Friday, October 8, 2010

Best of 2010 So Far - Fall Update

Although not a popular opinion, I maintain that this has been a good year for cinema. Of the almost fifty 2010 U.S. releases I've seen this year, I'd venture to say that about half of them are very good films. What makes it even more positive for me is that my two most anticipated films of the year, Aronofsky's Black Swan and the Coens' True Grit, have yet to be released.

While I can't wait to see those films, there have already been ten films this year that I really love. Instead of keeping an ongoing list of ranked films throughout the year, I've gone with a list with five tiers and films listed alphabetically within each tier. Occasionally I'll move a film from on tier to another, but for the most part this allows me to keep a totally open mind about the films throughout the year, and will allow hopefully a more honest end-of-year ranking when I put that list together in February. I'm detailing my process just to explain that the only films I have in my top tier are films that I love, and had a visceral reaction to.

Of these ten films, I wrote about the following films back in May: The Ghost Writer, Kick-Ass, Shutter Island, and The Square.

One quick note: I find comparing a film to multiple similar films an effective method of relaying the mood, themes, and overall "feel" of a film without giving away too many specific plot details. It helps of course if the reader has seen the films to which I'm comparing, but if so, I believe a lot can be relayed in those comparisons, without writing five paragraphs on each film, and keeping it spoiler free. With that said, here are the remaining six films that I consider to be the best of the year so far, in alphabetical order:

The American
Clooney is pretty brilliant in this small, slow-paced thriller set almost entirely in a small Italian village, which is practically a character itself. His character is a hit-man who wants a fresh start and takes on one last job; very cliché, but Clooney brings a quiet, paranoid persona to this character that I found compelling throughout. The action scenes are almost entirely in the trailer, but they work very well paced throughout this otherwise contemplative film. I don't want to give away any major plot points, but I will say that The American is a perfect marriage between my favorite film of 2008, In Bruges, and Jim Jarmusch's over-earnest The Limits of Control. I don't think this movie will appeal to everyone, but as long as you aren't expecting a Jason Bourne film, The American can take you on a scenic, satisfying ride.

Animal Kingdom
Winner of the audience prize at Sundance, this Australian film from first time director David Michod is a crime drama about a teenage boy named Josh, played by first time actor James Frecheville, who is forced to live with his grandmother and uncles after his mother's death. We quickly learn that his entire family seams to be a part of a previously successful bank robbing gang that are now under constant surveillance, and obviously in the twilight of their criminal careers. He had avoided this lifestyle up to this point because his mother was not on speaking terms with his grandmother. Now, thrust in the midst of their turmoil, he is forced to find his place among or against them, lest he become just another casualty, collateral damage to their destructive way of life. Animal Kingdom is essentially Goodfellas, with a modern, less romantic view of criminal behavior, comparable to last year's terrific crime film Gommorah. An excellent entry into the genre, and worthy of the high praise and lofty comparisons. With The Square and Animal Kingdom already this year, they got something good cooking in the land down under.

Bong Joon-Ho is to Korean film what the Coen brothers are to American film. He brings dark humor and quirky characters to tense genre films with astounding effect. His Memories of Murder is one of my favorite films of the last decade, and he has yet to disappoint in the least. Mother is probably my second favorite of his films, behind Memories of Murder. It features an astounding performance from Kim Hye-ja as the title character who is desperate in her attempt to clear the name of her mentally handicapped son who has been accused of murder. Her undying , and at times unsettling devotion to her son leads her on a journey that I certainly was not expecting. The opening scene of the film sets the stage for the unpredictable nature of this film, and the end scene perfectly encapsulates it in a profound way. With Mother, Bong Joon-Ho has joined the ranks of directors whose films I await with much anticipation.

The Secret in Their Eyes
Although I've tried to keep myself from prematurely assigning ranks to films this year, I really think this film moved me more than any other so far. It is a beautifully shot film, although as with Mother, I can't wait to see it on Blu-ray, as the theater I saw it at doesn't have the best projectors. Set in Argentina, The Secret in Their Eyes is a murder mystery told from the present day perspective of a retired police agent writing a novel, as well as through flashbacks to when he was on the case decades earlier. In addition to being a murder mystery, it's also a love story that touches on themes of friendship, revenge, and justice. This film won the Oscar earlier this year for best foreign language film over the highly touted A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Watching the ceremony, I was skeptical of the Academy's choice, but now having seen this masterful film, I can truly say they got it right.

The Social Network
The Social Network was the most hyped film of 2010 to this point, besides Inception, and it's said to be an early Oscar front-runner for many categories, including best picture. The critics are in love with this film, and it's not hard to see why. While I'm not ready to declare it a masterpiece or the film that defines our generation, I was thoroughly entertained and enthralled throughout. Basically, every aspect of this film is expertly, if not masterfully done, and I agree that the film deserves a nomination is pretty much every category. Aaron Sorkin delivered a pitch perfect script filled with witty, hilarious, scathing, rapid fire dialogue. David Fincher's direction is tight and the pacing is blazing fast, especially considering many of the scenes are deposition testimonies and furious typing. Jesse Eisenberg is spot on as a quick-witted, incredibly smart, but socially inept Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Even the score from Trent Reznor is top notch and ties everything together with it's pulsing rhythms and electronic melodies. Of these eleven films that are my favorite for 2010 so far, this is the film I connected with on a visceral and emotional level the least. However, it is so entertaining and well made that I'm pretty sure it will be among my favorites at the end of the year.

Toy Story 3
If it wasn't for other Pixar films, I could say that Toy Story 3 is the best animated film in over a decade. Instead, it's the best animated film since Up, which is the best animated film since Ratatouille... you get the idea. These guys are money in the bank, both literally and in terms of consistent quality of film making. Toy Story 3 takes the characters we love from this beloved series to some pretty dark places. It can be argued that the plot structure is a little too similar to Toy Story 2, but it improves on it in almost every way. If you're one of the few people who haven't seen it, I'll keep it vague, but there is a climactic scene towards the end of the film that had me on the edge of my seat, with my heart in my throat and a tear in my eye. It's that powerful. It was a magical end to a nearly perfect trilogy, and one of the best films of the year for sure.

