Sunday, January 31, 2010

DGA Winner = New Oscar Front-runner?

The Director's Guild of America announced its winners on Saturday night, and the feature film winner made history. Kathryn Bigelow, director of the extraordinary The Hurt Locker, became the DGA's first ever female winner. Wonderful. Well-deserved.

But it comes with potential to alter the shape of this awards season. Going into the weekend, most would have predicted James Cameron, King of Everything and director of Avatar (Bigelow's ex-husband, by the way), would walk off with the DGA prize and thus be further cemented as the odds-on favorite to win Best Director at this year's Oscar ceremony. But now, with Bigelow winning DGA, the race becomes interesting once again.

Let's look at history. The DGA has been the most accurate Oscar predictor for decades. In the last 61 years, the DGA winner and Best Director Oscar winner have corresponded all but six times -- astounding accuracy no other awards entity can come close to matching. Further history would reveal that the best predictor of the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars is he who wins (or maybe, finally, she who wins) Best Director. The Best Director and Best Picture winners have corresponded all but 12 times in the last 60 years of Oscar ceremonies (the last three of which, it may or may not matter to note, have taken place in the past decade). Put the two stats together, and you might have the makings of a momentum surge in favor of The Hurt Locker.

It is still too early to make any huge leaps in judgment, or to deviate too far from the conventional wisdom -- that the highest grossing film of all-time, both domestic and worldwide (which Avatar will be well before Oscar night), would lose Best Picture to a low-budget indie war drama that was made for roughly $11 million, never played on more than 535 screens, and only managed to haul in a little over $12 million. But the momentum has shifted. In the next few weeks, we will see how the story changes. By how much will Avatar beat Titanic? Which film will manage the best media campaign? Will people further tire of Avatar Mania? Will Oscar voters value the power of a film or the power of a film's phenomenon? Will the true passion for The Hurt Locker be enough to push it to an eventual BP -- and BD -- win?

Thanks to the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild, the next month will be much more interesting than expected.

The Disappointing, 2009

There were far more 2009 films that were just plain bad, rather than merely disappointing. But in a way, the disappointments sting worse than the bad movies. Most of the time, when walking into a bad movie, the badness is expected. But disappointments are a different beast. Expectations are elevated, hopes are high, and the possibility for greatness is tangible. And then, for whatever reasons, hope fades and the greatness evaporates.

The lists that follow commemorate the 2009 films that coulda, woulda, shoulda...but didn't. Here are films whose ambitions were high, whose intentions were virtuous, whose potential was unquestionable, but who couldn't quite deliver.   ~ J and K

Presenting the Most Disappointing Films of 2009, with analysis to follow:

He Said:

The disappointments were crushing in 2009, and they came from a large group of some of the our finest filmmakers. Any knowledgable film lover must enter the year expecting a fair share of near-misses, but 2009's group stung especially badly, since films with such intriguing subjects, extraordinary performances, and powerful, important intentions never quite accomplished their lofty goals.

Brothers, in my view, was unquestionably the year's biggest disappointment, tackling complex family issues and deep moral quandaries of our nation's military and adding some of the year's most astounding acting work from Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and young Bailee Madison. But the film gives away all its powerful secrets, and ends when the real story is just beginning.

Lars Von Trier's Antichrist runs in a close second, a film of staggering beauty in which von Trier inches ever closer to openly discussing his twisted gender issues, and yet the film descends into a jumbled mess of purposeful confusion. And Precious, that film of such great literary pedigree and unending cinematic potential, lands with such an overwrought thud in the third slot.

Rounding out my sad list of 2009 disappointments, Richard Kelly's The Box is another pretentious-yet-intriguing mind-bender that becomes unintentionally laughable; Capitalism: A Love Story is the first time Michael Moore seems to be following the trend of the times rather than defining it; Michael Mann's Public Enemies is a sprawling crime epic but isn't ever that involving; Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated has a message that was too complicated and a plot that was oh-so-simple; The Girlfriend Experience is a failed Soderbergh experiment; Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock takes the build-up and payoff of the greatest concert of our time and makes it tepid and boring; and Away We Go, directed with sincerity by Sam Mendes and acted with subtlety by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, is enjoyable but not totally fulfilling.

She Said:

There were quite a few movies this year that did not live up to the grand expectations I had for them. Whether it was the over-indulgence of Nine, the irritating blandness of Invictus, the sleep-inducing A Christmas Carol, the gloss-over, boring Taking Woodstock; the pretentious and too-weird Antichrist, the surprisingly not-so-powerful Capitalism: A Love Story, the annoying and cloying Away We Go, the nauseating drivel and one-dimensional  He's Just Not that Into You, the laughable, simplistic characterizations and dialogue of Avatar (not to mention its hypocritcal message of peace while simultaneously engaging in a 30-minute bloodbath), or the sheer inanity and beffudlement of The Box, the films on this year's list all exhibit one common trait -- they could have been and should have been so much more. So much more.

When a movie earns a spot on the worst list, it's not typically painful. It is what it is. But this list is different. When you have the amazing caliber of actors, directors, writers, and producers, when you have the sorts of ideas, concepts, and technology that these movies possess, it is all the more heartbreaking to know that this potential is squandered.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Bad, 2009

2009 was a disastrous year for the cinema. We try to stay optimistic, but years like the one that just passed slowly drain us of said optimism. We are ever grateful for the handful of wonderful films that were released in 2009 and are happy to report that we will save the best for last, discussing and celebrating the best films of 2009 in the coming days. But for now, we focus on the films that defined 2009: the bad ones.

In attempting to compile this list, we came up with approximately 30 titles to fill 10 slots. Yikes. It was a great year for terrible movies -- one of the best years for terrible movies in recent memory. Amazing. Bad sequels, bad original films, bad horror, bad comedy, bad sci-fi, bad animation, even bad indie was quite an eclectic year for crap.

What follows is a final warning, a final goodbye, a final dagger in the heart of 2009's awful films. We hate you, and we hope to forget you soon. --J and K

The lists, followed by commentary:

He Said:

If not for a few truly wonderful saving graces, 2009 would go down as the worst year for movies in the decade that just came to a close. What a way to go out, Movies of the 2000s. There are films to celebrate, and so I can't wait to move forward to discuss them. For now, we must pay tribute to the horrible films of 2009, and there were so many it was difficult to select only 10.

I Love You, Beth Cooper was clearly the year's worst, a revolting comedy that simultaneously wanted to court Superbad fans and the Home Alone crowd and was actually appropriate for neither. Speaking of Home Alone, the film was directed by Hollywood's Worst Director, Chris Columbus, who apparently thinks it is sweet and funny to depict sluts running wild with a creepy man-child and falling prey to ridiculous pratfalls and uncomfortable sexual situations. Fun!

It says something that any movie could top Land of the Lost, which is the tackiest, ugliest, most awkwardly unfunny and entirely inappropriate film Will Ferrell has ever made. Awful from top to bottom. Ferrell's career is not dead, but it is now on life support after that unmitigated disaster.

And rounding out the top three (bottom three?) is another heinous would-be comedy, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which is a simpering, stupid, unsavory load of celluloid refuse featuring Matthew McConaughey as an idiot womanizer (accurate enough, I guess) who is visited by annoying "ghosts" (even though most of them aren't actually ghosts) who guide him through the folly of his life. Each subsequent joke falls flatter than the last, and the film's transparent attempt to moralize at the end is shameless and revolting. And Michael Douglas' extended cameo as the lothario grandfather is just gross.

