Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE BEST OF 2009

20. UP IN THE AIR - (Jason Reitman)















19. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL - (Ti West)














18. THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS - (Werner Herzog)









17. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - (Spike Jonze)










16. TWO LOVERS - (James Gray)












15. ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL - (Sacha Gervasi)












14. BROTHERS - (Jim Sheridan)












13. FANTASTIC MR. FOX - (Wes Anderson)










12. THE MESSENGER - (Oren Moverman)












11. CORALINE - (Henry Selick)











10. EXTRACT - (Mike Judge)












9. IN THE LOOP - (Armando Iannucci)












8. A SERIOUS MAN - (Joel and Ethan Coen)












7. PUBLIC ENEMIES - (Michael Mann)











6. THE HURT LOCKER - (Kathryn Bigelow)











5. ADVENTURELAND - (Greg Mottola)












4. OF TIME AND THE CITY - (Terence Davies)

















3. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS - (Quentin Tarantino)












2. CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE - (Nevaldine/Taylor)












1. REVANCHE - (Gotz Spielmann)












Best Director: Nevaldine/Taylor, Crank: High Voltage
Runner-Up: Gotz Spielmann, Revanche

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers
Runner-Up: Nicolas Cage, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, Julia
Runner-Up: Ursula Strauss, Revanche

Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Runner-Up: Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Runner-Up: Samantha Morton, The Messenger

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Runner-Up: Gotz Spielmann, Revanche

Best Adapted Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Dave Eggers, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Runner-Up: David Benioff, Brothers

Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
Runner-Up: Peter Zeitlinger, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Best Film Editing: Marc Jakubowicz and Fernando Villena, Crank: High Voltage
Runner-Up: Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, The Hurt Locker

Worst Movie of the Year: The Hangover
Runner-Up: Avatar

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Messenger - (Oren Moverman, 2009)

The Messenger is the rare indie drama that truly works. Most of this has to go to first time director Oren Moverman, whose script, if lacking in thematic originality, is enriched with narrative invention. Due must also go to the excellent casting and performances, which collectively rank at the top of the year’s list. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), injured while on tour in Iraq, is assigned to a death notification team, with seasoned veteran Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Essentially, they inform a fallen soldier’s next of kin of that death, experiencing the most primal and inexplicable emotions of those family members. The material would be ripe for exploitation, if Moverman’s handling of it weren’t so carefully moderated and if Foster and Harrelson didn’t hit just the right notes. One particular assignment holds interest for Will; he becomes interested in Olivia (Samantha Morton) whose husband was killed in Iraq. Moverman isn’t interested whatsoever in the sexual relationship, but in two people both broken down by war, needing another person to confide in, comfort them. Nor does the film delve into easy anti-war polemics; it remains concerned with the psychological ramifications these characters must confront in continuing their lives. Even the monologues afforded each character don’t ring false, but rather an honest expulsion of genuine feeling and anguish. Nothing about the subject matter is easy and it’s a relief Moverman doesn’t feel the need to exploit that unease; on the contrary, his honest evocation makes for tough, forthright, riveting human drama.

*** out of ****

Brothers - (Jim Sheridan, 2009)

Jim Sheridan, given the entirety of his films, is obsessed with nationality, which in turn, becomes patriotism. Many wondered why he did 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but it’s concurrent with his interests, given the potent narrative about black identity. He’s at it once again in Brothers, a remake of the superb 2004 Danish film. The narrative now concerns a young American family, bereaved by the loss of Cpt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire). His wife Grace (Natalie Portman) is left to raise their two daughters, with the help of deadbeat, ex-con Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who still likes to get drunk on a nightly basis. A relationship forms between them, but when Sam is found alive and returns home, it gets a bit complicated. The melodrama in Sam’s return is grounded by the authenticity of Sheridan’s intent and the humanity of the performances. Sheridan isn’t exploiting the war in Afghanistan for sentimentality, but a sincere view of a family afflicted by such pain. Nevertheless, he doesn’t aim for the gritty realism that plagues so much indie cinema; it feels like a major motion picture and this goes a long way in allowing the unlikely scenario to hold credence. The drama comes from the small bits around a dinner table or an intense man-to-man between Sam and Tommy, who’s being grilled about his potential sexual transgression. The sex, though, is only the fuel for Sam’s disillusionment, a man forced to confront mortality through an act of violence which he cannot forget. The film examines war with vigor and insight; it thankfully forgoes the rabble-rousing slap-in-the-face politics of In the Valley of Elah for a film about family, patriotism and the human cost of war.

