Friday, January 29, 2010

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 31: Taste Fisted Flesh!

As I mentioned the other day, I've really dropped the ball the last couple of weeks on the Gil Kane punches, so I'm going to try to do some catch-up here with this glorious page from Warlock 3 (Dec. 1972), written by Mike Friedrich and inked by Tom Sutton.

Friedrich's dialogue on this whole page is just fantastic--it seems written specifically to match the dynamic action of Gil Kane's style. I know the next time I punch somebody, I'm going to open with "Taste fisted flesh and feel defeat drip down your throat!"

I'd like to thank pal Bully at Comics Oughtta Be Fun for sending me the scan of that great page. And I'd like to take this opportunity to invite any readers who might have favorite Gil Kane punches to send in scans--any contributions will be greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blackhawk Wingsdays: The Fabulous Blackhawk Freaks!

Back in October, during the Halloween Countdown, I covered the lead story in Blackhawk 199, where the Blackhawks fight a band of mutated alien mummy insects. Between Blackhawk 196 and 199, the team did away with their classic "black-but-looks-blue" leather uniforms for something more colorful and modern. This was, of course, a huge mistake--one of many that will plague this series until its cancellation several years later. (It was in issue 197, to be exact--an issue that is, unfortunately, not in my collection. Neither is 198, which features a new origin for the Blackhawks. I need to get my hands on those comics!)

The second story in issue 199 anticipates one of the more dramatic changes to come in the series, as three of the Blackhawks are turned into super-powered freaks in "The Fabulous Blackhawk Freaks!" (Which, unfortunately, does not involve the Blackhawks teaming up with Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, though that would have been awesome.)

As the story opens, the Blackhawks stumble across some bizarre landscaping being done in some random, unnamed forest: an antigravity beam is tearing up trees. Blackhawk splits the team up into two groups: Andre, Hendrickson, and Chop-Chop head off in one direction, and Blackhawk, Stanislaus, Chuck, and Olaf go in the other. Blackhawk's team is quickly confronted by one of the innumerable alien races that artist Dick Dillin created during his long career:

That team is then captured in a giant bubble that inspires Chuck to blurt out one of his many catch-phrases:

They break the bubble by rolling it down a hill. Meanwhile, the other team has found the aliens' ship, and, in typical Blackhawk fashion, they monkey with shit until it gets them in trouble:

The two teams reunite in order to compare notes, and we get to see that the alien gas wasn't as harmless as they thought. First, Hendrickson inflates into a giant flying Dutchman:

(Note: I didn't make up that corny pun--it's actually in the story.)

Andre anticipates Bootsy Collins:

And Chop-Chop anticipates Major League Baseball over the past 15 years or so:

Everyone quickly returns to normal after demonstrating their new powers, and Blackhawk decides to delay worrying about that in favor of dealing with the immediate problem: the new alien threat. To this end, Blackhawk splits the team up yet again, since that worked so well last time. Now, though, he goes off alone to find the aliens, while everyone else goes off to destroy the alien ship.

When Blackhawk finds the aliens, however, he discovers that they are not the threat his xenophobic prejudices caused him to think they were. They are, in fact, here on Earth to dispose of a dangerous bomb that crashed on the planet. They were planning on hauling it away into space before it detonated.

Blackhawk tries to warn the other team, but his cheap-ass radio is busted, and, in a rare instance of efficacy, the other members of the team have actually accomplished their mission, using Chop-Chop's new strength to wreck the ship.

Now they need a new plan to get the bomb off the planet. Blackhawk hastily puts together a half-assed strategy to carry the bomb on Hendrickson's inflatable back and then have Chop-Chop launch the bomb into space once Hendy achieves his maximum height.

And, of course, they fuck this up:

Andre tries to stretch out and reach his leader, but Blackhawk's velocity is too fast, and he's soon out of reach. And, again as usual, he has to save himself while his useless team members sit and watch.

At least Hendrickson proves useful.

The bomb then goes off harmlessly in the stratosphere, while back on Earth, the new powers have worn off, and the Blackhawks now have to fix the aliens' spaceship manually.

By the way, I know I've dropped the ball lately on the Gil Kane punches, but I plan to get a couple up in the next few days in order to get back on schedule. My apologies for that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blackhawk Wingsdays: Five Broken Guns!

