Thursday, December 31, 2009

Commentary: The Best Films of the Decade

The cover story of the November 26, 1999 issue of Entertainment Weekly made a bold and hopeful proclamation: that 1999, though still in progress, was “the year that changed movies.” Pinpointing the uncommonly high quantity of high-quality groundbreaking films in theaters that year (Magnolia, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, American Beauty, The Limey, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Election, Dogma, etc.), and that a surprising majority of them emanated not from obscurity but from major studios, writer Jeff Gordonier surmised that “1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st century filmmaking… the year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble… the year when the whole concept of ‘making a movie’ got turned on its head.”

So the question is, has the decade that followed lived up to the (perhaps hyperbolic) promise that EW smelled in that rarefied 1999 air? The short (and sad) answer is, probably not. There is no doubt that the ten years hence have produced a landslide of thought-provoking pictures and first-class entertainments. But the idea that Hollywood was going to somehow shake the Etch-a-Sketch and plug in to bold new storytelling notions and startlingly original methodologies has proven a pipe dream at best. If anything, movies played it safer in the last decade than they did in the one previous—as production and distribution costs have skyrocketed and the star system (which reached its bloated peak in the 90s) proved unreliable, major studios have sunk more and more of their dollars into projects that banked on familiarity above ingenuity, originality, or even quality. The 2000s were notable for recycling, and I’m not talking about plastic and glass; it was a decade of unnecessary sequels, inexplicable remakes (seemingly anything that made a profit in the 1970s was earmarked for a revamp), sequels to remakes, and then, once those sequels proved (expectedly) tiresome and uninspired, time to hire a new creative team to “reboot” the series. Everything old was new again.

But somehow, on a few occasions, stars aligned and mountains moved (or, more likely, suits weren’t paying attention) and little miracles happened. In narrowing the great movies of the decade down to a top 25, I found myself leaning not towards the obscure independent films (though there are a few of them), but to the studio pictures and even some good old-fashioned star vehicles. This is not the result of some kind of a bullshit populist streak—I sincerely maintain that when the full resources of conventional Hollywood filmmaking are put in the hands of intelligent writers and challenging directors, nobody in the world can cook up a better stew. We get in trouble when the sequels to the remakes of the reboots are the only movies that get the green light, and the Soderberghs and Reitmans and Coens and Andersons (both of them) can’t make the movies they make better than anyone.

25. The Ocean’s Trilogy (2001, 2004, 2007): Yes, I’m cheating a little by making three movies into one entry (I do it again later, too!). But I do tend to think of Soderbergh’s trifecta of sparkling, snazzy heist pictures as all of a piece, and while Ocean’s 12 has its detractors (not me, of course, but it has them), I maintain that, in terms of pure, all-out, inventive entertainments, the Ocean’s movies could not be topped.

24. Juno (2007): Jason Reitman followed up the impressive debut of Thank You For Smoking with a film that unexpectedly captured the country’s fancy, the warm, goofy, endlessly quotable tale of a snarky teenage girl who looks right down the barrel of her accidental pregnancy. Diablo Cody’s wickedly witty screenplay sidesteps the cliché conflicts and characterizations of the teen pregnancy tale with aplomb, and there’s not a bad performance in its top-notch ensemble cast.

23. Before Sunset (2005): Even those of us who adored Richard Linklater’s gimmicky-but-heartfelt 1995 walk-and-talker Before Sunrise would have never expected to even see a sequel to it (they don’t tend to make sequels to movies seen by so few people), much less that the follow-up would turn out to be such a delicate and moving affair, spotlighting starring turns by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that feel less like performance and more like confession. It’s a wonderful, charming picture, and may include my favorite closing line of the decade (“Baby, you are gonna miss… that… plane”).

22. 25th Hour (2002): Spike Lee’s film version of David Benoiff’s novel wasn’t intended to be a mediation on post-9/11 America; it just kind of worked out that way, as Lee and Benoiff (who wrote the screenplay) adapted the story to the devastated New York around them. Seen now, it captures that specific moment better than any documentary could—and it’s also a smart, compelling tale in its own right.

21. Up (2009): The geniuses over at Pixar spun out plenty of terrific pictures over the course of the decade, from the inventive comedy of Ratatouille to the superhero postmodernism of The Incredibles to the sheer warmth and beauty of Finding Nemo, but their most recent effort is their most mature storytelling achievement to date, a lovely, elegant examination of growing old, letting go of the past, and remembering one’s dreams.

20. Michael Clayton (2007): Tony Gilroy’s dense, detailed character study only grows richer with each viewing. His tale of a corporate “fixer” who is falling apart under his slick, glossy sheen is drawn with subtlety and maturity, but it still lands like a kick in the gut; now, only two years after its release, it plays like a metaphor for America itself.

19 No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen Brothers’ finest hour, as they mated their unsurpassable technical skills with the terse, unforgiving prose of Cormac McCarthy (and pulled career-best performances out of Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and the somewhat undervalued Tommy Lee Jones). Tough, haunting, and unforgettable filmmaking.

18. Up in the Air (2009): When we look back on the year of 2009, we’ll remember it like this—tenuous, uncertain, and difficult, yes, but with flashes that remind us of who we are, of what we can be, of our humanity, of our capacity. Lightning strikes twice for director Jason Reitman, whose sharp humor and open heart has made him one of the filmmakers to watch in the years to come.

17. About Schmidt (2002): Alexander Payne has carved out a specific, particular style for himself, making the kind of smart, sharp, funny pictures that Hal Ashby or Paul Mazursky made back in the day. Following Election and Citizen Ruth, it wasn’t surprising that this one was so funny or telling; the shocks came from its unexpectedly moving conclusion, and the stunningly effective, restrained work from Jack Nicholson in its leading role.

