In case anyone reading cares about such things, I will be honest and note that I rewrote the following, so that I could round out my list out as an even tenner. 


There are no rules here.


And this ain’t a best-of list.  The only thing that binds these ten pictures together is that all ten of ‘em hit me behind the ribcage.



#10:  Appaloosa.


Because of this unearthed conversation:


Ed Harris, to me:  “Hey kid. Nice wardrobe. Say, would you like to see an old-fashioned Western which I directed and co-wrote, starring myself and Viggo Mortensen as two aging gunslingers who are brought on as lawmen in a town under the thumb of outlaw rancher Jeremy Irons?” 


Me:  “Yes sir, I would, thanks very much!” 


Ed Harris:  “Great, I got that for you. And, since you were so enthusiastic, I’ll add in Lance Henriksen as a fellow gunslinger of dubious alliances, stuck somewhere in the middle of the two sides.  There’ll be shootouts.” 


Me:  “Awesome.  I’ll recommend it to all to all my friends on the internet.”


Yes, my friends, I liked Appaloosa.  VERY old-fashioned, but that’s no bad thing.  Used to be standard in Hollywood that every movie star got his turn starring in a Western, but for obvious reasons that’s hardly possible these days.  Harris and Mortensen are two of the few modern bold names who are convincing in a Western setting.  They play this flick understated, but with frequent glimpses of dirty-minded humor.  It’s a pleasure to watch.  Harris also slips some more modern ideas into the subtext, such as guy-girl relations, guy-guy friendships, honor, honesty, justice, and politics.  The operating mantra on which the film rotates is, “Feelings get you killed.”  Watch the movie to see where that idea might apply.




#9:  Cadillac Records.


          Because it takes a comprehensive subject and spins it simply, accessibly, and with modern momentum.  This is the story of the legendary music label, Chess Records, from which originated much of what we know today of R&B and rock n’roll.  And this is my favorite cast of the year:  Adrien Brody plays label owner Leonard Chess, Beyonce Knowles plays superstar Etta James, Mos Def plays megastar Chuck Berry, Eamonn Walker plays Howlin’ Wolf, Columbus Short plays Little Walter, Cedric The Entertainer plays Willie Dixon, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Gabrielle Union play the love interests, and Jeffrey Wright plays Muddy Waters. 


For my money, Jeffrey Wright is one of the very best actors working in the world today.  Every time out, he shows up with a different appearance and a totally different voice, and is absolutely convincing as his character and generally riveting as a presence.  Ever since I saw him on stage in Topdog/Underdog in 2002, with Mos Def (coincidentally or not), I have sought out every Jeffrey Wright performance I could, and eagerly awaited the ones yet to be seen.  Here, he centers a movie which is full of vivid characters and their actors, any one of whom could be the focus of their own individual movie.


Doubtless that Cadillac Records plays fast and loose with history, but it’s one-hundred-percent compelling and will inspire most thinking people who see it to dive into further research on these artists, which is just about a public service.  Credit writer/director Darnell Martin for that, and for some shocking and surprising storytelling transitions that the standard, stolid biopic wouldn’t have the guts to try.  I wonder why this movie flew under the radar – maybe because, even after Dreamgirls, hardly anyone expects a movie with Beyonce in it to be this good.  That’s not a knock on Beyonce, not from where I sit – I think she’s awesome in this movie.  Seriously awesome.  She inhabits Etta James, a difficult character about whom so much has been written, and she does that job as well as anyone else in this incredible cast.  Check it out, or at least give the soundtrack a spin.




#8:  The Wrestler.


Because everything good everybody says about this movie is correct – except for those reviews that suggest that it’s a redemption story.  That is not the impression I got.  The Wrestler is a sensitive and brilliantly-acted portrayal of a simple man who feels most alive when he is performing, but a redemption story it is sadly not.


          Darren Aronofsky has a hell of an eye.  His directing style here is relatively invisible, but there are a couple Copacabana tracking shots (a la Goodfellas) that are smartly employed, and he conjures one of the better waking-up-in-a-strange-apartment-the-morning-after scenes I have ever seen on film.  He also drops some interesting subtext into the mix, or maybe it’s just a coincidence that one character mentions The Passion Of The Christ a few scenes before the film portrays a brutal flaying of its own main character…  There’s some fascinating cinematic cultural conversation happening there, but I’m not gonna write a dissertation on it; just pointing out that it’s there and moving on.


          One other thing to point out:  As keenly observed and honest as The Wrestler is, it does hit at least one false note.  I grew up in the Tri-State Area, okay?  I don’t believe for a second that a stripper who looks like Marisa Tomei would have a tough time working, at any age.  No way – particularly not in Jersey.



#7:  The Dark Knight.