As for the rest, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was the comedy classic of the year, Serious Moonlight debased Adrienne Shelly's legacy, Spread attempted to trick us into thinking its vapid nastiness was somehow profound, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, by far the worst sequel I've seen in years, was ridiculous, overblown, overlong macho porn, Love Happens was an utterly disastrous romantic comedy, Knowing should have been blown up with its brooding characters, and Astro Boy set new standards for uncomfortable ugliness in animation.


She Said:This year's worst movies for me fell into two categories: banal retarded nonsense or atrocious misogyny masquerading as comedy. Well, sometimes said movies achieved such awfulness as to manage to hit both categories.

This year's spread of bad movies made even more clear that the limits of PG-13 are bursting at the seams. Such raunchy, offensively tacky and woman hating films as Beth Cooper, Land of the Lost, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Fired Up, and Transformers 2 proved we need another restriction between ages 13 and 17. Or, perhaps movies like those previously mentioned could just not be greenlit at all. From boob mugs, scorin' contests, and "stabbin' wagons" to preening porn postures and "facials," most of the films in my worst list are not just the worst but are shameful and repugnant.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


If there is any positive to take away from Tooth Fairy, it's that now I'm pretty sure that I only have to find nine more movies to place on my "Worst of 2010" list. Thanks, Dwayne Johnson.

The positives end there. Tooth Fairy is a heinous would-be comedy that is intended to put a creative twist on the legend of the tooth fairy, but the result is more painful than a root canal -- and before you roll your eyes at my use of bad humor, I must say that I can't help myself, and that the movie is even worse. This is a pale imitation of a mediocre Disney movie where the humor isn't funny, the fairy tale isn't magical, and the actors are all so hapless to stop the disaster that it barely seems like they are participating. Here is a film that literally seems to evaporate as you watch it.

The Decades: 1970s

The 1970s was a decade of giants. This is the decade where the great directors stretched to deliver some of the greatest work the cinema has ever known. Big ideas, important themes, daring stories, brilliant performances, and filmmaking that set the bar so high that no decade has ever quite reached. The 1970s was, perhaps, the greatest decade in the history of film.

Check out's collective list of the decade's best films.

And without further ado, my personal list:

How did Avatar happen?

I'm not talking about the impetus, or the many years Cameron spent waiting for the technology to advance, or the long, complicated production. I'm talking phenomenon. Avatar is the highest grossing film worldwide of all-time. In the coming weeks, it will become the all-time highest domestic grosser as well, surpassing Titanic, which seemed unthinkable for over a decade and was still unthinkable even as Avatar was released. How far the film will surpass its behemoth predecessor is still unsure. It could raise the stakes by $150 million or more.

So I pose the question: how did Avatar happen? How did it climb this high? And why this movie?

There are, in my estimation, a few simple answers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Oscar Nomination Predictions, Round 1

Getting a late start with the Oscar charts this year, but several updates will be forthcoming, a few of them even coming before nominations are announced in just over a week. The chart is ever-evolving, even though most of the eventual winners are all but set in stone.

The announcement comes February 2nd at 5:30am, Pacific time. And by the way: nominations closed over the weekend. Nothing to do now but mull over the possibilities.

Over the Weekend: SAG and PGA...what do they mean NOW?

Screen Actors Guild Award Winners:

Best Ensemble: Inglourious BasterdsLead Male: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Lead Female: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Supporting Male: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Female: Mo'Nique, PreciousProducers Guild of America Award Winners:

Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures:
, Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro
Producer of the Year Award in Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures:
UP, Jonas Rivera
Producer of the Year Award in Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures
THE COVE, Fisher Stevens, Paula DuPré Pesmen

I go on and on every awards season about how a lot of these awards mean absolutely nothing in terms of actually influencing the Oscar vote, but this year I have noted a strange phenomenon. This is the year of the affirmation. It was a year without a huge front-runner, a season in search of its star. Then Avatar showed up with its technology and its box-office numbers and its King of the Universe, and then it all seemed to lock into place. The year-end awards (actually, in the case of the major presentations, the "year-beginning awards for the previous year"), then, took on a slightly different role than usual: they acted as the Yes Man, the affirmation to the developing logic. Globes winners seemed, rather than influencing the Oscar favorites, confirmed them...

Friday, January 22, 2010

And the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar goes to...

The White Ribbon. Yep, it's all over, folks. Of course, that is the buried lead. The actual news:

AMPAS has whittled down the contenders for this year's Best Foreign Language Film category, a process they engage in every year. The landscape has been reduced to a nine-film shortlist, all in contention to fill the five slots in the category. Over a three-day period, voters will view the films and then make their determinations. The five nominees will be announced, with the rest of this year's Oscar field, on February 2nd.

The shortlist:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A New Webb-slinger

News that just dropped yesterday: Marc Webb, director of 2009's "indie" phenom (500) Days of Summer, was signed by Sony to direct the re-vamped, Raimi/Maguire-less Spider-Man. Rumors circulated about Webb's hiring ever since Raimi dropped out of the project, and this time they turned out to be entirely accurate.

The reaction? Overwhelmingly excited, if we are to believe Sony. But in truth, it's sort of a question mark. (500) Days was a very clever idea executed with an abundance of style, and that style is a result of Webb. His visual sensibility seems about the right fit for what this new Spidey is trying to be.

His aptitude with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of big studio visual effects, however, is a big unknown.

One thing is for sure: they wanted a guy with sense of fun, a cheeky sense of winking humor, and a decent style set. On the basis of his first film, it seems like they got what they wanted. A newer, younger Spider-Man, directed by a newer, younger filmmaker. The entire enterprise is a question mark, and Webb's hiring does nothing to dissuade my pending sense of doom about the project as a whole. But it's not a bad hire in the slightest.


Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones is a wonderful film. It plays the emotions in a very special way. It is not merely a special effects film; to the contrary, Jackson uses his mastery of f/x to create a vivid world that gives life to Alice Sebold's best-selling novel in a way no other filmmaker could adequately envision. The film has failed to gain traction in the awards season in spite of the Academy's expansion to ten Best Picture nominees, which is an odd omission, since Jackson is stretching his ability to tell a story of great emotion. The film is not perfect, but in that imperfection it finds a sort of messy sublimity.

The story will be quite familiar to readers of Sebold's 2002 book: Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) narrates from beyond the grave, telling the story of her murder in 1973 and its aftermath in the subsequent years. Susie is part of a loving family, with a mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) who care deeply, and she is entering into the years of budding sexuality, with a deep crush on an older classmate. Her life is just beginning...and then she stops to talk to her neighbor (Stanley Tucci), who invites her preview his new bunker for the local children to play. She cautiously accepts...and that is the end of Susie's life.

The conceit is that when Susie dies, she enters the "In-Between," a celestial area between this world and the next. The In-Between is wondrous and beautiful, sure, but it is also perilous. It is not a final resting place, but rather a reflection of the hopes and fears of its inhabitants. In general terms, Susie had -- to borrow a cliched colloquialism -- unfinished business. The In-Between becomes a reflection of Susie's inner turmoil, even after death. As she gazes upon her family, each member grieves in a different way. Her father gets pro-active, overtly so, in his obsession with tracking down a killer whom we know lives just across the street. Her mother, meanwhile, reverts inward, quickly tiring of her husband's antics. Their relationship crumbles as a result of their grief.

We simultaneously follow Susie's journey through the afterlife and the growing tension back here on Earth. Wahlberg's driven father becomes consumed by his investigation while Weisz's traumatized mother leaves and Susie's grandmother (Susan Sarandon, in a role shockingly overlooked for a shoo-in Oscar nod) comes to take care of the household. The parallel stories are a lot to juggle, and as a result the narrative sometimes feels messy, as if all the content overwhelms its purpose. Nonetheless, the heart of each story is compelling both separately and together.

