Friday, February 19, 2010

My (unofficial) Oscar Ballot

Hey again. Short post today. I figured, for the sake of aesthetically pleasing summarization, I'd post my Oscar ballot, were I able to cast one. This is just a way of rounding up all of my Best of 09 in one place. I'll give each category: Winner in bold, and the choices that actually got Oscar nominations with an asterisk.

(500) Days of Summer
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker*
Inglourious Basterds*
A Single Man
The White Ribbon

Kathryn Bigelow-The Hurt Locker*
James Cameron-Avatar*
Michael Haneke-The White Ribbon
Quentin Tarantino-Inglourious Basterds*
Lars Von Trier-Antichrist

Sharlto Copley-District 9
Colin Firth-A Single Man*
Joseph Gordon-Levitt-(500) Days of Summer
Jeremy Renner-The Hurt Locker*
Sam Rockwell-Moon

Charlotte Gainsbourg-Antichrist
Carey Mulligan-An Education*
Saoirse Ronan-The Lovely Bones
Gabourey Sidibe-Precious*
Meryl Streep-Julie and Julia*

Supporting Actor
Brian Geraghty-The Hurt Locker
Anthony Mackie-The Hurt Locker
Peter Sarsgaard-An Education
Stanley Tucci-Julie and Julia
Christoph Waltz-Inglourious Basterds*

Supporting Actress
Anna Kendrick-Up in the Air*
Diane Kruger-Inglourious Basterds
Melanie Laurent-Inglourious Basterds
Julianne Moore-A Single Man

Original Screenplay
(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker*
Inglourious Basterds*
The White Ribbon

Adapted Screenplay
An Education*
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
A Single Man
Up in the Air*

Art Direction
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Inglourious Basterds
A Single Man
Star Trek

Costume Design
Bright Star*
An Education
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus*
Inglourious Basterds
A Single Man

Visual Effects
District 9*
Star Trek*

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Road
Star Trek*

Film Editing
The Hurt Locker*
Inglourious Basterds*
A Single Man
Up in the Air

The Hurt Locker*
A Single Man
The White Ribbon*

Original Score
The Fantastic Mr. Fox*
Sherlock Holmes*
A Single Man

Sound Mixing
District 9
The Hurt Locker*
Inglourious Basterds*
Star Trek*

Sound Effects Editing
District 9
Star Trek*
Terminator Salvation
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Original Song
"I See You"-Avatar
"The Weary Kind"-Crazy Heart*
"Smoke Without Fire"-An Education
"Almost There"-The Princess and the Frog*
"Ma Belle Evangeline"-The Princess and the Frog

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Best of 2009, Part 4: Tech Awards

Last installment, kids. Today, I'll briefly run down my favorite technical achievements for the year. I suppose I ought to take a moment to define the categories:
Art Direction: Production design: creating, designing, and building the world in which the movie takes place. Generally associated with set-building, but also stretches to conceptual aspects
Costume Design: ...The design of the costumes.
Visual Effects: Special Effects. CGI, models, etc.
Film Editing: Editing the movie: cutting in some places, lengthening in others. Generally responsible for the rhythm of a film, as well as keeping continuity and making sense of the plot.
Cinematography: In layman's terms, how pretty the movie is. Screen composition, lighting, camera techniques, etc.
Original Score: Music composed for the film itself.
Sound Mixing: Blending the four film sound elements (dialogue, sound effects, ambient noise, music) to create a coherent overall mix.
Sound Effects Editing: creating the sounds heard in the film.
Original Song: Songs written for the film.

Here we go!

Art Direction
5. Star Trek-wonderfully imaginative sci-fi worlds; Futuristic San Fransisco, Vulcan, plus the new Romulan ships and technology.
4. Inglourious Basterds-memorable, iconic locations. The basement tavern, the french restaurant, the farmhouse in the beginning, and, of course, that beautiful theater that gets absolutely trashed.
3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince-this series always looks great. In this installment, the London of Voldemort's youth is realized, as are the haunts of his adult life. England has never looked so creepy and surreal.
2. A Single Man-Near-perfect, immaculate designs. Every set, from George's apartment to the seaside bar to the surgically sterile bank, look like pages from a designer catalogue.
1. Avatar-Who else was going to be here? A whole new world, drawn from scratch, as well as futuristic military technology. Everything looks fantastic and plausible.

Honorable Mention: Industrial London looks both intimidating and inviting in Sherlock Holmes.

Costume Design
5. An Education-nice balance of 40s working-class British wear and more extravagant period style. The costumes are beautiful and character-specific.

4. A Single Man-Much like the sets, all the duds seem like they're torn out of a fashion magazine from the early 60s.

3. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus-the movie sucked, but the costumes were wickedly inventive. The players on Doctor Parnassus's stage look unlike anything found in the 'real world.'

2. Inglourious Basterds-the leaders of the Third Reich, as well as the well-to-dos of German Expressionist Cinema, are decked out in their best in this film, whose costumes manage to look both accurate to their period and slightly anachronistic.

1. Bright Star-Janet Patterson's designs for this movie are playfully silly in their coloring and complexity. I doubt anyone in the Victorian Era looked quite like this, but I wish they did.

Honorable Mention: the only aspect of quality in Amelia

Visual Effects
3. Star Trek-Starships, world implosions, and bizarre aliens; all look completely real.

2. District 9-The prawns and their mothership are seamlessly integrated into the Johannesburg slums.

1. Avatar-Do I really need to explain this? Photo-realistic CGI coupled with huge advancements in motion capture=cinematic gold.

Honorable Mention: the futuristic, pissed-off cyborgs from Terminator Salvation

3. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus-Making Christopher Plummer look 700 years old can't have been easy. Extra points for the ridiculous theater makeup the players wear.

2. The Road-Everyone looks so...dirty. And unhealthy. You'd think they kept Viggo and friends out in the wilderness without food for three years.

1. Star Trek-realistic aliens, plus some tinkering to make new actors look like old, familiar ones. Seriously, did Zachary Quinto look like Leonard Nimoy or what?

Honorable Mention: making lead actor Toni Servillo look old and creepy in Il Divo.

Film Editing
5. Joan Sobel-A Single Man-tightly edited, with skillful juxtapositions of fantasy and reality, flashback and present.

4. Dana E. Glauberman-Up in the Air-minimalistic, smart cuts. This film doesn't have an ounce of fat.

3. Sally Menke-Inglourious Basterds-skillfully draws all the plot-lines together, while summoning tension out of thin air.

2. James Cameron, John Refoua, and Stephen E. Rivkin-Avatar-manage to make sense of hundreds of hours of raw footage, create intense battle sequences, and edit around all the effects. Not an easy job.

1. Chris Innis and Bob Murawski-The Hurt Locker-this movie is so tightly wound it hurts. They create an unmistakable film rhythm. Plus, they had to sift through 400 hours of footage, because this film was shot with the 'Super 16' style, aka with four cameras simultaneously. They distilled all that footage into this impeccable film. Impressive.

Honorable Mention: The tense, brooding rhythm of The White Ribbon

(My favorite category! Yay!)
5. Christian Berger-The White Ribbon-Stark, black and white imagery add to the overall menacing tone of the film. It's like American Gothic come to ghastly, unnatural life.

4. Barry Ackroyd-The Hurt Locker-on the surface, it feels like a documentary, but always pauses to catch images of macabre beauty. It's an incredibly tactile film: you can almost feel the sand, the heat, the sweat.

3. Anthony Dod Mantle-Antichrist-Stunningly gorgeous, even if what's being photographed isn't very nice. Wonderful color-work, and incredibly skillful use of slow-motion.

2. Mauro Fiore-Avatar-captures the world of Pandora with a sense of awe and wonder. The success of the film is due in large part to its visuals, and it certainly doesn't trip up here.

1. Eduard Grau-A Single Man-one of the prettiest films I've seen in a long time. The images are jaw-droppingly beautiful, almost hypnotic. The color work is extraordinary, as is the film's sense of composition. Watching this movie feels like swimming through a Monet painting.

Honorable Mention: Andrew Lesnie's expressive, moody work for The Lovely Bones

Original Score
(I'll embed my favorite piece from the film.)
5. Hans Zimmer-Sherlock Holmes-manic, aggressive, wickedly gleeful. Mandolins, low strings, and percussive elements congeal into something driving and compelling.

4. Alexandre Desplat-The Fantastic Mr. Fox-performed by small, quirky instruments, as well as whistling and snapping. It skips across genres, pretending to be a western one minute, a caper the next, while never losing its heart.

3. James Horner-Avatar-Cultural elements like chanting, clapping, and African percussion incorporated with traditional orchestration to great dramatic effect. It's a little bombastic, but hell, could Avatar have been made with any other kind of music?