16. The Departed (2006): It wouldn’t be a “best of the decade” list without Scorsese, who made (to this viewers eyes, anyway) the best film of the 1980s (Raging Bull), the best film of the 1990s (GoodFellas), and two of the best of the 1970s (Taxi Driver and Mean Streets). He spent the early half of the decade working more as a classical storyteller, and while there was much to admire in Gangs of New York and The Aviator, neither of them exploded with the classic Scorsese power the way that his justifiably acclaimed 2006 potboiler The Departed did.

15. Grindhouse (2006): The box office failure of the seemingly can’t-miss collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino remains unfortunate, but I doubt I had a better time at the movies than I did with the three-plus-hours of their hilarious, energetic, so-authentic-it-hurts homage to classic 1970s exploitation movies. The obscure references and extended running time may have proven anathema to the casual moviegoer, but for cinephiles, this was the can’t-miss theatrical experience of the decade.

14. Wall-E (2008): Pixar strikes again, with a marvelously innovative and thoughtful mixture of silent comedy and science fiction (with a little bit of eco-friendliness mixed in). Its dialogue-free opening sequences remain a stunning testament to the force of the studio’s knockout visual flair, and the romance between the title character and “Eva” is one of the sweetest in all of recent film.

13. High Fidelity (2000): Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Horny’s seminal novel was marketed, and chiefly remembered, as a spiffy rom-com, Lloyd Dobler’s adventures at the record store. But it’s a deeper and more thoughtful film than that, an honest (sometimes painfully) so look at the gulf between the love we hear songs about and the challenging love we live through—an elegy, if you will, for the aging pop-culture junkie.

12. Lost in Translation (2003): Oh, what a lovely little film this is. Sofia Coppola’s breakthrough film (after the promising debut of The Virgin Suicides) isn’t heavy on plot, but it’s one of the most palpably moody films this side of vintage Truffaut, capturing the quiet loneliness of hotel bars and foreign soils, and the fragile but forceful emotions of short-term attractions. All of that, plus Bill Murray singing karaoke.

11. The Dark Knight (2008): If there was one thing we got too many of in the 2000s, it was comic book movies, but they may have all been worth it if they led us to Christopher Nolan’s stunning urban tragedy, which redefined the very perimeters of what a “comic book movie” was, and what popular American moviemaking was capable of. Nolan’s complex themes and complicated heroes and villains put the dull, boilerplate storytelling of his contemporaries to shame, while his jaw-dropping action sequences exhibited Hollywood craftsmanship of the highest order.


10. The Bourne Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007): Whenever someone tells me that I’m a crazy person for complaining about the insipid dialogue and nonsensical filmmaking of conventional action pictures (I’m looking at you, Transformers) because “it’s just a popcorn movie,” I rush to remind them that action blockbusters can have a brain in their head and still thrill us—and that the Bourne movies are Exhibit A, B, and C. Helmed first by Doug Liman, then by Paul Greengrass, the Matt Damon-fronted franchise boasted elaborate stunts, killer chases, and heart-stopping fight scenes—but all were at the service of a tense, well-crafted narrative.

9. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Wes Anderson hit his creative benchmark early in the decade, with this beautifully crafted, delicately acted peek at a highly dysfunctional family of geniuses. Off-the-charts funny and thrillingly well-acted, with an emotionally gut-wrenching ending that really sneaks up on you.

8. Requiem for a Dream (2000): Darren Aaronfsky’s hyper-paced plummet down the rabbit hole of drug addiction may very well be the most gut-wrenching picture of the decade, and while it may not be anyone’s idea of “fun” to watch, the sheer virtuosity of the images and the hurdling, harrowing power of the narrative makes the picture one that burrows into your brain and stays there.

7. Punch Drunk Love (2002): Many have placed Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood high on their “best of the decade” lists, and while I’m certainly an admirer of that picture, its coldness and calculation continues to keep me at bay. I still prefer Anderson’s earlier masterpiece Punch Drunk Love, in which the filmmaker attempted to make a “light romance” and an “Adam Sandler comedy” after his heavyweight life-and-death drama Magnolia, but found himself unable to keep his darker demons at bay; it is a frightening, funny, fascinating hybrid that Anderson somehow engineers into a true American original.

6. Memento (2000): Nolan again, whose big break came with this startlingly clever wind-up toy of a movie—it plays tricks on you, yes, but it always plays fair, and one of the pleasures of Nolan’s noir-soaked filmmaking is in observing (even on repeat viewings) how ingeniously he manages to weave the convoluted assemblage of flashbacks, parallel structures, and backwards progressions into a lean, mean, brilliant package.

5. Almost Famous (2000): Cameron Crowe may very well spend the rest of his career trying to make a movie as perfectly realized as this one—best of luck to him. His semi-autobiographical telling of his years as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone is a valentine to music, to fandom, to youth, and to the heart-wrenching pangs of first love. In addition to everything that is wonderful about it, I must note that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Lester Bangs may very well be my favorite supporting performance of the decade.

4. City of God (2002): I must look like some kind of xenophobe, what with the lack of foreign films on the list, and it certainly isn’t a reflection of some kind of inane jingoism (it’s more about the films I’ve actually managed to see). But Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s startling Brazillian epic is one of the great crime films of all time, a blast of fierce energy and eye-catching style that arrived on the stage of world cinema like a gunshot in church.

3. Zodiac (2007): I’ve revisited David Fincher’s crime-and-reporting procedural with embarrassing regularity in the two years since its release; there’s something about it that I just can’t shake, but that continues to fascinate and engage me. Perhaps it is the tone, or the crispness and efficiency of James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, or perhaps I just dig the spot-on recreations of the 1970s aesthetic. One thing is for certain, though: it is a perfect marriage of filmmaker and material, as the notoriously prickly (but unquestionably skilled) director peers deep into the most notorious of America’s unsolved killing sprees, embracing and examining the trivia and dead ends that lesser filmmakers would have shrugged off and streamlined. But not in Fincher’s film—for him, the devil (as they say) is in the details.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Within what is (by definition) a science-fiction framework, the brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (and his perfectly matched collaborator, director Michel Gondry) manages to not only invigorate and entertain, but thoughtfully pose honest-to-God questions about the nature of our very existence. The result is a work of sheer genius, a marvelously kooky mindfuck, and a heart-wrenching tale of love and longing to boot.

