Best Damn Movies of 2006

And why nearly all you'll see in 2007 is sequels, prequels, and threequels

 It's official: Hollywood has run out of original ideas. If you thought 2006 was bad, just wait. In 2007, the studios will give up on birthing blockbusters and instead concentrate on cloning them, with sequel after sequel after sequel. Familiar titles will be followed by so many numbers that filmgoers looking for a Friday-night flick will need a calculator just to figure out which of the threequels and fourquels they want to see — if any at all.

Oh, and if the year of living sequentially doesn't destroy the movie biz, then the expected labor strike (also a sequel) will. Trapped in a horror of its own making, Hollywood is scared witless by the looming prospect of negotiating not one but two labor contracts in 2007: the Writers Guild of America, whose gangsta refusal to begin negotiating early with the studios already foreshadows a retread of the disastrous 1988 walkout, which shut down production for 22 weeks and cost the industry about $500 million, and the Screen Actors Guild, whose talks may begin in January but could mean squat. Both writers and actors are still bummed over being stiffed by the studios during the DVD era and are determined not to be bullied again in this digital age.

Both Hannibal Rising (the fourth Hannibal Lecter pic, this one a prequel) and The Hills Have Eyes II will serve as foreplay for next summer's sequel orgy, rounded out by Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, another Pirates of the Caribbean, Hostel: Part II, Fantastic Four 2, Evan Almighty (follow-up to Jim Carrey's Bruce Almighty, this time starring Steve Carell), Live Free or Die Hard (Bruce Willis as John McClane for the fourth time), Transformers (a live-action sequel to the animated original), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (fifth in the series), The Bourne Ultimatum (number three, which is actually number four if you count that cheesy Richard Chamberlain version from 1988), and Rush Hour 3. Then, orgasming at the end of the year (get that Marlboro Ultra Light ready) are Resident Evil 3, Mr. Bean's Holiday (Bean II), The Golden Age (AKA Elizabeth 2), Alien vs. Predator 2, National Treasure II, and Halloween 2007 (too many to count).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Resident Evil 3
Resident Evil 3
Hostel: Part II
Hostel: Part II
Spider-Man 3
Spider-Man 3
Shrek the Third
Shrek the Third
Eastwood on the set of Flags of our Fathers
Eastwood on the set of Flags of our Fathers
Letters from Iwo Jima
Letters from Iwo Jima
Iraq in Fragments
Iraq in Fragments
Children of Men
Children of Men
Brick
Brick

And those are just the ones I know about.

Yes, in 2007, the very idea of original screenplays will become increasingly quaint, like real butter poured on popcorn. Good timing, because the writers will be camped out on picket lines anyway. There will be a few nonsequel movies, but those are mostly remakes, biopics, or book adaptations. At least we can all be thankful that, unlike previous years, there'll be almost no TV spinoffs; the complete tanking of Sony's Bewitched in 2005 saw to that.

The major studios are downsizing their own egos since they no longer have the luxury to make Oscar movies, which might please Academy voters and film aficionados but not necessarily the public at large. Instead of trying something — hell, anything — new, studio moguls are more content than ever to do and redo and redo yet again the familiar, especially after the disastrous movie-going year of 2005. But don't blame them; blame their bosses, those hedge-fund-loopy tools who find it easier to schmooze Wall Street about another Fantastic Four than to debate a greenlighting decision like Charlie Wilson's War, the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts biopic about a boozin', hot-tubbin' U.S. congressman that is scheduled to debut in December 2007. These are the bigwigs who insist that their studio's upcoming slate contain several bankable movie franchises — or else — and whose underlings invented the prequel as a way to invigorate played-out franchises (and, in the process, cast younger, i.e., hotter, stars like Christian Bale as Batman). And just wait for 2008: Universal thinks there's still life in Jurassic Park, and Paramount is reviving not just Star Trek but also Indiana Jones (and maybe casting a new star for Mission Impossible).

See, it simply takes too much moolah to create awareness for new concepts — in marketing parlance, this is known as "audience creation." It's a given that with franchises and remakes, the awareness for under-25 males — the most coveted category of moviegoers — approaches 100 percent. But with original stories, that awareness level drops below 60 percent. And, when the overall budgets of movies (as of 2005) stand at $96.2 million each and marketing costs $36.2 million per pic, it stands to reason that studios are loath to gamble on nonproven product. Riding coattails takes the risk out of a notoriously risky biz, which means moguls can have fewer Maalox moments in what is tantamount to a life on meth. Production has dwindled to just a dozen films from each major studio each year, most of them sequels.

