audience as well. The kids from the upper crust backgrounds have predictably had more affluent lives, and turned out to be the least forthcoming and most guarded on camera as adults, and less easy to warm up to. Some kids had deep seated feelings of shyness and insecurity that stayed with them as adults, and very publicly evaluating their failures and achievements every several years has been very difficult and uncomfortable for them. But even though some seem to resent the filmmakers' intrusion in their lives, they generally seem to understand the larger value of the series and twelve of the original fourteen kids continue to participate, even though they have misgivings or regrets about it. It's interesting to watch marriages and relationships suddenly begin and end, and usually people quickly remarry or find another relationship, often to someone more compatible and attractive. I identified most with the children who grew up to be teachers and academics, highly likable, intelligent people who realize that they aren't the most socially or economically successful but in many ways seem to be the most happy and fulfilled ones of the bunch. Despite their ambivalence, the participants deserve a big round of applause for letting us grow up and old along with them.



THE DEPARTED

ucking awesome movie. Scorsese is back at the top of his game, with another great gangster flick shot through with wickedly dark humor, maybe his best film since Good Fellas, although I'm also very partial to Kundun. Scorsese makes good use of plot twists involving cell phones, and very effectively captures the racially polarized, ball busting, in your face Boston milieu. Real life Bostonians Matt Damon and Mark Walhberg bring authentic Beantown attitude to their roles, Jack Nicholson—standing in for Joe Pesci in the scenery chewing department—and Alec Baldwin are especially hilarious, but perhaps the biggest surprise is an excellent performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, who finally emerges as an adult onscreen. A two and a half hour movie that flys by, a rip snortin' good time from start to finish. Scorsese is the master of mixing violence and black comedy, and has reclaimed his turf from Quentin Tarantino and every other indy wannabe who has been imitating him for the last couple of decades.



HALF NELSON

smart, impressionistic character study of a white guy employed teaching black students in a public school located in an underprivileged neighborhood in New York City. Not some lame Hollywood bullshit like Dangerous Minds, this teacher happens to be a crack addict, and while at first he appears reasonably well intentioned, as his character develops throughout the movie he grows increasingly unlikable and fucked up, but still manages to retain our sympathy, due to an exceptionally nuanced and powerful acting turn by Ryan Gosling, maybe the best lead performance in any film this year. The script deals head on with the cultural and racial implications of a white guy teaching disadvantaged black kids, making the discussions that happen during classroom history lessons some of the best scenes in the movie. The real emotional impact of the film comes from the way the teacher bonds with one of his young female students, who accepts him for who he is, despite all his problems. The film doesn't wrap things up with a nice neat moralistic resolution, it ends by saying something subtle about doing the best you can under less than ideal circumstances, and looking for good in others while understanding that nobody's perfect.



LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

onderful movie. A dysfunctional family road trip flick, sort of a low rent Royal Tannenbaums, with less artistic pretension and more heart, a broad farce often acted with the intentness of a drama. Excellent cast including Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, who I don't want to like but he plays a jerk so well that you have to give him props. And of course the always outstanding Alan Arkin, who steals the movie as the lascivious grandfather. The family has to get young daughter Olive to California to compete in the nationals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Hijinks ensue, which I won't spoil by describing, with the occasional touching moment along the way. The cinematography is a cut above, and the kids are good too, especially Paul Dano as the anti-social teenager.



SCOOP

t this point, you either find Woody Allen funny or you don't. When I see his face, me—I laugh. I can't help it, it's an involuntary response. Woody kvetching and reeling off one liners with all of his comedic timing still intact at the age of 70 is oddly reassuring somehow, but that's about all this slight flick has going for it. Scarlett Johansson looks great and Woody keeps his paws off her, although the camera lingers with an attentiveness that rivals Hitchcock lensing a blond.



A SCANNER DARKLY

uch has been made of the fact that A Scanner Darkly is perhaps the most faithful screen adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, but at the risk of enraging sci fi fanatics everywhere, I would venture that perhaps that's both a good and a bad thing. See, alone of practically everyone I know, I have never been able to make it through a Philip K. Dick novel. People loan his books to me, I start reading them, his ideas are pretty interesting, but to me but the prose just crawls along and I get bored. The only sci fi writer I enjoy reading on a stylistic level is William Gibson, who elevates the genre to that of a good Raymond Chandler crime novel. Director Richard Linklater made one of my all time favorite movies, Dazed And Confused, as well as a few others I liked a whole lot and a few more I thought were pretty lame. But he has a gift for hilarious non sequitur slacker dialogue, and the part of this film where Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson are high and engaged in surreal drug-fueled free association is a scream, and worth the price of admission for anyone who's ever had a stupid conversation with a bunch of stoned people. The plot drags some and doesn't really go anywhere at the end, but I thought the rotoscope animation was fun to watch, and you get to see Wynona Ryder's naked tits, even if they are only cartoon boobs.



PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2

he first Pirates was such an unexpected delight—holy crap, he's doing Keith Richards—because no one thought it would be any good, since a decent pirate flick hadn't come along practically since the Errol Flynn era. Part of its charm was that Johnny Depp spent stretches of the movie locked in a jail cell or stranded on a desert island, killing time and firing off sarcastic bon mots while waiting to be rescued. My favorite line: after rescuing Kiera Knightley from drowning, Depp rips open her tightly laced bodice so she can breathe, and when a British soldier standing nearby says he never would have thought of doing that, Depp replies Obviously you've never been to Singapore. Nothing as clever as that in Pirates 2. While the first movie really came alive when the dismissively sexist Depp and the spunky Knightley were onscreen together, capturing the chemistry of an old Gable/Lombard screwball comedy, in the sequel Depp and Knightley and Bloom are too busy running about advancing the plot of an expensive Hollywood adventure franchise to waste much time standing around trading barbed remarks. Johnny has less screen time, is a bit less threatening and more buffoonish, but is still awesomely hilarious. The film looks great—the campy, rickety Ray Harryhausen-style skeletons have been replaced with elaborate CGI generated members of Davey Jones' crew, who have shark heads and randomly sprout barnacles on their faces, and the octopus tentacle whiskers of Davey Jones himself are pretty cool too. I wish there had been more witty banter, but the movie's manic Bugs Bunny action sequences were amusing, I was never bored, and by the end I could've stayed in my seat for another three hours and watched the third installment.



THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU

ike The Sea Inside a couple of years back, this European film dealing with illness, mortality and the human condition is one of the best films of the year. Although a fictional film cast with professional actors, it moves with a cinéma vérité-like realism that makes it look like a two and a half hour long documentary as it tells the story of a crusty 63 year old retired Romanian engineer—now a widower who dotes on his three cats—who begins to feel ill and calls an ambulance to take him to the hospital. But poor old Mr. Lazarescu has a couple of things working against him that night. For one, there's a huge pile-up on the highway and critically injured patients from the accident overwhelm the local hospitals. For another, Mr. Lazarescu likes to take a little nip now and again, and everyone he encounters smells alcohol on his breath and begins to lecture him, discounting his complaints about his health and jumping to the conclusion that his problems stem from drinking. The film follows him as a stoic paramedic named Mioara takes him by ambulance from hospital to hospital looking for doctors willing to treat him. Much has been made of the film as a scathing satirical critique of the public health system in Romania, but while it has a few moments of very dark humor, I really wouldn't call it a black comedy. The movie is a very perceptive meditation on how the stress of the health care profession affects workers in that field—from paramedics to nurses to doctors—and how the narrow-mindedness and personal shortcomings of some, as well as the compassion and dedication of others, come to bear on a lonely old man on the last night of his life. Highly recommended.



LADY VENGEANCE

his is the third film in Korean director Chan-wook Park's trilogy of movies about revenge. I didn't see the first two. While the second one, Old Boy, gathered a lot of critical praise, the preview looked to me like the umpteenth variation of an Asian take on a violent Tarantino rehash of an Asian action film. Lady Vengeance is by all reports less bloody than its predecessors, which is probably a good thing. The movie is a beautifully photographed art film and a very dark comedy shot through with subtle black humor and enough surrealism to keep it from qualifying as a realistic crime drama. The story follows a woman who is sent to prison when she helps to kidnap a child and then her partner kills the kid and forces her to confess to the murder. The narrative cuts back and forth between her machinations to exact revenge on him after her release and flashbacks to her thirteen years of incarceration with other women inmates, many of whom end up repaying debts to her by helping out with her subsequent scheme for vengeance. The final act is pretty wild, and I won't spoil it except to say that in addition to taking her own revenge, the protagonist also facilitates the revenge of many others as well, creating an opportunity for her own atonement and redemption. It's clever, sad, funny, creepy and brutal all at once.



SUPERMAN RETURNS

oooooriiiiiing. Instead of rethinking the franchise, director Bryan Singer tries to closely replicate the vibe of the previous Superman movies with more expensive special effects and less charismatic actors. Brandon Routh channels Christopher Reeve's gosh golly gee whiz routine almost exactly, minus most of the wit and charm—toss Dean Cain into the mix, and lately Superman has gotten so wussed out that it really makes you start to miss George Reeves' barrel chested 1950s machismo. Routh does sport the best Superman outfit of them all, though. Kate Bosworth is way too young to be playing Lois Lane and acts, as the reviewer from the Chronicle put it, as if the whole world were trying to pick her up in a bar and she's not having it. Kevin Spacey is always good at chewing the scenery, but alas has little scenery to chew. The plot—some nonsense about growing continents from crystals swiped from the Fortress of Solitude—is retarded. Superman picks up an entire land mass synthesized from kryptonite and drags it into outer space—hello, it's kryptonite, he's not supposed to be able to get anywhere near the stuff. The best part is when Superman goes to the hospital—yes, while comatose from manhandling all that kryptonite, instead of being strapped to a missle and shot at the sun so it can recharge his superpowers, our hero gets admitted to a dark hospital room so Lois can have a tearful Hollywood moment, and the best part is when paramedics put an oxygen mask over the face of a guy who can fly through outer space. Speaking of which, when Superman returns to Earth, why does he crash land unconscious in Ma Kent's cornfield like some flaming meteoric fireball? Did the scriptwriters ever read a Superman comic? If Superman can race the Flash to the end of the Milky Way and back without wiping out like a Grand Prix race car, surely he could just land in the yard, walk in the front door and say, Hi mom, I'm home! And Lois' kid, who seems to be on Ritalin the entire film, for some reason has these health problems that don't make any sense at all given, well, you know, nudge nudge wink wink. Plus there's some weird Messianic stuff going on with Superman in this movie that I don't even want to waste any time trying to figure out. Makes you appreciate how awesome Batman Begins was.



THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA

or the first thirty or forty minutes of the movie, watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci bitchily insult Anne Hathway and her lack of fashion sense is pretty entertaining, but once Anne gets her hair done and raids the rack of designer duds at the fashion magazine, go out to the box office and tell them there's an infant screaming in the theater and you want a refund. You won't miss much.



FALLEN ANGEL

very worthwhile documentary about musician Gram Parsons of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Originally filmed for British and German television, the movie is a very detailed portrait of Parsons' life, albeit at arm's length—there would appear to be very little footage of Gram available, most of it performance clips, many of amateurish home movie quality. I don't recall even one shot of Gram onscreen talking, although his voice is heard in a few sound snippets from an audio interview of indeterminate origin. The movie instead relies on extensive usage of still photographs and, most impressively, interviews with just about anyone still alive who was involved in Parson's life, including bandmates Chris Hillman and Emmylou Harris, Keith Richards, the surviving members of Gram's family, blustery former road manager Phil Kaufman who stole Gram's body at LAX and drunkenly drove it out to the desert and burned it, and even the girlfriend who checked into room number 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn with Parsons and watched him die of an overdose. The dynamics of Parsons' dysfunctional family and the impact it had on him are well documented, perhaps maybe a little too well documented, but the recollections of the musicians who played with him provide the most illuminating commentary on the allure and difficulties of Parsons' self-destructive talent. Overall, I had two main criticisms. One, the filmmakers' melodramatic animation of cartoon flames that rise from the bottom of the screen as Kaufman describes striking a match and throwing it into Parsons' gasoline soaked coffin—not to mention the aerial shot of a bonfire burning in the desert, obviously supposed to emblematic of Gram's burning corpse—is especially cheesy, and really tacky. But my larger complaint is that despite the effluent praise of Parsons' talent, the film never establishes a broader historical context for his musical accomplishments that would allow the casual viewer to understand why he was so important, which was that he almost single-handedly invented the genre of country-rock. Pamela Des Barres alludes to it somewhat when she describes Gram playing records by Lefty Frizzell and Willie and Waylon for her, turning her on to a rich, vibrant side of country music that most rock music fans were unaware of at the time. But with the Byrd's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and his injection of flashy Nudie suit glam rock star attitude into his fairly traditional but definitely non-Nashville brand of country songwriting, he broke through to the rock crowd with an updated take on country music that paved the way for the Eagles and every country-rock outfit that followed. You maybe wouldn't quite understand how revolutionary that was from this film—some obscure family friends could've been replaced by a perceptive rock critic or two—but all in all it's a really good documentary.



