Saturday, February 28, 2009

What can I get ya, spring chicken?

The Wrestler is a movie for children of the eighties. Though the film's archetypal underdog story is surely familiar to audiences of any age, I suspect the film has particular resonance for anyone who grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whether one liked wrestling or not, it was a constant part of our lives - oh, to think of all those wasted hours getting my ass kicked at WWF Royal Rumble on SNES - and, like most ephemeral crap culture, a projection of the values that, as kids, we were just learning were ours to inherit. While pro wrestling is as popular as ever, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the titular character, is very much a product of an era when our heroes wore neon green pants and our villians had names like The Ayatollah. A walking anachronism living in the shadow of long-ago victories, Randy is of course played Mickey Rourke, that preternaturally gifted actor who, not too long ago, seemed like he was headed for the dustbin of history. That Rourke's story mirrors Randy's in many ways has been played up for months, but his performance is more than an act of pop-culture verisimilitude. Rourke's sensitivity, intelligence and complete lack of vanity, coupled the meticulously observed direction of Darren Aronofsky, create an unforgettable portrait of a man in tights (physically and emotionally!).

The excellent opening credits sequence, a collage of fliers and wrestling mags scored with Quiet Riot's "(Bang Your Head) Metal Health" (Randy's theme, which we'll hear throughout the film), gives us a glimpse of the height of Randy's celebrity before we're introduced to The Ram as an aging burlyman barely getting by on matches at small regional venues. Aronofsky's protagonists are frequently driven to obsessive lengths to recapture some perfect memory - a child's high school graduation, or a romantic walk in the snow - destroying themselves in the process. For Randy, the distant hope of "a ticket back to the top" drives him to put his body through incredible amounts of abuse for the sake of an ever-diminishing audience. Countless reviewers of The Wrestler have cited Barthes' essay on wrestling (and more felt the need to mention Marisa Tomei's breasts), and the film's scenes in the ring, particularly a punishing match with The Necrobutcher (playing himself), underline the sport's increasing nihilism. What makes Randy so poignant is that he's a one-trick pony (as Bruce Springsteen sings in the title track) who truly believes in the cliches behind wrestling - when he's driving around in his van listening to old metal ballads, his complete faith in the prefabricated values he embodies is unbelievably poignant. If the script by Robert Siegel, which finds Randy attempting to romance stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), seems formulaic, it's only because Randy can only begin to understand his loneliness, regret and fear of anonymity through cliche. Armond White's complaint that the film is anti-spiritual completely misses the point - The Wrestler is about characters trying to find meaning in lives completely divorced from the real. It's perfect that, when Cassidy inevitably compares Randy to Christ, she's not referencing not the Bible but The Passion of the Christ.

What makes Rourke's performance so astonishing is his ability to take a character who is always, to some extent, performing, and allow us to glimpse the inarticulate despair underneath. When Randy attempts to reconcile with his daughter, we can tell that he's rehearsed this speech many times, but we also know that he means every word (Wood is excellent and underrated in a part mostly built on emotional traumas we never see). As the film follows Randy's every move, we come to see how his need to please the fans comes from a generosity of spirit - even when he's stuck working at a supermarket deli counter, he tries to give each customer a fun, memorable experience (like Paul Clark, I'd gladly watch another half-hour of deli scenes). At the same time, Randy's a self-pitying narcissist, and the film doesn't shy away from his worst moments. It's a credit to Aronofsky, though, that he never takes a condescending or judgemental approach to the character, asking only that we try to understand him. This approach extends to Cassidy, who doesn't get as much screentime but, thanks largely to Tomei's fantastic performance, we come to realize is hardly ever telling us (or Randy) what she's really feeling even as Tomei tells us everything we need to know about her - the conflict between her fear (like Randy) of losing the thing she's great at to age and her increasing acceptance of a life away from the security of a stage.