Looks like I accidentally forgot to do a Gil Kane punch yesterday, so I'll be sure to put one up tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm going to stay on track with Blackhawk Wingsdays, today's installment featuring the second story from Blackhawk 196: "Five Broken Guns!"

One of the things I love about this era of Blackhawk comics is when the series would occasionally remind readers that this used to be a slam-bang war comic by digging back into the "World War II Combat Diary." This particular story, written by France Herron and drawn by Jack Sparling and Chuck Cuidera, is no exception.

The Blackhawks parachute into Nazi-occupied France in order to destroy a strategically important bridge, but the second they land, they come under unexpected Nazi fire.

Man, I love the dialogue in this story.

The boys are pinned down, and they need to come up with a plan in order to save their own bacon and complete the mission. Blackhawk's solution: pretend that Andre and Stan were killed in a grenade blast, allowing the duo to flank the Nazis and destroy their Tiger Tank that's on its way.

The Nazis increase the heat by calling in a mortar attack on the Blackhawks' trench, and realizing the team can't hold this position for long, Blackhawk extends his ruse by pretending that Chuck, Olaf, and Hendrickson are dead, too. The three are then sent to join their teammates in the tank attack.

However, the tank keeps coming, and Blackhawk is having more and more difficulty holding his position. So, in typical Blackhawk style, the man takes matters into his own hands.

Just to be clear on what happens here: Blackhawk slides under the tank, attaches the dynamite, and then single-handedly blows up both the tank and the bridge--a job Blackhawk had previously sent 5 men to do. This is a pretty awesome sequence right here.

And where were the other Blackhawks while all this was going down?

A likely story. As usual, the rest of the team drops the ball and leaves Blackhawk to do all the dirty work.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Blackhawk Wingsday: A Firing Squad for Blackhawk

As I mentioned last week, Blackhawk 196 (May 1964) marks a major change in the series, as new writers Arnold Drake and France Herron took the team in a new direction (Dick Dillin and Chuck Cuidera remain on as artists). With this issue, the Blackhawks would no longer be involved in generic crimefighting on the domestic front; instead, their adventures would involve international espionage as they go to work for a secret UN agency under the lead of the mysterious and faceless Mr. Cipher.

Hey, Andre, be careful who you call "Frog"; that can boomerang on you.

The story begins with the team arriving at UN Headquarters after they have been called in for a special meeting with Mr. Cipher, who has a mission for them: they must go to the South American country of San Lajunta to capture a Japanese scientist named Sessue Yokomata, who is wanted for war crimes and believed to be making fantastic weapons for the brutal dictator of San Lajunta, Gonzagas.

Note another major change to the series evident in this panel: Hendrickson has been given some Grecian Formula.

Among Yokomata's fantastic machines are a giant eye and some kind of octopus machine, which we will see later.

The Blackhawks agree to take the mission, and they prepare to parachute into San Lajunta under cover of night. Andre, as usual, clearly has his mind in the game, as all he does is complain about the smell of the camouflage paint. Luckily for Andre, he is always prepared:

You see, Chop-Chop, Andre is always on the hunt for the ladies.

The team breaks their way in to Yokomata's camp, and, disguised in radiation suits, they take some quick films of the joint. However, they are quickly discovered, and Yokomata launches his giant bloodshot eye:

The team rendezvous at the assembly point, only to find their leader missing. They go back to the camp and discover a shocking surprise:

Blackhawk is now working for the enemy! Also, Yokomata is actually their old wartime enemy, Colonel Frog. It's nice to see that, while the series is being taken in a new direction, the creators haven't lost sight of the series' core quality: unapologetic, blatant racism. Especially against Asians.

It turns out, Yokomata/Colonel Frog was only pretending to work for Gonzagas, but in reality, the Japanese scientist was using the dictator's resources to create machines to take over San Lajunta himself.

The Blackhawks attack Frog's infernal devices, and they succeed in destroying the octopus thingy and freeing Blackhawk. However, they don't realize until it's too late that Blackhawk is still under the sway of Colonel Frog, and they are led into a trap that causes them to become Frog's slaves as well.

Blackhawk even makes an announcement to the world that Yokomata has taken over San Lajunta, and they are now making their way to conquer the neighboring country of Carbonda. Meanwhile, word gets back to Mr. Cipher that the team has failed, so he orders an attack on the Blackhawks.