A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

like Robert Altman a lot. I like Garrison Keillor too, he somehow manages to wax nostalgic while goofing on waxing nostalgic at the same time. I also like Lily Tomlin and Kevin Kline and Woody Harrelson, and I especially likes me some Meryl Streep, so I really liked this amiable, rambling little film. But if you don't like any of those people, or you don't like country/folk music, then don't see this movie. You probably won't like it.



AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

aving worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for many years, I wasn't unfamiliar with a lot of the material in this film, including the anecdote about the report EPA once sent to the Bush administration's Chief of Staff for Environmental Affairs, a former oil industry lobbyist who took it upon himself to edit out the Agency's conclusions about global warming as speculative theory before he released the report. Relatively minor quibbles about scientific methodology aside, that remains the main conservative objection to the overwhelming majority of the scientific community's concerns about global warming—since it can't be definitively proven that human activity is the cause of what might just a natural historical cycle of environmental climate change, nothing need be done. Which is sort of like saying, there's no actual videotape of anyone hacking a voting machine during a presidential election so it shouldn't be investigated, despite the fact that there is a lot of empirical data circumstantially pointing in that direction that can't be rationally explained away by simply refusing to examine it. And that is not an analogy I make lightly, because that issue haunts this documentary. During the beginning of the film I thought, oh no, too much irrelevant stuff about Al Gore's personal life and political career, this is going to be self-serving infotainment, but following the montage of media clips from the 2000 election, Gore's narration grows more involving as he describes the position in which he found himself, certainly not your Average Joe, but still a private citizen disenfranchised by insider political corruption, wondering how he can make a difference—hey, join the club, Al. But instead of yachting around with corrupt ex-Presidents, he gets Brownie points for dusting off his PowerPoint presentation, loading it onto his Apple PowerBook and trudging around the world, trying to create an informed sense of community about important issues among the people that he meets, which in the end is all that any of us can do.



ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL

oy, was this a dark little comedy. Director Terry Zwigoff directed one previous film—Ghost World—also with a screenplay adapted by Daniel Clowes from one of his own graphic novels, but Art School Confidential isn't nearly as successful. Ghost World's underground/alternageek comic book cred was bolstered by attention to character development that added a layer of dramatic resonance to the quirky plotline, but although Art School Confidential starts off as a semi-earnest coming of age story about a naive suburban kid named Jerome who goes away to a run-down art school in NYC, it soon becomes obvious that the film is only really interested in grinding its satirical axe against academia and the art world, and none of the characters are going to be spared its scorn. On that level, the movie is very funny—anyone who has ever taken a liberal arts workshop will recognize the hilariously passive aggressive faculty members and affected pretensions of the students. But while the viewer initially identifies with Jerome and his plight, as he becomes a less sympathetic character—especially after he unwittingly burns down an apartment building and kills everyone inside—your reliance on the perceptiveness of his critical assessment of the other students' work begins to shift, subtly reinforcing the movie's underlying premise, which is that art criticism and commercial success all amount to collective personal projection and a subjective context (and lots of ass kissing). Maybe I'm reading more into the movie than the filmmakers intended, but that seemed a nice meta-side effect of the ridiculously punchline ending. John Malkovich's performance is easily the best thing about the movie, Jim Broadbent is good too, but Angelica Huston is totally wasted in a tiny part with nothing for her to do.



CLEAN

aggie Cheung won the 2004 best actress award at Cannes for this portrayal of a junkie whose life falls apart when her famous musician boyfriend dies from a heroin overdose. Custody of their son is awarded to the dead musician's parents, Nick Nolte and Martha Henry, after Cheung is convicted of possession, and she realizes she has to get her act together if she ever wants to see her son again. Cheung and her real life husband, the film’s writer and director Oliver Assayas, signed their divorce papers during the making of this movie. Assayas makes the underground music backdrop believable—a milieu that tends to get screwed up in movies more often than not—by casting real musicians like Tricky and David Roback. Nick Nolte adds that effectively gruff, weathered naturalism that he brings to every movie, but the film belongs to Cheung, who embodies the desperation of someone whose identity revolves around a certain scene and lifestyle having to involuntarily adjust to a different reality. There's something about her eyes, she'll look at something a certain way, and her eyes just communicate volumes. Her relationship with the kid doesn't quite gel, though, the little boy's acting isn't quite believable, and his initial wariness of her reverses itself too quickly.



FRIENDS WITH MONEY

irector Nicole Holofcener makes the best chick flicks around. Her screenplays are full of some of the most sharply observed and nuanced film roles written for women these days. Not exactly well-adjusted women, you understand, but three dimensional women, with issues that, while not always flattering, are recognizable and real. Characters ideal for an actress like Catherine Keener, who has turned in wonderful performances in three of Holofcener's films—in Walking And Talking, co-starring with the always engaging and underrated Anne Heche in a quirky, bittersweet meditation on feminine bonding, and in Lovely And Amazing with Brenda Blethyn and Emily Mortimer, about the insecurities and complexities of the relationship between a mother and her daughters. Keener also shines in Friends With Money, about a quartet of women friends and the men in their lives, but in a cast that also includes the awesome Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack, the standout performance is by, surprisingly enough, Jennifer Aniston, who taps into reserves of repressed anger occasionally played for comedy in sitcoms but brought to the surface here for fine dramatic effect, easily her best film acting job. The movie explores the tension that various degrees of financial affluence, or the lack thereof, brings to the interaction between four old friends, and the approach is quietly slice of lifey and played less for laughs than her earlier films. McDormand and Cusak's characters could have been more developed, but still this film covers more ground than her earlier ones and was one of my favorite movies so far this year.



BE HERE TO LOVE ME

wo documentaries came out this year about mentally unhinged singer/songwriters from Texas. One was Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, the musician that Kris Kristofferson once called "a songwriter's songwriter." Townes was part of the 70s Austin country scene that included Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and his best friend Guy Clark, and was respected by all of them as one of the most gifted songwriters of the bunch. Townes' lyrics were poetic, simple, elegant, heartwrenching, and cut to the bone, chronicling the demons that he seemed to carry inside. When he was in college his behavior began to outwardly grow a little strange, and once at a party he threw himself off the balcony of a fourth floor apartment just to see what it would feel like. Soon afterwards his parents sent him to a sanitarium in Galveston where he was given insulin shock therapy, which wiped out all his childhood memories and further damaged his psyche. He married, but eventually left his wife and children to travel around as a wandering musical bard, along the way penning classics like "Pancho and Lefty," "If I Needed You," "Waitin' Around To Die," and "I'll Be Here In the Morning." The filmmakers weren't lacking for footage of Townes, he's onscreen practically throughout, either in performance and interview clips or horsing around on various amateur home movies. Townes wasn't camera shy. He also wasn't reticent about drugs and alcohol either, which helped to send him to an early grave at the age of 52. The movie is rounded out with interviews of the musicians above, and captures of the ups and downs of Van Zandt's career very affectionately without soft peddling the rough spots, especially the disappointment his children felt toward him for not being a better dad.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON

urt Cobain once called Daniel Johnston the greatest songwriter on earth, but forgive me if I don't take Kurt's word for it. A lot of people interested in promoting Daniel Johnston's career (music writers, other bands, MTV) have spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince music fans that he's not an outsider artist—a naive folk artist who is also pretty much insane—but that's exactly the case. His music is not good in the conventional sense of informed, controlled, intentional and masterful. It is involving because Daniel Johnston is out of his fucking mind and extremely idiosyncratic, but frankly, compared to an authentically talented songwriter like Townes Van Zandt, he's just an impressively motivated whack job with a small cult of dedicated fans and PR folks. And perhaps the most revealing aspect of this documentary is how so many people, back in the up for grabs era of the burgeoning underground/independent music scene in Austin, were cluelessly searching without a map for the next big thing and latched onto Johnston's delusional self-grandiosity, buying into it at face value. Musical pretensions aside, this film is actually an absorbing portrait of Johnston and his family and the tribulations they have endured going through life taking care of him. At one point his father was piloting himself and Daniel home in a private passenger plane when his son pulled the keys out of the ignition and threw them out the window and the plane plunged to the ground and crashed, and they both actually survived. Those types of incidents—like the time Daniel broke into an elderly woman's apartment and frightened her so badly that she jumped out a window to escape and broke both her legs—certainly makes for an arresting documentary, just don't feel obliged to buy into the film's endlessly laudatory view of Johnston's musical acumen.



THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN

f you go to a lot of movies, often you'll see the same preview over and over, and sometimes get so tired of it that you avoid the actual film when it's released because you're sick to death of the trailer. But one preview that made me happy every time I saw it was the trailer for The World's Fastest Indian, which starts off with the adrenaline pumping power chords of the Cult playing "Wolf Child" over a succession of quick cut racing images—a customized 1920s Indian motorcycle shooting across the desert, down a two lane highway with a squad car chasing it, outrunning a biker gang at the beach, Anthony Hopkins skidding at high speed across the ground after wiping out and screaming defiantly the whole time—then switches to the revved up police siren guitar wail of the Clash doing "Police On My Back," and you think, man, this is going to be a cool flick about a hell bent for leather old dude giving the young hot shots what for. But when you see the film, there's no Cult or Clash on the soundtrack, and Anthony Hopkins' character, Burt Munro—a real life New Zealand racing legend—turns out not to be some fired up old geezer, but rather a polite, mild mannered old guy with health problems due to angina who likes to tinker with his motorcycle and is determined to get to America to participate in the Bonneville time trials before he gets too old and infirm to make the trip. Most of the suspense of the movie comes not from whether he'll set the land speed record, but from whether he'll run out of money or keel over dead from a heart attack before he even gets there. The movie is mostly about how Munro makes it from New Zealand to America on nothing but a few bucks and a gentle, sweet disposition that charms everyone he encounters along the way, including a horny widowed Dianne Ladd in a lovely cameo. Truly a great feel good movie that's never saccharine or phony. The filmmaker previously directed a documentary about Burt Munro, and his love for the story shows in every frame.



STONED

he two best things about this laughably bad movie about the life and death of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones are the breast implants on the actress playing Anita Pallenberg.



THE LIBERTINE

ar and away the best acting Johnny Depp has ever done is this portrayal of the Earl of Rochester, a 17th century bisexual British poet who—through excessive alcoholism and indiscriminate sex—eventually contracted syphilis, rotted his nose off, and generally debauched himself into the grave while in his early 30s. Numbering Tennyson, Voltaire and Goethe among his admirers, Rochester's most notorious work is perhaps his play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery. The film opens with Depp staring into the camera and telling the audience that they will not like him, and despite the opportunities for flamboyant witticism inherent in the role—and perhaps to delineate the character from the cheerfully flippant Captain Jack—Depp approaches Rochester with deadly seriousness, turning in an intense, subtle, powerful performance that was more accomplished that I would have imagined he had in him, keeping up with John Malkovich (as Charles II) every step of the way. Although the film looks grainy and murkily low contrast, it doesn't shy away from its subject matter and at times reminded me of Henry and June, another unflinching look at literary eroticism and excess. Made in 2004, it wasn't widely released until 2006.



