Saturday, November 21, 2009

It means never having to say you're sorry.

There's a scene in Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer in which Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attends a house party thrown by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and we see in split screen the difference between his expectations of what will happen at the party (which, more accurately, are his desires) and the reality of it.

Intermittently during Nicholas Jasenovec's faux documentary, Paper Heart, elderly couples recall the stories of when they fell in love or how they first met à la When Harry Met Sally. But instead of simply talking heads, Charlyne Yi, the film's protagonist/subject, recreates these scenes with paper cutout puppets and landscapes.

(500) Days of Summer and Paper Heart are two distinctly different films. The former foregrounds its own artifice, with its broken narrative and fantasy sequences. The latter, while ultimately a pretty thinly-veiled ruse, keeps up the pretense of being a documentary. But in their own way (as in the two episodes above, for example), they find mutual ground, arriving at a similar point about the uniquely nebulous idea of love--or, should I say, LOVE.

In Paper Heart, Charlyne Yi--comedienne and all-around goofy gal--isn't so much in search of love in the same way many of us are. Instead she is looking for some kind, any kind, of definition for love and then whether or not any of that can apply to her. When she meets Michael Cera (SuperbadJuno), the quirkiest of couples emerges and the question of whether true love is in the cards for her is put to the test. In (500) Days of Summer, the question of true love is never in doubt for Tom. True love is the destiny of all, most certainly him. So when Summer floats into his orbit, it's a fait accompli--the two will spend the rest of their lives together. Well, at least he thinks so.

Their stylistic differences aside, on some level these characters are interchangeable. Tom could have easily been wooing Charlyne instead of Summer; and Summer would have been just as reticent to engage in anything serious with Michael as she was with Tom. It is the classic inversion of the gender stereotype--the hopelessly romantic male and the wild, cynical female he attempts to tame. And as both films are essentially false constructs, they point to a fundamental aspect of love--especially to that of love in the movies. Love isn't so much an actual thing, even a feeling, inasmuch as it is itself a construct, no more than an idea that people create in their heads. Like film itself, it's a mere projection. Any number of Summer Finns could have waltzed into Tom Hansen's life and the story would have played out similarly. When Michael enters Charlyne's world, it isn't really their emotional status at stake, it's the movie's. The premise of the film asks whether love has a place in Charlyne's world, not if Michael does.

I'm beginning to think that this is the ultimate fallacy of love. The marginally humble opinion of this writer is that one of the major reasons love tends to fail is that people are unwilling to recognize the large distance between expectation and reality.  At their core, both films are significantly more hopeful than this cynical (realistic?) stance, but the inclusion of the episode in (500) Days above or the reenactments in Paper Heart make them more fully engaged with the nuance of adult relationships than most of their mainstream counterparts and, resultingly (or maybe unwittingly), more critical of it.  Oh, and they're hilariously funny.  What else do you want from a romantic comedy?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I leave tear stains on the ground.

When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, one of the oddest chapters in modern popular culture ended nearly as abruptly as it burst onto the scene. In the weeks and months prior to his now controversial passing, Jackson was working on a massive concert tour called "This Is It." The director of the series of concerts was Kenny Ortega and, culled from the significant amount of backstage footage, he also directed the behind-the-scenes look, Michael Jackson's This Is It.

The film isn't at all about Michael Jackson the man. None of his childhood, his personal demons, the controversies, the scandals are in this film. It isn't the biography of a life or even a career. Rarely in the past 15-20 years has the name Michael Jackson been mentioned purely in terms of his artistry. Instead, through his own actions and our own need for salacious headlines, we tend to bury the lead. But in This Is It, that's all pushed aside and we see the musician and performer, the talent that first put him under the spotlight.

I'm a big fan of these sort of inside looks. Whether it be a movie, the recording of an album, the story behind a great novel, or the production of a concert, there's something I find immeasurably satisfying by having the curtain pulled back and observing how art is created. I love listening to early demos of my favorite songs, or hearing the outtakes of studio sessions of my favorite albums, or watching a DVD with the director's commentary playing.

