#1 — No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007)
After all the words I’ve tapped out in the name of this ongoing project, this public exercise in grappling with the films that have meant the most to me, spoke to me most truly and forcefully these past ten years, it’s strangely difficult to come to the title at the top of the list. All the explanations and opinions and justifications of the previous forty-nine essays are, in some ways, just a precursor to this. Such is the imposing stress of that slender digit, that number one. To anoint this the greatest, the best, the favorite, or whatever near synonymous term you choose, of the past ten years begs a daunting question. What do I love about No Country For Old Men?

It starts with the story itself, adapted faithfully from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, a page-turner so terse that it could have been handed out on the set in the event that the scripts went missing. Set in a desolate corner of Texas in 1980, the story involves a leather-tough, laconic Vietnam veteran named Llewelyn Moss who stumbles upon the site of a drug deal gone bad in the desert. He finds bullet-riddled trucks, a few corpses and a satchel stuffed with money, the last of which he gladly claims for himself. He also finds a victim on his way to dying but not quite there yet, which haunts him and sends him back to the crime scene in the middle of the night to deliver some water to soothe the man’s suffering. It’s an act of kindness that brings all manner of mayhem down upon him, a storm led by the seemingly unstoppable man-hunter named Anton Chigurh.

That role is played by Javier Bardem, who does nothing short of delivering a performance that is instantly iconic. From the moment he arrives on screen, you simply know that this is the stuff of movie legend, the sort of performance that you’ll be watching in clip packages of cinematic greatness for as long as such diversions exist. He commands the screen with an almost inhuman menace, a piercing intelligence and a grinding impatience for those who bore him with their weakness and ineptitude, a population that comprises just about everyone. He lives by his own set of rules and warped sense of honor. No threat is idle, no comment offhand. Anything he says he’ll do is a rock-solid pledge which can only be undone by fate itself. It’s a great character to begin with, and Bardem embodies the role. Underneath a bad haircut and behind alert eyes that serve as a window to a dangerous electricity sparking in his brain, he embodies this man that is pure force. After watching the performance it’s tempting to try it out, to roll “friendo” off the tongue like he does, just to see if you can taste the genius of it.

It’s so good and so dominating that it’s easy to lose sight of how much great acting is contained within the film. Josh Brolin is revelatory as Llewelyn, taking a role that’s highly internalized, built off of short, sharp one-liners as much as anything else, and signaling the reservoirs within the man. You get a sense of the decency that sends him back to a place he knows is dangerous, and the weakness that will be his eventual undoing. Kelly Madonald plays his wife Carla Jean with a tremulous concern, a preemptive exhaustion at the trouble that looms and a welling certainty that there’s no way out of the mess that’ll get here. Tommy Lee Jones plays a lawman investigating the case, watching the problems unfold from a step or two behind the action, and slowly, surely buckling under the weight of a world that changing in ways that he just can’t fathom. Decency is slipping away, and increasingly feels helpless, unable to do much more than slowly shake his head at the awfulness of it all. Though the parts are briefer, there’s equally strong work further down the cast list, including Woody Harrelson as a droll bounty hunter who tried to warn Llewelyn about the full extent of Chigurh’s formidable power, and Garret Dillahunt as a deputy working with Jones’s sheriff, bringing an amusing untainted eagerness to his investigative efforts. Out of all the great moments in No Country For Old Men, few delight me quite as much as Dillahunt riding his horse around the detritus of the drug deal gone bad and verbally speculating about how the conflict escalating with the simple and perfect phrase, “And then, whoa…differences…”

There’s a lot of praise to be doled out for the film, but the litany of great contributors must begin and end with the names Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. They’ve presided over a long list of exceptional films, but there’s something especially gratifying about their efforts on this one, perhaps because of the happy schism of seeing the men who’ve made their reputation largely on inspired excess craft of a film that is a model of shrewd discipline. Clearly responding to the restraint of McCarthy’s original work, the Coens deliver their leanest, tightest film since their debut, Blood Simple. McCarthy undoubtedly gave them great material to work with, but it was up to them to shape it into a movie with its own energy, its own identity, a task that’s more difficult than it might seem, as evidenced by the massive number of great books, including those penned by McCarthy, that have been transformed into mediocre films. The Coens largely achieve this through focusing on the most important, and yet often neglected or woefully under-realized, responsibility of a filmmaker: telling the story visually. Whether it’s a silhouette of a truck on a distant hillside or the chilling shadows creeping in from the crack beneath a closed door, the Coens continually find clean, novel ways to convey the most important information in the film. They don’t feel the need to explain everything directly, but the intricacies of the film should only be a mystery to those who aren’t really paying attention, or at least those who have been so decisively driven away from the beautiful vernacular of cinematic narrative by brain-dead, bludgeoning spectacles that excuse their shortcoming in the name of entertainment that they can no longer recognize the craftsmanship of true masters.

So what do I love about No Country For Old Men? That’s easy.

Everything.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#2 — Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
“Every edit is a lie.” That assertion is famously credited to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. I referenced that the first time I wrote about Children on Men, but I can’t resist returning to it. The most famous portions of Alfonso Cuaron’s film, the sequences that even those who don’t quite understand the devotion other movie-lovers feel for it, involve extended single takes of intricate action set pieces. The camera doesn’t blink as the passengers in car traveling down a rural road are suddenly halted by a flaming vehicle that careens into their path and then accosted by raging subversives pouring out of the woods. It’s similarly unflinching as a man scuttles furiously through ravaged city streets that has been transformed into a war zone, hunkering behind urban debris and racing from point to point as bullets fly and bombs explode. This isn’t just an instance of stunt filmmaking, a cheeky but empty display of directorial cleverness. Cuaron’s choice is purposeful, placing us directly within these fraught situations, heightening the tension by denying us the soothing safety of an edit, a reminder through the most commonplace tool of cinema that was are simply watching a movie. Instead, Cuaron wants us to feel every harrowing moment of being in that car, fully comprehend the difficulty of crossing that battle-battered street, and, when he employs the technique in a quieter moment, the way past heartbreak can reach out and enfold a person anew when they overhear a certain conversation in the next room. In every instance, these scenes are marvels of construction. Cuaron is not merely flinging his camera around, counting our comfort with documentary-styled verite to compensate for artlessness. The images are carefully considered, the camera capturing what it needs to when it needs to. Cuaron mimics the urgency and unpredictability of life, but never abdicates the responsibilities of cinematic storytelling.

