Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Green Hornet (dir. Michel Gondry)

If only more movies were this happy to be alive.

The Green Hornet has had a long, long journey on its way to the screen. Even the version that's playing now nationwide was first announced way back in 2007, and was met with appropriate levels of disbelief. Knocked Up was either just about to come out, or just had, and there were posters everywhere with Seth Rogen giving a big ol' goofy face with the caption "would you let this guy get you pregnant?" And that might be the dumbest tagline ever, but that's sort of besides the point. The point is, for my fellow nerds and I, that the caption might as well have read, "would you let this guy be a superhero?"

But that was only when we knew Seth Rogen, strangely compelling comedic presence, and not when we knew Seth Rogen, comic creative genius. Not too long afterwards, Superbad was released. It ended up making my top ten that year (I believe number seven), and I still stand by that - it's hilarious, oddly touching, and very well directed from a script by Rogen and some guy named Evan Goldberg. When Pineapple Express came out the following year, also written by them, it was official - I'd follow these guys anywhere.

And while The Green Hornet, their latest venture as writers, lacks the tonal and thematic consistency of those films (and when Pineapple Express is more coherent and consistent than the film up for comparison, that's REALLY saying something), it is a much-needed refreshment to the superhero genre. Gone is all the pretense that any of this matters; instead, it's two hours of "holy shit, can you believe they're letting us make a superhero movie?" Francois Truffaut said that a movie must express either the joy or pain of making movies. And that dude made The 400 Blows, so he knows a thing or two about the movies. But we really don't get enough movies about how awesome it is to make movies; The Green Hornet is one of them.

Along the way, they pull some pretty sly moves - namely, that their lead character is an unlikeable, relentless dick, and Seth Rogen plays him all the way. He's an asshole to everyone, though he feels entitled to his position (as heir to a newspaper, millionaire, superhero, womanizer, anything really), and even better, the film does absolutely nothing to punish him for this. He just keeps on going, and there's an implicit trust that we'll get the larger joke, even though it seems many did not. I love that they keep coming back to the fact that neither Britt (Rogen) nor Kato (Jay Chou) really have any idea how to be a superhero. Kato is more than capable of the labor - fighting, constructing, et cetera - but doesn't really understand the process any better than Britt.

Mostly, though, I love the energy Rogen brings to the role (the scene where he hires Cameron Diaz is just the best), and how infectious it proves to the rest of the film. It's an insanely joyful film in its own insane way - it's so far from perfect, but it has personality, something a lot of better films lack. On an even more simple level, I laughed harder than I did at any comedy of last year.

Top Ten Films of 2010

Every year, to accompany their list of the finest achievements in cinema over the past twelve months, critics will typically say that they don't really support the idea of a top ten list and that ranking art is an absurd practice. As it happens, I agree. Philosophically, anyway. On a practical level, I do so love making lists, and while I know I'm no arbiter of taste, I often look to top ten lists for guidance on what I missed or overlooked or just didn't look at the right way. So I do believe they serve some purpose in a larger sense. On a personal level, knowing I'm going to write this at the end of the year keeps me seeing as many movies as possible, which is good for ya'll and even better for me. And, as always, one hopes it sparks some discussion, so go to town in the comments section.

With that in mind, the idea that I only have twenty-one films listed here seems insane when I look at my list of eligible films and think of everything that could easily be on here. Maybe not in the top five or even ten, but certainly as a runner-up. But one must draw the line somewhere, I suppose; I just really am baffled when people say there aren't ten great films every year, because I have never found that to be the case, and I'll be shocked if I ever will. As far as a general assessment of the year...well, I was surprised how many filmmakers were willing and able to abandon reality in favor of emotion, and that they all did it so successfully. If you're a strictly left-brain filmgoer, might be out of luck.

