Saturday, May 27, 2017

The May TV Massacre

Every year in May, the major broadcast networks clean house, usually just before the big unveiling of their new fall schedules for critics and advertisers at the upfronts.  This year has been particularly brutal, as ratings have continued to decline across the board, and hits have been scarce.  There have been some especially dramatic renewals and cancellations, with several long-running shows on the block.  I'm not watching much network television anymore, but it's been fascinating to watch all of this play out regardless.  

So "The New Girl" gets to return for a final season, but "Two Broke Girls" is toast, despite delivering higher ratings.  So "American Crime" has been dropped despite a major Emmy win, but "Timeless" was pulled back from the brink after briefly being cancelled for three days.  I don't know what kind of deal NBC reached with Sony, but nobody is buying that fan response prompted anyone to rethink the decision.  Some shows no doubt saw the writing on the wall.  The CW's one-season "Frequency" even released a brief epilogue to give their fans some closure.  "Sleepy Hollow" is finally being put out of its misery.  On the other hand there's ABC's "Last Man Standing," which was the network's second highest rated sitcom.  Its cancellation after six seasons sparked conspiracy theories in its fanbase, but the truth is that the show probably got too expensive, and ABC wants the timeslot for "Once Upon a Time," and maybe later its "American Idol" revival.    

And revivals and spinoffs certainly have been popular, though their track record hasn't been very good.  Fox has no plans for more "24" or "Prison Break" and the moment.  ABC just gave "The Blacklist: Redemption" the axe, while "Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders" is now the second "Criminal Minds" spinoff to have been a dud.  And yet, "Will & Grace" is coming back to NBC's Thursday nights, after the success of their election sketch,  along with "Roseanne" over at ABC.  A "Big Bang Theory" spinoff about young Sheldon Cooper's adventures is on the way, and "Dynasty" is being rebooted, while yet another "Law & Order" spinoff is being readied, this one a limited series about the Menendez brothers.  Also, to my immense distaste, more of "The X-files" is reportedly in the works.  

I'm not sad to see some of the promising, but ultimately crummy newbies like "Powerless," "The Great Indoors," and "Emerald City" go, but the amount of freshman series that failed this year and last year is concerning.  Hardly anything seems to be sticking, especially on the sitcom side, and the networks are often reluctant to give new shows the time to find their audiences.  It doesn't say anything good about the networks' pilot process, which looks more antiquated every month next to what the cable nets and streaming services are doing.  Just looking over the slate of newly announced shows for next year, there's not much that stands out.  

Then again, looking at what did stick, audiences seem to have liked action series reboots like "Lethal Weapon," "MacGyver," and "Taken," which all survive to see another year.  "Training Day," not so much though.  Superheroes are in, including next year's "Inhumans," and "Black Lightning."  The year's biggest hit was undeniably the melodrama "This is Us," which NBC is going to try and rebuild its Thursday night lineup around.  I'm also happy to see that high concept shows "Riverdale" and "The Good Place" will get sophomore runs, and that somehow "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" are still hanging in there.

It's also important to remember that while the broadcast networks may be feeling the brunt of the cordcutting, ratings are down for cable series too, and they're certainly subject to some of the same lack of creativity in their programming.  HBO, of course, reportedly has five different potential "Game of Thrones" prequel spinoff projects in the works.  Cable networks do participate in the upfronts to an extent, but since they don't adhere to the traditional broadcast schedule, their cancellations and renewals don't come all at once, and not quite so dramatically.    

The television landscape continues to change, and the changes are coming faster now as the audience gets spread thinner and thinner.  Nobody has hit the breaking point yet, but at the moment I can only assume that it's coming.  And I can't help wondering if "Law & Order: SVU" is going to end up outlasting its own network.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"The Handmaiden" and "Elle"

Let's look in on a few recent foreign films.

I've been putting off writing about "The Handmaiden" because it's one of the more disappointing movies that I've watched from 2016. It is an absolutely beautiful, sensual, sensitive film about two women at the center of an elaborate con - until suddenly it isn't. I was so put off by the final scene, which is outright sleazy in all the ways that the rest of the film managed to avoid, I left the film feeling a little cheated. But let's get to the good parts first.

