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Friday, July 31, 2009

Top 10 Retrospective: 2004

Runners-Up: Hotel Rwanda, The Incredibles, Super Size Me

10. Dogville: Nicole Kidman stars (wonderfully) as Grace, a woman on the run who attempts to take refuge in a small Colorado town. Provocative director Lars Von Trier creates a sadistic inversion of Our Town, and it contains many chilling scenes, including an ending that I think is probably a bit over-the-top. Nevertheless, a terrific cast and a lot to think about and debate in this movie.

9. The Aviator: Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hawks has great cinematography and art direction to evoke old Hollywood. Maybe a little overlong, but it's saved by a fascinating lead character, a good performance by Leonardo Dicaprio and a great one by Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn.

8. Closer: Obviously a filmed play, but a gripping one. The central foursome is great (especially Clive Owen and Natalie Portman), in this bitter movie about love gone wrong.

7. Finding Neverland: A poignant movie about J.M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan. Old-fashioned in a good sense, with lots of uplift and tears.

6. Kinsey: Like The Aviator and Finding Neverland, another biopic about an interesting man, this time the groundbreaking sex researcher (played by Liam Neeson), his research, and his relationships with his wife (the great Laura Linney) and staff. Evokes the time of the 1940s and 1950s perfectly, and contains plenty of contemporary relevance.

5. Sideways: A movie about relationships, wine, and finding something that has meaning in your life. Wonderfully written and directed by Alexander Payne. After Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, I can't think of another American director with three such strong movies in a row.

4. Million Dollar Baby: Clint Eastwood's mournful drama about boxing and relationships. For me, this movie actually improved on a second viewing. Great storytelling and a strong directorial vision keep this movie gripping until the final emotionally overwhelming moments.

3. Maria Full of Grace: A naturalistic, humanistic, and nail-biting suspenseful movie about Maria, a Colombian woman who becomes a drug mule to the United States. Catalina Sandina Moreno earned an Oscar nomination for pitch-perfect performance.

2. Before Sunset: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles from the great Before Sunrise and make a movie that adds notes of maturity and regret to the original movie. If you haven't seen Before Sunrise, see that first and then see this. I guarantee you'll be itching for the next installment (2014??).

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Movie of the decade? Definitely one of my favorite movies. I've seen it multiple times and I love it more every time. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are perfect, the script is absolutely brilliant, and there isn't a scene I would cut or change. I love it.

Summing Up: Aside from my top few spots, I think this was a pretty weak year in the movies. While I enjoyed all the movies, I can point to significant flaws for every movie beyond my Top 3.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Brief Break from the Movies....

Even though I run a movie blog, I have a dirty secret. Sometimes I like TV better than movies, and not only because it's often easier to find 45 minutes than 2 hours in a day. There are certain things it can do better. At its best, it can portray more nuanced characters and build more complex storylines than traditional films are able to do. So here are a few of my thoughts on contemporary TV.

Shows I've seen (almost) all of and loved....

The Wire: Hands down, without a doubt, my favorite TV show and I think one of the greatest works of modern media. This series started as a look at cops and criminals of Baltimore's drug trade, but it grew into so much more. A look at the crises facing modern American cities. I love all the seasons, but the peak for me was Season 4, which focused on urban schools. I could talk about this show for hours....

30 Rock: One of the only shows where I find all of the lead cast members (Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer) almost equally hilarious. My vote for the best comedy on TV right now. Guaranteed for some crack-up moments.

Arrested Development: A hilariously out-there show with another batch of excellent characters. Of course, with a show this good, not enough people watched it and it went off the air.

Six Feet Under: Ah, the crazy, messed-up Fishers. After watching this family of morticians for five seasons, I feel I know every dark secret they've hidden, and I still love them. Not the most consistent show in quality (a couple plotlines went a little overdramatic even for the Fishers), but still a wonderfully dark, funny, emotional show with truly memorable characters.

The Office: Another comedy that uses its great writing and cast to triumph. Since the quality lagged over the last season, perhaps this shouldn't be on my "loved" list, but this show is still capable of brilliance. I just hope it makes a good recovery this coming fall.

Shows I've watched some of, and my thoughts on them....

The West Wing: I don't know where I was, but I never even saw one episode of this when it was on. I'm almost done watching the first season, and I'm really enjoying it, particularly Allison Janney and Rob Lowe. Not as groundbreaking as some of the HBO series, but still a lot of fun to watch.

