This year's Oscar Nominations are in. I'm having trouble working up as much bile as in years past; for the most part, it's become too predictable. No surprise that THE AVIATOR got 11 nods and that TIME OF THE WOLF got none. Oh well, ten thoughts/rants:

1. No Best Actor nod for Paul Giamatti? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?! I suppose those who were nominated in this category deserve to be there, though not Johnny Depp--he’s been better in films that were far more interesting than the limp noodle that is FINDING NEVERLAND.

2. Congrats to SIDEWAYS for at least getting the Best Picture indie wild card slot. As for the other four nominees, ho-hum, but I’ll bet RAY wouldn’t be there if Charles was still alive and well.

3. Best Surprise: I expected Imelda Staunton for Best Actress, but Mike Leigh receiving a Director nod for VERA DRAKE? He’ll never win, but this film’s worthier than the slightly overrated SECRETS AND LIES.

4. Tightest Race: Best Actress. I haven’t seen MILLION DOLLAR BABY, but this is a sterling slate of nominees, even if it’ll eventually come down to Hilary Swank vs. Annette Bening (BEING JULIA).

5. Deserving actors (besides Giamatti) who got the shaft: Javier Bardem (THE SEA INSIDE), Gael Garcia Bernal (BAD EDUCATION), Julie Delpy (BEFORE SUNSET), Nicole Kidman (DOGVILLE), Bill Murray (THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU), Liam Neeson (KINSEY), Peter Sarsgaard (again, for KINSEY), Sissy Spacek (A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD), Mark Wahlberg (I HEART HUCKABEES).


7. I haven’t seen THE AVIATOR yet, so I’ll just have to take the Academy’s word that Alan Alda was that good playing against type.

8. SHARK TALE for Animated Feature Film? Was everyone who voted for this high on crack?

9. In a just world, VERA DRAKE (3) would’ve received more nominations than LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (4)--even if the latter’s are all in techie categories.

10. Finally, The Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN/AMERCIAN SPLENDOR Memorial Award for a great film that received one measly screenplay nod goes to BEFORE SUNSET. And since even Chlotrudis entirely ignored the film, that's enough.



Last year, I averaged .600. What partially threw me off were a few "what the hell?!" nods (like those four for CITY OF GOD). So, keeping that in mind...

Million Dollar Baby
The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Hotel Rwanda

Also considered CLOSER and RAY, but neither film's reviews are saying much about anything except the acting. The first four are a lock, the fifth is gaining momentum fast (although not nearly as rapidly as Eastwood's film).

Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)
Alexander Payne (Sideways)
Martin Scorsese (The Aviator)
Marc Forster (Finding Neverland)
Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Typically, four out of the five Best Picture nominees also get director nods. Since ETERNAL SUNSHINE is so well-liked among the cognoscenti (though it's still too weird for Best Picture ), I think Gondry will get the wild card spot over Mike Nichols.

Jamie Foxx (Ray)
Paul Giamatti (Sideways)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator)
Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda)
Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby)

Jamie, Paul and Clint are inarguable. Like his film, Don's gaining momentum and so is Leo after his Golden Globe win. I know, I know, where's Johnny Depp for FINDING NEVERLAND? Long considered a front-runner since his face was plastered on ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY'S Fall Movie Preview issue, I just don't think people are that dazzled by his performance here. In a less competitive year, you'd see Javier Bardem (THE SEA INSIDE) and Liam Neeson (KINSEY) on this list.

Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake)
Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)
Annette Bening (Being Julia)
Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace)

I cannot think of any other likely contenders. Can you? In a perfect world, Julie Delpy (BEFORE SUNSET) would be there instead of Annette Bening.

Thomas Haden Church (Sideways)
Clive Owen (Closer)
Jamie Foxx (Collateral)
Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby)
Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey)

Because I don't think Depp will make it, then his young co-star Freddie Highmore won't either. The only other one I'm waffling on is Peter Sarsgaard, who certainly deserves it more than anyone else, but he could be too risky a choice for the Academy.

Virginia Madsen (Sideways)
Laura Linney (Kinsey)
Cate Blanchett (The Aviator)
Natalie Portman (Closer)
Meryl Streep (The Manchurian Candidate)

It could come down to Streep or Sophie Okenedo (HOTEL RWANDA) for the fifth slot. My gut instinct is for Streep, who was almost as good as Angela Lansbury in the original.



On January 1, another used-record store departed to that vast cut-out bin in the sky:
Disc Diggers in Davis Square. While never my favorite recycled music haunt, I’d pop in once every couple months (grudgingly handing over my backpack to someone behind the counter) and occasionally find just what I was looking for.

My last Disc Diggers purchase was on the last Saturday in September. I had taken my bike across town to ride the Minuteman Trail from Alewife Station to Bedford Depot and back. Exhausted and sweaty, I entered the store thinking, “OK, I’ll only buy something if they have Sally Timms’ In the World of Him or Tegan and Sara’s So Jealous.” And when I found the former after running my fingers through racks and racks of new releases, dust-covered castaways and pitiable also-rans, I felt a rush of adrenalin--maybe not enough to take another ride on the Minuteman, but a sufficient reminder as to why I obsessively rummage through one used-record store after another. It’s not just the goal of finding that particular CD I don’t want to pay full price for, or potentially unearthing a buried treasure that changes my life. The challenge, the chase, the pursuit is just as essential.