In a roundabout way, it's like a distant cousin to criticism, except it's traveling in the opposite direction, heading towards each other. Criticism, at its core, is really a type of deconstruction. It takes the work apart and tries to make sense of it. Things like the Beach Boys' Pet Sessions, and The Beatles Anthology series, and "Project Greenlight", are what I would call pre-constructions. It shows what goes on before the work is complete, the false starts, the misguided rewrites, the trial-and-error. And the final product is where the two streams meet in the middle, or from where they depart.

Ortega is to be commended for how he assembled the footage in the film. As a doc, it's episodic, yet thoroughly focused. There's very little filler here, not much in the way of extraneous material. It's simply about the work that goes into putting on a show of this proportion. "That's why we rehearse," Jackson says a couple of times in the movie as they perfect the show.

But beyond the filmmaking technique, a documentary is only as strong as its subject and Jackson is the drive behind all of it. What's apparent after stripping away all of the controversy is that he still had it as a performer. He sounds as good as he ever has and it's riveting to see someone maneuver in such a focused manner. In a way, it's better than the concert could've been. Here we don't get to see all the bloated effects and pyrotechnics. What's left is a portrait of a performer as lean as the man himself. And that's the way he should be remembered.

The vocal-only track of probably my favorite Jackson song.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Happy days are here again.

From the "Thank God somebody came to their senses" file, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, film critics for the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, respectively, will replace the two Bens (Lyons and Mankiewicz), after their one-season experiment as hosts of "At the Movies", the movie-review show originated by Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel.

After a couple of episodes of the Bens' version of "At the Movies", it was clear to me that the show that had as much to do with my love of movies as anything else had turned into a joke and apparently the execs at Disney-ABC only needed a season to see things the same way. (I'm sure the infinitesimal ratings had something to do with it too.) Read my full diatribe on the initial hiring of the Bens here.

But why did it take a disastrous season for anybody to realize this was and would be the case? After Mr. Ebert lost his ability to speak, both Scott and Phillips (who, by the way, are in my opinion two of the very best mainstream film critics this country has to offer) filled in and co-hosted with Richard Roeper. And both were as articulate and insightful on camera as they have been in print.

Now I realize a syndicated television show reviewing movies isn't going to win a large Nielsen share, but when (legitimately or not) there seems to be a constant lament about the death of film criticism or the dwindling relevance of film critics, this feels like something more than a minor victory.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

And now for something completely different.

The NBA Finals have come to Orlando for the first time since 1995 and only the second time ever. The city is dressed in blue and white and Orlando, a city I often criticize, has rallied around a cause in ways I've never seen. What slightly irks me is that this surge of pride for its home team, the swarm of #12 jerseys littered across town, is just happening now. Where is this city during the lean years? Where were they when they won 21 games in '04? Were they wondering if the team would draft Emeka Okafor with the #1 pick instead of Dwight Howard?

The Magic are the only Orlando team in any of the major professional sports and sometimes I feel as if this city doesn't realize they exist. Maybe Orlando just isn't a sports city, but neither is Green Bay, who also has only one professional team, yet their city shuts down every Sunday during the fall and winter for their beloved Packers. Granted, that team has a tradition we don't have yet, but traditions start somewhere and ours should start here and start now.

However, as I said recently to a friend, I'll take this fair weather fandom as long as my team is winning. And to my next point, it illustrates how much sports has this ability to galvanize a city, a community, a family. There's a scene in City Slickers when Helen Slater's character asks Daniel Stern's about why he loves baseball so much. He says that even when he was 18 and couldn't communicate with his father, they could still talk about baseball. I'm not 18 and I can talk to my dad about a lot of things, but 9 times out of 10, the first thing we talk about when we meet is sports. It's part of the fabric of a relationship between a father and a son, or between friends, or among a community.

In my most immediate circle of friends, I'm really the only sports fan and I think they often wonder why I care so much about it. This is why. When people who having nothing in common, when a city that seems to have no actual direction can come together to support and rally around their local team, then it becomes bigger than the game itself. It may be fleeting--in fact it often is--but it's better than nothing.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A little catch up...

