Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Movies of 2009

The most telling thing about my top 10 films of 2009 are the films that I had to leave off…”District 9,” “Star Trek” and “Precious” were all in contention at one time or another. But these were the 10 that made me laugh, cry, think and be thankful to live in a time where anything is still possible at the movies.

And at the top of the list is the latest film by today’s greatest magic workers, who took a story of a widower, a Boy Scout and lots of balloons and soared away with audiences’ hearts.

1. Up: Last year, Pixar’s wonderful sci-fi comedy “WALL-E” topped my list of best films. Whether “Up” is as good as or better than that gem is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: the story of an old man, a precocious child, a talking dog and a flying house is the best time I had at the theater in 2009. Heartbreakingly poignant, nail-bitingly exciting and side-splittingly funny, “Up” is the rare cinematic experience that takes viewers through the entire spectrum of emotion. It is a blissful, perfect piece of cinema filled with wonderful characters, unexpected depth and unending delight. Pixar is the gold standard in storytelling and “Up” is the most wonderful film of the year.


2. A Serious Man: Joel and Ethan Coen followed up the dark and foreboding “No Country for Old Men” with the zany political satire “Burn After Reading.” So it only stands to reason that the ever-unpredictable writing-directing team would take another left turn with this darkly funny meditation on faith, suffering, family and the wrath of God. Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is perfect as the put-upon Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in 1970 Minnesota who tries to maintain his integrity even as his life begins to unravel. Stuhlbarg maintains his dignity and wins our empathy even as we’re laughing at the unfairness of Larry’s life. It’s been said this is the Coens’ most personal film and the attention to detail shown in the nuances of small-town Jewish community life evidence that this was a labor of love for the brothers. The film manages to balance shocking plot reversals, hilarious in the way that only life’s pain can be, with serious questions about faith and the nature of suffering to deliver a deceptively minor film that packs a surprising punch in its final moments.


3. Avatar: Twelve years after “Titanic,” James Cameron proves he’s still the king of the world. . . and he gives himself a whole new one to conquer as well. With the beautiful and exquisitely-detailed Pandora, the director gives us the most wonderfully realized computer-generated environment and, with the Na’vi, perfects the use of motion capture technology. The story may be derivative but in Cameron’s hands it doesn’t matter; it’s simply an excuse to introduce audiences to this new world and dazzle them for three hours with the most awesome and entertaining big screen spectacle since “Lord of the Rings.” In an age where the Internet and television continue to fight for our attention, Cameron reinvigorated the event movie and, by pushing special effects technology to its limit, reassured us that nothing is impossible in movies anymore. Michael Bay may make critics weep for the blockbuster; Cameron reminds us it’s not a lost cause.


4. Moon: This little seen sci-fi gem is one of the genre’s best entries since “The Matrix.” Sam Rockwell gives a powerful, funny and complex performance as a man struggling with isolation, loneliness and possibly insanity while waiting to return home from a three-year stint on a lunar outpost. After an accident nearly kills him, Rockwell’s character learns dark secrets that cut to the core of his identity and humanity. Director Duncan Jones creates a workmanlike, utilitarian atmosphere in space that keeps the film grounded in reality and Kevin Spacey pays homage to “2001” with his voice work as the station’s robotic helper, who may have an ulterior mission in mind. But it’s Rockwell’s fierce, heartfelt work that lifts the film into orbit. There was a time when science fiction probed the deeper questions of life, humanity and morality; thankfully “Moon” remembers and recaptures that spirit.


5. Inglourious Basterds: The final words of Quentin Tarantino’s war epic are “I think this may be my masterpiece.” Rarely has pretention felt so deserved. The “Kill Bill” director has wanted to make his men-on-a-mission film for years, but I doubt anyone expected this from him. The film is Tarantino at his absolute best, filled with long passages of exquisite, screw-turning dialogue punctuated by brief bursts of violence. Christoph Waltz’s turn as “The Jew Hunter” is as deliciously wonderful a villain as this decade has seen—evil has rarely been so charming. Brad Pitt hams it up as the redneck leader of a group of renegade soldiers, but it’s Melanie Laurent who gives the film its heart. As the vengeance-seeking owner of a Parisian movie theater, Tarantino uses the character to explore his two favorite themes: revenge and film. This may be the first war movie to be more about movies than combat and the exhilarating climax perfectly mixes absurdity, violence, tragedy, comedy and adrenaline to create one of the decade’s most flat-out entertaining set pieces. Funny, tense and surprisingly powerful, Tarantino creates such a glorious epic that we’re willing to follow him even as he rewrites the war’s ending.


6. The Hurt Locker: While audiences were flocking to Michael Bay’s brainless “Transformers” sequel, the best action film of the year was being ignored by the masses. Kathryn Bigelow’s look at Army bomb disposal units in Iraq is as tense and thrilling as films come, first jarring us with the horrific reality of a bomb explosion and then putting our nerves on edge as we wait for it to happen again. Newcomer Jeremy Renner is stunning as a combat-addicted adrenaline junkie, for whom a normal life in the suburbs is more of a nightmare than dealing with bombs and insurgents. Bigelow, the director of such high octane flicks as “Point Break,” hits a career high here, mixing psychological drama with an action thriller that adds up to one of the year’s most unforgettable film experiences.


