Monday, August 31, 2009


Director: Greg Mottola
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Margarita Levieva, Matt Bush
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

What a year for coming-of-age films this is turning into. It's infrequent that I see two movies in a row that are so similar thematically and manage to strike the same chord. Both Adventureland and (500) Days of Summer were both misrepresented as fluffy comedies, the former more severely. Both deal with a transforming summer relationship. In each, music is a major component. And both focus their gaze on a twenty-something male protagonist wrestling with post-grad blues, invoking recollections (one very literally) of The Graduate. 2009, which was feared to be heading down the same underwhelming path as '08, has turned some kind of a corner recently and it's been fun to watch the reaction. I've yet to see all the films triggering this widespread enthusiasm but at least now I can scratch another off the must-see list and report it met expectations.

Greg Motttola's Adventureland received mostly mixed reviews when it opened in April and didn't connect with audiences who mistakenly went in expecting another Judd Apatow-style comedy in a year when even Apatow didn't feel like making a Judd Apatow-style comedy. We had I Love You, Man to fill that niche, which it did quite well. Unfortunately, when you splash the words, "FROM THE DIRECTOR OF SUPERBAD" across a film's poster, certain expectations will accompany it, all of which Adventureland couldn't have delivered on because it just isn't that kind of movie. But those who had actually seen and liked it didn't just merely like it. They LOVED it. No matter what it was marketed as, it was clear that it really spoke to them in a big way, piquing my interest in it further. This is a drama with very few huge laughs and you'll enjoy it best if you prepare yourself for that before tackling it. What it does expertly instead is succeed at invoking a very specific time period, mood and atmosphere that makes it easy to see how it's connected with a vocal minority of viewers on the level it has. In avoiding many of the pitfalls that plague this genre and choosing to go a more subtly intelligent route, the film definitely deserved much more attention than it was paid.

It's 1987 and recent Oberlin College graduate James Brennan (Jessie Eisenberg) is looking forward to touring Europe for the summer before attending Columbia University grad school to study journalism in the fall. That is until his parents (Wendie Malik and Jack Gilpin) break the news that they can't subsidize him and he'll have to put his dreams of going to Europe on hold to instead spend the summer working in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He lands a gig at Adventureland, the local amusement park run by an eccentric married couple (SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), that employs a wide variety of interesting, colorful characters.Despite his desire to work on RIDES, James is incorrectly sized up by management as a GAMES guy. Or as his t-shirt reads, GAMES GAMES GAMES GAMES. In a just world where audiences actually went to see this movie, millions of those shirts could have been sold. The awkward, intellectual James immediately befriends the even geekier and more awkward Joel (Martin Starr) and despite still nursing a broken heart from college, starts to develops serious feelings for the captivating Em (Kristen Stewart). Besides wrestling with a troubled home life, she's been having a fling with the park's married maintenance man, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a former musician whose claims to have jammed with Lou Reed are dubious. Things are complicated further for James with the return of seductive rides operator Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), a Madonna clone who transfixes all the guys at the park. Whether he likes it or not, his worst summer ever is on a path to become the best and most memorable of his life.

is the kind of movie likely to dredge up a lot of memories (some painful) for those who watch it. What laughter there is comes from the situations where you can stop and say, "Yeah, I've been there." And even if you haven't been there, it kind of feels like you were anyway. Unlike (500) Days of Summer, it doesn't go for the jugular in its depiction of romantic relationships and is more sentimental, unapologetically drenching itself in nostalgia. It also fits into one of my favorite movie sub-genres: Cool workplaces. Think Clerks or Empire Records. I've always found it compelling to watch people who would have never otherwise met be thrown together by chance in a job only to end up forging a lasting friendship. James is lucky enough to get that experience but his post-grad struggles before taking this seemingly lame, dead-end job. are shown realistically by Mottola and reverberate with personal sentiment. The cold, hard fact that college can't possibly prepare you for life is thrown in James' face when the comparative literature major is simultaneously over-qualified AND under-qualified for every menial job for which he applies. James is too introspective, too observant, and too sensitive for his own good. In a way, his sincerity is his own worst enemy and he needs something or someone to break him in. His relationship with Em provides that.

Eisenberg (who first impressed in 2005's The Squid and the Whale) has been criticized for giving performances too reminiscent of Michael Cera in their awkwardness. While I'm sure Cera would be flattered (offended?) by the notion that he actually has a "style" of acting that can be imitated, his persona didn't consciously occur to me at all as I watched Eisenberg. Cera is more sarcastic, which perfectly fits a raucous film like Superbad, but would be ill-suited for more dramatic material like this. It's insane to assert the two actors are interchangeable. What Eisenberg does bring to it is a subtly grounded approach, thankfully choosing not to play James as some kind of stuttering, stammering dork incapable of social interaction. As cliche as it's becoming to see the geek get the girl in every major comedy released these days, thanks to him it at least comes off more bearable than usual.

Strangely though, the movie's success doesn't begin and end with him. This is a rare occasion where the female love interest is being presented pitch-perfectly both in terms of writing and performance and ends up being the more fully realized character. What's most refreshing is that there isn't a phony, insincere bone in Em's body and she doesn't play games. She's given a difficult home situation but the card isn't overplayed and we feel bad for her because she's essentially a good soul who just doesn't know it yet. You can see what James sees in her, and Stewart conveys everything Em's going through with little more than a glance in a revelatory supporting performance.It's a shame she's sabotaging her career by starring in big-budget projects beneath her as I'd like to believe she can recover and continue to do meaningful work like she did in Panic Room and Into the Wild. It would be awful if despite her contribution, the film ages poorly merely because of her star presence in it. The last thing anyone wants to do is remember this as the amusement park movie with "that girl from Twilight." Her and the film deserve better. While the idea of Ryan Reynolds' character getting it on with Stewart's, who looks (and probably is) about half his age, is pretty creepy, the challenging sub-plot is pulled off in an effective, mostly non-creepy way, which is a real credit to the two actors. They make us view it as the mistake that it is and they know it to be as well. When Connell finds out about James' feelings for Em his reaction isn't what you'd expect. He isn't a jerk, just a decent guy with an ego struggling through some issues, an important distinction that would go missing in a lesser script and performance. It's a relatively small part for Reynolds, but it's his most complex to date and he finds a lot of truth in it.

