Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson




Back Row Reviews
by
James Dawson
stjamesdawson.com

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2 Days in Paris
(Reviewed August 6, 2007, by James Dawson)

A couple stop off in Paris on their way back home to New York after a Venice vacation, so the non-French-speaking boyfriend can meet the girlfriend's French parents. He also manages to encounter several of her still-more-than-interested previous lovers, who seem to pop up everywhere.

That sounds like a slight premise, but it makes for an enjoyably breezy romantic comedy. Writer/director/star Julie Delpy portrays a character who is both ditzy and deceptive, but nevertheless sweet. Adam Goldberg, as the perplexed but resigned boyfriend, occasionally veers into Woody Allenish shtick (hypochondria, xenophobia, witty asides). But anyone whose lover or spouse has non-American relatives probably will relate to his tentativeness, confusion and utter frustration at being a stranger in a strange land.

The dialog sometimes seems more improvised than written, but that's not a bad thing when the technique works as well as it does here. Don't worry, though: the script does have an actual plot.

Recommended!

Back Row Grade: B






2 Fast 2 Furious
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

If there still are any drive-ins left in America, I guess this is the kind of movie you would expect to find there: cheap, stupid, full of fast cars and cartoonishly evil villains and dumb dialog, and utterly disposable. If that kind of thing is your bag, enjoy. Note, however, that there is absolutely zero nudity to be found here...just in case you care about that kind of thing, which usually is a key element of this kind of brainless dreck. You've been warned.

Back Row Grade: F





The 6th Day
(Reviewed November 5, 2000, by James Dawson)

Arnold Schwarzenegger always fails miserably when he tries playing a "normal guy" (as opposed to a comic-book-type hero, a robot or an out-and-out cartoon). This movie is no exception. As a charter pilot caught up in a cloning conspiracy, he has several scenes that call upon him to actually, gulp, act in "The 6th Day." Trust me, you have not seen awful until you have witnessed the big A trying to assay the role of an average, middle-class family man (who just happens to have biceps as big around as his head). In a scene toward the end of this film that is supposed to be sentimental and moving, a LARGE segment of the audience laughed derisively. It's that bad.

There are plenty of loud, flashy, stuff-blowing-up action scenes, but nobody involved in this fiasco seems to have his heart in the proceedings. It's just another by-the-numbers exercise, one that drags on and on and on long after it should end. And if you can't guess the moronic "surprise" ending, welcome to this planet, stranger, and don't take any wooden nickels. (Actually, in a way it was a surprise -- I was flat-out amazed that the writer was crazy enough to think he could get away with using it!)

This movie is not only pointless but stupid, which is really a crying damned shame. A really decent SF movie could have been made using the same sort of subject matter, if a little intelligence had been employed. Imagine a Philip K. Dick-type treatment of this topic, with urban paranoia and oppressive urban atmosphere and believable characters having philosophical dilemmas about identity and humanity and the soul. Oh, wait a minute, they already made that movie and called it "Blade Runner." Okay, replicants aren't clones, but close enough.

I can't say this about many movies, but there is absolutely nothing in this film that I liked. Usually there is some hot actress, or SOMETHING. But in this one...oh, wait a minute. There's a sexy blond "virtual girlfriend" who pops up in one scene, looking like Kylie Minogue on a really good day. Gosh, I guess nothing is entirely bad, after all.

Back Row Grade: F (even with the virtual girlfriend)






8 Mile
(Reviewed November 7, 2002)

If you discount the fact that his character's emotions range only from "sullen" to "morose," Eminem actually does a pretty good job of portraying a white, broke, troubled wannabe rapper with a car that's actually a bigger piece of crap than mine. (Now THAT's saying something!)

He sure does a better job than Kim Basinger, who is stunningly awful as his mother. (She does get to deliver the movie's funniest line, though, when she casually complains to her son that her latest lover "won't go down on me." Calling Dr. Phil!)

Brittany Murphy is hot-'n'-slutty as the Object of Em's Affection. All that ruins their steamy, stand-up shag is the fact that rap's bad boy doesn't bother to dispense with Brit's bra and bobble her bobos after unbuttoning her blouse. So much for "keepin' it real..."

Mekhi Phifer is flat-out excellent as Em's mentor/friend Future, a cheerful and friendly chap with an always sunny 'tude. (Hey, he's the anti-Em! And this sure ain't Kansas! Ha-ha, I just crack myself up.) Phifer, who also was great last year in "O," is a superstar in the making.

The basic po'-boy-breaks-out plot of "8 Mile" isn't shockingly original, but then again, it's unlikely that members of this flick's target audience have seen many Elvis Presley movies. It may sound like "damning with faint praise," but "8 Mile" actually is better than it had to be, as is Eminem's wordplay and melodies in what the world laughingly calls rap "music."

Another thing that will make you feel good about seeing this movie is knowing that, no matter how much you hate where you live, at least it's not the mean, cold, hopeless streets of Detroit. And if you DO live in Detroit...PLEASE DON'T KILL ME!

Back Row Grade: C





THE 10 BEST MOVIES
I SAW IN 2008



By James Dawson

Disclaimer: If a movie does not appear in the "master" list of all those that I reviewed in 2008, that means I didn't see it. It's possible that some flicks I didn't see were good enough to make this list -- such as "Milk," "The Visitor" or even "Quantum of Solace" -- but hey, I can't spend all of my time in theaters. (Yeah, it actually is pretty strange that I didn't see those movies, isn't it?)


1. In Bruges
2. The Fall
3. The Wrestler
4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
5. Synecdoche, New York
6. Frost/Nixon
7. Shine a Light: The Rolling Stones in Concert
8. Priceless
9. Towelhead
10. The Spirit






THE 10 WORST MOVIES
I SAW IN 2008

By James Dawson

As always, it was tough to narrow down the hall of dishonor to only 10 movies. But I've done my best, starting with the worst of the worst.

Disclaimer: If a movie does not appear in the list of those that I reviewed in 2008, that means I didn't see it. It's possible that some flicks I didn't see were bad enough to make this list -- but hey, I can't spend all of my time in theaters.


1. The Hottie and the Nottie
2. The Grand
3. Meet Dave
4. Rachel Getting Married
5. Fool's Gold
6. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
7. Pineapple Express
8. Funny Games U.S.
9. The House Bunny
10. Zack and Miri Make a Porno






THE 10 BEST MOVIES
I SAW IN 2009

By James Dawson

Disclaimer: If a movie does not appear in the master backrowreviews.com list of all the films I reviewed in 2009, that means I didn't see it. It's possible that some flicks I didn't catch were good enough to make this list -- such as "A Single Man" -- but I only give opinions about things I've actually seen. (What a concept!)

Also, following this "best" list are my picks for the worst movies of the year. Enjoy!


1. FANTASTIC MR. FOX Director Wes Anderson's sly take on Roald Dahl's children's story made for the funniest and most enjoyably offbeat film of the year.

2. PARIS 36 Newcomer Nora Arnezeder is absolutely adorable, and so is everything else about this enchanting and thorougly entertaining French musical.

3. UP IN THE AIR The perfect casting of charming George Clooney, foxy Vera Farmiga and cutie Anna Kendrick make this very contemporary comedy a classic.

4. STAR TREK This thrilling reinvention of the franchise took a cue from Captain Kirk by cheating to win.

5. THE ESCAPIST Brian Cox gives an unforgettable performance in this overlooked dramatic gem, which features my favorite movie ending of the year.

6. THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS Nicolas Cage is crazy-ass amazing in this cop-on-crack flick -- or is it a cop flick on crack?

7. AN EDUCATION Carey Mulligan makes the debut of the year as a schoolgirl who grows up too fast for her own good.

8. 500 DAYS OF SUMMER A cleverly structured and just-bittersweet-enough romantic comedy.

9. THREE-WAY DOCUMENTARY TIE: ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL The most genuinely heartwarming documentary you'll ever see about a heavy metal band; IT MIGHT GET LOUD Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, The White Stripes' Jack White and U2's The Edge show man-on-guitar love; and EVERY LITTLE STEP Hopefuls trying out for parts in a Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line" provide a sometimes poignant backstage view of the business of show.

10. WATCHMEN Even if the ending falls flat -- and it definitely does -- the rest of this movie is so relentlessly impressive that it's one of the best comics-to-film adaptations ever.

...AND HERE ARE
THE 10 WORST MOVIES
I SAW IN 2009

Disclaimer: If a movie does not appear in the master backrowreviews.com list of all the films I reviewed in 2009, that means I didn't see it. So even though things like "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" probably would have made this list if I had been masochistic enough to see them, I didn't, so they aren't here.

1. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE One reason I hated this movie so much is because it was such a shockingly unexpected disappointment, coming from the great director Spike Jonze. An aggravatingly miserable time is guaranteed for all.

2. GENTLEMEN BRONCOS
An endless, painfully unfunny fumble from the director of "Napoleon Dynamite."

3. CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC
Ditzy moron.

4. BRIDE WARS
Ditzy morons.

5. GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST
Ditzy mook.

6. PIRATE RADIO
The worst Cameron Crowe movie Cameron Crowe didn't make.

7. MY LIFE IN RUINS
This makes My Big Fat Greek Wedding look like "The Magnificent Ambersons."

8. AWAY WE GO
A contender for douchiest flick of the decade, this testicles-shriveling travesty was scripted by Where the Wild Things Are screenwriter Dave Eggers.

9. CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSITANT
Paul Weitz proves there's something to genetics by directing an utterly unappealing fantasy that's only slightly worse than his brother's similarly misbegotten movie.

10. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON
Chris Weitz proves there's something to genetics by directing an utterly unappealing fantasy that's only slightly better than his brother's similarly misbegotten movie.







THE 10 BEST MOVIES
I SAW IN 2010

By James Dawson

Disclaimer: If a movie does not appear in the backrowreviews.com homepage list of all the films I reviewed in 2010, that means I didn't see it. It's possible that some movies I didn't catch were good enough to make this list -- such as "Biutiful" -- but I only give opinions about things I've actually seen. (What a concept!)

Every year, a lot of critics seem to enjoy saying that fewer and fewer worthwhile movies are being made, and moaning about the state of the industry. The truth is that there were so many good ones this year that it was hard for me to narrow my favorites down to only 10! Narrowly missing the list were THE KING'S SPEECH, THE TEMPEST, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

Also, following this list of my favorites are my picks for the worst movies of the year. Enjoy!

1, 1 and 1. How's this for the ultimate cop out: My pick for the best movie of 2010 is a three-way tie. The only thing these three have in common is the fact that all of them are comedies, but three more different comedies would be hard to imagine: the Twain-flavored tongue-in-cheek western TRUE GRIT; the totally 21st-century sensory overload SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD; and the British countryside sex farce TAMARA DREWE. I saw all three of those movies twice at theaters, and I loved all of them as much the second time as the first.

4. I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS: Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in a one-of-a-kind cult classic that is guaranteed to make you laugh and might just make you cry.

5. THE SOCIAL NETWORK: Brilliant David Fincher direction, a sharp Aaron Sorkin script, and Jesse Eisenberg is flawless as the amoral genius behind Facebook.

6. INCEPTION: Leonardo DiCaprio played troubled widowers with a tenuous grip on reality in two separate movies this year, and both of them are great.

7. SHUTTER ISLAND: Leonardo DiCaprio played troubled widowers with a tenuous grip on reality in two separate movies this year, and both of them are great.

8. KICK-ASS: Even with a miscast lead -- does anyone believe Aaron Johnson would have trouble getting girls? -- this gleefully outrageous superhero spoof was a real treat.

9. LIFE DURING WARTIME: Director/writer Todd Solondz' unforgettable follow-up to his blacker-than-midnight masterpiece "Happiness."

10. TOY STORY 3: Woody, Buzz and the gang ride off into the sunset in sentimental style.

...AND HERE ARE
THE 10 WORST MOVIES
I SAW IN 2009

Disclaimer: If a movie does not appear in my backrowreviews.com homepage list of everything I reviewed in 2010, that means I didn't see it. So even though things like "Leap Year" and "Life as We Know It" probably would have made this list if I had been masochistic enough to see them, I didn't, so they aren't here.

1. PAPER MAN: A movie so excruciatingly awful that my mind must have shut down in post-traumatic shock after leaving the theater, because I only realized months later that I forgot to review the thing. Just as well, really.

2. THE BACK-UP PLAN: Jennifer Lopez in the role that, with any luck, finally killed her acting career.

3. GROWN UPS: One of Adam Sandler's co-stars is Kevin James. Need I say more?

4. THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D: The beloved ballet becomes a violent, stupid Nazi allegory on a cultural par with "Santa Claus vs. the Martians." Happy ho-ho-holocaust.

5. KILLERS: Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl in a movie so unwatchable that the studio made journalists at a pre-release screening sign not one but two affidavits promising not to review it before opening day.

6. EASY A: Emma Stone makes my flesh crawl.

7. TOOTH FAIRY: The saddest thing about this dismally unfunny comedy starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson is that it also featured Stephen Merchant, the genius co-creator and co-writer (with Ricky Gervais) of the original BBC version of "The Office" and "Extras." What a waste of talent.

8. LOVE RANCH: This movie must have come from an alternate universe where Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci have sold their souls to Satan and are forced to appear in crap. Don't try clicking the title, because it is the only one here that doesn't link to a review. That's because I never wasted my time writing one.

9. MORNING GLORY: If you enjoy seeing movies in which a grown woman acts like an immature, hyperactive 10-year-old who can't figure out things like doors, this is the flick for you.

10. PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: Please, dear God, let there be no sequels to this thoroughly dreadful fantasy fiasco.












13 Going on 30
(Reviewed April 3, 2004, by James Dawson)

Remember when the Tom Hanks movie "Big" came out, and everyone said there was no way a studio could do the same idea (kid in adult body) with a girl in the lead, because it either would seem perverted if the story was played realistically or dishonest and stupid if played fake? Well, "13 Going on 30" proves that everybody was right (in case anyone still had doubts after seeing "Freaky Friday").

I actually wanted to like this movie, because star Jennifer Garner has such a sunny, girlish vibe whenever she is interviewed on camera. I enjoyed her as Elektra in last year's "Daredevil," but she seemed even better suited for light romantic comedy than for action. (Full disclosure: I've never made it through an entire episode of her TV series "Alias," which just doesn't grab me at all -- but I've always blamed that on the lousy writing, not on the lovely Miss G.)