The prototypical used-record store straight out of Nick Hornby’s novel
High Fidelity has existed for decades. I wasn’t aware of them until I turned eighteen. That year, CD Exchange, a three-store chain opened in the Milwaukee suburbs. As the name suggests, they didn’t traffic in vinyl or cassettes. The whole concept was foreign and questionable to me--selling CDs you no longer wanted… and buying other CDs someone no longer wanted… and hearing them right there in the store, at one of eight personal listening stations! It seemed too good to be true, and I approached the establishment with timid adolescent caution. However, the burgeoning bargain hunter in me (spurred on by working at a detestable, low-wage food service job) soon conceded, and I eventually made the rounds at the CD Exchange near Southridge Mall more often than Best Buy or The Exclusive Company.

Alas, CD Exchange was an anomaly, a young upstart, a business perfectly suited for a mini-mall--nothing at all like
Second Hand Tunes, my first real used-record store. Nestled on the corner of Murray and Thomas in Milwaukee’s East Side (and technically part of a chain that included a few Chicago locations), it was exactly like the store in High Fidelity only smaller, more condensed. At both windows sat wooden bins jammed with rows of plastic slipcases holding hundreds (thousands?) of CD booklets--all discs were kept behind the counter to discourage/prevent shoplifting. Tall, vertical see-through cases of cassette tapes made up the elevated employee counter at the other two ends of the square-shaped room, and in the store’s center, a giant, double-decker, C-shaped bin held most of the vinyl. Naturally, the windows and walls were plastered with cultish film and music posters of the Jimi Hendrix/A Clockwork Orange variety.

I spent many a Saturday afternoon in the mid-‘90s at that place, often flipping through every last slipcase, picking up stuff like They Might Be Giants’ Apollo 18, Jane Siberry’s Maria, and the Dukes of Stratosphear’s Chips From the Chocolate Fireball. Given their immense selection and my tenacity and dedication, I always found at least one thing to buy, if not two or five. I regularly saw guys (most customers at these places were usually guys) with teetering stacks of fifteen or twenty discs in their hands, and I couldn’t imagine getting together the funds to make such a weighty purchase (still can’t).

Before long, I began thumbing through the neglected dollar vinyl that sat in a wooden crate on the floor beneath the CDs. At that point, it had been four or five years since you could find any vinyl in most new record stores. At the height of my wannabe urban hipster phase, vinyl was uncool in most mainstream circles, thus cool to me. I loved the comparatively life-sized cover art and the cheap thrill of picking up something I’d been secretly itching to hear (like that Missing Persons classic, Spring Session M) for only a buck.

I acquired a cheap-ass table-top stereo with turntable and amassed a collection of about 70 or 80 vinyl records with a year. I drove all over the city and the outlying ‘burbs, habitually visiting likeminded businesses with names such as Sonic Boom, Rush-Mor, Prospect Music and Half-Price Books (they sold music, too). Between that and continuing to buy new CDs at the big stores and through at least three of those “Buy 12 CDs for the price of one!” deals you used to always find inserted in Rolling Stone, for the first time in my life, I had more stuff to listen to than I knew what to do with.

Whenever people ask me (sometimes contemptuously) how in the world I’ve ever heard of band X or know of singer Y, I guess this partially explains how I became such a music geek. Kinda like a chain reaction, really: you discover something you like, and then it encourages you to check out something else (or, if you’re as fervent as I am, five or ten other things) and so on.

I had nearly as much difficulty leaving Second Hand Tunes behind as I did my family and friends when I moved to Boston in 1997. You’d expect to find an adequate replacement in every other neighborhood in the most college-friendly metropolis on the East Coast, but I haven’t. The closest I came was Record Hog, a triangular corner shop steps away from the Cambridge/Somerville town line near Porter Square. They didn’t carry cassette tapes (by 1999, precious few places did) but everything else was perfectly, warmly familiar. More often than not, two cats sprawled their lazy selves across the centerpiece CD case and you’d have to gently lift them off the row of the discs you wanted to look through. This was where I made
my greatest on-a-whim purchase ever, in addition to fabulous buys like a promo copy of Stew’s The Naked Dutch Painter (a week before you could buy it at Newbury Comics!), Gordon Gano’s Hitting the Ground and Bellavista Terrace: The Best of the Go-Betweens, among many others.

Alas, Record Hog closed two years ago and supposedly moved to a small town in Western Mass (I can’t remember which town and a Google search for “Record Hog” brings up little but costly pork prices). I still acquire a lot of used CDs every year, most of them from the five-store chain
CD Spins, a true successor to CD Exchange. In each location, discs literally line the walls from ceiling to floor. A CD Spins visit more or less satisfies my used-music jones, but it’s like trying to get high off a pack of Marlboro Lights. I can’t possibly ever take in each store’s massive stock at once (at least half of it obscure $1.99 crap), so I skim through a mental list of stuff I’d like to get, which makes it shopping with a goal in mind instead of a free-form stress-relieving act of discovery. A few used-music establishments with potential still lurk within various corners of Boston and Cambridge (and a handful even carry vinyl), but most of them are either too expensive or limited in their selection.