Studios used to be embarrassed by their sequels. No more. When this past summer Disney announced a huge cost-cutting plan to appease financial analysts, the mega-company promised that in 2007, it would devote its resources to those films that have the potential to generate money-minting sequels. And did I mention that sequels are virtually critic-proof? Reviewers who gave thumbs up to Pirates 1 and flipped the bird to Pirates 2 didn't affect box office at all. The sequel was beyond huge, and Pirates 3 will be too, even if Johnny spends the entire two hours channeling Lance Bass. (Supposedly, Depp was doing his best Keith Richards in the first film...)

Also on the horizon and with some buzz is a spate of biopics, most of them set peculiarly in the 1970s. Nick Cassavetes wrote and directed Alpha Dog, which debuts in January and is based on the misadventures of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest criminals ever to land on the FBI's Most Wanted List. Then there's David Fincher's Zodiac, a thriller about the notorious San Francisco serial killer starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who was sort of the Jayson Blair of the 1970s, only sleazier, as if that's possible. Brad Pitt is the original Missouri good ol' boy outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James, and J-Lo and hubby Marc Anthony bring salsa star Hector Lavoe's life to the screen in El Cantante.

If little else, it's clear that the problems plaguing Hollywood will only grow worse in 2007: piracy, which the movie industry says is stealing $1.3 billion from its U.S. revenues alone; new media, though no one at the studios has yet figured out how to make money online; young Hollywood, better-known for their Page Six performances than memorable roles.

My prediction? Hollywood moguls will find ways to pay themselves bigger bonuses while cutting the pay and perks for everyone else. And that's certainly not an original idea either.


Hall of Famer

Legend, yes. But Clint Eastwood's not done yet.

By Scott Foundas On an early December afternoon at the offices of Malpaso Productions, Clint Eastwood's four Academy Awards have been placed into thick velvet carrying bags, while that famous poncho — the one Eastwood donned for the entirety of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy — is being carefully loaded into a large shipping box. But that doesn't mean that Eastwood himself is packing it in. The memorabilia in question is merely being loaned out to the California Museum in Sacramento, where Eastwood has just been inducted into the California Hall of Fame (part of an inaugural class that includes Cesar Chavez, John Muir, and Ronald Reagan). "Will I ride off into the sunset? Maybe. Will I be dragged off kicking and screaming? Probably," he told me back in 2004 when I interviewed him just before the release of Million Dollar Baby. And in the full spirit of those words, he's spent much of the intervening two years devoted to the biggest, most ambitious project of his six-decade career.

That project was to have been a single film, Flags of Our Fathers, about the American soldiers who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima — one of the bloodiest in all of World War II — and how they later became unwitting cogs in the war effort's well-oiled propaganda machine. Then, during preproduction, Eastwood had a thought: What about the Japanese troops who fought so bravely to defend those eight square miles of volcanic terrain, 20,000 of whom died in the process? And the more Eastwood thought about that, the more he couldn't stop thinking about it, until he found himself at the helm of a second Iwo Jima movie, this time told from the other side of the front lines, filmed with an all-Japanese cast and all-Japanese dialogue. Now, with Letters From Iwo Jima opening wide, Eastwood once again sits on a dark-horse Oscar contender that it's hard to imagine any other American filmmaker (save perhaps Steven Spielberg, who served as Eastwood's producer on the movie) managing to get made.

"I just thought it would be good to tell the whole story," Eastwood says with his trademark nonchalance, adding that he was particularly drawn to the figure of Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played in Letters by Ken Watanabe), the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima who, before the war, traveled extensively throughout the Americas, logging time as a military attaché in Washington and as a student at Harvard. Kuribayashi's lyrical dispatches back to his wife, daughter, and son, published in the book Picture Letters From Commander in Chief, provided the connective tissue for the Letters screenplay (by first-time Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita). "The book doesn't say very much — it's just his letters home and these little sketches he made of himself and the people he saw," Eastwood says. "But you can see that he was a very concerned father, worried about his kids, their academics, their spelling, telling them he's going to fix certain things when he gets home, that he can't wait to see them, that he wishes he was there. All the things that a normal husband and father would do, anywhere in the world."

