For those of us who still read books, this has—without a doubt—been the worst year of cinema in the history of the medium.  For everyone else…well, there’s The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine.

Last year shat out a similar slew of treacle.  However, there were those films that were absolutely ambrosial in quality.  Of course, they received almost no recognition or praise, but they will certainly leave their mark forever on the minds of those who…well, possess minds.  These films:

  • Gus Van Sant’s Last Days

  • Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies

  • Todd Solondz’s Palindromes

  • Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist

  • Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy

  • Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

  • Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man

are all insightful, incisive, and indelible.  They were ruthlessly shoved out of the way by more tried-and-true fare, derivative pablum that dealt with Iraq or racism or whatever was last year’s political hot topic (personally, I don’t know: I don’t watch that channel). 

My recommendation for my dearest readers is: Forget going to the theater for a while… Rent these flicks, and rent ‘em today! 

Now, as absolutely execrable as this year’s output has been, there were a few decent gems that warrant a Top Ten List.  As with last year, most of these flicks received little if any recognition, but at least the six of you who read this periodical will have the benefit of reading up on some truly mighty works that, if nothing else, were far better than the rest of the year’s nonsense (you can hear about said nonsense at the next few big award ceremonies run by people who will thankfully be expiring real soon). 


Andrew Cooper SMPSP © Icon Distribution, Inc
Rudy Youngblood (center) and Morris Bird (right) in Mel Gibson’s Apocalytpo

Mel Gibson joins the pantheon of those great American film masters who have made the difficult transition from big-time studio actor to truly singular director—Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Clint Eastwood—with his latest venture.  I’m sorry, but you can’t possibly be much more “independent” of a filmmaker than by investing $40 million of your own money into your flick.  And to have the gravitas to make the movie an incendiary allegory that deftly criticizes our entire contemporary culture… well, that puts you right at the top of the list, sir.  Magnificently crafted, extremely well cast and acted by its army of non-professionals, wonderfully colored by its perfect musical score, and shot in a most unique manner that intermingles the organic realm with digital, the flawless Apocalypto is more than a movie: it is indeed an entirely immersive experience that titillates all of your senses, that pulls you into an entirely new world.

This is a big-screen theater must-see, a spectacle on par with the likes of Nashville, Apocalypse Now, Brazil, and Natural Born Killers.  The “how the hell did he pull that off?” factor runs almost as high as the “is that really happening?” element.  Frankly, there is one scene in particular—dealing with a young, pestilence-ridden female foundling—that is so eerie, so canny, and so cinematic, that for the sequence alone, Gibson proves himself a force with which to be reckoned (The Passion of the Christ notwithstanding).  For those close-minded members of the Thought Police out there who have chosen not to see the movie because of Gibson’s inebriated “anti-Semitic” remarks a few months back, please go to your local library and burn all of their books by Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and TS Eliot.  Then go see Apocalypto.   


Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) mark one of the early peaks in their relationship in a scene from Jeff Lipsky’s romantic drama Flannel Pajamas
Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) mark one of the early peaks in their relationship in a scene from Jeff Lipsky’s romantic drama Flannel Pajamas

Jeff Lipsky’s touching, poignant, and strikingly honest portrayal of a young couple’s long-term relationship—from the initial meeting during a tempestuous blind date to their highly libidinous courtship to their marriage and ultimate downfall—engenders a film that, for once, is truly deserving of the comparison to the inimitable work of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh.  Quiet (no music that I can remember, less the title credits and the absolutely fantastic original song from the trailer that was tacked on to the end credits), stark, and extremely naturalistic in its execution, Flannel Pajamas is one of those truly adult films in line with the ilk of Mike Nichols’ recent Closer in which there is no room for clichés, no time for hackneyed aphorisms, and only an earnest reality presented in a forum that is always vivifying, sometimes humorous, and wholly infused with the utmost humanity.


Justin Rice and Seung-Min Lee in Mutual Appreciation
Justin Rice and Seung-Min Lee in Mutual Appreciation

Andrew Bujalski makes the kind of films we all say we’ll make “one day.”  Only, he has the balls to go out and make them today.  Working his day job during the week (usually as a substitute teacher or office temp), Bujalski set out to save and scrimp and self-produce Funny Ha Ha, which he shot and edited in his scant free-time, all himself, exploiting friends and colleagues, utilizing familiar places and apartments as his environs, and creating something in the process that has been overwhelmingly heralded by critics and agents’ assistants alike. .

With Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski again has forged something that is so deliciously homemade and sincere that it reads as more than mere cinema-vérité; it almost feels as though you’re watching the product of a filmmaker who has conjured up his own universe inside of ours, then captured the very essence of this world and put it up on screen.  You feel as though you’re looking through someone’s window and watching him watch TV, you feel as though you’re reading someone’s diary and reading up on his favorite music or cereal, and you feel as though you’re personally involved with these incredibly true-to-life characters who are surprisingly just like you and me.  Bujalski’s been hailed as “the voice of his generation,” and yet you’ve never heard of him before, have you?  Huh.  Go figure.


Will Ferrell stars in Columbia Pictures and Mandate Pictures' comedy Stranger Than Fiction
Will Ferrell stars in Columbia Pictures and Mandate Pictures’ comedy Stranger Than Fiction

The problem with Charlie Kaufman scripts is that they have a tendency to get produced.  This is a shame, because if you ever have a chance to read the original scripts for Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or even Human Nature, you’ll find that the guy was at one time really onto something.  Now, with Stranger Than Fiction, Marc Forster made the one decision that Jonze and Gondry simply couldn’t fathom: let the quirky script speak for itself.  What you end up with in Stranger Than Fiction is a serious film that reads as subtly absurd in a truly realistic matrix because, well, Forster’s a good director (Finding Neverland notwithstanding).

Hollywood’s de facto golden boy Zach Helm penned something that is original, innovative, heartfelt, steeped in truth, and yet playful in a way that begs to be watched and experienced.  Will Ferrell shines in his restrained and analgesiac performance that proves that he can act, though (unfortunately) he’ll probably end up on the same road as erstwhile funnymen-turned-pariahs Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey (oh, well…at least we got one out of him).  This is also somehow Emma Thompson’s finest role to date, and the rest of the cast (Dustin Hoffman still has the goods?  I’ll be damned!) shines as bright as Ferrell himself.  Whereas the Kafuman scripts were effortlessly relegated to the cinematic equivalent of a chimpanzee making underarm farting noises, Stranger Than Fiction does the impossible: a truly cartoonish reality for adults that’s filled with equal amounts sincerity and espiegle.


Laura Dern and Justin Theroux
Laura Dern and Justin Theroux

I know there will be those steadfast Mathew Klickstein fans out there who will be absolutely appalled by my not listing David Lynch’s latest masterpiece at the top of my list (and behind Stranger Than Fiction?!  How dare he!).  Well, fuck you, too, buddy!  Moving on…  OK, now it’s as difficult to determine whether Inland Empire is actually better than Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as it still is to determine whether Gus’ Last Days was better than Gerry.  As with the Van Sant pair, Inland and Mulholland are pure Lynch.  Of course, Inland Empire is much more Lynch than Mulholland (heck, he did everything with this one: from shooting it to writing/directing, making some of the music, constructing some of the sets himself, etc. etc.  Good god, y’all!).  And, at a whopping 176 minutes, I can honestly say that this is the first David Lynch film I’ve ever seen that not only truly scared me, but that really is a completely incoherent nightmare that made little to no sense the entire time I watched it (normally, Lynch gives everything away in the end…Yeah, not this time, friends).  I did indeed figure out what the hell was going on…about three days later in the car.  But, the mere fact that my subconscious wouldn’t allow me to think of anything else but the deciphering of his lurid, magical, mystical, and haunting tragi-farce is proof positive that Inland Empire is one movie that watches you!  I really would not recommend this to anyone (I actually have yet to do so) who is not a die-hard Lynch fan (and, I mean, you have to have read Lynch on Lynch and watched the director’s cut of Dune that even I hate).  But, if it’s your thing, prepare to be changed forever.  See this one in the theater.


Amy Sedaris as Geraldine 'Jerri' Antonia Blank in Strangers with Candy
Amy Sedaris as Geraldine ‘Jerri’ Antonia Blank in Strangers with Candy

Funniest movie of the year.  Which is the same thing as being valedictorian at summer school, but still…  I was never really a fan of the show, per se, (though, I did start getting into it…right about the same time it was cancelled), but for some reason (namely because my interest is always piqued by all things Sedaris), I felt that I had to see this one.  A lot of it also had to do with the fact that there was nothing else to see when this one came out.  I entered the theater, the curtains were lifted, and the movie began: I was blown away by the realization that this is not only fucking funny stuff, but that the movie itself was incredibly well-made.  From direction to comedic timing to performances to cinematography and musical interludes, this movie has it all.  I was so very replenished by the film’s balls-out energy and its no-holds-barred take on Political Correctness (fortunately that early ‘90’s shit has almost been completely flushed down the toilet) that, after leaving the theater, I honestly believed that—at the time—I had just watched what would be the best movie of the year. 


