Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The State of the Best...and the the Year Closes

We don't (yet) live in a major population center. We don't (yet) get paid for doing this work we love so much. There have been some great films this year (and, as usual, an unbalanced flood of them in recent weeks), but I never quite feel right making a formal "Best of the Year" list until I've seen all of them...or at least, all but a few.

At this point, I feel that there are four outstanding titles prohibiting the list from being compiled. Those are Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and The Wrestler. In a perfect world, I'd say Che and A Christmas Tale are necessary viewing as well, but those are harder to get a hold of. I am hoping that the list will be completed by the time Oscar nominations are announced on January 22.

It will be easier, however, to quickly complete the vaunted "Worst of 2008" list, always a simultaneously fun and painful experience. Look for our Worst lists in the very near future.

Every year I am reminded that these year-end retrospectives are, ultimately, meaningless in the grand scheme of things. There are, even in the worst years (except 2006, where the quality was potent for about 10 movies, and then the well dried up), more than ten films worthy of consideration, and it usually depends on the subjective views each critic applies on any given day as to which films ultimately receive the honor of landing a spot on THE LIST. But as I always do, I must defend the undeniable fun of looking back over the year that was, and celebrating the greatest (and throwing one last sucker punch at the most dubious) of the year's cinematic achievements. The movies deserve it, one way or the other.

I am a movie guy...have been since I was about 5 years old. The movies have the ability to transport, influence, enrage, horrify, entertain, educate, and enliven. They can make us laugh or make us cry, turn us on or turn us off. Film is, if I may steal a term coined by Dr. Charles Derry, a all-encompassing synthesis of writing, music, and photography. In choosing to honor these films by making lists, I choose to pay special homage to the medium that has wound my clock, jump-started my heart, enlivened my imagination, and opened my mind so many times. The movies mean the world to me.

And for that reason, perhaps these lists aren't so meaningless after all.

Happy New Year...Happy Cinema.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Awards Season: A Snapshot

Nearly all of the critics groups have spoken. The vast majority of Top Ten lists have been published. Most major awards nominations have been announced. Oscar nomination ballots have been sent out. So...where do we stand?

Wall-E has appeared on the most Top Ten Lists, according to MovieCityNews. Filling out the Top Ten films appearing on Top Tens (yeah, I intended that to be a messy string of words) are, in order, Milk, The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Happy Go Lucky, Let the Right One In, and A Christmas Tale. From this primary list we can likely predict four out of the five eventual Best Picture nominees by process of elimination. Right One and Christmas Tale are just too odd and foreign. Happy, Wrestler, and Rachel are the kinds of films the Academy will consider "actor-only." That leaves five...and Wall-E is animated. So deserving as it is, the Academy will feel good about themselves for giving it Best Animated Feature. So...four out of ten.

The film outside of the Top Ten with the best shot at the final slot is Frost/Nixon, which seems to have a grasp on the nomination until some other film snatches it away. The two Kate Winslet movies, The Reader and Revolutionary Road, were both nominated for Golden Globes, but that fact may weaken their standing moreso than boost it. Doubt scored some nods from the Screen Actors Guild, but that only underlines the fact that is yet another "actors-only" movie. Of course, there is the outside shot that in a year with no overwhelming frontrunners, a movie like Wall-E could sneak in. But in realm of so-called "unlikely" nominees, Oscar usually only leaves room for one...and Dark Knight is the odds-on favorite to take it.

Looking at Critics Groups, the winner of the overwhelming majority of Best Picture awards has been Slumdog Millionaire. What that usually means is that a fabulous independent film is getting love from critics, which will ensure that it gets the Best Picture Oscar nomination and is guaranteed not to win it. But in this year of change, in this year of hope, in this year of destiny, in this year of Obama...the Academy may align with the Critics.

