Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Little Off Topic: Hitchcock's 39 Steps

This is quintessentially a film blog, and this post is somewhat about movies. Last night, at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, I had the privilege of seeing a stage performance of classic Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps.

Adapted as a comedy for the stage by Patrick Barlow, director Maria Aitken ratchets up the entertainment by a few notches. Endlessly self-referential, it is a spoof of its own source material and pokes fun at the best of the Hitchcock canon, including Psycho, The Lady Vanishes, and Rear Window.

There is even the obligatory Hitchcock cameo in a brilliantly conceived shadow play midway through the first act. Also accomplished in shadow is a spot on recreation of the crop duster scene from North by Northwest with a hilarious twist at the end.

But, it is still a spy yarn at heart, and there is a flashlights-in-the-dark sequence that is among the most thrilling I’ve seen live on stage. If you get the chance to see it before it closes next week, you owe it to yourself to enjoy a night out with Hitchcock and the gang.

Six Degrees of Oscar Season

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, there is a theory that everyone in the world can be connected by six degrees of separation or fewer. Recent studies, which take into account internet communication and cell phone use, have as sought to prove this bit of folk wisdom. One study claims fewer than seven degrees of separation among all of the world’s people.

This was translated to a bar game you may have heard of-- the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, which says that any actor in Hollywood can be connected to Kevin Bacon by six movies or fewer. It works, by the way.

So, I’ve decided to invent my own version: the six degrees of Oscar season. In this exercise, which is nothing more and nothing less than fun and games, I will try to connect some of this season’s Oscar contenders to one another. In comments, please feel free to suggest others. I’ll update with a new one every so often until the Academy Awards.

Today: James Cameron’s science fiction opus and newly crowned box office champion Avatar and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, a modern tale about making connections. What else?

Co-star of Avatar Sigourney Weaver, who starred in Cameron’s Aliens, also starred alongside Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters (by the way, production of the third Ghostbusters movie has begun).

Ivan Reitman directed the first two Ghostbusters movies. The name is no coincidence. Ivan Reitman is the father of Up in the Air director Jason Reitman. Additionally, the father-son duo share a producer’s credit on Up in the Air, which means that Ivan Reitman is in a position to win an Academy Award with his son this year. Wouldn’t that be a fun acceptance speech?

Simple enough, right? How about one more?

Surprise animated box-office hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Last Station, a hyper-literate drama about the last days of Leo Tolstoy.

One of the main voice actors in Cloudy is Anna Faris, who has actually factored in several Oscar races over the years with co-starring roles in best picture contenders Lost in Translation and Brokeback Mountain.

Heath Ledger, the late star of Brokeback Mountain, made his final screen appearance in this year’s Terry Gilliam fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The star of the latest Gilliam film is Christopher Plummer who also plays Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station.

And, that’s how the game is played.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

10 Best Films of the Decade

The end of the year is here, and with it, the end of the decade has arrived. As such, it is time to reflect on the last ten years of cinematic offerings and separate the wheat from the chaff. Fifty years from now, these are the ten films that when the time capsule is opened should be found therein.

10. Mystic River

Clint Eastwood has had a decade for the ages. Letters from Iwo Jima. Changeling. Million Dollar Baby. Each of these films was among the best of its year. But, it was Eastwood’s third film this decade that set the standard. In his trademark style, he steps back and lets the story stand on its own. And, what a story it is.

The acting can not be beat. The ensemble in Mystic River is one of the best ever assembled, and every actor in the cast gives a career best performance. Think of these actors, and think of the best work they have ever done: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney. Enough said.

9. Capturing the Friedmans

Everything that is wrong with modern documentaries, Andrew Jarecki gets right with his feature length debut. It would be easy to describe this film as a documentary about father-son child molesters, but such a description only scratches the surface of this contemplative and nuanced look at the American dream, the breakdown of the suburban Eden, and the paranoia that can creep into a community that is ill-informed and scared.

Rather than telling the audience how to feel and what to think, Jarecki portrays a reality in which the answers are neither clear nor necessarily those for which we would hope. This documentary shows a world where no one can be trusted: not teachers, not lawyers, not judges, not police, not the very family structure itself. That is the brilliance of Capturing the Friedmans.

8. Synecdoche, NY

Last year, when I put together my list of the year’s best, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, NY, was my number two choice. A year since that estimation, the film has only grown in stature. It is the kind of film that rewards repeat viewings, and every viewing reveals a new layer, which makes apparent the full texture of the Kaufman universe.

This is meta-fiction at its best and at its most meta. It is art about an artist, creating art about an artist, creating art about an artist, and so on down the line. Kaufman takes the wonder and imagination of his screenplays and expands upon it in his first film as director to create a world that is dark and cynical, and full of love and other impossible to explain feelings.

7. The Pianist

Never mind Roman Polanski’s recent legal troubles. Such troubles are of no import and make no impact upon his art. And, that is exactly what Polanski makes: art. For more than 40 years, Polanski has been in the top tier of cinematic auteurs. In 2002, his magnum opus, The Pianist, cemented his position as one of the best of his craft.

This is filmmaking at its most pure and honest. Polanski is telling his story, and that is how it feels. No one other than Polanski could have told the story of a Jewish man in hiding, wandering through a desolate, Nazi-destroyed Europe. More than that, Adrian Brody wears the desperation and despair of the Jewish world on his face. It is the kind of film that can only be viewed and applauded.

6. Traffic

A sprawling epic about the drug trade, but human to its core, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is narrative commitment to the extreme. Soderbergh sets out to tell the story of the effects of drugs on every facet of society, and he does just that. And, he does it with incomparable style and energy. But, the story is first.

It is an unsparing vision, but one filled with hope and optimism about a world that can improve but not without great loss. Benicio del Toro, an Oscar winner for his part in the film, is exemplary of everything that is right in this picture. He represents the hopes of a generation that has been scarred by the battle but which has not forgotten its dreams in the midst of the war.

5. Paradise Now

To borrow a phrase, this is a heartbreaking work of staggering beauty. The story of lifelong friends struggling with the decision to commit an act of terrorism is as resonant in Middle America as it is in the Middle East. The reason is that it is not the story of two Palestinians; it is the story of two men with family and friends, culture and honor, duty and fear.

Yet, as tough and forthright as the material is, the film is not a difficult viewing experience. On the contrary, it is immensely humanizing and lays bare truths about all men. All the way through the final seconds of the film, the filmmakers succeed in showing viewers that the world is not a black-and-white place, no matter how much we may want it to be.

4. Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s sophomore feature demands a lot of its audience and is difficult to watch at times, but it is well worth the effort. The characters in Requiem for a Dream are being drawn into a black hole. Once they know where they are headed, it is already too late, and as they approach the singularity, they are torn apart bit by bit, suffering every inch of the way.

The kinetic energy of the filmmaking, however, is what pushes viewers along. The editing style, what Aronofsky refers to as “hip-hop montage,” drives the narrative forward and matches the disorienting dissent into madness that the characters experience. Requiem for a Dream is the quintessential car wreck away from which the viewer can not look, regardless of how distressing it is to see.

3. A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have the answer: there are no answers. It is this thesis that is hammered home incessantly throughout A Serious Man. Scene after scene, the Coens drive home the point that it does not matter what you have done, nor does it matter that you have not done anything; the universe does not care. There is no controlling destiny, and there is no rhyme or reason to the suffering. It just is.

Yet, somehow, the Coens show us how funny it all is. If everything is random and there is nothing we can do about it, how can life be anything but absurd? The Coens know this, and through Larry Gopnik, a math professor who wants nothing more than to be a serious man, they show us the absurdity of birth and everything that comes after it.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)

A work of art writ large on the big screen, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represents the convergence of great artists from every film-related medium. Every frame is a painting thanks to the photography of Janusz Kaminski. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood takes an impossible-to-tell story and turns it into a triumph of humanity and spirit that is unrivaled.

