Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of the Decade: 90-81

90. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (d. Wes Anderson; 2004)

Wes Anderson’s tribute to Jacques Cousteau and the expanding possibilities of dioramic film (in many ways the animation serves as a precursor to his later “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) is a wide-eyed view of exploration and community, a film that is both tightly contained and daringly free-form. It bounces through styles and ideas, emotional highs and lows, all led by a tight-faced Bill Murray. Anderson’s faith in the family shines through the plot, whose threads of brotherly revenge and searches for father/son acceptance resonate with his larger themes.

89. In the Loop (d. Armando Ianucci; 2009)

Strangelovean satire meets profane verbal stew in Ianucci’s sublime and terrifying political comedy, where delegates from Washington and Britain engage in a war of words for control over pulling the trigger on a Middle-Eastern War. It flies hard and fast, readily exposing every character as intellectually devoid and reducing global leaders to the wit and control of teenagers vying for position on a sports team. Though its humor and verbal skirmishes are almost unparalleled, the most frightening part is that it seems far too close t a documentary for comfort.

88. Collateral (d. Michael Mann; 2004)

Michael Mann is definitely one of the boldest directors lucky enough to be financed by a major Hollywood studio. While the question of HD film and video is still an open-ended and hotly debated question, Mann took the medium to task with at least three films – “Collateral,” “Miami Vice,” and “Public Enemies” – that deftly (or bluntly) combined film and HD video to stunning effect. “Collateral” is the best of those efforts, a propulsive thriller whose grit and broken aesthetic go superbly against the A-to-Z flow of Stuart Beattie’s script. Not to mention Tom Cruise played up his crazy side, giving one of his best performances.

87. The Descent (d. Neil Marshall; 2006; Brit.)

Yes, Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic gorefest is occasionally a very silly and redundant film. But by using widescreen frames in inventive ways – putting light in one quarter of a frame and drowning out the rest in pitch black, he creates a glorious balancing act: the first half gets darker and darker, the second more and more chaotic until the emergence back into light (depending on the version you’re watching). Not only that, but it’s one of the only horror films with a nearly all-female cast (and all STRONG females, how’s that for an inversion), plus one of the few of the genre that doesn’t cave to CG. It’s an orgy of great makeup effects.

86. Hunger (d. Steve McQueen; 2008)

Visual artist Steve McQueen’s detailing of real-life prison strikes is like a mish-mash of grueling document and profound visual imagery. In many passages, it’s a solemn poem. In others, it’s a gritty and difficult prison drama; an impassioned cry against human injustices. The filmmaking is as bold as the subject, the focus as laser-sharp and intense as any, the overall muted effect of the film is harrowing and necessary for its stunning emotional impact.

85. Best in Show (d. Christopher Guest; 2000)

I’d be tempted to say this is Guest’s best mockumentary, or at least his zaniest. With his regular stable of actors in play, the divided ensemble gives the film plenty of storylines to create distinct characters whose over-zealous emotions ultimately do them in. The loose improvisations are gold, and the film’s willingness to venture into subtle, awkward exchanges and bold non-sequitors only add to the zest. Not to mention its skewering of dog shows is spot-on; I haven’t watched one the same since.

84. Volver (d. Pedro Almodovar; 2006)

Almodovar is one of the darlings of international, a beautiful and endearing voice from Spain whose projects burst with color saturation and strange plots that balance comedy and drama in unique ways. With “Volver,” he devises one of his best characters for Penelope Cruz, truly virtuous in this film about community and family, about hidden scars and unrealized desires. It’s wacky and strange, but rings with such a unique voice. Not to mention he’s one of the few filmmakers who can really write multiple strong and challenging parts for women.

83. Far From Heaven (d. Todd Haynes; 2002; US)

Regardless of the actual quality of Haynes’s most controlled film – and I could easily make the argument that it is a suffocating work of aesthetic constraints – it is nevertheless unbelievably fascinating for the way he seems to seamlessly channel Douglas Sirk to put all the tendencies of 1950s melodrama on display, particularly “All That Heaven Allows.” By perfectly recreating Sirk’s flamboyant camera positions, his surreal lighting, and his editing patterns crafted through emotion instead of narrative logic, Haynes has uprooted and dug himself into a veritable cinematic time capsule. That he’s still able to expose the genre’s contradictions and question its preoccupations with race relations, feminism, classism, and homosexuality with the force and balance of a film scholar is all the more credit to Haynes’ skill.

82. Burn After Reading (d. Joel & Ethan Coen; 2008; US)

The Coens continue to more radically subvert generic systems in their loopy ensemble comedy, meshing screwball comedy with espionage thrillers to bloody and cynical effect. A collision of two distinctly different systems of structure and purpose is an undoubtedly jarring and comedic experience, but with their sharply written character observations and flowing dialogue, the Coens pull it off. Theirs is a study of human stupidity and cultural woes, where greed, sex, and superficiality are crucified as some of our deepest vices. The real joke is still on the audience, as their perfect anti-ending makes all too clear.

81. Under the Sand (d. Francois Ozon; 2000)

I have to wonder in the back of my head what David Lynch would make of Ozon’s “woman in trouble film,” for it’s one of the best Lynch films he never made – boldly surrealist, unflinchingly ambiguous and cerebral while orchestrated around a magnificent lead performance. “Under the Sand” is a psychological exploration of denial through explicitly cinematic means; it’s easily one of the most intelligent films about a fragile mental condition this past decade (even in the face of a multitude of movies that would cheapen or sweeten other’s suffering for our own enlightenment – “A Beautiful Mind,” I’m looking at you!)

The Best of the Decade: 100-91

Preface
Creating this list was both challenging, frustrating, and rewarding. It's impossible for me to really rank so many wonderful films from the past ten years, and my biases and loves ultimately shine through. This decade of cinema means a great deal to me, for it's largely through seeing these films in theaters and on DVD that I grew from an enthusiastic observer into a devoted scholar.
Yet I acknowledge this list is imperfect, and there are at least two dozen movies equally deserving to be on it. These are films that sparked something, that channeled something in me as a spectator or as a critical thinker, films I've seen only once and some I've seen countless times. It is, like all lists, not something that should be read as set in stone. It's an exercise, and one that could change daily, moving films up and down and adding more.
This is for my enjoyment and yours. These are 100 movies that, regardless of whether they really are the "best," seem to embody all the different things that made the last ten years so amazing for the cinema.

100-91

100. In Bruges (d. Martin McDonagh; 2008)

McDonagh broke through with his demented Oscar-winning short, “Six Shooter,” in 2005, but it would take this sly comedy-thriller to fully display his skill and promise. Inverting the hitman film into an odd couple travel film, “In Bruges” is not simply just a well-crafted battle of verbal sewage. In its colder moments, it’s also about religion and forgiveness, manically bouncing between tragedy and comedy.

