Sunday, February 28, 2010

Scorsese, Shutter Island, and Auteurism

As always, but it bears another mention in this case, no spoilers unless noted.

"Interesting directors make interesting films."

It's a fairly simple, obvious statement, but in making it, Glenn Kenny sort of blows out of the water a topic that took hold of film criticism, both in print and online, in the week or so surrounding the release of Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island. The question was, "did critics give Shutter Island a break simply for being directed by Martin Scorsese?"

In the weeks following the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, my girlfriend asked if my growing esteem for the film stemmed purely from it being directed by David Fincher. I sort of stumbled through a response, which included the fact that most of what I responded to in the film was the direction, but also that there are aspects to Fincher's work (both in the plot-oriented, twist-ending puzzle phase of his career, and whatever you'd label his post-Panic Room work) that I simply respond to. These can be difficult to put into words, but it's become clear that Fincher makes certain decisions and has certain concerns (aesthetic, moral, cinematic, thematic) that operate on a wavelength that reaches me. I could say the same of Malick, Resnais, Godard, Welles, Bergman, Antonioni, Coppola (Francis and Sofia), Kubrick, the Coens, Anderson (Wes and P.T.), Hawks, Van Sant, Soderbergh, Crowe, or, indeed...Scorsese. These are directors who, more than simply turning out work I consistently enjoy (that'd be a whole other list), clearly have a lot to say to me, and to whom I respond intensely and personally, even if I can acknowledge that their latest isn't all that good.

So, have critics given Scorsese a break this time around?

More after the jump...

Monday, February 22, 2010

PIFF Review: Everyone Else (dir. Maren Ade)

Love-on-the-rocks stories litter cinematic history, but they always make it seem a lot more fun than it really is. You know, people are shouting at each other and making snide, cutting remarks and generally walking about feeling a great deal superior to the other person. The reality, which writer/director Maren Ade nails to a horrifying T in depicting a week (or so) in the relationship between Chris (Lars Eidinger) and Gitti (Birgit Minichmeyr), is that it's a lot more uncomfortable and ill-defined.

In this case, Gitti is stuck with the constant feeling that in spite of one's best efforts, or worst of all because of them, that things are just going to take their course no matter what. For Chris, it's the other side of the equation, the increasing feeling that he has no idea who this person is that he seems to be spending so much time with, plagued on several sides by mounting professional difficulty, personal disappointment, and the general notion that everyone else (title alert!) has a better relationship than they do. And like most guys, he shares almost none of this with Gitti, instead allowing his tension to become their tension, only about other things altogether.

More after the jump...

PIFF Thoughts: Wild Grass (dir. Alain Resnais)

A review, to me anyway, implies a final verdict reached about a film, album, book, whatever, even if that verdict might change over time. At this stage, I have no problem admitting that I don't have a final verdict on Alain Resnais' Wild Grass. What follows is roughly my thought process since seeing the film Saturday night, a form of criticism probably better suited to this film than any typical capsule review.

Jean-Luc Godard once said of Alain Resnais that he, "more than anyone else, gives the impression that he started completely from zero." If you can truly grasp the idea of someone directing a film from that starting point, you might have a chance to appreciate Resnais' latest film. I'm not sure that I do. I'm not totally sure what it is. The most freely-associative film of the year? The decade? Resnais's career? Full of shifting tones, abrupt edits, inconsistent characters (or those who lack concrete motivation entirely), and false endings, Wild Grass is the film every film school tells you not to make. But, contrary to my anti-institutional nature, I had to ask coming out of the theater - is that necessarily a good thing?

More after the jump...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"After the cinema, nothing surprises you."

None of these images are in Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, at least not exactly. And yet...well, more thoughts forthcoming.

A photograph taken during filming

Alain Resnais scouting locations

 The official poster, which officially kicks every other poster's ass.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Basics: Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

This is a response to an open invitation from Drew McWeeny of HitFix

I have a checkered history with Woody Allen that runs the gamut of loving and deeply responding to his work (Radio Days), being reasonably entertained (Sleeper, Match Point, Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, Sweet and Lowdown), almost hating (Vicky Christina Barcelona), and finally, respecting but feeling emotionally "meh" towards (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Purple Rose of Cairo). Approaching a new Woody Allen film (well, new to me anyway) is always a mixture of curiosity, anticipation, and dread - what's the latest cinematic classic that I'll have to admit with no lack of embarrassment that I don't really care for?