That humanizing view of "the enemy" is central to Letters, which, like Flags, unfolds from the perspective of the low-ranking conscripts whom Eastwood calls "young men asked to live a very short lifetime." As the war in Iraq nears the start of its fifth year amid talk of a renewed military draft, Eastwood, who tends to be terse with regard to his films' thematic implications, says the contemporary parallels aren't lost on him. But with their reciprocal depictions of wartime rhetoric and thoughtless atrocities committed against POWs, Flags and Letters seem less an anti-war diptych than a troubled inquiry into the moral relativism of the battlefield. As handily as Unforgiven muddied the mythology of the classical Western, Eastwood's latest films shatter the clear-cut notions of heroism and villainy ingrained in almost every Hollywood WWII movie, up through and including Saving Private Ryan.

"At some point, you have to get real about things," Eastwood says. "That may not be appealing to audiences who want a kind of escapism, but these pictures aren't necessarily for the escapist." He's right: The audience did not embrace Flags, which has performed well below Eastwood's usually robust business since its release in mid-October. Eastwood admits he's disappointed but says he doesn't have anything left to prove to anyone, save for himself. "All you can say in the end is, 'Do I like it?' Yes. It's what I intended to do, and because of that, I'm happy."

Indeed, Eastwood seems content, and with no new projects in development, he says he's interested in making only films that ignite his passions as fully as the Iwo Jima saga. "When you're younger and things first start happening to you — for me, it was the 1960s — you say yes to a lot of things. Your agent says, 'Do this, play in this picture because you're in it with Richard Burton.' Then someone asks Richard, 'Why are you in the picture?' And he says, 'Well, because I'm in it with Clint.' But why are we here? I did a lot of pictures like that — you could go through a whole list of them. People lean on you, and like all actors, you think every job's going to be your last job. At that age, you don't wait for the perfect thing that may or may not come along in ten years. But now, if this is the last picture I do, that's fine."

Foundas' Top Ten

1. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, France)

2. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, U.K.-USA)

3. Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, USA)

4. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania)

5. Happy Feet (George Miller, USA)

6. Inland Empire (David Lynch, USA)

7. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey-France)

8. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, U.K.-USA)

9. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, USA)

10. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay, USA)


Iraq's Cinema of Longing

A conversation with director James Longley

By Rob Nelson

James Longley's Iraq in Fragments is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn't just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to the stories of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It's that he used this occasion to make an art film.

Iraq in Fragments has kept the Seattle-based Longley on airplanes and in hotels for much of the past year and is still making its way, accompanied by the filmmaker, around the United States and the world. Between flights, Longley, 34, talked on the phone about his film.

New Times: You've said that the film was made to spur discussion and debate, that it's a political film only "under the surface." But was the style of the film — your choice to make Iraq look immensely beautiful — a political decision?

James Longley: Well, the fact is that Iraq is not an ugly country [laughs]. But of course, there are a million ways to film any subject. On some level, the beauty of the film is a reflection of the reality that I found. A lot of Iraq is stunning in that sensual kind of way, with very lovely, earthy colors. I wanted the film to be experiential, for people to really be in this place when they're watching it. I don't want the viewer to be pushed out. I want them to be almost seduced by the visual world, to feel beckoned inside.

Most docs aspire to pure reportage rather than poeticism. Do you find that audiences are taken aback by the film, that they don't expect to see so much longing?

Well, that's funny, because I feel that the film is pure reportage [laughs]. If "pure" reportage conveys the essence of a place and a situation, then yes, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to make a film that has a lot of assumptions built into it. If you look at the reporting of Iraq on CNN or PBS or whatever, it comes with political assumptions. I don't blame them: In mainstream media, there's almost no way to escape that kind of issue-driven, news- and event-driven work. For me, the work is a way to play a game with myself as a filmmaker. I'm almost trying to escape my own politics.

When you were shooting the film unembedded, under extremely harrowing conditions, did you think a lot about the politics of embedded journalism?