TOWN BLOODY HALL

he Castro Theater recently ran the Documentary Film Institute's retrospective of films made by directors Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, two pioneers of cinéma vérité. Leacock and Pennebaker were on hand for most of the screenings, including most famously Monterey Pop and the Dylan documentary Don't Look Back. But many of the lesser known films were just as interesting, and the one I enjoyed most was a wonderful film called Town Bloody Hall, which documents a 1971 debate between Norman Mailer, acting as moderator, and four feminist writers, including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. The standing room audience of literati attending the event, Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan among them, joined in the fracas toward the end. The starting point of the discussion was The Prisoner Of Sex, Mailer's recently published response to Greer's The Female Eunuch and other writings of the emerging women's liberation movement. Mailer tried to make the case, rather vainly (in both senses of the word), for some consideration of the man's position in feminist rhetoric, insisting on the connection between biological function and social destiny, an old trick used by everyone from Freud to Ayn Rand. At one point, discussing how the disparity in physical strength between men and women causes them to respond differently to conflict, Mailer posited that when a man and a woman argue, sooner or later the man's temper is going to lead to a decision about whether or not to hit her. And if he does, said Mailer, he has immediately lost the argument. But if he doesn't hit her, and the woman keeps endlessly attacking him, taking advantage of his restraint and using it against him, then she is just as surely going to kill him by degrees.

ermaine Greer's comments focused mostly on how societally dictated attitudes toward women and the traditional roles assigned to them serve to repress women and keep them from achieving their full potential, especially artistically, as the male artistic ego and consumerism hold them back. The most reasoned rhetoric of the evening came from critic Diana Trilling who, while lauding the goals and intent of the women's movement, reserved the right to ignore any dogma imposed upon her, sexually or otherwise, by any movement, feminist or chauvinist, that doesn't coincide with her beliefs and needs as an individual. Speaking about the political baggage being assigned to female orgasm at the time, Trilling said, dryly, "I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexities, we happen to be capable of." Her remarks foreshadowed the corrective reaction of many feminists in subsequent years to the absolutism of much 70s era women's lib rhetoric, typified by the opposition of pro-porn activists like Annie Sprinkle to anti-porn crusaders like Andrea Dworkin.

ailer started off the evening as a gracious enough host, but as his masculinity increasingly came under fire throughout the evening, especially from Greer, the whole enterprise rapidly devolved into barbed rejoinders and verbal one-upsmanship, all of it generally good natured and hilariously funny—Mailer at one point got up and courteously poured glasses of water for the women on the panel. Watching the whole thing over thirty years later, I was struck not only by the datedness of the arguments, but by how lively and intellectually informed and spirited our cultural debate used to be, compared to the current lack of literary and liberal vibrancy in our corporate controlled public discourse. All of us, women and men, are subject to consumer driven sexual objectification these days—gotta look good in your Calvin Klein underwear—and any sense that times are changing for the better and that we can somehow affect those changes through lively public discourse has totally gone out the window.

erhaps the wisest take on the issues of the evening was by a writer who wasn't there, Joyce Carol Oates, who in a 1971 essay on The Prisoner Of Sex wrote, "But after all this, after all these considerations, we are still left with the rage of Women's Liberation. How to explain this anger? And we understand slowly that what is being liberated is really hatred. Hatred of men. Women have always been forbidden hatred. Certainly they have been forbidden the articulation of all base, aggressive desires, in a way that men have not. Aggression has been glorified in men, abhorred in women. Now, the hatred is emerging. And such hatred! Such crude, vicious jokes at the expense of men! Most women, reading the accusations of certain feminists, will be as shocked and demoralized as Norman Mailer himself. Somehow, in spite of all the exploitation, the oppression, somehow . . . there are things about the private lives of men and women that should not be uttered, or at least we think they should not be uttered, they are so awful. Women have been the subjects of crude jokes for centuries, the objects of healthy male scorn, and now, as the revolution is upon us, men will become the objects of this scorn, this exaggerated disgust and comic sadism. Nothing will stop the hatred, not the passage of legislation, not the friendliest of men eager to come out in support of Women's Liberation. It has just begun. It is going to get worse. And yet, it will probably be short-lived. Hatred goes nowhere, has no goal, no energy. It has a certain use, but it has no beauty. There will be a place in our society for Mailer's heroic mysticism, at the point in history at which women can afford the same mysticism."



LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD

o I'm a big Albert Brooks fan, and every one of his previous feature films—Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost In America, Defending Your Life, Mother, and The Muse—made me laugh hard. Brooks has always been sort of a comedian's comedian, one of the first meta-comics, doing inspired bits that stood the old school conventions of comedy performers on their head in order to goof on them, which paved the way for people like Andy Kaufman, who took the idea even further. He's also big on self-deprecation, at which he is much better and more self-aware than Woody Allen, who secretly seems to harbor a smug superiority complex that gets worse with age. Albert, however, grows increasingly hard on himself as time goes by, which brings us to Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World. With a title like that, a lot of people are probably expecting a wry little observational film about the humor to be found in the East/West culture clash. Wrong. What this film is about is—Albert Brooks! And you can view the Muslim/Hindu thing as simply a big metaphor for a world that just doesn't get Albert Brooks or his humor. Albert gets asked by the State Department to go to India to find out what makes Muslims laugh. Wait, Albert says, isn't India mostly Hindu? And the State Department guy says, You find out what makes the Hindus laugh and we'll consider this a success. So Albert goes to New Dehli and does his stand up act for a few hundred locals and no one laughs. Okay, Albert asks the audience during the failing performance, how many of you speak English? And everyone in the audience raises their hand. There is a case to be made that if you aren't familar with Albert Brooks or the method to his madness, then you aren't going to get this film, just like all those mystified Muslims. But you know what, that's kind of the point of the movie.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2005

The New World
Capote
Good Night, And Good Luck
Tony Takitani
Syriana
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room
2046
In My Country
Broken Flowers
Junebug

HONORABLE MENTION

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home
Off The Map
Batman Begins
The Aristocrats



THE NEW WORLD

wesome, incredible movie. Those unfamiliar with Terence's Malick's work and expecting perhaps a Last Of The Mohicans-style shoot 'em up are in for a rude disappointment. Malick is perhaps the most visually poetic American film director working today, and his retelling of the Pocohantas story is a haunting meditation on love and expectation and longing and loss. Malick continues to develop his cinematic approach to placing the viewer into a first person perspective inside of the world created by the film, using long stretches of ambient sound and stunning lingering visuals of landscapes, ocean and sky. Colin Farrell is good, but Christian Bale is subtler, and the young actress, Q'Orianka Kilcher, who plays the Indian girl, is best of all, nearly wordlessly portraying a wide range of very intense emotion. Far and away the best movie of the year.



KING KONG

aybe one of those times when the studio should have taken the film from the director and edited it down to size. Way too much exposition in the beginning. Too much development of minor characters who get squashed in the jungle early on. Repetitive allusions to Conrad's Heart Of Darkness that don't quite fit or go anywhere. Too much time spent on extraneous bug attacks and people running ridiculously between the legs of dinosaurs stampeding Pamplona style. Robert Armstrong's derring-do in the original film version has been rewritten as smarminess for Jack Black, who fits the bill but doesn't have enough manic intensity to pull off the Orson Welles thing he's going for. And taking a cue from Mighty Joe Young, this Kong is much more user-friendly than the perpetually pissed off 1933 model. Director Peter Jackson's post-Koko take on the interspecies communication savvy of the gorilla creates a marvelously textured, funny, thoughtful modern update of the beast. Naomi Watts emotes tolerably well toward a blue screen, but really, after being in Kong's fist the entire time he's kicking dinosaur ass—unlike Fay Wray, who spectated from a log—she would've had such a case of whiplash she wouldn't have been able to move her neck for a year.

first saw the original King Kong when I was ten years old, in a dark run-down movie theater in Jackson, Tennessee. Since then I've often seen parts of it on television, but last night I watched the entire film for the second time from the balcony of the Castro Theater, and although the stop-action animation is decades old, the sight of Kong rampaging across the big screen is still mightily impressive. The film is so light on its feet—the cornball jokes still work, and they reach the island in the first twenty minutes of the movie and then almost as soon as they return to New York Kong is loose again. Watching it as a prepubescent kid, I was oblivious to one of the film's biggest charms—Fay Wray. Several months ago, when the Castro screened a festival of Columbia pre-Code films, I made sure to catch every one she starred in. I have a huge crush on Fay Wray. What gams! What a mug! What a dame! She was stunning, and a good actress when given a decent role. I'd rather get my paws on her than Naomi Watts any day.



AFTER YOU

aniel Auteuil is one of my all time favorite actors. I'll happily watch him anytime, but this is one of his weaker starring roles, and he can't quite rescue this minor French comedy. He plays a maitre d' who, walking home from the restaurant one night, happens across a despondent man trying to hang himself from a tree in the park. Auteuil rescues the guy, takes him home and tries to help him get his life back on track by getting him a job at the restaurant as a wine steward. Auteuil also tracks down the girl who dumped the guy and tries to get her back together with him, but this being a French film, Auteuil falls for her himself even though he already has a girlfriend, who is quite exasperated at the suicidal idiot goofing up her relationship. Silly silly silly, not as fun as it could've been.

FIVE TIMES TWO

he latest by French director Francois Ozon, whose last few films have been really interesting—Under The Sand, starring Charlotte Rampling as a woman who refuses to accept her husband's death, was excellent, as was the hilarious 8 Women with Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, and Swimming Pool, also with Rampling, was good but marred by a dumb ending. Five Times Two is the story of a failed marriage told in reverse, in five separate scenes, starting with a divorce and ending with the beginning of the romance. With such a Memento-like structure, you might expect a revelation or plot twist along the way that will cast events into a different light or make you rethink what you've already seen, but that's not what this drama is up to. The movie is impressionistic, with a lot of narrative holes that aren't filled in, sometimes to the film's detriment, because its ambiguities don't always outweigh the questions they raise. Still, by the time the couple meets in the movie's last section, the knowledge of what will follow shadows their burgeoning affair with a grim fatalism that, as time goes by and I get further away from the film, I think is kind of impressive.

AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER

irected by Yvan Atta and starring him—as an actor he's sort of like the French Griffin Dunne—and his real life wife Charlotte Gainsbourg as a married couple with, surprise, infidelity problems. Just like his last film, My Wife Is An Actress, in which he played, surprise, a husband worried about his actress wife cheating on him with her leading man. That film had some amusing commentary on the thespian profession and was a better movie than this one, in which it's Atta's turn to fool around behind Gainsbourg's back. He's a car salesman, she's a real estate agent, he cheats, she suspects but doesn't say anything, they have a food fight, the best scene is when she runs into Johnny Depp at a listening station in a record store and daydreams about having a fling with him. Fun? Frothy? I guess. Gainsbourg is easy on the eyes, but there's not enough Johnny Depp to really keep the ladies happy. Good soundtrack, including Radiohead and the Velvet Underground.

KINGS AND QUEENS

ne of the more high profile recent French movies, directed by one Arnard Desplechin, whose previous films I've not seen. A big, messy relationship/family drama about Nora, a gallery owner whose father is dying, and her ex-boyfriend Ismael, a temperamental viola player who gets involuntarily committed to a mental hospital by his unsympathetic sister (at least, though, he gets to be analyzed by Catherine Deneuve). There's lots of plot stuff going on—Nora's son likes Ismael better than the rich business guy she's about to marry, Nora's dad turns out to not like Nora very much, etc etc—but the best thing about the film is how your perception of the main characters shifts the more you learn about them. Nora starts out seeming sweet and together and by the end seems anything but, while Ismael initially grates on the nerves but eventually comes off as likable and sort of charming. It's the lovely kind of movie the French excel at, with well developed characters that are a combination of good and bad qualities, convoluted, realistic, and human, without the usual Hollywood oversimplification and two dimensionality.

