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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Best Performances of 2008: Supporting Actor and Actress

As a follow-up to my Top 10 of 2008, here are my favorite performances of the year, or the performances I would have nominated for Oscars. I find supporting performances fascinating. At their best, they make me want to watch a new movie with them as a protagonist. These are the performances where they light up the screen each time they are on and elevate the movie to another level (Heath Ledger, Viola Davis). Other supporting performances are great because they play a perfect role in a great ensemble (Eddie Marsan, Rosemarie Dewitt). However their roles play in their movies, here are 10 supporting performances I found compelling.....

Supporting Actor:

Josh Brolin, Milk: Takes the villainous role of Dan White, which could be played as a cliched bigot, and turns it into a fascinating character study. Lets you see the internal struggles he goes through which leads him to his ultimate act.

Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married: Probably the most sympathetic role in the movie, the father trying to hold his family together. Natural, endearing, and responsive to the actors around him. I wasn't familiar with Irwin before this movie, but I hope he gets more roles after this movie.

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight: While I found The Dark Knight entertaining but slightly overhyped, there's no denying that Ledger's swansong is the most fascinating part of the movie. Finds the uneasy evil place inside his character and puts past superhero villains to shame. I wonder if Jack Nicholson feels angry?

Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky: If Ledger is the evil side to Batman, Eddie Marsan's driving instructor is the negative worldview in opposition to Sally Hawkins' Poppy. He expertly goes head-to-head with Hawkins' performance and is one-half of what feels like the emotional and intellectual core of the movie.

Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading: As a dim-witted gym instructor, Pitt manages to stand out in a cast that includes Frances McDormand, George Clooney, and John Malkovich. Made me laugh every moment he was on screen.

My favorite: Bill Irwin
Runner-Up: Josh Brolin

Supporting Actress:

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona: The Oscar-winning performance was terrific. Brings a huge dose of European humor and energy to Woody Allen's movie when she enters halfway through.

Viola Davis, Doubt: A performance that truly elevates the movie. In a few short minutes, Davis' turn as the mother of a possibly abused student adds countless layers of intellectual and emotional complexity to a movie that, before, risked being a "did-he-or-didn't-he" style mystery. Astounding.

Rosemarie Dewitt, Rachel Getting Married: As the title character, Dewitt does a beautiful job playing the counterpoint to Anne Hathaway's performance as drug addict Kym. The two do a beautiful job of showing the good and bad qualities of both sisters, so that as an audience our sympathies switch depending on the scene.

Hannah Schygulla, The Edge of Heaven: A beautifully understated performance of a somewhat distant mother who must deal with real emotions after a tragic event.

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler: Tomei takes a somewhat underwritten "stripper with a heart of gold" role and takes it new places. Moments that would seem cliched in the hands of other actresses feel emotionally truthful and beautiful.

My favorite: Viola Davis
Runner-Up: Penelope Cruz

Friday, March 27, 2009

Some reviews from my vacation....

I've had a string of visitors and have then been out of town, so I haven't been able to blog for awhile! On my vacation, I did manage to see two movies on DVD and one in the theater. Here are my reviews.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

I had seen this movie a bit after it came out, and I found that it lived up to my memories of its quality. Ian Holm (many roles, including Bilbo Baggins in TLOTR) plays a lawyer who comes to a small Canadian town to try to start a lawsuit with the families of children who died in a bus crash. Holm is excellent at portraying a man with complicated motives, including his guilt over his own drug-addicted daughter. While dramatically wrenching events occur (including the bus crash), the movie is structured and told in an understated way. The movie is pitched somewhere between the head and the heart, and it ends up affecting both. The most exciting thing about the movie's writing and direction (which both earned Oscar noms in '97) is its structure. The story flips back between three main times, before the crash, the weeks following the crash, and a couple of years later. It also includes one more flashback to many years earlier that I think is the emotional center of the film. Definitely a standout of the later 1990s.

