An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Thursday, December 31, 2009

List 'em up, 2009.

OK, I'll do one'a these this year. Why not? (I attempted a best-of-decade list, but it was daunting and kind of a drag, and I'm sick of seeing those anyway. So here's this.)

There's the usual caveat that I haven't been able to see everything yet, blah blah blah, but I doubt that, like, The White Ribbon is going to crack the list anyway, so I'm ready to pull the trigger. My 25 favorite films of 2009, counting down, starting with the also-rans.

Honorable mentions: Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces suffers from a serious case of Third Act Problems, but for most of the way it offers further proof that nobody in world cinema tells a story as enticingly as Pedro; Lone Scherfig's An Education is also hobbled by a botched ending, but it's got some of the year's loveliest performances, and its take on the myopia of young romanticism is moving and subtle; Ti West's The House of the Devil is almost the Gerry of horror movies, with its rhythmically slow build and masterful mise-en-scéne; Cary Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, a harrowing immigrant drama by an exciting new voice in Mexican cinema, features some of the year's most gorgeous widescreen lensing; and Armando Iannucci's In the Loop can't sustain its early reels' headlong rush of verbal brilliance, but as a caustic satire it's probably the closest we'll ever get to a Dr. Strangelove for the Bush era.

Dishonorable mention: Is it possible to believe that Lars von Trier's Antichrist is great art that's also completely full of shit? Von Trier's artistry is undeniable, and the performances are incredibly brave and committed, but the laziness and faux-profundity of the script is hard to overlook. "There's no such constellation," indeed.

THE LIST PROPER:

25) Crank: High Voltage. Like Michael Bay as filtered through old Warner Bros. cartoons and the French New Wave. Jason Statham is an axiom of ownage.

24) Harmony and Me. Hilarious collection of deadpan comic vignettes; also a surprisingly moving picaresque about the redemption of a sad-sack slacker and the therapeutic power of art.

23) A Single Man. Beautiful companion piece to Mad Men, for more than just the 1962 setting: it's almost a feature-length exegesis on Don Draper's exhortation to "limit your exposure."

22) Collapse. An intimate conversation with one of those street-corner nuts ranting about the end of the world—except he may not be a nut this time, and the end of the world might be real.

21) Whip It. No, I'm not kidding: Drew Barrymore's roller derby movie is a bright, heartfelt, irresistibly energetic tale of teen girl self-actualization—the cinematic equivalent of a great young-adult novel.

20) The Hurt Locker. I don't love this as much as everyone else does, but who am I to say no to a blisteringly single-minded character study of men in war that also blows stuff up real good? Best shot of a supermarket in cinema history.

19) Drag Me to Hell. In a welcome return to his roots, Sam Raimi finds the perfect sweet spot where horror and comedy intersect. Contains the most outlandishly conceived, outrageously executed set pieces of the year.

18) Public Enemies. Gotta love a rough-edged art film disguised as a blockbuster. Michael Mann's half-ugly, half-stunning digital video scrubs away all residue of nostalgia associated with the '30s gangster genre.

17) Adventureland. I didn't think the world needed another coming-of-age story about sensitive outsiders sharing a summer, but Greg Mottola's authentic script and graceful direction convinced me otherwise.

16) Pontypool. Locked-room suspense gives way to the year's strangest narrative tangent, which I daren't spoil even here. Grizzled old Stephen McHattie is both dryly ironic and almost romantically sonorous.

15) Tetro. Are we still allowed to use the word "classical" in 2009? Francis Ford Coppola, the returning champ, doesn't care about anything other than the images and emotions swirling around his old-fashioned brainpan.

14) Somers Town. My fave British filmmaker Shane Meadows masterfully locks into the languorous rhythms of two lost youths aimlessly wandering around London. A lyrical, magic-tinged wonderment; 70 minutes of pure happiness.

13) The Girlfriend Experience. Steven Soderbergh's digital follow-up to Bubble is just as uncompromising and aesthetically thrilling. His jazzy, circuitous, experimental editing upstages even Sasha Grey.

12) Big Fan. Robert Siegel gets how fandom tempers alienation; this absorbing character study presents a scenario in which the fandom is compromised and the fan must reckon with the confusion that remains.

11) The Brothers Bloom. Clever writing, exuberant filmmaking, perfect performances—how was Rian Johnson's second film dismissed as a mere Wes Anderson knockoff? For shame, critics.

10) Sita Sings the Blues. Buoyant meditation on music, mythology and heartbreak. Stylistically and thematically, Nina Paley's labor of love beats all the lame, overrated animation offered by the big studios this year.

9) A Serious Man. In which the Coen brothers go rooting around for the meaning of life in their own childhood backyard. A seriocomic reversal of the old saw, "somebody up there likes me."

8) The Box. All the sweet, sweet crazy we've come to expect from Richard Kelly, made with just enough discipline and adherence to traditional horror methods. Kelly is in communication with those who control the lightning.

7) Moon. Like a great episode of The Twilight Zone writ large: a minimalist genre work that remembers when sci-fi was about ideas, not spectacle. Also a master class in resourceful use of a low budget.

6) Me and Orson Welles. Maybe it's just the erstwhile theater-dork in me, but this sparkling love letter to the stage pleased me all out of proportion to its lack of buzz. Kinda like Almost Famous, weirdly, but better.

