Saturday, December 25, 2010

"The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes..."

It's oftentimes we're too preoccupied with carving out our own particular niches in life, going through the protocol of life, to realize that the point of life is actual living. Each day is a series of exchanges, business and otherwise--signed contracts, verbal agreements, shook hands.  We set aside one group of priorities for others.  For Zinos Kazantsakis, it seems as if that is all he does in Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Raiders of the Lost Horcrux, Part Un.

If a sword gets lost in the woods and no one is there to find it, can it destroy a piece of your soul?

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The arrival of a new Harry Potter movie is always somewhat of a major film event.  But with the release of the latest installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, it's finally sinking in that we're approaching the end of a franchise as steadily as that train heads into Hogwarts.  Up front I should admit to not being a big Potter-head.  I have not read a single word of J.K. Rowling's original novels.  I have enjoyed every single movie and have loved a couple, but I have also not revisited any of them since their theatrical release outside of catching a scene here and there when it airs on cable.  And even after having screened the first five in a theater, I completely skipped the sixth movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and had to scramble to obtain a DVD to watch the night before having been invited by friends to watch the latest film. So while the world was awaiting with baited breath for the release of the first half of Deathly Hallows, I had a full three years of space in between my own personal Harry Potter experiences.  Needless to say, the enthusiasm had sort of fizzled like a long-distance relationship.  But after watching the sixth movie on DVD and then sitting in a sold-out theater for the seventh, I carry with me a new and rejuvenated affection for the series.

#8: "Well, I say, f*#$ therapy!"

If you've been keeping track, I turned 30 and completely laid this project to rest only 7 posts in.  Around Thanksgiving, I figured maybe I could finished it before the year is over.  I'd have to average a little more than two posts per day.  Unlikely to say the least.

The age of 30 itself is an arbitrary milestone--as random a number as 27 or 44.  And so I will eschew all goals and deadlines for this project and merely write them as time and inspiration permit.  People who think I was overreacting to this birthday fail to realize that dissatisfaction with one's life, i.e. a crisis, can come at any age, that it need not be qualified by mid- or quarter- or other timeline defining term.  As I wrote of in the previous post about "Freaks & Geeks", the trepidation of coming-of-age stories for those high school students resonated with me more fully not until my late twenties.  In that same manner, the sadness of Miles Raymond--a failed writer in his forties, two or so years removed from a divorce--hit me where I lived in Alexander Payne's Sideways.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

#7: "We climbed aboard their starship..."

The nostalgia of high school isn't a particularly new thing--either as a pleasant remembrance of things past or a sad looking-back at growing pains.  High school stories in general have flooded the marketplace since the perhaps slightly overrated oeuvre of John Hughes up to recent entries like Mean Girls or Superbad or "Dawson's Creek".  But for capturing not only the pain and angst of high school, but the true feeling of being lost, like your equilibrium is out-of-whack because you can't locate yourself, "Freaks and Geeks" hits everything squarely on that thing holding up your glasses.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

#6: "I think she's buying us presents."

As we approach this 30th birthday of mine, I'm reminded of one of my birthday presents 5 years ago, my 25th.  My best friend decided to take me out to a movie, which makes sense because it's our shared love of cinema that threw us together in the first place.  It was actually a couple of weeks after my birthday, on a late Thursday night, around 10:30 or so.  I remember because it was the last showing of Me and You and Everyone We Know in town, so we had to go then.

I had heard about Miranda July's debut (and lone) movie toward the beginning of that year, as it won major awards at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals.  So it was a movie I had been very much looking forward to at the time.  As a late Thursday night screening, we weren't expecting much of a crowd, but a decently-sized one was present.  And, usually, we tend to be the only ones who stay until the end of the credits, but most of the audience remained this time.  We walked away thinking this was the perfect crowd to watch a movie with.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

#5: "He romanticized it all out of proportion."

If you were to ask me what I think is the greatest piece of music produced in the 20th century--and, let's face it, I know you want to--despite the fact that the majority of my music listening comes from the blues/rock tradition, I wouldn't say "Like a Rolling Stone" or "(I Can't Get No ) Satisfaction" or "Stairway to Heaven".  I'd give my vote to "Rhapsody in Blue".