Those are the films that I consider the best of 2010 so far. What films would you have on your own list? I'll go ahead and throw in a list of films that just missed the cut. As usual, I reserve the right to change my mind before the end of the year.
  • Cyrus
  • Fish Tank
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • Inception
  • The Kids are Alright
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  • The Town
  • A Prophet
  • Winter's Bone

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shutter Island vs. Inception

SPOILER WARNING - This entire post contains plot details for both films.

Why am I comparing these two particular films? First, they are two of the best studio films to be released in 2010. Second, both films are from highly loved and respected directors, and both films were highly anticipated by film lovers. Third, both films feature Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading role. It doesn't stop there, however, and the more interesting similarities began to resonate with me while watching Inception and while thinking about it over the next few days.

In Shutter Island, Leo plays Teddy, a duly appointed Federal Marshall who is supposedly sent to an asylum on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient. We learn during the course of the film that "Teddy" is actually a patient, Andrew, at the asylum and is really trapped in an alternate persona, which is his way of escaping the horrific memories and the guilt he feels for the death of his wife and children. Before the death of his family and his admittance to the asylum, he had actually been a Federal Marshall. He had seen obvious signs of his wife's derangement when she had nearly killed them both by burning down their apartment, but he had chosen to ignore them out of fear of what would happen to her and denial. He loved his wife, and he convinced himself that she only needed a change of scenery, and that she wouldn't really ever hurt herself or her family. Obviously he was wrong, and the result of his lack of action was his wife drowning their children, and he, in a fit of despair having found the children drowned, killing his wife.

Everything that takes place during the film is an elaborate facade put on by the head doctor, played by Ben Kingsley, the staff and the inmates in hopes that Andrew will snap out of it and be cured permanently. There are a few different views, but my interpretation of the ending (and I believe the film supports this, although it is different from the book's ending) is that the experiment worked. Andrew snaps out of it and then fakes a re-lapse, because at this point he wants a lobotomy. He knows that this is the only way to be released from his overwhelming guilt and painful memories.

In Inception, Leo plays Cobb, a criminal "extractor" who earns a living by infiltrating peoples' dreams and stealing their secrets. His ultimate goal is to find a way to return to his kids in America without having to go to prison for the alleged murder of his wife, Mal. He was supposedly framed for her murder, by Mal herself, before she committed suicide. Cobb is now haunted by his wife in his own dreams and subconscious because of the guilt he feels for her death.

According to the film there are multiple levels of dreams (dreams within dreams) and eventually you can enter what they refer to as "limbo." While in limbo, the person feels as if enormous amounts of time have gone by, while only a few moments have elapsed in the real world. While exploring how far they could go in their dreams together, Cobb and Mal entered limbo and spent what felt like fifty years together. The only way to get out of limbo is to realize that you are not in "reality," and then essentially kill yourself. This is where "inception" comes in. What this essentially means is that an idea is placed in the subconscious of a person, through the infiltration of their dreams. The trick is making them think it was their own idea. Leo found a way to make Mal doubt that limbo was reality (by messing with her "totem," more on that later), and together they killed themselves by letting a train run over their heads. The problem is, that even when back in reality Mal doubted that it was, in fact, reality. The inception performed by Cobb had infected her mind so that she could no longer distinguish what was real or not, thus her suicide, and Cobb's guilt. This is another glaring similarity with Shutter Island: The character having to overcome the guilt causing (directly or indirectly) the death of his wife and being separated (permanently or impermanently) from his kids.

So, the owner of a large energy corporation hires him to perform inception on the leader of a larger competitor. The purpose of this particular inception is to get this guy to dissolve his corporate empire, and their way of achieving this is by changing his perception of his recently deceased father. OK, but who cares about competing energy corporations? I know I don't. Well the crux of the matter is that the man who hires Cobb for this "one last job" has promised that he can make a phone call and clear Cobb's name completely, so that Cobb can be with his children again in America.

Another important plot point is that Cobb has a top, which he refers to as a "totem," the purpose of which is to let him know if he is in someone else's dream or not, because only he knows the weight and feel of it, and evidently the top spins forever while in a dream. At the end of the film, Cobb is seemingly rejoined with his kids according to plan, but Nolan teases the audience by having Cobb spin the top on the table, then walk out to see his kids (whose faces he can finally see) without looking back at the spinning top. Nolan then shows the top spin and barely start to wobble before cutting to the end title screen. Was Cobb in "reality?" Was he still in limbo? There are more theories on this film than I care to discuss, but a popular consent is that it doesn't matter if he was in a dream, limbo, or reality. The fact that he obviously experienced catharsis and was able to let go of his crazy, guilt-ridden, sub-conscious "projection" of his wife and focus on being with his kids; this is supposedly the point.

My problem with Inception is that through all the rules and mazes and back stories and trickery, I never felt emotionally invested in Cobb, his mission, his relationship with his wife, or his connection to his kids. It's not for Leo's lack of acting prowess, but I just don't think it was ever there on the page. Nolan is a master of giving the audience moments of awe and by developing intricate narratives that are like mazes. He also creates some incredible visuals by using mostly practical effects and blending them seamlessly with limited amounts of CGI. There is one scene in particular, in which he creates the illusion of zero gravity, without CGI, and it is, in my onion, brilliantly filmed. In his craft I do not doubt him, but in developing characters with real, human emotions that are open to empathy from the audience, I simply haven't experienced it in any of his films, save possibly Memento. The fact that he himself wrote the script undeniably contributed to it being even more noticeable in this film.