He’s got quite a story to tell, after all, and vitally important points to make. Children of Men is adapted, reportedly rather loosely, from a P.D. James novel. Multiple screenwriters are credited, but Cuaron insists that the finished version is entirely the handiwork of himself, Timothy J. Sexton and, though uncredited, star Clive Owen. Set approximately two decades in the future, the film posits a world that’s developed in the wake of unexplained global infertility. There are no children. At the film’s beginning, news reports announce the death of “the world’s youngest person,” an eighteen-year-old male. This context shades the ugly fraying of society itself. England is a dystopian police state where immigrants are thrown into cages like brutalized cattle, and billboards demanding compliance are everywhere. It is a culture helplessly eroding away, by definition operating under a deadline. With no pending generations to carry our world forward, humanity is simply circling the drain. This hopelessly permeates the landscape.

And it has left the protagonist, played by Clive Owen, as a member of the walking wounded, dragging his damaged idealism behind him like chunks of unidentifiable metal scraping the roadway from the undercarriage of a clunker that defies expectation every time turning the ignition actually starts it. It’s to Owen’s credit that he remains very true to the place where his character begins. The usual progression in such a film centers around the rediscovery of hope and heroism, but Owen is more subtle than that. Once he encounters a woman who carries within her the first possibility of an actual future for the human race, he steps up as her guardian and her mentor. It’s less than he’s transformed by this experience than he discovers some vestiges of his former self, just enough to carry his charge forward, getting her to a place of safety at the most critical time. He doesn’t emerge from his own personal abyss, but he does look above and see glimmers of light for the first time in a long while, and that itself, thanks largely to Owen’s skillful performance, feels triumphant.

While there is hope interlaced into the story, Cuaron’s vision is bleak, largely because his broken future looks so familiar. The catalyst in the film is an unthinkable, almost fantastic turn of genetic events, but the gray, devastated vistas and social unrest on display feels frightfully close. No matter how it’s reached in the film, it’s all too easy to envision a few dominoes falling the right way in our current unhappy society to lead us to the place on the film, and suddenly watching the screen is a little like looking out the window. It’s the plausibility of it all that makes Cuaron’s picture engrossing. It’s enough to make you want to find your own little household bunker in the woods, like the one that Michael Caine’s aging hippie character resides in, living out your days hiding from the rest of humanity, listening to old rock records and growing fruit-flavored psychoactive herbs by lamplight.

Caine is marvelous in his role, just one of a collection of actors matching Owen’s excellence in the supporting roles. Julianne Moore brings edged intensity as he ex-wife of Owen’s character. She’s one of the leaders of the underground, anti-government movement, and wears the focus and certainty of that role. And as the woman at the center of the film, the one who needs defending and transport, Clare-Hope Ashitey balances the wariness of someone inadvertently drawn into grand, world-changing situations with a welcome pragmatism, the grounded nature of someone who was raised in a place and time where simply being a survivor was the most valued and daring aspiration one could have.

Children of Men is a thrilling twirl of cynicism and hope, inevitable decline and the possibility of building something better. Cuaron manages to acknowledge the worst instincts of people and still hold out some shred of belief that we can collectively rise above it, that we can reach that ship christened Tomorrow and prove ourselves worthy carriers of the great potential lurking deep within our self-destructive species. It’s not a treatise, though. It doesn’t pound drums or delivering ominous warnings with the condescending directness of a self-satisfied lecture. First and foremost it is moving drama, rich with insight and charm, delivered in a master class of realizing the full potential of every technical advantage of modern filmmaking.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#3 — Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
With Zodiac, David Fincher stakes out the compelling argument that if a true-life story is worth telling in the first place, it doesn’t necessarily need embellishments and alterations. Biopics and docudramas routinely hammer fact and history into different shapes designed to accommodate the common strictures of narrative storytelling, the need for clear protagonists and antagonists, and the steady procession to a succinct ending that satisfactorily wraps things up, bring everything to a logical, cohesive conclusion. But that’s how things actually work. Life doesn’t proceed in clean, easily decipherable lines. It is stop-start, full of diversions and digressions, and since, by definition, everyone is the protagonist in their own story, no one takes the lead in the bigger overall story. It is fragmented, like a broken plate. Even if you can see how the pieces fit together, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to assemble them into a smooth whole. There will be cracks and divots and unexpected sharp edges. It will be rough, uneven. And maybe that plate will have more character because of it.

Fincher’s film is about the Zodiac, the serial killer whose string of crimes terrorized the San Francisco area during the nineteen-seventies, and the efforts in various quarters to unearth his identity. Working from a script written by James Vanderbilt, Fincher sticks to the facts. He meticulously tracks through the grim history, ushering the audience directly to the scenes of the crimes as the murders are committed, and then switching focus to the police detectives and newspaper workers who try to unravel the mystery the killer puts in front of them, both in the form of the seeming randomness of the victims and in coded messages that he mails to the media. As horrific as it all is, it is also a puzzle, one that is made all the more alluring by the lack of certainty that accompanies it. There’s no checking in the back of the book to see if the attempt at solving it is progressing in a fruitful manner. Good leads and intriguing theories are routinely met with no clear sense that they are getting closer. We’re well outside of the realm of Perry Mason or Miss Marple or any number of Hollywood thrillers that followed in their wake, in which simply voicing well-founded suspicions was enough to get the guilty party to step up and shout an anguished confession. Here the perpetrator stays stubbornly hidden. It’s one of Fincher’s great achievements that he provides a strong sense of how this very quality–the questions that can never quite be answered, the swelling unknowable shadow at the heart of it all–only makes the puzzle that more alluring for those drawn helplessly into it.

These individuals are, in a way, the distant victims of the Zodiac, those who he damages not with the thrust of a knife, but with the echoes of his villainy. Just as the film captures how easily they get drawn into the hunt for the killer’s identity, so too does it make the repercussions of those obsessions achingly real. We see the damage wrought on those who can’t turn away from the case even after the trail has grown cold, and on those who became too enamored of the hero’s attention they received for their efforts in hunting the murderer, leaving them unprepared for the emptiness that emerged within them when that attention dissipated. Fincher doesn’t dig into their psyches, cooking up some sort of childhood trauma or parental abandonment issues or equally cliched backstory that often gets grafted onto driven cinematic souls. Almost every character in the film is defined solely by their interaction with the Zodiac case, making it all the more impressive that, to a person, they emerge fully rounded. Even the small roles–officers in little communities that the killer has crossed through or those questioned about the case–have a unique vividness to them, the triad of writing, directing and acting integrating perfectly for fully realized characters moving through a astutely crafted world. When you’re not certain which details really matter, then all of them do. That seems to be the guiding principle of Fincher. No moment is thrown away, no person is incidental. This helps to make the film fully engrossing. It rewards your attention.

