Saturday, June 26, 2010

Best of the 2000s: Movies

Isn't this a little late? Yes. Pretend I'm a contractor for the Big Dig. I'll get the job done, but only several months later and with outrageous cost overruns.

It just popped in my head the other day: I forgot to give my loyal audience my top movies of the last decade! For shame!

So here you are.

10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006): There were two movies that made it hurt to laugh last decade and this was one of them. Borat's chauvinistic, anti-Semitic, twisted world view dovetails nicely with the seedy underbelly of America. What the movie tells us - through real people - is that plenty of Americans think just like this guy. It felt wrong to laugh at this movie, but laugh I did.

9. Downfall (2004): I've told plenty of people to watch this 2 1/2 hour movie with German subtitles, but no one seems to listen to me. This is far from a popcorn flick, but it contains the best leading role performance of the decade. Bruno Ganz nails Hitler, with his descent into madness, paranoia and depression. His left arm quakes, spittle flies from his mouth and he stalks around his bunker hunched over in physical and mental agony. Little by little, he realizes his dreams for a world empire are crumbling. I saw this movie years ago and his performance still sticks with me.

P.S. If you've ever seen the "Hitler reacts" videos on Youtube, they come from this movie.

8. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004): Endlessly quotable and irreparably silly, this is the best comedy of the 2000's. It's not as sweet as 40-year-old Virgin, but it is funnier. The non-sequiters, the winking parody of TV news and classic inflated male ego humor of Will Ferrell and the gang produces a laugh a minute. That's a comedy's only job.

7. The Departed (2006): Initially, this Oscar-winner left me a little cold. Terrifically entertaining, but not quite as deep as I had hoped. Jack Nicholson phoned in his performance in this one. He wasn't playing Frank Costello, he was playing Jack Nicholson playing Frank Costello. His villain belonged in a comic book. On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio proved to me he was much more than the hear throb from Titanic. He outshined an All-Star cast in this Boston mobster epic. I can't say this about many movies, but this remains very re-watachable.

6. Bowling for Columbine (2002): Michael Moore is kind of a parody of himself these days, but he's famous because he makes damn good movies. This was his coup de gras. Using the Columbine massacre as a springboard, he delves into America's crazy culture of gun fetishization, constant fear, paranoia and violence and how this atmosphere contributes to tragic events like that school shooting. Pick apart a fact here or a fact there all you want, the main thesis of the film is correct. The movie works like a great editorial. It has a point to make and it makes it convincingly and memorably.

5. Brokeback Mountain (2005): The movie is a punchline now. Whenever I say I like this movie, I always hear, "Gay! Gay!" Robbed of the Oscar by the much, much inferior Crash, Brokeback Mountain proved to be more than just an ending for a joke. It's a gut-wrenching tale of a forbidden love that came along in a time when homosexuality was hotly debated in our culture and out politics. Through all the bluster surrounding its release, the movie simply showed how two men dealt with their passion for each other and how it wrecked them from the inside. Heath Ledger proved himself a real actor in this one. The last song and image still haunt me.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007): I'll spare you the fancy film buff talk about deep themes and the human condition. This Cohen Brothers film was by far the most suspenseful movie of the decade. Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh chilled me to the bone as he killed and hunted without one hint of human emotion. Many ripped the ending, and though it was far from perfect, it held true to the movie's purpose. Violence is dealt out in our modern world randomly and unfairly.

3. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004): The second in Quentin Tarantino's homage to martial arts films, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is one of those movies that if I happen to find it on a random day, I have to finish it. It has all the Tarantino elements: Random outbursts of violence, long patches of clever dialogue and a diverse cast of morally ambiguous criminals. The scene where Beatrice Kiddo is being buried alive and then calls back to her tutelage under Pai Mai to escape is perfect. Just perfect. This movie has style, sex appeal, violence, witty dialogue, a great revenge plot, Michael Madsen ... what more could you want?

2. Mulholland Drive (2001): Great movies are supposed to be an experience - visceral, emotional, indelible - and this film from surrealist David Lynch put me through one I will never forget. The first time I watched this movie I was with a bunch of friends, who like me were utterly confused and flabbergasted by the ending. I literally had no idea what I had just seen. Usually, I dislike movies that try to be confusing and surreal just for the sake of it, but this one left me feeling more haunted and inquisitive than betrayed or angry. So I read up online about it that night and then watched it again.

I did not get much sleep that evening.

Like a great puzzle, once you solve it, the whole act of putting it together garners more meaning. This is a freakish, burrow-your-soul forray into Hollywood culture. Through all the weirdness - the cowboy, the blue box, the tiny old couple, the monster behind the dumpster, the dwarf in the wheel chair, the Silencio club - Mulholland Drive is a bruised and nostalgic look at how Hollywood seduces and how Hollywood destroys. The final third of this movie still leaves me shivering when I think about it. I usually try not to.