As for the groups that did not award Best Picture to Slumdog, the only consistent winners (and by "consistent" I mean garnering only a couple awards each, as opposed to one anomaly) were Wall-E, Milk, Benjamin Button, and The Dark Knight. What bearing, if any, does that stat have on Oscar buzz and Oscar voting? Difficult to say.

Crunching the numbers in the acting categories, the only overwhelmingly consistent winner--the most consistent winner in any category, by the way--is Heath Ledger for Supporting Actor. He has won 20 out of 22 major-city critics group awards (winner of the other two, by the way, was Josh Brolin for Milk)

The Supporting Actress category provides the widest, closest contest, with four women all running neck-and-neck. Marisa Tomei has won 6 awards, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) has 5, Viola Davis (Doubt) has 4, and Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel) has 4. Kate Winslet won only a single award for Supporting Actress in The Reader, but she won a couple more Lead Actress awards for the same movie. The Academy will be putting her in the supporting category for Reader and the lead category for Revolutionary Road. Taraji P. Henson also won a single trophy for Ben Button.

In Best Actress there is another close race. Anne Hathaway in Rachel currently has 6 wins, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky has 5, and Kate Winslet also has 5, but those are split between her two movies. Meryl Streep has 3, as does Melissa Leo (Frozen River).

The Best Actor category is being dominated in much the same way as Supporting Actor, only the awards are nearly evenly split between two behemoths rather than dominated by one. Sean Penn has won 12 awards. Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) has won 11. The one award that separates the two from a deadlock is the one (1) Best Actor award given to Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino (handed out by the National Board of Review...never well-respected and appropriately ignored in most legit circles, but that never kept them from being spoilers).

So what does this all mean? Well...not a whole lot, to be honest. Ledger is in as Supporting Actor and will win, barring a huge backlash against alleged "posthumous glad-handing." The Best Actor race will indeed come down to Penn and Rourke, possibly with an edge for Penn for playing the country's most transformative gay political figure in an Obama-slash-Prop 8 year...or possibly an edge for Rourke, given the matching character-and-actor underdog comeback stories.

What else? Well, Kate Winslet will be double-nominated in the Actress and Supp. Actress categories...and those two will, as always, be the most difficult categories to handicap in the entire Oscar ceremony.

I've sort of overlooked Best Director...not by choice, but out of subconscious omission, because it seems like the only other foregone conclusion. Danny Boyle is the odds-on favorite right now...not much to stop him at the moment.

Watch for some early nomination predictions in all major categories in the coming days. For now, go see the movies and tell me what you think, because between now and Nomination Day on January 22, there's a lot of time for assumptions and predictions...and it's just better to fill the time by actually watching the damn movies.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I'm trying not to say, "No 'Doubt' About It..."

All ridiculously lame jokes aside...Doubt is small, spare, and utterly spectacular. It is one of the most enthralling movie experiences of the year.

Mark it down as another likely Oscar win for Meryl Streep...but this is no Music of the isn't even just another Devil Wears Prada, even though that was quite a fabulous performance. Streep's work here marks what is likely her best performance of the decade.

Also mark it down as another landmark piece of work from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is really the crowned king of actors at the moment. After a mind-bending, earth-shattering role in Charlie Kaufman's widely misunderstood, completely underestimated, arguably revolutionary Synecdoche, New York, Hoffman somehow comes off as simultaneously bullyish and scared, at once smug and humble. The ambiguity of the work is stunning...and will likely not get as much attention as it should, given the push for the equally brilliant Streep.

Viola Davis is getting all kinds of buzz for her 10 minutes of screen time...and it is totally deserved. Amy Adams is getting snubbed all over the place...she brings her typical sunny innocence to the pivotal role of Sister James, the story's moral barometer, but it is not simply a typecast performance; this character is wrought with tension, inner turmoil, and, unsurprisingly, doubt. It is a great performance.

