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)