It'd be wrong to label the documentary-style filmmaking strategy - all handheld and available light - a return to Aronofsky's roots, because even when he his films were low-budget, they were never this stripped-down. It takes a great deal of confidence to abandon all directorial artifice and trust in the story and performances to carry the movie, and the approach pays off wonderfully here. As DP Maryse Alberti follows Randy into the harsh flourescent lights of his day job and the barely-lit club where Cassidy works, we're overwhelmed by the oppressive banality of Randy's life. When contrasted against the startling immediacy of the scenes in the ring, we start to understand why Randy is stuck in the past, even if that proves to be his undoing. The first time I saw The Wrestler, I found the conclusion frustrating, as there were several more appropriate resolutions for The Ram. Watching it again the other night, though the similarity to a certain series finale was still a bit distracting, I realized that, frustrating though it may be, it's the only ending that makes sense . Randy is never going to do the reasonable thing, and it's to Aronofsky and Rourke's great credit that we love him for it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"And now let's head down to the awards - the Hollywood Awards!"

Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle, Penn, Winslet, Ledger, Davis. Those are my predictions for who will take home Oscars tonight, and who cares why. Tonight promises to be one of the most predictable Oscar ceremonies in memory, and I don't know anyone who feels tonight's nominees reflect the best that 2008 had to offer (after the one-two punch of Scorsese and the Coens winning, the comedown was inevitable). Here's who I'll be rooting for tonight, in any case (longer write-ups of some of these are still ahead):

Best Picture - Slumdog Millionaire is as sure a bet as I can remember, and it's totally undeserving. The Mumbai-set Cinderella story is sometimes entertaining and features a terrific performance by Anil Kapoor as a game show host, but I was unmoved by the generic central romance, and there are literally hundreds more interesting devices to explore the machinations of fate than a game show. It's superficial and patronizing and, at its worst, borders on exploitation of its impoverished child actors. I haven't seen Frost/Nixon or The Reader. Milk was a bit more conventional than I'd hoped, but it's still a very good film and its heart is in the right place, so I wouldn't mind if it won. I guess I'm rooting for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher's strange and compelling epic; still, it's the first time in thirteen years that no film I truly love is in the race, so I won't cry at its inevitable loss to the chai wallah.

Best Director - Same. Not much else to say except, really, Danny Boyle is becoming an increasingly superficial director, and I'm sick of that self-satisfied grin plastered on his face at every awards ceremony like he's the cat who got the cream. Still like Trainspotting, though. Also, consider that Stephen Daldry now has as many Best Director nominations as Stanley Kubrick.

Best Actor - It's great seeing Richard Jenkins finally get some recognition, and his performance in The Visitor is subtle and impressive, but the movie is kind of boring. Brad Pitt is better in Benjamin Button than people are giving him credit for, but he's better as Chad Feldheimer. Sean Penn goes full-gay in Milk and gives the warmest and most moving performance of his career, and he certainly deserves the win. Still, it would sting to see even Penn take it away from Mickey Rourke, whose Randy the Ram is the most heartbreaking performance of the year. He knocks it out of the ballpark, everyone loves a comeback, and who doesn't want to hear the Mick's acceptance speech?

Best Actress - Kate Winslet is my favorite actress working today and I'd love to see her win, but I keep putting off seeing The Reader because it frankly sounds terrible and I fear this is indeed a "Career Achievement Award." I haven't seen Changeling, and though Meryl Streep and the rest of the cast of Doubt does strong work, I can't separate the performances from the hoariness of the script and direction. Melissa Leo is terrific in Frozen River, and if she won it'd be a great "triumph of the underdog" moment. But I'll be rooting for Anne Hathaway, who as the self-destructive Kym in Rachel Getting Married manages to invoke our sympathies for a complicated and potentially unlikable character.

Best Supporting Actor - This is maybe the strongest category this year, but I'd hate to be the actor who, in a surprise victory, steals it from Heath Ledger. His victory has been preordained since early last year, which would be irritating if the Joker wasn't also the performance of the year. I love Robert Downey Jr., but if the geezer faction of the Academy gives it to him as some statement that Iron Man was better, it'll be as groan-worthy as Rob Lowe and Snow White.

Best Supporting Actress - If anyone from Doubt is going to win it should be Viola Davis, who lent the film its few moments of emotional plausibility, and I suspect she may upset frontrunner Penelope Cruz (who was great as a passionate, impulsive artist in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). I like Taraji P. Henson more than most, I suspect. But I'll be rooting for Marisa Tomei, whose aging stripper Pam is as responsible for The Wrestler's emotional impact as Rourke, and who totally proves herself worthy of that first Oscar.

