The Year in Film
Movies went pop this past year, if this list is any evidence to current tastes and predilections. Two outright comedies, two comic-book adaptations, an animated dystopian space odyssey, and an steroidal color explosion--all from Hollywood studios, occupy more than half of the top 10 spots below. Given the overall bonkers tenor of the past year in general, perhaps a change is really going to come because, clearly, in an election year when a surprisingly middle-ground Oliver Stone George W. Bush biopic practically tanks at the box office and the movie that features a reefer-toking W. lampoon using hand jobs as an example for hypocritical positions shows up below, anything is possible. The list was determined by weighted lists submitted by critics Rahne Alexander, John Barry, G. Brian Davis, Steve Erickson, Violet Glaze, Cole Haddon, Jess Harvell, Eric Allen Hatch, Geoffrey Himes, Martin L. Johnson, Bret McCabe, Al Shipley, and Wendy Ward. Individual Top 10 lists can be viewed at citypaper.com.
It is a rare year indeed when film critics unite to lionize a massive summer blockbuster as the best movie of the year. That, in a nutshell, encompasses what's most impressive about The Dark Knight: the flawless marriage of entertainment and intelligence, that almost-forgotten ideal that pop culture can be smart and powerful. From the Nolan brothers' taut, complex script to the lead roles' haunting performances--hats off to all, but especially Heath Ledger's terrifying Joker--Christopher Nolan's dark masterpiece explores the foggy moors of morality and violence. In short, you would be hard-pressed to find another recent movie that so rigorously defends Hollywood's artistic potential. (G. Brian Davis)
WALL-E shows a few signs of being a mainstream American family movie: it ends on a note of improbable uplift and forces a pair of genderless robots into a heterosexual couple. Otherwise, it's a rare example of socially conscious work that isn't content to preach to the converted. However, that's not the main reason it's a delight. Its biggest surprise is that it makes silent comedy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi fit together so naturally and comfortably. Sure, its robots are cute, but they're placed in a convincingly imagined grubby dystopian future. After Pixar took an aesthetic swan-dive with Cars, WALL-E suggests the animation studio's best days may be ahead of it. (Steve Erickson)
Hollywood directors have been beating their heads against a security wall for years trying to figure out the Bush presidency with nothing to show except a series of box-office bruisings. With Jon Favreau's Iron Man, something finally clicked. Robert Downey Jr. plays a gung-ho tech genius who becomes troubled by his family's weapon-manufacturing business after he learns that their weapons are in enemy hands. While the movie indulges in the usual action-movie braggadocio and the plot distills into a good super-suit v. evil super-suit battle at the end, the movie's moral ambivalence is a refresher from years of summer-movie patriotism. (Martin L. Johnson)
Nejat (played with quiet grace by Baki Davrak), a young Turkish-born professor living in Germany, and his father, Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), occupy a small world shattered by a single, irrational act of violence. Turkish director Fatih Akin concentrates on characters who, at least in this life, wander across Europe and into Turkey in search of one another, and instead of trying to resolve things, his movie creates its own rhythm with a confident, unwavering focus on unvarnished humanity. In an age of instant links, Akin reminds us how achingly painful, and strangely beautiful, the struggle to overcome separation can be. (John Barry)
Robert Downey Jr. playing a preposterously pretentious Russell Crowe playing a Southern African-American. Jack Black playing a drug-addled Robert Downey Jr. trying to transcend a career supported by Eddie Murphy-grade fat suits. Ben Stiller playing Tom Cruise playing Sylvester Stallone (or is it Arnold Schwarzenegger?). And Tom Cruise playing Paramount majority owner Sumner Redstone as the galaxy's biggest asshole even though Paramount made the movie. Tropic Thunder is an over-the-top parody of Hollywood's interpretation of war and Hollywood itself. Movies about making movies rarely resonate outside of the industry, but this one never stops making you laugh. (Cole Haddon)
After years of enduring the whiny, whitey midlife crises of Woody Allens and Michael Douglases, it's actually refreshing to have Charlie Kaufman assume the voice of authority in the Department of Privileged Neurosis. While some may champion the neo-surrealist achievements of past directors of Kaufman scripts, it's in Synecdoche that Kaufman finally directs himself, and in so doing reveals something more substantial about what he's been driving at all these years. This is absolutely not a universal story; in fact, that's precisely the tragic, alienating point of the movie. Put this in a triple-feature with The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and you may never follow Philip Seymour Hoffman down a dark alley again. (Rahne Alexander)
Yes, it was funnier than Pineapple Express. And Pineapple Express was very, very funny. (In fact, if Harold and Kumar 3 features the strip-mall tough-guy Zen of Pineapple Express' Danny McBride, it may destroy comedy as we know it.) It's also unashamedly corny and unflaggingly crude, milking bong-friendly yuks from questionably juvenile material like overgrown pubic hair, prison rape, and unruly ejaculate. Should grownups who've packed away their one-hitters feel bad for laughing at some--or all--of this movie? Probably. But where else can we enjoy a drugged-out, priapic Doogie Howser taming mythological animals and facing down a bordello's worth of pissed-off hookers? (Jess Harvell)
Hollywood may have had quite a year, but so did American independent cinema. Case in point, Chop Shop, a low-budget movie populated by first-time, teenaged actors and set against a dismal, post-industrial backdrop of auto-body shops on the outskirts of Queens that cannibalize dying vehicles so that others might live. The aesthetic here is reminiscent of Italian neo-realism to be sure, but even more so of the modern Iranian cinema, of which director Ramin Bahrani clearly has a master's familiarity. If this sometimes bleak story of survival on the economic margins ultimately manages to strike hopeful notes, it more than earns them with its 84 minutes of direct, unflinching, and unpretentious cinematic honesty. (Eric Allen Hatch)
What happens when adults tackle shopworn clichés with impudent enthusiasm. Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married plunges into that old yarn about family drama at a major event--the titular wedding--and even embraces a few of that storyline's familiar notes. Slyly, though, these characters--spearheaded by the myopically hostile rehab-recovery sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), bride-to-be Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and the absentee mother (an ass-kicking, name-taking Debra Winger)--and cinematographer Declan Quinn elevate the movie into an improvisational précis on not dealing with loss, love, and life itself. Everything and nothing happens here: It's like a mumblecore movie, only with committed acting, a visual idea, and a narrative purpose--you know, as made by a filmmaker. (Bret McCabe)
A pachinko parlor explosion of light and delight that is destined for home-theater cult status after being unfairly overlooked in the summer movie stampede. The Wachowski Brothers prove they're more than cyberfetishists by abandoning the grim and grown-up world of The Matrix to plunge into a presexualized fantasy of Crayola colors and maximum velocity, where the chastest expression of joy can be found in working at the top of your craft, and where a pure-hearted ars gratia artis manifesto is cleverly folded into the shock and awe. An art film, for artists, masquerading as a blockbuster. (Violet Glaze)
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