Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Kids are Not All Right: The Films of 2010-Part 4

5. Winter's Bone

Filled with a chilly and unforgiving atmosphere, Winter's Bone was film noir set in the Ozarks, and right from the beginning, it was close to perfect. Jennifer Lawrence is stunning as Ree Dolly, the seventeen year old daughter of a bail jumping meth cooker who gets caught up in the middle of a deep and disturbing mystery. Also of note is the under appreciated John Hawkes as Teardrop, her uncle who runs hot and cold, good and bad. I loved the dichotomy of the ensemble, particularly Teardrop. This is the life many have chosen to live, and as such, the rules have been written in blood. It's a captivating film set in the ugliest of towns.

4. True Grit

I'm always a fan of the Coen brothers, so Grit was no exception. While Westerns are admittedly not my favorite film genre, the outstanding performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges made this already fun film all the more spectacular. The casting is top notch and each actor is used to their full potential. Plus, true Coen brothers fans will enjoy the random Coen moments that are at this point trademark, which diffuse tension and insert a level of weirdness that is quite edifying. It's a well made movie, and it's an excellent adventure.

3. Black Swan

No stranger to nightmares, Darren Aronofsky has delivered a gorgeous, sick, and dizzying piece of art that begs to be seen and discussed. One part Red Shoes, two parts Repulsion, Swan is a film that operates around my favorite kind of horror, psychological horror. Using just the right amount of special effects and blood, the film had me jumping in my seat, flinching, and in one case, biting down onto my scarf out of shock. Natalie Portman gives a performance that is both innocent and dangerous. Her transformation is utterly painful to watch, and the small cuts and subliminal messages spliced into the film kept me on my toes. The performances and the plot itself teeter on borderline camp, but is stunning enough that we can just enjoy it for what it is. So good, I even saw it twice, just to make sense of this brooding fever dream.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Larger than life masterpiece or elaborate hoax? Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a stunning, goofy, and riveting documentary that also serves as a strong argument about what 'art' is. The ever illusive Banksy hits this film out of the park, and refuses to spare his subject, a fan of street art who wanted to capture the lives of these artists and ended up selling out completely. The film is chock full of fascinating interviews with several street artists, and is narrated with a crass but fun droll, courtesy of Rhys Ifans. I am a fan of Banksy's artwork, so the idea of him making a movie was just brilliant, and I am glad to say he did not disappoint. The film is well worth your price of admission, simply for the stunts alone. It will make you think twice about Disneyworld, or elephants.

1. Dogtooth

As hilarious as it is disturbing, Dogtooth is a warped film that redefines the word 'normal' as well as dissect the modern family. Drawing inspiration from the films of Michael Haneke, and even Pasolini's perverted masterpiece, Salo, director Giorgos Lanthimos examines the everyday lives of a nameless Greek family and their bizarre and often disquieting customs. In the world of Dogtooth, cats are cold blooded predators, zombies are tiny yellow flowers, and the outside world is a dangerous and scary place. The three children, two daughters and a son, live under the unwavering eye of their silent mother and domineering and coolly evil father. When pop culture and movies are introduced to the children, nothing is ever the same.

One thing I truly admire, aside from concept and execution, both of which are spellbinding, is just how Dogtooth came out of nowhere and left such an impression on the lucky number who have seen it. Entering the theater at quarter to ten one night in mid July, I had no clue what to expect, other than sheer weirdne
ss on behalf of the plot. Weirdness is one word to describe what blew through my brain. In short, the fact that I knew so little about the film helped me enjoy it so much more.

Moviegoers with strong stomachs and an eye for weird cinema will enjoy this film almost as much as I did. It made me laugh, it frightened me, and it left me stunned. Those last ten minutes are killer and left me gasping for air. I always gravitate towards off the wall and otherwise strange films, and because of this, Dogtooth is my Number One pick for 2010.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Growing Up is Hard to Do: The Films of 2010-Part 3

10. Somewhere

People hate Sofia Coppola for a number of reasons, most of which I cannot understand. While her slow and unglamorous shtick might leave viewers cold and tired, to those who can appreciate the routine malaise of rich and successful people, films like Somewhere are true gems that deserve appreciation. Almost a bookend to Coppola's breakthrough hit, Lost in Translation, Somewhere is a small, sweet, and slow film about a Hollywood actor, played by Stephen Dorff, who is trying to get his life together, which includes being a better father to his daughter, Cleo. Elle Fanning gives a stunning performance as a girl who has lived her life without a father, or any proper support, but her understated talent shines through in tiny but elegant moments. In Fanning's case, a glare across the table can speak wonders for her emotions and anger. As a behind the scenes look at fame and fatherhood, Somewhere is a great film.

9. Toy Story 3

This one is purely a sentimental pick. Yes, Toy Story 3 was great, we can all for the most part agree on this one, but what made it special for me was being able to see how far the series has come from its humble beginnings. Pixar revolutionized animation and paved the way for new and thrilling forms of cinema and CGI. Having grown up with Andy, the owner of the toys, it was especially moving to watch as he matured and grew up, something that Woody the Cowboy realizes in the second film of the trilogy. The film feels like The Great Escape as performed by Happy Meal toys, and as such, gives audiences of all ages plenty of humor, fun, and heart to devour and enjoy. It also had me sobbing like a small child by the very end, which is the true mark of greatness. In short, it was the perfect ending to an iconic series.