Anyone who says '80's music is discreetly slid into the picture must have been watching a different film than me. Hardly a single scene goes by where key music of the era isn't blasting, whether it be Lou Reed, INXS, Falco, Expose, Husker Du, The Replacements, Crowded House and just for old times sake, The Velvet Underground. It's overkill but I didn't mind since song-for-song it's the best soundtrack to come along in a while. Beyond perfectly capturing the era in terms of music and dress, this joins movies like Donnie Darko and Son of Rambow in not only harnessing the feel of the '80's, but feeling like it was made during that period. Terry Stacey's cinematography and Yo La Tengo's score only reinforces that atmosphere. What laughs there are come from the painful truths of growing up more than anything else, while the rest are filled in by Hader and Wiig, (who are crazy but reined in) and James' former childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who remains in a perpetual state of adolescence. The one character who didn't really work for me was Lisa P., who seemed more a walking stereotype for the decade and a plot marker than an actual human being.

This is an optimistic film coming-of-age-film that understands life can be filled with disappointment and darkness but every once in a while something really incredible happens and you just want stop time and hold onto it for as long as possible. It operates with the knowledge that life can suck sometimes and you'll still survive, but doesn't condescend in any way or succumb to cheap sentimentality (aside from a closing scene that reeks of pure fantasy to the point it feels like a dream sequence). I'm not entirely sure how you can even market movies like this, which is a shame, because coming-of-age films can be the most rewarding of all genres when presented well. Why it's even rated "R" or wasn't given a more advantageous summer release date are valid questions. In a way it reminds me of Judd Apatow's the short-lived TV masterpiece, Freaks and Geeks, which also managed to perfectly capture a mood and time period not too far off from this one. This movie will hit hardest for those who were teenagers in the '80's but everyone else will probably find a lot to appreciate also. Mottola really put himself on the line. It would have been easy money to follow Superbad with another vulgar comedy but he instead chose to tell a story that clearly meant a lot to him. This is one movie I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel of since I cared about these characters and would want to know what they're up to now. It isn't good for anyone when a quality film like Adventureland flops because too many people already think no one cares about their story or what they have to say. The last thing they need is another excuse to not share it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Chloe Grace Moretz, Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly
Running Time: 95 Min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)


"This is the story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing he'd never truly be happy until the day he met the one. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music, and a total misreading of the movie, The Graduate."

So begins the opening narration of the anti-romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, a movie that exposes some harsh truths and breaks a lot of rules we're not used to seeing broken in its genre. Starring two of the most talented young actors working today, I couldn't have guessed there would be so much to discuss when it's over that their onscreen pairing would be the LAST THING I'd feel like talking about. Forget about the film merely being worth the price of admission, I'd pay just to listen to two people have a conversation about it. When it's over it leaves you thinking hard and hits close to home with certain portions connecting more with some than others. That's to to be expected when its subject is the gradual disintegration of a relationship over the span of 500 days. The film's tag line reads: "This is NOT a love story." And in making that declaration it joins an exclusive club of movies frequently featuring an unlucky-at-love male protagonist struggling with relationships, often against the backdrop of a memorably hip soundtrack. Almost Famous, Say Anything, High Fidelity, Rushmore, Garden State, Annie Hall, and The Graduate all come to mind as examples of coming-of age dramas masquerading as romantic comedies. This is that...but in a way, it isn't. We have a main character who's extremely likable, but not not fully clued into reality, allowing himself to become the doormat for a cold, detached female antagonist. While couples will likely be arguing for hours as to who's really more at fault, the hilariously biting "dedication" that opens the picture indicates that the filmmakers are sure of their stance and at least have a wicked sense of humor about it.

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hopeless romantic whose job as a greeting card writer in Los Angeles couldn't possibly be a better fit since you get the impression he's the kind of person who actually believes the sentiments he's writing. But like many twenty-somethings, he feels as if he's just punching the clock. He went to school to become an architect but things didn't work out, as they sometimes don't. His entire world is turned upside-down when his boss' (Clark Gregg) new assistant, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) arrives on the scene from Michigan and within the first few seconds of seeing her, he instantly knows she's "THE ONE". And he doesn't think he has a chance. Sadly, he's proven right, just not in the way he expects. The movie makes no bones about the fact that this won't end well for him. After some initial awkward posturing, they kind of fall into a relationship, if you can even call it that, since he's far more emotionally invested in it than her. The cynical Summer is Tom's opposite. She doesn't believe in soul mates or even the very notion of love and let's Tom know this from the start. She just wants to have a good time. No strings attached. Nothing serious. No commitment. On the surface he seems fine with it, but of course he isn't.

The story isn't necessarily told as out of order as you've been lead to believe from the ads and commercials. It opens at the end of the relationship and through flashbacks we're given the chronology of events that lead to the break-up. A counter shows up letting us know where we are in the course of Tom's 500 days so it's mostly a pretty straightforward narrative. The device works because it enables us to see bits and pieces of their time together before finally putting together the entire puzzle of what went wrong. We only have a general idea of the ending but this enables us to discover along with Tom the "how" and the "why." It isn't just a gimmick. In a particularly clever sequence toward end of the film Tom describes in excruciating detail all of Summer's most notable traits. The qualities that represented beautiful perfection to him earlier morph into ugly, disgusting flaws as the relationship heads past the rescue point and we're predisposed to side with him, being that the story's told from his somewhat slanted perspective.

First-time director Marc Webb (working from an unusually observant script by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) employ many more devices (such as split screen, voice-overs, title cards, and musical numbers), none of which are groundbreaking, but feel like they are since we've rarely seen them utilized as brazenly in a romantic comedy since Annie Hall. The voice-over narration (provided by Richard McGonagle) recalls the detached objectivity underlining 2006's Little Children and though it's used more sparingly here, it's no less effective. Having first carved a niche for himself directing Regina Spektor music videos, Webb's playing favorites with the soundtrack selections, but it's understandable since few songs could fit the story as well (especially the brilliant use of Spektor's "Us" over the opening credits). Many have already complained that this is just another one of those "hipster" movies by the way the characters dress and the name-dropping of indie bands, most notably The Smiths. But the fact is many young people do dress like this and listen to that type of music. And some don't. Who cares? Regardless, these two did and I believed it. More importantly, it's actually key to the story, informing the decisions the protagonist makes.