Best Original Screenplay - I said this in the Muriels comments as well: I just don't get In Bruges, and I say this as someone who acted in a McDonagh play and found it brilliant. I'm willing to have someone explain this to me. Milk is very good, but my few problems with it can be traced back to the script. I haven't seen Happy-Go-Lucky, and I was slightly less enthusiastic with Frozen River as a film than with Leo's performance. So I'll go with Wall-E, because nobody puts as much importance in story as Pixar, and because it should have been nominated for Best Picture.

Best Adapted Screenplay - Hmmm. I haven't seen two of these, didn't care for two more, and the flaws that kept Benjamin Button from masterpiece status are clearly attributable for Eric Roth's script. Whatever.

Best Cinematography - Some strong nominees here. I did like the look of Slumdog Millionaire, though Anthony Dod Mantle's gorgeous cinematography was rendered incomprehensible by the seizure-inducing editing. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has perhaps the most gorgeous digital cinematography yet, but the need to shoot slo-mo scenes on 35mm (including the movie's most striking image) points to the format's ongoing limitations. I'll definitely be rooting for the IMAX-enhanced beauty of The Dark Knight.

Best Editing - Ditto The Dark Knight. Where others saw incoherence, I saw a brilliant economy of storytelling.

Best Art Direction - Gotta go with the attractive, antiseptic surfaces of Revolutionary Road that threatened to suffocate those poor Wheelers at any moment.

Best Costume Design - I hope the fashions on display in Milk come back very soon.

Best Makeup - All of these would be fine winners, but I'll go with the aging makeups of Benjamin Button...

Best Visual Effects -
...which were seamlessly blended with some of the subtlest, most believable CG character work in memory.

Best Sound - The squeal of the Batpod winding through an office building rocked my socks off.

Best Sound Editing - Consider that everything in Wall-E had to be created from scratch, and it's the obvious winner. Go Ben Burtt!

Best Score - Danny Elfman's score for Milk is surprising even as it recalls some of his best work, but Thomas Newman's score for Wall-E is weird, romantic and delightful.

Best Song - After three weeks of Slumdog Millionaire at Images Cinema, I've heard enough "Jai Ho" for this and the next lifetime. Go, Sledgehammer!

Best Animated Film - Wall-E.

Best Documentary Feature - Man on Wire will probably win, and it's very good. But how great would it be to see Herzog up there?

No opinion on shorts, etc., so I'll stop here. Here's hoping for a night of Rourke and Herzog acceptance speeches, and if not that, let's hope Jerry Lewis says "Polack" at least once. Good luck staying awake, everyone!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Glad to be weirdly close.

I've never understood why "depressing" is routinely thrown around as a criticism for films that deal with loneliness and despair. To me, a depressing movie is something like Confessions of a Shopaholic, Fool's Gold or anything else that cynically sidesteps any real connection to human experience under the guise of escapism. When a filmmaker takes an honest look at our anxieties, weaknesses and particularly our mortality, it's like a spiritual palate cleanser - I leave the theater feeling refreshed and upbeat. Charlie Kaufman has never shied away from downbeat material; his protagonists are frequently caught in existential crises they haven't necessarily defeated by the end credits, and the humor in his films springs from heartache, insecurity and self-loathing. The darker aspects of Kaufman's screenplays have previously been offset by the more playful sensibilities of directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, so Synecdoche, New York is perhaps the purest realization of his unsparing yet humane vision. There's no question that Kaufman's maddeningly dense directorial debut is an extremely daunting experience and, particuarly for artists and creative types, one that cuts to the bone. A film about the ways that art allows us to create meaning in a world that often seems meaningless, Synecdoche, New York levelled me, and yet few films have left me feeling so fearfully alive.

Since Kaufman's protagonist, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a theater director, it's tempting to read Synecdoche, New York as autobiographical (to be fair, casting oneself as the lead in a previous screenplay sort of invites this reading). But Kaufman's protagonists are almost always artists, and as a story of the creative process, the film is more personal than self-referential; as with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the biggest conflict here is the divide between what we aspire to create and our own frailties. When we meet Caden, his marriage to painter Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is failing and he's suffering through a series of mysterious ailments that, among other things, deprive him of the ability to salivate or cry. The early scenes of Caden directing a regional production of Death of a Salesman tell us how to read the rest of the film; "Everyone is disappointing the more you know someone," Adele tells Caden, and Caden's directions to his actors double as Kaufman's suggestion that drama is an attempt to understand these disappointments and, perhaps, to find something sublime in our imperfect lives. A scene where Caden reminds a room of actors that someday they'll all be dead should ring true for any director, whose job it is to sometimes make everyone around him feel completely terrible (and what does this say about anyone who would want this job?).

