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Review: “Interview” (2007)

“A mental mindfuck can be nice.” No offense to Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his pithy one-liner, but that all depends on how evenly matched the partners are. It’s not so much fun to watch a plainly unbalanced faceoff (like the ferocious “Swimming with Sharks”). And initially that’s just what “Interview” looks like: an unfair fight. Buscemi’s Pierre is a serious political correspondent whose wartime credentials don’t shield him from a fluff assignment: a story on blonde starlet Katya (Sienna Miller), famous for being famous. He has battle scars; she has a string of roles in B slasher films. The victor of this battle of wits would seem … predetermined.

Think again. Buscemi is not a director who writes surface-level people, and he is not an actor who plays them, either. He excels with characters who are deeper than they appear to be — sometimes in dangerous, disquieting ways. Because Katya and Pierre are American and not Dutch, like those in the original film by the late Theo van Gogh, Buscemi shapes them into types we know all too well: the vapid paparazzi darling and the self-important journalist. But he tweaks them enough that specks of humanity crop up occasionally, pushing the boredom and the disgust aside. As “Interview” progresses, the little human kindnesses fly out the window once Pierre realizes that Katya relishes a good verbal/psychological jousting match as much as he does. And she may be better at the sport than he ever dreamed possible.

Being a small film containing a main cast of a whopping two actors, “Interview” will not appeal to the adrenaline junkies. The action is minimal; the talking never stops. But psychological warfare depends on disarming the opponent with words selected to affect maximum emotional damage. So the talking, to those paying attention, builds in intensity until it’s exhilarating. At the first meeting, things are strained (that’s putting it mildly) — Katya breezes in an hour late, taking no notice of Pierre’s seething anger. She doesn’t bother to feign interest in the interview, so he doesn’t bother to conceal his contempt for the woman he’s pigeonholed as a talking sex toy. He has done no preparation, and instead of hiding that he lords it over Katya. Both exit in anger (“Cunt-ya!” Pierre spits out), each wishing gruesome fates upon the other. Then a freak cab crunch-up leaves Pierre with a head wound, and Katya, whose loft is nearby, takes pity on him. Once he’s inside her territory, though, the gloves come off and the emotional pistol whipping begins. He’s grossly underestimated her self-awareness, and assumes that she is deaf to sarcasm. She is not: “You have to feel sorry for me. I mean, I probably have silicone for brains.”

The game turns nastier from there, with Pierre snooping on Katya’s laptop and finding a secret impressive enough to help him turn this puff piece into an expose. Her reaction to his digging leads him to believe he’s hit pay dirt. But it’s tricky, dirty business playing Truth or Dare with an actress, and when Katya demands Pierre unpack a few skeletons from his own closet he makes himself unwisely vulnerable. The back-and-forth would be tedious if not for the ever-changing behavior of the characters. They have more in common than they’d care to admit, with Pierre acting as something of a chameleon to get at the bankable truth. As a journalist he’s done this thousands of times but convinces himself that behavior had a nobler purpose. Miller’s Katya is no less manipulative, and her erratic behavior — uncontrollable laughter one minute, towering rage the next — keeps us guessing at her motives. Buscemi and Miller are about as a sublime a pair as we could hope for — no one looks wearier or more derisive than Steve Buscemi, and Miller is attractive in that vapid, slightly nutty, damaged Lindsay Lohan way. They couldn’t be an odder pair, and for once their distaste for one another does not give way to mattress gymnastics. “Interview,” instead, smacks into an Twist Ending that’s possibly a little too Hollywood and a definitely a little too unrealistic. But since “Interview” is like real life, only more dramatic, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Grade: B

Review: “In the Soup” (1992)

Most all true Steve Buscemi fans would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for their infatuation with this unassuming actor. His sparkling personality? Buscemi isn’t likely to win any “life of the party” awards in his lifetime. His dashing good looks? Well, “classically handsome” isn’t a phrase you’d attach to this face. So what’s the secret to his magnetism? Probably it hinges on his ability to seem bitter and ironically detached from life, which has pushed him around, ignored him, beaten him down, made him … average. But Buscemi makes “average” very appealing.

