Monday, November 30, 2009
It took me a while to decide what star rating to give this film. Eventually, I whittled it down to two options: 4 or 0. With Lars Von Trier's film, only the extremes seem appropriate.
Antichrist tells the story of a grieving couple whose child fell to his death out of a window while they made love. The woman, referred to only as 'she', blames herself, and the man, referred to as, you guessed it, 'he,' a psychiatrist, decides that he can cure her depression of his own accord. He decides to place her in the place that she is most terrified; their cabin in the woods, named Eden. What follows is almost impossible to describe. It's not a plot so much as a montage of horrific vignettes.
I'll be honest: I have never been so profoundly disturbed or scared by a film as I was by this one. Antichrist made me feel physically uncomfortable. There were times when I wanted to leave. The film is almost unbearably graphic and explicit, and its atmosphere, tone, implication, etc. are all terrifying. Not scary in the slasher/ghost sense of the word. Perhaps unsettling is a better word. This is the kind of film that crawls under your skin and dies there. It's the kind of film that finds any break in your psychosis, sneaks in, and grates on you psychologically until you want to die. I can't ever recall a more unpleasant cinema experience.
So why the hell did I give Antichrist four stars?
The answer is simple. One must judge a film based on what it intends to do: Antichrist clearly intends to shock, disturb, and cause despair. And my god, but it succeeds. I heard a great defense of this film which I will rehash: films are supposed to reflect the breadth of the human condition. This includes all forms thereof, not just the ones that elevate us, or make us feel sanctimonious, or improve the quality of life. Antichrist sets out to evoke an unpleasant and unpopular cinematic emotion: despair. Loss of hope. But, let's be honest with ourselves: despair and suffering are huge parts of the human condition. Rare are the films that attempt to tackle these feelings. Rarer still are the ones that do it with such laser-focus and determination.
This isn't to say that I'm only giving the film four stars because its intention was to make me feel sick, and it succeeded. The film incredibly complex and dense; indeed, far too dense to fully appreciate on first viewing (though a second or third viewing is almost inconceivable). Antichrist is a treatise on humanity at its worst. Some have interpreted it as an inverse reflection of the Bible story of the Garden of Eden: in the Bible, man and woman are born pure, but turn to sin and are cast out, forced to live in the real world. In Antichrist, man and woman begin as evil creatures, and retreat to Eden to enact their downfall in a surreal environment. I feel like I could write for hours about the messages, both implicit and explicit, in Antichrist. It's a work of staggering thought and power. Its apparent demonization of sexuality is of particular interest: the film is chock-full of very explicit sex scenes, but it can hardly be construed as erotic in any sense of the word. This is, in part, due to the fact that every sex scene is either juxtaposed with or immediately followed by an act of horrific violence. A couple has passionate sex, and their child falls three stories onto a concrete sidewalk. The couple makes love again, and then the woman beats herself senseless on the rim of the toilet. Later, sex will be followed by unspeakable horrors (I'll give you a hint: it involves lots of genital mutilation and witch-craft-punishing parallels). What point could Von Trier be making with this? The female character also makes a point to point out the evil inherent in every person, specifically (in her opinion) women. She has been studying gynocide (mass murder of women), and through it has concluded that "nature is Satan's church." She believes that nature is evil, and that nature is in every person. Thus, if nature is evil, and it's in everyone, then everyone must be evil. She falls into this archetype with little difficulty, becoming one with her darker nature. Though her actions are more severe, it's undeniable that her husband has already beaten her to embracing his darker nature. The two characters suffer a complete and total break from moral rectitude, and the film punishes them for it. One of the many points that the film might be making (I repeat, might. It's very open for interpretation) is that their downfall was facilitated by partaking in pleasures of the flesh. Perhaps it's when not in moderation, or perhaps at expense of others, but Antichrist is not kind to a healthy psychosexual mindset. Antichrist also makes compelling arguments about the nature of original sin. Some believe that, according to the Bible story, the original sins are pride and despair. All other sins have their root in these two: pride, believing that you can be better than God, and despair, believing that God can't change things. In Antichrist, the man's sin is pride (he thinks he can cure his wife on his own), and the woman's is despair (she remains mired in grief, and allows it to overtake her). Indeed, the film is divided into four chapters: Grief, Pain, Despair, and the Three Beggars (the Three Beggars being a constellation of grief, pain, and despair). Throughout the film, the three emotion's avatars make their presence known: Grief is a doe with a dead deer fetus hanging out of its womb, Pain is a fox who eats its own intestines, and despair is a crow that refuses to die. The Three Beggars appear throughout the film, finally uniting in the last chapter to provide the catalyst for the finale. Is Von Trier saying that all negative emotions can be boiled down to these three beggars? Is he saying that to allow any of them to find footing in life is to start the descent into moral turpitude? I can't know. No one will ever know for sure. The thesis statement of the film could very well be delivered by Pain (yes, the fox.) The Man has just stumbled onto Pain in the forest, and recoils. Pain rips its intestines out, looks up at the man, and says "chaos reigns." That could be the crux: Von Trier is creating a world that isn't fettered by the confines of ethics or morality.
Apologies for that tangential tirade. As I said, I could write for hours about this film. I suppose I must conclude, though I haven't mentioned the acting, which is phenomenal, or the cinematography, which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I must finish the review with a warning: this film is incredibly worth seeing for being a completely unique cinematic experience of singular complexity and profound impact. It is, however, not for the faint-hearted. I mean it. There are acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence shown in gory detail, and there are moments of sexuality that would be pornographic if not for their incredibly gruesome nature. This is a film that, if you watch it, you will never unsee. I guarantee that you will be profoundly disturbed and unsettled by this film. Should you not watch it? I don't know. You can if you feel up to it, if you want to view a very thought-provoking look at man's darker nature. But it's going to cost you some sanity.
(I have to include a trailer, just to give you some sense of the film's aesthetic sensibilities. The trailer is appropriate for all audiences. www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw03QayJ2fU&feature=related
I've heard it said that The Road, Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic war novel, is unfilmmable. John Hillcoat's film attempts to prove this statement false, and succeeds to some degree. I suppose the question should not be whether or not the book is filmable; the worthier question is if it should be filmed in the first place.
The Road concerns the travels of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel toward the coast through a bleak, lifeless landscape, constantly harried by bands of roving cannibals eager for a meal. Their journey is peppered with flashbacks to the father and his wife, before the world destroyed itself, as well as many a campfire chat about carrying "the fire," aka goodness and decency. John Hillcoat's film is at its best when it is most bleak: the film is riveting and compelling when it details the day-to-day struggles of Man and Boy, or when it evokes the true evil roaming the world. In these passages, Hillcoat achieves something akin to post-apocalyptic neo-realism, bringing urgency and tension to an already extreme scenario. The movie falters, however, when it attempts become didactic. The conversations the father has with his son are admirable attempts, but ultimately feel rather hokey and contrived. Similarly, the scenes with the man and his wife (played by a seemingly disinterested Charlize Theron) appear compelling at first glance, but are unable to sustain the dramatic tension that is achieved throughout the rest of the film.
Technically speaking, the film is fantastic. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is starkly beautiful and mood-enhancing, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's score is a gorgeous exercise of simple, mournful melodies that lend more emotional weight than some scenes deserve. The production design, as well, as incredibly effective in its evocation of a world past its expiration date. The film feels, at times, like a documentary on a world after an apocalyptic event.
Performance-wise, the film has trouble sustaining its quality. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic, as always. He brings a quiet dignity and stoicism to his role, which makes his few moments of emotional breakdown to be all the more affecting. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the child, is less proficient. It's not a bad performance, per se: he simply fails to reach the heights that the source material provides for him. McPhee is capable at crying and looking scared, but fails to delve into his character beyond that.
Overall, the film is a success, of a fashion. It's certainly proficient enough, it provides some striking visuals, and contains some harrowing moments. As a whole, however, The Road fails to live up to its origins. An interesting experiment, and certainly not a failure, but not the best that the year has to offer.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Amelia is a godawful mess: acted by a poorly funded high school theater group, written by a collection of infinite monkeys at typewriters, and created without drive or passion. Mira Nair's biopic of the famous Aviatrix lacks almost any redeeming quality. If pressed to compliment the film, I concede that the costume design is gorgeous and inventive, and the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is sometimes (albeit rarely) inspired. Alas, here be the end of my positive notes.