Garner's smiling sweetness, as it turns out, is just about the only thing "13 Going on 30" has going for it. (That's also why I gave it a "D" instead of an "F," if you must know.) Here are four major flaws that made me keep checking my watch:

(a) The first cringe comes within mere seconds after the opening credits, upon realizing that this story takes place in a relentlessly fake "Saved by the Bell"-type universe that has nothing in common with our own except the English language. Here comes the cliche clique of whorishly dressed "cool girls" striding arrogantly down a hallway toward our braces-wearing 13-year-old heroine, who is standing at her locker. Here is the snottiest one of the little bitches making a snide comment to Our Heroine's chubby male soulmate. Here is me, wishing I had a book light.

(b) Garner's character is too stupid and naive to be a 13-year-old who would exist anywhere except in a really dumb sitcom. I kept wondering if the first draft of the script originally was titled "7 Going on 21," before somebody in development pointed out that the younger version of the character should at least have experienced her first period (and have a little "grass on the playing field"), so as not to be freaked out in the ladies' room. And as for the "21" part, I absolutely refuse to believe that any girl who lives in this sphere of reality would ever, ever, ever wish to be 30. I can believe that a young girl could wish to be 18, or 21 at the oldest. But in Society As We Know It, even females who are barely pubescent know that 30 is considered over the hill...if not WAY over the hill.

(c) Everybody else in the movie is so dense they don't notice that Garner's 30-year-old character is suddenly acting flagrantly, boisterously retarded? Even taking into consideration the "it's a comedy" excuse, it's just too hard to swallow that nobody would alert a psychiatric hospital. That's because Garner overacts so broadly that even Helen Keller would look at her and say, "What the fuck is wrong with that goofy dipshit?"

(d) The movie includes the thousandth example of "characters dancing and singing to a pop song," a crime that by now should result in jail time for any producers who resort to it.

The main problem with "13 Going on 30," though, is this: Every 13-year-old girl might not be as wised-up, scary, dangerous and self-destructive as the ones in last year's "Thirteen," but the existence of that movie makes one like "13 Going on 30" seem embarrassingly insulting. Not all 13-year-olds may be screwing, doping, shoplifting and getting pierced, but I daresay that even fewer are still playing with dollhouses.

Having said all that, there is one good reason (in fact, a DAMN good reason) for guys to see this movie with girls "into whose pants they want to get": Those members of the audience lacking a Y chromosome seemed thoroughly taken with its dubious romantic charms, especially the big finale.

And if you can't guess what the big finale is in a movie like this, your IQ must be 13 going on 30.

Back Row Grade: D






15 Minutes
(Reviewed February 16, 2001)
This is the sort of completely worthless junk that serves as a perfect example for people who say they hate predictable, violent, stupid Hollywood garbage. In this case, it's as if an utterly talentless writer/director hack were told to produce a hybrid of "Network," "Backdraft," "Mad City" and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," and to be sure that the resulting concoction was boring, obvious and not convincing on any level whatsoever. Considering that only two of those films are worth seeing in their original incarnations ("Network" and "Henry"), well, just imagine the result. Or don't. God, it's bad.

"15 Minutes" doesn't even feel like a real movie, more like two back-to-back episodes of one of those shallow, uninvolving TV cop shows that gets cancelled in six. Robert De Niro cashes another paycheck as a wisecracking but good-natured celebrity cop. Ho-hum.

The always embarrassing Ed Burns is an arson investigator who, in a prime example of the sort of boneheaded dialog at play here, tells a would-be mugger, "I'm an arson investigator. We have the same powers as a cop." Hey, why not tell him your favorite color, while you're at it?

Charlize Theron shows up for two minutes in a very strange black wig as the head of an escort service. One of her hookers, a big-jugged, seedy blond, does a brief topless scene before being brutally murdered by two psychopaths, one wielding a video camera. How nice.

Kelsey Grammer is a TV journalist with no scruples. Now there's an original concept.

Oh, why go on. There is only one good thing about this two-hour trip to Tedium Town. Its ham-handed indictment of the American legal system, in which slimy defense lawyers get guilty clients off using the insanity defense, is totally spot-on. The biggest villain in the film ends up being the killer's lawyer, because he is the character the audience can most easily, and most regretfully, believe is real.

Back Row Grade: F-






21 Grams
(Reviewed October 25, 2003, by James Dawson)

Whaddaya wanna bet that every award this generally excellent movie rightfully deserves to win will go instead to that overrated piece of badly acted, laughably earnest piece of Hollywood junk known as "Mystic River?"

Sean Penn is in both films, and serves as the perfect illustration of why "21 Grams" succeeds while the bafflingly overpraised "Mystic River" fails. Penn overacts to the point of embarrassment in "Mystic River," thugging it up like a rubber-faced Lord of Flatbush who can't decide whether he is Brando on poppers or DeNiro on a crying jag. In "21 Grams," though, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu more often than not manages to keep him reined in to genuinely human dimensions. Even when you detect the prick beneath the nice-guy veneer (and sometimes vice-versa), you have no trouble believing that's exactly how the character he is playing would come across in real life.

The best thing about "21 Grams," in fact, is that virtually every member of the cast is remarkably believable. It's hard to reveal what this movie is "about" without ruining a lot of surprises, but suffice it to say that the paths of several unrelated characters cross as the result of a traffic accident. (If that sounds familiar, it's because the same thing happened in Inarritu's last feature, "Amores Perros" -- but this is pretty much the only thing the two movies have in common.) The movie flits back and forth in time so much you'll wonder if it was edited with a Cuisinart, and the "shaky-cam" handheld shots can get irritating. Still, it's remarkable how well everything fits neatly in place by the time the credits roll. Trust me, you don't want to know too much about "21 Grams" going in, because putting the pieces together is so rewarding.

Naomi Watts is amazingly good as a suburban housewife who finds herself in a tragic downward spiral. (She also gifts us with a topless scene that is gasp-inducingly impressive; not to be crude or anything, but her oversized nipples may be the eighth and ninth wonders of the world). Benicio Del Toro is so moving and tragic that he should be a lock for an Oscar nomination, playing a bottom-rung tough guy trying his damnedest to do the right thing but getting screwed at every turn. Penn's character and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are a couple who have literally life-or-death differences about where their marriage is going.

The movie isn't perfect. At one point, Watts's character refuses to do something that she or anyone else in her position most definitely WOULD do without a second's hesitation. The screenwriter seems to have made her step out of character this way to ensure that the rest of the plot wouldn't collapse, but he didn't seem to realize that the whole situation could have been finessed quite easily to the same end. This may be why the mistake isn't terribly troubling; things could have ended up the same way no matter what Watts did, so it's easy to give him a pass.

Also, one aspect of the film's ending is a tired, frustrating cliche that will make you roll your eyes and breathe a disappointed sigh. But in the same way that "Dirty Pretty Things" still ranks as one of the year's best movies even though it has a silly plot, "21 Grams" has enough to recommend it that a flaw in the tapestry doesn't ruin its overall beauty.

Like "Dirty Pretty Things," it's a movie for actual grown-ups, which damn near qualifies as being a miracle these days.

Back Row Grade: A-






28 Days Later
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Stylish after-the-plague suspense movie by "Trainspotting" director Danny Boyle (who also directed the egregious "A Life Less Ordinary" and the disappointing "The Beach," but we'll ignore those). A comatose bicycle messenger awakens to a deserted London that turns out to be not quite deserted after all, with a handful of survivors dodging flesh-hungry zombie-types.

The movie sags quite a bit in the middle, and there are a couple of cliche plot devices that feel very out of place. (One example: Upon approaching a tunnel that quite obviously would not be a smart place to travel in a city full of the Savage Undead, a car's otherwise entirely sensible driver blithely ignores the obvious suggestion to "take the long way around").

