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2003 Screening Log - click for reviews, when applicable. Titles of short films listed in bold.


01. Dark Blue (Ron Shelton, 2003) 35 [Unfortunately, more slick than dark, this police drama relinquishes any points that it might have gotten for political bravery by turning its contemplation of the Los Angeles riots into an extended chase scene. Entirely too broad in its presentation of its central, unmistakably corrupt, figure (and everyone who surrounds him, I suppose) to be really convincing as any sort of big statement about the city's corruption, it is still vaguely entertaining as a by-the-numbers cop movie. ]

Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000) 66 [I have to do an about-face here (my grade has jumped about 60 points from my first viewing). I simply didn't "get it" the first time. The movie's rampant sincerity, which felt like some kind of substitute for action to me the first time, now feels wholly appropriate (even the crying alien works for me now, since it seems like a mode of communication than an expression of emotion). I see on the IMDB that the film's tagline is "Let There Be Life." The rampant sperm and egg cell symbolism could have revealed that, if I was paying attention to it my first time through. The movie is a grand celebration and investigation of human progress and a meditation about the creation of life. The movie asks intently, "Where did I come from?" and "What is out there?". It looks out at the universe and sees life, not destruction. It looks inward at our desires to explore space, and sees only a search for connection, guided by the faith that there's something out there. Bold, heart-on-its-sleeve moviemaking, that requires you to go stick it, but rewarding, if you're willing.]

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983) 71 [Almost exhausting, to be honest, but that's only because it takes its rambling nature and turns it into an immeasurable asset. I am somewhat frustrated that the film doesn't really feel like a spontaneous thought process, since its procession of fragmentary connections has been so deliberately plotted out. To say that the observations come from letters helps somewhat, but only adds yet another layer between the experiences recounted and our understanding of them. I am sure that multiple viewings of a film this dense can only enhance one's appreciation of it, and can't deny that the elusive, original construction that it employs makes me grit my teeth as I assign something so definitive as a rating to it, but there were passages here that mostly made me long for other, more gripping passages. Beats the pants off of Lost In Translation as a response to a foreign land, in any case...]

Pistol Opera (Seijun Suzuki, 2001) 62 [This Day-Glo collection of tableaux, assassin-themed set pieces plays like Parajanov directing Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Suzuki fills the screen with symbols and characters that are unmistakably distinctive, and while the meaning of them remains somewhat obscure to a dummy like myself, it's perfectly clear that they all serve as totems for the director. Nothing in the movie, which revels in its artificiality, feels accidental, which also means it's sometimes a bit stifling. Traditional Japanese customs and images filter into everything, including the ceremonial behavior of the killers. It's that ingrained sense of honor which seems to be saying that Japanese culture is so pervasive that it crops up even in its own most subversive iterations.]


02. The Three Ages (Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline, 1923) 57 [For his first feature film, Keaton has essentially strung together three of his shorts. He's parodying Griffith's Intolerance here, or at least it's structure, since the time periods he chooses aren't the same as in Griffith's film. The results aren't bad, and the film is frequently funny, but Keaton would go on to much greater things. Though his comic persona obviously is intact, there are few of the almost pathological Freudian overtones that make a lot of his later work so interesting.] 

The Girl Can't Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956) 45 [It's sort of problematic, since I couldn't enjoy the cartoon-like milieu, which reduced everyone to a shallower, more easily compartmentalized version of themselves. It's self-aware enough that the inclusion of so many commercial rock acts must be a commentary on the system, but I'll be damned if I felt like they were anything but a mindless showcase while they were on the screen. The rampant sexism that dominates the movie is excused somewhat with the last minute inclusion of A Moral, but it's tough to believe that a film so cynical and sarcastic really believes in that moral at all. It gives us glib sight gags, one after another, and expects them to stand as a biting critique of Americanism. It's inventive, to be sure, and the glossiness of it all definitely comments on the action, but it doesn't add up to much for me.]

Stevie (Steve James, 2002) 44 [Hugely problematic, but too compelling to dismiss entirely, this well-intentioned dose of liberal guilt is interesting mostly for reasons that seem beyond the filmmaker. I think I would like this film more if it had never been made, but I am glad I saw it. In the first few scenes, we see James visiting his former Little Brother. He then ignores him for two years, until he has been accused of molesting a child, and becomes worthy subject matter for a film. James eventually becomes aware of his exploitation of Stevie and his family, to a degree, but one has to wonder why he keeps on filming if he's really that conflicted. Just because he says "I'm sorry" or "I was dumb" and sulks, does that make it okay when he stirs up family feuds or shows Stevie getting drunk? The conflict between the documentarian's desire to not impose himself on his subject matter, to show things honestly, and James' meddling become exasperating. The only times that are more galling than the moments when he remains resolutely silent in the face of poor judgment are when he exercises his poor judgment on the people he claims he cares for.  The real role models here are obviously Stevie's idealized foster parents, who see their chance to help the boy not as an opportunity for self-gratification, but as a chance to help. I can't imagine them making a film about Stevie.]

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) 70 [Wildly entertaining, at least for its first half, but then Bogart gets taken over by the green-eyed monster and becomes a half-crazed, half-as-interesting version of his former self. For all of the film's literal hand-wringing, does it have anything of interest to say about our avaricious desires? Maybe not, but it buzzes along, so content just to observe its initially well-drawn characters as they move through a somewhat sketchily drawn foreign country, that it builds up a lot of goodwill. Walter Huston is superb, of course.] 

8 Ball Bunny (Chuck Jones, 1950) 52 [Tacked onto the DVD for Sierra Madre, this Looney Tunes short features a recurring cameo of Fred C. Dobbs, head magically restored. Mildly amusing, but mostly by the book.]


03. Hercules in the Haunted World (Mario Bava, 1961) 50 [Bava steps out of his usual genre of choice for this mythic romp through Hades. The unmistakably Italian art direction gives it a nicely stylized look, and the streamlined plot keeps things moving along at a nice clip. Like most films of this sort, the actors seem to have been cast more for their physical appearance than their talent, but really, the sets and the effects are the stars here. Bava's flair for the garish can be observed in every corner of the frame, especially since the film is a bit grislier than the average mythological adventure, but there's no denying that the tone is far less oppressive than in any of his horror films.]

The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928) 76 [For a while, at least, this grand romantic melodrama seems a prime achievement of the silent cinema. Combining the expressionistic grandeur of Murnau or Wiene film and the opulent, epic sweep of a movie by Griffith or Gance, it offers viewers the most interesting extremes of the period, tossed together. As it goes on, however, its debt to Victor Hugo's source novel starts demanding repayment, and the movie becomes a more literal tale of romantic gestures and revolutionary spirits. Conrad Veidt's performance, as a tragic figure with the smile carved into his face, is only made more impressive by the loss of his expressive face.]

The Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourner, 1957) 69 [It's coolly understated, both in its scary scenes and its character interactions. "Where does imagination end and reality begin?" one character asks and that question hangs over the rest of the film, or at least it should, since the shots of the monster do indeed destroy the film's ambiguity. I watched it this time under less than ideal viewing circumstances, which surely hurt my ability to enjoy the atmosphere the movie obviously spends a lot of energy setting up. Next time, I will watch the US version (which reportedly doesn't include any shots of the titular demon), and hopefully it will be a less affirmative experience. As is, it ends with the superstitious lead saying, "It's better not to know" because he's afraid he's already found out the truth. I can't imagine that line wouldn't play better in a movie that's not so concrete.]

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960) 62 [There are scenes here, mostly in the first half of the film, that slow things down to the point where watching the movie feels like you've stepped into a nightmare. It mines odd, unnerving poetics from almost archetypical spooky scenes such as a trip to a graveyard or a visit to a mad scientist's lab. Whenever the mad doctor's odd little family isn't on screen, the mood falters a bit, though, and in a movie like this, that's a major detriment. One scene, which graphically details what has become a routine surgery in this skewed homestead, is sure to burn into the pupils of anyone who watches, however.]

The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003) 73 [Seems a lot of people are calling the leads in this epic adaptation miscast, but I can't help but think that the quirks of the actors, who are playing characters that have turned their lives into massive, self-perpetuating lies, only enhances the sense of contradictory mystique that surrounds everything that they do. They are only the primary attractions, though, in a huge cast, all of who do impeccable work. The script, which gives them each a complex and conflicted character to play, is surely one of the film's great assets, but every element of the production is top-notch. All of that gloss only seems appropriate given the very palpable rage underneath the exterior. The quieter this movie gets, the more intensely felt it seems.]


04. Scary Movie 3 (David Zucker, 2003) 18 [This parody is barely a series of jokes at all. It's more a collection of concepts. There should be some sort of giddy thrill in seeing our recent pop culture milestones collide like this, but there's not. Is it because those pop culture milestones become disposable as soon as we leave the theater or because pop culture is so self-aware that it's unleashed upon itself as a rule? When synergy becomes so commonplace that the Hulk is a comic book, videogame, and movie, Lizzie McGuire is a CD, a TV show, and a film, and Freddy can fight Jason, a movie needs to offer more than a winking nod that all of the media sources we perceive are connected. Maybe I'm just not as obsessed with this sort of "culture" as I used to be. I'm still in touch enough to recognize the American Idol judge when I see him, but it doesn't do a darned thing for me to watch him get gunned down by the cast of 8 Mile. In this context, the parade of celebrity cameos, none of them participants in any of the parodied films to my knowledge, seems a desperate attempt to enter the zeitgeist. The PG-13 rating is interesting in that doesn't change much at all and a little depressing in that once you hear the movie's lone permissible (and squandered) F-word, you can be absolutely certain there won't be another.]

Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953) 84 [A nearly perfect genre film (at least until it has to end). Lang wastes no energy here. Even the establishing scenes play into the movie's overriding sense of fractured justice. As it goes on, and we see our heroine literally deflowered and wracked with guilt, the mood only intensifies. The streets are foggy and the night an invitation to danger, as in most of Lang's American movies, but here there's a more homey sort of dread too. It's a feeling so pervasive it shows up in the workplace and in the kitchen. Because of that, Lang seems to be indicting us all for encouraging this kind of persecution with our misplaced notions of justice. This is clearly the work of a director so masterly he has no desire to show off.]


05. The Ghost Breakers (George Marshall, 1940) 56 [During the first half of the film, I had a good time watching Hope's antics, but found myself a little impatient as I waited for the ghosts to show up. By the time the movie finally gets to them, however, it's unquestionably run out of steam. In retrospect, those opening scenes, with that level of frantic slapstick and jaunty wordplay, were better than I might have initially acknowledged. They might not fulfill the title's promise, but they are funny. Objections to Willie Best's portrayal of Hope's African American assistant might impede enjoyment for some, but I found their scenes together to be the movie's highlight.]

Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, 1986) 63 [The most amazing thing about Sherman's March is that it doesn't fall on its face. With its rambling, seemingly directionless construction, tenuous thematic connections, and epic runtime, one would half expect McElwee to expose himself as a twee would-be poet by the end of the second reel. As it goes on, though, experiences accumulate, turning its lack of direction into something of a virtue. Viewing the film, it's interesting how editing rhythms become a comforting substitute for attitudinal consistency or narrative focus. Local color and half-hearted introspection might be all it has to offer, but those things can be enchanting when delivered with affection and a willingness to indulge them.]


06. Daddy-Long-Legs (Marshall Neilan, 1919) 52 [The first half of the this silent romantic comedy shows the life and times at a corrupt orphanage, told in typically exaggerated terms. Orphans stage a rebellion against prunes, get drunk on Apple-jack, and suffer through their matron's abuse. The second half details the spunkiest orphan's rise after a mysterious benefactor sends her to college. Like most Pickford films, it's always willing to moralize, but there is a quick pace to it and a generally likable tone that makes it clear why Pickford is a star.] 

What the Daisy Said (D.w. Griffith, 1910) 30 [Typically racist melodrama from Griffith, delivered in short form, with admirable expediency. Mostly noteworthy as an early appearance of Mary Pickford.] 

The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928) 65 [Mostly, this struck me as a curio piece, since I was able to appreciate the pull of the imagery more from an academic standpoint than an emotional one. The surrealist take on the gothic style results in an almost endless procession of great images, but the decision to make Madeleine and Roderick husband and wife instead of brother and sister dilutes some of the short story's unnerving atmosphere. A good haunted house movie to be sure, but something short of a classic.] 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle, 1939) 56 [Great production values, charismatic romantic leads, and a story that can't miss, yet the movie does. The changed ending hurts as much here as it does in the Disney version. What's the use of adapting a novel like this and then chickening out? Blah.] 

The Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003) 54 [Surprised they didn't call this The Matrix Resolutions, considering there's next to no exposition, and only a series of sequences that wraps up the cliffhangers the series' second installment left hanging. Despite a bum, undercooked final twenty minutes, this moves along better than the other two Matrix films, with fewer chuckle worthy monologues about the nature of being.]

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) 89 [I noticed tons of awesome stuff that I love that I didn't catch the first time. From the little wires that hold the airplane, to the way the abrupt drop of the music in the hospital parking lot strips The Bride of any oversized hero features, to just how much better it flows once you know what you're in for, it was a much more pleasurable viewing experience.]