2. Michael Giacchino-Up-alternates between delightfully whimsy and bittersweet. Playful, melancholy, and bouncy all at once. This score can do anything.

1. Abel Korzeniowski-A Single Man-String quartet is used to fantastic effect in this completely brilliant score, which effortlessly captures the emotions onscreen, while providing an appropriate counterpart to the more surreal aspects of the film. The whole score's just achingly beautiful. It hurts.

Honorable Mention: Michael Giacchino's bombastic, memorable contributions to Star Trek.

Sound Mixing
5. Inglourious Basterds-just the right balance of all the right elements. The last scene in the theater stands out.

4. District 9-combines slum life with alien noises and warfare, and nothing gets lost in the process.

3. Star Trek-combines the deadness of space with the liveliness of the ships floating through it. Battle scenes are crisp and aurally pleasing.

2. The Hurt Locker-gains much by being simple. The sound design is of singular importance to the film's tense atmosphere, and it succeeds with flying colors.

1. Avatar-Mixing this film must have been a nightmare. So many different elements, all woven together to create a different planet. Just wonderful.

Honorable Mention: G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra might not have been a great movie, but it sounded just fine.

Sound Effects Editing
5. Disrict 9-bizarre alien weaponry, a new language, and that stentorian roar of the mothership. Memorable stuff.

4. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen-I hate the movie, but even I have to admit that the sound effects were innovative and effective.

3. Terminator Salvation-creating a robot-led dystopia isn't easy, but these guys do it. The sounds are unique, believable, and creative.

2. Star Trek-incorporates well-known sound-effects into gleefully inventive new ones. Probably the most inventive sound design this year.

1. Avatar-I've got to give first place to this one though, by virtue of the sheer volume of sounds that had to be created realistically. It's a staggering achievement.

Original Song
5. "Smoke Without Fire"-An Education-Breathy, melancholy, fitting the period. Fun to listen to when you're feeling whiny.

4. "I See You"-Avatar-Sure, it's not a great song, but it's a POWER BALLAD. I love that they had the balls to finish this movie off with a big, 90s-esque ballad.

3. "Ma Belle Evangeline"-The Princess and the Frog-Sweet, lilting melody and lyrics aided by some great instrumental work. This song makes me swoon a little.

2. "The Weary Kind"-Crazy Heart-I wasn't a fan of the movie, but I can't deny this song's power. It's the perfect, bittersweet coda to the main character's journey.

1. "Almost There"-The Princess and the Frog-at once optimistic and sad, this upbeat-sounding tune captures the youthful hopes of the film's protagonist, as well as the reality that almost making it can be harder than not even getting close.

Well, there we have it! Tomorrow, I'll post my unofficial Oscar ballot, just as a sort of wrap-up, but we're pretty much done. What do you think? How did I do? Any movies I rewarded too much? Too little? I had to make a mistake in there somewhere.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Best of 2009, Part 3: Directing, Screenplays

Back again, it would seem. Today, we'll be looking at the most vital parts of film-making: sure, acting is nice, tech is great, but without a screenplay, you're not gonna get very far, and without a director, you're not going to go in the right direction. When these two elements come together, a cinematic masterpiece is born. When these two elements fail on every level, someone makes Transformers 2. Also, a puppy dies. So, help me honor the best writing and directing achievements of the year:

Best Director
5. Quentin Tarantino-Inglourious Basterds
Without Tarantino's steady hand, Basterds would have been an overly long, violent cavalcade of silliness. Instead, it's a wonderful, violent cavalcade of silliness. Quentin brings his signature visual style to the film, as well as his fantastically appropriate soundtrack choices, his near-poetic use of violence, and his well-documented foot fetish. This movie could have very easily flown off the rails: instead, it's a thrill ride.

4. Michael Haneke-The White Ribbon
It must have taken great restraint to make this film the way Haneke did. Lesser film-makers would have succumbed to the desire to play this movie like the melodrama it easily could have been. Instead, Haneke has the guts to stay passive. Instead of plunging into his film, showing everything in graphic detail, editing in a frenzy, and throwing events into a fever pitch, he always maintains a respectful distance. Because of this, his film becomes something much more than a 'who-dun-it', WWI style. Particularly interesting is his choice to abstain from using anything other than diagetic music, and the effect it has on ramping up the film's intensity.

3. Lars Von Trier-Antichrist
This was another near-impossible film to make. Yet Von Trier not only makes it; he knocks it out of the park. Von Trier is an auteur in every sense of the word, and his fierce, incessant dedication drives every moment of the movie. He's not afraid to highlight the abject perversity of the script, nor is he afraid to step back from the action when necessary. His visual choice are consistently brilliant: his prologue and epilogue, filmed in black and white, semi-slow motion, are achingly gorgeous, and he employs slow motion in the rest of the film to devastating effect. This film was the work of a man of singular, uncompromising vision.

2. James Cameron-Avatar
Speaking of uncompromising vision...I struggled a little before putting Cameron this high up on the list, but I think it's warranted. The effort he made to keep this film from completely falling apart must have been gargantuan. Bear in mind how hands-on a director Cameron is: believe it or not, almost every shot of Avatar was personally filmed by Cameron. He also invented a new type of camera to deal with the technology he needed. Add to this that the man has a sense of epic scope like no one else working today, as well as an innate knack for directing action scenes and an eye for surreal beauty, and you get one of the most visually distinctive, impressive films of the year.

1. Kathryn Bigelow-The Hurt Locker
I'm running out of superlatives for directors here, so look at it this way: everything I've said about the other four directors applies to Bigelow, and then some. For The Hurt Locker, she creates a world so painfully, vividly real that it feels like a documentary. Her main priority was to recreate every-day life for troops in Iraq, and she does so with a vengeance. The film is unbearably tense, the performances are just about perfect, and the action never eclipses the drama. I said before that this is one of the best films of the past ten year: this is due in no small part to the efforts of Kathryn Bigelow.

Honorable Mention: it killed me to not include Tom Ford for A Single Man here, but I had to draw the line somewhere. it was a great year for directing.

Best Original Screenplay
5. Michael Haneke-The White Ribbon
Sparse, effective prose that highlights all the right moments, and full of insights lurking underneath the surface.
"I've given God a chance to kill me, and I'm still alive, so that must mean he likes what I'm doing."

4. Bob Peterson and Pete Docter-Up
Clever, heart-felt, and endlessly original. Full of great one-liners, emotionally resonant moments, and unique images.
Carl-This is crazy. I finally meet my childhood hero and now he's trying to kill us. What a joke.
Doug (the talking dog)-Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says "I forgot to store acorns for winter, and now I am dead." Ha! It's funny because the squirrel gets dead.

3. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber-(500) Days of Summer
The funniest movie as the year, and also one of the most honest. It makes you laugh one second, and breaks your heart the next. It's a fantastic balancing act.
Partygoer-So, Tom, what is it that you do?
Tom-I, uh, I write greeting cards.
Summer-Tom could be a really great architect if he wanted to be.
Partygoer-That's unusual, I mean, what made you go from one to the other?
Tom-I guess I just figured, why make something disposable, like a building, when you can make something that lasts forever, like a greeting card.

2. Mark Boal-The Hurt Locker
Structured as a series of vignettes, Boal's screenplay never loses its drive or intensity. It provides each character with an emotional breaking point, then mercilessly pushes them all far past that point.
Sgt. Eldridge: Y'know, I've been thinking about that song, 'Be All You Can Be.' What if all I can be is a body on the side of an Iraqi road?

1. Quentin Tarantino-Inglourious Basterds
Nobody, I repeat, nobody working today writes dialogue like Quentin Tarantino. His movies could work as audiobooks. Everything is entertaining, absorbing, and delightfully absurd. With this dialogue, he fashions a plot both intense and humorous.
"...A German soldier conducts a search of a house suspected of hiding Jews. Where does the hawk look? He looks in the barn, he looks in the attic, he looks in the cellar, he looks everywhere he would hide. But there are so many places it would never occur to a hawk to hide. does occur to me. Because I'm aware of what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity."

Honorable Mention: Lars Von Trier-Antichrist. "Nature is Satan's church."

Adapted Screenplay
5. Geoffrey Fletcher-Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire
It's not the most florid prose, but it's accurate to the era in which it occurs. The characters are lovingly, realistically conceived, and the film never tries too hard for drama.
"Some folks has a lot of things around them that shines for other people. I think that maybe some of them was in tunnels. And in that tunnel, the only light they had was inside them. And then long after they escape that tunnel, they still be shining for everybody else."

4. Nick Hornby-An Education, based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber
Most of the film is wonderfully intelligent, light, and memorable. The script gets a little bogged down by monologues explaining too much at the end, but, until then, it's great work.
Miss Stubbs-You seem very old and wise.
Jenny-I feel old, but not very wise.

