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I recognize and respect that some audience members were not turned on by the Man of Steel's return to the big screen, yet, for me, this film was caped ecstasy from start to finish. "Superman Returns" believed in emotional investment and development, not massive action and popcorn delights. I adored the way this blockbuster had the courage to patiently examine the insular world of Superman; to burrow into his conflicted, confused head coming back to a world, and a love, he needed to reintroduce himself to. It also helped enormously that director Bryan Singer recognized how much Richard Donner's take on Superman defined the comic book film genre by paying elaborate reverence to the 1978 masterpiece. "Superman Returns" gave me chills, thrills, and a matinee bliss I have yet to shake six months later. It was summer entertainment with an intriguing tinge of fallibility and a tender essence, and now, with the pawns meticulously arranged on the cinematic chessboard, I can't wait to see where Singer takes this franchise in 2009.
"United 93" was a picture I feared to see. Not fear in a "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties" way, but a genuine, gut-wrenching terror that I was stepping into a theater to watch what essentially was a snuff film of massive proportions. Unlike Oliver Stone's equally as impressive, but hopeful "World Trade Center," "United 93" doesn't contain a happy ending, a sense of social empowerment about it, or even professional actors. What director Paul Greengrass achieves here is a heat-of-the-moment bear trap that is spellbinding. Yes, the film is extraordinarily distressing. Yes, it contains images of slaughter and horror that will keep you up for nights. Yes, you'll want to reach into the screen to try and manipulate the inevitable outcome. And that's the beauty of this film: it moves you. Few movies dare to reach that level of interaction anymore.
Martin Scorsese's sprawling Boston crime epic takes the senses by storm. As simple as the formula looks, this is Scorsese's most punctuated picture is decades, dragging the audience by the collar to the menacing streets and lethal shadows of the city. Boosted by more brilliant performances than you could shake a stick at, "Departed" was a rock 'n' roll Irish kiss from the opening silhouette of Jack Nicholson stalking the streets of the neighborhood he controls to the bizarre image of a rat scurrying across the frame to slap a period on this distinctive and rumbling experience.
Director Todd Field has explored the cancerous heart of suburbia before, but nothing can prepare you for the carnival of colorful tones found in "Little Children." A circus sideshow of perversion, fixation, and frustration, this film was purposefully distanced and heightened to an effect that transfixes the viewer, at first in an "I can't believe I'm watching this" fashion, soon giving way to a salivating, "what will happen next?" compulsion. I found "Little Children" to be unusually gripping in all facets of filmmaking, and proves yet again that Kate Winslet can do no wrong.
Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!
This Beastie Boys concert film was just about the most audience-immersive bootleg I've ever seen; putting the viewer in the arena with hip-hop's top white boys as they perform in front of a sauced crowd there to boogie down and have a ball. Watching "Awesome" at home, it's tough to understand exactly how insane this ferociously-edited piece of fan filmmaking plays in front of a packed crowd, with the volume turned to 11 and the full optical reach of the silver screen utilized. This is one of the most heavenly nights I've ever had watching a movie. It's criminal how many passed on the chance to catch this infectious groove in theaters, but here's to hoping a long life of midnight screenings and revivals are in the cards for this rump-shakin', body-movin' explosion of low-fi rhymes and boozehound footage.
The failure of "The Fountain" to scare up any box office this past Thanksgiving was not surprising. It's an intricate film to digest, and an absolute bear to decode. Still, beyond the dynamic symbolism and fog of interpretation was a heart-wrenching story of profound philosophical loss and martial love of the highest order. "Fountain" was the first film from Darren Aronofsky that has managed to move me, gluing my eyes to the screen with every moment of misfortune, frustration, and acceptance the film served up.
Little Miss Sunshine
"Little Miss Sunshine" certainly had the appearance of a clichéd dysfunctional family odyssey from the outside. Once past the character introductions, the picture opened up like a blossoming rose, revealing troubled characters with real-world fears, comedy that sneaks up on the viewer, a rousing finale of hilarity and audience participation, and direction that paid careful attention to pace and earned rewards. Rarely does a hyped Sundance sensation pay off this wonderfully, yet "Sunshine" was all about sabotaging expectations.
Mountain Patrol (Kekexili)
This Tibetan adventure story puts its participants in the harshest of elements: the remote Kekexili region of China. "Mountain Patrol" is a dramatization of the real-world fight between local vigilante rangers and the poachers that are raping the land, seen through the eyes of a journalist sent to cover the story. It's a spare horror show, cast with amateur Tibetan actors who have a lifetime of hardship drawn across their faces. Fighting the unforgiving elements, the wealth and might of the poachers, and their own crushing fatigue, the story of these men's efforts to save their land is a devastating record of valor and survival in the cold, exhausting shadow of futility.
Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny
You can cram your "Dreamgirls," I'll take Tenacious D battling Satan in an apocalyptic rock-off any day over rehearsed, labored odes to romantic betrayal. A fevered musical/stoner comedy, "Destiny" was a much more inventive creation than the marketing suggested, and ten times more riotous. It's pure delirium captured at 24 fps, providing a non-stop sensation of hilarity and exhilaration. It wasn't brain surgery, put if you stack up all the "dumb" comedies this year, none had the skill, vision, or made the effort quite like "Destiny."
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Capturing the sweet spot when Dave Chappelle was at the top of his game, before the tether of paranoia ruined everything, "Block Party" was Dave's way of saying thanks to the world that gave him so much. The film is a musical paradise, lassoing hip-hop acts of all shapes and egos to perform in a forgotten Brooklyn neighborhood, culminating in the reunion of the Fugees; a goosebump-inducing sequence that's pure magic. Not slacking on his comedy duties, Dave weaves in his laidback charms well, drinking up the happiness of the evening he's created. It's political, side-splitting, and fist-pumping; a motion picture that returns the pleasure of a festival to the big screen.
Honorable Mentions: "Borat," "World Trade Center," "Mission: Impossible III," "Rocky Balboa," "The Emerald Diamond," "Children of Men," "Lonesome Jim," "Casino Royale," "The Queen," "The Descent," "Sweet Land," "District B13," "Lady Vengeance," "The Hills Have Eyes," and "Perfume: A Story of a Murderer."
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