10. Brick [Rian Johnson]
Sometimes you have to go back to go forward. I have absolutely no problem with films as genre tributes, and I definitely don't think that using an existing template (in this case, classic film-noir detective stories of the 1940's & 50's) means the details are cribbed from somewhere. Rian Johnson's debut film, Brick is refreshing and brisk and tough and urgent, and the revelation of cramming an old school murder mystery into the well-worn Hollywood fall-back locale of the Southern California high school is a brilliant stunt. Even still, through the spectacular framing of shots and the early morning dew-soaked atmosphere and the knotty, twisting slang dialogue, Johnson was lucky to get such a towering leading man. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his bid to be the Y-generation's greatest actor by playing Brendan with an unstoppable purpose and bottomless despair. I don't want to ignore the great ensemble cast full of tomorrow's possible stars, but I could easily make the claim that Gordon-Levitt could be the next Edward Norton by 35, and the next Johnny Depp by 45, and the next Paul Newman by 65. He's simply that good.
09. Borat (Cultural Learings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) [Larry Charles]
Well…what can I say that hasn’t been beaten to death in print since October? It’s a great little film, without a doubt a monumental achievement in its moment, a new classic, but it has to be lesser when put in the context of the greater film landscape (you can’t really stack it up next to fuckin’ Chinatown, now can you?). But let me not get all negative. This is masterful comedy, performed mostly on the fly. Sacha Baron Cohen’s use of the Borat character puts his best funny foot forward. With Ali G, the gag is good; the problem is it moves too slow, yet wears out quicker. Borat is perfect because his perceived innocence keeps you receptive longer, and therefore Cohen can just keep running with it. He lets the real idiots do the talking, and bounces off them, instead of having Ali G be the one to deliver the punchlines, and in that it’s also a great subversive exposé. America is unmasked in some of the worst ways; it’s not our President up on the big screens of Times Square. It’s your neighbor who you want to believe is good by default. There’s a lot of hateful thoughts in this country, and Borat’s greatest strength is forcing us to laugh at the ignorance instead of with it.
08. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party [Michel Gondry]
I hate to say it, but Hip-Hop is still not where it should be in the eyes of America; we’re 30 years in, and people are still resisting. Do you think the grumpy 60-somethings were still tossing & turning over Rock & Roll in 1982? I doubt it. Shit, it’s here to stay, get over it. And if nothing else, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is an exceptional picture of how the naysayers should see Hip-Hop. This film is all joy, from the Ohio townspeople who get to have an adventure to NYC, to the lines of fans piling into school buses to see the secret event of the summer, to the performers reveling in the community that they’ve built for themselves (thanks in no small part to the networking skills of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson). This is Dave’s gift; his efforts in putting this concert on definitely conform to my personal life lesson that everything is better when you can share it. There are so many little moments to share and cherish, like Jill Scott’s voice, or Mos Def’s comic sidekick turn, or Dave’s reverence for “Round Midnight”, or the memory of Biggie Smalls, or just the pure existence of the streets of Brooklyn, for kids from Ohio, and the world, to hold some wonder and awe for.
07. The Departed [Martin Scorsese]
Think to recent movie history, and think on the copious amounts of shitty American remakes dressing up cult-favorite foreign films in dude-&-dudette dialogue and happy endings. Then look to Scorsese’s Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. Marty waltzes in with a bigger than life feel that hasn’t really been felt in a cop drama since L.A. Confidential (at least), and slides it snuggly into Infernal Affairs’ tight frame, tweaking plot points how he needs them but never effecting the over all resonance of the story. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are still walking the circular tightrope that Tony Leung and Andy Lau walked before them, and they do an excellent job of laying the frayed edges out there for the audience to see; DiCaprio is getting all the notice, but it’s a special moment when Matt Damon can even come fairly close to Lau’s amazing performance in the original. Damon manages to pull that feat off because he continues to grow as an actor every year, expanding inward instead of outward. Speaking of acting out, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin are all given some scene-stealing lines, and their performances surely will be talked about for years. And in the end, well, Scorsese too tacks on the happing ending, or at least the poetic justice ending, and for once, you’re happy the American transformation is complete.
06. Thank You For Smoking [Jason Reitman]
I want to write something enlightening, but all that pops into my head is, “brilliant satire brilliant satire brilliant satire brilliant satire, etc etc.” What makes a film like this so fuckin’ awesome? I want to boil it down like Jack Black’s review of Evil Dead 2 in High Fidelity, but that’s not fun to read on your end. Let’s start with Aaron Eckhart simply knocking his performance out of the park; he disappears into Nick Naylor, and I think a lot of other actors might have nailed the smug fast-talking, but Eckhart also gets the depth, the uncertainty, the insecurity, the reality of parenting when you have a “morally flexible” profession. If your job is to tell people big tobacco companies are good, and you’re striving to find a smoking role model, “like Indiana Jones meets Jerry Maguire on two packs a day”, then how do you tell your son, who’s in your target demographic, to not smoke? Perfect casting is an understatement here; Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) personally sent letters to the actors explaining why they’d be perfect for their parts, and they all accepted. Maria Bello, David Koechner, JK Simmons, and William H. Macy are particularly good, and Katie Holmes is even pretty OK. Reitman is already a master at wringing comedy out of the misfortunes of his characters, and this is only his first film. Imagine where he’ll be a decade from now.