The true hero of the day, though, the one who brings it all together, is director Julian Schnabel. A painter by trade, Schnabel brings a perfect sensibility to the material. His artistry is visible in the way that he shows the beauty of a man’s inner life as he dies from the outside but lives on in his mind. There are not enough words to describe the sheer wonder of this gorgeous, heart-wrenching film.

1. City of God (Cidade de Deus)

A brutal, daring, honest portrayal of life and death in the slums of Brazil, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is one of the best films ever made, let alone of the last 10 years. Everything that Danny Boyle did with last year’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire began with Meirelles’ work. The fractured narrative, the gritty reality, the simultaneous visions of hope and despair, City of God is a master class in filmmaking.

However, for all the flash and flare of the style, the film would be nothing without the emotional draw of a story that never condescends but rather attempts to explain the unexplainable. It is a film that stays with viewers long after the final credits roll, and there is nothing else that can be asked of the best film of the decade.

The list:

10. Mystic River (2003)
9. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
8. Synecdoche, NY (2008)
7. The Pianist (2002)
6. Traffic (2000)
5. Paradise Now (2005)
4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
3. A Serious Man (2009)
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
1. City of God (2003)

Check in next week for the top ten of 2009.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Film Review: The Blind Side

This movie is better than it has any right to be. Audiences have seen the same story before and from the same director, John Lee Hancock. The director of such inspiring true football stories as Remember the Titans and We Are Marshall is back at it again, this time with a lot less football.

The Blind Side tells the story of current Baltimore Raven Michael Oher and his rise from the urban slums of Mississippi to the packed stadiums of the National Football League. Sandra Bullock plays the woman who saves Oher from the ghetto.

Bullock has a bad reputation, primarily for not being a very good actress. With films like Miss Congeniality and the recent disaster All About Steve on her resume, it is hard to argue with the circumstantial evidence. See, however, Crash for a demonstration of what Bullock is capable of doing if given the right role. She is not quite as good here, but she is not working with the same caliber of material.

All the same, it is a good looking movie, well made, and well acted enough. It’s better than We Are Marshall but not as good as Remember the Titans. The reason is that Sandra Bullock is a better actor than Matthew McConaughey but not as near as good as Denzel Washington, and the movie rests on her shoulders.

The rest of the cast moves around her and reacts, but more than anything, they stay out of the way. It’s probably just as well. The movie feels long already, and any more character development might have proved unbearable.

One suggestion-- if you do see this movie, don’t go into it with any expectation of real discussion on race relations or inner-city poverty. It’s not about that. In fact, from a social justice perspective, Blind Slide drops the ball. It is, essentially, a more than two-hour movie about some rich, Christian white folk rescuing a poor black kid from…from what? I don’t know.

Like I said, though, it’s not about that, and it doesn’t have to be. The bottom line: if you like Hancock’s other movies or if you like Sandra Bullock, you will probably like this movie.

See it? Yes.

What does the sucess of The Hangover mean?

This has been an issue on my mind for some time now, and the release of Judd Apatow’s Funny People on DVD this week seems like an opportune time for writing.

Apatow’s most recent man-child comedy was an abject failure at the box office. With a production budget of $75 million, the film made just $61 million world wide, posting a $14 million loss that does not take into account the extensive marketing done on the film’s behalf.

With Adam Sandler, who was able to turn the far inferior Click into a $100 million baby, and reigning everyman Seth Rogen in the leads, not to mention a supporting cast of the who’s who of Hollywood comedy, Funny People was a surprising disappointment to say the least.

So, what happened? Yes, the film is long. It’s dark. And, it’s full of the inside-baseball comedy industry references that alienate casual viewers. But, if I may be allowed, I will put forth another theory.

First, though, let’s look at the success of The Hangover. It’s as crude as Funny People and as much, if not more, of a boy’s club. On a budget of $35 million, it has made more than $459 million. It is the third highest grossing R-rated movie of all time behind just The Passion of the Christ and The Matrix Reloaded.

What explains this? I would suggest that The Hangover is a movie about adults in adult situations who react in adult ways. Yes, the situations presented are ludicrous, but the actors play it straight, and the film reflects a certain reality.

This reality has not been present in American comedy for far too long. I am ardent supporter of films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and I liked Funny People. However, the slew of boy-men comedies over the last several years has become tiresome. Theatre-goers were ready to see adults on the big screen again, and they responded in kind.

In no way do I feel that this is the end of Judd Apatow-style comedies, but the door is open for original comic ideas about real adults to grace cinema screens once again.

New Film Review: Precious

Let me say first off that I am recommending that you see this film. I want to say that right from the beginning because I intend to spend the next several paragraphs explaining in some detail why I did not like it.

There are two reasons for which I will recommend this film, directed by Lee Daniels, producer of Monster’s Ball. First, this is a picture you must decide upon yourself. Second, I am saying this at the beginning because there will be spoilers after this point, and if you intend on seeing it, what I next write will ruin whatever mystery exists.

***spoilers after here***

If you don’t know the story, it is about a teenage girl, Precious, played by Gabourey Sidibe, who suffers mental, physical, and sexual abuse almost constantly. There are a male nurse, a social worker, and a lesbian teacher who reach out to Precious and inspire her to rise above her difficulties.

Sounds good on paper, right? When I saw the first trailer, I had heard that the movie was amazing (“inspiring” and “hopeful” were words thrown around in abundance in descriptions of Precious), but I feared it would not rise above the level of so many other “inner-city-youth-meets-inspiring-teacher” stories. After seeing it, I can say that it is so much worse.

This is not for lack of trying. I will say that the acting here is superb. Mo’Nique is as good as you may have heard as the abusive mother. Sidibe is pitch-perfect as the nominal Precious. And, the supporting caricatures (oops, I mean characters) come out as good as can be expected, as Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, and Lenny Kravitz do everything they can to salvage the empty shells they have been given.

This movie really had a chance, and the first half looks to be going places. However, the second half of the film fails to resolve any of the key conflicts in a believable, satisfying, or appropriate way.

At the end, the abusive, sociopath Mary, who has unrelentingly inflicted abuse upon her daughter for nearly two hours on screen, shows compassion and gives Precious her down syndrome afflicted daughter back to her. Does anybody ask why? I know I could not tell you.

For the first few moments of the sequence, I waited for Precious to snap out of one of her many fantasy sequences. It didn’t happen, and mother Mary’s solid character arc quickly became a character plummet. When it crash landed, so did the film.

After this incident, Precious, née Clareece Precious Jones, carries her babies out of the social worker’s office and triumphantly walks on to her new and better life. This is the “hope” of which those other reviews are speaking. Did I mention that minutes before this Precious confirmed that she is HIV positive? What of that? I may be missing the point, but I see no reason to hope for this girl’s future.

Add to all of this the fact that as bad as a movie like The Blind Side is at depicting race relations this film goes above and beyond that (or is it below and beyond?). Allow me to share with you what I learned about African Americans from watching Precious: they are illiterate, animalistic, sexually deviant, HIV carriers who laze about and sponge off of the welfare rolls. As hard as Daniels tries to depict the real world of poverty-stricken African Americans, all I see are harmful, demeaning racial stereotypes paraded around as some sort of grotesque sideshow reality.

The film has divided the critical community and has some high profile supporters and detractors. It is apparent that this is not a case of whether or not this is a good film (I argue that it is not). This is a matter of taste. So, in that spirit, I encourage you to see Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and report back. If it is to your taste, tell me why.

See it? Yes.

The Best Composer Working in Hollywood

One of the best films I saw in 2007 was Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The best film of last year was In Bruges. And, the two best movies I’ve seen so far this year have been A Serious Man, the latest effort from the Coen brothers, and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Disparate movies, all of them, but they have one element in common: the music.