Besides falling prey to mislabeling this as another quirky indie comedy, another misconception surrounding the film is that there's a gender reversal going on in the dynamic between the two (implicitly hinted at during a pivotal early scene), when it's actually our preconceived notions developed from watching other movies that's challenged. I'm willing to bet there are a lot more guys out there like Tom who do secretly want a commitment and are looking for "THE ONE," but just aren't allowed to show it. Similarly, there are probably just as many Summers who have no desire for a serious relationship and just searching for a good time. And, of course, the reverse is true as well. We've been weened on an unhealthy dose of dumb romantic comedies and stereotypical gender roles for so long that we've had it in our heads how male and female characters are supposed to behave. In that sense, this story re-invents the wheel by simply acknowledging our behavior can sometimes conflict with expectations.

The two leads share what you could almost call a negative chemistry with her being the vessel through which he channels his dreams and goals, attempting to make up for his own self-perceived shortcomings. He's doing all the work in the relationship and even during the good times you see how hard he tries to keep this thing afloat, a sure sign of trouble. It's almost exasperating to watch. He's not exactly in the "friend zone" but he isn't that far off and isn't even close to where he needs to be with her. In the biggest shocker for me, I actually had problems seeing what Tom saw in Summer, which is downright bizarre considering the insanely likable actress playing her. But maybe that's the point. Only Tom's supposed to see it. It's almost as if you took all of Zooey's characters from her previous movies and removed their soulfulness and sensitivity. Her usual quirkiness is dialed way down, as it needed to be for this part. Categorizing Summer as cold and detached isn't far off the mark. At one point she's labeled remarkably "average," but possessing an unmistakable aura that draws you in. And that isn't far off the mark either. In other words, she's an enigma of sorts, and the more we learn about her, the more complicated and inconsistent she seems. Obviously, the toughest part of the character to rationalize is that she isn't a bad person trying to hurt Tom, and that's easier to digest because of the protagonist's own insecurity issues. And the actress chosen to play her.

Casting Zooey Deschanel works on a couple of different levels, but mostly because many guys watching are guilty of holding the actress to same impossible ideal Tom holds Summer. At first, you think Zooey's stretching to play the role because it's so far from what she's done before. But is she? Chances are this character (flaws and all) comes closer to the real person playing her than any of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girls" her many male fans have assumed the actress must be like. Is it actually possible she isn't nearly as zany, flaky, quirky and extroverted as we suspected? That she was really a lot working harder than we thought in all her OTHER roles? This film presents that theory, and it's a good one, painting her previous work in a different light. While I can't go as far as to say she's "playing herself," there's probably more truth in that statement than obsessed Zooey admirers would ever want to believe or admit. Webb likely knew that and selected her as Summer because she'd sting the most. The director uses Zooey's most endearing qualities as a guided missile, aimed directly at the male audiences she's captivated throughout her career. Rarely is our perception of a character so influenced by our knowledge of the actress playing her.

What JGL projects perfectly as Tom is fake confidence. On the outside he seems to be well adjusted and have his act completely together, but on the inside turmoil brews. A pro at playing tortured characters in hard hitting dramas like Brick and The Lookout, Levitt is equally adept at doing the same in a looser way here, while also displaying the comedic chops we remember him having as a child actor. Tom doesn't act like a loser but thinks he's one and by holding Summer on an unattainable pedestal she becomes just as unattainable as he believes her to be, self-fulfilling his own negative prophecy. Of course the viewer can plainly see he's neurotic and wrong, so we wait anxiously for him to catch up to us, which doesn't occur until the final scenes, but by then it's too late (at least for him and Summer). When he punches a jerk hitting on her in the bar it's not to protect her honor as he convinces himself, but because this guy's cutting insult ("HE'S your boyfriend?"). brings his feelings of unworthiness to the surface. Hardly an act of chivalry, you'd see why she's not impressed.

Tom's wise-beyond-her-years 11 year-old little sister (played by a scene-stealing Chloe Grace Moretz) gives sound advice at just the right moments, which would be too cutesy if not for the ironic fact that she has a more realistic grasp on relationships than he does. It's an obvious gimmick, but still serving the themes of the story. When she informs him that just because he and Summer share the same bizarre interests it doesn't make her his soul mate, it's the kind of truthful observation likely to make a lot of guys watching cringe as uncomfortably as he does. His occupation is also key to the plot, as this is the rare film where workplace scenes are handled intelligently. Tom has a fair, understanding boss and cool co-workers willing to help him out. Plus, who wouldn't want to write greeting cards? Why he's unhappy at all, much less having a Jerry Maguire- like office meltdown in the third act (maybe the only scene that feels overly scripted) is clearer when considering it has nothing to do with what he's doing with his life, but what he isn't. Toiling away at a job he doesn't like while projecting his dream of becoming an architect (as well as all his other baggage) onto this one girl, who he hopes will solve all his problems. Ironically, she has just as much baggage, and has gone to the opposite extreme in closing herself off to feeling anything at all.

Summer isn't let off the hook, nor are female audiences approaching this as a date movie or "chick flick." If guys are predisposed to root for Tom because they can relate in some way, girls are equally likely to side with him after years of watching lesser romantic comedies telling them they should root for the geek, underdog, or "nice guy." This film dissects that myth, then blows it to bits. In the third act when Summer's actions arguably cross the line into pure selfishness (just enough, but not too much), it gives permission to females watching to abandon Summer's view and (falsely?) convince themselves they would never in a million years do what she did. You could argue all day and night whether she was engaged before inviting him to the party or it happened during it, and whether her invitation was cruelly insensitive or not, but the end result remains the same. That's why the most memorable character just might be someone we never even see or meet--Summer's mystery fiancee. It's a credit to the writing that even though we don't know his name, what he looks like or even the slightest thing about him, we can still try to guess, and ponder the troublesome possibility he could be someone similar to the guy Tom punched out in the bar.

Far from just gloom and doom, the film excels at capturing that initial feeling when you're first falling for someone and every emotion seems heightened. The morning after Tom beds Summer the funniest, most uplifting scene of the film comes in the form of a Hall & Oates musical number complete with an animated bluebird. Levitt makes the scene soar, making us want to reach through the screen and high-five Tom. There are moments in the movie you think (hope?) along with the protagonist that this could work, like their trip to Ikea where both at least seem to appear to be on the same page at the same time. But they weren't. As a memorable split-screen sequence in the film depicts, this entire situation revolved around EXPECTATIONS and REALITY, with the latter coldly winning out.