The story takes place in WWII Korea, during the Japanese occupation. A young pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is recruited by a con-man operating under the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to become the new handmaiden of a Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who Fujiwara intends to seduce and marry. Hideko lives under the thumb of her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who keeps a collection of rare antiques, including erotica. Sook-hee, using the name Tamako, learns more and more about the workings of the household and about Hideko's aunt (Moon So-ri), who killed herself. She also finds herself falling in love with Hideko as Fujiwara puts his plan in motion.

Director Park Chan-wook gives us lush visuals and a wonderful air of mystery as the labyrinthine plot unfolds. Hideko and Sook-hee's relationship develops through several private and then intimate encounters, which are placed in counterpoint to Fujiwara's courtship of Hideko. The performances are very good, especially Kim Tae-ri's as Sook-hee explores the luxurious house and grows increasingly worried about Fujiwara's plots. Park mirrors his images of the two women in thoughtful ways, and does several variations on seeing the same scene twice from two different POVs, to great effect. The sex scenes are admirably restrained, erotic without feeling exploitative, and true to the characters.

That's why it is such a disappointment when the reveals come in the third act, and suddenly the film is awash in sordid material. It's like watching a slightly risqué costume drama suddenly go full Quentin Tarantino. Everything hinted at becomes blatantly explicit, often in extremely cringeworthy ways. Worst of all, the portrayals of sexuality gain an uncomfortable titillating quality, and the ending just left me cold. This isn't the first time that Park Chan-wook has changed gears so quickly in a film. "Oldboy" has a similar structure, where the finale unfolds in a series of ghastly shocks. "Oldboy" was explicitly a genre film from the beginning, though, while "The Handmaiden" could at least be mistaken for a prestige picture at the outset. In the end I'm extremely mixed about the film, appreciative of the craft, but unable to say I really enjoyed the whole experience.

Now "Elle" is a more down-to-earth psychological thriller, also concerned with a woman in crisis. This is Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), a businesswoman who runs a video game company and has a prickly, demanding personality. When she is attacked and raped by a masked home intruder, she tries to soldier on as best she can. However, when the rapist sends taunting messages to her, she starts looking at the people in her life more closely. There's Michèle's ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her grown layabout son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz). Then there's her current lover Robert (Christian Berkel) who is married to Michele's best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny). And finally there's the handsome new neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte).

Rape and revenge films are always a tricky proposition, but "Elle" benefits by approaching the subject through its character study of a complex central character. Isabelle Huppert's Michèle is not someone easily shaken, and her reactions to her assault are almost comically mild at first. It's only when she realizes that the attack was directed at her personally that she begins to act, questioning and testing those around her. Huppert's performance is a treat, revealing many different sides of Michèle, bad and good. She isn't a particularly likeable person, but her actions are fascinating. The way that she engages with her rapist, in particular, is sure to be a controversial choice.

This is the first film I've seen in a long time from Paul Verhoeven, and is considerably less of a genre piece than I was expecting. There are some intense sequences of violence, but otherwise the film is a fairly restrained domestic drama. Much of the running time is taken up with Michèle's interactions with friends and family in everyday settings, and if you took out the assault storyline, the film would still stand on its own. I found the subplots with Michèle's son and her struggles at work to be strong arcs, even if they weren't as compelling as the central conflict. The events play out unrealistically, perhaps, but the execution is so good, I'm not inclined to complain.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stone Cold "Miss Sloane"

It's guilty pleasure time! I was expecting very little from "Miss Sloane," which was pushed as a potential awards contender back in December with Jessica Chastain in the leading role. I heard it described as a film about the gun control fight, which is very misleading. While a legislative battle over universal background checks is central to the story, the movie is really a profile of Elizabeth Sloane, the lobbyist who leads the pro-gun control side. She is a driven, amoral, Machiavellian monster, who is probably only in the fight because it presents a challenge. And it is so much fun to watch her twist and manipulate everyone around her in order to secure a victory.

Like Frank Underwood, Miss Sloane is not a real person (or based on one), but is the kind of figure that we'd like to imagine exists in Washington D.C. A perfect icy bitch exterior hides a pharmaceutical addiction, insomnia, a non-existent private life, and an all-consuming desire to win. Her only vice seems to be secret trysts with a male prostitute, Ford (Jake Lacy). She expertly navigates a Washington shark tank full of power players, mostly men, and can be as destructive to her allies as she is to her enemies in her efforts to stay one step ahead. Jessica Chastain does a fantastic job of giving her all the calculating intelligence and biting wit neccessary to keep her firmly at the center of attention at all times.