7. (500) Days of Summer: Director Marc Webb’s comedy tells us at the outset that while it’s a story of boy meets girl, it is not a love story. Hogwash. “(500) Days of Summer” may technically be about a breakup, but its heart is filled with romance. Jason Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are perfect as two lovers who meet, mate and breakup in the course of a year and Scott Neustadter’s witty script bounces through time, genre and style with gleeful postmodern delight. It’s the first romantic comedy in ages to feel fresh, funny and intelligent. Yet the tale’s true appeal is how ably Webb plucks our heart strings; everyone has their own Summer and, for many, 500 days is not enough time to make us forget them.


8. Up in the Air: Director Jason Reitman delivered a scathing look at modern America, a charming and witty romantic comedy and a powerful human drama about isolation and relationships all wrapped up into one wonderful little film. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career as Ryan Bingham, a “termination facilitator” who lives his life from terminal-to-terminal, not only bragging about his skill in avoiding serious human relationships, but conducting seminars to tell others how they can do the same thing. Reitman’s third film—following the equally wonderful “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno”—examines our current economic devastation, our tendency to isolate ourselves and our growing dependence on electronics as relationship surrogates. Yet his cast—featuring stand-out work from Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman and newcomer Anna Kendrick—makes the entire ordeal charming, funny and light as a feather. It’s not until the bittersweet final moments that we begin to realize just how deeply Reitman has involved us, further confirming that he is one of the most intriguing directors to appear this decade.


9.The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Stop-motion animation, whimsical characters and storybook settings are a perfect fit for director Wes Anderson (“Rushmore”), who delivers his strongest work yet in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Clooney is fantastic (pun intended) once again as the charming and sly Mr. Fox, who wages war on evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean). While that plot alone might make for a delightful children’s film, it’s the very adult attention to detail and character that make this such a pleasure. Each animal character (wonderfully acted by Anderson favorites Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson) has a distinct, adult personality and each is given a moment to steal the spotlight (Schwartzman is particularly great). More than that, Anderson once again revisits his favorite themes of family and relationships and makes Mr. Fox’s behavior the result of a very-believable midlife crisis (some men buy Porsches; Mr. Fox kills chickens). This all adds up to an original, funny, whimsical and extremely enjoyable little masterpiece. As Mr. Fox would say: it’s pretty cussing great.


10. Where the Wild Things Are: Some accused director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved story to be too deep, dark and disturbing for children. The truth, however, is that Jonze—the director of the brilliant “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”—is not making a film just for children; he’s making a film for anyone who has ever been a child. And his imaginative, beautifully realized film, anchored by Max Record’s phenomenal performance, perfectly recaptures the unrestrained joy, energy, rage and fear of childhood. It’s tough, deep stuff and I can understand why the film has cut to the core of some critics (including this one) and left others cold; it’s not the fun, engaging and brainless dreck Hollywood normally throws at families. It is, instead, deep, profound, whimsical, truthful and a tad scary. It’s the best re-creation of what it feels like to be a child that I’ve ever seen.


1.Bruno: In 2006, I named “Borat” as one of the year’s best films. This year, Sacha Baron Cohen tops the “other” list with one of the biggest comedic miscalculations I’ve ever witnessed. Forget the fact that it’s easily the decade’s most offensive film; unlike “Borat,” Cohen doesn’t have a naïve, likable character to bounce off his unwitting subjects. Instead he has a vulgar, vain and obnoxious creation who thrusts his way into people’s faces with such violence that I can empathize with their shocked, angry reactions. Yes, it’s offensive. Yes, it’s rude. But “Bruno’s” biggest crime is being unfunny.

2. The Last House on the Left: I don’t hold Wes Craven’s original film in the high esteem that many critics do, but I’ll acknowledge that he takes his subject seriously and portrays it with the grit and somberness it deserves. This rancid remake—about two parents who turn into raving psychopaths when the men who raped and murdered their daughter and her friend turn up at their house—asks us not only to empathize with the wrathful parents (which is understandable) but to root them on as they torture, dismember and destroy the men. The film is told with such a slick gloss and the violence is so amped up that it’s obvious the producers want audiences to squirm and then cheer. But, given the subject matter, my only response is to get sick and weep for our culture.

3. (tie) X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation: Kicking off what turned out to be a fairly anticlimactic summer for blockbusters, Wolverine and John Connor managed the rare feat of taking two beloved franchises and killing all audience goodwill to them. Wolverine—easily one of the most dynamic Marvel heroes—tiredly slicked his way through a turgid prequel while Christian Bale’s monotonous rants and McG’s bland direction turned the Terminator’s “I’ll be back” from a promise into a threat.

