For the second straight year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in The Village Voice's annual Film Critics Poll. Below, you'll find links both to my ballot - which lists my "bests" of the year - as well as the comments section of the poll that features a quick remark from yours truly.
For its surprising first twenty minutes, Cry_Wolf exhibits a self-reflexive desire to address the teen slasher film’s penchant for simplistic misdirection and tedious serial killer construction via the use of predetermined criteria (weapon and disguise of choice, quirky modus operandi, etc.). After such a tantalizing opening, however, it becomes just what it was beginning to deconstruct – a tedious throwaway horror film without a logical marble in its head. At a ritzy boarding school, eight high school seniors decide to expand upon their casual games of deception by creating an email-propagated story about a ski mask-wearing killer dubbed The Wolf. When each of the kids begins dying at the make-believe fiend’s hands, however, recent transfer student and all-around “good guy” Owen (Julian Morris) takes it upon himself to uncover who’s behind the slayings. Had Owen been paying attention to the intro section’s conversations about deceit – specifically, how the most successful way to mislead people is to cast doubt on innocent others – he would have figured out that the mastermind behind Cry_Wolf’s fatal game was staring him straight in the face. But it’s hard to fault the kid for being a bit slow on the uptake when, besides fending off death, he also has to come to terms with the sight of Jon Bon Jovi (as an amoral teacher) giving love a bad name by engaging in some sleazy faculty-student hanky-panky.
Didactic and muddled to the point of incoherence, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is a two hour-plus lecture on the corruption of the American oil industry so wrapped up in its own Byzantine narrative logic that one quickly finds it near-impossible to make heads or tails of who’s who, who’s doing what and for what reason, and why any of it matters. George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper and Amanda Peet all appear as players in the film’s global conspiracy theories about the way in which U.S. meddling and deceit perpetuates instability in the Middle East in order to maintain a steady stream of Petrol to our shores. Nearly from the outset, Gaghen’s convoluted plotting is a model of opaqueness, a problem compounded by the writer/director’s vain attempt to mirror Stephen Soderbergh’s color-coded, lens flare-heavy Traffic cinematography. The cinematic equivalent of a political science graduate student’s dissertation – dry, intricate and emotionally unengaging – Syriana piles on so many facts, catchphrases, and mysteries that it feels like it should come with a heavy stack of footnotes. All that this inscrutable avalanche of details and un-suspenseful double-crossing generates, however, is the fictitious illusion that the movie is actually saying something relevant about our current geopolitical climate.
In a concrete housing block outside Paris populated by both Jews and Muslims, eighteen-year-old Laura (Fanny Valette) rebels against the religiosity of her devout sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein) and Tunisian-born mother (Sonia Tahar) by adhering to a Kantian worldview. This opposition between reason and faith, however, only proves temporary in La Petite Jérusalem, as Karin Albou’s elegant film posits both sets of values as similarly constricting, corrosive forces that detrimentally impede, rather than encourage the blossoming of, female sexuality. As Laura falls for an Algerian and Mathilde – after uncovering her husband’s (Bruno Todeschini) infidelity – begins to open herself up to bedroom experimentation, what emerges is a vision of ideological suppression of sexual desire in which the struggle to reconcile heartfelt beliefs with carnal urges reveals the latent chauvinism of both sisters’ governing principles. Whereas Valette’s understated performance conveys her internal clash between logic and passion, however, Albou’s direction often succumbs to expository redundancy, the most egregious example of which involves a philosophy class lecturer who makes painfully explicit the implicit themes coursing throughout this respectable portrait of inhibiting zealotry.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to Hogwarts for his fourth year in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, an installment that’s as gawky and shallow as its gangly-looking early-teen protagonists. Truncating sizeable chunks of J.K. Rowling’s enormous tome to accommodate its 157-minute running time, director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) appropriates the dark tone of Alfonso Cuarón’s sterling Prisoner of Azkaban but excises nearly all of its puberty-related subtext, instead wasting copious time and energy on Ron’s (Rupert Grint) not-so-secret affection for bookish Hermione (Emma Watson), the Triwizard tournament between Hogwarts and two other schools, and the rebirth of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It’s all a lot of CG sound and fury signifying nothing, as Newell finds himself so beholden to his source material’s stacked-deck narrative – what’s the point of even pretending Harry’s in danger anymore? And why bother setting up perilous situations, only to fall back on pathetic deus ex machina solutions? – that he forgets to give his fantastic tale any deeper meaning. Though to be fair, it must have taken some sort of black magic to lead Newell to create a Potter film so bloated and joyless that it makes one pine for the bland mediocrity of Chris Columbus.
With another twelve months of movie-watching over, it's time for top ten lists. The first of my End-of-Year features is now up at Slant magazine, and details what I - as well as my editor Ed Gonzalez - thought were the finest and lousiest films of the year. And as with the 2004 edition, I wrote the intro for the piece as well.
Littered with pop culture references and celebrity cameos, and assuming a laughable attitude of hipster vulgarity, Greg Araki’s The Doom Generation self-consciously strives for transgressive nihilism without ever recognizing the sheer absurdity of its every component. Bitchy Amy (Rose McGowan) and brain-dead boyfriend Jordan (James Duval, doing a third-rate Keanu Reeves impersonation) are disaffected teens convinced of the world’s hellishness, and after a chance encounter with pansexual provocateur Xavier (Johnathon Schaech) – seemingly an impish demon in human form – leads to murder, they become brooding lovers on the run. Amy, Jordan and Xavier travel through an inhospitable America populated by neo-Nazis, murderous freaks and other intolerant monsters, all of whom seek to stifle the threesome’s burgeoning development toward a state of bisexual bliss. Throughout their pointlessly “existential” road trip, Amy says “fuck” (and every other manner of creative swear) 800 times, the trio indifferently swaps sexual partners, and Xavier continues to cavalierly kill those who get in the way. Embarrassingly amateurish, Araki’s film shallowly attempts to approximate the psychosexual underpinnings of like-minded cross-state odysseys (Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers, etc.). The Doom Generation’s faux-shocking dialogue, violence and treatment of sexuality, however, is about as profound as Duval is talented – which is to say, not very.
Divided evenly into two distinct – yet thematically harmonious – halves, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady is as stylistically striking as it is adventurous. Sculpted with a delicacy that amplifies its mood of tentative romanticism and mysterious passion, Weerasethakul’s intimate love story begins with attractive soldier Keng’s (Banlop Lomnoi) courtship of reticent country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), only to transform at its mid-point into a feverish fable about Keng’s jungle-set pursuit of a mythical shape-shifting creature. Though these two narrative strands are aesthetically dissimilar – one shy and reserved, the other heated and haunting – they nevertheless function as alternate (and inextricably associated) portraits of erotic longing, lust, dread and anxiety. The opening section’s blissful reverie of blossoming affection finds its dark, dangerous flip-side in the latter segment’s shadowy portrait of inexplicable desire, and throughout Weerasethakul’s gorgeous camera work and hypnotic pacing create an atmosphere of yearning for amorous communion. Whether with a scene of Keng and Tong intertwining their hands and legs in a movie theater, or through Keng’s piercing gaze into the eyes of a tiger (which becomes a stare directly into the camera), Weerasethakul regularly alludes to his film’s own cinematic artificiality, even as his tender, heady Tropical Malady pulsates with a fervent, exultant passion free of pretense.