We first meet Elizabeth Sloane working for George Dupont (Sam Waterston) at a major lobbying firm, but when he tries to bring her on a campaign to kill a new gun control bill a the behest of a gun industry bigwig, Bob Sanders (Chuck Shamata), Sloane ends up defecting to the opposition. She joins a smaller firm lead by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), leaving behind a pair of resentful colleages, Pat (Michale Stuhlbarg) and Jane (Alison Pill), who are very familiar with how she operates, and work to derail her. However, Sloane also finds a new ally in lobbyist Esme (Gugu Mbath-Raw), and recruits several former underlings to join her new campaign. Both sides are ruthless, and Sloane is targeted personally, eventually being charged for ethics violations in a Congressional hearing lead by Senator Ron Sperling (John Lithgow).

Directed by the dependable John Madden, and scripted by newcomer Jonathan Perera, "Miss Sloane" is too long, too in love with its lead character, and depicts several wild twists that are clearly ludicrous. However, as a lover of twisty political movies, I had so much fun. I didn't care that the characters were paper thin and the mechanics of the plotting were too convenient. I didn't care that the male prostitute subplot doesn't make any sense and goes nowhere. I'm sure anyone familiar with how real lobbyists oeprate would laugh themsleves silly. But smart people outsmarting other smart people will never cease to entertain me, and Jessica Chastain is good enough here that I could overlook all the nagging inconsistencies about her character and just enjoy the ride.

The supporting cast is also great. I want to give special kudos to Michale Stuhbarg as Sloane's main rival, who gets some of the best laugh lines in the movie. And then there's Gugu Mbath-Raw, who adds another strong performance to the string of good outings she's had over the past few years. In a different kind of film, she would have been the protagonist to Sloan's devil figure antagonist. The production is familiar, but it makes Washington look suitably chilly and clandestine, run by people in dark suits. It was also nice to see some emphasis on the cultural differences between the two lobbying firms - the smaller, scrappier pro-gun firm operates like a tech start-up.

Ultimately, the movie reminded me of one of those old John Grisham legal potboilers that could be elevated by a good cast and some fun writing. It's a shame that "Miss Sloane" is being sold as a typical fight-for-the-cause picture, when it's really more of a traditional thriller. And I really appreciate having a character like Elizabeth Sloane in the media lanscape, a ruthless woman who enjoys being so good at what she does. There are plenty of male versions of Miss Sloane, but still sadly too few female sharks in the tank.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Could Anything Have Saved "Passengers"?

Spoilers ahead.

On paper, Sony's "Passengers" seems to have done everything right. It's a big budget science fiction film that had landed two major stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, for the leads, a script that had appeared on the 2007 Black List, and the directing talents of Academy Award nominated director Morten Tyldum. The production is absolutely top notch, and won Academy Award nominations for Best Production Design and Best Original Score. And despite the controversy it's sustained, "Passengers" looks like it's going to at least break even at the box office, and will probably be profitable in the long run.

However, "Passengers" has been a spectacular bust critically, and nearly all the discussion around it has been focused on a major plot point that I'm going to spoil here. Our hero, Jim Preston (Pratt) is faced with an intriguing ethical dilemma. Having been woken up from cryogenic hibernation ninety years too early in transit to another planet, and unable to return to sleep, Jim faces living out the rest of his life alone aboard an automated spaceship. He could wake up another hibernating passenger, but it would doom them to the same fate. And after a year of obsessing over a woman named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), Jim decides to wake her up, hoping that she'll reciprocate his feelings.

From that point, the movie could have played out in any number of ways. It could have been a thriller or horror scenario, where Aurora has to fend off Jim's advances. It could have been a psychodrama, where Aurora is forced to consider making a similar choice. Instead, "Passengers" made it into a romance, where Jim and Aurora do fall in love and ultimately live out their lives on the spaceship together. Pains are taken to show that Aurora does consider Jim's actions reprehensible, once she finds out what he's done, and she makes the final choice to stay together. Still, the film still comes off as too glib about the serious dilemma at its core. Jim gets off much too easy, and Aurora still feels victimized. Spaihts has tried to explain in interviews that the film is ultimately about forgiveness, namely Aurora's ability to forgive Jim, but that doesn't really come across right either.