07. A Decade Under the Influence (Ted Demme & Richard LaGravenese, 2003) 16 [An endless series of sound bites that only seems to perpetuate, instead of penetrate, the mythmaking behind 70s filmmaking in Hollywood. One brief snippet of an interview after another states that the 70s was founded on artistry above all else, yet the films that the documentary gives the greatest amount of attention to are those that are already recipients of Oscars or wild box office success. As such, it seems to only flatter the audience (and the subjects), telling them that they are already familiar with the best of what Hollywood had to offer during the era. The movie comes off more like a commercial than a learning experience, encouraging audiences to join in the nostalgia trip and stop by at Blockbuster to revisit a few "classics".]

Respiro (Emanuele Crialese, 2002) 61 [This breezy film about a manic depressive woman ostracized by a town for her quirks in behavior might be a bit dull and unfocused at times, but those seeming flaws only add to the palpable island atmosphere. There's something impressive and expansive about the way that it keeps morphing from one genre to another from scene to scene. The longer it stays away from its central plot, which places it in Malena territory, the more I enjoyed it. It's no Amarcord, I suppose, but it also is a lot less garish.] 

The Dancer Upstairs (John Malkovich, 2002) 66 [So classy and understated that I found myself yearning for a more potent reason for it to be so classy and understated. Undeniably pretty, yet undeniably shocking when it needs to be, this adeptly made political thriller recalls the espionage-themed efforts of Graham Greene. Unlike last year's version of The Quiet American, however, it drips with exotic detail. It's a pleasure to watch, but I found myself waiting for it to develop into something more powerful than it ended up.]

A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, 1961) 69 [I am slowly realizing that I'm something of a sucker for old Hollywood adaptations of plays that feature Big Themes and bigger acting (which might be why I enjoy Dogville so much... it recaptures the feel of a film like this). I can snipe at the inelegance with which this film turns its characters into sides of an argument, but I can't deny that I enjoyed watching those sides collide here. The movie is obviously based on a stage play, but it's still got a raw, unpolished look that goes a long way toward lessening that feel.] 


08. Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner, 1962) 64 [Shimmies with the energy of an orgasm for a few minutes, and then, when it's over, leaves me wondering what I was getting so worked up about. Montage aesthetics are pushed so far here that they almost become a joke. The viewer will find it difficult to keep attitudes toward the things shown (which most predominately feature sex or war) straight as they are rapidly juxtaposed with one another.]

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) 81 [It packs a potent message about the African American experience. The small frustrations in life accumulate into something that feels more oppressive than outright oppression, because it's not as easily identified or corrected. There's a defensive mechanism here, presented in the first scene's flashback, which shows the protagonist as a child as he's smacked and told to "toughen up". He does, but the resultant extension of this behavior is a cycle of violence turned inward as a response to what is perceived as exterior aggression. The movie never feels pat as it shows its characters engaging in self-destructive behavior, and the lyrical treatment that they get from the camera is diffused by the way that Burnett simultaneously treats them as documentary subjects. It's unfortunate that there are myriad technical rough edges here, because this movie has the heart of a masterpiece.]

The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966) 79 [Somewhat disappointing for me as a Rivette fan, since this easily the least distinctive work that I've yet seen from the director. If I can ignore that disappointment, however, what emerges is a powerful, intelligently composed portrait of a repressed society so pervasive in its repression that it offers only the illusion of choice. Karina is superb in the central role, as the sole devout soul (at least as she sees it) in a thoroughly corrupt world.]


09. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928) 77 [Like Killer of Sheep, it presents a picture of the world so unforgiving that it seems a wonder that anyone ever rises above drudgery to accomplish anything great. Also, by reminding the audience time and again that the hero of its story is just one in a crowd, has the fascinating effect of making his trials and tribulations seem mundane, even as our proximity to him makes us aware how much the events in his life matter to him. Visually grand and still a potent commentary on capitalist ambition, it's one of the least dated of all classic silent films.]

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport, 1995) 54 [This somewhat unattractive video essay presents an initially fascinating mix of topics and then slightly drops the ball when it becomes a feminist screed. Even by pretending to be the rambling comments of a washed up actress, it doesn't really earn so harsh and intent a focus on the Male Gaze. Usually when it meant to make me laugh, it felt snide (the superimpositions of Steisand or Audrey Hepburn's heads onto characters Seberg played, for example, seemed a strident and crass gag at odds with the overall tone). Mary Beth Hurt is definitely good as Seberg, though, and the more digressive segments were usually the most interesting.] 

La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer, 1967) 60 [It presents an interesting dilemma that's less a question of morals than one of conflicting ideologies. Through its sexual cat and mouse game, it suggests that one can either move through life experiencing other people as mere collectables that can't possibly change who we are or as volatile threats to our sense of self. I think most people would look at other people as something between these two extremes, and that reliance on extremes seems like a flaw. Also, it's annoying that there's not a better sense of the protagonist's relationship at the onset of the film. It turns his flirtation with temptation into a "game", or a screenwriter's contrivance, too readily. Still, it's quite funny as a study in increasing hypocrisy and self-delusion.] 

Caro Diario (Nanni Moretti, 1994) 44 [Divided into three segments, but almost devoid of resonance until the third, this affable personal essay is pleasant, but terminally slight for much of its duration. Cumulatively, it can be seen as a comic fable about a modern man struggling to maintain his levity in an oppressive world, but it's difficult to feel that oppressiveness when Moretti treats everything with the same disarming good cheer. It's a comic persona that asks us to chuckle at ourselves, and to get to that point, I think Moretti's observations have to be more pointed than they are.] 


10. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972) 75 [Quite impressive in its hermetic way. I would even go so far as to say that this film is "perfectly" directed. There's never a moment, anywhere in the film, when I feel that the cause and effect of his mise-en-scene is eluding Fassbinder. Just the same, there's something mildly off-putting about the story itself to me. I was thrown by the six-month leap it takes in its middle, since it made it difficult for me to get a grip on the realities of the relationships being examined, and thereby upset the balance the rest of the movie strived so hard to maintain. That's a small compliant, though, in a movie of such obvious prowess and claustrophobic grace that it bears comparison to Dreyer.] 

The City Tramp (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1966) 45 & The Little Chaos (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1966) 43 [These two shorts by Fassbinder show his style and thematic interests largely intact from the get-go. In the short form, however, his swipes at society feel a little more glib than when he has the time to cover all of his bases.]

Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936) 71 [One would have to be pretty dastardly not to have a good time watching this film, yet the overriding feeling I felt while watching it is that it at least partially lacked the narrative and emotional drive to turn its series of gags into a sustained ballet of poetic observation. Nonetheless, there's no escaping the feeling that this movie, made 70 years ago, feels like a more potent critique of arbitrary rules and the dehumanizing forces of society than the far-more-recent Caro Diario. Whatever it might have to say, though, those gags still work and that's the prime attraction here.]