*** out of ****

An Education - (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

An Education would be passable enough, were it not for the utterly strained narrative drum it beats again and again throughout. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old living in London. She dreams of attending Oxford. Or, at least, her father (Alfred Molina) does. One afternoon, her poor, closeted-in life sees a bit of light: a 30’s-something man (Peter Sarsgaard) offers her a chance to get out of dreary London and see the world. Concerts, parties, Paris and more. Naturally, however, this new life isn’t as wonderful as it seems. Sarsgaard is actually a liberal, free-thinking thief, nabbing valuable works of art from little old ladies who don’t know the difference. Jenny frowns, but carries on, hoping she, too, may be able to be more like her new friends. Then, the inevitable steps follow: she decides to end her pursuits of Oxford and get married, only to discover Sarsgaard has a secret past she’s been unaware of. The women of her all-girls school get to shout “we told you so,” and Jenny realizes, rather quickly, that it is, indeed, best to stay in school. The end. Aside from the gorgeous photography and solid acting, An Education is but a heavy-handed exploit of one girl’s growth as a woman. Thus, the literal title means not only an academic education, but life, as well. Once Jenny becomes educated in the harshness of love and abandoning the norm, she’s scared back into pursuing the very existence her parents desired for her, only with, perhaps, a bit more perception. Were Lone Scherfig’s film a bit more contemplative about Jenny’s choices, An Education could have been, at most, somewhat insightful. But, because it views institutionalized education as an absolute good, nothing ever materializes to question a career path now assumed by nearly every young person who desires success.

** out of ****

A Serious Man - (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

The Coen brothers’ latest may be their most opaque, autobiographical and bleak to date. It concerns a 1967 Minnesotan Physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life begins to crumble around him following a blackmail scheme from a student, his wife leaving him for an older friend and his brother’s run-ins with police. The small narrative fields enormous questions, primarily the absurdity of life. They insert small parables (including a fascinating prologue) to illustrate the madness Larry cannot comprehend. As usual, the overwhelming “seriousness’ of the material is treated with the bros deft eye for black comedy. Clearly, they understand the humor in the absurdity, which is, more or less, what they’re entire filmmaking careers have been founded upon. But A Serious Man has a certain degree of poignancy as well. The closing image of the film only literalizes what has proceeded. If the film, as a whole, doesn’t feel nearly as powerful as the individual sequences, it’s but a minor quibble for a film so richly philosophical and damned entertaining.

*** out of ****

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar - (James Cameron, 2009)

That James Cameron’s long-awaited, +12 years-in-the-making, sci-fi extravaganza Avatar is one of the worst films of the year comes as a bit of a shock given the massive amount of hype, innovative filmmaking technology and visual wonderment on display. Make no mistake: the film dazzles, especially in 3D, with elaborate vistas and aerial land masses, particularly in the film’s several action/battle sequences. Nevertheless, the awe of the fictional Pandora wears off rather quickly, given it has not only an incredibly putrid narrative backing, but also a politically retroactive subtext, concurrent with the worst type of racial and political profiling. Essentially, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) becomes part of an indigenous tribe in 2154 called the Na’vi (insipidly close to “native”) through a new form of technology, allowing him to look, walk and assimilate into the population, in search of a precious, valuable rock scattered throughout the land. In doing so, he falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and once he learns of his military’s intent to wipe out the Na’vi and use the land for themselves, sides with the indigenous peoples, leading them into a climactic battle. The entire tone of Cameron’s narrative is problematic; he treats the Na’vi as noble savages, clearly meant to evoke Native Americans through the scenario and their physicality – he allows only black and Native American actors to voice them – and salvages these people only through the endeavors of a fallen white soldier. It’s Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or any number of early Westerns which treat foreign peoples with such indignity. On top of this, the film has an incredibly anti-war, anti-military agenda. Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) plays like a cartoon modernization of Custer; he has several distinguished scars on his face and vanquishes Na’vi life as easily as he bench presses 300 pounds. No better is his subordinate Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), who spews out lines like “if we throw a stick on their land it’s bound to land on something sacred.” It’s stereotyping of the worst sort; even more insulting, however, is the hard-on Cameron has for military weaponry, aircrafts and badassery. He shoots machine-guns and muscle-bound marines with slo-mo precision, aestheticizing the Military Industrial Complex he supposedly so vehemently opposes. On top of this, the film not once addresses the implications of a world 150 years into the future, especially when its characters speak in such a banal, Bushian manner. Quaritch says at one point: “We’re going to fight terror with terror.” This kind of familiar rhetoric makes a geekish, sci-fi mockery of a serious discussion on war, as this year’s The Hurt Locker, Brothers and The Messenger have so eloquently done. The irony punches Cameron square-in-the-jaw, but he misses it; he’s made a film utilizing the most innovative technology available, with a narrative whose political and racial understandings are positively retroactive and nonexistent. In addition, the film bores. Sequences lag on as Cameron lingers on Pandora's beauty and, thus, lingers on himself. His fascination with the Na’vi’s tribal rituals and his own made up world makes any coherent allegory instantly dissipate. Is the film a sci-fi retelling of The New World and, if so, what does that mean? Is it meant to say something about the human cost of wartime practices? Avatar is too busy painting a pretty picture to be concerned with such adult questions.

