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”?

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Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)

Stand SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) on any grocery store cereal aisle and he’s utterly lost, overwhelmed and frozen with indecision. Put that same man in front of a bomb half-buried under sandy rubble on a Baghdad street and watch his eyes come alive. To call SSG James an “adrenaline junkie,” however, is to suggest he’s fix-focused and remorseless. Renner, coming out of nowhere with a fearless performance, gives this seemingly careless soldier complexity, including a desire to understand his fixation. “You know why I’m that way?” he asks Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). There’s no real answer for a question like this, James seems to understand, and even if there was, it wouldn’t do anything to kill the adrenaline buzz.

Too often in war films we don’t get characters as human and as layered as SSG William James; instead, we get caricatures — hunky heroes (here’s looking at you, Ben Affleck/Capt. Rafe McCawley) or mouthy wild cards like Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. With “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow seems intent on changing that without skimping on the tension, the action or the explosions. Using hand-held cameras, she creates a war film that feels not shaky or low-budget but surprisingly intimate. What this technique can do is perfectly amazing: every grimace, every bullet wound, every bead of sweat gets up-close-and-personal treatment. These cameras transplant viewers to the streets of Baghdad, staring down the barrel of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) wired with enough firepower to KO a city block and everyone in it. Bigelow’s reliance on this technique infuses every frame of the film with nail-biting intensity. When an IED blows, we feel the vibrations and taste the sand. This is war at the hot, dirty ground level.

Yet as impressive as Bigelow’s vision is, it’s scriptwriter Mark Boal’s characters that make “The Hurt Locker” one of the most personal and psychologically intriguing war films ever made. Renner’s SSG James is a commanding figure, but so are his fellow soldiers. James steps in as team leader of the Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, and the company members — Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, nicely capturing the anguish of a man not prepared for what he’s seeing), still smarting from witnessing the original team lead’s death — immediately distrust James. He’s reckless to a fault, pulling off his headset to dismantle an IED hidden in an abandoned car. When a cabbie is mistaken as an insurgent and gets roughed up, James is dependably cavalier: “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he is now.” He doesn’t rely on his team members for intel and charges head-first into unknown situations. Both Sanborn and Eldridge sense a recklessness in their superior that frightens them, and they know James isn’t in this for patriotic reasons. Mackie, a remarkably subtle actor, communicates his wariness and weariness through his eyes; in a later scene with Renner, he is more blunt about his feelings: “I’m not ready to die.”

Renner is alternately fierce and quietly devastating, but never does he shy away from showing us a man acutely aware he has a problem but likes the charge too much to stop. Renner also finds an undercurrent of pride in SSG James, a thoroughly ordinary father/husband (to Evangeline Lily, whose few scenes are poignant) in civilian life but an extraordinary soldier.

At the film’s beginning, Bigelow provides what seems like an ominous warning: “War is a drug.” But by the end of “The Hurt Locker,” New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges’ quote seems less like an admonition and more like a thought-provoking, very uncomfortable question. In war, Bigelow seems to prompt us, who do we really want on the battlefield — the soldier longing for home whose head isn’t quite in the game, or the reckless fighter who just can’t get enough, the one dashing right into the smoke wearing the grin of a junkie with an empty needle in his vein? Only the boldest director would dare shine a light into that dark corner of the human mind, and only a movie as good as “The Hurt Locker” would make us consider the repercussions of our honest answer.

Grade: A