3. Tom Ford-A Single Man, based on the book by Christopher Isherwood
Beautifully realized, with passages of brutal honesty. The film's not afraid to embrace the book's darker aspects, nor is it afraid to leave its characters alone with nothing but dialogue.
"Would you like to meet Charlton Heston? He's our scorpion. Every night, we throw in something new to him and watch him kill it. Daddy says it's like a coliseum. Daddy says he wants to throw you into the coliseum. He says you're light in your loafers, but you're not even wearing any loafers."

2. Jason Reitman and Tom Sheldon-Up in the Air, based on the book by Walter Kirn
Both funny and poignant, Up in the Air skips lightly through different moods and feelings without making ripples. The dialogue is quick, witty, and tight as a drum.
Ryan: You know that moment when you look into somebody's eyes, and you can feel them staring into your soul, and the whole world goes quiet, just for a second?
Natalie: Yes!
Ryan: Right, well I don't.

1. Wes Anderson-The Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Another great balancing act. Anderson takes Dahl's quirky novel and gives it a completely unique spin, creating something both entertaining and emotionally honest. The characters are brought to life wonderfully, and the dialogue is worth hearing more than once.
Mr. Fox: Who am I, Kylie?
Kylie: Who how? What now?
Mr. Fox: Why a fox? Why not a horse, a beetle, or a bald eagle? I'm saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?
Kylie: I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds illegal.

Honorable Mention: Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards-The Princess and the Frog, based on the classic fairy-tale. For being both heartwarming and a little weird.

One more part to go: tune in tomorrow for the technical awards!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Best of 2009, Part 2: Acting

Welcome back! Here we are again, taking a delightful romp through wild list territory. On today's menu: the best performances of 2009. I'll try to provide youtube links for these performances, but some of them will require you to use your imagination. Here we go!

Best Actor

5. Sharlto Copley-District 9
It's not easy being a corporate prick. Nor is it easy being a prawn. Sharlto Copley manages to do both with incredible believability. His character, Wikus van der Merwe, starts the film as an inept, joyfully incompetent bereaucrat, runs afoul of some mysterious black goop, and starts his slow, agonizing descent into prawndom. Let's be honest: District 9 is a little silly (in the best sense). But somehow, Copley makes everything feel brutally real. That's no small accomplishment.

4. Sam Rockwell-Moon
(not a great clip, but oh well.)
This very well could have been the toughest film on the list to act. Moon has only one central character (essentially. We don't need to quibble over technicalities), a character who's forced to endure some supremely trippy happenings. It's a gargantuan feat that Sam Rockwell takes this one-man show and makes something completely absorbing. His performance is a fascinating study of a blue-collar worker doing his best to stay professional as he slowly loses his mind.

3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt-(500) Days of Summer
(just about the only clip I could find)
It seems to be the consensus among actors that being genuinely funny is the hardest trick of all to play. Gordon-Levitt pulls it off in spades. He's effortlessly charismatic, hilarious, and, the masterstroke, achingly vulnerable. He hits all the highs associated with being in love, but he also resonates on all of the lows associated with rejection. This performance demonstrates a huge range, but Gordon-Levitt makes it look effortless.

2. Colin Firth-A Single Man
This here, ladies and gentlemen, is your study in control for the year. Terrible things happen to Firth's character, George Falconer; it would have been all too easy to let a little bit of melodrama seep into the performance. Colin Firth is too talented for that, however. Instead, he, like his character, puts on a facade of mildly boring cheeriness before plunging into his day. His facade shows some all-too-visible cracks, however, and he can never erase the pain in his eyes. This performance is a perfect study of nuance and subtlety: nothing is shown outright, but everything can be inferred.

1. Jeremy Renner-The Hurt Locker
There are showier performances this year: roles that require screaming, crying, boozing, gnashing of teeth, and all other forms of baity acting, but none of those gripped me the way Renner's powder keg of a man did. On the outside, Sgt. James is cocky, outgoing, and courageous. Every now and again, though, Renner allows the audience to glimpse something dangerous lurking beneath the surface. The rare moments when he allows himself a hint of vulnerabilty are enough to break your heart.

Honorable Mention: Willem Dafoe's prideful, cruel husband in Antichrist

Best Actress
5. Saoirse Ronan-The Lovely Bones
(No clip. Sorry!)
The Lovely Bones is an awfully flawed film, and the majority of the performances are somewhat south of quality. This can't be said for Saoirse Ronan, however, whose performance, when combined with her turn in Atonement counts as definite proof that this actress is one of the great up-and-coming talents. Ronan nails the emotionalized world of a thirteen year-old girl easily, then effortlessly transitions into the more mature emotions associated with death: desperation, grief, loneliness. Her portrayal keeps the film afloat when it should sink.

4. Charlotte Gainsbourg-Antichrist
Filming this movie must have been torture. Charlotte Gainsbourg has to be somewhat of a masochist to subject herself to the horrors that Antichrist puts her through. Yet she does, and, somehow, against all odds, succeeds with flying colors. It can't be easy to reach the depths of evil that she does while maintaining believability, but it happens. Her character's signature emotions is grief, followed closely by despair. When she fully embraces her darker nature, it's hard not to see something sinister lurking behind her eyes.

3. Carey Mulligan-An Education
On the complete opposite end of the acting spectrum, we have Carey Mulligan, who maintains a delightful, charismatic presence through what could have become a sappy, sentimental role. Her character, Jenny, is capricious and headstrong, but Mulligan provides her with moments of quiet dignity and grace. Her performance acknowledges the impulsiveness of her character's desires, while hinting at a greater woman buried inside.

2. Gabourey Sidibe-Precious
It's difficult to believe that Sidibe had never acted before she made Precious. She exudes a talent so raw and uncompromising that it all but burns the audience with its intensity. Gabourey Sidibe isn't acting here: she is Precious. She becomes her character so completely it's mind-boggling to see her outside of the film: the actress herself is witty, energetic, and cheerful. How she so adroitly embraced her character is anybody's guess.

1. Meryl Streep-Julie and Julia
As an avid Streep fan, y'all must have known that this performance would take the cake. I don't know if I've ever seen a performance so giddy or joyful. Streep is obviously having a ball here, and she doesn't mind sharing this experience with the audience. A sense of fun and dead-on impersonation would all be for naught, however, if Streep didn't imbue her Julia Child with an almost-buried sense of furious determination. She may be smiling, but she'll go to hell and back before she doesn't get what she want. This performance makes me smile every second it's on screen.

Honorable mention: Meryl Streep's warm, slightly slutty ex-wife in It's Complicated.

Supporting Actor
5. Stanley Tucci-Julie and Julia
(...Just watch the last one again.)
Most people this year have lined up for Tucci's serial killer in The Lovely Bones as his best acting this year, but I heartily disagree. In The Lovely Bones, he's forced, overly mannered, rather unbelievable. Here, however, he exudes a warmth and kindness that oozes off the screen. He holds his own with Meryl (no easy task, I'm sure), whilst efforstlessly supporting her. This performance really is a textbook sample of a 'supporting actor': He makes Meryl look great, and doesn't look too shabby himself.

4. Peter Sarsgaard-An Education
Peter Sarsgaard creates exactly the character needed to seduce a young girl: he comes off as charming, articulate, respectful, but not without the slightest hint of danger, like a promise of things to come. Sarsgaard conveys all of these without losing any of his appeal, making it easy to believe that a younger woman might fall for an older man such as he. He's determined to have fun at any cost, and as such, we sense the moments that he spends calculating when he should be feeling. It's a fascinating performance, and it deserves more attention than it got.

3. Brian Geraghty-The Hurt Locker
(not a great clip, but oh well.)
Poor Owen Eldrich. He just isn't cut out for a combat zone. Brian Geraghty's performance shows the 'good ol' boy' stereotype when pushed, pulled, and stretched past its breaking point. Eldrich is a careful study in measured implosion: we see his character slowly melt, but almost never in large steps. Special props have to be given for the scene in the desert: his friends are under fire, they ask him to wash a dead man's blood off of a magazine, and he just loses it. He must maintain face, however, and does his best to cover it up. That terrified, nervous giggling that he does whilse 'spitting and rubbing' is both scary and heartbreaking.

2. Anthony Mackie-The Hurt Locker
Mackie's performance is similar to Geraghty's in that it shows a man who is beaten down and finally broken. What makes this role different, however, is that Lt. Sanborn is man who seems custom manufactured to function in times of duress. He maintains his cool (to an extent) in most situations, rarely showing signs of emotional vulnerability. This makes his final breakdown all the more affecting: when he dissolves into tears in the humvee, asking Sgt. James if anyone will care if he dies. It's a perfectly controlled, completely realized performance.