Paramount to understanding the appeal of Alexandre Rockwell’s “In the Soup,” a curious little wisp of a buddy comedy, is understanding that the film relies on Buscemi’s abilities. This is another part that feels tailor-made for Buscemi, or maybe it’s that he has a way of slipping into every part and making them seem tailor-made for him. (He and Frances McDormand have that in common.) So if the odd charms of Steve Buscemi aren’t lost on you, you’ll find yourself rooting for his Adolpho Rollo, an unemployed budding filmmaker with a 500-page script and not enough cash to turn it into a movie. Actually, he doesn’t have any cash — none to pay his ever-feuding landlords (Francesco Messina, Steven Randazzo), none to take out his beautiful neighbor Angelica (Jennifer Beals), whom he keeps promising will be the star of his film. She has learned not to trust men who go on and on about how beautiful she is; that’s how she got stuck with Gregoire (Stanley Tucci, killer-funny in a bit part), the crazy Frenchman she married for a green card. Adolpho assures her some day he’ll be somebody, but why should she believe him? Broke is broke. Divine intervention is required.

Then, in a kind of deus ex machina (the cinema gods have a kooky sense of humor), Adolpho finds Joe (Seymour Cassel), a possible buyer for his script. Joe, a clear foil for Adolpho, is many things: vivacious, suave and possessed of a carpe-diem attitude. He’s also a smooth-talking grifter who associates with some rough characters, including his thuggish brother Skippy (Will Patton), and a midget/gorilla team of drug dealers. Cassel relishes the part and infuses this trickster with enough effervescence to make us wary of his game at the same time we get swept into it. Adolpho seems to know he has no choice but to go along with a guy like Joe. After all, his mother (Ruth Maleczech) likes him.

That’s the thing about Joe: everyone likes him. In motion pictures you can and cannot trust characters everyone likes; you also never quite know what makes them tick. All you know is that they’ll change someone’s life irreversibly and there’s nothing to be done about. So it is with Joe, played with such vigor by Cassel that his possible dirty dealings and obvious mental instability fade into the background. Cassel relishes the part and throws all his energy into it, sometimes dangerously toeing the line to overacting but never crossing it. This leaves Buscemi to do what he does so well: play the straight man, the perpetually sarcastic but perceptive observer who lets life happen to him. The odd couple pairing works reasonably well despite a relative lack of character backstory on both parts. Knowing so little about Adolpho and especially Joe occasionally creates more frustration than the air of mystery Rockwell undoubtedly aims for. There is, however, some merit in a film that ends without boldfacing who every character is, what he has learned and how that knowledge has changed him.

Other parts of “In the Soup” provoke more curiosity than outright enjoyment. Rockwell elects to shoot in black and white, which dates the film even though it’s unclear of the time period and fairly screams “this is art.” The choice is serviceable, but is it necessary? There isn’t much of a storyline and very little action to speak of. As a film, a work of cohesion with a discernible plot and character arcs and action, “In the Soup” falls short. But as a celluloid scrapbook of snapshots — Joe front-and-center, Adolpho hovering at the edges — the film has a retiring charm not unlike the one Buscemi has built his career on.

Grade: B-

No. 31: “Fargo” (1996)

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.” ~~Marge Gunderson

Writer Elbert Hubbard posited an interesting theory about the rather opposite problems of brilliance and nitwittedness: “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper-gone-wrong/thriller/bloody comedy (blood-com?) “Fargo” is like watching Hubbard’s words come to life — funny, outlandish, kooky life. For “Fargo,” with few exceptions, is populated with the sort of numbskulls who could not find their nether regions with both hands and a miner’s helmet. Watching them try and fail makes for A-plus doofy comedy, but with a sinister and violent twist. 

Chief among these morons is Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a shady, incompetent Minneapolis car salesman who’s hemorrhaging cash. He hatches a plot to get his hands on some green that he’s certain is foolproof (uh oh). Mostly Jerry just needs money, but there’s a small part of him that craves excitement and power; he does, after all, live under his rich father-in-law’s (Harve Presnell) thumb. Macy’s stammering anxiety is a boon to “Fargo,” since nobody plays a loser who wants to be cool quite as adeptly as he does. Thus, Jerry hires two local thugs, Carl (the eminently watchable Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare, by turns comic and ungodly creepy), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). In exchange, he’ll give these hoods a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom. But Jerry has plans for a double-cross of sorts that, according to Murphy’s Law and to Coen Law, he will not pull off. Guys who look and sound like William H. Macy never pull off such plots in movies.

