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Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, May 29, 2006

Short takes: recently seen

The Notorious Bettie Page – A disappointment. I was a big fan of Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol, and although I didn’t much like American Psycho, I salute her audacity in attempting it. But this new film is downright bland and lacks the kind of punch, immediacy and in-your-face quality the subject cries out for. Good performances, especially by Lili Taylor.

X-Men: The Last Stand – Even though this features material that ought to be wrenching [more than one major character dies], it remains a big, soulless spectacular. It may be hard to pinpoint the specifics of why a director makes all the difference in a comic-book epic…but just compare this to the operatic heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Ang Lee’s underrated The Hulk, and of course Bryan Singer’s X-2. All the explosions are here…but far too little of the heat. However, I agree with the person who said Ian McKellen should just be in every movie…he raises the caliber of nearly every scene he touches.

An Inconvenient Truth – Very effective, straightforward, unpretentious. Not a mind-blower like The Power of Nightmares, or a rabble rouser like Fahrenheit 9/11. Al Gore’s eloquence is a happy surprise. Still, it is basically an illustrated lecture and might benefit from being a bit shorter. But it’s well worth seeing.

B-Noir at Film ForumTwo by Robert Siodmak: Film Forum is one of the best repertory cinemas ever, an invaluable asset for New York. The current series of mostly low-budget 40s and 50s crime thrillers is splendid. The pair I caught this weekend, Phantom Lady and The Suspect, provided nifty summer entertainment…and also object lessons in beautiful craftsmanship. Robert Siodmak invests preposterous and/or lightweight material with tight pacing and construction, and draws consistently vivid performances from players as varied as Charles Laughton and Maria Montez. They absolutely do not make them like this any more, but thank God we can still see them…and in 35mm yet.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Expectations Game

Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows is, as the ads say, the best-reviewed film of the year [99 on Metacritic!....this approaches scary unanimity]. Ron Howard's The DaVinci Code has been mercilessly pummeled by the press on two continents [46 on Metacritic, but who's counting]. I'm not about to claim that Army of Shadows is a terrible movie and The DaVinci Code is a wonderful movie. But the Melville was a big disappointment to me [and to the friend who accompanied me, so I assume we're not completely alone in this], and DaVinci was to my mind surprisingly entertaining and satisfying.

The expectations game can have a powerful effect. Even very fine films like Brokeback Mountain can fall prey to this...I heard more than one person saying, it's good but not that good. They ended up feeling the advance word was partly or largely hype. I don't agree in the case of Brokeback, but the first time I saw it I did feel let down, because I had imagined/hoped it would be something impossibly, supernaturally beautiful and powerful...instead of just an excellent movie.

Army of Shadows and The DaVinci Code are both nominally thrillers, set largely in France, and they're both too long, at 150 minutes or so. They have little else in common. I think the episodic structure of Army of Shadows works against its impact, and judged as a thriller, it fails for lack of thrills. As a moody evocation of heroism in an impossible, losing situation [the members of the French underground are largely captured or killed by the end], it has some merit....though I think it's been vastly overrated.

I was prepared for dullness and mediocrity in Howard's big best-seller adaptation. [The book is full of awful and clumsy writing, but it tosses out enthralling bits of art history, theology, and so-farfetched-they're-believable conspiracies, and keeps you turning pages.] It's true that with another director, the movie might be faster and more fun. But it moves right along and manages to include a good deal of the 'true' material that makes the novel click. It's a big-budget Hollywood Important Production, and doesn't escape ponderousness. But sometimes it's enjoyable just to watch a big movie unfold, if it's well photographed and edited, and has a good score. [Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind...although it was both much more beautiful and much duller as storytelling.]

If only we could see movies without preconceptions. But this is exceedingly rare. For me, at least, this results in a lot of disappointments and happy surprises.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A higher definition of nostalgia

I love my new HDTV recorder box from my cable company....now I spend even more time in front of the television and even less reading, exercising, etc.

Luckily the regular season is now behind us, so no more Two Hour Season Finales to endure...I mean enjoy.

But my favorite thing about having the DVR is watching old movies in HD on channels like Universal HD [when they're not showing impossibly numerous episodes of Knight Rider and Quantum Leap...whose idea was that?], INHD and HDMovies.

