Annie Hall  – What I didn’t remember about Woody’s most famous film was how transgressive it is. Weaving in and out of scores of storytelling devices, “Annie Hall” jumps loosely but not confusingly around chronology, creating a sly and funny picture of the way we view our relationships once we have the luxury of hindsight. One would have to be shockingly oblivious to miss the inspiration this lent to 2009’s stellar “(500) Days of Summer.”
Australia  – Baz Luhrmann’s latest takes the epic down-under, with admirable though overwrought results. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star as the fire-and-water couple who bring a faltering ranch to prosperity against enormous odds. The leads and the scenery sure are pretty to look at, though the film’s ancillary story, one about Aborigine children and the government’s abuse of them, feels like a clear case of what Roger Ebert often astutely chastises as white men co-opting the stories of other ethnicities to bolster their own work.
Coffy [3.5] – My firsthand experience with blaxploitation is admittedly minimal, something which might have to change after taking this shot of sex and lightning. Pam Grier is pure eye-glue as the inner city nurse who preserves life by day and blows it apart at night. Sleazy and violent fun, for those who feel so inclined, with one of those pseudo-Marxist Black Panther messages that I might abhor were I not able to giggle at them.
I Love You, Beth Cooper  – Surely a serious contender for Worst Film of the Year, Chris Columbus’ attraction to this aggressively derivative and creepily vulgar claptrap is inexplicable. It’s about a charmless teenage twerp (played by a guy five years older than I am) who goes out for a wild night with Hayden Panettiere, his dream girl crush. Without a seriously funny or original moment, only the director’s success with the “Harry Potter” series gave this a wide release. Panettiere, who’s not altogether bad, needs to pick better films with which to populate her filmography before her short career clock expires.
Magnolia  – Upon first viewing, I didn’t know what the hell to make of this, but I knew that I hated it. Ten years later, I fell in love with it; the shattered mass of characters, the heartbreaking dramas, the way fragments slide into place, and even the hotly debated shower of frogs, a bizarre exclamation point that’s indispensible once you’ve accepted the thought of it. Especially resonant for me was John C. Reilly’s relationship with Melora Walters, a bumbling fool of a cop reaching for love from a emotionally ruined drug addict. Minor complaint: remember when Kevin Smith ridiculed the scene where the boy genius chastises his father? Smith was right on the money.
Out of Sight  – There was one scene that clinched this for me. Jennifer Lopez, as Marshal Karen Sisco, interviews a loathsome thug in regards to a suspect’s whereabouts. As this guy makes an obscene speech and all but declares his intent to rape her, you can tell she’s mentally contrasting this guy with bank robber George Clooney, who behaved like a gentlemen despite kidnapping her after his prison break. That I was subsequently able to buy their forbidden romance is a mark of true craftsmanship by Steven Soderbergh, and I haven’t even mentioned the great performances, edgily playful tone, and witty dialogue.
Primer [1.5] – Spare me your lectures on this film’s geeky greatness; I’m not impressed. With a plot that’s virtually unexplainable and characters thinner than a DVD, why would anyone want to sink brainpower into sorting this thing out?
The Siege of Firebase Gloria  – This right-wing antidote to “Platoon” scores some provocative points. Here, the only bad American soldiers are the ones lazy or stupid enough to let themselves get killed, while war is seen as brutal enterprise devoid of dignity or honor. Perhaps this is true, but quasi-inept direction, as well as a story that too often revels in its brutality (protagonist R. Lee Ermey brandishes about a set of severed American heads to prove a point), helps explain why this war flick is all but forgotten.
Strange Days  – Kathryn Bigelow is likely to get an Oscar nom for “The Hurt Locker,” but that film is no less an achievement than “Strange Days,” a daring sci-fi noir that hits many of the same notes normally reserved for the masterpiece. The bravura camerawork, which sees first-person memories acted out in enormous detail, are technical marvels that I’m hard pressed to compare to anything, and Ralph Fiennes is unimpeachable as the sleazy memory-pusher with a heart of gold. Only a somewhat lazy final ten minutes have kept this from the lofty perch in cinema history that it deserves.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans  – The film’s most impressive effect is the trainer and dietician that helped Tony Blair, uh, Michael Sheen get this ripped. It’s not as exciting as the previous installment, but it’s less dreary and more fun than the first. Good enough, I say.