1. Children of Men (2006): One thing is for certain—I don’t think any of us were prepared for the sheer emotional power and storytelling force of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning look at a brutal, uncertain future. It is a film of tremendous confidence and control, and the technical achievements within it remain astonishing. But in its closing scenes, with those boats meeting at sea, it transcends our usual boundaries of filmgoing—it’s not something we watch, but something that happens to us. Brutal, thrilling, pure cinema.

RUNNERS-UP: Man on Wire, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Fog of War, Dear Zachary, Sideways, Capturing the Friedmans, Monster’s Ball, Bowling for Columbine, Monster, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Gone Baby Gone, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Where the Wild Things Are, Pressure Cooker, The Wrestler, Kill Bill, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Amelie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hot Fuzz, Brokeback Mountain, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal, Wonder Boys, Bad Santa, Capote, Mulholland Dr.

On DVD: "Jennifer's Body"

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the summer of 2009, it’s that apparently only the bad horror movies can make money. It’s long been argued that the horror genre is “critic proof”—i.e., it doesn’t matter what critics say about them, audiences will turn out in droves anyway (a theory which has led to studios regularly declining to screen their horror pictures for critics in advance). But it’s starting to look as though it’s more serious than that, that perhaps horror is “critic resistant”; apparently, if fans see that a new scary movie is getting good reviews, they stay far, far away from it. In May, Sam Raimi made a triumphant return to genre filmmaking with the ridiculously entertaining Drag Me To Hell; critic were enraptured (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it stalled at the box office. Bookending the summer, we now have the peculiar bombing of Jennifer’s Body, a rare horror movie with genuine style and wit (thanks to Diablo Cody’s clever screenplay and Karyn Kusama’s nimble direction). But The Final Destination was a big summer smash, and the remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th did huge numbers earlier this year. WTF, horror fans? Are you purposely fleeing films that might not suck?

Which is not to imply that Jennifer’s Body is a great movie—far from it. But it’s got some brains rattling around in its pretty little head, and its tight, compact screenplay punches right along, a model of efficient genre storytelling. Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Oscar winner for Juno) has become a love-her-or-hate-her writer, and I’m not quite sure why; she certainly has a distinct, specific voice and style, sure, but so do Tarantino and Mamet and Kevin Smith, and they don’t get half the hate she does (I’d float a theory about sexism playing into it, but that’s for another time and place).

Cody spins the yarn of Jennifer (Megan Fox) and her best friend since childhood, the improbably-named Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried). Jennifer is the high school hottie, captain of the cheerleading squad, object of desire for all, while Needy hides behind frumpy sweaters and big glasses. One night, Jennifer drags Needy along to hear a band at a dive bar; the joint goes up in flames, the band’s skuzzy lead singer (an appropriately slimy Adam Brody) drags Jennifer off in the band’s van (Needy later guesses the year and model to be an “’89 Rapist”), and then things start to get weird. When teenage boys start getting dispatched in grisly fashion, Needy finds out the truth: that her best friend is, in fact, a flesh-eating demon.

The script is constructed in an intriguing, elliptical fashion, opening up with Needy in the nut house, explaining in voice-over, “I wasn’t always this cracked.” Cody’s screenplay comes off frequently as an affectionate homage to DePalma’s Carrie (down to its third-act prom scene), while possessing the knowing, caustic wit of Williamson’s Scream scripts. Regardless of its flaws—and there are many—it’s full of funny characters and quotable dialogue (“Can I borrow your English homework? I forgot to read Hamlet. Is he gonna fuck his mom?”).

Kusama’s direction (she helmed Girl Fight and the unfortunate Aeon Flux), is stylish and frequently inventive, and there are some welcome faces in supporting roles (J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris are both terrific). Megan Fox looked too old for high school in Transformers two years ago, but here, given her first real opportunity to, y’know, play a character and say complete sentences, she’s pretty good; it’s not a terribly complicated role, but her rat-tat-tat delivery and good humor are fairly winning. Seyfried does the heavy lifting, acting-wise, and she’s fierce and fabulous.

Some of the thrills are pretty cheap, and many of the jokes land with a thud (especially towards the end). And as hot as the momentary detour into Sapphic storytelling may be, one must admit that it not only comes out of nowhere but doesn’t lead to much of anything (yes, I’m afraid that the girl-on-girl kiss might be—gasp—gratuitous). And they sure as hell can’t seem to decide how they want this thing to end; there’s about three possible closing scenes, so they apparently just stacked them on top of each other and called it a day.

Those are the complaints. But Jennifer’s Body is still a wicked, sexy good time, and deserves better than the cold shoulder it’s getting from a moviegoing public that has lapped up far worse films with relish.

"Jennifer's Body" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "9"

Shane Acker’s 9 is an oddly beautiful film with a unique, specific look and style—I haven’t seen a film quite like it before, and in this era of remakes and sequels and sequels to remakes, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. Its computer-animated vision of a dark, treacherous post-apocalyptic wasteland is striking, a kind of Mad Max by way of WALL-E, and the character design and animation is downright stunning. The visuals are so strong, in fact, that you wish they’d been more evenly matched with a compelling narrative. (not surprisingly, one of the producers is Tim Burton, who's struggled with this problem throughout most of his career).

