Thursday, March 25, 2010


Priceless is a movie I went into knowing almost absolutely nothing about, and maybe that's best. But I'm still gonna tell you about it. The only thing I knew about it was that it starred Audrey Tatou, that adorable French imp that exudes cuteness by the barrel. I was startled a bit when it turns out she's a horrible person (even one with a good heart eventually), but I'm getting ahead of myself. Tatou is a huge star in France, eventually making her way across the Atlantic to star with Tom Hanks in the mega-hit The DaVinci Code. Priceless is the movie she must've meant as her statement that she wasn't abandoning her homeland for the glitz of Hollywood just because the opportunity presented itself.

As much as I make fun of the French, they really do have their positives. Tatou plays Irene, but instead of hearing the ugly American Eye-reen pronunciation (sorry non-existent Irene's who read my blog) throughout the movie, we get the lovely Eh-rena. I just kinda like that. Anyway, Irene is a beautiful young woman looking to become some lucky old guys trophy wife. She's staying at a hotel with her current beau when she runs into Jean (again, not Gene, or John even, but Zhawn, I suppose is how you'd spell the pronunciation), whom she takes for a rich guest alone in the bar. She takes him for such because he's passed out on the couch in the bar and wearing a tux. In actuality, he's the bartender she assumes has disappeared. Jean impresses her by hopping behind the bar and fixing her girly drinks in honor of her birthday. They go to bed, but wake up the next day and don't see each other again. Well, not immediately anyway. It's a romantic-comedy, of course they see each other again. And misunderstandings ensue. But thankfully, the movie takes a different route than expected once Irene finds out who Jean really is.

Jean is played by Moroccan stand up comic Gad Elmaleh, who reminds me of a French speaking Buster Keaton. He's a dead ringer for Keaton looks wise, and his impeccable comedic timing also reminded me of something Keaton might've done if he'd still been alive today (if he was making a rom-com anyway, there's no Keaton-esque stunts here). He and Tatou have terrific chemistry together, him playing the innocent and lovable young guy trapped in the web of an untrustworthy woman. Tatou, of course, playing said woman, but with a wonderful intelligence and heart that I wasn't expecting from her. There's also the point of the French (more specifically here, writer/director Pierre Salvadori) knowing when to take their time developing the story and characters so that both the comedy and the romance work on such a high level, especially when compared to their American rom-com counterparts.

Also on top of all of that is the gorgeously filmed scenery of the French coast where much of the movie takes place. The scenery itself is beautiful, but it's even more impressively photographed by the filmmakers than it needs to be, giving us a tremendous viewing experience on a story, acting, and visual level. So check Priceless out if you want to laugh a bit, be taken in by some wonderful locations, and be swept away by a love story of the oldest kind, just done perfectly. Movies like Priceless are always welcome to show to anyone who thinks "foreign cinema" is made up solely of stuffy old classics or depressing modern tales, and to remind those of us who delve more frequently into non-English speaking movies of the same thing. Priceless is breezy, sexy, beautiful, romantic, involving, and most of all a whole lot of fun.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Anyone who knows me knows I am not a fan of Tim Burton’s. However, I always go into his movies with a sense of hope. After all, he made the masterpiece Ed Wood, and a couple of other good movies (Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd), so he’s not beyond redemption, right? He casts fine actors like Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter over and over again, nearly always getting great work out of them. He has a distinctive visual style, one he has had in place since his days as a concept artist at Disney. He actually seemed quite a logical fit to adapt Alice in Wonderland onto the screen in live action, yet what transpired is an unmitigated disaster.

Burton has said that he had no love for previous versions of Alice, “It was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, and I never really felt any real emotional connection." With his adaptation, he hoped to provide "some framework of emotional grounding" and "to try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events.” Which, to me, completely ignores the charm of Lewis Carroll’s creation. Nothing lasts for too long, there’s no story, we’re just led on an episodic journey through this strange land filled with even stranger people. What Burton does is change Alice into a 19-year-old girl feeling repressed by Victorian England, who escapes (as she did when she was young) again into Wonderland. Bastardization of Carroll and action sequences galore follows as Burton proceeds to ruin the hopeful goodwill I’d had going into the movie.

Johnny Depp is, thankfully, a source of escape. His creation of the Mad Hatter was the thing I’d least looked forward to, after the ridiculous designs debuted on the posters, and equally ridiculous voice I heard in the previews. Instead, as I should’ve expected from Depp, he’s the best thing in the movie. He gives the Hatter a believable unpredictability, combined with Depp’s innate intelligence and charisma. He proves yet again (not that he truly needed to) that he is one of the handful of best actors of his generation. Helena Bonham Carter is fine as the Red Queen, I guess, but isn’t particularly memorable. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen and Mia Wasikowska as our Alice both acquit themselves nicely. Although, again, neither is anything too memorable. Sadly, the absolutely perfect choice of Alan Rickman as the hookah smoking caterpillar feels completely wasted. All of these could have something to do with a script totally lacking in anything resembling charm (I assume Depp brought some from the never-ending supply he must keep at home).