4. Couple’s Retreat: This film’s cast has been involved in one way or another with projects like “Swingers,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Watchmen,” “Arrested Development,” “Elf” and “Iron Man.” Director Peter Billingsley was Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” There, I just gave you seven things to watch rather than this trite, unfunny, cliché, boring mess of a romantic comedy. When it begins airing 30 times a year on TBS you’ll have every opportunity to see just how bad this movie is.

5. Hotel for Dogs: I gave this film a slight pass upon seeing it because while I was not entertained the kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it. But looking at my top ten list and seeing titles like “Up,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” I realize that this was the year when kids were actually respected at the box office with films of wit, originality, substance and heart. So shame on Nickolodeon films for this pandering, brainless mix of cute dogs, poop humor and obnoxious tween heroes.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best films of the Decade

This isn't necessarilly the way I wanted to do this list. I wanted to go back and watch all 10 (or, technically, 12) of my top of the decade and write about them in detail. But the holiday rush and the desire to get this published before year's end didn't allow for that. No matter; there's a new project I'm hoping to tackle in 2010 where I can revisit most of them again.

The best way for me to do this list was to just initially see what titles stood out for me at the end of the decade. After all, this list is not meant to be objective--there's no way I can claim to have seen the greatest films of the decade because there are hundreds I'm sure I've missed. But even as films jumped out at me, I found myself scouring IMDB to see other films that I realized would also qualify for this list. So yes, after it's written I'm going to probably regret leaving some films off the list. That's the way it goes.

But, after weeks of careful consideration, here are the, 12...films that I think qualify as my favorites of the decade. Starting with a trilogy that, when it was first announced, I had no desire to see...

1. Lord of the Rings: I remember when I first heard that JRR Tolkien's fantasy trilogy was being readied for the big screen. I think my response was a yawn. I've never been a fantasy person. I've never cared for stories of elves, dwarves and magic. But when that first trailer came out, I was suddenly hooked. I can still remember the Wednesday opening afternoon when I saw "Fellowship of the Ring." As the film hit its cliffhanger ending, I remember that for the first time in ages I didn't want to leave the theater. I wanted the rest of the story. And over the next two years, Peter Jackson gave us 12 hours of the most ambitious and successful storytelling Hollywood has ever offered. It's a wonderful mixture of a perfect cast, unparalleled special effects (I'll take the tactile mixture of models and CGI over pure motion capture any day) and Tolkien's epic tale. The greatest thrill for me was watching the story unfold over three years and finding that, unlike many trilogies, this one stuck the landing. I personally don't think that this should be looked at as three separate movies but one long tale...although I'll also admit that I think "Return of the King" is the most perfectly told of the three movies.


2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: On any given day, this is my favorite film of all time. Yes, on a technical level, it's near perfect: Charlie Kauffman's insane, time-and-consciousness bending script; Michel Gondry's whimsical, yet gritty, direction; and pitch-perfect performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet add up to a breathlessly original and mind warp of a movie. But it's the emotional resonance of this movie that levels me...we've all had people who we wish could be deleted from our memories. But with that we would lose all the beauty and joy that made the person so important to us. As I've entered into a serious relationship this year I've thought of this movie a lot, about how love is hard work and we encounter others who will not only enchant us but also frustrate, confuse and sometimes anger us. Is it worth it? The final scene of this movie hits me in the gut every time I see it. I know some who feel it's a sad ending but I prefer to look at it as hopeful...that single word, "okay," means more than any passionate kiss or declaration of love ever could. This is a great film.


3. United 93--The one film on this list that I hate to watch. It's the understatement of the decade to say that 9/11 was the most defining day of the last 10 years. It's a day when we still tense up and our emotions are still raw. So it's not surprising at all to find that this film, released less than five years after the tragedy, hit like a sledgehammer. Paul Greengrass brought his fly-on-the-wall, documentary style to this recreation of what occurred on the doomed flight to Pennsylvania. Casting many of the same air traffic control officers who were working that fateful day, he comes as close as we will ever get to giving us a matter-of-fact, no-spin document about what occurred on Flight 93, when the passengers rallied to keep the terrorists from hitting their final target. It's a hard film to watch--the last hour is unbearably intense and the final 10 minutes are as gut-wrenching and emotionally devastating as anything I've ever seen. And that's the point: this is not a movie that attempts to dress the tragedy in sentiment or create heroes and myths of the men and women on the flight. Instead, Greengrass tells the story of a group of strangers whose fates were bound together and, as regular Americans, they fought back even though it meant their deaths. By refusing to ladle on emotion or manipulation, Greengrass actually makes the film more powerful...there was open weeping in the theater where I saw this and I found myself shaking and crying in the theater afterward. This is a movie some still refuse to watch, and I understand why. But I find it necessary to revisit it once in awhile so I will keep myself raw and wounded by this tragedy and reminded of the heroism of average individuals.