Grade: A-

I Love You, Man (2009)

The most Judd Apatow movie not made by Judd Apatow. Pretty close in tone to Knocked Up and The-40-Year-Old Virgin, it doesn't quite measure up to those films, but still an enjoyable time if you go in for the usual mix of profane material mixed in with honest sentiment. Paul Rudd does a terrific job as Peter, a "nice guy" who is getting married and needs to find a best man. After a series of bad man-dates, he meets Sydney, played very funnily by Jason Segel. Their relationship follows many traditional routes of romantic comedy, with the catch that it's really friendship romantic comedy (despite Rudd's upcoming wedding his relationship with his fiancee is really background). Has some truly funny moments, but does peter out a bit at the end. Nevertheless, Rudd and Segel's interplay is worth the price of admission.

Grade: B

Twilight (2008)

I watched this one not entirely by choice, and I wouldn't choose to watch it again. While I had heard the hype, this was really my first full exposure to the Twilight franchise and I can't say it excited me. Brooding teen romance, crappy special effects, and a plot that seemed simultaneously rushed and a little bit boring. Some of the early scenes, where Bella and Edward meet, do have a kitschy appeal, but by the end I was mostly just bored. I'll take Harry Potter and his pals any day of the week.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It's March 2009..... Time for "Best of 2008"

OK, so I know that it is several months past the end of '08, but I think I am ready to complete my "Top 10 of 2008" list. Because of the late-year Oscar glut, it took me awhile to catch up with movies I would like to see.

These are my (very) personal opinions of what I found most interesting, enjoyable, well-made of 2008's films. Please feel free to comment or argue with my picks! I'm also the kind of person that tends to go back to movies and find very different things (both positive and negative), so I see my top 10 list as a living list that may change.

A few critically-acclaimed films I have not yet seen (and thus, have no chance of making this list):
Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Synecdoche NY, Wendy & Lucy, Waltz with Bashir, Gran Torino.

Runners Up (movies that I felt pained to leave out):

Happy-Go-Lucky: Sally Hawkins gives an absolutely incredible performance in Mike Leigh's highly enjoyable and thought-provoking comedic drama (or dramatic comedy?).

The Visitor: Another movie anchored by a great lead performance (Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins). A quiet and poignant movie about global connections and finding joy.

The Wrestler: I really wrestled (sorry) with whether to put this movie on the list. Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei were terrific and its a movie I've thought about a lot since I've seen it. If the script had been up to the level of their performances, and the movie had reveled a little less in the violence, it would have made the cut. Still, definitely a powerful film.

And now to the list..... in descending order.

10: Slumdog Millionaire: While I do think this movie was over-awarded, there is no denying its energy and charm. Kudos to director Danny Boyle for creating a moving and enjoyable crowd-pleaser.

9. Chop Shop: In many ways, a response to the energy and color of Slumdog Millionaire. A quiet and realistic account of a young teenager and his sister surviving in a Queens slum. It has the power and truthfulness of a great documentary.

8. The Edge of Heaven: A German-Turkish film about the ways in which we make connections across ages, races, and nationalities. The kind of movie where you come to care about the characters so much, you almost wish for a sequel.

7. Revolutionary Road: Certainly not without its flaws, but its great moments are among the best moments of the year. Leonardo and (especially) Kate give fantastic performances as a 50s couple in a meltdown.

6. Vicky Christina Barcelona: In my mind, Woody's best since Husbands and Wives (1992). I love Woody at his best, and this is both a return to form and a new direction. He takes his camera to Barcelona and comes up with a sexy, breezy, melancholy look at love and desire. Penelope Cruz is rightfully heralded for her great performance. Rebecca Hall, a British actress who I was unfamiliar with, is also wonderful.

5. Trouble the Water: Extremely powerful documentary showing the struggle by Katrina survivors. Once you see this movie, I guarantee you will not forget Kimberly Rivers.

4. Milk: Enthralling biopic chronicling Harvey Milk's political birth and career. Sean Penn justly won the Oscar for his incredible performance.

3. The Class: The French nominee for Best Foreign Film. The documentary-like account of a year with a teacher and his students. Puts almost all American teacher movies to shame.

2. Wall-E: Instant classic. A mix of Chaplin-style slapstick, sweet romance, and sharp satire, it truly creates a world of its own.

