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The Year In Movies: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

By Prairie Miller

It's not that I'm someone who has a tough time making up my mind - which I am - but when it comes to figuring out the Top Ten and Bottom Ten Movies of the year, there are all sorts of annoying gray areas. So if you've been mulling going into the field of movie criticism - which by the way doesn't require a license, but maybe should - beware the pitfalls, between those handfuls of popcorn.

Because there are so many reasons for liking or hating a movie. One big mental roadblock is being knocked out by the acting performances, but evaluating the story as a stinker. Like why blame the actors, just because the movie sucks. Would you heap insults on those fast food workers for dishing up your future coronary of super-sized fries?


So in order to best cover all bases, I'm going to go with three categories, instead of two, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The first two are self-explanatory. And the third category is reserved for movies that may have been impressively put together, but there's just something offensive about them, I dunno. I may also get really picky, and add a few boutique sub-categories. So here goes, in no particular order...

THE GOOD

1. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Though the title poses a major challenge to multiplex marquees everywhere and is a huge spoiler no-no, this Jesse James screen incarnation's got all the right stuff. And we're not just talking Brad Pitt as a celebrity-jaded bad boy legend in more ways than one. The lyrically crafted, smartly scripted, and stylishly subversive anti-western breathes surprising new life into that more than well trodden antihero bandit lore. In addition to writer Ron Hansen's acclaimed novel of the same name gracing the film with its eloquent, mock-pulp literary voiceover passages, there's also legend in his own right, award winning Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins' stunning visual lyricism.

2. Away From Her

A movie about memory and disease without in any way being your basic disease of the week weepie that substitutes easy pity for emotional potency, Away From Her tackles the ravages of Alzheimer's, but solidly grounded in character and human conflict. This delicately layered tale of a long-term marriage in deep freeze and denial related to the unresolved wounds of marital infidelity committed by an indifferent college professor (Gordon Pinsent) with his female students over the years, is the amazingly mature work of just twenty-eight year old director Sarah Polley. Julie Christie as the Alzheimer's afflicted wife achieves the perfect psychological mixture of despair, mystery, rebellion against the unappreciated devotion that has been her lot in married life, and an ultimate odd but eloquent personal liberation.

3. The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington needs no further proof that he's as remarkable a talent behind as well as in front of the camera. Denzel combines the best of both worlds as the star and director of The Great Debaters, a euphoric and inspirational reality-based feature about the historic victory of a rag-tag debating team from a small black Southern school, Wiley College in Texas, over the heavy-hitter eggheads of Harvard during the terrifying years of Jim Crow. In Denzel's more than capable hands as an emotional and dramatic storyteller, there's a real organic sense of how young minds can be nurtured and energized way beyond sex and sports, into caring and socially committed, evolving human works-in-progress. And how debating can be pretty exciting on screen too, after all.

4. Hairspray

This remake of the John Waters satirical civil rights musical enlightens younger generations just how long and hard, and even dangerous that road was to both integration and the casual sense of personal individuality enjoyed today. Plus, Hairspray is one of the wildest, kinkiest and flat-out fun song and dance screen experiences in recent memory. Nikki Blonsky smoothly inhabits the original Ricki Lake role of the bubbly, plus size teen reject facing a different kind of prejudice, without missing a musical beat. And John Travolta as her bosomy mom in perky fat suit, with flab-infatuated dad (Christopher Walken) never far behind, pretty much steals the show from everybody else as he impressively shakes his bountiful booty across the dance floor in a take-no-prisoners finale.

5. Juno

That dynamite diminutive, deceptively angelic-faced babe Ellen Page, who recently sharpened her acting skills neutering a pedophile in David Slade's sleaze slasher fare, Hard Candy, switches to moody teen rebel in Tamara Jenkins' coming-of-age girl drama. Deciding impulsively to lose her virginity to barely boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera), the gabby high schooler to her dismay winds up with child. The second brash but strangely traditionalist family values feature this year along with Knocked Up, Juno excels chiefly in its smart, stylishly rude, tangy teen dialogue, courtesy of young screenwriter Diablo Cody. A former full-time stripper and phone sex operator , she apparently boasts career choices in life that seem to have assisted her in perfecting talking dirty on screen into a science, I guess.

6. The Savages

Possibly the second-worst ordeal rearing its head during midlife crisis - after the one where you've got to figure out what to do with whatever's left of your time on this earth - is facing up to elderly parents sorting out the rest of their lives, and with more than a little help from adult kids who must suddenly care for them. That's a pretty depressing thought for the basis of a movie, and it indeed is. But The Savages tempers that deep funk with touching moments we recognize instantly as everyday life, and it's filled with humor, quirkiness, sheer exasperation and, yes, heartbreak. Neurotic warring siblings Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Philip Bosco as their crabby elderly dad from hell, together generate such magnificent performances projecting a richly textured sense of the agony and ecstasy of a family in complicated meltdown, that it feels about as close to shared DNA as you can get.

