Friday, July 18, 2008

A Better Class of Criminal

It isn't often that you walk out of a superhero movie invoking the work of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann as opposed to, say...other superhero movies, but Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a complex, disturbing and intensely powerful crime drama that is far closer to the work of those greats than something like The Fantastic Four.

Since the events of Batman Begins, the first installment of a new continuity doing wonders to restore the Caped Crusader's reputation after the spectacularly awful Batman and Robin, Batman (Christian Bale) has taken a big bite out of Gotham City's crime, and has inspired the police force to step up their game. With the help of the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), it seems like the forces of law enforcement can finally claim victory over the numerous mobsters in town...until the arrival of The Joker (the late Heath Ledger).

We see briefly that Batman has inspired a handful of other vigilantes, but the Joker is seen as his equal and opposite reaction. The brilliant street thug barrels onto the scene with his trademark purple suit and green hair without any explanation, though he does like to make up various backstories for himself. There seems to be no building he can't infiltrate, no intricate plan he can't pull off, no complex moral puzzle/nightmare he can't inflict on Gotham's citizens.

Faced with the mastermind's reign of terror, Batman joins with Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Harvey Dent to fight back. For a while, it goes well...but not forever. At its core, The Dark Knight is a tragedy about three man who come together to save the city they love, and are all severely punished by a world gone mad.

If the relentlessly grim story wasn't heavy enough, the script (written by Nolan, his brother Jonathan, and David S. Goyer) is a multi-layered, though quite unsubtle, commentary on post-9/11 America. The Joker's rampage threatens to tear the city apart, and to the strained police force, bending the rules starts to look like a better and better idea. What principles are worth compromising to get him off the streets? What's a greater victory for a terrorist...causing mayhem and destruction? Or provoking a society to destroy its own moral foundations?

Even Batman wrestles with how far he should go to end the violence, installing his own wiretapping program in his headquarters to try and track The Joker. (And with the FISA law that just passed, he could probably get immunity as the head of a major corporation...)Thankfully, both the loyal butler (and former British secret service agent) Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) function as Batman's conscience, do their best to keep him from the edge. Yet even the final decisions made by characters at the movie's conclusion, while noble, seem short-sighted, aiming for a quick fix instead of a long-term solution.

As with Batman Begins, this film's pacing and attention to story detail are phenomenal. The story rockets ahead thanks in large part to the driving score and terrific editing. The cast is uniformly terrific, particularly Eckhart as Dent, though it looks like he will be inevitably overshadowed by...

I've always been careful to keep my enthusiasm in check while writing these sorts of things, lest I lapse into that one-sided fanboy ranting that's become so fashionable on the internet that it is a real danger to the future of film criticism that's actually informed by some kind of scholarship. Despite that, I'll say right now that I can't think of enough superlatives to describe Ledger's work as The Joker. He is every bit as good as you've heard, if not better. The idea that he could also play the cowboy in Brokeback Mountain feels nothing short of mindblowing at this point.

Cesar Romero's 60s Joker was good for a laugh, with his bizarre plots like turning Gotham's water into jelly. There will always be much to appreciate about Jack Nicholson's classical approach to the character back in 1989. And of course, I'll always love the hilarious voice over work from Mark Hamill in the 90s animated series. But this is the darkest, most frightening version ever imagined of one of the great villains in the history of fiction. The Joker's battle with Batman is just as much philosophical as it is physical. He's out to prove that laws and society are a joke, and if he can get Batman and the Gotham police force to betray their own laws and principles to stop him, then he's won.

As marvelous as it is, the movie isn't quite perfect. Christian Bale is a great Bruce Wayne, but his raspy Solid Snake growling as Batman veers dangerously close to self-parody. Some of the action scenes, particularly the final big one in a skyscraper incorporating SWAT teams and a weird blue "sonar-vision" gimmick, are not as well-staged as they could be. The film's intent to keep rollicking forward takes a bit of a toll as well, leaving a handful of little continuity issues. Despite the long running time (over 2 and a half hours), the ending is abrupt, leaving a number of loose ends in the story. It's still one of those endings that will give you chills, but it also makes you wonder what sort of storytelling gymnastics will be required to piece it back together in a third movie.