Jackson is a filmmaker of great ambition and also great sensitivity. His version of The Lovely Bones -- derided by many as too sentimental, or inappropriately lofty, or castrated from the novel's graphic depictions of violence and teen sexuality -- is actually a more ambitious undertaking, in my opinion, than even his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, his take -- scripted by Jackson with longtime partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens -- focuses more on an intense emotional journey than did Sebold's novel. The film is a meditation on the grief of both those affected by death as well as the deceased, and a story of the undying celestial connection between loved ones. There is no graphic violence or bloody details, but why should there be? This film is not a police procedural or a raw psychodrama, but a lilting pondering of, more than anything, love. The search for love, the loss of love, and the discovery of new kinds of love. Jackson asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and engage their hearts. The leap is not one many wanted to make, obviously, but the experience is powerfully immersive if the viewer is open to it. The Lovely Bones the movie is different than The Lovely Bones the book, but that's okay. It is its own individual piece, a uniquely cinematic burst of emotion. Be open to it, and let it flow in.

I See the Beauty

A Single Man might just be the most downbeat film ever made about finding the beauty of life. And yet its tragedy, its stunningly dreary depiction of a lovelorn English professor as the color fades in and out of his world, it finds a beauty worthy of great literature.

Indeed, the film is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, and the adaptation, written by David Scearce and celebrated fashion designer Tom Ford, and directed by Ford in the year's most extraordinary feature debut, captures that feeling that is so distinctly literary: the fading of glory, the flickering of one's life force, the sad, beautiful demise of one's soul. And yet Ford's film is also uniquely cinematic, a visual experience unlike any other in 2009, one that would be beautiful in snapshots, but with the addition of camera movement, orchestral scoring, and amazing performances becomes painful in its subtext and vivid in its exploration of life.

Colin Firth plays George, a professor who suffers quietly through every day. George lost the love of his life, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident, and ever since the color has faded from his world -- literally. Now George has made a decision: this is the last day of his life. He enters the day as any other, counseling himself, preparing himself to "become George," as if his life force was killed alongside Jim in that car crash. "Just get through today," he tells himself in the mirror, knowing that when today is over, he won't have to wake up again.

The film follows George throughout what he intends as his last day, in 1962 Los Angeles. He unburdens his soul to his students, who stare at him dumbfounded. He makes plans with his best friend, Charlotte (Julianne Moore, in another incredible performance), without telling her that he means tonight to be their last private party. He arranges his estate and leaves a gun in his desk drawer, in anticipation of the final moment. But as George moves through the day, with the knowledge that he will no longer witness the world around him, a funny thing happens: he begins to pay attention. For the first time, he begins to see, in acute detail, the beauty of the world around him. The innocence of the little girl next door, the impeccable physical beauty of the male prostitute who attempts to pick him up outside a convenience store, the snapshot of a smile, the blink of an eye -- for the first time since Jim's death, perhaps for the first time in his life, George sees the intricate beauty of the world. He sees life. The color returns, ever-so-briefly, to his world.

Firth's performance is extraordinary, reaching depths of emotion he has never before attempted in his career. George is a character of brutal pain who finds brief hope in the snapshots of life, and Firth exudes the subtlety of the dualing forces in George's world: the power of his depression versus the beautiful world that calls for his participation. As his platonic soulmate, who has lived patiently under the delusion that one day her friend would become her lover, Moore embodies the tragic naivete of a 1950s ingenue who, as the 50s ended and 60s began, her life force was left behind. Her only desire is to have George love her, but he can't. Even though she knows, she purposefully puts it out of her mind. The futile quest for George is all Charley has to cling to. These are people whose glory has faded, and the lights are dimming, and all that's left is a shell. But George begins to see the life that's left to live; Charley only sees the hope of what can never be.

Tom Ford has been one of the fashion world's most venerated designers for years, and as a filmmaker he seems to peel back that glossy, artificial wall between fashion and its subjects. Fashion photography functions more like high-end art that reflects a silent pain, and A Single Man takes those images and adds the layers of cinema to cast a spell unlike any other 2009 film. Ford's command of the frame, and his audacious attempt to bust out of the frame and touch the soul, is phenomenal. He is a virtuoso, and his film is a bleak, intimate, gorgeous masterpiece.

Los abrazos rotos

There is something magical about the work of Pedro Almodovar. He is the grand, flamboyant master of Spanish cinema. His films create colorful, magical worlds and celebrate the ridiculous chaos of life. He flirts with the surreal and immerses himself in the operatic. He brings artistry and nuance back to melodrama, and adds his own off-beat flair. His list of masterpieces seemingly grows longer with each subsequent film: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver, and many's like giving a roll call of our generation's most wonderful films. Almodovar is, undeniably, a genius.

The filmmaker's latest opus is Broken Embraces, an arch meditation on the maddening, tragic, painstaking struggle of being an artist. Almodovar knows this struggle, which is why the film is, in a way, an autobiographical journey of this particular artist's soul. And yet the story is wildly, vividly fictional, dealing with the high-intrigue blending of love, business, and filmmaking between a popular director, his beguiling muse, her controlling husband, and other pawns in a game of secret paranoia, conflicting emotions, and movies. If it seems like piling on, it absolutely is, and yet Almodovar's unmistakable touch makes it all work seamlessly, crafting another magical journey through his artistic mind.

Almodovar himself has a muse, Penelope Cruz, ravishing star of many of Almodovar's films, who here plays Lena, the ravishing star of Mateo Blanco's (Lluis Homar) anticipated film, Women and Suitcases. Except now Mateo Blanco goes by the name "Harry Caine." Why? Well, that is what the journey of this rollercoaster narrative sets out to unveil. Traversing multiple timelines, Broken Embraces chronicles the doomed production of Mateo's/Harry's film, his tragic relationship with the mystifying Lena, who starts the film moonlighting as a call girl and eventually marries businessman Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Martel finances the film but becomes suspicious -- rightly so -- of Lena's relationship with Mateo.

As usual, Almodovar goes to great lengths not to demonize anyone. Martel is surely a rich bastard, but he also has a heart, and it pains for Lena's affection, or at least reverence. Almodovar regular Blanca Portillo plays Judit, Mateo's creative partner, whose secret love for Mateo leads her down a road that might in another film lead to villainy, but in Almodovar's world we understand the beautifully conflicting emotions of all these characters. Their complicated journeys are the power of Broken Embraces -- indeed, they are the power of Almodovar's work as a whole.

Almodovar has the ability to frame extraordinary images that accutely cut to the heart of his subtext, and there is no shortage of them in Broken Embraces. Moments like when a blind Harry reaches out to touch an image of his final visual memory of Lena, or when Lena speaks over the muted image of a heartbreaking monologue. The psychic link between images and reality, the way one feeds into the other, the way they intermingle, how the image can become reality even as it remains an unmistakable mirage, is one of the film's most intriguing themes.

Film is a mirage, yet it is a vibrant, passionate expression of life that can explode off the screen and make us feel in ways even "real life" sometimes cannot. Love, Almodovar posits, is the same sort of mirage. Perhaps it is fleeting, perhaps it will be challenged, and perhaps it will be ripped from us, forcing us into a creative coma in which we change our name and revert into an alternate lifestyle (!), but it allows us to dance, however briefly, to the pulse of life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More Indie Love...Now on DVD

If 2009 was a horrific year for big studio pictures, it was an amazing year for wonderful independent films. You oftentimes had to look real hard to find it, but there was big-screen greatness in 2009. And now you can catch up with it on the small(er) screen on DVD.