Throughout the film, Fincher demonstrates a complete command of the mechanics of filmmaking. There’s a scene involving Paul Avery, the investigative reporter played by Robert Downey Jr., engaged in shaky practice at a shooting range with a handgun he procured after the Zodiac directly threatened him. His newsroom cohort, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, reads a story from that days edition describing the measures taking by other journalists in town. They’ve take to wearing buttons emblazoned with the message “I AM NOT AVERY” as a security measure. Avery himself is sporting one. As Gyllenhaal finishes reading the news story, he shifts his hand and reveals that he too is wearing one of the buttons. The emergence of this piece of information gets a laugh, but Fincher doesn’t push the joke. It’s a completely natural movement for Gyllenhaal to make, lowering the newspaper as he’s completed reading the story. Still it’s clearly staged to hold back that one piece of information. That’s one moment, an incredibly simple one at that, but it’s reflective of the precision that Fincher brings to the entire project.

That extends throughout the cast. Downey and Gyllenhaal are both excellent in their roles, Downey clearly and freely drawing upon personal experience (and capitalizing on the audience’s knowledge of that personal experience) to convey his character’s offhand decadence that signals his eventual slide to complete degradation, while Gyllenhaal gets at an oddball naivete that makes him a likely candidate to chase this warped nemesis relentlessly. They’re joined by Mark Ruffalo, immersing himself in the shuffling rhythms of Inspector David Toschi, increasingly frayed by his inability to fulfill his duty to bring the killer to justice. Even beyond the leading roles, Fincher looks to strong actors, and gets tremendous work from them. The likes of Brian Cox, Anthony Edwards, Clea DuVall, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Charles Fleischer and Philip Baker Hall make major impressions with limited screen time. Perhaps best of all the supporting players is John Carroll Lynch as a prime suspect, bringing delicacy and chilling undercurrents to his role. He hints at troubling possibilities simmering under the exterior.

The film ends the only way it could, given the integrity inherent in its storytelling approach. It ends with the sort of ambiguity that is commonplace in life, and nearly unheard of in the movies. It ends with the message that closure is not something that is given to you, bundled up in a tidy package. Instead, it is something you achieve. Inner satisfaction comes not from an external pronouncement, but through finding your way to the closest form of confirmation possible, even if that’s just looking in someone else’s eyes and judging what truth you find there.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#4 — The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is a powerhouse, a movie that announces itself immediately as unusually kinetic and dynamic. One of the earliest sequences sets the tone as the film rushes through the development of the two main characters, a couple of south Boston kids who both grow up to be simultaneously involved with both the police and the area mobsters. It moves rapidly through their respective climbs, showing how they each become immersed in their dual worlds. The camera races along side them, anxious to capture it all, but equally agitated to cut away, get to the next step, the next moment the next scene, all stitched together with breathtaking skill by Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. It has places it needs to get to, reams of story to rifle through. There’s no time for dawdling. This is a thundering race, a white knuckle melee skidding across blood-stained pavement. This is Scorsese in his element. This is Scorsese employing his trademark merging of raw unpredictability and precise control. This is Scorsese doing what he’s done for over forty years: making art with his camera, his vision, his drive, his dedication.

Adapted from the three Infernal Affairs movies directed by Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak in 2002 and 2003, The Departed begins with a script by William Monahan that is a cascade of profane verbal tremors that rivals anything ever tapped out by David Mamet. It’s the language of men living on the edge of their mortality, tracking through minefields of interlaced loyalties and duplicity, using words as cutting weapons because weaponry is what their most comfortable with. A scathing aside is just another bullet. The film’s plot is dense and complicated, but it never becomes confusing. Monahan presents every detail with a shrewd clarity, knowing precisely which details to bring to the forefront, how to deploy his plot points in ways that they stick but don’t intrusively announce themselves. It’s a spectacular blueprint, and Scorsese assembles the corresponding structure masterfully.

The two main characters are both moles. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a cop who has erased the traces of his upstanding life so he can infiltrate the local underworld, bringing vital information back to his bosses in a special investigation unit with the Massachusetts State Police. Meanwhile, Matt Damon is a fellow officer whose childhood allegiances to the kingpin played by Jack Nicholson inspire him to share the top secret info he can collect about law enforcement operations meant to bring the mob down. This sets up an abundance of taut moments. More importantly, it gives Scorsese the chance to explore one of his favorite themes: the dueling nature of individuals, the internal war between callous, selfish base instincts and the desire to do good, to be noble, to turn away from negative qualities in favor of making the right choices. This conflict is personified in DiCaprio’s performance, a staggering tour de force of turmoil. He’s a tightly coiled spring that’s been heated and electrified, quaking and ready to go off in a dozen different ways. He’s feverishly alert to all the dangers surrounding him, and his own anxiety winds up being one of the greatest threats, leading him to compulsively reach out and lash out. For all the ways things can go wrong for him in his situation, it often seems like the most likely outcome is that he’ll wrench himself into some sort of personal oblivion, staring down the two cell phones that serves as lifelines to his two different identities, his two different families.

Scorsese and Monahan get an awful lot out of those little handheld communication devices. Cell phones are as ubiquitous in films as they are in the world outside the multiplex, but in films like this the creators are just as often seeking out ways to disable them, creating greater impediments for the heroes (watch an older thriller sometimes and consider just how often access to a cell phone would help clear things up or serve as quick conduit to rescue for someone in peril). In The Departed, the filmmakers think about how the cell phone would actually be employed by the people in these situations, how they’d be used to surreptitiously track people, how their most innocuous stored data like outgoing phone calls would be an investigative boon, how the constant, immediate access that the phones promise would shape expectations and create suspicions. It’s a simple thing, but a thing rarely done in other films where cell phones and other technological wonders are just empty props, there only because they need to be there to make the film seem accurate. Other films write around them; The Departed properly uses them as a vital storytelling tool.

