Wednesday, January 31, 2007


One last video clip for January.

Here’s the delirious trailer for Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of the Beast (1963, now available in a new transfer from Criterion).

The trailer, in addition to being damned near irresistible (“Leave those worms to me! Gangland justice is my job!”), comes courtesy of my friend Haruka, who translated and timed the spiffy new subtitles for the preview and the DVD.



I may be the last guy on planet Earth to have seen this, but even if that's true:

Speaking of spectacular video (this one entirely Andrews-free) incorporating existing footage and creating something entirely new, take a look at this video from U2 entitled “Window in the Sky.” In addition to being a particularly vivid example of how the group’s songwriting skills have not diminished, but have continued to strengthen, since the bygone days of Boy, the video continues the group’s positioning at the forefront of innovation and artistic expression in the visual medium as well. (The video was directed by Gary Koepke.) You can read more about the video in this article from this morning’s Los Angeles Times. But before you do, just press play and be on the lookout for just about every imaginable pop singer icon from every era of pop music as they lip-synch pretty much perfectly in this new video, a work which truly is worthy of the much-maligned adjective “awesome.”

(Thanks for the tip, Thom McG.)

In Anticipation of Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon: JULIE ANDREWS: GOVERNESS OF GOODNESS or NANNY FROM THE NETHERWORLD?

Recently, the eponymous proprietor of Edward Copeland on Film invited responses to a survey to determine the best and worst of the crop of Academy Award nominees for Best Actress. If you must, call it residual distaste for a career filled with smarmy, treacly overkill (The Sound of Music) and dour self-seriousness (The Tamarind Seed, 10, S.O.B., The Man Who Loved Women and the execrable That’s Life!, all films made under the guidance of husband Blake Edwards), but when I had the opportunity to cast my vote for Julie Andrews as a worst Best Actress winner for Mary Poppins, I jumped at it. Here’s what I wrote for Edward’s survey:

Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins? Over Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style or Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon? Please! This performance isn’t half as charming as it’s been drummed into everyone my age to believe. Andrews seemed to me like Captain Bligh with bloomers and an umbrella when I was a kid, and her icy, imperious persona as an actress (which is never quite masked by the doily of cheerfulness she drapes over herself) has done nothing to help me warm up to her as an adult.

Had I not been rushed for time, I probably would have mentioned that I recognize the movie itself is okay, if a tad overlong (that partially animated sequence depicting the chaste outing had by Poppins and Bert, the chimney sweep, could have been half so long), and Mary Poppins is notable in that it sets itself up as a rarity in the Disney canon by dealing, however peripherally, with a social issue (women’s rights) at the precise time (1964) when that issue was poised to become forefront in a lot of people’s minds, even if it did so by issuing the proclamations of budding feminist mom Glynis Johns from the safe and comfortable distance of the bygone age of Susan B. Anthony. And I’ve always been a sucker for the work of David Tomlinson, Hermione Baddeley and Ed Wynn—as a child, these supporting players captivated me with their dry, acerbic wit (Tomlinson), oddball cadences (Baddeley) and genial, cartoonish buffoonery (Wynn), and they continue to do so today.

Dick Van Dyke’s ghastly affront to self-respecting Cockney chimney sweeps everywhere is almost redeemed by his cameo as Tomlinson’s ancient and decrepit bank boss Mr. Dawes. And as Poppins’ charges, the monstrous duo of Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who were reunited for Poppins after The Three Lives of Thomasina, are the prototypically unbearable Disney brother-sister unit, the scars from which can be seen and felt in everything from Bedknobs and Broomsticks-- which upped the ante from two to three insufferable Brit brats for its Poppins version 1970.0, embodied by Angela Lansbury-- through the Witch Mountain twins, Americans Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, and beyond. (Dotrice and Garber would be reunited once more post-Poppins for The Gnome-Mobile, where they withered in the presence of the character actor trifecta of Charles Lane, Ed Wynn and Walter Brennan, who doubled as daffy and unstable millionaire D.J. Mulrooney and his doppelganger, the uber-gnome Knobby.) These little ghouls are so wide-eyed and misunderstood and well-intentioned, the movie could have swerved from a P.L. Travers wonderland straight into a Dickensian nightmare (albeit one populated with wacky nautically-inclined rooftop neighbors and cartoon penguins) had they only let Elsa Lanchester’s Katie Nanna stick around.

But, no-o-o-o, despite what the famous lyrics intimate, in Mary Poppins a spoonful of sugar is never quite enough, and a truckload-sized chaser of whimsy and tidy lessons in good behavior are always at the ready. Wrapped as they are in the warm blanket of pinched propriety and smothering smugness that Julie Andrews brings to the table as the titular baby-sitter from God-knows-where (and so, I'd guess, would Lucifer), she creates a child-care professional far more frightening than anything the Bride of Frankenstein could have ever conjured. Andrews has always been a performer who never quite seems of the world she is called to inhabit, a quality one would think would place her in good stead in this role. (The one movie that found a way to exploit Andrews’ cold-fish-out-of-water tendencies was Victor/Victoria, the most relaxed and vibrant performance she ever gave on screen—conversely, her stabs at earthy, and moneyed, everywoman-ness in movies like 10 and That’s Life! seemed like sour miscalculations of her appeal for audiences, and she came off even more tightly wound and humorless than ever. At least in S.O.B. she had the nerve to take her top off—had Blake Edwards cut away from that shot, I doubt anyone would even remember she was in that movie.)

However, as Mary Poppins, the glower of the intolerant taskmistress always seems laying in wait just beneath Andrews' chirpy mask of sunshine, and the movie would be far more compelling if it was the least bit interested in letting us have more than the occasional and fleeting glimpse of its shadow. Unfortunately, as Andrews embodies her, this mysterious harridan who can bend nature and men’s behavior to her whim, has nothing but cheerful platitudes and teeth-compromising tunes to offer an audience who, given the movie’s unshakable status as a classic, seem more than willing to gobble up her cutesy medicine and beg for more. There’s precious little separating her performance here from the one she would give a year later in The Sound of Music, save perhaps Maria Von Trapp’s inability to manipulate an umbrella through unstable atmospheric conditions. Together, they construct an armor-plated template of rosy-cheeked indefatigability, insistent moral superiority and tight-lipped, ever-so-slight shadings of haughtiness (the spell of which was designed to be dismantled, as pure defense against any suggestion of darkness, by that gleaming, multi-toothed smile), a template so daunting in its impregnability that even the blasphemers Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (who would diddle with the actress in 10) could not bring her down by making her very name— Julie Andrews!— a satanic incantation in Bedazzled. Poppins', and Andrews', ultimate reign of superiority over Tomlinson’s negligent, materially obsessed father is as dictated by her own air of smug regality (a potentially ironic element to her working-class character that the movie glosses over, so enchanted is it by the actress's surely-demonic presence as Poppins) as it is by the machinations of P.L. Travers’ book or Walt Disney’s insistence on formulaic resolutions to family dramas.

I don’t expect much in the way of back-patting or agreement with the views expressed in this post. Hey, I know I’m out there, shining a beacon of wisdom and rational thought amongst all the spellbound nattering about how great Julie Andrews in this bubbling pot of treacle. In fact, it’s been so liberating showing up those foolish enough to be seduced by this Victorian-era moral claptrap (who would simultaneously snub, with the imperative of the politically ignoble and treacherous, an obviously superior Churchill-era morality tale like Bedknobs and Broomsticks)* that, if you like, you may consider this post as volley number one in my contribution to Jim Emerson’s upcoming Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon. I’ve already got a Poppins-strength umbrella at the ready to shield me from the flinging of fecal matter that I full expect in the wake of my defacing of this beloved performance. (Can we really say Julie Andrews herself, apart from this movie and The Sound of Music anyway, is a beloved actress?)

But it’s also the occasion for a felicitous display of filmmaking-as-film-criticism too. By pure chance, toady I stumbled upon this wonderful short (one minute) film which recasts Mary Poppins in a light far more fitting the way I tend to view if not the film as a whole, then at least Andrews’ chilling queen of child care. One blogger, commenting on the short, described it as Mary Poppins if it had been directed by Mario Bava. Persoanlly, it made me imagine what a Rosemary's Baby-era Roman Polanski might have done with the story. Those would both be movies I’d want to see, an uplifting tale of two lovely tykes and the stern but charming governess who righted their world and brightened their lives, made by directors of varying perversities and stylistic bravado who might just have been able, by hook, crook or out-and-out torture, to coax a little more of that sinister undercurrent out of Andrews, perhaps allowing it to overtake, if only for privileged moments, the gleaming creamy goodness radiating off of her ever-patient, often smiling face.

Here then is the spoonful of arsenic that reveals the nightshade in the blood of Disney’s most revered nanny and the actress who so unbearably portrayed her. Behold, Scary Mary!

* For those still sharpening their knives, the three sentences directly preceding this asterisk were intended as a parody of the sackcloth-and-ashes style of Armond White, whose contrarian methodology can be said to have at least partially inspired the upcoming Blog-a-Thon. The rest of the article, while sporting a tone that could be said to be occasionally and ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek, more or less accurately describes my disdain for Julie Andrews and her Mary Poppins.

Monday, January 29, 2007


My mother would be so proud. This past Saturday, something happened to me that I had given up thought of ever happening, so much so that the possibility of it never even crossed my mind when I started opening the envelope with my name on it, the one with no return address.

I pulled out the greenish, rectangular paper, immediately let out a laugh and ran into the bedroom to show my wife—I needed corroboration that I was, in fact, looking at what I seemed to be looking at.

“You’re never going to guess what I just received in the U.S. Mail,” I said, barely believing it myself. “Okay, I’m never going to guess, so just tell me,” she replied, and rather too logically for the gush of emotion that had begun swelling in my chest, I thought.

I began dramatically. “I’m holding in my hand…”


“…a check…”

(Here’s where she thinks it’s going to be one of those $0.10 rebate checks from some PopTarts box-top mail-in offer or something. She thinks she’s ahead of me. Well…)

“Yes?” she repeated, a smidgen of impatience coloring her curiosity.

“…for $102.06…”

That got her attention! She put down the magazine she was holding, her ears suddenly all colored with curiosity as well.


“Yes?! Damn it, just spill!” Impatience just scribbled all over the coloring book in deep magenta.

“…from Google!” I was sporting a grin large enough to make Mr. Sardonicus weep with envy.

Yes, it’s true. Just a little over two years from the day I first put those Ads by Google on the sidebar of this blog, ads that some say sullied the appearance and/or integrity of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, ads that some thought were, and I’m surely paraphrasing here, “cool,” I finally got paid. In the very same way that whenever a bell rings an angel gets his wings, whenever an SLIFR reader clicks on one of those little ads on their way to and/or from another post or another link to another web site, a miniscule amount of currency gets registered on the SLIFR account. Some apparently do very well with this system—they’ll get a check from Google every month for services rendered and suckers delivered. But Google won’t cut a check unless you’ve made at least $100, and once that milestone has been reached another $100 has to be built up before another check gets sent. In the early days, I used to keep track of how much money I was making per day. It was never very much (“Hey, I racked up 18 cents today!”). One day I think I actually made close to a dollar. The amounts were always so infinitesimally small that I began to feel ridiculous looking in on them so frequently. Eventually I fell out of the habit of looking in altogether.

