Monday, November 30, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#7

2007's No Country for Old Men is the Coen brothers best work, and they're no strangers to great movies. I would count their The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, and Miller's Crossing as really great movies (and that's with thinking their generally regarded crowning achievement, Fargo, is just "good"). Of course, Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning villain is the part that sticks in everyones mind, but the work done here by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly MacDonald can't be overvalued. MacDonald in particular deserves more attention than she ever got. The scene where she gets a piece of news she didn't want to get, her reaction brings tears to my eyes every time I watch this movie, and I don't think I can say that about any other scene in the typically emotionally distant Coen catalog.

One of the most tense movies I've ever seen, I was so wrapped up in the story that like many people, I was caught off guard by the ending. We're trained by other movies to expect some sort of showdown between the main characters, and when we don't get it, I was left quite disappointed. It wasn't until I kept thinking about the ending, and watched the movie a couple more times, that I was hit by its brilliance. The Coen's go for intellectualism and metaphor rather than the emotional release of a showdown. I wasn't sure at first if they'd made the right decision, but I'm more sure than ever (after my last viewing) that they did make the correct choice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#8

One I knew would make it on the list but I wasn't sure where, was the best movie I've seen his year, Greg Mottola's coming-of-age/the-summer-that-changed-everything movie Adventureland. Since I've written about it twice previously, I'll just repost some of my thoughts.

Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.

There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, it's not about "teens", it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the story of first love. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple genre description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#9

This spot goes to my favorite living directors masterpiece of the decade, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, from 2004. From what I've read, the movie is 2 hours and 50 minutes long, but it has flown by for me the many times I have watched it. Newest Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio proves yet again what a versatile actor he can be in the right circumstances. His take on legendary billionaire Howard Hughes is fascinating in the small details he adds into his performance. His striking blue eyes bouncing between paranoid fear and defiant rebeliousness, which serves the movie well since Hughes often feels he has to prove himself to the unbelieving people he comes into contact with, people like Alan Alda's smarmy Sen. Brewster, Alec Baldwin's Pan Am exec Juan Trippe, or even the other people in Hollywood who say that he's mad to try making his movies in the unconventional way in which he chooses to make them in. The ending may not work as well if we weren't familiar with what Hughes ended up being, a reclusive germophobe who spent his final years in a hotel room overlooking Las Vegas. It's wonderfully tragic (from a dramatic standpoint) to see Hughes rise above his illness and accomplish his greatest achievement, only to allow his demons to take a final hold of him, while he's looking hopefully to the future. An ending worthy of Shakespeare, and a testament to what an amazing decade it has been for moviegoers that this masterpiece is only my #9.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#10

Ok, so now on to the list itself, starting with #10 on my list of the best 10 movies of the past 10 years:

I wrote about writer/director Martin McDonagh's debut film In Bruges a while ago, and although I only had it as my #3 movie of last year, every time I watch it, it grows on me. Colin Farrell's effortlessly heartbreaking yet hysterical performance as the endearing naughty boy Ray becomes that much more impressive. Brendan Gleeson's shows that many more layers to his character, the wonderfully paternal Ken. And even Ralph Fiennes' deliriously over-the-top mob boss becomes more of a joy to watch, as well as making such a deeper impact on a dramatic level. McDonagh's screenplay shows off his roots on the stage (where he's considered one of Ireland's top playwrights) in its use of a small number of locations and characters, and his attention to the detail of his dialog. In what may be the movie's best scene (although it's really too tough to pick just one), a simple piece of dialog shifts the entire mood of the film. Not in many movies would a line like "Good. Because he wasn't a bad kid, was he?" change the course of the movie, but the line is loaded with meaning where it's placed in the screenplay, and delivered with such brilliance, it has a remarkable impact. And that's without thinking about the scene being a masterfully subtle 6 1/2 minute long single take.

McDonagh should also be commended for his ability to mix the profane with the spiritual, violence with the magical, and most simply (yet remarkably) the comedy with the drama. In Bruges would be a tremendous piece of work for any filmmaker, but the fact that it's McDonagh's first makes it all the more impressive. Obviously it made enough of an impact on me to warrant the #10 spot on my decade ending list.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-Jury Prize

So it's nearly that time, where we close out the opening ten years of the two thousands. Naturally, list maker that I am, this leads me to make a list of the ten best movies of the past ten years. So as to give each one a bit more attention, rather than just having it be a title on a list, I've decided to put each one as its own post. So here we go with the the first piece:

The "Jury Prize" is handed out at many film festivals as an award the judges would like to give a movie that they admire a great deal, but not enough to give it the top prize. The top prize in this case, of course, is my top ten. So this is basically an 11th place. And here is my Jury Prize winner.

I first discovered Hou Hsiao-Hsien's brilliant Three Times back in May and was bowled over by it. Hou's style, slow paced, gorgeously filmed, but not distractingly so, mesmerized me. I was also taken by the incredible beauty of lead actress Qi Shu. But mostly, I just flat out loved the first of the three times that Hou gives us. I think the opening section, the simplest of the three segments, is one of the 3 or 5 greatest pieces of filmmaking I've ever seen. Its simplicity gets right to the heart of the love story, and I've never felt such joy just watching two people hold hands.

Sadly, the next two sections don't live up to the first (honestly, how could they?). The second segment is at least interesting from the point of how different it is. It's filmed like a silent movie, complete with title cards for dialog, using the same actors from the first section to play out a love story of a different sort. It has a tremendous score, and is unbelievably beautiful to look at, but doesn't have the emotional resonance of the first section. To be fair, it's not meant to, since Hou isn't just repeating the same love story in different times, but it doesn't work as wonderfully as the first. The final section is the only one set in modern times, and is by far the weakest. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it is not a good piece of drama and keeps the movie as a whole from unencumbered greatness.

So I felt a need to include Three Times, since it has one of my favorite pieces of cinema (and that piece is about 40 minutes long, so it's not just a snippet of the movie or anything) but didn't feel like it deserved inclusion in the top ten itself. So here it is with the Jury Prize. The rest of the top ten will be honored over the next week or two, as I get time to write the little pieces I feel they deserve. I will come back and include pictures when I figure out how to do that on my girlfriends laptop.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Familiarity breeds contempt, or affection?

I recently have been watching some movies by one of my favorite filmmakers, Woody Allen. I saw my first film of his, Sweet and Lowdown, in probably 2000 or 2001 and really liked it. Over the years, as I've become more familiar with Allen's films, and having seen this particular movie multiple times, I find myself generally enjoying Allen's movies more now than I did when I first exposed myself to them. Now when I watch Sweet and Lowdown, I don't just marvel at the masterful performances from Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, but at Allen's camerawork, his sharp as ever writing, and his general style of directing a movie. I find that my familiarity with his work not only doesn't make his repeated stylistic tendencies tiresome, but sort of endearing. Even when a particular movie isn't up to the highest standard that Allen has set, seeing some of his work just fills me with a certain comfortability of viewing that is very nice.

Allen isn't the only filmmaker of which this is true. Going through the oeuvres of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, Buster Keaton or anyone of that status, I find my familiarity with their work to actually help in my enjoyment of them. I can sit back and think "Ah, ok, here's Scorsese's big tracking shot" or "Hey, there's Hitchcock's MacGuffin" and so on. The phrase familiarity breeds contempt I find to be completely untrue in this situation. Perhaps it's the fact that all of those filmmakers have those signature moves (or whatever you'd like to refer to them as) while making movies that I enjoy, which turns what could be contempt into affection. Regardless, this is a subject I've been thinking about lately.