Still, this is a pretty decent little "B" movie...so it gets a "B" grade!

Back Row Grade: B






28 Weeks Later
(Reviewed April 28, 2007)

This sequel to the 2003 British horror thriller "28 Days Later" is even more suspenseful and gripping than the original, with a bigger budget that is well used on some amazing special effects.

The only annoying thing about the movie is that virtually every "zombies attack" scene is shot in epileptic shaky-cam , with footage spliced together so haphazardly that it's as if the editor got infected with the rage virus and couldn't concentrate.

But forget that nitpickery -- everything else about the movie more than makes up for the fact that the attack scenes go by at strobe-light speed.

For one thing, Imogen Poots (good God, what an unlikely moniker) is perfect as the teenage heroine of the flick, a girl who has such a distinctive and cat-like look that she seems almost otherworldly.

(MORE TO COME WHEN I GET AROUND TO FINISHING THIS REVIEW. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO SEND ME AN E-MAIL REMINDER, IN CASE I FORGET.)

Back Row Grade: B+






30 Days of Night
(Reviewed September 3, 2007)

Suckful. And not in a good way.

Vampires descend on an Alaskan town where the sun goes away for 30 days each year. They kill everyone except a small group of residents led by sheriff Josh Hartnett and a few other stragglers.

Among this movie's many problems are the fact that it is impossible to believe that 30 days pass while Hartnett's group is hiding in an attic and in a general store. What the hell are we supposed to think the vampires are doing during all that time, playing cards and knitting? Considering that we find out these vampires can "smell blood," it seems pretty unlikely that they wouldn't realize there is still another group of tasty snacks left after they have wiped out the rest of the townsfolk.

Also, we rarely get the sense that people are cold, even though they have no heat to keep them warm during their month in hiding. (The town's power supply has been cut off -- which means those do-nothing vampires can't even watch TV, for Pete's sake.) And the movie's beyond-sappy love story, between Hartnett and his estranged wife, is laughably soap-operatic.

Worst of all, this is one of those goddamned horror movies that prefers quick cuts and fast-motion, almost subliminal action instead of letting the audience actually see what's happening during the vampire attacks. Annoying.

The makeup on head vampire Danny Huston and his nasty minions is pretty good, and he makes a good zombified-bastard antagonist. But considering that the excellent "28 Weeks Later" did this kind of thing about a thousand times better earlier this year, "30 Days of Night" is not only insulting, it's unnecessary.

Back Row Grade: D






40 Days and 40 Nights
(Reviewed January 30, 2002, by James Dawson)

I saw a screening of "40 Days and 40 Nights" in January, only four weeks into the new year. Yet even at this incredibly early juncture, I am quite confident that this steaming pile of insultingly stupid cinematic shit will be at the very top of my "Worst of 2002" list. It's that bad.

Listen, I know how it is. Most times, when you hear a critic say that a movie is crass and vulgar and smutty and nearly as degrading for the audience to watch as it must have been for the unfortunate actors to perform, you automatically think, "Yum! Sex! Must see immediately, if not sooner!" You assume that the reviewer is some clenched old persnickety prude who makes his pets wear diapers to cover up their naughty bits. And, heck, most times you're probably right!

But this reviewer actually WRITES PORN FOR A LIVING. I've had stuff printed in nearly every issue of PENTHOUSE FORUM and PENTHOUSE LETTERS for years, on top of appearing in more than two dozen other men's magazines. I absolutely love good, nasty, no-holes-barred, zero-redeeming-value smut...er, I mean, "erotica."

"40 Days and 40 Nights" is bad smut, so bad it will make your disappointed penis shrink in betrayed horror and crawl back inside your trembling body to die. It also is supposed to be a comedy, but there is not a single laugh in the entire movie. It is the misbegotten spawn of last year's egregious, brain-dead "Tomcats," a vomitously awful filth-farce that topped my "Worst of 2001" list.

Josh Hartnett and that scary chick with a wart from "A Knight's Tale" (which also made my "Worst of 2001" list) star as a guy who gives up sex for Lent and the girl who makes him want to break his vow. Josh has one of those screechingly annoying roommates that we are expected to believe is getting fresh tookie every night, in a poon paradise by the bay that apparently is located on Hefnerworld. All of the twentysomething characters work at funky dot-com businesses, wear hideously ugly clothes never seen in real life outside of ambiguously gay fashion magazines, and act like retards on a slow day. God, I can't go on. Even thinking back to this movie is making me flaccid and nauseous.

Watching Josh Hartnett wallow in this vat of syphilitic pus is shocking and tragic. The guy has proven in movies such as "O" and "Black Hawk Down" that he is more than just a teen-idol heartthrob. He even had the distinction of giving the least embarrassing performance with excruciatingly bad material of any actor who appeared in "Pearl Harbor." His appearance now in "40 Days and 40 Nights" is the equivalent of a career shift from the Broadway stage to a peep-show booth. Mr. H, call your agent!

"40 Days and 40 Nights" should be rated "X"...for "excrement."

Back Row Grade: F minus, minus, minus...






The 40-Year-Old Virgin
(Reviewed August 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

This would-be Farrelly-brothers style comedy is unbelievably unfunny, vaguely creepy and nearly two excruciating hours long.

The only things I liked about it were a few cutely dumb actresses, including one who gets herself off with a hand-held shower nozzle in a bathtub. But then, I'm shallow that way.

Avoid.

Back Row Grade: F





102 Dalmatians
(Not Reviewed November 29, 2000, by James Dawson)

Sorry, but this looked too shamelessly calculated and loud and stupid for me to see even if I had gotten free screening tickets to it. Which I didn't.

Back Row Grade: None






300
(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)

Zack Snyder, who directed the surprisingly good 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," does what looks like a pretty faithful job of translating comic book writer/artist Frank Miller's "300" to the big screen. ("300" is one of the few Miller works I haven't read, but nearly every frame of the movie certainly looks "Milleresque.") As Robert Rodriguez did with Miller's "Sin City," Snyder obviously took a lot of care in getting all of the visuals right.

The problem is that this fantasy-enhanced version of the ancient battle of Thermopylae -- only 300 Spartans against a much larger army of invading Persians -- somehow doesn't have enough drama or soul. It's undeniably beautiful, with amazing CGI and green-screen special effects. But the characters, including Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), seem more belligerently cartoonish than believably three-dimensional.

Scenes that are meant to humanize them, such as a late-night pre-deployment discussion between the king and his queen (Lena Headey) that leads to shadowy multi-position sex, or some friendly put-down bantering between two Spartan soldiers as they stack bodies of their dead enemies, seem flat and forced.

Also, Snyder makes some unfathomable directing choices. At one point, the Persians use elephants against the Spartans, who should have been rather freaked out by this development -- especially considering that those elephants have been supersized here to stand about 100 feet tall. But instead of showing anticipation, dawning realization, subdued terror, resolute resolve and sustained resistance, Snyder relates this segment of the fight as only a brief flashback-style clip that lasts less than a minute.

In another scene, King Leonidas -- who is so short-tempered with perceived enemies that he has cheerfully executed a Persian messenger -- allows Persian King Xerxes not only to mock him, but to lay hands on Leonidas' shoulders. Granted, there are Persian archers with arrows trained on Leonidas the whole time, so he knows that resistance would be met with swift death. But since he also knows that he and his men are on a suicide mission from the start, it's impossible to believe he would not take advantage of his proximity to the despised Xerxes by trying to kill him. (Also, Butler lapses into a pronounced Scottish brogue during this scene that doesn't match his accent in the rest of the movie.)