1. Christoph Waltz-Inglourious Basterds
As good as the other roles are, the laurels this year must go to Christoph Waltz as 'Jew Hunter' Hans Landa. Never has a Nazi looked so charming and gregarious. Waltz's character is so very, very likeable. It makes it all the more shocking when he reveals the monster within. What's so fascinating about this performance is that the glimpse of the monster come so rarely. Most of the film, Landa bounces around, smiling and pontificating in four languages. Every now and again, though, a cold undercurrent cuts through his voice, and he leaves us no doubt as to what kind of a man he really is. This is a phenomenal performance, and will surely be remembered for years to come.

Honorable Mention: Zachary Quinto does his best Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek

Supporting Actress
5. Julianne Moore-A Single Man
She may not have the most screen time, but Julianne Moore makes the most of it. Playing Charley, George's alcoholic one-time lover, Moore perfectly plays quiet desperation masquerading as apathy. She's achingly vulnerable, but tries to hide it with booze, music, and laughter that's too loud. Moore plays all of this easily, while retaining her sense of pride. Her last shot, in which she stares out the door, broken-hearted, is unforgettable.

4. Diane Kruger-Inglourious Basterds
I love this character. Bridget Von Hammersmark is a wonderful cinematic creation, brought to life with seductive glitz and glamour. Kruger is fantastic as a double agent who begins to regret her decisions. Regardless of her situation, though, she is first and foremost a movie star, and will go down acting like one. Whether she's involved in a tavern shoot-out, having her leg operated on, or getting what Colonel Landa thinks she deserves, Hammersmark always seems like a god of the Silver Screen.

3. Melanie Laurent-Inglourious Basterds
(Can't find a good clip. Sorry!)
On the other side of things we have Melanie Laurent, whose principal goal is to be inconspicuous. She does this very well, even when faced with the emotionally tricky task of having lunch with the man who murdered her family. I love how Laurent almost never loses her cool, regardless of the situation. That one shot, though, right after Landa leaves her lunch table, is amazing: suddenly, she breaks down, going from calm and composed to sobbing in an instant. Great work.

2. Anna Kendrick-Up in the Air
(can't find a clip for this one either.)
What a beautifully subdued performance. Anna Kendrick's character, Natalie, is all about moving forward in her career, regardless of how it might affect her emotionally. Since her job is jetting around the country telling people they're fired, it's easy to understand that her job must take its toll. Kendrick perfectly balances the young, go-get-em attitude with the discomfort of walking into people's lives and ruining them. Her character is idealistic and chipper, but ultimately naive. Kendrick's masterstroke is to never try to play too much: her character never completely loses it. Cracks show, but she remains in control. That amount of restraint is rarely seen in movies.

1. Mo'Nique-Precious
This is, in my opinion, the best performance of the year. Mary, Precious's abusive, angry mother, is, for all intents and purposes, a monster, and Mo'Nique plays her like one. She never strays into caricature, however: it would have been easy to overplay this role, making her into something ridiculous, but Mo'Nique always maintains believability. The most impressive moment, however, comes at the very end (the clip above is part of this scene): she loses her ferocity and becomes a child again. In one fell swoop, Mo'Nique humanizes this monster, making the audience feel the tiniest bit of sympathy for her, regardless of the heinous acts she commits. It's a virtuoso performance, and deserves every award it gets.

Honorable Mention: the ladies of Nine: Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, and Penelope Cruz.

There you have. What did I do right? What did I do wrong?
Tomorrow: Directing and Screenplays

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Best of 2009, Part 1: Top 10 List, Zen Awards

It's that time again, folks. I know this feels a bit delayed, but I was trying to wait to compile any year-end lists until I had caught up on all the 2009 movies I had missed. Well, the hell with that. So, when reading these lists, bear in mind that I haven't seen The Messenger, The Last Station, In the Loop, Coco Avant Chanel, A Prophet, The Cove, and plenty of other worthy films. But, y'know, you gotta start sometime. I'll be doing this piece all week: Today, top 10 list. Tomorrow (schedule permitting), Acting. Wednesday, directing and screenplays. Thursday, technical achievements. Friday, my unofficial Oscar Ballot. Days are subject to change, depending on scheduling conflicts, lack of planning, and general laziness. Anywho, without further ado:

The Best Films of 2009

Screw a top 10 list. Too much exclusion. I'm an inclusive kind of person: I'm going to give y'all a top 20, plus some honorable mentions. Aren't I generous?

Honorable Mentions
These films fought to break the top 20, but ultimately failed. I still hold a place in my heart for them, however. In alphabetical order:
The Hangover
The Road
A Serious Man

Next time, guys. Moving on:

20. The Lovely Bones
Directed by Peter Jackson.
I acknowledge that this is a very flawed film. Many of its elements don't fit together, quite a few of the performances are misguided or just plain wrong, and the visual effects tend to crowd out the plot. Still, for whatever reason, I can't let this movie go. It's flawed, but haunting. I might honestly only have it in the top 20 for one scene (the scene in which Susie meets the other victims of George Harvey in Heaven), which, frankly, reduced this writer to something nearing tears.

19. Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Not a great movie, but it's sure as hell a fun one. Ellen Page gives a wonderful performance, leading a fantastic ensemble. The script is literate, witty, and the film never feels too long.

18. District 9
Directed by Neil Blomkamp
District 9 has grown on me. Sure, its allegory is a little heavy-handed, but the film-making on display is both kinetic and absorbing. Special mention must go to actor Sharlto Copley for making Wikus Van der Merwe a completely believable, thoroughly engrossing character.

17. Julie and Julia
Directed by Nora Ephron
Meryl Streep pulls Julie and Julia across the finish line with far more panache than the movie has any right to claim. The scenes with Amy Adams can be a bit dull, but Streep's performance is like injecting joy right into your eyeballs.

16. Zombieland
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Call me a bit of a populist. I'm sure I'll catch some heat for placing this zom-com over other, nobler, more prestigious films, but what can I say? I have a soft spot for the living dead. This film isn't quite as witty or well-made as Shaun of the Dead, but it's well worth the admission price anyway.

15.Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams
I was a complete non-Trekkie going into this movie; indeed, it was the first Star Trek movie I'd ever seen. In my capacity as a Star Trek noobie, I can say with confidence that Abrams' film is instantly accessible, ridiculously entertaining, and wonderfully well-made. This is blockbuster entertainment at its best.

14. The Princess and the Frog
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
What a great throwback to the Disney Golden Age. This hand-drawn tale of self-discovery is unusually perceptive and intelligent for a new Disney movie. It effortlessly combines great musical numbers, somewhat bizarre humor, and quiet reality to form a near-perfect concoction.

13. An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Scherfig's coming-of-age film is light, frothy, and endlessly charming. Carey Mulligan's star-making performance as Jennie provides the rock to which all other aspects of the film anchor. An Education is fun, smart, and, you guessed it, educational.

12. Moon
Directed by Duncan Jones
I feel a little guilty about not putting Moon in my Top 10, but that's how it goes, I suppose. The fact that this is director Jones' debut is astounding. Even more astounding is how small a budget (comparatively speaking) this film was made with, because it looks absolutely stunning. The visuals are creative and striking, the acting is fantastic (there's really only one performance in the film, and it's worth watching for two hours), and the story is both inventive and entertaining. Moon is destined to become one of the hallmark films of independent sci-fi cinema.

(I'll have you know that films 8-11 were almost impossible to put in order. Ask me tomorrow, and it could very well change. I agonized for hours...Well, maybe only minutes, but the point is I agonized over this.)

11. Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
I think Reitman's film might have suffered slightly from the massive hype it received on the Internet during its film festival run. Bloggers called it a lock to win Best Picture, writers fell over themselves trying to come up with better puns involving airlines and the zeitgeist. Up in the Air may not be the best film of the year, but it a great one. The film walks a fine, fine line between comedy and drama, and doesn't make a single mis-step. This balancing act would have been impossible without the stellar acting turns of George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, who are more than competently supported by Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, JK Simmons, and others.

Here come the top 10...Drum-roll, please!

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Directed by Wes Anderson
I'm not usually a fan of Mr. Anderson's work, but his relentlessly quirky style is a beautiful fit for Roald Dahl's sideways prose. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a technical marvel, and is also one of the most, if not the most entertaining film of the year. What's more, the film manages to illicit real emotional responses, all on behalf of this adorable community of woodland creatures. The script pops with sly humor, while making use of allegory/nuance in a much more subtle way than many of the bigger films this year. The wonderful dialogue and voice-over work is supplemented by Alexandre Desplat's playful, mildly ridiculous music. As the crowning stroke of genius, The Fantastic Mr. Fox skips playfully through genre after genre, touching on war film, 40s caper, film noir, and western before settling on something completely undefinable.