The composer is Carter Burwell, and apart from scoring the best films of the last three years, his music has been unrivaled in its evocation of the proper tone and mood in the pictures for which he writes. Bar none, he is the best working composer in Hollywood right now.

I mention it because the new Sandra Bullock vehicle, Blind Side, arrived in theatres this weekend. It performed quite well. You can find my review of the film elsewhere on this page. As you may have guessed, Burwell wrote the music for this movie as well.

Now, Blind Side is not even Burwell’s best work this year, but Burwell shines through the sentiment, works his way through the sap, and comes out clean on the other end. His work on the movie is a wonderful example of how film music can be perfect but not appropriate. Let me be clear, however, this is not a criticism but a compliment.

Allow me to define my terms. When looking at movie like Blind Side, one expects to find hope, uplift, not but a little bit of tragedy, and in the end, happiness. Also, if you were unaware, it is a sports movie. Given these attributes, one would expect to hear rising, swelling strings, full crescendos and decrescendos. This would be appropriate.

Appropriate music lets the audience know how it should be feeling in a given moment. If the main character is being ripped away from his mother, the music should be in a minor key with low horns and an ominous percussive beat. For the moment when the main character makes the big play in the big game, we should hear the strings of hope and the trumpets of triumph. The Flying High theme from Rocky is the perfect example of this kind of music.

There is nothing wrong with appropriate music. If there were, of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But, film music can rise above this level, and Burwell almost always does. Burwell writes perfect music.

While appropriate music guides the audience, perfect music soothes the audience. Perfect music assumes nothing. Perfect music plays to the emotions present on the screen and in the story. It does not add emotion where none is needed or where it is already there.

Burwell’s score for Blind Side shows intuition and restraint, two qualities lacking in so much modern film music. He has written the music for three films that have come out in the last three months. So, here’s hoping he keeps up the pace, and filmgoers get a new Burwell score every month.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

Those of you who know me know I have a soft spot in my heart for cheesy horror movies. Not bad movies, but cheesy. The kind of movies you watch, expecting them to be bad, just so you can laugh with your friends.

There is a difference, though, between cheesy and bad. Cheesy is fun and campy and silly and ultimately entertaining. Bad movies are just boring. They are not worth the time it takes to watch.

But, that’s not the point of this post. It’s Halloween. Tonight’s for fun. So, if you don’t have any plans but you don’t want to be too scared, check out some of these, my favorite cheesy horror movies.

2001 Maniacs

This is essentially a remake, but it’s damn different. If ham-fisted social commentary and out-and-out racism appeal to you (on film only, of course), there’s no better place to start than this tale of college kids on Spring Break who get lured into a pre-Civil War re-enactment of the south. And, best use of a cider press in a movie…ever.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m scared to death of spiders, and this movie is genuinely frightening in parts. I mean it’s a town infested by deadly mutant arachnids. But, it’s also pretty funny. It’s particularly funny if you get the chance to watch it with someone who is afraid of spiders. Just ask my friends.

Jack Frost

A favorite prank of college students in video stores: switch the Jack Frost kids’ movie (remember that one? it had Michael Keaton. no?) with this silly horror flick. Clever, I know. Either way, you can’t go wrong with an evil Frosty the Snowman.

The Leprechaun series

There are six movies here, and the first one was scary when I was 10. Now, it’s kind of funny. But, everything after the first one was always funny. Of particular value are Leprechaun in Space and Leprechaun in da Hood. So, if watching a small Irish man repeatedly get upset about his gold is your thing, look no further.


If at all possible, go with the original on this one. The 90s remake has its charms, but no remake will ever top a Roger Corman masterpiece. It’s about the evils of capitalism, science, and the military industrial complex, but mostly, it’s about piranha eating the swimmers. In this works right now, I hear, is a 3D remake, so watch for that in the near future.

So, enjoy, and happy Halloween.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Live Blogging the Oscars- The Big Show

9:00 pm

Well, that's the night. Congratulations to Bill Condon and Larry Mark for keeping their promis to bring the show in before midnight on the east coast. And, of course, congrats to all the winners.

A lot happened in the last half hour. Sean Penn's very political, yet somehow endearing speech. Kate Winslet's very endearing, and very endearing speech. And, of course, the completion of the Slumdog near sweep. Just one loss.

Check back tomorrow for more on those awards and everything else.

8:25 pm

Is it wrong to say that Danny Boyle's win was the one I was waiting for all night. He didn't disappoint. And, he has to be one of the only winners to call himself an idiot in his acceptance speech. Beautiful moment.

8:10 pm

So, the Academy goes against good sense and awards a tiny understated Japanese film that almost no one has heard of. They just weren't ready for the in-your-face style of Waltz with Bashir. No matter. The classics will show in time.

As far as the music categories, am I the only one who just loves watching the Slumdog Millionaire crew accept awards. By my count, they have two more to accept. But, actor and actress first.

7:45 pm

The Dark Knight for the block, anyone? Slumdog will not sweep every award. But, it can still come very close. And, that's fine with me, as long as they keep cutting back to Danny Boyle, whose genuine happiness and surprise is so refreshing in a season where platitudes are a way of life.

And, is there anyone who doesn't just love Will Smith. Only he could present awards that almost one cares about (outside the academy) and have them be among the most entertaining moments of the night.

7:20 pm

Wonderful moment for Heath Ledger's family. And, for the Academy.

Also, is there anything Philipe Petit can't do?

6:49 pm

Judd Apatow is the modern king of comedy. Can we all agree on that? Jerry Lewis is going to win an honorary award later tonight. That will close the book on that part of comedy history. We're on to Judd Apatow. If you haven't seen the Funny People trailer, check it out here.

6:37 pm

Bit of a cheap shot at Joaquin Phoenix there, eh? Funny though.

Slumdog's 2 for 2. Get used to seeing crew making their way to stage.

6:30 pm

So, the awards are being presented thematically. Sets, costumes, makeup. It's so crazy it just might work.

In terms of the winners, Benjamin Button may only win one more award, so take in the David Fincher love while you can.

6:10 pm

"Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto." Unless Mickey Rourke wins, that might be the awards speech of the night. By the short animation winner. Funny things happen at the Oscars.

Kudos to Dustin Lance Black on his beautiful speech. Truly heartfelt, personal, and utterly necessary.

Simon Beaufoy wins, making Slumdog Millionaire 1 for 1 so far. We'll see where it goes from here.

Great speech by Andrew Stanton. Short. Sweet. Perfectly on point. Just like his film.

And, how funny were Tina Fey and Steve Martin. Great pairing.

5:50 pm

So how about that opening number? It looks like Hugh Jackman was the right choice to add some energy to the show. The jokes were there, like usual, but the song and dance are all Jackman.

A great moment for Penelope Cruz. Great speech. But, let's hope the rest of the presentations don't go as long or meandering as that one.

My television also seems to be trying to go out. Stormy Northern California. I'll have to hope it makes it through the rest of the night.

Live Blogging the Oscars- The Red Carpet

5:26 pm

So, they just asked Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen whom they would save if there were an earthquake. What a silly question.

But, it gets you thinking.

Seth said Judd and Judd said his wife.

It's tough choice. Let's just hope the Kodak is earthquake retrofitted.

They're about to go inside. I'm going watch the opening and so should you. I'll check in at the first commercial break.

5:23 pm

What a great night this must be for guys like Richard Jenkins and Frank Langella. They have deserved this for so long, and they are finally at the Big Show.

Those are the guys people talk about when it's said that "it's great just to be nominated."

5:15 pm

So, the switch in red carpet coverage from E! to ABC's coverage raises a couple questions.

Usually, I wonder who the more famous person is- the interviewer or the interviewee, and that's not a good thing. But, then, when I'm watching ABC, I just wonder who these people doing the interviews are and why they're there.