The George Gershwin masterwork should be pretty familiar to most.  For most of my childhood I knew it as the theme song for United Airlines.  It was also the music behind one of the Fantasia 2000 segments.  But it really didn't start to resonate with me until I saw Woody Allen's Manhattan, which features the work in its opening scene.

I've lived in Orlando since I was a baby, but I was born in New York and so the city has a particular pull on me.  I'd like to move back.  It's a living, breathing city.  The different scenarios Isaac (Woody Allen) goes through for the beginning of his book are all true, all valid ways to interpret the city.  It's the breadth of experience that makes the city what it is and also what makes "Rhapsody in Blue" so dynamic.  It's a collision of classical and jazz.  There's the iconic clarinet intro.  The bombast of the horns and cymbals.  The cool and soothing piano that eventually becomes fractured, jumpy, staccato.  It's full and dramatic, clean and elegant.  It's also playful and (I think this sometimes gets lost) really flirty and sexy.  It's all-encompassing.  It is the city.

But enough talk, have a listen... [click on the pic]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

#4: The shot.

Similar to my comment regarding the Beatles in the previous post, I've loved sports just about as long as I can remember.  My first love was baseball.  I played little league and, at least for a kid my age, I was pretty damn good (or so my memories tell me).  But on May 7, 1989, a new sport grabbed a hold of me, replacing the game played by the boys of summer as my new favorite pastime.

The sport is basketball.  The event that particular spring day is simply known as "The Shot."  I had been a passing fan of basketball for a couple of years previous and had slowly learned the nuances of the game, like all other sports, from my father.  I recall the Lakers winning it all in '87 and then Pat Riley predicting they'd repeat the next year--which in fact they did thanks in part to Isiah Thomas's sprained ankle.  But "The Shot" was the culmination of those few years as well as the culmination to a game and series.  Also, it was the springboard for what many would say is the greatest individual career in American team sports.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

#3: "It's too hard to sing."

The greatest rock band of all time consisted of four lads from Liverpool.  Don't argue with me on this.  It is a fact.  There are, to be sure, other bands who may have a reasonable claim to this title.  The Rolling Stones come to mind, Velvet Underground and Sex Pistols too, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys.  Different people will have different suggestions.  That's not my point here.  Let's accept the notion that the Beatles are it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

#2: "Walkin' is most too slow."

Naming your desert island discs (the 5 CDs you would take with you if you stranded on a deserted island) is always a fun game to play or a good argument-starter.  I've thought about it many times and, like most things, it'll evolve depending on my mood or what I happened to have been listening to recently.  But while it may not be my favorite album, I don't think I'd ever want to be stranded on an island and not be able to listen to Layla and Other Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

#1: "I've always said I like you without your nose."

Any type of personal biography or description of my particular worldview would and should begin with my fully and eternally disgruntled attitude towards, well, everything around me.  I think that's a strong influence on why I look to the past for the culture (across all media) that I seek to absorb on a regular basis.  It isn't so much that the grass is greener on the other side, it's just that (for the most part) the grass has turned brown and died.  You'll find that many of these entries will end up being older than I.

So with that, my first 30-30 entry will be a TV show that I began religiously watching in high school on Nick at Nite, though I first noticed it when I was much younger watching it on lazy summers before I would go out and play little league.  In high school, which was--WOW!--approximately half my life ago, I don't know if I was as much of a curmudgeon as I am now and I would imagine there was more room for hope.  A lot actually.  And in it's own way, it was a television show that mirrorred the hope of an America in which it happened to be firmly entrenched.  A Kennedys at Camelot for network television.

Yes, we're gonna have a party, party.

A slow crawl of realization has been inching its way towards and through the back of my mind that has now become a freight train of full-on panic consuming my every thought.  What I'm referring to, dear reader, is the arrival of my thirtieth birthday (I spelled out the word because looking at the actual number is much too frightening right now).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Now we are joined in a cobweb of rainbows.

For someone whose TV is constantly on when I'm at home, I watch a remarkably small amount of actual television shows. I don't know who should win "American Idol" or what the deal is with "Lost" (from what I've heard, people who actually do watch it don't know what's up). I never watched "The Sopranos" and have seen only a handful of episodes of "The Simpsons". On close analysis, it seems my TV must be tuned to some kind of sports telecast most of the time.