I think the biggest problem with "Passengers" is that its second half follows the template of your usual space adventure movie, full of action scenes, disaster scenarios, and typical heroics. Saving the ship suddenly takes precedence over dealing with the tensions between Jim and Aurora, forcing them to interact and work together. Jim's willingness to sacrifice himself is a narrative shortcut to show us that he's really a decent guy after all, and that he's worthy of Aurora's affections. However, it's not a convincing one. I think that "Passengers" ending happily could have worked if this had been a different kind of movie, one more character focused and less concerned with being a blockbuster. I'm not at all surprised to learn that "Passengers" was originally a much more modestly budgeted, smaller scale film with Keanu Reeves and Emily Blunt attached.

I love heady science-fiction films, and accept that sometimes extra dramatics and action scenes are necessary to make them more entertaining. "Arrival," for instance, had the subplot with the Chinese general I found wholly unnecessary. However, that addition didn't take focus away from the major themes of the story, or replace the emotional climax. The heroine still had to deal with her more personal problems separate from the other crisis. "Passengers," unfortunately, conflates its romantic and action-based conflicts, which feels like a cheat. Doing something heroic doesn't change the fact that Jim behaved appallingly towards Aurora, and it should have taken a hell of a lot more to get the two of them back on speaking terms, let alone back into a relationship.

And it's a shame because "Passengers" has such an interesting central dilemma that could have yielded much better things. Better framed and better handled, it could have been a real conversation piece instead of yet another example of problematic gender politics in recent mainstream cinema. There have been such interesting science-fiction films dealing with gender issues lately, like "Ex Machina" and "Her," so something like "Passengers" feels positively retrograde. I reiterate that "Passengers" could have avoided being such a problematic film with a little more care and attention toward the fundamental mechanisms of its story. Because not all the fancy CGI or expensive stars in the world could have made this better.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Finding "The Founder"

There's a reason I watch so much "Oscar Bait." Every once in awhile, one of these also-ran titles that everyone else wrote off will turn out to be a nice surprise. "The Founder," which follows the rise of a down-on-his-luck salesman, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) to the head of one of the most successful American businesses that ever existed, is that movie today.

The origin of the McDonald's fast food chain is not a subject I've ever given much thought to, but the possibilities are immediately intriguing. McDonald's is, after all, one of the most famous and ubiquitous American brands, inextricable from the popular culture and the modern American landscape. I'd imagined from this outset that "The Founder" would be a feel-good Horatio Alger story, about creative entrepreneurship and dogged persistence leading Kroc to his American dream. And it is, up to a certain point. And then things take a wonderfully complicated turn.

We first meet Ray trying to hawk milkshake blenders in the midwest, always on the road, with little time for his patient wife Ethel (Laura Dern). Then one day he comes across the original McDonald's hamburger stand, run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch), using a wildly successful efficiency system. Ray makes a deal with them to franchise McDonalds, but is constantly hampered by the brothers' stringent guidelines and distaste for a bigger, more commercialized vision of what McDonald's could be. As the number of restaurants grows, it becomes a battle of wills between Ray and the brothers over the fate of the company.

There are obvious comparisons to be made between "The Founder" and "The Social Network," and maybe even "There Will Be Blood." "The Founder" isn't on the same level as far as the filmmaking is concerned, despite the best efforts of director John Lee Hancock. However, this is a great film for Michael Keaton, who turns in a great performance as Ray Kroc. McDonald's surely wouldn't have become the success that it did without his foresight, ambition, and hard work. However, it also required his cut-throat nature, ruthlessness, and greed. I love that just when the film gets the audience rooting for Ray, the dark side of his nature starts becoming more apparent, and we realize what he's capable of doing to get what he wants.

As a result, "The Founder" turns out to be a fantastically effective portrait of American success at its most morally bankrupt, reminding us that most of the great business empire-builders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs got where they were by often being absolutely horrible to their friends and competitors alike. Kroc's ability to stay so warm and amiable while being so heartless is fascinating to observe. The scripting is great here, especially the parts of the story that it decides to leave out. We don't see a lot of the wrongdoing up close, allowing us to stay in the insulated bubble of Ray's ego. It's only in the final, closing moments of the film that some of the worst consequences of his behavior are confirmed.