Blackhawk fights off the attack in another of Frog's experimental aircraft. While attempting to escape, Blackhawk takes the plane high into the stratosphere, but that causes his cabin pressure to drop dramatically. Blackhawk passes out, but recovers himself in time to correct the dive. He also discovers that the pressure drop somehow caused him to be cleaned out of Frog's hypnotic gas, and he is now completely in control of himself.

Frog, however, has figured out that Blackhawk is free, so he sics the other team members on him. Blackhawk manages to lure the team into a pressure chamber that's being used to prepare soldiers for space missions, and he frees them of the gas's influence as well.

Nonetheless, they pretend to still be under Frog's control, and Frog wants them to execute Blackhawk by firing squad. Then, things get complicated:

Don't fret. Blackhawk isn't dead--he had another backup plan, which involved creating a makeshift bulletproof vest out of the octopus's windshield. Blackhawk then shoots Yokomata in the hand and captures the would-be dicator.

When the team returns to the US, they find that Mr. Cipher is very pleased with their success, despite the fact that they stumbled on to it through dumb luck.

Thus, a new status quo is established for the Blackhawks, as they become agents of the UN.

This story is likely written by Arnold Drake, and a second story in the issue, which flashes back to World War II, is by France Herron. More changes were to come for the team in the following months, beginning a long period of shakeups where DC editorial tried to figure out what to do with this series. Reconfiguring the team as Cold War spies, though, makes a lot of sense, and it definitely gives the series a clear purpose that it had been missing for about ten years.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Gil Kane Punch of the Week 30: What's Batman Got that I Haven't?

The Gil Kane Punch took last week off while I was compiling the year-end/decade-end lists (and I still have one more list to do). So, to make up for lost time, here's a special super-sized edition of the Gil Kane Punch of the Week!

In "Peril of the Powerless Green Lantern!" from Green Lantern 58 (Jan. 1968, reprinted in Showcase Presents Green Lantern Vol. 3)-- written by Gardner Fox, pencilled by Gil Kane, and inked by Sid Greene--the Guardians of the Universe remove Hal Jordan's power ring and force him to take a vacation after some erratic emotional behavior threatens his role as a galactic law enforcement officer. The absence of a power ring, however, does not stop Hal from finding some action:

While confronting one gang, the thugs quickly recognize that GL is sans power ring, so they all gang up on them, but Hal takes four of them down with one "muscle-cracking heave," to quote Gardner Fox's purple prose.

With this next move, though, I don't even know how it would work physically:

You would have to be extra bendy to simultaneously grab two guys by the head and kick them in the guts. But there it is.

Missing his normal powers, GL has to rely on his basic fighting skills and brute strength, causing him to channel Batman. While asking the eternal question, WWBD?, Hal turns introspective and starts to make some broader comparisons between himself and the Dark Knight:

I also want to point out, earlier in this story, Hal spends a page and a half beating the shit out of a bear. I'm going to be spending some more time with Green Lantern 58 over the coming weeks, when I'll be sure to share the awesome experience of the Gil Kane Bear Punch!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blackhawk Wingsdays: Blackie Makes a Comment on the Cold Weather that's Currently Gripping the Nation

As I mentioned in the last Blackhawk Wingsday post, the Blackhawks' mascot, Blackie, was given an education and consciousness in the stories, so that he would often come to the team's rescue when they needed his help. As his character developed in the story, he was also occasionally given his own one-page humor strips, drawn by the great Henry Boltinoff, who was responsible for many of the humor strips that ran in 60s DC Comics.

In this strip, from Blackhawk 196, Blackie just happens to be hanging out in the woods when an escaped con comes by, and the hawk decides to take matters into his own hands...or beak.

This con must have a load of confidence that the cops he escaped from are incompetent, because I can't imagine it would be all that difficult to follow his tracks in the snow all the way to the cave.

Also, Blackie is kind of lucky that his plan worked. I mean, instead of rushing off to jail to get warm, the con could have broken into a nearby farmhouse and taken a family hostage or something. There are a lot of ways this whole thing could have gone really bad.

This strip is not the only thing going on in this issue, however. Blackhawk 196 is an important turning point in this series, so I will be spending a lot of time on it in the next few weeks. For one, the creators start getting credited on a regular basis. Also, the Blackhawks get a new ongoing mission that helps define the team better than the random crime fighters that they had been for many years. But all that will have to wait until next week.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dr. K's 10 Favorite Comics of 2009!