9. A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford
A Single Man is nothing if not stylish. Fashion Designer-turned-Director Tom Ford throws every cinematic trick in the book at this movie, yet, against all odds, manages to produce a singularly affecting film whose stylistic flourishes serve to enhance the plot. The film is designed to a T: production design, costumes, cinematography, editing, music: all are immaculate, almost anal-retentive in their perfection. This would only amount to a whole lot of pretty nothing, however, if it weren't for an insightful script, as well as the virtuoso performance of Colin Firth. His character, George Falconer, is one of the great portrayals in cinema this year. The imagery is almost unimaginably gorgeous, as is the music: One could almost call this film hypnotic; it's easy to be mesmerized by the film's beguiling beauty.

8. Precious
Directed by Lee Daniels
I have complaints with elements around the edges of the film; little pieces of direction, a mis-step here or there. All of those are completely eclipsed, however, by the perfect storm of acting perfection created by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique. Who'd have thought that a first-time actress with no training and the host of a BET talk show contained such staggering talent? Each woman is more than a match for the other, and together they create some of the best-acted scenes of the year. Their acting is matched in the story-telling department: Geoffrey Fletcher's script, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, tells one hell of a story, one that possesses one of the biggest emotional wallops offered by film this year. The film is gritty, difficult, and at-times unpleasant, but it is ultimately defiant, a little hopeful, and...precious.

7. Up
Directed by Pete Docter
Y'all know I have quite the soft spot for Pixar. Even at their worst, Pixar films entertain me and move me more than most movies out these days. Up is far from their worst. The opening montage, set to Michael Giacchino's beautifully melancholy score, is far-and-away the best example of film-making this year, and contains enough of an emotional punch to KO the most stalwart of grumps. That the film opens with this scene is something of a minor miracle. It's more than a minor miracle that Up manages to live up to the promise given in the first five minutes. The rest of the film is fast-paced, often hilarious, and full of bracingly real emotional sentiments. And always, that beautiful image of the flying house, being dragged by an old man. I love this movie. I really do.

6. (500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
I'll admit it up-front: I hate most romantic comedies. They're cliched, boring, and altogether not worth my time. (500) Days of Summer is very much the exception to this rule. Perhaps it's because, as the film itself says, "This is not a love story. It's a story about love." Marc Webb's ode to the rush of unrealistic expectations brought with first love, followed by the inevitable crush of rejection, never loses its grasp of reality, nor does it lose its optimism. Thus far, I've made the film sound like a bit of a drag. Rest assured: (500) Days of Summer is, for my dollar, the funniest movie of the year. The impromptu, post-coital musical number alone is worth the price of admission. The movie is anchored by its two charismatic leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, who should be legally obligated to appear in every movie.

5. The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke
Quite the change of pace from the last one, huh? The White Ribbon is quietly, casually horrific. Some people have dismissed German film-maker Michael Haneke's latest work as an easy way to try to explain how The Holocaust happened, but this cheap explanation hardly does the film any justice. The White Ribbon is a haunting treatise on the presence of evil in the world, and how easily it can infiltrate any system. The film is terrifying in its own right, if only because events that would send a sane man into a panic are regarded with something nearing apathy. Terrible things happen, and people move on. The film's beautiful black-and-white palette, as well as the sparse, almost Gothic production design, do much to enhance the film's mood of slowly creeping horror. The last shot is terribly chilling and impossible to forget.

4. Antichrist
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Here we continue our theme of films taking a hard look at evil in the world. Where The White Ribbon chose to sweep its evil under the rug, Antichrist gleefully throws it into the center ring. I don't think I've ever had such a truly disturbing film experience as I did watching Antichrist. Admittedly, this one definitely isn't for casual audiences. Those willing to suffer in the name of art, however, will be treated to one of the most layered, thought-provoking pieces I've encountered in quite some time. There's too much to see in this film to appreciate it fully with only one viewing (though a second viewing is almost unimaginable), as almost every moment of the film is saturated with dark philosophical undertones. Combine this with Antony Dod Mantle's impressionistic, painterly cinematography, and the courageous performances of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and you have one of the year's most compelling films.

3. Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino's giddy, joyously violent revenge fantasy is, to put it lightly, one of the more unique films released this year. Tarantino's signature off-the-wall dialogue, as well as his unique visual sensibilities, are a decidedly odd marriage with the WWII iconography he uses, all combined with the trappings of a Spaghetti Western. To augment this bizarre meshing of images and ideas, we have Tarantino's usual moments of horrific violence, used as a punchline or poetry, depending on the heinous act being committed at the time. Inglourious Basterds is further elevated by its impeccable production design, as well as its ensemble: arguably the best work turned in by a group of actors this year, every character (and there're quite a few) turn in wonderful and memorable performances. Tarantino's hand of fate smashes through the film, wreaking bloody havoc on all involved, and, in the process, creating one of the best films of the year.

2. Avatar
Directed by James Cameron
I spend too much time already defending James Cameron, so I won't start it again here. Suffice to say that Avatar made me feel like a child, in the best possible sense. Avatar lifted me out of the cynical, jaded, film-dick persona into which I have so comfortably settled, and reminded me what it felt like to look at the world for the first time. This is one of the prettiest, most visually inventive movies you will ever see. Bypassing all the talk of the special effects, which are spectacular, just take a moment to consider the world of Pandora itself. An entire ecosystem, complete with a coherent evolutionary history, has been pulled out of thin air, beautifully realized through the work of all the talented artisans who worked on the film. Take all of that, throw in some anti-war/eco-friendly/treehugger messages (subtle as a sledgehammer but right up my alley), as well as some ridiculously epic set-pieces, and I'm sold...

1. The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
...But nothing can compete with the best film of the year. The Hurt Locker is easily one of the best films of the past 10 years, and one of the better war films ever. Kathryn Bigelow captures the day-to-day life of an EOD squad with such laser-focus that all other concerns are obliterated. The film, structured as a series of vignettes, is a case-study in effective film-making. Every scene is almost unbearably tense and emotionally resonant. Perhaps some of the success comes from how the film avoids politics altogether. Not to say that moralizing in film has to be bad, of course: I suppose what I'm getting at is that politics don't matter to the men on the ground. What matters is the constant threat of violence, and the relationship with the men next to you. Bigelow's first priority is to recreate the experience of the men on the ground, and, as such, politics become second-string. What's left is an engrossing examination of the effects of wars on the men who fight them. The Hurt Locker is far and away the best film of the year.

Now, bear in mind that this is a favorites list, not a best list. Admittedly, I try to put the titles at the top which appeal to both my personal tastes and my knowledge of film, but I don't always succeed. If I were to list the year's 5 best, in order, it would probably look something like this:
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Antichrist
3. The White Ribbon
4. Inglourious Basterds
5. Either Up or Precious, depending on how I'm feeling.

The Zen Awards!!
Ahhhh....Let's all let our hair down, shall we? Hard part's over. The Zen Awards are my additions to the regular Oscar categories (it's newly named. If you have a better name for my personal awards, let me know, because this one kind of sucks). A couple of them are serious, but most are humorous. So, for your sake, I'll get the serious ones out of the way first. For categories like "Most Anthropomorphic Mustache This Side of Wilford Brimley" and "You're Not This Gay, but Dammit, You're Trying", keep reading.

Best Scenes of the Year
(I'll link to the ones that have found their way to youtube)
10. Wikus kicks some serious ass with a mechanized prawn suit-District 9
(this clip's a little edited up, but you'll get the idea)

This clip gets in because it's just badassery at its finest. This is the pinnacle of District 9's marriage of visual effects and documentary-style film-making.

9. The Morning After-(500) Days of Summer

This one makes it because it's both awesome and hilarious. Nothing like porking to make you break out into song-and-dance.

8. Last Mass-The White Ribbon
No link here. This is the final shot. To avoid spoilers, I'll simply say that it involves all of the villagers huddled together for the last mass before WWI breaks out, all looking around fearfully, not knowing who has been attacking whom, nor who will be next, as the choir starts to sing. Both beautiful and chilling.

7. Once Upon a Time In Nazi-Occupied France-Inglourious Basterds
No clip again. It's the opening scene: the French Farmer takes the Jew Hunter, Colonel Landa into his home. They drink, smoke, and discuss which animal Jews are most like. All the while, a Jewish family hides underneath the floorboards. This scene is unbelievably tense, and masterfully acted by Christoph Waltz.

6. Susie meets the other victims-The Lovely Bones
In Heaven, murder girl Susie Salmon begins to let go of her life on Earth. When she does, she meets the six other women her killer has claimed. I don't know why this scene effected me so much, but it's one hell of an emotional drain.

5. Tavern Shoot-Out-Inglourious Basterds
I don't want to spoil anything here, so I'll say this: If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean. Mistakes are made, things go wrong, and the tension piles on like an avalanche. By the end of this scene, I felt like I could hardly breathe. Its climax is one of the most suddenly, horrifically violent scenes in recent memory.