It’s just one example of the way that everything is deeply thought through in the film. Ideas are followed to their logical conclusions and subtexts are fully explored and exploited. Every bit of the frame, every bit of set dressing or costume detail is contributing to the bigger picture, to the concepts at the core of the film. Nothing is there, it seems, just for the sake of it. Even the violence, which is as plentiful and brutal as Scorsese’s reputation would have you expect, has a different impact than usual. Bloody and rough as the film is, what’s more striking is he suddenness of the violence. It happens in an instant, changing the landscape of the story irrevocably and allowing no time for adjustment. Even the characters perpetrating it are often stunned by what they find before them, a far more plausible reaction than the careless ease that accompanies most movie violence. It is an inevitable part of the story in The Departed, but not treated as mere turning points, transitions to new acts through the pulling of a trigger. It has a deeper impact, an impact that is often shattering.

There was plenty of discussion through the first half of the decade about the Best Director Oscar that Martin Scorsese had yet to win, and the aggressive efforts on his behalf to secure him the coveted prize. There were some that saw the rough-hewn epic sweep of Gangs of New York and the classic Hollywood storytelling of the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator as blatant Oscar grabs, attempts to curry Academy voter favor by making the sort of films that traditionally accumulated honors instead of the fierce fare that had made his reputation. Of course, he didn’t win for those films. He won for this one, on the surface of it the least Oscar-friendly movie he’d made in years. I mean no disparagement of the other films, both excellent, when I note that it seems especially fitting. When Martin Scorsese got the Oscar recognition that was long overdue, it was for a film that was a direct descendant of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, not just because its characterized by unflinching toughness, but also because of its unwavering excellence.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#5 — Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney, 2005)
The year that Good Night, and Good Luck. was released, George Clooney used his ample personal funds to get particularly fitting and telling Christmas gifts for many of his friends. He bestowed upon them personally selected DVD collections, assembling 100 films, predominantly released between 1964 and 1976, that he considered essential. Clooney included titles like All the President’s Men, The Candidate, Shampoo, and, of particular interest, The Front, Martin Ritt’s 1976 drama about Hollywood writers blacklisted alleged Communist sympathies. Like these, many of the films were resolutely political while still operating as clear efforts at entertaining. There was a time when those two approaches weren’t mutually exclusive, and the projects that Clooney tends to gravitate towards certainly imply that he’d like to be operating in an era more in line with that.

For the setting of his sophomore directorial effort, Clooney looked even earlier. Good Night, and Good Luck. is about Edward R. Murrow, adopting his trademark sign-off for its title. It follows the journalism icon as he works with his colleagues in the offices of CBS News in early nineteen-fifties. They produce an investigative piece on Milo Radulovich, who was facing removal from the U.S. Military because of alleged Communist activities engaged in by his relatives. This leads to an escalating conflict with Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin and the primary architect of the pervasive fear-mongering about the insidious influence of “reds” on American society. Knowing full well that they themselves could become the vindictive politician’s next targets, Murrow and the rest of the team behind the news program See It Now decide it’s their responsibility, their mandate to take on McCarthy, exposing his falsehoods and hypocrisies, his indifference to accuracy and his abuses of power. It is a true-hearted manifestation of mass media as the fourth estate, provide a forceful set of checks and balances against those who’ve conspired with others at the pinnacle of American power to make themselves immune from scrutiny and criticism. Murrow and his fellow suit-and-tie reporters are doing nothing short of standing up for liberty.

This has the makings of a didactic cinematic civics lesson, an extended act of underlining the importance of crusading journalism that betrays a self-congratulatory bent by the filmmakers, a veneer of satisfaction reflective of the conviction that by simply presenting the history lesson they too are heroic. Hollywood history is littered with such films, stiff and stalwart depictions of noble souls that perversely allow no room to actually see and feel the soul of the individuals ushered up to their respective pedestals. Clooney, aided by his co-screenwriter Grant Heslov, takes the exact opposite approach. He’s clearly impressed with what these newsmen (and one newswoman) did, but he’s also enamored with who they are. This doesn’t mean plumbing their psyches like an intrusive psychoanalyst, finding the childhood traumas that shaped their shared intolerance of duly elected bullies. It means letting them work, debate, challenge each other, weigh the value of different opinions and theories as they pull together the broadcasts meant to inform the public about the injustices being meted out in their name. Except for one subplot about a married couple on the newsroom that keeps their relationship secret because it violates company policy, Clooney isn’t especially interested in the characters’ private lives. He follows them no further than the downstairs bar where they gather after the cameras go dark, and await the reactions printed in the daily newspapers over heavy glass tumblers of brown liquor. In Clooney’s astute assessment, this is who they they are, working stiff toiling in the quarries of information, eyes and minds always keenly alert to the eternal open debates of society.

While Clooney’s own views on such matters are hardly secret, he doesn’t skew the film to ratify his personal opinions. When William Paley, the chief executive of CBS played splendidly by Frank Langella, pushes back against Murrow, noting that he may be crossing the hairline-crack-thin line between journalism and advocacy, the arguments he presents are sound and thoughtful. The drama of these moments, and many others in the film, arises from the fact that these issues are being debated by intellectual equals. Rather than reacting rashly, they’ve thought through their points and present them fully secure in their validity. This isn’t the modern dissonant clamor of people staking out home bases on extreme ends of the political spectrum and defending them vehemently in the face of any contrary evidence. Instead, it’s the bygone maturity of educated adults acting in accordance with their age and the developing wisdom that comes with it. This is how the media approached its work at one point, when its members took seriously their responsibility to be committed stewards of the public airwaves, protecting the discourse from fraudulent allegations and other crackpot nonsense. There was time when being correct and intellectually honest was held in greater esteem than being first or most sensationalistic.

