Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Top 20 "Discoveries" of 2010

So what the hell is this? Well, for about every two or three films I watch I try to see an older one that I've always wanted to see. That was the reason for my Asian Directors Marathon and I have another cool Marathon coming up next year. So "discoveries" are simply films from before 2010 that I watched for the first time this year that I came to really, strongly appreciate. Some will be added to my Top 100, while others are already there and that is already being changed around. Check it out...

1. Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck)
3. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985, Hector Babenco)
4. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
5. Heat (1995, Michael Mann)
6. Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)
7. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985, Woody Allen)
8. Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)
9. Red Cliff (2008, John Woo)
10. Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby)
11. Hard Boiled (1992, John Woo)
12. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
13. The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
14. Happy Together (1997, Wong Kar-wai)
15. Thirst (2009, Park Chan-wook)
16. House of Flying Daggers (2004, Zhang Yimou)
17. 2046 (2004, Wong Kar-wai)
18. The Aristocrats (2005, Penn Jillette)
19. The Killer (1989, John Woo)
20. The Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges)

Friday, December 24, 2010

My 2010 Top 10

10. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
Hiker Aron Ralston is portrayed as a loner, a daredevil, and a man who lives an empty life. Actor James Franco nails all of Ralston's eccentric qualities while still giving the audience the pleasure of following a character arc that may have taken place in real life. Aron must embrace his fate in order to find his way in life in this adrenaline-fueled story from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy about a hiker who gets trapped under a boulder while out hiking by the Grand Canyon. The cinematography is amazing and the dream sequences are imaginative.

9. The Town (Ben Affleck)
A stellar ensemble cast (Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Pete Postlethwaite, and Chris Cooper) bring us into the world of bank robbing criminals and determined cops in one of the most action-filled love stories in quite a while. The neighborhood of Charlestown and its characters are portrayed as people who want to rule the streets, but are afraid to actually leave them behind. When one crook decides he no longer wants to live the life of a criminal after meeting a girl during a heist, he attempts to walk away leading to violent scenarios that he couldn't have predicted.

8. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
This foreign film from the director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about an Arab-French boy (newcomer Tahar Rahim) who enters prison as a frightened teenager and emerges as a man who is a self-made crime boss. One could argue that this makes The Godfather look like a romance film because this film is taut and shot documentary style to bring the audience closer to these extremely dark characters. We see the world of prison and mobsters collide and the power struggle is full of interesting characters all played by fantastic actors.

7. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
Ryan Gosling stars as a tender man that just seems to be on a losing streak as far as life is concerned. Michelle Williams stars as a woman who is debating whether she should run from or embrace her place in life. They fall in love and that's only the beginning of the movie. We are used to seeing love stories, but are we used to seeing them fall apart. This film is the most heartbreaking movie I've possibly ever seen as its main purpose is to show a dead love and a fractured romance. You might ask why you are sitting through this movie, but it actually examines the truth behind most relationships that nothing is every perfect.

6. Another Year (Mike Leigh)
A great cast with three phenomenal performances. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play a couple who are trying to rekindle their romance later in life and Lesley Manville is a dreamer who longs for a passionate relationship with a man. Mike Leigh succeeds at taking the idea of spending some time in the English countryside and leads us into a look at where love goes later in life once you've met your "one-and-only." It's almost a great companion piece to Blue Valentine as the two both show two different sides to what happens as you move through life as a companion to another person.

5. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
This is Polanski at his best (see The Pianist, Chinatown, or Rosemary's Baby; this is right up there with them). Ewan McGregor plays a hack writer thrust into a large scheme when he is asked to ghost write the memoirs of a British Prime Minister who is suddenly accused of war crimes. Pierce Brosnan plays the British Prime Minister in what I'd consider to be the best performance of his career thanks to Polanski's sharp dialogue. This film is highly suspenseful and there are no gimmicks at play. No predictability or cliches, everything is just storytelling from a director who knows how to thrill audiences by keeping them guessing.

4. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
This year, Pixar decided to transport us back to a world they've already spent two films in and the return after all this time is fresh and welcoming. The toys are becoming obsolete, so after Andy's mom sends them to a daycare, they plan a daring and hilarious escape. This film is all about imagination trying to return to the lives of children and frankly, it rings very true. Today, kids are more used to technology than they are used to going outside and playing a "pretend game." Yet at the end of the day, the movie is about the love we have for our friends and family and most Pixar films can be traced back to that theme.

3. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
Jennifer Lawrence's breakthrough performance features her as this proud yet economically disadvantaged teenager who has taken the role of matriarch in her family because her mother is sick and her siblings are too young to help out. Her meth-addict dad (played brilliantly by John Hawkes) is running from the law so Lawrence's character must find her father and ask him for help with the bills or she'll lose her house to the bank. This movie is very gritty and dark and unrelenting in its view of these circumstances and characters. It's one of those movies you'll only want to experience once, but you'll be thankful as it makes you count your blessings after the story has ended.

2. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
This is perhaps the first R-rated family film I've ever seen. The entire mood and tone of the film is relaxed and easy going while still being witty and dramatic. The film is about two lesbian mothers who were each impregnated by the same sperm donor and when their kids come of age they want to meet their donor father and they end up brining him into the family. Annette Bening as one of the mothers is radiant, defiant, and devoted to keeping control over her family. Julianne Moore as the other mother delivers a very sensual performance, but still lets the audience see her insecurities. Mark Ruffalo is very vibrant, especially in the scenes where he meets his kids played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. The film is very simple, but that is why I enjoyed it. The acting is great, the characters are well-defined.

1. The Social Network (David Fincher)
This movie is scripted so well thanks to Aaron Sorkin that it's practically a thriller as we learn about the early days behind the formation of the website known as Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg delivers a subdued and emotional performance as Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the cast (Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Josh Pence, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, and Rashida Jones) all help with a dramatization that reminded me of The Insider where we saw how plot-driven films can pack just as much of an emotional punch as character-driven films. This story is about human beings who make some bad choices, but turning friends into the click of a button isn't the answer to atone for your mistakes. Sometimes we look for the easy way out and we are denied. Very meaningful filmmaking while not being outrageous with the storytelling.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit

True Grit started out as a novel in 1968 by Charles Portis and was later adapted into a film the following year. John Wayne portrayed the iconic character of Rooster Cogburn in the film and won his only Academy Award for Best Actor. In this new adaptation of the novel, by writers and directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, the focus, like in the novel, is on Mattie Ross instead of that of Cogburn. Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a fourteen year old girl who wants to avenge her father's death after he is killed by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She asks eyepatch wearing U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) to help her bring Chaney to justice and after some nudging, both men agree and eventually see eye-to-eye with young Mattie.

This is, without a doubt, a true Western in the classical sense of the word. We see a world that has yet to be effected by technological and social change and we have rebellious anti-heroes who live in a world that is brutal and not always fair. There are codes of honor that are not always followed in these tales on morality, but the spirit and the struggle that the Western frontier brings on is always what we find ourselves enjoying the most in these films. This is the Coen brothers take on the genre. It is both unique and faithful to what one would expect from mixing their writing and directing style with a Western story. Technically, No Country for Old Men was a modern Western, but this is much more classical and I'll talk about that more in a little bit.

My first order of praise is that this film has such a great cast. Jeff Bridges worked with the Coens' on The Big Lebowski and Josh Brolin worked with them on No Country for Old Men. This is Damon's first film with the brothers and he fits right in reciting their dialogue. The true newcomer both for them and for the movie industry itself comes in the form of Hailee Steinfeld. One of the things that makes this a better film than the original is that it's the girl who has the true grit. This isn't a Jeff Bridges vehicle in the same way the 1969 film was just another Western starring John Wayne. This is a deadpan take on all of those Western themes I just mentioned and Steinfeld does a fantastic job of holding it all together. We see her character grow on screen as she holds her own against all of the principal actors. The story relies on her character and for such a young girl, her performance is flawless. She conveys both intelligence and innocence very well.

Jeff Bridges has a greater screen presence than Wayne did. This character certainly isn't as iconic as his previous Coen brothers role as the Dude, but it is a fine supporting performance from a legendary performer. Matt Damon continues to be the most versatile actor working in the industry as his character is part badass and part Dudley Do-Right. Brolin plays a cowardly villain who in a few scenes manages to still leave quite an impression. Barry Pepper also does a great job playing the leader of a gang who is harboring Chaney and ends up regretting it when he finds himself at the other end of Rooster's gun barrel. I take it my point has been realized that this movie has quite a fantastic ensemble and the Coen brothers always find fascinating actors to play bit parts here and there.

A lot of people were surprised that this film got a PG-13 rating because normally the Coens and violence can get extreme. Well this is certainly not an exception. The violence here isn't fun, it's as realistic as it was back when the Coens' made their first film in the mid-80's. Carter Burwell delivers a very nice score and Roger Deakins always makes everything look fantastic. Technically speaking, the Coens are still bringing us their best. I actually would just like to take a second to point out that I don't dislike a single Coen brothers movie. Sure, some aren't as good as others, but I find that none could be called outright bad. They might possibly be my favorite directors working today.