But it's dawned upon me during the last few months that I have returned to a mode of television viewing that has--now that I think about it--defined a lot of how I watched TV during my teen and even pre-teen years.  And that is NBC's "Must See TV" lineup.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I heard she likes to hit the chocolate... HAAAAAARD!

Monday morning I woke up hazily, unhappily staggering toward a realization that I must return to real life after my nine-day vacation of standing (which sometimes turned into sitting) in long lines, driving between venues, listening to filmmakers and actors, eating a ridiculously insane amount of cranberry raisinets, and, yes, watching movies.

And the movies, on the whole, were superb.  As a group, this was among the strongest roster of films I've seen in my nearly decade of attending the Florida Film Festival.  The quality, neither, did focus itself in one area.  Some years the shorts are great, while the narrative features lack.  Other years, the documentaries clearly outshine the shorts.  But this year, I could have easily picked favorites among shorts, narratives, documentaries, domestic, and international.

So here I go with some recommendations.  Most may never get released at a theater near you.  Some may not even get a DVD release.  But these are among my favorites, so try your best to seek some of them out.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Like a chicken with its head cut off.

I'm on vacation, which must mean it's time for another Florida Film Festival.  The 19th installment of what is steadily becoming one of the premiere fests in the southeast will focus on what has long been one of its charms, Southern hospitality.  With the Enzian as its main location, the dinner theater will once again be a host of not only movies, but a series of food and wine celebrations.  And as is customary, an interesting slate of food-related films will populate the schedule.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Oscar Picks

I got a little sick, so I'm getting this out at the last second.

Given I haven't seen any of the shorts, I'll go ahead and skip those.

Best foreign language film:

Ajami (Israel)
El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Argentina)
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)
Un Prophète (France)
The White Ribbon (Germany)

I have yet to see any of these nominees either, but it seems like the run-up towards the Oscars have narrowed it down to two, Un Prophète and The White Ribbon. Haneke's German-language entry won the Golden Globe and he's the only filmmaker of the group with any large international recognition. However, I believe France's Un Prophète will pull the minor upset.

Best documentary feature:

Burma VJ - Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller
The Cove - Nominees to be determined
Food, Inc. - Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein
The Most Dangerous Man in America - Judith Ehrlich and Rich Goldsmith
Which Way Home - Rebecca Cammisa

I've only seen The Cove and I loved it. It would be interesting, given that the list from which I am copying this has "nominees to be determined", if the film would win, so who will walk up to accept? It seems to be the front runner, so I'll make that my choice, but I think Food, Inc. has a strong shot.

Achievement in makeup:

Il Divo - Aldo Signoretti and Vittorio Sodano
Star Trek - Barney Burman, Mindy Hall, and Joel Harlow
The Young Victoria - Jon Henry Gordon and Jenny Shircore

I've only seen Star Trek, but from what I know about the other films, I think it will win.

Achievement in costume design:

Bright Star - Janet Patterson
Coco Before Chanel Catherine Leterrier
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - Monique Prudhomme
Nine - Colleen Atwood
The Young Victoria - Sandy Powell

My guess here is The Young Victoria, which is the only one on this list I haven't seen. My personal choice would be Catherine Leterrier's work in Coco.

Achievement in sound editing:

Avatar - Christopher Boyes and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
The Hurt Locker - Paul N.J. Ottosson
Inglourious Basterds - Wylie Stateman
Star Trek - Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin
Up - Michael Silvers and Tom Myers

Achievement in sound mixing:

Avatar - Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, and Tony Johnson
The Hurt Locker - Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett
Inglourious Basterds - Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, and Mark Ulano
Star Trek - Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson, and Peter J. Devlin
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, and Geoffrey Patterson

The sound categories are just one of groups of awards that will pit the two juggernauts of the night, The Hurt Locker and Avatar, against each other.

I think The Hurt Locker will win both and it should.

Achievement in visual effects:

Avatar - Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, and Andrew R. Jones
District 9 - Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros, and Matt Aitken
Star Trek - Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh, and Burt Dalton

Really? Avatar will and should win.

