Monday, December 28, 2009

Nice and Naughties: The Top 10 Films of the Decade

Everyone seems to be doing it. Why can’t I? Let’s face it, lists are fun and they get people talking. It was pretty difficult for me to actually narrow this down to my favorite films of the first ten years of the 2000s. There were some really great films this decade (Into the Wild, yes!) and there were some pretty awful ones (Lady in the Waker, eck!) So without further ado I present my favorite films of the decade.

1-Erin Brockovich (2000)

“Bite my ass, Krispy Kreme!” – Erin Brockovich
No other movie moved me this decade than this brilliant true story of a woman on a mission. A single woman who just wants to provide for her children and yet she stumbles on a horrible environmental cover-up. This woman is Erin Brockovich and it’s a role that the always lovable Julia Roberts was born to play and won a deserving Academy Award. This film is filled to the brim with hilarious dialogue and a moving story of the little man verses the huge corporation. It’s the David vs. Goliath story for the 21st century and is my favorite movie of the decade.

2-Into the Wild (2007)
“If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.” – ‘Alexander Supertramp’
I had written back in 2007 that no other film that year had affected me the way that Into the Wild had. And it’s still true. I can’t really describe what was going through my mind when I finished watching this film for the first time. The story of Christopher McCandless’ transformation in the wandering “Alexander Supertramp” in an attempt to reject society’s silly rules and live amongst Mother Nature was such a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Sean Penn who treated Chris’ story as tragic and yet sympathetic and yet he’s not always the most likable character. Into the Wild is one of the most worthwhile cinematic experiences of my life.

3-Garden State (2004)
“Here comes the lipstick.” – Sam
I never saw Garden State in the theater. When it was released on DVD I took a chance and just bought it. I loved it so much I instantly watched it again. Somehow this movie spoke to me the same way it spoke to a lot of other people my age. It’s sort of this generation’s “The Graduate” as it tells the story of a young guy who doesn’t really know what do to with the rest of his life. As a failing actor living in California Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is a modern age Ben Braddock who is trying to find a way to fit into the world when he has to return home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Braff who also serves as writer and director displays quite a skill for sharp dialogue and a relatable story which involves a romance with Natalie Portman in one of the actress’ best performances.

4-Minority Report (2003)
“I'm sorry, John, but you're going to have to run again.” – Agatha
Steven Spielberg’s brilliant sci-fi crime story is about a futuristic society that has solved a way to prevent murder. Three “precogs” can see murders before they occur and Chief John Anderton leads a team of officers assigned to capture the criminals before they the strike. The system is “perfect” so to speak, until the system turns on Anderton himself. Tom Cruise gives a great performance as a man on the run and determined to clear his name. Spielberg is in top form (when isn’t he?) and delivers the goods. The effects, the music , the cinematography all conspire to form one of the best and most exciting genre films of the decade.

5-(500) Days of Summer (2009)
“Darling, I don't know how to tell you this, but... there's a Chinese family in our bathroom.” – Tom Hansen
I first saw (500) Days of Summer this past August and since then I’ve probably seen it like eight times. It’s my favorite film of this year and deservedly belongs on the list of the best of the decade. This is the cynical love story of our time. It’s this generation’s “Annie Hall.” Director Marc Webb employs super cool cinematic techniques to tell the not quite meant to be romance between Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). These two actors have never been better. You fall in love with this movie quicker than Tom falls in love with Summer. It’s funny, it’s sad and it’s a got a quirky soundtrack. Why are you reading this? Go watch this movie now!

6-Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2002)
“Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with Samurai swords.” – O-Ren Ishii
I have no explanation for why I like this movie so much. It doesn’t seem like a film that I should like. Samurai fights? Oh please it’s not my thing, but somehow Quentin Tarantino makes it all digestible. There’s lots of fighting and blood in this movie and it’s completely engrossing. While I enjoy vol. 2, this first chapter remains my favorite Tarantino film simply because it’s his most fast paced. His visual style is completely fascinating (love that tracking shot in the House of Blue Leaves) and he gets some terrific performances from his game cast led by the wonderful Uma Thurman in the role of a lifetime as a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad hell bent on revenge after her team leaves her for dead.