It's fitting in a movie that's as much about how we watch movies as it is about a failed relationship, that the key to this one centers around the ending of The Graduate, or rather Tom's "misreading" of it (at least as far as it's possible for someone to misinterpret an open-ended film). A one-sided, reductive reading is probably the better description, as Summer's tragic interpretation could just as easily be categorized as too extreme in the other direction. Yet another example of how the characters' attachment to pop culture isn't just there for window dressing, and in Tom's case, may unhealthily be influencing how he views life. It's the impetus for the break-up but I won't spoil the scene other than to say that nearly everyone will read it differently. And like The Graduate, how someone chooses to see it will probably say more about them than the film. Tom's ending is vaguely hopeful as the idea of fate is touched on, but unlike other movies in the genre, this one's more interested in exploring why people would believe in it than just merely acknowledging its possible existence. Summer may or may not have been "THE ONE" if there is such a thing but the closing minutes hint she probably entered his life as the catalyst for something bigger.

In somewhat of a breakthrough, the script doesn't take sides, presenting a free-thinking female lead who's an agent of action rather than a prize to be won. It acknowledges neither character is blameless, with Levitt and Deschanel's performances filling them with too much complexity for you to completely dislike either. Both have their issues, but at the same time actually seem real, making the same mistakes we would. He didn't get the message, while she was careless with his feelings, but the screenplay cleverly disallows us from viewing the film through the same one-sided prism Tom saw The Graduate. It isn't just about a failed relationship and there's a universality in recognizing that everyone's a "Tom" or a "Summer," or at least a combination of both.. That's not noteworthy until you consider this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. And how many of those ever provoke deep analysis or reveal life truths? Besides being a terrific coming-of age film that breaks formula, (500) Days of Summer also exposes how movies can reflect back at us whatever we want to see.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Funny People

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Running Time: 136 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

I was always fascinated to hear and watch stories about how people carry on with their lives after having a near-death experience. But I never really bought into the idea that you're necessarily "reborn" or become a "new person" as a result of it. Chances are that if your life is loaded with problems only you can fix, almost dying isn't going to wipe them all away. That's the central premise of Judd Apatow's third film, Funny People. That's right, only his THIRD film. I had to double-check that, but it's true. Doesn't it seem like he's made about 15,000 so far? As a writer and producer he probably has, but as strange as it seems, it really is only his third outing in the director's chair. And if recent box office estimates are to be trusted, it's officially his first commercial flop.

When his sophomore effort Knocked Up became a huge hit, I was puzzled what moviegoers found funny and endearing about a nasty, mean-spirited drama that unsuccessfully tried to pass itself off as sophisticated comedy. Now the shoe's on the other foot as I find myself defending the one film of his that has understandably been failing to striking a chord with mainstream audiences. To the relief of many, the days of Apatow indulging himself with nearly two and a half hour cuts have probably come to an end after this. But there's a lot of good news anyway.

Unlike Knocked Up (which this is about a thousand times better than by the way), what's supposed to be funny is funny and what's supposed to be dramatic is dramatic, with the two never mixing uncomfortably. It very much feels like a dramedy, if maybe an overly ambitious one. But at least there's no confusion as to what it's supposed to be. The film is a lot better than you've heard and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if in the coming years it starts to experience a re-evaluation from the same critics and audiences who dismissed it.

Funny People can be broken down into two sections: The BEFORE and the AFTER. When lonely, self-absorbed actor/comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia he falls into a deep depression questioning his life and career choices. Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) a sub shop employee and aspiring stand-up comedian who has to unexpectedly follow George's depressing routine at a nightclub and responds by mocking him. Despite their shaky start, George sees something in the young comedian he likes and hires him as his writer and personal assistant, much to the chagrin of Ira's jealous roomates, aspiring stand-up Leo Keonig (Jonah Hill) and egotistical actor Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), whose recent taste of fame as the star of the new NBC series, Yo Teach! is going straight to his head. That's the BEFORE.

The AFTER comes when George discovers he's been miraculously cured of the disease, a piece of information the studio has curiously gone to great lengths to reveal, perhaps fearing even fewer people would turn out for a comedy they think features Adam Sandler slowly perishing from a leukemia. George uses this new lease on life to re-connect with old flame Laura (Leslie Mann), an ex-actress who will always be better known to him as "the one that got away." But winning her back from husband Clarke (Eric Bana) is a problem since George has come away from his life altering ordeal no less of a jerk than he was before, if not more of one. He still has a long way to go before he can be considered a fully functioning human being capable of a real relationship. Ira is the only person who has George's back, even if he doesn't seem to appreciate it.

Surprisingly, nothing in this film feels forced. Celebrity cameos (from the likes of James Taylor, Eminem, Tom from MySpace and a whole bunch of comedians) and pop culture references are blended in seamlessly. Even more impressively, stand-up comedy is extremely difficult to depict on film in an entertaining way and here we're not only given a (presumably) inside look into that world, but the stand-up material is hilarious. Of all the three Apatow written/directed films this one has the highest percentage of jokes that hit the mark and it's a screenplay filled with clever in-jokes that shouldn't be spoiled.

For a while things are going so perfectly that you don't ever want the movie to end. Of course, you could say that with a running time of almost 140 minutes, it almost never does. There's only one thing that doesn't completely work and while it doesn't completely fail either, it's problematic enough that it starts to become an issue in the third act, especially considering the amount of time allotted to it. Apatow makes a questionable judgement call in asking us to root for George and Laura's potentially rekindled relationship, despite being spawned from desperation and infidelity. But that's not much the problem as it's a reflection of George's immorality, of which only Ira seems able to see. The problem is, save for a couple of flashbacks, we're not given enough background on their relationship to really care about it all that much.