Such, sadly, is the case with Manhattan.

I say "sadly" because I hate not responding to movies that are this well done. There's really no reason for me to not like this movie. Allen, as he is wont to do, crafted really great, well-rounded characters, put them in compelling, totally relatable scenarios, and not only kept them behaving like people rather than plot or thematic devices, but made that just as important to the film as what it says about modern romance. And if all that seems really easy, try writing a screenplay this honest, fresh (for the time), thematically sound, and emotionally relevant and then come back to me and tell me Allen's work here is no small feat.

If Allen is at fault for anything, it's for doubting his strengths. When, for instance, Isaac (the Woody surrogate in the film) lays back on the couch at the end of the film, relating to his tape recorder all the things that make life worth living, and stumbles upon "Tracy's face." Recalling a...high school sweetheart of sorts, that moment tells us everything the previous scene, filled with late-expository dialogue, did, and more. It sums up the totality of regret as one of life's inevitabilities.

By now, it should come as little surprise that a Woody Allen film is a tad overwritten - how many times does he need to tell his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) that he doesn't approve of her publishing a book about their divorce? - but even when he has characters sit around and tell us what they think, it cuts to the core of what makes them tick. In a pivotal, conflict-ridden scene between Allen and Diane Keaton, playing one of Allen's love interests, we see the depths to which Mary (Keaton) chases drama and how quickly Isaac finds comfort.

What bothers, and paradoxically fascinates, me most, however, is the shine Allen has taken to these people, particularly (surprise, surprise) Isaac. The characters Allen plays in every film are inevitably accused of being self-centered, narcissistic, and various other synonyms for said behavior, and Allen has clearly heard those criticisms in real life while never actually applying it to his art. For as flawed and heartless and brutal as the other characters can be, Allen's characters aren't actually any better, and yet they're always given the last word and always given a chance to atone, even if the success of that attempt may vary.

Further, in any given argument, they're always right. Or so the film insists Any question the film may pose, be it philosophical, cultural, moral, whatever, Allen is always portrayed as the piece's superior. And while it's obviously okay, and more often than not encouraged, for an artist to give us his view of the world, it's another to handle it so awkwardly and blatantly, sacrificing the drama of giving us a central character who's often wrong, and has to live with the consequences of poor choices.

Finally, I should mention that while I have a problem with Allen's big picture, I have absolutely no qualms with the big pictures he and cinematographer Gordon Willis created here. There's not much to say that hasn't been said better elsewhere, but it's quite frequently pretty stunning stuff. Allen probably would have benefited from a costume designer better acquainted with monochrome (the grays tend to blend together), but it's pretty amazing he didn't work with that stock - or in 2:35 - more often. This is the kind of stuff they invented the big screen for, the kind we've been in danger of losing since the advent of home video.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thank You, DVD Beaver

Sometimes they pick just the right image in their screencaps.

I still maintain that 2012 is a much better movie than it would ever get credit for, especially in comparison to the other blockbusters this year (except Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was just wonderful). It's one thing to be formulaic, but it's another to actually have fun within that formula, and that's exactly what Roland Emmerich does (sadly, I can't find a video file of the chicken doing a double-take, probably the best illustration of how gonzo the movie is, but I'm sure it'll crop up eventually).

Doesn't Get Better Than This

Over eighty years later, this is still one of the most astounding, audacious, and thoroughly hilarious scenes in film history. We watched this in a Film History course freshman year, and I don't think I've ever been in a class so overcome with laughter - and I took an course on American Film Comedy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sullivan's Travels, Rosselini's War Trilogy, and the Problem of Poverty

So I finally saw Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) yesterday, and had a hard time figuring out what the film was actually about. For those who don't know, the film is about a director, John L. Sullivan ("Sully"), who wants to make a socially conscious, realistic, uncompromising film about the human condition. When his producers point out that he doesn't know the first thing about a hard knock life, he sets out on the road to make one. Anyway, I got the film's resulting message about how important it is to make movies that make people laugh, especially in tough times. But they outright state that at the beginning, it's expressed in the church scene, and it's stated again by Joel McCrea at the end, when he says he hasn't had the experience necessary to make his serious, socially responsible film about the "suffering of humanity."