99. Before Sunset (d. Richard Linklater; 2004)

Idiosyncratically composed, this sequel to Linklater’s previous “Before Sunrise” provides no closure and only more ambiguity. Throughout are stunning tracking shots, gorgeously composed conversations – both in the sudden yet organic shift of the small talk and the big talk, and in the placement of the camera. Rarely has a director and a pair of actors run the gauntlet of love – its disappointment, its hopes, its fears – and distilled these emotions into such simple moments that speak to the depths of the spirit.

98. Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell; 2006)

James Bond slowly became a moniker of corny one-liners, absurd technology, and sickening repetition in Pierce Brosnan’s invocation of the pop culture legend. In shifting to Daniel Craig, the series seemed to reinvent itself: all of a sudden, Bond was darker, sloppier, more violent. This is an agent with blood on his hands, and through Martin Campbell’s spectacularly orchestrated action sequences it moves to breathtaking levels, reminding why Bond is both highly mutable and immortal.

97. Divine Intervention (d. Elie Suleiman; 2002)

The complexities of the Israeli/Palestine conflict have not been more artistically and thoroughly considered than in Suleiman’s near-silent and solemn film. Small glances and actions clash up against large structures and symbolic figures. The quiet moments of reality mesh against the chaos of surrealism, as explosions, animation, and even a choreographed fight scene seem to offer the answers to the complicated questions the characters of the ensemble are only able to murmur. “Divine Intervention” is an indictment of borders – political, geographical, and cultural, though Suleiman smartly considers their implications without offering cheap solutions.

96. The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky; 2008)

A seeming marriage of performer and aesthetic, the resurrection of Mickey Rourke creepily resembled the washed-out professional wrestler of the film. Aronofsky, a dynamic visual artist whose “The Fountain” was certainly one of the decade’s most exhilarating mis-steps, tones down his hyperbolic flair. Instead he merely follows Rourke, swerving around him and watching a fragile Humpty Dumpty of a man try to put himself back together again.

95. Bowling for Columbine (d. Michael Moore; 2002)

Michael Moore is certainly, for better or worse, one of the towering figures of this decade. His documentaries, though he labels them muckraking treatises on America’s ills, are more like tautly wound propaganda. If “Columbine” is his best film, it’s because it is his most impassioned, his most calmly considered. Its tirade of popular culture references, humor, and emotional suffocation cut to the core of the country’s self-perpetuating cycle of violence. Even if the film’s goals slip away from him in the third act, it’s still a staggering work of pseudo-intellectual ranting.

94. Road to Perdition (d. Sam Mendes; 2002)

One of the decade’s most underrated and gorgeous films, Sam Mendes has kind of lost the stratospheric trajectory he established at the end of the 90s with “American Beauty.” As a genre film, “Perdition” is deeply felt and orchestrated, a sumptuous blend of period details, gripping set pieces, and a father-son story that, while typical, is also developed slowly and carefully. Plus supporting turns from Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Paul Newman (his last Oscar-nominated role) help round out the soft edges of the film. It’s in many ways a eulogy for “classic” gangster films, as they’ve more and more taken the high-octane route of Michael Mann’s HD-infused “Public Enemies,” or the experimental, socially-aware tinge of “Gomorrah.”

93. Almost Famous (d. Cameron Crowe; 2000)

Nostalgia films are tricky, and too often their sweet syrup ends up suffocating them. Crowe’s autobiographical tribute to the dream of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll is a beautiful piece of pop culture mixed inside a dash of fact and a heap of youthful extrapolation. It has the sense to critique the lifestyle while still embracing the power of music. For as Jimi Hendrix might have said, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

92. High Fidelity (d. Stephen Frears; 2000)

It sizzles and soothes and whirls like a great mix tape. Though it’s smug and knowingly quotable, it also borders on brilliant for the ways it closely mirrors and juxtaposes one man’s professional/personal obsessions – music and an odd insistence on ranking everything with his employees – and a self-guided odyssey through his failed romances as he tries to woo back his latest ex-girlfriend. John Cusack plays the lead with his passions on his sleeve, be they women or Bruce Springsteen.

91. Big Fish (d. Tim Burton; 2003)

Next to “Ed Wood,” it’s probably the best film Burton’s ever made – and among the most underappreciated. Trading his gothic expressionism for a more fairy tale aesthetic, he comes dangerously close to deconstructing his own art. This film is increasingly preoccupied with the transformative power of myth, its exaggerations, its hypocrisies, and ultimately its necessity. That may be sappy, but by juxtaposing his flights of fancy against a grounded family drama, the cult director may have found the purest expression of his deepest auteurist concerns.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

High, High "Up in the Air"

Up in the Air

* * * * / * * * *


Jason Reitman, part of the new generation of Hollywood royalty (he's the son of producer-director Ivan Reitman), emerges as a full-blown craftsman in his third feature "Up in the Air," a whimsical drama that nails the zeitgeist of our anxious nation. After the overblown and broad satire of "Thank Your for Smoking" and the well-intentioned but over-written sophomore effort, "Juno," Reitman has here made a film worth celebrating and discussing, not only for how seamless he makes it all seem, but for how much craft and consideration is actually afforded the film. Beat to beat and moment to moment, it's one of the most organically realized American dramas of the year.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is on the cusp of 10 million frequent flyer miles. Darting across the country, his company loans him out as a "transition counselor" to other companies to clean house and give recently-fired employees packets on how to turn their devastated lives around. Bingham's philosophy on life is appropriately cynical and detached; he takes far more solace in business class drinks and Hilton suites than he does the mundanity and emptiness of his Omaha apartment. For him, life is about being untethered, and the planes and his job give him the opportunity to stay on the continual run from forming a "real" adulthood.

But Bingham's also a creature of comfort. With economical voiceover and magnificently edited introductory sequences, Reitman gets us into this man's routine: he packs the same things, gives the same speeches, swipes the same card at the same kiosks. This changes first when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a sexy frequent flyer who makes him to start thinking about a long-term relationship as they occasionally hook up for flings and parties when their schedules cross. It changes again when his company implements the new media ideas of Natalie Kenner (Anna Kendrick), who wants to put the whole company on webcams. Bingham, in an effort to dissuade her, takes her on a multi-week tour of "how to fire people."

"Up in the Air" is, for the majority of its runtime, one of the most easily digestible films of the year. Co-written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, its plot is not particularly unique or interesting, its character - despite his insistence on an odd philosophy - fairly typical embodiment of the delusional man who needs to realize his faults. It's a story about learning through others, about finding love and accepting others as part of your life. In short, communication - a theme constantly stressed through its absence. Natalie wants to fire people over an impersonal webcam, people form and end relationships through text message, and Bingham's credit cards inform his elite status in the business world. His relationship with Alex is confined by its impersonal nature and Natalie can't communicate because she can't look past her idealized vision of what her life should be.