7. Sicko

Michael Moore may have made lots of enemies taking on corporate America and their minions, but there's hardly a filmmaker around who can bring audiences to laugh and cry at the same time the way he does, and his documentary Sicko is no exception. This time around, the take-no-prisoners big screen satirist likely makes his deepest impression of all, with his condemnation of the state of US medical care for profit. After all, he's got easily seventy percent of Americans on his side, fed up with a health care system they think just plain sucks, as anyone who has needed a checkup or more than a bandaid can tell you. Moore's highly effective critique is both thorough and broad, as he travels to nations around the world where health care is free and infant morality lower than in this country - including that of impoverished El Salvador. But he didn't have to look far for plenty of material. Democracy in action.

8. Talk To Me

Kasi Lemmons' Talk To Me brings to the screen that barely known story of DC founding father of rude & raunchy talk radio Petey Greene, and his meteoric mid-'60s rise and subsequent crash and burn demise. The film likewise captures the euphoric and daring, rebel music-drenched energy that fueled radio culture back then, while also tuning in to the organic intensity of the historically volatile times. Don Cheadle is magnetic and disarmingly flamboyant as Petey, both in front of a radio mike and up on the screen, as he delicately peels away the gruff psychological layers of inebriated buffoonery and sexist macho attitude to reveal a touching and soulful sensitivity way beneath the bravado. Whether succumbing to disabling stage fright, seething over social injustice, or stirred with the new black pride. Cheadle's take on Petey's humble man of the people talk radio genie who refuses corporate celebrity just to stay real, is for both film and radio, one of their finest moments.

AND...GUILTY PLEASURES

Okay, so I loved these movies too, even if they're maybe crude, gory, over the top in-you-face, or in just plain bad taste. Hey, even a foul-mouthed lewd and bratty teen can have some redeeming qualities. Speaking of which...

9. Superbad

A kind of high school locker room fusion of standup and phone sex, Greg Mottola's raging hormone teen comedy Superbad takes talking dirty on screen to a new level that will serve as shock treatment for some, and leave the rest in stitches. Seems like the language-based Internet and email, however off-color, and its influence on movies, may end up giving those spare-of-speech action thrillers a run for their money, who knew. The three nerdy perverse pals making moves on some of the prettiest girls in town and, unbelievably, getting lucky, are a shy bookworm (Michael Cera), his tubby sex maniac sidekick (Jonah Hill), and skinny super-geek Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) with the master plan. If there's one perhaps contradictory observation that can be made about Superbad, it's that this movie really excels in tastelessness. So bad that it's good.

10. There Will Be Blood

The second big movie this year about a serial killer, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Todd will, oddly enough, likely snap up the Oscars. Which may have a lot to do with the public's both fear and fascination off-screen with human depravity. But other than one sings and the other doesn't, Blood and Sweeney Todd have nothing in common. Anderson, who's turning into a real scene stealer in a different kind of sense, lifted the film's title from the caption for Saw III, and the narrative from early muckraker Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel about greed, Oil. Daniel Day-Lewis as the increasingly psychopathic robber baron who seems to rise from the bowels of the earth drenched in the lucrative goo like your basic monster and then wreak havoc on his fellow humans everywhere, deserves every Oscar he can get, just for sheer diabolical enthusiasm. The problem here is that Anderson drops Sinclair's political fury halfway through, to detour into capitalist versus evangelical crude slasher brawling. Oil and blood just don't mix here.

THE BAD

1. Black Snake Moan

This rural South may only exist on a planet inside Craig Brewer's own head. The Hustle & Flow director goes in for unpleasant, raunchy extremes with this Southern gothic blues-laced erotic fantasy, as Samuel Jackson's bible thumper deals with inner personal demons related to a cheating former wife, by chaining a local white trash petite hottie sex maniac (Christina Ricci) to his living room radiator. Supposedly the therapy works wonders for both, but I wouldn't recommend trying this out on your significant other. Justin Timberlake also shows up for a minute or two flexing his method acting muscles doing a new army recruit losing his marbles, and possibly descending into pre-traumatic stress syndrome. The provocative but nutty plot, such as it is, feels about as authentic as the radiator in that semi-tropical countryside, where the only steamy stuff one can imagine being generated, is from that temptress in heat chained up to it.

2. Goya's Ghosts

Milos Forman's combo biopic and supposed historical epic shapes 18th century Spanish artist Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) as a primarily passive visual chronicler of his tumultuous times, cast adrift in a whirlwind of traumatic events including the Inquisition, invasions, crownings and dethronings, and recycling of political and religious leaders falling recurrently in and out of favor. Natalie Portman turns merry masochist here with Javier Bardem's cleric with creepy cravings, as a falsely accused practicing 'Judiazer' teen. In dizzying succession, she's disappeared, stripped, chained and tortured, raped repeatedly in the Church dungeon and impregnated by the lewd monk as he forces her to pray nude. Natalie needs to find roles with more personality and clothing. Did I mention that the shackled hottie falls in love with him? Move over, Black Snake Moan.