Shutter Island on the other hand is not nearly as intricate as Inception, but I felt Andrew's struggle and I felt his pain, and I felt his catharsis at the end. It is certainly a result of the quality of the source material (a novel written by Dennis Lehane), but let's not sell Scorsese short. He gives us some incredibly dark hallucination/dream/flashback sequences that I found much more effective in their simplicity than the elaborate dream worlds of Inception. Scorsese and his brilliant director of photography, Robert Richardson, give us some of the most haunting and well shot scenes I've seen in a while, such as the flash-back to the firing squad in which the American soldiers execute a long line of German soldiers. The most haunting scene in the film is towards the end, when we see what happened the day that Andrew came home and found his kids' dead bodies in the pond and his wife acting as if everything is fine. It's shot is such a clear and steady manner, contrasting the earlier hallucinations and flashbacks, letting the audience realize the awful truth of what happened as Andrew confronts it again for the final time.

There was no scene like this in Inception, nothing to let the audience in on what is real or a dream. This leads many to believe that the entire film is a dream, that nothing is "reality," as we know it, but rather an analogy for film making and each member of the team represents a a collaborator on a film crew. While I find this interesting on a certain level, I still do not relate to the story in the way it is presented on a visceral level. Great art is not just spectacle and illusion, but comments on the human experience and affects us on an deeper level than mere thrills and trickery. For my money, Shutter Island is a better film and more affective work of art. However, both of these films deserve to be seen and together would make a fantastic double feature once Inception comes out on Blu-ray.

I'll leave you with my own interpretation of Inception: Cobb is merely another alternate persona inside Andrew's head (yes, the same Andrew from Shutter Island), although instead of acting out his elaborate plots in reality, he is forced to entertain his illusions in his subconscious, having been subject to a violent lobotomy. Even in his damaged mind, he still battles with the guilt of his murdered wife and seeks any way possible to be reunited with his children. At the end of the film, he truly does achieve catharsis and closure, the peaceful release of which allows him to let go and ultimately die. Walking through that door to his children is his entranceway into the afterlife, where time does not pass, and where he will no longer feel the pain of guilt, loss, or disease.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

2010 So Far

As of today I've only seen fifteen 2010 films so far, but I have enjoyed every one of them to some extent. Here is a sentence or two on each film, starting with the film I enjoyed the least and ending with my favorite of the year thus far. That said, I do reserve the right to change my mind before the end of the year!

Hot Tub Time Machine
While mildly enjoyable and funny, I was pretty surprised to see the largely positive critical reception this movie received. It is exactly what it looks like: a raunchy 'R' rated comedy with an 1980's theme. The characters are razor thin and the plot doesn't go anywhere meaningful or rewarding in any way. The best part of the film is a running gag involving a character who has one arm in the present day and two arms in the 1980's. Watching Rob Corddry's character anticipate the severing of the limb is quite funny. It was good for a night out with the guys, but that's about as far as I'd try to sell Hot Tub Time Machine.

I was really looking forward to this latest effort from Noah Baumbach as I am a huge fan of his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Greenberg features some incredible, honest performances from Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig, but not much else. The story centers on a lonely, bitter, 40-year-old man who comes to LA to house-sit for his brother and "just do nothing for a while" after having a nervous breakdown. This could have been a more interesting character study if there had been any redeeming qualities in this character to latch onto. As there were not, this film keeps the audience at a distance and removes any chance of us connecting with the movie, just as Roger Greenberg can't connect with people.

This is what it is. A nature doc featuring the ocean and the life within. Extraordinary footage of the most famous monsters of the deep and some you've never seen. I prefer Earth because I seem to remember there being more of a narrative through-line, however, both films are great for what they are.

The Book of Eli
This latest movie from Denzel Washington is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic genre featuring more of a western theme. Denzel is the main reason to see this, as he elevates whatever movie he's in, and the action scenes. The story isn't bad either, and while the twist is a bit far fetched, it's still pretty cool and I'm really glad that it went where it did as opposed to the alternative. Sorry for the vagueness, but it's worth not spoiling.

The Edge of Darkness
The return of the Mel. I love Mel Gibson, so I was cautiously hoping this film would be good. While this is based on a complex political thriller mini-series from Great Britain, the film seems to get bogged down a little in the plot details, probably because it doesn't have the time to treat the story with the care and detail of the series. Where this movie works is when Mel stops being a careful detective and starts being a pissed off dad taking revenge for his daughter's murder. He is true to form and I look forward to his next project, whether acting or directing.

Iron Man 2
This film barely missed my top ten most anticipated films of 2010 list, mostly because I didn't think it could live up to the fantastic romp that was Iron Man. Well, it didn't live up to it, but it was a lot of fun. Robert Downey, Jr. is hilarious and Sam Rockwell is awkward and simply terrific as Tony Stark's arms dealing competitor. While it could have been better, the lack of Batman's self-seriousness serves this franchise well.

Sita Sings the Blues
I found this film thanks to Rotten Tomatoes, as it's one of two 2010 films currently at 100% (with at least 20 reviews). This film is a strange breed of animated musical featuring songs recorded in the 1920s by Annette Hanshaw. The animation is simplistic and charming and the story switches between a modern day couple and a classic Indian tale of Ramayana, along with some hilarious narrators. It's available on Netflix Watch Instantly, so no excuse not to check this one out.

How to Train Your Dragon
This has been referred to by many as the film that does 3D flying sequences better than Avatar. I loved it for the amazing score (which I listen to constantly) and the great story about a boy and his dragon. There are several emotional moments that get me every time. Truly one of the better animated films made in the past few years.

Fish Tank
This is a gritty slice-of-life film about a teen-age girl living in a rough neighborhood in England. The performances from the lead actress, Katie Jarvis, and the great Michael Fassbender are incredibly substantive, mournful, and believable. There are certainly moments towards the end that delve into some unfortunate stereotypical story elements, but overall this film is fantastic and well worth seeing. I was able to catch it on IFC In Theaters On Demand.

Un Prophete
Essentially A Prophet is a prison film in which we follow a young man through his 6 year prison sentence. Early on he is chosen by the Corsican mafia for a job, involving the murder of a fellow prisoner. The scenes leading up to this assassination and the murder itself are some of the most gut-wrenching, tense moments in any film I've seen in a while. The overall film is long and expansive with a lot going on; I'd really like to see it again. Having drawn comparisons to The Godfather, my expectations might have been unattainably high; however, this film was certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination last year for Best Foreign Film.