5) Silent Light. An immersive movie experience if there ever was one. Love, sorrow and the sanctity of daily rituals painted in stunning widescreen tableaux. Proves that "art films" needn't be remote or inaccessible.

4) Two Lovers. Start appreciating James Gray. No straining for Oscar approbation—just a beautiful, finely detailed, character-based drama that recalls U.S. cinema's '70s Silver Age. Guess they do make 'em like this anymore.

3) The Informant!. Zany farce, twisty tale of corporate corruption, close-up character study of the world's funniest sociopath—Soderbergh went two for two in '09 with this carnivalesque psychocomedy. Best voice-over EVER.

2) Humpday. My favorite movie to emerge from the DIY/mumblecore school. Lynn Shelton uses humor to suss out subtle truths about human relationships, and shapes her lead actors' improv with unprecedented precision.

1) Inglourious Basterds. An apotheosis of Tarantino's penchant for measured pacing and rigorous structure. Every shot and every scene is mapped out with beautiful exactitude. In a time when quick-cut incoherence rules the market—when "the shot has been banished from mainstream commercial cinema"—we need QT now more than ever. Plus, it's the best script the man has yet written: "If this is it, old boy, you won't mind if I go out speaking the King's?"

Friday, December 4, 2009

Deflating UP IN THE AIR

I don't really get any pleasure from tipping sacred cows. Okay, I kind of do, but what I mean is that I want to like every movie I see. So it's with some reticence that I report that Jason Reitman's new Oscar-bound dramedy Up in the Air, which is currently rocking an 82 (that's "Universal Acclaim") at Metacritic, didn't really do it for me.

I've read interviews with Jason Reitman, and I can tell that he's a bright guy who genuinely wants to make good movies. Fine—I'll keep seeing whatever he comes up with. But there's something almost insulting about the way this dude has been hagiographed by the press in the months since his new movie premiered at Toronto. Some asinine movie bloggers even made the laughably hyperbolic statement that Reitman is "the new Billy Wilder," or some such bullshit.

Whatever his strengths—and I'm not convinced that he has any definable ones, other than picking good projects—Reitman is a decidedly unambitious filmmaker in an era (or at least a year) in which original American voices are flourishing in cinema more than the press would have you know. 2009 has seen a string of remarkable films by authentic, talented young American directors: Lynn Shelton, Rian Johnson, Robert Siegel, Duncan Jones (a Brit, but humor me); not to mention more established names like Steven Soderbergh, James Gray, Richard Kelly, the Coens, Tarantino. But none of their films are going to make the awards-season splash that Up in the Air was poised to make before it even opened. So that's where I'm coming from when I say that Up in the Air is not worth getting excited about, and why I'm slightly offended by the hero's welcome it and its creator have received (and will continue to receive all the way through Oscar night).

Now, the movie. It's not bad. The actors are appealing, the script has its share of clever exchanges. But for a movie ostensibly about alienation and regret, it feels fundamentally hollow and unaffecting. In her astutely skeptical review, Karina Longworth opines that the film's "inherent brightness [is] tinted blue but never significantly darkened." Yes. The main problem with Up in the Air is Reitman's inability to fully engage with the pain and melancholy that gradually overtake its protagonist's life. Reitman wasn't the right man for the job; imagine what a more emotionally nuanced filmmaker could have done with this material—someone liked the aforementioned James Gray, perhaps. Reitman attempts an unhappy ending—the twist (I'll be cryptic to avoid spoilers) is that, even though Clooney has the standard big third-act epiphany, he can't act on it. This is an improvement on Juno's cloying exeunt, but it doesn't sting the way it should—not by a long shot.

And what of Clooney himself? In recent years, the mega-star has proven himself a resourceful and inventive performer; consider the range between, say, his hilariously goofy mugging in Burn After Reading and his classicist composure in Michael Clayton. But this strikes me as a regression for him—for the first time in years, he's relying on movie-star charisma rather than acting chops, and the film feels shallower for it. It's the women of Up in the Air who come close to redeeming it: neither Vera Farmiga nor Anna Kendrick is a household name, but they probably will be once this film's Oscar campaign is over. Farmiga knocks it out of the park in exuding the smoldering mystery that entices Clooney, and when the painful truth behind that mystery is revealed, Farmiga's consistence retroactively sells it. Young Kendrick steals all her scenes as a more grounded-in-reality version of Election's Tracey Flick; the lone scene that Clooney shares with both these women is perhaps the most interesting segment of the movie.

One reason the ending (and by extension, the whole film) doesn't go down like the jagged little pill it should have is that Reitman tips his hand with a montage of recently laid-off employees extolling the importance of family and close relationships (y'know, the stuff Clooney doesn't have). The intended irony is obvious, but the schmaltzy montage itself seems truer to Reitman's softie nature. All I could think of was that episode of King of the Hill where ditzy Luanne, having taken over as the local TV weatherperson, warns of an incoming storm and exhorts her audience, "Hug your babies tight!" Reitman wants his own exhortation to be more complicated (complete with gestures toward way-we-live-now portent), but he can't disguise his true calling as a maker of slick, harmless, reassuring entertainment. And let's not forget that his visual sense is about as sophisticated as Kevin Smith's. Embrace it, Jason—you're not a poet of solitude. You're just a guy who's about to win a bunch of Oscars.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

sand, sky, gun, hat



The horizon is unusually diagonal in this strikingly composed shot from Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.