7-In the Bedroom (2001)
“Do you wanna know why our son is dead? Do you really wanna know?” – Matt Fowler
In the Bedroom becomes more and more fascinating as it moves along. You never know where exactly the story is going which is pretty amazing considering there are not many characters. This was Todd Field’s directorial debut. You might remember his appearance in movies like Twister and Eyes Wide Shut and he makes a remarkable directing debut. I love actors who direct because they know how to direct actors. This is an engrossing character study about a family whose tragedy makes them completely unravel and the lengths they go through to overcome their grief. Top notch performances from the always reliable Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei highlight this must see film that was rightly nominated for five Academy Awards.

8-The Diving Bell & the Butterfly (2007)
“Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.” - Jean-Dominique Bauby
I remember seeing the trailers for The Diving Bell & the Butterfly and thinking it looked like some regular artsy foreign film. Yes it is an artsy foreign film, but it is so much more. It is a symphony or sights and sound that all culminate in one of the most emotionally satisfying and moving films of the decade. This is the true story of a man who was paralyzed due to a stroke which leaves him only the ability to blink his left eye. He had to learn how to communicate by blinking his eye. He couldn’t move or talk and yet he was able to write a memoir of his tragic experience. It’s a vastly depressing situation that is made beautifully moving from artist Julian Schnabel’s powerful and utterly original direction and Janusz Kaminksi’s brilliant and haunting cinematography. This is a stunning film you won’t soon forget.

9-Finding Nemo (2003)
“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” – Dory
Finding Nemo is still my all time favorite Pixar film, and maybe that’s just a little predictable since it seems to be a lot of people’s favorite, but I can’t hide my love for this outrageously funny deep sea adventure. Dory (voiced wonderfully by Ellen DeGeneres) the ditzy blue tang with short term memory loss is simply one of the funniest and most lovable animated characters in movie history. How believable is it that a clownfish would be able to find his lost son who was taken from the ocean and placed in a dentist’s fish tank which happens to be filled with a colorful array of silly fish characters? Not really, except that somehow it all works and that breathtaking underwater animation creates an ocean of striking colors that are gourmet food for the eyes. This is a wonderful piece of filmmaking that just happens to be about cartoon fish.

10-Mulholland Dr. (2001)
“It'll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.” – Betty Elms
Okay, I’m going to be honest. I have no clue what the heck is going on in this movie. And yet it’s profound and entertaining. Not a second of Mulholland Dr. is ever boring. I mean I get the general gist of what’s going on in David Lynch’s labyrinthine dream-like ode to the dark and crazy world known as Hollywood. Naomi Watts gives one of her best performances as a wide-eyed actress wannabe who movies to LA to pursue acting, but instead gets caught up in a whirlwind of crime and mistaken identities. There’s a moral to the story somewhere in here and while the film seems to not make sense you get the feeling that Lynch knows exactly what he’s doing and you’re sitting there watching an artist at work. This noir thriller is one of the most compelling and strange movies ever to come out of Hollywood.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Roman Numeral: New Musical “Nine” is By the Numbers

I don’t know anything about the Fellini film “8 1/2” except that it’s Italian, a “classic” and about filmmaking. I knew even less about the new musical version “Nine” which is based on the Broadway stage show which is in turn based on Fellini’s movie. Having said all that I was really looking forward to Rob Marshall’s musical extravaganza. That cast! Those sets! All that buzz! But when it all is said and done, “Nine” isn’t really that good. The songs are decent and the actors do well in their roles, but other than that I can only recommend the film to die hard “Nine” fans, (are there really that many of them? Why was this show even adapted to film?) and it's possible that even they will be disappointed.

