Monday, January 30, 2006

The World's Last 2005 Top Ten Movies List

Ok, enough is enough. I am the slowest movie critic/blogger on earth coming up with this list. First I had to see Munich. Then I had to find photos for all the films. Because my pal Jason Jackowski (see link to the right) posted photos with his top ten list on his nascent blog. Knowing that some of my "regulars" (okay, "some" is a vague term--"one" would be a big enough percentage of my readership to merit consideration) don't know how to read, and like pretty pitchers, I decided that I had to post photos, too. So I will try. It might look dumb.

I am not going to waste time slamming Last Days, which I think represents Gus Van Sant's recent opportunistic "artiste" phase at its most venal and unnecessary, or even mentioning The Producers, even though my ears are still ringing, because most people, even those that somehow like them, seem to have forgotten about them, and rightly so. I mean, maybe the silly Golden Globes had Nathan Lane thinking he was going to get an Oscar nomination, but damn, that was one painful filmgoing experience.

I will mention, though, that this was a pretty awesome year for film. So there are a bunch of worthy movies that did not make my top ten list, but I do mention a lot of them in the honorable mentions section just below the list proper. This site is full of such innovative ideas, and now, with photos.

I considered making the list alphabetical, and for all intents and purposes, it really is alphabetical, except that it is not in the traditional order of the alphabet. What I mean is, any of the top three could have been #1 on a different day, and beyond the top three, the rankings are fairly arbitrary. The only bigtime prestige release that I failed to catch this year was The New World. Naturally I don't want to reveal too much about my biases, but from what I've heard, I would be surprised if it made this list...

1) Save the Green Planet!
Yes, this South Korean whatsit is the weirdest, best film of the year. Its nonstop inventiveness and refreshing disregard for the traditional boundaries of genre are only a small part of its appeal. It is wacky, hilarious, disturbing, and horrifying by turns, and, as with my number 2 film, the story is rooted compellingly and truthfully in a resonant and painful recent history.

2) Memories of Murder
Ah, another dark, disturbing South Korean film that subverts genre cliches and finds inspiration in an oppressive recent history. It also directly addresses the failure of torture and ideology in ascertaining truth, so I would hope that us Americans in 2005/6 might find some meaning in it in relation to our own little world. Beyond that, it works like gangbusters as a straight up genre piece. It's the best thriller I've seen in years.

3) The Squid and the Whale
I've always admired Noah Baumbach's smart sense of humor and his skill with actors. Kicking & Screaming and Mr. Jealousy are both well worth watching. But this is the first time that those talents have come together with a strong, deeply personal story and a developing visual aesthetic to produce a cohesive, funny, and heartbreaking work documenting a family's breakdown with bracing emotional honesty. Forget the damn Oscars; this uniformly outstanding cast (even William Baldwin) deserve the highest praise.

4) The World
I'm not really a "cinema of quality" guy, but there are always exceptions, and I guess Jia Zhang-ke is one of them. He appeals to me, among other reasons, because he seems to expand his palette a bit with each film, and this is certainly his most lively and accessible film to date, encompassing comedy, drama, and spectacle, all with a all with a sharp and salient worldview. Unlike, say, Gus Van Sant, Jia always seems to have a precise grasp of the specific milieu he's portraying, along with a keen eye on where its denizens fit in the grand scheme of things.

5) Kung Fu Hustle
Whatever Ang Lee thinks, Stephen Chow is an artist, in much the same sense that Chaplin, Keaton, Jerry Lewis, and, for a brief moment in time, Jackie Chan were. This was the most flat-out fun I had in a movie theater this year, and it brings a lovingly constructed world to vivid life, with larger-than-life underdog heroes and slick villains, inventive and energetic visuals, and a good-natured sense of humor and morality.

