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I finally review The Master. (And yes, I know at this point, why bother?)

8 May

(I’m really, really late to the game on this one, but I’ve been digesting this movie for months, and waited to watch it a second time before writing. And then waited some more. And some more. So here are my thoughts, way too late for anyone to care.)


The Master is fascinating, unnerving, beguiling and unforgettable. It’s also distressing, irritating, oblique and strange. It’s one of the best films of last year, and yet in the final tally haunted by its own failings. There’s an enigma at the film’s center, and, I suspect, two crucial scenes edited out of the final cut[1].

The movie follows an outcast ex-sailor, Freddy Quell, haunting the early post-war years in 1950s America. His peregrinations carry him from department store photographer to day-laboring farmer. He eventually falls under the sway of an emerging cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. The bulk of the film follows Quell and Dodd as they collide, attract and repel each other. Quell becomes a test case for Dodd, and the efficacy of his methods. Dodd puts Quell through the sometimes silly, sometimes grueling “processing,” of his cult, while expanding his organization against social and legal resistance.

There’s a Freudian subtext permeating the movie, an undercurrent of sexual repulsion and attraction. Throughout Quell holds a kind of animal attraction to the other characters. He’s visually represented by the re-occurring shots of the sea (just as Daniel Plainview’s inner rot in There Will Be Blood is mirrored by the scorched earth and the black tar; Barry Egan’s odd, cosmic innocence in Punch Drunk Love is reflected by prisms of beautiful light, his whimsy by the child’s harpsichord; and the de-personalized sex of the 1970s porn industry in Boogie Nights is grounded in the gears of the moving cameras.) But the image of the sea poses one of the first problems of the picture. What does it say about Quell? Is it his unpredictability, or his immense sexual energy, or the fact that he isn’t a fixed thing, that he has no center? Is he a force of nature or a formless mass? This question is never quite answered—he sort of vacillates between the two—and the film suffers for it.

Quell at work on his infernal homemade liquor.

Quell at work on his infernal homemade liquor.

The film might operate as an existential parable, but Quell is too disturbed to be a stand-in for everyman. His condition is so singular that the movie doesn’t operate with archetypes, not really. So the missing scene—the thing that haunts the movie, as far as I’m concerned, gives it much of its power but also interferes with our understanding of it—gets more and more conspicuous in its absence. It’s gnawing at me. I keep replaying the movie in my mind, looking for clues. (This kind of thing can pay immense dividends; Robert Altman’s Nashville has a major puzzle to it, but there’s an answer if you watch it enough times. Ditto for Mulholland Drive, Taxi Driver, Vertigo, and half a dozen other films.) But The Master resists such interrogation.

The easy read of the movie is to set up Quell as a foil for, and reflection of, Dodd, the charismatic cult leader who controls the people around him but is shackled by his own wild and fabulist claims. Dodd believes in his powers but knows, at least as Hoffman plays him, that the cosmology he’s inventing cannot be true. Yet he must believe it to keep his followers in line. So he’s a prisoner of his own inventions, like some fiction writer kidnapped by his own creations. Just as Quell is a prisoner of his own animalistic urges. With this interpretation, Dodd understands his plight but can do nothing to alter it, while Quell controls nothing in his life, including his own emotions.

Okay, fine, but too tidy and neat; this doppelganger approach can only go so far. For it is how Dodd and Quell are different that makes the movie interesting. Dodd keeps his dark thoughts hidden; Quell overflows with animus and vitriol and shame. They aren’t flipsides of the same coin either. Quell is a sex-obsessed thief, a drunken soldier, a tormented alcoholic with a tiny inner life. His thoughts are his actions, and what he keeps inside seems to be only pain. Dodd is a fabulist, a liar who sees the needs of others and tries to bend their needs to his own purposes. Dodd doesn’t want to be the miserable Quell. Who would? And Quell doesn’t want to be Dodd, hemmed in by the beliefs of his followers.


The closest film to The Master I can think of, and this will strike some as strange, is Lawrence of Arabia. Both are long, careful character studies of deranged minds. Lawrence is sexually confused, violent, sadistic and sociopathic; if you watch the film carefully, you’ll see that most of his emotions are mimicry. He attempts to display the emotions that the other characters are expecting. Lawrence doesn’t understand himself, nor does he fully understand the world. He wishes to be an Arab, but he can’t help but be British. He’s at conflict with himself, and he can’t sublimate his schizoid tendencies.