Apatow didn't necessarily craft a role for his wife that's underwritten since she gets plenty of screen time and is given a lot to do, but that's not to say it could have been written better. Sure, we don't want Laura leaving her husband and kids (played by Apatow and Mann's real life daughters) for the selfish George but we don't want her staying with her jerk husband either. This gives us no one to root for and and a host of unlikable people, chief among them Laura for her awful judgment. Luckily, she played by Mann who's able to conceal much of that and I was just so happy to finally see her in a well deserved major role that I hardly noticed the writing flaw. Bana, who was the subject of Knocked Up's most memorable joke, helps save the final act by showing a charisma and gift for comedy we never knew he had. Or at least we wouldn't know he had it from watching Munich, Hulk or Troy. It's a real shocker. Almost as shocking as the fact that Bana used to be a stand-up comedian.

I'm not sure that this is Sandler's best performance but I am positive that George Simmons is my favorite character that Sandler has ever played, mainly because it recalls so much of what I always imagined he's really like. For those like me who grew up watching him on SNL and listening to his early comedy albums it's thrill to see him sending up his own image like this and the incorporation of his early career footage into the film just adds to that authenticity and nostalgia.

It's difficult to discern the game Sandler's playing with us in taking this role, if it's a game at all. Is this some kind of admission of guilt or apology for making the choices he has in his career, despite the fame and success it's brought him? Or is he laughing at us for being stupid enough to enjoy them? Is he in on this joke? We'll never know, but the cruel irony is that after the commercial failure of this film Sandler will once again have to go back to making the same kinds of movies he appears to be mocking himself for in this picture. We criticize his "sell-out" choices but whenever he attempts to stretch with more meaningful work like this we hate him for it. It makes me wonder if George's speech about people expecting too much from him could have come from Sandler himself. Scarier still, he may be right.

As interesting as his performance is, it isn't the best in the film. Rogen's is. Even though many feel as if he's been overexposed of late, he just seems to get better and better with each role he takes. Despite the comedic elements surrounding him, he gives Ira a full-fledged dramatic arc, making his friendship with George the focal point from which everything else in the story bounces off of. Because Rogen's work is subtly present and understated (words I never thought I'd ever use to describe a performance of his), it isn't instantly obvious how well he serves the material. Had another actor been cast in the part this wouldn't have been the same experience at all. And bonus points to Apatow for cleverly incorporating Rogen's recent weight loss into the character's backstory.

As autobiographical a film as this is for Sandler, it feels like it could be even more autobiographical for Apatow, kind of like he was shooting for his own Almost Famous. We knew this guy was a major writing talent when his his TV series Freaks and Geeks was cancelled almost a decade ago, but I don't think anyone (including him) had a clue he would go on to enjoy the kind of success he's had. This movie seems like his way of reconciling that and maybe just stopping for a breather to take it all in.This looks and feels like his first real adult movie and more like the kind of film that would be directed by James L. Brooks and released into theaters during awards season (he even employs Schindler's List and Munich cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ). He really came to play this time. And as oppressive as it's running time might seem to be on paper it didn't FEEL long to me, at least compared to other movies these past few years that have abused their running times.

This picture was on my list of most anticipated films of 2009 not because I thought it would be some kind of masterpiece (which it isn't) but because I know no matter what Apatow does right or wrong it's almost always guaranteed to be more interesting than a lot of what else is out there. Go figure I would enjoy the ugly step-child in his filmography this much. At best, Funny People will have a far longer shelf life than most expect, or at worst, be remembered as a fascinating curiosity in the career of one of comedy's most influential voices.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I Love You, Man

Director: John Hamburg
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jason Seagal, Rashida Jones, J.K. Simmons, Jamie Pressley, Jon Favreau Jane Curtin, Andy Samberg
Running Time: 105 min.

Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I Love You, Man is the type of comedy that surprisingly gets a whole bunch of little details right. Actually, it gets so many details right you almost run the risk of missing something if you don't pay close enough attention. That it accomplishes this is somewhat surprising considering a new Judd Apatow-style comedy is released every other month that covers similar territory as the one that came before it. Even if his name isn't there as either writer, producer, or director (which it isn't in this case), his footprints are all over it.

Each time I expect to tire of the well-worn formula of a man-child being forced to take responsibility and grow up. But I haven't yet. And I think the reason I haven't yet is because each movie seems to have some kind of clever little quirk or hilarious take on a life situation that differentiates it from the rest. In this one, writer/director John Hamburg takes the pitfalls of dating and relationships and cleverly applies them to platonic friendships, with hilarious results.

The plot is formulaic but never feels like it because the writing is so clever and the two leads share such great comedic chemistry onscreen together. Between Rudd and Segal it's almost impossible to choose who gives the more fulfilling performance because both make the film. I've come to expect this kind of greatness each time out with Rudd, but it was Segal who stepped out of his comfort zone a little more to play a character who isn't as goofy as you'd think. And it's that contrast, along with some funny sub-plots and supporting players, that make this an undeniable success.

California real estate agent Peter Klaven (Rudd) seemingly has it all. Newly engaged to his beautiful girlfriend Zooey (The Office's Rashida Jones) and expecting to rake in big bucks closing on Lou Ferrigno's house, things couldn't possibly be going any better. It's just too bad he doesn't have any friends to share it with and as his wedding day quickly approaches he's in danger of walking down the aisle minus a best man. Throughout his life, Peter has always been the consumate "ladies' man," always enjoying the company of women in his life but seemingly unable to forge lasting male friendships.

When his father (J.K. Simmons) and very openly gay brother (Andy Samberg) come up with the idea of setting him up on "man dates" to try to find a best friend. That doesn't work out so well, with Peter losing all hope entirely until he runs into the bizarre and charismatic Sydney Fife (Segal), who's "cougar hunting" for divorcees and scoring free food at his Ferrigno open house. In him he's finally found his friend "soulmate" who introduces him to a whole new world outside his boring, everyday existence. Unfortunately, Sydney's presence, while increasing Peter's confidence, begins to cause a serious rift in his relationship with Zooey.

When the film began, I was kind of unsure of the direction it was going. It doesn't really start to become clear until Peter starts "auditioning" friends, the results of which are not only hysterical, but surprisingly observant and true to life. As you're watching one of his man dates you have a sneaking suspicion that what Peter thinks is happening might differ entirely from what his "date" (played by Thomas Lennon) thinks is going on. But you're still not quite sure. When that suspicion is confirmed, the payoff is priceless. Rudd and Lennon sell the whole thing perfectly. Another classic scene, in which the catchphrase-challenged Peter leaves a voicemail on Sydney's machine we should all recognize since we've all probably left one just like it at some time or another. Hamburg's script knows that, milking the joke for all its worth, making the clever observation that it's sometimes no less difficult to launch a platonic relationship than a romantic one.