Because it comes so close to being so perfect.  The Dark Knight is totally Icarus; it just almost touches the sun.  The first time I wrote about my thoughts on this movie, I was too much of a pussy to write about what’s holding me back on it.  We all know what’s so incredible and timeless about this movie – Heath Ledger’s uniquely intense and committed portrayal of the Joker, about which I can write absolutely nothing that hasn’t already been said louder; the portrayal of Batman by Christian Bale, underrated by comparison; Wally Pfister’s crystal clear cinematography, even more breathtaking in IMAX; the production design by Nathan Crowley; the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, a marvel of simplicity with its ominous theme for the lead character (that cresting wave of just two notes) and its even more ominous theme for his nemesis (that dirge of just ONE note); and of course the vision of Christopher Nolan.


By all rights this should be my favorite comic book movie ever, and in many of its many incredible moments, it almost seizes that title.  But the flaws hold it back for me.  Now I’ve finally got up the guts to mention them:


A. The Two-Face issue.  Everybody noticed this problem; that’s how you know it’s a problem.  The movie did a great job setting up Harvey Dent’s rise and fall, but then abruptly fast-forwarded him into Two-Face and [spoiler] killed him off.  Why?  Somebody had to die.  SOMEBODY had to pay for [spoiler] what happened to Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Obviously there was a plan to keep the Joker in these movies, so the other major villain had to die.  For some reason, the vast majority of these major comic book movies don’t seem to be narratively satisfied until they have blood; until they kill off a villain at the end.  The Jack Nicholson Joker, the Danny DeVito Penguin, the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin, the James Franco Green Goblin, the Alfred Molina Doctor Octopus, and so on.  So now this new Batman franchise has the terrible conundrum of having killed off a well-developed villain character onscreen, when the remaining well-developed villain character has been tragically lost offscreen.  (Don’t get me started on how awful that real life backstory is.)  And now the fans are heatedly debating which villain from the fifty-years-stale rogues gallery should be dusted off for the inevitable sequel.  My humble suggestion?  Forget Catwoman.  Forget the Riddler.  Forget the Penguin.  PLEASE forget the Penguin.  Forget them all.  Let the Nolans create an entirely new villain.  You know they can do it.  They made Ra’s Al Ghul compelling, and who but the most devoted fans and the working comics folk remembered him before Batman Begins?  New villain is the answer.  The most important character in this series has always been Batman, and the first two movies have been built around him.  The next one should follow suit.


B. The love interest.  The other major problem with The Dark Knight, and I hate to say it because I really have liked her in other movies, is Maggie Gyllenhaal.  If the smart, sarcastic, lively Maggie Gyllenhaal from Stranger Than Fiction had shown up for The Dark Knight, than there wouldn’t be a problem.  But here she seemed entirely disengaged, apathetic, bored.  I didn’t believe that both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent would be so into her, and I didn’t feel her loss to be as tragic as it very much needed to be.  On a narrative level, this movie needs the audience to fall in love with Rachel Dawes so that when we lose her, we understand why it sends Batman on the path he takes at the end.  In that role, neither actress who’s played it has cut the mustard.  Why do these superhero movies have so much trouble finding an equally compelling female lead?  Without that, no, you don’t have the greatest comic book movie ever.  You have a very great movie, but not The Greatest Ever.  That’s hopefully still to come.  Do I have a suggestion?  Just off the top of my head:  For the next movie, they could get Sarah Shahi to play Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Talia.  Or else they just ought to spring for the money for a time machine, and replace both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal with Michelle Monaghan.




#6:  Wall*E.  


          Because this movie just might be the great white whale, that rare and hotly-pursued creature – a perfect movie.  Let me watch it a couple hundred more times with my baby niece and get back to you on that.


          What I wrote the first time:




#5:  Hellboy 2. 


Because when I think of Hellboy 2, I’m reminded of this episode of the demented puppet show Wonder Showzen, the episode where one of the characters distills imagination into a bottle and drinks it.  He literally gets drunk on imagination.  That’s a great description of Hellboy 2 to me.  From the swarm of razor-tooth fairies to the guy with the castle growing out of his head, and beyond and beyond and beyond, this movie is full of impossible characters you’ve never seen in your weirdest dreams, meticulously imagined and convincingly realized on screen.  The most underlooked of the summer comic book movies is far and away my favorite.  Not for nothing, but I’d love to see a short film where Hellboy meets The Wrestler – both are big, plastic-looking, puffy-muscled, decent dumb guys with ponytails.


Check out my original rave:




#4:  Pineapple Express. 


Because I’m exhausted from all the pro-bono promotion I’ve done by word of mouth for this movie, and yet here I go again, one more time.  I love Pineapple Express and I want you to try it, multiple times.  When it comes to this movie, I’m a pimp named Sweet Tooth and this movie is a streetwalker named Unicorn. 