8. Animal Kingdom

It's survival of the fittest in this crime drama/sleeper hit. The 'Kingdom' is contemporary Australia, where a crime family is caught in a war between the cops and themselves. At the center of all of this is J, the emotionless but good natured grandson to Janine Cody, played with a chilling precision by Jacki Weaver, who gets stuck with these criminals after his mother dies. The feelings of brotherhood and family unity are sick but compelling, and the action/violence is slow building, and unexpected. Overall, Animal Kingdom is a realistic crime drama that is stuffed to the gills with talented actors and great cinematography.

7. The Illusionist

While many critics scolded Sylvain Chomet's second film, The Illusionist for not being as 'good' as The Triplets of Belleville, his smashing and near perfect debut film, I found a deep flaw in their assessments: It's not supposed to be The Triplets of Belleville! Instead of copying his first film note for note, Chomet adapts a screenplay by Jacques Tati and creates a quiet but richly detailed film about an aging magician and the bond he forges with a young fan. Told with minimal dialogue, the film works at a nice pace, showing scenes of daily life and simplicity, all the while sending its Tati-esque protagonist through a series of magic shows and spectacles. In short, The Illusionist is a sweet, silly, and surprisingly moving film that is about putting aside the top hat and moving on from magic. Which is deeper than 98% of most animated films.

6. Blue Valentine

There isn't much hope for the couple in Blue Valentine, but their unraveling is so painfully honest that we cannot turn away from it. Ryan Gosling was denied an Oscar nomination for his complicated and challenging role, one in which he transforms into a man he never thought he'd become, or maybe, he was all along. Michelle Williams carries her role with true grace, which is odd considering how tragic the story is. It is a great film because it's simple yet complex. I was taken by both lead actors, and as always, love to see a small film that can still captivate audiences and leave an impression.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Understated and Underrated: The Films of 2010-Part 2

15. All Good Things

Ryan Gosling in drag, getting away with murder. Sounds like the awful sequel to the equally bad Madea Goes to Jail, but, believe it or not, it works quite well for All Good Things, a movie that blurs the line between reality and insanity, and really gets deep down to the epicenter of a shocking crime. Why does millionaire David Marks hate his wife so much? He has the perfect life and more money than he knows what to do with, so why so glum and angry? Would he be sick enough to kill her? The answers are never perfectly defined, but Andrew Jarecki, the talented director behind the absolutely horrifying Capturing the Friedmans, does not attempt to force ideas or facts down your throat, instead presenting a reasonable argument as to what may have occurred and how the aftermath may have played out. According to the movie, David Marks, the alleged murderer of 2-3 people, is still living freely, which really set me on edge. Overall, a well done and underrated crime thriller.

14. Shutter Island

I'm a stickler for twisted horror movies, so when Scorsese released Shutter Island, I was beyond excited. Unfortunately, it was released several months after its original date, and as a result, was forgotten by December. However, the film was well worth the wait, and had the creepiest of atmospheres. Leonardo DiCaprio, as always, plays damaged and disturbed widower to a T, and his supporting cast is equally compelling. In her one scene, Patricia Clarkson is mesmerizing and slightly crazy, and who wouldn't want to see Max Von Sydow, Antonius Block himself, as an ex-Nazi? The secrets revealed throughout the film kept me on my toes, pondering as to what all of the film could mean. While the film gets a little lengthy and super duper insane, the ending is spooky, and definitely worth the trip through insanity.

13. Another Year

While Mike Leigh is a hit or miss director for me, his most recent film, Another Year, is a superb and quiet film about a year in the life of an older married couple. It sounds dry and dull on paper, but in terms of how Leigh handles his actors, it's quite an astonishing and unpredictable treasure. While Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are positively warm and delightful as the inseparable couple Tom and Jerry, it is Lesley Manville who gives the performance of the film. She is vulnerable, she is energetic, and painfully stubborn. We watch her go from good to bad, and we truly empathize with her. While she is not the only interesting person in the film, Manville will break your heart and stand out from the crowd completely. She takes a small film and gives a brave performance.

12. Please Give

A delightful dry but well made film about mean people who think they are nice and as such, do mean things, and yet, we are enchanted, even moved, by the film as a whole. I always love Catherine Keener, and she is Oscar worthy as a woman who runs a furniture store that sells pieces owned by the recently deceased, but who dreams of taking the apartment of her nearly dead neighbor. The actors are all superb, and are quite realistic, more so than many of the performances/actors in films this year. They are spiteful, but act like they are justified. It's a film that came out of nowhere, but was just my cup of tea.