One last thing, Naomi Watts is my favorite actress because of this movie. She pulls off the switch in characters so effortlessly that it amazes me to this day. She's willing to do risque, off-beat roles and Betty/Diane tops them all. Definitely Oscar-worthy. Like this movie. When surreal and ridiculous is done well, it really resonates. Why else would I still remember the very night I first saw it, almost ten years later?

1. The Dark Knight (2008): The 2000s was a decade for the superhero epics, the comic book remakes, the special effects fantasy extravaganzas. Lord of the Rings. Spider-Man, Sin City. Iron Man. The list goes on. None of them could approach the raw brilliance of this gritty look at the Batman saga. This is more than a superhero movie. Much, much more. It's about terrorism. It's about the roots of evil and chaos. It's about how society keeps chaos at bay while also cultivating it. It's about how bad one has to be to actually do some good.

Batman has always been my favorite superhero. He's a film noir symbol who was always seeped in a more realistic, less idolized world than that of Superman or Spider-Man. This sequel from Christopher Nolan maintained a fierce loyalty to this interpretation. Obviously, we know how that was achieved. Heath Ledger as the Joker.

It's probably the most memorable and impactful character performance since Forrest Gump or Frank Slade. Ledger took the Joker from a cackling cartoon to a full-fledged nightmarish psychopath. Every single second he's on screen you can't think of anything else besides: My God! He's nailing this beyond belief! Just take all his scenes and put them together and you probably have the 11th best movie of the decade.

Besides Ledger's Hall of Fame offering, Nolan gives us an excellent, thought-provoking script and some of the best action scenes in film history. The attack on the Harvey Dent convoy in the streets of Chicago is exactly what an action scene should be.

The one flaw I would point out is the Two-Face subplot, which felt rushed. Besides that, nothing in this movie bothered me, not even the Rachel Dawes stuff. The Dark Knight never bores and never stoops to just another comic book rehash that is supposed to make millions and then go away until the next sequel.

It didn't win the Best Picture Oscar. It wasn't even nominated. It may always been seen as an action movie. That's not fair. Look behind the gloss and the special effects and the entertainment value. There's a real movie underneath, a movie that pretentious art-house fanatics such as myself can debate over while wearing berets and eating arugula.

Missed the cut

25th Hour

The Lives of Others

City of God

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Mystic River



Almost Famous
Tune in next week for my best radio programs from the 1940s!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bring me a pink hat

I'm starting to come around on soccer.

Yes, I woke up in time for the second half of USA-Algeria in the World Cup. It's tough to admit, but that was some of the best, most intense athletic competition I have seen in a while. Certainly the best soccer game I've had the pleasure of watching.

Team USA had chance after chance after chance to score. My pulse quickened with each missed opportunity as the clock ticked toward 90ish and the end of America's World Cup run.

A 0-0 tie and the United States goes home and soccer is set back another five years after a second disappointing World Cup in a row.

It certainly did not seem to be in the stars for the red, white and blue. One disallowed goal robbed them of a win over Slovenia. Another goal wiped away against Algeria. Tons of missed chances. In my groggy state, I held little hope.

Then Landon Donovan streaked down a huge area of open field, passed it to the middle and found the back of the net off a save and I jumped out of bed yelling. The person upstairs did so as well. I heard the yelling and the felt the ceiling shake a tad.

So ... I am starting to come around on the beautiful game. I still wouldn't watch MLS regular season games or some random European game, but high-stakes, elite soccer is something I can get behind. Does this make me a bandwagon jumper?

Quite simply, yes. But I have no problem confessing this.

Here are the good things about soccer.

1. No commercials: Watching an NFL or NBA game, you're bound to see more erection pill ads than the actual game. Soccer games fly by. You can get five minutes with a commercial break. Biggest factor in its favor.

2. High stakes: I can watch almost any sport if the stakes are high enough. I'll watch the Masters, Wimbledon, Stanley Cup playoff games, etc. You can't find higher stakes than the World Cup.

3. New Zealand tying Italy: Thanks to some obnoxious Facebook people who root for Italy over America even though they were born and lived here their whole lives, I root against the Azzurri. That tie gave me great satisfaction.

It's not all good. The flopping is ridiculous and embarrassing. It's above shameful. And don't even compare it to flopping in basketball. Pau Gasol flops all over the place, but at least he doesn't pretend he got shot in the knee and start writhing on the ground in absolute agony.

The stoppage time doesn't make much sense either. Soccer games just end at a secret time and you're left to guess. Why not just stop the clock during the game, for an "injury" or a goal, instead of adding extra time at the end?

And I still don't get this offsides thing.

Nonetheless, I'm starting to like it as a niche sport. It won't supplant baseball, football and basketball in my mind, but it can carve a nice spot right below them with the occasional golf tournament or big boxing/UFC match. It's just hard not to like the World Cup.