Adele's paintings are extremely small-scale, while Caden, who is awarded a MacArthur genius grant and uses the money to stage an experimental theatre piece inside an enormous warehouse, finds his own work becoming more and more elephantine. As the play expands over the years to encompass everyone in Caden's life and, eventually, a Caden double named Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) who has been observing Caden for years, the film also grows beyond the dramas of Caden's life - his second marriage to narcissistic actress Claire (Michelle Williams), his search for his estranged daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein as a kid, Robin Weigert as an adult) and his bittersweet friendship with his soulmate Hazel (Samantha Morton), who lives in a house that is always on fire - to encompass our collective drama, even hinting at the dystopian future we fear awaits us around the corner. Synecdoche, New York began with a studio exec's suggestion that Kaufman try writing a horror movie, and it often plays like a realization of our worst nightmares; this may be why many critics and audience members have rejected it as completely unpalatable (the multiple shots of characters examining their own shit probably didn't help either). But the film's dourness is offset by two things. First, it's extremely subjective, taking as its POV a struggling artist, a particularly difficult breed of human being (my wife is a saint). While I've encountered artists like Adele who choose to only experience the enjoyable aspects of life, I've never really understood how they pull that off (Olive's fate suggests that this is unadvisable, in any case). Second, if cinema is a collective art form, than the catharsis in the face of misery I described in my opening can be a powerful shared experience - though it's Hoffman's character in Doubt who preaches that doubt can be a powerful bond, it's Kaufman's film that realizes that concept more fully than the other, heavy-handed and stage-bound film can begin to. Besides, Synecdoche, New York is hardly two hours of suffering - it's too funny and compassionate, too self-deprecating in its unhappiness (note the multiple scenes where Caden cries during sex), too recognizably human to dismiss.

Kaufman is met in his outsized ambitions by Hoffman (never better) and the murderer's row of actresses playing the women who make up Caden's universe (why is it that movies about directing are always also about fucking?). I pretty much fell in love with Morton's Hazel, who is always at Caden's side but rarely says what she's really feeling, and the casting of Emily Watson as Morton's double is as delightful a metatextual high-wire act as the double team of Noonan and Diane Wiest as Caden's masculine and feminine selves. They and the rest of the cast admirably rise to the occassion of pulling off the emotional and conceptual obstacles Kaufman has constructed for them - as a FFC commenter pointed out, only Kaufman could construct a heartbreaking scene around the line "I'm sorry for abandoning you to have anal sex with my homosexual lover, Eric." Director of photography Frederick Elmes and production designer Mark Friedburg also deserve a great deal of credit for creating the flat, slightly dated world of the film, which grows more and more surreal as it progresses. And Jon Brion's score is a masterpiece of sustained anxiety - all of these elements together result in a film that is mostly about the anticipation of terrible or wonderful or important moments that, when they arrive, are over before we've realized it. Which would seem psychotic if it weren't generally true.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Top 10: 2008

You know what was a terrible year for movies? 1992. There were a few great ones, and a few others (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Alien 3) I like more than most, but otherwise it was stuff like Encino Man and Ladybugs all year long. Compared to 1992, 2008 looks pretty good, but there's no question that it was a so-so year, and a disappointment after the flood of greatness that was 2007. Still, the year ended pretty strongly, so what follows is a list of a handful of excellent movies and several more great or very good ones. It was one of those in-between years that found established auteurs experimenting with new genres and techniques with mixed but fascinating results. And while the prestige movies sometimes underwhelmed, it was a better-than-average year for popcorn movies, two of which made my top three. 2008 was too much of a grab bag for an overriding thesis; suffice to say that there was greatness out there, often in the most surprising of places.

Movies I haven't seen yet (curse you, limited release!): Let the Right One In, Happy-Go-Lucky, Wendy and Lucy, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Gran Torino, Ballast, Waltz with Bashir, Hunger, The Duchess of Langeais, W

Underappreciated: Speed Racer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. C'mon, lighten up.