In Treatment: This show about a psychiatrist (Gabriel Byrne) and his patients is a quiet show that consists almost entirely of therapy sessions. Each season takes a look at four of his clients, and his own relationship with his psychiatrist (the wonderful Dianne Wiest). The watched the first season and was usually fascinated. The only plotline that didn't really suck me in was the bickering married couple. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to Season 2 when it comes out on DVD.

Friday Night Lights: I'd heard this was good, so I've been watching it on Netflix's "Watch Now." The first season was surprisingly compelling, since I have little to no interest in high school football. This show has some great young actors, though, and a superb performance by Connie Britten. I've seen two or three episodes of the second season, and I'm a little worried about where it's heading (soap opera territory?). I'll keep watching though.

Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell's high-school girl detective is a lot of fun. Witty, funny, and engaging. The first season was much better than the second, but I'm enjoying the third right now. Three seasons were it for this show.

Battlestar Galactica: The overwhelming acclaim caused me to check the first season of this show out, even though I'm not usually a fan of Sci-Fi. I liked it, but haven't quite fallen in love yet. I will probably check out the second season soon.

Big Love: HBO's plural marriage drama. The first season was good, the second season very good, and I'm looking forward to watching the third. The wives are the best part of the show. All three actresses are great at their roles.

Project Runway: The only reality show I watch, and its great. Great characters, Tim Gunn is great, and a competition that actually has to do with talent. I've seen the first 4 (?) seasons.

Weeds: I watched the first two seasons, but I have little desire to continue. I think I got bored and stopped caring about the characters....

Show I know I should see, but haven't yet....

Mad Men: Not sure why this hasn't made it to the top of my Netflix queue yet. Huge acclaim and interesting subject matter. I hope to see the first season soon.

Readers, any other shows I should check out?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Quick Notes on.....

I'll be leaving soon for a week-long vacation (and the blog will probably be quiet), but I wanted to get a few notes in on some recent viewings.

Coming up end of July/beginning of August: I hope to see and write about The Hurt Locker and (500) Days of Summer, two movies I've heard great things about, AND Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

To Die For (1995)

Gus Van Sant's dark comedy was the critical breakout for Nicole Kidman, and she is very very good. She portrays a vapid, soulless, minor-league newscaster who is willing to do anything (including sleep with and manipulate her high school student) in order to get to the top. The acting in this movie is very good. Kidman is spectacular and I also really loved a young Joaquin Phoenix as a somewhat dim-witted high school student. Fun to watch, but not particularly deep or the kind of movie that stays with you for a long time.

Grade: B
City Lights (1931)

Perhaps Charlie Chaplin's most famous movie, and rightly so. The story of a homeless man (Chaplin's famous "Little Tramp") who falls in love with a blind flower-seller. This is a silent film in the best sense of the word. It relies on physical comedy and the emotions of the actors and very little on the title cards. As you watch Chaplin fight (literally in a hilarious boxing scene) against the powerful forces in society, you are guaranteed a smile on your face. The ending of this movie is simply sublime.

Grade: A

George Washington (2000)

A completely unique film. This movie follows the young and mostly African-American residents of a depressed town in North Carolina. It begins with a series of scenes of these children talking to one another, and their dialogue is funny and poignant. A great dramatic event occurs in the movie, but the movie is not really about the event. Its about children growing up, and facing heartbreak, and the ways their characters are developed as they adjust to the realities of their life. The cinematography is stunning and is able to make beautiful images out of a mostly bleak landscape. This movie is definitely not plot-drive, and can truthfully be described as "slow." I succumbed to its lazy rhythms, and was transfixed by the young characters and their plight. I also loved how it shows the lives of characters we rarely get to see on screen. A haunting and quiet gem.

Grade: A-

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Goodbye Solo and the "Neo-Neo Realism"

Goodbye Solo (2009)

Yesterday I saw the best movie I've seen in a theater so far this year- Goodbye Solo. It's by Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, whose movie Chop Shop made by top 10 list last year. His past two movies (Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, which I hope to see soon) concerned immigrants living in the shadows of New York City. Goodbye Solo is set in Winston-Salem, NC, where Bahrani grew up, and it tells a similarly naturalistic story. The movie is about Solo, a Senegalese cab driver who begins a relationship with William, a bitter old man who becomes one of his passengers.