Not nearly all the movies are any good....but there are a few gems, and some blasts from the past that stir up a bit of nostalgia. They all look gorgeous....better than DVD, better in fact than some theater showings. Some of the ones I've watched:

The Andromeda Strain - mostly terrible, actually, but it brought back memories of how I loved the novel as a teenager and rushed to see the movie version, inadequate as it is.

Easy Rider - also pretty bad as a whole, but with amazing cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs and of course Jack Nicholson's breakthrough performance. I gather the music has been remixed or redubbed....it often sounds spectacular. But the script! The silly editing flourishes! Ecch!

'Don't Look Now' - Not as weird and unconventional as I remembered it, and occasionally pretty heavy-handed. But good photography and a beautiful setting in Venice, and spooky moments. Donald Sutherland's hairdo is fairly scary as well.

Cry-Baby - John Waters's nearly forgotten follow-up to Hairspray, from the era when no one knew Johnny Depp would become a respected actor, much less a major movie star. Lots of fun, especially the music, which is plentiful.

My Own Private Idaho - Visually and emotionally, a masterpiece, even if the script runs out of gas after half an hour. Keanu's finest hour [this is not saying much I know] and River Phoenix's very best work [saying a great deal]. If Gus Van Sant had directed Brokeback Mountain, what a different movie it would have been!

The Silence of the Lambs - OK, so these 'nostalgia'-inducing films are mostly from the early 90s....and this one has never even been away. But it's a great movie, and it looks, yes, wonderful in HD.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pop genius: Battlestar Galactica

Some of my friends will roll their eyes: hopelessly nerdy. They wouldn’t stoop so low as to waste their valuable time on a space opera.

I came late to this cable serial, as I have to several other TV phenomena, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Six Feet Under, watching it mostly on disc. And, as also happened with those two series, becoming hopelessly, helplessly hooked.

The four-hour ‘miniseries’ and the first several weekly episodes are indeed space opera, well done but, I was thinking, not worth continuing to clog my Netflix queue with. Then, somewhere in the second half of the first season, I began to realize just how good this was: in fact, a pop masterpiece.

Humans are being genocidally annihilated by evil robots…but wait...why are the humans non-believing carriers of Greek/Roman religious traditions, while the robots are fierce devotees of ‘the One True God?’ ...Huh? And the episodes that touch on terrorism [is it ok to torture a robot?] and presidential politics, without once being heavy-handed; the uniformly excellent writing and acting; the brilliantly conceived documentary look that, combined with beautifully done special effects, give the series an immediacy and believability previously unknown in either film or TV sci-fi. Most of all, the enormous overall conception and the long, novel-like story arcs—again, something quite new for filmed space sagas. And it’s sexy, and funny, and…oh just rent it already. If I told you it’s as good as The West Wing, with a more exciting plot, will that convince? Because it is.

[PS No weekly series is without the occasional bummer episode. And I actually think they may be cheating a little with the mythological stuff about God and the Arrow of Apollo and the Lost Planet Earth…raising tantalizing questions and then dropping them. I hope I’m wrong about that last part, and I can’t wait for the new season to start in a few months.]

Baghdad ER

A powerful subject handled straightforwardly, with excellent results. Of course, it's not easy to sit through scenes of surgery [including amputations] or to watch soldiers die, but the film is extraordinarily moving. Still showing on HBO....don't avoid it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Errol Morris and Adam Curtis

Although it's now over 6 months old, I just discovered this quite wonderful conversation between two of the most brilliant and provocative nonfiction filmmakers ever, Adam Curtis [The Power of Nightmares] and Errol Morris [The Fog of War].

Small sample:

EM: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sheer perversity of The Power of Nightmares.

AC: Perverse?

EM: I’ll give you an example of a perverse argument – that Johnny Mercer brought down the World Trade Center. [The Power of Nightmares traces the odd career trajectory of Qutb, a founder of Islamic fundamentalism, to a high-school in Denver, Colorado and a senior prom where the students danced to Mercer’s Baby It’s Cold Outside. ]

AC: The person I love best in the whole world is a sociologist from the late 19th century named Max Weber who believed that ideas have consequences. People have experiences out of which they form ideas. And those ideas have an effect on the world. It is true that a man listening to music back in 1949 had an experience that became one of the rivulets that ran into his formation of an idea. And that idea, in a very strange way, led people to do destroy the World Trade Center. Now, of course, that's the construction and maybe people prefer to believe that history is much more complicated. Which, of course, it is. But the construction has a truth to it.