Two years later, I got a check.

For perversity’s sake, I decided I wanted to know just how much $102.06 worked out to be per post. Okay, well, according to my Blogger stats, the “Open Forum: Oscar Talk et al” was the 418th post I’ve recorded since I began this adventure. And now that I’m in the process of re-familiarizing myself with my elementary school gazintas, I was able to figure out that dividing 418 into 102.06 would provide me the answer I so desperately sought. So a-dividing I went:

418 = 0.24416267942583732057416267942584

For you laymen, that works out to be a shade under 25 cents per post.

I’d adjust that for 2007 dollars, but all that figurin’ has apparently already been done for me, so it is what it is. (If I wanted to turn heady frivolity into a plunge toward futility with lightning speed, I’d figure out how much $102.06 translated into per word.)

But you know what, it wasn’t hard to forget about the Google get-rich-quick plan, because getting paid was never what I expected when I got into all this. Now that I have been somewhat humbly rewarded, it’s nice, sure, but it’s not going to make me change my ways and suddenly get all evangelistic about people clicking my sidebar. (Whoops? Was that a double entendre? If so, I’m so proud. I don’t recall if I’ve ever purposely written one before! It must be that sudden influx of cash making me feel all flushed!)

The new year has so far found me with far less time to be able to devote to SLIFR than at any other time in the blog’s short history, and the awareness of that fact has been weighing on my mind. I’ve got plenty on tap that I want to write about, and good folks like Paul Clark (an upcoming year-end survey), Adam Ross (a new feature called “Friday Screen Tests”), Mike Phillips (the upcoming 1927 Blog-a-Thon) and Jim Emerson (the upcoming Contrarian Blog-a-Thon) have helped to make sure that I stay busy on this site and elsewhere. And, as silly as it sounds, that meager little check, which helped pay for my seeing Babel and The Last King of Scotland this past weekend, and will contribute to my catching up with The Good Shepherd and Volver this coming Saturday night, has served more as a kindly reminder that I’m not in this for the money, but instead for the love of movies, and for what they mean to me and the people around me.

That said, it is $102.06. Even at only 25 cents a pop, does this mean I’m a professional now?!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Here’s something new to SLIFR that I hope will become a regular feature. Reader Manaotupapau suggested recently that I try an open forum occasionally, which would be a good way to reintroduce topics from dead or dying threads and past posts, or film and pop culture-related topics of any stripe. So, let’s give it a try, shall we? Naturally, the first topic would have to be:

Your Reactions to the Oscar Nominations!

The only rule I’d like to impose (and it’s already been an unwritten one that has been well abided by so far in the history of this blog) is that the comments remain civil, good-humored and smart. And please feel free to go on at any length you choose! If this Open Forum goes well and everybody feels like the idea is worth pursuing, then pursue it we shall.

Thanks, Manaotupapau, for the great idea! I'll be checking in with a longer post on the subject later tonight, and of course you're welome to bandy back and forth underneath that one too. As Kirsten Dunst once so memorably put it, bring it on!

Monday, January 22, 2007

LOVE AND HATE FOR UNCLE OSCAR********** Plus My Perfect World Oscar Picks and Nonscientific Predictions for Tomorrow's Oscar Nominations

Is it just me? Have I finally, after nearly 47 years, become completely jaded and unimpressed by the Oscars? It can’t be the movies, can it? Despite the usual claims that this year was more lackluster than not by the standards of any given movie year, 2006 seemed to me a pretty juicy one for movies, and it certainly helps stack the ratio of good to bad by having to be extra judicious in the theatrical releases I pay out of my own pocket to see—just like the Joe Moviegoer I am, I’m a whole lot less likely to bet my $11 on a movie that could go either way, and I tend to save titles with iffier expectations (Thank You For Smoking, The Devil Wears Prada) for DVD. Sometimes this process of elimination makes me end up wishing I’d seen the movie on the big screen (16 Blocks, Slither); and sometimes I’m made exceedingly glad for my reticence and a priori judgment calls (Clerks 2, Lucky Number Slevin). And even though I didn’t see everything I needed to see this year (yet), I know that there are plenty of movies in 2006 deserving of honor from the Academy.

So maybe it’s the fact that, in the dark shadow of the Directors Guild snubs of Clint Eastwood, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, dear old, dotty Uncle Oscar looks poised to honor yet another contrived, good-for-you ensemble drama about man’s inability to communicate/connect with/tolerate his fellow man—after all, we’re all so much more tightly knit and understanding of each others’ foibles and prejudices as a nation of moviegoers after having been force-fed Crash; why not use the power of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to bring us all closer together as a bruised and battered humanity subject to the chronologically scrambled chaos theory of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel? (The models for these post-9/11 behavioral studies—the ensemble narratives of Robert Altman’s films—were never quite so morally tidy or relentlessly showy in their pessimism, and therefore routinely escaped Academy coronation.)

But it’s not all Babel’s fault. Any Oscar show that stands to be dominated by the uber-quirk of Little Miss Sunshine (a movie I liked) or the hype surrounding the glossy, insistently shallow Dreamgirls (a movie I sorta liked) promises to be less than fascinating. No less than absolutely assured is Helen Mirren’s ascendance to the Oscar throne, and good for her, by the way—she deserves it. The rewarding of this great performance is as tight a lock as any in Oscar history, even though it has yet to be officially nominated—the odds are more likely that the sun won’t rise on Tuesday morning, when the nominees are announced, than that Mirren will be left off the roster of honorees. However, though shoo-in status is sometimes directed toward the nominees that actually should win, they almost never serve to increase the amusement level for Oscar watchers on the big night. (Remember the feeling of that heavy blanket being dropped over the proceedings nine years ago when it became clear very early on that Titanic was going to dominate the awards even more than previously expected?)

And maybe my disinterest in this year’s awards can be traced to something as simple as my finally accepting, after nearly 40 years of resisting the idea, that the Oscars really don’t have much to do with what’s great, or even good, in any given year. There are just too many excellent, important movies floating through the halls of film history that never caught the gold man’s gaze to come to any other conclusion. Even film critics have admitted on occasion that movies they thought were brilliant and worthy of the highest praise have sometimes ended up looking a whole lot less worthy 10 or 20 years down the line. So why should the majority-vote conclusions of the Oscar voting body be any different? (All I have to do to drive home this point is think of how badly I ache to revisit the likes of Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Out of Africa or Rainman.) And to be honest, even in years when films like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Million Dollar Baby held court at the Kodak Theater (both movies well deserving of the honors they received), I’ve had more fun poring over the individual observations of year-end critics top 10 lists and comparing them to my own observations and preferences than following the whimsies of Oscar leading up to his night of nights. And this is truer than ever when considering the movies of 2006.

To paraphrase the great popular romantic philosopher Peter Cetera (an Oscar nominee himself, by the way, for this), Oscar is a hard habit to break. I used to get up at 5:00 in the morning and watch the nominees announced by the bleary-eyed president of the Academy, last year’s Supporting Actress winner steadfastly by his side, keeping him from tipping over. I used to look forward to it with a ridiculous level of excitement. But this year, yesterday, as a matter of fact, my wife told me that Tuesday morning, January 23, was the big morning. Three days before the event, and it was news to me. If she hadn’t said anything, I feel sure I wouldn’t have been aware of it at all and would have been shocked out of my undies to see the announcement when I innocently clicked for my daily fix from the Internet Movie Database.

But indifference to the awards themselves aside, the ritual of watching on Oscar night still holds sway over my better instincts of taste and common sense. I almost always find the show a whole lot more interesting, and less boring, than do the insta-pundits whose evaluations, perhaps tapped out on BlackBerries just outside the doors of the Governor’s Ball or Elton John’s Vanity Fair after-party, are featured in the morning-after editions of the Los Angeles Times and other publications that love to dis their Oscar cake and eat it too. I’m in the minority of viewers, too, who still think that David Letterman’s appearance as emcee added up to one of the best Oscar shows I’ve ever seen. However uncomfortable he might have been, Letterman was clearly too smart and loose for the room that night. I’d like to think, now that the era of Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg seems, thankfully, to have passed and Jon Stewart’s sharp, irreverent performance has been hailed as a new standard, that Letterman might have a much more receptive audience were he ever to try the job again—Uma and Oprah might just get the joke this time.

So, yes, go ahead, Oscar, name Babel (which I will probably be shamed into seeing, despite my previous declaration of having no interest in it) as Best Picture of the Year; tell me Dreamgirls featured the year’s best editing, or Little Miss Sunshine the best original screenplay of 2006. I’ll grin and bear it, because even though you are an imperfect popularity contest insufficient to the task of actually honoring the best in movies regardless of public perception and/or box office performance, you’re still an excellent excuse for gathering about the TV (or the computer) and talking about the year’s movies one last time with friends and family. (So are the Independent Spirit Awards, for that matter, and this year Sarah Silverman is back! But the less said about the Golden Globes Awards, notwithstanding the acceptance speeches of Hugh Laurie and Sacha Baron Cohen, the better.) I will do my level best to be glad for the nominees that I like, especially if they win, and not worry about the absurdity of your inclusion of one or exclusion of another. I will try not to grind my teeth too intensely or roll my eyes more vigorously than my optometrist would recommend when a nominee I deem unworthy ends up reigning supreme. And I will struggle to remember that, as my wife constantly urges me at this time of the year, you, Oscar, mean virtually nothing except to those who win you and those who don’t. As a barometer for the quality of film culture, you are unreliable at best, blind and unforgiving at worst, and witheringly vulnerable to the overriding, prevailing wisdom of time. But as garishly enjoyable television, and as a peek into how the movie industry sees itself, through rose-colored contacts, as cosmetically and pharmaceutically and egotistically enhanced as any big-budget epic, you’re just about unmatchable.

Oscar, a lot of the movies of 2006 are too smart for you. Hell, I’m too smart for you. But you had me in 1969 with “And the winner is Midnight Cowboy” and you’ve got me 37 years later, for better and worse, with “And the Oscar goes to…” You are, at this point, for better and worse, an inextricable, though increasingly unimportant, element of the movies themselves for me. Your claims of devotion to the art of film are certainly no more laughable than the protestations of those who regally profess absolutely no interest in your ceremonial machinations. And I suspect we will continue this one-sided relationship until you do something really unforgivable, like name Rob Schneider best actor of the year, or bestow a lifetime achievement award upon someone like Uwe Boll or Dennis Dugan. Until that dark day comes, however, there will always be a place for you once a year on my living room television set, and room enough for a few words about you here.