I can't blame any journalist or filmmaker who chooses to be embedded with the U.S. military. I don't think that side of the story is illegitimate; I just knew that it was already being covered.

Has it been possible for you to stay in touch with the people you filmed?

One translator I worked with has been seeing the family I filmed, the one with the brick farm, and he says they're all the same, doing well. But Sheik Aws al Kafaji, the Shiite cleric from the film, is apparently in prison. He was arrested by the Americans. I don't know exactly why; I'd love to find out more about that, but it's kind of tricky. He was arrested and tortured under Saddam, so it's kind of ironic now that he would be arrested by the Americans. I imagine him taking a very ironic, darkly humorous perspective on that. I hope he makes it through.

I wrote from Sundance that your film is without precedent in the history of documentary. Would any of your influences encourage you to disagree?

I have a lot of heroes in documentary filmmaking. But my style probably comes more from the fiction films that I've seen and liked in my life. I'm working within the documentary form, but most of the people who have really pushed the aesthetics of film have worked in fiction. I don't see the two forms as being mutually exclusive.

Certainly fiction has incorporated elements of documentary.

And vice versa. The documentaries I like most are quite old: Berlin, Symphony of a City, or Man With a Movie Camera. Those films are from before the age of television, before documentary was corrupted by talking heads, before this marriage of newsprint and radio media with the moving picture. Watching Berlin, you get a better sense of pre-war Berlin than you would get from any history book. And that's an inspiration to me. You're taking the audience and saying: Experience this thing — this multidimensional, extremely complicated, million-legged beast — through the medium of cinema.

Nelson's Top Ten

1. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, France)

2. Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, USA)

3. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, USA)

4. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

5. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania)

6. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme, USA)

7. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, U.K.-USA)

8. Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

9. Sweet Land (Ali Selim, USA)

10. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, France/Italy)


Taking the Long View

Children of Men and the value of an unedited shot

By Jim Ridley

A car speeds down a forest road only to be surrounded in an instant by armed crazies who materialize from the nearby woods. In the visual grammar of big-budget action films, the sequence that ensues should be a scattergun barrage of images: Wheels! Guns! Blood! Shriek! Fireball! Crash! Add a soundtrack that amounts to a Dolby clubbing and this visual shrapnel will come to resemble the excitement the audience doesn't feel.

Something different happens, though, when the scene plays out in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's film version of the P.D. James novel about a near future when infertility has tripped the doomsday clock on man's extinction. The attack is seen entirely from within the besieged car, and its horrific aftermath is captured in a single brilliant take that shifts with fluid urgency among the terrified passengers. The sequence builds from quiet to chaos without even an eye-blink of a cut to break the flow — action cinema as on-the-spot reporting.

This is filmmaking of swaggering virtuosity, and the long-take bravado that Cuarón displays throughout Children of Men — easily the most physically persuasive vision of the future since the rain-soaked noirscape of Blade Runner — has already antagonized some of the visually impaired critics who dismiss Brian De Palma with depressing predictability. But Cuarón believes that audiences so often mugged by montage will respond to the seeming simplicity and realism of a moment captured in a single unbroken shot.

"Subconsciously, I think something is telling them there is not the safety net of editing — that you're not hiding behind tricks," says Cuarón, who previously used lengthy takes to anchor Y Tu Mamá También in the class strife and political turmoil of his native Mexico. "With editing, you manipulate time. Here, you have just the constant flow of a moment. I believe heartbeats get connected in that moment."

The movie year 2006 bears the director out. Whether as a reaction to the count-one-and-cut school of editing or the everything-can-be-faked hyperbole of digital imagery — or just happy coincidence — many of the year's most indelible moments on film come from shots that allow motion and emotion alike to unfold in real time. They can be as intimate as Will Oldham tending to faded friend Daniel London in Kelly Reichardt's elegiac Old Joy; as elaborate as the crane shot that catches a glimpse of Hollywood horror beyond a boilerplate shootout in De Palma's underrated The Black Dahlia; or as exuberant as bad-ass Tony Jaa pulverizing an endless string of human obstacles up the ascending levels of a Guggenheim-like restaurant in the Thai import The Protector. They can be portraiture — like the still-lifes of Lisbon tenement dwellers in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth — or death-bed studies like the pitiless last shot of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which reduces the expiring title character (spoiler!) to a heap of life's laundry. Each catches a moment in a butterfly net and manages to pin that moment without killing it.