But of course all of these things are easily forgiven. This masterful epic seems poised to break box-office records, and it deserves to.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Deliver Us From Intellectual Laziness

So if you've been following politics recently, you've no doubt heard about Senator Obama's decision to forego public financing for his general election campaign. It's hardly a surprise, but it is controversial.

The rationale is pretty obvious. His campaign has already raised amazing amounts of money via the internet, mostly smaller donations from millions of different people. Why lock yourself into a set amount of money when it's possible the current method will yield several times that amount?

McCain has committed to public financing, even though there's growing evidence to suggest he's been violating election laws left and right. That, of course, hasn't stopped him from going after Obama on this issue. Hardly a surprise, but I expect that sort of shit from Republicans at this point, and this post isn't about him.

With Obama's decision, it's a classic head vs. heart issue...and this time, I think I'm leaning toward heart. While it is admirable that Obama has struck a chord with so many regular folks giving small private donations, the decision also reeks of the "everything to win" approach that so often made Hillary Clinton off-putting. It seems beneath someone who talks so often about changing America's typical politics.

So I'm disappointed, but I'm obviously going to still vote for the guy. At this point, he would have to bite the head off of a baby before I wouldn't. If Hillary won, I would have (reluctantly) voted for her as well, because after 8 years of Bush, the Republicans need to sit in the corner and have a fucking time out.

So I'm about to put forward a concept which may blow the minds of most political commentators: I'm criticizing a candidate for a particular action....without endorsing his opponent.

Hard to grasp, I know. At least that's the impression I get from a lot of Obama's internet supporters.

So why is Jon Stewart at the top of this entry? Well, The Daily Show recently had some fun with Obama's decision, and dug up a tape from one of last year's Democratic debates. In it, the moderator asked who among them supported public financing. There's Obama with his hand up. Oops.

And here's the typical response:

From Joseph A. Palermo:
Jon Stewart and The Daily Show should be mindful whenever Obama is the target of their satire that they don't end up regurgitating Republican talking points. The producers should be careful when poking fun at Obama not to provide fuel for the right-wing slime machine. Poke fun at Obama all you want, but do it in a way that also reveals the Republicans' mendacity and hypocrisy.

Okay, that's just lame. Obviously Republicans are not short on either mendacity or hypocrisy, but come on. Every Obama joke has to be balanced by a joke about the Republicans? What if every time someone made fun of Bush, they had to also mock a Democrat? That's stupid. Another annoying element of this is the implication that Stewart has some responsibility to help get Obama elected. No. The guy makes fun of people. That's his job.

During his routine, the normally wild Daily Show crowd was pretty quiet, prompting Stewart to say "It's okay to laugh at him. Really."

It's sad to see normally astute commentators become close-minded zealots just because it's election time. Why can't more of them be like Katie? The other night, she asked me "Did you hear about Obama? That he's a jerk and won't do public financing?" Is that intellectual honesty I smell? I knew there was a reason why I'm gonna marry her.

It is not a "Republican talking point" to note that Obama's position on public financing has changed. Not when a tape like that exists. Again, I don't think it's an egregious offense, just a disappointment. It's not going to change my vote or the vote of most people I know who don't like this turn of events. And I'm not worried this issue is giving the Republicans a chance to dust off the old "flip-flop" accusations, since on that front, McCain still has Obama outnumbered by a ratio of about 20 to 1.

So as we look back on the last eight years, let's not forget one of the main things that made Bush and his supporters so obnoxious - shit like this.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Intergalactic Hate Crime

I wish I could make this kind of stuff up.

From the BBC:
'Darth Vader' Attacks Jedi Church Founder
Dark Lord Could Face Jail Time for Striking Back

A man posing as Darth Vader attacked a Star Wars fan who had founded a Jedi Church, a court has heard.

Arwel Wynne Hughes, 27, from Holyhead, Anglesey, admitted assaulting Barney Jones and cousin Michael with a metal crutch. They suffered minor injuries.

Hughes, who was drunk and dressed in a black bin bag, shouted "I am Darth Vader!"

Earlier, when Hughes failed to arrive on time, District Judge Andrew Shaw issued an arrest warrant, adding: "I hope the force will soon be with him."