So, with an eye toward Tuesday morning, and a nod of acknowledgement toward the staff of critics at The New York Times, here’s a couple of lists to occupy your time (and, of course, mine) in the waning hours before the specifics of the Oscar race solidify. First, my Perfect World Oscar Nominations, a list of 10 categories populated only by the nominees I would choose, regardless of the likelihood they would ever be noticed by the Academy in the real world. Then, my last-minute, absolutely non-scientific, seat-of-my-sweat-pants guesses for what the list of actual nominees will look like in those same major categories. I profess no insight here, nor do I expect that my picks will be anywhere close to what will be announced on Tuesday—many far smarter, far more invested prognosticators than I will produce heavily considered guesses that are just as likely to have a mile-wide hole or two poked in them by the vicissitudes of Uncle Oscar’s tendency to throw in a monkey-wrench nomination here or there, just so we won’t think him too dotty or predictable. And that’s what I like best about the whole Oscar process—the ability of the Academy to set the likes of Sammy Rubin and George Pennacchio and Jillian Barberie all aflutter, the sleep barely blinked out of their eyes, as they chatter endlessly about “What were they thinking?” and how they just knew Ryan Philippe and Daniel Craig were locks for Best Actor nominations. Let the madness begin.



Children of Men
Letters from Iwo Jima
Pan’s Labyrinth
A Prairie Home Companion
Three Times

Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion
Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men
Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labryinth
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times

Ivana Baquero, Pan’s Labyrinth
Gong Li, Curse of the Golden Flower
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page
Shu Qui, Three Times

Jack Black, Nacho Libre
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious
Nation of Kazakhstan

Clive Owen, Children of Men
Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Bruce Willis, 16 Blocks

Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Gong Li, Miami Vice
Julia Stiles, The Omen 666
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Meryl Streep, A Prairie Home Companion

Sacha Baron Cohen, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Mos Def, 16 Blocks
Paul Giamatti, The Illusionist
Kazunari Ninomiya, Letters from Iwo Jima
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Nick Cave, The Proposition
Mike Judge, Etan Cohen, Idiocracy
Peter Morgan, The Queen
Kevin Willmott, The Confederate States of America
Iris Yamashita, Letters from Iwo Jima

Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby,
Children of Men
Susannah Grant, Karey Kirkpatrick, Charlotte’s Web
William Monahan, The Departed
Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis, Casino Royale
Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, Old Joy

Ping Bing Lee, Three Times
Emmanuel Lubiezki, Children of Men
Guillermo Navarro, Pan’s Labyrinth
Wally Pfister, The Prestige
Tom Stern, Letters from Iwo Jima

Joel Cox, Gary Roach, Letters from Iwo Jima
Alfonso Cuaron, Alex Rodriguez, Children of Men
William, Goldenberg, Paul Rubell, Miami Vice
Steve Mirkovich, 16 Blocks
Bernat Vilaplana, Pan’s Labyrinth


The Departed
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen
United 93

Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Paul Greengrass, United 93
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed

Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Leonardo Di Caprio, The Departed
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious
Nation of Kazakhstan

Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O’Toole, Venus
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
Catherine O’Hara, For Your Consideration

Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Adam beach, Flags of Our Fathers
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson, The Departed

Pedro Almodovar, Volver
Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine
Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden, Half Nelson
Peter Morgan, The Queen
Iris Yamashita, Letters from Iwo Jima

William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis, Flags of Our Fathers
Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata,
Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Children of Men
Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
Todd Field, Tom Perrotta, Little Children
William Monahan, The Departed


Speaking of love and hate and Uncle Oscar, Edward Copeland has the results of his survey of the Best and Worst BEST ACTRESS winners in Oscar history. Make a sandwich or two, pour a big mug of coffee, perhaps a Big Gulp, or whatever beverage you prefer, block off no less than an entire evening, and enjoy the bounty of data Edward has served up for this year’s survey.

The Top 10 Worst Best Actresses

Some Actresses Not Quite Bad Enough To Make The Final List

Worst Performances Ranked By Ballot

12 Winning Best Actress Performances That Got Through The Voting Process Without Picking Up A Single “Worst” Vote

The Untouchable Actress Whose Performance Gathered Neither a Single “Worst” Nor a Single “Best” Vote

A Summary of the Survey Results (Part 1)

The Top 10 BEST Best Actress Winners

Performances That Weren’t Good Enough to Make the Top 10 BEST Best Actresses

The BEST Best Actresses Ranked By Ballot

18 Performances That Didn’t Get a Single Vote for BEST Best Actress

A Summary of the Survey Results (Part 2)

Whew! What an incredible survey. I can’t wait to dig into it myself! Edward, you have raised the bar for the Oscar obsessive, and I love ya for it!

More on the Oscars over the next month, to be sure, including a look at Ennio Morricone, who will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


So, you wanna celebrate Muhammad Ali’s 65th birthday? You could turn on ESPN right now, which is featuring an all-day salute to the champ. Or you could find a copy of Ali's own attempt at a filmed autobiography, The Greatest (1977, started by Tom Gries and finished by Monte Hellman when Gries died during production). The movie is grungy and, given its dynamic subject, just a little on the dull side, a (surprise!) simplistic take on his own rise to fame and introduction to the Islamic faith. You’d do better with the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, which chronicles the events leading up to the historic Ali-Foreman clash in Kinshasha, Zaire, forever known as the Rumble in the Jungle.

But if you want a little pre-Islam Ali as you may never have seen him before (I sure hadn’t), check out this delightful minute and a half courtesy of You Tube—Cassius Clay reciting one of his signature poems to the piano accompaniment of none other than Liberace! Happy birthday, Champ!

Monday, January 15, 2007

THE TLRHB EXPERIENCE (with apologies to Jimi)

At the risk of becoming a irredeemable linkmeister, I just hope everybody is keeping up with That Little Round-Headed Boy these days. He’s got a very pleasant new template to go along with all the usual well-observed writing in posts that touch on all corners of the pop culture landscape, which are very effectively informed by his expansive point of view—it’s what I like to think of as the TLRHB Experience. (He recently, and good-naturedly, ranked on the film Bubble advertising itself as ”a Steven Soderbergh Experience,” so I will cop to a little TLRHB-baiting here.)

My only complaint is that if you don’t check in with regularity, you’re likely to miss something really good, and I do mean miss it-- TLRHB has revoked access to his archives, so once it’s gone it’s gone. (I wanted to link to his review of Neil Young: Heart of Gold on my top-15 list, but instead had to settle only for my memories of the way TLRHB so perfectly evoked the experience of watching that film, and its quiet meaning as well.)

If you act now, you can enjoy this viewing tip regarding Kevin Willmott’s The Confederate States of America:

“Like Spike Lee's sorely underrated Bamboozled, (C.S.A.) makes smart connections to present-day racial issues, our so-called notions of progress and especially how prejudice is always lying exposed in plain sight, even if we sometimes pretend not to see it. (I was thinking about that this morning when I drove by my neighbor's house, which proudly waves a Confederate flag just below the American one.)”

TLRHB is a voracious reader too. I’ve currently got a request in to him for recommendations of titles from his favorite author, James Salter, and he’s currently offering praise for Rob Sheffield’s new book:

“(Sheffield is) Rolling Stone's resident pop culture junkie, which means he's such a good writer that I read him even when he's blathering on about Britney and the latest MTV reality show. He's that rarity: A first-class, instantly recognizable stylist, with the enthusiasm to embrace new musical trends, but with the background smarts to appreciate the history and roots of country, pop, rock and soul. When The New Rolling Stone Album Guide came out a few years ago, Sheffield's contributions were the star attractions. I could tell which ones he'd written from the first sentence.

But none of that prepared me for the emotional wallop of Sheffield's new book, Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song At A Time (Crown). I figured it would be more of his effervescent observations on pop culture. I should have read that subtitle more closely. The book, while offering up plenty of pithy patter on rock music, is a real heartbreaker: It's the story of the love of his life, and her early, untimely death. This is High Fidelity — without much of a happy ending.”

Finally, more timely than ever, it seems, is Robert Altman’s plunge into the Nixonian soul entitled Secret Honor, and TLRHB found himself spinning Criterion’s luxurious DVD of the film during a confluence of events that just made the movie even more resonant:

“On the week of Richard Nixon's birthdate, on the week after Gerald Ford's funeral, on the night of George Bush's speech about committing even more troops to Iraq, I sat down with Robert Altman's Secret Honor for the first time in years. What a weird harmonic convergence. As I watched Philip Baker Hall's Nixon bitching about the Ford pardon and the reaction to his escalation of bombing in Cambodia, I could hear the TV downstairs broadcasting Bush's speech about upping the troop count in Iraq. I felt like I was hallucinating. We needed to be in Vietnam to stop the Communist domino effect from spreading across Southeast Asia; now, we need to stay the course in Iraq to stop civil violence from spreading out of Iraq's borders across the Middle East. Different decades, different presidents, same old rhetoric about a "winnable" war. Pride over honor, blood over logic. God, I miss Altman.”

(Read the whole excellent piece here.)

We all have favorite sites and blogs that have become not just a daily habit, but a daily necessity, a checkpost for interpreting and re-experiencing the world around us. Some of them offer new stuff every day, some tantalize us with two or three days in between posts. But they are sites that always trumpet the good reasons why they’re bookmarked. That Little Round-Headed Boy is such a site for me, and if you haven’t bookmarked it yet, please do. TLRHB’s posts may be available for a limited time only before they get replaced by more trenchant, thoughtful commentary, but their shelf life in the mind lasts long after the expiration date.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


UPDATE 1/15/07 3:30 p.m.: Here's a new image of some advertising for Grindhouse designed to make waiting out the three months a long and arduous process.


“You all know me. You know what I do for a livin’.” --- Quint (Robert Shaw), Jaws

As far as I’m concerned, the best movie, from frame one to the final fade-out, that Quentin Tarantino has made to date is Jackie Brown (1997), starring Pam Grier, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, Chris Tucker and Robert Forster, * who ended up with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. And I’ve enjoyed and/or respected, with reservations, just about everything else he’s done as a director (I’d rank the rest of Tarantino, in descending order, thusly: Kill Bill Vol. 1, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Reservoir Dogs- I have not seen Four Room). His geeky cool persona on talk shows and in interviews I find extremely annoying, but at least his movies split time between that geek passion and an at least fleeting awareness with the (non-movie-derived) world around him, and the movies he chooses to make movies about are at least ones in which I can share in his enthusiasm.

Robert Rodriguez, on the other hand, seems much more a self-bred legend far too beholden to his own image of cool (oh, how I’d love to burn that hat, bandana and ever-present guitar!), a master of making fast, cheap and out-of-control images that have, to date, signified almost nothing. I loved exactly one of Rodriguez’s films—the first, least self-conscious, most sprightly episode in the increasingly wearying Spy Kids series. I felt a distanced technical admiration for Sin City while at the same time being put off not by the violence so much as the “Look, Ma! I’m being gory and sick, and isn’t it neat?” sensibility behind it, that of a giggling adolescent pushing content to revolting limits just because. El Mariachi has the fire of its young filmmaker boosting it along, even though the legend of its shoestring production has inflated the movie itself far beyond its simple pleasures. And there’s much to like in his contribution to Showtime’s Roger Corman remake series, entitled Roadracers, which provided me with my introduction to Salma Hayek. His From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado and The Faculty, however, seem simply tiresome and overwrought. And tiresome can’t begin to describe the homegrown wretchedness and pointlessness of Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (we can only hope) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. (I have not seen The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D-- I have not been that bad, and in any case, I would hope my optometrist would intervene if I ever was delirious enough to consider a viewing.)

