Friday, December 31, 2010

BEST OF 2010

I have to catch up on some posts (being home for Xmas break can sometimes be more tasking than a work week) but before the year closes out, I wanted to get up my top 5 of 2010. Last year I did a top 10, with several ties, but this dismal year for cinema did not have more than 5 movies that I could stand behind unquestionably. Out of this massive, huge, money-driven disappointment of a year came these 5 movies that will not leave my personal pantheon of must-see films.
5. CATFISH- The movie that The Social Network led us to believe it would be, about the new reality of Facebook and online social interaction. There has been a lot of controversy as to whether this alleged documentary is actually real or not; I think that's moot. The filmmakers have crafted a compelling, relevent, and savagely human narrative that plays like I'd imagine it would in real life. There are no blindsides, no startling moments of truth, just slow, painful realizations and disillusionments; you feel the tensions, dilemmas, and disappointments of the three filmmakers more than in any 10 studio-driven dramas that came out this year. The scene where the lead bashfully reads e-mails with his former love interest while hiding under the covers was brilliant, staged or not, and hit truths that many films with similar intentions have failed to achieve. The last act tries to wrap things up a little too neatly, but overall, the film had enough of an impact to be the only doc that I truly loved this year.
4. True Grit- It's been said before, and I'll say it again; leave it to the Coen bros. to make an old John Wayne western from the '60s seem interesting and relevant. I was shocked to hear that this film was PG-13; even aside from a plethora of bloody murders and intense violence, the film has a gritty, somewhat merciless atmosphere that resembles films like Jarmusch's Dead Man more than the John Ford/John Wayne westerns. Roger Deakins once again outdoes himself (save for the climactic nighttime horse chase), lensing, simultaneously, a gorgeous, untethered landscape, and the savage, disgusting humans that attempt to rape it for sanctuary, resources, or revenge. The dialogue, drawled out by the three leads (including a thoroughly Oscar-worthy Jeff Bridges), is hilarious, depicting its 13-year old protagonist as a practical thinking word-wizard, while making buffoonish hicks out of movie stars Matt Damon and Bridges. As with Catfish, and an inumerable amount of films these days, the film wraps up too quickly, and the buildup proves more satisfying than the conclusion, but, as a whole, the film achieves more than any western in years; it is not quite as interesting and original as A Serious Man, but it ranks up there amongst the finest Coen Bros. work of the past decade.
3. Toy Story 3- How did Pixar manage to keep their Toy Story franchise fresh three entries in? They made it about US. The generation that grew up with this stuff. I was 7 when the first Toy Story came out, a perfect age to latch on to Pixar's perfect, yet-to-be topped premise of the toys that come to life when their owner leaves the room. Now in my early 20s, I completely connected with Andy's plight of reconciling his new life as a collegiate with the playing and imagination that nurtured him as a youngster. The idea of shipping my precious toys away to a retirement home for space-clearing purposes chilled me to the bone, and personifying these forgotten toys as they march on to their twilight years creates a harrowing, emotional narrative. The film is still, ostensibly, a family film, with plenty of humor, particularly from the depiction of the age-old Barbie/Ken romance (Ken's metrosexual leanings border hilariously on a more mature level of humor), albeit with a much darker, multi-layered edge. While How To Train Your Dragon, more of a kids film, was able to create unbelievabe, nearly-shockingly visceral flight and action sequences, the emotional content of Toy Story 3 makes it the true animated classic to come out of 2010.
2. The Social Network - It wasn't about Facebook. It was about the billionaire who invented it, and the fellows that got rich just by being tangentially involved. It was about a dying generation that saw the interests of the up and coming generation, and was able to capitalize on it. It was about the way our nation's "elite" talks these days, never missing a beat and trying their DAMNDEST to stay 2 steps ahead of everyone else in the conversation. It was about a culture that prioritizes status above accomplishment, and exclusivity over personal worth. It was about a young man who has the intelligence to get what he wants, but not the peace of mind to know what it is. It was about a friendship that became a partnership, thus dooming it. It was about big guys being rendered little guys, and little guys catapulting themselves into history. It was about a new business world discovering that the old generation could not play referee anymore. And it was about a country that was dying for a new way to talk online, and how it found it. But it was certainly not about Facebook.
1. Kick-Ass - For many moviegoers, this year brought a film that inspired not a shrug of familiarity, but rather a sigh of relief, knowing that the next decade of film was, actually, going to end up bringing some new stuff to the table. For some, it was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. For others, it was Inception. For me, it was the movie about a modern day New York teen who sees no worth in his life, and, thus, takes it upon himself to stop petty crime in the streets.