4. There Will Be Blood: My girlfriend hates this movie with a passion. She thinks it's a portrait of evil. Oddly enough, I agree with that sentiment and it's the reason why I love this film so much. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the decade here, creating a character so callous, greedy and ruthless that we may often find our self wincing just when he speaks. If we were supposed to root for him and like him, I would probably agree with my girlfriend that this movie is not worth my time. But Paul Thomas Anderson, the only director to appear on this list twice, is well aware that Plainview is an evil man with a soul that is quickly dying. That's the story he's interested in telling--how one man's twisted ambition and greed destroy his relationships and himself. It's a film of how greed warps our heart, twists our religion and corrupts our souls. If ever a film was a portrait of Romans 1, where we see how our depraved desires lead to our death, it would be this film. In his portrait of a merciless oil man and a wicked false prophet (masterfully played by Paul Dano), Anderson shows just what human beings are capable of. It tells the Gospel by showing us the effects of life without the Gospel. And the final, brutal scene may feel tacked on at first, but it was promised to us in the title. And it's the perfect culmination of a movie that feels like the prime example of James' warning that sin, when it is fully conceived, gives birth to death. This is a sermon in a film, a fire-and-brimstone, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" warning that holds more truth and power than any scene in "Fireproof" because it treats our sin nature more seriously than any Hollywood film I've ever seen.


5. Before Sunset: It was a sequel to a little-seen film that no one was necessary clamoring for a sequel to. No one, that is, except for those of us who saw Richard Linklater's brilliantly romantic "Before Sunrise," which featured Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two college kids who meet one night in Vienna and spend an evening talking and falling in young love only to depart with the pledge to see each other again in six months. The film was smart, perceptive and romantic. And it would have been easy for Linklater--who also helmed the wonderful "Waking Life" this decade--to give us a frothy, dopey romantic sequel where they meet again and fall in love. But this sequel, set one afternoon in Paris, doesn't take the easy route. The characters are a bit more mature, both wiser to the ways of the world and carrying their own scars from that night in Vienna. For the film's first 50 minutes, romance and a reconnection aren't even on their minds as the brilliant script allows the characters to talk about politics, growing old and marriage with an honesty that may say just as much about the actors as the characters. But the chemistry is still solid and we're still reminded of that night nine years earlier...and the film's final half hour delivers an emotional power that sneaks up on us and asks us to consider our own old flames, missed connections and the times we put any hope of love and romance aside. All of this, of course, leads up to the movie's final scene, which may be the most perfectly-realized final shot of any movie ever made, but satisfying and frustrating in the same moment. I revisit Jesse and Celine's story at least once a year and I can safely say now that if Linklater wants to do another sequel in nine years, I'd be first in line.


6. The Incredibles--Over the last three years, the Pixar films "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up" have made appearances on my best-of list. There is something going on at Pixar that I have never seen at a single studio...they are cranking out classics each year, each one full of heart, brilliance and poignancy. Half this list could have been filled with movies like "Finding Nemo," "Monster's Inc." and the rest and I would find a way to justify it. But I decided to pick just one movie. And I had to pick "The Incredibles." Is it the best Pixar film? I don't know; I don't even know if I could name a best Pixar film. What I do know is that it seems to be the one I love the most, filled with perfect amounts of action, comedy, heart and wit. The animation is gorgeous. The characters are brilliantly realized. And it's the rare animated film that actually tackles topics of infidelity, midlife crises, family drama and dares to say that "if everyone's special, then no one is." But above all, the movie is just an insane amount of fun, the greatest superhero movie of the decade...the film's last hour is more exciting than anything we witnessed in a Batman, X-Men or Spiderman flick. Where's our sequel???


7. No Country for Old Men: I considered doubling this up with "There Will Be Blood" because, thematically, both movies could fit together very easily. But it deserves it's own spot. The Coens have never been better than this taut, bleak and pitch-black thriller. Working from Cormac McCarthy's novel, they weave a story that on the surface is about a man (Josh Brolin) running from a hitman (Javier Bardem) after discovering millions in drug money in the dessert. Dig deeper and it's a movie about the silence of God, how our greed leads to death, the inevitability of death and judgement and of the effect mankind's depravity has on the world. Look at the surface or dig deeper for the symbolism, it doesn't matter: "No Country" is a gut-punch of a movie, from it's perfect performances to the Coens masterful direction. Tommy Lee Jones, as a world-weary sheriff, has never been better and Bardem, in Anton Chigurrh, creates a villain for the ages.


8. Punch-Drunk Love: I hated this film upon first viewing; left the theater frustrated and confused. It was years later before I saw it again and, for whatever reason, something on that viewing clicked. Paul Thomas Anderson's film (his second on this list) on the surface is a quirky Adam Sandler romantic comedy. But if that's all you look at it as, you're going to have the same reaction I did originally. Digging deeper, it's a comedy about a man (Sandler, in the performance of his career) who is insecure, frustrated, lonely and angry. He can't express himself, can't fit in with friends and is brow-beaten by his sister. Then he meets a girl. And it's that attraction, that love, that begins to heal him. It gives him confidence. It gives him power. Just as he begins to restore an old harmonium which, like him, is battered but can make something beautiful, Barry begins to find his life finding direction and meaning. It's a beautiful story of redemption and love and while it's subplots--involving pudding, a scheming phone sex operator and the aforementioned harmonium--may seem random, the truth is that they all are necessary to helping us understand a human being who finds his hope when he finds love. I've come from hating this film to loving it passionately, and the "He Needs Me" sequence is one of the most moving portraits of love I've seen.