Now to return to how the Coens have chosen to interpret this story with their beautifully sharp and decisive dialogue, this is arguably the most un-Coen brothers the Coen brothers could get. They don't go outrageously outside their comfort zone like they did last year with A Serious Man, but they give this film a very unique feeling. This is the Coens' attempting a tired-out genre and they give it all of their flair. These guys are just too good at storytelling and I couldn't think of two filmmakers as adventurous as these guys to end another year of film viewing on. Once again, they've delivered another movie I can find very little fault with.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

East Asian Directors Marathon #11- Red Cliff (2008, China, John Woo)

"Truth and illusion are often disguised as each other."

Note: Before I begin, I should point out that I saw the condensed two and a half hour United States version and not the 4 and a half hour Chinese version. As you'll see, I liked it very much and I will revisit the film through the longer version at a later date.

My thoughts on this one are pretty brief. Red Cliff has a lot going for it. It was the most expensive Chinese film ever made and had been in production hell for quite some time. The story can only be defined as epic, so it needs an epic vision to really capture the scale of the plot and the characters. This is John Woo's most recent film that has seen a release overseas and it's like The Lord of the Rings with samurai. The costumes are fantastic, the special effects are realistic, and the choreography along with more polished (at least compared to Woo's early films) cinematography and editing will have you not wanting to look away. This is John Woo's first Asian film in quite a while and his first historical epic. He had wanted to make this project for some time and after years of laboring, his hard work and vision has paid off in my opinion.

As technically proficient as the film is, I have to point out that it has such an excellent cast of fantastic personalities where each line feels like it has a meaning. This movie is not simply just good versus evil (even though we want one side to win more than the other), but we understand everyone's motivations and reasoning. I was previously introduced to Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers and the character he plays here is very different. Still, it's a fantastic performance almost reminding me of Alec Guinness in Star Wars. The great Tony Leung is also good as usual as a character that reminded me of the roles of Toshiro Mifune. There is also a love story between Leung and a female and unlike most Woo films, I just felt like it really fits in this case.

This is new ground for Woo as both a writer and a director. He cites Akira Kurosawa as one of his influences and I think Kurosawa would've been very proud to see a film like this. The highest compliment I can pay this movie is that it's naturally poetic. Dare I say more? I'm going to go ahead and say it, having seen the following- A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Bullet in the Head, Hard Boiled, Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Mission Impossible II, Windtalkers, and Paycheck... this is easily Woo's best film in my eyes perhaps because it was somewhat uncharacteristic in some respects for him and it provided him with a challenge. Simply masterful.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fighter

The opening of The Fighter consists of Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) sitting on a couch with his half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) talking about how Micky fights in the boxing ring to a camera crew that is filming Dicky for a documentary. The next shot is of Micky paving the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts and Dicky is walking behind him throwing punches and acting like a showman. The two then walk home followed by the camera crew to give us a look of what life is like in Lowell. Like most Boston set movies, there is a mythic sensibility of machismo and religion and the gray area where the two somehow meet in Boston and its surrounding areas. Although this movie isn't just about the physical environment, but the emotional environment of these characters as well. It's one full of ego, ambition, and disfunction.

David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) is a masterful storyteller and this character-fueled story is one of his most effective and heartfelt examples of his craft. Micky is an up-and-coming boxer who has been trained by Dicky for all of his life. Dicky is famous in Lowell for being the guy who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, but Dicky has some secrets. He's a crack addict for one and is never around when Micky needs him. Throw in Alice (Melissa Leo), Mickey's controlling stepmother who almost loves her children too much that she forgets to care for them equally, and you have a family that will crack under any external pressure. That pressure comes in the form of Charlene (Amy Adams) a bar-girl that Micky really likes, but Alice despises her because she is distracting Micky from his shot at fame. These characters are fully fleshed out, but in a subtle way that doesn't make anything they do feel too ridiculous or dramatic for the sake of conflict in storytelling.

Even when the movie might seem predictable or typical, the characters are just well written and performed that all of the emotional weight they carry is constantly having an impact on the audience. My only problem was that some of the family disfunction was taken lightly and played for humor, but looking back on the film, the disfunction has just as many dark moments and it gives the film a more realistic touch. I found myself comparing this to the 2008 film Doubt where the performances carried a story that might not've been as good without four fantastic actors (instead of Streep, Seymour Hoffman, Adams, and Davis we have Wahlberg, Bale, Adams, and Leo).