But what about everywhere in between? I've read that the film is a satire, but of what? Hollywood's desire to directly tackle poverty and suffering without having experienced it? That would seem to be the case, but that's exactly what Sullivan's Travels is - for all its comedy and playfulness, there are large sections of the film dedicated to showing the toll the Great Depression had taken, and at the time was continuing to take on people. How is the sequence where Sully goes to a work camp so different from much of Ford's The Grapes of Wrath? It IS a Hollywood-produced film about the "suffering of humanity." Doesn't that make the film more than a little dishonest?

What compounds this problem is the film's repeated declaration that the poor don't want to see their problems onscreen; they'd rather laugh. That's a fine sentiment and all, but isn't either assumption too great? I would argue that making any kind of film under the pretense of what one believes the audience, particularly a lower-class audience, needs is always going to be self-serving and condescending, whether it proves true or not. Laughter is a noble pursuit, but it should never be pursued nobly, which is sort of the tone I got from Sullivan's Travels - as great a sense of self importance as Sullivan himself takes on when he first pitches O Brother Where Art Thou? By the end, we're exactly where we were in the beginning, only by different means.

It would be impossible for me to not contrast this with the three films that comprise Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy - Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948) - recently released in a superlative-inducing box set by The Criterion Collection, which I received in the mail a week ago. The Trilogy so actively rebukes Sturges' claims that, in cinema, it's more worthwhile to make people laugh than to cry. That the films so brazenly and without hesitation tackle the important social issues of the day without apology, and that Rossellini is a director who followed his instincts while Sully is praised for playing it safe only makes the issue so much more clear-cut.

No doubt one could point out that Sullivan simply claimed he didn't have the necessary experience to make O Brother Where Art Thou?, while Rossellini and his collaborators were drawing on direct experience. Until Germany Year Zero of course. As much as the film is a political statement about the lasting effects of Nazism, it's also a stunningly sympathetic portrait in what Rossellini termed (in an introduction to the film) "the context of their tragedy, their drama." He knew the effects of war firsthand, so, sure, he had an emotional "in," but he made the effort "to go see the Germans close up," which is the exact parallel to the quest Sturges mocks Sullivan for.

But what one comes to appreciate more when viewing these four films is that Rossellini doesn't treat the impoverished with any less respect. He and his collaborators made honest, revealing films about the times, and the very people those films were about responded to them. Audiences responded to Sturges as well, but I was shocked at the attitude the film takes towards the poor, in statements like "[poverty] is to be stayed away from...It is to be shunned" and the subtle condescension of Sully's conclusion: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

It may be true, but it still felt raw and cold in my stomach as I saw a man on a private plane celebrated for this statement.

Artistic instincts are worth pursuing; populist instincts are not. Making something according to what you think the audience wants is an empty goal. Instead, the artist should make something he or she finds thrilling, and if loads of people respond to it, all the better (as in Star Wars, for example). I've often found that the intent in making a picture comes through clearly, and films are made better when made with good intent.


Monday, February 15, 2010


Subtitle: The Story of American Film Criticism. Yes, this is porn for people like me.

The film, miraculously, in a spare 80 minutes, absolutely lives up to that title - both of them, actually - diving into the very origins of film criticism and taking us all the way up to the present, providing depth to stories I've heard many times (Andrew Sarris vs. Pauline Kael; the development of the auteur theory; the web invasion), people I needed reminding of (James Agee, here I come), and stuff I was completely unfamiliar with (the birth of film criticism that not only made it a viable profession, but also made film a viable artistic medium).

And really, it's always a joy to hear some of my favorite critics talk about almost anything - Roger Ebert, Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott, Karina Longworth, J. Hoberman...all people worth listening to anytime. Again, this is basically porn and I wonder if it has any appeal at all to anyone not already predisposed to it...