I've been sick here for about a week and have yet to visit the brand new downtown Orlando theater, the Plaza Cinema Cafe.  So far it seems as if the buzz has been mixed.  My parents and sisters went and, while they liked it, weren't particularly blown away.  I'm sure the less-than-stellar lineup didn't help.

I was able to sneak away to the Enzian to see the slightly redundantly-titled Anvil! The Story of Anvil.  The documentary documents (see what I did there) the once-famous metal band whose name I'll spare you in reiterating and their attempts at a comeback.  Anvil is essentially two men, it's guitarist and lead singer, Steve "Lips" Ludlow, and his drummer and oldest friend Robb Reiner.  If, to my knowledge, he is of no relation to This is Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner, this film is certainly a kindred spirit to that earlier mockumentary.  But beyond the tongue-and-cheek tone to much of it, the film is carried by how earnestly and honestly Lips and Reiner approach their work and their friendship.  It's difficult not to smile all through the movie and hope that these two crazy kids work it out.

This weekend I will attempt to finally visit the Plaza Cinema Cafe as well as see the premiere of the new Jim Jarmusch film, The Limits of Control, over at the Enzian.

Over the past week, I watched another altogether different documentary, Spike Lee's latest release on ESPN, Kobe Doin' Work.  What separates this one from other sports docs, especially ones you often see on ESPN or other sports networks, is how focused and in-depth it is. 
 The smartest thing about the film is not that it just follows Kobe during one game day or that it gets unlimited access to the court and the lockers, but that Kobe himself provides a running commentary while we watch him doin' work.  It's as enlightening a look into what a great athlete really does during a game as anything I've ever seen.  And even as a die-hard basketball fan (and sports in general), I learned a great deal about him and the sport.

Too bad for his Lakers, my Magic are going to win the Finals!!!

(I'm watching Game 1 right now and already feel like I'm going to eat those words.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Not exactly the happiest place on earth; or, don't eat the corndogs.

The coming-of-age movie has been a fruitful genre for directors and Hollywood has certainly gone to that well more than its fair share of times. Traditionally, our protagonist is either going through puberty or is in high school. He often has trouble dealing with girls, his parents, and often bullies. (As a corollary, it's more-often-than-not a he instead of a she--but that discussion is for another day.) As the Judd Apatow fraternity has dominated recent American film comedy, the current crop of coming-of-age films has its adolescent/teenagers projected onto fully-grown, adult males. Like their much younger counterparts, these men are in many ways emotionally stunted and still need hand-holding, either by other, more experienced men, or by their smarter, more secure female partners.

But what of the in-betweeners? What happens when the teenager graduates to adulthood and realizes he still doesn't have a clue? Well, if your James Brennan, and it's 1987, and you just graduated college, and it turns out your dad got laid off and can't pay for your graduate school at Columbia, you search for a summer job. But the comparative lit major who "read[s] poetry for fun... sometimes" can't find a job. "I'm not even qualified for manual labor," he laments. So the only place left for him to go is the local amusement park, Adventureland.

Adventureland--the park and the movie--are populated with your standard cast of characters in a story of this type. There's the awkward lead, the a-little-too-nerdy sidekick, the older, more-experienced male figure, the hottie, and the girl he pines for. It also has your typical schtick--the crotch punching, kids puking, pot humor, etc. Yet Adventureland is grounded in a reality that is often atypical in the coming-of-age film. It's sloppier in the way these things tend to actually happen in real life.

A close friend of mine wrote on her blog:
There are people out in the world who do not realize they are already part of the world. I don't like how at graduations people always say you will be going forward into the "real world". I don't know about you but I have been living in the real world the whole time.
She's right; and what Adventureland also gets right is then when you're preoccupied with starting your life, you slowly begin to realize that it's happening right before you and you better damn well sure take advantage of that. Or as a much better writer than either one of us put it, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

And while the Apatow hero is a man-child who is really too immature to make sense of what is going on around him, James has his head pretty squarely on his shoulders. He can engage in childish activities for sure (there's a decent amount of pot smoking on the job for one), but he's fairly secure enough in who he is that he doesn't need the hand-holding. He's a 22-year-old virgin, not a 40-year-old one and that makes a difference.