I have trouble comprehending how so many actors who can be talented in the right hands strayed so far from the path of artistic quality at the same time. Hilary Swank is nigh-interminable as the titular heroine: she seems to be playing at accents, but only succeeds in sounding like a poor SNL sketch. Swank, however, looks positively godlike compared to the profoundly retarded machinations of Richard Gere. Enlightened viewers who have seen Singin' in the Rain will understand what I mean when I say that Richard Gere sounds like Don Lockwood attempting to act in his first film with sound. For unenlightened viewers, let me translate: the actors at the Renaissance Fair are Oscar-worthy compared to Richard Gere. Seriously, who let this man out of his box? Gere should be euthanized with all possible speed, so as to prevent him from ever profaning the screen with his inanity again. Only Christopher Eccleston, who plays Earhart's alcoholic co-pilot, manages to keep his dignity. Sure, he struggles with the accent from time to time, but I'm comfortable blaming that on the director, as well as his lack of a dialect coach.
The actors are just the beginning of the problems in this mess. The script is unbelievably trite and ham-fisted, and Nair's direction is uneven and uninspired. The worst sin of the film, however, is the treatment of it subject matter. The film is so desperate to love and whitewash its subject that it avoids all psychological and emotional complexity. Amelia is a constant parade of people paying obsequious lip service to Earhart. As a viewer who felt neither one way or another about Earhart, I confess that this movie left me knowing nothing more about Amelia than when I entered the theater, nor did it inspire in me any desire to know more. This is the worst possible sin of a biopic. Not only was it a bad film, but it made me wish ill will toward its subject. Thank God Amelia Earhart died in the Pacific: it's a fate far kinder than having to live to see your accomplishments bastardized by this shoddy piece of cinema.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
"One ticket to Morocco, please", Singin' in the Rain, "Define Dancing", "You're gonna need a bigger boat", "Son of a bitch, he stole my line", the final montage of The Fall, every single moment of American Beauty, "I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti", Jesse and Celine, Charlize Theron in Monster, not being able to hear the last lines of Lost in Translation, "A boy's best friend is his mother", "You're a star, a big, bright, shining star", every monologue from Synecdoche, New York, Shakespeare in Love, the use of Moby in Heat, the entirety of The Princess Bride, "That'll do, pig. That'll do", Buzz and Woody, Dory, WALL-E and EVE (not to mention MO and BURN-E), the shoe at the end of the credits for WALL-E, Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the humanity of Hoop Dreams, the lesser of two weevils, "Will someone please get this walking carpet out of the way?", "Those aren't pillows", Woody Allen, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, "All those moments will be lost, like tears in the rain", Michael Nyman's contributions to The Piano, Jane Campion in general, the Cell Block Tango, The Elephant Rooftop Love Medley, Jesus Christ Superstar, "Jack, I Swear", hitch-hiking with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the audacity of Lord of the Rings, "There's more to life than money. Don't you know that?", Claude, Berger, Jeannie, Hud, Woof, and Sheila, Tom Hulce in Amadeus, Captain Kong, Witt's spark, Bill and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Jamie Bell dancing, Gortoz a Ran, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea", Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Amy Adams and her love of meerkats...
Movies. Movies in general.
And friends. Loved ones. You know who you are.
I'm alive, the people I love are safe. Is there anything else?
I'll translate that block of text in the comments, if you want to know what something refers to.
"I had always heard that your entire life flashes before your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout Camp, watching falling stars, and yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined my street, or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper, and my cousin's brand new Firebird. And Janie. And Janie. And Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes, I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry. You will someday."
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
I'd like to think that Precious is about hope. Yes, the viewer may have to slog through nearly two hours of nearly indescribable sufferings to get there, but, in my opinion, the last note is one of elevation. Precious is an ode to the human spirit and its capacity for adaptation.
The film tells the story of Claireece 'Precious' Jones; an obese, illiterate 16-year old who is pregnant with her second child. Her school principal takes pity on her and enrolls her in an "alternative school," which focuses on bringing poor and uneducated women up to a GED level. At this school, Precious meets Ms. Rain, who encourages her self-esteem. At the other end of the spectrum in Precious's life is her mother, an abusive, angry shell of a woman played by comedienne Mo'Nique.
I need to stop the review right here. I can't go any farther without heaping loads and loads of praise on Mo'Nique. Much like she does every scene that she's in, Mo'Nique has stolen my review right from under my nose. Those most familiar with Mo'Nique from her stand-up or her roles in VH1 reality shows will most likely balk at the following statement, but it just happens to be true: Mo'Nique is going to win an Oscar for this role. And God, does she deserve it. She's incredibly believable as a terrifying woman whose anger stems from a well of injustice in her own life. Doing this well is difficult enough, but then she throws us the acting revelation that is the last scene. In it, she is given a monologue that doesn't make what she does acceptable (nothing could do that), but it does explain it and, perhaps, humanize the character, if only a little. Trust me, any humanization of this character is a near-impossible feat, and the fact that Mo'Nique pulls it off is absolutely incredible. Though I haven't seen nearly all the movies to see this year by any stretch, I'd already put my money down on this monologue for the best-acted scene of 2009.
Overall, this film is remarkably well-acted. Gabourey Sibide, in her acting debut, is spellbinding as Precious. Acting seems so natural to this girl that it must feel like breathing for her. She is effortlessly compelling and completely real. It's mind-blowing that this is the first time she's acted. The other supporting performances are also exercises in perfection: Paula Patton as Precious's teacher is wonderful as a teacher who refuses to give up on Precious, and Mariah Carey proves that she can act, as a realistic social worker who attempts to break through the pain in Precious's life.
The only (minor) detraction I can come up with concerns director Lee Daniels. There are times in the movie when you can feel him trying too hard to be a Director who earns that capitol letter. And, as such, he allows the style to preempt the substance, however briefly. Luckily for us, this fades as the film moves on. And even so, it's only a small concern. It's not nearly enough to make this any lesser of a film.
And what a film it is. It's gritty, shocking, and depressing at times, but ultimately elevating. Precious reminds the viewer that if Precious can get up every morning, hell, we all can. This is one of the year's best films.
Friday, November 20, 2009
There seems to be a dearth of viable contenders in this category, for whatever reason. I've got four films that are almost guaranteed a place, and then I'm at a bit of a loss to come up with another competitor that sounds right. Oh well. The four locks:
The Hurt Locker. This movie's destined to score with the Academy in a big way, at least nominations-wise. There's no way it's not getting in here. In fact, it's already been cited by festivals and various early awards organizations. It's in.
Inglorious Basterds. At first I was skeptical about this film's nomination chances, but now it seems like a done deal. People love this movie, and, like every Tarantino movie, it's strongest point is its screenplay.
A Serious Man. Though it might be too odd and polarizing to get a best picture nomination, it's not a stretch to imagine the Academy rewarding the Coens for their usual quirky creative genius.
Up. Pixar movies pretty much get in here without trying, unless reviews are awful (but we're talking Pixar, so 'awful' reviews means 'only mildly enthusiastic'). Up certainly didn't get awful reviews, so expect to see Pete Docter and co. at the awards ceremony.
That leaves one slot, but who to fill it? Bright Star was my early guess, but it seems that Jane Campion's film has sunk, and I don't expect it to score in any major categories. The Messenger might also come into play here, but this tiny drama about the military's casualty department probably won't get seen by enough member to score any nominations. That leaves two more possibilities in my mind. The first is (500) Days of Summer. Critics went wild for this movie back in June, and it's not hard to imagine that Academy voters will remember it come ballot time. The other, less likely possibility is Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. While it will almost undoubtedly come into play in the Foreign Language Film category, the film might not be well-loved enough to score other nominations. Foreign films have to be quite universal in acclaim and appeal to get outside of their own categories. Still, in such a thin spread of contenders, it could push through.
My predicted five, in order of likelihood:
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
(500) Days of Summer
Alternate: The Messenger, The White Ribbon
Every year, this category seems to be stuffed full of big prestige flicks, with too many good films competing for too few spots. This year seems no exception.
Three movies have been released this year to general acclaim that you can put money on: Precious, An Education, and Up in the Air. All three have been loved across the board, have been especially lauded for their screenplay.
