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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Oh... hello.

My name is Adam. Perhaps you've seen me kicking around the site, reviewing the odd (sometimes very odd) DVD, interviewing filmmakers, and generally pretending to be a credible journalist. I doubt that I fooled any of you.

Anyway, welcome to The Bottom Shelf, a regular column of recommendations, ramblings and reflections from yours truly (the alliteration comes at no extra cost). Why The Bottom Shelf? Well, I'm the first to admit that I missed out on the golden age of movie theatres. But I was in on the ground floor of the video revolution. I can still remember the first time I rented a top-loading VCR roughly the size of Samsonite luggage. The first movie I rented was The Road Warrior, a movie I'd been dying to see when it played theatrically. I had fairly liberal parents and could usually convince somebody somewhere to take me to any R-rated movie I could make a case for. But for some reason, The Road Warrior was off limits.

After I watched that tape, things were never quite the same. Suddenly, an entire universe of taboo cinema was at my fingertips. And it didn't take me too many trips to the video store before I realized that the really weird stuff, the forgotten stepchildren of the movie industry, were unceremoniously dumped on the bottom shelf. So that's where I spent most of my time. Close to the ground, dusting off the movies nobody else wanted to watch. Sometimes I saw real garbage that deserved to be forgotten. Sometimes I found a buried treasure. But no matter what, I never regretted watching any of 'em.

So what can you expect from The Bottom Shelf here at The Bits? Well, you probably won't see too many reviews of movies like xXx or Signs. They seem to be doing just fine without me giving them seals of approval or disapproval. You will see discussions about movies that might be falling through the cracks. Foreign films, genre flicks, independent productions, direct-to-video fodder, that kind of thing. Sometimes I'll talk about newer releases, sometimes I'll set the Wayback Machine and write about discs that have been available for years. The general rule of thumb will be if a DVD has a multi-million dollar ad campaign behind it, you won't find it here.

Except for this week.

Seeing as how the new year is still just a-bornin', I thought I'd kick things off with a look back at 2002. After all, you just can't stop somebody who writes about movies from coming up with a top ten list. Besides, I'd already done this list before Bill asked me to do a column, so because writers are inherently lazy, this was an obvious choice for my first column. If you like, look at this as a list of discs you should look for in 2003. It's my way of introducing myself, letting you know in advance what my tastes are and what kind of moron you're dealing with here.


Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! - This earns a mention on the strength of its title alone, which may be the greatest movie title in history. But besides that, there were a score of movies this year that seemed designed to make me feel like I was nine years old again... from Star Wars Episode II to Spider-Man Episode I. Nothing came as close as this. For 90 minutes, I was back in the Chief Theatre in Bemidji, Minnesota, watching Godzilla on Monster Island. God love the Japanese.


Chicago - OK, nobody's less happy than I am that a big, splashy musical has wound up on my ten best list for the second year in a row. And believe you me, I went into Chicago prepared to hate it. But director Rob Marshall and his cast won me over. This isn't a post-modern reinvention of the movie musical like Moulin Rouge. It's more like a lost movie from the 1950's, with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones filling the spiked heels of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. I've got nothing against a crowdpleaser when it's done as well as this. Chicago is one of the few movies this year that I would have been willing to see again almost immediately.


Punch-Drunk Love - Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker of tremendous ambition and often that ambition manifests itself in movies of almost oppressive length. Happily, Punch-Drunk Love moves right along and at a mere 98 minutes, never outlives its welcome. This is a charming, giddily romantic fable that manages to do not one, but two things previously considered cinematic impossibilities. First, it channels Adam Sandler's manic energy into a touching, fully realized performance. Second, and perhaps more impressive, it rescues the weirdly affecting Shelley Duvall song He Needs Me from the morass of Robert Altman's Popeye. Combined with Jon Brion's percussive score, Punch-Drunk Love features the most eclectic, and yet the most effective, music of the year.


The Happiness of the Katakuris - For the past couple of years, American fans of Asian cinema have slowly discovered the voluminous work of Takashi Miike. Prolific in a way that makes Steven Soderbergh's two movies a year look downright somnambulant, Miike churns out movie after movie and the only common thread is they couldn't be more different. Whether it's action, horror or something completely indescribable, Miike's movies inevitably spiral off into wild, unpredictable directions. The Happiness of the Katakuris is my favorite Miike movie so far, simply because it's the most exuberantly, playfully bizarre. A horror/musical about an inn whose guests end up dying, punctuated by unexpected moments of claymation, The Happiness of the Katakuris is the work of a director in love with the endless possibilities of film. If you haven't enjoyed a Miike movie yet, wait five minutes and he'll probably have a new one out.