Tilda Swinton gives the performance of the year as Julia, a staggering drunk who sleeps around and never tells the truth. She is such an unbelievable, iredeemable mess that you can't help but root for her...while averting your eyes from her destructive behavior. And then, out of ridiculous circumstance, Julia makes a deal to retrieve her equally drunken neighbor's son, goes on the run with a kidnapped boy, and plays a vast network of thugs for ransom money while legitimately attempting to return the boy to his mother. Or does she? The film bearing our heroine's name, Erick Zonca's Julia, brilliantly throws our expectations and understanding of plot and character for an exuberant loop. It is the most surprisingly riveting, funny-yet-tragic, ingeniously engaging thriller of the year.

Zonca's camera fixes on Swinton with the shaky, hand-held gaze of a great documentarian. His story is sprawling in its content and length, but never wavers in its shattering intensity. We simply cannot take our eyes off Julia, the most facinating screen character I've experienced all year. Is she brilliantly playing every last deadly criminal who crosses her? Or is she merely being herself, incapable of telling anyone the truth and therefore indirectly orchestrating a brilliant scheme? We cannot know, but oh, how glorious the frustration is.

And what of the film's ending? Without giving anything away, Julia makes a final decision, one last promise that is entirely consistent with her reckless nature...but what are her intentions? Is she pulling another scheme, or making a solemn pact for the first time in her life? The stakes of her journey are so great that either option would be valid and meaningful in the fate of this wonderful character, and discussing the possibilities results in some of the most fascinating post-film conversation viewers will ever experience. Julia is a character, and Julia a film, that thrives on the dizzying fury of uncertainty. It is an absolute joy.

Moon is great science fiction because at its heart, it is not just science fiction, but an enthralling character study filled with wonder, sadness, and revelation. Directed and conceived by first-time feature director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) on a relative shoestring budget, the film casts a celestial spell unlike any space opera in recent memory.

Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, who is finishing the final days of his three-year mission, intended to scour the moon's surface for traces of Helium-3, an alternative energy source. His only companion is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an advanced piece of A.I. which may slightly resemble 2001's HAL-9000, but is a very different character indeed. Sam is anticipating a return home to his wife and young child, but then...a routine maintenance jop on a lunar vehicle goes awry. Upon Sam's return...he starts seeing things. And from there, Moon becomes an equal parts challenging and entertaining space mind-bender.

The film is a piece of genius not simply because of its plot twists, which occur fairly early and then explored for the film's duration, but for its unconventional representation of self-reflection. Even as it seems we understand the film clearly, there is a still a gleeful doubt, a heightened uncertainty that serves as a riveting hook that never lets go until the film's final cut to black. Sam discovers mind-blowing facts about his mission and his existence that send him on a mission to protect himself from unseen villainy (which may not be villainy at all, but that's where it gets too complicated for this article), and our own uncertainty bonds us with Sam as he continues his journey of discovery and survival.

Rockwell's performance is astounding. He delivers not only the best work of his career, but perhaps the best male performance of 2009, a performance that -- like Swinton's virtuoso work in Julia -- will go entirely unnoticed for the major (and minor, for that matter) awards. And Duncan Jones is a filmmaker to watch. He takes elements of other sci-fi films (sure, a little 2001, but more resonantly Solaris, among others) and reinvents them to create a truly original experience. Moon is riveting, absorbing, and unforgettable.

Amreeka is honest independent filmmaking, made with passion and reflecting the joys and the sorrows, the victories and the defeats, the happy security and painful uncertainty of life.

Muna (Nisreen Faour, in a wonderful lead performance) is due for a fresh start. She lives in her native Palestine, where she works thanklessly at a local bank, spies on her philandering ex-husband on her way home, and then arrives home to a cantankerous mother and a son who yearns to come to America.

Then, Muna checks the mail. There she finds that a visa application submitted several months prior has finally been approved, and with a healthy combination of fear and excitement, Muna and her son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), set off for the United States, where they find a home in Illinois with Muna's sister, Raghda (Hiam Abbass), and her family. Setbacks are incessant: Muna is rejected by all the jobs she applies for...except White Castle. Fadi is bullied by prejudiced classmates. Raghda's husband, a local physician, is facing a loss of several clients simply because of his nationality, which many associate with terrorism. America is a struggle for these hard-working, well-intended people. They only want a chance to succeed, but they must fight twice as hard as a typical citizen.

Amreeka, which means "America" in Arabic, is set at the outset of our country's disastrous occupation of Iraq, and the authenticity of its unique cultural viewpoint -- an oftentimes painful slice of life from Palestinian immigrants at a time when U.S. paranoia over any person of Middle Eastern descent was on overdrive -- is striking and powerful. First-time feature director Cherien Dabis piercingly conveys that heinous prejudice and its painful effects, but beautifully leavens the strife with wonderful human comedy. Even at its most dramtic, the film's tone remains buoyant, and this story -- of a loving family's valiant American struggle, no matter where they come from or what their skin color -- washes over you like a refreshing waterfall.

Big Fan could have been many things: a goofy comedy, an eerie character study, a disturbing psychological tragedy, or a dry satire. Any one route might have been effective enough, but in the hands of writer-director Robert Siegel, the film is a sublime combination of all of them.

Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a loser. He works mindlessly at a New York parking garage, lives with his mother, and sleeps in a bed with all the NFL team names stiched onto it. But he is a fan, the kind that goes beyond the generic "die-hard" label. In fact, the only venue in which Paul comes to life is talk radio, where he makes nightly calls to a local sports talk show and recites prepared monologues about the genius of the New York Giants. He idolizes the Giants' fictional star player, Quantrell Bishop, and when he takes one step too far, Paul is forced to reconsider his duties as a big fan.

Siegel, the celebrated writer of The Wrestler, shifts focus in his directorial debut from the fallen sports hero to the sort of fan who refuses to believe that sports heroes can fall. The film unfolds with the kind of hysterical tension that makes you simultaneously giggle and cringe. Oswalt, best known as a comedian, is a revelation as Paul, who is such a miserable lug that we can't help but root for him, even as his fan-dom becomes his very avoidable unraveling. His performance, in tandem with Siegel's writing, painfully captures the futility of Paul, who could turn into Travis Bickle, but at the end of the day, he's too naive.

The Decades: 1960s

An extraordinary decade for the cinema was marked by tragedy and paranoia, reflected in the challenging power of the decade's best films. JFK was elected as the decade began, three years later he was assassinated, and for the remainder of the decade, as we swirled in a haze of paranoia and uncertainty, the cinema was a conduit for challenging, daring, sometimes shocking ideas. The result was some of the most influential films of all-time.

And now, my personal list:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) -- Two endlessly influential Stanley Kubrick films top this decade, but I give the extra nod to his extraordinary space epic, which still remains unlike any science fiction the cinema has ever seen, and speaks greater volumes about the evolution of man than perhaps any other film in history.
2. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) -- Kubrick's other undying masterwork from this decade is, very simply, the most brilliant satire in the history of movies. It is goofy and savvy, hilarious and frightening. And amazingly, it's bite remains sharp 46 years after its release.
3. The Apartment (1960) -- Billy Wilder, patron saint of sassy comedy, also knew how to cut straight to heart of people and relationships. In this beautiful film, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine falling in love amid complicated circumstances, Wilder crafts what might be the greatest romantic comedy-drama of all-time, striking notes of humor and heartbreak the big screen had rarely seen at the time...and has rarely seen since.
4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) -- One of the most extradinarily romantic films ever made, Jacques Demy's heart-rending classic exposed the world to the legendary Catherine Deneuve, and told a story of such heartbreaking beauty it plays like classic literature. I will say no more...if you haven't seen it, stop reading now and go put it on your Netflix queue.
5. Persona (1960) -- The great Ingmar Bergman's most famous psycho-drama, with Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson finding that their personalities -- and personal appearance -- are eerily melding, and the intensity reaches such a fever pitch that the image literally burns out on the screen. A frightening work of psychotic brilliance.
6. Breathless (1960) -- Jean-Luc Godard, daring master of the French New Wave, makes the film that essentially founded the "jump cut," a creation that gives the film its legendary disconnected, breakneck style and pacing in this story of narcissistic fantasy between wannabe French criminals on the run.
7. Psycho (1960) -- To mention the film's name is celebration enough. Hitchcock's most recognizable film, with the cinema's most legendary murder scene...brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
8. Blow-Up (1966) -- One of Italian master auteur Michaelangelo Antonioni's most amazing masterworks, about a mod London photographer who discovers he has photographed a murder. But more than a thriller, this is a film oddly, masterfully about cool detachment in 60s-era London.
9. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) -- A wild ride in every way. Arthur Penn's enduring classic about the infamous, bank-robbing lovers-on-the-run is a tortured, complex love story between two young people addicted to the thrill of crime.
10. 8 1/2 (1963) -- A vivid, masterful, darkly funny look into the tortured world of a frustrated Italian filmmaker and the women who dance around his mind. Federico Fellini's brilliant classic went on to inspire the musical Nine, which in no form ever came close to casting the beautiful spell of 8 1/2.