On the other hand, that scene also is a wonder to behold, because it is another instance of Snyder going way over the top visually. King Xerxes is borne on a massive throne at the top of a staircase, and the whole parade-float-size thing is carried on the backs of a few dozen of his minions. He stands about nine feet tall, festooned with piercings and chains, looking like a Mardi Gras drag queen torn between remaining coolly imperious and getting into a claws-out catfight.

Another great-looking scene takes place on the moonlit mountaintop where Leonidas consults the priests of a beautiful and barely clad oracle, who writhes in underwater-style slo-mo like a topless model in a Chanel No. 5 spot. What's Greek for "hubba-hubba?"

"300" is worth seeing just for the "seeing," but don't expect to experience any "Gladiator"-style empathy for anyone here.

Back Row Grade: C+






3:10 to Yuma
(Reviewed August 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

This is one damned fine western. Damned fine. And that's a fact.

That's all you need to know.

Back Row Grade: B






500 Days of Summer
(Reviewed July 8, 2009, by James Dawson)

Really enjoyable romantic comedy with an interesting non-linear chronology that jumps back and forth through the 500 days of a relationship between a guy who knows that he is getting the better end of the deal (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the sweetly quirky girl he adores (Zooey Deschanel).

Highly recommended!

Back Row Grade: A-






Special Bonus Feature:
Back Row Reviews 2006 Oscars Predictions
By James Dawson
(January 23, 2007)

I didn't get a vote when it came to naming the 2006 Oscar nominees (a tragedy, I'm sure you will agree), and my list would be very different from the official one that was released this morning. The good news, though, is that a lot of good people and films are in the running this time around.

There actually seem to be fewer groanworthy picks than usual, and it's a genuine relief that nothing as insultingly fourth-rate as Crash is up for Best Picture. Don't get me wrong; four of the five Best Picture nominees (Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen) are not on my top 10 of 2006 list. But if any of them beats The Departed, it won't be anywhere near as monumental a cosmic injustice as Crash winning instead of Brokeback Mountain last year.

Full disclosure: I saw all of the movies nominated for the main awards except Half Nelson, for which Ryan Gosling was nominated as Best Actor, and The Devil Wears Prada, for which Meryl Streep was nominated as Best Actress. Accordingly, I have asterisked those categories below. For all I know, Gosling may give a better performance in Half Nelson than the sublimely wonderful Peter O'Toole gave in Venus, and Streep may outdo Judi Dench's brilliant performance in Notes on a Scandal. Unlikely, but possible!

And so, just for the heck of it, here are my "should win" choices, and my "will win" predictions, from the official list of nominees (plus some "should have been nominated" picks). I also made each title a link that will take you directly to that movie's Back Row Review, in case you haven't committed each of them to memory. Enjoy!

BEST PICTURE
Should win: The Departed
Will win: The Departed
(Not nominated but would have been my choice: Pan's Labyrinth)

BEST DIRECTOR
Should win: Martin Scorsese (The Departed)
Will win: Martin Scorsese (The Departed)
(Not nominated but would have been my choice: Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth)

BEST ACTOR*
Should win: Peter O'Toole (Venus)
Will win: Peter O'Toole (Venus)

BEST ACTRESS*
Should win: Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal)
Will win: Helen Mirren (The Queen)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Should win: Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children)
Will win: Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond)
(Not nominated but would have been my choice: Sergi Lopez, Pan's Labyrinth)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Should win: Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal)
Will win: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) (most overpraised and undeserving 2006 nominee)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Should win: Pan's Labyrinth
Will win: Letters From Iwo Jima

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Should win: Notes on a Scandal
Will win: Little Children

Will my predictions this year turn out to be as wildly off-base as they have been most other years? Probably! Never underestimate the ability of Oscar voters to make choices that defy logic, good taste and sanity!


(Postscript added February 26, 2007)

The Oscars were handed out last night, and -- as always -- there was both good news and bad. I managed to bat .500, predicting four of the main awards correctly and missing the boat on the other four. Here are my reactions to the results:

BEST PICTURE: "The Departed" was the only Best Picture nominee that made the Back Row Reviews Top Ten of 2006 list, so I was glad it won, as I had predicted it would do.

BEST DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese. I got this one right, too.

BEST ACTOR: Peter O'Toole's loss to Forest Whitaker was a damned shame. I have to wonder how many Oscar voters actually bothered to see "Venus," the movie that featured O'Toole's flawless performance. The genuineness and humanity he portrayed was far more impressive than Whitaker's cartoonish impersonation of an eccentric maniac.

BEST ACTRESS: Helen Mirren won, as I predicted -- but Judi Dench should have won.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Alan Arkin. I totally blew this one, considering that Arkin was not my "Should Win" or my "Will Win" prediction. All I can figure is that voters were giving Arkin the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, instead of voting on the merits of his performance. Not that he did a bad job in "Little Miss Sunshine," but nothing about his work in that movie was exceptional.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jennifer Hudson. I predicted Hudson would win, as did almost everyone, because so many clueless critics seemed to enjoy her overwrought hollering in that sub-mediocre movie so much. All members of SAG who believe in acting craft and genuine talent probably wanted to shoot themselves when Hudson's name was called. Cate Blanchett, who was magnificent in "Notes on a Scandal," should have had this one in a walk. A disgrace.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: "The Departed." I would have preferred "Pan's Labyrinth," which was the actual best movie of the year, to win this one -- but I'm glad that "The Departed" beat out the screenplay that I thought Oscar voters would choose ("Letters From Iwo Jima").

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: "The Departed." I would have preferred "Notes on a Scandal," but I have no real beef with "The Departed" (even though I thought "Little Children" would win).

So there you have it: the good, the bad and the embarrassingly undeserving. See you next year, for what promises to be more of the same!






Special Bonus Featurette:
A Back Row Review
of the 2007 Oscar Nominations


(January 28, 2008)


By James Dawson

I can't believe that I was awake at 5:28am PST watching the live announcement of this year's Oscar nominations. The nominees always are a disappointment, and the 2007 crop definitely lived down to that reputation.

First off, what's going on when a C+ movie like Michael Clayton gets no fewer than SEVEN nominations, including one for Best Picture? Have the Oscars become even more of a celebrity ball-tonguing than usual? Are the producers trying to make up for the fact that the great unwashed didn't get to see gorgeous George Clooney gladhand and wisecrack his way through the Golden Globes this month?

Making Michael Clayton's raft of nominations even more insulting was the fact that the best movie I saw in 2007 -- Lars and the Real Girl -- received only one nod, for Best Original Screenplay. Tragically, it probably will lose to the okay-but-nothing-exceptional Juno, which seems to have captured the hearts of every simpering douchebag who wishes "The Gilmore Girls" never got canceled. Juno also received a laughable Best Picture nomination, and star Ellen Page is up for Best Actress. Christ, I'll bet John Hughes and Molly Ringwald wish this year's voters had been around when "Sixteen Candles" came out.

The year's other most egregious oversights:

ZERO nominations for The Darjeeling Limited, which at the very least should have gotten a screenplay nomination.