All this said, after I saw this trailer for the duo’s upcoming Grindhouse-- a self-conscious attempt to fashion a tribute to the kinds of double features frequently featured in urban grindhouses and drive-ins in the early to mid ‘70s-- I had to admit it: I was in geek orbit. This should not be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. As Quint said as he introduced his services to the good people of Amity, you all know me. And if the movie—or should I say movies (Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror)-- come anywhere near to fulfilling the giddy, pulse-pounding, absurdly pleasurable potential of that trailer, it may end up being just too much fun—I could easily slip out of geek orbit and head straight up to geek heaven.

And these posters, designed to set the hook deep into the soft palate of someone like me, have not only snagged this shark, but are reeling him hard and fast toward the boat.

Yes, I remember From Dusk Till Dawn and Once Upon a Time In Mexico. And I remember how overbearing Tarantino can be in his seemingly undiscriminating fandom. But, at the risk of a loss of circulation and use of four of my most important digits, I will keep my fingers crossed until early April, in the hopes that Grindhouse can actually deliver the goods and bring back someone of the vile, oily, mean-spirited, hallucinatory jolts and racy, vicious humor that Roger Corman, Crown International Pictures, and other even more low-to-the-ground distributors delivered right on schedule every weekend to the downtown flea pits and dusty drive-ins of the ‘70s of my youth.

At best, Grindhouse might be an answer to a question in Professor Dave Jennings’ Milton-Free, Universe-Expanding Holiday Midterm: “Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.” Maybe it’ll land somewhere in the middle on the scale of expectations, like Sin City, flirting with transcendence as much as submission to the kind of mediocrity that was just as much in evidence at those ‘70s drive-ins as were pieces of pop nirvana like Death Race 2000. And at worst, it’ll be a loud clang of B-movie signifiers and in-jokes, just another annoying wallow by a couple of too-cool-for-planet-Earth filmmakers who have disappeared up the rectums of their own obsessions with trash movie culture. Call me an optimist, but as much as that trailer and these posters make me grin, I’ll keep my guarded hopes up for the moment. Stay tuned.

* If you're in the Los Angeles area this weekend, Robert Forster will be appearing at the North Hollywoodd Library to speak about his career. The actor will be appearing Sunday afternoon, January 14, at 2:00 pm. The admission is free. The North Hollywoodd Library is located at 5211 Tujunga Ave in North Hollywood. Call (818) 766-7185 for more information.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Oscar season is upon us, and no one I know of dissects the annual ritual with as much equals parts statistician’s detachment, critical evaluation and unabashed fan excitement as the eponymous proprietor of Edward Copeland on Film. And much like he did with last year’s survey of the best Best Picture winners, Edward’s got another survey afoot and he wants to hear from you: Who would you pick as the best and worst Best Actress winners in Oscar History? Edward’s going to be unveiling the winners (and losers) of the survey on Tuesday, January 23. That means that you have until midnight, January 19, to submit your votes and have them included in the final tally. Send your picks via e-mail to and do it soon. Edward says the survey submissions are picking up, but time is a-wastin’! And Edward would like to remind you that this survey, like last year's, in on the honor system-- you can only vote for performances you've actually seen.

I finally got my own picks sent away to E.C. a few days ago, and even though Edward has vowed to highlight comments from all the entrants, just as he did last year, I decided to make my picks public, all the better to order to invite as much hateful commentary, derision and threats as possible. So here they are, the Best (in descending order, from best to less-than-best-but-still-damn-good) and the Worst (starting from the basement and working our way up toward sunlight, only not quite making it).


1) Patricia Neal (Hud) Smoldering, brash, and tough— Neal brought out all her reserves of carnality, as well as a homespun resilience and battered wisdom, as Alma, the housekeeper who stirs the brutal passions of Newman's amoral rancher antihero. This is a performance that perfectly encapsulates the actress’s talent as well as our perception of her.

2) Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday) Speaking of summations, if Audrey Hepburn never made another movie after this one, she’d still be the Audrey Hepburn we know and love based on the luminescence she displays in this completely disarming performance.

3) Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress) A beautiful, painful reflection of the savagery of betrayal and humiliation. De Havilland finds reserves of intelligence and sensitivity in this role that others might also have discovered, but she uses her own history, particularly the reverberations of her character from Gone With the Wind, to inform those feelings with her own warmth—she’s peculiar and not just a little pathetic, but she’s never a mouse we want to see trampled, or one who deserves it.

4) Frances McDormand (Fargo) Good-humored, empathetic, yet never the condescending joke her detractors have sometimes claimed.

5) Sally Field (Norma Rae) An honest-to-God excellent performance, though sometimes one that took her character’s stridency too much as a road map. Halle Berry should have looked at this performance for guidance, then packed it in.


5) Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) Her Oscar moment onstage was sweet and everything, even if I felt I had to eventually look away (even so, she was nowhere near Sally Field territory). But on screen I’ve never seen an actress so far out of her league. Almost everything she did rang false, especially that big character scene with the Snickers bar. Watching Monster’s Ball I felt a level of embarrassment for an actor, regardless of gender, the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

4) Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) I used to like Helen Hunt, but it was this performance that made me start thinking of her a smug, closed-off actress, rotating in her own little universe. The joys of Dr. T and the Women did nothing to dispel that perception.

3) Holly Hunter (The Piano) And speaking of smug… Here’s a performance that embodied every element of the director’s concept—detachment, insularity, rage and, of course, victimization as secular sainthood (and de facto rationalization for perpetrating the previously stated qualities)—and that’s NOT a good thing.

2) Sally Field (Places in the Heart) A performance, and a movie, that was as soggy as yesterday’s oats, and as predictable in its taste.

1) Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) Over Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style or Kim Stanley in Séance On A Wet Afternoon? Please! This performance isn’t half as charming as it’s been drummed into everyone my age to believe. Andrews seemed to me like Captain Bligh with bloomers and a umbrella when I was a kid, and her icy, imperious persona as an actress (which is never quite masked by the doily of cheerfulness she drapes over herself) has done nothing to help me warm up to her as an adult.

Will this year’s winner be on one of these lists next year? Will someone else take a place in our heart in this monstrous ball alongside Halle Berry and Sally Field? Will anyone remember who won Best Actress 2006 by this time next year?

Commence hurling ripe tomatoes now!


In light of his absence on the Directors Guild of America’s short list of the finest directorial achievements in American film for 2006 (all the better, as one friend suggested to me today, to pave the way for Martin Scorsese’s long-sought-after Oscar win in February), here are links to two items regarding Clint Eastwood and his exceptional achievement with Letters from Iwo Jima and its powerful companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers.

Both come courtesy of the watchful eye of David Hudson and Green Cine Daily. First, there’s Jeff Shannon’s insightful conversation with Eastwood, which begins with a consideration of how the two films work together:

“With Flags of Our Fathers arriving on DVD February 6th, the highly acclaimed Letters from Iwo Jima is the second half of an anti-war double-feature that explores the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima - and all war - from the opposing perspectives of its combatants. Both films resonate with each other to form a thematically rich, emotionally complex study of the meaning of heroism, the insanity of war, the shared experience of common soldiers on both sides of battle, and the power of images and propaganda to manipulate our emotions for better and worse… Taken together, they are films for the ages, sharing a symbiotic relationship that will endure long after we've forgotten the box-office figures that should've been higher, and served only to illustrate the fickle nature of mainstream filmgoers who mostly stayed away from two of the best films of 2006.”

And here’s Eastwood on his approach and influences:

“Ken Watanabe and I were both being interviewed recently, and when Ken was asked how the film would be different if a Japanese director had made it, and he said it would be much more over the top, and he preferred the way we did it. I just approached the story the way I saw the film in my head. I've always admired Kurosawa, but I don't think I tried to emulate him in any way. Kurosawa liked John Ford a lot, but maybe didn't emulate him in any direct way. I think we're all inadvertently influenced by things that we've seen and enjoyed all our lives, but I don't think it's intentional. I just do what feels right to me at the time. But you can't spend a lifetime watching pictures by Ford or Kurosawa without saying "Gee, that was nicely done," and subconsciously you might think "If I'm ever shooting scene like that I might want to approach it the same way." But that could apply to hundreds of directors whose work I've admired.”

Secondly, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes his four-star review of Letters from Iwo Jima in the Chicago Reader. Some moments from Rosenbaum:

Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, one of the finest directors alive, looks at the World War II battle of his recent Flags of Our Fathers from a Japanese perspective. Letters From Iwo Jima opened in Japan around the same time its counterpart opened here, evidence of the nobility of his intention to address the people of both countries, not just us.

One reason I wasn't sure what to think of Letters the first time I saw it was that I didn't know how it would be received in Japan. I wondered if it would seem accurate to most viewers there. I've since learned that the response has been very favorable and that it's been near the top of the box-office charts since it opened.

A Japanese film critic and friend, Shigehiko Hasumi… assured me the film is true to a 'certain Japanese reality.' He added that he found the portraits of the pro-American Japanese officers in the film a bit 'romantic,' comparing them to John Ford's depictions of Confederate officers in such films as The Horse Soldiers.”

Letters from Iwo Jima opens in wider, though still somewhat limited release, today.

UPDATE 1/15/07 2:50 p.m.: While I think very highly of Jonathan Rosenbaum as a critic, and I was certainly glad that he liked Letters from Iwo Jima, I left his comments to stand on their own. I wondered if anyone might find it a little odd that Rosenbaum wasn't sure what to think of Letters because he didn't know what the Japanese would think of it. Well, apparently Jim Emerson thought Rosenbaum's observation was a little odd, all right, and he has responded, not in the comments section below, but on his own site, Scanners, in a post entitled "Gasp! Choke! As Film Criticism Lay Dying...". Jim's had one great post after another on Scanners since the beginning of the year (not that he didn't during all of 2006, but you know what I mean-- check out all of his contributions to last week "Contrarian Week" celebration), and this one is no exception. One of the disappointing things about Rosenbaum's review is that it is alarmingly light on his own observations about the film, and he does not subject it to the usual rigorous thinking regular readers ought to be used to coming from him. But, Jim says,

"Rosenbaum does allow himself a few opinions of his own:

'In essence, Eastwood is saying that the similarities between American and Japanese soldiers in 1944 are more important than the differences. This is a surprisingly liberal position for him to take, and in
Letters it has the effect of turning the mainly unseen Americans into villains.'

Does Rosenbaum not see the difference between 'villains' and 'extras'? This patronizing sentiment (mighty white of ol' Clint to make a movie about the Japs, huh?) reminds me of Sting's sanctimonious 'Let's hope the Russians love their children, too.' Yeah. Isn't it ironic?

And look at those two sentences again. Is Rosenbaum seriously suggesting that an attempt to show similarities between American and Japanese soldiers is tantamount to painting Americans as 'villains' -- which is a 'surprisingly liberal' position to take (even though that's transparently Rosenbaum's position/assumption, not Eastwood's)? I've long admired Rosenbaum's writing, but this characterization of 'liberalism' sounds more like something Sean Hannity would say."