One of the other criticisms often levied on the Apatow-produced films is that the overgrown boys that populate them always end up with these smart, beautiful women who are generally out of their league. It's a criticism with which I don't fully agree, yet it's a point-of-view I can understand. Here, and despite his minor social awkwardness, you never feel that James couldn't end up with his work crush, Em, or get a date with the park beauty, Lisa P.

Thus, Adventureland drifts away from the sort of slacker/loser comedies into which many of these films cross over and it evolves into a more sincere (and damn funny) exploration of a time in a young person's life when he realizes that while some doors close, others will open at the same time. Or as a fellow I once knew put it, "Life is a roller coaster, just make sure you have a bag to throw up in along the way." I never really liked that guy.

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 107 m)

These are things I think about when I'm bored.

Notes on a mashup:

Explore the evolution of media through the transition from radio to TV via the music of the bands Television, Radiohead, and TV on the Radio.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

But will they have parking?

Downtown Orlando will finally get a full-fledged movie theater later this month, when the Plaza Cinema Cafe opens to the public on May 29. It's the first downtown cinema of any kind in The City Beautiful since the Downtown Media Arts Center (DMAC) closed its doors a couple of years ago.

From May 25-27, the theater will also have a pre-opening celebration during which they will give away five "Golden Tickets" a la Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, one of the six films that will play before the theater's official opening. The winners of these tickets will receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the new place as well as, more importantly, free movies for a year. The pre-opening lineup and the others listed after its official opening seems to be a decent mix of classics, smaller indie/arty films, and more mainstream blockbusters.

The locus of any serious attempt at bringing independent and foreign cinema to the area has for years been in the Winter Park/Maitland area, mainly the Enzian Theater, the host of the Florida Film Festival. But downtown Orlando has recently made a push to become a hub for arts and culture and this, along with the relatively young Orlando Film Festival (which the theater will supposedly begin hosting next year) is a pretty significant step forward, at least in terms of movies.

One of the questions it begs is will this mark the beginning of a shift from Winter Park to downtown Orlando as the center for alternative cinema in Central Florida? Or instead will it cater to a more mainstream crowd and only play the standard fare at the rest of the multiplexes? Winter Park still has Full Sail University and the Regal at Winter Park Village consistently includes foreign and independent movies year-round. But the growing Orlando Hispanic Film Festival has made Premiere Cinemas (the closest movie theater to downtown) it's main venue and conducts other screenings and educational seminars at the Orlando Public Library just a couple of blocks away from the new Plaza Cinema Cafe.

I don't think I have the answer to it, nor do I think it has to be an either/or. I can't imagine ever not wanting to go to the Enzian or attend FFF, but I adore the idea of having the potential to go see a smaller movie at a theater right in my backyard. Ultimately, it will be a comment on the city and the community whether a downtown cinema can survive or be another one of those failed Central Florida projects. My fingers are crossed.


Info courtesy of:

Sunday, April 5, 2009

FFF Days 8-10

Sunday night brought the 18th Florida Film Festival to a close. I didn't watch anything that final night, but the previous two days did allow me to screen some terrific films. The only narrative feature I watched was Em, a love story whose journey hits a speed bump due to the woman's bipolar disorder. It isn't an easy movie, it's as tough as its two main characters. It's intimate, never maudlin, and as moving a film as there was at this year's fest, thanks to two great performances by Stef Willen and Nathan Wetherington.

I just realized that I did watch another feature--one of the midnight movies--Deadgirl. I think I forgot about it because I hated it. For those who don't know, the midnight movies at FFF are slightly demented. They appeal to lowest sensibilities. I say all of this in a good way. They are usually wildly entertaining and a blast to attend. And knowing this, I still could not get past disliking Deadgirl. It's sadistic and mysogynistic. I kept waiting for it to somehow, someway to redeem itself. It didn't. Maybe I've lost my sense of humor, but I don't think so.