And yet, the film poses questions that I think about constantly, but probably don't occur to most people; everything from the tired "does film criticism matter anymore?" (which leads naturally to "do movies matter anymore?") to "is it important to date someone who also cares about movies?" I would imagine somewhere between those two realms are issues worth considering for anyone interested in art and culture, to which film is unquestionably bound.

So I'd say go see this movie and find some great conversation fodder, but it's gone from the Portland International Film Festival and there's no distributor attached to the thing - the director has taken to selling DVDs at, and good on him for it. The website also has info on upcoming screenings in such cities as Seattle, Olympia, LA, Cleveland, Ashland, Brooklyn, and more, so if you're so so inclined, please do check it out.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


The Good, The Bad, The Weird has two strikes against it almost immediately - its story and characters are paper thin, and it's clearly borrowing heavily from cinematic history, most obviously from Sergio Leone's absolutely brilliant The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, from which it takes its plot and three main characters (though without most of the specifics Leone's actors brought to theirs).

This all ceases to be a problem fairly quickly.

This is the most balls-out, absolutely reckless, totally irresponsible, madcap action movie I've seen...quite possibly ever. To put it in perspective, if you were to reign this in a little and refine it, you'd have Kill Bill, Vol. 1. So if you thought that was a wild ride, you don't know the half of it.

Sometime in the 1930s Manchuria, a treasure map is discovered, and naturally, everyone wants to get their mitts on it. That's it. That's the whole story. We mainly follow three men in their quest. The Good can be summed up as the Clint Eastwood substitute. The Bad isn't even worthy of comparison Lee Van Cleef, but is working in the similar sort of mold - the best at what he does, and he knows it. The Weird is the closest the film comes to having a real character, due in large part to Kang-ho Song's performance. The nerd contingent will know him from his work in The Host, which gave us a very similar character.

The movies couldn't be more different. While The Host balanced its monster mayhem by scratching the surface of political commentary and family drama, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is all insanity, all the time. Even when the film isn't in balls-out action mode, which I'd say accounts for at least half the running time, the character banter is lively (when told the price on his head is 300 won, The Weird replies, "I'm only worth a piano?") and the tone remains light.

But make no mistake, everyone in attendance was there because they heard something about the action, and though the cast is more sprawling than I made it sound at first, you needn't bother keeping track of everyone's motivations. If you find yourself wondering who a character is and what his motivation is in the battle, just placate yourself by saying "oh, he's the guy shooting that guy." Who's that guy? Oh, he's the one who just got shot off his motorcycle, which went tumbling over him, all in a single shot. The idea that no one died during the production of this film - at least, I assume that's the case - is astounding, as the reality of these fights is rarely in question.

With a reported budget of between $10 and $17 million USD (tracking down a definite figure is a little tough), co-writer/director Kim Ji-woon has completely blown the doors off anything I've seen from Hollywood in...well, Kill Bill comes close, but only in tone. In terms of action accomplishment, this, to my eyes, is unmatched - I cannot think of another action movie that has thrilled me so thoroughly, and pleased me so deeply. And while I'm normally not a proponent of pure spectacle, one has to make exceptions when the spectacle is this, well...spectacular. Consistently inventive and thoroughly in love with cinema in every frame, this is the kind of movie worth going to the movies for.

Portland residents have two more opportunities to catch this at the Portland International Film Festival - Monday, February 15th at 4:00 at the Whitsell Theater, and Wednesday, February 17th at 9:15 at the Broadway (and if it's anything like the screening I saw there, they crank the volume WAY up). Everyone else will have an opportunity to catch it when IFC Films releases it On Demand on March 31st, and in theaters beginning April 9th. It's also currently available on DVD in non-Region 1 if you're so inclined.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Staying Ahead of the Curve...For Once

Today marks the start of a very exciting couple of weeks.

I've never really been able to invest in a film festival before, due to a combination of location (never living in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles...Cannes) and lack of money (to get to those places, or to invest in Boston's one great festival, the Independent Film Festival of Boston). This year, however, I said "screw it!" and bought six tickets to six movies playing at the Portland International Film Festival.