Solo is married to a Mexican woman and is a good father to her daughter. He is also friends with Caucasions, African-Americans, and other African immigrants. One of the wonderful things about this movie is how multiculturalism is simply presented as it is lived, and not as a plot point or an easy way to a moral. The movie is deeply moral, I believe, but not moralistic. The viewer is never sure where the movie is going, and there are many scenes and surprise and delight. The last 10 or so minutes are absolutely riveting and beautiful. There are a few clunky plot devices and characters that could use a little fleshing out, but these flaws are overcome by the beauty and simplicity of the filmmaking. They manage to be both sad and hopeful. This movie is just leaving theaters, but should be on DVD before too long. I urge you to check it out.

Grade: A-

In reading other review of Goodbye Solo, I came across an excellent article by A.O. Scott about the "Neo-Neo Realism" in American films. The article concerns the advent of a naturalistic style of American independent filmmaking. These films are not about the quirkiness of their characters, and they are often done without a conventional scores. Examples that I have thoroughly enjoyed included Bahrani's films as well as Wendy and Lucy and Half Nelson. What is so great about many of these movies is that they portray lives of everyday Americans in a dignified way. With each of these films, I felt that I was seeing people who really existed, and people I had never really seen in films before. I'm thrilled at this new trend in American cinema, and I certainly hope it continues.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Top 10 Retrospective: 2005

Runners-Up: Pride and Prejudice, Murderball, The Squid and the Whale

10. Good Night, and Good Luck: George Clooney's stylized, smart, entertaining movie about red-baiting in the 1950s.

9. Match Point: Woody Allen goes abroad (to England), drops the comedy (mostly), and provides a taut, engrossing thriller. This was his best in a decade, and is even fun for people who don't usually like Woody.

8. Nine Lives: Probably the least-seen movie on my list. This film is a loosely interwoven series of vignettes about women and their lives. The great cast includes Robin Wright Penn (in the best section), Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, and Sissy Spacek.

7. A History of Violence: David Cronenberg's violent, gripping, sometimes strange film. It looks at how much we can leave our past actions behind, and how much they remain. Great performances from Viggo Mortenson, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

6. Brokeback Mountain: Perhaps slightly overrated but still a landmark film beautifully directed by Ang Lee and containing Heath Ledger's shattering lead performance.

5. The Constant Gardener: A moral drama, a thriller, and engrossing the whole way through. Frenando Meirelles (City of God) is a great director and he gets great performances from Ralph Fiennes and Oscar-winning Rachel Weisz.

4. Crash: Unfairly maligned by some critics (especially after its Best Picture win), I think this is a marvelously put together, dramatized (in a good way) movie that sheds significant light on modern race relations.

3. Cache: In this movie, someone is stalking a French couple's residence. Why? This French movie from director Michael Haneke takes its time answering, and its answers are surprising, political, and troubling.

2. Capote: Biopics are not my favorite type of movie, but if they could all be like Capote they might be. Instead of showing us Truman Capote's life, this movie details the research and writing of In Cold Blood, the novel about a murder in rural Kansas. Philip Seymour Hoffman is astounding and the movie creates a nuanced, troubling picture of this great writer.

1. Junebug: If someone asked me what type of movies I liked, I might just say "movies like Junebug." Junebug got some attention (and an Oscar nomination) for Amy Adams' terrific performance, but it deserved even more acclaim. It's about a young, urban Chicago couple who go to visit the husband's family in rural North Carolina. A beautiful, funny, and deeply moving film about family. If you haven't seen it, see it. Now.

Oscar Best Pictures Nominees: Crash (winner), Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, Capote, Munich.

Sum-up: A solid year in filmmaking, although not one of the very best of recent years. A varied top 10-list, with an unusually large number of movies that are in some sense "thrillers" (Cache, The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence, Match Point).

Monday, July 6, 2009

2008 Catch-Up: Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Tell No One

Even though we're halfway through 2009, I took the Independence Day weekend to make it through a few notable movies from the past year, two Best Picture nominees and a foreign film that had a large degree of success and good reviews in the States. So without further ado, my much overdo thoughts on......


Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon consists of the story of somewhat "lightweight" interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) securing, preparing for, and conducting a television interview with the disgraced ex-President (Frank Langella). A lot worked about this film. It moved quickly and did a good job of portraying the two leads. Frost is a man in a bit over his head who finally finds a way to step up to the plate. Nixon was an undeniably smart man who is also extremely self-delusional. Watching their match-up does provide some nice sparks.