I did not review the film when it first released in April simply because I was thunderstruck by what I'd seen. The scene pictured above is, easily, the best, and most visceral action scene since, perhaps, The Matrix, and it is not the lone spellbinding set piece in the film. Matthew Vaughn shows a previously unseen sense of action geography, iconography, and jet-black humor that render the film a thoroughly distinctive, memorable thrill ride. But that's not what makes the movie my favorite of the year.

What makes this film such a wonderful experience is that it feels like it was made by someone who'd seen plenty of comic book movies before. Not just read the books, but seen how they were rendered by people like Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, etc. and internalized the worlds they'd visualized on screen. And it feels like this guy just had to bring all that up to date, with all of the trimmings of a contemporary superhero tale. Although it is not a universal opinion (Roger Ebert hates this movie with a passion), I am of the belief that Mr. Vaughn achieved his goal. Kick-Ass does not become a superhero because he is inherently good, or posesses some unquenchable thirst for justice; he does so because he has nothing better to do. As he says in the intro, "Among my friends, I wasn't even the funny one." He is an unremarkable, unskilled member of today's media savvy environment, where everything feels done and old and tired and totally not worth it. But you do a youtube search of "superhero" and it comes up surprisingly lacking (well, of anything worthwhile at least, except maybe the Jane's Addiction song).

Turns out it's an ugly world out there. A world where good guys not only don't always win, but are typically predestined to lose. A world where the only true threat to a millionaire mobster is a psychotically vengeful ex-cop and his highly-trained daughter. And, of course, the young angsty teen who can take any pain that his goons can dish out. I love that every character in the film is damaged and deeply frightened, from the daddy issues of Red Mist to the indifference of the extras who videotape Kick-Ass's exploits for youtube, portraying a society that doesn't really have the back of its citizens; it takes the ones with nothing to lose to make any sort of difference. The film does not pepper its film with humor, but rather portrays everything in the sort of snide, mannered way that films and TV are made with these days, only to the extreme. This is a film that actually feels that anything could happen, at least, until the last 5 minutes or so. And, even so, it contains a a highly personal, emotional core unlike anything I have ever seen in any film, let alone in a comic book film.

And for every second you give me where Aaron Johnson is merely doing his job, and not completely killing it as the lead character, I'll give you a minute where Nicolas Cage looks like he's having the most fun he's had since Adaptation. The other kids, Chloe Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, are astoundingly well-rounded, Mark Strong is a fresh, human villain, and Clarke Duke provides adept comic relief. Every supporting actor, many being Brits portraying New Yorkers, is in on the joke and registers strongly.

Everything is damn near perfect. Pitch-perfect tone, action, pacing, and casting. A film that I can imagine the next generation of film to be like. And the best damned action sequence of the past decade.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Visually dazzling, yet somewhat contrived sequel to the 1982 classic, this time focused on Kevin Flynn's son, who enters "The Grid" in search of his long-lost father. First things first: the kid sucks. The idea of replacing Jeff Bridge's Flynn with a hot, young, blonde counterpart for modern audiences is immediately misguided, and shows how willing the film is to sacrifice fidelity and integrity for appeal to young audiences; not quite to Episode 1 lengths, but still offensively. Another aspect of the film that completely falls flat is a greater symptom than just the lead: it doesn't feel like a computer world anymore. Everyone has really expressive, vibrant emotions, there is loud, emotive techno music blaring, and the games, rather than being programmed into the system, are actually there for ENTERTAINMENT, with droves of screaming fan programs elated at watching fellow "rogue" programs be "derezzed" in the gladiatorial trials they are forced into. Olivia Wilde's Quorra character, while not only being far too spritely and animated while, simultaneously, being massively turned on by the arrival of Flynn's studly son, turns out to be from an ancient race of indigenous digital beings (spoiler alert! seriously, I just did you a favor, now you won't laugh out loud in a theater full of kids or fanboys or both), completely disregarding the construct-oriented nature of the world of Tron.