1. Rachel Getting Married: This movie was somewhat divisive, and didn't get nearly the awards traction I think it deserved, and if you don't connect with it, it may surprise you to see it as my number 1. I love well-made slice-of-life movies. The kind of movies where the camera wanders, you meet many characters, and there are no easy resolutions. This is one of the best. The ensemble cast does an amazing job of inhabiting very specific characters that you alternately want to hug and slap in the face. With a great script by Jenny Lumet and direction by Jonathan Demme, its truly something special. I can't wait to watch it again.

Hope you enjoyed the list. Give me your thoughts (or your tops of the year) in the comments!

Coming soon- Ben's favorite performances of the year!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Revolutionary Road

On Saturday, I went to the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring (which I highly recommend if you're in the DC area) to see Revolutionary Road. As a huge Kate Winslet fan, I was of course interested to weigh in on which performance she should have been nominated for this year (RR or The Reader).

If you're not sure what to expect, make sure you're not looking for Titanic Pt. 2. There is much more pain than love to be found in this movie. Nevertheless, Kate and Leo do show the same chemistry that worked so well in Titanic. Yes, I'll admit it, I actually think Titanic holds up as a good blockbuster epic movie. Needless to say, the two actors go to a much darker place in Revolutionary Road.

To be honest, the movie started out a little shaky. After a very quick set-up of their meeting, the movie moves to a scene where they are already living in the suburbs and having a bitter fight in a car. Since we have no real clue of their relationship, this scene seems a little jarring and negative for a pre-titles sequence. While I realize that this movie is probably following the novel, I would have appreciated a little more time (if only 10 minutes or so), showing the falling in love phase of the two. While there are very small glimpses throughout the film, I think later scenes would have more resonance if we had a fuller sense of the love the two had lost.

Once Revolutionary Road gets into its particular rhythms, though, I found it quite compelling. While it is certainly insightful about life in the suburbs, condemning this particular lifestyle is not really its main point. The movie is more about individual choices and compromises that people make in their lives, and how these choices have repercussions throughout their lives.

DiCaprio does an outstanding job at a fairly tricky role. He plays a character who espouses independent ideas but, when push comes to shove, consistently ends up being the one taking the traditional route. He plays Jack Wheeler with an intelligence that shows us his character is always aware of his failings, even as he knowingly chooses more conventional route.

Winslet is absolutely fantastic playing a character that is fairly unlikable on the surface. There are things she does and says in this movie that are hard to swallow and certainly hard for many to relate to. Yet, because she is such a compelling actress, Kate helps us see underneath the actions of her character to her longing for an interesting life. There is a particular scene, a quiet breakfast scene that takes place between two crucial dramatic scenes, where she is absolutely riveting. Her brilliance as an actress is that she is as compelling in moments of calm as in moments of great drama. So, for the record, I do believe this is a slightly more impressive performance than The Reader (which is saying a lot).

The supporting cast is great as well. The actors playing their neighbors are wonderful, as is Kathy Bates as a realtor/neighbor. Michael Shannon received a Supporting Actor nomination for his small but pivotal role as a mentally unstable man who is able to see deep into the Wheeler's marriage.

All in all, I highly recommend this movie. While it is certainly flawed, I think it's a movie that I will think about for a long time.

Grade: A-

Monday, March 2, 2009

Misery and Citizen Ruth

This weekend I watched two films from the 90s that I have neglected to see up until now. One I watched mainly because I've heard so much about its lead performance (Kathy Bates in Misery), while the other I watched because I love the director (Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth).

Misery (1990)

On the whole, I was a bit disappointed in Misery. Maybe I had seen enough clips of the movie so that nothing really surprised me. Kathy Bates does give a very entertaining performance, and Jame Caan does a perfectly fine job as the writer stuck under his number-one fan's control, but the movie got a little repetitive and didn't hold my attention the entire time. The premise, I admit, is a good one. A deranged fan takes her favorite author hostage and rages at him when she finds out her favorite romance-novel heroine is killed off. As the movie goes on, the neuroseus of Bates' character get stranger and stranger. For most of the movie, it is suspensful and entertaining to see where her obsessions will go next. By the end of the movie, we are in full-blown horror mode, and it didn't quite work for me. If she had stayed equally crazy but perhaps less dangerous, I actually think this movie would have been more powerful.