Kate Bush's wonderful song "Lyra" from The Golden Compass was not nominated for Best Original Song...yet no fewer than THREE songs from Disney's Enchanted got nods. Is every suck-up songwriter who voted for those forgettable parody tunes hoping for a three-picture deal with the House of Mouse, or what? Even worse, another nominee is a song from my pick for the second-worst movie of 2007, August Rush. JEEEEEZUS! (I can't comment on the fifth nominee -- "Falling Slowly," from "Once" -- because I never saw the movie. Hey, I can't see everything!)

(Speaking of Golden Compass, one has to wonder if that movie's baffling and tragic underperformance at the American box office -- perhaps due to protests from this country's religious retard community -- was what kept the amazingly good Dakota Blue Richards from receiving the obligatory under-21 Best Actress nomination that went to Ellen Page this year.)

Sweeney Todd got a mere three nominations -- Actor, Art Direction and Costume Design, all deserved -- but director Tim Burton was overlooked. Shame.

And Hot Fuzz, the best flat-out comedy (as opposed to the warm-and-Capraesque Lars and the Real Girl) that I saw in 2007, got sweet fuck-all from the fuckhead Academy.

But enough of this furious frothing about stuff that didn't get recognized, which could go on for gigabytes. Instead, here is a list of all the major nominees. In each category, I've listed my "deserves to win" pick from the official nominees -- as well as my personal "should have been nominated and should have won if the voters weren't idiots" selection. Enjoy!



BEST PICTURE

No Country for Old Men: Deserves to win from the group of nominees, if only by a hair. A great movie.

There Will Be Blood: I wouldn't be disappointed if this won, either. Unforgettable.

Michael Clayton: Doesn't deserve to be here.

Juno: Okay but extremely overhyped teen comedy that doesn't deserve to be here.

Atonement: Never saw it, because (a) I wasn't able to get into a free screening and (b) a little birdie (a five-foot-two birdie, to be exact) told me it was a total snooze.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED AND SHOULD HAVE WON: Lars and the Real Girl

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BEST DIRECTOR

Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men: Deserve to win.

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood: If the Coens don't get the Oscar, Anderson should.

Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: I wasn't crazy about the overuse of shots from the main character's point of view, which comes off more like a stunt than an effective storytelling device after awhile, but at least the result was something attempting to be artistic.

Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton: Doesn't deserve to be here.

Jason Reitman, Juno: Doesn't deserve to be here.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED AND SHOULD HAVE WON: Edgar Wright, Hot Fuzz. The most visually exciting and clever movie of the year was this hilarious send-up of buddy-cop movies. Not a dull frame to be found.

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BEST ACTOR

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood: Deserves to win, and would have been my pick if I got to vote. A monumental, unforgettable performance.

Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: Depp is terrific as Todd, who looks like Beethoven but sings like Bowie.

George Clooney, Michael Clayton: Give me a break. Doesn't deserve to be here.

Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah": Never saw it, because I couldn't get up for driving to a free screening of anything that had been touched by the hand of Paul Haggis. (Crash -- one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners of my lifetime -- left a bad taste in my mouth that still hasn't gone away after more than two years.)

Viggo Mortenson, "Eastern Promises": Never saw it, but wanted to. I must have been doing something really important the day of the screening, like gandering at online porn.

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BEST ACTRESS

Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose: Deserves to win, out of the five nominees.

Laura Linney, The Savages: This was an okay but nothing-special performance, considering that Linney was blown away in every scene she shared with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age: I normally like Cate Blanchett a lot, but she was unexceptional to the extreme in this disappointing sequel. Doesn't deserve to be here.

Ellen Page, Juno: Doesn't deserve to be here. I didn't believe her character, and I got tired of Page's ironic-deadpan act after mere minutes.

Julie Christie, "Away From Her": The trailer looked so Hallmark-Channel horrendous that I wouldn't see this movie if you paid me. Well, okay, maybe if you paid me, but it would have to be a lot. Okay, it would have to be at least the five bucks I would burn in gas getting to and from the theater. How's that?

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED AND SHOULD HAVE WON: Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl: There wasn't a truer, sweeter more watchable performance by an actress all year.

A COUPLE MORE ACTRESSES WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: It's a damned shame that neither Keri Russell (Waitress) nor Dakota Blue Richards (The Golden Compass) got nominated. A dirty damned shame, I tells ya.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War: Should win out of the five nominees. Hoffman is incapable of giving a bad performance, and this is one of his best.

Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men: Hey, he should win, too! Okay, let's call it a tie between Hoffmann and Bardem, for two roles that could not possibly be more different.

Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton: Wilkinson does "crazy" pretty well, but this role is too much like a riff on Peter Finch's far better performance as the same sort of conscience-stricken character in "Network." And "Michael Clayton" is no "Network."

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Maybe it's just me, but watching a guy play a twitchy twerp gets tedious pretty fast. I didn't buy Affleck in the role, and I found it even harder to think that Jesse James wouldn't have pegged him as a creepy nutcase from minute one. Doesn't deserve to be here.

Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild." Never saw this one, because the idea of watching some poor little rich boy renounce his possessions to go on a half-assed vision quest to Alaska to "find himself" made me want to heave. So does Eddie Vedder's music. But hey, maybe it's a great flick.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Ruby Dee, American Gangster: Even Dee herself must have looked at the TV and said "huh?" when her name was announced as a nominee. Doesn't deserve to be here.

Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton: It's the script's fault that Swinton played a completely unbelievable character -- a skittish, insecure nervous Nell whom we are supposed to believe an evil, multi-billion-dollar corporation would hire to head its legal team in a huge class-action lawsuit that could bankrupt the firm. But when all that Swinton brings to the role is bug eyes and problem perspiration, she doesn't deserve to be on this list.

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There." Sorry, didn't see the movie, because the studio-lot screening that I was supposed to attend was being picketed by a threatening throng of obnoxious whiners from the Writer's Guild. "Boo-hoo, we're not getting online residuals, waaaaaaa." Say, here's an idea: If you striking ingrates think you're so goddamned underpaid, get the hell out of the industry and let people who would be glad to work for half of your "insulting" wages see how demeaning it is to suffer for their art for a change. Bastards!

Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement." Like I said before, I missed the screening, and I never bothered seeing the movie later because a certain little Greek girl told me "Atonement" was a crashing bore. Also, one can only take so much Keira Knightley. I mean, seriously.

Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone." I actually regret not seeing this movie, which I heard was pretty good. Christ, this means I didn't see three of the five films featuring nominees in this category. I'm so ashamed.

THREE SUPPORTING ACTRESSES WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED, AND ANY OF THEM SHOULD HAVE WON:

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding: Leigh was genuinely interesting as the long-suffering sister of an icy bitch.

Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men: Macdonald was perfect in the small role of Josh Brolin's meek, sad wife, especially in her final scene with Javier Bardem.

Jennifer Garner, Juno: The only category in which "Juno" actually deserved to get a nomination is this one, for Jennifer Garner's poignant supporting-actress portrayal of a brittle adoptive mother. Garner was robbed.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Lars and the Real Girl: Should win, and would have been my pick if I were voting.

Juno: No screenplay that includes lines of dialog like "honest to blog?" belongs on this list.

Michael Clayton: Doesn't deserve to be on this list. Plays like a well-made TV movie with a cliche ending.

Ratatouille: At first I thought this was an odd choice, but the movie actually is pretty good, even if it is about an animated rat. So why not?

The Savages: Although I liked this movie, I wouldn't have put it on this list. That's because it starts out as a black comedy, then abandons that approach to become pretty much a straight drama, as if the writer wasn't sure which way to go.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: The Darjeeling Limited

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

No Country for Old Men: Should win, and would have been my choice if I had a vote.