Tol'able David (Henry King, 1921) 58 [This seemingly simple silent is both an early American pastoral play and a hearty revenge drama. It sets itself up well as a retelling of the David and Goliath story, but then explicitly references it in the intertitles, belaboring the point. Though it's exciting enough, it is definitely an entry in a genre instead of an innovator. It plays like a Griffith silent, without the racism... or the grandeur, unfortunately.]  

Radio (Michael Tollin, 2003) 44 [James Horner's score here is truly abysmal. It keeps insisting that this relatively earnest story into a earth-shattering triumph, which is unfortunate, because most of the rest of the elements here are low-key enough not to grate (if still a tad sanctimonious). Gooding and Harris turn in solid performances, and the rest of the cast is generally effective (with the exception of the film's sketchily drawn villain). No escaping the fact that it pales in comparison to Hoosiers, though...]


11. National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944) 77 [Elizabeth Taylor wants to go to the Nationals and she's going to drag us all along with us, damn it. Her performance here is really something special, as far as child performances go, since despite being intelligent it doesn't ever feel like she's precociously channeling an adult. There's never any doubt about where this movie is going, but the pleasure of Velvet's journey is in the details (which pretty much typify what was known as the MGM style).]

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936) 78 [The New Deal optimism here isn't really something that I can embrace as a real-world solution to social problems, but in this movie's closed-off only-in-Capra world of unmitigated idealism, anything else would be insane. What's really great about Capra's touch here is that he never makes his zany situations and characters feel like an act of desperation. The movie's lighthearted laughs come quite naturally after we understand the characters as people, and that sort of respect is all-too-rare in this sort of fish out of water tale.]

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (Norman Taurog, 1965) 12 [With a theme song sung by The Supremes, the inspiration of Austin Powers' fembots, and that title, this campy comedy at least sounded watchable in theory. It's not, really. Vincent Price has an even more thankless role than usual as Goldfoot. Even though, he's frequently expected to talk merely to fill time, he still has the best role in this wreck.]


12. Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915) 64 [This early silent feature surely must have been one of the first American gangster films. Some of its elements, such as the plot's tracing of its protagonist from childhood to maturity, love as a possible redemptive force, and the suggestion that this way of life is resultant of a failed American Dream still dominate movies in the genre today . Curious, at least, to see it moralizing more overtly than most modern gangster films, which tend to damn their anti-hero's lifestyles mostly through subtext. None of the criminal acts here feel thrilling. To my eyes at least, outside of its fractured narrative structure, there's little that Once Upon a Time in America offers that can't be found here.]

Young Romance (George Melford, 1915) 41 [Watching this generic but genial comic drama right after Regeneration revealed a stark contrast in levels of talent. The style of Melford's shooting is downright primitive in comparison to Walsh's more sophisticated filmic grammar. The plot, in which a pair of poor young lovers meet as they both pose as aristocrats, is completely routine, but it's tough to damn a movie simply for not being innovative or even very distinctive.]

The Taming of the Shrew (Franco Zeffirelli, 1967) 66 [Shakespeare's great play about the battle of the sexes takes the back seat here to the stars' egos, I suppose, but they are fairly aware of the game they're playing, so I'm not about to complain. Burton and Taylor are perhaps a little  pretentious for not just making a screwball comedy, since they approach this material like one, but that mindset invigorates most scenes with manic energy, even as it might mildly deface what Shakespeare intended. What does remain, unquestionably, is the play's sense of boisterous fun. Questions might remain whether or not The Bard has to be dumbed down for the masses, but with an end product like this, the results make a convincing case.]

Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955) 69 [This Oscar-winning tale of working-class lonely hearts still retains many of the virtues that must have won it favor upon its initial release. There's some great dialogue, courtesy of a Paddy Chayefsky who hadn't yet grown hopefully cynical and preachy. There's a disarming lack of gloss evident in every nook and cranny of it's design. Perhaps most importantly, though, there's Ernest Borgnine's self-effacing performance. When he embraces Betsy Blair with his unusually large paws or jabbers on about himself against his self-awareness that he's jabbering on, his character clicks fully into place.]

Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) 57 [The closing act of this charming film shoots for the same atmosphere as The Leopard or The Dead, but there's not nearly as much weight behind it, which makes it feel like posturing at times. Still, it gets by with surprisingly little narrative incident, though that only ensures that the opening half-hour's back story seem even more superfluous. Small tonal problems crop up elsewhere. For example, to ask us to laugh when the severe Danish townsfolk suspect accuse the French chef of witchcraft is to ask us to condescend. It's not that it doesn't take their values seriously so much as it wants to simultaneously flatter ours.]

Boat Trip (Mort Nathan, 2003) 52 [Cuba Gooding Jr. gives this unrepentant gross out comedy what surely must be one of the year's bravest performances. For an Oscar-winning star of his stature to give himself so wholly, from spit take to drag show, to a movie of this caliber is stunning when one considers how carefully most celebrities tend to their image. I could complain about the plot here (which relies on a moronic lie, perpetuating itself beyond belief), quibble about the predictability of many of the gags, or gripe about the stereotypes it indulges in, but I don't think those flaws matter much in a movie this funny. Sample line of dialogue: "Smokin' sturgeon! Coach's pussy just blew up!" Take that as a warning, if you must...]


13. High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973) 81 [Eastwood's directorial control in this, his second feature as helmer, is truly extraordinary. True, he already was familiar with his character and knew the genre, but one would probably guess that this is his tenth Western before guessing it's his first. Just as remarkable as the technical chops, though, is the lack of opportunity for audience identification in the movie's first hour. Considerable tension is mined from the question of whether the nameless drifter is a destabilizing force on a stable town full of "God-fearing folk" or a corrective to corruption. When everyone's despicable, it's tough to find firm moral ground to stand on, and the way that Eastwood dramatizes this, so the guilt from past misdeeds hangs noticeably in the air, is quite startling . As the movie moves on, and we finally start to settle down a bit on that front (but not entirely, until the cathartic final scene), it takes off in a brave, new, eerie direction that pulls the rug out from under us all over again.]