John Patrick Shanley, writer of the original stage version of Doubt, adapted and directed the film version, making his first directorial effort since Joe Versus the Volcano, if you can believe that. His visual skills are not flashy and will not gain much attention, but what is so remarkable about his work is that he--as a stage person would--gets out of the way and allows the actors to simply unleash. They build the tension to such a degree that the dialogue exchanges in Doubt are more palpably intense than most of the year's high-octane action sequences. But Shanley also adds visual touches--subtle but powerful--that communicate the film's subtext with graceful clarity. On the visual storytelling end Shanley has the added help of Dylan Tichenor's masterful editing and Roger Deakins' polished and professional cinematography, and the trio work in tandem to create a seamless, affecting visual experience.

Doubt is small but huge. It is subtle but explosive. Herein lie themes so loaded with textual and subtextual implications that K wondered if perhaps the film, brilliant as it was, tried to tackle a little too much. But therein lies the film's message--there are so many angles, so many points of view, so many lives being lived simultaneously in this world. It is impossible for any of us to be certain about anything other than what we've seen...and even then we could question ourselves. The collective experience of our lives--our hopes and fears, outward virtues and hidden sins, the thin line between the person we project to the world and the feelings we keep trapped inside--is the unflinching, immovable force of life (a profound common denominator this film shares with Synecdoche, NY, even though empirically the films couldn't be more different). We are all in this together...and we all have no idea.

A Quick Update...

Merry Christmas to you all...three days late. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday...and wish you a joyous New Year ahead.

A quick and hasty update, with more detailed reviews forthcoming (some of which may occur on the ever-exciting, anxiously-awaited [!] Top Ten list)...

See Slumdog is a revolutionary.

See Doubt...more on that very soon...

See is a staggering work of art.

See Seven Pounds...if you engage your mind and open your heart, you will be moved.

See Marley and Me...and expect much more from this alleged "studio family fare" than most are giving it credit for.

Rent Man on Wire...and prepare to be amazed.

If you ever come upon the opportunity to see Synecdoche, New York, take might hate it, but at least you will have a chance to process it, and it will stay in your mind for days.

Even the lesser films can work a little magic. Bedtime Stories is all concept, no execution...but there is a slight fanciful charm that eventually ingratiates itself into your heart. Yes Man at first seems merely pleasant and almost half-assed...but it hits its stride in the second act and keeps on going.

There's a lot out there this holiday season...more than I initially expected, and so much that even K and I haven't seen it all yet. Happy Holiday viewing...more soon...

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Weekend Fit for Oscar

We were able to accomplish exactly what we had hoped to accomplish this weekend, catching four movies over two days, three of which will be under serious "Top Ten" consideration, two of which will be THE MAJOR OSCAR CONTENDERS, and one of which will be anointed the filmic equivalent of Barack Obama.

After probably the best, most exciting and inspiring film-viewing weekend of the year, I have come away convinced that Slumdog Millionaire will win the Best Picture Oscar. Why? Well for one, the film is one of those exciting, lightning-in-a-bottle film experiences that clicks on every level, in every way.

The second reason is: Barack Obama.

This was the year of Change. This was the year of Hope. This was the year of inspirational victory overcoming insurmountable odds. That was the story--and will be the legend--of Barack Obama. That is the tenor of this country at this powerful moment in time. And that describes Slumdog Millionaire in a nutshell.

The power of the film lies in the unabashed inspiration of its story. A young kid who grew up fending for himself in the streets of Bombay sits one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The film poses the central question right from the start: How did he do it? The answers lie in the smallest of moments, in the most unexpected of places. What becomes clear is that knowledge does not come from birthright, and that winning a quiz show has nothing to do with education. Sometimes a life lived is preparation enough. Or, of course, it may just be destiny.