In the event, Hughes turned up and the case at Holyhead Magistrates' Court resumed.

The court heard that he had jumped over a garden wall wearing the bin bag before the attack.

Prosecutor Nia Lloyd said Barney Jones had recently started the Jedi Church in Holyhead, in honour of the good knights from Star Wars.

It had about 30 members locally and "thousands worldwide," she said.

The cousins had been filming themselves playing with light sabres in the garden before the attack.

Hughes admitted two charges of common assault.

The court was told he had a "chronic alcohol problem" and had drunk the best part of a 10-litre box of wine.

Mrs Lloyd said: "He was wearing a black bin bag and a cape and had a metal crutch in his hand."

Hughes hit Barney Jones over the head with the crutch, leaving him with a headache, before laughing and hitting Michael Jones in the thigh, causing bruising.

Both men were left upset by the incident and they believed it was pre-planned.

She added that the pair believed "very strongly in the church and their religion".

Hughes could not remember the incident and only realised what had happened when he read about it in local newspapers, the court was told.

Defending, Frances Jones, said alcohol was "ruining his life" and he had no idea where he got the crutch from.

The court heard that Hughes had previous convictions, including affray, assault and disorderly behaviour.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Out For A Week

There were two messages on the machine. His wife set down her bags and hit the flashing red button. The first was from his boss, asking why he hadn’t come to work. She shrugged. He must have gotten stuck in traffic that morning. The second message unnerved her. The boss again, sounding increasingly flustered.

His car was in the driveway, so she walked upstairs looking for him. She called his name, but there was no answer. She walked into their room and there he was. She was annoyed now. How could he not have heard her coming up the stairs and calling for him? Why wouldn’t he wake up? She told him she was tired of whatever game he was playing.

She heard something vibrate. It was his cell phone, trying to notify him that he had a voicemail. She didn’t know his password, but she looked at the call log. Sure enough, it was his office. She asked him what he was trying to pull. No response. She slapped his face gently, and then harder as she got more annoyed. She tickled his underarms. This always worked. No response.

Now she was growing frightened. She ran into the bathroom and filled a glass with water. There was no reaction when she threw it on his face. Her heart was pounding now, and she held back panicked sobs. She grabbed his cell phone off the floor.

After coming home from work, he reclined on the couch and grabbed a newspaper. There was an article about the city’s budget for the coming fiscal year. City officials had proposed an increase in funding for their community services department. The director of that department had spoken at a recent public hearing, excited that the additional money would pay for more food baskets and help needy residents deal with painful fuel costs.

There was another quote. An angry man claimed to be speaking for all of the city’s taxpayers. He asked how the city could be so irresponsible. Putting down the newspaper, he let out a heavy sigh. The reporter had tried to present a balanced view of the issue, but he had a sinking feeling.

He walked to his computer in the other room, jostling the mouse to turn off the screen saver. He pulled up the city’s website. Official Minutes. Click. Sure enough, there had been a whole stampede of angry speakers blasting the increase in funding. Pleas for altruism were drowned out by a parade of indignant city residents worried about their own individual tax bill.

His parents had joined his wife in the hospital. His brother was expected soon. The doctors were mystified. They said they had never seen anything like this. For days, they performed dozens of tests. Had he hit his head? Any injury severe enough to put someone in a coma would certainly stand out, but there was nothing. Every test came back negative. He was in remarkably good health. If only he were awake to enjoy it.

After three days of anxiety, his brother lost his temper. He grabbed a paper clip, bent it and stabbed his brother in the arm. Blood dripped down from the small hole left behind, but he didn’t react. His parents pulled his brother away. His wife fell to her knees. She didn’t understand why this had happened, or why it had to happen. He had made so much progress, gotten past so many obstacles. What cruel cosmic joke had been played on her husband?

Having exhausted all options, the doctors sheepishly asked the family to take him back home. There were a lot of patients with more familiar ailments who needed treatment. His parents protested, but were unable to make a real case for keeping him in the hospital. One doctor tried to console them, said they could check in with him regularly, assured them they would continue to look over the test results.