THE SEPARATION

ort of a ringer, not a recent French film but a movie I rented that was made in 1994, starring Daniel Auteuil and Isabelle Huppert, another of my all time favorite actors, in still another story of a relationship torn apart by infidelity. Sometimes compared to Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage, this film is awesome. The acting is sublime, and the quiet, slice of life script is low key and takes time building to an outburst, but its emotional accuracy makes the film's ending powerful and full of verisimilitude. Originally Juliette Binoche was cast as the female lead, but bowed out at the last minute, and the film is probably better for it, Huppert's icy take on her character fits the role perfectly. Highly recommended.



SYRIANA

his movie is like a fictional counterpart to the Enron documentary, but with big stars and a large production budget instead of file footage of real world corporate sleazebags. Aside from being a very smart political thriller, it's a tough, no bullshit film about how the oil business and international politics really work. You can quibble with the exposition quotient of a piece of dialogue here or the believability of a plot point there, but the righteous seriousness that this Hollywood flick drags into your local cineplex completely overrides all that. All those people complaining that the narrative is too hard to follow are just intellectually lazy knuckleheads. And Clooney is really good, yet again.



JESUS IS MAGIC

arah Silverman is a comedian that I first saw, since I never watch TV, in the film The Aristocrats—her bit about auditioning for legendary agent Joe Franklin almost steals the movie, and I heard almost got her sued. Jesus Is Magic is a stand-up concert film with a few staged skits and musical numbers thrown in. The more fucked up your sense of humor is, you funnier you'll find Silverman. She does a lot of intentionally offensive racist material, but delivered through enough layers of irony that it's hard to get a fix on whether she's making fun of people of other races or making fun of people who make fun of people of other races. Both, probably. Her schtick reminds me a little of Andrew Dice Clay or Howard Stern, with the blustery buffoonish male posturing replaced by an obliviously ditzy, gosh I really don't think I'm being offensive at all cluelessness that's a big put-on. At one point she says, I don't deal in stereotypes, I deal in facts, and then reels off some ridiculously bigoted "facts" that were funny the same way Archie Bunker is funny. There are always people who are going to take ironic humor at face value, leading others to accuse it of perpetuating racism or whatever, but I thought Silverman was pretty amusing. I also didn't mind the skits as much as everyone else seemed to.



MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

lot has been said about the casting of Chinese actresses to play Japanese roles in the film, but hell, the novel was written by a white guy from Tennessee and the movie is a big budget Hollywood production aimed squarely at American audiences that won't recognize cultural inaccuracies anyhow, so who cares? Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi aren't the three most famous Asian actresses in the world for no reason, in addition to being incredibly beautiful, each one is an accomplished actor, and their performances are the best thing about the film. Yes, the set design and costumes and cinematography are slick and glossy, but I am always amazed at how much emotional resonance Ziyi and Yeoh in particular are able to invest in characters found in otherwise run of the mill movies. The little girl in the film is good too.



THE ICE HARVEST

he reviews almost unanimously said the movie sucked, although an occasional reviewer said it wasn't that bad. The only people who seemed to get it were some of the IMDb.com comment writers. I really enjoyed The Ice Harvest. Although marketed as a dark Christmas comedy a la Bad Santa, it's more of a droll noir thriller in a grimly humorous Elmore Leonard/Jim Thompson vein. Every single person in the film is unsavory, with the semi-exception of John Cusack, which right away means most audiences will hate it. The male characters are all liars, cheats and, for the most part, violent and homicidal. The women are all dim-witted gold diggers comprised of, for the most part, scantily clad strippers. The acting by Billy Bob Thornton and especially by Cusack is really sharp and nuanced, Oliver Platt has a hilarious part as an obnoxious drunk, and the deadpan script is ironic and sly and most of the time kept me guessing about who was on the level and where the plot was going. Compared to director Harold Ramis' other films, it ain't no Caddyshack or Groundhog Day, and for that I am thankful. Best holiday movie of the year.



THE SQUID AND THE WHALE

ritten and directed by Noah Baumbach, who cowrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and directed and wrote Kicking And Screaming, which I never saw. Starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, it's a slightly fictionalized account of Baumbach's childhood experiences during his parents' divorce in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Although the acting is strong all around, I found the script too memoiristic in places. The overly critical father is well drawn, and his relationship with his reverential older son has a strong, universal resonance to it, but the characters of the younger son and the mother were particularly underdeveloped, almost to the point of remaining too enigmatically idiosyncratic to add much emotional authenticity to the story, except as signposts pointing at the director's personal family trip. Perhaps Baumbach was too close to the material to artistically develop it into a less self-referential, more developed drama.



CAPOTE

he consensus seems to be that Philip Seymour Hoffman has a lock on the next best actor Oscar the same way Jamie Foxx did last time, and deservedly so, I'd say. But unlike Ray, the rest of this very smart film equals the brilliant portrayal of the lead character. Striking cinematography, outstanding acting all the way around (it's good to see Catherine Keener in a film worthy of her talent), concise editing and a thoughtful script, and thoroughly compelling subject matter dealing both with the original In Cold Blood murders as well as the meta-story of Capote's involvement in and exploitation of the events. An unflinching, first rate biopic and an unhesitatingly sharp depiction of the tension inherent in being a journalist and a celebrity (as well as an asshole). Second best movie of 2005, after The New World.



WALK THE LINE

didn't for one minute buy Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. I didn't buy the guy who played Elvis, or the guy who played Jerry Lee Lewis, and as good as she was, I didn't buy Reese Witherspoon as June Carter either. I did buy the woman who played Mother Maybelle, she seemed authentically downhome, as did Robert Patrick as Johnny's dad, but the rest of the TV movie-ish cast seemed too young, too pretty, too uncountrified, and—Witherspoon excepted—too thespianically challenged. That being said, I still enjoyed the movie, the camera work and retro set design looked good and the direction was understated and the whole thing actually came alive for one moment during the Folsom Prison concert scene. But the last part of the film focuses too myopically on his drug problems back then, and whatever the essence of Johnny Cashness is—which despite the black clothes includes a knowing nod and a wink and infectious Southern high spiritedness that are fairly absent in Phoenix's somber, morose, inward performance—it's buried by the film's single-minded interest in Johnny's dysfunctional courtship of June. Which is portrayed interestingly enough, but the impact that Cash's stubborn class-conscious country songs had on popular music during the 60s gets sidelined along the way, assumed rather than shown, and the film nearly loses track of what made him a great artist.



KISS KISS BANG BANG

eminded me of a funny Moonlighting episode written by Charlie Kaufman with Robert Downey Jr. as Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd replaced by a gay Val Kilmer. The smug L.A. noir Raymond Chandler references notwithstanding, the murder mystery aspect is completely ridiculous and beside the point, we know Corben Bersen is the bad guy as soon as he shows up, it's all about witty repartee and being a smart ass and breaking the fourth wall. Robert Downey Jr. has always been one of my favorite comedic actors, his timing is flawless, and he and Val Kilmer have an offbeat buddy flick camaraderie that's looser and more entertaining than director Shane Black's Lethal Weapon scripts.



GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK

eorge Clooney is turning out to be one of the coolest guys in Hollywood, a liberal activist without being sanctimonious about it, and this beautifully shot black and white film is his tribute to the long lost ethical integrity of American broadcast journalism of yesteryear. The story revolves around Edward R. Murrow's eloquent reportage during the HUAC investigations, and cleverly integrates actual footage of McCarthy, Eisenhower and others into the storyline, grounding the film in a sobering retro-realism that reminds us that what goes around comes around. David Strathairn is excellent as Murrow, as is Frank Langella as CBS head William Paley. My second favorite film this year.



ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN

r more accurately, Paul Morrissey's Frankenstein produced by Andy Warhol. The Castro had to secure a 3-D print of this film from a private collector in Germany because there are very few surviving 3-D copies left in existence. Ultracampy and hilarious. Never a missed opportunity to dangle a 3-D bloody internal organ in the audience's face. Inspired carpet-chewing by Udo Kier as the maniacal Baron Frankenstein who has necrophiliac sex with his hot nude stitched-together female creature, and accidentally sews the head of a gay guy onto his male creature so it refuses to mate with the girl creature. Lots of gratuitous Joe Dallesandro nakedness. Cheesy, trashy, perverse, and side-splittingly funny.



BLACK MOON

he Castro recently ran a series of movies made by Columbia Pictures before the Hays Production Code went into effect in the 1930s. Compared to the Paramount pre-Codes the Balboa Theater was screening around the same time, the Columbia films were pretty much B-movie fare, but one film in particular stood out. Black Moon (1934), a moody suspense thriller with horror movie overtones, stars Dorothy Burgess as a New York socialite haunted by her childhood memories of growing up on a Haiti-like isle in the Caribbean. Taking her young daughter with her, she returns to visit her uncle—the only remaining white inhabitant of the island—and confront her past. As it turns out, the black natives who took care of her as a child would secretly carry her into the jungle every night to participate in ceremonial voodoo sacrifices, and upon her return as an adult she assumes the role of white voodoo priestess and begins to lead the rituals. Her businessman husband Jack Holt, with secretary Fay Wray in tow, follows her to the island and while attempting to rescue his wife and daughter is besieged by the native voodoo worshippers. The remarkable thing about the movie is its slow oppressive mood, played entirely as a serious drama with little trace of dated campiness. The atmosphere of impending dread and shadowy black and white cinematography reminded me of the original Cat People, filmed eight years later. The black islanders are solemn and menacing without being racial stereotypes, and the voodoo drums beating throughout the movie add to the ominous creepiness. Sort of has the air of an early zombie movie, but without any zombies. Definitely catch it if you get a chance.



MICKEY ONE

ong unavailable on VHS or DVD in this country, I first saw this 1965 film when the Castro screened it ten years ago, and last night I watched it there again. Invariably described as an American version of a French New Wave movie, which is exactly right, and directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty, who teamed up again two years later for Bonnie And Clyde, this black and white fugitive drama is one of the great lost films of the 1960s. Beatty plays a Chicago nightclub comedian on the lam from the mob, constantly looking over his shoulder and paranoid about his former mafia employers catching up with him. With a jazzy Stan Getz soundtrack and an existential jump cut story about an urban hipster on the run with a beautiful chick in tow, the film brings to mind a combination of influences that range from Godard's Breathless, the stagey surrealism and odd looking characters found in Fellini films, Orson Welles' claustrophobic version of Kafka's The Trial, Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm, with some menacing pre-Scorsese American gangsterism thrown in.



TONY TAKITANI

his beautiful little gem of an art film is one of my favorite movies this year. Based on a short story by popular Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki, it tells the story of a solitary boy born in postwar Japan to an emotionally distant jazz musician father. His mother dies while he is young, and the neglected boy, who becomes a successful graphic illustrator, grows up to be a introverted and isolated adult, until he meets and marries a beautiful young girl who has an obsession for clothes shopping. That's almost the entire plot, except for a twist or two at the end I won't reveal, but the pleasure of the movie is its languid, lyrical feel, due in equal parts to slow moving and evocatively framed cinematography, a very literary voice-over by an omniscient narrator that almost entirely supplants dialogue by the characters, and a beautiful classical piano score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The movie is about loneliness, shown through an accumulation of beautifully observed everyday scenes that quietly build to a deeply affecting tone poem.



BROKEN FLOWERS

return to form for Jim Jarmusch after last year's boring (except for the Cate Blanchett bit) Coffee And Cigarettes. The laconic pacing and episodic structure are reminiscent of his early work, and he returns to his favorite motif—the culture clash of people from different worlds attempting to communicate—with a slightly different spin. Films like Down By Law, Night On Earth and Mystery Train often explore this theme by juxtaposing characters of different nationalities attempting to broach a language barrier, while in Broken Flowers, Bill Murray sets out on a cross-country quest to revisit some of his ex-girlfriends and finds himself estranged from the women and the social milieus into which their lives have taken them. Murray's restrained, hangdog performance conveys both a sense of ironic bewilderment at how much the women he'd known have changed, and a sense of sadness that in the end he wasn't close to them or anyone else in his life. Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Lange get off good turns, but Jeffrey Wright gives the standout performance as next door neighbor Winston, whose quixotic interest in Murray's plight precipitates the journey. Wright is one of the most precise actors around today, and his character anchors the premise of the movie so adeptly that it allows the rest of the film to take whimsical flight.