Danny Boyle, forever respected but scarcely awarded, will surely go into this year's Oscar ceremony the prohibitive favorite to win Best Director. After toiling within the British and American film industries for over a decade, and after churning out ambitious film after ambitious film that have been respected but not lovingly embraced, the man has finally found The Film.  Boyle has always been an extraordinary visualist, but his style has always been applied to ambitious-yet-peculiar genre films with sinister twists (Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later). Here, working from a beautifully realized script by Simon Beaufoy (also the prohibitive Oscar favorite at this point), and working with Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle has abandoned all elements of unnecessary oddity and arch but let his visual skills take flight in ways they never have before, crafting what is the most strikingly beautiful, gracefully envelope-pushing visual experience of the year. He uses the camera to create senses of joy, risk, pain, fear, tension, anger, and love. And in the power of the film's motion, the vividness of its colors, and the emotional power of its editing (yes, that's possible), the film exposes the the lush beauty and harsh reality of a 'slumdog's' life in India. It should act as a wake-up call to all viewers about the state of India's mean streets, especially in light of the recent attacks in Mumbai. This is the sort of breathless, visionary directorial panache we usually only see from the likes of Scorsese or Mereilles...or a fresh newcomer who comes out of nowhere with his talent fully formed. Indeed, Slumdog Millionaire in many ways represents a rebirth for Boyle, even though he was never in need of one.

From its opening shots of the tattered slums of Bombay to its closing Bollywood-referencing dance sequence, Slumdog Millionaire is captivating magic. It pained me. It overjoyed me. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me feel very passionately--one of the great wonders of this beautiful art form, and one of the defining characteristics of this beautiful film.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Synecdoche, New York... extraordinary beyond words.

But I will try to come up with some, and get back to you a little later...


Here is a film that very simply observes everyday life, one that never once stoops to sermonizing in any way. Yet Happy-Go-Lucky is the most powerful message movie about the importance of positivity that I've ever seen. Within the film there are moments so keenly and truthfully observed, characters so effortlessly realized, that it is like watching real life in motion.

That's typical for Mike Leigh, that British director of such beautiful films as Secrets & Lies andVera Drake, who specializes in telling stories which highlight the extraordinary elements of ordinary people and things. Here the focus of his keen eye is Poppy, a primary school teacher who is happy--very simply, very truly happy. There is no hint of pretense nor a wink of cynicism. Poppy simply chooses to stay on the bright side.

If Poppy is a delight as a character, then the performance by Sally Hawkins is a revelation. Hawkins--who has been circulating British TV and film in small roles for most of the past decade--imbues Poppy with such unabashed giddy charm that the character would become caricature if the actress didn't also add a thick layer of level-headed maturity to give Poppy a gleeful elegance, an unshakeable grace. By striking such a balance, it becomes clear that Poppy is more than she appears--much more than the sum of her ridiculous clothes and cutesy name and non-stop giggles. Poppy is, in fact, as weathered and knowledgeable as they come. She is far from one-dimensional; she has ample capacity for anger, sternness, passion, and melancholy. The fact that she has the inner strength to remain above the fray of depression, anxiety, and bitterness doesn't mean she's had it easy or has somehow skated naively by--in truth, her lack of negativity makes her stronger than nearly everyone around her.

What's so surprisingly, delightfully starling about Happy-Go-Lucky is its utter lack of cynicism. The film is an extension of Poppy--it purely and effortlessly celebrates the joy of existence, through good and through bad. Poppy's happiness is not there to mask hidden pain or buried secrets; it is not a front for a deep-seeded depression or lost innocence. Her happiness simplyis. It is not her downfall, it is her triumph. And rather than cause us to look down on her, Leigh chooses to makes us admire her, emulate her, and leave the theater cleansed of our lingering bitterness.

Vomit and Mistletoe

Four Christmases is the feature directorial debut of Seth Gordon, who last year made one of the most entertaining documentaries I've seen in recent years, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. And to be honest, the funniest thing in Four Christmases is the inside-joke casting ofKong's long-suffering hero--and rightful Donkey Kong champion--Steve Wiebe as one of Reese Witherspoon's kooky family members. But this is not one of those relentlessly lame comedies where the stunt casting is the only smirk-worthy element.