6) Funny Ha Ha
As one might gather from my comments extolling the virtues of Noah Baumbach's early work, I am a sucker for talky, urbane romantic comedies in the vein of Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking, and this is one of those. Andrew Bujalski throws us into this low-key, awkwardly funny world of smart, quick-witted, but confused and conflicted twentysomethings who don't always have the best intentions, and don't always know how to say what they want heard, which is not always what they mean. The film features outstanding performances and offers insight without any forced or phony epiphanies.

7) A History of Violence
Like The Squid and the Whale, I guess Cronenberg's superbly enthralling thriller is too prickly to get past the middlebrow taste enforcers of the Academy. HOV is a superb, tightly constructed genre piece with a rich, fascinating subtext not easily parsed in a single viewing. It's easy enough to be mesmerized by the blood-drenched sardonically funny tale and the skill with which Cronenberg presents it, plumbing the depths of the dark heart of a seemingly simple, ordinary life. Kind of reminds me of Cache in many ways, though that excellent film has been sadly relegated to my honorable mentions by an embarrassing instance of fanboyishness. My own, natch.

8) Darwin's Nightmare
Even if they didn't honor Grizzly Man, I guess I have to give whatever coffee klatsch decides on the Academy's documentary nominations some credits for recognizing this brutally fascinating depiction of the desperate bottom end of the world economy, and the devastating environmental havoc that the worship of profit can wreak. It's not a pleasant moviegoing experience, but it offers a critical look at how the rest of the world pays for the comfort we in the West take for granted.

9) Turtles Can Fly
An intensely timely, clear-eyed, and tragic look at the effects of war on the defenseless, former Kiarostami assistant Bahman Ghobadi's third film is also funny, angry, emotionally honest, and profoundly humane. Soran Ebrahim and his young castmates bring Ghobadi's warzone tale to vivid life.

10) Serenity
What? Yeah, Serenity. So? Please pardon my defensiveness. I know there are a lot of people out there who think Joss Whedon is some kind of god. I swear I am not one of them. I mean, Buffy and Firefly are great, of course, but I've only seen about ten episodes of Angel, so you could hardly think that I'm of that ilk. I've had the chance to see this again since it came out on DVD, and I am decreasingly embarrassed with how much I like it. It's Whedon, so of course, girls kick ass. But there's so much more. There's witty banter, strong characters, a great villian (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the slyly subversive anti-authoritarian theme, and it looks great. If I'd never heard of Firefly, I have to believe that I would still find this a great sci-fi action flick. But I do feel kind of like I know these people, so it's a bit more than that.


Cache. Time of the Wolf made my top ten last year. This was a stronger year, and another film that I will have to see a couple more times before I decide if it's one for the ages or just exceptionally clever and pointed.

Head-On. Fatih Akin's twisted romance between two supremely screwed up Turks in Germany generates real emotional impact from the specificity of its cultural milieu.

Kamikaze Girls. Jason suffered from some kind of Japanese pop culture overload while watching this, but I found its cultural specificity (again) extremely refreshing, and it was probably the most pure fun I had after Kung Fu Hustle.

The Power of Nightmares. Why shouldn't our side have good propaganda?

Grizzly Man. Another great year for documentaries.


War of the Worlds.

Mysterious Skin. I started with Gregg Araki back in 1992, with
The Living End, and this is the first film of his that I've really liked. It's harsh and disturbing, and it often threatens to slip into camp, but, thanks in part to an excellent cast, it never crosses that line, and it develops a genuine poignancy.

The Ice Harvest. Insanely underrated straight-up genre flick.

The Constant Gardener. Or, as Lisa calls it, "The Constipated Gardener." I go back and forth on this one, but today I like it, and I continue to have high hopes for Meirelles' career.

Junebug. Sharp, funny, and much more emotionally complex than I was expecting.

Pulse. Got inside my skull like no J-horror before it (or, technically, after it--Thanks, Miramax!). I like Kristen Bell, but I don't have high hopes for the remake matching the original's subtle creepiness.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic. Her five minutes in The Aristocrats was that movie's highlight, too. Her feature is a little uneven, but still a lot of thought-provoking, guffaw-inducing comedy.