Much of the film kind of rocks the house. Like an above-average anime, the dynamic, obviously expensive visuals prove to be so spellbinding, that there are huge chunks of the film where all the flaws of the plot magically disappear, and the visual elements of Tron that have been upgraded take over in a liquid-digital cloud of sensory bliss. The games themselves, while rendered completely nonsensical in this version, are exciting, fresh, and well-orchestrated; no shaky-cams or blurry digital rendering here. There is a club scene with Michael Sheen that takes the new, techno-oriented mindset of this Tron to the umpteenth level, with blaring music, dance-like fight choreography, and Sheen dancing around, reveling in the freedom of this untethered digital landscape. I figure if they were going to make this film about THIS Tron, and not the cold, calculating, emotion-devoid version of Tron from the original, they should've gone all the way and made it an absurdly sensational audio-visual experience, like Sheen's scene proves to be. I should also mention that not only does Daft Punk make a cameo in that scene, but they provided the soundtrack for the whole film; their contribution to the film cannot be expressed enough. Where Harold Faltermeyer's Cop Out score made a boring cash grab into a watchable film, Daft's Tron:Legacy score makes what is, essentially, a feature-length effects real into an emotional, immersive experience; their Tron Theme contains more feeling and power than any individual on-screen moment in the film. The action scenes are such a perfect marriage of sight and sound that they do end up making the film noteworthy, and completely worthy of merit, money, and attention. There should be more movies like this (and less like Avatar THERE I SAID IT!!), just made with more confidence and less concern with the affections of children (*cough* The Matrix *cough* *cough*).

Recommended to fans of high-octane, techno-oriented visuals, Daft Punk, or, to a lesser extent, the original Tron; it's a completely remade, reimagined version of the world, but there are enough bones thrown to fanboys that you can tell the filmmakers (including Steven Lisberger, who produced this one and directed the original) were fully aware of how important a 26-year-later sequel to Tron was in certain circles...but they were also aware, and wary, of how small those intimate, geek-driven circles actually were, which is a shame.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Faster (2010)

Fun, but uneven actioner starring The Rock as a recent parolee who goes on a killing spree to avenge his dead brother. That logline is about as much plot as was divulged in the marketing for the film, and that's about all you need to know; there are other plot elements, but they're window dressing. There is an assassin who is hired to take The Rock out, who, upon realizing how determined he is in his revenge, almost decides to settle down with his fiancee, Maggie Grace. There is a cop, played, with an almost unbelievable professionalism, by Billy Bob Thorton, who is also in The Rock's pursuit, while simultaneously trying to keep his heroin habit in check for his last week before retirement (he actually states how many days he has till retirement with a straight face, talk about professionalism). And there are the random gunmen who took out his brother, who now occupy such (relatively) harmless positions as a preacher, an office worker, and a club bouncer. The violence in the movie is relentless and, at least for the first half, nearly amoral; The Rock has never been this merciless or gritty on film, and it looks good on him. The story inevitably catches up with the hyper-quick pace the title promises, and the film has its share of slow patches, but the story elements are sufficient and comically sparse, and Billy Bob's subplot provides enough pathos to keep things from getting too pointless. That being said, this is not the movie it could be, nor the movie the marketing (and the title) promise it to be; it's a near-western/revenge story more Death Wish than Death Wish 2-5, just, you know, not as good.