Pamela Pettler’s screenplay is a letdown—the overall concept (Acker gets the story credit) is intriguing, but the storyline proper is thin, a series of to and fro lumbering, and the dialogue consists primarily of short, dull declaratives. The voice cast (including Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connolly, and Martin Landau) do their best to inject some personality into their characters, but those numbers on their backs end up pretty much being their defining traits.

There are scenes here that work—the celebratory sequence, with its smashing use of “Over the Rainbow,” is splendid, and the ending is rather wonderful, in its own haunting way. In that scene, 9 finally makes a connection with its audience that transcends mere aesthetics. That doesn’t happen before then, however. Ultimately, it’s a film where you admire the craftsmanship and the skill of the filmmaking, but you just can’t quite engage with it on an emotional or intellectual level.

"9" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Theaters: "The White Ribbon"

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon arrives in American theaters riding a wave of critical acclaim and sporting no less an endorsement than the Palme d’Or from this year’s Cannes Film Festival. When a film comes with those kind of kudos, you feel an obligation, walking into the theater, to give it the benefit of the doubt, which I did; it melted away, slowly but surely, over the course of the picture’s two and a half hours. I’ve lost patience with Haneke. He is clearly interested only in being a provocateur, a prickly director of difficult films that offer nothing more than misanthropy and cheap shots.

The film begins with the voice of an elderly narrator, who tells us, “I can’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true.” It is the story of the German village of Eichwald, pre-WWI. The village doctor is badly injured in a riding accident, apparently caused by a deliberate tripwire. The wealthy baron’s son is kidnapped and beaten. A barn is burned. A canary is killed. A mentally challenged boy is attacked and perhaps blinded. Adults are horrible to children. Children are horrible to each other. That’s pretty much the movie.

As with much of Haneke’s work, it is difficult to connect with the film emotionally; it is oddly formal and almost entirely airless. Save for a sweet, tentative romance between the town’s school teacher (who is narrating the tale as an old man) and a nanny, there is little life to the film—it is constructed out of tightly-controlled compositions and seemingly disconnected vignettes. What exactly is he doing here? There is no doubt that he is a skilled filmmaker; the black and white cinematography (by Christian Berger) is luminous, and filled with breathtaking visuals (snow-covered landscapes, an elegantly burning barn). He knows how and when to disclose a horrifying revelation, and the second half of the film is permeated by an aura of dread. But to what end?

His M.O. has grown predictable—he plays on base emotions and fears, using his considerable artistic gifts to create suspense (as in 2005’s Cache), visceral terror (in Funny Games), or psychological discomfort (here). But, in film after film, he uses those real audience responses as a tease, as a set-up for a resolution he has no intention of delivering. He needs to learn (or remember) how to end a film. His last two pictures have been skillful exercises that denied us the payoffs (or, in Funny Games, that gave us that payoff and then cheated us out of it); they’re like jokes without punch lines. Since the Greeks, the formula for tragedy demands that pity and fear be followed by catharsis—i.e., you make us sit through two and a half hours of bleak, black and white psychological pain, we’d better arrive somewhere at the end of it. You can’t bludgeon your viewers and then give them no release valve. This is a basic human emotional requirement of our dramatics, and Haneke seems bound and determined to deny us of it, so in The White Ribbon, we get another of his puzzling, unsatisfying, elliptical endings, and then the movie is over. Puzzled, we wander out into the lobby of the theater and presume that there must be something wrong with us, since everyone else is acting like it’s a masterpiece. It’s not; it’s the kind of tired, empty nihilism that your college roommate bored you with years ago.

Questions must be asked of Haneke. He doesn’t just get off the hook because he considers himself an intellectual and thinks he’s examining “the depths of our existence.” What is he trying to put across here? What message is he trying to convey? (That people are bad? Thanks for the insight.) How does he want us to feel about this material? Going to the press notes (never a good sign, when you have to go to the press notes), it seems that he believes he is making some sort of a penetrating statement about the nature of evil. Hew lord. The problem is, his cold, clinical style makes his films into laboratories; good, intellectual filmgoers respond to his movies because they’re given the cues that they are high-minded and important, so their rhapsodic praise is borderline Pavlonian. They know, from the cleanness of the desaturated images and the choking restraint of the playing, that it is a Major Picture; good luck extricating a straight-faced explanation of what they’re reacting to beyond that, because Heneke isn’t doing anything beyond that. In The White Ribbon, is he examining evil, or just reveling in it? Is he exposing the horrors of child abuse, or exploiting them? We don’t require the obviousness of a made-for-TV movie here; we just ask for some kind of passion, some sort of feeling, something resembling something. In his clinical detachment, his spiteful refusal to empathize, Heneke is as much a phony as the “mainstream” filmmakers he sneers at.

Is the picture worth seeing? In many ways, yes—yes in that it is technically proficient and there are several powerful scenes. But it is also troubling; it stays with you, though in the wrong ways, and the further I get from it, the angrier I get at it. Haneke’s progression as a filmmaker moving him away from the disturbingly raw yet undeniably sympathetic The Piano Teacher to The White Ribbon, which, with its impassive and unblinking eye, dehumanizes its subjects in manner that borders on offensive. It is a film of darkness and despair, told by a man in a lab coat—and though I may be alone on it, this viewer is tired of being his guinea pig.

"The White Ribbon" opens Wednesday, December 30th in limited release.

In Theaters: "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond"

The year was 1957. Writer Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan had just followed up their Oscar-winning triumph A Streetcar Named Desire with the controversial Baby Doll, and Williams was at work on a new collaboration with the esteemed director. His new original screenplay, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, piqued the interest of Kazan, who considered Julie Harris for the lead, but Kazan eventually focused his interests elsewhere, and the Williams original remained unproduced… until now.

Jodie Markell’s new film of Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is one of those occasional acts of cinematic archaeology (like George Hickenlooper’s adaptation of Orson Welles’ unproduced The Big Brass Ring screenplay, or Woody Allen’s reworking of his own 1970s screenplay Whatever Works) that is interesting for the back story if for no other reason. Williams was one of our most distinctive writers, and there is pleasure in re-immersing oneself into his unique world. But recreating that world in today’s cinema is a tricky proposition, and Markell doesn’t quite pull it off.