9. Lost In Translation: This was a decade of great love stories and we've already had two on the list. But how could I not include Sofia Coppola's ode to love and friendship in Tokyo? This movie has gotten me so many lonely nights and every time I revisit Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), I feel like I'm revisiting old friends. Two people--an actor and a newlywed--strike up a friendship while stranded at a Tokyo hotel. Do they fall in love? Coppola wisely doesn't make this a torrid romance but a friendship that seems to hint at deeper things. Like many of this decade's great love stories (I'd also include "Once" and "Lars and the Real Girl"), it's not about how they find completion in each other but healing in their brief time together. Bob, going through his midlife crisis, finds renewed passion, emotion and life. Charlotte finds reassurance that her life is not a mess and that her marriage, while tough, may just be worthwhile. And both find a friend in a place where they know no one else. If you had told me at the beginning of the decade that Bill Murray would give one of my favorite dramatic performances of the year, I would've laughed...but he's never been better than in this film. And Johannson has never topped the work she's done here. And yet, the film is so minor. Such a lovely little character piece. It's not a big, bold love story. It's a story that you tell with the same fondness you would say "remember that time...". And that's the beauty of it.


10. Munich: It is surprising that I had to wait until number 10 to put Steven Spielberg on this list. After all, the world's most lucrative director didn't take this decade off. And he certainly wasn't slumming. In fact, the 00's saw Spielberg at his most experimental and daring, giving us light-as-a-feather comedies ("Catch Me if You Can," "The Terminal"), a flawed masterpiece (A.I.) and two dark yet thrilling sci-fi actioners ("War of the Worlds," "Minority Report."). Yes, he also gave us "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"--a film many loathed and yet I still maintain is just as lighthearted and fun as any of the other Indy sequels. But "Munich" is his most ambitious, daring, controversial and powerful film. It's about Jewish soldiers getting revenge on the terrorists who killed their atheletes in Munich. But it's about so much more--it's about the price of revenge, about how bloodlust can destroy our souls and set a course for more disaster. The parallels to 9/11 and our post-attack culture were unmistakable and this film works both as a thrilling action adventure and a devastating examination of the price of revenge...there are moments of pure adrenaline here and pure emotional torture. It's a tough film, one that left me shaken for about a week following. And it sums up this decade about as well as "United 93" did.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Movie Reviews: "Avatar," "Up in the Air," "It's Complicated" and "Sherlock Holmes"

Originally I had wanted to do separate, full-length reviews for each of these movies. But the Christmas rush didn't allow that and, by the time I'd write them all, we'd be well into the new year. So I'm going to publish short thoughts on these four new releases and that should bring us up to date for the end of 2009. Once the schedule slows down a bit, I'll have some more time. Look for my Best of 2009 list later this week.

Avatar: James Cameron has proved that he should not be doubted. Since winning the Oscar for “Titanic,” which is still the highest-grossing film of all time, the director has stated that his next film would push the limits of special effects technology. He wasn’t kidding—with a gorgeously rendered new world for his computer generated characters to play in, Cameron has created the most awesome big screen spectacle since “Lord of the Rings.” Sam Worthington (“Terminator Salvation”) plays a crippled Marine who controls the body of a Na’Vi—the 10 foot tall inhabitants of Pandora, a mystical planet housing a much-desired natural resource. Forget that the story is derivative, patching together the best of “Dances with Wolves,” “John Carter of Mars” and Cameron’s own “Aliens.” The story is just an excuse to get the avatars out and running in Pandora, an exquisitely detailed environment that Cameron and his special effects crews bring to life with astonishing skill. Worthington, along with cast members Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana (“Star Trek”), gives a fine performance, but Cameron knows that audiences are showing up for the special effects. Every penny of the film’s rumored $300 million price tag is up there on the screen, from the beautiful foliage of Pandora to the graceful and surprisingly human Na’Vi, which represent the best work of motion capture technology that I’ve ever seen. There are moments of astonishing beauty, such as Worthington and Saldana’s late night romp through a bioluminescent forest and moments of sheer adrenaline, such as the 40-minute war that ends the film. Yes, the story is familiar, the dialogue clunky and the characterizations thin. Cameron has not made a great film. But he has made one heck of a movie and one of the most spectacular big screen spectacles of the decade. It’s an experience to be taken in on the biggest screen possible.

It’s Complicated: Hollywood is out of boy-meets-girl stories. Now it’s on to boy--divorces-girl-for-younger-girl-and-cheats-on-younger-girl-with-original-girl-while-said-girl-dates-sweet-guy stories. Oddly enough, the formula kind of works in director Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”) latest romantic comedy, which features Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwn as former spouses who find old flames reigniting during their son’s college graduation; Steve Martin is the sweet guy caught in the middle. Baldwin, drawing on his “30 Rock” persona, brings the funny but it’s Streep who brings the heart, taking a role that could have been played strictly for cuteness sake and bringing a surprising depth, vitality and even sexiness to the part. Meyer wisely sidesteps making this a simple bedroom farce and allows her characters to explore their feelings and discover the implications of their actions, although she never seems to address the inherent selfishness present in both of them. The film is funny and surprisingly intelligent, but its morality is muddled, excusing adultery as a way to “find oneself” and short-changing the innocents affected by the main characters.