And it's a strange thing to think that Rosenbaum would hold this view after the scene in which the wounded American soldier's letter from home is read to him by the Japanese officer. This idea of the movie characterizing the Americans as "villains" is particularly wrongheaded. As Jim makes clear when he writes,

"It's not so important in combat that the enemy be viewed as 'the villain,' just that he be viewed as 'The Other.' How do you get soldiers of any nationality to kill other people they don't even know? By objectifying and dehumanizing the "faceless" enemy; by treating The Other as a horde rather than as a group of individuals; by training soldiers to believe they are fighting for a higher cause: Country, God, the Emperor (or, in the case of the Japanese in WW II, all three combined into one)."

It is obvious here that Eastwood is not asking us to flip sides in Letters and see American soldiers as one-dimensional bad guys. Instead, what makes the scene moving is the understanding of the Japanese soldiers who hear the letter read aloud-- not of the specifics of what the letter is trying to relate, but rather its mundane quality, it's sense of being a missive delivered from a world that represents a lost reality for this American soldier, a lost reality that, given a different set of specifics, is their loss as well. And also because of the hope expressed by that soldier's mother in the letter, that he will "do what is right because it is right." Clearly this means something different not only to the Japanese and the Americans, but also to every individual on both sides of the battle. Eastwood's triumph, and screenwriter Iris Yamashita's, is that we as viewers can understand that clearly without sentimentalizing either side in their effort to "do what is right."


At almost the same time old friend PSaga sent me pictures of the recent birthday party she held for her boyfriend recently in Corvallis, Oregon-- a mini-LebowskiFest complete with Viking helmets, white Russians and mediocre bowling-- I was readying this YouTube post, the idea for which I blatantly stole from Bilge Ebiri. But you know, fun is fun, and so I decided to add a second bit of video for the weekend as well, both of them taken from recent LebowskiFests. The first is comprised of a couple of privileged moments with David Huddleston (“Your ‘revolution’ is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost!”) and Jeff Bridges (“Yeah, well, that’s just, you know, like, your opinion, man.”) from L.A. LebowskiFest 2005.

The second is from the recent L.A. LebowskiFest, a clip of Bridges himself sitting down and wrestling with a six-string and Dylan’s “The Man in Me.”

Just posting these has stirred the fires of desire to see the saga of the Dude and Walter and Donnie and Jeffrey and Maude and Jackie Treehorn all over again. Do you see what happens, Larry?

(Thanks, Bilge.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


And now you can see for yourselves…

Today is the day that Mike Judge’s terrifically crass, superficially dumb (but really smart) Idiocracy emerges from the bog of a perfunctory theatrical dumping at the hands of Twentieth Century Fox and slouches its way toward, if not Bethlehem, then at least the same inevitable DVD cult status that was bestowed upon Judge’s earlier, much more immediately likable Office Space. Bilge Ebiri of the amazing Screengrab has documented, over the course of a series of posts, the curious fate of Judge’s movie (Bilge has finally seen the movie too, and he likes it—a full review on Screengrab is forthcoming.) Meanwhile, Nathan Lee, in the East Bay Express, The Village Voice and all up and down the New Times line, casts a critical but largely appreciative eye toward the movie, and Kim Morgan, who found an honorable mention spot for Idiocracy on her Top-10 of the Year, posts a suitably profane rave that, like Lee’s piece, captures everything that’s enjoyable, perverse and bitterly funny about Judge’s look at the devolution of humanity.

(My own review can be found here.)

I’m looking forward to seeing the movie again on DVD, although I had really hoped for a more complete package than the (surprise!) no-frills affair the folks at Fox have unleashed on the marketplace. I have to say, I prefer the “Devolution for Dummies” design of the DVD box to the tepid Da Vinci parody of the one-sheet that no one saw when the movie registered stillborn in theaters this past fall. If the cult of Idiocracy develops with any similarity to the one surrounding Office Space (“Yeah… That's great… Yeah...”), perhaps Fox (or someone else, like, say, Criterion) might pony up for a DVD that would make room for a Judge commentary or perhaps even a cut of the movie more to the director’s liking than the release version.

But Fox, the corporation that found Turistas, Deck the Halls and Date Movie all suitable for big, splashy releases, is probably just as jittery as ever about putting too much money behind a movie that posits a future where Starbucks doubles as a blow-job parlor, Fuddruckers has finally been rechristened Buttfuckers, and the number-one movie in the country is a two-hour close-up of a titular Ass (complete with occasional flatulence). Kinda makes one wonder if any of the suits bothered to read the script or visit the set before they started shoveling dirt on the movie, or if they actually expected Judge to deliver the kind of flaccid comedy that causes nary a ripple of uproar or dissent on its way to the top of the box office charts.

In his piece, Lee makes an interesting point that Judge’s movie probably errs in laying so much blame for the dumbing-down of the country on the benumbed consumer and not spending more time digging at the roots of those greedy corporate enablers. That’s an aspect of the movie I’ll pay more attention to when I see it again, in between belly laughs, that is. But given the bitter, cynical juice that courses through Idiocracy’s veins, it seems like a fairly tiny nit to pick even if it’s entirely true. I’m just glad for the opportunity to see this ragged, acerbic satire in any format, and I continue to hold out hope for an even better showcase to come.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Dateline: London. According to a report filed at

“Veteran filmmaker Ken Russell flashed his genitalia at disgraced former Miss Great Britain Danielle Lloyd within hours of entering the British reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother last night (January 3). The 79-year-old Oscar nominee and three-time BAFTA winner was a surprise competitor in this year's show, which also features Jermaine Jackson and Dirk Benedict. Shortly after entering the Big Brother house, Tommy director Russell was changing into his pajamas when Lloyd-- stripped of her Miss Great Britain title after posing naked for Playboy and dating a beauty contest judge-- walked in on him. She told fellow contestants, "Ken just got changed. I was facing the room and he took his underpants off and bent over. Meat and two veg between his legs and I've seen it! It's gonna give me nightmares for rest of my life, I can't even look at him now."

Russell, whose “meat” is reportedly nowhere nearly so grandiose as that which he once designed for Roger Daltrey, is in preproduction on a new film version of Moll Flanders. His last movie to see release in America was Whore, starring Theresa Russell, Antonio Fargas and Jack Nance. (No word of his “veg,” other than their nightmare-producing properties.)

Danielle Lloyd is a fully qualified “beauty therapist” and masseuse, has worked with “the very famous Jimmy Choo, who is now a friend” and would “love to be the ‘love interest’ in the pop video of one of the top acts on the charts now.”

* Endless thanks to That Little Round-Headed Boy for coming up with a MUCH better title for this post than the one it started out with!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


We’re not three days into 2007, and already great news from the blogosphere: comrade, film critic, filmmaker, House-keeper and all-around good guy Matt Zoller Seitz has gone and got himself a new job… at the New York Times!

It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who reads this blog how much I appreciate Matt’s writing, The House Next Door, his friendship and even his occasional presence around these parts. Here’s hoping that his tenure at the Times will be as accommodating and as encouraging for his analytical style and sense of humor as it has been for Manohla Dargis.

Hopefully they gave him Canby’s old office.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

LETTERS FROM THE LABYRINTH----MOVIES 2006: The Year's End and Then Some

Not unlike last year’s, my year-end list for 2006 is one that has to be filtered through a lens colored as much by what I didn’t see (the films I missed and those I chose not to see) as by what I was lucky enough to take in. (Andy, you’ll be happy to note that I was on this one already!) It’s never been a part of this blog’s mission statement (if this blog indeed has a mission statement) to be all-inclusive regarding the films that are out over a given period of time, or even timely in the way that what full reviews do get published appear while the films are still available in theaters or otherwise “relevant” in some sort of consumer-based, quantifiable measure. Rarely do I ever have a review of a film ready to read on the day of its release, or even a week after, because I don’t get invited to press screenings and am rarely the recipient of DVD screeners. I see most of the films I talk about just like everyone else—during their regular release in theaters, or later on DVD. (My review of Old Joy was an exception, but only because Laemmle Theatres held a screening for members registered on their Web site two days before they began running the film for the general public; and I was kindly sent a screener for Iraq In Fragments after I missed the rare press screening that I was invited to.) I usually depend almost solely on the hope that, if I still find a movie worth writing about in the shards of free time in which I have to do so, then hopefully there will be enough interest in the subject itself, even after studio release schedules and P.R.-mandated windows of exposure have decided it's old news, to warrant the expenditure of my two cents. (Much is also predicated, of course, on whether I’m up to the task of writing about the film well, which is a subject I leave for others to decide.)

So, with my time (and movie-going money) as limited as it is, I have to be a little choosier than the average critic when it comes to deciding what to see in a theater. Some of my choices are based on the tastes of my daughters, as you will see later, but even then my wife and I like to think we exercise a bit of informed prejudice when it comes to deciding what the girls will see—we skipped Barnyard outright, based on my aversion to what I’d observed in trailers, and though my six-year-old has decided that Night at the Museum is just too frightening to consider, I’m looking for more information because my more adventurous four-year-old lights up at the suggestion of seeing it. (I also learned this year that much of their enthusiasm over an upcoming release depends on my own—by not reinforcing the idea of seeing Barnyard or Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, despite their advertising being on every other billboard along every route we seemed to take this past summer, both girls never uttered a peep over not seeing them, nor have they requested them on DVD. This is not to say that we are impervious to a well-oiled machine like Disney and all its tentacles—they can both sing tunes from High School Musical, for God’s sake, without the movie or the CD ever once being played or even mentioned in our house—but only that there are methods of resistance.)

As for myself, being connected to such a wealth of critical thinking as is available on the Internet, through largely print-based critics like David Edelstein, J. Hoberman, Armond White, Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and including Web-based brethren like Jim Emerson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Ed Gonzalez, Nick Schrager, Keith Uhlich, Kim Morgan and Brian Darr, getting information about upcoming films, those I’m already interested in as well as those with which I’ve yet to become acquainted, has never been easier. Maybe that’s why, when I looked over the list of 72 films released in 2006 that I actually did see (whether in theaters, on DVD, or at work), I was able to note that a disproportionate amount of them were ones that I either admired or outright loved. (Most of the ones I see on the job, not surprisingly, turn out to be along the lower-rated on the scale, and hey, it’s steady income. But when I actually get paid to work on something like William Greaves’ legendary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm occasionally, it’s kind of hard to complain.) And there is the ever-growing Netflix queue, a wonderful clearinghouse for everything in the year I have yet to catch up with (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu arrived in that familiar red-and-white envelope on Friday) as well as the less-heralded titles in which there is still a spark of interest (A Scanner Darkly, Kinky Boots, Scoop, et al).

