Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Timeless "Dumbo"

Today marks the 75th anniversary of "Dumbo," the fourth animated feature from Walt Disney Animation, and an unlikely box office hit. It runs just over an hour in length, too long for a short subject and too short to be a feature presentation, according to distributor RKO. Still, Disney persisted and "Dumbo" got his star billing, which proved to be greatly deserved. Audiences loved the little elephant, and he's become a perennial favorite. The movie was aired often on television, usually paired with a few cartoon shorts. That's where my copy of the film came from.

"Dumbo" remains one of my most primal, foundational movie viewing experiences. I watched our VHS copy countless times as a small child in the 1980s, and distinctly remember it being the only movie that I knew how to ask for while being babysat, before I knew how to read. I knew every frame of it vividly, even if I didn't comprehend what some of the images meant at the time. What really stuck with me, though, was the strength of the emotions that the movie evoked. Dumbo playing with his mother. The mother being taken away. The frightening elephant pyramid scene. The humiliating act with the clowns. The sinister "Pink Elephants" number. And finally, learning to fly and a happy ending.

I recently rewatched "Dumbo" with a two year-old relative on my lap. I picked it out for its short length and for the animal characters. We could point to and identify all the circus animals together. A choo-choo train. A rainstorm. Bubbles. The kiddo didn't make it through the whole movie, wandering off around the point where the crows showed up. I watched to the end, however, appreciating that I could now take in the little details, like Dumbo and his mother waving goodbye in the last shot, and a few more of the song lyrics were now comprehensible. However, most of the experience felt the same as it did when I was four years old. "Baby Mine" still made me sniffle. "Pink Elephants on Parade" still looks utterly strange and incongruous with the rest of the movie - and any other Disney movie.

I also made a couple of connections that I hadn't as a child. Though the quartet of gossipy elephants who ostracize Dumbo are mean, I never thought of them as villains. This was because all the elephants are treated terribly by the circus, and I found myself thinking more than once this time, that you could never get away with showing something as sadistic as the elephant pyramid act today. No, the Ringmaster was the villain, for taking Dumbo's mother away. The clowns were villains for exploiting him. The kid with the big ears, representing all the bullies in the world, was a villain too. A year later, "Bambi" would spell out that Man was the enemy, but the sentiment was already alive and well here. The rise of the big top during the roustabout song always struck me as foreboding, and I understand now it's because the circus is an awful place from the animals' point of view.

"Dumbo" has a joyous ending, but it's terribly sad throughout - much sadder than any modern children's film I've seen. Dumbo spends most of the running time separated from his mother, lonely and miserable. Calamity after calamity keeps being piled on his head, and Dumbo can't fight back. He's only a baby, who doesn't even speak. Timothy the mouse is the active one, far more active than the similar Jiminy Cricket. All Dumbo can really do is feel, the way that children do. He's a perfect audience surrogate for kids, and the reason why I think the film still works so well for them. The two-year old remarked more than once that "The little elephant is crying" during our viewing.

I guess I have to talk about the crows. The charges of them being racist always struck me as ridiculous. They're absolutely caricatures of black Americans of the era, but they aren't negative caricatures even by modern standards. More importantly, the crows become Dumbo's friends, the only ones willing to help him aside from Timothy. A more recent equivalent would be the Beatles-esque vultures in "The Jungle Book," and I've never heard anyone object to them.

All too soon, the hour was up, "Dumbo" was done, and it was time to vacate memory lane. The two year-old, however, was livid when she wandered back to the couch found out that the movie was over. She threw a tantrum when I wouldn't put it back on, and I had to promise to come watch it again with her next week.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie Trendspotting 2016

Time for a little wild speculation. Back in 2013, I wrote up a post with some predictions about trends in media that I expected to see in the future. Well, the resurgence of westerns and the rise of mecha didn't happen, but three out of five ain't bad. So I thought I'd look ahead again and make a few more predictions. Just for fun, you know, and to get some of my own recent observations about the industry down on the digital paper.