. . .

AC: Last night on television someone who was pro-the Iraq war was saying that the alliance between the insurgents in Iraq and the foreign fighters is the equivalent of the Nazi-Soviet pact and that that's what we’re really fighting against. It’s all so weird. That the men who sit in neon-lit rooms with very nicely done tables and who question you and tell you things, are actually weird.

EM: Yeah. Well, as we all know, the banal and the weird are not incompatible.

AC: That's the whole point - that's what's so fascinating about our time. The banal and the weird are one and the same thing.

EM: Yes. They hold hands.


Friday, May 19, 2006

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

I endured this new Martin McDonagh play on Wed evening. It could be described as brilliant, and once in a while it is actually as funny as the audience has convinced themselves it is throughout. I believe its brilliance is shallow, however, and very, very obvious. And I dearly wished I was elsewhere doing something more enjoyable. At least we paid less than $50 for our torture, a bargain on Broadway.

I have seen several of MM's works now. I'm not sure what I think. Is he really gifted, or merely very clever? Is his fierce approach that of a major artist, or is it just an unpleasant attitude? In other words, is he a Quentin Tarantino or only a Lars von Trier?

Maybe when he starts doing feature films I'll be able to decide.

12 and Holding

This was certainly the most accessible movie I saw at New Directors/New Films. It has some charm, but it is being vastly overrated by some, e.g. Stephen Holden in the NY Times. The script is wildly uneven, and is [not surprisingly] much better when it is funny than when it is serious. The plot and the characters are often cartoonish.

Best are the kids, who give the movie nearly all its entertainment value. Although, as a director friend pointed out, their inexperience shows, this may be a sign of uneven direction. Michael Cuesta also gave us L.I.E., a movie with much more emotional heft and very memorable performances by Brian Cox and two teenage boys. This is a lesser movie, occasionally terrible, in fact, but worth seeing if you gauge your expectations accordingly.

Quote of the week

"I know I've been commercially successful, but I'm not really a guy looking for safe, middle-of-the-road success."
-- Ron Howard

Oh really?!

The best response to this is maybe just to say: "OK. Prove it." Hint: Doing a big-budget, glossy adaptation of the Best-Selling Novel of All Time is possibly not the way to go.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

James Mangold

So I thought I was the only person who recognized him as an out-of-the-ordinary talent, and he has this big-deal tribute/celebration coming up at MoMA:

Actually, although Copland is interesting and all his films have strong performances, Walk the Line is the only one so far that I think is a great [or near-great] work. But so few people seem to agree with me.

Anyway, since MoMA is charging $150-$400 per ticket, I'll have to skip the main event. But good on ya , James!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Power of Nightmares

This post consists of two e-mails I sent to friends about this amazing movie...one written right after I saw it and another a year later when I found a better way for people to view it on line. It is also readily available on Google Video.


[April 2005]
Last night I saw one of the most remarkable films I have ever experienced. The effect was mind-expanding, and I believe many others in the large audience [at Pace University, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival] felt the same way.

Entitled The Power of Nightmares, it's actually a 3-part BBC TV series, first shown in the UK right before the US presidential election last fall. From the big crowd and the strong reactions [sustained applause and cheering at the end, after 3 hours of rapt attention], I assume it will get a theatrical release here and then be shown on television and released on DVD.

[see end of post for a site where it can be viewed/downloaded]

It's a deliberately, audaciously provocative piece, with a great deal of cheeky smart-alecky humor, and it will be very controversial in the US. Some will call it an outrageous pack of lies. Even those like myself who are blown away by the film's brilliance may question some of its methods and assertions. It is almost certainly guilty of over-simplification and overstatement and the occasional cheap shot.

But the powerful central idea, explosively well presented, is what is important about the film. It says that politicians maintain their power by creating myths that strike fear in the general population. The scarier the myth, the greater the power of those who promulgate it. The cases in point are American neoconservatives and radical Islamists. The film finds remarkable similarities in their origins, their temporary declines, and their resurgence after 9/11. Among its more startling assertions: there is not and never was such an organization as Al Qaeda.