Movie I Wanted to Like: Forgetting Sarah Marshall came highly recommended by several friends whose opinions I trust. I know I'm probably overthinking it, but it just seemed regressive, hypocritical and sad. However...

Performances I Liked in Movies I Didn't: Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire, the cast of Doubt

Biggest Academy Awards Mystery: How Synedcoche, New York, the best and most original screenplay of the year, was overlooked in favor of In Bruges, which isn't original at all. I know it isn't Most Original Screenplay, but still...

Best Repertory Screening: Blade Runner with Q&A by Doug Trumbull was awesome, but the digital projection, while pristine, felt a little odd, like I was watching the movie in an enormous home theater. So I'll go with Halloween at the Brattle - a collector's 35mm print, pink, faded and beautiful.

Best First-Run Screening: The Dark Knight with a sold-out, captivated audience.

Worst Movie of the Year: The Happening. Greg, I'm actually fascinated to hear more about why it was the best of the year for you.

Worst Movie I Loved: Mamma Mia!

Best Blog Comment: "What's truly sad, Bemis, is the sarcastic, elitist, snobbish cynical universe YOU apparently occupy, in which even a cheery 'Hello' would have hideously naive meaning and give rise to the opportunity yet again to elevate yourself by putting down everyone else. Screw your elitist stupidity, Mama Mia was a blast, and that means it succeeded. PLEASE get some therapy! - An Author"

Most Anticipated in 2009: Inglorious Basterds, Shutter Island, The Tree of Life, Watchmen, Public Enemies, Where the Wild Things Are

And the list:

1. The Dark Knight Not much to say that hasn't been said already, but this is worth repeating: Heath Ledger is so scary in this it's unreal. I can imagine his Joker hooking up with Anton Chigurh and the Zodiac for the most disturbing buddy movie ever made. Ledger so thoroughly inhabits his character with every tic and gesture that it's easy to conclude that if you took him out of the picture, The Dark Knight wouldn't be nearly as effective or popular. But, of course, he is in the movie, and is the heart of Christopher Nolan's amazing portrait of a hero and a city at war not with its villian but what he personifies - entropy. It's the greatest balancing act of the year, honoring its source while reaching far beyond our expectations of what a "superhero movie" can be, never losing sight of its characters and complex storyline while still satisfying our appetite for visceral thrills. Is Batman a neocon? Did the geeks overreact? I don't care; once its moment in the zeitgeist has passed, The Dark Knight will still be an troubling, strange and exhilarating pop masterpiece.

2. Synecdoche, New York A movie that made me feel absolutely terrible for several days, and I can't stop telling anyone who will listen that they need to see it. Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, about a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) going to grandiose lengths to create the illusion of meaning in his life, has been accused of solipsism, but it's far too honest and self-deprecating for that. Funny because it's so horribly, horribly true, Kaufman strips down the artist's pretensions and ambitions to reveal the basic, unflattering truth: those of us who make art, who are compelled to collaborate, do so because we're afraid to die and we don't want to be alone. How wonderfully odd that a movie filled with medical horrors, shit, pain and heartbreak could ultimately reveal itself to filled with such compassion and empathy.

3. Wall-E My daughter doesn't really care for Wall-E, which is fair enough - at one-and-a-half, it makes sense that Monsters Inc. is more her speed. But I can't wait until the kids are old enough to share this one with me, because it's such a bold, imaginative entertainment and because it may be the best introduction for a sensitive young mind like Luna's into the state of the time and place she was born into. A message movie that avoids heavy-handedness in favor of the simple plea that we remember to love the world we live in, Wall-E loves its young audience too much to lie to it, but in offering hope without cheating or pandering, it ranks as Pixar's best (and that's saying a lot) and stands alongside the 60's and 70's sci-fi classics it pays loving homage to.

4. Revolutionary Road The most misunderstood movie on my list. It's fair to assume, in the shadow of American Beauty, that Sam Mendes' latest is yet another variation on the "weird things happen in the suburbs" subgenre that Mendes helped popularize. But his latest, like the Richard Yates book it's based on, goes far deeper than that. A domestic horror story which casts as its monsters complacency and self-delusion, Revlolutionary Road brings to its source a surprising undercurrent of dark humor, its impeccably designed surfaces merely the decoy Mendes uses to snare us. Superbly acted by its leads and featuring an unforgettable performance by Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road strikes at the heart of fears any married person knows well, and does so with unflinching, sharp-witted, and ultimately devastating effect.