There were a bunch of other fun comedies this year:  Baby Mama, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, Step Brothers, Hamlet 2, Tropic Thunder, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Happening.  But Pineapple Express is by far the one that made me laugh the most.  It made bank over the summer, but still feels to be strangely under-rated.  Maybe when it hits living rooms and basements – its ideal screening venues –  it’ll rise in public estimation. 


P.S.  Danny McBride is the next comedy overlord.  Shoulda happened already, but if it hasn’t, it will very soon.  Thank you.




#3:  Slumdog Millionaire.


Three reasons:


1. Because Danny Boyle made Trainspotting, an indisputable classic of the last century, and from there his choices got arguably even more interesting.  Few directors are remotely as worth watching or developing as quickly.  Boyle works in tandem with the sharpest of cinematographers (Anthony Dod Mantle, what what!), and no one this side of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann is as consistently brilliant with a soundtrack (and I don’t even dig the Stones that much, so maybe just Mann).  The Slumdog soundtrack is one of the few this year worth owning.


2. Because I like the accuracy of a movie that has one character describing another character as “the most beautiful woman in the world” and when she finally shows up a couple scenes later, completely owns that description.


3. Because Slumdog Millionaire made me believe in things that most likely aren’t true.




#2:  Gran Torino.


Because I goddamn loved every minute of it.  Take my words with as big a helping of salt as you choose, since I have got to be the biggest Clint Eastwood fan this side of forty.  I have found something worth remembering and studying within every entry of his directorial output, and if the man himself actually appears in said entry, so much the better.  I think that Gran Torino has something important to say, and forget what you may have read, it’s not about race.  That factors in here, of course, but not as much as most reviews seem to think.  It’s not Clint’s way to hit you over the head with ideas about race.  Instead, in Gran Torino he’s talking about America, and the national character upon which America was built, and how we later generations were given that America and how we’re beginning to forget it.  It’s about the pussification of America, and what to do about it.


The reviews I’ve seen that use the word “racist” in conjunction with this movie are simply stupid.  Clint has never made a movie endorsing racist views –  on the contrary, in fact – and he isn’t about to start now.  He’s playing a character here; don’t ever confuse the story with the storyteller.  His character, Walt Kowalski, says plenty of racist things, but even he isn’t necessarily racist.  Pussies put so much value on words that they forget that, more than anything, men are defined by their actions.  Look at the actions, not the words.  When Walt sees how his young Hmong neighbor Sue handles herself bravely in an intimidating situation, he immediately warms to her.  When he sees her brother Thao help a lady with her spilt groceries after a couple other little shits laugh her off, Walt starts to see a kid worth knowing, worth toughening, worth ultimately saving.  


Race in America has become THAT complicated, and some people are nearly that complicated:  Walt hates everybody equally, his use of racist epithets are primarily a method of distinction, not judgment.  He calls Asians “zipperheads” not necessarily because he hates all Asians – he calls them “zipperheads” simply because that’s what he has always called them.  Walt is so used to disappointment, from his chubby yuppie sons and their little-shit kids, from the pussy-ass gangstas walking his streets, from the young college-boy pussies who think they have all the answers, that at this point he hates everyone he meets on sight.  When people prove his hate to be justified, he growls.  When people prove their worth, he warms to them, even if he stubbornly refuses to drop the lingo.


Gran Torino is a vintage Malpaso production, with all the class and smarts that tag has always guaranteed.  Joel Cox edits with a pleasing rhythm, cinematographer Tom Stern provides an appropriately washed-out (and later, stark) palette, Clint’s son Kyle (with Michael Stevens) provide the neat score, and the script credited to Nick Shenck works just right, with an ending that even longtime Clint fans won’t see coming.  I really hope that Clint isn’t done with acting, and if he isn’t, I hope he directs himself again – he knows how to use Clint Eastwood as an actor.  He understands the history and audience expectations that come with a Clint Eastwood film, and he knows how to subvert, parody, and/or work alongside all of that.  I haven’t seen a Clint character spit this much since The Outlaw Josey Wales, and I would guess that the reference is very much intentional.  Love it.  This man deserves the monumental legend that has been assigned him.




#1:  In Bruges.


Because if I am lucky enough to be given half a chance to make a movie (I’m gonna have to make the second half-a-chance happen on my own), I like to think that the results would be similar in spirit to what Martin McDonagh was going for here.  However, my movie would have to go a long way towards being remotely as polished, as profound, as funny, and as generally fucking awesome as In Bruges is.


Here are my original thoughts from a few months back:—8-Tough-Title.html








What I’m most looking forward to in 2009:


Public Enemies, Public Enemies, Public Enemies, Watchmen, The Wolfman, and The Road.