Achievement in art direction:

Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg
Set Decoration: Kim Sinclair

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Art Direction: Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro
Set Decoration: Caroline Smith

Art Direction: John Myhre
Set Decoration: Gordon Sim

Sherlock Holmes
Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood
Set Decoration: Katie Spencer

The Young Victoria
Art Direction: Patrice Vermette
Set Decoration: Maggie Gray

Avatar will probably rack up a series of awards during the middle of the ceremony and this will likely be on of them.

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score):

Avatar - James Horner
Fantastic Mr. Fox - Alexandre Desplat
The Hurt Locker - Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders
Sherlock Holmes - Hans Zimmer
Up - Michael Giacchino

I'm leaning toward Horner and Avatar here, but my preference is Desplat and Fox.

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song):

"Almost There" from The Princess and the Frog
Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

"Down in New Orleans" from The Princess and the Frog
Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

"Loin de Paname" from Paris 36
Music by Reinhardt Wagner
Lyric by Frank Thomas

"Take It All" from Nine
Music and Lyric by Maury Yeston

"The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" from Crazy Heart
Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett

"The Weary Kind" is probably not even the best song from Crazy Heart, but it will and should win this category.

Achievement in film editing:

Avatar - Stehen Rivkin, John Refoua, and James Cameron
District 9 - Julian Clarke
The Hurt Locker - Bob Murawski and Chris Innis
Inglourious Basterds - Sally Menke
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire - Joe Klotz

I think the scope of Avatar will win it this category, but I would vote for The Hurt Locker.

Achievement in cinematography:

Avatar - Mauro Fiore
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Bruno Delbonnel
The Hurt Locker - Barry Ackroyd
Inglourious Basterds - Robert Richardson
The White Ribbon - Christian Berger

I've only seen previews of The White Ribbon, but it looks like something the Academy would vote for. Outside of that, again I would go for The Hurt Locker.

Best animated feature film:

Coraline - Henry Selick
Fantastic Mr. Fox - Wes Anderson
The Princess and the Frog - John Musker and Ron Clements
The Secret of Kells - Tomm Moore
Up - Pete Docter

Pixar, with Up, will continue its domination in this award (it's even nominated for best picture this year!), my vote goes to Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Adapted screenplay:

District 9 - Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
An Education - Nick Hornby
In the Loop - Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire - Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air - Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Reitman and Turner for Up in the Air will win and should win. Fletcher's adaptation is likely the only competition.

Original screenplay:

The Hurt Locker - Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino
The Messenger - Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman
A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter
Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy

Tarantino will win and he should.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role:

Matt Damon - Invictus
Woody Harrelson - The Messenger
Christopher Plummer - The Last Station
Stanley Tucci - The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

Waltz will and should win this award.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role:

Penélope Cruz - Nine
Vera Farmiga - Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal - Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick - Up in the Air
Mo'Nique - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

No question Mo'Nique will win this. She probably should, but my personal preference is Kendrick.

Performance by an actor in a leading role:

Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart
George Clooney - Up in the Air
Colin Firth - A Single Man
Morgan Freeman - Invictus
Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker

If I were a voter, this would be the hardest selection, as they're all pretty even in my eyes. I would probably vote for Firth, but I have no qualms with Bridges, who I'm predicting will win for Crazy Heart.

Performance by an actress in a leading role:

Sandra Bullock - The Blind Side
Helen Mirren - The Last Station
Carey Mulligan - An Education
Gabourey Sidibe - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Meryl Streep - Julie & Julia

Maybe the tightest race tonight will be between Bullock and Streep. By a nose, I think Bullock has the momentum and will win her first oscar. My preference would go to Mulligan or Sidibe (and I'm still wondering why Abbie Cornish didn't get a nomination for Bright Star).

Achievement in directing:

James Cameron - Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels - Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Jason Reitman - Up in the Air

Kathryn Bigelow has to win, will win, and without question should win. And in doing so, the Academy will only marginally begin making amends for nearly 90 years of neglecting to give any woman the statue in this category.

Best motion picture:

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Avatar looked to be the early favorite, but The Hurt Locker found a second wave of momentum. Then came Lockergate. I think The Hurt Locker still has the edge. I'd love Up in the Air to win, but it won't, so I'll be happy to see my second favorite movie of the year win.