The time is 1923, the place is the South (of course). Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a reluctant debutante with a sketchy past and an uncertain future. She hopes to shake off her unfortunate family ties, but family also means money, and her Aunt Cordelia (a too-briefly-seen Ann-Margaret) has insisted that if Fisher wants any of her sizable inheritance, she must attend the season’s debutante parties. She asks Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), the handsome hired hand from a once-prominent family, to escort her. Over the course of their dates, Fisher falls for him, and he knows that returning her affections is a sensible choice, but sometimes love is more complicated than that.

In its florid language and broad characters, the picture occasionally courts self-parody (a couple of key moments brought back ill-timed memories of Christopher Durang’s fracturingly funny Williams parody play, “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls”). Wisely, though, Markell plays it mostly straight, and that seems to be the right approach. There’s only one glaring error: the ill-advised use of a spotlight effect during a key moment, a theatrical device that takes us right out of the scene. The atmosphere feels right—swampy, hot, dusty—but the photography isn’t terribly impressive; it’s mostly shot with TV-movie style coverage, and Markell seems to have trouble staging her party scenes, which play stiff and awkwardly.

Evans’ decision to underplay his role is a wise one, though he occasionally verges on inertia. Fisher is something of an impossible role, what with all the jerky mood shifts and to-the-balcony theatricality, and as likable as Howard is, she just can’t make it fly. There’s a sense of play-acting in both her and Evans’ performances; they don’t seem entirely comfortable in their period costumes and regional dialects, while supporting actors like Will Patton and the great Ellen Burstyn slip into their roles like second skin.

Williams himself isn’t blameless, either. He was a great writer, yes, but not a perfect one; much of the script hasn’t aged particularly well, and portions of the dialogue are overwrought, even by his standards. There are some structural flaws with the material as well—particularly the long, draggy party sequence that bogs down the second hour, finally pushing the picture into the kind of overheated melodrama it’s been within a breath of for the previous 80 minutes. Markell has a hard time finding her footing after that, though she comes mighty close with a fine, delicately played final scene.

There are good scenes like that one, and several other lovely moments. But Markell’s direction is too pedestrian to compensate for the overall lack of timeliness in Williams’ text; she can’t find a new angle from which to view the somewhat musty tale. Maybe Kazan could have worked with Williams to bring it up to the level of their previous collaborations. But we’ll never know. As it stands, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is a curio, but not quite a success.

"The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond" opens Wednesday, December 30th in limited release.

In Theaters: "Old Partner"

You wouldn’t think that a documentary portrait of an elderly Korean farming couple and their dying ox is the kind of thing that would suffer by comparison; indeed, you wouldn’t imagine that there’s much of anything else in the world to compare it to. But as luck would have it, I saw said documentary, Old Partner, less than a week after taking in a documentary about sheep herders rustling a herd across Montana. Neither one sounds like anything you’d want to sit through, and admittedly, the shepherd doc is the stronger picture. But they’re both a hell of a lot more interesting than they sound.

As the film begins, Choi is 79 years old, his wife Yi is 76, and their ox is 40 (ancient for that animal). Choi and his ox work the field and the rice patty; he resists industrialized farming, proclaiming, “It’s better to do it with your hands.” Over the decades of the animal’s life, the elderly farmer has grown close to it—“Even though he is a beast who can’t talk to me,” he notes, “this ox is better than any human being.” But his beloved partner is not long for this world; when the vet tells him the animal has about a year to live, he shakes his head vigorously and announces, “No, that’s not true!”

But it is. The animal is getting sicker, less able to do the demanding work, and if Choi can’t admit it, Yi surely can. She ends up picking up much of the slack, and fumes over her husband’s dedication to the beast (“Day and in and day out, all he knows is that ox”). Their relationship is amusingly snippy, and though it’s funny, it’s also rather tragic. Yi never enjoys the attention or affection he pays to their ox, and she’s not quiet about it—in fact, she compares herself to the animal, and does it bluntly.

That relationship is probably the film’s primary focus, and it is fascinating, though their bickering and general malaise grows somewhat wearying by the picture’s end. It is also a somewhat heartbreaking portrait of this worn-out old man; there is an almost uncomfortably intimate scene that catches Choi lying on the floor of his living room, just trying to breathe, and his guttural moan is startling. This is not a man who should still be hand-plowing fields and planting in the patties. But he is a stubborn, difficult old guy, as seen in the scene where he resists selling an unmanageable calf.

If the subject is surprisingly compelling, the execution is a bit spotty; even at a brisk 78 minutes, the film drags a bit, and the piano score, though occasionally effective, is transparently cheap and manipulative. The videography is blotchy and full, though some of the framings are inventive (there’s a particularly good shots late in the film of the two old souls lumbering down the road).

Old Partner’s ending breaks your heart a little; throughout the film, the old ox’s presence is announced by the elegant ringing of his little bell, and the film is framed by old Choi and that bell. It’s moving—more moving, really, than a documentary about an ox has any right to be. There’s a pretty narrow niche audience for this kind of movie, and if you’re not in it, nothing I can write will convince you to check this one out. But some viewers will be drawn right in by it, and you know who you are.

"Old Partner" opens in New York City on Wednesday, December 30th.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Commentary: The Top 10 of 2009

So what kind of a year was it at the movies, exactly? In this reviewer’s estimation, it was a very good one. It was not a great one, contrary to what you may have read in some of the more hyperbolic year-end round-ups; as right as he often is about such matters, Roger Ebert’s comparison of this year’s output to that of 1939 and 1976 is downright befuddling. There were only a handful of truly, through and through, “great movies” this year (they pretty much make up the top half of the top 10 list below)—that is, pictures that I could absolutely recommend, without question, without qualification, to just about anyone. That’s not a huge number—not compared to, say, 1999 or 2007.