Clooney brings the best of those old newsroom principles to his own craft. The film is precise and measured, fully invested in delivering its story with clarity. He makes his points quietly, but forcefully. The film was released right in the heart of the era in which politicians, led by the denizens of the White House, were quick to cast any opposition to their actions, particularly efforts to erode civil liberties in the supposed cause of protecting freedom, as some virulent form of anti-Americanism, as if demanding respect for guaranteed rights and calling for national and military policies to reflect the moral compass of the citizenry isn’t actually the height of patriotism. Clooney undoubtedly wants the audience to see the parallels between the widely acknowledged insidiousness of McCarthyism and the worst infractions of Washington figures dismantling the Constitution at the break of the 21st century. But there’s another larger target here: the modern media that complacently stands by and abets this brutalization through their fealty to those in power. It’s no small matter that Good Night, and Good Luck. is framed by an address that Edward R. Murrow gave to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in which he crossly lamented the rapidly declining state of broadcast journalism. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire,” he said about televison, adding “But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” A half century later, Clooney revived those words, made sadly more truthful through the passage of time. Clooney’s film is a tribute to Murrow and the era in which he worked, and then watched sorrowfully as it dwindled away. More importantly, it is a scathing indictment of the the era we move through now, where the media as a whole lacks the fortitude required to fulfill its duty.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#6 — The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
Forget for a moment the Oscar attention, the box office tallies, and the awestruck acclaim from unlikely quarters. Think instead about the context when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was first released, particularly the cinematic stature of director Peter Jackson. It had been over five years since the release of his previous film, the soundly underwhelming The Frighteners. Before that, he presiding over a film of true beauty and artistic depth, 1994′s Heavenly Creatures, but his cult following was largely built on the earlier meagerly budgeted exercises in shock he’d made in his native New Zealand, films that had devotees to be sure, which doesn’t mean they held promise of the capability to handle, much less master, filmmaking of the scope he confronted in adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy trilogy. The masturbating puppets of Meet the Feebles might be good for a drunken laugh or two on a Saturday night. That doesn’t track directly to confidence in the same director making Middle Earth and all its denizens come convincingly to life. In other words, there was some risk involved here.

All that worry and preemptive second guessing were sandblasted away once the first installment made its way to theater screens. Jackson’s film is a colossal achievement, a thundering spectacle that effectively redefines how and when the term “epic” should be used to describe a movie. If it doesn’t measure up to this in ambition, breadth, vision, and grand emotions that dance ever so delicately across the screen, then it’s a mere pretender, an aspirational epic at best. It authoritatively announced that Peter Jackson was prepared to take his place among the upper echelon of film directors, those who could take on seemingly impossible projects and emerge with something worthy and memorable.

First of all, it can be held up as a stellar example of the art of adaptation. Jackson and his screenwriting collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, had no small task before them. They’re dealing with a trip of tomes that are not merely acclaimed. They’re beloved, held to the breast by a multi-generational legion of fans who were ready, perhaps even inclined, to pounce upon any unsavory deviations from the text a fervor that outstrips that of the most fervent Bible-thumper that feels scripture is being misused. And while Tolkien provided them with an abundance of raw material, an entire world to work with, that gift was fraught with its own dangers. There’s a heaping mound of places, unique creatures, and heavily detailed histories all elbowing for attention within this simple story of good versus evil. It’s so easy for this sort of material to get irreparably bogged down, dramatically deadened as the backstory piles up like scrap metal in a junkyard. The screenplay is an expert job of pruning, cutting away the unnecessary material while leaving the original shape intact and even improved in the process. It has fidelity to the original work without being slavish. Even when material must be sacrificed, the spirit remains, the soul of the work is intact and lovingly brought to the forefront.

Jackson was justifiably lauded for the entirety of the project–three films, totaling over nine hours, released in three different calendar years, but actually all within a two year span–yet even if he’d stopped at the end of this film, inconclusive as it is, with the members of the title fellowship split apart and the major quest to bring the all-powerful ring to be destroyed in the molten fires of Mount Doom, thereby ending the threat of Sauron’s evil rule left unfulfilled, Jackson still would have been able to claim a modern classic. Tolkien may not have invented the archetypal characters that populate this story–the reluctant warrior with a hidden noble heritage, the wise oracle who guides noble souls against forces of darkness, the naive innocent who finds himself suddenly the only one who can save the world–but he surely perfected them. Jackson collaborates with his actors to realize these characters on the screen in full-blooded fashion. We believe in these individuals, making their journey marked by magic and improbable endurance fully believable, as well. Indeed, it is even urgent, almost palpable, the snowy passes and sooty caverns feeling as though they invaded the viewing area. It all reaches an ideal balance in this film, the various introductions marked by the happiness of discovery rather than the tedium of exposition, the horrific images as sly and heart-stopping as shadowy figures caught briefly in one’s peripheral vision, the battle sequences laden with sweat and danger and the feel of heavy steel swung in desperation. Everything from the tragic romance to the comic relief plainly works in the film, the earnest investment of everyone involved coming through, frame by glorious frame.

Indeed every part of the filmmaking process is handled with the greatest care, almost as if there was an abiding certainty that this would be a film that would stand for some time, the film everyone involved would truly be remembered for, and it was imperative to make certain the work matched that impending legacy. Howard Shore composed a music score rich with the sort of inspired sonic signatures that have typically been the sole domain of John Williams in recent decades. Andrew Leslie’s deep, vibrant cinematography, John Gilbert’s muscular, exhaustive editing, and the production design, art direction, costumes and makeup all added to the stunning pictures that Peter Jackson framed with an uncommon merging of sturdy storytelling craft and consistent invention. Then there was the embedded revolution of Jackson’s own effects house, Weta Workshop, serving as a glue that held it all together, proving conclusively that the finest use of digital magic involves making it subservient to the story instead of the sadly standard approach of cooking up pixelated mayhem and then cramming in afterthought characters and follicle-thin plot as tired filler between set pieces. When something as striking and majestic as the Balrog shows up in a film, it’s certainly not accurate to term it an invisible use of special effects, but at no point does it feel like Jackson and his team are just showing off. Instead, they’re clearly using their own considerable wizardry to realize something they believe in, just as assuredly as Frodo, the brave Hobbit at the center of the film, believes in the necessity of his mission. It’s a credit to Peter Jackson and all involved with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring that it’s a thrill to believe right along with them.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#7 — Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)
Movies often trade in cataclysm and heartbreak, sending characters sprinting down rainswept streets chasing after that one urgent moment destined to change everything. That’s certainly stirring, but there’s also an inherent phoniness to it, a disconnect from the reality of most lives that are marked by incremental progress towards different levels of accomplishment and disappointment. Filmmakers are then measured by their capabilities as magicians, using the grandiose sleight of hand of their craft to obscure the falseness of each respective work with the conviction of the emotions, the elegance of the images, the uniqueness of the plotting and all the other elements that make the lack of veracity an utterly forgivable offense.