Let me write down a line of glorious tone

No introduction, other than to say, "here you go":

10. Two Lovers

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his parents in their New York apartment when he meets and becomes obsessed with the upstairs neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). In the meantime he begins a relationship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father's potential business partner. James Gray's writing and three absolutely pitch-perfect performances by the three leads (as well as extremely well-cast supporting roles from Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini, and Elias Koteas) override some of the traditional aspects of this love triangle story and turn it into the most emotionally present American drama of 2009.

9. Summer Hours

Olivier Assayas's French drama is the first of two foreign family dramas on this list--both of which center around family reunions. In short, the main thrust of the film revolves around the death of the family's matriarch and the question of what to do with both her large collection of expensive antiques/art and their old country house. But it's also a film about national identity and how our lives revolve around ceremony and the possession (and accumulation) of inanimate objects.

Greg Mottola's follow-up to 2007's Superbad may lack what that earlier film had in sheer belly laughs. But it makes up for it by being a more honest and realistic portrayal of post-grad languor than Superbad's farcical (albeit incredibly funny and entertaining) look at high school senioritis. Also, any movie that kind of makes me like Ryan Reynolds has accomplished what many have failed to do.

7. Inglourious Basterds

One part spaghetti western, one part The Dirty Dozen, one part revenge thriller, one part revisionist history. All parts Quentin Tarantino. The Basterds of the title actually figure little into the overall arc of the story (though the film ends with them). Instead it's the story of Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), whose family was executed by Col. Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter," (a great Christoph Waltz) in the brilliant--and unsettling--opening scene that serves as the driving force behind the film. What sometimes gets lost in all of the trademark pyrotechnics of Tarantino's mix of dialogue and violence is how strongly and precisely he writes for women. From Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown, Kill Bill to Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds certainly continues in that mode.

Like Adventureland, Lone Scherfig's An Education is its own type of coming-of-age story, in that it's protagonist seems smarter than the world that immediately surrounds her (and knows it), yet there seems to be no way out. Jenny's emergence as a character matches Carey Mulligan's here as an actress. This is her coming out party.

5. Medicine for Melancholy

A lot has been made in recent years about the independent movement called Mumblecore. (The name itself has even been a point of contention.) What separates this particular entry into the movement from the others is that it gives you the view from the young black experience. What sometimes comes off as young twenty-somethings lamenting (or even reveling in) their own ennui in these films is, if not ignored, then pushed slightly to the margins as Jo and Micah (Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac) spend the day together after a one-night stand. Instead it becomes an exploration of class, interracial and sexual politics, and even local (San Franciscan) culture and economics.

4. Bright Star

When John Keats teaches poetry to Fanny Brawne, he describes it as "an experience beyond thought." Director Jane Campion's visual approach seems to subscribe to that same philosophy. The beauty of the cinematography, set design, and art direction is sumptuous and perfectly accompanies the words of Keats, which we often hear either through his letters to Brawne when they are separated or in someone reciting his poetry. Like the brilliant Joe Wright adaptation of Pride & Prejudice a few years back, Bright Star is a period romance that doesn't feel at all like it came out of some distant past, but a living, breathing, fully alive story of two people working out what it means to fall in love.

3. Still Walking

Still Walking, where adult children and their families visit their elderly parents on the fifteenth anniversary of their eldest brother's death, exists as a sort of new millennium companion to Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 masterpiece). And like Hirokazu Kore-eda's previous and devastating Nobody Knows (which made my 2005 top ten), it's quiet and soulful. It's spare and empty in the ways many of its characters feel. But it's more than simply a family drama. It deals with issues of unfulfilled promises and personal repression. It tackles issues of aging and masculinity. It fits in a lot of humanity within the confines of the parents' tiny box of a home.

My top two exist in a virtual tie, so I rank them according to personal preference, the one to which I had a more purely emotional response. For that is the only way I can make the distinction between what I feel are the two best films of 2009:

2. The Hurt Locker

At its core--and this might be particularly reductive--cinema is a visceral experience. And no movie immerses you in its world so fully than Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war drama, The Hurt Locker. From the moment Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) takes over the Bravo Company's Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, it is clear that he is won't handle things predictably (to the dismay of Sgt. J.T. Sanborn--played by a great Anthony Mackie). And it is that tense unpredictability of war, of being out in the field, that Bigelow unfolds her craft masterfully. What is also distinguishable about the film and Mark Boal's terrific screenplay is how it completely eschews all of the divisive politics that have dominated not only the rhetoric of the war itself, but of the sub-genre of these recent Iraq war films. It is a pinhole, a focused look at simply the soldiers and the physical and psychological bludgeoning they take at battle.