The production is lovingly nostalgic, presenting '50s and '60s Americana in colorful, eye-catching ways. And it's a lot of fun to see the old style McDonald's restaurants and equipment, and the McDonald brothers' story of how they figured out how to build the perfect burger kitchen is delightful. Everyone knows McDonald's and its branding, after all, and the film isn't shy about using this to its advantage. It's only the excellent score, by Carter Burwell, that introduces a feeling of uneasiness early on, suggesting that the story isn't going to be as pleasant as it seems.

"The Founder" wound up with the Weinstein Company for distribution, and I'm never sure what their logic is in pushing one film over another at awards time. "The Founder" was benched this year in favor of other titles, which is a shame, because I found it to be one of the most timely films of the year, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It has its flaws - Ray Kroc's relationship with his wife feels mishandled and truncated - but it's good to see more complex, troubling stories like this being told.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Goodbye Summer Blockbuster Hype

It was bound to happen eventually, but I was kind of hoping it wouldn't. 2017 marks the second year in a row where there isn't a single summer movie being released between the beginning of May and the end of August that I'm hyped up enough for to want to see in theaters. It's not that it looks to be an especially bad year for summer blockbusters - the Marvel movies should be decent, and I have very high hopes for "Wonder Woman" and "Dunkirk." My enthusiasm level for blockbusters, however, has been steadily dropping over the years, to the point where there are only two or three each year I feel are worth a theater trip. And mostly, they don't come out in summer.

There's no mystery why. I'm in my mid-thirties, and now firmly out of the target audience for most blockbusters. I was enough of a fan of various properties and creators that there were usually one or two movies that could get me excited every summer season. In 2015, it was "Inside Out." In 2014, it was "X-Men: Days of Future Past." And though neither of them turned out well, in 2013, I was salivating at the thought of "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and Neil Blomkamp's "Elysium." This year, however, I'm coming up short. There are plenty of films that I'm looking forward to seeing, like "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" and "War for the Planet of the Apes," but nothing that I'm really invested in as a fan.

There's a PIXAR movie, but it's "Cars 3." There's a Christopher Nolan movie, but it's a WWII epic instead of a twisty genre picture. I'm burned out on "Pirates" and "Alien," which have had a few too many bad installments. I'm still not all that fond of "Spider-man," even though the new version that debuted in last year's "Civil War" was fun. And I was positively meh on the first "Guardians of the Galaxy." "The Dark Tower" is intriguing, but I don't know the source material well enough to really be anticipating it. Also, the less said about "Transformers" and the non-PIXAR animated offerings this summer, the better. If one of these titles unexpectedly gets stellar reviews, I might be tempted into the cineplex anyway, but usually I'm already excited about something by now.

Part of this is due to changing tastes, and part of it is due to my own altered relationship with moviegoing. As with most responsible grown-ups, I don't have time for so many theater trips anymore. Last year I only managed five. There are only certain types of films I feel are worth the price of the ever-more-expensive tickets too. If it's not something that really benefits from a big screen presentation, like a big action film or an effects spectacle, I'm more likely to wait for the home media release. I have no problem waiting three months for something to hit streaming services anymore. So while Sofia Coppola's upcoming "The Beguiled" may be a fantastic film, it's not something that I feel I really need to see in a theater. "Star Wars," however, is.

And speaking of "Star Wars," I am looking forward to making trips to see "The Last Jedi" in December, and the "Blade Runner" sequel in October, and maybe even "Thor: Ragnarok." I've remarked on this before, but most of my most anticipated films seem to come out around the holiday season, when you see more prestige pictures, and the more family-oriented blockbuster fare. Summer tends to be for broader, dumber, more disposable films. However, this isn't set in stone, and I suspect that the summers of 2016 and 2017 may just be a fluke. Looking ahead, the summer of 2018 will have "The Incredibles" sequel, and the "Avengers: Infinity War" movies are mighty tempting.

I also fully expect that the theatrical exhibition business model will continue to change as technology does. MoviePass probably isn't going to work out in the long run, but some kind of theater subscription plans look likely. And I'm not going to be as busy as I am now permanently. I still do love watching movies in theaters, and wish I could indulge more than I do now.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1997

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

Jackie Brown - This is still my favorite Quentin Tarantino film. Here he's still mixing and matching elements from his older favorite movies, not to mention borrowing the still potent star power of Pam Grier, but there's a degree of restraint to his fanboyishness this time out. I think it's because "Jackie Brown" is a fairly straight adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, and Tarantino wasn't willing to stray too far from the source material. The result is an unusually nostalgic, atmospheric caper film, full of old faces and brimming over with style.