The astonishing single takes in Children of Men — particularly one sustained shot that follows Clive Owen's cynic turned savior high and low through the rubble of an urban war zone — seem likely to tickle movie geeks' taste buds. But they never become, in the cautionary words of Cuarón's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, "an Olympics of long takes." In blocks of real time, they convey, as movies rarely do, the sense of existing in a nightmare that can't be blinked away.

"I think audiences are getting tired of all those zillion-billion cuts," says Cuarón, a giddy cinephile who traces his fascination with elaborate camerawork from Hitchcock's Frenzy through the films of Tarkovsky and Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó. "It's the easiest thing you can do as a director: get a lot of cameras, shoot a lot of setups, and then hand the whole thing to your editor. But I think that slowly, more interesting ways of doing cinema are getting into the mainstream. Or that's my hope, at least."

Ridley's Top Ten

1. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, France)

2. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, U.K.-USA)

3. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, U.K.-USA)

4. Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, USA)

5. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, U.K.-USA)

6. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, USA)

7. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, U.K.-USA)

8. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico)

9. Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, France)

10. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Jonathan Demme, USA)


Family Ties

For Argentine director Daniel Burman, life is a movie

By Ella Taylor

Made when he was a stripling of 24, Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman's first feature, A Chrysanthemum Burst in Cincoesquinas, was a violent story of love and revenge. He must have gotten that out of his system: Though Burman's subsequent movies also traffic in what he calls "the great transitions of life" — identity, marriage, parenthood, and death, not necessarily in that order — they embrace an ambivalent but warm view of domesticity that has made Burman, now 33, a film-festival favorite.

Burman's self-deprecating Jewish humor has also invited inevitable comparisons to Woody Allen. "It's not a measurable comparison," Burman said during a recent trip to L.A. for the AFI Fest screenings of his wonderful film Family Law. "But I'm very happy with it. I admire him more than anyone else in the world."

Burman's modesty becomes him, but the analogy goes only so far. Certainly, his work bears some resemblance to early Woody Allen, before Allen's work took a turn for the rancid, lewd, and bitter. Burman's three most recent films feature neurotic Jewish men (all played with minimalist delicacy by seraphic young Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler) suffering crises both Oedipal and existential. But where Allen's movies are fueled by an unprocessed hostility and, at their lowest ebb, contempt for his Jewishness and his family, Burman's tone is wry, loving, and tender even when, as often happens, things fall apart. I suspect that worn-out term dysfunction would make him shudder.

Waiting for the Messiah (2000), about a young man caught between love of his family and the need to separate, and Lost Embrace (2004), in which a similar young man struggles to sort out his relationship with an absent father, are both set in Burman's beloved Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, where he grew up and about which he made a documentary, Seven Days in Once. Family Law extends Burman's meditation on the tug between belonging and self-definition that challenges even the most loving father-son relationships. In this case, the son is a university lecturer and new parent accustomed to keeping the world at bay through compulsive routine, while his father is a public defender deeply engaged with his mostly poor clients. Burman's own father was a lawyer, and he himself went to law school. But though there are bits of Burman's life in all his work (Family Law grew out of his experience of becoming a father twice in the past four years), the autobiography in his movies is always internal, which is to say an expression of his responses to the changes in his life.

Listening to Burman — a fast, funny, and hyperarticulate talker even when mediated by an interpreter — deconstruct his movies is almost as much fun as watching them. He uses the word dialectic a lot, not in the Marxist sense but to describe the friction among thought, feeling, word, and deed when his characters are hit by life's big changes. "There's a moment in life when one decides whether one's going to turn into one's father or the opposite," Burman says. "It's difficult to be in the middle." I ask Burman which one he is, and he lobs me another dialectic: "I'm the opposite of my father. Until now."

Late in Family Law, a tragedy catches the son, Perelman Jr., by surprise, but the trauma is handled so matter of factly and is so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of his life that we register Perelman's grief only as he registers it himself: while eating breakfast, caring for his toddler (played by Burman's son, Gaston), and trying vainly to avoid full participation in the inescapable materiality of family life. Burman's movies are so richly steeped in the warp and woof of domesticity that they might have been made by a woman, but their point of view is ineluctably male.