Beyond that, it's a hell of a sight to see Danny Boyle and the whole child cast of Slumdog. Invented controversies be damned.

4:53 pm

Is there anyone more beautiful or more gracious than Kate Winslet?

And, then they go to Ben Lyons. God, I miss Richard Roeper.

4:39 pm

It's odd watching the red carpet with people who know about fashion and dresses and all that. I don't. What was wrong with Anne Hathaway's dress? Something about fish.

I don't know, but E! was really excited to see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie show up. They seemed to have the scoop by getting the first shots of the couple's arrival, which is sort of like being the first guy on the top of a hill to see the sun.

4:30 pm

"I'd rather have Loki another two years than the Oscar."

Mickey Rourke talking to Ryan Seacrest, dedicating the night to his recently deceased dog.

Regardless of whether he wins tonight, I think he's made his comeback. The world is free to love him again.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Breaking My Own Rule - The Academy Awards

So, I’m going to go ahead and break my own rule. I’m going to make predictions. But, hey, it’s the Academy Awards. I have been, historically, very bad at predicting the Oscars for a couple of reasons. First, I tend to give the Academy too much credit and assume that they will make the right decisions. Second, I like to go out on a limb and predict upsets sometimes (I had Little Miss Sunshine for Best Picture over The Departed, and we know how well that went over).

What I’m going to do, though, is make predictions and make wishes. Now, this may seem unnecessary, and yes, it does increase my chances of being right, but the predictions are the predictions. They can be wrong, and in all likelihood, they will be, at least on some accounts. And, if you’ve read any of the preceding posts here, then you know what my favorite movies this year have been, and my wish list will come as no surprise.

Check in at 5:00 pm on Sunday, and I will live blog the Oscars. My reactions, my thoughts, and all of that in real time.


Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Wish: Slumdog Millionaire

It is rare that the Academy members award the best movie of the year, and a lot of the time, they don’t even reward the best movie of the five nominees. If you follow awards buzz at all, then you know that Slumdog Millionaire has been the frontrunner for months. Nothing else can touch it. Is it the best picture of the year? Not quite. But, that doesn’t matter because it is the best of the nominated pictures. And, sometimes that’s enough.


Prediction: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire
Wish: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire

Like his film, Danny Boyle is easily the best of the nominees, though Gus Van Sant’s work on Milk is also worthy. The sheer tenacity of Boyle to go into the slums of Mumbai and drag out an artistic achievement like Slumdog is enough to earn him the award. He deserves it, and for once, it looks like the Academy knows it.


Prediction: Sean Penn for Milk
Wish: Richard Jenkins for The Visitor

For my reasoning on Richard Jenkins, check out my list of the best performances of the year on the bottom of this page. As for the prediction, Jenkins’ part is just too small for the Academy to love it as much as they should. The race would appear to be between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). My prediction is for Penn because Milk is a much better loved movie within the Academy, and there are plenty of people who just don’t like Mickey Rourke.


Prediction: Kate Winslet for The Reader
Wish: Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married

Kate Winslet will win for several reasons: 1) the Academy likes The Reader a lot; 2) they like Kate Winslet a lot; 3) and, most importantly, somehow, they got the impression that they owe her an award. It is true that she has lost the award five times, but that’s no reason to award somebody, particularly not for this film, which isn’t even Winslet’s best performance of the year. But, she’s still going to win.


Prediction: Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight
Wish: Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt

I like both performances. So does the Academy. We just happen to disagree on which we like more. But, Ledger wins this in a walk.


Prediction: Viola Davis for Doubt
Wish: Amy Adams for Doubt

The smart money is on Penelope Cruz, but I play for free and lose nothing in predicting Viola Davis. She’s well liked, as is the movie, and the performance, despite its length, is deeply respected. Penelope Cruz, on the other hand, is in a movie that isn’t quite as liked, which I think is what it comes down to because, apart from the performances, the Academy is awarding films.


Prediction: Dustin Lance Black for Milk
Wish: Martin MacDonagh for In Bruges

Black’s screenplay is respected throughout the Academy’s membership, and once again, I think this comes down to rewarding a film that they like a lot because they’re not going to give it Best Picture. Don’t be surprised if Wall-E pulls off an upset, but I wouldn’t count on it. There’s too much of a prejudice against animated films, despite Wall-E’s six nominations.


Prediction: Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire
Wish: John Patrick Shanley for Doubt

Despite what I think is an over-reliance on a single plot device, Beaufoy’s script is good enough to win, and it will roll right along with a night of Slumdog Millionaire victories.


Prediction: The Reader (Roger Deakins and Chris Menges)
Wish: Slumdog Millionaire (Anthony Dod Mantle)

If I were smart, I would predict Slumdog like everyone else. Also, the upset pick is supposedly Claudio Miranda’s work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But, I’ll take this as an opportunity to go out on the furthest limb available. People like Roger Deakins, and he’s never won, despite many nominations. I think it’s his year. And, it is a very pretty movie, at least in terms of look. Mantle, though, does deserve the award, and I won’t be the least bit upset to be wrong in my prediction. It just means I won’t be perfect.


Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire (Chris Dickens)
Wish: Slumdog Millionaire (Chris Dickens)

If you’ve seen it, then you know why. The pacing, the kinetic energy, the fractured timeline. It’s edited as well as any Bourne film you’ve ever seen. The Academy knows that.


Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Donald Graham Burt, Victor J. Zolfo)
Wish: Revolutionary Road (Kristi Zea, Debra Schutt)

Button’s lavish period sets, which span several periods, will win the day here. It is an admirable feat, but Revolutionary Road is so dependant on the set to express the unspoken conflicts present in the book that it can’t be stressed enough how important Zea and Schutt’s work is to the film.


Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire (Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty)
Wish: Slumdog Millionaire (Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty)

(see next entry)


Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire (Tom Sayers)
Wish: Wall-E (Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood)

The first half of Wall-E is all sound, and Ben Burtt’s work, here and in the sound mixing, deserves to be recognized. But, Slumdog seems destined to win everything. And, if the movie teaches us one thing, it’s that destiny will not be denied.


Prediction: The Duchess (Michael O’ Connor)
Wish: The Duchess (Michael O’ Connor)

In this category, the award tends to go to the flashiest, showiest costumes from the nominated films. And, this is one category where it doesn’t matter how much the Academy liked a movie (if you remember the win for Marie Antoinette, then you know what I mean). Luckily, O’ Connor’s work on The Duchess actually is the best of the year.


Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Greg Cannom)
Wish: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Greg Cannom)

Just about every character in this movie ages about 60 or 80 years. If that’s not deserving of an award, I don’t know what is.


Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron)
Wish: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron)

It may be one of the most impressive displays of visual effects ever put to film. Brad Pitt’s transformation as Benjamin Button is nothing short of miraculous. Nothing else this year even comes close.


Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman)
Wish: Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman)

It’s a very flashy score, ever-present in the film, which just means that the Academy is more likely to remember it. It also features a wonderful mix of current pop and traditional orchestration, and it is unlikely that the Academy won’t fall for this score.


Prediction: “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire
Wish: “O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire

The point of this award is to award the song that best exemplifies the film it is in and that best fits the mood and theme of the film. How a song featured only in the end credits fits this bill is beyond me, but it appears that “Jai Ho” is the Academy favorite.


Prediction: Wall-E
Wish: Wall-E

Never mind the fact that it is the best animated film of the year, Wall-E wins this award by virtue of its five other nominations.


Prediction: Man On Wire
Wish: Trouble the Water

For as much as Slumdog has dominated the main categories at this year’s various awards ceremonies, Man On Wire has won just as many if not more awards in the documentary categories. It will keep that streak going at the Oscars.