Then there are those films that take a different approach, that genuinely strive to get at something truthful, that indulge in deeply human moments that way that other films coat the screen with improbable wonders cooked up by special effects houses. Sideways is a film like that. It is very funny, and builds in juicy moments of humiliation and bravado for the actors. It is built on that handiest of structures, the road movie, which ensures that the next dramatic development is as easy to reach as the next town down the highway when you’ve got a dependable engine and full tank of gas. On this framework, Alexander Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor draw a quietly compelling portrait of the ways in which the approaching shadow of midlife, that point when you can no longer pretend that perpetually unfulfilled aspirations will somehow fortuitously fall into place, can exact its own brand of brutality.

The embodiment of this dilemma is Miles, played by Paul Giamatti. He’s an aspiring, unpublished novelist who teaches English to disinterested school children in order to make ends meet. Divorced and unhappy, his primary means of escaping from the tedium of his life involves cultivating an appreciative expertise of wine, a sideline that he puts to good use by taking his closest friend, a working actor named Jack who’s about to be married, on an extended weekend touring California wine country. Feeling that he’s about to give up his freedom, Jack pursues every hedonistic impulse he feels, urging Miles to do the same instead of following his usual track that leads to morose, hateful wallowing. “No going to the dark side!” Jack warns Miles before one particularly key dinner with some women they’ve met.

It’s another marker of the film’s quality that those women aren’t stock characters, the sort of generically sweet or enticing love interests that are usually deemed suitable for films about men clumsily finding their way in the world. Maya, the wine country waitress who Miles has long been charmed by, is played by Virginia Madsen with wells of resolve. She’s strained, but not broken, and a woman who proceeds gently into the world with a sense of hard-earned peace that explains as well as any other reason, and the reasons are plentiful, why Miles would be enamored with her. She carries with her the signs of contentment–the sort of contentment that only be achieved by someone with a maturity of spirit–that Miles covets the way he would a fine, rare bottle of wine. It’s just as elusive as that potable, as well. Then there’s Sandra Oh, portraying a winery worker who bestows generous pours upon the traveling pair before entering into a fling with Jack. Just as Maya is Mile’s missing ideal, so to is Oh’s Stephanie to Jack. She represents the freedom that he’s giving up, and the unassuming glee for life that Jack is futilely chasing by following his base instincts. Both Madsen and Oh take their relatively limited screen time and suggest full lives beyond the confines of the plot.

Payne’s film isn’t an anguished cry, nor is it a satire of midlife dismay, holding its characters up for chortles and ridicule. It is empathetic, knowing and kind, even as the characters make woefully misguided decisions. It extracts insightful, inspired comedy from the dull ache of underachievement, the sense that building a better life is a task that exists beyond one’s abilities, or at least least outside of the range of one’s battered, repeatedly thwarted ambition. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, the two actors clearly charged with conveying this, are equally extraordinary as they follow different routes to the same sad-eyed conclusion. Church plays the actor who puts his pending betrothal in jeopardy with his actions, a man whose questionable motivations are so entangled that its difficult to discern when he’s playing a role. Is he convincing himself that he’s in love with this new conquest because of fears of stability, and the taming that comes with it? Or is the sobbing need for his wife to be that follows the real act? It may even be impossible for he himself to suss it out. It’s clear that his greatest skill is for covering his own tracks, crafting stories perfectly designed to make all his self-inflected wounds seem like the scars of bad fortune.

And yet he’s a consistently genial presence, hopelessly likable compared to Giamatti’s Miles. When Miles greets every glass of wine with a verbal dissertation on its charms and flaws, Church’s Jack is by his side, agreeable asserting that every swallow tastes pretty good to him. Miles is a tightly bound bundle of anguish, telling his own lies, engaging in his own masquerade. He recasts himself as better than he is–as a published author, as someone who hasn’t betrayed a confidence–and then braces himself for the inevitable fallout, tightening up in preparation for the emotional storms his deceits will unleash. It’s just another redundantly forlorn page in the book of his life, and Giamatti plays it all with appropriately draining precision, all the better to make the minor, ambiguous shift toward something more hopeful at the end all the more satisfying.

Ever since his feature debut, the scathing and hysterical abortion comedy Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne has gotten more and more fearlessly real with each successive film, shuffling away from the safe buffer afforded by broad, pointed satire and challenged himself, and his audience, to grapple with he trickiest, stickiest human emotions, those that aren’t necessarily wrapped up tidily in time for a closing credits roll. And funny as Sideways is, it’s also got a sadness built into it, a veil of unnamed loss that’s settled over the characters. It never overwhelms the film, though, maybe because its most potent lessons involve the control everyone has over their own perception of their lot in life. After all, when you’ve got a bottle of ’61 Cheval Blanc, you’re the one that can determine the time and place of a special occasion.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#8 — The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Those whose entire knowledge of superheroes derives from visits to the cineplex–and I still find it remarkable that a working background acquired through such means could be so much more thorough that I ever would have imagined ten years ago–can be forgiven for not realizes precisely how much Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is indebted to The Fantastic Four. This assertion is in reference to the comic book stories crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beginning in the early nineteen-sixties and extending across more than a hundred issues into the next decade. The most significant similarity doesn’t lie in the powers wielded by the protagonists of the respective adventures–both teams include a strong man, a person that can stretch their body like it’s constructed of especially pliable rubber bands, and someone who can use to power of invisibility to not just disappear but to cast spherical force fields around herself and others–but in the concept of the familial nature of a team of superheroes made literal.

In each of these invaluable pop culture artifacts, the simple innovation is to build the story around characters first, fantastical exploits second. Just as Lee and Kirby were breaking free of the simplified norms of comics with their creation, so too is Brad Bird hammering out something richer and more rewarding than the stitched-together collection of set pieces that is the default approach to superhero movies, or, for that matter, animated films. This doesn’t mean the film compromises the effectiveness of its action in favor of something more staid or cerebral. Quite the contrary. It is filled with exciting, perfectly directed sequences of kinetic wonder. Bird has his thrills and thinks them, too.

The film finds our heroes living a dreary suburban existence several years after the damage left in the wake of their daring exploits led to lawsuits which in turn led to regulations making costumed vigilantes illegal. Bob Parr, the former Mr. Incredible, is especially miserable, sneaking out at night to engage in illicit do-gooding until a mysterious benefactor starts offering him hefty paychecks in exchange for secret missions. The occupational woes of Bob Parr may make the littlest viewers fidget a bit, but it’s all part of the valuable depth that Bird builds into his film. It’s simply a story of retired superheroes drawn back to their grand crime-fighting but it carries a metaphorical weight that relates to anyone who longingly dreams of past glories, the fearlessness and ease of youth that they’ve left behind. Having the heroes return from exile builds a few spare plot twists into the film. More importantly, it adds greater greater urgency to the moments when they’re needed, greater triumph to their successes. It is that ever common theme of embracing one’s own identity, bolstered by reaching it on a completely novel path.