It was the weekend. He was not an early riser like his wife. When he finally lurched out of bed, she had been up for hours organizing various piles of clutter. She didn’t know the meaning of the word “relax.” He fired up the computer, and began his usual round of news websites. Here was a shocking item. Someone had unearthed records which revealed that several high-ranking government officials had signed off on torturing prisoners of war.

This was huge, he thought. He grabbed the remote and turned on the television, hoping to find out more. The first news channel he came across had nothing. A prominent politician had been seen in public without an American flag pin, and talking heads were reacting with outrage that he found rather disproportionate.

Maybe he would have better luck with another channel. Now a young television actress crashed her car into a fire hydrant. There were two correspondents on the scene. He squinted and watched the crawl of information at the bottom of the screen. No mention of the torture, but an Oscar-winning actor was apparently a “prankster” on the set of his last film.

He turned off the television and tossed the remote to the other end of the bed. After a few moments, he cursed and brought his fist down onto the mattress. His wife turned and asked what the problem was. He felt too frustrated to even speak, preferring to simply shake his head.

Friends and family were now a frequent sight at his home. The atmosphere was like that of a funeral, but all of the guests were careful not to let his wife hear that particular observation. Old friends who had not seen each other for years came together and discussed their astonishment at the circumstances which had brought them there.

The initial shock of his predicament had faded, and the guests now sought to lighten the mood by pointing out small details on their sleeping friend. An old college roommate noted that he seemed to have a lot more gray hairs these days. His wife was now reluctant to even set foot in the bedroom, and threw herself into making sure the guests were well-fed. His dog patiently waited beside the bed, leaving his post only to eat and go outside for brief periods of time.

At one point, his sister-in-law had to rush into the bedroom to gather her children, who were walking all over him and enjoying not getting scolded like they might with someone who was awake. His wife had to leave the house. She stood outside in the driveway, fighting back the tears again. She had cried so much in the last week. She wondered how one person even had so many tears. What would she do if he never woke up?

No. That was impossible. Even if he didn’t wake up, it was only a matter of time before some other cause of death claimed him. He had not eaten in six days, surely that would catch up to him. This realization made her feel worse. Were these the two possible ways her marriage would end? Death or eternal sleep?

As the family gathered for Easter Sunday, he walked around the suburban neighborhood where he grew up. He recalled a farm within walking distance from his home. The fields there seemed to stretch on forever. He remembered running wildly through them as a child, and occasionally hiding from the farmer when he spotted a tractor on the horizon.

As he grew older, he had begun to appreciate the place for more than just its recreational possibilities. It was beautiful. He thought of it as his own little slice of Europe, right on his street.

But now it was different. There were deep scars in its surface, treaded tracks carved deep into the landscape which once seemed impossibly flat. His father had quietly walked up behind him, and broke the news that the land was being developed into several retail stores. He clenched his teeth together, fighting an urge to cry that was so fierce it surprised him.

Most of the guests had left for the evening. His wife, exhausted, slumped onto the couch and fell asleep within minutes. One friend remained, and walked into the bedroom. This friend had known him perhaps the longest, and remembered the days when it seemed uncertain whether he would even make it through school.

He grabbed a chair and set it beside the bed. He paused for a few moments, and finally spoke.

“I don’t know how you’ve done this, but you’ve got to stop. People here need you.”

It was near the end of a long day. He called his wife to inform her he would be late for dinner. She seemed mildly irritated, but after a ten-hour day, he didn’t find anything about it mild. Little pet peeves became insurmountable odds. He lashed out at her, criticizing her for things that didn’t even bother him on a good day.

When he got home, she was standing alone on the porch. He couldn’t bear to make eye contact at first. She said nothing, and instead held out her arms. He was a child again, reduced to tears by a world that seemed constantly cruel and unforgiving. He wondered what was wrong with him. Everyone else seemed to know how to deal with it. Everyone but him. Except now it was different. He wasn’t alone.

It was hard to believe how often he forgot that.

The next morning, he woke up and began his usual routine. He fired up the computer, but decided to look someplace different today. He found a video of a dog growling at its own leg. Laughter rang through the house. His wife ran in, and cried for what seemed like hours. His growling stomach brought the emotion of the moment to a halt. She said he must be hungry. He nodded.