Wahlberg nails the ambition and timidity that Micky feels, Leo is threatening while still motherly, and Adams gives one of the best portrayals of an independent woman that I've seen in a while. Yet, Bale is the one who transforms into his role. He always worked so well in a supporting capacity and the end result of his style of acting in The Fighter is one of the most tragic and redeeming character arcs I've seen in a while. Very emotional with every moment you spend with these characters being more insightful than the next.

The Tourist

In 1963, the best Alfred Hitchcock movie never made by Alfred Hitchcock was released. It was called Charade and was directed by Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) and starred Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Every time there was a dull moment in The Tourist (which there were many of), I found myself saying, "this movie is trying really hard to be Charade." The Tourist is about two individuals, who through a chance meeting, end up on the run together. The first character is Elise (Angelina Jolie), the girlfriend of an international criminal who gets a letter from him saying to find a man who matches his little known description and trick the authorities following her (two agents played by Paul Bettany and Timothy Dalton) into thinking this random man is in fact the thief who has eluded the law for years. Elise picks a man named Frank (Johnny Depp) who is a mathematician from Wisconsin and is sightseeing in Venice.

What follows is a very cliche film where all of the elements are too overly romanticized. Frank and Elise share "meaningful" flirty glances and make witty retorts while bullets might as well be flying around them. It did get me thinking whether or not a these types of movies being more gritty nowadays (see something like The Bourne Identity) was a good thing or a bad thing, but I'd imagine that a movie like The Tourist would be feasible. Instead we are filled with a very boring and unexciting movie with the most annoyingly romantic music. The acting on the parts of Jolie and Depp weren't bad and I don't think it has to do with a lack of chemistry (like was the case with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in The Mexican), instead I blame the writing and I really don't know what happened because of the talent involved.

The film is an adaptation of French director Jerome Salle's (Largo Winch) first film called Anthony Zimmer. The first draft of the screenplay was written by Christopher McQuarrie (Academy Award winner for The Usual Suspects) and the second draft of the screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes (Academy Award winner for Gosford Park). The third draft was written by the film's eventual director, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck (Academy Award winning writer/director for Best Foreign Film for The Lives of Others). The movie could've been the most poorly advertised and misrepresented movie in existence and I'd still happily pay ten dollars to sit and watch what he would came up with. I remember becoming a real movie buff around 2006, and I was shocked when Pan's Labryinth lost the Academy Award to this movie I was unfamiliar with. That being said, once I sat down and watched The Lives of Others, it became one of my top all-time favorite films. I suppose that Hollywood just threw money at three award-winners and said "put something out there."

Johnny Depp's character is just too ordinary for the good of this story and the same could be said about Angelina Jolie's character being too extraordinary. The film is lacking any sense of complexity (see the unexciting roof top chase) and even with the twists being somewhat unpredictable, once they've passed they just seem typical. The Tourist is harmless; it isn't a horrible movie, it should just be a good one. The movie is too relaxed and I'm more disappointed that the pairing of two amazing actors (see Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Ed Wood, Finding Neverland, and Public Enemies and Jolie in Girl Interrupted, The Good Shepherd, A Mighty Heart, and Changeling) had what could've been a great opportunity wasted on them.

Where's the pairing of a Grant and a Hepburn when you need it? Oh wait, it already happened.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Black Swan

Performance is a deeply complex art. You can convey so many emotions with a variety of gestures. When performing, the body becomes a tool. We love watching performances whether they be in dance, acting, or some other sort of interpretive genre because they take us to another place. In Darren Aronofsky's (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) new ballet-inspired thriller, the audience is transported to that place via a film that draws you in with each passing moment.

You have the ballerina protagonist, Nina (Natalie Portman), a technically flawless dancer that needs to learn how to bring personality into her performance. She's overachieving, a perfectionist, and constantly struggling with her journey of becoming a mature woman. When the whip-cracking head of her ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), fires the aging dancer Beth (Winona Ryder), he looks for a new younger dancer to star as the Swan Queen in his version of Swan Lake. The premise of Swan Lake is that the gentle White Swan undergoes a metamorphic experience and becomes the cruel Black Swan. Nina has the fragility of the White Swan, but she almost doesn't get the part of the Queen because she doesn't possess the darkness of the Black Swan. Yet when Thomas makes a pass at her, she bites his lip when he forces his mouth onto hers. She goes on to get the part. Matters are only complicated when the sexually charged Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company. Nina believes she may soon have competition for the role because Lily is able to be both perfect and capable of showing a sense of inner as well as outer beauty. The final piece to the story is Erica (Barbara Hershey), who is Nina's mother and has a push-pull relationship with her daughter. Erica is somewhat controlling, but Nina is really the one who needs to be free of her mother.