Up in the Air: Jason Reitman’s third film, following “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” is thought by many to be the film of the year. George Clooney plays Ryan Binghman, a smooth-talking “termination facilitator” who jets around the country firing other companies’ employees and avoiding his own connections until he meets up with a woman who challenges his notions (Vera Farmiga) and another who challenges his own job (newcomer Anna Kendrick). The film is a portrait of our technology obsessed, isolated culture and a fitting portrait of the economic times we live in and Reitman gets many big laughs out of Ryan’s job. But he’s more successful at the burgeoning romance and the implications it has on Ryan’s personal philosophies…the film finds its legs halfway through and begins to show a tender story of human connections and relationships. Although its message—no man is an island—is obvious, Reitman’s skilled directorial talents, Clooney’s fantastic performance and a script that respects its characters enough to let them surprise us keeps it from being cliché, ham-handed or boring. This is one of the year’s best films.

Sherlock Holmes: Toss away your deerstalker cap and don’t even think of uttering the word “elementary”: this is not the Holmes you grew up with. That is, unless you’ve read Arthur Conan Doyle’s actual stories, which portrayed the great detective not as a stuffy intellectual but as a brilliant mess of a man, skilled in martial arts and dabbling in recreational “medicines.” Robert Downey Jr. brings that Holmes to life with delicious wit and charm, creating a detective who comes across as an 1800s mix of Captain Jack Sparrow and Dr. House. Jude Law is a perfectly straight-laced comedic foil as Holmes’ companion Watson and their banter makes this film worth a look; the story focuses on the impending breakup of the team as Watson prepares to get married. Rachel McAdams also shows up as a love interest, although the chemistry between Holmes and Watson sometimes makes one wonder if women are just getting in the way. Director Guy Ritchie stages some fun action sequences and there’s a mystery for the two to solve, although it’s admittedly not as much fun as watching them quarrel. The take is more “Lethal Weapon” than “Hound of the Baskervilles,” but the chemistry between Downey and Law is more than enough to jump start what could be an enjoyable franchise.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

DFCS Names "Up" Best Picture of 2009

So after weeks of working hard to see as many films as possible, I was able to cast my vote two weeks ago for the best films of the year. I'll be releasing my list of the year's top films soon, but let's just say I was very pleased with the way this list turned out :-) In the list for Best Picture, each of the films ends up on my Top 10 list...but I'm very happy that Carl, Russell, Dug and Kevin were recognized. Adventure is out there!!

(Detroit, Michigan – December 18, 2009)The Detroit Film Critics Society is pleased to announce the BEST OF 2009 nominees in eight categories. The society was founded in Spring 2007 and consists of a group of 21 Michigan film critics who write or broadcast in the Detroit area as well as other major cities within a 150-mile radius of the city including Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Flint, Michigan.

Each critic submitted their top 5 picks in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Ensemble, and Best Breakthrough Performance. From these submissions, each entry was given a point value and the top 5 in each category were put on the final ballot. The final ballots were then given to each critic to rank in order. The results were once again tabulated and the winners were decided.

( in alphabetical order--winners in red)












The Detroit Film Critics Society members for the 2009-2010 season in alphabetical order are Kirk Baird – The Toledo Blade, Jason Buchanan –, Colette Evangelista – Capital Area Women’s Lifestyle Magazine, Jim Fordyce –, Adam Graham – The Detroit News, Corey Hall – The Metro Times, Tom Long – The Detroit News, Jeff Meyers – The Metro Times, Robin Miner-Swartz – The Lansing State Journal, Chad Mitchell – The Chad Show, John Monaghan – The Detroit Free Press, Warren Pierce – WJR Radio, Greg Russell – WMYD-TV, James Sanford – The Kalamazoo Gazette, Debbie Schlussel – Sirius Patriot Channel 144’s Mike Church Show, Perry Seibert –, John Serba – The Grand Rapids Press, Lee Thomas – Fox 2, Kirk Vanderbeek – Real Detroit Weekly, Greg Walton – WIOG/KRSP, and Chris Williams – Advisor & Source Newspapers.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Reviews...Bite Sized Edition

Whew. Taking a deep breath here. Been a few weeks since I've written, and the holiday season has been beating me up. I've seen many, many, many movies as I've prepared to write my year-end list and vote for the Detroit Film Critics Society's best of 2009. The problem? Unless I've written a review for the paper, there hasn't been any time for online entries.

So...rather than wait until I have time to write up long entries on the various films I've seen, which I know will take several weeks, I'm going to give some smaller entries about what I've seen. A few definitely deserve greater attention down the road, and I hope to one day at least write up a good sized examination of "A Serious Man." But for now, here's what you're getting...and, in the next week, I'll try to get up thoughts on "Up in the Air," "Avatar," "Lovely Bones," "It's Complicated" and "Sherlock Holmes" as I see them.