There Will Be Blood: Although this is an excellent movie, I have read that it is more of an "inspired by" screenplay than an actual adaptation (of the Upton Sinclair book "Oil!"). On the other hand, I haven't read the source material for any of the other nominees that made the list, so I can't verify how faithful any of them are to the originals. Never mind.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Didn't thrill me, but wasn't awful. (How's that for damning with faint praise?)

"Away From Her": Didn't see the movie, for reasons stated above.

"Atonement": Didn't see the movie, for reasons stated above.

THREE SCREENPLAYS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED BUT WEREN'T: The Golden Compass, Sweeney Todd and Hairspray.

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And there you have it, folks -- Oscar wrap-up ramblings from a guy with nothing better to do on a Tuesday morning than to carp and cajole! Cripes!

See you next year!






Special Bonus Feature:
A Back Row Review
of the 2008 Oscar Nominations
By James Dawson
(January 22, 2009)


Once again, the masochist in me demanded that I rise to witness the annual 5:38am announcement of the year's Oscar nominees. And once again, I was reminded of the sad, sad truth that there is no justice in this world, and that an awful lot of people in Hollywood have remarkably bad taste.

The only 2008 movies I haven't seen that have nominees in any major categories are "Milk," "The Visitor," "Frozen River" and "Happy-Go-Lucky." I didn't get screening passes to those flicks -- and when it came to the prospect of actually plunking down $10 in real money for tickets, I couldn't help thinking that none of them would lose anything on home video. We're in a Depression, people!

The most shockingly undeserved Oscar nomination this year -- which is not to say it was unexpected, unfortunately -- was the egregiously unconvincing Anne Hathaway for Best Actress. Hathaway's beyond-hammy histrionics in Rachel Getting Married were so embarrassingly off-putting that the movie made my 10 Worst of 2008 List. All I can figure is that every lousy, scenery-chewing thespian under 30 who keeps getting turned down for roles because they think screaming, twitching and mumbling equal art saw themselves in hambone Hathaway and voted for her in simple-minded solidarity.

On the flip side, the most shamefully disgraceful oversights among the list were the lack of nominations for The Wrestler as Best Picture, that movie's Darren Aronofsky for Best Director and its screenwriter Robert D. Siegel for Best Original Screenplay. How in the hell can a movie's male and female stars (the completely deserving Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei) both be nominated for being in a movie that the academy members apparently think wasn't well-directed or well-written enough to make those lists, or superior in overall quality to mediocre-at-best movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Doubt? The mind boggles. Even Bruce Springsteen's excellent original song for the movie was ignored.

I was happy to see that my favorite movie of 2008 (In Bruges) got an original-screenplay nomination for writer Martin McDonagh -- but I was disgusted that the movie didn't get more. I was even more disgusted that my number-two pick for the year (The Fall) got no nominations whatsoever, not even in the cinematography, costume, makeup or art direction categories, despite being one of the most visually striking movies ever made.

(Interestingly, my pick for the best movie of 2007 -- Lars and the Real Girl -- also got only one nomination. And, like this year's In Bruges, it was for Best Original Screenplay. Fascinating!)

The nominee most likely to get screwed out of an Oscar he truly deserves this year is Michael Shannon, up for Best Supporting Actor for his best-thing-about-the-movie role in Revolutionary Road. Too bad he's running against the Hollywood-hallowed corpse of Heath Ledger, whose campy-cwazy Joker act would have been regarded as nothing more than a nutty novelty performance if Ledger had not picked 2008 to OD on drugs. In a rare moment of sanity and restraint, the academy didn't compound that nonsense by giving Best Picture or Best Director nominations to The Dark Knight.

But enough of this prattling; I could go on all day writing about other mistakes, oversights and sheer idiocy to be found within the official academy nominations. Instead, here is a list of the nominees in each major category, with short comments about each. I've put links within the text below that will take you to my Back Row Reviews of each movie mentioned; just click the titles.





BEST PICTURE

Frost/Nixon: Deserves to be on this list. A great movie.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: This "Forrest Gump" do-over by the same writer (Eric Roth) is a big, lavish, handsome bore that doesn't belong on this list.

Milk: Haven't seen it. Shameful of me, I realize.

The Reader: Although it was nice seeing Kate Winslet naked a lot, this movie (dubbed "Fraulein Cougar" by a certain Greek girl I know) doesn't deserve to be on this list.

Slumdog Millionaire: A good movie, but by no stretch of the imagination is this one of the five best of the year.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Look, it's a given that the constipated, middle-of-the-road morons who choose the nominees never were going to anoint anything as weird, transgressive or original as In Bruges; The Fall; Synecdoche, New York; or Towelhead as Best Picture (to name four that appear on my 10 Best List. But do those dunderheads really think that The Wrestler or Woody Allen's excellent Vicky Cristina Barcelona weren't good enough to make the grade? Sickening.

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BEST DIRECTOR

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Fincher should be making more flashy, over-the-top, senses-assaulting movies like "Fight Club" and "Seven," instead of trying to go all warm and gooey with puerile pap like this. Watching the guy try to out-sap Spielberg was just sad. Boring performances, tedious storytelling. Doesn't deserve to be on this list.

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon: Howard did a great directing job. The first time I saw "Frost/Nixon," I was so impressed by the acting and the great storytelling that I didn't realize how clever a lot of the staging, camera moves and shots were. The second time I saw it, I liked it even more.

Gus Van Sant, "Milk": Sorry, still haven't seen it.

Stephen Daldry, The Reader: Competently directed, but not award-worthy.

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire: This movie is flashy, always visually interesting and beautifully shot. Deserves this nomination more than the Best Picture one, actually.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Martin McDonagh for In Bruges, Tarsem for The Fall, Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler, Woody Allen for Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Charlie Kaufman for Synecdoche, New York. Hey, whaddaya know, those are the five directors of my five favorite movies of 2008 -- and none of them got nominated. The fact that they were not nominated is further evidence that there is no God.

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BEST ACTOR

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon: One of my two favorite performances of the year. Langella is unbelievably good.

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler: My other favorite performance of the year. Rourke is heartbreakingly believable.

Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor": Didn't get to see it free. Probably spent the money a ticket would have cost for that week's supply of thin, watery gruel. (POSTSCRIPT: I later saw this on DVD. Jenkins was good, but not Best Actor good.)

Sean Penn, "Milk": Sorry, I still haven't seen it.

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Is this a joke? Pitt was so uninteresting and bland in this movie that he seemed like a low-voltage automaton. Doesn't deserve to be on this list.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Philip Seymour Hoffman for Synecdoche, New York. An unforgettable performance, in a movie completely overlooked by the dopes who picked the nominees. At least Hoffman got a Supporting Actor nom, for the utterly unexceptional Doubt.

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BEST ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married: This nomination is so criminally, monumentally unjust it makes me want to hit someone. Hated her performance, hated the movie, hate, hate, must destroy, must destroy, aaaaaaaaccckkkkk.

Angelina Jolie, Changeling: Lousy movie, boring performance, doesn't deserve the nomination.

Meryl Streep, Doubt: Scenery-chewing camp that I'm surprised anyone could take seriously. Doesn't deserve the nomination.

Kate Winslet, The Reader: Fraulein Cougar has a great ass.