Biker Boyz (Reggie Rock Bythewood, 2003) 66

Deliver Us From Eva (Gary Hardwick, 2003) 51 [The opening scene’s humorous presentation of Tammi Terrell’s “You're All I Need to Get By” is an urban mirror image of My Best Friend's Wedding's “Wishin’ and Hopin’” credits sequence. As Wedding used its purposely outmoded preface as a comment on its more progressive views on marriage and gender roles in a relationship, Eva uses its opening moments as a commentary on idealized notions of romance that don't apply post-feminism. Quite appropriately, this rough updating of "The Taming of the Shrew" has a heroine that has become shrewish not so much because of her parents as because of her own principles. Hijinks ensue when the men in Eva's life fear literal castration anxiety as a response to her power. Gabrielle Union is about as good as someone could be as Eva, given a script that frequently presents her as a bundle of nasty neuroses.]

Epidemic (Lars von Trier, 1988) 84 [An invigorating mix of ideas that provides an interpretative springboard into most of this singular director's other work, while simultaneously deconstructing the theories behind it. The closest I could come to describing the experience of watching Epidemic is Adaptation (it similarly blurs the creative process and the end result of that process) meets Alphaville (the genre here is horror instead of sci-fi, but real world locations are used to represent generic conventions and simultaneously make political commentary), though to suggest the spirit of two films so distinctive themselves could be successfully merged into something cohesive probably strains credibility. Still, I'd take what I found here over either of those films, since the director's willingness to mock himself is always tied to his central thesis and never descends into shtick. If nothing else, it's tough to imagine someone finding less of interest here than in The Element of Crime and Europa, the other two films in Trier's trilogy tackling the decay of Europe.] 


14. Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2002) 56 [Though well-acted on all counts (Kate Beckinsale, especially, makes a strong impression), whenever Christian Bale's horribly troubled son entered a scene, I cringed a bit. When contrasted with the somewhat nebulous and complicated motivations that the other characters exhibit, his character seemed awfully "written". It's probably a blessing in disguise that such a talky film has only one character that felt predigested in that way. Also clunky was the final shot. It's a forced grace note that I was only happy to see because it ended the round robin of stilted character reconciliations. There's still plenty of low-key enjoyment to be had here. A script this perceptive and sensitive is a rarity, even if it doesn't all come off as well as it should.]

Holes (Andrew Davis, 2003) 46 [One of the most egregious uses of film direction via pop soundtrack (e.g. during an interracial kiss the soundtrack comments, "Under my skin, I'm just like you.") nearly sinks a generally likable kid's movie. There's an annoyance (frequently broad moments of character development, the predictability of the script) to lessen the impact of every real surprise (the ambitious narrative structure, the acknowledgement of the real world in the fantasy scenario). It's not exactly a poor movie, but it's one that keeps tripping over itself whenever it starts moving toward greatness.]

The Slaughter Rule (Alex and Andrew J. Smith, 2003) 53 [This terminally confused but promising first feature about macho tension almost reaches interesting territory, but plays for too long as a question of "Is he or isn't he?" to really develop into powerful material. It is mostly noteworthy because of a solid turn by David Morse, who's usually relegated to less dominant film roles. Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, just looks bored half the time. It's his search for a father figure that's supposed to be powering the drama, but I found his character underdeveloped. He still comes off better than some of the supporting cast, such as his mother or Gid's friend , who seem to exist only so scenes of anguish can be turned into montages of anguish.]

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2002) 46 [The voiceover narration here always crops up to kill the mood, reminding us that, yes, there will be a lesson to come. It's kind of bizarre that one never really is articulated at the end, though I suppose that's supposed to qualify as ambiguity in a universe as filled with razzle dazzle as the one that Lin crafts. There's no doubt that the guy has the ability to make a watchable movie and some technical chops (if not the ability to apply them in a worthwhile way), but the experience doesn't exactly leave you with much to think about when it's over. The endless obsession with the pressures of the permanent record seem more a screenwriter's invention than the frustration of the characters, and the conception of the lone female character is laughable at best.]

Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) 72 [It doesn't really come together as I hoped it might, but it's fascinating nonetheless. It seems to me the film Hitchcock might have made had he directed Vertigo while in his production deal with Selznick. It turns romantic obsession into a quest for artistic inspiration, though the end result of the quest is somewhat muddled.  Dieterle does a fine job of turning his training as an Expressionist filmmaker into an asset when realizing this modern Gothic romance, though, and there's a nice visual progression in the way that New York City is shown as the mood changes. If there were more a sense of mystery in Jennie, I might be more able to forgive all of its shortcomings, but it follows a predictable trajectory from the get-go.]  


15. The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972) 68 [This disaster movie sacrifices its brain to achieve real forward momentum, and the gamble pays off. Though there's a bit of allegorical weight about God's Will, the bulk of the movie is about the physical struggle of getting from one end of a capsized boat to another, and I suppose that was enough for me. The able cast takes turns having panic attacks and dying, which only adds to the suspense. The production design is pretty darned impressive, and I was surprised how well the technical aspects as a whole hold up today.] 

Leila (Dariush Mehrjui, 1996) 60 [Pitched halfway between a women's picture and a debate team meeting, this pointed Iranian film does a lot of hand-wringing about its central issue and remains admirably ambivalent when it's all said and done. Copious amounts of voiceover and an somewhat slapdash aesthetic approach make the film feel cobbled together at times, but the trenchant immediacy of the situation is so impossible to deny that such quibbles can't diffuse it. More than anything, it seems a critique of upward mobility, which is a topic more commonly found in American cinema than Iranian.]

The Laramie Project (Moises Kaufman, 2002) 63 [The unusual approach here, which combines actual words from real interviews from folks from Laramie with a fictionalized, recast dramatization of the events surrounding Matthew Shephard's death, is a gamble that works. The movie eschews sentimentality or sensationalism, and becomes a more potent examination of the different ways that a hot-button event and a subsequent media blitzkrieg can be interpreted by a populace. Through the accumulation of those viewpoints, there emerges a sense of the scope and impact of said event. For a production of this size, it's surprising that there's not a single ineffective performance in the massive cast.]

Place Without Limits (Arturo Ripstein, 1978) 71 [Quite by accident, I created an intriguing double feature by watching this seriocomic examination of Hispanic machismo right after The Laramie Project. Though far more stylized and far less self-important than Laramie, it asks many of the same questions about a community's response to an individual's identity, but also has serious concerns about the patriarchal structure it presents. Roberto Cobo's flamboyant, pathetic performance as drag queen Manuela is an original because of the way it mixes those two characteristics. Ripstein's direction is less formalistic than it would eventually become, but that probably makes this a fine film to introduce oneself to his work.]


16. Oliver! (Carol Reed, 1968) 44 [Even in concept this is sort of misconceived. Why on earth should "Oliver Twist" be retold as a musical? It's a fairly stupid conceit, and it's an undoubtedly problematic one during the first half of the film, which ends up using production values, supposedly good taste, song and dance to glorify stuff like child labor and petty theft. Some of the musical numbers, especially "Who Will Buy?", which is genuinely graceful, work completely, almost regardless of context, so it ends up as something as a mixed bag.]

Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950) 48 [This glorified sitcom seems pleased to indulge in everything that makes some people roll their eyes when they hear Jimmy Stewart's name. Though the man is a fine actor, he doesn't do himself any favors here, constantly playing cute for the camera and always exuding simpering humility. It never develops beyond a one-joke premise, and that joke (which suggests the wistful dreamers among us are the lucky ones) doesn't really do much for me.]

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Joe Dante, 2003) 72 [I'm wouldn't call myself an auteurist, but I couldn't help escaping the feeling that this madcap comedy was at least in part a personal statement, lamenting the fall of Old Hollywood, in which one could more freely experiment and change genres without sacrificing personality or respectability. As Looney Tunes hops from one type of movie to another, it never loses its distinctive charms, but it cumulatively feels like the frustrations of one disenfranchised by a machine eager to create a franchise (When Daffy loses the rights to his own name, it's hilarious, but it stings too). Of course, there's no such thing as Meta-Looney Tunes, since those cartoons have always exhibited and reveled in their self-reflexivity, but Dante seems to push that inherent self-awareness up a notch, moving the movie into the realm of such pop-culture fantasias as Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.]

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003) 47 [Solidly produced, but a bit waterlogged, this epic sea adventure wants to establish the ebb and flow of life at sea, but ends up presenting a repetitive cycle of all-too-familiar scenes (the fierce battle, the surgeon's table, the male bonding, the clever escape, the rallying of the troops). Crowe's portrayal of the Captain of a group of scrappy underdogs from the British Empire doesn't ring true. He commands he questioning youth who serves under him to remain standoffish, but generally seems to be the buddy of his entire crew. Paul Bettany, as the ship's doctor, fares worse, in a role that expects him to belabor a lame analogy about evolutionary necessity. The biggest disappointment, however, is that the threat of battle never materializes (partially because the notion that this movie is part of a franchise in the making). Half the time, you can't even tell what's going on in the chaos.]

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944) 49 [Almost a great, incendiary attack on America, but then it wants us to like the characters at the same time, which I find inexplicable. The things that Sturges is attacking here (e.g. puritanical attitudes toward sex combined with a society that uses it as a motivator in war or the way that the group's combined limited understanding of an event can completely misconstrue what actually happened) make the movie a distinctly democratic American satire, but with the amount of venom being spewed here, the pleas for sympathy toward characters seemed not only misplaced, but also counterproductive. I am fairly ambivalent about the whole thing, actually. For example, I could see how casting Eddie Bracken as a stuttering caricature of Jimmy Stewart is conceptually brilliant, but I really didn't take much pleasure in watching him stammer. With a movie that takes this many risks, I am not really stunned that it only works as often as not for me.]


17. Tuck Everlasting (Jay Russell, 2002) 38 [Well-meaning but a bit hypocritical, this story about a family who has drank from the fountain of youth is something of a bore. There's very little actual conflict here, which is partially because the scale of the story remains so resolutely intimate. One would expect a tale about the perils of immortality to deal seriously with the horror of having to watch those you love die and the ambition of those who seek to learn the secret, but those concerns are shuttered away in a montage and a brief squabble, respectively.]

The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984) 44 [Essentially Seabiscuit in baseball terms, this handsomely produced but slightly dull paean to American values is well acted enough that I didn't really mind swallowing some of the pap it served. Even though it's hokey, it has enough belief in its own hokiness that I have to admire it on some level.  The portrayal of women as castrators is pretty disturbing though. It makes one question what happened to the "good" values on that count...]  

God's Little Acre (Anthony Mann, 1958) 39 [Both overheated and undercooked this would-be shocking Southern melodrama has dated badly. It's a parable so obvious and blatant that it feels clunky instead of the revelation of some universal truth. If there were rabid performances or a sweaty approximation of setting, I could see this script working, but Mann provides neither, opting instead to daintily dance around true trashiness and ends up gutting the picture.]

View from the Top (Bruno Barreto, 2003) 55 [As a throwback to a more innocent and streamlined kind of woman's picture, this colorful comedy is a winner. It's satire is toothless, but that's because there's nothing very mean-spirited about anything it shows us (when a fight scene is staged, it's impossible not to be sympathetic toward the aggressor). Instead, it's about Paltrow's gradual, surprisingly nuanced maturation and the pleasure one gets from seeing someone realize their potential. Watch it at your next slumber party!]

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952) 77 [When I watch a Hawks movie, with its naturalistic, entertaining but thematically pointed dialogue delivery, I generally wonder why I settle for less in other films. Like almost every Hawks movie I've seen, simply watching the characters interact and build for themselves a support system is intensely pleasurable. When I compare the humorous but scary amputation scene here to the forced heroics of a similar scene in Master & Commander, it appalls me that other people are settling. There's something more rousing about an adventure story when, ya know, you actually care about the characters.]


18. All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) 65 [The reasons that this is a good movie don't really have anything to do with its real world relevancy. Instead, it's the noirish portrait of a Washington D.C. filled with paranoia and the dashing embodiment of values that the stars represent that play off each other in interesting ways. Because of the script's obligation to some supposed truth, it has a lot of obligatory sequences that don't quite work. Still, there's something impressive about a movie this matter-of-fact working at all.]

White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954) 55 [Bad movie, good cheer. Really, this is a showcase for song and dance more than a convincing narrative, but because of its qualities on that front it's worth seeing. Other musicals along these same lines (e.g. The Band Wagon) do what this does better, but I suppose the holiday theme makes this somewhat distinctive.]

Film/Speaks/Many/Languages (Gustav Deutsch, 1995) 48  / Passages (Lisl Ponger, 1996) 58 / Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold, 1998) 45 / Egypt (Kathrin Resetarits, 1997) 32 / Arrete (Bernhard Schreiner, 2001) 36 / Mountain Trip (Siegfried A. Fruhauf, 1999) 47 / Rolled Eyes (Dietmar Brehm, 2002) 20 / Thousand Years Cinema (Kurt Kren, 1995) 39 / Copy Shop (Virgil Widrich, 2001) 34 / Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky, 1999) 71 [Not much to report here, due to lack of ambition. My favorite of this group was Outer Space, which turns a movie character's existence in the frame into a horrific, existential dilemma.]

Dreamcatcher (Lawrence Kasdan, 2003) 37  [Essentially "A Prayer for Owen Meany" with aliens, this sci-fi Stephen King adaptation probably qualifies as the year's most bizarre studio release. The casting of name actors in subsidiary roles pays off nicely, since it's tough to ascertain exactly who we're expected to root for for a good while. When it's all said and done, I can't say that I feel the movie pushed in satisfying directions, but for the first hour or so, when I had no idea where it would end up, I had a decent time.]  


19. Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960) 66  [Though I am sure it was more shocking upon its initial release, a lot of the power of this attack on religious hypocrisy remains intact. Lancaster's trademark smile serves the film well, and his slicked back charisma seems the production's most potent satirical weapon. Jean Simmons is equally fine as the devout preacher, who the script keeps around mostly so she can express her disappointment in Gantry. Where the movie stumbles a bit is in its structure. There's something dutiful and dull about its rise-and-fall plotline that undermines the spontaneity that Brooks is shooting for.]

City of Ghosts (Matt Dillon, 2002) 63 [Plotwise, this foreign noir might be second-rate, but it's in a genre that's less about plot than atmosphere. In any case, it's quite capable of holding one's attention from scene to scene. There's a truly great feel for Cambodia (or at least the Cambodia the movies have trained us to believe in) and a pleasingly labyrinthe plot structure. The way that Dillon directs, filling the backgrounds with so many potential intrigues that his hero can't possibly investigate them all, makes the material automatically compelling. The movie is constructed so it seems like even minor characters has a fascinating back story, and it feels like a privilege to hear those that we get to hear.]

Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939) 54 [This workmanlike, but dreary adaptation of the famed novel would be almost devoid of passion if it were not for a searing, intense performance courtesy of Laurence Olivier. Merle Oberon plays Cathy, and claims that she and Heathcliff share the same soul, but it's difficult to detect in her even a trace of his vigor. Wyler's direction isn't much to brag about here. Everything is so stately and (literally) underscored that even the bit of gothic atmosphere that is worked up dissipates as soon as he cuts to an adulatory close-up. It's slightly disturbing, but fairly typical for Hollywood, that a boondoggle like this, which uses good taste as a disguise for emotional bravery, passes for art.]

Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942) 43 [Perfectly respectable, but not very good. I suppose its function as wartime propaganda (which would perhaps be a subtle undercurrent if it weren't the undercurrent of every single scene) is what most distinguishes this domestic drama. It's admirably pitched on a small scale, but then it keeps reminding you that it stands for all of England.  In some ways, it still stands up against the test of time as a sturdy little treatise, espousing a set of "ideal" values, while only rarely overtly stating them. Just the same, it's a lesson that doesn't feel particularly potent or relevant to anything I can relate to, because it's so deterministic.]


20. Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters (Wellson Chin, 2002) 30 [Sort of enjoyable because of its incomprehensible nature, but not really well-made on any level. The titular vampires are of a Chinese variety that I haven't previously encountered in movies, and they're bad-ass, tremendously unsexy, heavily decayed kung-fu specialists. As the title also promises, said vampires are hunted. It seems like there should be more to it than that, and I have a hunch that there might be since Tsui Hark wrote the script, but the subtitles on the DVD I watched didn't seem to be very good, so that's that.] 

It Runs in the Family (Fred Schepisi, 2003) 28 [Apparently it's nepotism that runs in this particular family. I counted no less than four Douglases on screen (with Lord knows how many lurking close-by). The startling revelation of this family drama is that even families of well-heeled Manhattanites have problems. I am not sure why I would care about this exactly, since the performances didn't really pull me in (and shameful as it is to say, I was kind of put off by Kirk Douglas' post-stroke slur). The script initially seems admirable because it doesn't patly resolve its conflicts, but as it goes on, it becomes apparent that it begins leaving every conflict stranded in the same, not especially messy territory, expecting us to see the wisdom in that sort of manipulation. I briefly paused to wonder if I am being especially hard on this Family because of the assemblage of interrelated talent, but then I realized, once again, that I really didn't care...]

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Patrick Gilmore & Tim Johnson, 2003) 27 [Gosh, this subgenre is getting tired. Who really thinks these overly hip animated swashbucklers are great entertainment? One after another, they crash and burn at the box office, but they keep getting made, somehow. This one is not quite as dire as Disney's Atlantis, but it's no Treasure Planet either (bringing up Miyazaki would be an insult). Every supposedly spectacular set piece that this movie threw at me seemed a desperate attempt to wow me, which never really happened due to a rather cruddy mix of CGI and traditional animation and a rather moronic, smirking tone that kept me distanced from the action.]


21. Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002) 45 ["It sure does suck to be homeless", this movie seems to be telling us from the outset, but then it grows more interesting by suggesting that the small group of men that the movie follows are at least partly to blame for their own predicament. Unfortunately it doesn't push far enough in that direction, instead falling into a too-cute Full Monty mode that certainly makes things a bit less dour, but doesn't really do it any good as a social or character critique. Bardem is, per usual, quite good, and it's impressive how he melds right into his working-class surroundings.] 

I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) 80 [Paul Muni is electrifying in this exceptionally tense prison drama. Considering it's the movie that turned Warner Bros. in the '30s into the "socially-conscious" Hollywood studio, it hasn't aged much at all. It dramatizes social issues with such passion that it scarcely matters that it stacks the deck in the protagonist's favor. Whenever it might seem that the plot might become routine, Muni's skittishness ensures the film remains riveting. Also, it's got one of the best endings of all time.]

The Actor (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1993) 63 [In many ways, this Iranian comedy is a wild inversion of Leila. It differs from that film, though, because Makhmalbaf never lets the social importance of his message diffuse the distinctiveness of his characters. This is way too lively and idiosyncratic a film to be categorized as a mere message movie. Similarly, the various modes of comedy that the director employs are always prefaced by an undercurrent of pathos, and the movie challenges our willingness to luxuriate in that drama. There's more to it than that, though, and I can't help feeling a bit cut off from it because I lack the cultural context to place it into.]

Kurt and Courtney (Nick Broomfield, 1998) 33 [Broomfield's documentaries are generally about the search for footage and the frustration that crops up when access can't be achieved. This time out, he has more frustrations than normal, and while he remains perfectly candid about his shortcomings, it still results in a film that feels like a half-formed examination of its subject. Obviously, truth is impossible to ascertain in a quest like this, but demonstrating that mundane things like legal headaches and funding problems stand in the way of it doesn't really do anyone any good.]


22. The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946) 64 [Olivia de Havilland times two makes this implausible but entertaining noir well worth watching. The plot, which concerns twin sisters, one of whom is a deranged killer, is somewhat gimmicky, but the use of split-screen effects and the shadings in de Havilland's characterizations redeem it. Most of the tension arises as a beleaguered psychiatrist tries to figure out which bewitching sister is which. Though it's clearly a bundle of clichés, and though it never really moves in new directions, the end result makes familiarity less of a deficit than it probably should be.]