It is, however, one of those disingenuous Vince Vaughn comedies that I've come to expect ever since Wedding Crashers became a colossal box-office success. First came The Break-Up, which was mean and cruel and realistic, but also wanted to be jocular and fun and hilarious. Then came Fred Claus, which succeeded in being family-friendly but did not succeed in being funny or genuine, no matter how treacly the emotions became. Now we have Four Christmases, which is probably the most consistently funny of all of Vaughn's recent films--including Wedding Crashers, of which I was absolutely NOT a fan.

But the central problem remains the same: as a producer with a certain amount of sway over his material, Vaughn consistently wants to have his cake and eat it, too--he wants to moralize while still retaining the super-smug persona. In this case, Vaughn and Witherspoon play a committed but unmarried couple ("why ruin this perfection by institutionalizing it?"), both of whom come from divorced, comically deranged families. Every Christmas, the couple escapes the potentially maddening family get-togethers by saying they're "just too busy" to come visit...and then they fly off to an exotic vacation together. The conveniently zany high-concept twist of the premise is that this time, an epic fog storm cancels all flights and the couple are interviewed by a news network. Apparently all four families were watching at the same moment, and voila!--the couple is roped into celebrating four Christmases.

All four sets of families are ridiculous in their own ways--Vaughn's father (Robert Duvall) is a gruff  backwoods manly-man whose two other sons still live with him; his mother (Sissy Spacek) is a new-age wacko who is now dating Vaughn's former best friend; Witherspoon's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is a religious nut who may have a thing for her pastor; and Witherspoon's father (Jon Voight) may be, conveniently, the only voice of reason in either family.

The underlying theme of Four Christmases is that Vaughn and Witherspoon steer clear of their families to suppress lingering skeletons in their personal closets, and by suppressing them from themselves, they have hidden them from each other. It makes sense, but the film is constantly hedging its bets by asking us to buy into the burgeoning trouble in the central relationship, but also root for our protagonists to stay together in the end, and also laugh out loud at gags involving puking babies and body-slamming older brothers. And the thing is, I didlaugh...until the gags became repetitive. And I did buy into the central conflict...until it became clear to me that the filmmakers didn't even believe in it. Essentially, Four Christmases is a mildly enjoyable one-note comedy that Vaughn the Producer has strained to turn into something mildly important. But how important can a movie be when it begins with raunchy PG-13 sex and ends with projectile vomiting?

More Great 2008 Animation

You've got to hand it to the animators at Disney...easy as it may be to take shots at the perennially family-friendly studio, they keep churning quality animated film after quality animated film, both in their co-productions with Pixar and in their own newly-minted computer animation wing. Bolt comes from the latter, and the missing ingredients of those brilliant minds and boundless creativity at Pixar are what dictates that this film cannot really compare to WALL-E, which is undoubtedly the best animated film of the year and will likely go down as the greatest animated film of the decade. However, Bolt is a film that really need not be compared to anything else, positively or is a film that stands on its own merits as a wonderful experience.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is the most famous canine television star on the planet...but he doesn't know that his heroic action-adventure world, with his beloved TV owner, Penny (Miley Cyrus), is all part of the show. The movie is Bolt's journey of discovery, as he breaks free from his Hollywood imprisonment and enters the real world, realizing that there is more--and less--to reality than he was expecting.

The film is not, obviously, an intimate personal journey, a la The Truman Show. It is more a clever inside-Hollywood job, with plenty of in-jokes and showbiz revelations. But there is undeniable soul to the story of this unwitting celebrity and his quest to find himself in the real world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Big, Huge, Grand...

Australia is a big, grand epic that is powerful and beautiful...though somehow not quite perfect. The film is a stunningly cinematic feat that truly does feel like the natural progression for Baz Luhrmann, seven years after the overwhelming brilliance of Moulin Rouge!, his visionary musical--the film that set the "Musicals On Film" wave into motion...and still the best, most exuberantly cinematic movie musical of them all.