After covering my favorite movies of the decade, I'm now moving on to my favorite superhero comics of the year. I'll have one more list this week with my favorite original graphic novels of the year coming up later.

First, though, a couple of things not on this list that probably should be. This year, I switched to trades on Invincible Iron Man and The Incredible Hercules, mainly because I found that I was getting more enjoyment out of the series reading complete story arcs, while finding it much less satisfying to follow these series from month to month. Also, when Marvel switched both Incredible Hercules and Agents of Atlas to biweekly schedules, it just became too cost-prohibitive to keep following both series. But, as it stands, I haven't read the 2009 issues of Iron Man and Herc, so they didn't make my list, though they probably would have otherwise.

Another Marvel series that ranked highly last year fell off the list: Captain America. I think the regular issues of this series were good enough this year to make the list, but I've been disappointed with the Reborn miniseries, which has been moving too slow to get to a fairly inevitable conclusion. And now that the series has been extended an issue for no good reason--compressing the early chapters to hit all the important story points in five issues would have been the preferable route--I'm inclined to leave Cap off my list this time.

Also, I toyed with the idea of putting Wednesday Comics in the number 10 spot, as several of the strips, including Kamandi, Strange Adventures, Metamorpho, and the Flash were among the best comics I read this year, but taken as a whole, there were enough weaker strips, like Wonder Woman, Superman, and the Teen Titans, to shift the balance.

Anyway, here's the list of my ten favorite superhero comics of the year, in reverse order:

10. Captain Britain and MI13

One trend you'll see on this list is good series that were cancelled this year. I'm not really going to speculate much on the market forces that caused these series to fail, but it was disappointing to see several awesome series that were heading in interesting directions get the axe. One of these was Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk's Captain Britain and MI13, which had in 2009 a great storyline about Dracula's attempt to take over England from his base on the moon. This series was filled with crazy ideas from Paul Cornell, who spun this book out of his Pete Wisdom miniseries from a couple of years ago. One thing I loved about this series, and what made it fun to read from month to month, was how Cornell would put the team into situations from which it seemed impossible to escape. Then, we'd find out later that Pete Wisdom had the whole thing under control all along, and it didn't feel like cheating. Also, each character on the team had their own individual subplots which were prematurely stopped when the series was cancelled with issue 15. I do hope that we get to see Cornell return to these characters in 2010.

9. Dominic Fortune

I've been a Howard Chaykin fan since American Flagg! first came out and I was way too young to be reading it. This year's Dominic Fortune miniseries from Marvel's Max imprint felt like it came straight from that era, as if Chaykin had not missed a beat. Fortune, a pulp-era mercenary that Chaykin created for Marvel back in the 70s, is the prototype for most later Chaykin heroes, and it hits all the points one would expect with the creator: randy, oversexed hero; beautiful women; nice period detail; and anti-Semitic villain bent on destroying America. This series may, in fact, be nothing new from Chaykin, but it's still fun to watch a master do what he does best.

8. Madame Xanadu

This series made my list last year, and it's still going strong this year, with the conclusion of the opening story arc, another drawn by the great Michael Wm. Kaluta, and a current arc set in the 50s, with the return of artist Amy Reeder Hadley. Writer Matt Wagner is getting to play in the larger playground of DC's mystical heroes, which is normally off-limits in the Vertigo line, so it feels like this series could easily fit into the DC universe proper. The Kaluta story even reunited Wagner with the Golden Age Sandman, which was nice to see for any fan of Sandman Mystery Theatre. The current storyline feels a bit like "What if Betty Draper from Mad Men were were possessed by Morgaine le Fey?" which, on its own, is a great hook for a story. And even though Wagner is playing out these stories in long arcs (the first went 10 issues, and the current one is promised to go at least 8), it's still a series that holds my interest from month to month. So, while I've switched to trades on almost every other Vertigo book, I'm still keeping this on my pull list.

7. Booster Gold

After Geoff Johns and Jeff Katz left this book following the first year, original creator Dan Jurgens has really kept this series going, maintaining a fun, high-adventure tone to the book. If readers are looking for fun superhero comics from DC, this is the best there is, with the hero solving time-related problems throughout the history of the DC universe. And, as an added bonus, Matt Sturges and Mike Norton are doing a great job with the Blue Beetle co-feature, maintaining the momentum Sturges had built when that regular series was cancelled last year (though this co-feature is said to be ending soon). I'm also a big fan of Dan Jurgens's art--few artists do classic, dynamic action as well as Jurgens.