He was quiet during breakfast, but content. His wife sat across from him. The dog stared at him, hoping for scraps.

For now, this was all he needed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New Heights in Insensitivity and Fearmongering

And no, don't worry, this isn't another entry about Hillary. I'm done scolding her for now...and it's not just cause she won big this past Tuesday, though that was pretty impressive.

Nope, I'm here to tell you all a little about the company I used to work for. Journal Register Company (or JRC) is a big corporation that owns hundreds of newspapers all over the East Coast, including the New Haven Register. I've also learned recently that they own a tabloid newspaper in New Jersey that is responsible for one of the most infamously offensive headlines ever.

There was a fire at a mental hospital down there in 2002. Here was the headline.

Yep, Roasted Nuts. Here was the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's reaction.
"This one is so bad that many NAMI members initially couldn't believe that it was true-and not a hoax over the Internet."

But it was real, and here's a more recent example of the newspaper's class. This came out during the Roger Clemens steroid hearings in Congress.

Moving on, today I was in Price Chopper picking up some lunch and on a whim, I bought 101 Dalmatians on DVD. This is the original 1961 animated film, not that Glenn Close remake with all the CGI puppies.

Now, I like these "Platinum Edition" Disney DVD releases. Despite their habit of always having a feature where a tween "Disney Channel" star sings one of the film's major songs, they do a good job. The Bambi DVD had a commentary composed of actors reading old production notes from the 1940s. It was pretty cool.

But one thing I'm really sick of is all Disney's bullshit about the "Vault." You have to have seen this at some point, they've been doing it since the VHS days. They put out one of their movies, and they say you have to buy it now, or else it's going back in the vault forever. Pinocchio's seen about five different VHS/DVD releases in the last two decades, despite the fact that each time was supposedly the last time for the rest of mankind's history on this Earth that it would be available in stores.

I mean really, can you think of any other movie studio that uses actual fearmongering to sell DVDs? Buy Pinocchio...or you will never have another chance. It's especially obsolete in today's times because all of these movies that are ostensibly in the vault now can be purchased on Amazon or other sites with the click of a button. You would think at least one person there would realize this bullshit has long jumped the shark, but nope. There it was on the little display rack for my 101 Dalmatians DVD.

Take your vault and shove it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


If Hillary had left the Democratic race earlier, I would have felt bad for her. I'm past that threshold now, because frankly, I'm tired of having my intelligence insulted by her tone-deaf campaign staff.

See, there's Good Hillary and Bad Hillary. Good Hillary is witty and speaks passionately about helping others. Bad Hillary is condescending and can barely hide how aghast she is that she couldn't just walk into the race and claim the nomination just because her last name was Clinton. Unfortunately, the more Obama wins, the more we see of Bad Hillary, who is just baffled that people are getting excited about her opponent's talk of bringing people back together rather than the fine details of her health care plan.

Don't even get me started on how premature that whole discussion is, by the way. Hate to break it to folks, but the new president, whoever it is, will have to make compromises with a Congress of 400+ people and 100 Senators. Whatever bill that addresses health care won't be a carbon copy of either Hillary or Obama's idea, so focusing so incessantly on that particular issue strikes me as just a waste of time.

After Obama's win in Iowa, the Hillary campaign tried to co-opt the "change" theme. Sorry, someone who's been in the public eye for the better part of the last twenty years can not turn around and cast themselves as a fresh voice. That's not to say that an Obama presidency is the only venue for such change. Had Edwards not dropped out before Super Tuesday, I may have voted for him, because I think he had a lot of the same virtues plus a better chance in the general election. The kind of "change" people are demanding goes a lot deeper than race or's about some kind of challenge to the system.

I won't go into how the Clinton machine did the impossible during the South Carolina primary (made me dislike Bill Clinton), but the most irritating part of all this is their constant, pathetic attempts to turn everything into a "Scandal." Going over every word Obama's ever said, desperate to get people outraged. Oh my god, Obama used lines from a Deval Patrick speech! Oh my god, Obama wanted to be president when he was in kindergarten! Newsflash: Nobody gives a shit. It's only a scandal if people actually care.