So tonight I'm off to see The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, which has been playing at and random exhibitions seemingly nonstop for the last two years. Tomorrow, I'll be catching a documentary that premiered in Boston, but which work prevented me from attending, called For the Love of Movies. Next weekend is absolutely jam-packed, with a three-movie stint on Saturday of Waking Sleeping Beauty, Everyone Else, and the movie I'm looking forward to most of all, Alain Resnais' Wild Grass. I'll be cooling down the following day with Peter Greenaway's Rembrandt's J'Accuse. Naturally, although these have all played at one festival or another, they've yet to see proper distribution, so it all feels very exclusive and exciting.

And SOMEHOW, I'm determined to work in The White Ribbon, The Last Station, and Shutter Island next weekend.

This all, in addition to the recent OnDemand options of Fish Tank, the Red Riding trilogy, Police, Adjective, all of which I'll finally be capitalizing on. And then on February 26th, A Town Called Panic plays at the Hollywood Theatre. And...maybe Polanski's The Ghost Writer will come out here soon? Please?

Living in Portland makes it tough a lot of the time to see the movies you want to see when you want to see them, but when they all pile up in such a satisfying manner (a month that has new films by Alain Resnais, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Michael it November already?), it's hard to get too down about it.

Reviews, of course, forthcoming. But for now I am downright ecstatic.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Five Most Romantic Films....EVER

Well, I mean, I haven't exactly seen every movie ever made...but you know, that aside...

Though I am a twenty-something straight man, I love romantic films. I'll rush out and see anything that tastes of romance - no, not Valentine's Day or Bounty Hunter or insert-wacky-rom-com here (although I did watch He's Just Not That Into You on a plane, and it only held up this assertion), because those aren't romantic movies, they're deeply greedy ones, made purely to prey on a demographic and take all the money they can from them. Like much of our irony-clad generation, such films are scared to actually feel anything.

Genuinely romantic movies are hard to find, but when I do, I just fall for them so totally and purely, it's quite unlike anything else. So while most men shudder at the thought of admitting they're touched by romance, I want to take this moment to loudly proclaim how wonderful romantic movies are, because these movies made me feel something totally different and so much more rewarding than the majority of cinema.

These are films oozing romance in the best way, the films about falling in love, which is different than being in love or certainly the idea of love itself. These are about that spark, that joy, that ecstasy of meeting somebody and being absolutely certain they're the one for you. It's the feeling Valentine's Day is based on (the day, not the movie), so hey, look at how timely I am.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)   If, after Boogie Nights and Magnolia, you told me Anderson understood romance this well, I'd have punched you in the face (this would also require me to be a much more violent person). Of course, he does it very much his own way - the numerous neuroses and anger issues bestowed upon our protagonist, Barry Egan, feels like they must have come from the Coens' Serious Man process of "just how much can we make this guy's life suck?" - but this film is as delightfully swooning as Jon Brion's score and as electrifying and joyful as that light that comes on in the pay phone Barry uses in Hawaii. Simply, there is no other film that makes love so sweet.

THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (Jacques Demy, 1967)    Not only a better film than his more highly-regarded The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but so much more romantic as well. Just as Anderson used music and lighting to craft the romance of Punch-Drunk Love, Demy uses camera movement, blocking, and choreography. And songs...oh, what songs. This really is the most musical of all musicals, as the song/story dichotomy is much less jarring than a typical musical, with singing and dancing breaking out at seemingly random, but reflectively perfect instances in what could otherwise be a totally mundane shot. This is quite possibly the happiest movie ever made, and Lord do I love it for that.

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (John Patrick Shanley, 1990)    Yes sir, I'm one of those. Joe Versus the Volcano is one of my favorite movies, period, for its refusal to accept that life could ever be anything other than an adventure. And has there ever been a more literal, practical romantic line than, "Nobody knows anything, Joe. We'll take this leap, and we'll see. We'll jump, and we'll see. That's life, right?" What else is life but going halfway around the world to find love?