The characters are vividly drawn in every respect. Each member of the uniquely enhanced nuclear family at the core of the film virtually pops off the screen. Besides the previously mentioned Bob Parr, there’s his wife Helen, the former Elastigirl, who realizes that holding a family together is even more fraught with danger than any fierce battle she ever engaged in. Their daughter Violet (as in shrinking) is a typical teen burdened by self-esteem issues, using her power to literally disappear as a more effective means of retreat from a world that seems incredibly unaccommodating to her. Then there’s Dash, about to graduate from the fourth grade, acting out and fiercely unhappy about his inability to use his speedster powers to realize his full potential. He knows full well that the sentiment that everyone’s special, as well-meaning as it may be, is just “another way of saying no one is.” Every aspect of the characters is well thought out and depicted with telling details.

That same care extends to all the ancillary characters with a particular achievement in the creation of Edna Mole, the mildly maniacal seamstress who once specialized in costumes for superheroes, or as she puts it, she “used to design for gods.” Visually, she looks like Linda Hunt merged with one of those cylindrical little humanoids that populated old Fisher Price playsets. As voiced by Bird himself, Edna is a spectacular firebrand, a fashionista diva with a gleaming glee at the idea of stretched spandex across the most powerful beings on the planet, and railing against the deadly folly of capes as she does it. Another fascinating character is, appropriately, the villain of the piece, a cauldron of slighted malevolence that dubs himself syndrome, so envious of the heroes streaking across the skies that he concocts a scheme to dabble in their world. He can’t achieve greatness; he can only concoct a bastardized version of it that’s as phony as Clark Kent’s eyeglasses.

Bird’s is unyieldingly dynamic in the construction of the film. He’s working in animation, but clearly doesn’t see that as a excuse to avoid thinking cinematically. It is, in fact, an impetus to push that part of his creativity to greater heights, injecting scenes with the verve of effortlessly achieving the impossible. Heroes careen and bend across the rooftops, and their arch-enemies reside in the secret hideouts that Bond villains can only dream about, with entry ways through split open waterfalls and walls made of pulsating magma. The film bounds and crashes, spins and tickles, and then finally settles into its own brand of domestic bliss, one that redefines the notions of equality, partnership and togetherness. Young Dash would be pleased to know that The Incredibles proves decisively that “special” is a term that should only be ascribed to certain films, those that possess the same sort of daring that might cause a masked wonder to leap into the arms of peril for the benefit of all mankind. The Incredibles is indeed special.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#9 — Up (Pete Docter with Bob Peterson, 2009)
Let’s start where everyone starts in discussing Up, with the sequence that seemingly inspires universal agreement about its excellence. With just a few minutes of screen-time, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson lovingly depict the arc of an adult life, or, more precisely, a pair of adult lives intertwined. The marriage of Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is glimpsed in a few brief moments scattered over their years together: picnics on a hill, maintaining their home, making plans for the future and watching as fate, sometimes unkindly, changes those plans. With inspired economy and an absence of dialogue, fully drawn people emerge and we come to understand them deeply–their joys, disappointments, humble accomplishments, and little compromises that accumulate until entire dreams have been consigned to deep storage on the uppermost shelf of the closet. This passage does not stand out just because of its profound artistry, its note-perfect encapsulation of the pieces that make up a person’s passage across the years. It doesn’t stand out because it is unique. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It exemplifies everything rewarding about the approach common to films issued under the Pixar banner–the investment in character, the tender understanding of human emotion, the commitment to visual storytelling–to such a degree that it serves as a fresh evidence that the group of creators that sign their name to the studio’s product collectively stand as the finest, most consistent filmmakers working at the dawn of the 21st century.

While entertaining, bright and ultimately hopeful, the film begins with melancholy as Carl, now elderly and alone, is suffering as a busy, indifferent world literally closes in on him. Inspired by a childhood pledge, and bolstered by his occupational experience with helium-filled diversions, Carl figures out a way to affix enough colorful balloons to the andirons of his fireplace to lift his clapboard house toward the heavens, bound by air for South America and the promise of adventure. That is fanciful and strangely inspiring all on its own, something that could serve as the grand ending to another film. Here it is just the beginning, leading into a plot that sets Carl, accompanied by a stowaway scout and a communicative canine, off to confront his boyhood hero, who’s evolved into a megalomaniacal poacher. Docter and Peterson, who are also the credited screenwriters, get every last possibility out of the material they set into motion, taking special glee at the ability they’ve afforded themselves to both defy gravity and use it as the greatest danger their characters face.

The computer animation makes them the absolute masters of everything within the frame, a responsibility they fulfill with striking design work and incredible attention to detail. The characters carry some of their personality with them in their respective visual designs from the series of squat blocks that make up Carl to the rounded, rolling energy of his youthful companion, Russell, to the battalion of dogs they eventually encounter, all of them constructed to convey some facet of who they are and how they fit into the story. What’s more, within those designs and the imagery they move amidst, there is a broad mass of information, all of it lovingly rendered. When hundreds of balloons emerge from the chimney of Carl’s home like a multicolored cloud, the way they move, shift, bob and flow into place it is a lush spectacle, but one that is meant to convince just as assuredly as it is designed to dazzle. When the abode held aloft casts a shadow on the streets below, the patches of colorful light thrown down by the balloons move with it, a trail of translucent beauty. The animators have clearly thought about how that would look, and, even though we only see it for a fleeting moment, made sure it was depicted exactly right. It’s bits and pieces like that, and the care that goes into them, that amass to make the film gripping and oddly believable. Up may be rife with wild invention, but it also follows the rules it establishes. It never cheats. It asks us to believe that a house can fly, but also allows that a house has weight, and popping some of those balloons will have an impact.