Chinese Spinoffs - China is one everyone's minds lately, and studios are falling over themselves trying to ensure their blockbusters are friendly to Chinese audiences. However, the awkward product placement, token Chinese heroine, and pandering extra material in Mandarin haven't been going over so well. Neither have the predominantly Chinese films that have shoehorned a Caucasian movie star like Christian Bale or Matt Damon into the lead. I expect that more studios will start considering the "Now You See Me" option, where a Chinese-language sequel was recently announced, starring one of the Chinese characters. The franchise is a hit in China, but inly a modest performer elsewhere, so this makes sense. I wonder if they could get away with something similar for "Warcraft."

Television and Web Cross-Pollination - Rob Howard's epic "Dark Tower" plan, which would have told the story through interlocking theatrical film and television series didn't get off the ground. However, this year we did see the "Divergent" series turn to television as an option for its flagging fortunes, and rumors continue to swirl about whether the inevitable "Game of Thrones" spinoffs might include a few theatrical films. As the line between web and television and theatrical content continues to blur, I think it's inevitable that we're going to see more direct platform-crossing in the future, not just spinoffs and tie-ins like Marvel's "Agents of SHIELD." Though if the rumors are right, the bumpy third season of that series is apparently the reason why the "Inhumans" movie got delayed indefinitely.

Gender and Race Swapped Remakes - The "Ghostbuster" reboot wasn't a bomb, and apparently that was enough to push several gender-swapped remakes forward. The "Oceans 11" spinoff with Sandra Bullock is going ahead full steam, and now Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell are going to remake "Splash" - with Bell as the schlub and Tatum as the merperson. Reboots remain popular with studios, but most of the recent ones have fallen flat due to poor execution. Race and gender swapping the leads is an easy way to make the old stories look newer and more interesting, even if they aren't. So I expect we'll see more of this in the future, especially if audiences keep warming up to non-white male leads in films the same way they have with non-white male leads on television.

Augmented Reality - Pokémon Go! was massive this summer, and it's inevitably going to have an impact on the wider culture, including film and television. A "Pokémon" film is in the works, of course, and we're already seeing films about mobile gaming like "Nerve," but I'm more interested in the game's successful use of augmented reality. AR, which adds a layer of extra information on top of the existing world instead of being generated out of nothing, like VR, has been explored before in the mainstream media, but only in fairly shallow, simplistic terms. Be on the lookout for adaptations of existing sci-fi stories about AR, like "Memories with Maya" and "Denno Coil," and the new ones that are surely on the way. Smartglasses and visors are likely to show up in the big screen soon.

The Hamilton Effect - it's going to be quite a while before we see the big screen adaptation of "Hamilton," but its influence is already everywhere. I fully expect more hip-hop musical numbers in the media landscape, especially as the studios are still trying to capitalize on the success of "Straight Out of Compton." Lin Manuel Miranda, meanwhile, may conquer Hollywood the same way that he conquered Broadway. He's already helped to write songs for upcoming Disney musical "Moana," and has signed on for the "Mary Poppins" reboot with Emily Blunt and a live action adaptation of "The Little Mermaid."

And... Anime - This one's a stretch because we've seen so many failures and delays over the past few years. However, at least two major titles, "Ghost in the Shell" and "Death Note," actually are getting made. If they do well, that opens the door to more, and the studios have the rights to plenty of other titles waiting in the wings. Despite the whitewashing controversy, I expect that we won't be seeing more Asian leads soon, but the studios will probably be much more careful about localizing the material. Maybe my dreams of more mecha will still happen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Preacher," Year One

Six years ago, one of the first posts I wrote for this blog was a rundown of the many attempts to adapt Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comic for the big screen and the small screen. I concluded that it was not likely that any kind of faithful adaptation would ever get off the ground, because the source material was too extreme for mainstream audiences. Well, I was wrong.