Freddy Quell is a similar character, only more unhinged (through the constant imbibing of toxic, homemade liquor). He’s incapable of keeping a regular job. Like Lawrence, he’s physically weak, yet somehow strong. He’s motivated by some deep-rooted self-destructive urge. He doesn’t understand himself or the world, floating through post-war society like a child drifting on a not so gentle tide. Like Lawrence, Quell uses violence as a way to communicate, and understand, his own desires.

Hell, Phoenix even kind of looks like O’Toole’s Lawrence, angular, distorted, face in a grimace.

O'Toole as a murderous, half-crazy freak, remembered as a war hero.

O’Toole as a murderous, half-crazy freak, remembered as a war hero.


Phoenix looking haunted, haggard, and sort of like O'Toole.

Phoenix looking haunted, haggard, and sort of like O’Toole, right?

Both films are gorgeous. Both films are crowded at the edges with plot that seems important, but isn’t fully fleshed out. (In Lawrence, the plot is the historical forces at work in Palestine. Here it’s the formation and extension of Scientology. In both the plot is a backdrop to warp, extend, and disturb the main character. The plot acts on and against both characters, as opposed to the other way around.) Arabia obsesses over the punishing beauty of the desert. Master returns over and over to the foamy, sexually charged imagery of the ocean[2]. Both are slow, plodding, meticulous and challenging. Both slow down the viewing sensations, while maintaining inner tension within the characters that translates into discomfort for the audience.

And both films are, in essence, about repressed homosexuality. If you’ve only seen some of Lawrence of Arabia, or if you’ve only read about it, you won’t know what I’m speaking of, but there’s a scene near the end where Lawrence is captured. He’s stripped. His captors mock his pale skin and then pierce his nipples with stabbing knives. (It’s supremely disturbing.) Off-screen, the movie implies he’s raped, subjected to sexual humiliation, tortured in unspeakable ways. The movie also implies that he might enjoy being punished. He never recovers.

The Master has its hidden scenes, too. The first shot of the movie is Quell’s half-concealed face, on what appears to be a few minutes before one of the major Pacific Theatre battles. We never see the battle, or the horrors Quell witnesses.

The two movies draw from the exact same thematic well: sex, war, nature. Masochism, sadism, control. Lawrence ends with T.E. Lawrence’s face hidden in shadow. Master begins with Quell’s helmeted face hunkered down in a ship. Both films appear to scrutinize and observe, but elide as much as they reveal. Both films are about men of war trying to find peace.

The infuriating thing about the professional criticism The Master is that so many learned reviewers missed the central issue in the movie. Critics who see father-son relations are missing the subtext. They watched a different movie.

And the missing scene—if I’m right—is a love scene between Dodd and Quell[3].


Anderson is superb screenwriter. He collaborates with his actors, but doesn’t to my knowledge collaborate with other writers. So his movies often feel in dialogue with each other—he’s built a body of work, like a novelist or composer. The most obvious example of this ongoing dialogue between his films is Magnolia’s operatic largeness in contrast to the compact, short, internalized Punch Drunk Love. The Master feels like an extension of Blood, but it really isn’t. Dodd isn’t Plainview, and neither is Quell. Plainview is bitter, driven, obsessed with money, a man with no past only future, asexual and bitterly aware of his own terrifying flaws. He’s a misanthrope and a monster, obsessed with family but unwilling to risk the emotional pain families inevitably cause. Plainview is ruined by his profession, hollowed out like some dug out old oil well. In another world, perhaps, he might have ended up differently. He chooses his fate, embraces his hatred, and ends up a despicable, hollowed out man.

The story goes that Anderson cobbled together this script from a number of sources, including discarded scenes from There Will Be Blood and anecdotes Jason Robards told him on the set of Magnolia. Anderson then added stories from the early days of Scientology and placed the whole thing in the 1950s post-war milieu. The movie doesn’t feel fractured so much as stitched together. The most powerful scenes, of Quell undergoing grueling psychological programming at the hands of Dodd, don’t fit with the most beautiful shots of Quell as a sailor at the end of the war. And this might be the most beautiful shot in all of cinema[4].