Guilds at a Glance

As this ever-so-slightly reinvented Oscar race unfolds, it is always important to pay attention to the various guilds, whose yearly honors are potentially influential and significant as Oscar nomination previews....and let us not forget, these guilds are vitally important in their own right. There are the four key guilds: the Director's Guild of America (DGA), the Writer's Guild of America (WGA), the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG), and the Producer's Guild of America (PGA), the de facto equivalent to Oscar's Best Picture category, although the criteria are a little different.

Let us analyze, starting with the Director's Guild...

2010 DGA Nominees:
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

As a predictor of the eventual Oscar winner, the DGA is one of the most accurate of all the guilds. In terms of predicting the nominations, the DGA usually nails 4 out of 5. Here the only feasible contender to be left out in the cold is Daniels, whose work in Precious could most easily be overwhelmed by a deluge of other contenders, and whose work, in all honesty, is by far the weakest of this group. Potential slot-fillers in the Oscar nominees include Lone Scherfig for An Education, although she could get nudged out by those who feel her film is more about writing and acting than directing; The Coen brothers, who did their usual wonderful work on A Serious Man, but the film may itself get nudged from the BP race; and Clint Eastwood, who could get an obligatory "we respect you" nod for his underwhelming direction of Invictus. And hell, we might see a surprise like Neill Blomkamp for District 9, although it is unlikely. I would love to see an unlikely contender get a nomination, like Erick Zonca for Julia (which will never ever happen) or Oren Moverman for The Messenger (more likely, but still no), but this might be a case where the DGA nominees match Oscar 5-for-5.

And as far as the winner is concerned, it was a two-person race between Bigelow and Reitman, both of whom did virtuoso work this year, until a certain King of the World entered the race. Now...who knows. If Cameron takes out a big chunk, it could be Bigelow...or Reitman...or probably Cameron, let's be honest.

2010 WGA Nominees:
Original Screenplay:
(500) Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Avatar, James Cameron
The Hangover, Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal
A Serious Man, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Adapted Screenplay:
Crazy Heart, Scott Cooper
Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron
Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Geoffrey Fletcher
Star Trek, Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Up in the Air, Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

The WGA nominees are always a little different, a little more fun, a little more risky with their choices than the Academy, who can sometimes be a little stodgy. Thus, we get nominations for Star Trek and, my personal favorite, The Hangover. If we are all honest with ourselves, neither one of these fun choices necessarily "deserves" to be nominated, although passionate parties could make convincing arguments for both (I would skew far closer to making the case for Hangover, which creates a brilliant comic framework and fills every corner with surprises). Of course, no "fun" nominees ever actually win, so let's move on.

A little simpler here. The Hurt Locker wins in the Original category. Up in the Air takes Adapted. They are the "screenplay movies" of this year, even if I would vehemently argue that they deserve to be considered much, much more.

2010 SAG Nominees:
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture:
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourney Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds
Mo'Nique, Precious

The Screen Actors Guild always manages to come up with a few creative alternatives to the traditional, expected nominees, although this year they have skewed much closer to the party line than in past years. The only real surprise is Diane Kruger, which is creative but not very influential over Oscar voters. She will likely be replaced by Julianne Moore on the Oscar shortlist. The other surprise is SAG's embrace of Nine, which might not have happened if the film had tanked prior to the nominations.

The SAG winners generally run pretty closely to the year's standard group of winners, but there are occasional surprises. In the Best Cast category, SAG's equivalent to the Best Picture prize, the absence of Avatar and Up in the Air bust that one wide open, and there will likely be a winner that otherwise wouldn't win any such awards. My bet at this point would be Inglourious Basterds, which has a large cast in a fun movie made by one of many actors' favorite directors.

In the other categories, I'm betting on George Clooney for Lead Actor and Sandra Bullock in Lead Actress. It's a three-way race in Best Actor, with Clooney, Bridges, and Firth. Firth, who otherwise won't get any awards other than the nominations themselves, could be a big sleeper here, being honored among his peers. And Bridges is the overall Oscar front-runner, in my opinion. But Clooney is a hugely popular guy who gives the best performance of his career in that masterpiece. And as for Bullock, it comes down to more love from the acting community for her strongest work ever. Streep still seems the surest bet for Oscar, but she won at the SAGs last year, and the guild might take the opportunity to honor a well-loved actress in Bullock (an interesting proposition if Bullock does continue to rack up the honors...she could sneak into Oscar front-runner status, a notion I had completely discredited heretofore).

As for supporting, Mo'Nique wins again, the surest lock of all nominees in all categories at every awards show. She can't lose and she won't lose. On the male side, Waltz is the season's front-runner, but the SAGs could be the chance for someone like Woody Harrelson or Stanley Tucci, who are both wonderful veterans getting rare awards love. It's a toss-up.

2010 Producer's Guild of America Nominees:

Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures:
Producers: James Cameron, Jon Landau
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.
Producer: Lawrence Bender
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Rob Lorenz, Lori McCreary , Mace Neufeld
Producers: Lee Daniels, Gary Magness, Sarah Siegel-Magness
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof
Producer: Jonas Rivera
Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.

PGA Producer of the Year Award in Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures:
Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.
Claire Jennings, Bill Mechanic, Mary Sandell, Henry Selick
Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.
Producer: Peter Del Vecho
Producer: Jonas Rivera

PGA Producer of the Year Award in Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures:
Producer: Lise Lense-Moller
Producers: Paula DuPre Pesmen, Fisher Stevens
Producers: Greg Barker, John Battsek, Julie Goldman
Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.

Let's get the two smaller categories (in size, not importance) out of the way right now. Up wins in the animated category, and the power of The Cove combined with the breadth of love for the film among many in the industry should result in its winning the documentary award. Now...

The PGA followed the Academy and went with 10 nominees this year, and their choices are all pretty familiar. Avatar, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Invictus, Precious, Up, and Up in the Air are all sure bets for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. It's those pesky last two slots that are the trouble. In the usual five-nominee years, the PGA tends to match Oscar in four out of the five. This year, matching eight out of ten makes perfect sense. And remember, the PGA focuses solely on the producing aspect rather than the film as a whole. Best Picture is a different award than Producer of the Year, even though the producers are the recipients of the Best Picture trophies. With that in mind, District 9 and Star Trek fit better here than they would in the Oscar Ten, though both have an outside shot at filling the bottom two slots of said Ten...but both are unlikely. For the Oscar list, expect to see a small movie that actually deserves recognition, like The Messenger, or a prestige period piece with big names, like The Last Station. I still have to think the Coens' A Serious Man merits consideration as well...and of course there's Nine, but a nomination for that infamous bomb would symbolize the biggest criticism of the expanded race: it opens the door for utter crap (the same would hold true for Star Trek).