My last visit to Second Hand Tunes was in October 2000. In town briefly for a friend’s wedding, I had an extra day to visit a few hangouts that were once so dear to me: Kopp’s Frozen Custard, Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, and Second Hand Tunes. I hadn’t set foot in the store in more than two years, and was surprised to find it haphazardly rearranged. The discs sat where the vinyl used to be, and they now even carried DVDs. Two employees I didn’t know talked loudly to each other behind the counter, watching clips of a training video for the Bronx police department. I made a customary run through the slipcases, briefly considered purchasing Bebel Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo, and then left without doing so. On my next trip two years later, the windows were papered up and a pitiful "Office Space for Lease" sign sat in one of them (fortunately, two other locations still exist in Chicago). Around the time I moved out East, one of the store’s old managers opened up
his own used-vinyl/CD haven two blocks away. I make an effort to frequent it every time I’m in town.

I still miss Second Hand Tunes, Record Hog and all the rest. I no longer buy vinyl (at least not until the day I get my parents’ old turntable up and running) and I still have enough disposable income to justify the hours I spend feeding my used CD fix. I’m not against buying music on Amazon or iTunes, although I know that to an extent, both are doing their part to put the oldfangled High Fidelity stores out of business. I’ve just about given up on finding a replacement that captures the personable, homey feel of those places. Thankfully, none of that distracts from the pleasure I still receive from a newly acquired album, particularly one that resonates on the first spin.



I've been meaning to do this for weeks. We're more than halfway through... what are we calling this decade? The oo's? the "Aughties"? That time when the rest of the world laughed at us for electing, as Daffy Duck would say, such a "maroon" for a president? Who knows. Anyway, here's my favorite 25 films and albums released between 2000-2004. I know, who cares, but these lists (and how their entries may shift) might be good for a laugh when I look back at them in another five years.


1. The Royal Tenenbaums
2. Y Tu Mama Tambien
3. Beau Travail*
4. Lost In Translation
5. Mulholland Drive
6. Waking Life
7. In The Mood For Love
8. Donnie Darko
9. Yi Yi
10. The Return
11. Far From Heaven
12. Tarnation
13. Before Sunset
14. What Time is it There?
15. Ghost World
16. American Splendor
17. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
18. Judy Berlin*
19. Sideways
20. Gosford Park
21. Spirited Away
22. The Wind Will Carry Us*
23. Raising Victor Vargas
24. Dogville
25. Our Song

*all technically 1999, but they did not receive a US release until 2000.


1. THE AVALANCHES Since I Left You
2. TORI AMOS Scarlet's Walk
3. STEW The Naked Dutch Painter... and Other Songs
5. THE SHINS Chutes Too Narrow
7. KINGS OF CONVENIENCE Riot on an Empty Street
8. STEVE WYNN Here Come The Miracles
9. AIMEE MANN Bachelor # 2 (or the Last Remains of the Dodo)
12. STEW Guest Host
13. BELLE AND SEBASTIAN Dear Catastrophe Waitress
14. SAM PHILLIPS A Boot and A Shoe
15. PJ HARVEY Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
16. BLACK BOX RECORDER The Facts of Life
17. NELLIE MCKAY Get Away From Me
18. ALISON MOYET Hometime
20. DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE Transatlanticism
21. SLEATER-KINNEY All Hands on the Bad One
22. SUFJAN STEVENS Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State
23. GILLIAN WELCH Time (The Revelator)
24. BADLY DRAWN BOY About a Boy
25. AC NEWMAN The Slow Wonder



Unlike four years ago, you don’t really have a justifiable reason to protest. Bush won the election fairly, albeit by a small margin. I don’t like him and I dread another four years of him as our commander-in-chief, but there’s nothing rational any of us can do to get him out of office.

Someone brought this program to my attention. It wants you to protest in the form of “shut(ting) the retail economy down” by not spending money on anything this Thursday--groceries, gasoline, chewing gum--anything. By doing so, they argue you’ll send a message to the US government that you oppose this administration and the war in Iraq.

Unfortunately, spending “not one damn dime” on anything for a day will probably prove as effective as going down to DC and throwing rotten eggs at Bush’s limo. I work at a movie theater where most of the employees lean left in their politics. No one here probably voted for Bush, so why should we have to suffer? Should no one go to a movie on Thursday because Bush was re-elected president by less than a quarter of this country’s voting-age population? Should I forgo paying bus fare on one of the coldest days of the year and walk forty minutes to work in order to “shut my economy down”?

Bush doesn’t care about you unless you agree with him and are receptive to what he and his administration have to say. You are not going to change his mind about the war, gay marriage or federal support of the arts.

So, don’t tune in to coverage of the inauguration. Go out and live your lives the way you want to. Ignore the celebration occurring in DC and enjoy the civil liberties and personal freedom you still have. Visit a museum, an independent bookstore, a library (they’re government-funded too), a national park (weather providing), your favorite spot for lunch. If you wanted to protest Bush or the war and didn’t vote on November 2, you blew it. But don’t let the government bring you down. They are not the world or your life.



Apart from this, that, and the other thing, here’s what I’ve seen in the first half of the most boring month of the year.


Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films seem scarcely recognizable from his best-known work. Sometime after WEEKEND (1967), playfulness and accessibility gave way to pretension, intellectualism and something approaching anarchy—not really the gleeful, punk kind, but a strain more subversive and belabored. Truthfully, I haven’t seen much of his later work, apart from the button-pushing HAIL MARY (1985) (which I barely remember anything about) and the oblique, contentious IN PRAISE OF LOVE (2001).