My vote for the most beautiful single shot of the year.

My vote for the most beautiful shot of the year.

The result is a film that feels meticulous yet sloppy. The costumes, the music, and the interiors all feel just right. The scenes are mesmerizing. The acting is superb.

And yet. We’re back to those missing scenes, that hole at the heart of the film. Like Lawrence coming out of the desert, a shimmering figure that somehow loses substance as he comes into view. What draws these two characters together? And what forces them apart? The movie’s answer, given in a flim flam speech at the end, is silly, a bizarre fill-in for the ambiguity both men feel about their mutual attraction.

Like many of his peers (Wes Anderson, Tarantino, Araki) Anderson’s been steeped in the language of film for so long he sometimes feels overly concerned with cinema, and not concerned enough with his storytelling.

Nowhere is this so evident than near the end of The Master when Quell falls asleep in a movie theater. He begins to dream, and in his dream receives a phone call from Dodd. It’s the one scene in the movie that simply does not work. It feels contrived (after the phone call Quell travels to England to have a final confrontation with Dodd), too self-serving and tidy (the epiphany comes in a movie theater!), and beneath the complexity of the rest of the film.

Throughout Anderson flouts many of the golden rules of screenwriting: there’s no real structure; the characters don’t seem to change; the issues aren’t numerated; the point of the whole thing is left up to the viewer. Anderson said in a recent interview, regarding the movie: “The characters don’t figure it out. They start the same and they end the same.” For all his virtuosic skill—and this is the thing that rubs some people the wrong way—Anderson no longer craves the audience’s approval. He’s been freed. But this freedom carries gravitas, and can weigh an artist down. Audience expectations keep a movie structured.

Anderson is undeniably talented with the camera. And he often fixes narrative issues with his visual brio. He’s the best parts of Robert Altman, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, Robert Bresson, Francis Coppola, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He’s rigorous, challenging, entertaining, haunting and revelatory. He’s a synthesis of old and new Hollywood. I love him for this, and you should love him, too.


For all its flaws, the movie is a masterpiece of acting, some of the best performances I’ve seen. Amy Adams is excellent. She plays Dodd’s wife, mousy on the outside but steely, driven, controlling. Hoffman is superb, balancing his character’s self-conscious lying with his self-delusion. But Phoenix delivers a performance that is unhinged, feral, outrageous. He plays the role like some black-hearted animal. He channels Brando (from Last Tango) and Jack Nicholson (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and half a dozen others, but with a dash of untamed wildness that is mostly new. He’s ferocious, demonic, yet deeply wounded. The story from the set is that he kept destroying things during the filming, and director Anderson just kept the camera rolling.

Adams steals every scene in the movie.

Adams is superb, stealing every scene in the movie.

Phoenix didn’t win the best actor award. His performance was too unruly, too disturbed, too personal. There’s only a whiff of mainstream assimilation for his character, and this right at the end of the film.

Hoffman didn’t win either, which was nuts[5]. He’s incredible, both arrogant and also vulnerable, an improvement on Andy Griffith’s very fine performance as a manipulative huckster in Face in the Crowd. He’s cruel one minute, kind the next.

So the best acting of the year was passed over.


The fact that The Master has struggled to find an audience, and Lawrence of Arabia was a success, speaks oodles about moviegoers. Lawrence utilizes a more formal visual language, a longer running time, and is less satisfying as a film.

Still, Lawrence of Arabia is important. There Will Be Blood is important. The Master, somehow, is not.

So is The Master the best movie of this past year? No[6], but Vertigo shouldn’t be considered the best movie of the 20th century, either. They’re too odd, overflowing with too much hinted-at perversity, too concerned with the internal territory novels handle so well. Both auger in despair and hopelessness, detailing shattered lives. But is The Master the most interesting movie I’ve seen this year? Undoubtedly.

[1] Or more likely intentionally left out of the filming process.

[2] Although there’s a great desert scene, too.

[3] A second missing scene, or series of scenes, must involve Quell’s actions in the war. He’s murdered and killed, he’s seen horrible things, and these too inform his madness.

[4] Or perhaps it’s Nicole Kidman’s derriere at the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut.

[5] Although this was the strongest best supporting actor competition in my lifetime.