The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski's latest film is a case of art imitating life, as it centers around a man who is living on foreign soil to avoid inevitable arrest upon return to his home country. In the film, the man is a former Prime Minister of Great Britain, played brilliantly by Pierce Brosnan, who is wanted for war crimes. Ewen McGregor plays the ghost writer hired to help write his memoirs. The murder mystery and political thriller that ensues is tight, efficient, and masterfully told.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Based on a popular series of Swedish novels, this film delivers a very graphic cold-case murder mystery with two very different protagonists that compliment each other, but in completely non-traditional fashion. The man is a journalist hired to investigate the disappearance of a young woman 40 years prior, while he awaits his prison sentence after being found guilty of libel against a very powerful businessman. The girl with the tattoo in question is an expert hacker with a troubled past to say the least. She also has some pretty sever problems in the present, which lead to some cringe inducing scenes of sexual violence. I found the mystery of it all to be quite enthralling, but most compelling was the character of the girl, which I simply can't wait to see in the final two films. Of course this films are already schedule for an American remake... As much as I love David Fincher, this trend of unnecessary American remakes of recently released foreign films has me extremely disheartened and perturbed at Hollywood.

Shutter Island
From the master Martin Scorsese comes this film noir horror film set on an island based insane asylum. With an incredible performance from Leo DiCaprio, this film will likely keep you guessing until the end, but even if you guess the ending correctly, the experience is still rewarding. It's a joy to watch Scorsese at play with these creepy set pieces and genre conventions, all while exploring heavy themes of guilt and atonement. While some of the sequences seem to meander, there are a few scenes that are so stark and harrowing I found it hard to breathe for their duration. It's not the best work we've seen from living legend, but it certainly is a notable achievement.

This film was pure, crazy, fun. Was it tonally all over the place? Yes. Did it turn into the movie it was initially parodying? Absolutely. Did that affect my enjoyment of the film at all? Nope. Not one, little, bit. As one of my most anticipated films of the year, my expectations were high, but director Matthew Vaughn was up to the challenge. There were so many crazy moments in this film, including some insane acting from Nic Cage and the most violent, vulgar 11 year-old girl you've ever seen on film. The over-the-top moments are balanced to some extent by great character writing and some heavy scenes with some emotional heft. The critical response has been very mixed and seems that this is a true "love it or hate it" movie. Now you know where I stand.

The Square
I am a firm believer in the theory that the circumstances under which you see a film greatly influences your perception and overall enjoyment of the film. I saw this little Australian flick, from Nash and Joel Edgerton, under the best of circumstances. My wife and I finally got a chance to visit the Alamo Drafthouse (S. Lamar) in Austin, TX. Everything about this theater is awesome, from the food to the leg room to the pre-trailers entertainment. Once the film started we were treated with a short film from the same director, Nash Edgerton, titled Spider. This 9 minute film has one of the most insane pay-off moments I've ever seen, and it totally set the tone for the feature film, The Square. The basic premise is that a man is having an affair with a woman who finds an opportunity for them to run away and be together. Once she convinces the man to do it, everything starts to go wrong. This film has been compared to the early work of the Coen brothers, which is high praise, yet deserved praise. This movie does not give you a chance to breathe, and just when you think it couldn't possibly get any worse... you guessed it. Brilliant acting, directing, and film making all around.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2010

In honor of seeing Shutter Island last month, I decided to do a quick list of my most anticipated films of 2010. I find that these lists are often made up of very commercial films because those are the ones that are typically well advertised a while in advance. I searched IMDB's release schedule and even looked up movies that didn't show up on there, but that I knew were supposed to be coming out in this calendar year, in the United States. If I miss something significant, please comment and let me know.

Honorable Mention: Iron Man 2 - 5/17

I absolutely loved Iron Man when I saw it in theaters in May 2008. Robert Downey Jr. brings such a huge presence and sense of humor to this comic book universe, that really transcended the genre for me, and let me enjoy it a lot more than I usually enjoy comic book movies. I don't expect the sequel to be what The Dark Knight was for Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise, but I expect it to be of similar quality as the first movie. Another added bonus is seeing Mickey Rourke playing a villain. He looks incredible in the trailer, and more menacing than Jeff Bridges in the first movie. See you in the theater on May 7, along with every teenage boy in the country!

10. Toy Story 3 - 6/18
While I wasn't as high on Toy Story 2 as every critic in the world, I did enjoy it, and maintain that Pixar has yet to make a bad film (still haven't seen A Bug's Life). I don't expect this film to fill the impossibly huge shoes of its predecessors and keep the 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes alive for the entire series, but I do expect great things from Pixar on every occasion, especially when they tackle a sequal with well established characters. This isn't somthing that they do often, and hopefully won't make too much of a habit of it, but of all their movies, Toy Story lends itself the best to a continued film universe. Well I say best, but who wouldn't love to see The Incredibles 2? Toy Story 3 hits theaters on June 18.

9. Robin Hood - 5/14

While it looks like Gladiator 2 from the trailer, I am still very much looking forward to this film, in fact, Gladiator 2 would be awesome. Ridley Scott is a terrific director, and Russel Crowe still does action as good as anybody (or so we're about to find out). this is one where I am actually more excited about the premise than those making and starring in the film. Robin Hood is my favorite Disney movie ever, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was a favorite when I was younger. Something about the character Robin Hood is just extremely appealing to me. I should really catch up with The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, which is supposed to be amazing. Maybe I'll watch that one right before this one... that should make for an interesting comparison!

8. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - 8/13

Writer/director Edgar Wright who created the before-mentioned Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is directing a comic book adaptation starring Michael Cera. Evidently Scott Pilgrim has to battle his new girlfriend's seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her heart (thanks again IMDB). It's only because of who's making this film that it made this list. Judging from the trailer, this movie is going to be a lot of fun.

7. Animal Kingdom - 6/3 limited

All I know is that this Australian gangster film won the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance this year, and it has a sweet trailer featuring "All Out of Love" by Air Supply. I absolutely love gangster films... almost as much as I love Air Supply. Hopefully Guy Pierce will be alive in the film longer than he was in the Hurt Locker!