But there is an embarrassment of riches when you start ticking off the “very good movies” from the twelve months past—an astonishing number of films that had some flaws, but were interesting and/or vibrant and/or entertaining and/or challenging all the same. They may have required some caveats—“Oh, it’s terrific, but it’s one scene too long” or “There’s a couple of mediocre performances, but it’s awfully good anyway”—but they were still head and shoulders above much of the dreck that Hollywood shoveled out on a weekly basis. Those films make up the bottom half of my top 10, and the ridiculously large “runners-up” list that follows.

So here we go.

The Top 10:

1. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman’s smart, savvy, heartbreaking comedy-drama is both timeless and uniquely of this moment; his tale of an unattached man who crashes down to earth is impossibly nimble in its savvy negotiation of the thin line between comedy and tragedy. Snappy in its construction and flawless in its performances, it’s about as perfect a motion picture as I saw all year.


2. Up: Every year, the folks at Pixar make an extraordinary film, a movie so smart and sweet and entertaining and challenging that it puts other so-called "family entertainment" to shame. But they’re not just making movies for kids: they get away with narrative craftsmanship and thematic maturity that most "grown-up" movies can barely conceive of. What a charming, lovely, wonderful movie.


3. Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze’s long-awaited, much-discussed adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved book is enchanting film, warm and winning, a picture that envelops its audience and holds them in its grasp for its entire 94 minutes. But it’s more than a sweet family entertainment; it’s a tentative, difficult look at what it is to be a child, to feel the first, terrifying pangs of sadness and fragility and loneliness and despair.


4. Pressure Cooker: The year’s best documentary, a disarmingly intimate portrait of three inner-city kids vying for culinary scholarships, and the extraordinary woman who encourages them. Strong, powerful filmmaking, with a sequence of closing scenes that are unbelievably moving; I basically spent the last twenty minutes of the picture either on the verge of tears, or just over the edge. Seek this one out; it’s unforgettable.


5. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire: Lee Daniels’ modern American tragedy is unflinching and powerful, unrelenting in its sorrow yet simultaneously moving and forgiving. The direction is assured, the performances astonishingly natural; it is a bold, heartbreaking picture, and entirely worthy of the considerable praise it has received.


6. Funny People: A thoughtful, sometimes moving, frequently uproarious mediation on fame, humor, and death from writer/director Judd Apatow, offering up not only some of his most mature and complicated storytelling to date, but also some uncommonly candid insightful commentary on its star (and Apatow’s friend), Adam Sandler.


7. Moon: A rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart; director Duncn Jones spins this occasionally-familiar yarn into something unique, fresh, and exhilarating. Hypnotic, altogether spellbinding storytelling.


8. In The Loop: Director Armondo Iannucci’s pitch-black, wickedly funny political satire is the kind of smart and tart, take-no-prisoners mockery that seldom makes it to screens intact; it’s an admirably zippy picture where the punch lines are beautifully well-aimed but characterizations are never sacrificed for the easy laugh. In The Loop wasn’t as widely seen as it should have been, but it hits DVD and Blu-ray in January, and will hopefully become something of a cult classic.

9. The Girlfriend Experience: Twenty years after his breakthrough film sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh returns to themes of intimacy and honesty with astonishingly assured results; much as Scorsese did with The Departed, Soderbergh creates a film that is, in many ways, a culmination of his recurring themes and unique style, and is also something altogether new. Confident, fascinating filmmaking, emboldened by a shockingly skillful leading turn by adult film star Sasha Grey.


10. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson’s inaugural foray into the world of stop-motion animation is an absolute charmer, sweet and sunny and unquestionably entertaining; by turning his filmmaking process upside-down, Anderson seems to have reconnected with the infectious energy and all-out joy of his early pictures.


Honorable Mention: I was instructed not to review the brilliant French crime picture A Prophet (Un Prophète) until its release in February of 2010, but I’ve seen it crop up on a few year-end lists. I’m going to honor the theatrical release date, but take this opportunity to give you the heads up, because it would have ranked very high on this list were it an official 2009 release. It is filmmaking at point-blank range, a stark, fierce criminal portrait of tremendous power, and one to watch for in the upcoming months.


Runners-up: Adventureland, Big Fan, Star Trek, An Education, The Soloist, The Hurt Locker, The Road, The Brothers Bloom, Not Quite Hollywood, Outrage, Crazy Heart, Whip It, Cold Souls, Sugar, Lymelife, Capitalism: A Love Story, The Informant!, Me and Orson Welles, The Hangover, The Messenger, It Might Get Loud, Playground, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Public Enemies, Broken Embraces, A Single Man, That Evening Sun, Duplicity, I Love You, Man, (500) Days of Summer, Drag Me to Hell, Observe and Report, World’s Greatest Dad, Two Lovers, Gomorrah, and Inglourious Basterds.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

In Theaters: "It's Complicated"

I keep trying with Nancy Meyers, and I’m not going to do it anymore; she’s an awful writer and a terrible filmmaker, period, point blank, end of story, and if there’s anything to be learned from her latest soggy mess of a motion picture, It’s Complicated, it’s that there no matter who she somehow manages to suck into her orbit, there is no actor who can emerge from a Meyers project unscathed. You’d be hard pressed to come up with three actors I’d more enjoy seeing in a film together than Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, but they are unable to do what Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Mel Gibson, and Helen Hunt couldn’t manage either: to make a Nancy Meyers “comedy” watchable. Her films are where good acting goes to die.