Despite the fact that I caught as many as 72 releases from the year 2006, the list of titles that evaded my grasp completely is, of course, far longer. It includes, but is most definitely not limited to, the following titles (listed roughly in order of their release):

Movies I Would Have Loved To See In A Theater (And In Some Cases Still Might):
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Battle in Heaven, Night Watch, Don’t Come Knocking, Running Scared, L’Enfant, Brick, Army of Shadows, Clean, Lady Vengeance, An Inconvenient Truth, X-Men: The Last Stand, District B13, Wordplay, The Road to Guantanamo, Who Killed the Electric Car?, The Devil Wears Prada, The Great Yokai War, A Scanner Darkly, Excellent Cadavers, Edmond, Lunacy, Half Nelson, The Pusher Trilogy, Idlewild, Invincible, Mutual Appreciation, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Man Push Cart, Jesus Camp, The Last King of Scotland, loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies, Shortbus, 49 Up, Little Children, Deliver Us From Evil, Infamous, Sweet Land, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, Marie Antoinette, The Bridge, Climates, Volver, Fast Food Nation, For Your Consideration, 51 Birch Street, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, The Fountain, Tenacious D in The Pick Of Destiny, Our Daily Bread, Three Needles, Days of Glory (Indigenes), Inland Empire, Apocalypto, Dreamgirls, The Good German, The Painted Veil, Curse of the Golden Flower, Venus, The Good Shepherd, Miss Potter, Children of Men, Notes On A Scandal, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The Dead Girl

Movies On Deck For My DVD Player:
Film Geek, Why We Fight, Bubble, Manderlay, Nanny McPhee, Sophie School: The Final Days, Street Fight, Tsotsi, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Battle in Heaven, Night Watch, Don’t Come Knocking, Running Scared, L’Enfant, Brick, Army of Shadows, Clean, Lady Vengeance, An Inconvenient Truth, X-Men: The Last Stand, District B13, Wordplay, The Road to Guantanamo, Who Killed the Electric Car?, The Devil Wears Prada, The Great Yokai War, A Scanner Darkly, Edmond, The Pusher Trilogy, Idlewild, Invincible, Mutual Appreciation, loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies, Duck Season, Game 6, Find Me Guilty, The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Lonesome Jim, Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That, Basic Instinct 2, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Friends With Money, I Am A Sex Addict, Hard Candy, Kinky Boots, American Dreamz, Akeelah and the Bee, The Whore’s Son, Down in the Valley, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Waist Deep, 4, Wassup Rockers, Strangers With Candy, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, Ask the Dust, Mimi’s First Time, Lady in the Water, Brothers of the Head, Scoop, Quinceanera, The House of Sand, How to Eat Fried Worms, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, The Wicker Man, The Puffy Chair, Agnes and His Brothers, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, Sherrybaby, Al Franken: God Spoke, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, The Science of Sleep, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Tideland, Sleeping Dogs Lie, Death of a President, Fuck, The Aura, Déjà vu, The Nativity Story, Blood Diamond, The Holiday, The Secret Life of Words, Night at the Museum, We Are Marshall, Black Christmas, Factory Girl and (thanks, Brian, for the recommend) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

2006 Releases In Which I Have Virtually No Interest:
Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion, The Heart is Deceitful Among All Things, Drawing Restraint 9, Art School Confidential, The Da Vinci Code, The Lake House, Click, All the King’s Men, Babel, Bobby, Eragon, The Pursuit of Happyness, Rocky Balboa, The Tiger and the Snow

And there are about another 200 or so titles that I didn’t include (from this list) because I either knew not what they were or found them sufficiently below my level of interest that I couldn’t possibly muster enough time or effort to track them down. Whether or not your knowledge of my shortcomings makes any difference to you in terms of how you value knowing about the films that meant something to me in this year is, as it would be if I’d seen all 695 released this year, entirely at your discretion. The list I’ve provided below, which has on it 15 films instead of just 10, is intended merely as a snapshot of my perspective on the year, which is why providing the list of what I didn’t see seems especially pertinent. It has been suggested that reading a year-end list like this is akin to thumbing through someone’s DVD collection in order to get a glimpse (however profound or superficial) of that person—his/her tastes, interests, biases. I think that’s a much more valuable way of looking at any year-end list, even ones put forth by professionals who have more than likely seen a much broader and more complete range of the year’s films than I have. But even a professional critic is bound by the limits of time, and I doubt there’s any one of them who would make any claims toward a literally or even near-complete view of any given year. That’s one of the exciting things about film and being part of film culture—as much as you know, as much as you’ve experienced, there’s always something new to see, there’s always a film you’ve seen whose rewards can be expanded upon revisiting and re-experiencing it.

So why fret about the things one hadn’t the time to see in 2006? I’d rather celebrate what it was about the year that made me remember, as I love to do, why the movies mean so much to me, as well as hash over how the medium fell short, left me cold, enraged me, left me disappointed yet again. Like any relationship, the one I have (the one I suspect many of us have) with the movies, is never emotionally constant, will (hopefully) demand things of me that I must engage my spirit and my mind to provide and then illuminate, and is almost always in some way rewarding. In looking back at this past year, I also look forward to continuing that relationship in 2007.

THE YEAR'S BEST (in descending order):

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (Clint Eastwood) There’s a moment about halfway through Eastwood’s second recounting of the battle for Iwo Jima, seen this time from the point of view of the Japanese soldiers defending the island from within tunnels dug into the hills, when the degree of empathy this director has mustered for a typically demonized Imperial enemy force crystallizes with a chill of recognition no less remarkable for the offhanded way in which it is presented. The soldiers, led by the stern but humane General Kuribayashi (a galvanizing Ken Watanabe), emerge out of their subterranean caves during a brief respite from the shelling in order to quickly assess their situation. As they glance out over a black beach overrun by American forces, and waters occupied by an imposing flotilla of gunships, there is also visible in the distance, during one brief shot, the sight of an American flag perched on top of an adjacent hill, fluttering in the breeze and the drifting smoke. The Japanese, as far as we can tell, don’t regard it at all, and almost as quickly as we register the significance of the flag, Eastwood has moved on and it is never seen again. In one fleeting instant, the central visual and thematic metaphor of the director’s Flags of Our Fathers has been reduced to a relatively insignificant blip, a measure of how thoroughly entrenched we’ve become in the story of men whose motives, fears and responses to the horrors of war seem remarkably similar to those of the American warriors, the nature of whose heroism was dealt with powerfully in that flawed but devastating first film. I’m not sure if there’s a precedent among Western directors for what Eastwood achieves in Letters from Iwo Jima, but the film has such calm confidence, such mastery of mood and tension and sensitivity to behavior, such contemplative expansiveness—I can’t recall another film about war that is, for its first hour, so hauntingly quiet, even its more lighthearted moments, or one so open to the power of moments that lay the foundation for these soldiers’ fates—that a sense of its greatness settles in quickly, with welcome assurance. The actors, to a man, seems to sense that greatness too, yet it’s not a mantle worn by them heavily— the performances all rise to the standard Eastwood has demanded in his filmmaking, and they coalesce with a staggering power. Seen together with Flags, this may be the definitive portrait of nations and generations at war. It’s the best movie of the year. (Listmates: Iraq In Fragments, Pan’s Labyrinth)

PAN’S LABYRINTH (Guillermo Del Toro) The subtle ways fantasy reinforces and reflects reality, as well as the way fantasy can actually function as a projection of fears as well as hopes, are subjects at the root of Guillermo Del Toro’s robust, nightmarish vision of the beginnings of Franco’s fascist Spain filtered through the mindscape of a tenacious little girl. Watching this movie, it becomes clear just how shallow is the conception of many of the fantasy worlds Hollywood routinely spends millions, billions to achieve. Del Toro’s imaginative horrors, on the other hand, achieve a rare power not through bottomless infusions of cash, but through their ability to reflect the way a reality like brutal fascism imposes itself on the innocent from within as well as from without. This lyrical pitch-black fantasia is a superbly realized consideration of childhood, as embodied by the lovely, desperate Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), stepdaughter to a sadistic captain (Sergi Lopez) in Franco’s army, yet its unsparing look at the realistic horrors perpetrated by the captain and his forces ensure that it is decidedly not a film for children. It is, however, a movie for anyone who longs to be swept away by the inexorable power of a well-told story, illuminated from within by the subtle effectiveness of allegory, a simple fable-like morality infused with overwhelming emotion, and the conviction of a cast and a director that is decidedly sincere and driven by the satisfaction of telling that story well. The last two theatrical experiences I had in 2006 were back-to-back screenings of Pan’s Labyrinth and Letters to Iwo Jima, numbers one and two on my list for the entire year. Feeling these two supremely evocative, emotionally powerful, yet tonally dissimilar films resonate and reverberate off of each other was a true and rare treat, the very incarnation of movie heaven on the stage of two very distinct visions of hell. If only every night at the movies could be so rewarding. (Listmates: The Descent, Letters from Iwo Jima)

THREE TIMES (Hou Hsiao-hsien) Structured in three segments, Three Times plays like a greatest hits compilation of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s favored themes—three love stories set in three different eras, each evoking hazy melancholy filtered through pop culture, political oppression reduced down to an abstract reflection at a fundamental human level, and the ways in which communication is thwarted, through the technology that is meant to enhance it. Hou’s conceit, that the lovers in each segment are played by the same actors—Shu Qi and Chang Chen—is a transporting one, allowing us to luxuriate in their beauty as mere movie presences and to chart their behavior and responses from one segment to the next and our own responses to it. The segments are perhaps most simply and resonantly experienced, however, as tales that reflect the many ways in which people experience falling and being in love, and also that slowed-down sensation of perception that often signals when the hook has been set. Each story is set in a different period in Taiwanese history, and each is tonally and stylistically quite different from the next.
However, each is still imbued with Hou’s probing long takes, the heightened sense that each edit, each shift in perspective, means something, even if we can’t articulate exactly what while we’re experiencing it, and an alarming sensory sensitivity to the details and pleasures and even slight claustrophobia of the places where the stories unfold. To surrender to the tactile, emotional and observational pleasures of Hou’s worlds is to thrill to being in the hands of a master director, one who knows that some of life’s (and cinema’s) most moving dramas can be charted among the slightest of seismic shifts in mood, in sound, in the positioning of two beautiful actors as they look into each other’s eyes, or as they look away at a crucial moment, the angle of one glance deflecting off of another, another connection missed. (Listmate: Old Joy)

THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (Kevin Willmott) The liberating style of the mockumentary format may have finally reached the fraying point of overfamiliarity—even Christopher Guest went another direction for his latest movie. But Kevin Willmott’s brutally funny satiric rumination restakes the mockumentary table by anchoring itself to the mustiest good intentions of the talking-heads format. Staged as a stuffy Ken Burns-style TV special, Willmott’s conceit is a daring and staggeringly well thought-out achievement in speculative fiction, a look back at the history of the United States as it might be told if the Confederacy, not the Union, had won the Civil War. Willmott, like the best social satirists, is not after cheap laughs—the laughs that permeate CSA are the sort that stick in your throat and make you swallow hard, and they come on the heels of a series of sobering observations about the nature of human relations and how a governmental system rooted in 150 years of institutionalized racism bears some startlingly recognizable features. The faux documentary special is punctuated by a series of hilarious, over-the-top commercials for products and services that more overtly reflect the societal bigotry that has become so entrenched in this “what-if” society. It’s the kind of comedy that uses as well as exposes extreme beliefs and behavior. But if you think the belly laughs are letting you off the hook, Willmott has devised an ingenious twist, the best sucker-punch of 2006. Don’t shut off the DVD until the end credits are over. (Listmates: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Shut Up and Sing)