6. Kick-Ass - 4/16

I am staying away from trailers and in depth reviews because I really want to enjoy my first viewing of this film. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who gave us Stardust and Layercake, Kick-Ass is another comic book adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and McLovin as "normal" people who put on costumes and fight crime. Sort of, a comedic Watchmen. If I'm getting this completely wrong, I'm sorry, but like I said, I want this to be fresh going into it. Best quote from someone who's seen it: "It's like Kill Bill, with a ten year old girl." OK, I can dig it.

5. Mother - 3/12 limited

This latest film from Joon-ho Bong, has received very high praise from festival goers over the past year. I personally loved his last film, The Host, which was an interesting take on monster movies. This film I can tell you nothing about, because I've stayed away from ALL plot details. I've heard only hyperbole, mostly concerning the ending of this film. Sometimes you can just tell about a film, without knowing much, if you're going to love it or not. I'm getting that vibe from this one.

4. Inception - 7/16

Christopher Nolan's newst project looks to be a mind-bending adventure, mysterious in it's nature. Yet again, I am avoiding information on this movie at all costs. I really hope they don't make a trailer that gives away half the film like they do for so many other films these days. With an incredible cast, headed up by Leonardo DiCaprio, and the skillful writing and directing of Christopher Nolan, I have no doubt this will be a memorable film.

3. Un Prophet - 2/26 limited
Un Prophet is a French film that was nominated for the foreign language Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. It didn't win, but almost everyone I read and listen to on the internet declared it the best film in the category. As for the story, it's essentially a prison drama about a young French Jewish man who learns to play the political games in the prison, and thrives because of it. Un Prophet has been compared by several critics to The Godfather, too many to write off as an instance of overzealous hyperbole. Also, I believe it was Adam Kempenaar from Filmspotting that said that it was the closest he's seen a film get to nailing the atmosphere and engrossing characters of The Wire. High praise indeed. I simply can't wait to check this out, and am anxiously waiting for IFC to put On Demand.

2. Black Swan - TBD

The IMDB description is, "A thriller that hones in on the relationship between a veteran ballet dancer and a rival." Hmmm... doesn't sound all that interesting. What if I told you that the two stars were Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis? OK, now all the guys are paying attention. Now here's the clincher: This is the new film from Darren Aronofsky. Boom. This guys is simply incredible, and it's my opinion that his films have gotten better and better. To quote Gareth Higgins from The Film Talk podcast, "The Fountain is a Masterpiece!" I agree, but The Wrestler is better. Requiem for a Dream was incredible as well, and Pi was above average for a first feature film. Not that he has anything left to prove, but if Darren pulls off this film, despite my high expectations, he will earn a place among very elite company in my book of filmmakers whose projects I eagerly anticipate no matter the subject.

1. True Grit - 12/25

I got two words for you: Coen brothers. These guys have been in that book I mentioned above for a long time. Tru Grit is a western that was originally filmed back in the 1960's. This is an adaptation of the book more than a remake of the John Wayne film. Everything the Coen brothers do I pretty much adore. I think they make better films than everybody except Quinten Tarantino, but the Coens release their films at least twice as often has Tarantino. I just hope it comes out on Christmas and doesn't get pushed back. This film will bring Matt Damon into the Coen family, but the real reason to see this film, as though you needed anymore: The return of the Dude.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Films of 2009

Not only do I think that 2009 was a great year for movies, but I saw more films this year than ever, seeing almost one hundred 2009 releases either in the theater, on DVD/BluRay, or on-demand through cable or Netflix. Most critics and bloggers do a "Top 10" list with "runners up," where they throw in several other good movies. I am going to stick with ten films this year, however, I will be posting a complete, ranked list of 2009 films I have seen at a later date.

I have waited until now to release my list simply because I am in a small market, and do not have many chances to see limited release films released during the last few months of the year. Thankfully a lot of these films are seeing quicker DVD releases, and many are available on-demand through my cable provider. However, there are still many films that I cannot see until after the new year begins, and I do not want to release an incomplete list, so I've waited until I've seen just about everything I suspect would have a chance at making my top ten.

Before I give you my list let me address an issue regarding list making, particularly related to movies. This list is subjective, but I would argue that every list is subjective, including those that try to list the most important films, or the films that are the most well made. Even consensus lists, such as IMDB's Top 250, or Rotten Tomatoes' 100 Best Films, are simply made up of a bunch of subjective rankings or votes. Everything is subjective, and I find my opinions can change with subsequent viewings or even just the passing of time. Right now, these films are my favorites of 2009, and for the reasons that they are my favorites, I consider them the best. They affected my emotions, exhilarated my senses, and challenged me intellectually more than everything else I saw. These movies simply "worked." Whatever special combination of story, acting, directing, cinematography, script, and music it takes to tickle my fancy, these did it the best. You can respect the "quality film making" of another film, but if it doesn't "work" for you, it is not "better" than a "lesser" film that you love more. I apologize for elaborating on what some may consider semantics, but this is a subject that I always find that people seem to have differing opinions on. Now you know mine!

Now, with more than enough explanation behind us, here are ten best films of 2009:

10. Crazy Heart
Sometimes all you need is a great performance, and the rest of the film seems to fall into place. Jeff Bridges delivers a performance of this caliber in this small film about an old, washed-up country star named Bad Blake, who isn't trying to find his place in life so much as trying to make it to his next drink. There is something very familiar about this story, but the performances by Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall elevate it to something new a fresh. The wonderful, original music, composed by T-Bone Burnett, is not just icing on the cake, it's a substantial ingredient in the cake itself. This is a huge deal for me, because typically I hate country music. Although I don't think it is quite as good as last year's The Wrestler, it is similar in a few respects. First, the main character is an older guy that is hanging on by a thread, and can't seem to cope with anything in his life outside of performing. Second, it features the year's best original song, but hopefully "The Weary Kind" will win the Oscar, whereas Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" wasn't even nominated. Overall, Crazy Heart has a more melancholy, but hopeful vibe than The Wrestler, and it fits the story well.