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)    For my money, the sexiest film ever made. The Lubitsch Touch was never so totally refined and perfected as it is here, which means it's nonstop sex, jokes, wit, charm, and totally superficial romance, and the unrepressed joy that goes along with all of it.

BEFORE SUNRISE/BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, 1995 and 2004)    Yada yada yada, voice of a generation, yada yada, ethereal, yada, the trouble of romance in the modern world, yada, the fleeting nature of a night's worth of feelings, yada. Not much left to say about these films, other than I fervently believe they're equally romantic, but by different means, and that I've yet to meet anyone who didn't fall for their charms. Not that I doubt those people exist, and I'm sure with the Internet I could find them, but...romance is the most subjective of genres, and I feel no strong need to tear down the way these make me feel.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Okay...A FEW Words...

I'm not going to labor intensely over the recently-announced Academy Award nominations, but I do want to make a point of two things. One, the ten nominees for Best Picture idea turned out a LOT better than anyone, myself included, believed they would. When the worst you can say is that Avatar - a monumentally ambitious failure that had too much momentum not to be nominated - and The Blind Side - a modest, flawed, heartfelt crowd pleaser - were among them, you're still doing pretty well. Especially when, on the flip side, they also nominate The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and A Serious Man. And when they don't cave to populist pressure by nominating Star Trek or The Hangover (although I'd rather see the latter replace The Blind Side or Avatar, I really don't care enough about any of those movies to raise my voice over it).

But the main field of nominees - and the reactions they've provoked - I take issue with is that of Best Cinematography, a field that many people who watch the Oscars would rather see wiped from the ceremony, but which true film lovers know is as important as Best Actor. As a refresher, let's take a look at the five nominees....

The White Ribbon
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Guess which one got the most ire? I'll give you a hint - it's, wildly enough, not the one that was an animated movie 60% of the time. Yes, proving that well-lit, impeccably composed films with glorious camera movements will be overlooked if they belong to a franchise, the cinephile community in Internetland has taken up arms over the nomination of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. An assumption has arisen in our look-driven culture that films, blockbusters in particular, have to simply press the "pretty" button on Final Cut Pro to suddenly turn the film into an austere work of beauty. While post-production continues to lay greater and greater claim over cinema itself, the idea (and, granted, it's a passive one) that a cinematographer is simply there to turn the camera on is woefully misguided.

But while I have no problem wondering if the average person knows what a cinematographer does, sometimes I ask myself if the cinematographer's branch of the Academy knows what a cinematographer does. Wikipedia provides a convenient, succinct, and fairly comprehensive definition of cinematography, noting it "is the making of lighting and camera choices when recording photographic images for the cinema." Where, then, does Avatar fit in? While there is a crucial live-action component to Avatar, in which photographic images were recorded (and we'll get to that in a second), roughly 60% of the movie takes place in an animated world. One informed by performance capture, perhaps, but one nonetheless built in a computer. Most of what we see in Avatar wasn't captured, it was created, which is fine for cinema but not for considerations of cinematography.

All of that would be discarded, however, if the live-action component was all that impressive. Instead, I was astounded by how utterly misguided it was, as director James Cameron and director of photography Mauro Fiore (a talented DP who gave a necessary jolt of life to Smokin' Aces, Training Day, and was easily the best part of The Island) threw out any consideration of the 3D aspect. Too often one side of the frame would be partly clogged by an out-of-focus shoulder, which not only thrusts a blurry object in the viewer's foreground, but also ignores the key concept in the foundation of anamorphic widescreen, which is that it does not do over-the-shoulder shots very well. Additionally, they discarded the very idea that shooting in HD and 3D would require everything to be in focus, and with those two technologies, there is no reason it couldn't be. As a result, almost every live-action shot has something blurry in 3D messing with the frame and the amount of strain your eyes can handle, never mind totally ignoring the fact that the entire idea of focal points is useless in a 3D film - 3D can guide our eyes towards what they want us to focus on.