Also, please keep an eye on this site. I'll also have the results of the DFCS' voting, my end-of-the-year list and will start examining the top 10 (or so) films of the decade (will likely start that one after Christmas and go into early January).

With that, let's jump into what I've been watching over the past few weeks...

A Serious Man (R, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

Two years ago the Coen Brothers gave us the bleak and foreboding "No Country For Old Men" and walked away with an Oscar. Last year they delivered the brilliantly brainless "Burn After Reading." So it only stands to reason that the brothers--who can move from "Fargo" to "Big Lebowski" without breaking a sweat--would once again mess with expectations and deliver, of all things, a retelling of the book of Job set in a 1970s Jewish suburb of Minnesota, similar to where the brothers grew up.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a university physics professor. He's coming up for tenure. He has a wife and two kids at home, along with a ne'er-do-well brother (Richard Kind) who he took in after he reached some hardships. Larry is a good man. A serious man. And, as often happens to good and serious men, his entire life begins to unravel. His wife is leaving him for his best friend. A disgruntled student may be trying to bribe him. Someone is writing the university letters, urging them not to grant him tenure. His sexy new neighbor is sunbathing nude in the backyard and his other neighbor, a WASPy gun nut, doesn't seem to like him at all.

Like the book of Job, the film chronicles Larry's struggles to keep his patience, integrity and goodness in the face of calamity. Like the Biblical account, it's also structured around visits with three men--rabbis in this case--who offer the sufferer bad advice. But Job was never this bleakly funny, mixing dark laughs in with the suffering...sometimes the only thing to keep us from crying is a bit of laughter. So as Larry's woes mount up--through car crashes, police visits and cruel twists of fate--the laughs come right along and the Coens, masters of dry humor, toss in sly visual gags and narrative twists to keep this minor tale moving.

But don't mistake this for another lark like "Burn After Reading." The ominous tones that rumbled through "No Country for Old Men" can be heard here as well. As Larry's pressures mount and keeping his integrity becomes more difficult, we begin to understand the stakes at play here. The Coens have never been so theologically transparent, provoking serious questions about faith, suffering, morality, family and--in the movie's sobering final moments--the judgment of God. Here is a film that dares take its spiritual questions seriously, presenting an intriguing and endlessly thought-provoking look at an Old Testament God, to the point where I was praying for some New Testament grace for these characters.

The Coens have hit their rough periods before--when you're this brilliant and original, I'd guess that's a hazard of the job. But with "No Country" and "A Serious Man," they've proven once again that they are the most unique and uncompromising filmmakers currently working. With a stand-out performance by Stuhlbarg, who earns our empathy and keeps Larry's dignity to the end, "A Serious Man" is one of 2009's absolute best films.

An Education (2009, dir. Lone Sherfig)

The lion's share of the praise for this film has gone to newcomer Carey Mulligan, who comes out of nowhere to play a 16-year-old girl in 1960s London who falls for the charms of a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard).

Critics are right to single out Mulligan's work--other than Gabourey Sidibe's work in "Precious," I cannot think of another actress who impressed me more this year. Mulligan has a brightness and spark about her that rightly earns her comparison to Audrey Hepburn.

That charm goes a long way because "An Education" would not work if it were a grim fable about how a young girl was used and abused by an older man. Instead, Jenny is a bright and intelligent girl swept off her feet by a secretive man who is himself formally uneducated but well-versed in art, music and the social scene. Sarsgaard does not play the role of David as a lech but as a man who is genuinely intrigued by this smart young girl and may be able to have a recaptured taste of his youth in his romance with her. Yes, he's a cad and a bit of a trouble maker--we see that in the effortless way he schmoozes Jenny's father (superbly played by Alfred Molina)--but Sarsgaard also plays the character as a man who is enjoying his time with Jenny and, if he may have ulterior motives, we don't doubt that he is in some way won over by this young girl.

"An Education" works because it's romantic, charming and witty and not tawdry, graphic or disturbing. Nick Hornsby's script allows the characters to grow and breathe and, although the film arrives at a predictable conclusion, it winds there more with a feeling of inevitability instead of plot manipulation. The film's final act is a tad rushed and everything is wrapped up a bit too nicely in the end, but this one is definitely worth a look for the brilliant debut of Mulligan and the solid-as-ever work by Sarsgaard and Molina.

Invictus (PG-13, 2009, dir. Clint Eastwood)

The problem with Clint Eastwood as a director is that he's been on such a hot streak the past few years that when he merely does a film that is very good, it feels like a disappointment.

Such is the case with "Invictus," a solid and inspiring drama about how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) utilized rugby to unite South Africa in the years after he was elected to office. The movie has a story worth telling, a laudable theme and several moments of undeniable power. But it's hobbled in some areas by hiccups that should have been easily avoidable for the director of "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Gran Torino."