After such a towering feat, it feels appropriate for Luhrmann to take the artistic license to do something huge--after all, the filmmaking in Rouge made it feel huge, but it was actually much more intimate than the sprawling canvass that is the entire continent of Australia. Like most passion projects, Australia is sometimes a little too close to its maker for it to totally translate to the audience, but it is one of the more effective epic productions in recent years...far surpassing what should be called the recent Ridley Scott epics, to be sure.

The film tells a story of class, identity, and war in Australia, but at its core is the epic love story between the high-society woman who is learning to build a new life (Nicole Kidman) and the brutish, independent, lower-class hunk who doesn't want to be tied down (Hugh Jackman). The set-up is textbook epic material, but Luhrmann's visuals bring new vibrancy to a familiar genre, and the chemistry between the actors sells their romance. Kidman and Jackman are beautiful and talented performers, and they are very strong here, giving their best for the most powerful and respected director of their home country (though Jackman's power as a singer makes me wish Luhrmann would have thrown in one unapologetically pretentious musical number for the Tony winner to belt).

With Australia, it is clear that Luhrmann wanted to redefine the romantic epic in the same way he redefined the movie musical. And as a beautiful exercise in genre redefinition, Australia fulfills his goal. It is clearly an 'A-' movie. But there is that one tiny missing piece, that not-quite-definable magic element that leaves a small gap...the gap between "very good" and "great." You don't come by much more vibrant visuals than Luhrmann's, yet he seems more mannered and less unhindered than he has in the past. The story here is big, powerful, and effective, but it seems to have been manufactured by Luhrmann's keyboard rather than emerging from an innate place of passion. It seems to me that Luhrmann is trying a little too hard this time...that if he allowed himself to relax, either by giving himself room to breathe in the writing stage or taking additional time during the editing stage, that we would see all of what he intended. But if we cannot quite have that perfection, we do have a big, beautiful piece of filmmaking that does rank with the best achievements of the year--especially in a year where greatness is scarce across the board.

Australia is wonderful.  But it could have been an unparalleled masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Back From the Dead...or Florida

Yeah, I'm still alive. So for those of you betting money on whether I was alive or dead, I hope you bet on the bright side.

Truth is, it has just been a busy freakin' month. Was busy with school stuff immediately following the election...the holiday season hit quickly and consumed tons of time, as usual...and then, for the last 10 days, we took the kids to Florida for Disney World, Universal Studios, and other such fun. It was a wonderful time...but I have missed the movies.

Obviously I am way behind on reviews...but if I were to say that I'm up-to-date on the actual screening of films, I would be lying. I am way behind on that front as well.

Awards season is upon us. Slumdog Millionaire has become the critical darling...which, based on history, means it will be Oscar-nominated, but not the Oscar winner. I will see the film this weekend, and will report back. WALL-E, very deservingly, is also being bestowed with many critical honors and is landing on virtually every Top Ten list...but that pesky Best Animated Feature category will likely keep it from landing where is deserves...on the nominee list for Best Picture. Milk is also getting big-time traction, but I remain unconvinced that it has anything locked...except perhaps Best Actor. Early favorites like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road have done what early frontrunners traditionally do: stalled. But Ben Button is still in the hunt, and will likely stand among Oscar's final for Rev. Road...umm, we'll see.

I am hoping to see Slumdog, Milk,  and Will Smith's Seven Pounds (which has not gotten much in the way of awards traction, but which I refuse to count out simply because Will Smith is not only the world's biggest movie star, but he has now become the savviest actor and script-chooser working today). I am also hoping to sit down for Charlie Kauffman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, later this week.

Some shortened reviews of some recent releases are forthcoming, as is my first Oscar Watch update of the season.

And more than anything, I can't wait to start seeing some of these movies, so the conversation can begin in earnest.

Are you all still out there? What do you have to bring to the conversation? Let's start talking again...