[For an excellent - and not uncritical - analysis of the film, see Peter Bergen in The Nation, last summer:
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050620/bergen ]

There have already been strong reactions to the original telecast:

Awestruck praise from the left [perhaps a little too unquestioning about the film's content]--


And dumbfounded contempt from the right [though this is quite well written]--


At any rate, try to see this at your earliest opportunity. I dearly want to discuss it with friends who have experienced it.

[written 4/17/06]

I still think this is one of the best [and most entertaining - often disconcertingly funny] nonfiction films I have ever seen. Buying tickets recently for this year's Tribeca Film Festival, where I attended an extraordinary, packed screening last April, stirred up memories and made me want to again urge my friends to see it. So here is a web page where you can watch it [there's also a description, in case you don't remember my previous ravings]:


This set of links is more recent than those I sent several months back. You can either download the whole thing [rather large] or watch it as a stream.

Since it consists of three one-hour parts, this is hardly an acceptable substitute for seeing the film in a theater or on DVD [or TV], but none of those methods are likely in the near future. If you have a fast connection, an alert frame of mind, and a little time, please take a look. By the end of the first 20 minutes, you may find yourself as hooked as I was/am.

It uses lots of archival footage and music, and the rights issues may keep it from ever being released on DVD.

Inside the National Society of Film Critics

In case you haven't seen this rather detailed look at January's voting by the National Society of Film Critics. [from Roger Ebert's column]

Here's how 'Capote' pulled off a dramatic upset at National Society of Film Critics

Just like the sneaky, tiny terror of modern literature himself, Truman Capote's biopic caused a ruckus at a National Society of Film Critics powwow today. "Capote" pulled off an upstart, come-from-behind victory to win best picture after 6 ballots conducted during the longest voting conclave in memory — 5 and a half hours — while 26 critics gathered at Sardi's restaurant in New York City.

On the first ballot, most of the 55 national members voted either in person or via proxy, resulting in a consensus of 6 films being the strongest vote-getters. Leading with the most points was "A History of Violence," but just narrowly so over "Brokeback Mountain." The other films, cited alphabetically: "Capote," "Munich," "2046" and "The World."

If no winner is determined on the first ballot, proxy votes are discounted and a new tally is taken involving just the members present, who rank their three favorite films, giving three points to their top choice. A winner must have both the most points and be listed on a plurality (or majority) of ballots. On the second ballot, "A History of Violence" pulled far ahead of "Brokeback," but didn't have enough points to prevail.

Upon the fifth ballot, no winner yet emerged, but the field was narrowed to "Capote," "A History of Violence" and "2046." "2046" was dropped from consideration and voters had to choose between "Capote" and "Violence." "Capote" won 12 to 11.

One of the most decisive victories was achieved by Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"), who won best actor on the first ballot.

Among other award victories, one noteworthy result was the winner of best screenplay: Noah Baumbach for "The Squid and the Whale." Baumbach is the son of two former members of NSFC, Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown. "When he was a kid, Noah actually attended a few of our parties," says executive director Elisabeth Weis. "As I recall, somebody drafted him to be bartender."

Scrolls will be mailed to the winners. The society does not conduct presentation ceremonies like the New York and L.A. critics do.

In its 40 years of existence, the NSFC has agreed with the Oscars on only four best pictures, but it can probably take credit for pushing one of them across the academy’s finish line — "Annie Hall," an early spring release in 1977 that probably would’ve been forgotten by late December when other award groups seemed to be fawning over "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Turning Point" and "The Goodbye Girl." The society also agreed with the Oscars on "Unforgiven," "Schindler's List" and "Million Dollar Baby." Last year the society was the first awards group to hail "Million Dollar Baby," which may have helped its momentum toward the Oscars.

The society's greatest influence in recent years was probably on the success of "The Pianist," which it voted best picture of 2002. While it didn't win the top Academy Award, the society's push no doubt helped "Pianist" to score upset Oscars for director, screenplay and actor.