But "Up in the Air" would be nothing without its well-timed story about people making a payday off the misfortune of others. Reitman intersperses several montages of individuals reacting to being "let go" throughout, and he hired real recently laid off people to improvise these moments. It's a trick that could come off as wedged, forced, sentimental but instead it provides the perfect undertone, reminding us of the human stakes on the opposite side of Bingham's swagger. And while at first we're invited to agree with him, enjoy his mechanized lifestyle and luxury, we soon realize how wrong he is, and how trapped he feels. These real people deliver their lines as good as any of the "professional" actors, in part because Reitman affords them the space to emote, to profess their stinging disappointment.

The performances are all magnificent. Clooney oozes his brand of superstardom, with his delicious smile peering through his increasingly bare wrinkles. Reitman exploits his star's intoxicating glamor, but Clooney also demonstrates his impeccable sense of timing - he throws out informed bits of pseudo-psychology and witty banter as if they were well-rehearsed in front of a mirror, as if he must repeat them to himself in order to stay sane. When he tries to open up to Alex, we feel him torn between his facade and his longing. When he battles Natalie, he hides behind his macho professionalism to mask his growing contempt for his job.

Likewise, Farmiga exudes perfect mannerisms that bring her into full life as an actress. She's not just seducing Clooney, she's his spiritual equal - an elitist yearning for something more, a conflicted and daring woman who can enter verbal sparring matches and cast her eyes with just the right pitch. They're competitors as much as perfect lovers. And this says nothing of Kendrick, the film's stunning center. Though she tries to play predator (and makes her character appropriately annoying), her inability to maintain a facade makes her the most realistic and identifiable character, the necessary agent through which Bingham can understand his own flaws. Take, for example, one of the film's best scenes: Natalie puts her philosophy to the test by firing a man through a webcam. He breaks down in tears; she can't comfort him through the computer. Conflicted, she simply snaps: "There's nothing more to discuss." She has too big a heart for her job, but refuses to crack. There's nothing particularly surprising about how the scene plays out, but Kendrick pushes her character through a demanding cycle of emotions, and Clooney - confined to the sidelines of the firing - shares her pain as she tries to stay professional, where quick glances and subtle adjustments in the pace of the editing help make the emotions and their effects stick.

More than the great direction of the writing and acting, the film is superbly crafted. Take cinematographer Eric Steelberg's choices. When Clooney, marching through an airport, remarks over the phone that he's "not alone," but "surrounded by people!" it's shot in very soft focus, with all these people blurry and distant - reinforcing that he IS alone. When Natalie and Ryan fire people, the set-ups are fairly simple and edited in a very standard fashion - medium close-ups and two-shots keep everything tight, but his insistence on using over-the-shoulder shots usually keep two characters in the frame shows the scenes' intimacy while also maintain a firm sense of space.

Also wonderful are editor Dana E. Glauberman's choices. She's fast becoming one of my favorite editors because she's able to use lots of great little tricks while never abandoning the sense of continuity. She knows when to linger on actors, how to make beats work by cutting on lines, but also how to enforce the idea of repetition - such as a great little scene where Clooney packs his suitcase and moments where he strolls through airports. These moments pop, while others gently sizzle, like a boat-side conversation between Ryan and Alex, where each twist of the face feels intimately exposed. There is a kind of synchronization between how the actors perform the moments and how they're edited that's rarely seen in comedy or drama of this kind. It's always done with subtlety.

As "Up in the Air" glides into its descent, propelled by a subplot involving the wedding of one of Ryan's sisters to examine Ryan's place in his own world, and whether or not he's capable of making a positive change for himself, it hits the perfect sting of bittersweet - one of the most difficult emotions for a film to capture. But everything in the tone and motion seems tinged with this existential examination that refuses to elicit full sympathy for Ryan Bingham. Reitman and Clooney seem to agree he's a man who suffers for his own choices, and his emptiness is fully felt.

Watching "Up in the Air," I was reminded of films like Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," films that perfectly capture moments in society by examining complex and interesting characters struggling through an interaction with that society. It has such a gloss, such an assured charm, and harbors all the best characteristics of screwball comedy and character drama. It begins and ends in the clouds, as if Reitman had slid his camera down into the world of Ryan Bingham, dissected him, and flown away - leaving us to ponder his future and fate.

It's not an easy ending, and without giving anything away Reitman still reminds us that Bingham's there to fire people, and those people all have to struggle with their own transitions. But as silly as it may seem, maybe there is something to be said in the politically safe term, "career transition"? After all, aren't airports just transition locales? Airplanes the ultimate device in mass transit? Ryan Bingham is a man trying to complete this transition, and in his personal crisis of self-discovery and philosophical realignment, Jason Reitman has arrived as a virtuoso directing talent with a deeply felt love for his craft, his writing, and his characters.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

5 Sentence Review: It's Complicated

I liked it a lot more than I thought it would.

Nancy Meyers is a very typical filmmaker, both in her writing and her style with filming conversations and actors.

The casting elevates the film, with John Krasinski especially making an enduring mark.

It's not a great film, or a particularly memorable film, but it takes romantic comedy from a slightly different angle that occasionally feels surprisingly fun.

Much as bromance subverts the formula with two guys being in a relationship, so does this transplant the "affair comedy" to a cast of older people.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jim Cameron tries to paint the mask of cinema's future. Why should we care?

I apologize for the rambling and unformed nature of this review. I wanted it to be more about getting all my thoughts out than getting polished and concise.

Avatar

* * / * * * *

Scene-from-Avatar-2009-001.jpg


When last we heard from James Cameron, he stood on a stage and called himself "King of the World" while clutching an Oscar. Twelve years and $300 million dollars later, he's trying to change how movies are made with "Avatar," a massive science-fiction epic that exhibits some of Cameron's best qualities and all of his worst.

If a director wants to spend so much money, take so many years, and then claim his film is a game-changer, does this mean I should automatically bow down and call him King? No. If anything, such a daring proclamation should open an artist and his work open to MORE criticism.

And okay, Jim, I'll play ball. Your visuals are outstanding. The film takes place on Pandora, a moon of an unnamed planet, where US forces run by an unnamed corporation are trying to mine "Unobtanium" (most obvious name ever?) as an energy-saving device for Earth while trying to negotiate - both diplomatically and belligerently - with the native species, the Na'vi. To do so, a bunch of scientists led by Ellen Ripley - sorry, I mean Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), have developed "avatars" of the Na'vi. Avatars are physical bodies inhabited by humans through some kind of neurological link, letting Grace and her scientist colleagues enter the native culture seamlessly.

Enter Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who gets a second chance as an avatar, infiltrating the culture and reporting to evil Colonel Miles Quaritch. Sam Worthington plays Sully with minimal emotional involvement or range (except when it comes to his ever-shifting accent), and why should he involve emotion when Cameron can make all his thoughts and feelings readily available through a series of video logs that make up the film's narration.