His latest is his best received effort in decades. Though far from the most engaging “art” film I’ve seen in the past year (certainly nowhere near GOODBYE DRAGON INN or even PRIMER), its merits barely outweigh its debits. From what I can gather, NOTRE MUSIQUE is rumination on war, complacency and shifting/evolving political paradigms. As is typical of Godard, it’s structured into chapters: Hell and Heaven respectively (and briefly) open and close the film, while the intervening Purgatory makes up the bulk of it. Hell and Heaven both approach poetry, the former with an emotional montage of found footage dating back to Nazi Germany, the latter set entirely in a self-contained emulation of paradise that aptly feels like a dream. Purgatory, on the other hand, exists entirely in modern-day Sarajevo and resembles a free-form lecture, densely stringing together a journalist, a young female Russian-Jewish activist, a few Native Americans, cool camera tricks, and lots of discourse with little narrative holding it together.

I wish Godard aimed for more clarity in presenting all these ideas/images as a thesis, and to argue that the complexity of these issues doesn’t allow for it is a cop-out. But I can’t entirely dismiss this film for merely being obtuse. True, I did nod off at random moments throughout Purgatory, but at other instances, I felt wrapped up in Godard’s images, particularly one scene where the protagonist gradually, almost magically comes into focus. Unlike IN PRAISE OF LOVE, I can imagine returning to NOTRE MUSIQUE again, trying to fit its disparate puzzle pieces into place to at least get at Godard’s big picture, if one does indeed exist.


I never really paid much attention to Kevin Bacon until I finally saw DINER for the first time a few years ago. I was suitably impressed—his character was passionate, funny, tortured and ultimately tragic, not like death but of someone who just doesn’t recognize his own potential. In real life, you could say that Mickey Rourke’s career followed that path rather than Bacon’s, but until this decade, the latter’s claim to fame was arguably a party game based on his ubiquity rather than his value as an actor or a marquee name.

Although I initially praised Tim Robbins for his transformative role in MYSTIC RIVER, I now think Bacon gave that film’s key performance—certainly subtler, more restrained and internal than Robbins or fellow overacting Oscar winner Sean Penn. And now, Bacon flexes his chops in THE WOODSMAN, a disturbing little film about Walter, a man adjusting to life following a twelve year prison sentence. We don’t find out the nature of his crime until halfway through the film, and even though every bit of press emphasizes it, I’ve decided not to mention it here, either, for those few of you who haven’t heard what it is. I went into the film knowing why Walter was imprisoned, and I think I would’ve appreciated it more had I been kept in the dark (in the same way that John Cassavetes’ final film, LOVE STREAMS, is far more interesting if you don’t know the relationship between his and Gena Rowland’s characters going into the film).

So, THE WOODSMAN is about guilt, making bad choices, learning to live with an affliction and understanding how it affects the people you choose to surround yourself with. Although I found some of the film’s set-ups a tad implausible (and you might too, for crushingly obvious reasons), I never thought Walter himself was an unrealistic figure. Bacon could have played him as a saint or monster, but instead, he comes off unexpectedly sympathetic, even when we don’t fully comprehend his motivations or desires. Kyra Sedgwick is also good as the person who doesn’t necessarily provide Walter with his redemption, but at least guides him towards it. The rest of the cast is uneven: rapper Eve gracefully does what she can with a cipher role, but as a detective checking up on Walter, I couldn’t tell whether Mos Def was supposed to be misguided, evil or just stoned.

Fortunately, Bacon is right up there with Paul Giamatti regarding this year’s best lead actor: nuanced and controlled, he exudes as much presence as the film’s working-class Philadelphia neighborhoods.


Oh, those wacky Icelanders. Curious, deadpan piece about a slacker living in a remote village. Lots of great ideas and sight gags and a melancholy ending that doesn’t feel at all forced. Not as successful an exploration of quirk as KITCHEN STORIES, the work of Aki Kaurismaki, or REYKJAVIK 101, but not a waste of time, either.


Never have the spooky and the banal ever so wickedly vied for a viewer’s attention as they do in this low-budget mishmash of JAWS and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I’d say skip the first trite fifteen minutes and head straight to the water: whenever the stranded couple is in peril, the film’s engaging. Whenever they whine about their predicament, it’s annoying. Too bad that the film’s eerie, superb last ten minutes don’t entirely justify the ragged, uneven seventy that proceed them.


A sweet biopic about the PETER PAN author as portrayed by a competent (if oddly dull) Johnny Depp. I almost caught myself falling under its sentimental spell until I realized however well-executed and occasionally restrained, it’s still tugging at the heartstrings in the worst possible way in lieu of the most Academy Award nominations. As a friend would say, pleasant enough for schoolchildren, but everyone else should know better.



This Irish comedy is a delightful ensemble piece that really should've gotten more attention when it played theaters last year. It's sort of like SHORT CUTS or THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS in that there's a whole web of interlocking relationships between these characters which the viewer gradually pieces together. Somehow, it manages to steer clear of the THE FULL MONTY effect--it's quirky, but never precious or hard to swallow.