6. Agents of Atlas

This is another series cancelled too early, though Marvel has done a lot to keep this property alive, with X-Men and Avengers crossover miniseries and guest appearances in other books. With his work on this series and the miniseries that preceded it, Jeff Parker is on my list of writers whose work I follow no matter what. With this series, Parker has created a team book that's fun to read because the team gets along with each other so well, and the series doesn't have to rely on annoying antagonism between team members to create artificial tension. I also enjoyed how this series fit in so well with the overall Dark Reign storyline going on in the Marvel universe,with the Atlas Corporation pissing off Norman Osborn after intentionally botching an arms deal. I hope that Marvel's attempts to generate interest in these characters pays off, because I'd love to see this series come back for another go.

Also, I would add, this series introduced me to the work of artist Gabriel Hardman, who has since done some bang-up work for Marvel.

5. The Mighty

The last of the prematurely cancelled series, and the one that probably had the least chance of surviving from the get-go. There have been a lot of Superman analogs over the past few years, including good work that Mark Waid is doing at Boom!, but The Mighty felt like it could be the premise for an awesome TV series, and writers Peter Tomasi and Keith Champagne paced it as such, starting with a fantastic first issue that read like a great pilot episode and had me hooked from the get-go. This was the one series that I couldn't wait to read from month to month because the writers kept ending each issue with an unbelievable cliffhanger while also creating a slow-burn of tension throughout the series. We start to get the inkling early on that something is not right with Alpha One, the world's only superhero, and as more and more information is revealed about just how screwed up he is, the more the reader is left wondering about how this story gets resolved. In the years to come, this will be one series that readers will be looking for in dollar bins, as it makes for a very satisfying 12 issues of comics.

I'd also point out that artist Chris Samnee has done a kick-ass job on the art, seamlessly taking over from orignal artist Peter Snejberg. Samnee's clean style makes Alpha One look like a classic superhero, which adds to the story's intensity when we find out that he's anything but. Samnee is another artist that I will be following in 2010, and I hope his profile increases from this great work.

4. Fantastic Four

Growing up, I was more of a DC reader than a Marvel one, so I don't tend to have nostalgic attachments to Marvel characters. However, Marvel has been luring me over to their comics more and more due to the strength of the writers they've been putting on their books. In addition to Matt Fraction on Iron Man, one of the best match-ups this year has been Jonathan Hickman on Fantastic Four (Hickman is also doing a great job on Secret Warriors, though that book has been a bit bogged down in continuity from the Avengers books in recent issues, making it difficult to follow on its own.). Following a great Dark Reign: Fantastic Four miniseries, in which Hickman laid the groundwork for his run on the regular series, Hickman has focused in on the family element of the team. One of the biggest surprises of that focus is how much fun Franklin and Val are--Hickman gets these kids as kids, instead of as precocious adults, even though Val is technically smarter than any character in this book. In addition, the first "Solve Everything" arc had some great ideas involving the multiversal team of Reed Richardses, and the setup for the long haul on this series seems promising.

3. The Unwritten

Mike Carey and Peter Gross's The Unwritten feels like the natural successor of the great supernatural books from Vertigo. So far, it's teased out just enough information about what is going on in the life of Tommy Taylor--the son of the writer of a popular children's series that looks a lot like Harry Potter--to keep things interesting and allay confusion. I also like how Carey has structured this series around story arcs that are punctuated by single issues that reveal the impact of the story's overall conspiracy on the history of literature. This series combines the best parts of Sandman and Fables, as well as Carey and Gross's other great series, Lucifer. In that sense, this series fills a gap in the Vertigo line, and I hope this becomes the next popular franchise from there, as Carey's premise seems to have unlimited potential.

2. Batman and Robin

Much has already been said about the fact that Bruce Wayne is missing from the main Batman titles, yet this year has seen some fantastic Batman comics nonetheless (I would include here Judd Winick's run on the main Batman title, where he capitalized on the interesting dynamic between Alfred and Dick Grayson that has developed out of the absence of Bruce Wayne while also showing how easy it could be for some of Batman's major villains to realize that a new Batman was in the costume). Grant Morrison showed just how much potential entertainment there could be in having a more fun-loving Batman teaming up with a darker, more intense Robin. I'm also enjoying the heck out of all the new villains Morrison has created for Batman so far. In addition, Frank Quitely's art on the first three issues shows a dynamism and experimentation that pushes his work to new heights. In fact, it is only Philip Tan's rather problematic art on the second arc that keeps this book out of the number one spot.