But to get back to what's GOOD about Avatar - Cameron has used all the resources in the world to build an entire planet from the ground up... in computers. He's grappling for a new plateau of filmmaking, and he's done some dazzling things. Plants that light up when you step on them, floating islands, massive animals - it's all there, and it all looks fluid and dynamic. Even the Na'vi, ten foot blue creatures, are given their own culture, language, and forms.

The downside - that culture is eerily close to Native Americans mixed with New Age Green-ology. Though James Cameron has made utopia on film, he's clouded it in an absurd retelling of colonialism. His visuals are three dimensional, but his writing is only in one. None of the characters in this film have any kind of flavor, any kind of spunk. The only thing that matters are if things are pretty-looking or ugly-looking. We know Neyteri, Jake's Na'vi love interest, is beautiful, for her flowing body is always shown doing stunning physical work. We know Col. Quaritch is evil - he's even got scars on his face. He drinks coffee while he blows up a forest! How much more evil can you get?!

Yes, this is a cinema of hyperbole, where Cameron undermines complexity by upping the visual ante. He spends millions of dollars designing a whole people, but those people are impenetrable, impossible to identify with. Why? They're just noble savages, Native Americans, lifted straight from "Dances With Wolves" and Disney's "Pocahontas." And yes, the stereotyping is just as ugly. The massive amounts of post-production effects in this film (60% is created from motion capture performances) means James Cameron has unprecedented control of every frame. So why should we applaud him for creating an atmosphere of astounding beauty? He had all the money in the world - SHOULDN'T this be a jaw dropping movie? And it is - the colors and shades in particular are spectacularly varied, the hues and saturations almost explode off the screen. But he doesn't have to location scout, he doesn't have to build. Weta Digital does the work for him.

Where some have seen this excess as a visceral experience, something to become a part of and enjoy, I fail to see how that's possible. In this film, excess leads to reduction. Take, for example, Jim Cameron's insistence that we see this film in 3-D. While the new technology offers great control over multiple layers of the image, "Avatar" shows us the best and worst of the trend - fast-moving images are blurry and choppy, small things in foreground move unnaturally, and don't even THINK about making something pop out. It's headache inducing. BUT beyond that - "Avatar" is being marketed as a film that will create an immersive cinematic experience unlike any other: can we honestly say that's true when we have to wear a pair of artificial glasses to get that experience? 3-D is best used as camp or in a heavily stylized production (think "Coraline") but in a film that's struggling to make fake technologies look real, doesn't this just draw attention to the artifice? Wouldn't have staying in 2-D made it look more like a world documented on film?

At 162 minutes, Avatar goes on for far too long, as Cameron can't seem to separate himself from his love for this world. As Jake falls more in love with his alternate reality (it's real, but it isn't), so does Cameron fall for Pandora. Long passages of exploration may be stunning to look at, but the story goes nowhere. Cameron has a hard time integrating narrative trajectory and planetary exposition. By the time the story comes back to the fore in the third act, we're just trying to get to the point. Then, it's just about the innocent standing up to the forces of oppression for the sake of the misunderstood natives (as we know, the natives can't do it themselves, they NEED Jake to become a leader. Even if he is in a Na'vi body, isn't this just an embodiment of the gross "white savior" paradigm?).

When Col Quaritch bellows, "We will fight terror with terror!" to a group of his soldiers, the film's already thin veil of politics becomes nauseatingly clear. Can James Cameron pretend for a second that this film is an indictment of the war on terror and pre-emptive strikes? No way. I thought we moved past tired stories of colonialism, of treating indigenous peoples with such condescending applause.

It's about excess, but it's also about opposition: nature vs. technology, machine vs. animal, diplomacy vs. war, reality vs. imagination. Lots of big themes to be sure, but Cameron never strikes me as someone who really wants to explore them. The best he can do is conjure grand images of opposition - like mechanical planes flying out to meet prehistoric-looking birds in an airfight. They exist, but to what end? It's not as if he's demonizing the human-made technology, for the technology allows Jake to go from human to Na'vi. If anything, it seems creepily un-American, gleefully killing US soldiers throughout the third act

James Cameron is a great inventor. He's devised plenty of technological breakthroughs that have helped mainstream cinema create unprecedented visuals. If only he could stop using his own scripts. All the characters are bland stereotypes: the noble savage, the good-natured scientist, the greedy businessman, the violent military man. They don't change, they're not interesting. It's as if Cameron thought he could just create a series of stunning visuals and fill in the blanks. If the story he chose was any indication, he's talking down to us.

I've read multiple reviews comparing this to "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings" on its level of achievement. I'll say this: Lucas distilled Joseph Campbell's mythological structures, old time serials, soap opera, and western. Lord of the Rings brilliantly realized one of the 20th century's most acclaimed books by creating Middle-Earth and integrating CGI into it. All of these films, even in their most flawed moments, create characters worth rooting for and environments that are accessible and grungy. They feel real and inhabited.

Nothing about "Avatar" feels inhabited. It's glossy to the point of alienation. Since Jake is the protagonist, I think Cameron's philosophy goes something like this: Jake's story is about becoming more involved with a "fake body" than his own. That kind of mirrors the film spectator, becoming so immersed in something we want it to be our own lives. But when the world Jake comes from - the military bunker, the science labs - feel as clean and polished as Pandora (even if it's about machine vs. nature), does that not hamper the juxtaposition? In addition, it's ALL artificial. After a while, it's just sensory overload.


Okay, I'll sum up: is Avatar good? Well yes, but only to a very sharp extent. It's good as a visual experience. It's the kind of film I would want to watch without the sound on, or just enjoy passages from. James Cameron has crossed a new plane of artificial filmmaking, but it's not going to change cinema forever. Why? It's not a story about people. I hate to sound like a hokey sentimentalist, but the greatest films of all time have been about the human condition in some degree. Maybe that's because films are made by people? They are about artists creating something, and if we are to believe the auteur theorists, imprints of those artists are within every film. The people in Avatar are just avatars for a non-existent reality. They don't move or breathe like real people, they just meander through the motions of a very tired screenplay.

But then, the best things about James Cameron movies are things that aren't human: the ship in Titanic is much more interesting than the lovers, the Terminator is far cooler than Kyle Reese, the aliens always dwarf the corny Marines. For twelve years, Cameron spent his time creating Pandora and filming documentaries about the Titanic wreckage or using new cameras to film stuff under the ocean.

Why do I bring that up? Well, it seems clear to me now that he's mostly interested in trying to find things that people haven't seen before. While that certainly has merit, it doesn't make him a genius. It just highlights his simplicity. He's a visual filmmaker for sure, but in the worst sense of the phrase.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Frontrunner: The Hurt Locker

As more and more critics groups weigh in from across the country, and in the wake of nominations from the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild, it's becoming readily apparent that "The Hurt Locker" is becoming the frontrunner, the critics' darling, the one to beat.