Playing a petty thief, Colin Farrell is the biggest name here (he should definitely stick to stuff like this instead of ALEXANDER) but some of the rest of the cast should be familiar if you've seen a lot of Irish or Scottish cinema: Cillian Murphy, Colm Meany and Shirley Henderson among many others. Everyone's good, but Henderson in particular is fabulous--let's just say she's hilarious and heartbreaking, and I felt like cheering when she told off her family early on. Not a profound first film for director john Crowley, but an awfully fun one.



I see a pattern emerging: Yet again, I saw more first-run films that played in Boston this year than ever before. As of today, I'm at around ninety if you add in everything I caught up with on DVD.

I'm skeptical to deem this the Year of the Documentary, because that's as arbitrary a designation as, say, the Year of the Woman (remember how they trotted 'em all out on the Oscars a decade back?). True, more people probably saw-- hell, noticed documentaries this year (which is encouraging), but the really great films I saw make up a disparate bunch.

2004 wasn't one of those knockout, magical alignment-of-the-spheres years for film like 1999 or 2001, and unlike the last four years, there wasn't an obvious choice for my absolute favorite. Since The Best Music of 2004 kinda burned me out on tight little capsule reviews, I'm attempting a slightly more conversational, essay-like format this year. (Also, expect an addendum if THE WOODSMAN, NORTE MUSIQUE, and other 2004 films I haven't seen yet turn out to be very good). Without further ado, here are...

Because it goes up to eleven:

11. DIG!

Ten months now since I saw THE RETURN, and it still remains firmly etched in memory, more so than anything else except for maybe TARNATION. I've desperately wanted to, um... return to it, but it hasn't screened anywhere else since, and a US DVD release date is still nonexistent.

If I could vividly remember my dreams, I'd like to think various images from this film still permeate them: the young brother, Ivan, left alone on a pier at the end of a violent sea at what could be the Edge of the World; the incessant, drenching rain that reappears throughout; the prodigal father's smoldering, unapproachable expressions (and glimpses of tenderness within them); the tracking shot of the masterfully executed climactic chase on the deserted island.

Like the work of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, director Andrei Zvyagintsev's debut feature is enigmatic and puzzling, full of long takes, pauses, situations that don't reach their logical conclusions and a fair amount of foreboding doom. But he's far more accessible and approachable and less wrapped up in his own metaphysical riddles. I love this film because it truly goes out a limb without ever seeming ridiculous or contrived or even pretentious. At the end, we're left with a slowly waking dream where the intense emotional journey far outweighs any literal outcome.

If anything, TARNATION suggests an even wider emotional palette. You could call Jonathan Caouette's poetic and associative collage of photos, videotapes, found footage and pop songs a documentary; I call it an autobiographical psychological portrait, a cinematic hallucinogenic, the ultimate underground non-fiction film. The hype regarding how Caouette stitched this together using iFilm for only $218 was inescapable and I dread the scores of inferior knockoffs to come. But TARNATION isn't self-indulgent wankery; Caouette has a life story worth hearing, and his act of artistic catharsis is the year's most innovative film, and at times, the most affecting as it traces his relationship with his mother.

BEFORE SUNSET and SIDEWAYS were technically romantic comedies (if I had to decide where I'd stock them in a video store), yet they seemed so far away from your average Meg Ryan or Kate Hudson vehicle. I don't think the world (apart from director Richard Linklater and co-stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) was wishing for a sequel to BEFORE SUNRISE (1995), a cute if slight film about a man and a woman who meet in Vienna, spend one exquisite night talking, talking, talking, and then part ways, presumably forever. What makes BEFORE SUNSET so revelatory, apart from the real-time pacing, the obvious chemistry of its two leads and a brilliant, daring ending, is simply how much Linklater has to say about the passage of time and getting older.

Much more explicitly comedic, SIDEWAYS is this year's buzz-building equivalent of LOST IN TRANSLATION: a generally plotless character study that places its leads on vacation (in this case, Californian wine country) and observes as they attempt to get over themselves and make connections. As expected, director Alexander Payne takes a more acerbic route than Sofia Coppola, and his humor is a shade darker, often sadder. But SIDEWAYS carries the spirit of those lovingly rambling, intelligently written, engagingly quirky early '70s films (HAROLD AND MAUDE, perhaps), and its cumulative pull and crisp, light touch make it a resonant, beautiful story worth returning to as much as ANNIE HALL.

The year's most controversial, polarizing film? DOGVILLE, which you either loved or hated with a passion. I stand by my earlier comment that everyone should have gone to see Lars von Trier's bold, disturbing masterpiece instead of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. I don't always enjoy movies that make me squirm (esp. the loathsome REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), and I can't say I embrace von Trier's misogyny. But before you dismiss DOGVILLE for its conceptual stunts or three-hour running time or as an anti-American diatribe, listen to the wise conclusions he makes regarding utilitarianism and cruelty inherent in human nature. It's not a pretty picture, but it leaves everything out in the open for all to scrutinize, audaciously examining what people choose to see and to ignore.

Wes Anderson burrows further down his own rabbit hole with THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, and that's not a criticism. For me, Anderson's films don't seem contrived because you always feel that he loves and believes in his characters, even if they are occasionally assholes (and Steve Zissou often complies). In addition to the 1000+ words I've recently written on this, I'll just add that movies were meant to conceptualize/realize worlds like this one, and I suspect it'll age nearly as well as the more contained universe of 111 Archer Avenue in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.