Honorable Mentions:

Piranha 3D
It'd be one thing if the film was just batshit insane fun, which it absolutely is. It's another that, in the year of the 3D explosion, this was by far the best use of 3D. The underwater footage is surprisingly beautiful (even when it's beautifully absurd), and the mayhem is a blast. As much as I encourage people to look at the art of 3D movies, there's something to be said for when it's used for pure schlock. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

I only saw it two days ago in preparation for this list, and I'm nowhere near ready to make anything of it (I guess I'd say its like spending a night at the Overlook Hotel when all the real people have gone away). I know it's a fairly exceptional piece of work, however, and one that more than bears mentioning. (Available on DVD and Netflix streaming; available on Blu-Ray March 28th)

Runners-Up (in no particular order):

Director Pedro González-Rubio has nearly perfected a wonderful kind of cinema, a blurring of documentary and fiction that doesn't at all hinge on a "what's-real-and-what's-made-up" gimmick of your Exit Through the Gift Shop or I'm Still Here, but is a guided and redirected vision of something very real, while still allowed to capture things that would take place were his camera not there. It's really touching, surprising stuff. (Available on DVD and Netflix streaming)

Ben Stiller is given the most he's ever been given to do, and knocks it out of the park doing it. This is the first of writer/director Noah Baumbach's films I've at all liked; weirdly hilarious and touching in the most desperate way imaginable. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

Blue Valentine
An emotional steamroller, but one worth enduring. Michelle Williams gives the performance of the year, and elevates everything around her - including, when necessary, the film itself. (Still in theaters)

Everyone Else
The sister film to Blue Valentine, this is a relationship dissolving in a way a little more familiar to most of us - increasingly awkward and uncomfortable silences, undefined problems, and a nagging feeling that we just don't feel the way we used to anymore. (Available on DVD and Netflix streaming)

The Square
A death grip of a crime thriller that few are willing to be, these days or ever. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

The Fighter
Surprisingly hilarious, eccentric, and then all of a sudden moving, director David O. Russell did himself a favor by making a mainstream movie that works on its own terms (and a few of his), and gave us a sports movie that doesn't quite feel like a sports movie. (Still in theaters)

Sofia Coppola's near-masterpiece is one I feel like I haven't fully unpacked yet. Like Marie Antoinette, there's far more going on beneath the surface, and what I have glimpsed is quite brilliant, but I'm eager to revisit. (Still in theaters)

Jack Goes Boating
The most romantic film of the year - honest, genuine, unashamed. A delight. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

Starts out as a comedy, becomes a gripping crime procedural, and then transforms into something very different by the end. Another one I'm eager to dive back into. (Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
This deserves mention if only for the extended camping sequence, the bravest move I've seen a blockbuster pull in quite some time. Never mind the excellent ensemble work and David Yates' ever-assured direction. I can't wait for this to be even better after Part 2 comes out. (Still playing in some theaters, believe it or not)

The Top Ten

10. Buried
Here is a film I was truly unprepared for. I had heard the buzz - Ryan Reynolds trapped in a box for an hour and a half, we spend the entire running time with him in that box, and oh hey it's not boring. I guess I just wasn't prepared for how un-boring it is. The script is kind of a wash (you'll see that crop up a lot here), but director Rodrigo Cortés is absolutely on fire. It's not only not boring, it turned out to be the most exciting, intense experience I had at the movies all year. A sort of action movie in a box. By the end, I felt so suffocated that I had to get outside before I caught my breath. That, my friends, is damned effective filmmaking. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

9. Toy Story 3
Man, big screen summer entertainment doesn't get much better than this. I'm not a Pixar devotee by any stretch of the imagination - the last, and before this only, time a Pixar film landed in my top ten was The Incredibles in 2004. I liked Wall-E well enough, but I had some serious issues with Up. In both of those cases, it felt like Pixar was apologizing for making you sit through so much art that they kind of shoehorned in a chase-the-magic-item action-adventure film at the end, regardless of how well it fit tonally or thematically with the rest of the picture. Toy Story 3 has those entertainment elements built in from the start, with a truly fantastic (in every sense) opening sequence, and the excitement rarely lets up. The prison break aspects are a joy, and the introduction of the monkey did a very rare thing for a film of any kind - got a true, full-throated laugh from an image alone. And yes...those moments at the end are as sad and beautiful as everyone says, and serve the purpose so few third films of a franchise care to fulfill - a complete summation of the series' themes, ideas, and emotions. A wonderful film on every level, and if this were simply a list of the most "perfect" films of the year, this would be tied with The Social Network for first. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

8. Black Swan
The film's detractors have done a good job of describing the film - over-the-top, melodramatic, messy, thematically-loaded imagery...uses a handheld camera (really guys?) - but have done a less convincing job of summing up why these are always bad attributes. In depicting the mental collapse of a ballet dancer, director Darren Aronofsky has thrown caution to the wind and created something wildly chaotic in the best way possible. Forsaking the notion that ALL dance should be filmed in a wide shot, Aronofsky stays trained on the face of his lead actress, and is better for it. Natalie Portman proves more expressive and less restrained than many of us thought her capable of, and the film's off-the-rails downslide towards insanity is all the more convincing - and effective - for it. (Still in theaters)