The storyline, which is (in all fairness) moderately clever, centers on Jane (Streep), your typical fabulously wealthy, supposedly independent Meyers protagonist. Ten years ago, her husband Jake (Baldwin) left her for the younger temptress Agness (Lake Bell), now his wife. Both find themselves drinking alone at the hotel bar in New York City, where they’ve gone for their son’s graduation; the drinks flow, the dancing follows, and before she knows it, Jane is having an affair with her ex-husband. The timing couldn’t be more inopportune; a faint flirtation has begun with Adam (Martin), the architect who’s designing the addition for her house.

An early scene in their courtship pinpoints one of the major issues with not just It’s Complicated, but with Meyers’ entire oeuvre. To explain, allow me to pose this question to you, gentle reader: Remember how exciting it was the first time your architect came over and marked off your new addition? No? Exactly. The running problem with her films (and those of her contemporary Nora Ephron, and films that ape their style, like The Women) is that there’s no relatability to them; they are the stories of over-privileged, dull, vapid white people in oceanfront homes with no real problems. Now is an especially bad time to ask us to give a damn about characters as conspicuously consumptive as these, and I know, I know, the Great Depression was also the golden age of screwball comedy, but you know what? Those films were fast and zippy and filled with sparkling dialogue, and there is absolutely none of that here. Meyers’ characters are hermetically sealed upper-class twits, and if you got stuck talking to one of them at a party, you’d be eyeing the snack table inside of 90 seconds. There’s no spark to her dialogue, no zazz; it’s all pleasantries and housekeeping, relentlessly vanilla. This is not the way people talk; it’s the way people on bad television talk. “You’ve outgrown him, you’ve blossomed; you’ve feng shui-ed your whole life!” goes one line. “Karma is the ultimate bitch in this one!” goes another. And so on. It’s not compelling, and it’s not entertaining.

And it’s not funny. Good Lord, is it not funny. There’s not an honest-to-goodness laugh from one end of this movie to the other. Witness poor John Krasinski, so good on The Office, playing the future son-in-law who is clearly supposed to be the family cut-up, but saddled with painfully unamusing lines and no clue how to play them. Note the tired, desperately unhip descent into turgid pot humor. But for a real course in how to screw up comedy, watch the climactic bit with the webcam, which has potential, and is set up just fine, but the execution is disastrous—it’s clumsy, overdone, overshot, overwhelmed by the obnoxiously whimsical score. The only thing worse than an unfunny scene is an unfunny scene accompanied by “funny” music. Watching that scene fall apart, all you can wonder is why they keep letting Nancy Myers direct movies, and nine years after What Women Want, I still don’t have an answer for you.

Indeed, it takes a special kind of bad filmmaker to get a bad performance out of Meryl Streep, but Myers does it. Streep’s work here is overcooked; it’s all eye-rolling and fake laughing, trying too hard to overcompensate for the mirthless writing. Her and Alec Baldwin have some chemistry, in spite of the script; they even have one entire good scene, a laid-back, honest chat in her bathroom that provokes some genuine chuckles. But he’s saddled with an irritatingly one-note character and no real through-line. Martin has some amusing moments and conveys real charm, but he tends to push too hard as well, desperate to wring some laughs out of the tired material.

It’s Complicated is exactly the movie you think it’s going to be. It is delivered as advertised, two hours of forced affability and wine-soaked “girl talk” and music montages and unrestrained self-indulgence on the part of its abysmal writer/director. I can’t imagine how anyone would willfully sit through it. I predict it will be a huge holiday hit.

"It's Complicated" is now playing in wide release.

In Theaters: "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

Few directors’ work is as immediately and readily identifiable as that of Terry Gilliam. The opening scenes of his new picture The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are jam-packed with jaunty angles, trick lenses, and extreme compositions. Gilliam isn’t making any apologies; as with his last film, the fascinating but unapproachable Tideland, he’s making the film he wants to make, logic and common sense be damned. As with that film, Doctor Parnassus will likely embolden his detractors and reinvigorate his admirers—and though I’d consider myself to be more the latter than the former, it must be said that his bag of tricks is getting mighty shallow.

Tideland came and went with little fanfare in 2005, and Doctor Parnassus might well have suffered the same fate, were it not the final film appearance of Heath Ledger. The late actor plays Tony, a mysterious stranger whose hanging body is discovered by the titular company, a traveling caravan led by the good doctor (Christopher Plummer). Their show, frequently set up in parking lots and other undesirable locations, is a chintzy sideshow with one magical element: a mirror that allows audience members to take a journey beyond reality and into their own imagination. Tony is a bit of enigma, seemingly on the run, and he welcomes the opportunity to disappear into the company, though their future may be in jeopardy, thanks to Dr. Parnassus’ long-ago deal with the Devil (Tom Waits).

The picture has its pleasures—the funhouse atmosphere is infectious, Plummer makes for a marvelously stumblebum medicine man, equally wise and inebriated, and it is indeed hard to resist any film that features Waits (sporting a natty pencil-thin mustache, no less) as Beelzebub. But it’s something of a mess, from a storytelling point of view—the scenes are all sort of jammed up next to each other, like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit, and Gilliam seems to change his mind about what kind of film he wants to make approximately every 15 minutes. Gilliam’s self-penned screenplays (he wrote this one with Charles McKeown, his collaborator on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil) have never exactly been a model for narrative efficiency, but this one is all over the damned place.

Some of that may be due to the mid-film rewrites necessitated by Ledger’s untimely death, though he remains in quite a bit of the film. It seems that the bulk of his unfinished work was in the fantasy, through-the-magic-mirror sequences; friends and admirers Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell step in to play the character in that altered state. Their presence is both welcome and a distraction—in a normal film, it would pull us out of the narrative, reminding us that Ledger is no longer with us and that’s why he’s not in these scenes, but the narrative is so rambling and disorganized that it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.