David Gordon Green is a director I've previously admired more than embraced, but his southern gothic UNDERTOW is his first effort that I've unconditionally loved. Well, maybe I still don't get why the young brother keeps eating all that lead paint when, hello, he KNOWS how sick it's making him! But this strange, enchanting, out-of-time take on NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a spooky, underappreciated gem with an outstanding lead performance from Jamie Bell that should shock anyone who remembers him from BILLY ELLIOT (and silence those who thought he was unworthy of an Oscar nomination for that film).

Next to THE LIFE AQUATIC, Guy Maddin's THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD was the year's most anticipated release, and it did not disappoint, voluptuous beer-filled glass legs and all. Maddin's deliberately antiquated style is as ingenuous and unparalleled as ever, but he's finally come up with a narrative as involving and intelligible to boot. This also features what is perhaps the year's finest cast, from Mark McKinney's pimp of a songwriter to Isabella Rossellini's regal, tiara-sheathed, ultimately tragic beer baroness heroine.

A film about female genital mutilation rites in a remote Senegalese tribe isn't going to pack them in at the Loews (or even the Landmark). That's a shame, because Ousmane Sembene's masterful MOOLAADE is an uplifting feminist fable where you can feel the world shifting, evolving, even, from an established set of social mores to the next frightening, thrilling, unforeseen level.

I "turned" this list up to eleven, because the next two films are equally deserving of the last slot. The first, Tsai Ming-Liang's GOODBYE DRAGON INN channels the Taiwanese director's obsessions (rain, crumbling landmarks, disconnectedness and Jacques Tati) into a meditative tone poem for the movie theatre-as-cultural cathedral. In my opinion, it's not as disciplined as his last film, WHAT TIME IS IT THERE, but still pretty stunning, as it ends up conveying an entire world of stories and a lifetime of emotions within its spatially constricted borders.

DIG!, on the other hand, swirlingly taps into the zeitgeist of trying to be a rock and roll star (or an iconoclastic musician) in the post-alternative rock fallout of the late '90s. Tracking the topsy-turvy relationship between two bands with eccentric names (The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre), Ondi Timoner's documentary plays like a deeper, up-and-comer's version of BEHIND THE MUSIC. Stuffed with fascinating personalities (particularly mad genius BJM leader Anton Newcombe), cool music and lots of fizzy energy, it's an important, entertaining time capsule.

Honorable Mentions (in order):

Mike Leigh's VERA DRAKE featured a remarkable lead performance from Imelda Staunton and the sensitive, fine-tuned attention to character and class difference you'd expect from Leigh. It just misses the top eleven because it's lacking something his last film had, the less accessible but somehow more powerful ALL OR NOTHING.

TIME OF THE WOLF was eerie and unsettling, a much more plausible take on impending apocalypse and societal breakdown than THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW; it also boasted the year's most inventive cinematography.

Need I go on about MONSTER, a 2003 film that didn't open in Boston until January? Except to say that I still can't believe what Charlize Theron, an actress of previous little consequence, pulled off. What a stunning transformation (and if you still don't believe it, go see AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER).

THE INCREDIBLES flew leaps and bounds ahead of previous Pixar entry FINDING NEMO (all it lacked was Ellen DeGeneres), thanks to Brad Bird, our finest contemporary animator outside of Hayao Miyazaki.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND was both a tease and a trip, an epic Chinese box and hall of mirrors, at once the year's most cerebral and silliest film, with an uncommonly subdued Jim Carrey proving he's not just a comedian, or a mimic, but an actor.

As with MOOLAADE, I can't imagine many people went to see MARIA FULL OF GRACE on a first date (at least intentionally). No matter; Joshua Marston's more-riveting than-depressing film about Colombian drug mules is the year's most assured debut (outside of Jonathan Caouette, anyway).

As literary bio-docs go, BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS is one of the best ever: it moves you to rush out and devour the subject's back catalogue, even if you've never cared to before.

I HEART HUCKABEES gave ETERNAL SUNSHINE a run for its money in the silliness department, but it had the year's greatest, most insane cast, and Russell should be celebrated merely for making a film about exploring ideas in such less-than-sunny times.

The uncharacteristically plot-driven BAD EDUCATION frankly lacked the emotional impact of Pedro Almodovar's last two or three films, but it made for a scintillating, pulpy concoction nonetheless, with Gael Garcia Bernal delivering his best work thus far in the unlikely guise of drag queen Zahara.

Compared to the definitive SHERMAN'S MARCH, I guess BRIGHT LEAVES was minor McElwee, but Ross' latest cinematic memoir felt like a cherished visit from an old friend. Revolving around his family's forgotten place in the tobacco industry, McElwee proved he still does the documentarian-as-subject thing better than anyone else.

These receive 3.5 or 4 stars/cats/everlasting gobstoppers from me (out of a possible 5), in alphabetical order:

The Agronomist, Being Julia, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Broadway: The Golden Age, The Corporation, Crimson Gold, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, Father and Son, The Fog of War, Goodbye Lenin, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, A Home at the End of the World, House of Flying Daggers, How to Draw a Bunny, Incident at Loch Ness, Kill Bill Volume 2, Kinsey, Last Life in the Universe, Lucas Belvaux's The Trilogy (particularly After The Life), The Manchurian Candidate, Millennium Mambo, Napoleon Dynamite, Nosey Parker, Primer, Screaming Men, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, A Very Long Engagement, The Yes Men.