Despite the strengths of the film, I kind of left the film thinking I should have felt more. The Queen, a somewhat similar story also starring Michael Sheen and penned by the same screenwriter (Peter Morgan) went deeper into the dynamics of power and tradition than this film does. Frost/Nixon feels fun, and like it wants to be important, but I'm not really sure that it is that important. Michael Sheen does a very nice job as Frost. I'm a little torn on Langella's performance. He does disappear into his character, but at times I felt it was more of a stunt than a true performance. Overall, it's an entertaining film but not a great one, and certainly didn't deserve it's Best Picture nomination.

Grade: B

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie of tremendous technical skill, a fascinating premise, and some great scenes. As you probably know, it tells the story of a man who ages backwards (Brad Pitt) and his love for a woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett). There are definitely some great sequences in the film. I liked Benjamin's early days, where he was taken care of by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). I also liked his friendship/love affair with a British matron (Tilda Swinton). The ending of the movie was also engaging. It's also put together beautifully by David Fincher in a way that guides you through the many periods of the 20th-century.

From my intro, you were probably waiting for a "but," and here it is. It's not that emotionally engaging. Part of that has to do with Brad Pitt. While moviegoers enjoyed watching him turn beautiful, he never really dug into the character to the extent where I was truly cared about him as a person. The idea of the story is beautiful and sad, but I never quite connected it to the actual human emotions of the characters. It's also flat-out too long. If you're going to make a 2 hour and 40 minute movie, you need to provide more of an emotional hook for the audience.

Despite my qualms, I do recommend the film. The technical skill is something to marvel at, and I've known people who were quite moved by it. It just didn't quite hit me where it could have.

Grade: B

Tell No One

This French thriller was a very enjoyable movie. It concerns a man whose wife is (apparently) abducted and murdered. Eight years later, he gets video and emails saying she is alive. What is happening? How could she have been identified at the morgue and yet still alive?

The movie follows these plot points (and complicates things much further) as it goes along. It's definitely not a lazy movie. It causes the viewer to think and piece things together as they watch it. If the plot twists are implausible (and they are), it's forgivable because the movie is put together in a sparse and non-sensational way. It could be a model for many American films on how to show suspense without talking down to your audience. A fun movie.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Classics from Abroad: La Dolce Vita & The Earrings of Madame de....

Classic Foreign Films

While I consider myself a cinema aficionado, I realize I have some holes in my resume. I try to keep up with new films, and I've seen a lot of classic American films, but my viewing of world cinema is lacking a bit. I've recently come upon a great website called They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, which compiles critics lists to list the top 1,000 films of all time and the top 250 films of the 21st century. In looking at the all-time list, I realize that I have a lot of catching up to do on foreign films. So I hope to plug some of those holes this summer. I start with two classics I was glad to catch up with.....

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Federico Fellini's groundbreaking and provocative movie follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) as he travels around a rapidly changing Rome. This episodic film (broken into more or less seven parts) shows the ways that the traditions of the past are being thrown aside for modern hedonism. The movie is lots of fun to watch, but also has an air of emptiness and sadness. It's a long movie, and I must say that I found some episodes more engaging than others. In almost every segment, however, there is a moment of transcendence where Fellini causes the viewer to think about life and culture and how everything is changing. I don't think this is quite as good as 8 1/2 (regularly cited as a 10-best of all time), but it's definitely worth a look.

Grade: A-

The Earrings of Madame de..... (1953)

I had read about this movie and wondered what led to its acclaim, as it plot sounds rather ordinary. It's basically about a spoiled General's wife in France who falls in love with an Italian diplomat, and the usual fallout ensues.

Once I started watching the movie, however, I was absolutely enthralled. Max Ophuls is considered the master of the tracking shot, shots that follow characters for extended time and throughout several locales. Several modern acclaimed tracking shots have been in Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Children of Men, and Atonement. Almost every shot in this movie is a work of art. The cinematography carries the viewer through the story and lends an air of gracefulness and emotion to every single frame.

The actors in this movie are also remarkable, especially Danielle Darrieux in the title role. She inhabits the soul of a woman falling in love so well that, by the end of the movie, you are so fully entrenched in her struggle that your heart breaks with her. A great film and I hope to see some more movies by Ophuls soon.

Grade: A