Frankly, I'm thrilled. Not that I necessarily think it will win Best Picture (right now it's definitely moving into position to win Best Director), but the love for this film tells me one important thing: we're ready to talk about Iraq in film. As I said in my original Daily Gamecock review, The Hurt Locker is an important and necessary step forward for "Hollywood's Iraq" - the way we've been portraying the war and the soldiers in film up to now has been largely disgraceful. Flat, one-dimensional propaganda. Awful stuff. Now, regardless of whether it's "the best film of 2009" (I don't think it is), we have a (female) director making a serious(ly suspenseful) film about the people on the front lines. It's an arching and personal story of soldiers trying to do a job. It's thrilling, it's visceral, its construction is absolutely stunning.

But it takes the war and it focuses it down to an apolitical consideration of how people respond to these life-threatening situations. For that, it's an important film for the country, especially as we struggle with negotiating the troop surges/withdrawals in Afghanistan.


Plus, with a blizzard pelting Roanoke, it looks like I won't be seeing Avatar until early next week. Might I remind that an ex-Hollywood couple are both making war epics - one in Iraq and one on Pandora?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Screen Actors Guild Award Nominees

Film

Best Ensemble

An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Nine
Precious

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges, A Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress

Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds
Mo'Nique, Precious

Television

Drama Ensemble

The Closer
Dexter
The Good Wife
Mad Men
True Blood

Actor, Drama

Simon Baker, The Mentalist
Brian Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
John Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House

Actress, Drama

Patricia Arquette, Medium
Glenn Close, Damages
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Ensemble, Comedy

30 Rock
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Glee
Modern Family
The Office

Actress, Comedy

Christian Applegate, Samantha Who
Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Julia Louis Dreyfuss, The New Adventures of Old Christine

Actor, Comedy

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Tony Shalhoub, Monk
Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Globe Reactions: I'm okay with it

I've come to expect the worst from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Their awards - at least when it comes to Oscar - are never about what gets left out, but what gets put in. They're star whores. They'd much rather nominate a big name than a breakthrough. That's why I don't care that Jeremy Renner got snubbed in favor of Tobey Maguire in Dramatic Actor.

But, with that in mind:
Up in the Air leads with 6 noms, including a double nod in Supporting Actress. In a year where the critics awards are already semi-divided, Up in the Air gets the small, "zeitgeist" indie slot - people who love it REALLY love it.

The Hurt Locker and Avatar are going to go head to head, and it's almost ironic considering the history of its two directors. James Cameron cheats on Kathryn Bigelow, so she turns around and helms the best film about Iraq to date in the same year he puts out his $300 million sci-fi epic. Right now, she and her film are the frontrunner for Picture and Director.

Meryl Streep and Matt Damon - could this be their year? Both are double-nommed at the Globes, and Meryl's setting herself up for a 3rd Oscar, and Damon could get his first acting Oscar (or at least get two nods)

Nine is still "up in the air" - of course they were going to nominate it! It's looking more and more like a film that will snag 7-8 tech nods and quietly sit on the sidelines.

The Globes did very little to shake things up for me. They kept Precious alive, they gave a major boost to Inglourious Basterds, and also gave a little too much love to Sandra Bullock, It's Complicated, and others.

I'm thinking Up in the Air takes Drama, Hurt Locker takes Director, and Nine takes Musical/Comedy. Screenplay will be Up in the Air or Inglourious Basterds.

Either way, we're in it. The expansion to 10 nominees has blown the lid off this race. These pictures are jockeying for positions. It's wide open right now, with The Hurt Locker nudging over the horizon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Golden Globe Nominations

Film

Best Picture, Drama

Avatar
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious
Up in the Air

Best Picture, Comedy/Musical

(500) Days of Summer
The Hangover
It's Complicated
Julie & Julia
Nine

Best Actress, Drama

Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious

Best Actor, Drama

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Tobey Maguire, Brothers

Best Actor, Comedy/Musical

Matt Damon, The Informant!
Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer
Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

Best Actress, Comedy/Musical

Sandra Bullock, The Proposal
Marion Cotillard, Nine
Julia Roberts, Duplicity
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Meryl Streep, It's Complicated

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress

Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Screenplay

Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Nancy Meyers, It's Complicated
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Original Score

Michael Giacchino, Up
Marvin Hamlisch, The Informant!
James Horner, Avatar
Abel Krozeniowski, A Single Man
Karen O. and Carter Burwell, Where the Wild Things Are

Best Foreign Language Film

Baria
Broken Embraces
The Maid
Un Prophete
The White Ribbon

Best Original Song

Cinema Italiano, Nine
I Want to Come Home, Everybody's Fine
I See You, Avatar
The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart
Winter, Brothers

Television

Best Series, Drama

Big Love
Dexter
House M.D.
Mad Men
True Blood

Best Series, Musical/Comedy

Entourage
Glee
The Office
Modern Family
30 Rock

Best Actor, Comedy/Musical

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
David Duchovny, Californication
Thomas Jane, Hung
Matthew Morrison, Glee

Best Actress, Comedy/Musical

Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Courteney Cox, Cougar Town
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Lea Michele, Glee

Best Actor, Drama

Simon Baker, The Mentalist
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House M.D.
Bill Paxton, Big Love

Best Actress, Drama

Glenn Close, Damages
January Jones, Mad Men
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Anna Paquin, True Blood
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Best Supporting Actor

Michael Emerson, Lost
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
William Hurt, Damages
John Lithgow, Dexter
Jeremy Piven, Entourage

Best Supporting Actress

Jane Adams, Hung
Rose Byrne, Damages
Jane Lynch, Glee
Janet McTeer, Into the Storm
Chloe Sevigny, Big Love


Monday, December 14, 2009

On the Eve of the Globes Noms...

Tomorrow morning the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will announce the Golden Globe Award nominations. While I openly admit the HFPA is not a lot more than a tiny group of star whores who pride themselves on throwing a (great) party for the Hollywood elite, their nominees are a major stepping stone to Oscar. It's a make-it-or-break-it scenario: if you've been racking up the early critics' awards, you can cement your nomination. If you've been off the radar, here's your chance to become a major blip.

The elephants in the room right now are actually a rekindled episode of Hollywood Divorce Court. James Cameron is about to unfurl his 300 million dollar baby, which is already garnering lots of acclaim from tech circles. His ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, is currently winning awards left and right for The Hurt Locker, which is quickly becoming the most acclaimed film of the year.

And there's the so-called "zeitgeist film," Up in the Air - directed by and starring slices of Hollywood royalty.

In a year with 10 Best Pic nominees and a race that seems veritably wide open right now, with the fate of so many films - Invictus, Nine, A Single Man, Inglourious Basterds, The Last Station, Avatar - still up in the air (ha) when it comes to Oscar chances, the Globes carry an extra weight tomorrow.