The film stars old reliable Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido Contini (don’t worry he’s not from the Jersey Shore) a film director who is about to start work on a new film. Of course things aren’t so easy. He struggles to find inspiration but he just may find it from the many women in his life. There are only seven of them, not nine. We get Marion Cotillard as Guido’s wife. He’s cheating on her with Penelope Cruz. Nicole Kidman is the famous actress who’ll be starring in his film. Judi Dench is the costume designer. Kate Hudson is a Vogue writer. Fergie plays a prostitute. And screen siren Sophia Loren is his mother. The film takes place in 1960s Rome and it features some beautiful location photography.

The songs in “Nine” are pretty decent, but it seems to take a while to get to them. I assumed the film would begin with a fun, flashy music number but alas it does not. And it’s nearly 10 minutes in, before we get a so so song. All of the actors sing well, but Fergie’s “Be Italian” sequence is probably the stand out. Kate Hudson is pretty decent with her song “Cinema Italiano” which was written specifically for the movie. There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with the music but they lack the sense of fun of the songs in “Chicago.” That was a movie I knew nothing about going in as well and yet I was singing the songs after the movie ended.

And now, if you’ll let me, I’m going to bring out the “serious critic” in me. I think the fundamental problem with “Nine” lies within the nature of the musical numbers themselves and I have to sort of blame director Rob Marshall. He uses his “fantasy technique” which he employed so brilliantly in “Chicago.” In “Chicago” (and by the way it’s still one of if not the best movie musicals of the decade) Roxie Hart dreams of being a star. And therefore it makes sense that the musical numbers are all in her head. It’s a great way to ease the audience into the musical sequences since it really isn’t just characters breaking out into song. Marshall uses the same technique in “Nine” and yet it just doesn’t work. It just feels sloppy, repetitive and unoriginal. And it’s wholly unneeded. It feels like a flashy way to have cool editing and doesn’t serve the story.

I really can’t recommend “Nine” even though it’ll surely pick up an undeserving Best Picture nomination next month. I still don’t think this ten Best Picture thing is really the best idea. I just feel like this is a missed opportunity. It could have been a fantastic film that skewered the film industry and yet it really doesn’t have much to say. If you’re a fan of either stage version you’ll probably enjoy it. Or if you’re a fan of beautiful Italian locales be my guest. But out of all the movies with the number 9 in its title this year (“9,” “District 9”) this is definitely the one to avoid. GRADE: C-

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"The Road" Less Traveled: The Long Delayed Flick Should Have Stayed Delayed

“The Road” is the antithesis of recent end of the world dramas like “2012.” Now this is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because “The Road” is not about how the world ends or why, but what comes after and the desolate and depressing future that lies ahead. But at the same time, is anyone really surprised by what the world will be like after some unknown cataclysmic event happens? There is not society, no morals, no order. It’s dark, bleak and chaotic. And much like the movie “The Road” I’m sure it would be pretty boring at times.

This is my main conflict with “The Road” it paints an interesting idea of a unnamed man and son trying to live life in a wasteland of a world (which almost reminded me of “The Land Before Time” at parts) filled with people without morals or any sense of decency (aka cannibals), but watching two people just walk along a bleak landscape isn’t quite the rousing motion picture I was expecting. It’s sad because there are some terrific set ups for what could have been amazingly suspenseful sequences, and yet they fizzle rather quickly and before you know it there’s more walking.

The always reliable Viggo Mortensen gives a great performance as “man” who is trying to provide a livable life for his young son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). We get to see flashbacks (this structure sort of reminded me of “Lost” actually) of his life with his wife played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s character is seen all too briefly but I hear this is actually an expanded up role as compared to Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Man and son spend most of their time trying to get to the coast in hopes that there might be some sort of salvation. But they mostly try to find food and make haphazard forms of temporary shelter from the dying world.

I think however the most interesting characters in the film are actually the cannibals. I actually wish writer Joe Penhall gave them more screen time. Man and boy even come across a bunch of locked up, starved people in the basement of a rundown house. They have inadvertently entered the home of some cannibals. This should have been an exciting sequence, but alas man and boy get away with nary a scratch. I know this is sad, but true: I felt cheated that we didn’t actually get to see any actual cannibalism on screen. I mean I realize this isn’t a slasher movie, but I mean come on! These despicable human beings who live on other humans actually make more fascinating characters than the moralistic man and boy. The story definitely should have been from the cannibals perspective.