Melissa Leo, "Frozen River": Didn't see this one. A thousand apologies.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Catinca Untaru, the little girl from The Fall who was the antithesis of the "Hollywood kid" stereotype; Summer Bishil as the precocious lil' statutory rape victim in Towelhead, and Audrey Tautou from the amorally delicious French flick Priceless.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder: Hilarious, politically incorrect, loved him in this role.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt: A great actor in a nothing-special movie. Hoffman should have been nominated for Best Actor for Synecdoche, New York, but what the hell -- maybe this was the voters way of making up for not putting him in that category.

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight: Shouldn't win, but probably will. Hollywood is stupid that way for dead people.

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road: More than playing the only character in this movie who doesn't seem catatonic, Shannon is an absolute joy as a ridiculously outspoken mental patient with a 'tude.

Josh Brolin, "Milk": Nope, still haven't seen the movie.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges. A magnificent performance as a vicious family-man mob boss.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Funny, sexy, great.

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler: My favorite of the nominees, and not just because she looks fantastic working a stripper pole.

Amy Adams, Doubt: Is this a joke?

Viola Davis, Doubt: Good performance in a tiny role.

Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Good performance in a dull movie.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Zoe Kazan, the hot little minky seduced by Leonardo Dicaprio in Revolutionary Road.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Martin McDonagh, In Bruges: My favorite movie of 2008. 'Nuff said.

Courtney Hunt, "Frozen River": Didn't see it.

Mike Leigh, "Happy-Go-Lucky": Didn't see it.

Dustin Lance Black, "Milk": And still didn't see this one.

Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter, WALL-E: I loved this movie until it got to the part with the fatsos on the spaceship, when it became kinda stupid and annoying.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I liked this movie a lot more the first time Roth wrote it, back when it was called "Forrest Gump."

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: This was like a bad TV movie classed up by the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon: Great movie, easily deserves to win over the other nominees in this category.

David Hare, The Reader: Fraulein Cougar soft-porn doesn't mix well with a Nazi war-crimes legal drama.

Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire: Aside from the fact that the script's central gimmick (each quiz-show question reminding the contestant of some traumatic or instructive moment from his past) was utterly unnecessary to the plot, and that the ending was preposterous, this was an entertaining-enough melodrama. I wouldn't have nominated it in this category, though.

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And there you have it, folks -- Oscar wrap-up ramblings from a guy with nothing better to do on a Tuesday morning in January than to carp and cajole! Cripes!

See you next year!












Special Bonus Feature:
A Back Row Review
of the 2009 Oscar Nominations
By James Dawson
(February 2, 2010)


For the first time in years, I simply couldn't be arsed to get up at 5:38am Pacific time to watch the live announcement of Oscar nominations that I somehow was certain would be another infuriating disappointment. Boy, was I ever glad I slept in.

Only two of the 10 nominees for Best Picture appear on my own 10 Best of 2009 list (An Education and Up in the Air). The only Best Picture nominee I haven't seen as of this writing is "Precious," so I can't pass judgment on that one.

As for Oscar's other Best Picture nominees, the only one that isn't an embarrassment to the category is "Inglourious Basterds" (which, for some reason, I never got around to reviewing). Avatar is an amazing technical feat and a beauty to behold, but it's more videogame than movie. The wildly overhyped District 9 was so dumb and tonally inconsistent that its "postmodern SF" slot should have been occupied by the vastly superior Star Trek. The Blind Side was a Gatorade barrel's worth of sentimental slop, and "Up" (another flick I saw but never reviewed) was a mawkish mashup of two incompatible plotlines (Hallmark old-folks weeper and wacky adventure). "The Hurt Locker" wasn't bad, but it definitely has been overpraised.

Still, there was one good thing about the Academy's sub-standard selections: The utterly unpleasant emperor's-new-clothes abomination known as Where the Wild Things Are was not nominated for anything in any category.

On the acting side, I didn't get to see "Crazy Heart," so I really can't really comment on Jeff Bridges' performance in it...but I just can't help myself. I've never liked Bridges in anything he's ever done, and I can't believe his talent took a quantum leap in quality last year. (UPDATE: I finally saw a screening of "Crazy Heart" after it opened, and Bridges was exactly as unimpressive as I imagined he would be. Bridges plays every role as if he's endlessly amused by himself, which was exactly the wrong way to play a character who is supposed to be a broke and broken-down alcoholic has-been.)

Also, Sandra Bullock's utterly undeserved nom for The Blind Side proves that the membership of the Golden-Globes-bestowing Hollywood Foreign Press Association has no monopoly on morons.

And now, here are my "should win/will win" picks for this year:

BEST PICTURE

SHOULD WIN: Up in the Air My favorite by far of the seven nominated movies I've seen.

WILL WIN: Up in the Air Call me crazy, but I can't help thinking that this completely enjoyable, wry-without-being-snarky, bittersweet slice of contemporary Capra will beat all the flash, junk and downers.



BEST ACTOR

SHOULD WIN: Because I've only seen two of the five performances nominated, I won't bother picking anyone here...even though I have a feeling that a lot of Academy voters don't have similar scruples.

WILL WIN: This apparently is Jeff Bridges' year -- so if I were a betting man, I would put my money on him.



BEST ACTRESS

SHOULD WIN: Carey Mulligan for An Education, a genuine "star is born" performance. (Disclaimer: The only movie on this list I haven't seen is "Precious.")

WILL WIN: Gabourey Sidibe for "Precious." I haven't seen the movie, but she apparently did a great job -- and I can't believe that even the most clueless Oscar voter would choose silly Sandra Bullock here, even if she did win both the SAG award and the goofy Golden Globe.



SUPPORTING ACTOR

SHOULD WIN: The only two movies on this list I didn't see were "Invictus" and "The Messenger." Christoph Waltz was slyly magnificent in "Inglourious Basterds," however.

WILL WIN: Christoph Waltz. See above.



SUPPORTING ACTRESS

SHOULD WIN: The only movie on this list I didn't see was "Precious," in which Mo'Nique apparently burns up the screen. Of the movies I've seen, however, I absolutely loved the adorable Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air.

WILL WIN: Mo'Nique.



BEST DIRECTOR

SHOULD WIN: I haven't seen "Precious," so I can't comment on how good a job Lee Daniels did. But of the four other nominees, my pick would be Jason Reitman for Up in the Air. James Cameron's Avatar was more videogame than story, and Quentin Tarantino occasionally seemed to be sabotaging his own movie in "Inglourious Basterds" (remember that excruciatingly endless dialog scene in the bar?).

WILL WIN: Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker." She won the DGA Award, which nearly always goes to the same director who ends up winning the Oscar.



ANIMATED FEATURE

SHOULD WIN: Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was my favorite movie of 2009, period. (Disclaimer: The only movie I have not seen that was nominated in this category is "The Secret of Kells.")

WILL WIN: "Up." Pixar mass-market mush will trounce hipster Wes Anderson's ironic and offbeat little masterpiece. 'Twas ever thus.



And there you have it, a bunch of cranky opinions from a guy who spends a little too much time in the dark. See you in the back row!
























2009 Oscars Predictions
(By James Dawson)

I wrote this for the website ARTISTdirect.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Oscars 2009: Who Will Win vs. Who Should Win"







2009 Budding Artists Feature
(by James Dawson)

I wrote this feature for the website ARTISTdirect.com. Click this link to read it:
"2009 Budding Artists" Feature






2009 Blockbuster or Bust Predictions
(by James Dawson)

I wrote this feature for the website ARTISTdirect.com. Click this link to read it:
"2009 Blockbuster or Bust Predictions" Feature





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