Another thing that I noticed while watchign this movie is the utterly boring and lazy way that many films from the 1980s/early 1990s were shot. Perhaps cinematographers and directors have gotten much more daring, but the production values seemed very workman-like and almost appropriate for a TV-movie. Of all the decades in which film was made, I think I have the least love for movies made in the 80s, and this picture (while released in 1990), shows me why so many films from this period are difficult to get really excited about.

Grade: C+

Citizen Ruth (1996)

While suffering from a few ending problems of its own, I found Citizen Ruth a much more satisfying movie to watch. Alexander Payne is one of my favorite modern directors. I absolutely love Election and About Schmidt, and I really like Sideways as well. This was his first movie, and it provides a taste of what Payne is able to achieve in his later films.

Citizen Ruth is a comedy about Ruth Stoops, a glue-sniffing pregnant woman who becomes an unlikely symbol in the battle between the pro-life and pro-choice movement. The movie satirizes both sides of the issue (although perhaps the pro-life side a little more brutally) and their blind allegiance to a cause. As we watch both sides battle over "Ruth," we see how easy it is for people to spout slogans without thinking about the actual people involved.

The most successful part of the film is probably Laura Dern's gutsy performance as Ruth. She plays a woman with barely any redeeming qualities and of limited intelligence, yet by the end of the film she has made this woman so vivid that the audience is cheering her on. She could have played her role for more sentiment or for more cheap laughs, but instead she fully inhabits her character.

Most of the supporting cast is great as well. Mary Kay Place (Big Love, Being John Malkovich, My So-Called Life) is wonderful as the pro-life activist who first takes Ruth in. Swoozie Kurtz is also amusing as her pro-choice counterpart. In fact, the whole cast provides an array of vivid characters until the end, when Burt Reynolds overplays his part as a national pro-life leader. He seemed to be coming in from a slightly broader movie.

All in all, Citizen Ruth is a highly entertaining movie. What Alexander Payne did not provide here, that he does in his other movies (even Election I think), is an emotional hook for the audience. While we do cheer Ruth on, it is hard to fully identify with her, and it is certainly difficult to connect with any of the other characters. What Payne leaves us with, then, is some quite good satire that is fun to watch, gives food for thought, but lacks the emotional heft of his other films.

Grade: B

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Trouble the Water (2008)

Just before the Oscars, the National Archives sponsored a showing of all the shorts ( saw the live-action shorts) and each of the documentary features. I was lucky enough to catch Trouble the Water, which is easily one of the best films of 2008.

There is a scene about midway through the movie when a National Guardsman, referring to New Orleans residents who made it through Katrina, says "These people just don't know how to survive." Until this moment, we have seen home-video coverage of how Kimberly Rivers and her husband make it through the storm and help neighbors survive. At the screening I was at, the comment caused an audible gasp in the audience. If anyone knows how to survive, there is little doubt after seeing this movie that it is the people we have been following.

The filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, went down to New Orleans a couple weeks after Katrina to shoot a documentary about the National Guard helping out in Iraq. This project fizzled because of governmental concerns, but they luckily met Kimberly. Kimberly shot home video in the day leading up to the storm, the day of the storm, and the weeks after as they try to rebuild their lives. A large chunk of the movie is taken up with Kimberly's video, while the rest follows Kimberly, her husband, and assorted others as they struggle to survive and get help.

No matter how much you have already seen of Katrina, it is absolutely astonishing to see what it was like to be in the middle of the storm. It also paints a picture of the lower-ninth-ward community as one that is troubled, yes, but also has enormous stores of goodwill and care for neighbors. It shows that most of those who stayed did so because they simply did not have transportation out of the storm.

It's not until later in the movie that we find out Kimberly is an aspiring rap artist. The scene where she sings her song "I'm Amazing" is one of the best scenes of the year. Once you see this documentary, you won't soon forget Kimberly and her struggles, and you won't think about Katrina the same way again. This movie is a portrait of some true American heroes, helping their neighbors and doing the best they can.

While Man on Wire was certainly artfully made, in my mind there is no question that Trouble the Water far surpasses it in emotional resonance. I think it easily deserved the Academy Award.

Grade: A