Will they go ga-ga for Precious, or shut it out? Will The Road recover from the Weinsteins' butcher job on its release? Can the Nine performers get any love? What of BO stars like Sandra Bullock? Aside from a few names - Bigelow, Clooney, Christoph Waltz, Meryl Strep, and Mo'Nique - the critics awards have been all over the place. Look to tomorrow morning to help settle some dust.

New York Film Critics Circle Winners

Best Film: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Screenplay: In the Loop
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
Best Actor: George Clooney, Up in the Air and Fantastic Mr Fox
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Cinematography: Christian Berger, The White Ribbon
Best Animated Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Best Non-fiction Film: Of Time and the City
Best Foreign Language Film: Summer Hours
Best First Feature: Hunger

BFCA Critics' Choice Award Nominees

Best Picture

Avatar
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus
Nine
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up in the Air

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Viggo Mortensen, The Road
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress

Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
Alfred Molina, An Education
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress

Marion Cotillard, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Samantha Morton, The Messenger

Best Young Actor/Actress

Jae Head, The Blind Side
Bailee Madison, Brothers
Max Records, Where the Wild Things Are
Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road

Best Acting Ensemble

Inglourious Basterds
Nine
Precious
Star Trek
Up in the Air

Best Directing

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Original Screenplay

Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, (500) Days of Summer
Bob Peterson and Peter Docter, Up
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Adapted Screenplay

Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Tom Ford and David Scearce, A Single Man
Nick Hornby, An Education
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

Best Cinematography

Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker
Dion Beebe, Nine
Mauro Fiore, Avatar
Andrew Lesnie, The Lovely Bones
Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds

Best Art Direction

Dan Bishop, A Single Man
Rick Carter and Robert Armstrong, Avatar
John Myhre and Gordon Sim - Nine
Naomi Shohan and George De Titta, Jr. , The Lovely Bones
David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds Wasco, Inglourious Basterds

Best Editing

Dana E. Glauberman, Up in the Air
Sally Menke, Inglourious Basterds
Bob Murawaski and Chris Innis, The Hurt Locker
Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron, Avatar
Claire Simpson and Wyatt Smith, Nine

Best Costume Design

Colleen Atwood, Nine
Janet Patterson, Bright Star
Sandy Powell, The Young Victoria
Anna Sheppard, Inglourious Basterds
Casey Storm, Where the Wild Things Are

Best Makeup

Avatar
District 9
Nine
The Road
Star Trek

Best Visual Effects

Avatar
District 9
The Lovely Bones
Star Trek
2012

Best Sound

Avatar
District 9
The Hurt Locker
Nine
Star Trek

Best Animated Feature

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Coraline
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Princess and the Frog
Up

Best Action Movie

Avatar
District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek

Best Comedy

(500) Days of Summer
The Hangover
It's Complicated
The Proposal
Zombieland

Best Foreign Language Film

Broken Embraces
Coco Before Chanel
Red Cliff
Sin Nombre
The White Ribbon

Best Documentary

Anvil!
Capitalism: A Love Story
The Cove
Food, Inc.
Michael Jackson's This is It

Best Song

All is Love, Where the Wild Things Are
Almost There, The Princess and the Frog
Cinema Italiano, Nine
(I Want to) Come Home, Everybody's Fine
The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart

Best Score

Michael Giacchino, Up
Marvin Hamlisch, The Informant!
Randy Newman, The Princess and the Frog
Karen O, Carter Burwell, Where the Wild Things Are
Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes

Inglourious Basterds and Nine lead with 10 nominations

Sunday, December 13, 2009

American Film Institute Top 10 Films of 2009

Coraline

The Hangover

The Hurt Locker

The Messenger

Precious

A Serious Man

A Single Man

Sugar

Up

Up in the Air

Los Angeles Film Critics Association names "Hurt Locker" best of 2009

LAFCA 2009:

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actress: Yolande Moreau, Seraphine
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Screenplay: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Animation: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Foreign Language Film: Summer Hours
Cinematography: Christian Berger, The White Ribbon
Music: T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, Crazy Heart
Production Design: Philip Ivey, District 9
Documentary: The Beaches of Agnes AND The Cove

New York Online picks AVATAR for Best Film

...and Inglourious Basterds racks up a bunch of nice awards as well.

New York Film Critics Online awards for 2009:

Best Film: Avatar
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Breakthrough Performance: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Ensemble: In the Loop
Best Foreign Film: The White Ribbon
Best Documentary: The Cove
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
Best Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Best Directorial Debut: (500) Days of Summer

Top Ten Films (alphabetical):
Adventureland
Avatar
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
Precious
A Serious Man
Two Lovers
Up
Up in the Air

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The White Ribbon tops European Film Awards

and I couldn't be more thrilled; best film of the year.

Best European Film: The White Ribbon
Best Director: Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Best Actor: Tahar Rahim, Un Prophete
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Best Screenwriter: Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Best Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle, Antichrist & Slumdog Millionaire
Prix d'Excellence: Francesca Calvelli for Film Editing, Vincere
Best Composer: Alberto Iglesias, Broken Embraces
Animated Feature: Mia and the Migoo
Lifetime Achievement Award: Ken Loach
Critics Award - Prix FIPRESCI: Andrzej Wajda, Tatarak
People's Choice Award: Slumdog Millionaire

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Invictus" doesn't give subject the complexity it deserves

* * 1/2 / * * * *


Clint Eastwood can do a lot of things as a filmmaker, but making a great sports movie isn't one of them. Every second of "Invictus" is far too calculated for comfort, rendering his well-constructed film cloyingly over-the-top, as if every moment were conceived from some other movie and then amplified in rich emotional saturation.

Morgan Freeman does a great Mandela impersonation, but he's playing an enthused sports fan. The performance doesn't reach much deeper than mannerisms and imitations, a well-oiled masquerade of a profoundly influential world leader stymied by reverence. He's nearly outplayed by Matt Damon, who disappears into his rugby team captain role - too bad he's not given more to do than deliver pseudo-inspirational speeches and look overwhelmed.

For a movie about how rugby helped shaped nationalist discourse, there's not enough politics and not enough rugby. Screenplay doesn't seem to know how to balance and weld the individual parts in unique ways, leaving many "symbolic" shots to look poorly construed from a TV-movie-of-the-week. At two hours and ten minutes, it drags slowly through its major points, succinctly making them over and over while rarely delving deeper.

Invictus looks great and sounds great, thanks in large part to camerawork by Tom Stern that, as per usual, takes great advantage of negative space and rich color saturations. Editing from Joel Cox shows typical handiness and invisibility, even though there are some fairly obvious sucker punches at trying to elicit emotion. Film also has a nice contrast between the rickety handheld swoop of the rugby matches and the quiet tracking shots in political offices. Lighting is often a little too even for comfort, bordering on washing out many scenes, but the hues generally look fantastic. A surprising problem for the film is in crowd shots - all of them are framed and move like some kind of weird stock footage. They're clunkily inserted in many of the sporting scenes to try and again justify the overarching theme of national unity.