[6] But it’s oodles better than Argo.


Best movies by decade: The 2000s (21-25)

13 Aug

The story of an infighting family of self-pitying geniuses.

21. Royal Tenenbaums/Shaun of the Dead—Wes Anderson’s last good movie for a while, or perhaps the movie where things begin to go wrong. Bold colors, beautiful designs, eccentric characters and a killer soundtrack, yes, but also mannered acting, offbeat (and off-putting) storytelling and a smugness that feels petulant and unearned. Gene Hackman plays Royal, a sneaky scoundrel exiled from his family of former child prodigies. In an attempt to win them back, he pretends to be dying of cancer. Hackman is superb, a feisty end of career performance, and Angelica Huston is excellent, but it is Alec Baldwin’s narration that is the real wonder. Anderson’s skills are on full display, but it his design acumen that gets him into trouble; the emphasis on style has diminished his storytelling abilities. All of Anderson’s films are interesting, but it isn’t until The Fantastic Mr. Fox that he would fully regain his footing.

Two slacker fools try to navigate a zombie apocalypse.

Shaun of the Dead—Inspired horror comedy that limps along with a slacker’s gait. An underemployed Brit loses his girlfriend due to his inability to grow up. Then a zombie apocalypse hits, and he must try to stay alive, win her back, and lead his ragtag group of friends across a city bloated with the undead. His plan is to hole up in his favorite pub and eke out their survival until the cavalry arrives. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost co-star, and their comic on-screen chemistry is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Hot Fuzz, their second film together, is equally funny, a send-up of action films in the Naked Gun mold (although the movie wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through). An effortless first movie from a very talented bunch of comedians.

The dark and dreary world of America’s first spies.

22. The Good Shepherd/Inglorious Basterds/Punch Drunk Love—Robert DeNiro’s epic character study about one of America’s first spies. Matt Damon plays the title role, a quiet, intelligent spy in the George Smiley mold. The characters are loosely based on real OSS, and later CIA, operatives. Damon is there at the beginning of the American spy apparatus, just at the end of World War II, and the movie follows his moral decline as the job demands more and more compromise. He becomes increasingly paranoid as the job gets nastier and nastier. With his first directorial debut, DeNiro borrowed from Scorsese in the very fine A Bronx Tale. Here, fittingly, he pulls from Coppola, and the feel and sweep of this exquisite spy movie is reminiscent of The Godfather, Part II. (Coppola was originally signed on as the director.) The movie divided critics; some, unaccountably, found it boring. Shaggy and full of ideas.

Murderous counterfactual history at its tawdriest.

Inglorious Basterds—Tarantino had a hell of a decade, first with the Kill Bill movies, followed by Grindhouse, and then this, his war movie about war movies. The Kill Bill movies have a lot going for them, with exceptional fighting sequences and an intriguing mythology of female globe-trotting assassins. But it’s excessively self-involved, a kind of Moebius strip of self-references, and the second movie is too damn long. Grindhouse was a novel concept, two B-movies shown together with a stock set of actors, but the real problem was the budget. Tarantino and Rodriguez should have limited themselves to the same budgetary constraints as the movies they were aping. Instead, you have enormously expensive trash. (The fake previews were great, though, and to be fair, the car chase scenes in Deathproof, Tarantino’s half of the movie, were incredible.) But with Basterds, Tarantino continues to defy—and strangely fulfill—expectations with this fantastical re-imagining of World War II. He sets a crew of tough, special forces Jews into the treacherous world of occupied France. Their enemies are the Nazi high command, in Tarantino’s hands an urbane, swishy and deranged group of dandy killers, embodied in Hans Landa’s performance as the multi-lingual Nazi officer who uses words as the most basic of weapons. A smashing tour through a counterfactual history.

A love story, pulled through some cosmic distortion field.

Punch-Drunk-Love—Paul Thomas Anderson’s lightest movie, a romantic comedy-drama stretched through a strange cosmic distortion field. He pulls the arrested man-child character out of Adam Sandler into a more complex personality, adding damaged layers of sadness to the raging core. His is a short fuse. He comes to loggerheads with an unscrupulous businessman with anger management issues of his own, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman sends some goons to beat up Sandler, Sandler tries to woo Emily Watson, and the whole thing watches somewhere between a farce and a tragicomic episode of the Twilight Zone.