Give me a pink Bayern Munchen hat and a knock-off Messi jersey and I'll be ready to join the hooligans.

But I still refuse to call it football.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The One Where I Make a Very Inappropriate Analogy

Over the past ten or so years, I've had plenty of practice at what Jeff would call "The Blackout." After agonizing losses by a Boston team, I will avoid any and all media that I possibly can. I don't need the failure of my team rubbed in my face for 48 straight hours.

Unfortunately, I'm also in the worst possible job in which to conduct a true blackout. There are 5,000 TVs at work and all of them are on sports channels.

Needless to say, the Lakers' championship will pounded into all senses of my brain tomorrow and there's absolutely nothing I can do.

But I can control what I watched tonight. Not one second of the celebration. Nope, I watched Valkyrie. There was nothing else on On Demand worth seeing. So I watched a movie about a failed plot to assassinate Hitler starring Tom Cruise with an eye patch.

And this may be the copious amount of Miller Lite I imbibed tonight, but I saw some parallels to the NBA Finals. The Celtics were the Resistance. They tried valiantly to take down Hitler (Lakers) and came really close. They had the lead in the fourth quarter, so to speak, but Hitler rallied and ended up killing them all. The end.

Oh boy. I've really lost it. I know. The Lakers aren't Nazis, but they're still despicable. I'm just admitting what hit my brain while watching the film. Good efforts and good intentions don't always end up with good results.

Screw this. It's time to really let it all out.

THAT F*&%ING SUCKED!!!!!!!!!!

The Celtics shut down Kobe Bryant. He was awful. Couldn't hit anything. No one on the Lakers could. They shot 33 percent. The Celtics had a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter. And the Celtics F$%&ing lost???? They blew a Game 7 about a month after the Bruins blew their Game 7. What's going on???? They got a great game from Rasheed Wallace, too!!
13 POINT-LEAD!!!!!!!!!!!


It's easy to see why in retrospect. They got demolished - DEMOLISHED - on the glass all day. As bad as the Lakers offense was, the Celtics' offense was worse. At the end, it was all isolation plays that went nowhere and resulted in terrible shots. No cutting to the rim. No post play. And sure as hell no free throws.

(The refs did not lose this game or series for Boston. But how did the Lakers have twice as many free throws in every game when they weren't the aggressors? How come they let the teams play in the first three quarters and then call a foul parade in the last? Ugh.)

Frankly, the Lakers had more talent. They actually hit the shots when it counted. They rebounded. They hit free throws at the end. And now they're champions for about the 4,456th time in the past ten years. The bad guys win sometimes. And when the Cavs do a sign and trade with Lakers, shipping LeBron to L.A. for Adam Morrison's mustache, the Lake Show will win a few hundred more.

The 2009-10 Celtics were always an infuriating, yet valiant club. Some days they played like absolute crap, engaging in months of listless basketball. This was why I wasn't expecting anything from this team. But they turned it on in the playoffs.

Still ... the see-saw act continued. They laid an egg in Game 3 vs. Cleveland. They laid an egg in Game 5 vs. Orlando. In the first game of the Finals, they just didn't show up. It was over by the middle of the first quarter. Inexcusable. Same thing for Game 6. This series was going to be tough enough without just handing games away.

For all the no-shows, there were games like tonight where they poured their heart and soul into every minute. Most of the times, their best efforts were enough. Not this time.

And that's how I'll remember this team. They were tough and feisty but also infuriatingly inconsistent. You know how Mets/Yankee fans feel about Darryl Strawberry? He had immense talent and always played hard. When he was on, he was a treat to watch. But every now and then the inevitable relapses came.

The Celtics weren't talented enough to relapse twice in these Finals. So it came down to a wacky Game 7, where their best wasn't enough, either. Like the 2003 Red Sox and the 2006-2007 Patriots, they gave us a bunch of great memories but will always be remembered for the way they lost.

I'm proud of the good, junkyard dog Celtics, frustrated and disappointed at the relapsing Celtics.

Honestly, I don't know what I think of them as a whole right now. The pain of this loss is too close right now. This goes up to No. 4 on my Most Agonizing Boston Loss list.

1. Pats lose to Giants

2. Red Sox lose 2003 ALCS

3. Patriots lose 2006 AFC title game.

4. Celtics lose Game 7

5. Northeastern's loss to BU in the Beanpot final. (We had 'em!)

What I do know for certain is that my hatred of the Lakers is finally in my blood. I've never liked them, but now I hate them. I hate Pau Gasol's Institute of Floptology, Kobe Bryant and his fake family bullshit after the half. I hate their purse poodle fans and their smug coach. I hate Derek Fisher and his BS shots. I despise them now with 100 percent of my being.

And I hope they go 0-82 next year. I mean, Hitler won in Valkyrie, but killed himself nine months later.
So there's that ...