Nicolas Cage as Firefighter John McLoughlin in World Trade Center
Nicolas Cage as Firefighter John McLoughlin in World Trade Center

A few months back, I declared in an article the deaths of Terry Gilliam, Robert Altman (whoops-a-doodle), and Oliver Stone.  The inside-joke here is that three of my all-time favorite movies are: Brazil, Nashville, and Natural Born Killers.  So, you figure it out.  That said (wait, what did I just say?), Stone has produced with World Trade Center a movie that is far from perfect, but truly compelling and engaging in its execution.  What a smart move on his part to make a film about one of the most boring tragedies of recent Americana into veritable filmed theater that takes place almost entirely in one location and with two characters discussing everything from television shows to seeing hallucinations of Jesus with a water bottle.  While watching the film, one can’t help but truly feel there, and is this not the ultimate purpose of cinema? 


Melvil Poupaud as Romain and Jeanne Moreau as Laura in Strand Releasing’ Time to Leave
Melvil Poupaud as Romain and Jeanne Moreau as Laura in Strand Releasing’ Time to Leave

Little film lesson, kids: François Ozon is one of the world’s finest living directors.  Now, this isn’t just because he’s French.  No, that certainly adds a lot to his corpus of cinematic contributions; but it’s his ethereal style, his creation of a state of halcyon tranquility that makes him a real maven.  You didn’t see Time to Leave, but you should definitely hunt it down and rent it ASAP.  The story is a simple one: a sexy, young photographer finds out that he only has a few months to live, and leaves everything behind to go on a trip by himself to basically see the world around him, experience a few last moments with some estranged family members, and end up lying on a beach until he slips away forever.  Along the road, we lay witness to a complicated man’s entire life…without really hearing or seeing anything at all.  It’s his emotional state that we experience, and this is the film’s ultimate magic.


Joel David Moore as Bardo and Max Minhella  in Art School Confidential. Photo by Suzanne Hanover
Joel David Moore as Bardo and Max Minhella in Art School Confidential. Photo by Suzanne Hanover

It is impossible to call any film an “accurate depiction” of the art school experience, as we did not all have the same experience, many of us did not go to art school at all, and many more still didn’t go to college in the first place.  (Heck, in Hollywood these days, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with even a high school diploma.)  However, it’s comforting to see on the big-screen Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’ Art School Confidential for those of us who did go to art school (or film, music, theater school, for that matter) and can empathize with the duo’s particular take on the subject.  Every film of this nature is bound to digress to archetypes, but it’s boldly refreshing to see these caricatures born from the current or at least most recent menagerie.  Though it drags toward the end of the film and its paper-thin plotline leaves much to be desired, Art School Confidential—if nothing else—is a triumph for its deft characterizations, along with incredible performances from its actors, an anastigmatic eye for intimate detail that rivals The Paper Chase, superb use of music, and a terrific direction from Mr. Zwigoff. 


Gael Garcia Bernal and Pell James in The King
Gael Garcia Bernal and Pell James in The King

I’ll be honest here (I may be an asshole, but you can always trust me, folks): I really couldn’t decide which movie should be considered my #10 Best Movie of the Year.  So, I thought it over and thought it over and vacillated enough times until I decided: eh, The King was pretty darn good, I suppose.  My logline review, in fact:  Good, not great.  Nevertheless, the film has a certain special quality about it that few this year (or any year, really) possess.  The film is also refreshingly simple, and yet devilishly complicated in a way that almost lulls you to sleep then blasts you awake with revelation as thought it were straight out of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (or a Pixies song).  Fine performances from Gael García Bernal, William Hurt, Paul Dano, and one of my favorite newcomers: the ravishing and talented Ms. Pell James, whose love of Jim O’Rourke makes me swoon.


The Queen, Little Children, Idlewild, Thank You for Smoking, Volver, Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The Devil and Daniel Johnston


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