And another thing. I’m not sure I liked director John Hillcoat’s vision of this gloomy future. Just because this film takes place in a grungy, dirty, grey, ash-covers-the-sky world, doesn’t mean the cinematography has to be so “ugly.” A similar type movie like “Children of Men” takes place in a similar dystopian type future and yet its camera work is completely stellar. There was nothing particularly amazing about the camera in “The Road.” I felt a little disappointed by the visual aspect of the film.

I can really only recommend “The Road” for Viggo’s assured performance, but he’s really great in anything so that’s really only a mild praise. It seems like “The Road” wasn’t really sure what it wanted to be. It felt like it could have top notch intense sequences between the moral people and the immoral people, but everything sort of fell flat. There are some strong themes here (isolation, morality, etc) but we’ve seen them before. I can’t shake the feeling that the movie seems like an art house version of “I Am Legend” with cannibals taking the place of the “infected.” Some consider McCarthy’s “The Road” to be one of the best novels written this decade, and while I haven’t read it, maybe it just works better as words. Nothing on screen is as powerful as I’d have liked it to be. "The Road" isn't really a bad movie, it's just disappointing. GRADE: C

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Return of the King: James Cameron Achieves a Titanic Achievement with “Avatar”

“Avatar” is not “Smurfs in Space” as some naysayers would like to call it. It’s actually a very well orchestrated fantasy epic (with lots of flying and some magic) that James Cameron fans have been waiting for. Sure people will spot references to other movies including like “Pocahontas,” “Ferngully,” “The Matrix” and “Dances with Wolves” but “Avatar” blows those movies out of the water. Cameron manages to juggle top notch performances, wildly imaginative settings, relatable characters, and realist computer generated imagery into one big action adventure that is a grand achievement. Those who hate to see it happen will be shocked when it racks up a bunch of Academy Award nominations next month.

Finally we have a film that uses state of the motion capture technology that actually feels and looks like real people. The story takes place in the future on the distant planet Pandora (or is it a moon?) where a tribe of 10 foot tall, people-like aliens live in the forest like a long lost Native American tribe. These humanoids are called the Na’vi. Humans see them as the bad guys simply because they’re thought of as “savages.” The humans want to harvest the land since Earth is dying out and its up to a paraplegic marine to infiltrate the group and find out all he can about them.

The Na’vi are shown as CGI images courtsy of the booming motion capture technology that have been used in films ranging from “The Polar Express” to the “King Kong” remake. Real actors act out scenes with lots of dots all over their bodies and then super computer wizards turn their recorded performances into realist CGI creations. In the film, Pandora is home to a toxic gas so humans have invented a way to use “avatars” to live in this world. Na’vi DNA is mixed with human DNA to clone human/Na’vi hybrid bodies. And then the human can link up to the “avatar” body and live as if the avatar were their body. It’s actually a pretty neat concept Cameron has come up with.

Australian born Sam Worthington, who was last seen in this summer’s Terminator Salvation, plays Jake Sully a crippled marine who is brought to Pandora after his brother dies. He’s there to help a group of scientists learn more about the Na’vi people lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (a wonderful Sigourney Weaver). She sort becomes Jakes mentor has he first becomes used to his avatar body. He’s soon separately from his team and saved by a female member of the Na’vi tribe named Neytiri (Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana). Neytiri introduces Jake to her people including her leader father and mother. He soons learns all about the Na’vi and how they are a kind and peaceful race and not the savages that evil corporate leader Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) insists they are. I was actually surprised at how much I connected with the Neytiri character and I think much of it had to do with Zoe’s wonderful performance (while the Na’vi are CGI images the motion capture is simply astonishingly realistic).