HAPPY ENDINGS

ometimes when watching a black comedy or a drama with an ironic, dark sense of humor—like In The Company Of Men or Good Fellas—I often find myself laughing harder than anyone else in the theater. Happy Endings was like that. The trailer patched together the most slapstick moments in the movie and created the impression of a less nuanced film, sort of a bubblier take on something like Laurel Canyon, with which Happy Endings shares a few similarities, both thematically and structurally even down to the rock band subplot, as it follows the intersecting romantic affairs and emotional dramas of a group of tangentially connected characters. Happy Endings is a much smarter movie though. The script—by the director, who also wrote and directed The Opposite Of Sex—is incisive, and the droll subtitles that slip onscreen from time to time to provide anecdotal details about a scene or character are not only funny but add a literary touch to the tone of the movie. This is a film that doesn't provide a clearly sympathetic protagonist, which oftentimes can cause a movie reviewer, in this case Roger Ebert, to dismiss the merits of the film as a whole since he couldn't find anyone he personally likes in it. Everyone in the movie has issues, with the possible exception of Tom Arnold, who—cast against type—plays the nicest person here, and the film is about is how everyone looks for what they need both in life and in romance, and how—given each person's own desires and hang-ups—they end up manipulating or hurting the people they become involved with. Standout performances by Lisa Kudrow, who once again shows that she's one of the most underrated comedic actresses around, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who invests her gold digging character with unexpected humanity.



BATMAN BEGINS

ot only the best Batman movie but maybe the finest comic book adaptation to be brought to the big screen. Certainly it’s the most well acted and self-consciously serious superhero drama ever, although the continuing influence of Tim Burton’s Batman is hard to overestimate, as even now it still sets the standard for costume and set design. Christian Bale deftly portrays the only thoughtful film version of Bruce Wayne and is the first muscular, scary Batman, the only Dark Knight that actually would frighten a crook just by yelling at him. Concise, well thought out script. Special effects kept to the minimum level needed to establish the technological illusion of Batman in a realistic noir setting. Little to no camp, genuinely menacing villains.



ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM

f you want to know how this country works, go see this film. Not only did the guys running Enron pull off the single biggest corporate swindle in history, they had most of Wall Street helping them out. Arthur Anderson—the oldest accounting firm in the country, which was destroyed by this scandal—got the ball rolling when it signed off on Enron's mark-to-market accounting scheme, which allowed Enron to declare as income any deal the company made as soon as the ink dried on the agreement, and at whatever value Enron said the deal would be worth in the future, whether or not that amount turned out to have anything to do with reality. Enron began to claim enormous nonexistent profits in a spectacularly successful effort to drive up the price of its own stock, and the company's chief financial officer began setting up external corporations under his own name to do business with Enron and help bury Enron's debt by getting paid in Enron stock. Major banks like Citibank, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan all invested in these bogus companies even though they knew it was fraudulent, simply because there was tons of money to be made and the SEC was looking the other way, thanks in large part to Ken Lay's best buddy in the Oval Office.

his situation was not dissimilar to the savings and loan debacle of the 80s, when the elder Bush was using the Executive Branch to run interference for all of his CIA and Mafia buddies, who were trading overvalued real estate and other assets back and forth, paying themselves substantial fees for every transaction and borrowing money for the deals from S&Ls, which they knew taxpayers would have to repay once all of the deals went bankrupt. And the recent United Airlines bankruptcy, which wiped out its employee pension funds, is just the tip of the coming iceberg. For years now, major corporations in the airline, steel and auto industries have been using the mark-to-market dodge to underfund their retirement funds. These corporations have been declaring as income nonexistent profits based on ridiculously inflated projected future returns from investing their pension funds in the stock market. And just like Enron and United, when these companies fail their employees will lose their retirement benefits while the CEOs bail out with armloads of money. And taxpayers will have to pay again when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, created by Congress in 1974, goes bankrupt from trying to cover all of the failing pension plans and the federal government has to bail it out, possibly to the tune of $100 billion or more.

he free market myth dies hard, but going all the way back to the era when the railroads secured fortune-making land grants from easily purchased Congressional legislators, big money has been made in this country through crony capitalism—by restricting competition, securing franchises and monopolies and no-bid contracts from the federal government, bankrolling politicians who look the other way while the piggy bank is being raided. It's an old story, and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room tells it well.



2046

sequel to his brilliant 2000 film In The Mood For Love, Kar Wai Wong's 2046 is just as lyrical and evocative. The movie also revisits the womanizing theme of his 1991 film—also set in Hong Kong during the 1960s—Days Of Being Wild, which first introduced Maggie Cheung as Su Lizhen, the reticent character she later played in In The Mood For Love. In that film, Cheung becomes involves in an unrequited romance with a writer played by Tony Leung, whose wife in the film is having an affair with Cheung's husband. 2046 picks up the tale after a downcast Leung travels to Singapore and coincidentally meets another woman named Su Lizhen, a black gloved gambler played by Gong Li. She refuses to return to Hong Kong with him and he leaves, after giving her the most powerful kiss in recent cinematic history. Back in Hong Kong he starts to write a science fiction novel, using the women in his life as models for fictional androids and gaining insight into them as he develops their characters. Zhang Ziyi gives the film's most memorable performance as a hooker who moves into the hotel room across the hall from Leung and falls in love with him, only to be rebuffed after a series of torrid, playful scenes reminiscent of the affair between Leslie Cheung and the prostitute played by Carian Lau in Days Of Being Wild. The cinematography is gorgeous, the retro wardrobe and set design are luscious, Wong's signature repetition of a particular song isn't too overdone (I'll take Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" over "California Dreaming" any day), and the acting by all involved is excellent. This guy is making the some of the sexiest films around.



THE INTERPRETER, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE WAY WE WERE

went on a mini Sidney Pollack festival recently. I caught him talking to Charlie Rose about The Interpreter and the United Nations angle sounded interesting, plus Sean Penn is always worth watching—by the way, if you haven't seen the fairly recent The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, it's one of his best performances ever, right up there with Dead Man Walking. The way Pollack talked up Nicole Kidman as one of the best actresses of our time, however, made me nervous. Where did she get such an undeserved reputation as a great actress? When she gets in over her head she can be pretty awful. And the clip of the exploding bus scene made me wonder about the strength of the rest of the movie given that the studio was revealing the outcome of such a major plot development during the prerelease publicity. My suspicions were well founded, as it turned out. Pollack said that the script had been reworked by four of five different screenwriters, and they should've hired four or five more. The ending was the most retarded climax to a thriller I've seen in a while. Kidman was pretty good, though.

o out of curiosity I rented Pollack's Three Days Of The Condor—often touted as one of the best political conspiracy thrillers of the 70s—which was much better. Starring Robert Redford as a bookish analyst for the CIA who unexpectedly has to flee for his life after uncovering a rogue undercover operation that the Agency wants to keep secret, the direction is solid and workmanlike, if not exactly inspired. When Redford confronts CIA chief Cliff Robertson at the end, Robertson has a few lines of dialogue justifying the operation that are chillingly on point—his contention being that when the supply of cheap oil dries up and people can't drive their cars or buy food, they're not going to ask questions about morality, they'll just want the government to get them their gas and their food by whatever means necessary. Max Von Sydow is good as a hit man, and actually the best thing about the film is Faye Dunaway. She takes one of those thankless, cliched token female roles and infuses it with nuance, subtlety and humor. I'm not used to seeing her turn in such a nice performance without being campy. But in the end, the film wasn't nearly as good a 70s conspiracy thriller as The Parallax View or All The President's Men.

nd then last weekend The Way We Were, which I'd never seen, played at the Castro. Totally schmaltzy tear jerker that succeeds almost entirely because of Barbra Streisand. I'm not her biggest fan, especially in light of her temperamental behavior of recent years, but in this film she's vulnerable, restrained, and very appealing. I decided Sydney Pollack is one of Hollywood's most prominent A list friendly directors, a guy who turns the camera onto big stars and lets them do their thing without getting in the way too much. And when he has a good script and an exceptional cast, as in Tootsie or Out Of Africa, his films are a cut above.



PALINDROMES

irector Todd Solondz's main schtick is playing disturbing, squirm-inducing situations for laughs. He's definitely following a trail blazed by John Waters, although without the manic good-natured gleefulness. He mercilessly goofs on losers, weirdos, outcasts and victims, and gets the audience laughing at the poor unfortunates, claiming all the while to be sympathetic to them. Solondz's humor revolves around characters that are so inappropriate and fucked up—not to mention such easy targets—that I find myself laughing not so much at the smug cleverness of his films, but at what a misanthropic dick Solondz is and the lengths to which he'll go to make his audience feel uncomfortable. Solondz has been upping the ante ever since his first hit, Welcome To The Dollhouse, and in his latest film he uses a couple of gimmicks to keep viewers from calling for his head on a pole. One, in a motivational plot device as expedient as Darth Vader turning to the dark side of the force in order to save Natalie Portman, the pedophile raping the underage protagonist is funny because she conveniently wants to get pregnant and have a baby. Two, the girl is played by several different actresses of varying age and ethnicities in order to imbue the whole affair with an ersatz sense of the loftiness of the universal human condition—he couldn't have gotten away with this film by casting a single adolescent actress in the role. It wouldn't surprise me if his next film was a remake of Amos and Andy.



BORN INTO BROTHELS

ven though this won the Oscar for best documentary, it wasn't nearly as good as In The Realms Of The Unreal or Tarnation. Apparently the Academy's nomination process for documentaries resembles a major league playoff series. Films in the documentary category are divided into groups, each of which is viewed by small subset of members, and their pick from their group of films advances to compete against the picks from other member's groups. Stupid. The drama of this story of a photographer trying to rescue the children living in brothels in a red light district of Calcutta is affecting, though—the worried look in the eyes of the young girls whose families are waiting for them to reach puberty so they can force them into prostitution is heartbreaking. The cinematography is competent but toward the end the story bogs down, literally, in bureaucratic red tape as the filmmaker tries to get all the kids out of the slums and into schools.



IN MY COUNTRY

lthough it got mediocre reviews, I thought this was one of the best films I've seen so far this year. Samuel Jackson is a Washington Post correspondent sent to South Africa to cover hearings that Nelson Mandela's newly formed government is holding on the atrocities committed under the previous apartheid regime. Juliette Binoche is a local poet and journalist who is covering the hearings for radio. The film, directed by John Boorman who is best known for Deliverance, is a character study of two people who bring their own cultural identities and moral baggage to an emotionally devastating process, and are forced by the events and the people they encounter to reevaluate their own biases and preconceptions. I think many reviewers expected this to be a political thriller and complained, unfairly, about the romance that developed between the two leads, but in fact the movie is largely about how people from very different backgrounds are drawn to each other as a way of coping with and transcending the difficulties of their situation, emotionally opening themselves to mutual affection and vulnerability in order to broaden their perceptions and get past the prejudices that separate them. The performances by Jackson and Binoche are subtle and very good. The script and direction are fairly low-key given the subject matter, the horrors recounted in the hearings aren't played merely for histrionics and brought tears to my eyes again and again.



EROS

n anthology of three new short films. Starring Gong Li, Kar Wai Wong's segment is the best, another highly stylized meditation on (sort of) unrequited love between a prostitute and her tailor, along the lines of In The Mood For Love and 2046. Soderberg's segment is very funny and clever and has the highest gloss cinematography of the three. Robert Downey Jr., always great and no exception here, plays a wound-up 1950s marketing exec working out his issues with shrink Alan Arkin, another favorite of mine. Antonioni's film is pointless European soft core porn without much to recommend it except voluptuous naked actresses and laughable art house pretensions.