Two more spots to fill, and many contenders. I need to devote a moment to three of the big question marks left in the season: Nine, Invictus, and The Lovely Bones. All are adapted screenplays, and all of them could sink or swim at this point. The Lovely Bones seems the surest bet here. Musicals like Nine have trouble scoring screenplay nods, and I'm expecting Invictus to be bad, so both seem unlikely here. Still, the word-of-mouth from Nine screenings seems incredibly positive, so it could still find its way in here.
Two other, smaller films also seem poised to make a splash here. First, Tom Ford's A Single Man. We have yet to see the public's opinion of this film, but word on the festival circuit bodes well. The Last Station, the Tolstoy biopic, could also easily make it's way in here. I'm a little dubious, however, simply because hardly anyone has seen this film yet. It might not make an impression.
My Predicted Five:
The Lovely Bones
Up in the Air
Alternate: A Single Man, The Last Station
There we are. All the major categories. I was planning on cutting it off here, but just for funsies, I think I'm going to post my predictions for all categories. It can't hurt, and I have some time to kill. Don't worry--I'll spare you the commentary.
The Lovely Bones
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Alternate: Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies
Alternate: The Young Victoria, Sherlock Holmes
Alternate: The Lovely Bones, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Lovely Bones
Alternate: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, District 9
The Hurt Locker
The Lovely Bones
Alternate: Inglorious Basterds, Up in the Air
The Lovely Bones
A Single Man
The Hurt Locker
Alternate: Avatar, Amelia
The Lovely Bones
The Princess and the Frog
Alternate: Coco Avant Chanel, The Road
The Hurt Locker
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Alternate: District 9, Up
Sound Effects Editing
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Alternate: The Hurt Locker, 2012
The Princess and the Frog
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Alternate: A Christmas Carol, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Foreign Language Film
The White Ribbon-Germany
The Secrets of Her Eyes-Argentina
Alternate: Max Manus-Norway, Letters From Father Jacob-Finland
Mugabe and the White African
Under Our Skin
Alternate: Valentino: The Last Emperor, The Most Dangerous Man in America
Thursday, November 19, 2009
This category is looking fairly crazy this year. It's chock full of veteran actors looking to receive a lifetime achievement award, newbies trying to finally be noticed for their talent, and movies stars having another go at it, all in one.
On the veteran's side, we have four likely contenders: The first, and most would say front-runner, is Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. Though the film has yet to be released to the public, early screenings suggest a career-best performance from an actor who's been nominated four times, but has never taken the gold. This could very easily go his way. His strongest competition comes from Colin Firth for A Single Man, who has already won the Venice Film Festival Award for best actor. Like Bridges, Firth is a respected actor who has yet to be feted by the Academy, and is gathering "performance of a lifetime" laurels. A two-horse race, perhaps? Not to be counted out is Morgan Freeman in Invictus. Honestly, it doesn't matter how good the movie is. He's Morgan Freeman. He's playing Nelson Mandela. He gets in on general principle. A possible dark horse veteran: Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun. He's got the pedigree and the reviews, but I think the film is just too small and understated to make it in.
The middle-aged and well-respected come next. First and foremost: George Clooney in Up in the Air. This man seems to age like fine wine, and the Academy loves him the more for it. There's no way he won't be recognized for what many call his best performance. Daniel Day-Lewis also has a strong chance for Nine. Admittedly, his role doesn't seem too showy or over-the-top, and the Academy loves Day-Lewis when he's being showy, but he could still have the juice to make it if the film's a big hit. And I can't, in good conscience, count out Viggo Mortensen in The Road. Though the film has gotten mixed reviews, critical acclaim has been universal for his portrayal of a father pushed to his limits. He could easily make it in if some of the unseen contenders above fall through the cracks.
Last, but certainly not least: the new kids on the block. One name: Jeremy Renner. The Hurt Locker. Some people are saying the role isn't showy or big enough, but I'll be damned if the Academy doesn't recognize the slow-boiling masterwork that Renner's performance is. I say he's in. James MacAvoy, in The Last Station, also has a chance. He's proven himself in the past (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland), and it could be his time to get welcomed to the club. Will the film be big enough?
My nomination predictions, in order of likelihood:
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Alternate: Viggo Mortensen, The Road, Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
This category is just the opposite of best actor: where best actor is full of veterans looking for their due, this category is stuffed to the brim with young actresses with performances that can't be ignored. Really, there's only one slot up for grabs. Four performances this year have already stood out, and will almost undoubtedly be nominated. They are:
Meryl Streep for Julie and Julia. People love her impassioned portrayal of Julia Child. Plus, she's Meryl Streep, and has been nominated fifteen times. Fifteen times. They'd nominate her for reading the newspaper.
Helen Mirren in The Last Station. This performance as Leo Tolstoy's wife is supposed to be very showy: Mirren doesn't just chew the scenery, she rips it apart, swallows it, digests it, and regurgitates it in a new and improved form.
Abbie Cornish in An Education. This 22-year old's breakout role is a real acting revelation. There's no way the Academy won't sit up and recognize it.
Same goes for Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. She's young, but a natural. People's heads are turning.
That leaves one spot. But who will take it? Most pundits are lining up for Abbie Cornish in Bright Star, but that film has essentially sunk, in terms of buzz. I think it'd be a miracle for her to make it in. Saorise Ronan, of The Lovely Bones, has a chance, for her role as a murdered teen who watches her family from the afterlife. One problem, though: she's only fifteen, and has already been nominated once. Will they really want to reward her again so early in life? Penelope Cruz also has a chance to make it in for Broken Embraces, based solely on the fact that people do seem to love her right now, since the movie itself hasn't made much of a splash. The most likely possibility, however, is Marion Cotillard for Nine. Screenings of the film early this week had people raving for her performance. She could easily make it in on the coattails of the film, if it turns out to be successful.
My predicted five:
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Marion Cotillard, Nine
Alternate: Abbie Cornish, Bright Star, Saorise Ronan, The Lovely Bones
God, this category looks so weak right now. There are two legit contenders, and three guesses based solely on film pedigree. Past that, there are a few hopefuls that only have a chance because of the dearth of other worthy contenders.
The two legit contenders: Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and Alfred Molina in An Education. Waltz was easily the most memorable performance of the summer, and is a great villain, which the Academy loves in this category. Alfred Molina has gotten many tongues wagging for his worried father, and he seems like a lock, even if I didn't particularly respond to his performance.
The three guesses: Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones, Christopher Plummer for The Last Station, and Matt Damon for Invictus. Tucci plays a villain, which the Academy loves. He's in, assuming the film is good. Same for Plummer: he's a due veteran playing a known real-life figure (Leo Tolstoy). Damon is only in talks because, well, he's in a Clint Eastwood movie and we need to talk about someone, don't we?
As far as other contenders are concerned: Peter Sarsgaard, the best supporting performance in An Education for my dollar. He could get in if Invictus or The Lovely Bones turns out to be bad. Same for Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker. He could easily make it if the Academy embraces his film more than we think it will. Lastly: Stanly Tucci for Julie and Julia. If The Lovely Bones fails, assume that Tucci will get in for this one. He's had a great career run of late, and it's his time for recognition. It just depends on which role they want to reward.
My predicted five:
Cristoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Alfred Molina, An Education
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Matt Damon, Invictus
Alternate: Peter Sarsgaard, An Education, Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker
This category, on the other hand, is just rife with potential contenders. Doesn't matter however, because Mo'Nique is gonna win. No contest. Sorry. Still, there are four other people who can say that 'it's an honor to be nominated,' right? Four movies dominate this category, and all of them could have multiple women nominated.
Precious will undoubtedly see Mo'Nique's abusive mother nominated. Also in the mix, however, are Paula Patton as a caring teacher, and Mariah Carey (no kidding) as a down-to-earth therapist. I don't like the last two actresses' chances, however. It's just going to be too hard to get out from under Mo'Nique's impressive shadow.
Nine is bursting with talented thespians. Most likely to stand out are Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench. Don't rule out Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, or Sophia Loren, however.
Up in the Air offers up two (reportedly) great performances from Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. I don't think both will get in, and Kendrick's performance is showier. Draw your own conclusions.