1. Up in the Air

I've already written about this movie at length (too much length probably), so I won't expound too much here. Yesterday, I had a discussion with a close friend about, among other things, love and relationships. I won't go into my deliriously fucked-up point-of-view on the subject--my sometimes alternating, pendulum-like philosophy. But what I will say is that it's rare for a film to take a serious and honest (and without condescension) look at a character whose own philosophy on the subject doesn't necessarily conform to ideas of what they should be. If I'm being frustratingly vague here, I don't want to spoil the movie for you if you haven't seen it. Nor do I want to engage in a bit of self-indulgent narcissism. So as I said above--and shoving complete objectivity aside--this is a purely emotional response. 2009 was, in my opinion, a great year for movies, but Jason Reitman's film is the one that will live with me the longest.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

So little time, so many movies.

Okay, so it's near the end of February and I haven't given you my roundup of the best movies of 2009. Not that I haven't been thinking about it or been putting my nose to the grindstone to see movies with a later release or catching up with movies just now on DVD (or Blu-ray or On Demand or whatever new technology is at our disposal). But the laziness ends here. Or at least it does so in part.

Before I give you my ten best movies of 2009, here are the honorable mentions. The ones that barely missed the elite--my almost top ten (in no particular order):

It was a particularly good year for animated movies, so much so that my least favorite of the four that will be included in this almost-list is Pixar's Up. That isn't a criticism of the film--although, like last year's Wall-E, the best moments come toward the beginning of the picture, most notably and brilliantly, a devastating and moving four-minute silent montage that is as touching as any piece of filmmaking of the past calendar year. But it's a testament to how, perhaps, that others have caught up, and have done so in such striking and varied ways.

Delightfully simple, certainly when compared to the work of Pixar, is the DIY Sita Sings the Blues. Interweaving stories from the epic Ramayana to a contemporary narrative and musical interludes based around Annette Hanshaw records of the 1920s, all the while being interrupted and commented on by a type of Greek chorus (think of them as the Muppets' Statler and Waldorf, plus one), Nina Paley's feature debut was one of the standouts of last year's Florida Film Festival and deserves a mention with the more known animations discussed here and elsewhere.

Henry Selick's Coraline is a daring and beautiful work, much darker than many feature-length animations, but full of just as much wonder and magic. I know many who are strong Wes Anderson fans, but I've found much of his career to be terribly uneven. Outside of the categorically brilliant Rushmore, his films have made me alternately chuckle and wince. I think that is partially because the world in Anderson's brain is so idiosyncratic and self-contained that it doesn't exist in any logical reality. So what better vehicle for him to express that world than in a cartoon? Better yet a Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox, a consistently hilarious film with, despite being nominated for other films, arguably George Clooney and Meryl Streep's best performances of 2009.

It seems to be an annual lament that we see a dearth of interesting, three-dimensional portrayals of women coming out of the Hollywood machine. I certainly don't disagree with that assessment, but I would suggest we look elsewhere for the kind of filmmaking that Hollywood is oft-criticized for lacking. With that, 2009 seemed to be quite a good year for female characters and, perhaps more importantly, women behind the camera. Two, Wendy and Lucy (by Kelly Reichardt) and Treeless Mountain (by So Yong Kim), are simple and spare, similar in their plight (of a woman and her dog in the former, two very young sisters in the latter) of characters who are figuratively and literally lost. It's the quiet moments in these movies, the alternating looks of hope and despair that are the most moving. Another is Anne Fontaine's biopic, Coco Before Chanel--a film, as the title would suggest, that tracks the journey leading up to the fashion designer's emergence as a world icon. Going to see it, I sort of expected to be underwhelmed by the traditional trappings of your standard movie biography, but instead the film explores the life of a modern woman determined to carve out her own identity (portrayed wonderfully by Audrey Tatou).

Sugar, the second feature from the duo of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) and Goodbye Solo, the third film from Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop--my #10 movie of 2008), are incredibly strong follow-ups to previously heralded works (and only two of many examples) that suggest that the future of independent American cinema should thrive in the years to come.