AMC's "Preacher" television series, spearheaded by Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, has toned down quite a few things from the comic book series, and substantially changed others. However, it has captured a great deal of the anarchic spirit of "Preacher," the shock, the schlock, and above all, the gleeful irreverence of a monumentally screwed up universe. The humor is blacker and sicker than just about anything I've ever seen aired on television. Even the disfigured Arseface is there in all his glory, subtitled sputterings and all.

"Preacher" is the tale of Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), who heads a small church, inherited from his father, in the tiny southern town of Annville. Jesse is a former crook, and his old partner/girlfriend Tulip O'Hare (Ruth Negga) is back in town, trying to tempt him to do another job with her. And Jesse is tempted, as his efforts in Annville seem futile. The church is poorly attended, barely staffed by Jesse and a single mom named Emily (Lucy Griffiths), and commands little influence. Then one day, Jesse wakes up with the ability to command anyone to do anything, his body having become the host for a mysterious power called Genesis. Due to this, he's being hunted down by a pair of sinister law enforcement agents, DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef) and Fiore (Tom Brooke). Also, totally unrelated to any of this is the sudden arrival of Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), an Irish vampire on the run.

In the biggest departure from the comics, the story stays in Annville for the first season for budgetary reasons. So the writers do their best to flesh out the various townsfolk and have Jesse try to help them. We spend more time with Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown) and his son Eugene (Ian Coletti), the aforementioned Arseface whose ghastly mug is the result of a botched suicide attempt. And we get to know local reprobate Donny (Derek Wilson) and the weaselly Mayor (Ricky Mabe). And then there's mean old Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), the local proprietor of Quinncannon Meat & Power, and the most powerful man in the county. Even without all the supernatural goings on, there's plenty to chew on here. The trouble is that the creators aren't really interested in doing more with them than filling time. The first season is ten episodes, but it seems like it should have been eight, or even six.

Now, "Preacher" is a lot of fun, but it's also very uneven. I give the show's creators all possible credit for translating so much of the comic to the screen, and making some good changes, but there are major systemic problems with the execution. The pacing is all over the place, with some episodes full of wild set pieces and big revelations, followed up others mired in tedious filler. The writing is frequently sloppy, jumbling motivations and squandering the promise of many minor characters. It doesn't help that the series is so haphazardly structured from the outset. The pilot episode is practically incomprehensible if you aren't familiar with the comic. Lots of crazy, violent things happen, but are difficult to piece together into a cohesive narrative. A final major character, currently referred to as the Cowboy (Graham McTavish), appears in flashbacks to the late 1800s, with no explanation as to what he has to do with the story until the second-to-last episode of the season.

What actually keeps the series rolling along, or lurching along really, are the performances of the lead actors and the willingness to deliver big shocks. This version of Jesse Custer may be extremely inconsistent and impulsive, but Cooper keeps him charismatic and intriguing. I think Ruth Negga's Tulip is a significant improvement on the original, now a badass with a record and a hilariously pugnacious attitude. Cassidy's the one character who is almost identical to the comics version, and he frequently steals the show. Joseph Gilgun is definitely my favorite of the cast, especially when he's nonchalantly getting himself horribly injured. I was also gratified to see how well Arseface actually translated to screen. Ian Coletti somehow makes him quite likeable.

It's obvious that the "Preacher" television series was created by fans, and thus I'm hopeful that it will improve as we move past the preliminaries and into more familiar territory in the seasons to come. They have all the pieces assembled, and have displayed the guts necessary to do something really special with them, but so far the series has been very rocky. I'd recommend it to those who like westerns, nasty humor, and a little blasphemy - and who also have the patience to see it through its significant growing pains.