Burman is happily married, and the male-female relationships in his movies are confused but loving, though his women are almost invariably listeners and helpmeets, for which Burman often catches flack. "The other day at a screening in Boston, a woman asked me angrily, 'What's wrong with the women in this movie?' Nobody asks Jane Campion what's wrong with the men in her movies," he says with some exasperation. "There's nothing wrong with them. I just don't care what happens to them; they're fine. The women have some worth, but they don't have a discursive presence. Men have to talk a lot to say a few things."

Burman's next movie will be about the empty nest, which seems a touch premature for the father of children ages 4 and 3. "I see the joy in my kids, and they enjoy me," he says. "I'm angry at the idea that they are going to abandon me someday." Maybe the comparison to Woody Allen, king of worriers, isn't so off-base.

Taylor's Top Ten

1. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, France)

2. Family Law (Daniel Burman, Argentina)

3. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

4. The Queen (Stephen Frears, U.K.)

5. Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, USA)

6. Venus (Roger Michell, U.K.)

7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

(Cristi Puiu, Romania)

8. Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, USA)

9. Our Brand Is Crisis (Rachel Boynton, USA)

10. Lassie (Charles Sturridge, U.K.)


It's Soooo High School

And that's a compliment to Rian Johnson's teen detective noir

By Robert Wilonsky

Dashiell Hammett goes to high school — the perfect studio pitch. Yet after wowing 'em at the film fests, Rian Johnson's knockout debut as writer and director, Brick, languished in theaters and on DVD. It took a bunk, as Hammett mighta said, and wound up wearing a wooden kimono.

Johnson, who wrote Brick when he was 20 and shot it after he'd passed 30, kind of expected that. He knew there were plenty of people who didn't dig his movie — who said it was too arch, nothing but a smarty-pants put-on starring kiddies playing shamus-and-dames dress-up while spitting black-and-white dialogue out of their Technicolor yaps. He knew the risks of flashing SoCal sunshine on pitch-black noir. And he knew it wasn't going to be easy convincing an audience that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Humphrey Bogart — a gumshoe in tennis shoes.

"Definitely, people tend to go one way or the other with Brick," Johnson says now. "One of the things people are turned off by is the fact these are high schoolers acting like adults."

Ironic, because not only is Brick one of the year's best movies but it's among the greatest high school movies ever made — deserving of its place in the trophy case alongside the likes of Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, even Rebel Without a Cause. Yeah, yeah — Johnson's got a gimmick. But barely concealed beneath the ironic quotation marks is your high school experience, complete with jocks, mathletes, stoners, and loners, but this time starring Bogie and Bacall instead of lousy ol' you.

The story goes that Johnson wrote the film without any intention of setting it in a high school; it was straight-up noir, an homage to such Hammett novels as Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. He likes to say the decision to set his murder mystery, filled with archetypal loony goons, good girls in Dutch, and scrawny bespectacled sidekicks, in a high school was random, almost an accident. But soon, he would find that setting a film noir inside the hallways and lunchrooms and smoking porches of a high school — his high school in San Clemente, California, as a matter of fact — made perfect sense. Johnson knew the high school genre — the "clique flick," as it's been dubbed — well. "John Hughes' movies were the touchstone of my adolescence," he says. Plus, where else but high school is every little experience given larger-than-life significance?

"Look at a movie like Heathers," Johnson says of Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters' 1989 film. "When I watched it when I was younger, even though there was all this ridiculous violence and the stakes were life or death, it made sense to me. It captured the way high school feels — that intensity and that insane level of, 'If this friendship falls apart, my life does too.' In high school, the stakes aren't as 'serious' as they are in the adult world, but when you are a teenager and in that subjective reality, you don't think of yourself as a kid or a high schooler. You're just a person in this world trying to survive in it."

Wilonsky's Top Ten

1. Brick (Rian Johnson, USA)

2. The Queen (Stphen Frears, U.K.)

3. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, U.K.-USA)

4. Cavite (Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, USA)

5. Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, USA)

6. The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, USA)

7. The Heart of the Game (Ward Serrill, USA)

8. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, U.K.-USA)

9. Venus (Roger Michell, U.K.)

10. Sleeping Dogs Lie (Bobeat Goldthwait, USA)

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