Slightly Recommended to action buffs and non-child fans of The Rock; I could call him Dwayne Johnson, like he wants, but, dammit, he's The Rock, and The Rock should be doing more movies with names like Faster and less with the word "Walt Disney presents..." preceding them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Red (2010)

Paper-thin, fleetingly entertaining action-comedy about a group of retired assassins who reteam to take out a public official gunning for them. The star-power driven black comedy that the marketing materials implied is not what the actual movie ends up being; John Malkovich's paranoid ravings, a central focus of the trailers, is mostly loaded onto the tail 45 minutes of the film (during which, I must mention, second-billed Morgan Freeman is nowhere to be found). The first act, nearly dreadful in its staleness, involves Bruce Willis' retired 50 year-old assassin excitedly reentering the intrigue business, along with his pension manager (oh, please), played by Mary-Louise Parker. The dialogue is tired, the action is lame and unremarkable, and the interplay with Willis and Parker is forced, saved only by Parker's natural likability. The movie reminds me of the similarly hit-man themed Mad Dog Time, in the way that it's paced as a series of guest appearances of the spies and assassins that Willis goes to for information or assistance; among them, aside from Malkovich and Freeman, are Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, and, as a rival hit-man, Karl Urban. It is disappointing to say that only Malkovich and Cox get anything juicy to work with, especially considering how effective the idea of Dame Mirren blasting away baddies with machine guns sounds on paper. Urban is strong and imposing, but no more so than when he appeared as a similarly resourceful hitter in The Bourne Supremacy. The whole thing is an excercise in futility; while it, no doubt, helped secure B.O. (and a freaking Best Comedy or Musical Golden Globe nom!) to have these esteemed actors going on publicity tours promoting their smallish parts in the film, it set up a star-power fueled film that has way more laughs and excitement than what's on display here.

Skip it, save for completionist fans of the cast, or genuine Brian Cox fans; the romance between his Russian ambassador and Helen Mirren's ex-MI6 assassin is easily the most charming, understatedly effective aspect of the film. If you told me, prior to seeing the film, that he would steal the film from such a high-wattage cast, it would probably seem as crazy as Mickey Rourke being the truly biggest badass in The Expendables. Who can ever tell with these movies?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Millenium Actress (2002)

Wonderfully fresh, inventive anime about an aging actress who, while being interviewed about her extraordinary life, recalls, and relives, her lifelong pursuit of a man she only met twice, and in passing. Satoshi Kan, the late creator of the similarly inventive Paprika, makes the narrative intangible and dreamlike, but in a distinctly, and surprisingly, coherent way; the actress' interviewers follow her within her flashbacks, and, sometimes, incorporate themselves into the narrative as characters in her story. This not only makes the ambitious indistinct reality of the piece easier to swallow, it creates a running comic relief, as the two thoroughly modern and bumbling interviewers are nearly always out of place and attempting to properly survey the situation. The animation is stunning, but far more traditional, and less independent of the rules of reality, than Paprika; the period scenes truly evoke the older age of Japanese cinema, which, undoubtedly, was the intention.

The story of the aging actress is touching; it is both simple and detailed, very delicate and feminine, while at the same time creating a strong, resilient survivor out of her character. Her tale is told in broad strokes, with seemingly invisible location and period changes throughout, highlighting the emotional truths over the practical ones. However, coherence is maintained through having her interviewers be just as confused as the audience, and repeatedly attempt to talk themselves through the lack of cohesion in the narrative. A sad irony of the film is that, without giving too much away, one of the actress' secrets parallels the life of Mr. Kan only a few years later; this film stands as a testament to his talent and his strength as an inventive storyteller.

Highly Recommended for fans of animation or of grand (albeit fictional) biopics a la Forrest Gump or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While not as groundbreaking or memorable as Paprika, this is the stronger, more touching film.

John Carpenter's Village of the Damned (1995)

Tense, effective horror film about a small town that is host to a group of like-minded, grey-haired children that terrorize the town's adults. The film's structure is unconventional, beginning with a town-wide blackout that results in almost a dozen simultaneous pregnancies, and then tracking the pregnancies until the children are frightfully articulate pre-teens (some with personal briefcases). If the silliness of the premise does not turn one off, there is much moodiness on display here; the film has a slow, frightening, apocalyptic feeling that is absent from many similar horror films. This is primarily due to the efforts of Mr. Carpenter, who throws in interesting camera set-ups and iconic set pieces whenever he gets a chance (he's clearly a fan of The Omen). While his other 1995 film, In the Mouth of Madness, revolves around a Stephen King-type character, this is the more King-like film, with small town camaraderie going up against a mysterious, foreign entity that has sprung from, literally, in this case, their very loins. The success in mood can also be attributed to the surprisingly adept cast, which includes Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Mark Hamill(!), Michael Pare, and Carpenter regular Peter Jason; Reeve, in his last role before his crippling 1995 accident, is a surprisingly strong horror protagonist, standing out as his own character, while not betraying his role as the surrogate of the audience.