Monday, October 17, 2016

[Your Favorite Celebrity Here] Isn't Dead

It's become a bit of a morbid running joke that 2016 has seen the passing of an unusually large number of especially beloved celebrities, and there's been persistent speculation about who might be going out next. Still, as I was scanning the Yahoo Mail login page, trying to remember which icon would lead to a half-forgotten account I used for spam E-mails, the last person I expected to be suddenly and tragically deceased was Kelly Ripa. There were two text ads in one of the sidebars that appeared to lead to articles about her demise. I didn't click on them, but after I finished with my Yahoo mail account, I checked Google News for any report on Ripa's death. So I googled for more information, and came up with several links stating that Ripa's recently announced death was a hoax.

I thought nothing of it and didn't investigate further. However, yesterday it happened again. This time I spotted a sponsored ad on a news site proclaiming the demise of Melissa McCarthy. I ran her name through Google, and came up with another list of links stating that McCarthy's death was a hoax. What struck me was that these looked almost identical to the ones I'd gotten for Kelly Ripa. So I started clicking links, and sure enough the articles were almost identical, aside from swapping out the celebrity names. The whole point was to get you to visit the particular website that hosts these articles. The main perpetrator is, a Chinese site that purports to be a "satire" site, which automatically generates fake news stories about celebrities. Their "death hoax" template, credited to "Jessica Simpson," even includes a photopshopped magazine cover for each newly deceased celebrity. The advertisements on the site, however, are quite real.

And, amusingly, the fake articles have been scraped by bots for use on other sites. The Melissa McCarthy one is being used to draw unsuspecting reader to a site called "JobsNHire," which is actually a targeted advertising site run by IQ Adnet. They apparently specialize in spoofing legitimate news sites and blogs. And then there are the sites with names like "Dead or Alive Info" and "Who's Alive and Who's Dead" that specifically aim to help those confused by these hoaxes. And if a particular hoax gets enough attention, of course, the real media sites will often weigh in. These hoaxes have become so common, that people barely blink an eye when they happen anymore. I imagine that they're an awful annoyance to the celebrities who are targeted, though. Betty White seems to be constantly reassuring people that she's still with us.

My first instinct is to just roll my eyes at these hoax sites. However, digging a little further into this, Mediamass has managed to do some actual damage since it started up in 2012. If you search the names of many celebrities, along with the word "dead" or "death," often the first result is from Mediamass. So after the deaths of Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, people fell for the "death hoax" stories that were automatically generated by the site, leading to confusion. Mediamass's owners have put up plenty of disclaimers and insist that what they're doing is not meant to be taken seriously. But they're still paying for ads on other sites, like the one I spotted on Yahoo, and still taking the money from the page views.

I've watched the development of advertising strategies online with great interest, and I feel I'm getting a little more cynical each year. As advertisers keep looking for new ways to grab my attention, I keep adjusting my own perceptions to avoid them. Celebrity deaths are one blind spot that I've now readjusted for. Frankly, I've started to treat everything I see in a site's advertising sidebar as a lie, because they so frequently, blatantly are. And the most ironic part is that after these extreme efforts to lure me to click on these links and visit these other sites, I have no memory of the advertisements they featured.

All I'm left with is a feeling of mild disgust about the death hoaxes, and unease toward the sites in general. I don't think that's the kind of feeling that most advertisers want associated with their products.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

80 Films From the '80s

Somehow, the numbers worked out just right. As part of my Top Ten Project, I watched eighty films from the 1980s this year, to fill my quota of watching at least fifty films from each year before making my lists. And there were a lot of disappointments, a lot of surprises, and just a lot to think about in general. I wanted to put down some thoughts before moving on to the films of the 1970s.