The fantasy sequences are frequently self-indulgent and near-nonsensical, but they also have some of the energy and anarchic spirit of Gilliam’s Python animations. The company’s quaintly low-tech stagecraft seems a deliberate callback to the opening scenes of Baron Munchausen, while the trips inside the mirror ape that film’s flights of fancy as well. Gilliam seems to be repeating himself here, repurposing his earlier ideas and visual motifs in an attempt to create something new and distinctive. But he’s only exploding his least attractive qualities; while Time Bandits and Brazil had a wonderful sense of controlled chaos, his best films of recent years have been those, like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, in which his visual gifts were tethered to a strong, compelling screenplay—by another, more disciplined writer. His fights with studio brass are legendary, but more often than not, when let loose in the candy store, Gilliam tends to burn the mother down. He certainly does so in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, albeit in a sporadically entertaining fashion.

Doctor Parnassus may very well find success with audiences who find it appropriate accompaniment to a mind-altering experience (as his adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did), but most audiences will find it muddled and silly. As a de facto tribute to Ledger (who is, I have not mentioned, quite good in the picture), it is certainly heartfelt and valuable; as a cogent piece of storytelling, it misses by a mile. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t lose our interest either—it’s aimless, but it sure as hell ain’t boring.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is now playing in limited release.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On DVD: "Kobe Doin' Work: A Spike Lee Joint"

Spike Lee’s new documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, is a great movie for sports fans and a passable one for the rest of us; when it was over, I was still ready for a new Spike Lee joint. Make no mistake, it does what it does very well—presumably as well as it could possibly be done. What may come into question is whether it needed to be done at all.

When I heard that Lee was doing a documentary on Kobe Bryant, my eyebrows raised; he’s proven himself a skilled documentarian over the years, particularly in dealing with social issues (4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke), and he’d taken on a potentially controversial sports figure before, in the excellent Jim Brown: All American. Much to my surprise, Kobe Doin’ Work doesn’t even mention his notorious 2003 sexual assault case (later dropped by Colorado prosecutors). In fact, the film ends with a happy-go-lucky domestic scene, as Bryant, his wife, and their two daughters stroll playfully out to his Range Rover after the game and all but drive off into the sunset. There’s also no mention of the troubled relationship between Bryant and coach Phil Jackson (Jackson wrote a book in 2004 in which he said Bryant was “uncoachable”); they seem to get along well enough, although there certainly doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication between the pair. Based on what we do see, it looks like Bryant basically coaches himself.

So on one hand, it’s a bit of a wax job. On the other, Lee isn’t making some kind of a comprehensive documentary portrait. The conceit of the film is right there in the title—this is Kobe going to the office. It takes place over the course of one evening, during one important game (playing the Spurs in the Staples Center on April 13, 2008). Lee and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Pi, Iron Man), shadow Bryant as he suits up, stretches, watches game tape with Jackson, and gets ready for the game. Once it begins, they put 30 cameras on the game and put a wireless mic on Bryant, getting into his space and his head during an important play-off game.

Bryant does extemporaneous narration throughout—a device that’s a little off-putting at first. It’s something akin to watching a movie for the first time with the audio commentary on (and many of his comments have that same kind of tone—“This is funny watching because I didn’t realize I talk all that damn much”). Once you get used to it, however, it does work, and he provides some real insight into his strategies for defense and pacing himself, as well as the moment-to-moment play of the game. Lee chimes in with questions every once in a while as well (“Kobe, why don’t more teams use the triangle?”) and it’s good to hear from him; they also have some occasional amusing byplay of their own (early in the film, Bryant notes “I’m doing this voice-over after I just scored 61 points against Spike’s beloved New York Knicks”).

The body mic is also an ingenious device—and it is an unedited one, which is even more interesting. He throws around some four and twelve-letter words, whether reflexively after blowing a shot or while talking a little bit of trash on the line. He doesn’t apologize for it on the voice-over track (“Foul language is just a thing in sports. It’s just a part of sports”), and the use of it is refreshingly honest and unvarnished. In general, the film’s use of sound is masterful; Lee does some experimenting in the design, occasionally isolating effects; in one key moment, he takes out every sound but the bouncing of the ball and the swish of the net, nicely augmented by Bruce Hornsby’s charming score (it’s a jazzy piano number reminiscent of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm).

The cutting is fast-paced without going overboard; it moves, yes, and the multi-camera set-up is fully exploited, but this isn’t an MTV job. Lee stays with shots during slower moments and lingers on close-ups when necessary. Visually, the film is at its best when Spike stops worrying about the game and starts to play—he trots out some pretty inventive tricks. Slow motion is used at a couple of key moments but not abused; on a couple of other occasions, he shows a play or a trick move in a series of black and white stills rather than moving images (shades of his very first feature, She’s Gotta Have It). He also spotlights a couple of crucial moments with a series of quick replays; I don’t mean this in the style of a TV-sports “instant replay”, but rather showing the sinking of a decisive basket from three different angles, rat-tat-tat, with the sound (say, Kobe saying “gotcha”) repeating each time. It’s a neat trick and, again, not overused.

It’s just plain rotten luck for Spike that the Lakers take such a decisive lead in the third quarter that Bryant basically sits out the fourth; it surely made sense for Jackson to let the bench play out the fourth, but it makes for an awfully anticlimactic movie (a fact that Lee seems to acknowledge—“We should have shot tonight’s game!” he laughs). This does keep the movie short, though; he can compress the time that Bryant spends on the bench, which is presumably the reason that we only see the score during time-outs and quarter breaks. Or that might just be so it doesn’t feel like we’re just watching a game on TV. The only problem is, when Lee isn’t playing with his photography and having fun with his effects, it feels like that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s a good game, and an expertly photographed and assembled one, but when it comes down to it, that’s all it is. For some people, that’s good enough. I found myself wishing Spike had found a few more devices that would keep his movie-nerd fans interested.

"Kobe Doin' Work: A Spike Lee Joint" is available now on DVD.