4. Mary's Confession-Precious

It's a short scene, but I hope it gives you some idea of the best-acted scene of the year, as well as the emotional climax of an already emotionally-draining movie. If Mo'Nique doesn't win an Oscar, there is absolutely no justice in the world.

3. Jake walks for the first time-Avatar
I could have chosen a bigger, more dramatic scene from this movie but I went with this one: when Jake first enters his avatar body. He stands up, starts to walk, and then starts running, just because he can. I thought this; parapalegic Jake regaining the life he once had, to be the heart and soul of the film.

2. The Sniper Duel-The Hurt Locker

Another movie chock-full of great scenes. After some deliberation, I had to go with the mid-film sniper duel for the win. It's intense, almost tactile in its knack for visualizing sensation, and acted wonderfully; I particularly enjoy the complete meltdown of Eldritch.

1. Married Life-Up

Not much that I can say for this clip that it doesn't say for itself. That's movie-making, y'all.


The "I'm Too Awesome to Have an Award Named After Me" Award for Outstanding Young Actors-Bailee Madison, Brothers
Brothers was a steaming pile of garbage, but the best part of the movie, far and away, was the performance of Bailee Madison, as Tobey Maguire's oldest daughter. She alone captured the emotionally tricky task of having your father return from the dead.
Runers up: Abigail Breslin, Zombieland, all the children from The White Ribbon

The New Image Award
For movies that show us something completely original and unique.
Pandora-Avatar. James Cameron created an entire world from scratch and was nice enough to share it with us.
The Three Beggars-Antichrist. We've seen grief, pain, and despair in film before, but not in the form of a doe with a dead fetus hanging out of it, a fox that eats its own intestines, and a crow that refuses to die.
The Other World-Coraline. Beatifully animated, Coraline's other world is as sumptuously realized as it is inventive.

Best Inanimate Object in a Movie
-The Bear-Jew's punch-operated shotgun, Inglourious Basterds. Because he punches someone in the face. With a shotgun.
-all of Carl's possessions, Up. For being thematically resonant, aesthetically appealing, and altogether adorable.
-the banjo, Zombieland. Both for making a Deliverance reference and killing a zombie. It's more accomplished than I am.
-flaming, sinking ice-G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. This ice must be magical to burn and sink at the same time.
THE WINNER: Megan Fox, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. A technological marvel. You can only tell that it's not a real actress when you look into its dead, soulless eyes.

The Child I'd Most Like to Punch in the Face With my Vehicle
Jae Head-The Blind Side. I swear to Cthulu, this kind of acting should be punishable by death.

The "You're Not This Gay, but Dammit, You're Trying" Award
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law-Sherlock Holmes. I eagerly anticipate the release of the Director's Cut DVD, in which they include all the scenes they cut of Holmes and Watson making out, buying doilies together, and drinking tea with upturned pinkies.

Most Anthropomorphic Mustache This Side of Wilford Brimley
Matt Damon-The Informant! There aren't words to describe the level of silliness that Matt Damon's facial hair attains.

Most Delightfully Ridiculous Sub-Plot
District 9. The prawns develop a nasty cat food addiction, fueled by Nigerian gangsters who want to eat the aliens. ...Did I just type that sentence and mean it?

And Finally:

The 5 Worst Films of the Year
5. Amelia
Cliched, overblown, thoroughly ridiculous. Hilary Swank and Richard Gere should be euthanized.

4. All About Steve
Sandra Bullock doing her best not to look like she's completely retarded. She fails.

3. The Ugly Truth
The only thing uglier than this movie is the fact that people actually liked it.

2. The Final Destination
Actually, at only 82 minutes long, it's actually the year's worst short film.

The Peter Travers "Did I Just See That" Award for the Biggest Pile of Crap to Smear its Way onto Screens
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Seriously, is there anything about this movie worth liking? I don't think so. And I should know: I've seen it twice.

There we have it. Part 1: down. Three more to go. What do you think? Does my list make sense? What fits? What doesn't?

Friday, February 12, 2010

A little bit of Dean

Brief post today. I'm gearing up to a nice, long rant on James Dean, with whom I am experiencing a bit of a morbid, film-history obsession. I'll get into the reasons why next week (sometime after Tuesday; Tuesday is my classic movie day, and I intend to plow through the rest of his filmography in one fell swoop), but for now, I'll just leave you with this scene from Rebel Without a Cause. It's hard to appreciate without much context, but the point I'd like to showcase here is how the acting feels. Bear in mind that Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955. I don't know how familiar y'all are with film acting before and up to the mid 1950s, but, if you are, I think you'll agree that Dean's acting just...feels different. There's no other way to put it. If you're not familiar with the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood, juxtapose Dean's performance with the actors sharing the scene. Their performances feel dated, almost trite, as if it's obvious they come from an 'older' film. His does not. Enjoy:

As an aside, how about my first successful embed, huh? No more crappy youtube links! I'm pumped!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Best Directors: 2009

I'm going to apologize in advance for my blogging laziness. Going into this, I had grand notions of intricate posts full of cinematic wisdom. Then, as usual, reality intervened, and instead of getting The Alien trilogy interpreted as a treatise on an evolving cinemascape, or the effects of the Hays Code on Rebel Without a Cause, I'm just going to talk about directors for a little while; specifically, the five directors nominated for this years Best Director Oscar. So, I suppose you can consider this part of my continuing Oscar miniseries. I'll let you know who they are, what they've done, what I think of them, and why their achievements this year merit awards consideration. So, here we go, in alphabetical order:

Kathryn Bigelow
Films (in bold are the ones I've seen):
The Hurt Locker
K 19: The Widowmaker
The Weight of Water
Strange Days
Point Break
Blue Steel
Near Dark

What I think:
I honestly wasn't overly familiar with Ms. Bigelow before The Hurt Locker. I was aware of her, mainly due to her relative fame as a female director of stereotypically 'male' movies. Most of her films operate within a genre (usually action or horror), though they tend to subvert the cliches inherent to their specific fields. For me, watching The Hurt Locker was a complete revelation: it was almost shameful that I was hitherto unaware of such unadulterated talent. Obviously, I can't speak on Ms. Bigelow too well, as I've only seen one other of her films, but that one (Near Dark) is very much worth seeing. Near Dark poses as a vampire movie, while quietly sneaking away to play in the Western playground. Her take on the cowboy-mainstreet-shootout trope is absolutely priceless (hint: it involves a Semi and a flaming Bill Paxton with razor-sharp spurs).

Why she deserves the nomination:
The Hurt Locker is one of the most effortlessly tense and draining films I've seen in a while, and a large part of that is due to Bigelow's stylistic sensibilities and unbeatable sense of pacing. Plus, in the middle of all the action, she draws forth virtuoso performances from her three leads (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty), and never allows the story elements to be usurped by the action set-pieces. She doesn't just deserve the nomination: she deserves to win.

James Cameron
True Lies
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Abyss
The Terminator
Piranha 2: The Spawning

What I think:
It seems like I spend at least half of my life defending James Cameron these days. So, let me put it this way: he's not a great director. His movies can be hackneyed and cliched. He prioritizes concept and visual conceit over emotional substance and nuance. That being said, he's been redefining the medium of film since 1986. The man may be arrogant, but his arrogance has led to some of the most awe-inspiringly insane movie stories of the past 30 years (seriously, if you haven't seen any of the making-of footage for Titanic, youtube that crap: he literally rebuilt the friggin' Titanic. That's a big ship). In his later years, his writing has become dreadfully sub-par (though the scripts for Terminator 2 and Aliens are, in my opinion, tightly wound and proficient enough), but he has yet to sacrifice his artistic notions for easier work, and that endears him to me like crazy.

Why he deserves the nomination:
Avatar may not reinvent the story-telling wheel, but it does redefine what is possible for movies to show, and I respect that. Keeping a film of this size on the tracks and managing to make it both understandable and entertaining is one hell of an achievement. Plus, he's one of the most hands-on directors working: youtube footage of Cameron running through sound-stages, steadicam belted on, and see what I mean.

Lee Daniels

What I think:
I really don't have anything intelligent to say here, as I think it's just about impossible to speak on a director having seen only one of their films. I thought Precious was competently directed, even if it strayed into overly stylistic territory at times. Not that there's anything wrong with style: the film just felt as if it were trying too hard to be a 'director's movie."

Why he deserves the nomination:
Anyone who can coax such amazing performances out of a debut performance (Gabourey Sidibe) or a BET talk-show host (Mo'Nique) deserves some recognition.

Jason Reitman
Up in the Air
Thank You For Smoking

What I think:
Jason Reitman is solid. I can't say it any better than that. He's a very meat-and-potatoes sort of director: he gets the story told without unnecessary flourishes, and that's admirable. His films are always smart, quickly paced, and sharp as a tack. My one qualm would be that, every now and again, he seems to be trying to hard to be quirky. It could be the material he tackles, it could be the actors, but I can't help but think that Reitman embraces his 'indie director' a little too tightly. That's a tiny complaint, however: he's on a three-for-three role, here, and has yet to make a bad film.