Here are today's full scores:


(6 ballots)

1. Capote (Bennett Miller) – 12 votes (on sixth ballot)

2. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg) – 11 votes (on sixth ballot)

3. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai) (fifth ballot)


(3 ballots)

1. David Cronenberg (A History of Violence) – 32

2. Wong Kar-wai (2046) – 26

3. Bennett Miller (Capote) – 23


(1 ballot)

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) – 68

2. Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale) – 41

3. Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain) – 40


(2 ballots)

1. Ed Harris (A History of Violence) – 27

2. Frank Langella (Good Night, and Good Luck.) – 22

2. Matthieu Amalric (Munich) – 22


(3 ballots)

1. Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) – 37

2. Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) – 27

3. Vera Farmiga (Down to the Bone) – 18

3. Kate Dollenmayer (Funny Ha Ha) – 18


(2 ballots)

1. Amy Adams (Junebug) – 33

2. Ziyi Zhang (2046) – 28

3. Catherine Keener – 22 (Capote, The Interpreter, Ballad of Jack and Rose, The 40-Year-Old Virgin)


1. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog) – 60 points

2. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper) – 27

3. Ballets russes (Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine) – 19


1. Head-On (Fatih Akin) – 26

2. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai) – 23

3. Cach? (Michael Haneke) – 18


1. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach) – 37

2. Capote (Dan Futterman) – 33

3. Munich (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) – 14


1. 2046 (Christopher Doyle, Kwan Pun-leung, Lai Yiu-fai) – 50

2. Good Night, and Good Luck. (Robert Elswit) – 16

3. The New World (Emmanuel Lubezki) – 11


1. SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968) and TAKE TWO ? (2005), William Greaves’ remarkable investigation into the nature of the acting process and power relationships on a movie set.

2. 13 Lakes, Ten Skies, and 27 Years Later, the three 2005 productions of James Benning. Few have done more over the last thirty years to expand the sensory and temporal boundaries of moving pictures.


“Unseen Cinema, the 7-disc DVD box set collection of pre-1942 American avant-garde cinema assembled by Anthology Film Archives and Bruce Posner — a massive and unprecedented undertaking made in concert with 60 other film archives and preservation organizations across the globe.”


THE NSFC COMMENDS AND CONGRATULATES our colleague Kevin Thomas for his 44-year tenure as a movie critic at the Los Angeles Times.

One you may have overlooked

I had avoided the documentary Murderball, despite excellent reviews, because of the subject matter: quadriplegics who play wheelchair rugby. Well, avoid it no longer...it is really excellent, funny [these guys are quite profane] and extremely moving. If you're not in tears by the end, you're made of stone...though I wouldn't call it a sentimental movie at all. It's also the kind of story that can put in proper perspective the trivial things that might put me or you into a bad mood....these are people with real challenges who meet them head on. A compact 85 minutes, it's well worth a rental.

The New World

I loved The New World...it felt like floating in a dream for 2-1/2 hours. I could tell from scattered comments around us afterward that my admiration was not universally shared. We sat very close because it was so crowded, and the beautiful photography on the enormous screen just washed over and through me, along with the hypnotic music. I thought it was very beautiful. I believe a significant portion of the audience was bored to tears, but I was willing to go along with Terrence Malick wherever his odd poetic soul wanted to take me, just as I was with The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven. It's not as good as those two, partly because of Colin Farrell, whose putative charisma escapes me. Christian Bale arrives later to save the day. The big flaws are Mr. Farrell [why cast him? why?] and some of the voiceovers.

Sympathy for Kong haters

After a friend wrote to say how he hated King Kong, finding it one of the most self-indulgent things he had seen in some time…


Pretty funny....I'm not surprised that there are plenty of people who find Kong exasperating rather than exhilarating, 'wretchedly excessive' [in the words of Time magazine's review] rather than 'gloriously excessive' [my own view]. It may come down to how strongly you respond to the scenes between Naomi Watts and Kong [the sunset, the sunrise, the ice rink, etc], and whether they make up for the dreadful Jack Black, the not-so-hot Adrien Brody and the less-than-magical first hour. I wept bitter tears, and I screamed and laughed as if on a giant roller coaster during the movie; what more can I ask?


Brokeback Mountain

Note that this is stitched together from a few different e-mails back in Dec and Jan...

The movie is good, very good. I felt a bit let down....because the hype has been so intense for so long, this was possibly inevitable.

Heath Ledger's performance is a great work of art, however....he completely transforms himself into another person....a person you and I recognize, for he is our high school classmate, our cousin or uncle, that emotionally frozen macho guy who can barely get words out, so unable is he to recognize and act on his feelings. The movie's power derives from the conception of this character and the beautiful performance. It is really heartbreaking. [Jake is of course very good too, but he is not the center of the movie.]