There are two things that poor, dopey Jerry hasn’t counted on. First and foremost is that the criminal’s he has hired are about as gifted in the art of crime perpetration as, say, the Three Stooges on a bad day. Carl is jittery and absolutely incapable of keeping his cool. (The film’s best throwaway knee-slapper: Buscemi lets loose with “Whoa, daddy!” when Gaear suddenly shoots a trooper in Brainerd, Minn.) Gaear affects an ominous stare and rarely talks, which gives him an air — totally erroneous, of course — of competence. The second thing that knocks Jerry for a loop is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, deserving of that Best Actress Oscar for her cheerful performance), Brainerd’s police chief. Although she, like everyone else in “Fargo,” sports that too-crazy-to-be-fake Minnesota dialect, saying things like “oh, yah” and “dontchaknow,” she’s no intellectual lightweight. Within minutes of finding the dead trooper in the snow, she’s accurately recreated the crime scene and starts the search for two criminals. McDormand, a veritable chameleon of an actress, plays up this rather astounding discrepancy to marvelous comic effect. The combination of the “aw, shucks” accent and her razor-sharp intellect is killer.

In Coen fashion, the events in “Fargo” unfold in such crazy ways that it’s best not to pull too hard on any one thread. This film, a mooshed-up concoction of genres, contains that principle that underlies so many of Joel and Ethan’s films: The more power we think we wield over any set of circumstances, the less we really do. In “Fargo” this idea is played for laughs dark- and light-hearted, with director Joel Coen leaning heavily upon his strange native tongue to provide a stark contrast to the chilly white landscape (ably provided by Roger Deakins). The characters, too, offer more than enough color, with Macy’s wannabe kingpin serving up chuckles galore with his ineptitude (i.e., he wants to KO the kidnapping but can’t because he doesn’t have another contact number for Carl). Buscemi, doing his best Buscemi impression, and Stormare, undervalued as a comic actor, are a bloody-fun Felix/Oscar team. They’re like the blockheads on “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” only more cartoonish. McDormand and John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s doting husband are the only characters approaching anything halfway near “nuanced,” and even they are drawn in bold strokes.

Still, if there were nuance, would we have zingers like “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” Probably not, and that would be a tragedy. Darn tootin’.

No. 23: “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

“Somebody’s shoved a red-hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle!” ~~Mr. Pink

Conversation seems like the antithesis of senseless violence; talking is what reasonable, sound-minded adults do. Quentin Tarantino’s world doesn’t work that way. Think back to 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny share a congenial pre-robbery breakfast, or to last year’s “Inglourious Basterds,” where Col. Hans Landa politely interrogates French farmer Pierre LaPadite. In Tarantino World, chats don’t lead to more chats, they precede or lead to bloodshed.

To understand the genesis of this jolting technique is to see “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino’s lean, mean blood-spattered tale about a diamond heist gone bad wrong. The opening sequence, set in a diner, merits special attention because it comically sets us up for a whiplash-inducing plot turnaround and introduces the criminals: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel); Mr. Orange (Tim Roth); Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen); Mr. Brown (Tarantino); Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi); Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker); Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn); and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), Eddie’s father. Initially we only know them as eight nameless friends in an L.A. diner and prattling on about the real meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (Mr. Brown’s thesis: “It’s a metaphor for big dicks!”) and the relative merits of food service tipping (“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” Mr. Pink argues). All this chatter seems funny but harmless, just a few guys shooting the breeze over coffee.

Not five minutes later Tarantino pulls the pin on the grenade in his pocket and blows all to hell that sense of friendly calm. It’s a gutsy move, and it pays off big-time, so disorienting us that we spend the rest of “Reservoir Dogs” scurrying around like drugged rats lost in a maze. And because this director presents nothing as-is and has a sincere opposition to straight storytelling, the finer points of the heist remain a mystery right up until the last. After the diner Tarantino throws us into a getaway car driven by White, with a screeching Orange in the backseat bleeding from a gunshot wound. They make it to a warehouse, the post-robbery meeting site, joined shortly after by Mr. Pink, who’s positive that the job was a police set-up. 

Remaining details come in fits and starts in no particular order: Joe, an aging but still fearsome gangster, hired White, Orange, Blue, Pink, Blonde and Brown to rob a jeweler. The plan went sour; now a few men are AWOL, Blue’s dead and Orange isn’t far behind. Saying more would do an unforgivable disservice to Tarantino’s rapidly changing script (he was “Memento” before “Memento” was cool). He structures “Reservoir Dogs” as a riddle for viewers to reason out, but he doesn’t leave it there. So Tarantino pumps in loads of violence — including a disturbing torture scene involving Mr. Blonde, a kidnapped cop (Kirk Baltz), a razor blade and gasoline set to Stealers Wheel’s upbeat “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and loads of profanity-laden dialogue, mostly keyed-up shouting matches but sometimes grimly funny exchanges (White’s pre-heist advice to Orange comes to mind). If Tarantino can do nothing else, he can write lines that make chuckle in that way where the laughter quickly gives way to nausea.