Hamsun (Jan Troell, 1996) 52 [This portrait of the famed Norwegian author doesn't exactly lend itself toward audience sympathy. Hamsun comes off as a well-intentioned, but wholly myopic, pawn of the Nazi regime. It's a great achievement on Max von Sydow's part that the movie manages to suggest there's a bit of tragedy in this predicament. Without our outside knowledge of von Sydow's esteemed career, Hamsun's past accomplishments would have remained too sketchy to make it clear why he was such a revered figure. Though Hamsun and his wife have some intense squabbles, the movie doesn't really work as an examination of detrimental complicity in a marriage, nor does it do a good job of convincing that civic pride is a bad thing, even when misplaced.]

Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989) 51 [There's a feeling here around the edges that makes me feel like this movie is too hip for the room. As a result, its supposed soul-searching in this allegedly unforgiving modern landscape comes off as a put-on. Perhaps it's the film's crowd-pleasing elements that most rankle. Arcand adopts a stance from the get-go that regards all authority with distrust, but his treatment of such figures is far too facile to make me believe the profound transformation that his characters experience can take place. I guess I just lack faith. . .]


23. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984) 84 [Fairly ingenious throughout, this movie begs to be called a live-action cartoon, but most cartoons aren't this inventive, touching, referential or scary. There's something dizzying about the confluence of elements here. While watching, there's the strong impression that characters are templates laid over templates (the wicked Mrs. Deagle is at once the Wicked Witch of the West, It's a Wonderful Life's Mr. Potter, and Ebenezer Scrooge), but Dante's wicked sense of humor spins each of them enough that they feel fresh (Deagle's untimely end is a true original). Even more adventurous though are the rapid, consistently controlled tonal shifts that he engineers. Throughout, the director takes our worst fears about Christmas, commercialism and his creepy monsters, examines them, and then through sheer bravado makes them hilarious. What does it say about me, I wonder, that this is probably my favorite holiday film?]

Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966) 59 [Here's yet another movie that is a bit problematic, but held together so tightly by a central performance that many of my complaints wither upon reflection. In his first scene, Michael Caine's Alfie starts by addressing the camera, but the grand joke of the movie is that his care-free, ironic swinger isn't nearly as self-aware as he pretends to be. Each of the skits that ensue as he runs through the numerous women in his life reveals more of him to us, and collectively, he becomes sketched as something of a tragic figure. On this front, it's much more successful than last year's Roger Dodger, partially because there's no buffer between Alfie and us (like Roger's nephew). The biggest trouble spots are piled up near the end of the film. Basically, every scene from the bar brawl on seems stressed out that when the song over the closing titles asks, "What's it all about, Alfie?", we won't be able to answer.]

Chaos (Hideo Nakata, 1999) 39 [Though the unique structure of this kidnapping drama keeps you guessing longer than you would otherwise, there's no getting around the fact that there's not a lot of there there once you're able to puzzle out who's double-crossing who and why. The characters aren't really more than plot devices, and while that keeps the thing from getting too divergent, it also limits how much interest one can take in the movie.]

Gaudi Afternoon (Susan Seidelman, 2001) 38 [The brand of comedy, in which sexual hang-ups are obliterated by a universe that willingly embraces more possibilities than the protagonist could comprehend, feels somewhat obsolete nowadays. Even if it didn't, it would require a script that had a much more precise outlook on such things than Gaudi's does. Seidelman managed something resembling the required sublimity this film needs with Desperately Seeking Susan, but here everything feels a bit off.] 

The Crazies (George Romero, 1973) 40 [It can't help that I watched this on the same day that I revisited Gremlins. Romero's technical shoddiness here might have mattered less to me had it not stood next to Dante's remarkably orchestrated control over every element of his vision. Romero's film seems slapdash in comparison, occasionally striking a satirical nerve, but generally presenting a world relayed in casually composed close-ups and poorly choreographed action. Though Night of the Living Dead is probably my choice for scariest horror film of all time, and though it possesses many of the same imperfections I am complaining about, I can only say it worked for me then, and didn't here.]

Two Mules for Sister Sarah (Don Siegel, 1970) 65 [There's a sweet central relationship here combined with Siegel's more-than-adequate direction, and it results in a Western that's entirely pleasurable to watch, even if it lacks much thematic or dramatic weight. Some of the scenes play better than others, and the characters are generally best defined through their action, as opposed to their dialogue. Siegel has a nice, generally unaffected sensibility at work here, though, and it downplays expectations of profundity as it keeps us from ever taking things too seriously.] 


24. The Safety of Objects (Rose Troche, 2001) 67 [I suppose it could be said that this expansive, well-acted drama moves with the same pace and level of ambition as a good television show. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it's not meant to be. Though Troche doesn't make her interconnected world of suburban pathos a very cinematic space, she keeps funneling drama that's convincing on a moment to moment basis at us, ensuring that the film is always engaging. I'm not quite sure that it has anything of worth to say about suburban life, or even human experience in general, but its mode of observation (which suggests the small details in our lives define us) leaves me with the impression that I really got to know these characters.]

The Backyard (Paul Hough, 2002) 58 [Exciting and likable, but somewhat sloppily made, this down and dirty documentary about the backyard wrestling phenomena overcomes a lot of its problems thanks to a lean focus on its subject matter. I can't help but think that the editing scheme, which takes us rapidly from one smashing highlight to the next, gets away from the actual pacing of the matches. One especially admirable thing here is the way Hough doesn't ever feel the need to get on a soapbox to tell us that this behavior is dangerous. Candid clips of concerned parents and a willingness to show the results of the actions say enough.]


25. The Housekeeper (Claude Berri, 2002) 51 

The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927) 68

Haunted Spooks (Alfred J. Goulding & Hal Roach, 1920) 41

The Real Cancun (Rick de Oliveira, 2003) 29


26. Nowhere in Africa (Caroline Link, 2001) 59

Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (Lee Hirsch, 2002) 46


27. Just Married (Shawn Levy, 2003) 20


28. Marooned in Iraq (Bahman Ghobadi, 2002) 42

The Harvey Girls (George Sidney, 1946) 63


29. The Funeral (Juzo Itami, 1985) 62

Sparrows (William Beaudine, 1926) 68

Willful Peggy (D.W. Griffith, 1910) 15

The Mender of Nets (D.W. Griffith, 1912) 45

Kiki's Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989) 84


30. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967) 59

Dust (Milcho Manchevski, 2001) 12

Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001) 44

Final Destination (James Wong, 2000) 52

Gothika (Mathieu Kassovitz, 2003) 37


109 features, 19 shorts


January 2003 - February 2003 - March 2003 - April 2003 - May 2003 - June 2003 - July 2003 - August 2003 - September 2003 - October 2003 - November 2003 - December 2003