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman) Much has been written about the finality of this movie in the cold light of the death of Robert Altman, about how appropriate that a movie about the final performance of a fictionalized version of a real-life radio show should be Altman’s last film. Matt Zoller Seitz even gleefully imagined Altman, fully aware of his terminal illness at the onset of shooting, delighting in the opportunity to orchestrate such a deliciously pointed swansong. Yet I wonder if there’s ever been a movie about impending death that has felt as airy, as indulgent in the felicitations, follies and sublimated expressions of its cast of characters, as does this one. After the unexpected passing of one of the show’s stars, a woman in white who turns out to be a literal angel of death comments offhandedly that there’s nothing tragic about the death of an old man. A thematically resonant line that could almost have seemed tossed off when the movie was released last summer, it has now moved front and center, enriching the kind of wistful appreciation of life from the perspective of a director who knew he was at the end of his that infuses the movie’s every privileged moment. Altman goes out soaring on the wings of a zippy cast that gleefully recalls the gloriously alive ensemble milieu at the heart of Nashville or Buffalo Bill and the Indians…, celebrating one last time the kind of community that would become a hallmark of his joyous, inclusive style and of some of his very best films. Whether this is one of them or not is an issue for debate among Altman completists (of which I am one), but there’s no doubt that the effortless grace and effervescence of A Prairie Home Companion made almost everything else in 2006 look clunky and worn by comparison. (Listmates: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Shut Up and Sing)

THE DESCENT (Neil Marshall) This is the kind of movie that makes me consider issuing loaded proclamations—Can anyone who claims not to have been terrified by The Descent really be trusted? (Probably, but you’d better have a good reason for that steely indifference.) Marshall’s achievement, a level of audience identification with escalating claustrophobic fear and confrontation with a terrifying unknown (especially at a time when displays of extreme violence is often confused with, or cynically substituted for, a genuine cinematic cultivation of fear), shouldn’t be underestimated. A group of six women, old friends coming together a year after a horrifying accident leaves one of them without a husband and a daughter, go on an ill-advised spelunking expedition and find themselves lost in a ghastly underworld hell. Marshall loads the movie with touchstones culled from cinema and art history, but this is no empty spot-the-reference game—each nod to Deliverance or Hieronymous Bosch deepens the thematic resonance of the movie as well as its power over your imagination. The terror goes subterranean enough that even the return of daylight, and the recurring vision of a lost daughter, provides no solace. As in other great horror movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at the end of The Descent it’s clear enough that the horror is just beginning. (Listmates: Old Joy, Pan’s Labyrinth)

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (James Longley) Eschewing polemics for poetry (achieved through imagery and an intuitive construction of the way those images float and click and sometimes dissolve together), director James Longley manages to shed new light on the current conflict in Iraq through what ought to be an obvious-enough strategy—providing a perspective gained by lending a sensitive ear and eye to three factions of Iraqi citizenry and examining the various realities of life during wartime-- an 11-year-old boy survives in the streets and provides for his family by working for an abusive garage owner who serves as his advisor, his substitute father and his oppressor; Shiites attempting to organize provincial elections submit to using tactics of terrorism in order to enforce adherence to a Koran-based lifestyle; and a Kurdish family expresses gratitude for the American presence even as its members dissipate away from religious practice. Iraq in Fragments provides viewers a chance to attach faces and names to a nameless, faceless people minimized by the U.S. government’s detached spin on the war and experience a part of the world besieged by conflict, from within and without, with a measure of understanding gained through an associative, poeticized visual approach. A man sits with friends on a Baghdad street and proclaims in conversation, “He who tells history must tell it all, not just for himself.” A disturbing, revealing movie appropriate for viewers as young as the early teens, Iraq in Fragments is a step in that direction. It should be considered essential viewing. (Listmates: Letters from Iwo Jima, Shut Up and Sing)

OLD JOY (Kelly Reichardt) Mark (Daniel London) is a 40-ish husband, about to become a father, who meditates in order to hold at bay a vague dissatisfaction with his marital relationship and a pointedly less vague dread of the life to come. Kurt (Will Oldham) is the friend with whom Mark has lost touch, as aimless in his constant search of an elusive spiritual bliss as Mark is beholden to what he imagines to be the societal requirements necessary to achieve stability and happiness. Old Joy is the spare, poetic, blissfully haunted movie about these two men who attempt to recapture a moment of the past, a fleeting shadow of what originally drew them together as friends, and their drift through a weekend together in the woods of the Oregon Cascades. Their two figures constantly, fluidly float past and trespass upon one another within director Kelly Reichardt’s frames, and silently merge with the vast, quiet landscape, where the future hovers, solemnly, forebodingly, in the pines. This is a road movie pitched to the rhythms of gently swaying pine trees, and one of its quietly insistent pleasures is the frequency with which it deflects the trajectory of this fundamentally propulsive subgenre, effectively translating the contemplative ambience and profound economy of a short story through subtle, yet essentially cinematic, use of image and sound. At one point Kurt tells of a dream in which he is comforted by a middle-aged Indian woman who tells him “Sorrow is just worn-out joy,” a suggestion he recounts to Mark, who may or may not be hearing what his old friend is telling him. Old Joy is a lovely, allusive portrait of the blissful roots of despair, a welcome reminder of how brisk and refreshing the scent of a subtle, original vision can be. (Listmates: The Descent, Neil Young: Heart of Gold)

SHUT UP AND SING (Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck) As the dawning of the war in Iraq inched ever closer a few years ago, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines had the temerity to express her dissatisfaction with the direction the Bush administration was taking the country in the wake of 9/11, and she did it in public, on stage during a concert—she proclaimed that she and the Chicks were ashamed that Bush came from Texas. That one comment sent the Dixie Chicks into a career tailspin. Suddenly abandoned and vilified by country radio and the very fan base that had turned them into superstars, they were now fair game for character assassination, CD burnings and even death threats. Kopple and Peck, veterans of empathetic documentaries like Harlan County U.S.A. and America Dream, document that tailspin in this chilling, enraging and ultimately invigorating look at the aftermath of that comment, as Maines and band mates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison attempt to grapple with life and their own image as ex-darlings of country music radio. The movie has a lot of the sass and spirit of Maines herself, and it’s not immune to her occassionally self-righteous swagger either. Yet it’s also a clear-headed look not only at how these women try to right the ship without caving on their convictions, but their own bonds as a sisterhood buffeted by the tides of fear and ruthless public opinion. Throughout the film Kopple’s nimble filmmaking effortlessly lays down, without a hint of soapboxing, the suggestion that the reaction of country music fans might not have been so vicious or so insistent had it been a man who had made the controversial comment—the swagger of those ill-advised reactionaries we see bearing anti-Chicks placards and burning CDs has a smelly patina of safety-in-numbers goosestepping that looks even more unseemly now that the tide of public opinion has swung decidely away from W and more toward ungrateful insurrectionists like the Dixie Chicks. I was lucky enough to see the Dixie Chicks in concert a mere four days after taking in this film, and seeing them proudly take the stage and perform with such confidence and mastery while continuing to redefine themselves in light of the events this film depicts was a real pleasure. In introducing the band onstage, Maines even found space for a little bit of liberating self-effacement. In noting that Maguire and Robison had surrendered master of ceremonies duties to her for the evening, she demurred, “We decided it as best if Natalie and Martie didn’t talk this time around. See, they shot their mouths off a while back and got us all in a bunch of trouble…” Shut Up and Sing is a shot in the arm, an appealingly barbed look at a trio of very popular musicians regaining and redefining all three of their voices. (Listmates: A Prairie Home Companion, Iraq In Fragments, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, The Confederate States of America)

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (Larry Charles) Jagshemash! One of the rare examples of a half year of buzz, hype and advance screening raves actually fulfilling its promise, Sacha Baron Cohen’s disarmingly brilliant comic creation-- the adventures of a cheerfully misogynistic, anti-Semitic self-styled TV interviewer (second best in all Kazakhstan!) bumping uglies with real, mostly unwitting Americans while ostensibly shooting a documentary on the country-- struck a chord with general audiences too. In fact, the response to Borat, in theaters (and in courtrooms) has been almost as fascinating as the depths to which the movie itself cuts into aspects of the American character. Cohen’s Kazakh journalist is a fountain of cultural faux pas and innocently antisocial behavior, but given the opportunity (and the provocation) the good folks Borat encounters on his journey from New York to California allow a light to be shone on their own homophobia, racism and reactionary politics as well, to chilling comic effect. Is Borat mean and nasty? Most certainly. Is it entirely fair to those in its satiric sights? Perhaps not. But, as a revered old professor of mine once said to me, ask Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain if it matters whether satire is balanced or sweet-tempered. Then ask to what degree the satire rings true, or how and why the movie creates almost nonstop laughter for 90 straight minutes—three fascinating questions that one viewing of Borat inspired in me, ones that I will be chewing on right up to the beginning of my second. (Listmates: The Confederate States of America, Jackass Number Two, Shut Up and Sing)

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY (Michel Gondry) The most inclusively, infectiously cheerful party of the year, and that’s a proclamation coming from someone whose musical tastes are solidly planted in the hardening cement of classic rock, not this hip-hop stuff that the kids seem to think is all that. Gondry documents both the block party itself—a gathering in the rain on the streets of a Brooklyn neighborhood composed of Chappelle’s who’s-who wish list picked from the hip-hop firmament, including the wonderful, versatile Mos Def, the Roots, Erykah Badu, Kanye West, Jill Scott and a reunited Fugees—and Chappelle’s efforts to organize it and populate the audience with an unlikely assortment of everyday Americans. This movie demonstrates the kind of good will that crosses boundaries of taste and other supposed cultural barriers. The way Chappelle relates to some of his eccentric city neighbors, as well as the Ohio residents, black and white, that he invites to New York for the show, will inspire smiles as broad as Chappelle’s own, and the reaction of the members of the marching band he impulsively invites is likely to inspire tears, just as asses will be set to bouncing by the spectacular array of talent on stage. Block Party documents a kind of unity that dismantles the divisiveness that politicians are so often quick to exploit. In Mr. Chappelle’s Neighborhood, the beat goes on and it’s all good. (Listmates: A Prairie Home Companion, Neil Young: Heart of Gold)