Some have argued that this is the wrong story to tell about Mandela; I think that's a cop-out. This was the story that Eastwood chose to tell...yes, the man is worth a longer, more comprehensive biopic. But by focusing on how Mandela used sports to unite his country and forgive his enemies actually allows us to see quite a bit about the man's character and integrity. Freeman is wonderful as Mandela, capturing a quiet dignity and peace that makes me want to know more about the man. Damon is solid as ever, but the role is a bit underwritten...this is Freeman's movie all the way.

And there are moments of power. A visit to the prison where Mandela spent many years is probably the most lump-in-the-throat moment in the movie. And it's an interesting, even inspiring story of how Mandela came into office not to push his agenda but to unite South Africa, even if it meant offering olive branches to his enemies. I have no idea how rugby works but the game is not really the point...the point is how Africans united around their team and put aside old associations to cheer their countrymen on together. As a look at the transcendent power of sports, the film is extremely intriguing.
But there are amateurish stumbles Eastwood makes, including ham-handed musical overtures and a subplot about Mandela's family that is hinted at but never resolved. Damon's character is never as fully developed as I'd hoped and there is an unforgivable moment near the end when Eastwood uses a plane flying too close to the stadium to milk false suspense (and our 9/11 memories) for nothing more than a sight gag. He should know better.

And yet, I still found myself inspired by the story...just wishing for it to be told a tad better.

Me and Orson Welles (2009, PG-13, dir. Richard Linklater)

Christian McKay absolutely tears the roof off this with his meticulous, funny and dead-on performance as Orson Welles in this enjoyable little gem about the theater.

Zac Efron plays a young man whose dreams come to fruition when he is picked off the street to take on the role of Lucius in Welles' famous Mercury Theater production of "Julius Caesar." Not only is able to spend time with the lovely woman who manages much of the behind the scenes work (Claire Danes), but he's also able to realize his acting dreams. The only downside is that Welles is a notoriously unpredictable, prideful and often wrathful diva who is a bit too aware of his own genius.

The film works best when focusing not on the Efron character's story and romance...those things are predictable and, sadly, Efron doesn't have the dramatic chops to pull it off. The best moments occur when documenting the chaos of the theater--the mishaps that nearly derail the show, the suspense of wondering if your lines will get cut, the disastrous preview performance and the exhilaration of getting it right. Linklater's best films ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise/Sunset," "Waking Life") occur situations where life unfolds around the characters, not dictated by plot points or contrivances...when he simply allows the rhythm of theater life to unfold, the films works magic (there's actually a funny and slightly meta conversation where one character talks about the absurdity of trying to sell a story where nothing happens; just two people meet).

The film is never less than entertaining, but ratchets up about 10 notches whenever McKay is on the screen. He captures Welles' larger-than-life persona, his penchant for (off-stage) genre and the hubris and pride that only a genius can get away with. But McKay never turns it into parody or a mere imitation...there's intelligence behind the eyes and his Welles is a character well aware of what others think of him, how unreasonable his demands are...and also fairly confident that it doesn't matter because he's usually absolutely right. McKay anchors this film and commands every second of his screen time...which is funny, because Welles did the same thing.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, PG, dir. Wes Anderson)

Confession: Wes Anderson usually leaves me very cold.

It's not that I don't admire his skill. I can see the work put into "Rushmore" and "Royal Tennenbaums" and I respect the performances he is able to elicit from his actors. His storybook style is very pretty to look at but the over-heightened setting, along with Anderson's dry humor and other quirks, often isolates his characters and leaves me impressed on a technical level but never connecting.

But somehow, his style is a perfect fit for this stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book, in which a sly fox (George Clooney), his family and friends outwit three cold-hearted and cruel farmers.

Mr. Fox is former chicken thief who went straight after learning he was going to have a son (Jason Schwartzman). He's moved his wife (Angelica Huston) into a nice hole and taken on a day job as a columnist at the local newspaper. But he still sometimes feels the itch to indulge his wild animal needs. So one day he gives back into his urges and starts stealing chickens again, which leads to a war with the farmers that will displace the Foxes and their friends, cost Mr. Fox his tail and allow him time to bond with his son.

I suppose that straight narrative could make for a decent kids' movie in and of itself. But Anderson isn't interested in making a children's film. Instead, he supplies every character with very adult tics, quirks and personalities and crafts a story about some of his favorite themes--fathers and sons, the importance of community and originality.

The stop-motion is absolutely beautiful to's not the smooth animation of, say, "Coraline," but an almost crude and jerky version, like watching a children's program from the 1970s or so. That's not a dig--it gives the movie a timelessness and warmth and perfectly accompanies the whimsical nature of the film.

Anderson assembles a cast that also includes Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and others and gives each animal his own little quirk and personality. Clooney is basically voicing an animal version of Danny Ocean and Schwartzman steals the entire film with his wonderfully bizarre lines. In a time where most animated films not bearing the Pixar label are crude and littered with pop culture references, it's refreshing to see a film with likable characters and sense of humor that doesn't depend on fart jokes. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is one of the most wonderfully witty, original and flat-out most enjoyable films of 2009.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.