1. AU HAZARD BALTHAZAR (Kendall Square)
I suspect a Criterion Collection edition of Robert Bresson's masterpiece is imminent.

2. CHELSEA GIRLS and LONESOME COWBOYS (Harvard Film Archive)
Man, won't any Warhol ever get released on DVD (or even VHS)?

3. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (Kendall Square)
As painstaking and eloquent a re-creation of war as you're likely to see.

4. SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (Museum of Fine Arts)
Silent cinema had no place to further develop after this symphonic, heartbreaking work of art.

France probably never looked so lovely or strange.


The aptly named A DIRTY SHAME easily wins the dubious distinction of the year's biggest disappointment, not to mention most wasted opportunity. Obvious, tired and screamingly one-note, John Waters was once capable of so much more than this. The only thing salvageable from such a mess is Tracey Ullman's giddy turn as the wonderfully-named Sylvia Stickles.


FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (although who really cares, post-November 2?)
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (though pretty to look at)
HERO (doubly so)
THE DREAMERS (I enjoy Roger Ebert's criticism, but I wince when he gives 4 stars to crap like this)
GARDEN STATE (the compromised ending nearly sinks the entire film; no wait, it does sink it)


NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (you either get in touch with your inner geek and get it, or you don't)
A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD (not a perfect adaptation, but likable, restrained, and effectively poignant)
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (wait another year or two and I bet this'll have nearly as a fervent a following as THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS does now)


He's come a long way since PRIVATE PARTS: who ever knew Pig Vomit had it in him? Even better than his turn as Harvey Pekar in last year's AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Giamatti comes off like a more tragic, less hammy Richard Dreyfuss.

(Also good:)
Jamie Bell (UNDERTOW)
Konstantin Lavronenko (THE RETURN)
George Lyford (NOSEY PARKER)
Gael Garcia Bernal (BAD EDUCATION)

So much more than a pretty, glistening face, Delpy is this film's soul. Watch as she wants to comfort Ethan Hawke in their cab ride, but hesitates, knowing the moment's complexity and comprehending how a wrong gesture could ruin everything. Oh, and her song at the end moved me to tears.

Imelda Staunton (VERA DRAKE)
Nicole Kidman (DOGVILLE)
Catalina Sandino Moreno (MARIA FULL OF GRACE)
Fatoumata Coulibaly (MOOLAADE)
Charlize Theron (MONSTER)
Annette Bening (BEING JULIA)
Anne Reid (THE MOTHER)

You'd expect Dafoe to steal every scene he's in, but as Klaus Daimler, he's never been as scrappy, funny, or just gosh darn lovable. His climactic confrontations throughout the film are both side-splitting and, in a way, tender.

Peter Sarsgaard (KINSEY and GARDEN STATE)
Thomas Haden Church (SIDEWAYS)
Dustin Hoffman (I HEART HUCKABEES)
Macaulay Culkin (SAVED!)

A tiny, truncated role for Spacek, but she invests so much passion in it you wish they would've built the entire film around her. After the pot-smoking-in-the-boys-bedroom scene, wouldn't you just love to have her for a mom?

Virginia Madsen (SIDEWAYS)
Sandra Oh (SIDEWAYS and RICK)
Isabelle Huppert (I HEART HUCKABEES)

Guiding his two leads to career performances, Linklater takes a big risk by attempting a sequel few thought was necessary. I've heard people erroneously call some sequels "better than the first", but this is one of the few and proud second cinematic chapters, an American equivalent to an Eric Rohmer film, a work of beauty and grace.

Jonathan Caouette (TARNATION)
Andrei Zvyagintsev (THE RETURN)
Lars von Trier (DOGVILLE)
Michael Haneke (TIME OF THE WOLF)

I doubt I'll ever forget a scene from this film that begins in total darkness. Then, a flame emerges near the right background, so slowly and ominously, gradually revealing its impetus. That final, undulating tracking shot out the train window is similarly sinister and hypnotic.

Christopher Doyle (HERO and LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE)
Mikhail Krichman (THE RETURN)

Just when you can no longer bear von Trier's parable of cruelty and power, it thrillingly turns back on itself into a cathartic, blazing conclusion that's the polar opposite of BEFORE SUNSET'S in temperament, but just as surprising.

Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy (BEFORE SUNSET)
Vladimir Moiseyenko, Aleksandr Novototsky (THE RETURN)
Shane Carruth (PRIMER)

For a plot that doesn't strain for any high concept... for that lengthy, intimate scene where Giamatti and Madsen talk in metaphor and end up bearing their souls to each other... for the uproarious engagement ring retrieving scene... for the bittersweet, delicately-handled ending.

Krzysztof Kieslowski (BIG ANIMAL)
David Gordon Green and Joe Conway (UNDERTOW)
Michael Cunningham (A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD)



I’m amused when people just can’t get past how indisputably quirky Wes Anderson’s films are; I’m slightly annoyed when they dismiss them as overly ironic (when the films are as devoid of actual irony as a certain Alanis Morissette song); however, I’m really irritated when they accuse Anderson of being soulless and smug, as if he created carefully controlled, precocious art-snob projects for only his own amusement.

I practically take such condemnations personally, because if I had to compile a list of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, Anderson would be near or at the top of it. You can measure a good film by how often you desire to return to it. Each time I’ve seen RUSHMORE (1998), THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), and even the comparatively minor BOTTLE ROCKET (1996), it’s been a richer, more rewarding experience.