The movie is filled with clever sub-plots, most notably the funny dynamic between Peter's dad and brother, a smug, "urinal cake faced" co-worker (played by Rob Huebel) and ANYTHING INVOLVING LOU FERRIGNO and the selling of his home. The choice of Ferrigno for this part was gold and it's hard to imagine any other celebrity working as well in that spot. Every single joke involving him hits the mark, while the script somehow manages to not to mock or ridicule the actor, as can often occur when stars are playing themselves. His agent deserves a raise getting him to appear in this as he comes out of this looking like a million bucks while still supplying many of the films' laughs.

The true success of the film lies in the "bromance" between Peter and Sydney. The characters bring out in one another what the other lacks. Rudd is kind of playing the nervous, doubting Woody Allen or Larry David-type and judging from the commercials I expected Segal to be the sloppy, irresponsible goofball who terrorizes Peter's relationship with his fiancee, not unlike Owen Wilson's character in You, Me and Dupree. But Segal's Sydney is surprisingly smooth and well-adjusted, offering witty life ruminations and encouraging Peter to just be himself. He's not there to just wreck havoc as he would in an inferior slapstick comedy. He's a smart, interesting person who just so happens to be directionless and Segal's performance reflects that. After a while you start to wonder who really needs the friendship more. I found his work here to be more interesting than in last year's Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he wasn't bad in either).

When Sydney brings Peter into his "man cave" there's no turning back. They bond over golf and jam out to Rush, enjoying a real resurgence considering their music is now being anointed by every comedy released these days as the holy grail of classic rock. It's a proclamation even I'm starting to believe is true, though it's sometimes tough to tell whether the films are winking sarcastically at their greatness. It's taken a step further this time as Geddy Lee and company actually appear.

Since this is a rom-com (albeit with a guy slant) we're still required to have the requisite third act crisis with the girl, which is thankfully underplayed and Rashida Jones comes off as so effortlessly cool and likable as the female lead. Of recent comedies, she probably ranks second only to Elizabeth Banks in Zack and Miri in terms of bringing the most to the usually thankless "girlfriend" part. Zooey would represent the perfect wife if only she had heard of Rush and didn't have Jamie Pressley, Jon Favreau and Sarah Burns' mean, irritating characters for friends. They're among the very few faults of the film in that it's nearly impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine someone like her would be spending time with them, then turn around and criticize Peter's new choice of BFF.

Like Role Models before it, this is an Apatow movie through and through regardless of whose name is on the credits. And that's not a bad thing. It makes even more sense when you consider that Hamburg cut his chops as a writer on Apatow's short-lived Fox series, Undeclared. This is an example of a textbook comedy that takes very few wrong steps and while you won't be rolling on the floor, it is consistently enjoyable from beginning to end. It's definitely the kind of movie you easily plop down nine bucks to see at a theater without guilt, and if you waited for DVD, even better. I'm almost tempted to rate it higher since it does almost nothing wrong but it just doesn't reinvent the wheel and isn't the type of movie that holds up on repeated viewings. Although that hardly matters in a genre where the bar is generally set pretty low, despite being raised considerably these past couple of years. It's the performances of Rudd and Segal that really make I Love You, Man worthwhile, extending the streak of smart, edgy rom-coms that find a clever way to appeal to all audiences.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ripping Apart Entertainment Weekly's List of Top 25 Active Directors

A couple of months ago Entertainment Weekly released an absolutely hilarious list of the "Top 25 Active Directors." It wasn't until recently that I had the chance to actually go through it and see just how horrifying it was. In case you haven't heard, EW ceased existing as a relevant publication a couple of years and has recently gone off the deep end in terms of their disposable content, not that it was ever the bastion of journalistic integrity to begin with. It's the kind of magazine you read on the toilet (or maybe flush down it) and has all but become indistinguishable from your US Weekly or OK! Magazine. We should probably just consider ourselves lucky that Michael Bay, McG or Catherine Hardwicke didn't show up on the list.

I'm under no grand delusions that the publication exists for intelligent film commentary and since all lists are completely subjective I approached this one with very low expectations and an open mind. Even still, this has to rank as one of the most laughable movie-related lists I've ever seen. So much so that I had to comment on it. It's just awful, even by their standards. But it's important to look at exactly why.

Their choice of the word "ACTIVE" is curious one, implying that you had to have shown recent results in order to receive consideration for the list. I wholeheartedly agree with that but the problem is that in many cases that was all they looked at and in others they just forgot about it and rewarded certain mainstream filmmakers based on past glory and/or box office receipts. There's more to this than just picking the directors who made the best films since that topic is subjective in itself.

I always thought the fairest way to judge this is by the overall integrity of the filmmakers' body of work--past and present. When you see film, can you tell who's directing it? Do even their bad ones seem to say something important visually and narratively? It shouldn't just be as simple as picking your favorite movies and listing who directed them. The list can be seen here, complete with their somewhat lackluster explanations. Be forewarned though-- it's one of those annoying slide shows. They also ranked the 25 that didn't make the cut, which unsurprisingly included many who should have. Below are my takes on their choices, along with two controversial exclusions I thought were justified.

25. Jon Favreau-This is almost too laughable to talk about and further proof that Iron Man has emerged as one of the most overrated films of the past 5 years. What scares me most about the pick is the possibility that many reading the magazine may actually agree with it. A superhero movie comes along that's slightly above average for a change and everyone's wetting their pants. The further away I move from the movie the less I appreciate about it. Elf? Zathura? Decent films, but please. I suppose I should just be grateful he's in the last spot. By the way, Mickey Rourke looks ridiculous in those photos from Iron Man 2.

24. Pedro Almodóvar- I have not seen a single film this man has directed. Right now you're either you're rolling your eyes in disbelief at how I could have not seen any films from the legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodovar or you're thinking, "Me neither. Never heard of the guy." If it's the latter that's proof that EW just did this as an attempt to add "prestige" to their list and include a foreign filmmaker. I hope not because I've heard nothing but great things about his work. It would be a shame if he was included for the wrong reasons.