Prediction: The Class
Wish: The Class

Most people are saying Waltz with Bashir, so expect that if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the Academy is quite adventurous enough to award an animated semi-documentary in its foreign language category. The Class, on the other hand, is right up their alley.


I haven’t seen them (except for Pixar’s Presto, which played before Wall-E), so what do I know about it. I’ll still make predictions, though, just to be thorough.

Short Live Action- Toyland
Short Animated- Presto
Short Documentary- The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306

So, that’s that. Tomorrow night-- the Oscars. Then, this whole silly, glorious mess will be over.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Year's Best Quotes

There is a science to writing a great movie quote. Usually, it has to be short. It has to apply to a broad spectrum of the human experience. And, more than anything, it has to be memorable enough to stand out from the crowd. If you hadn’t noticed, actors talk a lot in most movies. For one line of dialogue to stick its neck above the rest, something extraordinary must have occurred.

This year did not offer the same sort of instantly quotable lines that last year did (“I drink your milkshake”; “Call it, Friendo”), but there was plenty to remember. Movie snob that I am, the chosen quotes mostly come from more high-brow offerings, but you and your friends know which Forgetting Sarah Marshall lines you like the best.

In addition to the aforementioned qualities, what I look for, almost above all else, is the ability of the writer to hint at the main theme of the film in a single line, to lay out the heart of the story with just a few words. As with everything else, it’s all a judgment call. And, these are my calls.

10. “I am Iron Man.” - Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man

From the other great comic book movie this year, this moment, essentially the end of the film, summed up perfectly what made Iron Man the anti-Dark Knight. It’s all kitschy fun. It’s about a guy who wants to be a superhero, not because he has to but because he can. As dark and brooding as Christian Bale’s Batman is, that is how light and enjoyable Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is. And, the way Downey delivers this final line makes it the ultimate coup de grace.

9. “You’re the most beautiful thing in the world…you’re a man.” - April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) in Revolutionary Road

After spending the first third of the film insulting and questioning the manhood of her husband, April Wheeler declares him to be, not just a man but, beautiful in as much as he is a man. It is one of only two emotionally positive moments in the movie because he will spend the rest of their time together forcing her to question this assessment. Winslet takes the pose of a wife doing penitence for many sins against the husband, and the audience is enraptured by watching this woman give up a piece of her soul so that her husband might find some piece of his own.

8. “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” - The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight

As delivered by the now-deceased Heath Ledger, the line is all tragic irony, for we know that they will not “do this forever,” nor will they ever do it again. That the line is the perfect evocation of the conflict in the Batman character is of great import as well. As Batman struggles with the idea of having to play the hero forever, Ledger comes in as the Joker to tell him that he must and will be forever locked in a struggle with evil. Just, not with The Joker.

7. “I was thinkin’ about how nuthin’ lasts and what a shame that is.” - Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

For all of the shortcomings of this film, Brad Pitt has never been better. Benjamin Button ages backwards (if you didn’t know), and when he says nothing lasts to the Cate Blanchett character, who ages normally, it should be laughable. It is thanks to Pitt that this line works. And, since the line works, it helps to establish Button as a more active character, rather than the passive observer he seems to be. Unfortunately, the movie quickly loses this bent, but the line remains significant.

6. “I’m saying that when the president does it that means it isn’t illegal.” - Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Frost/Nixon

In terms of historical and factual accuracy, the line is ludicrous. However, in terms of Peter Morgan’s screenplay, it is everything. It was used in the trailer, which makes little sense as the whole movie builds to this revelation, but even though the audience knows it is coming, Langella puts everything into it and makes it a surprise. The revelation is not a surprise, as I said, but the way it is revealed is, which is because Ron Howard knows how to direct for maximum effect, and he milks this line for all it is worth.

5. “I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was…it’s in Belgium.” - Ray (Colin Farrell) in In Bruges

In one way, In Bruges is a tragic comedy about gangsters and honor and all that, but in another way, it is about the worst vacation ever. This line is what distinguishes Ray from the beginning as different from his partner Ken. Ray is self-destructively insular. He is constantly in danger of imploding, and he can take no time to even look around him. The truth is that it doesn’t matter where Bruges is. It may as well be Hell because, from inside his own mind, he wouldn’t know the difference.

4. “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” - Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) in Milk

It’s one of those repeated lines that gains new meaning and new significance with each time it is spoken. It’s a slogan. It is, by nature, simple, catchy, and affective. Thus, for the same reasons it works so well as a slogan for the slain gay-rights activist, it works as a great quote. Admittedly, it may be more Sean Penn’s performance than the line itself, but a great quote has to be said by somebody.

3. “Maybe, it’s written.” - Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire

It took a lot of guts for Simon Beaufoy, the film’s scribe, to write a line as on the nose as this one and to let it be repeated as the story plays out. The story is about nothing if it is not about destiny. This line is used as a mantra throughout the picture, and in one way or another, every character is affected by its meaning. Jamal’s story, however, is the story the audience cares about, and it is his destiny that must be assured in watching.

2. “I’m just really worried about dying in the fire.” - Hazel (Samantha Morton) in Synecdoche, NY

It is my belief that behind this line lay the mystery of Synecdoche, NY. That is, of course, an overly-simplistic view of this abstract masterpiece of a film. The context of the quote is that Hazel is in the market for a new home, and her best prospect is a house that happens to be on fire, literally. She voices her concern but ultimately buys the home, still ablaze. Why? Because even though she will probably die, what would be the point of living if you couldn’t live as you saw fit? But, it is also representative of the ever-present inescapability of death. Like I said, though, I think it’s everything. But, that’s just a thought.

1. “I know I’m awake, but it feels like I’m in a dream.” - Ken (Brendan Gleeson) in In Bruges

Ken says this line twice. The first time, it is a B.S. story given to his boss about his partner’s feelings about Bruges. The second time, it is a devastatingly sad reflection on his own state of mind. The repetition occurs less than five minutes later, but everything in Ken’s world has changed. This is the strength of Martin McDonagh’s screenplay. The dramatic mood-shifts would not work if not for McDonagh’s writing. The dual use of this line, its heartbreaking double meaning, and the importance of the words to Ken are what writing is all about. And, any line that can define writing deserves to be recognized as the best quote of the year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oscar Nominees Wish List

As I’ve said before, I don’t make predictions. It’s a lot more fun to invent the perfect world. So, that is what follows here. This is my dream list of Oscar nominees. Some of these are not possible under Academy rules, but here, we play by my rules, of which there is only one-- if I saw it last year, it is fair game.

In alphabetical order…


In Bruges; Let the Right One In; Rachel Getting Married; Synecdoche, NY; The Visitor


Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire); Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight); Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married); Martin McDonagh (In Bruges); Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road)


Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Synecdoche, NY); Richard Jenkins (The Visitor); Sean Penn (Milk); Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)


Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married); Angelina Jolie (Changeling); Kristin Scott Thomas (I’ve Loved You So Longed); Meryl Streep (Doubt); Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road)

Supporting Actor:

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt); Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight); Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire); Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)

Supporting Actress:

Hiam Abbass (The Visitor); Amy Adams (Doubt); Rosemarie Dewitt (Rachel Getting Married); Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Samantha Morton (Synecdoche, NY)

Original Screenplay:

Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, NY); Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married); Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor); Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)

Adapted Screenplay:

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire); Andrew Davies (Brideshead Revisited); John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In); Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight); John Patrick Shanley (Doubt)


Blindness; The Dark Knight; Let the Right One In; Revolutionary Road; Slumdog Millionaire


The Dark Knight; Frost/Nixon; In Bruges; Milk; Slumdog Millionaire

Art Direction:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Doubt; Milk; Revolutionary Road; Synecdoche, NY

Sound Editing:

Australia; The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Slumdog Millionaire; Wall-E

Sound Mixing:

The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Rachel Getting Married; Slumdog Millionaire; Wall-E

Costume Design:

Brideshead Revisited; Changeling; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Other Boleyn Girl; Revolutionary Road


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Let the Right One In; Synecdoche, NY

Original Score:

Changeling; In Bruges; Revolutionary Road; Slumdog Millionaire; Synecdoche, NY

Original Song:

“Jai-ho” (Slumdog Millionaire); “Little Person” (Synecdoche, NY); “The Wrestler” (The Wrestler)

Visual Effects:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Speed Racer

Animated Feature:

Kung Fu Panda; Wall-E; Waltz with Bashir


Man on Wire; Trouble the Water; Pray the Devil Back to Hell; Standard Operating Procedure; Encounters at the End of the World

Foreign Language Film:

City of Men; The Class; I’ve Loved You So Long; Let the Right One In; Waltz with Bashir

For your consideration (Or: Too Little, Too Late)

Academy Award nominations come out early tomorrow morning, and I’ll have some reactions up soon after that, but before, I thought I might take the opportunity to highlight some movies that will not be recognized by the Academy for various taste and political reasons. However, in a different world, these films would be in contention just as readily as some of the more “awards-bait” fare.

For Best Picture:

Blindness- Fernando Mereilles’ beautifully conceived and gorgeously executed allegory in which the world is suddenly struck blind. Julianne Moore is as solid as ever playing the only person in the world who can see. This film performed badly at the Cannes film festival and never gained many fans, but for style with substance, there were few better films in 2008

For Best Director:

Chris Carter for The X-Files: I Want to Believe- It may sound silly, but chances are that the only reason it sounds silly is because of the words “X-Files.” If you can get past the cult-science fiction nature of the show and movie, then Carter’s direction jumps to the forefront immediately. The way he slowly reveals the machinery behind the mystery in this film ranks up there with some of the best of film noir. This is a science fiction movie, but it succeeds at being more, and that is thanks to Carter.

Best Actress:

Naomi Watts for Funny Games- This Michael Haneke remake of a Michael Haneke film was pretty much universally hated. I am in the small minority of people who rather liked and appreciated the movie. And, at the center of everything, Watts explores the same emotional range of many of this year’s most lauded performances and does it with as much skill.

Best Supporting Actor:

Jason Butler Harner for Changeling- Angelina Jolie is getting some well-deserved attention for her performance, but as the captured serial killer, Harner plays the kind of ambivalent, maniacal character that is so hard to pull off but, when done right, is astonishing. Jason Butler Harner is astonishing in this movie. His final scene is absolutely gut-wrenching.

Best Supporting Actress:

Emma Thompson for Brideshead Revisited- Does anyone remember this movie coming out this year? It was very good, and if you missed it, you should see it on DVD. Thompson is downright scary as the matriarch of a God-fearing family around whom she has a tight-fisted hold. When that control is challenged, the depth of Thompson’s performances allows the audience to both sympathize with and be reviled by her actions.

Best Original Screenplay:

Lakeview Terrace- Deeper and more nuanced than much of the revenge-flick dross that populates multiplexes, Lakeview Terrace is something very rare: an adult drama that plays its characters straight and never winks at the camera. It is intelligent and hard-hitting, while remaining a substantial entertainment.

Best Song:

“Inside of You” from Forgetting Sarah Marshall- It is crude and it is vulgar and it is absolutely hilarious. I mean both the movie and the song. As such, the song perfectly exemplifies this movie, and if I understand the award, isn’t that the point?

Best Score:

Synecdoche, NY and In Bruges- Both films feature very small chamber group music for the majority of the score, but the subtly provided by the small scale music perfectly underlines the human drama at the core of each film. Too often, the Academy falls victim to the thought that “bigger is better,” when often the opposite is true.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Golden Globes are tomorrow night, so...

I don’t make predictions-- not in the public square anyhow. If I made predictions, I could be wrong. However, by saying who should win, not only can I not be wrong, but I can be reasonably justified in my picks. I am not in the heads of the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the folks who hand out the Golden Globes), but I do know what I think. So, this is, what could best be described as, a wish list for tomorrow night’s awards (in the movie categories, anyway). You can find the nominees here.

Picture, Drama: Slumdog Millionaire- The most adventurous of the nominees, the best-told story, and flat out just the best-made picture

Picture, Comedy: In Bruges- My pick for the best film of the year overall; simply a perfect film

Actor, Drama: Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- The most difficult part of the lot to play and Pitt succeeded wonderfully in it

Actor, Comedy: Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges- Colin Farrell is the star of the movie, and Ralph Fiennes is steals every scene he is in, but Gleeson holds everything together with a calm demeanor befitting the consummate professional that he is

Actress, Drama: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married- In the most competitive (see they all deserve to win) category, Hathaway takes on all comers and dispenses them with all the fiery wrath of Shiva the destroyer

Actress, Comedy: Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona­- The straight-person in Woody Allen’s tale of artists and flakes is a thankless role, and Hall succeeds at making it indispensable to the film

Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt- In the ultimate of tête-à-têtes, Hoffman duels with Meryl Streep and proves once again why he is one of the best at what he does

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams in Doubt- The least showy of the roles in John Patrick Shanley’s magnificent ensemble piece but absolutely crucial, and Adams’ subtle play at innocence maintains the moral center, without which the film would fall apart

Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire- He went down into the depths of Mumbai and came out with one of the most innovative and stunning pictures of the year; Boyle is this movie

Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley for Doubt- It doesn’t hurt that the original play is magnificently written, but the ability to make the play work on screen is why Shanley deserves the award

Score: A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire- A wonderful blend of world music and traditional score, Rahman’s music best evoked the mood of the film for which it was written

Song: Bruce Springsteen for “The Wrestler” from The Wrestler- Like Rahman’s score for Slumdog, Springsteen’s song perfectly captures the heart and spirit of the film

Animated: Wall-E- It may be the most beautifully rendered computer-animated film ever, so best animated film of the year seems only fitting

Foreign Language: Il y a longtemps que je t’aime- Based on the strength of the performances alone, this movie deserves the award; never mind the subtle script and appropriately restrained direction

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Best Performances of the Year

I am not the Academy Awards and, as such, see no need to separate supporting performances from lead performances. A good performance is a good performance. In fact, my assessment of performance tends to skew more toward the supporting performances.

Leading performers have the benefit of screen time. Those in supporting roles have the task of creating a fully realized character in just a couple of scenes.

Also note that the majority of these performances take place in movies that made my list of the top ten films of the year, which only serves to show how important acting is in making a great film.

So, like everything else, the ten best performances of the year:

10. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

Ledger’s work in this movie only gets better upon repeat viewings. The subtle tics he adds to his character to fill out the more showy moments (the pencil trick comes to mind) lend just the right amount of malice to his menace. He creates the kind of character that the audience wonders where he is when he’s not on screen, and when he’s on screen, the audience can’t watch anyone else.

9. Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt is a tabloid star, and we sometimes forget that he used to be a movie star. But, even before that-- he was an actor. As Benjamin Button, he is an actor again. Truthfully, the old man Benjamin (who is paradoxically the young Benjamin) is a bit frightening, like a leprechaun who sat in the tub too long. But, with everything that he does, Pitt gives this outcast a soul and gives the audience a reason to care.

8. Kate Winslet as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road

Like I said yesterday, this movie is written on the faces of the actors, and nowhere is that more true than on the face of Kate Winslet. The director’s trust is not misplaced. There is no actor as aware of her facial expressions as Winslet, and she uses every muscle she has to tell the story of April’s bitterness and betrayal. And, in wide shots, she is capable of using her whole body to express the frustration of a trapped woman. This is the definition of a complete performance.

7. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn in Doubt

Hoffman has a habit of turning in very good performances and of making it look very easy. With three great performances last year and two more this year, he is quickly establishing himself as one of the best working actors in Hollywood. In Doubt, he matches Meryl Streep note for note and blow for blow in a battle of will and conscience. He is equal parts endearing and frightening, and it is because of Hoffman’s performance that audience never knows whether the terrible accusations against him are true.

6. Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale in The Visitor

Richard Jenkins was in Step Brothers this year with Will Ferrell. He was very good in that, and that was a not a good movie. A good actor is a good actor. So, given an intelligent script and a complete character, which he has in The Visitor, he gives one of the best performances of the year. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, he brings Professor Walter Vale out of his shell and into the world. He never goes for the big, flashy moment just because he can. He knows his character better than that and knows to stay within his character’s stilted emotional range, which is what makes his performance so good.

5. Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt

Ms. Streep is a very good actress. Can we all agree on that? Okay. Then, let’s move on to the specifics of this performance. As frightening as Hoffman’s Flynn is, he is redeemable. Streep’s Sister Aloysius is bloodless. She is a predator, relentless in the pursuit of her prey. Just watch her body language as she confronts Father Flynn. Whether she is right or not is of no concern to her. It is her dominance that matters, and the way she works over her adversaries is masterful. The way she stands is enough to shake doubters to the core, and in the end, it is only her own doubts that can defeat her.

4. Dev Patel as Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire

In a movie that is all about heart, the central performance must exude that same resiliency, determination, and love. Patel has all of these things. What is so interesting about the character, and Patel’s performance, is that he is almost entirely a reactionary character. Audiences are used to their main characters being proactive, but this movie is about fate. And, Patel has a great face for reactions. He exemplifies the ride that destiny takes his character on with the spontaneity necessary for such a role.

3. Rosemarie Dewitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married

It is Rachel’s wedding day, and it is being ruined by her sister, Kym. Rosemarie Dewitt plays it straight, as she must. As Rachel, she walks a very fine line between being sympathetic and being pathetic. She comes down on the right side by never going too far with the hysterics. It is, of course, her wedding, and the audience wouldn’t begrudge her a few moments of agony. But, Dewitt remains calm when she has to be, is forgiving when she needs to be, and stays strong when it hurts to do so. She weathers the storm with all the stability that an older sister must when the younger sister falls apart.

2. Anne Hathaway as Kym in Rachel Getting Married

Speaking of the younger sister, Anne Hathaway gives her first fully realized, fully human performance as Kym, the recovering addict out of rehab for her sister’s wedding. Kym does not, however, seem to realize that the event is not about her. There aren’t many young actresses in Hollywood capable of playing a role as naked and uncompromising as this one, but Hathaway is perfect for the part. As much as DiCaprio grew up in The Departed and Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, this film is Hathaway’s right of passage into serious acting, and she is a serious actress.

1. Brendan Gleeson as Ken in In Bruges

Perhaps best known as Professor Alastor Moody in the Harry Potter series, Brendan Gleeson has slowly, over the last twenty years, amassed an impressive resume of film roles. Finally, here, he gets just the right role, and he sinks his teeth in deep. As an actor, he seems to understand his character better than even the writer. The way that Gleeson chooses to emphasize his character’s pragmatism over all else allows the audience to get just close enough to care but not close enough to understand, which is perfect for the character of a hit man in existential crisis. As the agent of redemption for Ray (Colin Farrell), Gleeson’s Ken is the most complete portrait of a hit man ever put to celluloid.

As for the rest:

Best performance in a bad movie:

Tropic Thunder may have been a big, offensive mess, but Robert Downey Jr. showed up to play and out-acted everybody on the screen, out-acted the material, and out-acted the film.

Worst performance in a good movie:

Diego Luna, as the preening lover in Milk, wanders around the screen wondering what to do with himself. He is outmatched in every scene, and it doesn’t help that most of his scenes are with likely Oscar-nominee Sean Penn.

Best young actor:

Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire in a race that wasn’t even close.

Worst young actor:

Anton Yelchin in Charlie Bartlett. Does anyone even remember this movie? If not, sorry for reminding you. After turning in a performance as the least sympathetic kidnap and murder victim ever (last year’s Alpha Dog), Yelchin gets worse and gives a terrible performance in a bad movie. (note: Robert Downey Jr. gave a pretty good performance in this bad movie, too)

The “I know who that is, but I don’t know his name” award goes to:

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Burn After Reading, and Step Brothers. Hopefully, you remember his name now, and hopefully, he gets the kind of roles where you want to remember his name.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2008

It was a curious year for movies. As always, studios saved their Oscar-bait films for the end of the year with late-November and December release dates. But, four of my top ten were released in the summer or earlier, including my number one pick, which was the best of the year when I saw it and remained in that spot for nearly nine months.

Then, among the most recent releases, there has been much with which to be disappointed. But, we can dwell on those films later. This space is dedicated to the best of the year. So, with no further introduction, the best of 2008:

10. Changeling

Clint Eastwood directed two films this year: this one and Gran Torino. And, if there were a #11 spot on my list, Gran Torino would likely occupy it. But, Changeling is a superior script and features the superior performances (although Eastwood’s acting has almost never been better than in his other film).

Filmed in Eastwood’s usual desaturated colors, the 30s are depicted with nearly every spot-on detail intact. The costume design and art direction are wonderful here in that they add to the story rather than distract from it.

Angelina Jolie is remarkable as Christine Collins, a woman whose son is kidnapped only to be replaced by an impostor. Jolie’s performance reminds me of Faye Dunaway’s performance in Chinatown. She is subdued and reserved until it is time to not be subdued and reserved, and when that time comes, her subduers had best watch out.

Eastwood was known as only an actor for so long that it is easy to forget that he has been directing films for nearly 40 years. His experience pays off in his steady and sure-handed camera work, and when the screenplay wanders briefly, the audience remains confident that Eastwood will get back to the story. Because that is what he does, he finishes things.

9. Revolutionary Road

The film is based on a classic 1961 novel by Richard Yates. It is all but inadaptable, and this shows in how the screenwriter, Justin Haythe, and director, Sam Mendes, choose to portray certain events. What they, and Mendes in particular, have done is much more difficult than adapting a novel-- they have adapted the essence of a novel.

As we have grown accustomed to with Mendes’ films, there are shots in this movie that would be beautiful stills, and watching them in motion simply makes them more admirable. When Frank Wheeler gets off the train, he is not Frank Wheeler. He is a faceless hat and coat. He is lost in the rest of the nameless hoard. That is Mendes’ feat-- depicting isolation, loneliness, and despair with solitary fleeting images.

The feat of the actors is as remarkable. Kate Winslet, as April Wheeler, lives in the skin of her character, and at times, it seems like the actress may lose herself and the character will be all that is left. She is that convincing. And, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank so close to the bone that it hurts.

The film is missing that which the novel spends most of its length on: the characters’ inner monologues. However, those monologues are written on the faces of the actors in this film, and even without the exposition, no action seems unmotivated and no moment seems out of place. And, despite this flaw in the screenplay, or perhaps because of it, Revolutionary Road approaches near perfection.

8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Woody Allen’s latest is proof of just how far a good script can carry a film. Along with Billy Wilder in his prime, Woody Allen is one of the great screenwriters in Hollywood history.

His Vicky Cristina Barcelona marks another milestone in an already distinguished career. It’s a comedy but not in any conventional sense. It bears no resemblance to his “early, funny films” nor does it feel like his more cerebral comedies like Annie Hall and Deconstructing Harry. No. This is something different. There is a fluidity and a passion to Barcelona, which serve to make it the most enjoyable Allen film in years.

The gorgeous Spanish locations lend much to the storytelling, but as always, it is the characters and particularly their dialogue that make the movie work. Penelope Cruz has garnered much attention and praise for her work in the film, and she deserves all the accolades she receives. It is a fine performance. But, the real standout here is Rebecca Hall.