For once I actually feel like I want to praise a film that uses more CGI than is probably necessary, but James Cameron uses it wonderfully throughout the entire film. He creates beautiful and vast landscapes and Pandora is a lush, green environment in which the Na’vi people are indebted to. Their “Tree of Souls" is practically their life force. Sure Cameron makes obvious environmental messages but those are important messages in a time when we need them most. I also enjoyed the emotional weight that was brought to the film by way of Cameron’s script. You still there for 160 minutes and becomes so emotionally invested I’d be surprised if you don’t get emotional at least once throughout the film. I mean this guy made “Titanic” after all. And every stunning image that Cameron comes up with matches beautifully with James Horner's majestic score.

For all the bells and whistles (and lots and lots of money) that “Avatar” contains I really do believe it’s a moving and exhilarating film worth seeing. The 3D is pretty cool and yet I’m sure it will play just as well on regular 2D screens because the visuals alone are beautiful whatever dimension they’re in. James Cameron simply has done it again and I wouldn’t be surprised if he still insisted on referring to himself as King of the World. GRADE: A-

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thank You for Croaking: Disney Returns Gloriously to Form with “The Princess and the Frog”

Has it really been ten years since the last really great Disney (non-Pixar) animated film was released? Sure there have been some mild successes like “Lilo & Stitch” and “The Emperor’s New Groove” but the last classic was definitely 1999’s “Tarzan.” Yet even then it seemed like Disney just wasn’t quite on the creative kick it once was during its heyday of “Beauty & the Beast” and “The Lion King” or my personal favorite “The Little Mermaid.” Those who love these films will most likely squeal like a child for “The Princess and the Frog” a wonderful Broadway-style animated musical featuring jazzy Randy Newman songs and beautiful hand drawn 2D animation.

Loosley based on "The Frog Prince," this story takes place in 1920s New Orleans where we’re introduced to a poor Black waitress named Tiana (voiced beautifully by Anika Noni Rose). Like any Disney heroine she has a dream. Her dream is to open a fancy restaurant featuring her late father’s scrumptious gumbo recipe. Even her mother, who’s voiced by Oprah, can’t even give her the money to help fulfill her dream. Neither can her insatiable, yet lovable childhood friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) who acts like a princess but is not one. Luckily the dashing Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is in town looking for someone to marry. It turns out his rich parents have cut him off and he’s actually looking for a rich princess. He’s turned into a frog by the local bad guy/trademark Disney Villain Dr. Facilier’s (Keith David) voodoo spell and he needs to kiss a princess to turn back into human form. In a traditional mistaken identity story point Naveen thinks Tiana is a princess during a costume ball and entices her to kiss him. It doesn’t turn him human, but turns her into a frog. Then the two frogs start a wonderful “Wizard of Oz” type adventure featuring fantastic musical numbers to find Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who may be the only one who can help them.

“The Princess and the Frog” feels like all the great elements of traditional Disney films all thrown in for good measure and yet it still feels wholly original. Since most of the film is set in New Orleans’ French Quarter and the swampy bayous the score by Randy Newman is appropriately jazzy. I’ve never really thought of Randy Newman as a very original composer (all of his scores pretty much sound the same) but the actual songs he’s written for the film are all fun, catchy and entertaining. Even directors Ron Clements and John Musker who previously collaborated on movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” seem to find a comfort in what has come before and yet manage to make this story fun and timeless (and a surprisingly beautiful ode to The Big Easy). There are the standard fairy tale elements like wishing upon a star and Disney’s “single parent syndrome” but it all works and feels appropriately magical. And let’s not forget the funny sidekick characters who we get here as Louis the trumpeting alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) and Ray the love struck firefly (Jim Cummings) who is probably the most endearing sidekick Disney character since Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid.” And no great Disney movie would be a success without an appropriately entertaining and evil villain. Dr. Facilier and his Tim Burton-inspired “Shadow Man” are equally creepy and mesmerizing.