23. Paul Greengrass- Having shamefully still not seen any of the Bourne films I'm not the best person to be judging the merits of his inclusion on this list or his placement. But that should hardly matter to EW who I'm sure gave him the spot primarily on the basis of the amount of dough that franchise raked in.

22. Paul Thomas Anderson- Upon seeing the title "Top Active Directors," a couple of images raced through my mind. The first was of Rollergirl. The next was of womanizer Frank Mackey reduced to tears at his dying father's bedside. The last was of Daniel Plainview, drilling into an ocean of oil, his hand emerging from below covered in black. I prefer Fincher slightly for the top spot but it's VERY, VERY close and I wouldn't dare argue with anyone who would rank PTA number one. But they ranked him at... 22? Really? This guy wrangled an Oscar-worthy performance out of Adam Sandler for crying out loud. That has to count for something.

21. Ang Lee- No arguments here, especially in this slot. What I didn't realize until recently was that he hasn't really directed that many films despite being known to American audiences for over a decade now. Regardless, The Ice Storm is one of the '90's greatest and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain proved that accomplishment wasn't a fluke. His Hulk joins Michael Mann's Miami Vice as one of the decade's most intriguing and creatively ambitious commercial failures. It doesn't hurt his standing with me in the slightest.

20. Ron Howard- This is a tough one. As a director he really never doesn't do anything special but he's one of the most consistent on here, with only a few occasional missteps (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, EDtv and from what I've heard the recent Angels & Demons). Sorry, but I loved Willow. When he's on he's really on (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, Parenthood) but too much of his work falls into the middling mainstream category. Most of the directors on here (even those I don't care for) have at least one film that can be considered an Earth-shattering accomplishment. He doesn't and nothing really sets him apart from the pack and I still say his most impressive achievement will always be as as co-creator/producer/narrator of Arrested Development. Nothing he's done in the film world even comes close and that's a testament to the show, not a swipe at his directorial career. 20 is a fair ranking.

19. Clint Eastwood- This is disgusting and I'm not even a huge fan. If this list meant anything at all, diehard devotees of his work (of which there are plenty) would be up in arms at this lowly ranking of 19. Not only at age 79 does he boast one of the most impressive, expansive filmographies of anyone on here (Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, A Perfect World, In the Line of Fire, Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) but he exemplifies the word "active" having made two important cinematic contributions in the past year (Gran Torino, Changeling) with another one already in the can. What were they thinking?

18. Danny Boyle- I'll give credit to them for at least showing restraint with this somewhat plausible #18 ranking for him. Looked at from afar his entire filmography is a mixed bag (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) with some gems thrown in (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). For shame, I still haven't seen Sunshine. Slumdog Millionaire is by far his pinnacle, but unlike Nolan with The Dark Knight, Boyle wouldn't have made this list without his 2008 entry. But he did, and EW didn't really overrate him, which was nice.

17. Darren Aronofsky-Despicable ranking. An atrocity he isn't AT LEAST in the top 10. If looking at the names of some of the filmmakers ranked ahead of him doesn't make you throw up in your mouth a little I don't know what will. But what's so scary about my surprisingly adverse reaction to his placement is that like a few other directors on here I've discounted, he's only made three films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler). That means those three films were more memorable and powerful than many other filmmakers' entire output that's spanned decades. And I don't even LOVE those three movies. But they're distinct and were made by someone with considerably more vision than most on this list. Snubbed by the Academy also, Aronofsky just can't ever seem to catch a break.

16. Zack Snyder- Ha Ha. Obviously, having only directed three films thus far he's done nothing to earn a spot on this list but in his defense I don't think he in any way deserves to be thought of as a hack or mentioned in the same breath as a Michael Bay or a McG, as many have unfairly been doing. His worst film (300) was an emotionally empty, visually dazzling exercise, but even that misfire wasn't exactly forgettable. As Watchmen proved, he obviously has talent and could eventually work his way on to the list, as unlikely as it seems. The editors at EW are idiots for putting him on it now.

15. Sam Raimi- The sell-out of all-time. Awful choice. Probably my least favorite director on here. If he had just retired after the Evil Dead films then maybe they could have made a case for his inclusion. Maybe. But he went on to helm the Spider-Man franchise and ruin the once promising careers of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Recently tried to regain some cred by going horror again with Drag Me to Hell which I have no interest in ever seeing since there's nothing unique about his filmmaking style. Now he's threatening to give us Spider-Man 4. Make it stop. He's ranked at 15 but any number would be too high for me. The anti-Nolan.

14. Judd Apatow- If this were a list of the most influential people in the movie industry today or a list of the most important writers or producers Apatow would be ranked #1 hands down. How he's changed the face of comedy over the past few years can't be undersold and he's one of the few on on here who have real substantial achievements to brag about. But unfortunately, this is a list of the best active DIRECTORS. He's only helmed three films, with his latest, the dramedy epic Funny People just hitting screens now to surprisingly lukewarm notices. Based on his output so far you'd fare better arguing he isn't a great director than he is, with sometimes shaky control over tone and an aversion to the editing room. And even those who think he's a master behind the camera would still have to admit he's a far better writer. But I still understand how they couldn't avoid the temptation to include him. His contributions to comedy so far are immeasurable...just not as a director.

13. Tim Burton- Ask anyone and they'll probably tell you their favorite Burton film is Edward Scissorhands. Good answer, considering he's devoted his entire career to remaking it over and over again (Batman, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd) without stepping out of his comfort zone once. And that's my main problem with him. He's one of a kind but is unable to stretch or trying anything different, or at least hasn't proven yet that he can.

Every film he's made looks exactly the same and plays in exactly the same dark, gothic style featuring a bizarre, misfit protagonist (usually played by the similarly overrated Johnny Depp). The only time he strayed slightly (VERY slightly) from that was with Big Fish. He also has some real junk on his resume, like Sleepy Hollow and that ill-conceived Planet of the Apes remake. Alice in Wonderland just looks like more of the same from him. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

12. David Fincher- You think The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had anything to do with this disrespectful ranking? If so, that's good for a laugh because Fincher's supposedly "weakest" work is leagues better than so-called masterpieces directed by EW's filmmaking legends class here. I'd say Panic Room is his weakest and even that's still better than most of these directors' best. The most talented filmmaker working today and my choice for #1.