Recommended to fans of scary children horror films (this is one of the better ones, due to Carpenter's ability with kid actors), or of Mr. Carpenter, himself; while this is no Halloween or The Thing, it is stronger, if more conventional, than In the Mouth of Madness, which came out merely several months after this film.

Humpday (2009)

Mumblecore comedy about two old friends who reunite and decide to film themselves making love for an art project. It is funny, but pointless. An hour and a half of the two and the wife of one of them talking about whether it's a good idea. And the end result ain't worth it. Some cute bro banter though.

Slightly recommended for mumblecore or Duplass brothers fans; Mark Duplass is a principal player here, and is the funniest of the three performers. NOT FOR HOMOPHOBES.

13 (2011)

English-language remake of the several years-old 13 Tzameti, also about a young electrician who is driven, out of desperation, to inherit a shady moneymaking venture from his late employer. The plot, as I predicted in my review of the original, is a telegraphed, more obvious version of the original; too many secrets and plot elements are revealed too early, and take some of the wind from the sails of the provocative series of events. There are also subtle changes to the plot that make the film more clean and palatable for American audiences, and less gritty and blunt. The style, although the director is the same as the original, is more saturated and dream like than the stark, black and white original. While it does not feel like a typical American suspense film, it is, predictably, a step in that direction away from the original.

What this production adds to the endeavor is its terrific cast. Although the lead is played by Sam Riley as a less extreme version of the original's protagonist, the rogue's gallery of miscreants includes Ray Winstone, Michael Shannon, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Ben Gazzara, Alexander Skarsgard, and 50 Cent; a very interesting, and phenomenally appropriate, array of tough-guys. Fitty holds up surprisingly well, and Statham is strong in a different sort of role for him, but the real scene-stealers are Mickey Rourke and Michael Shannon; without giving away the plot, they both bring so much weight to their respective roles (especially Rourke) that they stand apart from the rest of the insular, almost B-movie structure.

Recommended to fans of the original, of terse, unconventional indie thrillers, or the killer cast. While it does not usurp the in-your-face intensity of the phenomenal 13 Tzameti, there is enough going for it to recommend it alongside, but certainly not instead, the original.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Greenberg (2010)

Cute low-key character study of a mildly neurotic anti-social as he reintegrates himself into his former life in L.A. Ben Stiller is the titular Greenberg, who meets Greta Gerwig's 23 year-old oddball through his more successful, well-adjusted brother, and begins a tenuous relationship that is not easily defined. The film's first act revolves more around Gerwig's character, so we understand through and through why she would sympathize, let alone get along with someone as narcissistic and uncomfortable as Greenberg; she needs someone to take care of, and she can withstand his emotional ambiguity and random tirades, which she probably wouldn't expect anyone else to do. As Greenberg, Stiller is simultaneously grating and engaging, as he is when he's at his best, and one can thoroughly enjoy watching him without ever, for a moment, wanting to encounter him in real life. Gerwig and Jennifer Jason Leigh are good as the women who are able to deal with Greenberg's nonsense, and Rhys Ifans does terrific, uncharacteristically subtle work as his recovering-addict best friend. The backstory behind Greenberg and Ifans' character is well conceived and explored, and is among the more interesting throughlines in the film. That being said, the "love story" is surprisingly fresh, if a little too timid, in the end, and Greenberg's character arc is significant without being overbearingly exaggerated.

Recommended for fans of Noah Baumbach and his style of slow-to-mid tempo comedies, or Ben Stiller in an usually realistic role for him.