The twists-and-turns begin when Nina begins to lose touch with reality. I can't get into any more detail than that because this movie lives off its visual and emotional roller coaster thrills. We are taken into a world of emotional violence that is made up of fantastical obsessions and repulsions. The actors are all at their best. Portman's descent into madness is the most daunting role of her career. Not only does she pull it off, she changes into her role much like the White Swan becomes the Black Swan. Cassel and Kunis both bring out this sexual dynamic giving the film this significant psychosexual tone. Cassel yelling "seduce us, seduce, attack it, attack it" coupled with the nightclub dance/love scenes with Kunis further plunge Portman's character into insanity. Aronofsky takes us to such an emotional extreme that the only film I can think of that did the same was his own film from ten years ago, Requiem for a Dream. This film is also similar to his film from two years ago, The Wrestler. In that film, a man used his body as his profession, wrestling. In fact, the two are companion pieces in a sense. Technically speaking, Aronofsky uses his camera like a character, constantly weaving through the dancers and whatever film stock was used, it gave the visual a grainy look. The special effects, the costumes, the cinematography, the editing, and the score (by the phenomenal Clint Mansell whose work with Aronofsky is always his best) and you have another masterpiece from a master of his art.

This goes with those select few films where when it was over, I felt so emotionally drained that I know I've experienced something special. Nina strived for perfection, and Aronofsky made us understand what that is. This was one of those film viewing experiences that can only be described in one word... transcendent.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

East Asian Directors Marathon #10- Face/Off (1997, United States, John Woo)

"Isn't this religious, ah yes. The eternal battle between good and evil, saints and sinners... but you are still not having fun."

At first, the premise of this movie sounded ridiculous to me. A police officer captures a terrorist, but to get information out of the terrorist's brother he surgically takes the terrorist's face and plants it on his own, but the terrorist escapes and takes the officer's face and plants it on his own... This just sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock plot on crack. The "case-of-mistaken-identity" thriller genre is taken into the science-fiction realm and the final result is about half stupid and half fun. Like most films from John Woo, plot isn't that carefully considered. At least in The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Bullet in the Head the plot wasn't over-plotted. By that I mean that Face/Off has so many plot points and character arcs that you could probably frame a season of a television series around this. The end result is a two hour plus movie that is so long that at one moment you can predict what will happen next while the next moment you are left in suspense. It really runs the gamut of storytelling ideas within the realm of this world.

The actors, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, are at least having fun. Their unrestrained mannerisms might make you smirk, but you certainly can't look away. Cage has this pointy hawkish face while Travolta (and I try to mean this respectfully) looks like his face was carved out of a holiday ham. Both had enough roles before this movie came out that you could make a Saturday Night Live skit out of them (Travolta had Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction while Cage had Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas). Travolta and Cage are essentially doing impersonations of each other. This almost becomes an unintentional comedy about acting that I'd love to see done again with some of the greats (De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Walken, etc.). Like any John Woo film, you can still read into this and come away with a deeper message. It's about how our appearance shapes our personality and when we begin to break down- our physical being effects our emotional being and vice-versa. As a quick note, it was also nice to see actresses like Joan Allen and Gina Gershon in less serious roles (I know Allen from many films but her best performance being in The Contender while Gershon was primarily excellent in Bound). The cinematography and editing are typically awesome as they are in most Woo films and John Powell delivers a powerfully draining score (I mean that as a compliment).

I consider this a part of Cage's holy trinity of mid-nineties action movies (alongside Michael Bay's The Rock and Simon West's Con Air) so I'm used to seeing him act absurd (while Travolta seemed to master his absurdity in his wonderful recent performance in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), I'm just not used to seeing John Woo as a director go this "all-out." Then again, the script throws out a lot of big ideas so this needs to be a big movie and therefore you get used to everything being "dumbed-down" for the common denominator in the audience. John Woo, unfortunately, just feels like overkill is the solution as we have everything from slow motion to coats flapping in the wind (to even a nod to his own film The Killer by having the final shootout take place in a dove ridden church). Then again, would a movie like this work with subtlety? I don't think so. This is perhaps the craziest studio film of the nineties aside from Natural Born Killers and it is flat out insane. Overall, it's ultimately not a quality film, but I'd be damned if it wasn't a guilty pleasure of some sort.