The rest of the screenings were either shorts programs or docs. This year's documentaries were something spectacular. Art + Copy was a fascinating look at both the show and the business behind some of the most memorable advertisements. The Wrecking Crew showcases a fraternity (plus one girl) of West Coast musicians who defined an era of rock 'n' roll as the session band behind a series of hits in the 60s and 70s. The Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra, Sonny & Cher, Sam Cooke are just some of the names Hal Blaine, Plas Johnson, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, and company played for. Like Motown's Funk Brothers (who were featured in the excellent Standing in the Shadows of Motown a few years back), these great musicians may finally get the recognition that has long been overdue.

Maybe my favorite doc of the fest though was School Play, a film about a year in the life of a 5th grade class's production of The Wizard of Oz. (The school, by the way, is in Mamaroneck, New York, not too far from where I was born--but whatever.) It's a film very much in the tradition of recent documentaries like Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom, where it's as much about the kids than it is spelling, dancing, or performing in a play.

The final tally:

This year I saw 14 features and 60 shorts. And I must say that the overall quality of the films were quite good. From We are the Mods to Em, from School Play to Pickin' and Trimmin', from Treeless Mountain to Sita Sings the Blues, the playlist for this year's FFF was one of the best.

Friday, April 3, 2009

FFF Days 5-7

The middle three days of the festival had me seeing four movies on Wednesday bracketed by two single-screening days on Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday night I saw Nina Paley's altogether delightful Sita Sings the Blues an animated interpretations of the Indian myth, The Ramayana. It's got great (great I say!) music, whimsical animation, and the three most hilarious narrators this side of "Mystery Science Theater".

Wednesday I saw a couple of shorts programs, including the Animated Shorts Program in which filmmakers Bill Plympton (again), Signe Baumane, and Lev Yilmaz attended. All three have had films here in previous years and their entries here were as always among the best of the program. Later that night I screened We are the Mods, which may not be the best movie of the festival I've seen so far, but may possibly be my favorite. Like Sita Sings the Blues, it also had great period music and a great visual style (especially costume design) and a nice young cast, two of whom were in attendance with the director. We also learned that it was the first time either of the two actors who were here had seen the film.

Thursday I saw a doc double-feature of Smile 'Til it Hurts: The Up With People Story, a film about the cultish phenomenon of the massive teenage singing troupe/religious-social movement. As much as I liked it, I was more impressed by the doc short that preceded it, Matt Morris's Pickin' & Trimmin', about a small-town North Carolina barbershop that also hosts a kickass bluegrass band in its backroom. Music seems to be the recurring theme these three days and that's certainly the case in this short, but the film also exists as a wonderful affirmation of slowing down and appreciating the things that make life, well, life.

Animator Lev Yilmaz, director of the Tales of Mere Existence series. Photo courtesy of Samantha.

My very blurry picture at the Q&A for We are the Mods. Actor Lance Drake, director E.E. Cassidy, and actress Melia Renee.

Monday, March 30, 2009

FFF Days 1-4

Here's my quick, little synopsis of the first third of the festival:

My planned six-movie marathon on the opening Saturday of FFF got truncated to only three movies due to (gasp!) exhaustion. I must learn to pace myself. This year's fest began for me with the animated Battle for Terra. Though it was predictable and the politics and message a bit heavy-handed, I did end up falling for it because of it's gorgeous animation and quite a good voice-over performance from Evan Rachel Wood as the lead, Mala. This was followed by the very solid Shorts Program #1: "Lost in Space", of which Flat Love and Happy Birthday were my faves.

This was when I got tired and decided to go home and sleep through part of the NCAA tournament and return for the midnight showing of Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley's entertaining doc on the heretofore, unknown-by-me sub-industry of Australian exploitation movies. Although I'm not a necessarily a huge fan of the normal grindhouse fare, it was an interesting peak into an era of world cinema of which I was utterly ignorant. I am now currently on the search for some of these flicks! Looking for you, Alvin Purple!