Never mind that her campaign's defense of her Iraq War authorization vote boils down to "I voted for the authorization, but I didn't think he would actually do it!" Give me a fucking break. She knew exactly what would happen, she just hoped we'd be welcomed with flowers and smiles instead of what we have now. She may not be consistent, but she's not an idiot.

Though her horizons look grim, I'm not counting her out yet. She may yet pull off another comeback in the next round of primaries....and if she wins the nomination, I'll do my best to resist the temptation to vote for Nader. Still, if she does pull it off, it better be by a large margin, because if these "superdelegates" override the will of the voters, we're up chocolate creek without a popsicle stick.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Who Played the Pitbull?

6/8. Not bad, certainly better than some recent years. Not too many upsets, the big one was Marion Cotillard beating Julie Christie for Best Actress. I had considered the possibility, but I didn't really feel it could happen until La Vie En Rose won Makeup. That was early evidence that there was heavy support for this obscure little movie and Cotillard could do what no woman done since Sophia Loren in the 60s, win an acting Oscar for a non-English performance.

Supporting Actress was always the wiliest category, and Tilda Swinton's win definitely makes sense in the context of this year's ceremony, where every Best Picture nominee walked away with at least one award. It felt like No Country For Old Men stomped all over the place this year, but looking at the results, the wealth was decently spread.

Taxi to the Dark Side surprised me by beating the critic favorite No End in Sight for Documentary. Bourne Ultimatum had its own mini-sweep in the tech awards, wining Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Pretty fun show, nice of the producers to keep it under four hours this time. Till next year!

Picture: No Country For Old Men
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country For Old Men
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Actress: Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose
Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men
Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton
Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody for Juno
Adapted Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country For Old Men
Documentary: Taxi to the Dark Side
Animated Feature: Ratatouille
Foreign Language Film: The Counterfeiters
Cinematography: There Will Be Blood
Visual Effects: The Golden Compass
Art Direction: Sweeney Todd
Costume Design: Elizabeth - The Golden Age
Film Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum
Sound Mixing: The Bourne Ultimatum
Sound Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum
Makeup: La Vie En Rose
Original Song: "Falling Slowly" from Once
Original Score: Atonement
Documentary Short: Freeheld
Animated Short: Peter and the Wolf
Live-Action Short: Le Mozart Des Pickpockets
Honorary Oscar: Robert Boyle

Monday, February 18, 2008

Oscar 2008 Educated Guesses

Check my recent posts.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Top Ten Films of 2007

Latest list ever. I can blame my own busy schedule...but this was also a fairly week year as far as movies go. In a stronger year, some of these films would not have made it on, but it is what it is, I guess. The annual Oscar predictions are next week.

10. Sicko: When Michael Moore's latest documentary came out, it carried with it a promise that health care would finally be the subject of a substantive discussion within American culture. However, the prevalence of the issue today owes much more to the current presidential campaign than Moore's movie, which invited critics to distort the issue with the concluding sequences in Cuba. That finale became the discussion, rather than what truly makes this film great – its first half, which is almost entirely composed of personal stories from regular folks who, try as they might, could not find suitable care for their serious ailments. And these were the people who had health insurance. Now on DVD, hopefully Sicko will be understood not as the movie that made the big, bad communists look good, but as an expose of America's health care system, driven by profit rather than a desire to provide any actual care.

9. No Country For Old Men: I'm not positive this film deserves the tremendous success it's currently enjoying on the awards circuit, but there's certainly much to admire here. The stark and beautiful cinematography, breathtaking suspense and the already legendary performance of Javier Bardem as the freakish hitman Anton Chigurh are high points of a primal adventure that gradually morphs into a commentary on the separation between ideals about justice and the unfair truths of real life. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have taken a break from the playful attitude that has pervaded their recent work, and have delivered a bleak portrait of humanity with exceptional craftsmanship.

8. Paprika: Most movies would use the premise of being able to explore the dreams of others as the basis for simply a creative adventure or thriller. Satoshi Kon is not so easily satisfied. Paprika uses this idea to explore a hypothetical debate about the ethics of invading the last truly private element of human life. It’s the director’s most challenging film yet, but it’s also easy to sit back and get lost in the gorgeous animation and another tremendous score from frequent Kon-collaborator Susumu Hirasawa.