If I'm picking a winner in this PGA race, it's Avatar. Plain and simple. Even if it wasn't the upstart insurgent that was destined to win Best Picture at the Oscars -- but it is -- the size and scope of its production challenge is unmatched among the other nominees. For the producers alone, Avatar runs away with it. Anything else would be a fairly big surprise that might have some influence on the Oscar race. A win for a truly great film like Up in the Air or The Hurt Locker would result in that rare beast: an award that could actually influence Oscar voters.

The Schedule:
SAG holds its annual ceremony this Saturday, January 23rd...
PGA follows the very next day, January 24th...
DGA comes the following week, January 30th, and more often than not accurately predicts the eventual Oscar winner...
WGA rounds out the guild awards with its February 20th ceremony

Globes Analysis

So...I threw the phrase "Avatar micro-sweep" around, and it's sort of true. It took two, which is about as much of a sweep as a film can have at the Globes (funny thing of it is, both Up and Crazy Heart also took two, though neither film was even nominated in the two biggest categories). You are never going to see a movie take more than 4, and that rarely happens. For Avatar to haul in Best Pic and Best Director is significant for the Globes...which are pretty insignificant in their overall influence, try as they might to position themselves as the foremost influence/predictor of the Academy Awards.

I say it every year, and I will say it again this year: they are not.

In fact, year after year, the significance of the Golden Globes begins to slowly but surely erode, as they begin to fully realize their place as the Year's Biggest Dinner-and-Drink Party, where they ignore the minutiae of the Oscars and look at the glossy big picture, honoring stars and popular pictures in a way that even the Oscars would never dare. The Globes are a glorified People's Choice Awards.

The other trend I notice, year after year, is very interesting. As their influence continues to shrink (as if it was ever significant to begin with), the Globes seem to serve more as a solidifier of the year's already-formulated trends. Thus, the Avatar win and the Cameron win, since the film jumped in the race as soon as it screened late in the game, Jeff Bridges winning for Best Actor, also after jumping into the game late, another Mo'Nique win (and with the most memorable acceptance speech of the night, she further locks in that Oscar win, reversing any negative feelings about her with two genuine, tearful minutes), The White Ribbon taking Foreign Language film, that Crazy Heart song you can't get out of your head winning Best Song, Christoph Waltz taking Supporting Actor for Basterds...on and on. Up winning Animated Feature...duh. Meryl Streep winning Best Actress for Julie & Julia...duh. And just because it happened to be in the "Comedy or Musical" category means nothing...she is the Oscar frontrunner (on the other hand, Sandra Bullock's win for The Blind Side owes a debt to Madame Streep for taking her business to the comedy category, as she wouldn't have won otherwise).

For anyone in the Oscar prediction game, the Globes are the best Yes Man one could possibly imagine. These winners likely reassure what most critics and pundits were thinking would most likely happen. Now, thanks to the Golden Solidifiers, the trends are set and so, too, are most predictions. After the 10-film Best Picture race at the Oscars was intended to "shake things up," this season has suddenly become the most overtly predictable Oscar season in years. Thanks, Globes. My job just became a lot easier.

So...another Globes show done. Big stars, popular winners...same old same old. Fun enough, but not real satisfying. Soon the guilds will announce their winners (analysis coming soon), and then come the Oscars. Nominations will be announced February 2nd, when we will find out if James Cameron saw the shadow of his next Oscar.

Globes 2010

The winners in the Avatar micro-sweep:










The Weary Kind from CRAZY HEART
Music & Lyrics by: Ryan Bingham, T Bone Burnett





Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gotta say something about Leno v. Conan

In short, NBC got caught with its pants down.

Sticking Jay Leno in the 10pm timeslot every weeknight was a ridiculous proposition from the start. Ridiculous. And the results were as any sane observer might have expected...although the heinous reviews were a little more surprising. Leno is a late-night entity, plain and simple. Although I have to say, slotting the 10pm Jay Leno Show for a one-night-a-week showcase might have eased the pain a little, and it might have actually worked, ratings- and money-wise. Leno at 10pm on Thursday nights following The Office and 30 Rock, capping the network's biggest night of comedy, while filling 10pm with the standard "gripping dramas" on the other four nights...that is an idea more in line with what NBC intended as its "innovative strategy." But eliminate 10pm dramas altogether with a limp variety show? No choices, no options...this is the one face of 10pm on NBC? W...T...F...?!?!?!

The sad part of this story is not the failed experiment, since it failed before it began. The sad part of the story is not that Jay Leno, who went along with the plan with full knowledge of the potential pitfalls, lost out. The truly sad part is that he didn't; Conan O'Brien did. Obviously, Leno had a deal with NBC that, if 10pm didn't work out, he was guaranteed to return to the 11:35 slot. They didn't bother to let Conan know....just like they didn't bother to let Dave Letterman know in 1993 that they sealed a deal for Leno to take over The Tonight Show before signing off with Johnny Carson or fully giving Letterman a fair shake. This, apparently, is the NBC way. It's Leno or Bust over there...and even if it ends up a complete "Bust," it's still Leno.

Conan did what he felt he needed to do: step into the spotlight and take a stand. He will not allow his Tonight Show to be moved to 12:05 (when, of course, it wouldn't even be The Tonight Show anymore, but The Tomorrow Show), and he wouldn't follow Jay Leno. Good for him. But now his fate is sealed...and that fate, it seems, is tons of cash and no show. Goodbye, Conan...Hello again, Jay.

If NBC was smart, they would recognize that once they've screwed the pooch this badly, this publicly, they might as well go one step further and offer Conan his 12:35 slot back, cutting Jimmy Fallon loose...since even though the guy is hilarious and likable as hell, his show is a mild disaster. And who knows, maybe they did that -- they are, after all, already running around naked, pretending they still have dignity. But Conan would never take that deal, though...that would mean throwing Fallon under the bus, but more pertinently, it would mean relinquishing to NBC's pathetic demands, which would be the worst possible decision under the circumstances. Leave NBC hanging...leave them flailing...make them pay or play. Good enough.

I usually review movies here, but I'll take a brief respite to review late-night TV. Jay Leno is a bland, uninteresting TV host whose late-night show stumbled into popularity and managed to keep the ship floating because the guy was boring enough not to get in his own way. It worked at 11:35, and was exposed as disastrous at 10:00. Conan O'Brien was far more edgy and interesting as a comedy writer, but his persona was a niche success that worked better at 12:35. As a result, a slightly watered-down Conan at 11:35 didn't work as well, even if it was way fresher and more entertaining than Jay at 10...or Jay at 11:35, for that matter. But this situation by definition completely ignores the shows on their merits. It is about business. It is, very specifically, about avoiding a complete implosion of NBC as a 10pm entity, and protecting the seniority of megalomaniacs. Jay Leno was brought into the NBC fray by a group of crazy megalomaniacs, and somewhere along the line he became one himself. And in any war between late-night hosts, he is going to win, at least on the business end.

So where are we now? Well...Conan is going to emerge from this situation an extremely rich late-night host without a show or a network and Jay Leno will return to The Tonight Show having bastardized the legendary enterprise even more than he already had. And because of the very public manner in which this situation blew up, Leno's Tonight Show will likely restore the show's high ratings, and NBC will laugh all the way to the whorehouse.

This business.....this business.....

Spider-Man 4 Redux more Raimi and no more Maguire...but Spider-Man 4 lives on, apparently to reinvent the franchise into some strange off-shoot of the most popular and celebrated comic-book franchise of recent years, an off-shoot that will be awkward and unrecognizable to most movie lovers.

