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The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Kevin Smith, “Chasing Amy” and Jung’s archetypal booboo

I’m something of an oddball among Kevin Smith fans because of my refusal to concede the point that “Chasing Amy” was the best movie he ever made.

Wait. Let me repeat that for dramatic emphasis: “Chasing Amy” was the best movie Kevin Smith ever made. (Had I said that aloud I would have included a long pause in the middle to allow fellow Smith fans to shred me with sarcastic barbs.) Sure, I enjoy his other movies. “Dogma” still strikes me as fairly screwball and revolutionary, and who didn’t find Randal’s 10-second nutshelling of “The Lord of the Rings” movies genius and funny? But “Chasing Amy” … that one holds a special place in my heart, and I think, after 12 years, I finally figured out why:

It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that deals honestly and pointedly with The One Who Got Away (a.k.a. the one archetype Jung glossed over).

No concept is more bittersweet, more painful, more real and universal than the One Who Got Away. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have that One. The One you hurt badly and couldn’t figure out how to apologize to. The One you loved but were too scared to tell, so you settled for “friends.” The One you loved but were too stupid/immature/inexperienced/self-absorbed/damaged/blind to see it.  Everyone has a One. I know I do. And this figure sticks in our subconscious like a splinter. Sometimes it’s calm, sometimes it festers and flares and stings, but it’s always there. We always wonder about it. Until we screw up the courage, we dig out the tweezers and yank. Or until it works itself out on its own.

Kevin Smith gets that, maybe better than any other director I’ve encountered. He knows the weight of chances missed, risks passed up, words stuffed down instead of given voice. What’s more, he knows how to communicate it in two words: “Chasing Amy.” Somehow that’s almost as comforting as it is absurdly perceptive.

Is it possible that I’m overthinking a movie that contains several discussions about whether Archie and Mr. Weatherbee are doing the 44 in the gym showers? Maybe. But I like to think “Chasing Amy” is one of those movies that does a beautiful thing: cuts to the quick of a basic truth of human existence and communicates it in plain language.

Or maybe I’m just getting too damn sentimental in my old age.

Smith returns with heartfelt grossout “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen are porn stars (in their own minds) in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."

Comedian Rita Rudner once remarked that before meeting her husband she’d never fallen in love but had “stepped in it a few times.” The same can be said of the hapless title characters in writer/director Kevin Smith’s pottymouthed, big-hearted “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” Pals Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) spend 10 years stepping in mistakes only to realize — with the help of the chummiest porn film crew ever — they could have fallen into something big.

And such, too, is the case with Smith, who catalogued a few missteps of his own with the shamelessly sentimental “Jersey Girl” and the sorta-funny but mostly disappointing “Clerks II.” With its endless parade of raunchy sex gags, full-frontal nudity (female AND male), bodily fluid jokes and profanity-laden dialogue, though, “Zack and Miri” is no misstep. If anything, it signals something big: the return of an artist reclaiming his favorite medium.

That’s not to say “Zack and Miri” is perfect; it’s just the perfect Kevin Smith rom-com. Consider the left-of-center plot: Twentysomething roommates Zack and Miri, friends since first grade, share a rundown Pittsburgh apartment that lacks decoration and, thanks to some frivolous spending on sex toys, both electricity and running water. Dejected, Zack and Miri hole up in a dive bar to regroup, and Zack hatches his “brilliant” plan: He and Miri can — you’ll never guess! — make a porno, distribute it to their senior class (they’ve got the mailing list since they just suffered through their 10-year reunion) and make a bundle, or at least enough to turn on the water and power.

True to form, “Zack and Miri” succeeds because Smith dusts off a few of his trademarks (which, I suspect, must have been tucked away in storage since before “Jersey Girl”). First, there’s the “shock and awe” dialogue. Granted, these days the F-word is hardly shocking, but Smith’s script includes enough of it — and several other choice four-letter words — that it’s a wonder the film wasn’t slapped with an “NR” rating. But Smith mixes the profane with the profound, throwing in a few insightful lines (Zack and Miri’s attempts to name their porno; Miri’s riff on “period panties”) that make the profanity easier to take.

Another Smith hallmark? A cast of wacky secondary characters that amps up the comedy and, on occasion, provides unexpected insight. Smith newcomer Craig Robinson gets some of the film’s biggest laughs playing Delaney, an unhappily married man who just wants “to see some free titties.” (He should, henceforth, be known as Craig Robinson, not That Warehouse Guy from “The Office.”) Real-life porn stars Katie Morgan (Stacey, an airhead stripper) and Traci Lords (Bubbles, who got the name because she can blow bubbles using her … uh, best you find out for yourself) have cameos, and Jason Mewes (a.k.a. Jay) manages to make his character, a legend-in-his-own-mind womanizer, somehow likable. Even Randall (Jeff Anderson) of “Clerks” fame shows up to join the fun … and ends up with something (hint: it’s not egg) all over his face.

And, of course, there are the leads we can’t help rooting for. Rogen’s managed to make being a pudgy, schleppy dork ubercool, even sexy, and he revives that routine here to great comic effect. He’s exactly right to play the guy you never knew you always wanted. Banks, who’s slowly come into her own as a comic actress, hits all the right notes as a high school dweeb-turned-hot chick who hasn’t quite grown into her new skin. (Put glasses and some overalls on her and she could play the Pretty Ugly Girl in yet another teen movie spoof.)

A few critics have argued Banks and Rogen don’t generate much romantic chemistry; I beg to differ. There are sparks there, but they’re the kind expected of two people who stumbled into something life-changing but totally unforseen. Their interactions are a bit awkward, halting, tentative; Miri says the wrong thing, Zack fumbles with a button, and neither wants to admit what’s going on. But all that culminates in the one of the sweetest, most believable sex scenes ever filmed. The reason? There’s no trace of artifice in the entire sequence; every part of it feels real (well, as real as it can considering it’s Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, not Zack and Miri). They say the wrong things, they can’t find this zipper or that belt loop, they don’t know where to put their hands. It’s awkward and ungainly, but in a way that’s completely disarming, funny and endearing.

That said, “Zack and Miri” has its share of flaws. At 112 minutes, it’s a bit long-winded, the feces jokes get old after, oh, about 30 minutes, the “serious talk” moments fizzle and the ending is disappointingly predictable. But every minute of “Zack and Miri” is vintage Kevin Smith, and that alone is cause for celebration. And that, as Banky might say, is cause for a “shared moment.”

Grade: B+