Eve's Bayou - I love movies that take me somewhere I've never been before, and the haunted, beautiful world of young Eve Batiste is such a place. It conveys a wonderful sense of living with the past and a checkered family history. And seen through the eyes of a child, there's a particular magic to the way that events unfold. I especially enjoy the cast, including a young Jurnee Smolett as Eve, Debbi Morgan as her prophetic Aunt Mozelle, and Samuel L. Jackson as her very imperfect father, quite possibly the best role he's ever had.

Good Will Hunting - It was a deceptively simple, modest film that launched Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to stardom. The duo not only acted in the film, but wrote it together too. However, the heart and soul of "Good Will Hunting" is clearly Robin Williams. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, and can think of precious few actors who could have made the part work as well as it did. Rising director Gus van Sant also deserves considerable praise for giving the film a great sense of place, and really grounding the script and performances.

Princess Mononoke - The first Studio Ghibli film that I saw in theaters, in an experience that absolutely took my breath away. Nobody's fantasy worlds have ever been quite so fantastic as the ones that have come from Hayao Miyazaki, and "Princess Mononoke" plays like a culmination of all the themes and ideas that he's explored over a long, eventful career. His criticisms of war, the destruction of nature, and industrialization are conveyed through a very unique, unforgettable fable about gods and monsters, humans and spirits.

Boogie Nights - Paul Thomas Anderson finds the humanity in a merry band of pornographers, sex workers, and drug-addicts who live by their own rules. "Boogie Nights" is a fantastic evocation of the late 1970s counterculture, featuring a strong ensemble and engrossing subject matter. The sleaze factor kept me from fully embracing it for years, but upon closer examination it's one of Anderson's strongest films, full of great humor, great tragedy, and some fascinating characters who have their own take on the American Dream.

The Butcher Boy - I was fascinated by this film as a teenager for how incredibly dark the story got, and the way it went to certain places that a film starring a child wasn't supposed to go. Neil Jordan's chronicle of the adventures of troubled Francie Brady is alternately hilarious and shocking, as it explores his deteriorating, schizophrenic mind. I love the little fantasy elements, especially Sinead O'Connor's Virgin Mary and the recurring visions of nuclear holocausts. This is one of those forgotten films in serious need of rediscovering.

Love and Death on Long Island - John Hurt once claimed in interviews that his favorite screen role was Giles De'Ath, the fusty old British writer whose life is totally upended when he falls madly in love with a young American screen star, played by Jason Priestly. Hurt is absolutely delightful in the role, trying to navigate a modern world and popular culture he's avoided for much of his life, and coming to grips with his own rekindled passion. It's such a strange, but also deeply touching film that I've never managed to forget.

Funny Games - The sadistic, fourth wall-breaking thriller from Michael Haneke was remade shot for shot ten years later with bigger stars, but it's the Austrian original that has stuck with me. As horrible as it is to the characters, the film is really aiming to make the audience squirm, directly confronting us with the notion of violence as entertainment. The experience isn't altogether successful, but the conceit is fascinating, and the execution is frequently chilling. The remote control sequence in particular is a punch in the gut.

LA Confidential - The best film noir of recent years, starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce just a few short years before they would all became household names. Curtis Hanson brings the Los Angeles of the 1950s to life, with all its glamour and corresponding darkness. Though the plotting is very good, the filmmakers wisely keep the attention on their characters, three men working against a corrupt system from three different vantage points, and Kim Basinger's unforgettable femme fatale.

The Full Monty - Perhaps the pinnacle of the working-class British comedy, with a likable cast, strong writing, and no shortage of charm. Once you get past the eyebrow-raising premise, it may be a surprise to find that the film deals with some pretty heavy topics, like suicide and homosexuality, with remarkable care. "The Full Monty" really is about economic insecurity and threatened masculinity more than it is about fancy dancing, and the low budget, scrappy filmmaking reflects that in the best possible way.

Honorable Mentions

Chasing Amy
Nil by Mouth
As Good as it Gets
Mrs. Brown
The Sweet Hereafter
Perfect Blue
The Ice Storm