As Vicky, Hall portrays a woman who has only observed passion in the life of her friend, Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) but never experienced it herself until this trip. Watching her desperately try to grasp at the flicker of romance that enters her life but remains elusive is heartbreaking, and it is her character that best represents the film. Let the artists have their dysfunctional romance and whimsy and let the rest of us dream of being artists.

7. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle never ceases to amaze me. He has spent a career making genre pieces without confining himself to the conventions of genre. His 28 Days Later may be the best modern horror movie this side of Romero, and his last film was the underappreciated sci-fi masterpiece Sunshine. But, this year, he has made a film so versatile and impressive that it defies genre and categorization.

The story is a relatively simple one: the life of the ultimate underdog is told in flashbacks related to his participation in a game show. The conceit is interesting enough to carry the film through and simple enough to grab the audience from the beginning. But, if the film were just an idea, it would fail. What makes Slumdog Millionaire work are the performances of the young cast and the all-seeing eye of Danny Boyle.

First-- the performances: The whole movie rests on the performance of Dev Patel as the oldest incarnation of the titular slumdog, and the success or failure of the films rises and falls with how well the audience can sympathize with him. It is to Patel’s credit that he makes his character instantly lovable without being cloying.

But, like I said, this is the director’s movie through and through, and without Danny Boyle’s guiding presence, it would be an average movie with a good story and good performances. Instead, Boyle puts the solid story and steady performances in the context of a great film.

6. Doubt

Meryl Streep. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Amy Adams. Viola Davis. And, that’s the movie. Except for the child actors, who may as well be part of the set design, these are, essentially, the only performances in the film. The script comes from a play by John Patrick Shanley, the film’s director and adapter. Being very aware of Frost/Nixon, Shanley’s Doubt is the best play-turned-movie of the year.

Like Frost/Nixon, the movie is mostly a sparring match between two strong-willed individuals, but the key difference is that there is no right side in this film. The audience knows going in that Richard Nixon is a criminal and that David Frost wins the fight. Here, we don’t know and will never know if Streep’s Sister Aloysius or Hoffman’s Father Flynn is right, and in truth, both could be wrong.

What is most fascinating is watching Aloysius and Flynn fight, not so much for the soul but, for the heart of Sister James, played with a beautifully subtle touch by Amy Adams in a career-best performance. Adams conveys just the right amount of innocence in her suspicions, and it is through her that audience experiences its catharsis.

Really, though, the film is not about catharsis. It is about the lengths to which one will go in the throes of righteousness, misplaced or not.

5. The Visitor

The Visitor is a low-key film from a subtly brilliant screenplay featuring three of the best supporting performances of the year from unknowns-- Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass. But, it is Richard Jenkins’ show, and he is great in it.

Watching Jenkins’ character transform from a buttoned-up, shut away professor to an emotionally available and empathetic “musician” is magical. This is not because his transformation is so vast but because it is so small. The change is almost all internal, but Jenkins is so good in this role that the internal changes become outward displays of subtle characterization.

This is Thomas McCarthy’s second film as writer-director after the equally understated The Station Agent. Here, he broadens his scope into a portrait of America at a crossroads. The film is a not a cheap liberal picture by any means; it goes beyond the political and aims for the human.

As Professor Walter Vale, Jenkins represents the average American who must come to terms with the changing global cultural landscape. He responds to the challenge in the way that we all should and wish we could: by taking the time to understand those around us and to truly listen to our own humanity.

4. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for schlocky horror movies. They are goofy and predictable and cheap and a hell of a lot of fun. This is not one of those movies. This film is the way horror movies should be.

Often referred to as “that Swedish vampire movie,” Let the Right One In is all mood, and that mood, established early and maintained throughout by director Tomas Alfredson, is pitch perfect. This starts as a dark film and sinks into blackness.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is frightening and contains some genuine thrills, which is a higher compliment than it sounds. With the blood and gore of the Saw films and the emptiness of B-movies like The Strangers, real thrills are hard to come by, and Alfredson’s film provides them.

Ultimately, though, the film is a love story in the same way that last year’s Once is a love story. It is about two lonely souls who need each other, find each other, and do everything in their power to stay together. The fact that the kids are twelve and one of them is a vampire is almost beside the point-- until its feeding time. Then, all bets are off.

3. Rachel Getting Married

It has been nearly two decades since director Jonathan Demme gave the world The Silence of the Lambs, which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. His Rachel Getting Married could not be more different, and it is a far better film.

From a screenplay by Jenny Lumet (yes, of those Lumets; she is Sidney’s daughter), the film is an honest and heartfelt evocation of family, pain, loss, and culture that never goes for easy sentiment but, instead, earns every tragic and beautiful moment.

When you see the film, as you certainly should, if you can watch the dishwasher scene without getting a lump in your throat and a twinge of pain in your heart, then you have never experienced true loss. Those who have will recognize the bitter heartbreak that the scene evokes.

Similarly, the principle actors in this film give everything they have and strike every right note. Anne Hathaway finally grows up and gives the performance she was always capable of, and Rosemarie DeWitt is brilliant at the titular sister who must share her big day with a firestorm known as sisterhood.

With a handheld camera and a magnificent ensemble of unknown actors, Demme is an invited guest at this wedding and the audience is his “plus one.” As a result of this intimacy, every moment of the film rings true and affects us way that more movies should.

2. Synecdoche, NY

This is the most complex and beautiful portrait of the artist’s mind since Adaptation, which is no surprise since both films share the common thread of a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. This film is also Kaufman’s directorial debut, which allowed him to explore exactly what he saw in his mind.

What he saw in his mind was a sprawling epic of misanthropy that is truly funny. In fact, it is probably the funniest film ever made about the imminence of death, the impotence of art, and the ignorance of artists.

Surrounded by one of the most talented female ensembles ever put together (Samantha Morton, Diane Wiest, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, et al), Phillip Seymour Hoffman stands in for Kaufman and should win the award for best performance in a deathly somber role. I reiterate: this is a comedy.

Hoffman trudges around, dying from the inside out while the rest of the world dies from the outside in. His performance is the glue that holds Kaufman’s ambition together and when the playwright wanders around his empty, deserted life within a life, no matter how lost we may think we are, something inside us knows the whole truth.

1. In Bruges

The greatness of this film starts and stops with Martin McDonagh’s screenplay. From the patient, sure-handed storytelling to the whip-quick dialogue that is as vulgar as it is intelligently observational. As a director, he allows his actors room to breathe, even in claustrophobic hotel rooms and churches.

The city of Bruges becomes a character, informing nearly every part of the story. The architecture provides a beautiful yet haunting backdrop for the most comic tragedy about hit men yet committed to film. Or, perhaps, it is a tragic comedy.

Colin Farrell gives a blistering and volatile performance as a first-time hit man who doubts his qualifications for the job. But the standout in this film is Brendan Gleeson. His sobering, world-weary contract killer perfectly displays the depth, warmth, and internal conflict inside the man who earns his living with death: he has no qualms about murder, but whom he can murder is of the utmost importance. And, this is all on Gleeson’s face.

The music is great, the camerawork is luscious and self-assured, and lightening-fast editing moves the story along at a brisker pace than at first it seems. Everything coalesces in a necessarily abstract and viciously haunting ending sequence. For a first feature, McDonagh’s film feels remarkably confident, and it is to his credit that his ambitions never out step his limitations. What’s more: he has made a perfect film.

In List Form:

10. Changeling
9. Revolutionary Road
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
7. Slumdog Millionaire
6. Doubt
5. The Visitor
4. Let the Right One In
3. Rachel Getting Married
2. Synecdoche, NY
1. In Bruges

Check in tomorrow for a review of the best acting performances of the year.