The lighting was adequate, but nothing to write home about, and this being Cameron, the framing is genuinely astute but rarely exceptional. In a year that produced Bright Star, A Serious Man, Where the Wild Things Are, and A Single Man, this nomination is nothing short of baffling.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009

As previously stated, there were a bounty of good-to-great movies this year. I am shocked at some of the films that didn't make this list, films I saw and were certain would hold strong 'til the year's end. Some of those came out in December, even, so I either forgot about how many movies I'd said that about, or - and this is absolutely true - I actually only saw some of these only in the last few weeks. Some others rose immensely in my esteem, and the list refused to be complete without them.

This really isn't the list I thought it'd be (for starts, it's the first time an animated film has ever made the list), and although I say this every year, I feel better about this list than any other I've made before. I'll stand by these film to the death. You may disagree, and that's all well and good, but this ain't totally objective. These films spoke to me on some fundamental level and I love 'em to bits.

So, without further ado...

Honorable Mention

Every year, I pick a film or two that had a few problems with it that keep it out of the top ten, but is notable in some other way that attention just must be called to it. This year, that film is...

This is pretty simple - it remains, to date, the best argument for 3D as an artistically viable option in cinema. Avatar was fine and all, but it's a) not half as good all around as Coraline is, and b) doesn't even begin to tap into 3D as an extension of art or theme. Selick has a great venue here, as the two worlds Coraline moves between create natural uses for depth and perspective, and the film was not only made more entertaining by its third dimension, but actually a better film. It really is just flat-out awesome, too. (Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

And now...the rest.

Just Missed the List: Treeless Mountain, The Informant!, The Messenger, The Girlfriend Experience, An Education

10. Two Lovers
Already, thinking back on this film, I kind of regret not picking Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor...but nevertheless! James Gray's latest film is one of the best films about love to come out over the last decade, one of the few to treat it absolutely seriously, and it's so deeply moving. Gray and his wonderful actors (including Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, and the always-astounding Elias Koteas) display that rare gift of being unafraid to completely express themselves and totally successful in their accomplishment in doing so. A near-perfect film that could so often take a wrong turn but never does. (Now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

9. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
So...until I started to write the descriptions of the films I selected for the Top Ten, this wasn't on here. But I watched it again a couple of weeks ago, and have been convinced that it truly stands up as one of the best films of the year. For starters, no joke, it's the most I laughed during any movie all year. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller pack as many jokes as possible into every bit of this movie, filling the frame with jokes that can just as easily whiz by as totally captivate, and bringing relentlessness back to animation. The movie really seems to never stop, but when it does, it manages to be genuinely, and unexpectedly, touching. (Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

8. Humpday/Whip It
I've never done ties before, but I felt compelled to cram these both in here, and I think they complement each other nicely. Each represent the modern "indie" film - both are independent productions, though the latter is obviously more studio-ready (big stars, studio lighting and camerawork, etc.), and they both are totally accessible and entertaining in very mainstream ways. This isn't to say that non-mainstream is bad (as you'll soon see), but each toy with accessibility in different ways. Humpday is a largely-improvised part of the "mumblecore" movement (a name everyone hates defining a movement that never really happened), but the structure imposed on it makes it tighter, more focused, and ultimately more rewarding than its more wandering brethren. Whip It, on the other hand, is almost crushed by its predictable sports-movie structure, were it not for the little moments of bliss and genuinely thrilling sequences.

Both are incredibly entertaining, very moving, often funny, and insightful. (Humpday is available on DVD and Netflix streaming; Whip It is available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

7. The Hurt Locker
The thing about movies that get months and months of buzz and everyone keeps talking about how great they are and omigodyouhavetoseethatmovie is that they're rarely as good as everyone says. The Hurt Locker is exactly as good as everyone says it is. A wonderful, effortless illustration of the casualties of war without making a point of being about the casualties of war (aside from a fairly unnecessary quote at the beginning), The Hurt Locker is also a hell of a thriller/action/edge-of-your-seat kind of movie, a great use of the episodic structure that often automatically gets dismissed, and of course, as hopefully will be reinforced on Oscar night, the BEST-directed film of the year. Kathryn Bigelow's achievement here is forceful, graceful, and absolutely perfect, and the film would be half of what it is without her. (Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