Similarly, The Lovely Bones has the potential for two great supporting performances: Rachel Weisz as a grieving mother and Susan Sarandon as a spunky grandmother. Right now, I'll go with Sarandon based on respect, but Rachel Weisz is a very talented actress, and could easily knock this one out of the park. We'll know in a few weeks, I suppose.
One woman stands in the way of one of these films getting two ladies recognized, however. That's Julianne Moore in A Single Man. She's reportedly fantastic, and the Academy's really going to have to snub its nose at the film for her to not make it in.
My predicted five:
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Susan Sarandon, The Lovely Bones
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Alternate: Judi Dench, Nine, Rachel Weisz, The Lovely Bones
There we are for now. Later: screenplays. Stay tuned!
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
As you may or may not know, I nurse a bizarre obsession. For nine months out of the year, my inarticulate keening can be contained with the studious application of certain film-related websites. Those other three months, however, I enter full-on gibbering mode. And guess what? It's November, baby.
...My three-month allotment should start in December.
The hell with that.
Sure, it might seem odd to all of you sane people out there, but November is 100% Oscar Season. I can hear your protests: 'But...But...The Oscars are in March! Most of these films haven't even been released to the public yet! This is insanity!' No. No, dear reader. Insanity is the fact that the 2009 Oscar race coverage began the day after the 2008 Oscar ceremony. I've been staring into this big, glitzy abyss for too long, and you're about to reap a little bit of the benefits. So, without further ado, I shall tackle Oscar Nomination predictions for the major categories, which is to say acting, writing, picture, and director. I'll warn you now: I might lose you. I've got nine months of prior knowledge on this subject, and things that seem elementary to me might be new territory for you (example: someone says "Mo'Nique." If you aren't immediately thinking about what she'll say when she wins, then you've probably had a life these past nine months. Good for you.). Anyway, here we go.
*revision: This is kind of an epic post, so I'm just going to limit it to picture and director today. Following later will be screenplays and acting.*
You might be aware that the Academy recently expanded the best picture category to 10 slots, as opposed to the traditional five. This has, understandably, caused pandemonium in Hollywood, as well as bouts of insanity. Every damn film that gets released and becomes even a modest hit has someone yelling 'my God, we have a best picture nominee!' I kid you not: people have said that for Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Hangover, This is It, Paranormal Activity, and even goddamn New mother-...loving Moon. Here this, and here it good. (For added emphasis, I shall use all caps. Also, it would be helpful for you to put on your 3-D goggles at this time.) 10 SLOTS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE ACADEMY WILL CHANGE ITS TASTE. (You may remove your 3-D goggles now.) Yes, there are 5 extra slots. That doesn't mean that they will suddenly love comedy (the last comedy to win was Annie Hall, in 1977. It remains the only out-and-out comedy to be nominated, unless you count It Happened One Night, in 1934, or Lost in Translation in 2003), or science fiction (the only science-fiction film, and by science fiction I mean 'taking place in the future' film to ever be nominated was A Clockwork Orange. Please bear in mind that I don't count Star Wars as science fiction), or horror (The only straight horror film to ever be nominated is The Exorcist, or, if you count it as horror instead of 'psychological thriller/drama', The Silence of the Lambs). What I'm saying is that those extra five slots will be filled with the normal: Holocaust films, intimate dramas, big 'prestige' films, and, if we're lucky, one or two indie competitors.
With all that in mind, I've narrowed the hopefuls down to fifteen films, which can be split into four groups. I honestly don't believe that any other films than these fifteen have a fighting chance. I could be wrong, though.
Critical Successes that have already been released
This category is pretty self-explanatory. These are films that came, were seen, and conquered. Every single one of these films is in, barring something insane happening. They are: The Hurt Locker, Precious, An Education, and Up in the Air. Mind you, two of these films still haven't received wide release. They were still seen by enough critics, though, to form a consensus.
The Big, Prestige-y "Oscar-Bait" Movies that no one has seen
These movies are enigmas. They're obviously meant to receive awards attention, but good intentions aren't a guarantee of success. Some may flop, some may soar. Who knows?
The Lovely Bones: I honestly can't see this one going wrong. Lots of Internet space has been devoted to how this one's going to fail, but I honestly can't imagine Peter Jackson and co. directing Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, Saorise Ronan, Stanley Tucci, and Mark Wahlberg, using already-fantastic source material, and coming up with anything that isn't spectacular. This one's in.
Invictus: A Clint Eastwood romp through soccer in post-apartheid South Africa starring God/Morgan Freeman. I don't mean to sound cynical, but it doesn't matter if this is good or not. There are too many old, conservative Academy members who will watch this, think 'my, what a fine film,' and toss it onto their ballots for giggles. My guess is this film will be rather middlebrow. But hey, middlebrow doesn't hurt with the Academy.
Nine: A musical adaptation of a Fellini film starring the bad boy of indie cinema, fleshed out by gratuitous amounts of fantastic actresses, directed by the man who was last rewarded for bringing Chicago back to life. Sounds like a no-brainer. My guess? It will be good, but not good enough to win.
Avatar: Some people think this will do the same thing to movies that Jesus did to the southern US, back when he visited Atlanta in 1963 (that's how it went, right?). Others think this will be the biggest flop in film history. Personally, I think the film, like Titanic, will have trouble reconciling its compelling story and jaw-dropping technical proficiency with its third-grade level script. But honestly, the quality probably won't matter. As I said before, the Academy doesn't go for sci-fi. This film will almost literally have to be Jesus to make it in. And remember, James Cameron: Jesus was crucified. Good luck to you, sir.
Films Released earlier that were good, but not good enough to be locked in
I suppose I shouldn't say "good enough." What I mean is big enough, or universal enough, or talked about enough. All these films have a good chance, but there aren't many slots open. It's going to be a bloodbath.
Bright Star: Jane Campion's Keats-flavored biopic was a hit with the film festival crowd, but fell flat on its face once it was released for general consumption. I'm sure it's a lovely film, and will no doubt be considered for other, smaller categories, but I don't think it has the juice to fight its way into the top 10. Sorry.
Inglorious Basterds: Who'd have thunk, right? Historical revisionism isn't usually the Academy's cup of tea, but God, they love WW2 movies more than life itself. Plus, this is one of the best-reviewed movies of Tarantino's career. They might want to welcome him back into the fold, since his movies haven't really caught on with the Academy since Pulp Fiction (excluding Pam Greer's nomination for Jackie Brown).
A Serious Man: I'll be the first to say it: The Coens might be too weird for the Academy. Plus, they won the big award only two years ago, and inviting them back again might seem like too much, too soon. Still, there are people out there calling this the Coen's best film. It's certainly not the majority opinion, but Oscar history has proven that a small group of rabid supporters is just, if not more, successful than being well-liked by a large group.
Up: Pixar's been flirting with the best category the whole millennium, even with only 5 slots. It only makes sense that their latest effort, which was received with critical acclaim as always, makes the cut when the field is expanded. End of story.
Movies that have yet to come out that might make a splash
These films aren't quite unseen: most have bowed at festivals or screeners or the like. They aren't big enough, however, to be in the "Big 4" I mentioned earlier. They might have a chance, or they might not, depending on how they're received by the public.
The Last Station: The Academy loves biopics, and this Tolstoy-themed romp certainly won't let them down in that respect. This feels like the sort of stuffy, period "prestige" piece that has been missing the cut for the past few years. In a large field, however, I figure middlebrow will cut it, as long as it appeals to the right audience.
The Road: This one's tough. On its festival debut, it seemed rather polarizing; some people loved it, some people hated it, and many more seemed indifferent. Then again, Cormac McCarthy movies have done well at the Oscars before (*cough, no country for old men, *cough*). Still, this one is noticeably more bleak, and hasn't been earning the "masterpiece" accolades that No Country received. This is quite the long-shot.
A Single Man: This could be the biggest wildcard: the festival audience loved it to death, the regular critics seem to not be moved. Plus, this movie is pretty gay (...literally), and the Academy has trouble warming up to that. Still, if its as impressive as its Venice Film Festival response indicates, they might have to sit up and notice anyway.
There you go. 15 films. Barring a miracle, 10 of these films will make it? Here's my prediction, in order of likelihood:
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
The Lovely Bones
The Last Station
Alternates: A Single Man, A Serious Man
Wow. That took a while. If anyone's still reading, let's try for Best Director. This one's easier; only 5 slots. Traditionally, best picture nominees dominate this category, with 1 or (rarely) 2 slots open for films that aren't recognized in best picture, but exhibit undeniable style and control. With the expansion of the best picture race, however, best director gets confusing. Some say that these five nominees will represent the "real" best picture, aka these five will be the academy's preference. If so, will the direction be ignored, or will reputations and politics still figure in?