Sunshine State - Forget Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, and the rest of the usual suspects. John Sayles is the Great American Filmmaker. Following his portraits of West Virginia (Matewan), Texas (Lone Star) and Alaska (Limbo), Sayles sets his sights on Florida. The result is another of Sayles' richly textured, novelistic ensemble pieces. Despite the fact that she delivers an award-worthy performance on a weekly basis on The Sopranos, Edie Falco is a strangely neglected actress. If there were any justice in the world, her turn in Sunshine State would change that. But if there really were justice in the world, John Sayles would be allowed to make a movie like this for every one of the 50 states.


Heaven - When I first heard that Tom Tykwer was going to direct Heaven, a screenplay co-written by the late, great Krysztof Kieslowski, I was cautiously optimistic. Tykwer shares Kieslowski's interest in lives shaped by coincidence and random acts of fate but is a much, much different filmmaker. Just compare Kieslowski's Blind Chance with Tykwer's Run Lola Run and you'll see what I mean. And Heaven isn't quite a home run. It isn't the seamless blend of story, image and music that you'll find in Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, nor is it as weirdly compelling as Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior. But in its own way, Heaven is a quietly powerful film with moments of brilliance and amazing performances by both the always-great Cate Blanchett and the rarely-great Giovanni Ribisi. Unceremoniously abandoned by Miramax, Heaven may be the most underrated film of the year.


Adaptation - While I'd enjoyed and admired Being John Malkovich, I also felt that the first collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze was a bit overrated. So I was extremely surprised by how much I enjoyed their follow-up. As bizarre a movie as I've ever seen get something like a mainstream release, Adaptation twists in and out of itself and reality so much, it's pointless to try to guess where one starts and the other stops. But the real pleasure of Adaptation is Nicolas Cage, delivering two of his best performances since dropping out of acting to become the world's unlikeliest action hero. If Cage decides to go back to high-octane action flicks after this, I hope his next project is Donald Kaufman's The Thr3e.


About Schmidt - This year, Jack Nicholson won his zillionth, much-deserved Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Drama in this film. Accepting the trophy, Jack said, "I don't know whether to be honored or ashamed, 'cause I thought we were making a comedy." Indeed, this is either one of the funniest dramas or one of the most moving comedies of all time. But I'm with Jack on this one. In the space of just three movies, director/co-writer Alexander Payne has become a first-class satirist. All of his films are heartfelt, expertly observed reflections of Midwestern life. About Schmidt is his best so far. And as for Nicholson, just when you're ready to write him off as Hollywood's best self-parody, he once again shows just what he's capable of. Warren Schmidt might be the best, most fully realized character he's ever crafted. Within minutes, you forget the decades worth of baggage Nicholson carries with him into every film. You're no longer watching Jack Nicholson. You're watching Warren Schmidt. For most movie stars, that would be a major achievement. For a walking caricature like Nicholson, it's a minor miracle.


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - It seems pretty clear by now that in the fullness of time, Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy will be seen as one of the crowning achievements of epic cinema. For now, just marvel at the individual parts before they become subsumed into a larger picture. And there is much to admire here, from the breathtaking battle of Helm's Deep to the astonishing Gollum, the most perfectly realized computer-generated character in film to date. But perhaps the greatest achievement of The Two Towers is its pace. I can't think of a more episodic film but Jackson mixes the pot so perfectly, you never regret cutting away from one story to another. To screw this up, Jackson would have to do something like conclude The Return of the King with the fellowship grinning and slapping backs around a big bonfire while anthropomorphic teddy bears caper and sing. But who'd be dumb enough to end a much beloved trilogy with something that stupid?


The Pianist - For the past twenty years or so, Roman Polanski has been playing to an increasingly tiny audience of die-hard devotees such as myself. Odds are probably pretty good that you missed out on the twisted delights of Bitter Moon or the considerably more modest pleasures of The Ninth Gate (and I don't care what anybody says, The Ninth Gate is a perfectly entertaining little horror movie). But if, for whatever reason, you choose to pass on The Pianist, you are skipping one of the very best movies of this new decade and the single finest movie on the Holocaust ever. Anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Adrien Brody, The Pianist is the only film I've ever seen that stirs the same feelings as reading literature by Holocaust survivors. Quite simply, this is one of the best movies ever made by one of the medium's unsung masters.


Bowling for Columbine - It isn't often that the funniest movie of the year is also the most important. But that's exactly the case with Michael Moore's biting, brilliant non-fiction film. The animated history of America is hands-down the funniest sequence in movies this year. But at the same time, Moore is posing a question that needed to be asked. Don't mistake this for a documentary. This is a purely subjective filmed essay that raises its points by any means necessary. Bowling for Columbine may outrage you. It may confirm your worst suspicions about America and Americans. As the saying goes, you'll laugh, you'll cry. But above all else, Bowling for Columbine will force you to think about issues that you might previously have thought were cut and dried.

Adam Jahnke

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