I had a lot of fun filling in some gaps in my pop culture awareness, like the Timothy Dalton 007 films, "Flashdance," and "Risky Business." There were quite a few nostalgic favorites like "Buckaroo Banzai" and "The Howling," that I thought were pretty awful. On the other hand, I was surprised at how much I liked "Battle Beyond the Stars," "The Fourth Man," and "Yentl." I expected, and was consistently happy to spot younger versions of familiar faces in many films - Benicio Del Toro playing a henchman in "License to Kill," David Strathairn cat-hissing at people in "Brother From Another Planet," and Michael McKean up to no good in "Used Cars." What I wasn't prepared for were the resurrections. One of the first titles I watched was Steven Spielberg's "Awakenings" from 1989. It was a mediocre film, but I was absolutely bowled over at the sight of Audrey Hepburn, as lovely as ever, in her last film appearance as an angel. And then came Sammy David Jr. and Dean Martin (and Jackie Chan!) in "Cannonball Run." And then Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in "On Golden Pond."

The stars were very differently aligned thirty years ago. I expected to be watching a lot of Burt Reynolds movies, since he'd topped the charts for most of the early eighties. Instead, I found myself watching a lot of Steve Martin movies: "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "Pennies From Heaven," "All of Me," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," and "Parenthood." Other recurring faces included Nicholas Cage, Michael Caine, Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, Diana Scarwid, Melanie Griffiths, and Karen Allen. I should note that my viewing choices were influenced by my efforts to find titles that I suspected might have fallen into my cinematic blind spots, and I looked to Icheckmovies lists for suggestions. While I did watch the obvious classics like "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Gallipoli," and the infamous stuff like "Cannibal Holocaust," and "Cruising," I also wandered off the beaten path for auteurist titles like Ann Hui's "Boat People," Carlos Saura's "Bodas de Sangre," and Peter Greenaway's "The Falls." I was also more likely to pick movies from directors I knew, especially their debuts, like Luc Besosn's "Le Dernier Combat," Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," and Wayne Wang's "Chan is Missing."

Getting lost in the '80s was a nice change of pace from modern films. While the auteur age was over, the era wasn't nearly as crassly commercial as critics liked to make out. The pace of filmmaking was slower, ordinary people were generally seen in much more rural environments, and there was more care and attention given to human dramas and romances. I found the 1988 film "The Accidental Tourist" with William Hurt and Geena Davis a real slog, but I was impressed that such a mature, even-handed romantic film had found success with audiences at the time. Vietnam was still on everyone's mind, and I kept coming across film after film that either referenced the war directly ("Birdy," "Cutter's Way," "The Ninth Configuration") or indirectly ("Southern Comfort," "Breaker Morant.") And there absolutely were brilliant, daring, original films being made. Some of my favorites include "Pennies From Heaven," "Coal Miner's Daughter," Jerzy Skolimowski's "Moonlighting," "Sid and Nancy," and "The Mission." But more on that in a few months.

I ran into trouble a few times trying to find certain movies, but I never ran short of titles to watch. I'm leaving the '80s for now, to start digging into the '70s, but I'll surely be back. Though there were a few that I regretted sitting through, like "The Star Chamber," I managed to take something interesting away from just about every movie. My biggest complaint is really with the quality of some of the prints and the videos that I watched. Several of these films are in desperate need of restorations, or just decent releases. There's an awful lot of good cinema to rediscover and enjoy.

And the final tally:


The Ninth Configuration
Cannibal Holocaust
Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Coal Miner's Daughter
Forbidden Zone
Battle Beyond the Stars
Dressed to Kill
Breaker Morant
Melvin and Howard
Used Cars
The Falls


The Howling
The Cannonball Run
For Your Eyes Only
Southern Comfort
Vernon, Florida
On Golden Pond
Absence of Malice
Pennies from Heaven
Modern Romance
Bodas de Sangre
Prince of the City
Cutter's Way
Mommie Dearest


Chan is Missing
The Atomic Cafe
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
An Officer and a Gentleman
My Favorite Year
The World According to Garp
Boat People
Le Beau Mariage
The Year of Living Dangerously
Un Chanbre en Ville


The Keep
Never Say Never Again
Risky Business
Sudden Impact
The Dresser
Rumble Fish
The Star Chamber
The Fourth Man
Le Dernier Combat