OFF THE MAP and THE UPSIDE OF ANGER

oan Allen is one of the best actresses working today. She's one of a handful of women—Meryl Streep, Judy Dench, Helen Mirren, Judy Davis—whose performances are always sharp, intelligent , and perfectly realized. In these two simultaneously released films, she plays two very different characters that are almost diametrically opposite. In The Upside Of Anger she plays an upscale housewife whose husband abandons her and their four daughters, and who retreats into drinking, bitterness and self-pity. Allen's forte is playing strong-willed, intelligent, forceful women, and this is one of her best roles. The scenes where she unleashes her acid-tongued temper, combined with her very naturalistic take on the slightly slurred speech of an alcoholic, make for an acting tour-de-force. The script devolves into movie of the week melodrama whenever she's off-screen and the daughters take over, but Kevin Costner is actually pretty good as her dumb ex-jock drinking buddy and lover.

n Off The Map Allen plays a kind, patient, loving, supportive earth mother, a complete about-turn from Anger, and while her performance is just as accomplished, it's not as meaty a role. But the rest of the movie makes up for it, it's a quietly intelligent film directed by Campbell Scott, son of George C., who acted in two of my favorite films of the last couple of years, Roger Dodger and The Secret Lives Of Dentists. In the film, Allen is married to a depressed husband Sam Elliot, and they have dropped out and moved to a self-sufficient commune-like house out in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. The film is narrated by their precocious daughter Bo, portrayed sublimely by a young actress named Valentina de Angelis, and when an IRS agent arrives to audit them, he has a life-altering change of consciousness and moves in with them and becomes a painter. Not a lot happens plot-wise, but every scene is well-observed, and the accumulation of rich detail and interesting character development leads to a nice coming of age drama. Screenplay adapted by writer Joan Ackermann from her play.



DOWNFALL

he last days of the Third Reich, focusing mostly on Hitler and gang down in their bunker in Berlin, waiting for the Russians to arrive. Bruno Ganz does an excellent turn as Der Führer, chewing the carpet as necessary but also adding a quiet, frail dimension to Hitler's madness and detachment from reality. Apparently the film is pretty historically accurate, and the sheer impact of watching such monumentally violent and important events unfold on the big screen—not to mention so many Nazis poisoning themselves or shooting themselves in the head— makes this a grim yet powerful film.



SIN CITY

've been a fan of Frank Miller's ever since he did the best Batman comic ever, The Dark Knight Returns. His style of drawing is dense and economical at the same time, and the Sin City series reduced it all down to black and white line art. Writing has never been Miller's strong point, though, and the Sin City stories are sort of mindlessly violent and serve as a simplistic framework for kinetic comic book action. Robert Rodriguez has adapted that high contrast black and white style to the big screen, and the result is one of the best looking neo-noir films ever. All of the actors were filmed separately from the backgrounds, which allowed for careful and precise lighting of their faces and figures in every shot, achieving the cinematic equivalent of extreme dark and light contrasts usually reserved for graphic artists. For all that, some of the poetry of Miller's artwork is still lost in translation. The woman who reviewed the film in the Chronicle complained that the female characters are stereotypical hookers and floozies and all look like strippers, which is sort of to be expected, since it's based on a comic book aimed primarily at adolescent boys, but it is true that as good as Jessica Alba looks, it ain't as cool as this




MILLION DOLLAR BABY

organ Freeman and Hilary Swank deserved Oscars, I guess, but the film certainly didn't merit Academy Awards for best picture and director. Outside of good acting by the three leads, the movie was simplistic, overly sentimental, and poorly written. The fight sequences were some of the most ridiculous boxing scenes since the Rocky movies, the portrayal of Swank's redneck relatives was embarrassingly clichéd and trite, and even the main characters were two dimensional and motivated by formulaic Hollywood melodramatic convention. Unbelievable plot points pile up—the evil boxing champ (Ms. T, anyone?) is never disqualified for her outrageous dirty fighting antics; Swank never learns the meaning of her Gaelic nickname from any of her screaming fans or the magazine articles about her; and the nurses tending to Swank after she becomes a paraplegic seem to have never heard of turning a patient over in bed in order to avoid skin ulcers and gangrene. The whole thing is calculated to tug on the audience's heartstrings, but left me pretty cold.



CUTIE HONEY

he last film of the Asian American Film Festival at the Castro this year was a hilarious live action remake of an old Seventies exploitation anime called Cutie Honey. You gotta love a Japanese superheroine whose theme song, "Cutie Honey, Sweet Fighter," has lyrics extolling the virtues of her cute behind and perfect breasts. Cutie Honey activates her superpowers by touching a little heart on her necklace and shouting Honey Flash! See, her dad invented a technology that allowed her to come back to life as a robot that inhabits her human body after she is killed in a car crash, but of course an organization of evil supervillians called the Panther Claw are after her powers, and . . . oh forget it, just go watch nubile, supercute Eriko Sato get repeatedly caught in skimpily clad situations and kick the evildoers' butts by utilizing some of the cheesiest special effects since Flash Gordon. Fun bubblegum camp at its best.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2004

The Sea Inside
Sideways
In The Realms Of The Unreal
Before Sunset
Head-On
A Very Long Engagement
Bukowski: Born Into This
Tarnation
House Of Flying Daggers
Hotel Rwanda

HONORABLE MENTION

Tom Dowd: The Language Of Music
I Heart Huckabees
Garden State
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou



HEAD-ON

sexy punk rock drug-addled ill-fated dysfunctional love story that deals with Turkish immigrants living in Germany and the culture clash between modernism versus traditional religious values. The movie beat out The Sea Inside and Vera Drake for best film at the European Film Awards, and I can see why. The performances by the two leads—one of whom is a beautiful twenty-four year old Turkish actress who used to do porn and was disowned by her own conservative Muslim family exactly the way her character is disowned by her family in the movie—are very good, and the narrative stays true to the internal fucked-upness of its characters without blowing it with a feel good, cop out ending, which the director had originally contemplated. I saw this movie twice in one week and some uncomfortable parallels between the film and my last relationship put me in a bad mood for days.



HEAVEN'S GATE

he uncut version of Heaven's Gate played at the Castro recently and I really dug it, despite its reputation of being the biggest flop in movie history. Cimino snuck a goddam Bertolucci epic out of Hollywood, and a good one. Reminded me of a cross between McCabe And Mrs. Miller (same cinematographer) and 1900, with a little Days Of Heaven thrown in. The movie was the last gasp of Seventies era anti-establishment auteurism, an extended meditation on ruling class warfare against the poor, that perennial refrain of European cinema which is nearly taboo in American film. Jeff Bridges: It's getting dangerous to be poor in this country. Kris Kristofferson: It always was.



HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

saw four new foreign films over the last four nights, each one so good that together they point out what a difficult time Hollywood has making emotionally affecting movies any more. I thought Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers was even better than his previous film, Hero. Although the former movie's cinematography was more consciously artsy and its fight scenes more ferocious, the movie's narrative focus on palace intrigue and its Rashomon-like, who's-telling-the-truth-now structure made it hard for the audience to become emotionally invested in the characters. House of Flying Daggers tells the story of an ill-fated romantic triangle, and takes time to develop the relationship between its protagonists, more in the manner of Crouching Tiger, with a similar dramatic pay-off at the end. Since Zhang Ziyi has replaced Gong Li as his muse, Yimou has drifted more toward magical realist chop fuey period pieces, taking advantage of Ziyi's martial arts athleticism as well as her breathtaking beauty. He has been one of my favorite directors for years now, and his best films, like Raise The Red Lantern and Not One Less, are heartbreaking.



A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT

he new film by by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose The City of Lost Children and Amelie are modern day classics, also stars the beguiling Audrey Tautou, and in addition to being a touching romantic quest to find a missing lover, it's a powerful anti-war film, a blend of All Quiet Along The Western Front with the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan. Jeunet is one of the most unique visual stylists working in cinema today, and each of his films is more accomplished and spectacular looking than the last. The art direction and attention to historic detail is grand, and Jeunet shows how a big production budget and special effects can be made to serve the poetry of a story rather than serving as self-referential grandstanding.



BAD EDUCATION

wo new films showcase Spain's two leading cinematic exports, Pedro Almodóvar and Javier Bardem. Over the years Almodóvar has progressed from hilarious gay comedy to campy melodrama to, in his last three films, surprisingly serious, complex drama. Bardem is, in my opinion, the best actor in the world right now, completely inhabiting disparate characters in film after film the way DeNiro used to at the beginning of his career. The Academy Awards have had a love affair going with both men in recent years. Almodóvar's All About My Mother won the Oscar for best foreign film the same year that Bardem was nominated for best actor for his performance in Before Night Falls, the first Spanish actor ever to be nominated for that award. Three years later, when Spain submitted Bardem's excellent Mondays In The Sun as the country's entry for best foreign film during the same year that Almodóvar released Talk To Her, the Academy nominated Almodóvar in the best director category. This year brings Almodóvar's Bad Education, a meditation on familiar themes—Catholicism, transvestites, junkies, actors, sexual attraction and abuse—from a much darker, pessimistic, less humorous place than before. New Spanish heartthrob Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaires) turns in his best performance to date, but pales in comparison to Bardem in The Sea Inside.

THE SEA INSIDE

irected by Alejandro Amenábar, who also directed The Others, The Sea Inside is based on the true story of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought a well publicized legal battle for the right to end his own life. Bardem, made up to look much older and for the most part acting only from the neck up, is brilliant, and the other actors are excellent as well. The issue of euthanasia goes straight to the heart of the human condition, and this intelligent film never condescends or exploits the matter. Some reviewers' opinion of the movie, Roger Ebert among them, have revolved around their ability to empathize with the character's desire to end his own life, but as someone who has coped with chronic back pain every day for over ten years, I completely understood it. Not only the feeling of helplessness and despair when nothing can be done about the failure and betrayal of one's own body, but the indignity and humiliation that a proud, self-reliant person would feel at becoming a burden, with no choice but to inconvenience and depend on others. If I thought my health was never going to improve, my determination to struggle through would undoubtedly waver, and The Sea Inside explores that psychological dynamic, along with the disapproval and anger of the family members who care deeply for the protagonist and disagree with his decision. Truly a wonderful movie, maybe the best film I've seen this year.



IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL

ne of the best documentaries I've seen this year—along with Tarnation, Fahrenheit 9/11, and biographies of Charles Bukowski and Tom Dowd— is In The Realms Of The Unreal, about Henry Darger, a poor, reclusive janitor who died in Chicago in 1973. When his landlords cleaned out his room, they found hundreds of his brilliant watercolor folk art paintings that illustrated his bizarre fifteen thousand page novel. Darger was probably schizophrenic, and spent his entire life in his room creating an imaginary world that involved virtuous little blond girls with penises and endless military battles between the forces of Christianity and the evil Glandelinian army. No description I could offer would begin to explain it, just check it out.

PHIL CHAMBLISS

peaking of folk art, if Jesco the Dancing Outlaw wrote, directed and scored his own homemade movies, you'd pretty much have the films of Phil Chambliss. (If you're not familiar with Jesco White, then buddy, better do a Google search right quick.) Chambliss is a 51 year old security guard at a gravel pit in Arkansas who bought his first 8mm camera about thirty years ago and since then has made a couple of dozen films and videos. He's also an amateur musician of sorts and scores his own films, and he was discovered last year when he mailed out a tape of his oddball soundtrack music addressed simply to "Lucinda Williams—Nashville." Somehow the package arrived, and Williams and her friend, a Nashville film and TV producer, listened to it and wondered what the hell kind of movies this guy makes. They hooked him up with a Nashville film festival which several months ago publicly screened some of his work for the first time. Three of his films played last week at the Yerba Buena Center, and two articles I've read about him, in the Bay Guardian and Cinema Scope, ask the questions what exactly is folk art film, and are we laughing with Phil Chambliss or laughing at him?

ritics contend that Chambliss' cornpone eccentricity is largely intentional, but I wonder. Seems to me that folk art revolves around the idea of an artist creating idiosyncratic work in a very narrow cultural or personal context, one uninformed by an understanding or mastery of the broader context of an artistic medium's theoretical and historical development. Chambliss' films are convoluted redneck jokes, edited with a strange sense of timing, containing goofy backwoods actors reciting retarded dialogue: a woman screams "You old Scrooge!" at her lover, who replies "Scrooge! What about them moon-shaped panties I brung ya?" You can argue it's raw avant-garde Southern surrealist cinema, but Chambliss' sense of irony isn't that sophisticated, it's moronic hillbilly humor with low production values, surreal to the extent that unsophisticated country folks are surreal in real life. Not that it isn't very entertaining and fun to watch, mind you, but a good example of Chambliss' lack of understanding of how his films might play outside the hollows of Arkansas was his surprise at how the audience in Nashville gasped when a white character calls a stereotypically sullen black kid a "watermelon breath." Chambliss said, "I could tell people wanted to laugh but felt ashamed. I hadn't heard that before." As a Southerner, I can attest to the fact that many rural whites enjoy a good racial slur without finding anything wrong with it, and the scene was funny, but because it was so obliviously fucked up. Me, I was laughing at him.