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
I didn't plan for it to shake out this way, but lo and behold, I have three films in a row here (starting with this) that just might change cinematic language. Or anyway, they're trying. I said it before, and I'll stand by it - the way writer/director Edgar Wright cut this film is just as much a landmark stylistically as what Jean-Luc Godard was doing in Breathless. The way he tells entire stories in seconds, the way one scene feeds in flawlessly to the next, this is someone who has built his film so completely, moment to moment, and has nothing to apologize for. This is not the usual movie set up where a collection of scenes end up telling a story - this is almost one big scene that cuts between locations and across time. And that's just the freaking EDITING. Never mind the year's best ensemble in a fine year for ensemble, a whip-smart script capable of both mocking and embracing the modern culture of the wayward twentysomething (long a staple of all narrative forms of art), and a visual style that does not give a damn about "reality." It's hilarious, exciting filmmaking, and left me hoping for a brighter tomorrow when most great films are content working in modes of the past. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

6. Wild Grass
If there's anyone who's earned the chance to work purely in modes of the past, it'd be Alain Resnais. At 88 (87 when he made this) and with a handful of classics in his filmography already, no one would blame him if he settled in and made a pretty straightforward film (and nobody did when he made Private Fears in Public Places). And yet here he is, still blazing trails. What works in large part as a charming French romance by way of Curb Your Enthusiasm hints at, and by the end dives full-forced, into a weirdly cosmic bit of absurdity. I didn't know what to think the first time through, but the second left me enthralled and befuddled in the best way possible. (Available on DVD)

5. Enter the Void
Not a terribly deep movie - it pretty much explains its conceit twenty minutes in and then spends another two hours executing it - but I've come across few more convincing examples of pure artistic expression at the movies (note: may have more to do with my still-limited exposure to the avant-garde). Filmmaker Gaspar Noe has created a purely expressive experience entirely through image and sound that is really quite special, and I'm saddened to see how many have disregarded his artistic accomplishment for lack of thematic ambition. Utilizing stunning computer effects on a relatively tiny budget (around $12 million in U.S. currency), Noe's film is an ever-expanding, rarely-cutting trip through the afterlife that really has to be experienced before any sort of description even makes sense. (Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

4. True Grit
I wrote in my review about how True Grit is just a big ol' lovefest, and that's the reason it's this high on my list - it is inescapably loveable. The characters are great, from Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in one of his finest performances) all the way down to the undertaker at the beginning of the film ("If you'd like to sleep in a coffin...that'd be all right" ranks just behind "I have my bearskin!" on the list of funniest things I heard all year), the story endlessly compelling, and the dialogue...oh, that dialogue. It's music. The Coen Brothers probably won't have a film out by the end of next year, which will be strange after four straight years of gems, but this will keep me dancing 'til the next time around. (Still in theaters)

3. The Social Network
As much as I am an art-over-craft kind of guy (see below), it's tough to ignore craft this fine. And don't get me wrong, director David Fincher is as fine an artist as mainstream American cinema will allow, but he and Aaron Sorkin are first and foremost crafting a drama rather than creating art. And what exciting drama it is. I don't know what more I can say about this that hasn't been said, but a) the oft-maligned Regatta sequence is crucial to the film's overall impact, a necessary break from the onslaught of dialogue, and b) watching the special features on the Blu-Ray has given me incredible appreciation for what Fincher and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall did just in cutting this together. The rhythm of the dialogue might be on the page, and there's a poetry to the way the actors say it, but it really becomes something altogether different because of the editing. In any other director's hands, this would have been a perfectly satisfying adult drama - in Fincher's, it's the masterpiece we know it as. (Still in some theaters; available on DVD and Blu-Ray)