Another thing Tarantino does well? He knows how to pick ’em. The crack team of actors in “Reservoir Dogs” might be one of the best ensemble casts ever*. Keitel and Roth play the two crooks with the most fleshed-out characters (White’s been working long enough he can afford to be kind to the newbie Orange, whom he defends as “a good kid”), and both do fine work. Madsen exudes the kind of ominous amorality that requires a shower to shake off. Tierney and Penn leave lasting impressions, molding powerful characters out of Joe and Eddie, while Buscemi, a skillful character actor, imbues Mr. Pink with a twitchy, wild-card comic energy best illustrated in a throwaway scene:

Mr. Pink: “You kill anybody?”
Mr. White: “A few cops.”
Mr. Pink: “No real people?”

Let that scene marinate for a minute, and suddenly the beauty of “Reservoir Dogs” hits you right between the eyes.

*This is a subject of debate between Ross and Ross.

Cera gives uneven “Youth in Revolt” nerdy heart

Unwitting rebel Nick (Michael Cera) finds his Bonnie in Sheeni (Portia Doubleday) in "Youth in Revolt."

“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.” ~~Oscar Wilde

What a pity it is that poor dead Oscar Wilde couldn’t make the premiere of “Youth in Revolt.” I’d like to think that the playwright — Overlord of the Offhand Quip — would have had a chuckle over Michael Cera’s performance as Nick Twisp, a shy virgin who discovers he can’t win his dream girl (Portia Doubleday) unless he gives free reign to his darker side. And Wilde probably would have liked François Dillinger (a pitifully mustached Cera) with his dirty mouth and calculated arrogance, too.

But which life, which character, is the authentic one? In Miguel Arteta’s low-key, sometimes too-lightly-drawn adaptation of C.D. Payne’s 1993 epistolary novel, it takes time to reason out the answer because even Nick’s dark side isn’t terribly aggressive. (Considering that Michael Cera’s playing both the angel and the demon, that’s not the shocker of the century.) “Youth in Revolt” begins with Nick’s plight: He lives with his mother Estelle (Jean Smart) and her latest squeeze, a beer-bellied boob named Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). They go at it like rabbits. Nearby lives Nick’s father George (Steve Buscemi), who’s shacked up with a Playboy centerfold wannabe Lacey (Ari Graynor) barely older than Nick. George and Lacey go at it like rabbits. The only person not having frequent sex is Nick, who’s resigned himself to a life of ‘neath-the-covers masturbation, Fellini films and Sinatra records. He’s a wise old soul. In high school speak, that means he’s a weirdo unlikely to get laid before delivering a valedictory address littered with big words his taunters missed on the SATs.

Then into his life a little light comes: Jerry and Estelle drag Nick on a vacation to Restless Axles (hee hee) trailer park and he meets Francophile Sheeni Saunders (Doubleday), beautiful as she is hyperarticulate. She’s his perfect match, but stealing her away from her 6’2″ pretentious poet boyfriend (Jonathan B. Wright) requires a boldness Nick can’t muster. François, however, is nothing if not one cocky, persuasive fellow, and soon he’s got Nick pulling all manner of wild stunts — stealing a car and trailer, breaking into Sheeni’s elite prep school — no one saw coming. Though fun to watch, Nick’s bad deeds lack connecting threads, making them seem disjointed, more like haphazardly thrown-in episodes than part of the film. (Question: Is crashing a car really that revolutionary?) Arteta can’t find a way to marry Nick’s two worlds cohesively, and “Youth in Revolt” suffers for that lack of narrative flow. He also downgrades Nick’s third personality, Carlotta, into a one-scene, shrill crossdresser obvious enough to fool Sheeni’s parents (M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place).

Good thing it’s true, then, that strong casting really does cover a multitude of sins, though there are some very fine actors in “Youth in Revolt” dumbing themselves down into some underdeveloped roles. Jean Smart has a knack for bruised-ego comedy, and Estelle feels like an older, tougher version of Carol in “Garden State.” Galifianakis manages to scare up a few laughs with Jerry, but he deserves starring roles like “The Hangover.” And it’s something of an insult to see a talented character actor like Steve Buscemi getting shoehorned into the tired pop-with-a-midlife-crisis role. As evidenced in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” Ari Graynor’s star is on the rise, but here she’s just eye candy. All are gifted comic actors who occasionally transcend their limitations, but they deserve better. They create characters begging for more screen time.