5. The Wrestler A perfect marriage of character and actor. There's no doubt that Mickey Rourke had the talent to pull off the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a failure pile in a sadness bowl coasting on memories of glory in the ring, even if his own life hadn't gone to hell. But the pathos that Rourke's experience brings to the role is overwhelming. Robert Siegel's script hits all the formulaic beats, and deliberately so, as Randy is a self-mythologizing walking anachronism who really, truly believes in life as a three-act underdog story. Director Darren Aronofsky returns to his low-budget roots, with the constant use of handheld camera following Randy's every move, probing for his contradictions, hopes and regrets, questioning what it is that we expect our icons to be. The ending is both triumphant and devastating, and the Springsteen song that follows is, well, it's The Boss.

6. Che I'm waiting until DVD to write a proper review of this one, since I saw it under less-than-optimum circumstances - On Demand, at my parents' house, late at night and very tired. But my increasingly sleepy state was, perhaps, the perfect way to absorb Che, which turns Che Guevara's successful campain against Batista and his failed revolution in Bolivia into a deliberate, often deliberately mundane, story of process - history as "things that happened." Breathtakingly shot on the RED One camera and punctuated with surprisingly robust action sequences, Che is primarily focused on how theory becomes action - how intellectuals sitting around a living room talking about change becomes guys with guns in the jungle - and, in its disjointed structure (Full Metal Jacket is a fair comparison), how ambition gives way to failure. The result is the most cerebral epic in memory, anchored by Benecio Del Toro's pitch-perfect performance.

7. Rachel Getting Married The movie on this list that I'll most likely watch as cinematic comfort food after a long day. While Jenny Lumet's script contains elements of tragedy, Jonathan Demme's return to form is remarkable for its generous portrait of a broken but enduring family. The breathing room Demme's stripped-down, handheld approach affords his cast results in a breakthrough performance from Anne Hathaway and strong ensemble work all around. And though the movie's multicultural portrait of family has been dismissed as a liberal wet dream by some, when one of the wedding guests looks around the room and announces "This is how it is in heaven - just like this," all I can do is smile.

8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Its detractors argue that the film has nothing deeper on its mind than "Brad Pitt is so pretty." Fair enough, but on the other hand, Brad Pitt is sooo pretty, and no director has done more interesting things with Pitt's marquee-idol visage than David Fincher. Benjamin's backwards journey through life is more than a technical marvel; Pitt's face becomes the canvas for an epic meditation on what makes our fleeting lives worth living. A handsome, sometimes awkward, deeply romantic mash-up of state-of-the-art filmmaking technology and classical Hollywood storytelling; I can't wait to see how Fincher branches out next.

9. Snow Angels The most underappreciated film on my list. David Gordon Green had a fine year, with two films that couldn't be more different - the hilarious stoner action/comedy Pineapple Express and this, a somber, wintry adaptation of Stuart O'Nan's novel. When I wrote about the movie before, I described it as "the bittersweet contrast of the idealism of young love and a marriage gone tragically awry," but rewatching the movie last night, I realized that there are actually multiple threads in the film exploring the many ways that people fall in love, fall apart and (in the best cases) find each other again. A challenging and often depressing experience, but also a rewarding one that lingers long beyond the final, haunting cut to black.

10. Tropic Thunder 2008 was a strong year for sophomoric comedy, between the aforementioned Pineapple Express, Will Farrell and John C. Reily behaving like asses (and wonderfully so) in Step Brothers, and the Coens' gleefully misanthropic Burn After Reading. Of all these, a soft spot remains in my heart for Tropic Thunder, a vulgar, deceptively smart send-up of movie-star egotism and the overblown Michael Bay style that, I fear, will be remembered as the dominant aesthetic of the cinema of the aughts. The sharpest Hollywood satire since The Player, doubly so because, since the actors involved have all been guilty of the cynical moviemaking they're parodying, it feels partly like an act of contrition. This is particularly true of Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus, a metatextual high-wire act that Downey carries off beautifully. "I don't read the script, script reads me."