All of Me
The Brother From Another Planet
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
A Soldier's Story
Stop Making Sense
Places in the Heart
A Passage to India
Body Double


A View to a Kill


Peggy Sue Got Married
The Mission
Sid and Nancy
She's Gotta Have It
Ruthless People


The Living Daylights


Working Girl
Mississippi Burning
The Accidental Tourist
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels


Dead Calm
Drugstore Cowboy
License to Kill
The Fabulous Baker Boys


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Podcast Recommendations 2016

Here are a couple more podcast recommendations I didn't want to put off for too long, as some of these have turned out to be distressingly finite. Television is terribly underrepresented here, as I'm still searching for a replacement for "Firewall & Iceberg" with no success, though I take comfort in reading Alan Sepinwall's recaps regularly. The picks this time include two review podcasts, a retrospective show, and some "Game of Thrones." Enjoy

The Next Picture Show Podcast - I completely missed the Dissolve website's podcast, which I kept putting off until the site was gone and it was too late. Fortunately, several of the site's critics, Keith Phipps, Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias and Genevieve Koski, launched a new podcast, The Next Picture Show, as a way too keep in touch with a joint project. It's technically a spinoff of the long-running Filmspotting podcast, and uses some similar bits of their format. Next Picture Show, however, has installments that use a two-part structure, pairing a new release with a related classic film. So far, pairings have included discussing "Spotlight" with "All the President's Men," "10 Cloverfield Lane" with "Assault on Precinct 13," and the old "Ghostbusters" with the new "Ghostbusters." The discussions have been great, but the podcast is still going through some growing pains with an irregular schedule and some technical issues. I'm absolutely rooting for its success.

Junkfood Cinema - I really missed C. Robert Cargill after he left to go and become a big shot novelist and Hollywood screenwriter. However, he and fellow Spill alumnus Brian Salisbury have since teamed up for the Junkfood Cinema podcast, a tribute to their favorite older genre movies, stars, and filmmakers. On each episode, they just talk about movies, sometimes related to a particular theme, like "Die Hard" knockoffs, or mostly just for their own sake. It's a complete fanboy love fest, intended to bring more attention to older films that have fallen into obscurity. The hosts are very easy to listen to, and I've picked up some good recommendations from them, especially as I've been digging into '80s cinema this year. Junkfood Cinema is hosted by the Filmschoolrejects website.

The Double Toasted Movie Review Extravaganza - While we're on the subject of, I want to send some more love to Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, more Spill refugees who started the Double Toasted website and have been continuing their podcasting in a similar format to what they did on the old site, except without the pseudonyms and cartoon avatars. Yes, now you can watch Korey and friends rant against bad movies in real time and real life. The Movie Review Extravaganza is the site's weekly movie review show, often presented in multiple parts over several days. Several new voices have joined the cast of characters, including a second reviewer named Korey for the movie reviews. One change that I really appreciate is that reviews for individual films are excerpted from the main show, and posted separately a few days later, for the listener's convenience.

Cast of Kings - Finally, this is awfully niche, but I've now been listening to the "Game of Thrones" podcast "Cast of Kings" for four seasons, and it's about time they got a shout-out here. /Film's David Chen and Vanity Fair's Johanna Robinson host an aftershow podcast, discussing each episode the day after it premieres on HBO. Johanna has read the books and Dave hasn't, so we get perspectives from both types of fan. There are a lot of these podcasts out there, but I like "Cast of Kings" for the hosts' rapport, the way they handle talking about fan speculation, marketing, and controversies, and that nobody is scared about voicing unpopular opinions. And with a fanbase as rabid as the one around "Game of Thrones," that's no small accomplishment. I'm hoping that when the podcast inevitably ends in 2018, the hosts will move on to more podcasts in the same vein.