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (Jonathan Demme) A glowing celebration of family, friends, old dogs, tenuous connections and the passage of time, Jonathan Demme films this concert, held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as a coming-out party for Young’s Prairie Wind album (written at a time when Young was about to undergo surgery for a brain aneurysm), as if he’d never heard of MTV. There’s a texture and an intimacy to Ellen Kuras’ relaxed cinematography that allows us the room to soak up the music’ textures and take in the subtle glances between the performers. And I can think of only a handful (less than five) instances of a shot in this film that lasts less than five seconds or so—Demme’s approach might be mistaken by some as sleepy, but in reality it’s deeply respectful and invigorating, and it provides a proper showcase for Young and his crowded stage of musicians and singers at their most deeply felt, even joyful. I spent New Year’s Eve with this movie, and the first song I heard after the clock chimed midnight and I finished ringing in 2007 with my wife, a kiss, and the expression of hope for a better year in the wings, led off with these haunted, hopeful lyrics:
“Comes a time/When you're driftin'/Comes a time/When you settle down/Comes a light/Feelin's liftin'/Lift that baby/Right up off the ground/Oh, this old world/Keeps spinnin’ round/It's a wonder tall trees/Ain't layin' down/There comes a time/Comes a time…” Amen. (Listmates: Old Joy, A Prairie Home Companion, Shut Up and Sing)

THE PROPOSITION (John Hillcoat) The nihilistic grandeur of The Proposition, a pitiless, grimy, blood-soaked and biblically proportioned Australian western made from a spare and brilliant screenplay by Nick Cave, is truly something to behold. It has the power to bring even the most jaded, weathered viewer to his or her knees through the force of its vision of a bleak outback populated by grizzled, amoral denizens who have no idea that they’re the walking dead, and through the violence barely contained in that vision. Ray Winstone is a constable prone to sadism who reveals a somewhat more upstanding nature in his desire to protect his wife (Emily Watson) from the cruel reality of the world swirling about on the dry winds that buffet the remote outpost where they live. Winstone holds the youngest of three murderous brothers in a cell, using the boy as a whimpering poker chip, and has let the another, played by Guy Pearce (in his skeletal, ravaged Ravenous mode), go free, promising to spare the younger brother if Pearce finds the oldest brother, their brooding and deadly Kurtzian leader (Danny Huston), and kills him. Cave’s screenplay has primal poetry about it, as does the spare score he has laid down on top of the film’s savagely gorgeous Panavision imagery. But Hillcoat supplies an otherworldly quality to this brutal, relatively unfamiliar frontier that builds on Cave’s narrative concepts and brings a shattering quality to moments of contemplation-- two brothers, united by the blood int heir veins and the blood of others that they’ve spilled, who sit silhouetted against a cruel sun staring down the inevitability of their path-- and to the explosion of horrific violence to which that path inevitably leads. (Listmate: Casino Royale)

CASINO ROYALE (Martin Campbell) The most unlikely development in the birthing of James Bond version 6.0 was the one that came most gloriously true: on top of Daniel Craig breathing new, believable, life into the movies’ most durable franchise character, the movie itself, a reimagining of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel that somehow still remains remarkably faithful to it, turned out to be a smashing piece of action filmmaking. The Bond films, especially in the post-Moore era, have been a notoriously formula-driven lot, yet one of the glories of Casino Royale is how it acknowledges that formula even while stripping the Bond legend down to its basics, all the better for rebuilding, as well as for acknowledging and incorporating the most recent developments in movie stunt work (like parkour, first seen in the work of Tony Jaa and in the French actioner District B13) within its own thrilling set pieces. But if all eyes ended up on Craig before the film premiered, they stayed glued on him during the movie too. His is the first Bond, including Connery, who seems completely beholden to the laws of physics, how a man would actually move through space during a chase or a fight—with considerable sweat and effort, as it turns out--and to how the human body ends up bruised and battered because of it. Craig is the first actor to embody Bond to completely approach the role with the instincts of an actor—he’s just as compelling in moments of quiet as he is wheezing and gasping while giving chase up the skeleton of a construction crane. In the past there was Ursula Andress and Halle Berry, and with Eva Green as Bond’s ill-fated love interest there’s no lack of female beauty on display. But in Casino Royale it’s Daniel Craig who emerges, shirtless, from the surf, giving himself over for the camera’s fetishistic approval. If the Movies for Guys Who Love Movies crowd can still buy Casino Royale after that, then the Bond franchise may finally be on an interesting new path after all. (Listmate: The Proposition)

JACKASS NUMBER TWO (Jeff Tremaine) Life as a no-holds-barred, homoerotic prankster carnival, complete with as much projectile transportation, rectal evacuation, reptilian penile puncture, threat of anal penetration, oral expectoration, and ghastly ingestion of various (and interspecies) bodily fluids as one 90-minute movie submitted for MPAA approval could possibly withstand. (The unrated DVD sits on my desk, unwrapped and awaiting investigation.) Jackass Number Two spiritedly indulges its own acknowledgment of the guy-on-guy underpinnings of its concept (and paves the way for its comparatively rigid audience to accept them), and in the way its purposefully slack, formless collage of literally hit-and-miss set pieces do lend themselves to a Dadaist notion of body-oriented (and film) art accessed through the back door, by any means but those readily acknowledged by the gatekeepers of taste and achievement. This gut-busting gross-out furthers the idea-- a fairly radical one for a society as basically repressed as ours-- that good-natured, homoerotic bonding between men is just the way it is. A comedy perched purposefully on the taint between art and aimless self-abuse, scored to the sounds of skate punk and bone crunching on concrete, Jackass Number Two is some sort of twisted masterpiece. (Listmate: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan)

HONORABLE MENTION: Beerfest, Calvaire (The Ordeal), Cars, Charlotte’s Web, Curious George, The Departed, Eight Below, Flags of Our Fathers, Flushed Away, Happy Feet, Hoodwinked, Home, Idiocracy, The Illusionist, Inside Man, Jet Li’s Fearless, Keane, Lassie, Little Miss Sunshine, Miami Vice, Monster House, Nacho Libre, The Notorious Bettie Page, Off the Black, The Omen 666, Our Brand is Crisis, Over the Hedge, Poseidon, The Prestige, The Queen, Saw III, 16 Blocks, Slither, Snakes on a Plane, Superman Returns, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, United 93, V for Vendetta and The Wild Blue Yonder.

MOST PRIZED GENRE OF 2006: I haven’t even seen four of the most acclaimed documentaries as of this writing-- An Inconvenient Truth, 51 Birch Street, Deliver Us from Evil and The Bridge-- and I’d still say that the documentaries I saw for the first time in 2006, some of which date back to 2004 and 2005, made for some of the most compelling viewing I experienced all year. The insights and compelling human drama found in such disparate titles as Our Brand is Crisis, Cinemania, Anytown U.S.A., This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Shut Up and Sing, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Iraq In Fragments, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and even Jackass Number Two and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan made documentaries the most rewarding for me in 2006. But there was no more pleasure to be had in diving so deeply back into the format than that I found in those made by Werner Herzog, whose documentaries, as Manohla Dargis once so aptly observed, make everyone else’s look, well, bad. This year I was enthralled by first experiences with Herzog’s radiant and elusive The White Diamond, the compelling storytelling behind Little Dieter Needs to Fly and the unhinged brilliance of his “science fiction fantasy” The Wild Blue Yonder, which interweaves NASA footage of shuttle astronauts in zero gravity and stunning underwater (and under ice floe) footage with a framing device starring Brad Dourif as an ancient alien relating the arrival of his species on Earth, and man’s subsequent attempt to colonize his abandoned planet. It’s as loopy as it sounds, and as wonderful too. And I hear tell Herzog’s audio commentary is great too.

ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED: The Departed, followed by The Beales of Grey Gardens, Little Miss Sunshine, Thank You for Smoking and This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

ACADEMY OF THE UNDERRATED: Miami Vice, Nacho Libre, The Omen 666 and Saw III.


BEST FILM MADE BY SOMEONE I KNOW: Matt Zoller Seitz’s sublime Home.


THE YEAR’S BIGGEST SURPRISES: Beerfest, The Confederate States of America, Happy Feet, Inside Man, Lassie, The Omen 666, Slither

FAVORITE PERFORMANCES (MALE): Jack Black, Nacho Libre, Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima

FAVORITE PERFORMANCES (FEMALE): Helen Mirren, The Queen, Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page, Shu Qi, Three Times

BEST MOVIE YOU NEVER SAW: Idiocracy (But you can remedy this problem-- it’s on DVD January 9)

KIDS CORNER (My Six-Year-Old Daughter Rates The Year’s Movies That She Saw):

1) CARS So cute and nice. Each car has different eyes—like, Sally has blue eyes and Lightning McQueen has even bigger ones. But are they blue? I don’t remember. But they’re both big eyes, so the two of them are a perfect combination. I like the music of Cars (sings “Life Is A Highway”), but my favorite part is when they sing “Sh-Boom” and all the bright signs in radiator Springs get turned back on.

2) MONSTER HOUSE A little bit scary for little kids. The kids were creeping up toward the house, and suddenly they got up on the porch, rang the doorbell and the door had teeth and the house’s tongue rolled out after them like a red carpet, only sticky and bumpy. My favorite part is when DJ and the girl kissed.

3) HAPPY FEET Mumble the Penguin is really cute when he does his happy feet dance (She demonstrates). Other kids should see it, but the seals and whales attacking might be too scary. There wasn’t anything in this movie I didn’t like. Favorite character: Mumble’s girlfriend, Gloria.

4) HOODWINKED It’s all about all the different characters in the story of Little Red Hiding Hood. Red tells her side of the story, then everybody else gets to tell their version of what happened. Granny snowboarding down the mountain with the bad guys was my favorite part.

5) CURIOUS GEORGE He’s really curious and goes everywhere with his buddy, the Man in the Yellow Hat. George always gets in trouble. At the end he shoots off into space and flies over the world. The music is good too.

The rest:

CHARLOTTE’S WEB “Very creative!”
LASSIE “Exciting!”
OVER THE HEDGE “Hilarious!”
THE WILD “Silly!”
OPEN SEASON “Too many animals!”

WORST OF THE YEAR: Nudging out Turistas for Worst of the Year honors is the execrable, painfully unfunny DATE MOVIE, the nadir (to date) of a trend in stupid American comedies that go for bottom-trolling guffaws at the expense of the grossly obese (be on the lookout for Eddie Murphy’s Norbit coming this spring) and equate the making of a pop culture reference (Look! It’s Napoleon Dynamite!) with the making of a joke about that reference. The mere fact that you recognize Napoleon Dynamite is itself supposed to be funny, so why bother with any actual humor? Rotten to the core.

RELATED READING: More year-end “Best” lists from Dana Stevens, Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schrager, Jim Emerson, the gang at MSN Movies, Filmbrain and the Year-End Critics Poll at IndieWire.

Elsewhere, Jim Emerson also has a fun article on The Best Double Bills of 2006, David Poland looks at Film Critics Version 2006 and a heady roundtable of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Molly Haskell and Brazilian critic Jose Carlos Avellar awaits you as they make their ”Picks from Pedro to Prairie: Discussion on the Films of 2006”.

And finally, our esteemed friend and Internet overseer David Hudson wraps up 2006 in compelling fashion with his Random Bulletpoint Fire 2006. The number-one development for the year in Web-based film criticism as he sees it: the Blog-a-Thon!

Onward and upward! 2007 awaits! See you there!