As far as locks are concerned, we've got three: Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker, who succeeded in bringing the Iraq war to screen with flying colors, meshing style, tension, and dramatic elements seamlessly. Jason Reitman, for Up in the Air; he gets in mainly on the coattails of his film's success, but also for his integration of comedy and drama, which isn't easy to do successfully. Finally, Lee Daniels, for Precious: his direction has honestly received more negative reviews than positive (ie too showy for the material, trying to hard to be 'a director'), but Precious is poised to be the success story of the year, so he's in.
That leaves two spots. Assuming The Lovely Bones is as well-received as it's going to be, then Peter Jackson is in for sure. We'll run with that assumption for now. So who grabs the last spot? Rob Marshall for Nine is an obvious suspect. They loved him for Chicago, and Nine seems to be showy enough to grab their attention. Clint Eastwood could make it in for Invictus simply because he's Clint Eastwood, and Lone Scherfig's An Education has gotten great notices in this respect. It could be too small and understated, however. That leaves two big, loud, unlikely possibilities. The first: Quentin Tarantino for Inglorious Basterds. I doubt the film will be embraced to this degree, but if it is, they'll no doubt want to welcome Tarantino back to the club. The second...James Cameron, for Avatar. Yes, it could be bad. But Cameron is the preeminent action director working today, and it's going to be difficult to ignore his mastery of the medium, regardless of the quality of the drama portrayed.
My predicted 5, in order:
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Peter Jackson, The Lovely Bones
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Lee Daniels, Precious
Rob Marshall, Nine
Alternates: James Cameron, Avatar, Clint Eastwood, Invictus
There's part 1. For your sake, I'll save the rest for later. What do you think? I know it's hard, since most of these movies remain unseen, especially if you aren't searching them out. If you were choosing, what would you nominate for best picture for the year so far?
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Monday, November 16, 2009
Cashback (Sean Ellis, 2005)
Cashback is a gorgeous hybridization of mind-numbing monotony and sublime beauty. It concerns the travails of Ben Willis, who works the night-shift at a local grocery store to pay his way through art college. The film takes 20-ish minutes to examine ways that people allow their mind to drift away from everyday events. If this were all it did, Cashback would still be an interesting study of human nature in the face of boredom. Its second half, however, allows its protagonist to stop time and, as an artist, examine and appreciate the beauty in his world. This surreal edge elevates the material into something completely unique and oddly satisfying. (Sadly, only the first half can be found on Youtube. Perhaps it's because the second half is chock full of gratuitous nudity? Youtube probably looks down on that.)
Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bunuel and Salvadore Dali, 1928)
Un Chien Andalou is nothing less than a nosedive into the deep end. Noted surrealist Bunuel and famed surrealist painter Dali team up to attempt to recreate the subconscious on film. What follows is nearly indescribable: there's no real plot, no words, and no sense of continuity. The film is a string of incomprehensible and disturbing images: a woman's eye being sliced open with a straight razor, a disembodies hand in the street, a man whose hand is being devoured by ants, another man dragging pianos draped with the carcasses of donkeys. You get the idea. One can try to rationalize this film, but it's just like the process one goes through upon waking from a dream: dreams have no real plot or continuity, but one must assign them anyway so as to make sense of the experience that was had. The same can be said for Un Chien Andalou: no real plot, but we make one anyway so we don't go crazy.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Joss Whedon, 2008)
My God, I love Dr. Horrible. This short (some people call it a TV series, but seriously: it's forty minutes long) is the perfect blend of everything you could want out of entertainment: the music is fantastic and catchy, the acting is superb, and the writing is razor-sharp. It contains the elements of comedy, side by side with romance, all of which are suddenly pre-empted by drama and harsh reality. I feel like I'm underselling this, somehow. Dr. Horrible is ridiculous amounts of fun the first time. The second time, it's bittersweet, almost tragic. The third time, it's karaoke. The jokes come fast and furious, but so does the emotional impact. The last shot stands in my mind as one of the most affecting in recent cinema, full-form or otherwise.
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Derren and Alexander Hammid, 1943)
And we're back to surrealism. Directing duo Derren and Hammid set out to do the same thing that Bunuel and Dali tried: to represent the subconscious on film. These two take it further, however, in allowing moments of suggested reality to creep into their film. What follows is a profoundly unsettling, downright creepy cinematic experience unlike any other. While Un Chien Andalou feels like macabre comedy, Meshes of the Afternoon is just plain macabre. The film's recurring images (figures with mirrors for faces, bending staircases, an ubiquitous knife) become burned into the retina and continue to haunt the viewer long after first viewing. The last moment of violence is singularly memorable.
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
This short is, for my money, both the best documentary of all time as well as one of the most profoundly disturbing films of all time. Filmmaker Alain Resnais takes his cameras to the remains of concentration camps, most left how they were ten years before, and splices the footage with Nazi documentary footage of the Holocaust. Though the film is less than forty minutes, it could be the most disturbing experience I've had in the cinema. Resnais attempts no kind of social commentary, no hindsight observation, no attempt to make sense of the madness: instead, he just cites statistics about the Holocaust while showing the pictures. If you watch this, I'll warn you: prepare to feel wrung-out and unhappy. This film is the definitive Holocaust film, in that it's the only piece of work that doesn't try to rationalize or moralize: it simply forces the viewer to confront the grim reality of the death of millions of human beings. (Note: This is on Youtube, but only in French without subtitles. I'm told that it's on google video with subtitles, however. I honestly haven't checked.)
One Man Band (Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, 2005)
One Man Band clocks in as the shortest offering on the list (just over four minutes), and is the only animated film, but could very easily vie for my choice as favorite (though, as stated before, that's not a choice I can honestly make right now). This tiny film about two starving artists and the single coin they compete for says more about the effects of poverty, greed, and pride than most full-length films do. The film is funny, heart-wrenching at times, and in the end, provides a sucker-punch of humanity to the gut. There are few things in this world that make me smile as much as the last facial expression we see on the little girl. This film is an ode to generosity, contentment, and the foolishness of placing too much importance on money.
Six Shooter (Martin McDonagh, 2005)
You are most likely familiar with Martin McDonagh as the writer/director of In Bruges. Before that, however, McDonagh created this: a short film that runs with The Joker's idea that all it takes to drive a man crazy is one very bad day. And my God, what a bad day McDonagh shows us. Six Shooter follows a man (played by Brendan Gleeson) whose wife has just died. On the train ride home, he shares a car with a couple whose infant has just died, along with an arrogant, rude young man, who makes it a point to goad everyone around him under the pretense of "making conversation." I wouldn't dare reveal what happens next; suffice to say that it's shocking, tense, and clever. The way McDonagh pulls all the strings together to make the one moment at the end of the film possible is absolutely jaw-dropping. Seriously. Go watch this on Youtube. It takes less than a half and hour, and you'll thank me later.
Hell. Go watch all of these, the ones that you can find, anyway. Find a free couple of hours. It's worth it. Come back and tell me which ones you like best. Or, if you prefer, just watch a couple and report back. If I'm forced to choose, I'd say Six Shooter, One Man Band, Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, and Meshes of the Afternoon would fight it out for my #1 spot. I'd say Night and Fog would be up there, but it just makes me feel too bad to consider it a favorite. It might be the best, however.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
28 Days Later...
A Life Less Ordinary
I'd like to think that enough of his films are iconic and well-seen enough for y'all to be able to follow along here, but you never know. For my part, I've seen all of them but A Life Less Ordinary and Shallow Grave, and I feel you can categorize them, quality-wise, in the following groups:
Out-and-out masterpieces, or as close as Boyle has gotten: 28 Days Later, Sunshine
Enjoyable, proficient, and (generally) good: Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting
Admirable Misfire: Millions
Just plain bad: The Beach
From what I hear, Shallow Grave finds itself in either the "enjoyable" or the "misfire" category, while A Life Less Ordinary drifts between "misfire" and "bad."