Two interviews with Annie Proulx....
She talks about the origins of the story, whether it's a real place, the misconceptions about the story and the film. Some excellent stuff [also some weird typos]. I don't believe there are any plot spoilers, but tread carefully.



For what it's worth, here's my take on Ennis and Heath Ledger. I read the story after seeing the film. The main difference I was aware of was the character of Ennis. The expansion and deepening of this man is the main accomplishment of the script and the actor - the depiction in the story is the merest sketch and suggestion. His painful inability to connect with and express his feelings is central to his relationship with Jack, but it also extends to his wife and his children [and the waitress he dates for a while] - and for that matter to himself when he is alone [most of the time]. The most touching moments in the movie for me were the paired scenes where Ennis tightens up and withdraws in emotional constriction and pain, and Jack gently says, "It's all right, it's all right." The first time it works - Ennis allows himself to be embraced. The second time he pushes Jack away...and it's all over. That "It's all right" is nowhere to be found in the story.

Ms. Proulx herself mentions how blown away she was by Ledger and by the script, in taking this heartbreaking portrayal of Ennis so much further than she did in 25 pages. The scenes with his kids, and in particular the final talk with his daughter about her wedding, give the character the requisite 'arc' that screenwriters strive for. He almost refuses to attend the wedding, which is in fact the reaction we expect of him....but then he relents and indicates he will be there. A glimmer of hope! And how did this happen? Because, too late, his feelings for Jack broke through his brier patch of a heart and connected him with his emotions. Thus the final scene [which is also the opening scene in the story], when he looks at his makeshift shrine and says, "I swear, Jack."

Ledger has more screen time than Gyllenhaal. It's Ennis's story - Jack is a catalyst, and he comes in and out of Ennis's life...not the other way around [at least that's the way the script is structured].

I adore Jake Gyllenhaal [did I tell you he's my dream casting to play Kavalier if they ever film Kavalier and Clay?], and I hope he gets at least a supporting nomination for his fine, touching [and funny] work in the movie. But I genuinely believe Heath Ledger's performance is right up there with Brando, Clift, and the other greats. He may never get another role like it.

Two Islands

King Kong, as has been noted by others concerning its earlier versions, is a tale of two islands. Peter Jackson's version gets off to an uneven start that had me concerned. But that part is on an island inhabited by people well known for talking too much. And pesky dialogue keeps getting in the way. The talk [wrongheaded, just off-key enough to be a bother] continues to be a problem on a longish boat ride.
Then the movie reaches the other island. You'll have to be patient, as this takes nearly an hour. But at that point, one of the most amazing experiences in the history of movies begins. And it doesn't let up until we're back on that first island--just for a few minutes when dialogue again threatens to throw everything out of joint. But the magic resumes, rolling toward the ending you know is coming, but in this version has far more impact than you can imagine.

There are several remarkably effective pauses for lyricism in the midst of the astonishing action sequences. I think this movie is a flawed near-masterpiece. I can't explain why Jackson and his collaborators, so sure-footed in material as disparate as The Lord of the Rings and Heavenly Creatures, can't find a tone for 1930s New Yorkers to speak in effectively. There are also a couple of casting problems that mar several scenes. [Naomi Watts, on the other hand, is very fine in a difficult role.] But when a storyteller this ingenious gets down to work, you may not mind much. See it on the largest screen you can find. Soon.

Best of 2005

A top 10 films list that includes three TV documentaries, two without even the prospect of a US DVD release anytime soon? Yet Adam Curtis uses the medium as skillfully and imaginatively (and as entertainingly) as anyone, to posit breathtakingly provocative ideas that can haunt a viewer for months. His two 3-parters, in very limited theatrical release, and Scorsese's Dylan essay, on TV and DVD, had far more impact on me than most dramatic features.

I find a number of recent art films to be bafflingly overrated [and indeed, just baffling]: A History of Violence, 2046, Tropical Malady, Three Times are some examples. But I'm grateful to have the opportunity to see them on large screens with large audiences, a privilege of living in New York (few moviegoers in other parts of the country will be able to see the three Asian movies until their DVD release, if then). (Of course, viewers nationwide could suffer through the Cronenberg in local multiplexes.)