9. Sin Nombre
I saw this film early in 2009, but it has managed to stay with me. In case you missed it the first time, check out my full length review of the film. Basically this film is a gritty, violent, movie about gangsters and illegal immigrants with themes of love, loss, and redemption. If that doesn't sell you, I don't know what will.

8. The Hurt Locker
This film is probably on more "best of" lists than any other this year. More than any film in recent years, The Hurt Locker has everybody talking about it and singing its praises. I have literally not heard anyone say they didn't like this film. Gladly, it lives up to the hype, even on repeat viewings. Watch for it to take home several Oscars on March 7, and check out my review in the mean time.

7. Moon

This is one of the movies I'm most passionate about this year because it is far too under seen. Not only that, but Sam Rockwell delivers one of the best performances of the year, and it is a huge mistake that he is not nominated for an Oscar. Again, not enough people saw it. In addition to the performance(s), the special effects are pretty awesome for the budget, in fact, I think Moon did more with its $5 million than District 9 did with its $30 million. It's on BluRay and DVD now, so check it out now. To read me gush over this film some more, check out my review from earlier this year.

6. Gomorrah

Speaking of foreign films I saw early in the year, I saw Gomorrah all the way back in April and it continues to demand my thoughts, even though I haven't re-watched it since. This is essentially Goodfellas, but stripped of all the romanticism of mob life. The fact that it is so closely based on reality is even more disturbing and captivating. It was released recently on Criterion BluRay and is available on Netflix Watch Instantly. Obviously I highly recommend it, and also recommend you read my review after seeing the film and let me know if you agree or disagree.

5. An Education
Just a word of warning going forward. The four movies I've place 2 - 5 could almost be interchangeable, I love them all so much. I want to emphasize this, because I wish I could stress more how good this film is in order to get people to go see it! Like Moon, not enough people have indulged themselves with this delightful film that only gets better with subsequent viewings. Carey Mulligan plays a young school girl, named Jenny, in her last year of secondary school in 1960's London. Walking home from school in the rain one day, she's confronted by an older man who claims he's worried about the state of her cello. One thing leads to another, and... well I don't want to discuss the story further, because it deserves to be seen with a blank slate, but what we end up with is a smart, witty, very funny, extremely well acted piece of cinema. The performance from Carey Mulligan is the best from a female lead in 2009, while Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina both deserve supporting nominations more than Matt Damon. I think more than anything, I ended up really care about these characters, especially Jenny, and the choices she makes. The film can serve as a character study for any one of the main characters, but also comments on society and the social norms of the period, some of which linger still today. For all of these reasons, and some that I'm sure I missed, do yourself a favor and see An Education.

4. Up in the Air
Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of Jason Reitman. Thank You for Smoking is still probably my favorite of his three directorial efforts, although Up in the Air is right there as well, and even though I wasn't as in love with Juno as a lot of people were, I recognize that his direction is what made that movie work so well, in spite of Diablo Cody's terrible dialogue. He claims that Up in the Air is his most personal film yet, and you can feel it in his characters, and in the minute details of air travel that are so important to the mechanics of this movie. Of course this isn't just about a traveling business man who fires people for a living, it's about a lot of things, not the least of which is our connections to those we love, both romantic and platonic. With such broad themes you might think that it would be generic or blase, but it avoids that by building very specific characters, and giving them amazing conversations to have with each other. The dialogue is so quick and funny, that at first you might mistake it for a well made romantic comedy from another era. He tops it off by making this a film very specific to our time, but including interviews with real people who have been laid off during this huge recession we've had the past couple of years. The way it's employed is not manipulative, but rather useful, like a tool to help drive home the other themes I already mentioned. Again, you won't find much discussion of plot with this film, as I'm trying to keep these spoiler free, but I'd love to discuss the details of the film with anyone who has seen it. Just leave a comment on this blog post.

3. Up
As with several others on this list, I did write a review for Up earlier in the year. Please check that out for more in depth thoughts. All I'll say here is that I saw this movie twice in theaters, and twice on BluRay, and it moves me every time. The story of Carl and Ellie's love and how Carl learns to live and love again, albeit in a different way, is so profoundly conveyed that it is truly a marvel that it is an animated film. The human emotions so eloquently portrayed by a cartoon with a huge square head. I love it. This is probably my favorite Pixar film now, although they are all so good. I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but the score is fantastic and will hopefully win an Oscar.

2. A Serious Man
This latest film from the brothers Coen is a Jewish fable or parable set in 1960's suburbia, around the same time and place the Coens actually grew up, in Minnesota. Some compare the story to Job, mainly because the main character, Larry Gopnik, is plagued from the outset with trial after trial, and seemingly for no apparent reason. Larry searches for answers from various Rabbi, and is constantly thwarted from discovering what God wants from him. Why is God punishing him? Unlike Job, I don't think Larry is a man of utmost righteousness, but he isn't the most sinful man in the world either. We are given no cause to justify the affects that Larry is experiencing. This film is very Jewish, and there is so much Yiddish terminology that a goy like myself almost didn't stand a chance. Of all of the films on my list, this more than any needs to be seen more than once. It really benefits from having been through it once, and having the chance to really zone in on each scene with the benefit of hindsight. A Serious Man is similar in tone to the Coens more existential works, such as Barton Fink or The Man Who Wasn't There, with dark comic overtones and many intersecting themes. Some people think the Coens enjoy torturing their characters, and if anything, this film solidifies that argument. However, I think this movie is about so much, and whether its Murphy's law, the uncertainty principal, or the mysteries of God himself, it can be little tricky to put your finger on it exactly. Either way, it's an incredibly entertaining and stimulating experience, and one that no cinefile should miss.