Danny Boyle's career has had a strange metamorphosis. With his debut film, Shallow Grave, Boyle earned accolades similar to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs debut: some called it uneven, some called it a masterpiece, everyone agreed that this was a new director to watch. Boyle didn't disappoint with his follow-up, Trainspotting; though I may not love it as much as the next guy, the general consensus is that it's a modern masterpiece, and a classic of the new film movement. After having established himself as a competent director and an auteur of sorts, Danny Boyle then chose to throw it all away. His next two projects, The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary were large, messy studio productions, obviously aiming to please the most middling denominator. From here, Boyle learned his lesson: his next films, instead of attempting to be all things to all people, became very small, specific riffs on genre. He reinvented zombie horror with 28 Days Later, then mish-mashed inspirational family films with religious satire in Millions, had the gall to attempt "hard" science fiction in a post-2001 universe with Sunshine, and then took on the rags-to-riches tale with Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle has obviously hit his stride with this new career renaissance: one can only assume that he will continue his string of successes.
I find this Danny Boyle quote to be quite indicative of his style:
"...I like films that have a kind of vivacity to them. At this time of year you think about awards, and if you want to win one, you think you should make serious films, but my instinct is to make vivacious films." If there's one word to describe Boyle's films, it's vivacious. No director today makes use of such hyper-kinetic camera blocking. I don't mean this in a derogatory sense. Boyle is always supremely in control of his art, allowing the motion of the camera to enhance the motion of the film, all while knowing when to pause for breath and make use of uninterrupted takes and long shots. Most writers would hold up Slumdog Millionaire as the seminal example of Boyle's visual style, but I must dissent and suggest 28 Days Later instead. Slumdog is, indeed, full of motion and energy, but 28 Days Later has a propensity for tranquility that can be found liberally in Boyle's other films (most notably Sunshine and Millions) that is, on the whole, missing from Slumdog.
Boyle's style is made memorable through its motion, but I'd like to take a moment to think about the color schemes and impressionistic touches. Sunshine has the most easily defined color scheme (hint: everything is either orange or black, with brief sojourns for green), no doubt due to its single location (...space). Notice Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, and Millions, however: Slumdog works mostly with shades of brown, orange and red, 28 Day Later is always muted, as if everything is lit by blue or gray shades, and Millions is open and friendly, full of primary colors, which is no doubt reflective of the worldview of its child protagonist. In my opinion, the color work is far more effective in creating and establishing a stylistic mood, regardless of the flashiness of the color-work.
Thematically, Danny Boyle is a bit more difficult to pin down. Here's another quote for you to ponder: "I want my films to be life-affirming...I want people to leave the cinema feeling that something's been confirmed for them about life." I can't say that he always succeeds: the false, happy ending tacked on to the end of The Beach did far more to lower my opinion of humanity than leaving the film blood-soaked and angry like it should have been. So it goes. I suppose, however, the point may not be in the end. Most of Boyle's films seemed singularly concerned with the audacity of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. Consider 28 Days Later: the end is not particularly inspiring. Focus instead, if you will, on the relationship between Frank and Hannah: a father who loves his daughter, doing his best to keep her safe. Or even Jim and Selena: despite everything happening around them, two people can fall in love and teach each other something about kindness. Now look at Sunshine: not the sunniest of endings (...I'm sorry, I had to) by any stretch of the imagination. What sticks out in my mind, however, is the selflessness shown by most of the crew. Sunshine plays for me like a parable for losing oneself in the drive to help the greater good, even at the expense of one's safety or one's life. And I certainly don't need to explain to you how Slumdog Millionaire relates to pushing on through adverse odds (seriously, does anyone think Jamal and Latika will actually work as a couple? At the end, after the dance, they walk out of the station, and I can't help but picturing Latika looking at Jamal and saying "...so what now?" After some sex and some very courageous shenanigans resulting in bringing about the destiny of two hungry stomachs and one very confused pizza, they're going to realize that the chase was far more interesting than the destination. Sorry, I digress). So, perhaps it is easy to define Boyle's main thematic conceit: his films concern the drive to move forward despite the desire to go back.
What's next for Danny Boyle? IMDB won't let me have a good look, but it seems his next project is called 127 Hours. I wish I could provide more details, but, as stated, IMDB tells me I'm not nearly important enough to look at its "in development" projects. Oh well. Some day, internet, some day. For now, however: what do you think of Danny Boyle? Worth all these wasted pixels or not? If you've seen some of his movies, go ahead and post your ranking of them in the comments. My ranking is as follows:
28 Days Later
Where am I wrong?
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Monday, November 9, 2009
10. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
The Shawshank Redemption is a bizarre phenomenon of a movie, in that it seems to be all things to all people. Currently, it sits at #1 on IMDB's "best of all time" list. That may be taking it too far in the superlative department, but I can't deny this film its rewards. The Shawshank Redemption sticks out in my mind as one of the more inspirational films in recent memory. I admire it for its pacing: Frank Darabont makes time feel real and tangible, as if the audience is in prison right along with Andy Dufresne. This isn't to say that the film is interminable, of course. Despite its moments of occasional violence, Shawshank's overall tone is one of hope and dignity in the face of adversity. Morgan Freeman, in, if not his best role, his most famous, provides a steady, weatherbeaten rock to which the audience anchors. His final monologue (Hint: it involves the phrase "I hope") is one of the cinematic highlights of the decade.
9. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)
This movie is one of my greatest guilty pleasures. Perhaps it's because this is the first "adult" movie I remember seeing in theaters; at the tender age of 7, it seemed like nothing as good as Titanic had ever happened, nor would ever happen again. Now that I'm older and wiser, I'll be the first to admit that the first half of the film is uneven melodrama that is hokily written and clumsily acted. The last half, aka the sinking, is some of the most intense and proficient filmmaking ever to grace the silver screen. I have to respect James Cameron for his single-minded dedication: for the film, they literally created a near-scale model of the actual Titanic, and then proceeded to sink it. I'm a sucker for Big Movies that earn those capital letters, and Titanic is the biggest movie since Gone With the Wind. At the very least, Titanic earns its spot on this list for having the balls to go for old-fashioned epic filmmaking in a decidedly anti-epic modern cinemascape.
8. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
Saving Private Ryan might not be the best WW2 movie of 1998 (that one you'll meet in a minute), but it's certainly the loudest. ...That might not sound like a compliment. What I mean to say is that Saving Private Ryan is completely unsurpassed in its depiction of battle. The opening Normandy sequence is, for my money, the best battle scene ever committed to film--not to sell short the other fantastic set pieces in this blood-soaked film. With Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg almost achieves the completely impossible: he sets out to make an anti-war film about the futility and dehumanizing nature of conflict set entirely within the confines of a conflict-driven film. As I said, he almost succeeds. I'm not sure I approve of the ending (SPOILER WARNING: jump to the end of the parentheses if you haven't seen it. Had I made this film, I would have ended it as Tom Hanks was shooting his pistol at the tank bearing down on him; the perfect metaphor for the futility of men trying to halt the machines of politically driven combat. But then, the deux ex machina comes, and we get the present-day framing, and the film loses a little power. SPOILERS ARE OVER...) If the ending were altered slightly, this film might be higher on the list. Still, I can't deny its extraordinary power and technical acumen.
Warning: I might not be able to control my enthusiasm for the remaining seven films on this list. Act accordingly.
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)
I really don't have words to describe this movie. Let the movie's title try: it's mysterious, yearning, secretive, sad, lonely, troubled, confused, loving, musical, gifted, intelligent, beautiful, tender, sensitive, haunted, and passionate (that's the full title of adjectives, as it were). It's also creepy, ugly, strange, angry, bitter, and cynical. So many adjectives, yet I still feel no closer to solving the mystery that is this movie. It's just like its main character. Matt Damon's performance as a social climber who'll do anything to remain on top is downright chilling. Normally Damon is so likable: here, he inspires feelings that crawl under my skin and promptly die there. The Talented Mr. Ripley's stylistic and thematic beauty and flippancy is constantly overturned by moments of brutal violence whenever the film seems to come up for air. It drags the viewer down into the Stygian depths of its madness, and doesn't allow respite until the credits begin to roll. This is a bromance, of sorts. No, I take this back. This is a tale of male-on-male infatuation that ends in the worst way possible. Nothing like a kind-of-sort-of-not-really-but-still gay serial killer to start off one's week, is there?
6. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)
Here's another movie that's nearly impossible to describe in conventional terms. I told a friend recently that Fargo was a movie "in which terrible things happen to good people in cringe-inducingly funny ways." Fargo is like a comedy of errors in which every error results in some form of grisly carnage. This Coen tale of a planned kidnapping gone terribly wrong is completely unique; I've never seen another film like it. Most of it is as cold, heartless, and unflinching as the Minnesota winterscape in which it occurs. The scenes involving Frances MacDormand's Marge Gunderson, however, are filled to the brim with warmth, humor and love. It's a bizarre juxtaposition, even more so when the heavily pregnant Gunderson finally crosses paths with the kidnappers-turned-murderers on the make. Fargo makes for incredibly absorbing filmmaking. Watch for Gunderson's monologue at the end of the film; its almost religious in its simplicity and depth (hint: it's the "there's more to life than money, ya know" speech).
5. Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)
Who knew math could be so enthralling? Sorry, I jest. Good Will Hunting is a fascinating piece of work, not for its math (what the hell is an Advanced Fourier proof, anyway? ...not sure I spelled that right), but for its examination of the reluctance to depart from routine for fear of something new. Matt Damon and Robin Williams have never been better as a JD genius and his therapist, respectively. Conversations that could fall into tired cliche stay constantly insightful and interesting, thanks to the absolutely fantastic script written by Damon and co-star Ben Affleck. That this was their first screenplay is completely astounding, as this is, in my opinion, one of the most intelligently written films in recent memory. Yes the movie is intelligent, but it's also very moving. There are moments of dramatic intensity ('it's not your fault,' anyone?) that are nearly unparalleled in recent cinema. And all this from two kids in South Boston. Good Will Hunting isn't just a great movie: it's definitive proof of miracles.
4. The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, 1998)
What a beautiful, beautiful film; the best war movie of 1998, regardless of what Steven Spielberg would like you to believe. Make no mistake: The Thin Red Line is not entertainment: it's work. Malick's film is a three-hour long visual poem with little in the way of conventional storytelling, plot, or even characters. The one real character in the film is Charlie Company; the men in it are pushed in and out of the spotlight, doing their bit and then receding into the background. The Thin Red Line is hardly about warfare as much as it is between man's conflict with nature, and the balance of good and evil in the soul of the individual. This is not to say that the film doesn't offer moments of violence: indeed, the assault on the Japanese entrenchment halfway through the film is almost overwhelming in its cruelness and intensity. Most of the film, however is devoted to long, bittersweet monologues concerning the world, eternity, morality, and what one man can do to cope with the infinite. The cinematography must be mentioned: this is one of the most beautiful movies you'll ever see. Every frame is stuffed with enough gorgeousity (shut up, it's a word) to make a grown man cry. This, coupled with the underlying thematic power and the completely unique directorial style, makes The Thin Red Line one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of my life.
3. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Man, it hurts to put this movie as low as #3, but them's the breaks. This movie is a rare gem, a near perfect cinematic confection. I have to start by saying that: there has never been a better villain on film than Dr. Hannibal Lecter. You kids can have your joker, I'm sticking with Anthony Hopkins. Hell, not only is this the best villain ever captured, it's one of the best performances in general. There aren't words to describe how perfect and spot-on Hopkins' character is. I don't want to undersell Jodie Foster, however. It must have been intimidating just to breathe in the same room as this man, but somehow, she found untapped resources of dramatic integrity, creating a foil for Dr. Lecter that is every bit as convincing as he. As for the screenplay: were it not for another movie that you'll be hearing about directly, I would call it my favorite screenplay of all time. It's a rare tribute to a film when, in a movie containing serial killers, cannibalism, and a race-for-time-against-a-deranged-killer, that the most riveting parts of the film are discussions between two characters. It's true, though. The skull sessions that Agent Starling shares with Dr. Lecter are absolutely spellbinding in their intensity. This movie is all about building up to tension: though there are few moments of violence, when those few moments do occur, they seem more shocking than anything the viewer could have imagined. This is filmmaking at its most intense.
2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Ah yes, here we are: the best movie screenplay ever written. As a wise friend recently told me after watching this: the art of interesting conversation has been lost. Right you are, wise friend (anonymity be damned: Nick, I agree). Consider the first scene, in which Jules and Vincent travel to their hit. They discuss Amsterdam, burgers, Samoans, and foot massages, but never once do they discuss who they are or what they do. Still, by the end of the scene, we realize that they're hit-men on their way to commit a crime. How many other movies have you seen that set up their exposition entirely in inferences and incidentals? And that's just the beginning. Pulp Fiction is never silent: it's over two hours of someone or another talking constantly. The miracle is that it never gets old, it never gets annoying, and you never find yourself wishing for less talking and more action. Thus far, I've made it out as if the dialogue is the film's only redeeming factor. Not true: the acting is great, particularly Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, and the plot is endlessly inventive. This film is great fun, but they're also something a little heartbreaking about it: a search for redemption. It shows us all these people at the bottom of the barrel, thrashing around, attempting to rise out of their situation, but with no idea how to do so. Samuel L. Jackson's Ezekiel 25:17 speech to Ringo at the end of the film goes down in my book as the best monologue in movie history, and Uma Thurman's "do you still wanna hear my joke?" has got to be one of the most heartbreaking.
1. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
And it comes down to this: maybe American Beauty isn't the greatest film on the list, but it certainly connects with me the most. So there it is: emotional impact gets preference over technical proficiency. Not to say that American Beauty isn't technically proficient: its acting is magnificent all around, delivered by one of the most involving ensembles in recent history. It's beautifully shot, with moments of real, eye-opening wonder, it's evocative score finds all the right emotional keystones, and it's all put together so that the film never loses its balance. To endorse all of its surface qualities, however, is to neglect the sheer weight of its emotional impact. The film is, improbably, about hope and change. Its message implies that the catalyst and the end result aren't nearly as important as the desire to rescue oneself from mental and emotional death. It's about beauty: how the world is full of perfect moments hiding under the surface, waiting to flower for anyone willing to look. It's about love: love isn't neat, it isn't obvious, but it's full of those moments of beauty that make life worth living. In the end, it's about feeling gratitude for every minute of your stupid little life. And you know what? It works.
There we are. All finished. Based on this evidence, I humbly submit the 90s as the best decade for the film industry. Now then: what did I miss? I know there are hundreds of other movies that would back up that claim. Lay some of them on me!
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Friday, November 6, 2009
20. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
Most of you are probably more familiar with Mann's 2004 crime hit Collateral. Before Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx ever taxied the streets of LA, however, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro played cat and mouse through the streets of the City of Angels. And what a game it is. Mann's masterstroke is the balance he displays: We, as an audience, can root for the cop, Al Pacino, in his quest to for justice, just as easily as we can root for Robert De Niro's criminal as he attempts to pull off one last heist in an attempt to disappear. While Heat is a fantastic action film, it also serves as a dark meditation on personalities lost in their job, and the actions people are willing to take, the things they're willing to sacrifice in order to satisfy their obsessions. This film also marks the last time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were in anything worth watching.
19. Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999)
This searing little film seemed to get lost in the rush of other 1999 greats, but I've never forgotten Kimberly Pierce's treatise on identity and acceptance. Boys Don't Cry chronicles the true story of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska youth who falls into a dangerous lifestyle, all while concealing the fact that Brandon Teena is actually Teena Brandon, a man living as a woman. Most who see this film remember it best for its horrific, painful ending, but to do so is to ignore all the tender, sweet moments that proceed it. Yes, Pierce's film is angry at the crimes it depicts, but it also takes the time to tell a quiet coming-of-age story in the face of the worst kinds of adversity. Hilary Swank rightfully won an Oscar for her depiction of Brandon. Chloe Sevigny provides a strong performance for Swank to anchor herself on.
18. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)
Admittedly, without its companion piece, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise loses a bit of its power. It remains, however, a singularly intelligent film that attempts to, in the course of one night, dissect love, fate, chance, and free will. Before Sunrise follows two strangers who decide to spend one night in Vienna together on a whim. The film consists of the two characters talking. And that's it. Rarely does a film have the courage to take characters, drop them in a location, and force them to be honest. Even more rarely does one find a film this entertaining that relies 100% on the power of its dialogue. Yet Before Sunrise is both of these things, and is incredibly effective. Its screenplay is one of the most witty, literate, insightful pieces you will hear (especially when viewed with Before Sunset).
17. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
I can hear you already: "How is this only #17 on the list?" The answer is simple--this is a list of favorites, not a list of bests. Yes, Steven Spielberg's Holocaust film is a technical marvel, stunningly well-acted, and achingly powerful. Is it, however a movie to grow old with? A movie to love, a movie that loves you back? A movie that becomes a friend over the years? No. I have nothing but respect for this film, but that's just it. I have nothing but respect for this film, which is why it only makes it to #17. Respect without love can only climb so high. That being said, the film is a staggering piece of work: Spielberg takes a subject that should be completely unfilmable, and turns it into a piece of art that has the ability to affect almost every demographic. This is quite commendable. In particular, I appreciate the expressive cinematography, the mournful John Williams score, and Ralph Fiennes: his Nazi commander is, in my opinion, perhaps the most chilling, effective villain ever committed to screen (...with the exception of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, whom no one can top).16. Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1995)
This is one of those rare films that bestows me with an inordinate amount of warm-fuzzies. Madden's film is a gigantic ball of joy, with the perfect balance of comedic elements, romance, and occasional drama. It succeeds in one of the most endangered genres in cinema: the "sophisticated comedy." While all this is well and good, the film's ending provides the masterstroke that makes this film the cinematic gem that it is: Madden chooses realism over poetry. What was before an involving romance becomes a bittersweet meditation on the transience and impermanence of happiness. It's a gorgeous piece of work.
15. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)
I'll be the first to admit that American History X is a little uneven. To focus on this, however, is to deny the raw, visceral power that so much of the film demonstrates. Tony Kaye's examination of the consequences of unbridled hate remains, for all its admitted faults, one of the most unflinching, searing experiences in recent cinema. Of special note is Edward Norton: this film rides almost entirely on his shoulders, and he more than rises to the challenge. Norton's Derek Vinyard is a revelation; one of the more memorably characters of the 90s. Not to undersell Edward Furlong's performance, of course: Furlong provides the perfect foil for Norton, and the two are never better than when they're acting together. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but its whole is unforgettable.
14. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
I'm legitimately confused. This movie should not, by any stretch of the imagination, be this good. Boogie Nights is a three-hour epic about the porn industry in the 70s and 80s. That's not exactly a film premise one hears everyday. Yet somehow, inexplicably, Boogie Nights is one of the most memorably cinematic experiences of the 90s. Perhaps its the acting: Julianne Moore turns in what might be the most spectacular supporting turn I've ever seen, and she is joined in greatness by Heather Graham, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, and Mark Wahlberg, all turning in the performance of their careers. Maybe it's the screenplay: Anderson's film pops with tension, insight, and startling originality. Whatever the cause, the end result is undeniably powerful. The film captures the full scope of its twenty year timeline, all while retaining the smallest moments of human drama in between. It's quite the balancing act.
13. Seven (David Fincher, 1999)
Director David Fincher is best known for Fight Club, but Seven demonstrates what Fincher can do when he really works at it. This film is one of the best thrillers in recent memory. Seven is dark, quiet, and, in places, almost unbearably gruesome, but manages to stay afloat. More than that; the film becomes an analysis of good men trying to live in a world designed to destroy good men. What I admire this film for most is its restraint: at any time, Fincher could have thrown in blaring music, quick editing, car chases, gratuitous sex and violence, like every other director who falls into the conventions of the thriller genre, but he doesn't. He approaches the film much like the senior detective in the film approaches a case--quiet, methodical, and unwavering. His dedication to this ideal elevates Seven from the pack of stereotypical thrillers and turns it into a piece of art.
12. Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)
Dead Man Walking is an angry film. It has an ax to grind; an anti-capital punishment agenda. This, in and of itself, is no revelation. Many films have some sort of ideal to further, and do nothing for their cause. Dead Man Walking, however, sets out to do the impossible and succeeds with flying colors. The film presents us with a monster, a rapist and murderer, a bigoted, racist, white-trash scumbag, and dares us to see the humanity in him. The film challenges its audience to find empathy for a despicable individual, and, thanks to the immense power of the film, the challenge is answered. The execution scene remains, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most powerful scenes committed to celluloid in recent memory. And all this about a murderer. Robbins' film is the very definition of fair and balanced: it sees that everyone, regardless of their actions, is still a human being.
11. The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
God, what a odd, quiet, unique, beautiful movie. The Piano is unlike any other film you'll see. It is best described at visual poetry: the film is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and tells its story primarily through images, not words. And Lord, what memorable images they are. On the surface, The Piano is a romance about a by-choice mute woman who enters into an arranged marriage with a man in New Zealand that she's never met, and the uneducated neighbor who is attracted by her beauty, her mystery, and, above all, the skill with which she plays the piano. While images are the most important part of the film, the music takes a close second: the soundtrack is provided by the main character, whose only means of communication is through her piano. Michael Nyman's compositions for her are as haunting as they are eloquent. A completely unique cinema experience not to be missed.
There's the first half. You'll have to wait until tomorrow to tell me what movies I missed, but for now, any predictions? What movies are you hoping to see pop up in the top 10?
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Oh shit yes. I'm going there. I'm going there hard.
Jesus Christ Superstar as a play is inherently subversive. It portrays Jesus's early followers and writhing penitents, desperate for some form of reward ("Christ you know I love you/Can't you see I waved/ I believe in you and God/so tell me that I'm saved"), while the people around him tell him to "keep them yelling in their devotion, but add a touch of hate." Meanwhile, Jesus staggers around, yelling that he's not the Son of God, while Mary Magdelene spends many a night with him, even if she can't please him. Take a look at this clip that very accurately captures the film's perspective of early Christianity: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sa3yG1j_9pc
The 1973 film version, directed by Norman Jewison, takes the offensiveness even farther, however. For your viewing pleasure, I humbly submit this clip:
Let's just ignore the fact that Jesus seems to be inhabiting a love-cave with a barely-dressed harem of women dancing around him while Mary Magdelene rubs oil on his body. What's interesting here is Judas: watch him watching Mary. What's in his face, his eyes? That's right. Jealousy. He's not pissed that she's wasting her fine ointment; he's pissed that she's making moves on his man. If you think I'm reading too much into it, just wait for Jesus's reply: he tells Judas to stop bitching about the poor, and start worrying about him. Jesus says that he'll be leaving Judas soon, and he wants him to be alright. Then, they hold hands. No, not just hold hands: they full-on caress each other as Judas dissolves into tears. Please note that Mary Magdelene is very nearly grinding on Jesus the whole time, but Jesus only has eyes for Judas, and vice versa.
The whole film plays like this. Was this done with the express purpose of angering the religious right? While it's a nice ancillary benefit, I can't help but feel that it wasn't director Norman Jewison's primary objective. Consider this: if Judas were played like the straight (in every sense of the word), conventional villain, then Jesus's story is simply a tale of a traitor acting for money. That's been done. It has no real emotional heft or meaning. Add a bit of love into the equation. Suddenly, Judas isn't just some bad guy: he's torn between the man he loves and what he sees as the future of his country. The film shows Judas struggling with indecision, worried that the uprising that Christ is creating will bring Roman retaliation from which his homeland won't be able to recover. He loves Jesus, but is finally convinced that the people he love, including himself, need to suffer so that Israel can have a future. This bit of love turns a cliched villain story into a heart-wrenching parable of prioritizing the good of the majority over personal emotions.
Hence a bromance is born. I've only shown you the one clip, but the film is rife with significant glances and innuendos. Hell, it's not a bromance so much as a full-on romance. The film only earns that extra B because of its reluctance to be explicit. Maybe next time, Jesus. Maybe next time.
Am I going straight to hell, or do Jesus and Judas make the wrongwaysbusiness? Your choice, not mine.
Berger: I am, man, I am ridiculous. I'm totally ridiculous, I'm ludicrous. I don't wanna go over there and kill people and murder women and children.
Claude: You go ahead and be ridiculous, and I'll do what I have to do.
Hud: Who're you doing it for?
Claude: I'm doin' it for you, man.
Hud: Hey look, don't hand me that. If you're doing it for me, don't, because if the shoe was on the other foot, I wouldn't do it for you.