I'm as surprised as anyone that I Love You, Man makes this list. The past several years have seen these sort of male-bonding movies come out of the pipeline with seemingly diminishing returns. But what distinguishes this one from the rest of the pack (besides being more consistently funny than most) is that while those other movies--either the successful ones or the lesser so--are only obliquely homoerotic and pretend to be something other than part of what is essentially a boys' club, John Hamburg's film takes that subtext and makes it text. And in that way, the film really gets to something about the manner in which male friends interact. It's not only a bromantic comedy, it's the bromantic comedy.

I've realized now that I've reached ten films and wish I could talk about others that won't make my top list. Others such as the quietly insane A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers or the decidedly not-so-quietly insane Werner Herzog picture Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Or how about Lynn Shelton's Humpday? Or Chan-wook Park's Thirst?

I'll reveal my ten best picks soon, but as this list would hopefully suggest, 2009 was a pretty damn good year for movies. I hope you'll take the time to see some of these.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Simple though love is...

The plate of fries (?), the Temptation-like choreography--

pretty much the coolest guy ever, no?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We are not swans.

About a month ago now, I went to the local IMAX theater to finally see Avatar in 3-D. And as is sometimes customary, I lollygagged and left a little late. Waiting in the longer-than-I-expected line, everyone in front of me was waiting to get tickets to the same film. As the gentleman behind the glass reminded each person that the movie was going to start in 5 minutes, then 3 minutes, then one minute, I resigned myself to the fact I would need to see something else. As I surveyed the red lights of the showtimes displayed behind the single box-office attendant, I landed on Up in the Air. I had seen Jason Reitman's third feature, which stars George Clooney, around Christmas and had already held it in high regard after that first screening. So I decided to give it a second look.

George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, is not unlike the public persona the actor himself possesses--charming, confident, perpetually single. Ryan works for CTC, a company hired out by businesses to fire or layoff its employees. Ryan is one of a couple of dozen CTC employees who fly all over the country for most of the year to do the face-to-face terminations. Like many of us (at least those of us who are lucky to have a job), Ryan's life is his work. "To know me is to fly with me," he says. "This is where I live." When a pilot asks him where he's from, he says "here."

Two complications arise that threaten to figuratively and literally ground Ryan's way of life. The first comes in the form of the arrival of a young upstart named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Natalie's proposal that CTC conducts all of its terminations through video conferencing will effectively end his traveling ways and keep him in the company's home base of Omaha, where he keeps an apartment furnished with little more than a toaster, a toothbrush, and some extra sets of matching suits. But first he must show her the ropes, going city-to-city, sitting face-to-face with the people they must fire. Then midway through their travels they hook up with the second complication, Alex (Vera Farmiga), a business woman who Ryan met earlier and shares his jetsetting, sex-with-no-strings-attached lifestyle.

Natalie and Alex represent two separate phases of woman adulthood--in fact, two different ideals. Natalie, early 20s, recently graduated from college, wants the traditional life: husband, kids, dog, SUV, suburbs. She admits (and only slightly begrudgingly so) that she defines herself by her relationship with a man. Alex, in her late 30s, is successful, worldly, and independent. She's essentially the female equivalent to Ryan. "Just think of me as you, but with a vagina," she tells him over the phone.

Yet while the movie sets up the two women as binary opposites, their characters are so fully drawn that we begin to realize that there is significant overlap, that they don't represent two ends of a spectrum, but a gamut of emotions in between. And the movie doesn't condescend to any of the varying degrees. There is a nice conversation between the two of them shortly after they first meet where they talk about what they want, the kind of future they envision, they kind of men they are looking for. Ryan is present and interjects occasionally, but we really get to know Alex and Natalie.

The film has a genuine affection for all of the people who inhabit it and all of their points of view. For instance, Ryan's sister Julie and her fiancé Jim at first come off as a bit goofy and oddball, but we slowly get to know them and even understand an apparently cheesy wedding project they've asked their friends to undertake. Ryan even, the perpetual bachelor, must come to the rescue when Jim gets cold feet. And his attempt to get him to the altar is similarly genuine, even if he doesn't necessarily subscribe to it as it applies to himself.