1. Detective Comics

Years from now, we're going to be talking about Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams III's Batwoman series as one of the high points of the superhero genre. Williams's art is frankly amazing here, and Rucka is writing stories that capitalize on the artist's incredible design sense and his ability to change styles to suit the tone and action of a given scene (also, Dave Stewart's coloring is a perfect fit for Williams's art, seamlessly shifting along with the artist's style changes). It was a bold move on DC's part to turn over its flagship title to this character, but in doing so, they have helped create a work of lasting importance and are giving it a larger audience than it might have had on its own (though I am looking forward to the promised Batwoman regular series to come).

The Question backup, with nice art by Cully Hamner has also been a great read. I had previously been disappointed with the Renee Montoya incarnation of this character, but this story finally taps into the character's potential. Rucka proves with this comic that he's great with writing stories that fit his artist's strengths, and Cully Hamner draws some great fight sequences. With these two stories running in each issue, Detective Comics is simply the best comic on the market right now.

Feel free to comment on some of the comics you liked this year, especially if it's something I didn't pick up!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dr. K's Ten Favorite Movies of the Twenty-First Century!

Over the next week or so, I'm going to indulge in one of those New Year activities that having a blog affords me: top ten lists. My first list involves a fairly big task I've been thinking about for the past month or so: my favorite movies of the decade from 2000-2009.

I normally don't do annual film lists because I live in an area where the most acclaimed movies of the year don't arrive in theaters until January or February, if they arrive at all before DVD release. Plus, this year, I just didn't see that many new movies.

In comprising my best-of-the-century-so-far list, I put together a short list of films that I thought could make the list. So, before I get to the top ten, here's a list of films that didn't make it, in no particular order:

Shaun of the Dead, Syriana, Mulholland Drive, The Departed, Being John Malkovich, 28 Days Later, The Lives of Others, Star Trek, Iron Man, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Lost in Translation, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, Gosford Park, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Blackhawk Down, The Woman Chaser, Role Models, Le Petit Lieutenant, All the Real Girls, and Lantana.

Two movies popped on and off the list, tempting me to cheat by calling a tie or two. In fact, both of the movies would have made the list if I had not suddenly remembered two other movies at the last minute. Amélie and City of God, therefore, deserve some special mention here. I'm a total sucker for Amélie, despite the fact that I know I'm being emotionally manipulated the whole time. And, with City of God, if I just watched the movie a few more times, it would probably creep up on my list. As a film teacher, I often get students and colleagues approaching me about films they recently saw, and no film of the last few years seems to have inspired such ecstatic proselytizing as City of God.

With that out of the way , here's the list in reverse order:

10. Michael Clayton
In my grumpy old man moments, I like to imagine a world in which Hollywood made more movies that catered to an intelligent, adult audience like Michael Clayton does. The movie feels like what movies would be like if the Hollywood blockbuster era never happened, and you could draw a straight line from the 70s movies of Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby, and so on to this. Tony Gilroy takes what could easily be an inspiring TV-movie plot and turns it into a smart movie, helped along by some amazing performances. I could also spend a lot of time just praising George Clooney's career choices throughout the decade because, more than any other actor, he's making movies that I want to see.

9. Inglourious Basterds
I went into this movie expecting to see Brad Pitt lead a bunch of Jewish soldiers in killing Nazis for three hours, and I would have been perfectly happy seeing that movie. But "that movie" is actually the Allies equivalent of Nation's Pride, the Nazi propaganda film-within-the-film of Inglourious Basterds. Instead, Quentin Tarantino gives us a suspenseful, multilayered narrative that capitalizes on the promised maturity of Jackie Brown, while also satisfying the need to see some Nazis get killed.

