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!

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