Two friends on a journey to change the world.

23. The Motorcycle Diaries/Pulse—Before he was Che, he was Ernesto, an earnest medical student with the wanderlust bug. The year is 1952, and with his best friend Alberto, Che rides a junker motorcycle on a 3,000-mile trip through South America. That was the plan, anyway, but when the bike breaks down, the two men hitchhike their way through labor camps, copper mines, and a leper colony, picking up odd jobs along the way. They drink, they fight, they woo. Che keeps a diary, and slowly starts to realize the immense inequality, and suffering, of the various South American peoples. The episodes hang together by Che’s burgeoning revolutionary consciousness and the excellent performances from its two leads. A faithful dramatization and a stirring movie. Beautiful stuff.

The terrible dread of being alone in the universe.

Pulse—A new, peculiarly Japanese mental illness appeared in the late 90s, where young people would lock themselves into their rooms and refuse to come out. Pulse takes this very real social problem and turns on the scares. Japanese horror—nicknamed J-horror—starting in the 90s, took on dark new dimensions, combining elements of social decay, Buddhist religious notions, mass communication and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The horror often stems from social isolation, loneliness. A whole batch of these appeared, kick-started by Ringu, and they operate with a disturbing techno-occultic language. Ghosts inhabit televisions, videos, telephones, and the world wide web. They don’t kill you; they destroy your capacity to live. They cause suicidal loneliness, they turn your heart to ice. Pulse is the scariest of the lot, a terrifying vision of the pointlessness of the universe, a kind of 21st century The King in Yellow. Terrifying stuff.

Pitch-perfect comedy from the Katherine Hepburn school.

24. Bridget Jones’s Diary/All About Lily Chou-Chou/Munich—The lightest of movie confections, held together by a strong cast, a witty script, and on-point, unfussy direction. Renee Zellwegger, prone to over-acting, is excellent as an always-out-of-love British working woman tripping through a variety of romantic misadventures. She’s a self-involved, neurotic bumbler, infatuating with detailing her own physical shortcomings. Two men vie for her affections, Daniel Cleaver, played by the rakish Hugh Grant, and Mark Darcy, by the stalwart Colin Firth. Daniel is playful and witty, Mark serious and dour. Far from the riots, the social unrest, the brutal bullying and the soccer hooligans, London here is a type of upscale restaurant and shopping scene. A very funny, pleasant and quaint movie.

A boy left alone to the vagaries of a bullying existence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou—Japan has a thriving film culture, but it can be unwelcoming to outsiders. They have their own genres, and an acting style influenced by Kabuki. The result is a film culture that is, at times, insulated and strange. I often feel that I’m missing the context when I watch Japanese movies; I often feel I’m watching a sequel to a movie I’ve never seen. There’s a perverse undercurrent to their cinema, which gives their movies an edge. I’ve seen boatloads of these—I went through a Japanese period in the mid-2000s—but I think Lily Chou-Chou is the best, better even than Battle Royale—itself a very influential Lord of the Flies murderous romp. (While Departures, the best foreign film of 2008, is diverting treacle.) Chou-Chou is about a group of young boys obsessed with a pop star Lily Chou-Chou. The boys exist in a dreary twilight, half-child and half-adult. Hoshino is a popular, handsome student, who outside of school pimps out his classmates and humiliates his friends. Yuichi is a decent, if disaffected outsider who falls under Hoshino’s influence, and must endure a series of increasingly cruel tribulations. Told in a disjointed, intentionally confusing style, the film is equal parts genius and blowhard, a riveting yet strange meditation that like a complicated mandala disappears and withers into nothingness when examined too closely. Still, we must look, and upon looking, weep for the future. Kids these days, they be scary.

The killer with a mission and a conscience.