11. The Social Network

Whether we like to admit it or not, Facebook has shaped the world in ways that before seemed unimaginable or trivial. It's a website, but it is so much more than that, and with David Fincher's new film, The Social Network, we get to see the behind the scenes story about how one of the most powerful websites came to be, and the conflicts and power struggles that occurred along the way. Going into the movie, I was able to suspend the truth and just go with the story, which allowed me to enjoy the rapid dialogue, the characterization of Zuckerberg and his friend/enemies, and the high melodrama that Fincher used to move the story forward. History, this ain't, but fun, slick, and intelligent, it most definitely is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fish, Fighters, and Freaky Dream Sequences: The Films of 2010-Part One

In just one week from tonight, the 83rd Academy Awards will air, and the starletards and suck ups in the Hollywood industry will get a hard on for glamorous dresses, and an even bigger one for ugly ones. People will cry, actors will be disappointed, someone will get cut off before they're finished their Oscar speech.

In short, it's going to be amazing.

To keep with a similar tradition with what I did last year, I'm going to leak my favorite films of 2010 over the course of four days, with Friday being a surprise post. Instead of going with five, I wanted to write about twenty. Well, the word 'Wanted' was not how it played out. I submitted a list of my Top 20 favorite films from 2010 to a film magazine, Film Comment, and hopefully, they will publish my selections. If not, well, you can read them here, and I hope you enjoy them. I'm going to preface my list by saying, the twenty you will see over the next week are different than those of more conventional critics. Films that critics put at the Number one or two spot got slated down lower on my list, or in the case of some films, were left in the slush pile. That's why subjection is a beautiful and glorious thing.

Without further adieu, here is Part One of Five of My Twenty Favorite Films of 2010

20. Catfish

This is similar to Exit Through the Gift Shop in that it also focuses on a larger than life subject, and we cannot really determine if it's a true story or just a pieced together lie. Catfish is wonderful because the story surrounding it is both unsettling and so easy to relate to. Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, she's on the Internet, he smells something fishy(no pun intended), and decides to investigate his new girlfriend. I'm a huge fan of a good old fashioned mystery with an explosive ending and enough tension and twists that you are never sure what the detectives are getting their noses into until it's nearly too late. While I was disappointed by how the trailer marketed the film, for lack of a better word, and made it seem like a pulse pounding horror thriller. In fact, it was so terrifying I lost sleep over it. The film was never going to be as horrific as the trailer advertised it to be, but it did promise a jawdropper of an ending, and it delivered.

19. The Town

2010 was a big year for trashy dramas set in Boston, and The Town feels like the complimentary movie to The Fighter, one that details the life behind Mark Wahlberg's character at an even more microscopic level. Ben Affleck is good as Dougie, a man caught up in crime and corruption. For Dougie, this is just his life, his way of living, and everyone he knows is a criminal or a slime-ball in a baseball cap. Being the Mad Men addict that I am, I really enjoyed seeing Jon Hamm in a role on the big screen, as opposed to playing the damaged and equally compelling Don Draper, which shows how far his range reaches. Rebecca Hall is one to watch, and was equally impressive in Please Give, and Jeremy Renner made the film even better. Not as good as Animal Kingdom, but still worth watching.

18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was like taking literary crack cocaine. The book was dense and full of action and emotion, and once you got into the story, it was impossible to tear away from it. I'm glad to say that the film was a faithful and enjoyable adaptation of the novel. It's not perfect, and is missing several points that are important to the book, but were bound to be trimmed and discarded in the script writing process. Noomi Rapace captured the raw nerve and sadistic edge that embodies Lisbeth Salander. The film is not a technological orgy of lights, camera angles and noise, but it's still a tightly paced adventure thriller that will please fans and newcomers to the Millennium Trilogy alike.

17. Inception

At this stage, it's easy for me to rant about Inception and why it does not belong on the Best Picture list. Was it enjoyable? Like hell it was! Was it spectacular? Most definitely! Was it meaningful? Well....not so much. The energy and momentum that was sustained during the film was heart thumpingly amazing, as were the stunts and little feats of gravity that kept popping up. Christopher Nolan is a very exciting director, and this is a film that will toy with your brain and wow you on sight alone. That being said, it's a summer blockbuster action movie, and its characters have the emotional depth of a sanitary napkin. I'm glad that I saw it, and was more than in love with the film and its premise, but I have to play devil's advocate and say that yes, it's well made and fun, but Oscar worthy? That's somewhat of a stretch.

16. The Fighter

Surprisingly enough, I really liked The Fighter, and this coming from an avid avoider of sport movies in general(Read: MAJOR Homo). Yes, this resurgence of boxing/wrestling movies/TV shows where the main fighter is looking for a comeback is really being overdone at this point, but since this film is about a real person, I can let it slide. While part of me is convinced that it was made solely as an Oscar bait flick where actors put on fake accents and looked gritty to win a naked golden boy, I was able to look past that and see a well made, thoroughly interesting and enjoyable film. Christian Bale finally can receive the acclaim he always deserves, as can Melissa Leo, both of whom are so immersed in their characters, it's hard to remember that they are actors just as it is difficult to turn your eyes away from them. I liked the struggle between the two brothers and the rough and tumble world they live in. Exciting and quick paced, and highly recommendable.