To me, the magic of Hollywood doesn't exist necessarily in its ability to transport you to new and faraway lands or offer tales of wonder and grand adventure. Don't get me wrong, there is greatness to be found in those types of films, certainly--films such as The Wizard of Oz, or Star Wars, or, yes, Avatar. But I believe the classics of Hollywood cinema come out of a tradition that finds a balance between the serious matters of its contemporary world and light, frothy entertainment.

Up in the Air has already been compared by many to the works of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, directors who made the wittiest and most enjoyable comedies in the history of film, all the while engaging with the social realities of the depression, during which many of these pictures were set and made. I'd even include some of the works of Billy Wilder, who deftly mixed sarcastic cynicism and a weary, guarded optimism.

As reticent as I am to immediately anoint contemporary films to the level of these established classics, I have to say I kind of agree with it here. That all of this happens over the sobering reality of the downsizing I feel may seem to some as dismissive or even smug, but instead of being what could have been a garish collision of these two sensibilities--the light, almost screwball threesome of Ryan, Alex, and Natalie and the darker moments of the layoff scenes--the film is a smart and tasteful mix of the two. I'm not sure the film has anything new to say about the world we live in today (the current state of the economy, anyway), but it does seem to get the breadth of human experience--the range of it allowed us. In that way, Up in the Air isn't so much deep as it is wide. But that's a big reason why I see it as the movie of this particular moment--the one Hollywood movie that most captures how broad life is today. And that the film is open to that sentiment is a bit of a miracle.

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 109 m)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A hobby is a hobby.

Early in Lone Scherfig's An Education, Jenny is seen reading a copy of Albert Camus's existentialist tome, The Outsider, while sitting with her classmates in an English cafe. In a way, this is everything you need to know about Jenny, a 16-year-old Twickenham schoolgirl. She’s a bit of an outsider herself. Not that she doesn’t have friends or even the attention of the boys in her class. It’s that she’s better than all of it. She’s a big fish in a small pond. Her ambitions to attend Oxford are to experience the finer things in life. She wants to listen to good music, eat at good restaurants, watch French movies, discuss--obviously--existentialist novels. But to her father, a post-secondary education is simply the most practical alternative in the event she doesn’t find a husband to support her. When David, an older, richer, more worldly man drives up to her at the bus stop on a cold, rainy English afternoon, she finds her way to a bigger pond.

The story of a thirty-something seducing a 16-year-old in pre-hippie London may sound more like a TV movie-of-the-week, but An Education is smarter and more subtle. At its surface (and what a slick, shiny surface it is), the film tracks Jenny and David's courtship and the whirlwind of opportunity it creates for her to live a world outside the doldrums of her Twickenham existence. Through David, she gets to experience her ambitions first-hand, bouncing from art auctions to jazz clubs to fancy restaurants to a visit to Oxford. Instead of listening to French records in her bedroom or watching French movies at the cinema, she actually gets to visit Paris.

But underneath it, An Education explores what it means to be complicit in the lifestyle you choose (or choose to turn your back on). Complicity seems to be the oft-overlooked component of the perpetually dissatisfied. Our lives, despite the certain presence of unchangeable social, economic, and physiological factors, are of our own making. It may or may not turn out as planned but we all have some sort of hand in creating and changing it. When Jenny decides to overlook some seedier aspects of what David does for a living or contemplates not attending Oxford at all, they are life-defining moments of her own choosing. When Jenny's parents allow their daughter to date a wealthy man more than twice her age, they are complicit in whatever the resulting fallout may be.

At the center of the film is of course Jenny, in a performance by Carey Mulligan that will almost certainly earn her an Oscar nomination. It's one that requires her to display quite a range--from idealistic to cynical; from poised to wide-eyed and back again. In so many movies these days, we are required to laugh at the characters. We look down on them for their stupidity or ignorance and, in many cases, these films want us to find these traits acceptable or even endearing. It is rare and refreshing to see a character as intellectually present as Jenny, one who--despite her obvious youth and naïveté--just sort of gets it all:

I’m still trying to work out what
makes good things good. It’s
hard, isn’t it?

The thing is, Jenny, you know,
without necessarily being able to
explain why. You’ve got taste.
That’s not even half the
battle. That’s the whole war.