Anyone remember when the Chuck E. Cheese on I-Drive was a Showbiz Pizza Place? Remember that the house band was an animatronic band of, um, animals called the Rock-afire Explosion? Well, a handful of rabid fans who have kept the memory of the band alive certainly do and they--and the band--are the subject of Brett Whitcomb's documentary also named The Rock-afire Explosion. The band was created by Aaron Fechter, whose business was based here in Orlando, and he, director Whitcomb, and many of the engineers and technicians were in attendance, not to mention the reunited "band" were performing just outside the Enzian theater.

The weekend concluded with the newest feature from Oscar-nominated animator, Bill Plympton, an FFF regular. After his very, very good Idiots and Angels, Plympton stayed for a short Q&A and then commenced to draw a picture and sign autographs for everyone in attendance.

Monday had me at two screenings, the entertaining Italian Shorts program and what is so far the best narrative feature I've seen this year, So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain. Kim's second film was featured in an excellent article by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott about a new wave of independent films that have been released in the past couple of years. Also featured in the article was Kelly Reichardt's latest feature, Wendy and Lucy, which played at the Enzian the week before the festival.

The rain and traffic looks to limit my movie watching on Tuesday, but I look to get back on the train Wednesday and Thursday. Stay tuned!

Thanks to my sister Samantha for the Bill Plympton pics!

Friday, March 27, 2009

18 and life to go...

Friday night marks the beginning of my vacation and, not coincidentally, the opening of this year's Florida Film Festival--the 18th such event. As always, I dive head first into nine days of nonstop movie watching not knowing if the next screening will make me laugh, cry, think, or piss me off for wasting my time and money when I could've been watching something else. And of course, that's the best part. That, and listening to filmmakers young and old, expert and novice, talk about a movie you've just witnessed and, hopefully, loved. That, and being surrounded by genuine movie fans--those whose collective excitement about a shared love give you the adrenaline to stay up for your fifth movie of the day at midnight. That, and knowing that there are still movies out there that aren't filtered through a committee before their made or picked apart and prodded until they lose their identity.

That, and the fact I don't have to go to work for 10 days.

Stay posted for my periodic updates. See you at the movies!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pack up all my cares and woes...

It can be a critically dangerous act to reach for any tangible links or themes between a year's great movies--even more suspect to make a link between a year's movies and the real world in which they were produced. Certainly any movie is in large part a product of the world that surrounds it, but to find an overarching theme that connects a spate of disparate films can be an act of critical laziness.

But if you'll allow me this mild generalization, the characters in a large majority of the best films of 2008 were lost souls. They were men, women, and yes sometimes children trying to figure a way out of their situation--or into a new one. Recent history and today's news would suggest that we are doing the same. Yet in all these films, there seems to be at least a glimmer of hope, that the trouble we take to get out was and is worth the struggle. They are not the bleak laments of many of the better films of the past couple of years. Maybe it's because we now have hope ourselves. But here I go generalizing again.

Before I get to my top ten films, a few that just missed the cut. A little primer:

Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most talked-about movie of the past year--and perhaps the most polarizing. It's detractors are as staunch as those that sing its praises. I happen to agree with the latter. Danny Boyle turns what is actually quite a traditional story by using his kinetic and frenetic style and giving us a glimpse into a culture many of us don't often see in films. It's glorious and exciting. And what many find cliché about its story and themes are comforting and familiar.

Nearly a year ago now, I attended the 17th annual Florida Film Festival, three movies in particular stood out to me. One was the charming and funny black-and-white romantic comedy In Search of a Midnight Kiss (Alex Holdridge) about a couple who meet off an ad on Craigslist and spend one unpredictable night together--New Year's Eve. On the flip side was Chris Eska's quietly observed August Evening, centering around the strained and difficult familial relationship between Jaime, an undocumented Mexican worker in South Texas, and Lupe, his widowed daughter-in-law. Holdridge's film has echoes of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset movies and Eska's of some of Yasujiro Ozu's work, yet each manages to create something fresh and original. (The third FFF standout you'll read somewhere below.)

Last summer I wrote about Anton Corbijn's Control and Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor in terms of their meditations on art. What I didn't mention was how they are both carried by two smart and carefully modulated lead male performances, Sam Riley and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, respectively. While Riley's is intense, Jenkins's is subdued. One's a newcomer and one's an old vet, but each is able to register emotion often without even uttering a word.