Why he deserves the nomination:
Up in the Air is almost minimalist in its spare storytelling style. Reitman effortlessly evokes the life of a man with nothing to tie him down while subtly introducing contemporary relevant themes, and never tipping the balance of comedy and drama.

Quentin Tarantino
Inglorious Basterds
Kill Bill
Jackie Brown
Pulp Fiction
Reservoir Dogs

What I think:
I think it's embarrassing that I haven't seen Jackie Brown. I'll try to get on that. Quentin Tarantino is an auteur by any definition. His films are completely distinctive, unique pieces that both embrace and subvert the genres in which they occur. Think about it: Pulp Fiction is technically a gangster/crime movie, Kill Bill is technically a kung-fu movie, and Inglorious Basterds is technically a WWII movie. But none of them really feel like it, do they? Tarantino's visual style is endlessly inventive and wickedly, maniacally gleeful. No other director working today can use violence as a comedic punchline the way Tarantino can. He's easily my favorite director on this list.

Why he deserves the nomination:
Well, he's Quentin Tarantino, for starters. All levity aside, Inglorious Basterds is fresh, witty, and hugely entertaining, as well as dark, gruesome, and incredibly tense. It's a completely unique vision that deserves a reward.

Can I just take a moment to point out how diverse this lineup is? Normally, Oscar nominates five middle-aged white men. But this year, we have:
-a woman, only the fourth in Academy history, after Lena Wurtmuller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), and Sophia Coppola (Lost in Translation)
-a black man, only the second in Academy history (after John Singleton (Boyz in da Hood). That's right, Spike Lee has never been nominated. Not even for Do the Right Thing.)
-a young man: Reitman is only 32. Fewer than ten directors have been younger than he is for their nominations.
-a gay man (Lee Daniels). Though this is one of the Academy's more welcome minorities, it's still relatively rare. Famous out directors who have scored with the Academy include Pedro Almodovar (Hable Con Ella), Steven Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader), Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk), Rob Marshall (Nine), Franco Zefferelli (Romeo and Juliet), and John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy)
-a Canadian (James Cameron). I'd insert a Canadian joke here, but there are quite a few Canadian directors worth their salt (Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley are the first that come to mind, but there are others. I just haven't done the research on this one).

Honestly, not a bad slate. If I had a ballot, it wouldn't look like this (I'd leave off two of these directors for two different ones. Who gets left off is a mystery we won't solve until my Best of '09 post comes out...Which is late, I know, but I'm still missing some movies), but I can't complain. At least Clint Eastwood didn't make it on here, right?

What do you think? How familiar with these directors are you, and do they deserve to get the nominations? Which directors do you think got left out this year?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Madness is the only option when the world has gone insane

I sat down to write today convinced that I'd either be analyzing the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson, or waxing poetic about James Dean's work in Rebel Without a Cause. As it turns out, I'll be doing neither. See, Paul Thomas Anderson has only made four films, and James Dean only made three. It seems like abject laziness to write about either of them without seeing all of their films (I've seen three of Anderson's four, and only one of Dean's three. This wrong shall be righted in due time). So, instead, I took a look back at my favorite stable topics: hippie musicals, animation, bromance, and war (man, that James Dean post is just going to kick bromance's ass). I spun the dial, made a choice, and today, we'll be talking about war.

No, let's be completely honest. We're going to talk about insanity. Madness. Hell on Earth.

Like I said: war.

Everyone should see Apocalypse Now at least once, but make no mistake: it's not easy. At two hours and forty minutes, the film is a bit of a butt-number, though, admittedly, we've all sat through longer. No, what makes Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic so tough to sit through is its slavish dedication to imagining what hell might look like. The film, loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, revolves around Captain Benjamin Willard: his mission is to take a small boat up Nung River, passing through enemy territory to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, who has set himself up as a God to the Montagnard tribes of Cambodia. Those who are familiar with Conrad's novel will recall Kurtz's affinity for brutality, his views on controlling those around him ('exterminate all the brutes!'), and his morbid fascination with death, or, more specifically, horror. The Kurtz of the novel and the Kurtz of the film share these traits. The major difference, however, lies in the approach to Kurtz: Conrad's novel is a quasi-mystical journey through primordial lands, fueled by intense curiosity about Kurtz as an individual. Apocalypse Now spends two hours creating an environment in which Kurtz's methods seem not only sane, but appropriate. Technically, Captain Willard is supposed to terminate Kurtz on charges of the murder of four alleged double agents. Willard sees the inherent fallacies in this, saying that 'charging for murder here is like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.'
When the film begins, it would have us believe that Kurtz is completely insane. That may be true. What it does next is a masterstroke: it attempts to drive its audience a little bit insane. Starting with a drug-induced panic in a seedy hotel room, the film throws set-piece after set-piece at the audience, each one more unsettling than the last. We start relatively simply: a bloody helicopter attack set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." An experience with the Vietnam jungle. A USO show; Playboy bunnies performing for rabid GIs who quickly turn violent. An abruptly violent encounter with a group of peasants. A primitive attack in a dense fog. A night-time siege. By the time we finally arrive at Kurtz, it doesn't seem strange that a corpse is hanging naked from one of the nearby trees. Nor do the other dead bodies, the silent soldiers, or the piles of disembodied heads seem out of place. The finale (avoiding spoilers: if you've seen the movie, you know what I mean), which would be grotesque and film-ruining in any other movie, is simply maintaining the tone set by the first two hours.
And all for what? What could Francis Ford Coppola possibly gain by subjecting his audience to this? I humbly submit a quote from Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran and author of The Things They Carried:

"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil...You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth."

I've had people tell me that they don't care for Apocalypse Now because it fails to accurately reflect the Vietnam experience. 'Platoon is much more realistic,' they say. On the surface, I agree with them completely. Apocalypse Now is far too surreal, to absurdly macabre to be accurately held as a mirror to reality, unlike the pseudo-cinema verite aesthetic to which Platoon so determinedly adheres. The true reality, however, lies in the souls of the films. Platoon offers a simple moral dilemma with exactly two sides, cleanly narrated and shown. Apocalypse Now offers nothing but vignettes of sheer terror, and doesn't attempt to make sense out of anything it sees. I've never been in a combat zone, and can't begin to understand what the jungle felt like, but I ask now: which film's soul feels more accurate? The film in which the morality of each situation is readily evident, or the film in which the whole world has been reduced to fear and chaos? Perhaps Apocalypse Now is as close to an accurate war film as is possible precisely because of its disregard for reality. After all, war must not seem like a war movie to those who witness it. Instead, each day is a new showcase in just how strange and horrific a place the world can be. Moments happen, and then fade into the mist, like dreams. Perhaps one begins to feel mad, because madness is the only option in the face of such insanity.

Kurtz: We train our young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene.

Monday, February 8, 2010

81 Years of Oscar: Best Picture Winners

Hello all. So, the 82nd Academy Awards are less than a month away. This means that I'm probably thinking about Oscar more often than not. In an attempt to spread my love of these dubious awards of quality, as well as provide a crash-course in film history, I'll be spending the next month doing something of an Oscar Retrospective. Today, for your viewing pleasure, I'll be profiling the ten best and five worst picture winners (in my opinion, of course). Following, because I can, is a list of the Best Picture winners to refresh your memory. In bold are the films that I've seen.
(And I know you didn't ask, but this list is from memory. Because I'm that good.)
Slumdog Millionaire
No Country For Old Men
The Departed
Million Dollar Baby
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
A Beautiful Mind
American Beauty
Shakespeare in Love
The English Patient
Forrest Gump
Schindler's List
The Silence of the Lambs
Dances With Wolves
Driving Miss Daisy
Rain Man
The Last Emperor
Out of Africa
Terms of Endearment
Chariots of Fire
Ordinary People
Kramer Vs. Kramer
The Deer Hunter
Annie Hall
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Godfather Part 2
The Sting
The Godfather
The French Connection
Midnight Cowboy
In the Heat of the Night
A Man For All Seasons
The Sound of Music
My Fair Lady
Tom Jones
Lawrence of Arabia
West Side Story
The Apartment
The Bridge on the River Kwai
On the Waterfront
From Here to Eternity
The Greatest Show on Earth
An American in Paris
All About Eve
All the King's Men
Gentlemen's Agreement
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Lost Weekend
Going My Way
Mrs. Miniver
How Green Was My Valley
Gone With the Wind
You Can't Take it With You
The Life of Emile Zola
The Great Zeigfeld
Mutiny on the Bounty
It Happened One Night
Grand Hotel
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Broadway Melody

As you've surely deciphered by now, these lists will be highly subjective, as I've only seen about half of these. They will also obviously skew toward more modern fare, as the half I've seen errs toward the present (my viewing is particularly shabby in the 40s, which begins with All the King's Men and ends with Rebecca; I've only seen one). Also bear in mind that this is more my list of favorites than anything else: I'm not going with the boldest decisions, or the most atypical; I'm going with the ones I like the best. We can debate greatness another time.