3. Sweeney Todd

This disappointing, emotionally flat Tim Burton sordid slasher musical strangely combines melody with murder. And though the atmospheric visuals are impressively eerie, the effect is both bizarre and grating. Johnny Depp as the malevolent, pasty-faced serenading barber chopping away at assorted customer throats with a handy razor, can't seem to carry a tune quite as impressively as a deadly weapon. Not his fault, the box office appears to have prevailed here, bidding for star power rather than trained vocal talents. And the same goes for Helena Bonham Carter as his infatuated landlady and slovenly chef accomplice at a seedy London dive, whose toxic talent may be more for ptomaine poisoning. These barber-ic proceedings could bring beards back into fashion in a jiffy.

4. Revolver

Promoted by writer/director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as a thinking man's crime thriller, the relentlessly bloody and grating high-decibel Revolver may best be compared to - if anything cerebral at all - a migraine headache. In other words, if there's any mob racket in full swing here, it's the movie's racket assaulting you inside your head. Jason Statham does an introspective ex-con gunning for a casino honcho (Ray Liotta) named Dorothy, who perfects endless screaming and parading around in an assortment of dainty skimpy drawers. Chock full of incessant inner, dreary macho monologues, along with gangsters prancing around like homicidal matadors unusually impressed with themselves. Ritchie has characterized his obsessive gun love on screen as therapeutic for dealing with rage. Let's hope Madonna didn't drive him to it.

5. Margot At The Wedding

An ensemble cast like Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black and John Turturro who should all know better, get together to compete for the worst family member of a bickering, insufferable clan in this Noah Baumbach seat squirmer. Worse yet, as followup to the repulsive borderline kid abuse of Baumbach's Squid And The Whale, the director indecently probes once again the world of childhood masturbation. Okay, this time a youngster is only talking about 'it' to Kidman's all-ears mom instead of engaging in this pastime on the school library book shelves, and it's Kidman caught in the act here. But isn't yucky family life what people run to the movies to get away from?

THE UGLY

1. Descent
Rosario Dawson as date rape victim morphed into degenerate clubber and counter-rapist, turns this potentially solemn and provocative scrutiny of issues touching on violence against women into a too-much-information, repulsively depraved revenge fantasy orgy in real time, no less. If the point is to have viewers identify with the terribly dehumanizing, unbearably repugnant experience of rape by thrusting them into the vile, seemingly interminable heat of the act, the effect is one of extreme overkill. What was Rosario thinking.

2. The Brave One

If Descent indicates a new trend for women in movies, switching it up from compliant sex objects to more-macho-than-thou thuggish vigilantes, ditto The Brave One. Jodie Foster burrows with uncommon intensity into the role of a talk-radio lady who is witness to the murder of her doctor fiance (Lost's Naveen Andrews), when they're both brutally mugged. Deepening paranoia kicks in, and she is soon on the prowl herself, packing a gun and preemptively blowing away every potential bad guy in sight. A cold-blooded, almost kinky routine sets in, where Foster's action-hero avenger stalks random perceived perps, kills them, and then goes home to shower, throw up, and put on a fresh coat of lipstick. This heroically portrayed, law enforcement-backed freestyle judge/jury/executioner loose-cannon sniper rips to shreds the therapeutic concept of anger management.

3. Exterminating Angels

A sequel in the worst sense of the word, Exterminating Angels is apparently French director Jean-Claude Brisseau's screen revenge for the successful sexual harassment suit generated by his last creepy outing, Secret Things. The actresses who showed up for that skuzzy, voyeuristic production complained that Brisseau prodded them to perform indecent acts on themselves as part of the audition process, which landed him with a suspended one year sentence and a fine of 15,000 Euros. The felonious filmmaker's get-even fantasy Exterminating Angels, has a bunch of far more gullible actresses performing just about the same stuff described in the legal papers, for a fictional audition. Calling Jodie Foster.

AND...REALITY CHECKS

4. Charlie Wilson's War

If you put together the combined talents of director Mike Nichols (The Graduate), 60 Minutes investigative reporting connected with the George Crile novel, and the film's screenwriter, West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, you would expect more than this junk food version of recent history. Move over, Rambo, and Hollywood macho-man revisionist rewrites of US conflicts, overt and otherwise. Charlie Wilson's War is the no less than the second movie this past year, following Richard Gere's psychotic turn in The Hunting Party, that would have us believe that the depraved, degenerate and alcoholic are responsible solo for US victories - or at least major incursions - abroad. In Charlie Wilson's War, Tom Hanks as the tipsy Texas Congressman takes time off from boozing and womanizing with countless babes in the buff, to conspire with a born-again Southern belle socialite (Julia Roberts) to drive the Soviet Union singlehandedly out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. File this one under the Pink Elephants section.

5. The Kingdom

Same here as the above, and more. A handful of seemingly bullet-proof, gung-ho FBI agents led by Jamie Foxx defy their superiors and Saudi Arabia alike to sneak into that country, blow away every last fundamentalist villain, and win the war against terrorism while hardly sustaining a scratch themselves. Actor-turned-filmmaker Peter Berg, who directed the football flick Friday Night Lights, likewise treats world history as a sports arena where the United States has the home-team advantage, because the movie seems to indicate that America considers just about the entire world as its private property. Which leaves one with a fairly loaded question: whose kingdom? Time for a New Years resolution declaring movie theaters demilitarized zones again.

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