2. Shutter Island
This is the dividing line - between those who watch movies for story and those who watch for emotion or artistry. The plot mechanics of Shutter Island can be overwhelmingly stupid, and the way the twist is revealed and broken down is so idiotic I could hardly believe I was watching the same movie. But just as I don't pay much mind to the lyrics of a song, I can easily overlook storytelling for something this thematically, emotionally, and psychologically powerful. From the opening scene on the boat through the gates of the asylum on through when we hear that absolutely pounding theme once again in the film's final frames (one I can't believe WASN'T written for the film - all of the music is gathered from other sources, and there really should be some sort of recognition for this), Martin Scorsese has crafted psychological terror at its finest and elevated what would, in any other hands, be a fine genre exercise into a classic - the best film of his DiCaprio years and one of the finest of his career. Get the twist spoiled for yourself first or watch it again if you've already seen it and were left frustrated by the revelation - it changes everything about what you see, and for the better. Oh, and Michelle Williams' big scene near the end? The most devastating moment of the year. She and DiCaprio absolutely kill in it, and that scene alone puts the entirety of Inception to shame. (Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix streaming)

1. Never Let Me Go
It might be a stretch to say that Never Let Me Go was the only film all year to consider the soul, but it was certainly the only one that made a strong impression. This and Shutter Island are the two movies I have been unable to shake all year, and with this's really something special when it only takes a whisper to completely knock you down. In exploring our essential mortality through characters who, at a young age, know they will not grow old, director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland (adapting the novel by  Kazuo Ishiguro) have crafted one of the defining mood pieces - this certainly isn't a "statement" - on how we deal with the fact of death. It's all about small decisions, quiet resignation, and making the best of what little time you have, though the end result is an inevitability constantly lingering in the air. I still well up when I remember the final scene, or the image of Kathy (played beautifully and heartbreakingly by Carey Mulligan) holding herself while the titular song plays in the background. I have my qualms with the film - as they say, great films aren't always perfect - but the totality of it is so unshakeable, so overwhelmingly emotional in such minor notes, that when I really got down to thinking about it, there was no other choice for this spot. (Available on DVD and Blu-Ray February 1st)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

(Brief) Hiatus

Apologies for not posting, but I've been in the insane process of moving to Los Angeles for the past few weeks. Expect a top ten of 2010 by the end of the week, and hopefully some catch-up reviews in there.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

True Grit (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

While I normally try to be quite speedy about reviewing films shortly after seeing them (if I'm to review them at all), sometimes I simply do not know what to say when I fall so immediately, deeply in love with something. My critical digestion becomes completely muddled in the ecstasy of shot composition, vocal inflection, music, and editing that trying to express any of it inevitably ends in a sort of "and, and, and...IT'S JUST SO GREAT." The true pleasures of cinema override those around which you could possibly form some sort of thesis, hypothesis, theory, or argument (and I believe I'm remembering high school chemistry and debate well enough to differentiate those correctly).

At its core, True Grit is precisely that sort of cinematic ecstasy, the purest distillation of the medium's pleasures that the Coens have crafted since...well, Miller's Crossing for some, but if you're as fond of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as I am, then that'd be just as suitable a reference point. So eager are they to revel in anything and everything the Western genre has to offer that they'll just as happily trot out something as weird as a bearskin-cloaked doctor as have Jeff Bridges scream, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" I've not read the Charles Portis novel upon which the film is based, nor have I seen the 1969 John Wayne film adapted from same. I have no idea how much of this is the Coens' invention or if they used their read-and-type method that produced the Oscar-winning screenplay for No Country for Old Men, but you can tell in the Coens' treatment of everything that dances across their screen that they are in love with the world they're creating. That kind of genuine love is infectious.

They're also walking a fine line, one they've always walked with ease, integrating comedy into a drama without tipping over into the former. Again, they've always done this, but True Grit is remarkably - and appropriately - free from the irony and condescension of their previous work. I'm not one of those people who thinks the Coens hate their characters. Mostly I just don't care about their attitude. But there's a reason they often depict people who are completely inept at what they do - they are fascinated and amused by the ways people (re)act in dire situations.

But that's not what's going on here, although they do take some pleasure poking fun at Tom Chaney (and Josh Brolin is magnificent in this role, both menacing and pathetic). There's a warmth to this film that has never been very pervasive in their work, shining through only occasionally (in Marge and Norm's relationship in Fargo or that part in The Big Lebowski when, after scattering their friend's ashes, Walter says, "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling"). Even when the characters here are at their most pitiful - Rooster Cogburn's introduction is one for the ages - there's an affection present that's quite, let's just say it, charming in an old fashioned sort of way.