Munich—Steven Spielberg is a dynamo, a one-man moviemaking machine. He produces, develops his own projects, and directs an astonishing output of films. His technical abilities are superior, as is his understanding of how stories play out on screen. He only occasionally missteps, and even his weaker movies are well made. He operates in the old studio mold; he makes lots of movies and there’s quality control in the product. In the oughts, he made Catch Me if You Can; Minority Report; A.I.; War of the Worlds; The Terminal; and this, the best of the lot. Munich tells the truish story of a group of Mossad agents who are sent to assassinate those responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The five assassins travel all over the world in their quest, falling into a complex web of international spies from all over the world. Eric Bana is very good as the leader of the group, grappling with the moral consequences of his increasingly immoral actions. A sinister feeling that very bad people run the world begins to sink in. Paranoia and confusion, misinformation and deceit, the band of loyal Israelis are soon immersed in the impossibility of their quest; they cannot murder their way to any kind of peace or safety. Bana carries the weight of the movie in his face, and the supporting cast, including Geoffrey Rush and Claran Hinds, are also very good. The visuals are excellent, but it’s a different, rougher Spielberg, coming to terms with the two American wars in the only way he knows how, on celluloid. Tony Kushner wrote the script. The movie would be much higher on my list, save for a snaking sideplot that is implausible and distracting. Like A History of Violence, Munich is interested in cause and effect, how violence spirals out of control. In a way it’s interrogating itself, pondering the morality of its own message.

A near-perfect comedy about a young man attempting to reverse history and encase the world in amber.

25. Goodbye Lenin/Pan’s Labyrinth/Moscow, Belgium —A young man’s mother—a dedicated East German revolutionary—falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall. To protect her fragile heart from the shock of the enormous changes taking place in her beloved city, her son attempts to recreate the Soviet-era world. This very funny, and ultimately very touching, movie has great set pieces, such as how he explains an enormous Coke billboard outside her window, and the amount of work he must put in to maintain the illusion exhausts him. The very talented Daniel Bruhl plays the son, and he had a great decade with parts in The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, among others. One of those great, effortless movies, where everything sort of clicks and unfolds, and a pleasure to watch over and over again.

An evil flesh-eater lurking beneath the world; above, the Spanish fascists are so much worse.

Pan’s Labyrinth—Guillermo Del Toro is a talented director in love with old school special effects. He also loves monsters, Victorian-era horror novels, ghosts and ghouls and goblins and adventure stories. He’s a pulp scholar, a well-read connoisseur of weird fiction. His first film, The Devil’s Backbone, is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The key to the movie is that the ghosts are murdered young boys, whereas the actual villain is a fascist sympathizer. Del Toro’s message is clear: all the phantasms in the world are less dangerous than one evil man. Hellboy is very good, a funny, faithful adaptation of the comic. (Hellboy II is bad; Del Toro let his love of fantastic pageantry and monster building interfere with a good idea.) But Pan’s Labyrinth is a continuation of Backbone’s theme, and Del Toro’s best movie. A young girl’s mother marries a fascist commander of a Spanish prison camp. The bookish little girl, dropped into a wretched existence, escapes into a dark inner world of mythological creatures, quests and spells. In that world, she must complete three gruesome tasks to become princess. The best sequence in the movie involves the little girl fleeing an eyeless, bleached white creature in a baroque chamber beneath the earth. The movie stays focused on the all-too-human cruelties of the girl’s stepfather, however. By the movie’s end, the flesh-eating creatures feel harmless in contrast. Del Toro makes argument with cleverness and panache: We are infinitely worse than our worst nightmares.

The touching, funny story of an oddball relationship sprung up in the most unlikely of places.

Moscow, Belgium—A little gem of a little movie, the story of love found in the unlikeliest of places. Matty, a sour-faced, bitter woman raising two children while her husband has an affair with a much younger woman, begins to re-engage with life when she meets a bullish, younger truck driver named Johnny. Improbably, the two begin a love affair, and soon are in something akin to love. Barbara Sarafian, the actress playing Matty, gives an incredible performance of a woman slowly remembering how to feel. A very fine comic drama filmed in Belgium of all places. A warm, open-hearted movie made with skill and plenty of funny lines, this is the type of romantic comedy Hollywood used to be able to produce all the time. A Flemish Two for the Seesaw.

Honorable mention: Sexy Beast; Memento; The Wrestler; Love, Actually; The Pianist; Almost Famous; High Fidelity; Chicago; Million Dollar Baby; Grindhouse; Revanche; Half Nelson; Battle Royale; Nicholas Nickleby; Sweet Sixteen; The Battle for Algiers; Adventureland

(Intro and part 1 here; parts 2 and 3 here and here)