1. Inglourious Basterds
I'm sure for most of you reading this, this pick came as no surprise. There is probably not much more I can say here, that I didn't already say in my review. I anticipated this film more than any other that I can remember, and it delivered on every level. I saw it three times in the theater and again on BluRay, and it gets better each time. Although I am a self proclaimed Tarantino fan boy, that is not the reason this is my number one film of 2009. Grindhouse was not my number one of 2007. No, Inglourious Basterds is a work that stands on its own, albeit from a true master, and deserves every accolade it's given, and more.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Oscars: Opinions and Predictions

It's that wonderful time of year again; when most of the good movies in the theaters are from last year, and normal people like us are finally able to weigh in on the films that have already won a handful of awards, and critics have already praised and included in their top ten lists. The Oscar nominations have been out for almost a week, so let's see how they did this year...

First, let me list some notable films from 2009 I have yet to see: The Blind Side, Bronson, Hunger, The Last Station, Nine, A Prophet, A Single Man, The White Ribbon. It pains me to include the The Blind Side as a "notable" film, but all of the awards for Sandra Bullock, as well as its two Oscar nominations have forced my hand. I've also included Bronson, which did not receive any nominations, but the critical response to Tom Hardy's performance has been significant.

Now, lets talk about the acting nominations. Ladies first:

Actress in a Supporting Role
There really isn't much to say here. I think Samantha Morton deserved a nomination for her role in The Messenger, as well as Vinessa Shaw in Two Lovers, but I can't say that the Academy got it wrong. Mo'Nique will win the Oscar, and she deserves it. Her monstrous character in Precious was beyond anything I've ever seen. Simply frightening. If I had to pick another contender, I'd go with Vera Farmiga from Up in the Air as a very distant dark horse candidate.

Actress in a Leading Role
I have a feeling that this category will be the most disappointing for me. Sure, it might be a bit unfair for me to judge Bullock's performance in a movie I haven't seen, but I have her entire filmography to show me that at best she's a mediocre hack. The fact that she's a the favorite to win is a crying shame. Just so you don't think I'm completely unreasonable, I will see The Blind Side, and will admit if I am wrong. Meryl Streep's role in Julie & Julia is at least nomination worthy, and she has almost as much of a chance to win as Sandra. The actual best performance by an actress in a leading role belongs to Cary Mulligan for An Education. She's in practically every scene and simply lights up the screen in each one. As I've mentioned before, the comparisons to Audrey Hepburn are justified. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe was probably the second best performance from a lead actress I saw in 2009 for her role as the abused teenager, Precious, but she has no chance at all of winning. It's a shame, because I think this category more than any other seems to be driven by politics more than merit (Note: Sally Hawkins didn't even get nominated last year).

Actor in a Supporting Role
Again, only brief thoughts on this category. Matt Damon for Invictus? Give me a break... Glad to see the nomination for Woody in The Messenger, and Stanly Tucci could have also been nominated for Julie & Julia, but I haven't seen The Lovely Bones. The fact is, Christoph Waltz was a force of freaking nature in Inglourious Basterds, and he's won every award leading up to the Oscars. He's by far the favorite, deservedly so, and the only upset I could fathom would be if they decided to give it to Christopher Plummer, for The Last Station, as a lifetime achievement award, but that is highly unlikely.

Actor in a Leading Role
I can't argue with many of these nominations, although I have to say that Morgan Freeman's was probably the weakest. I mean, I get it. There's no way they don't nominate him for playing Nelson Mandela, but there were others who deserved it more. Joaquin Phoenix gave a great performance in Two Lovers, and until two nights ago Sam Rockwell in Moon was by far my favorite. Two nights ago is when I saw Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges makes it look so incredibly easy. His performance as Bad Blake, an old washed up country star, has been garnered with about every acting award so far, and he will take home the Oscar on March 7.

Now for the writers of words and music:

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
I think the Academy got it right with this category for the most part (I think In the Loop is grossly overrated), and would be really happy if either Up in the Air or An Education won. I also think it's pretty cool that District 9 received a nomination. The favorite has to be Up in the Air. Jason Reitman is an exceptional director, but I think he's equally good at adapting novels. Thank You for Smoking was one of favorite films in 2005, and I'd love to see him recognized this year.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
This is a very exciting category this year, because the last time Quentin Tarantino was nominated for an Oscar, he won this award for Pulp Fiction, back in 1994. He is the favorite to win this year for Inglourious Basterds, and since that is my favorite film of 2009, I certainly hope he wins. A Serious Man by the Coen brothers is also nominated, as well as Pixar's Up, each incredibly deserving. The Hurt Locker and The Messenger are also great films, so this is a win/win category for me, but here's hoping that my favorite film maker, Quentin Tarantino, takes it home.

Music (Original Score)
Here we go with more of the usual suspects with James Horner and Hans Zimmer. That's all well and good, but I feel two of the best scores were left out this year. Clint Mansell sets the mood incredibly well with his score for Duncan Jones' Moon. Besides John Williams, Clint is probably my favorite film composer working today. He was made famous with his haunting score for Requiem for a Dream, and created one of my favorite scores of all time with The Fountain, both films by Darren Aronofsky. The second guy who got the shaft is Marvin Hamlisch who crafted the wonderful music from The Informant!. Marvin has been writing music for film, television, and the stage for decades, and has been nominated for nine Oscars, winning one of them, but his work on The Informant! is truly worthy of recognition. It's probably due to the lackluster acceptance of the film itself that hurt his chances for a nomination. At least one of nominations are worthy of actually winning, and that is Michael Giacchino for Up. Simply a delightful score, both lighthearted and poignant. I hope it wins, and I expect it to.

Music (Original Song)
There usually aren't too many movies that feature "original songs," so there isn't really much to be snubbed. Of the nominees, I've seen The Princess and the Frog and Crazy Heart, which make up for three of the five nominees, Basically, everything about The Princess and the Frog was forgettable for me. I loved Randy Newman's score for Toy Story, but this just doesn't contain the same magic. The song that deserves to win, and will win, is "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)". It perfectly depicts the tone and feeling of this small, special film. It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" from last year, except that it's actually used as a plot devise in the film, which to me makes it an even stronger contender.

The technical awards:

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects
I fully expect Avatar to win all three of these Oscars, although I wouldn't be surprised if The Hurt Locker or Star Trek made off with one of the sound awards. I actually think they should just get rid of the sound mixing, because if Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can get an Oscar nomination, that category is immediately deemed irrelevant.