Land of the Dead. Easily the best theatrical horror film/political allegory of the year, and might have made my top ten if I hadn't liked Joe Dante's Homecoming (from Showtime's Masters of Horror) even better.

2046 and Tropical Malady. These are both good films from directors whom I admire a lot, and maybe one day I will be far removed enough from my (perhaps unreasonable) expectations to appreciate them more.

In Her Shoes. Hands down the chick flick of the year, and one I didn't expect to like at all.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. While Oldboy and Lady Vengeance certainly have their moments, I pretty much feel like Park Chan-wook said everything he needed to say on the subject right out of the gate.

Also, I wanted to mention Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Holy Girl, My Summer of Love, Look at Me, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Time We Killed, Breakfast on Pluto, Kings and Queen...

See, I told you it was a good year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Prelude to a Top Ten

Yeah, I know. Such a momentous event deserves some kind of run-up. If I had any web design skills, you would be hearing a drum roll now. Before I get into my top ten for 2005, which I will post soon, I wanted to discuss some of the films that were well regarded by other critics, but failed for me. And maybe another couple or so observations on 2005.

You already know how I felt about Sin City, or if you don't, you can scroll down and read about it. A lot of critics liked it, and aside from it looking cool and perhaps having a patina of being transgressive (in the most sophomoric and reactionary way), I will never understand why. I can't understand its appeal to thinking people who take cinema seriously as an art form. I also contend that if you just think this movie is "a blast," there is something wrong with you. Kung Fu Hustle is "a blast," because it is wildly entertaining, but also has such a good heart and a strong sense of morality. Kamikaze Girls is a blast. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a blast. Even King Kong could conceivably be thought of as "a blast," if you could somehow get past its discomfiting racial subtext. Beyond the impressive look of the film, there was certainly nothing in Sin City that gave me the sense of vertiginous giddiness that I got from Kong's battle with those dinosaurs.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was when my critics group, the Online Film Critics Society, gave the film two of its year-end awards. Best Supporting Actor for Mickey Rourke and, even worse, Best Cinematography for Mr. Half-Assed Jack-of-All-Trades-Master-of-None Robert Rodriguez. The director of Shark-Boy and Lava-Girl. Remember a few years ago when Conan O'Brien made that joke about how Catherine Keener won the OFCS award for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Lieutenant Uhura? This is the type of thing that reinforces the public perception of our group as a bunch of geeks. I mean, I wouldn't mind if it was film geeks, but Sin City voters are, I suspect, more the type of geeks who hang out at the comic book store, and have never spoken to a girl. I know, I was one of them once. I just wish they would outgrow it, now that they are in a fancy OFCS awards-giving body. Womens heads mounted like trophies on a wall is not cool or even really demented and sick, it is just moronic.

I didn't really mean to write about Sin City, but it does piss me off, and I get carried away. Anyway, another film by a filmmaker who apparently hates women and has been lauded for it by the critical community this year is Match Point. Again, I don't get it. These "characters" he writes do not resemble any actual human beings we have ever met, and the "London" they live in bears little resemblance to any real place on this earth. (I should note that I am relying on the word of people who actually live in London, here, as I have not been there since I was a kid.) The acting is stiff and the dialogue stilted as the film plods along inexorably toward its unmistakably late Woodman unjustifiable "bitch killa" moment. We get it. You hate women. They are either simpering, oblivious dunderheads (though bless Emily Mortimer for trying to give this creation life) or coldhearted bitches who, at the drop of a hat, will turn into shrieking harridans who must be murdered. In the past ten years, I have seen one sympathetic female character in a Woody Allen film. She was a mute. Aside from being hateful (both sexist and classist), Match Point is not a well made film. It does not work as a thriller, because motivations are not clear, character behavior is not consistent, and the filmmaker spells out his banal themes with embarrassing bluntness. It's hard for me to fathom that there are people who appreciate Allen's "mastery of craft" here, while simultaneously belittling Steven Spielberg's seemingly effortless talent for audience manipulation.