8. Caché (Hidden)
Michael Haneke is a filmmaker who normally angers me despite the fact that I respect the commentaries he often makes on voyeurism and violence (see both versions of Funny Games). However, in this tightly wound thriller, he makes the viewer think about his or her complicity in what happens on-screen without the excessive didacticism that tries to prove that we are all bad people. Instead, the violent scene at the crux of this movie and the near-overwhelming sense of tension that builds up to it and follows it manage to be shocking to the most jaded audience. And if one can bear a return visit, the film rewards multiple viewings with more "hidden" information about the relations between these characters who have such a tragic impact on each others' lives. After seeing this movie for the first time, I've sensed a shift in the way I respond to film violence, and the way it genuinely accomplishes its tension highlights the artifice of most contemporary thrillers.

7. Brick
I love the film noir genre, and I especially enjoy seeing how the genre gets revised from generation to generation. Brick, a noir film set in a contemporary high school but featuring dialogue that seems to come straight from the classic film noir cycle of the 40s and 50s, seems to be a perfect example of what could be done to move the genre forward while still keeping a nostalgic eye on the past. On my first viewing, I watched the movie twice in a row, just luxuriating in the fabulous, sharp dialogue. I really want to see more movies like this. Also, this movie contains one of the most inspired casting choices of the decade: Richard "Shaft" Roundtree plays the high school principal.

6. Oldboy
Unlike other movies on this list, Oldboy is a movie I've only watched once, and I'm perfectly fine with that. The plot, about a man who is held prisoner for 15 years and no apparent reason and then seeks revenge on his captor, is a blast, and director Park Chan-wook choreographs some of the best action scenes of the decade. But it's the last 30 minutes or so, where the mysteries of the plot start to get revealed, that had me shaking my head in astonishment as I couldn't believe what was happening, even though it made perfect sense in the world that Park created.

5. There Will Be Blood
I would cite my experience seeing this movie as the best film-going experience I had this decade. I saw it on a Thursday night--the very last screening of the film at the local theater. And I was the only one there. That allowed me to be uninhibited in my vocal responses to the film. But beyond that experience, later repeat viewings have proven that my initial appreciation wasn't wrong. It's over the top in every way, and Paul Thomas Anderson does have problems creating likeable characters, but none of that really detracts from the quality of this film, which is anchored by the best performance of the decade.

4. Children of Men
There were a lot of apocalyptic films made this decade, but most imagined a singular, catastrophic disaster bringing about the end of civilization. Children of Men imagines the end coming slowly and painfully through a world-wide fertility crisis. The world of 2027 that director Alfonso Cuaròn imagines also looks like an authentic world of the future, with technology only slightly more advanced than ours but still recognizeable. Alfonso Cuaròn also created two long takes that are among the most amazing put on film, and he uses his technical mastery in furtherance of a compelling, exciting, and moving story. I love showing this movie to students because they often come away from it with a sense that a movie can be both action-packed and intelligent, contrary to much of their experience.

3. The Dark Knight
A lot of the movies on this list are here partially because they represent the type of movie I'd like to see more of, or, more specifically, that I hope they mark the beginning of trends that change certain genres or inspire future filmmakers. But I really hope that's true of The Dark Knight: I wish that every big summer tentpole movie could be exciting while also not requiring the audience to leave their brains at the door (I would also mention that Star Trek accomplishes this, as well). Also, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm totally in the tank for Batman, and if I were really honest with myself, I'd put this at number 1.

2. No Country for Old Men
I love pretty much everything the Coen brothers have done this decade, but No Country for Old Men transcends their normal greatness. I just eat this movie up every time I watch it, and I particularly appreciate the bold choices the Coens made to leave some of the major climactic scenes off-screen, trusting the viewer to know exactly what happened without needing to see it. Also, Javier Bardem makes me both laugh and squirm whenever he's onscreen in this film. And though I know a lot of viewers hate it, I really love the ending.

1. In the Mood for Love
Another criterion I used in making this list was if the movie created a unique emotional experience that I had never felt in a movie before. To be honest, that often involved a reaction to movie violence. Wong Kar Wai's 2000 meditation on forbidden love and guilt, however, just wrecks me in a way that no other movie has. And I think it's a testament to the film's emotional power and authenticity that, every time I see it, I desperately hope things will work out differently for Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow.

I love everything about this movie: the 60s Hong Kong milieu, the costumes, the music, the cinematography (especially the way in which the main characters' spouses are never shown), and the outstanding, touching performances by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. At its heart, In the Mood for Love is a romantic movie about restraint and denial, which are subjects rarely broached in romances.

Up next: the top superhero comics of 2009!