7. Sweeney Todd: It’s hard to think of a better movie to see if you’re pissed off at the world. Sweeney Todd begins as an irresistible tale of vengeance, almost like a supervillain’s origin story. But there’s no hero to pit against Sweeney’s nihilism, just a corrupt elite all too deserving of a few slashes from his blade. Yet as the body count piles up, this adaptation of the classic musical brings things to a tragic conclusion, even though the grisly actions of the characters involved surely brought the suffering on themselves. Burton does a great job of staging the dark world Sweeney inhabits, but it’s Depp’s peerless performance that makes the movie soar.

6. Eastern Promises: David Cronenberg made a name for himself with films like Scanners and Videodrome, science-fiction tales that were also milestones in terms of on-screen gore. These days, he specializes in visceral yet poetic dramas like Eastern Promises, the story of a nurse (Naomi Watts) whose search for the truth behind an orphaned child gets her involved with the vicious Russian mob. Viggo Mortensen disappears into the role of Nikolai, a chauffeur who is much more than he first appears. The film features some truly shocking twists, layered characters, and the most animalistic fight scene in years.

5. Ratatouille: It’s not unusual to see a Pixar film make this list, and certainly not one with Brad Bird in the director’s chair. As with The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, this film does a superb job of wholly involving the audience in the story while dazzling them with animation sequences worthy of the late Chuck Jones. The idea of kids watching the work of a director who has always focused on talented individuals overcoming the restrictions placed on them by a society focused on uniformity is encouraging. It’s not exaggerating to say that at least one child may decide to follow his or her dreams based on what the rat character in this film accomplishes, and that’s a great thing.

4. Michael Clayton: You’ve seen the “crooked corporation” story before, but never like this. Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton begins by slowly immersing us in a remarkably convincing world where the titular character works as a “fixer,” getting wealthy corporate clients out of potentially embarrassing situations. It also takes the time to give insight to a character whose attempts to find an escape from his morally bankrupt career have all blown up in his face. By the time the intrigue seeps in, it’s frighteningly realistic. A terrific supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson as a cog in the machine who finds his conscience and Tilda Swinton as a ice-cold executive, seals the deal.

3. Hot Fuzz: I would humbly suggest that each one of the millions of people who spent their hard-earned money to make Meet the Spartans the highest grossing film of the weekend it debuted go rent Hot Fuzz on DVD and discover how a master spoofs Hollywood. Director Edgar Wright crafts a detailed satire of self-important Bruckheimer-esque action films while also paying tribute to the simple pleasures those kinds of films provide. The script also takes the time to develop the two lead characters to great effect. As a buddy-cop team, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost put Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker to shame. This was the most purely hilarious fun I had at the movies all year.

2. Juno: Picture a young woman who doesn’t neatly fall into any stereotype. Easy, right? Well, not in the movies. Writer Diablo Cody (with director Jason Reitman) has given birth (no pun intended) to a character who may one day be looked back on as the voice of a generation. There hasn’t yet been a film that so nails the sardonic sensibilities of the new century’s youth culture. The examples of this are both obvious (Juno’s opening joke about her mother’s abandonment) and subtle (As she declares her love for her baby’s father near the end, her voice unexpectedly rises as if she’s asking a question…the implication being that she fears a possible backlash from a teen society that mocks any examples of real feeling). The fact that the film refuses to cater to other stereotypes helps as well: a caring stepmother, a cool-headed father. This instant classic’s near-guaranteed win for Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Oscars will be one of the most deserving of the night.

1. The King of Kong: Without a hint of condescension, director Seth Gordon turns his camera on the sub-culture of video-gaming enthusiasts dedicated to scoring new high scores on the early classics. Specifically, we get the story of the battle between Billy Mitchell, who has held the record in “Donkey Kong” for decades, and the humble Steve Wiebe, a quiet genius looking for some recognition to highlight his otherwise normal life. The documentary profiles a cast of characters as endearing and eccentric as any fiction comedy, and it’s one of those great examples where life resembles an underdog sports story. Hilarious and gripping, The King of Kong finds art in one of the most unlikely places possible.