Speaking of Spielberg, I don't know if either Munich or War of the Worlds makes my top ten list, but for the first time since the 1970s (when I was just a kid and didn't know better), I am actually eager to see what he does next. Of course, Abe Lincoln doesn't sound particularly promising, but then neither did the 1950s sci-fi remake starring Tom Cruise, and that turned out to be so terrifying, and so relentlessly grim, right up until Spielberg ruined everything with that Spielberg ending (dishearteningly similar to the "yeah, the world is fucked, but my family made it out ok, so cue the triumphant music" ending of The Day After Tomorrow and countless other schlocky disaster films). This film deserved better. It's no surprise that Munich is a skillfully made, effective thriller. But it's also smart and morally complex in its depiction of the horrific events of the 1972 Olympics and the purported Israeli response to that attack. Spielberg is even willing to let things end on an ambivalent note, for once. I would hope that people who are intrigued by this film would seek out Kevin MacDonald's excellent documentary, One Day in September, which also works as a thriller, but places the terrorist attack in context, and goes into fascinating, dreadful detail about exactly what went wrong when the Germans tried to rescue the Israeli athletes.

Two other films I saw this year, both at the New York Film Festival, addressed Palestinian terrorism and Israel's response to it. Paradise Now is also an effective thriller. Like Munich, it engages in its own internal debate, but the sense of rage underlying all the handwringing is palpable. It's worth seeing, because it offers a thoughtful examination of one of the salient issues of our age, from a perspective we rarely encounter in our mass media. That said, I find Avi Mograbi's documentary, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes more effective, because it condemns the right wing Israeli perspective with its own mythology and its own words and actions. I can't fault Hany Abu-Assad for making a confrontational and angry film because clearly, to me, his rage is justified. But Munich, while less immediate, will reach more people, and it makes more of an effort to be persuasive, and it cannily connects the events it depicts to the world in which we live today.

I was going to continue on and write something about how much I dislike Last Days, another of my "Overrated Films of 2005" list, but I went a-rambling, it got very late, and now that will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Summing up my personality

So, I was playing poker online with this flirtatious 20 year-old Rutgers student who sent me to her myspace account to see her photo. She turned out to be cute. Let the online stalking begin! No, I'm just kidding, did I mention she is 20? She only liked me because three places paid out, and she was very short-stacked with four players left, and I took all of some other player's chips.

In any case, she had a link to her blog, where she posted the results of the personality test she'd taken on

I took the same test, more out of boredom than curiosity, and here is the "trait summary" part of the results, in its entirety:

messy, depressed, introverted, feels invisible, does not make friends easily, nihilistic, reveals little about self, fragile, dark, bizarre, feels undesirable, dislikes leadership, reclusive, weird, irritable, frequently second guesses self, unassertive, unsympathetic, low self control, observer, worrying, phobic, suspicious, unproductive, avoidant, negative, bad at saving money, emotionally sensitive, does not like to stand out, dislikes large parties, submissive, daydreamer

Those of you who know me are probably asking yourselves, How could a banal little online personality test create such a detailed and accurate portrait of Josh? Except for Lisa, who is saying, How did they miss "stinky?" (Well, maybe he wasn't completely honest in answering the personal hygiene questions.) They did actually miss some things. There's nothing on that list to account for why I spent ten minutes taking their personality test, for one thing. But clearly, this is why computers were invented.

Anyway, I am back and better than ever, so soon I will post my top ten list of 2005 films. I need to see Munich first, at least. Normally, I might be willing to skip the year's most highly acclaimed Spielberg film, but I was so very impressed, for real, with the truly grim and horrifying War of the Worlds that I want to give the other one a shot.