This goes far beyond picking up on every little detail packed into each dense, obsessively-storyboarded frame. With every viewing, these films resonate more for me, and damned if I can figure out exactly what Anderson’s doing right (and what other directors are doing wrong). Perhaps it’s the complex, often uneasy tonal shifts in dialogue and narrative, or the ability to really take in everything on additional viewings after the first one’s initial bombardment/sensory overload, or even the idea that what once seems deadpan, out of left field and flat, takes on layers of meaning after you know the whole story.

I just saw Anderson’s fourth feature for the second time, and I feel much more confident that it’s not a letdown following TENENBAUMS. To give a brief plot summary, the film is its titular character (Bill Murray), an aging celebrity oceanographer/filmmaker in the Jacques Cousteau mold. At an Italian premiere of his latest documentary, he meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a soft-spoken air pilot from Kentucky claiming to be his illegitimate son. With funding for his films on the skids, Steve invites Ned (who has recently lost his mother and inherited some money) to become a member of Team Zissou (“order him a red cap and a Speedo”), a truly motley crew/entourage that, among many others, includes Klaus (Willem Dafoe), a scrappy German sidekick and Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), Steve’s brilliant (clearly the brains of the operation from the moment we see her) but estranged wife.

Along with Jane, an uptight, pregnant British reporter (Cate Blanchett) whom more or less fits right in, they set sail in search of the mythical “jaguar shark” that ate Steve’s second-in-command, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) in his last film; more importantly, they’re making a sequel in hopes to restore Steve to his past glories. Early on, we see how fixated he is with his public image, to the point where the expeditions teem with contrivances staged for the camera. But to say that Anderson (and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach) has painted Steve as nothing but an obnoxious megalomaniac is incorrect. Yes, Steve makes his share of misguided decisions (such repeatedly referring to Jane as a “bulldyke” because she won’t respond to his advances) and gradually alienates at least half of his crew.

You also never forget that Steve’s an ineffably sad man—such melancholy suffuses this film more than any of Anderson’s previous works. Yet, although he’s pitiable to a degree Royal Tenenbaum would never allow himself to be, Steve still turns out a sympathetic character. Much of that stems from Murray’s marvelous performance, which exudes the weariness and understated demeanor that he previously revealed in RUSHMORE and LOST IN TRANSLATION. What makes it tricky is that Steve often is an asshole, and Anderson and Baumbach haven’t necessarily written a story of redemption. By the end, however, after he reads Jane’s article on him, he admits that while he initially didn’t like her portrayal, he concludes that he was that person that said and did those things, so he accepts himself, warts and all. It’s an incredibly touching moment.

Before reaching its requisite-for-Anderson slow-motion final shot, THE LIFE AQUATIC makes room for the usual expository montages (watch for the early one that introduces us to Steve’s ship, the Belafonte, as an actual-size diorama) throwaway gags, and emphasis on unrequited love and fractured familial relations. And also a few acts of theft, a mutiny, a pirate attack (!), a rescue mission, a three-legged dog, reconciliations, deaths and moments (even a few entire scenes) that add nothing to the narrative except awe and maybe enlightenment. After my first viewing a month ago, I complained that Anderson was repeating himself, and it does include all of his trademarks, right from the opening frame’s Mark Mothersbaugh score (by the way, Mothersbaugh really outdoes himself here, vacillating between oldfangled classical orchestration and Devo-like electronica, with lots of vintage Bowie in between and interpretations thereof that make up the film’s quirkiest but loveliest running gag). Still, this is clearly a bigger, bolder film than Anderson has ever before attempted, packed with exotic locales, mind-blowing sets (particularly the desert island hotel), actual action sequences (still way weirder than anything you’ll see in a Schwarzenegger film) and a dazzling assortment of Henry Selick-designed stop-animation sea creatures.

As you’d expect, THE LIFE AQUATIC is frequently hilarious, with great comedic turns from Jeff Goldblum (oddball as ever as Steve’s nemesis/Eleanor’s ex-husband), Bud Cort (as a “company stooge” who delivers the film’s best punchline) and especially Dafoe, who plays what could’ve been a one-note character with so much gusto that you can imagine building an entire project around him. But the film’s also really sad, often simultaneously, and I think that’s the problem most people have with Anderson. For example, he follows the most devastating tearjerker of a scene with a laugh-out-loud funny one. Most films don’t do this (and probably couldn’t get away with it if they tried), but Anderson continually does, and it’s not just for comic relief. His films practically scream out the notion that life is equal parts angst and bliss. To suggest that both are viable options is not what some people want to hear, particularly from their entertainment.

Anderson has received the most mixed reviews of his career with this film; the only lingering fault I have with it is that those tonal shifts aren’t as smooth or disciplined as they were in TENENBAUMS. At my second viewing, a few people even walked out at random moments. Fortunately, most stayed and many were receptive, laughing at the jokes and even gasping at the more startling narrative turns. This film’s scattered enthusiastic reviews (most notably Peter Keough’s) have likened watching it to the “mechanics of dreaming”. I’ll add that THE LIFE AQUATIC is indeed a wonderful dream (or as Steve concludes at the end, an “adventure”), but one still very much the stuff of real, relatable, occasionally messy human emotions and trials.