What's the deal? Well, James Vanderbilt had worked on a script that was intended from the outset to shift the focus away from the bloated grand-standing of Spider-Man 3 -- a wise move -- but also shifted the timeline back to a high-school Peter Parker, which the current franchise obviously moved beyond. There are, according to industry insiders, plenty of people who believe in Vanderbilt's take, and he is a respected writer of films like Zodiac and the underrated The Rundown. I haven't a clue what Sam Raimi's qualms were with this screenplay, but they probably had something to do with the reimagining of a world he had already created to wide critical acclaim (until the 3 debacle) and ridiculous amounts of money. They went back and forth. Raimi led a fury of re-writes. And then, finally, it fell apart.

Except it didn't totally fall just fell apart with Raimi. And with Raimi's exit went Tobey Maguire. That obviously means no Kirsten Dunst, either. And yet Marvel plans to go through with a version of Spider-Man 4 -- Vanderbilt's version, to be exact, and he is apparently on the hook for Spidey 5 and 6, too. This is one of those stories that just makes the little squiggles and stars spark over your head in a way similar to what Charlie Brown experienced when he got pummeled on the pitcher's mound. It makes no sense...yet it is happening.

The result, I suspect, will be similar to the awkward effect of Edward Norton's Incredible Hulk reboot in 2007, except the film's maladroitness will be even more glaring, since the Spider-Man franchise is way bigger -- it is really one of the two biggest franchises of the last decade, and is probably the absolute biggest -- and it was all put together by the man who just walked away. It will feel weird...and wrong, regardless of how ably the enterprise is re-cobbled.

See you in 2012.

Analyzing the Top Tens

Every New Year, as we transition from the furious movie-going end of one year and the cold, silent Dump Season that takes place at the beginning of the new year, the cascade of Top Ten lists from all across the country begin to make their appearances. And it is useful to look at several random and not-so-random samples, as well as take a look at the big picture to see the trends and dead ends.

Movie City News is invaluable for such an endeavor. Its giant chart of top tens now features 200 critics and more than 220 movies, proving that the love was spread all over the place in 2009. Film criticism, lest we forget, is uniquely subjective at its core, in spite of the pack mentality that sometimes forms as a result of drinking the kool-aid.

Looking at the range of 200 lists from critics across the country, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker sits atop the list, with a staggering 143 mentions out of 221 lists (quick hint: it may add a couple more list mentions to its tally once Cinema Squared unveils its lists). The film skewing closest to the Locker is Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, which is featured on 91 lists. Somewhat surprisingly from my viewpoint is that Tarantino's kitshy fun Inglourious Basterds actually appears on more lists at 98, but the overall higher placement of Air on most lists ranks it a notch above those crazy Basterds. The broad success of Tarantino's spaghetti-war saga proves what kind of year it has been: finally, in a year devoid of many successful serious films, a film like Basterds can rise to prominence and once again give Tarantino big recognition that he deserves, even if I still wish he would go back to making films like Jackie Brown.

All three movies atop the critical consensus are sure bets for Best Picture nominations in this year's expanded Oscar shortlist, and they would likely all be nominated even if the list was limited to the traditional five. Looking down the line of projected BP candidates typically reveals a slight disparity between the Oscar race and the critical darlings, but the gap is not as glaring as it has been in years past, given the category's expansion. A Serious Man and Up fill the 4 and 5 slots on the list of Top Tens, and both are in the Oscar hunt...though Up is the surest bet between the two. Number 6 on the list, with 78 list mentions, is Wes Anderson's wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that literally has no chance of getting a BP nomination, having to settle for Best Animated Feature. Following at 7 and 8 are Precious, a guaranteed BP nominee, and An Education, a glorious movie that will also get a nod, but solely thanks to the category's widening. Filling out the top ten of Top Tens are District 9, which could be a spoiler nominee, and Avatar, which is one of the top three contenders for a Best Picture win -- with, conveniently enough, the top two films of the critical year, The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air.

So what does this all mean? Well, not much, at the end of the day, except it gives us a clear idea of what films mean the most to the critical community. As a member of said community, I can say that a lot of these films are indeed worthy of such a strong reception, though there are glaring exclusions. Precious doesn't deserve to be placed so high, nor does District 9 or even Avatar, although I am fully aware of and reverent to its rightful place in history as a groundbreaking phenomenon. I am kinda shocked by how high Inglourious Basterds placed among the critics, since it seems like an extension of the half-empty kitsch-fun of the Kill Bill movies, neither of which placed as high...but the film does feature some of Tarantino's best work just includes a bunch of other stuff, too. The Messenger ranks 24th on the list of Top Tens, and it deserves to be WAY higher, as it is just as powerful, in its way, as The Hurt Locker, and in fact I view the two films as companion pieces. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ranks 22nd, also too low, although I am glad such an edgy, oddball picture has received any recognition at all, let alone this much. Duncan Jones' Moon places just outside the top 30, with a mere 12 list mentions. That is most likely because the film is very small and was released over 6 months ago, and in a now-unheard-of extension of the theatrical-to-DVD window, is only arriving on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Unfortunate, because the film is a riveting thrill, with a spectacular lead performance from Sam Rockwell. And most glaring is the overlooked masterpiece, Erick Zonca's Julia, which with the right release plan and marketing strategy could be a contender for Tilda Swinton's performance and for a BP slot in the expanded category.

Better than in the past, analyzing the spectrum of films included on most Top Ten lists also gives some great perspective on the Oscar race, since the Best Picture category has now become a Top Ten list itself. They have opened up double the usual number of slots, and in so doing they will open the category for good -- such as the inclusion of a lovely, deserving film like An Education -- and the bad -- like an obligatory bone thrown to Eastwood's heinous Invictus or potential slots for popcorn epics like District 9 or, much worse, Star Trek. What do I think about the move to 10 nominees? It's dumb, it opens the door for pap to slip in under the radar, and it's all about a desperate ratings ploy. But that, make no mistake, is exactly why the Academy decided to go through with it.

But nonetheless, the top of the list is pretty accurate -- you are not likely not find many better films than The Hurt Locker and especially Up in the Air.

Onward....our lists will enter the fray very soon...

The State of the Best...and the Worst

It's coming. The unveiling of Cinema Squared's Best Films of 2009 list is well on its way. I have been trying to wait it out to be certain no potential inclusions go unseen, and have been primarily successful. There may still be a couple of unfortunate exclusions that will miss the first draft of the list, but if ever the list needs updated, it will be. Dreamworks/Paramount's decision to withhold The Lovely Bones from any cities outside of New York and Los Angeles until this weekend has certainly delayed the proceedings, but the screening is finally upon us...which means 2009 viewing is just about wrapped up.

Let's be honest: 2009 was not a great year for movies. It reminds me of 2006, when I had a very difficult time compiling a full list of ten great movies, but the films at the top of the list (The Departed, Little Children, Volver) were among the best films of the decade. This past year was full of interesting ideas, but not many of them worked, and the landscape was littered with utter crap at every turn. Suffice to say that compiling the Worst of 2009 is far easier than compiling the Best of 2009...though in some ways it's harder, since there are literally so many awful films to choose from that keeping it to 10 is tricky.

Look for the Worst list next week, followed closely by the Most Disappointing of 2009, and then, at long last, the Best. Between now and then, get out there and see some of these movies. There is plenty of greatness in theaters and on video. Up in the Air is still in theaters, and The Hurt Locker and Moon have just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Make it a masterpiece weekend, and tell 'em JMac sent you.