6. Silent Light
When the film's fans rise up to defend Avatar - and they will, often violently - they'll excuse everything else and say "but it's just such an experience," and I'd be with them, too, had Cameron's film actually devoted itself to that and not been so obviously concerned with its story. This isn't to say that Carlos Reygadas, writer and director of Silent Light, wasn't concerned with his story, it's just that my principal reaction to this film was as a total cinematic experience. It was only after, as I wandered Portland for a good twenty or thirty minutes before actually heading in the general direction of my car, that the story started to sink in, and what I saw held up as a real, tangible thing. (Now available on DVD and Netflix streaming)

5. You, the Living
A few times every year, a film like You, the Living (which Netflix correctly describes as exploring "the dark side of existence and the complexity of the human condition") will come out and a great many people will exclaim, "see, artsy movies can be entertaining too!" And while I have fundamental issues with the idea that a movie has to be entertaining to be good, it is kind of fun when the two intersect this neatly. For, as deep and complex and artful as You, the Living is, it's also a blast to watch. I won't spoil it, but there's a scene involving that tablecloth trick (where you yank out the tablecloth but the place settings remain) that's one of the funniest things I saw all year. (Now available on DVD and Netflix streaming)

4. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino, even more than Paul Thomas Anderson, is too often criticized for knowing too much about movies and not enough about life. This, of course, presupposes that every film has to be about life (or even more so, a movie about movies), and even if that were true, how do we account for those directors who make movies their life? Tarantino's Basterds is a total expression of the power of cinema - how it can form your worldview, tear it down and build it up again, move the mountains of history, and even defeat the Nazis. It's gotten a lot of ink for being Jewish Revenge Porn (I think that's how Eli Roth termed it), but those who carefully compare their own reactions to the early Basterds scenes with how the Nazi party reacts to Nation's Pride will find so much more. (Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

3. A Serious Man
There are some films so hellbent on being bleak and depressing, they start to become a little funny in their determination to torture their main character. In Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man, that's the whole point. As non-laugh comedy goes, this was the funniest movie I've seen in years, and those moments that did provoke an audible response had me in stitches. The Coens can be, and have been, accused of taking their whimsy too far, but it often seems perfectly tempered to me, coming out here in the defining characteristics of each performance, be in the way a member of the tenure committee stands in a doorway, the way Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman (the best-named character of the year) says anything and everything, the way Richard Kind comes stumbling out of the water, and each and every movement of Michael Stuhlbarg's criminally under-recognized performance. Oh, and like most of my favorite films, the end's a doozy. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray February 9th)

2. Summer Hours
This knocked me on my ass when I saw it in May and I'm still unable to stop thinking about it. It's a quiet film, to be sure, with only a hint of the drama that usually burdens "family dramas." Whereas many a blockbuster go on and on and on...and on, and never really get anywhere, Olivier Assayas takes under two hours to create a wonderful meditation on the erosion of family ties, the shrinking world, the art of economics, the generation gap, the modern indifference towards familial legacy, the machinations of inheritance, and, most touchingly, the creation of a new legacy. The great majority of the film had me immensely moved, captivated, and impressed. By the end, that rare, incredible, goose-pimply feeling enveloped me, and I was in absolute awe. (Available on Netflix streaming, on DVD and Blu-Ray April 20th)

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Yeah, still working on how to describe how truly wonderful this movie is. If directing can be defined as making a million small decisions that somehow add up to a cohesive, artful whole, one COULD make the argument that Wes Anderson is the best director of the year. By building a certain folk-American tradition into Roald Dahl's British novel, rolling his own eccentricities and concerns into it, making (by modern standards) outrageous demands on his animation team - real fur, no CGI influence, 12 frames per second instead of 24, and casting the film to perfection whether that means an A-list actor (giving one of his best performances, as it turns out) or his close friends (or people who fall into both categories), Wes Anderson has truly crafted a film within an inch of its life that feels at once effortless and like a tremendous undertaking. It's as breathtaking as it is an absolute joy. I couldn't ask for more from a film. Oh, and you wrote a bad song, Petey. (Still playing in some theaters, on DVD and Blu-Ray March 23rd)