Where “Youth in Revolt” works best are the scenes between Cera, perennially likable if you buy his “I’m timidly adorable” act, and Doubleday, who seems headed toward a future as the brainy beauty in off-the-beaten-path romantic comedies. There’s a sweet, first-love chemistry there that gives “Youth in Revolt” a big, fluttering tween heartbeat (no teeth, though). Attribute the best of this feeling to Cera, who has built his career on puppy dog eyes and self-conscious awkwardness. Like Arteta’s take on Payne’s journals or not, Cera’s Nick has an Everygeek quality so appealing it’s hard to resist rooting for his happy ending.

Grade: B-

Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A

10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).

Review: “Lonesome Jim” (2005)

Lonesome_JimEntitlement, sad sackery and ennui seem to be the defining characteristics of that spiritual dead zone that exists between ages 25 and 30 these days. Consider Jim (Casey Affleck) the perfect spokesman for his people. A self-proclaimed creative type/writer who never manages to be creative or write anything, the 27-year-old shuffles home to Indiana after discovering Random House does not hand you a publishing contract the day you arrive in the Big Apple. So Jim finds himself back at home with Mom (Mary Kay Place) and Dad (Seymour Casesl) possessed of no will to live but less desire to pull the “goodbye, cruel world” card.

Right about now, “Lonesome Jim” is starting to sound like a grim, tedious, moody affair. And, truth be told, that’s sort of what it is for about 70 minutes. But there’s one excellent reason to stick around, and his name is Steve Buscemi. (Tempted as I am to repeat my Steve Buscemi rule, I will abstain.) As an actor, he’s got a talent for finding quirks that make his characters memorable. When he’s directing, he uses the camera to find those idiosyncracies, insightful lines and quiet moments. Buscemi doesn’t rush his actors or his movie, so things unfold without much fanfare. The slow pacing isn’t for everyone, but “Lonesome Jim” rewards anyone patient enough to look closer with a laconic but affecting character study.

The character in question, Jim, is tailor-made for Casey Affleck, a budding actor who deserves no comparison to his more famous brother. Much like Buscemi, he underacts religiously, almost to the point of seeming catatonic. Which, you see, is the point — Jim is no fun to be around. He believes he’s a writer, but he barely tries and still seems put off by his lack of success. (Apparently he missed that whole “you miss 90 percent of the shots you don’t take” movement.) Jim even manages to see himself as superior to his family, particularly his divorced brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan), whom he calls a “goddamn tragedy,” and his manic-or-just-really-cheerful? mother, whose $20 bills he lifts from her purse. Even meeting Anika (Liv Tyler), a kind-hearted single mother who seems to like him, doesn’t seem to affect him that much. Anything less than abject misery is unthinkable to him. Somehow, though, he starts to change so gradually it’s almost invisible.

And here’s where the infamous Buscemi touch comes in. He makes Jim’s move from mournful lump to human being subtle but blackly funny. This guy needs outside forces to help him grow, and Buscemi gives him a whole mess of odd personalities who facilitate this change. Anika, of course, is key. When Jim’s relationship with her starts to grow a pulse, he asks her: “There’s so many fun and cheery people in the world. Don’t you think you’d be better off with one of them?” That she’s influenced him to ask himself that question is progress, a move from self-absorption to self-awareness. Tyler plays Anika not as a doormat but as a helper who sees potential in Jim.

Other characters make “Lonesome Jim” an insightful little movie. Take Jim’s mom Sally (Place, always wonderful), whose cheerful front belies her own unhappiness. Note her weary reaction to Jim’s decision to move to New Orleans — her line delivery is note-perfect. As Jim’s drug-dealing uncle “Evil,” Mark Boone Jr. serves up most of the film’s humor, the best being his conviction that hookers are cheaper than girlfriends. He tries to get Jim to loosen up, but mainly he sets events in motion that force the slacker to wake the hell up. Affleck, mop-topped and sporting perpetual facial scruff, gives us small glimpses into these changes. He’s all about facial expressions, and here they are so illusive as to rival Zach Braff’s in “Garden State.” Jim’s not the same guy in the end that he was in the beginning, and Affleck’s transition is practically seamless.

And speaking of the end: It will enrage some but enlighten others. Simple, ephemeral and barely hopeful (or is it?) — it’s classic Buscemi. He pares “Lonesome Jim” to the bone, and that’s why it leaves a lasting impression.

Grade: B

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “The Big Lebowski” (1998); dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

The moment: My glasses have disappeared.

The correlation: I loved those glasses. They really tied my face together.