11. Guillermo del Toro- Mixed feelings. On one hand it's impossible to argue against the technical prowess of someone who brought us Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy films. On the other, that's really all he's brought us so far and while he's been working since the early 90's he's only just hit his stride now. Most everything else is forgettable (Blade 2) or just unimportant (Mimic). Ranked a little high but with a couple of more films under his belt he'll likely earn this spot sooner than later.

10. Joel and Ethan Coen- A no-brainer. Not even EW couldn't screw this up. A perfect example of filmmakers with their own distinctive storytelling style and unlike some other picks on here their best days don't seem to be behind them. Some of their more recent efforts (No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading) beyond being quite great can stand side by side with the classics (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona) without embarrassment. Most importantly, they're always challenging themselves and going in new directions. No personal favorites of mine but credit where credit is due.

9. James Cameron- Um... I thought we said "ACTIVE." Cameron hasn't made a film in over a decade. I'm all for quantity over quality but let's not get carried away here. He doesn't deserve to be anywhere near this list. And am I the only person not at all looking forward to Avatar?

8. Michael Mann- I really like this pick. It just feels right. "Feels" is actually a great word to use because all of his films have a visually distinct one that only he seems to be able to pull off. I can't name a single one of his films that would rank among my favorites but you have to respect what he brings to the table. Actually could stand to work more but I'll take quality (Heat, Ali, The Insider, Collateral) over quantity any day of the week. Say what you want about Miami Vice (and believe me I have) but it was one of the best SHOT movies of the past 5 years. And it took guts and a lot of artistic ambition for him to do that to his own television series whether you agree with it or not. It's the kind of brave flop other directors on here wish they had the talent to have made. Public Enemies may have hurt his standing in the public's eyes but I haven't seen it yet so can't comment.

7. Quentin Tarantino- He's representative of the kind of choice that makes sense not necessarily because he has the strongest resume on here (far from it), but because even his lesser films contribute something important to the overall body of work. Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and Kill Bill definitely aren't for everyone but no other director on this list could have made them. And this coming from someone who's far from a Tarantino fanboy and thinks he believes his own hype way too often. When you're watching a movie directed by Tarantino YOU JUST KNOW he directed it. The man knows how to tell a story with the camera almost as well as he can with words. That's often overlooked. Great choice.

6. Ridley Scott- I've actually enjoyed most of his films (save for the recent Body of Lies) but nothing he does ever strikes me as truly unique, nor do I feel he has a distinctive voice that greatly differs from other filmmakers, especially in the action genre. An impressive craftsman without a doubt (Alien, Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down are nothing to sneeze at) but worthy of being named one of the top ten working directors today? Probably not. Check out Gladiator if you don't believe me. A strong film, but completely pedestrian.

5. Steven Soderbergh- Interesting selection but I don't agree with it and especially not at #5. After a promising early career he went on autopilot and started turning out safe, unchallenging mainstream fare like Erin Brockovich while occasionally throwing in arty, experimental efforts (Full Frontal, Bubble and the recent The Girlfriend Experience) that yielded mixed results. But what ultimately keeps him off for me are those Ocean's films. Hollywood superficiality at its peak. Takes risks, but not as often as he should. The filmography might be there but the quality isn't. Ranked a bit too high.

4. Christopher Nolan-
I don't have a big problem with this. Sure, #4 may seem a little high but that's only because the rest of the rankings are so screwed up. And as a "of the moment" pick it has a lot more credibility than, say, Danny Boyle. His previous work (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins and The Prestige), while not perfect, support the kind of singular vision that deserves top notch placement on a list like this. That vision was realized in The Dark Knight, making those aforementioned films look even better in hindsight.

3. Martin Scorsese- While not one of my personal favorites, even I can recognize when I don't have a leg to stand on in an argument. I have no case here that he's overranked. One of the all-time greats whose recent work (i.e. The Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed) can stand its ground.

2. Peter Jackson- I shouldn't even be commenting on this since I haven't seen any of The Lord of the Rings films, but what else has he done that warrants a spot this high? You raked in a lot of cash-congrats. Just based on his placement it seems like another crowd pleasing, monetarily motivated pick from EW.

1. Steven Spielberg- I knew they'd do this and I take issue with it not because I dislike Spielberg or his films (how can anyone?) but because the reasoning behind the selection is so dubious when you consider his underwhelming output this past decade. Two words: CRYSTAL SKULL. He needs to get back on the map quickly if he wants to re-claim his throne. And it's a good thing we're judging his work as a director not a producer (Eagle Eye, the Transformers films) or he'd deserve to fall off the list completely. The word "active" does him no favors in evaluating the merits of his #1 ranking. That said, I can't argue he doesn't at least still deserve be in the top 5 or 10.

Didn't Make it and I'm Glad

Spike Lee- The most overrated filmmaker alive. I'm sure many were up in arms when they didn't see his name, feeling this exclusion symbolizes the list's inaccuracy, but I felt like clapping. His films range from preposterously overrated (Do The Right Thing, Inside Man, and just about everything else) to flat-out awful (the recent Miracle at St. Anna). But at least there's one other person as thrilled as I am that he didn't make the list: Spike Lee. Now he has a new excuse to cry racism and blame Clint Eastwood for all his problems. The fact is his films just aren't that great. Yes, of course he's a lot better than some of the choices up there, but just because they didn't deserve to make it doesn't mean he should.

Woody Allen- As much as it pains me to say it, you'd have to go back to the 70's or early '80's to make a strong argument he deserves a place alongside the best active directors, if only because he's been so wildly inconsistent since then. Unlike Lee however, I'm actually a fan of his work and find even his lesser efforts to at least be interesting. It seems we just keep waiting and waiting for the next truly great Woody Allen picture to come along and it never does. It's getting frustrating. For every movie that flirts with greatness (Match Point) there are a dozen others that don't (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Celebrity, Scoop, the list goes on and on). The output is just too uneven to warrant inclusion. A good call by EW.

Should Have Made It (these names jump out at me as outrageous omissions but there are probably more)
Wes Anderson
David Lynch
David Cronenberg
Richard Kelly
Lars Von Trier
Sam Mendes
David Gordon Green
Oliver Stone
Spike Jonze
Gus Van Sant