The Best
10. Titanic (1997. Other nominees: As Good as it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential)
I'll start with the most controversial choice right now so we can get it out of our hair. No, Titanic is not a great film. No, James Cameron is not an inspired auteur. What Titanic accomplishes, however, is pure cinema. Cameron lays his hand on the same lightning rod that Selznick, Cooper, and Fields all found to create old-fashioned, decidedly epic film. This is the one bone that escapism gets on my list: Titanic isn't concerned with being overly thought-provoking, or introducing new ideas. No, the film is slavishly devoted to delivering an experience, and it doesn't fail on those terms.

9. Shakespeare in Love (1998. Other Nominees: Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line)
It might not be the best of the nominees, and it sure as hell caught crap for defeating Steven Spielberg's WW2 epic, but something about this little romance grips me in a way, I suspect, it gripped Academy voters. John Madden's only film of interest, Shakespeare in Love is a pitch-perfect combo of humor, intrigue, and emotional honesty. The film's effect is no doubt increased through the charismatic turns of Gwyneth Platrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench, and Geoffrey Rush, and the score remains one of the most by-turns whimsical and melancholy pieces of music written for film in recent years. Shakespeare in Love may feel like a light-weight, but it's got one hell of a punch.

8. No Country For Old Men (2007. Other nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood)
I'm honestly still confused about how this film walked away with the big prize. Sure, it was unanimously acclaimed, and is a staggering piece of work, but it's so...dark. Nihilistic. Graphic. The Academy normally loves something safe, warm, and mildly inspiring. No Country For Old Men is none of these things. I'm glad the Academy decided to head way out on a limb and reward a film outside their comfort zone. No Country For Old Men is easily one of the best films of the new millennium. As this is a favorite, not greatest, list, however, it's relegated to the 8th spot.

7. The Departed (2006. Other nominees: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen)
Here's another atypical work. I can understand how The Departed won, however: though gritty and profane, it plays safely within an Oscar-loved genre (the gangster picture), and was helmed by modern directing legend Martin Scorcese. To try and understand the politics, however, is to undersell Scorcese's best film since GoodFellas. The Departed is vibrant, tense, and altogether thrilling, anchored by stellar performances from its youthful leads: Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, and Vera Farmiga. Add an outstanding ensemble (Jack Nicholson, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, so on and so forth), and the editing genius of Thelma Schoonmaker, and you have a completely unique, fantastic film.

6. It Happened One Night (1934. Other nominees: Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, Here Comes the Navy, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Gay Divorcee, The House of Rothchild, The Thin Man, The White Parade, Viva Villa)
Admittedly, I've hardly even heard of any of the other nominees, much less seen them, so I can't intelligently comment on the worthiness of It Happened One Night as compared to its fellow nominees. What I can do is attempt to share the 100 CCs of joy that were injected straight into my veins whilst watching this film. The original cliche, It Happened One Night is arguably the first romantic comedy. It is also, arguably, the best. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable practically invented the concept of screen chemistry while filming, and the script, despite being 76 years old, never fails to feel timelessly modern.

5. The Godfather (1972. Other nominees: Cabaret, Deliverance, Sounder, Utvandrarna)
If we were listing the greatest Picture winners, The Godfather would be even higher on the list. Francis Ford Coppola's signature piece is still the crowning achievement of cinema in the 70s; the world of Don Corleone is incredibly complicated, vividly realized, and endlessly engrossing. Containing one of the most indelible screen performances (Marlon Brando, of course), some of the most shocking screen violence seen in its time, and one of the most memorable endings in film history, The Godfather is richly deserving of all the accolades it receives.

4. Amadeus (1984. Other nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier's Story)
I might be a little biased here. I love Mozart. Needless to say, a film concerned entirely with the life and death of the famous composer is bound to play my heartstrings (pun intended) quite a bit. That doesn't change the fact that the film is amazing. Milos Forman breathes joyous life into the dull, dusty public image of Mozart, warping him into a foppish, ridiculous young man for whom genius isn't a burden so much as an amusing inconvenience. F. Murray Abraham, as his rival Salieri, provides the perfect ballast to Mozart's raucous vivacity: Salieri acts as if every moment is an exercise in tragic dignity. The performances, as well as the film itself, pulse with an unrestrained joy of a kind seldom seen in theaters.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991. Other nominees: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides)
The Silence of the Lambs is not the Academy's cup of tea: it remains the only horror film to win the big award (indeed, one of only two nominees for the genre). The Academy found the film impossible to ignore, however, and with good reason. Containing what might be the most electric leading couple to grace the silver screen (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins), as well as one of the most intelligent, surgically horrific screenplay in recent memory, Lambs proves a difficult film to shake. After rewarding this film, the Academy, in its infinite wisdom, would spend most of the 90s rewarding large, inspirational, contrived films.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930. Other nominees: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade)
Needless to say, I haven't seen any of the other nominees. Doesn't matter. All Quiet on the Western Front is, arguably, the only true anti-war film ever made (at least to play within the war genre), and, as such, is also, arguably, the greatest war film ever made. The movie juxtaposes lengthy sections of waiting, wondering, and worrying with spans of almost sadistic battle scenes. All Quiet...allows us to become attached to a classroom full of impressionable young men, then forces us to watch as it horrifically maims and murders them. This film is one of the most pessimistic and cynical of any I've seen: completely fitting, given its subject matter.

1. American Beauty (1999. Other nominees: The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense)
I debated for a while about whether or not my longtime favorite should cede this spot to All Quiet on the Western Front, but, in the end, I had to vote with my heart. And, as stated before, this is a list of favorites. I honestly don't know what else to write about this movie that I haven't written recently. Suffice to say it's got a lot of heart, and hits a lot of people, including me, in all the right places. Thank God the Oscar didn't go to The Cider House Rules.

Now, a tougher list. The five worst. No, let me rephrase that: these aren't the five worst films. They're the five that disappointed me the most. The five that let me down. The five that should have become close friends, but ended up stabbing me in the back. I highly doubt these would find themselves in a Five Worst list had I seen all the winners. See, I tend to avoid films that I hear are terrible, and, as such, have avoided the worst best picture winners.

5. Crash (2005. Other nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich)
Crash is a skillful manipulator, but little more. I'll admit that there good acting lurks around the edges (particularly Matt Dillon, Michael Pena, and Don Cheadle), and the film contains some truly affecting moments. When viewed with an objective eye, however, Crash can't escape the creakiness of its own screenplay, which relies on contrived coincidence.

4. Braveheart (1995. Other nominees: Apollo 13, Babe, The Postman, Sense and Sensibility)
Braveheart is very big, and very pretty, and somewhat inspirational. It's also incredibly sophomoric, filled with toilet humor and homophobia, and is helmed by a painfully ham-handed director. Braveheart is enjoyable enough. But a good film? Please. Like I said: pretty, exciting, big. Also crude, intolerant, and stupid. And not inventive enough to be forgiven for any of its sins.

3. Terms of Endearment (1983. Other nominees: The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies)
This movie plays like a daytime soap opera. We have star-crossed lovers, worrying mothers, terminal illness, cute kids, and every other Movie-of-the-Week cliche worth its salt. None of elements every congeal into anything compelling, however, despite the noble efforts of Debra Winger and Shirley Maclaine. Jack Nicholson does nothing to help, either: his normal 'Crazy Jack' schtick feels grotesquely out of place.

2. Forrest Gump (1994. Other nominees: Four Weddings and A Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption)
I know I'm going to catch some heat for this, as most if not all of my regular reader love this movie, but I'm going there anyway. Forrest Gump is the Academy at its most conservative. The film itself is safe, conservative, almost condescending. I know I'm a pretentious film dick, but I tend to prefer new, or original, or daring in some way. Forrest Gump is as safe as it gets. I'm not saying it's a terrible film. It's just the kind of movie I'll never enjoy.

1. A Beautiful Mind (2001. Other nominees: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!)
I will say that this one is a terrible film, though. Director Ron Howard is the master of faux-inspirational, historical garbage, and this is the creative nadir of his not-so-illustrious career. The fact that this film won is downright offensive. A Beautiful Mind's success is the best proof that sometimes, the Academy just doesn't care about quality.

Well, there you have it. Sorry, long post. I know. I got carried away. If anyone's still reading, what do you think? Am I being too hard on some films, and too easy on others? Willing to show me how wrong I am about Forrest Gump? I'll never learn if someone doesn't try to teach me.