The Decades: 1950s

The 1950s was a transformative decade in which film took its first steps into the future. The French New Wave rose to great significance and began an influence over the cinema that has not ended to this day. And a handful of film's greatest legends dominated my personal list, gobbling up spots with some of the most celebrated films of all-time.
And now, my personal take:
1. The 400 Blows (1959) -- The French New Wave's foremost filmmaker, Francois Truffaut, delivered his most famous and powerful film as the decade ended.
2. Some Like It Hot (1959) -- Probably the greatest comedy ever, from the most influential director of cheeky comedy, Billy Wilder.
3. Vertigo (1958) -- The extraordinary, hypnotic thriller from the cinema's master of fright, Alfred Hitchcock.
4. Sunset Boulevard (1950) -- More from Wilder, this one a darkly humorous and pristinely melodramatic look at Hollywood life.
5. Rashomon (1951) -- Akira Kurosawa bestowed an influential new form with this classic about conflicting points of view revolving a heinous crime.
6. Wild Strawberries (1957) -- Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish master of gloom and dread, tells his most bittersweet story of an aging man confronting the emptiness of his life.
7. The Seventh Seal (1957) -- More Bergman, this one a grand, boldly symbolic exploration of life and death, a literal chess game between a man and Death.
8. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) -- A bleak love story between a French actress and Japanese architect, who share a night of passion and stories of past loves in Hiroshima against the backdrop of looming destruction.
9. North by Northwest (1959) -- Hitchcock returns, one year after Vertigo delivering another legendary thriller -- this one, very simply, is pure, edge-of-your-seat fun with Cary Grant in cinema's most famous case of mistaken identity.
10. Rear Window (1954) -- Welcome back, Hitch. The master's greatest decade also included the iconic story of Jimmy Stewart's wheelchair-bound voyeur and the murders he thinks he witnesses in the apartment just across the courtyard.

The Decades

Over at, my home away from home, we have been leading up to the vaunted, prestigious, ten-years-in-the-making Best of the 2000s list by looking back and celebrating the best films of every decade starting with the 1950s.

Now, as Cinema Squared prepares to unveil its newly-minted Best of the 2000s retrospective, we are first showcasing the best of the five decades that guided us through film history on our way to this latest decade. Over the coming days/weeks, we will showcase a new decade, ending in a flourish with a celebration of the best films from the decade that just passed.

Happy new year, happy new decade, happy memories, happy film history...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Way, Way Up There

Out of the clear blue sky comes Up in the Air, a film of glorious humor, shattering heartbreak, and extraordinary profundity. The film takes the form of a swinging Cary Grant rom-com from the 1950s, then twists its basic construction into a powerful statement about human connection, then twists it again into a tale of isolation in a harsh, frightening world. We live in a world that has evolved (more appropriately, devolved) into a culture of thoroughly knowledgeable shut-ins. For some, their only connection to the world around them is through their business colleagues, or their snarky bosses...or their iPhones. We suddenly have the ability to become universally connected to the whole world without ever actually communicating with anyone. We don't even have to leave home -- we don't even need to have a home, strictly speaking, to stay connected in this technological age. And yet this is a time of great hardship for many, a time of inner fear and professional paranoia. Our economy has given birth to unfathomable innovations, and then that economy has imploded, leaving us in a state of perpetual fear of the system that seemed to usher in such a brave new world. Never has a film so presciently tapped into the immediate anxieties of the current culture...until now. Up in the Air is the defining film of its generation.

Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. He is a "corporate downsizer," the guy sent by his massive corporation to handle the dirty job of eliminating personnel by engaging his subjects with a cool, smooth, gentle charm. George Clooney, reigning King of Cinematic Suave, plays Ryan with full knowledge that this character is the psychic extension of the actor's own real-life least the one perpetuated by the media. Here is a gorgeous single man who travels the world with plenty of casual smiles and momentary flings but no long-lasting connections. He loves his free-wheeling lifestyle and has no need or desire for permanent intimacy. Up in the Air's purpose is to systematically dissect this man to discover how and why he reached such a cold, distant satisfaction, and Clooney, at the center of the picture and in nearly every scene, shows a daring courage to tackle this role that seemed destined to be filled by the Oscar-winner. It is his most extraordinary performance.

Time and again, Ryan must deliver what, in this dreary economic climate, is likely the worst news his subjects could hear: that their services are no longer needed, that their paychecks will no longer be deposited into their bank accounts. This charming demolition is Ryan's business, and as a result, he is himself a rootless journeyman, a man with plenty of financial security but no real home, a man who interacts with many but connects with very few. To hear the character speak, it seems like a godsend. "I'm not isolated, I'm surrounded," he says, in a soundbite played in nearly all of the film's ads, and we see what kind of character he is: the rogue charmer who thinks he lives by the ideal secret code.

In a 50s-era Cary Grant picture, the secret code would be the bottom line, the hook that connects us through the entire film. In the 80s and into the 90s, Ryan would hit a roadblock and be forced to choose between his bittersweet satisfaction and true happiness with the love of his life. In Up in the Air, the terrain is far rockier, and in the year's most powerfully nuanced screenplay, a new watermark has been set for human complexity in the movies. The script, based on Walter Kirn's 2001 novel and written for the screen by Sheldon Turner and the film's director, Jason Reitman, presents Ryan with two unique challenges. Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, are women. The first is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the new spitfire pixie who has recently taken Ryan's company by storm. Natalie is a go-getter who has devised a new, more efficient way of firing people involving web-cams and cold scripting -- a method which, in essence, eliminates the need for a guy like Ryan. The second challenge is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow professional traveler whom Ryan meets in one city, and then another, and then another, until they find themselves in a kind-of, sort-of relationship.

Natalie has devised a cold system but is not a cold person. Alex has formed the same kind of icy detachment Ryan has. In Natalie Ryan sees a "younger model" threatening to eliminate his job, and by extension, his life. In Alex he sees a kindred spirit, a person who might make life away from the rush of airport terminals and the comfortable disconnectedness of constant travel seem like a life worth pursuing. How these characters connect and interact, how each of their uniquely rich personalities naturally bounce off of and influence one another, is breathtaking. Of each character's individual path I should not reveal anything, other than to say the film builds our expectations, pays them off, and then pulls the rug right out from under us just when we settle in. The awakening is not a rude one, however, but a refreshing startle that allows us to rethink the entire film and each of its characters.

Reitman directs Up in the Air with the natural style and inimitable confidence of an industry giant who knows exactly what he wants and knows precisely how to achieve it. His command of the script, the frame, and all the life that jumps from the script into the frame, is remarkable. The film's opening sequence is a vivid orchestra of energetic images set to Rolfe Kent's luminous nervous-tick of a score (reminiscent of Jon Brion's work in Punch-Drunk Love) as we see Ryan's life in one feverish montage of potent close-ups and whirling camerawork. And then the camera gets intimate and the script reaches deep, achieving some of the most indelible character moments of any film this year. The tender and true emotional power these characters reach combined with the images Reitman captures sends the young filmmaker skyrocketing to the top tier of American directors. He has now delivered two consecutive masterworks (Juno was the first), and in this one he pulls out the big guns, tackling not merely the intricacies of the human spirit but the relevance of contemporary American anxieties.

Up in the Air is a piece of cinema that taps almost psychically into the struggles and fears of current American culture. Ryan is the representation of isolated America. We have embraced this Brave New World to the detriment of our socialization. Times are tough so we focus more on work...and that work keeps us from what matters most, and in some cases displaces it. Ryan is rich, beautiful, and powerful, and Ryan is bankrupt, lonely, and homeless. He is a man of his generation: lost in a sea of detachment, traveling the world but experiencing nothing, searching for the flight that might take him somewhere meaningful. Maybe, one day, he will find it.