Everyone does Top Ten lists, it’s like a prerequisite to be able to write about movies. Not wanting to buck a trend, here are my picks for the films I most enjoyed this past year. Not the best films, just the ones I really liked.
10) The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters–I have a soft spot in my heart for documentaries about offbeat subjects and I don’t think there has ever been a more offbeat subject than the story of an unemployed man trying to break the official Donkey Kong record that has been held for the last twenty years by one man. Most of the film focuses on underdog Steve Wiebe’s attempts to get his record validated by having a public compeatition with the current record holder, Billy Mitchell, who seems to be going out of his way to not have the match at all. Never has such a minor nonevent been made to look so earthshakingly important.
9) Ghost Rider–I know that for most comic book fans, Transformers was the big movie this year but I liked Ghost Rider better. I loved the flaming skull effect, the battle with the helicopter, driving down the side of the building, his outsmarting of the devil and his son, and the performance of Nicholas Cage. I’m not a big fan of his eccentric acting style usually, but he does a good job here, effectly conveying the pathos of a man trapped in a bargain, he didn’t really make and can’t see a way out from. Plus I always get a kick out of his Elvis impression, more subtle this time than in Wild at Heart (1990).
Grindhouse–I love the concept behind this movie. Make two bad films with skips, scratches, and missing reels; add some over the top movie previews and voila, a funny and enjoyable homage to the seventies exploitation films that were fodder for drive-ins and low budget theaters way back when. Of the two films, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet of Terror is the best, as he whole heartely embraces the concept and peppers his film with bad dialogue, contrivances, bad film stock, gratuitous gore and nudity, and a stripper with a machine gun for a leg. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof isn’t as good, because he can’t quite bring himself to make a completely bad film. After the first thirty minutes, gone are the scratches and jumps in the film, it then looks pristine and he gets all arty with the editing. A minor fault with an otherwise excellent popcorn movie.
7) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix–The Harry Potter films keep getting better and better as they go along. Some may complain that the films are getting darker but that’s to be expected as the main character matures and has to deal with more adult issues in his life. This is a taunt thriller as the Ministry of Magic tries to isolate Harry from his friends and muzzle his claims that Voldemort has returned, which leads to an exciting and heartbreaking battle royal in the Ministry’s own building.
6) Gone Baby Gone–I’m a sucker for a good P. I. movie and this one blew me out of the water. What starts out as a standard tale of a kidnapped child that leads to the normal twists and turns of what you think happened is a cover for something else, gradually turns into something more thought provoking as the black and whiteness of the beginning splinters into more and more shades of gray and ends with the hero doing what he feels is the right thing, only to discover he may have sacrificed everything he has for his principles and ended up doing the wrong thing. Powerful stuff!
5) Breach–Robert Hanssen is one of the most fascinating individuals in our country’s history. He is a mass of contradictions. A devote christian and family man who was addicted to internet porn and strippers. A dedicated and patriotic Governement agent who sold secrets to the Russians for most of his career. Breach tells of only the final months of the FBI’s eventual investigation and capture of Hanssen, told from the point of view of the young, rookie agent assigned as his assistant who was really feeding information back to his superiors as they built their case. But the real heart and soul of the film is Chris Cooper’s bravura performance as the conflicted spy. As twisted as the character is you ultimately feel sympathy for him, due to Cooper’s carefully nuanced acting.
4) Zodiac–The Slasher Porn horror movie makers need to take a look at this film to see how to make a really effective horror film. Based on the true life exploits of a serial killer who killed people in the San Francisco area while sending taunting letters to the press in code, Zodiac is a thoroughly engrossing film. The first third details the killings believed to have committed by the Zodiac, while the last two thirds chronicles the decade long investigation into the killer’s possible identity by a newspaper illustrator. The killings are scary and gut renching with very little on screen gore, while the investigation is involving and leads to some high levels of suspense itself, especially the scene when the hero thinks he may actually be in the basement of the killer, but turns out he was never in any real danger. Hitchcock would have been proud.
3) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story–One of the funniest films to come out this year. A Zucker Brothers stlye faux docudrama biopic of Rock ‘N’ Roll pioneer Dewey Cox that follows him from his rise, fall, and ultimate rise again, while not leaving one cliche unskewered. At the core of the film is John C.Reilly’s hillarious and ingratiating performance as the dim bulb singer, who actually makes you care about this buffoonish caricature. Plus he sang all the songs himself. As Dewey says in the promo, “Suck on that Jamie Fox.”
2) Enchanted–I hate to make a pun here but Enchanted was enchanting. I’m not a big Disney fan, there films have been going steadily downhill the past ten years, but The Patient One wanted to see it and who am I to argue with the one woman wiling to put up with all of my crap, so we went and I was sucked in by it. Though only animated in the first ten minutes of the film, the entire production harkens back to such primo Disney as The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). Most of the kudos belongs to Amy Adams as the fairy tale princess trapped in the real world who gradually evolves into a real, three dimensional person. But Patrick “Dr. McDreamy” Dempsey, Susan Sarandan, James Marsden, and Timothy Spall all add excellent performances, especially Spall, who goes through some evolving of his own from stock vilainous underling to someone more real.
1) Hot Fuzz–Leave it to the guys who made Shaun of the Dead (2004) to take the buddy cop action film and turn it on it’s ear. What makes this film so special isn’t the send up of the shoot outs and car chases, Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) did that much better, its the relationship between Simon Pegg’s straighlace, by the book character and Nick Frost’s naive, action film buff slacker. They make these two cliched characters into real three dimensioal people, who evolve as the film plays. Plus there’s the over extended shoot out in the middle of a quaint English village that envovles everyone from shop keepers to the parish priest and contains at least four hostage situations before the final wrap up.