The Coens are notorious for recycling and reinvigorating the feelings of classic films, from the gangster picture (Miller's Crossing) to the screwball comedy (Intolerable Cruelty, Raising Arizona) to the noir (The Man Who Wasn't There) to the cartoon (The Hudsucker Proxy) to even lifting a title from Preston Sturges (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But never have they so embraced the genre they've tackled as they do here.

The cast is outstanding. In her debut role as a fourteen-year-old who thinks she has the world pretty well figured out - and, most of the time, really does - Hailee Steinfeld is a superb anchor, and it ain't easy anchoring a Coen film. She plays a fourteen-year-old trying to act like an adult without playing it like an adult, and the parts where she plays her fourteen-year-old wish-fulfillment are some of the happiest moments I've seen all year. She wasn't given any breaks, that's for sure - constantly going toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, themselves turning in really stunning work, is a challenge for any actor. In Bridges' case, I'd argue this is the finest performance he's given since The Big Lebowski, and I love me some Jeff Bridges. There's some fine character work going on here - Rooster Cogburn knows exactly what he is, and does a pretty good job of avoiding that - but it's just a pleasure to watch Bridges act, something we can rarely say in a post-Method world that demands "realistic" performances.

And that's what True Grit does best - it gives us pleasure. I too admit to finding it oddly moving towards the end, but at its core True Grit reminds us what a simple, yet profound, pleasure it can be to go to the movies. Not a thrill ride, not an adrenaline rush, not a tearjerker or a heart-warmer, as such. But just an absolute joy. I loved every second of this film twice through.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tiny Furniture (dir. Lena Dunham)

It's always exciting to see a new comedic voice getting a chance to speak. Hell, in this market, it's exciting to see a truly new voice of ANY kind getting a chance to speak. And I do think, comedically, Lena Dunham has an awful lot to say about our generation, and she says it quite well. The funniest moments of this film are among the funniest all year (in, admittedly, a weak year for out-and-out comedies, but a great year for comedy in drama, e.g. True Grit and The Social Network). Unfortunately, an inexplicable need to make this all "matter" can be the comic's downfall, and so it is with Dunham's breakout feature, Tiny Furniture.

She has an upward battle getting us to care about an aimless college graduate, Aura (played by Dunham) stuck in the uncertainty of life without structure. The weird thing is that I, as something of an aimless postgrad myself, am right there with her, but her inability to gain our compassion comes less with audience identification (always the lowest reason to appreciate a work of art) than it does with sheer dramatic ineptitude. I've heard a great many complaints that the main character is "unlikeable," and that's not really it. Plenty of characters throughout cinematic history are "unlikeable" while still being sympathetic or at the very least compelling. The problem, rather, is that Aura is hardly a character at all. The writing can only be half to blame, because I'm sure a real actor could have found their way in.

Let me explain what I mean by "real actor" - I'm not saying the cast needed a better resume. Few of the film's stars are actors in any sense of the word. They're acknowledged, even proclaimed non-professionals, but they also simply cannot act. They manage the comedy quite well, especially Jemima Kirke as Aura's oldest (if not exactly closest) friend, who makes it out as the film's true breakthrough talent. Everyone else is pretty tuned in, and there is some really terrific comedic rhythm happening here. But they, worst of all Dunham herself, can't craft a character to save their lives, or the film. There's a heavy Wes Anderson influence at work here, from the deadpan humor to the set design (and shot composition thereof), and it almost feels like she's trying to toe the same line between comedy and drama. But Anderson also consistently found good, if not great, actors who could balance the comedy and reveal the sadness behind the jokes; the quiet desperation for approval. Dunham has the superficial elements with none of the soul.

But Dunham spends too much time making fun of everyone - including and especially herself - to afford us any chance to care about these people, so when the drama starts to kick in, we're adrift. It has nothing to do with "liking" them or caring about their given circumstance. All we have to do is care about them as people, which the film is certainly asking of us by the end, but no one can manage that. Dunham is completely unable to sell the drama, especially in stark contrast to her comedic talent, and no one else in the film fares much better.

I do hope we see more from Dunham. I like a lot of the directorial choices she made, starting with shooting a no-budget indie film in anamorphic widescreen when nearly all of her contemporaries settle for the consumer-programmed 1.85:1 ratio (and she used a tripod, no less!), and again, she really knows comedy. But she has a long way to go as a writer, and I can only hope her days as a leading lady are far behind.