THE BLUE TAPE

saw a collection of poetics films presented by SFSU's Poetry Center and Cinematheque at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The best ones were a short Robert Creeley video, a black and white film by Alfred Leslie which repeatedly loops a scene of a couple driving across Manhattan in a 60s convertible while a camera shoots them from the backseat and Frank O'Hara provides surreal what's-on-their-mind subtitles, and a video called The Blue Tape, documenting a brief mid-70s relationship between poets Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim. The first scene is a long, unedited shot of Acker's face as she describes how she first became involved with Sondheim and her perception of the sexual, intellectual, and power dynamics of their relationship, which Sondheim eventually begins to dispute from off-camera. The next scene is an extreme close-up of Acker's vagina while Sondheim's fingers try to masturbate her to orgasm, accompanied by prickly dialogue as she rather frustratedly tries to guide his clumsy manipulations. In another scene, each person separately draws on paper a box that fills the camera shot, then handwrites a piece of prose inside the box stating how they feel emotionally at that moment. In the funniest scene, Sondheim lies naked on his back and articulates a philosophically abstract and theoretically convoluted analysis of their relationship while Acker gives him a blowjob until he can't talk anymore. Intense stuff, and sort of brave in an art damaged, exhibitionistic way.



CLOSER

ike Nichols' stodgy direction is sort of a yawn, but the screenplay was adapted by the author of the original stage play and retains much of its bite. The main knock against it seems to be that the characters are unlikable, which to me isn't a valid criticism, because art doesn't always exist to reaffirm the moral sensibilities of the audience, but apparently the negativity worried Nichols enough so that he had the playwright rewrite the original ending, in which nobody winds up with anybody and Natalie Portman's character winds up dead, not walking down the street in an adoring slow motion shot accompanied by lame soundtrack music. I've been on the receiving end of admissions of infidelity more than I want to think about, and found those scenes well written and played, especially by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. A worthwhile spate of bummed out relationship movies—Closer, Sideways, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—seems to have brought malcontented romance to the fore of this year's cinematic offerings.



RAY

read Michael Lydon's biography of Ray Charles, who sounds like the most selfish, miserly, mean spirited bandleader to come along since Benny Goodman. The appalling episodes pile up: Ray publicly humiliating a backup singer onstage because she wouldn't sleep with him; Ray repeatedly dragged into court for child support lawsuits after knocking up women in his rotating harem, then swearing under oath the kids weren't his when he knew full well they were; Ray making his touring band pay for their own hotels and meals out of the skimpy salary he paid them, and if a concert promoter happened to provide the band members with a gratuitous backstage buffet or a free hotel accomodation, Ray took the food away or forced them to pay for their rooms anyhow.

aylor Hackford's new film Ray whitewashes, excuse the expression, all this stuff, not just by oversimplifying the events in Ray's life to the point of being inaccurate, but also by omitting the most unflattering episodes and just plain making up things that aren't true. The racist Greyhound bus driver hassling Ray at the beginning of the movie—never happened. The woman in Seattle who supposedly became his manager and ripped him off while making him sleep with her—never happened. At the end of the movie, his wife Della is portrayed as still standing by her man, when actually she divorced him in 1976, humiliated and bitter over her husband being repeatedly dragged into highly publicized paternity suits. Ray wasn't busted unboarding a plane with his band in Boston by cops foaming at the mouth over his civil rights stance—he forgot his stash and later went back to the airport and aroused the suspicion of the police by rooting around on his empty plane in the middle of the night looking for his heroin. The co-author of Brother Ray, Ray's autobiography, recently wrote an article titled "It's A Shame About Ray" in which he criticizes the film's portrayal of Ray's mother, saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, Atlantic Records' Ahmed Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and singer Mary Ann Fisher as being stereotypical and misleading. But even given its mediocre TV movie script, the film is worth seeing for Jamie Foxx's performance, which is brilliant—he really does make you forget that you're not watching Ray himself.



PURPLE RAIN

aturday's midnight singalong screening of Purple Rain at the Bridge sold out a week in advance, so Peaches Christ and the gang added their first ever Friday midnight movie, and that sold out too. The projection of the words to the songs obviously wasn't test run ahead of time and didn't always synch up to the film, sometimes because the album lyrics were used but in the movie some of the songs delete a verse or two. Much of the audience knew all the words anyhow, even to the songs by the Time. I pulled out my album of Purple Rain beforehand—a purple vinyl promo copy, thank you very much—to warm up, and found that the song "Purple Rain" is really fun to play on harmonica. Of course the best part was the preshow, where a cast of drag queens performed lip synch impersonations of Sheila E. and Apollonia 6, and Peaches did a couple of songs as Prince, the highlight being "Darling Nikki"—when the lines "she had so many devices/everything that money could buy" came up, you can sort of guess what happened. The 80s slut contest drew about a dozen entrants, all girls, who teamed up in pairs and were each issued a popsicle, which one contestant held at crotch level while her partner got on her knees and her fellatio technique was evaluated by the drag queen judges. The winner was a petite blond who deep throated the entire popsicle and pulled it off the stick with her lips. She'll face off against the 80s slut pageant winner from Saturday's show in a mud wrestling grudge match when Midnight Mass shows Mommie Dearest in a couple of weeks.



STRAYED

French movie that starts with a mother and her two children fleeing Paris during World War II to escape the approaching German invasion, and when a Nazi fighter plane strafes their car and destroys all their possessions, they flee through the countryside with the help of a seventeen year old boy they encounter along the way. There's something not right about the teenager—he's antisocial, agitated, suspicious, illiterate, apparently escaped from a reformatory and afflicted with some ailment that periodically sends him into convulsions just before abruptly falling unconscious. He locates an abandoned country house for the family to take refuge in, secretly disabling the phone and the radio so they are cut off from news of the war. Over the next few days he hunts for food for the family and bonds with the children, and the mother—nicely underplayed by the lovely Emmanuelle Beart—changes from being wary and suspicious of the boy to feeling affectionate toward him, especially after he blurts out his desire to marry her. When two French soldiers returning home from the front stop for lodging for the night, the teenager disappears into the woods and refuses to return until they have gone. The mother is worried by his disappearance, and when she eventually finds him again outdoors at night, she throws herself into his arms and they begin to make love in one long unedited shot, during which the boy kneels in front of her in the dark and takes out a Zippo lighter and holds it in front of her crotch, explaining that he has never seen a nude woman before. He lies on his back and she climbs on top of him, but eventually he turns her over onto her stomach and starts to enter her ass. She asks him what he is doing, and he says that is what he knows, and she assents. It's a powerful scene and unconventionally realistic in a way that you won't see in a Hollywood movie any time soon, as is the ending—the teenager is recaptured by the authorities and hangs himself.



OASIS

n unsettling yet compassionate film from South Korea, about a love affair between a retarded man and a woman with severe cerebral palsy, two people who find in each other the affection they long for after being mistreated and rejected not only by their families, but everybody else as well. It's a scenario ripe for sentimentality, but the director doesn't take the easy way out. The man isn't an especially sympathetic character, the first time he visits the woman he brings her roses but then tries to rape her, which proves so traumatic for the poor woman—who is physically spastic, uncoordinated, and barely able to talk—that she blacks out. Afterwards he feels ashamed and apologetic, and later when she calls him on the phone and haltingly asks him to visit her again, he becomes very solicitous, bringing her food, taking her out on dates, doing her laundry, helping her wash her hair. The performance by the actress playing the handicapped woman is absolutely amazing, buoyed by lyrical scenes where she fantasizes herself to be a normal person, able to rise from her wheelchair, dance with her boyfriend, sing to him, wrap her arms around his neck, kiss him—the transformation is mesmerizing, and heartbreaking, because the contrast exteriorizes what a sweet person is trapped inside her deformed body. Eventually she asks him to sleep with her, and as they have sex she starts to cry, and he asks worriedly if he should stop—when she shakes her head no and holds him tighter with her gnarled, contorted arms, it's one of the most touching, heartrending love scenes I've ever seen on film.



FESTIVAL EXPRESS

am so over the SF International Film Festival. Tickets are expensive and to avoid sellouts you have to buy them ahead of time, show up really early and wait in a big ass line because after they let the crowd in, then they count the empty seats and sell more tickets to people in the stand-by line, so if you arrive at the last minute you can't get in even if you have a ticket because they've sold your seat. I mean, it's just a friggin' movie, not a rock concert, although one film this year was sort of like a rock concert, which I checked out Saturday night at the Castro along with a packed audience of Deadheads. Titled Festival Express, it was a new documentary about a music tour that traveled across Canada by train in 1970 featuring the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers (three months after Gram split, unfortunately), and more. Interviewed recently in the film, the promoter said it was obvious from the attendance at the first show in Toronto that the tour was going to lose money, but they continued anyways, for the hell of it, and even then—reflecting the late 60s countercultural zeitgeist (see also the Hendrix at the Isle of Wight documentary) that's sort of incomprehensible by today's corporate Clear Channel standards—large crowds of kids turned up outside every gig and fought with the cops, demanding to be let in for free for political reasons.

ith a drum kit, B-3 organ and a bunch of amps set up in a car on the train, the days riding the rails between shows turned into one long jam session, which included a hilarious fucked up version of "Ain't No More Cane" by a very wasted Rick Danko, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. At one point the musicians drank up all of the booze onboard and the train made an unscheduled stop in a small town to raid a liquor store. The high point of the film—in more ways than one—was Janis onstage wearing a see-through lace shirt and a red feather boa in her hair, shaking her ass and belting out "Tell Mama." She had one of the all time amazing voices, and the footage of her onstage is just mesmerizing. A question and answer session with the director after the movie revealed that the promoter wound up losing all his money, his house and his wife afterward, and eventually wound up sticking a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger—the bullet went through the roof of his mouth and out the top of his head but didn't kill him. The director said the guy told him, Man, I thought I was depressed until I woke up with a fucking hole in my head. When I get ready to kill myself, remind me not to try it that way.



BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER

documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, which was a cinema verité, or maybe I should say digital video verité, take on Thompson around the time of the filming of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. I'm not the biggest Hunter S. Thompson fan in the world, I find that he alternates between amusing insight and mundane self-aggrandizement. I don't see much separation between the tone of his authorial voice and his real life demeanor, which is sort of the definition of gonzo journalism, but he certainly isn't as sharp-witted or clever an essayist as, say, Gore Vidal or Joan Didion, which leads perhaps to another aspect of gonzoness—an attempt to elevate loaded fucked up bozoism to a pretentious level of Raymond Chandleresque cynical tough guy posturing. At one point someone tells him that the worst thing that could happen to him would be to wind up somewhere for a long time with no one to talk to, which hits the nail on the head—his persona revolves around either creating or reacting to provocation, real or imagined. In the broad context of countercultural social commentary or political satire this can lead to a sense of engagement and relevant criticism, in the context of escalating a drunk driving citation from the local Aspen cops into a persecution complex of Lenny Brucean proportions it's lame grandstanding. Watching him hanging out with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro and Terry Gilliam (as well as John Cusack and Warren Zevon) made me want to get high and watch the film again.



MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2003

1. CITY OF GOD

his is the by far best movie I've seen this year, one so powerful that it sparked social reform in its own country. The story follows a group of kids growing up in one of Rio de Janeiro's worst slums, most of whom turn to crime and gangs, and one who dreams of becoming a photographer. It's unrelentingly brutal, but unlike most Hollywood films of the last decade—including Good Fellas, which is City Of God's spiritual godfather and one of my favorite movies—the violence is never gratuitous or glamorous, but handled perfectly, impersonal when it needs to be and horrifying when it needs to be. Recruited from a casting call of a couple of hundred neighborhood kids, the actors are uniformly naturalistic and top-notch. The narrative structure, pacing, and energy of this movie make current day Scorsese or Tarantino look weak by comparison. Two or three scenes in it will haunt you long after the film is over.

2. THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND

ot only an excellent, thought provoking documentary about the left wing American terrorist movement that broke Timothy Leary out of prison and bombed right wing targets in protest of the Vietnam war, but one of the best documentaries I've ever seen about the 70s, because it repeatedly focuses on how the war psychologically disrupted Americans' ideas about morality and patriotism, in order to underscore why these people felt the need to do the extremely radical things they did. If you aren't old enough to remember the Vietnam war, this film will make you understand how violent and divided life was in this country at the time.

3. BUBBA HO-TEP

tarring Bruce Campbell doing an unexpectedly subtle and dead-on impression of The King, the concept is that one day Elvis got sick of being Elvis and traded places with an Elvis impersonator, who promptly ODed on the toilet in Graceland, and now Elvis is 70 years old, has a bad hip, and lives in a Texas old folks home where no one believes him when he tells them who he is. Ossie Davis plays a fellow resident who thinks he's JFK. When an ancient Egyptian mummy shows up and starts sucking the souls out the the nursing home inhabitants, hijinks ensue.

4. THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS

lan Rudolph is one of my favorite directors, even though his films can range from smart (The Moderns, Choose Me, Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle) to weird (Mortal Thoughts and Breakfast Of Champions, both with the best acting you'll ever see Bruce Willis do) to pretty bad (Welcome To L.A., Afterglow). This beautifully acted and written film stars Campbell Scott (son of George C.) in a terrific role that is a 180 degree turn from his character as a womanizing misogynist in Roger Dodger. He plays a comfortably middle class father of three little girls and a dentist who shares an office with his wife, who is also a dentist. She begins to have an extramarital affair, and the movie explores his emotional turmoil as he tries to wait things out, hoping that the situation will blow over and he will be able to hold his family together, which—as he keeps telling the hilariously macho devil on his shoulder personified by Denis Leary—is the most important thing in the world to him.

5. MC5: A TRUE TESTIMONIAL

saw a sold out screening of this documentary about the 70s Detroit hard rock band the MC5 at the Castro as part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, and it kicks ass. Their albums only hint at the power of their presence onstage, and they walked that revolutionary walk and talked that agitprop talk—including police harassment, riots, boycotts, bombings and more—with much more conviction and commitment than someone like the latter day New York Dolls dressing up in red patent leather outfits adorned with hammers and sickles. Being too young to have caught the MC5 live, I never understood the hype until I saw the amazing performance scenes in this movie, some of which, by the way, is FBI surveillance footage. A month later I ran into John Sinclair—their former manager, White Panther leader and Sixties activist—in New Orleans, where he's now a disc jockey at WWOZ, and told him about the wild reaction of the audience. An awesome double bill would be this film and The Weather Underground.

6. THE DANCER UPSTAIRS

film directed by John Malkovich and starring Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls, Mondays in The Sun)—the most burningly charismatic and naturalistic actor to hit the screen in years—playing a policeman in an unspecified Central or South American country who is hunting for the leader of a radical left wing terrorist movement, loosely based on the real life Shining Path insurgency in Peru. The film has some slow moments and implausible plot twists, but as does The Weather Underground, Malkovich smartly shows how a repressive and corrupt political culture impacts the personal lives and decisions of his protagonists, and as always, you can't take your eyes off Bardem, he's on my short list of actors who will get me to see any movie he's in.

7. THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED

his is an amazing, amazing, amazing documentary. A crew of Irish filmmakers went down to Venezuela in 2002 to make a film about President Chavez, the country's populist, democratically elected leader. Venezuela is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States, and its oil industry is owned by the state, but the profits from that oil have historically gone into the pockets of the richest, whitest 20% of the population. Chavez was elected with a groundswell of support from the poorest remaining 80% of the country and promised to redistribute the wealth. His opposition—which owned all of the television stations in the country except for one, the state-run TV station—staged a coup by opening fire on a crowd of Chavez's supporters and then blaming Chavez for the bloodshed by selectively broadcasting only the footage of Chavez's supporters returning the gunfire. Under this pretext the top military leaders stormed the presidential palace, arrested Chavez, and swore in their own rich business guy as president.

he incredible thing about this movie is that captures the entire coup on film, from beginning to end, from inside the presidential palace. They filmed the snipers assassinating members of the crowd of Chavez supporters, they filmed the palace being surrounded by the military and Chavez being marched out, loaded into a car and driven off. They remained to film the new government leaders as they dissolved the supreme court and the assembly. They filmed a crowd of hundreds of thousands of protesters supporting Chavez as they surrounded the palace, and they filmed the presidential palace guard secretly turning against the coup leaders and mounting an attack on them from inside the compound, arresting some of the coup leaders as others fled. They filmed Chavez's cabinet returning to the palace and confronting the captured coup leaders. They filmed Chavez's triumphant return as he was flown back to the palace from the island where he was being held captive. Man, nothing like being in the right place at the right time. You'll never see a fictional political thriller any more suspenseful and gripping than this.

8. A DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE

documentary featuring interviews with and clips from the movies of (in alphabetical order) Robert Altman, John G. Avildsen, Peter Bogdanovich, Ellen Burstyn, John Cassavetes, Julie Christie, Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Milos Forman, William Friedkin, Pam Grier, Dennis Hopper, Sidney Lumet, Paul Mazursky, Sydney Pollack, Roy Scheider, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Sissy Spacek, Robert Towne, and Jon Voight. This film by director Ted Demme (his last before he before he died) examines the movies of the 70s and the artistic turning point that they represented in American cinema, and kept me going to the video store for weeks afterward, catching up on films I hadn't seen in ages, and some I had never seen at all.

9. AMERICAN SPLENDOR

portrait of writer Harvey Pekar, grumpy underground comic book icon and friend of R. Crumb. I'm not as enamored of Pekar's work as some, but the film cleverly takes his obsessive self-referential meta-schtick to a logical cinematic extreme, juxtaposing scenes of an actor portraying him with onscreen commentary by the real Pekar, not to mention scenes of the actor and Pekar sitting next to each other in the same shot.

10. END OF THE CENTURY

riginally I put Bad Santa on the list because it was so hilariously dysfunctional, but then I remembered another film that was even more hilariously dysfunctional and made me laugh even harder, this great documentary about the Ramones. This low budget, poorly photographed, sloppily edited movie is an awesome punk rock flick and an obvious labor of love on the part of the filmmakers, who over four years carefully pieced together this bastard Behind The Music spawn to tell the story of four New Yawk guys who just hate each others guts. Watch their first gig at CBGB's. Watch them get in a fight onstage over what song to play next. Watch Johnny steal Joey's girlfriend. Watch Joey never talk to Johnny again. Watch Dee Dee reel off screamingly funny bonehead stoned out of his mind monologues ("Johnny, man, that guy is so amazing, man, he could, like, go to the store, and buy, like, potatoes and vegetables and stuff, and come home and cook himself, like, a whole meal, man") that had the audience laughing so hard you couldn't hear what came next. Watch the band wear out more drummers than Spinal Tap. Watch Phil Spector hold them hostage in his house. Great stuff.


HONORABLE MENTION

Girl With A Pearl Earring
Better Luck Tomorrow
Dirty Pretty Things
Intolerable Cruelty



THE UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA

moving documentary about exiled musicians living in Paris, most having fled repressive political situations in their native countries. The Dutch film crew talked with musicians playing on the streets and in the Metro, many of whom had little money and unstable housing situations, and uncovered stories that were often heartbreaking, including that of a pianist from Argentina who was arrested by the regime there for playing for the poor, tortured, hung by his hands until they were severely injured, and threatened with having his hands cut off; and that of a singer from Zaire who escaped from a forced labor camp by walking barefoot through the African jungle for weeks. The film devoted long passages to uninterrupted musical pieces that were very beautifully performed.



CHELSEA GIRLS and MAHAGONNY

ne cold and rainy Wednesday night found me yet again in the empty balcony of the Castro watching Harry Smith's eighteenth experimental film Mahagonny. Smith was an avant garde musicologist and filmmaker best known for his three volume Anthology Of American Folk Music issued on Folkways Records in the 1950s. Probably this movie's closest well-known cousin is Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, which I saw at the Castro last year. Chelsea Girls consists of twelve 16mm reels of film about a half hour long each that are projected side by side onto the same screen, and the sound switches back and forth between them. The projection booth wasn't equipped to show a 16mm film, so they set up two classroom sized projectors side by side in the middle of the seats in the balcony. Apparently there are specific instructions for when to start the reels and when to switch the sound, and in theory you could show the film two nights in a row and have a completely different but equally inane soundtrack each night. The two projectionists, one for each projector, took off each finished reel and quickly threaded up the next one like a pit crew changing tires at a stock car race. Nico trimmed her bangs with scissors and a mirror for most of the first reel, and in successive reels, each of which is one long unedited shot, we see the Factory folks shooting up, arguing, rolling around in bed, disrobing, picking their noses, and wondering aloud what they should do next. It's all very campy, about two thirds of it shot in black and white that looks really great, sort of like a never-ending Bruce Weber Obsession ad with striking looking junkies nodding and having temper tantrums hour after hour.

nd Mahagonny goes Warhol one better, or two better actually, by projecting four 16mm films simultaneously onto the screen in a four panel square. This 141 minute film was only screened six times in NYC when it was completed in 1980 and hasn't been shown again until this restoration, which combined the four separate parts onto one 35mm print. The imagery consists of a collage of random scenes—New York City traffic, backwards photography of eggs unbreaking or a floor being unmopped with black paint, Smith's fellow travelers at the Chelsea Hotel posing for the camera (Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith make brief appearances), nature shots, and lots and lots of stop motion animation of whiskey bottles and cigarettes and multicolored grains of sand running around the screen. Smith said once the best response to the film was if the audience goes to sleep, and I took him up on it a couple of times. Kind of relaxing to have napping considerations built into a movie. For me, the biggest problem was that the score consisted of the 1956 Lotte Lenya recording of Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The entire opera. All twenty-one songs. All two and a half hours. Of bombastic German opera. The imagery was kind of interesting but a little German opera goes a long way. Maybe they should run it with Dark Side Of The Moon playing instead.

peaking of which, one of the last times the Castro showed The Wizard Of Oz we all showed up late one night after the theater closed and watched it while blasting that Pink Floyd album. Up to and including "Money," there is some striking syncronicity between the timing of major scene shifts in the movie and song transitions on the album, and it was cool hearing it full volume while watching a print in a theater.



THE HOWLIN' WOLF STORY

he footage of Wolf performing live was worth the price of admission—shaking his ass and wiggling his legs and waving twenty dollar bills around and licking his guitar, he was larger than life in every way. He had a huge outgoing personality, watching him carry on and talk shit I was more than once reminded of Muhammad Ali. His mother threw him out of the house as a boy and disowned him for playing the devil's music, which saddened him until the end of his life. Hubert Sumlin, his guitar player, told a story about playing a gig once in the South to which someone brought Wolf's mom, who he hadn't seen in over ten years, and when he hugged her and tried to give her a five hundred dollar bill she threw it on the ground and wouldn't touch it, because it was the devil's money. She wouldn't come visit him when he was dying in the hospital. His daughters said they thought that was why, unlike Muddy Waters who had a kid with almost every woman he ever met, Wolf was such a devoted family man, because he regretted not having grown up with a close family. In his fifties he attended school for years in order to learn to read and write, and musicians reminisced about seeing him sitting in a nightclub between sets doing his homework. And the best thing about Howlin' Wolf is, I don't care what color or how dark his suit and shoes were, he always wore white socks.