The idea of the circle of life is as old as The Lion King. Actually, I'm sure it's before that. Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven is not without its share of tragedy, but like I said above, it's also not without its share of hopefulness. Life has its way of flipping you upside down and a way of helping you land on your feet at the same time.

The most unlikely romance of 2008 is also probably the most touching because it takes place between two 12-year-olds. Well, one's a 12-year-old and the other is actually a vampire. It sounds creepy and, well, it is. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), though, avoids being either smarmy or cloying by understanding the loneliness and awkwardness it is to be a 12-year-old and what I guess would be the same for a supernatural being who is trapped in the body of one.

The first half of Andrew Stanton's Wall-E is so sublime and beautiful that I sometimes wish it was the entire movie. It stands up as one of the truly great extended set pieces of modern cinema. I freely admit to being a person who has never been that big a fan of animation, but Pixar to this day, without exception, has never let me down.

Two otherwise mostly dissimilar films have the unique distinction of being about men who age backwards. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher) is for the most part a generally straightforward Hollywood epic romance. Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola), on the other hand, is a challenging, slightly experimental work. I happen to think neither of them fully work, but it's interesting to see two master directors tackle a similar topic in such different ways that it would be a bit of a shame to dismiss either.

Now the top coat...

10. Chop Shop

Unflinching and matter-of-fact, the dreams of youth collide with the bitter reality of adulthood, as Alejandro, a child who works in a garage saves his money to buy a mobile food van he wishes to run with his sister, Isamar. Ramin Bahrani's camera doesn't sensationalize--it barely even comments. It simply observes.

9. Milk

Biographies are always difficult films to pull off. They often tend to simply be a laundry list of the highlights of the subject's life. Often they tend to reach for some buried meaning, some big bang theory that explains the trajectory that his or her life would take. But Milk, about the first openly gay man to be elected to a major public office, does none of that. From the beginning, director Gus Van Sant, writer Dustin Lance Black, and actor Sean Penn create Harvey Milk as a fully lived-in human being. In the film, he doesn't exist as some unreachable icon, some paper moon we admire from afar, but instead as three-dimensional character whose purpose in life was bigger than his own. The film pays its reverence to be sure, but only after it is earned, for there were more important things on the agenda.

8. In Bruges

A ballet of curse words and a symphony of violence, In Bruges (Martin McDonagh) is the classic buddy film turned on its ear. It's sad and tragic, funny and exciting. Its beauty exists in its cacophony, yet its heart exists in its growing friendship created between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

7. The Fall

Part Wizard of Oz, part Pan's Labyrinth, director Tarsem Singh's overdue follow up to The Cell, is as visually sumptuous as that earlier film, but possesses a whimsy the other lacked. Catinca Untaru's performance as Alexandria is at times hilarious and heartbreaking. A lovely not-quite-fairy tale.

6. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

What could have easily been an over-the-top or two-dimensional performance ended up being my favorite individual piece of acting all year in the body of Sally Hawkins. Unyieldingly positive, Hawkins's Poppy is a force of nature and she never once makes you feel like she's putting on an act. And Eddie Marsan as the bitter and angry driving instructor is the perfect gin to her tonic. I'm still chanting "En-ra-ha!"

Before I give my top five, let me say that the rest of the films exist in a virtual tie for my favorite film of 2008. The following will be ranked, yes, but it's like throwing them all in a bag and randomly picking them out. If you asked me tomorrow, they might be in a different order...

5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's best movie since a string of great ones in the early to mid-90s, it explores issues of sexual morality familiar to many of his other works, but does it in a way that's fresh and new even for him. The change in scenery and the projection of his artistic and romantic psyche onto and in between two very different female characters add a different slant to both the typical romantic comedy and the typical Allen film.

4. Disfigured

To me the standout of the 2008 Florida Film Festival was Glen Gers's film about two women who become friends after meeting in a fat acceptance group. Lydia is actually overweight, but Darcy joins because she's a former anorexic. This is the type of movie that teeters of the edge of being smug or condescending, pretentious or maudlin, but at every moment takes the right turn. It's surprisingly smart and delicately written and acted. It's a small, modest film and may be difficult to find, but I implore you to search it out.

3. Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman out Charlie Kaufmans himself in a movie about a play about a play about a... well, you get it.

2. Man on Wire

James Marsh's documentary has a style, confidence, wit, and certainly bravado matched only by its subject, tightrope walker Philippe Petit. Dubbed the artistic crime of the century, Petit walked across a high wire tied between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. And then he walked back and stopped in the middle to hang out and walked back again. A combination of talking head interviews, re-enactments, and found footage, Man on Wire is endlessly fascinating both as the biography of a "heist" and as an affirmation for living in the clouds.

1. Rachel Getting Married

Kym, a recovering 12-stepper temporarily leaves rehab to attend the wedding of her older sister, Rachel. This tag line could've left us with a broad wedding farce or a morose tragedy about addiction. That Jonathan Demme's film (from a brilliant script by Jenny Lumet) is able to pull elements from both and explore everything in between is only part of the reason this ranks as my top film of the year. Another is Anne Hathaway's Oscar-nominated performance as Kym. And as great as Hathaway is, the movie is made by its unequalled ensemble, especially Rosemarie DeWitt as her sister Rachel, Tunde Adebimpe as her betrothed, Sidney, and Bill Irwin as their father Paul.

For a movie full of tragedy, sibling rivalry, family dysfunction, and angst-ridden emotional blowups, no other movie was full of more love, affection, and bonhomie. It's a movie that attacks you with open arms, waiting to embrace you. And that's all we can hope from any movie.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


The good...

Richard Jenkins's slightly surprising (yet utterly deserving) nomination for Best Actor for his performance in The Visitor.

The bad...
Really, the awful. How the hell is Sally Hawkins not nominated for Best Actress in Happy-Go-Lucky? It wasn't until I heard Mike Leigh's name for his original screenplay nomination that I realized I didn't hear hers in the Actress category.

The ugly...

Ben Lyons. I hate to pick on him, but seriously, he just says some stupid things when he's plugged into a microphone.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The people ride in a hole in the ground...

Where to begin with scribe Charlie Kaufman's latest masterwork, Synecdoche, New York? I could start at the beginning and work my way forward. I could start at the end and work my way to the beginning. Better yet, I could jump in the middle, start spinning and flailing my arms around in the hopes of hitting something.

Where Kaufman begins is with Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) unhappy in work and unhappy in life. He's a director of a local theater, whose most recent production is an uninspired version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. It's premier goes unattended by his wife Adele, who eventually grows tired of their marriage and moves to Europe, bringing along their daughter Olivia. He decides to pull his life together by embarking on a new play--a new more personal one--after finding an abandoned building, cavernous and seemingly endless, waiting for him to fill it.

But here I go giving you a cursory rundown of the events. The glory of a film like this can't be found in a plot synopsis. It's not a movie you can figure out while you're in it. You don't know where it's going and neither does Caden. His play is full of false starts, misguided middles, and missing endings. But like a shark that needs to keep swimming or else dies, Caden keeps building. Rather than stop the play he has yet to actually produce, he continuously adds to his apparently bottomless proscenium, building larger sets and creating more characters. The process subsumes him, literally, as he becomes a character in his own play--three or four times over.

It's familiar territory for Kaufman. Think of Being John Malkovich, especially when the title character enters his own brain. Or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when Joel ends up trying to outrun the erasure of his own memories. Or certainly Adaptation, a movie written by Charlie Kaufman (the person), in which Charlie Kaufman (the character) happens to write himself into his own screenplay, while his real life explosively intersects with the fiction he is trying to create.

I have to admit that while watching the movie (and Caden) descend into its madness, folding layer upon layer onto itself, I wondered what it all meant or if it had any point at all. It seemed to keep on spiraling in no particular direction. But as with those other films, Kaufman knows exactly where he means to take us. And when he gets there, it's one of the most beautiful and fully realized meditations on the intersection of art and life--as well as art and, well, art.