Cinematography and Film Editing
I'm gonna keep this one short; Inglourious Basterds deserves to win both of these, but Avatar probably will.

Maestros of cinema:

I agree with all of these nominees except for probably Lee Daniels. Don't get me wrong, I actually like Precious much more than Avatar, but the fact is no one could have made Avatar except for James Cameron. His vision, tenacity, and relentlessly obsessive nature made it possible for him to persevere the years of hard work and create what is the most impressive technical feat of film making to date. Of course to a fault, he was unable to see the need to hire a real writer, thus hurting the film significantly. Oddly enough, it's his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, that is the favorite to win the Oscar for The Hurt Locker. This is a tightly directed film, made in the Middle East under some pretty tough conditions. I would probably agree with the masses in awarding her, if it wasn't for Quentin Tarantino. He is my favorite film maker, because he is a cinematic genius and a living film encyclopedia. These traits lead to the most entertaining and well made movies being made today. A film making team I would have loved to see nominated are Joel and Ethan Coen. Sure, they just won two years ago for No Country for Old Men, but they deserve it again for A Serious Man. Anyways, Kathryn will win.

And the best films are:

Animated Feature Film
Up will win. I think this is quite clear, but there were some very, very good animated films this year. Henry Selick's Coraline is a beautiful film and a masterclass in stop motion animation, while Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wonderful, quirky Wes Anderson film using the same medium. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't overly impressed with The Princess and the Frog, and I've never heard of The Secret of Kells. There were two other animated films that probably should have been there instead. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a visual treat, but more importantly was laugh out loud funny. Ponyo was also very good, and more deserving that Disney's newest 2D project.

Documentary (Feature)
This is hard for me to judge since I haven't seen any of the nominees, however, I have seen a couple great documentaries this year. Both Tyson and Anvil: The Story of Anvil should be here. Both were captivating, funny, and at times touching. I seriously doubt that all five of the nominated films are better than these two. Having not seen them, I can only go with what I've heard, and it seems that Food, Inc. and The Cove have gotten the most press. I'd have to pick The Cove on this one. It really fits in with a lot of the Academies tree hugging tendencies.

Foreign Language Film
I'm certainly disappointed to not see Gomorrah or Sin Nombre nominated, because they are two of my favorite films this year. Again I haven't seen these nominees, but I've heard a lot about A Prophet and the Cannes Palm Dior winner The White Ribbon. I think it's a toss up between these two films, but then again I didn't see Departures coming at all before it won last year over the highly praised Waltz with Bashir. There's really no telling with this one.

Best Picture
The Academy infamously decided to nominate ten films for best picture, due to the fact that films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E weren't nominate last year, hurting their ratings. It's clear that a negative side affect of this decision is that it waters down the honor of being nominated. We all know that the five films that would have been nominated had they not made the change are Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. I must say though that out of the remaining five films that made the cut, three of them are in my top five. Never have so many of my favorite films in a given year been nominated for all of the major categories. The experts have been calling this category a battle between the ex-spouses, Cameron and Bigelow, Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker. I feel that because many aspects of Avatar are so weak (note: no acting or writing nominations) that The Hurt Locker is indeed the favorite to win this year. Obviously I'd love for Inglourious Basterds to win, but it's probably about the third or fourth most likely to win, along with Up in the Air.

I've been a little vague about where I rank certain films, because I'm going to publish my top ten of the year very soon. I just want to watch a couple more films first. Stay tuned, and please, leave a comment and tell me what you think about the Oscars this year.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

The latest from German director Werner Herzog is not a sequel to the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, directed by Abel Ferrara. In an interview, Herzog has mentioned that he's never seen that film. After seeing Herzog's film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, it is easy to believe Mr. Herzog. It employs the name simply as a marketing ploy because one of the producers owned the rights. The only other similarity is that each film centers around a police lieutenant that does some very, very bad things...

Nicholas Cage is in top form as Terrance McDonagh, a police officer recently promoted to Lieutenant for his act of bravery in rescuing a prisoner from a rapidly flooding jail cell during the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina. This same act left also left Terrance with a serious case of chronic back pain. I'm not sure if this guy really needed an excuse to be reckless and deviant, but the back pain definitely seemed to be the catalyst for a rapidly deteriorating drug habit, mostly procured from crime scenes and the evidence locker. Staying high pretty much all day long, his methods are questionable at best, and frequently criminal. The narrative focus is on a heinous murder investigation that Terrence is the lead detective on, but the real focus is on Terrance, and the way he deals with his pain, his drunk father, his prostitute girlfriend, his gambling habit, and his drug dealer business partner. In the midst of all this insanity, he still tries to do his job as a detective the best he can.

The tone of this film drifts from serious police drama to dark absurd comedy, leaning more towards the latter. Herzog spends a lot of time entertaining Terrance's periodic hallucinations as well as giving the audience some interesting points of view. Without giving too much away, there are some hilarious shots featuring reptiles, on more than one occasion, that linger to a point beyond comfort and managed to evoke much nervous laughter from my friends and I at our private screening. While I understand that this is pretty far from mainstream entertainment, it's still a shame that not more people are seeing this film.

I'm a big fan of Nicholas Cage. I have been ever since the mid/late nineties, when he gave us The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, and Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. John Woo's Face/Off is still one of my favorite action films ever, and his over the top performance as criminal mastermind Caster Troy is a joy to watch. It didn't take me long to catch up with some of his other landmark performances, including Leaving Las Vegas, for which he won his Oscar, and his hilarious role in the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona. In the twenty-first century he's given us several good films, including Matchstick Men, Lord of War, The Weather Man, The Family Man, and Adaptation, which features his best performance yet. Sure, he had a bad stretch here recently, late in the decade, but I assure you, Nicholas Cage is back and better than ever! His performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is completely ridiculous, while at the same time being some how understated. It's a joy to behold, and quite simply Mr. Cage makes this film well worth seeing. I hear his contribution to the upcoming film Kick-Ass is also great, and I look forward to many more great performances from this under-rated actor.