"Invictus" is a perfectly "okay" movie. It's certainly not bad and is perfectly competent in all areas, but it doesn't exactly elevate to any substantial level.

But in a film that should largely be about juxtaposition and melding and contradiction, Eastwood plays it far too ham-fisted and pedestrian. As a follow-up to "Gran Torino," it makes me wonder if he's simply unable to seriously question the complexities of race relations, or if he's just doomed to make good-natured statements about the condition of humanity. He can direct a great performance and orchestrate a pretty shot, but "Invictus" is hollow at its core - it's for rugby fans and Mandela fans. It's not universally inspirational because it's too uneven to successfully build momentum. If this is anything, it's violent - I lost track of how many times I got hit over the head.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This Upcoming Month

Despite my best intentions, I've left the blog dormant for a week. Darn exams.

This next month I've got a lot planned, including reviews of all the major holiday Oscar films, as per their release.

I'll also be starting an in-depth, multi-faceted look back at a tremendous decade in cinema, including:
A Decade in Review
The Cinema in the Age of Globalization, Technology, and Information
Important Filmmakers of the Decade
Top Oscar Moments of the Decade
and a 10 Part Series on the 100 Best Movies of the 2000s

Stay tuned, as there's plenty to come

Thursday, December 3, 2009

National Board of Review Names "Up in the Air" Best of 09

With a thunderous bang, so it begins. The best time of year. Hollywood's massive awards circuit. As with every year, the National Board of Review sounds the gun.

Best Picture: Up in the Air

Best Director: Clint Eastwood for Invictus

Best Actor: Morgan Freeman for Invictus and George Clooney for Up in the Air (tie)

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan for An Education

Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson for The Messenger

Best Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air

Best Foreign Film: A Prophet

Best Documentary: The Cove

Best Animated Feature: Up

Best Ensemble Cast: It's Complicated

Breakthrough Performance by an Actor: Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker

Breakthrough Performance by an Actress: Gabourney Sidibe for Precious

Spotlight Award for Best Directorial Debut: Duncan Jones for Moon; Oren Moverman for The Messenger; Marc Webb for (500) Days of Summer (TIE)

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air

Special Filmmaking Achievement Award: Wes Anderson for Fantastic Mr. Fox

Top Eleven Films (alphabetical order):

An Education
(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Star Trek
Up
Up in the Air
Where the Wild Things Are

Top Ten Independent Films (alphabetical order):
Amreeka
District 9
Goodbye Solo
Humpday
In the Loop
Julia
Me and Orson Welles
Moon
Sugar
Two Lovers

Top Six Foreign Films (alphabetical order):

The Maid
A Prophet
Revanche
Song of Sparrows
Three Monkeys
The White Ribbon

Top Six Documentary Films (alphabetical order):

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
The Cove
Crude
Food, Inc.
Good Hair
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sight & Sound Top 10 2009

One of the few Top 10 lists I take into full consideration, and a pretty elite group.

1. A Prophet (d. Jacques Audiard)
2. The Hurt Locker (d. Kathryn Bigelow)
- 35 Shots of Rum (d. Claire Denis)
4. The White Ribbon (d. Michael Haneke)
5. Let the Right One In (d. Tomas Alfredson)
6. Up (d. Pete Doctor)
- White Material (d. Claire Denis)
8. Bright Star (d. Jane Campion)
- Antichrist (d. Lars von Trier)
10. Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2009 Independent Film Spirit Award Nominees

Best Feature

(500) Days of Summer
Amreeka
Precious
Sin Nombre
The Last Station

Best Director

Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Lee Daniels, Precious
Cary Fukanaga, Sin Nombre
James Grey, Two Lovers
Michael Hoffman, The Last Station

Best First Feature

A Single Man
Crazy Heart
Easier with Practice
The Messenger
Paranormal Activity

Best Female Lead

Maria Bello, Downloading Nancy
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Gwenyth Paltrow, Two Lovers
Gabby Sidibe, Precious
Nisreen Faour, Amreeka

Best Male Lead

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer
Souleymane Sy Savane, Goodbye Solo
Adam Scott, The Vicious Kind

Best Supporting Female

Mo'Nique, Precious
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
Natahlie Press, Cold Souls
Mia Wasikowska, That Evening Sun
Dina Korzun, Fifty Dead Men Walking

Best Supporting Male

Jemaine Clements, Gentlemen Broncos
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Cristian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
Ramon McKinnon, That Evening Sun
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station

Best Foreign Film

A Prophet
An Education
Everlasting Moments
Mother
The Maid

Robert Altman Award

A Serious Man

Best First Screenplay

Cold Souls
Crazy Heart
Amreeka
Precious
A Single Man

Best Cinematography

A Serious Man
Sin Nombre
Treeless Mountain
Cold Souls
Bad Lieutenant

Best Documentary

Anvil!
Food, Inc.
More Than a Game
October Country
Which Way Home


Getting "An Education"

300an_education_091026034355628_wideweb__300x310.jpg

There's something intoxicating about "An Education." I've thought for days about how to approach it to do a full length review, as I really think it's a film that deserves one for it works on many levels of aesthetic, generic, and cultural interrogation to create a story that I feel is almost pitch perfect in every note. I'm still kind of at a loss as to exactly WHAT it is about Danish director Lone Scherfig's film hit me, or why, but this is the best you're going to get out of me right now.

The early 1960s are all of a sudden en vogue again. Perhaps we have reached a point in our culture where it's ripe to look back at this time and interrogate it for what it meant, how we portrayed it, and ultimately criticize that perception to gain some kind of larger understanding. On a political level, we can loosely tie Obama's election to Kennedy's (both polarizing figures, both with very liberal agendas) trying to execute "new" ideas in a heated political climate (for Obama, the invisible threat of terrorism, for Kennedy, the tangible yet chilled threat of Communism). The 1960s are regularly signaled as a harbinger of massive cultural change, breaking like a fissure from the "straight-laced" 50s society. Of course, historical studies will readily reveal that the 50s were cracking long before Kennedy's election, the 60s were going to be radical long before MLK stepped up to the bat, and the entertainment industry was scrutinizing as much as it was propagating.

But in things like AMC's unbelievable show "Mad Men," we are looking at this fragile period of our culture under new lenses, trying to understand how things were changing, what the social and political tensions were, and figuring out what society was "all about." Matthew Weiner's television series is - I think, at least - an unprecedented examination of complex masculinity trying to stay afloat in a confused society, a story of a man erecting his own prison without his knowledge, a great American tragedy that transplants simple stories of men and women trying to get by into a larger national context of change and tragedy.

"An Education," then, is partly the British counterpart to Mad Men. Were it extrapolated to 13 hours over three seasons, I've no doubt Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby could develop their idiosyncratic and complex cast into a thoroughly breathtaking decimation of cultural anxieties. As a singular film - and a relatively short one - "An Education" packs a surprising amount of depth and perception. Its seemingly classist story manages to juggle feminism, politics, high society, morality, generational conflicts, and a coming of age story into a glorious melting pot of low-key melodrama.