* out of ****

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Limits of Control - (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

Locating his Jean-Pierre Melville side, Jarmusch's latest works best as an interesting failure. Isaach De Bankole occupies his specter, a silent assassin traveling through Spain on different assignments. Essentially a Kafkaesque tale with its inescapable circularity, the pretension in the disjointed philosophy isn't so much the problem as is the creaky explication via inserted characters. Most annoying is a blond Tilda Swinton who babbles about cinema preferences and "The Lady from Shanghai" or that each encounter has the same two or three bits of wisdom to impart. Jarmusch also can't help but pound out his meta-cinema intentions, having De Bankole constantly staring at works of art, then reversing the look, implying many layers of art and reality. Nevertheless, the structural experimentation never bores and small bits of business (De Bankole must have two individual espressos rather than a double) lend it a quiet fascination. It's total disinterest in narrative tension or impending action sequences doesn't particularly make it any more watchable, though the complete restraint of Jarmusch in this regard is impressive.

**1/2 out of ****

Monday, December 7, 2009

Weekend Predictions (12/11-13)

1. The Princess and the Frog - 27.3 Million - +3600%
2. The Blind Side - 12.8 Million - -36%
3. Invictus - 10.9 Million - NEW
4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon - 7.1 Million - -54%
5. Disney's A Christmas Carol - 5.8 Million - -25%
6. Brothers- 5.5 Million - -42%
7. Armored - 4.3 Million - -44%
8. 2012 - 3.5 Million - -47%
9. Old Dogs - 3.4 Million - -50%
10. Up in the Air - 2 Million - +81%

Disney's first animated film to feature a black princess will win the weekend with ease, potentially closing in on 30M. The new Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, should open in the low double digits, though it could go lower if audiences aren't ready for another sports drama (this time South African rugby) so soon after The Blind Side. Up in the Air expands to around 50 theaters this weekend and may go as high as 2m.

Next week: the most expensive film of the year -- Avatar -- also, the Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com Did You Here About the Morgans?

Adaptation - (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Nevermind Rob Marshall's upcoming Nine. Spike Jonze's Adaptation is the 8 1/2 of the decade, simultaneously encompassing art, life and evolution in the most delirious of packages. Here's a film that makes self-loathing cool again -- Charlie Kaufman, lampooning his own neurosis makes for hilarious, but profound filmmaking as played by Nic Cage, who has seldom been better; his back and forths with his brother (himself) demonstrate an actor, known for his unrestrained madness, exhibiting utter calm and certainty. It wouldn't be too hyperbolic to call this his best work. Adaptation signals the type of eccentric, intelligent filmmaking often shyed away from. It's messy, esoteric and one big in-joke for the Hollywood process, but its characters (Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep specifically) signal something much larger about life's persistent uncertainty: doubt, regret, pain and loss. The comedy hinges on how much you find Hollywood self-satirization funny, but the gravitas remain universal.

A

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Films that Bite: Five great vampire movies for any netflix queue


Here is a piece done for THE CAROLINIAN, on the greatest vampire movies ever made.

BEST VAMPIRE MOVIES

Precious: Based on the novel PUSH by Sapphire

I wrote a review on Precious for THE CAROLINIAN. Here it is:

PRECIOUS