Thematically, the film operates as a set of fascinating contradictions. Carl follows through on the deferred conquest of the outside world, striking out for the imposing, distant waterfall that represented his beloved Ellie’s ideal, but he does so from the safety of his own residence, literally taking his house with him as he travels. Then there is the simple, disarmingly sweet message that the best way to find one’s self is to look outside, spotting the inherent truisms of one’s own person in the reflection of someone else’s eyes, or, more importantly, someone else’s heart. Carl accomplishes this with young Russell, but he’d also had that with Ellie, from the moment they met as kids and her rapid verbal cascades helped fill up his silences, completed his very thoughts, flooded his imagination, made him better. One of the great achievements of Up is that Ellie is a bold character that is vividly present throughout the entire film, even though she is not seen after the first few minutes. She is there in the pages of a scrapbook, in the memories encased within a home, in the parts of Carl that give him the strength to get past his hesitancy and his curmudgeonly disinterest in those around him. Indeed, the most moving aspect of Up is watching Carl come to the realization that Ellie may be gone, but she will always be with him.

This is all proffered up with elegance and insight. The mechanics of narrative that are simultaneously the simplest and the most rewarding are used by Docter and Peterson like highly familiar tools, like a hammer in the hand of a lifelong carpenter. Details that initially seem to have little purpose beyond getting a laugh or revealing something about a character prove to have greater value as the film progresses. The character dynamics are well thought out, and remain true from beginning to end, developing notably but naturally. The film becomes radical through reasserting the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling. It reminds us that, for all the toil and energy that goes into generating emotional responses in moviegoers, often the greatest impact can come from a single image if the necessary work has been done to give that image weight, even (or especially) if that image is of nothing more than a bottle cap pinned to a shirt.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

#10 — Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
It’s all about those records under the bed, a treasure trove of rock ‘n’ roll left by a departing sibling with the promise that there are life-changing notes contained within the collection. When young William Miller finds them, he flips through the strange squares carefully, lightly passing his hands over the surfaces of the worn cardboard covers as if they’re something mystical. The reverence that Cameron Crowe instills in this moment can almost make you believe that listening to The Who’s Tommy by candlelight is the surest path to enlightenment. That, above all else, is what Crowe accomplishes with Almost Famous. He captures the allure of great rock ‘n’ roll music perfectly, in a way that I don’t think any other film ever has. It is a secret club where outsiderness is the main criterion for entry, where naked revelry, literally and figuratively, is the purest expression of its essence. It’s where a guitar chord, played just the right way, at just the right volume, is inexplicably a mirror held up to the soul.

It’s important to note that Crowe had a vitally pertinent personal history to draw upon to achieve this goal. By the age of fifteen, Crowe was contributing articles to Rolling Stone, jetting around with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band at a time when earning ink in Jann Wenner’s publication was tantamount to true rock legitimacy. It’s that autobiography that Crowe uses to shape his film, redrawing himself as the previously mentioned William Miller, a youth with smarts and passion, but somewhat lacking in wiles. He enters the realm of rock journalism as a true believing fan, but a bit of a neophyte at the trickier aspects of life, like wooing women or generally navigating through interpersonal relationships fraught with dangerous trapdoors. As he tags along on tour with up-and-coming rock band Stillwater, struggling to pull together enough material for a coherent story, he builds fragile bonds with the individuals band members and stronger but more perilous connections with the collection of groupies that cluster around them, a gregarious pack that have proudly dubbed themselves “Band Aides.” Patrick Fugit plays the role with the appropriate level of unveiled delight, further amplifying the sense that the character has stumbled into a music fan’s golden palace.

Crowe’s screenplay is a winning combination of nicely observed character moments and ceaselessly clever humor. James L. Brooks was one of Crowe’s most devoted mentors as he moved from screenwriter to writer-director, and the film bears the welcome mark of that influence. Crowe doesn’t pass up the chance for a funny line, but also endeavors to make every word spoken somehow revelatory. From the members of Miller’s immediate family to the entire entourage around the band, we know everyone well by the end of the film. Even a collection of Topeka teens at a suburban party crashed by one of the band members feel real and thought out. It’s as if Crowe believes in the wide-ranging power of rock ‘n’ roll to such a degree that he wants to be sure he honors every person who hears the beat, closes their eyes and nods along.

The actors match this devotion with performances that still stand, nearly ten years later, as career pinnacles. As Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Billy Crudup churns together bright charisma with a creeping narcissism that is potentially an inevitable byproduct of having thousands of people scream their delight at you for the act of nicely manipulating a sextet of metal strings. Jason Lee plays the flip side as a lead singer, a growing star in his own right who is nonetheless threatened by the creeping fear that his sideman is starting to eclipse him. Kate Hudson is positively luminous as Penny Lane, the leader of the Band Aides, a young woman who is smarter than she cares to let on, but also helpless to resist the choices she knows are suspect. She nicely realizes both the inner vulnerability that draws her heart in to music in the first place, and the thin veneer of impervious confidence she uses to cover it up. It would take willful amnesia to declare Frances McDormand’s performance as William Miller’s intensely cerebral mother her career peak, but she does deserve accolades for playing the character as a person of uncompromising strength instead of the sort of domineering shrew that usually emerges in such roles. Crowe devotes a lot of screen-time to establishing that mother Miller is such a fearsome presence that even a phone conversation will leave the other party shaken and freaked out, so much so that it seems an insurmountable task to portray that experience in a way that matches the legend. Then McDormand gets the chance to actually play that scene, and delivers marvelously, demonstrating that forcefulness doesn’t require histrionics, just certainty and the intelligence to back it up.

Penny Lane notes that she tells her fellow Band Aides “if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends,” which is a splendid summation of the appeal of music fandom, the sense that the great songs and the heightened emotions that they inspire are always available, a needle drop away. Cameron Crowe’s entire film is a testimony to that, an extended tribute to the music he’s loved so much over the years and the era in which he discovered it, when the musicians were still wild and free enough to take over entire hotels like conquering armies, and yet it was somehow still innocent enough that whole communities could crop up that felt safe and oddly nurturing. Vital information could be relayed by an exuberant fan in an autograph-adorned t-shirt, and the surest sign that culture was starting to curdle involved the newest citizens taking a less egalitarian view about saving some catered steak for some of the people who arrive backstage a little later. One more fantastic performance in the film belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, amused and weary as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. He speaks perhaps the most profound words in the film when he says “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” There’s no doubt that the film includes some confession from Crowe that, no matter what sort of rock star existence he got to jog along parallel to, holding out a microphone in hope of a pithy, telling comment, he himself is uncool. And Almost Famous is indeed valuable currency.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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