Hopefully “The Princess and the Frog” will be this generation’s “The Little Mermaid.” I don’t mean to compare them (I definitely don’t think it’s better, but it could definitely sit along side it) but it’s my fervent hope that this film will generate enough audience interest to think fondly of the old school style of feature animation that was so popular in the 90s. I’d like to think the recent live action/animation homage “Enchanted,” staring a wide-eyed Amy Adams, helped boost an interest in these types of films. These are movies that can be so universally loved whether you’re a child or an adult, male or female and a revival of classic animation is extremely well deserved and warranted. Can’t traditional animation co-exist with its CGI brethren? Only time will tell. GRADE: A-

Friday, December 04, 2009

Fired Up: “Up in the Air” is So Good It’s on an Entirely Different Plane

Get it? Up in the Air is so good it’s on an entirely different plane. Cause it’s about a guy who basically spends his entire year traveling on airplanes. And a plane is also defined as a “level surface.” You’re still with me right? So I’m getting a little off subject and I don’t really know why. I could start off this review and tell you to rush out now to see “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s wonderful follow up to his big hit “Juno” but I’m not going to. I’m not going to overly gush about this movie because I want you to see it with as little expectations as possible. Everything about this movie is really good. The acting is good, the story is good, the writing is good, the directing is good. It’s not earth shattering and it probably won’t change your life, but that’s entirely ok.

“Up in the Air” tells the story of Ryan Bingham (a George Clooney-type played by George Clooney) who works for a company who other companies hire to fire their employees. He’s a downsizer. He travels mostly by airplane and spends most of his life up in the air, in fancy hotels or classy airport lounges. He likes it this way. He’s not close with his two sisters, one of whom is about to be married. He has no real home. He does have a home, but spends less than a month there a year. He has a goal: to achieve 10 million in-flight miles. If he accomplishes it he’d be only the seventh person to do so. Its an elite club to be a member of, but what exactly is the cost?

Remember I said Ryan fires people. He, a complete stranger, will sit down one on one with an employee look them directly in the eye and tell him or her that their position has been eliminated and that they will no longer be working for their company. No one wants to get fired and the look of devastation on these peoples’ faces is mind numbingly depressing. Ryan is the hero of this story even though he’s technically one of the least likeable type of people. He’s chatty and easy going. His life is structured. He has routines. He knows what he’s doing and he’s good at it. He’s confident. That is until his company decides to change its plans and eliminate its employees from flying around the country and firing people in person. They’ve decided to cut costs and fire people over a webcam. Tough break for a guy who has no real home and is trying to get 10 million frequent flyer miles.

“Up in the Air," based on the novel by Walter Kirn, is written (and co-written by Sheldon Turner) and directed by Jason Reitman, who all showed his budding talent with “Thank You for Smoking” and then completely broke out into the mainstream with one of the best films of 2007: “Juno.” He even did an almost incredible feat: he was nominated for Best Director for directing a comedy. This guy is freaking talented. The film is hitting at the perfect time which makes it so relevant for the world we live in. If you hadn’t noticed, our economy is weak and people are losing their jobs left and right. Reitman dares us to sympathize with a character who is easily pretty dislikable. And then he introduces us to Natalie (a wonderful Anna Kendrick) who is a recent college grad who is in charge of transitioning Ryan and his co-workers in their new form of communication. She joins Ryan on the road to see the complete ins and outs of what he does best. She learns a lot along the way and she just might not be as cut out for the job as she thought. In fact, her character is probably the most identifiable. She’s completely confident at the beginning. Just look at the way she presents herself in her look and wardrobe. Watch her completely unravel as the film progresses. Reitman also introduces us to Alex (Vera Farmiga), a busy business woman who Ryan meets several times throughout his travels. They have romantic liaisons but Ryan doesn’t quite know her as well as he thinks he does.

“Up in the Air” is a classy, contemporary all around great film (and it’s funny too!) that features terrific performances, a top notch screenplay and assured and confident direction from Reitman. It’s sure to be a significant film when it comes to this year’s Oscar race. It really feels like one of the first films I’ve seen this year that feels like it can stand among the Oscar’s elite group of best picture contenders (although my heart still lies with the wonderful ‘500 Days of Summer’). Whether it gets nominated or not “Up in the Air” is highly recommended. GRADE: A