And just a word about the two Hollywood movies that I loved most this year: Walk the Line, underrated by many, a prime example of how powerful direction (from an unexpected director!) and performances can transform a near-routine script in an over-familiar genre; and King Kong, one-third tone-deaf misfire but two-thirds pop masterpiece. Occasionally, the magic still works.

1. The Power of Nightmares

2. Walk the Line

3. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

4. King Kong

5. Capote

6. Brokeback Mountain

7. The Century of the Self

8. The New World

9. Pride & Prejudice

10. Happy Endings

and runners-up:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Howl's Moving Castle

The Constant Gardener

Kings and Queen



Last Days

Cache (Hidden)

The Squid and the Whale


Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Broken Flowers


Darwin's Nightmare

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Nobody Knows

Festival films

I am privileged to live in New York City, and to have the opportunity to see many films that never play in other parts of the country. At three festivals each year, New Directors/New Films in March, the Tribeca Film Festival in April/May, and the New York Film Festival in September/October, I have seen several wonderful [and more than a few worthless or mediocre] movies long before their release elsewhere [and some are never released elsewhere]. Here are a few notes on films that I have seen, some of which have since opened.

I saw a fascinating, disturbing movie from Germany last night at the Tribeca Film Festival [I am seeing 5 movies in all, not one of them in Tribeca] called The Free Will. It's nearly 3 hours, about a sociopathic rapist's attempts to re-enter society after being in a mental institution for 10 years. I am not saying you should see it -- it is brutal [the rapes are depicted without mercy], and its final hour is I believe dreadfully wrongheaded. But it has haunted me on a very deep level all last night and this morning, and I suspect it will get some favorable attention when it opens in theaters.

I did see two films at the recent New Directors series that you should watch for:
Into Great Silence, a 3-hour documentary about monks in the French Alps. This was a surprise boxoffice hit in Germany [where the director is from] and drew an overflow crowd to the Walter Reade on a Sunday at noon. It's fascinating and moving, designed as "meditation rather than information," in the director's words. Since it already carries the Warner Bros leader [not even their independent brand, bu the actual WB shield], I assume it will be released commercially fairly soon.

Wild Tigers I Have Known will probably get the kind of semi-commercial release that Tarnation and Mysterious Skin got. About the sexual/romantic fixation of a 13 year old boy for a 17 year old boy, it will be controversial for sure. It's often wildly pretentious, more of an art project than a conventional movie, but it is obviously the work of a very, very talented young man. See it.

And festival films now playing around town:

Yet another documentary about an artist from a small town, involving mental illness, a la Tarnation. This one is biography rather than autobiography, and not nearly so daring formally....but it was deeply moving and often very funny too. It's called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The packed house [at MoMA] and enthusiastic reception indicate it will probably get a commercial release. (Tarnation took in a grand total of less than $600,000 in theaters; I would guess the director thinks it miraculous that it found an audience at all--although his ego is rather sizable, come to think of it.) Stephen Holden in the Times did a great disservice by writing a dismissive review concentrating on Mr. Johnston's musical accomplishments or lack thereof. Many think him a genius; I'm not sure what I think, but it's beside the point in appreciating this marvelous film.

Lady Vengeance received one of the most rousing ovations I have ever witnessed at the NY Film Festival. It is too violent [and occasionally too silly] to be everyone's cuppa, but it is extraordianarily well directed/photographed/edited.

Somersault, an Australian movie about a sexually risky teenage girl [both she and her boyfriend are portrayed by beautiful and talented actors]

The Taiwanese film, Three Times, was interminable. It tells three love stories in different periods with the same two actors. The most interesting one was set in 1911 and done silent movie style. It was nicely photographed. The 1966 and 2005 sections were to me worthless, although much acclaimed in the press here and abroad.

A masterpiece

I avoided seeing United 93 for a few weeks, despite rave reviews, because I didn't know if I wanted to put myself through it. I saw it this afternoon, and it is extraordinary. And, yes, hard to take....I was very shaken by the end. You forget you're watching actors....it has none of the fake dramatization that mars so many movies 'based on actual events.' [The main drawback to this is that none of the characters are very clearly defined as individuals.] The director showed what he could do with pulp material two years ago in The Bourne Supremacy, a masterfully crafted entertainment. This couldn't be more different, except that it is equally brilliant. Even though you know of course what's coming, it's breathtaking to watch it unfold.