Also, I want to give a quick plug to the /Fimcast podcast, which I previously wrote about in 2011. It has drastically improved since Jeff Cannata became the third host back in 2014. It was perfectly fine before, but Cannata's personality just adds so much that I honestly can't picture the show without him on it anymore.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2003

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring - The cycle of human life is juxtaposed with spiritual lessons tied to the natural world. Buddhist teachings are at the heart of the film, but prove to be no guard against the fallibility of our main characters, an elderly monk and his impetuous novice. It's the pace of the film that makes it so memorable, its patience and its matter-of-factness in relaying each step of the multi-decade journey as it unfolds.

The Triplets of Belleville - Nobody else makes films that look like Sylvain Chomet's, with their wildly exaggerated characters and darkly humorous stories. "Triplets" feels the most reflective of his personal style, with its many sight gags, silly plot, and the appealing oddity of its heroes. Best of all, it's absolutely uncompromising in its use of painstaking traditional animation, almost totally visual storytelling, and rejection of political correctness.

Whale Rider - A coming-of-age story that pits a young girl against her stubborn, traditionalist Maori grandfather. The performances of Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene are excellent, keeping both sides sympathetic, and the portrayal of the fading Maori community is careful and considered. This is the kind of wistful, hopeful, and ever-so-slightly magical film I wish I had seen when I was young enough to really take its messages to heart.

American Splendor - The eventful life of writer Harvey Pekar is brought to the screen through appropriately meta dramatic recreations, with regular fourth wall breaking and commentary from the actual Harvey Pekar and his wife. Paul Giamatti handily embodies the schlubby American everyman, and the directing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have no difficulty capturing both the mundanity and the beauty of his world.

Lost in Translation - It's the tone of the film that makes it work, the strangeness of being stuck thousands of miles from home in an alien place, disconnected from everyone and everything around you. Eventually, though, the jet lag wears off, and tentative connections are made. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson turn in humorous, touching performances as they wander their hotel, and eventually the dreamlike Tokyo cityscape together.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - Meticulously recreates the Napoleonic era of and maritime warfare to an astonishing degree, resulting in an unusually immersive cinematic experience. The action and battle sequences are especially strong, full of grand scale spectacle achieved with almost entirely practical effects and stunts. Russell Crowe also delivers what may be his best performance to date as Captain Aubrey.

Oldboy - I had a very difficult time getting me head around this one, but I have to admit that the movie brilliant in its own demented, misanthropic way. It hums with energy, as Oh Dae-su struggles to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment, resorting to devastating violence when he must. What initially threw me was how little sense the plot made, especially the villain's scheme, but to the lunatic characters caught in the web, that may be exactly the point.

Dogville - My first encounter with Lars Von Trier, which I still find fascinating to this day. Presented as a critique of the American way of life, the highly stylized film reveals the savagery of a small town hidden under its veneer of civility. It's extremely difficult to watch, due to its length, subject matter, and unblinking portrayal of all the abuse heaped upon the heroine. Ultimately the film says more about its director than the troubled society it's criticizing.

Capturing the Friedmans - One of the most memorable "true crime" documentaries ever made offers plenty of facts and insights, but few answers about the actual culpability of the accused. The home video POV allows us not only an intense view of a witch hunt as it unfolds, but also to examine the Friedman family's dynamics up close. It has lost some impact over time, largely because of how many other subsequent documentaries have been influenced by it.

The Station Agent - Tom McCarthy's directing debut was also the major breakthrough for Peter Dinklage. Like most of McCarthy's films, it's about a small group of strangers who become friends through chance encounters and form a makeshift family. It's the quiet, low key atmosphere and the chemistry of the cast that give this so much charm. Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale all do great work humanizing their trio of lonely souls.

Honorable Mentions

Love Actually
Tokyo Godfathers
The Five Obstructions
Kill Bill Vol: 1
A Mighty Wind
Good Bye Lenin!
Touching the Void