Its story of a 16-year old girl who rebels against her parents and their notions of what is "good" for her by dating a 30-something playboy and falling for the high society he represents is a classic tale of seduction and misery, of coming-of-age and of personal redemption. Writer Nick Hornby takes his mold and infuses it with stunning insight, mostly coming from protagonist Jenny's parents - played by Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina, the latter of whom gives his most deft and accomplished performance in years. He is the parent who wants to live vicariously through his daughter, albeit at a distance - he measures his successes through hers while he tries to control every aspect of his family's life. The scenes in their house are staged as a quaint battleground of manners and ideologies, where flat compositions are made flatter by soft blue lighting.

And a note on Carey Mulligan, who stars as Jenny: this young, 23-year old actress is the film's entire lynchpin, the reason it works sublimely. She manages to always appear as if walking a balance beam, playing a youth who sees the flaws of the system her elders have constructed while also impersonating a society woman clearly out of her element. Her carefully orchestrated composure, which leads to the inevitable cracks in the facade, are all handled with superb maturity. As I watched "An Education" I noticed several times where she wears her hair in exact mimicry of Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a 1961 film. Then I noticed she had similar sunglasses, jewelry, dresses. Beyond that, her character is a Holly Golightly, a creature of flight who doesn't know where she's flying; a rule-breaker too confused to fully break the rules; an injured creature undone by the woes of the world around her, whose greatest error is to love and live. These immaculate touches from Scherfig and Hornby help propel Ms. Mulligan's performance, as if she were providing a calculated rebuttal to Hepburn's iconic turn.

Of course, there's also David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose smarm and charm are seemingly inexhaustible. "An Education" fittingly never gives us much to like about David; Jenny's attraction is always about what he *symbolizes* instead of what he *is*. That he can take her to night clubs, to art auctions, on weekend trips to Oxford and Paris are what is most important, not his job or the actual content of these outings (which are at best questionable). To juxtapose the scenes in Jenny's home and school, DP John de Borman films these scenes with vivid orange-based light and lots of contrast. There's a jagged, impromptu feel to how many of the scenes are edited, as opposed to the careful and claustrophobic composition and editing of Jenny's home.

There is real emotion at the heart of "An Education," and real wit at its soul. It is a rare delicacy of a film where all the elements seem to coalesce like the bubbly from a glass of champagne. It glides like a slice of pop entertainment, but there's a deeper and more menacing drive to the film. It relies heavily on melodrama, and it's not hard to see the formulas the film's working on (yes, it was based on a memoir, but that's beside the point). This is a movie that is so squarely about progression and social limitations, about the delusion of social impossibility, about the perils of defining what is "good" for citizens and subscribing roles.

But why I love it so is because it's not jamming this down our throats - that's precisely why I hate so many melodramas. Yes, there's a fair bit of "An Education" that's pretty obvious. There's also a lot that's pretty intelligent. The scenes and characters are crafted in a way that they're always working on multiple levels to provide a probing look into one idea of what middle-class British society was "all about" in 1961.

The rebels are the ones who make the change possible, and it's in their spirit "An Education" feels dedicated, for it is a film about a quiet rebel interrogating the world around her. For us in 2009 looking at this film as a critique and evaluation of its cultural setting, I can only say: bring on the interrogation.

Gotham Award Winners

The Gotham Awards highlight breakthroughs in the Indie World. They don't have many awards, and they're more about highlighting what's the best of the "new." That said, their choice of The Hurt Locker for Best Feature seems to me the inevitable beginning of a landslide of appreciation for the film that ends in multiple Oscar nods and wins. It's very difficult for me to see more than maybe two other films give it a run at the Academy at this point.

Best Feature: The Hurt Locker

Best Documentary: Food, Inc.

Best Ensemble Performance: The Hurt Locker

Breakthrough Director: Robert Siegel for Big Fan

Breakthrough Actor: Catalina Saavedra for The Maid

Best Film Not PLaying at a Theater Near You: You Won't Miss Me; by Russo-Young

That's Entertainment: Clint Eastwood's prolific decade

Property The Daily Gamecock


Clint Eastwood is 79 years old, but you could never guess that by looking at what he has accomplished the past six years of his career. Since 2003, the filmmaker has directed seven films, been nominated for three Oscars for Best Director, and won one in 2004 for “Million Dollar Baby.”

For a screen icon whose performances run five decades and span from Inspector Harry Callahan in the “Dirty Harry” films to “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” it would be easy for Eastwood to simply fade from the limelight and relax in his old age.

With his latest film “Invictus,” about South African president Nelson Mandela’s plan to unite his country through the World Rugby Cup, already sparking Academy Award murmurs in the weeks before its Dec. 11 theatrical release, it seems Eastwood’s storytelling ability is nowhere close to getting soft.

The string of films he’s assembled over the past few years, including “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” are among the strongest and most emotional dramas made by an American filmmaker this decade.

He is a true “actor’s director,” using all the experience he learned over decades of work to help craft nuanced and finely tuned performances from a vast array of actors. In his past seven films, he’s directed seven actors to Oscar nominations and four of those to wins.

Perhaps in recognition of these amazing recent achievements, the French Legion of Honor awarded him the position of Commander last month, an honor rarely given to an American.
With all these awards, all this hype and all this love from the industry it’s tempting to say Clint Eastwood is overrated. It’s easy to point at the more melodramatic and contrived moments of “Million Dollar Baby” or “Flags of Our Fathers” as evidence that he’s not doing anything particularly unique with his films.

But in many ways, part of Eastwood’s vast appeal seems to stem from the fact that he isn’t doing unique things. He understands how stories work, and how film can work to tell stories. Many of his films use traditional story models — a murder mystery, a rising boxing star, soldiers in combat — and strip these models into raw emotion.

His “Invictus” seems tailor-made for his kind of filmmaking. It is on the surface a biographical picture about a specific period in Nelson Mandela’s life. But in partnering again with friend Morgan Freeman and balancing the political aspects of the film with its rugby story, he is again trying to take typical stories in different directions.

After last year’s “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood announced he wanted to retire from acting. It seemed fitting, as that film was a personal and probing look at a character who so resembled his gruff screen persona.

As for directing, it seems Eastwood won’t rest until he’s dead. He’s already filming “Hereafter,” a supernatural thriller starring Matt Damon for release next year. Rarely has a filmmaker been this prolific at this age, and this level of tenacious love for his medium is something any artist can admire, even in the most flawed moments of his films.

American cinema has become so used to Clint Eastwood since his major breakthroughs in the 1960s that now he is one of the last legends of that period to remain consistently in the spotlight’s glow.

Even as he inches towards 80, that spotlight seems to invigorate him and encourage him to continue exploring his art. That’s Entertainment.