Which brings us, finally, to the catastrophic decision to have to movie be in 3-D, that most annoying of gimmicks and current pop culture sweetheart. Instead of this world of invention and wonder springing to life with tremendous color and idea, we get the drabness brought along by the 3-D glasses, and the uselessness of the 3-D itself. 3-D adds less than nothing to the experience of watching a movie, in fact taking away from it as we aren’t allowed to lose ourselves in the story because we’re constantly being reminded that we’re watching a 3-D movie. I don’t fault Burton for 3-D’s lack of relevance as a whole, but he is the one who decided to ruin his already hit-or-miss creation with such an infuriating artifice. I had hoped to actually enjoy this movie, one which seems to fit perfectly into Burton’s overall career arc, but I was defeated at nearly every turn when looking for something enjoyable about it.

My top movies of all time - #1

The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
My very favorite movie of all time is yet another one that didn't hit me on first viewing. I'm not quite sure what it is about some movies, but many of the greats tend to grow on me. I don't remember when I first saw The Godfather, it seems like I have always seen it. But it didn't become my favorite movie until a few years ago, when its combination of amazing photography, mesmerizing acting, and flawless script catapulted it to the unquestioned #1 spot. I read the book while I was in the 8th or 9th grade, and had been disappointed when revisiting the movie, since it didn't go into the entrancing detail that the book went into. Over time, I realized that what Coppola and author Mario Puzo did when writing the script was to pare away the fat from the book and focus simply on the Corleone mafia family as the balance of power shifts through the generations. In fact, I had to read the book to find out some of the motivations for things that I didn't understand in the movie. As it turns out, the motivations for every action are there in the movie, we've simply not been conditioned to movie's as densely constructed as this. However, even if you're not concerned with the intricacies of why everything happens, you can still be enthralled with the overall story, or at least with this incredible assembly of actors, all doing some of the best work of their careers.

There's no reason to relay the plot, or the famous quotes, or the things that have become part of pop culture since the movie's release. But one thing I find continuously fascinating is that honestly there aren't many "good" people in the movie. Coppola keeps things completely contained within the world of the mafia. Really only Diane Keaton's Kay is a good person, but she's not our protagonist. Somehow, storytellers have always been able to get us to identify with the less desirable members of our society. Vito, Sonny, Michael, Tom, and even Fredo are perpetuating the evil cycle of crime that the Corleone family is a member of. No matter that these aren't people we would necessarily want to know in real life, we worry for Vito's safety, Sonny temper, Fredo's weakness, Michael's descent, and the future of the family. I never fail to be saddened by the final shot of the movie, as Michael finalizes himself and his family in the position of power in the mob world. I plan on writing a bit more on this one over time, but for now we'll just suffice it to say that I think The Godfather is the greatest of all movies, the highest high cinema has achieved.

My top movies of all time - #2

Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
I've written about Throne of Blood before and why I love it so much, so I'll just add a few of my feelings. Kurosawa was a huge fan of Shakespeare, but often found him to be "too wordy". So his adaptations of Shakespeare's work are never directly from the text. His first, and best, is his adaptation of MacBeth, 1957's Throne of Blood. Like Ran, his adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa transplants the action to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, here called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppresively foreboding. The 3 witches from the famous opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actor's voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best. Really that's his fault for being so consistently brilliant though.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel, as in MacBeth, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie (I'm not giving anything away, it's an adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy, of course the protagonist dies). Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, that Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan. It's not hard for me to love such a wonderful movie. Samurai movies are like American westerns, typically staid exercises in variation on a "one man against them all" kind of formula. But sometimes filmmakers come along to challenge those conventions and give us something really special. Throne of Blood is a great example of exactly that happening.

My top movies of all time - #3

Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
There's honestly not that much to say about Vertigo that hasn't already been said on an analytical level. So I'll just talk a bit about my reactions to the movie upon watching it. The first time I watched it, I'd only recently seen Psycho, which had quickly become my favorite from Hitchcock, and was going through a bit of a phase, one in which I watched Notorious, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest (again) as well. While watching it, I was taken in by its hypnotic pacing and sumptuous photography, as well as one of the most disturbing performances ever given by a huge movie star. Jimmy Stewart was like the All-American movie everyman. He'd been a beacon of every day nobility and charm on screen for many years, even temporarily retiring to fly in WWII. So to see him play Scottie Ferguson with the kind of subtle delusional mania that he does was both surprising in his choice of role (and Hitch's choice to cast) as well as frightening in the intensity of performance. Stewart's performance is one of the all-time greats, the greatest Hitch ever got from his actors (and he had some great ones), and an incredibly bold statement from a guy whom I'd thought of almost as a persona and not the talented actor he was.

The almost trance-like sequences early in the movie as Scottie follows and ultimately falls in love with Kim Novak's Madeleine, gives way to the startling descent into madness that Scotty experiences in the final section. Hitchcock's presentation of this is somehow still infused with his trademark tension, while never feeling contrived for suspense. He gets us wired through building our central character and following him as he falls in love first with a woman, and then with an idea. We don't need planes flying at us, or scenes of murder in the shower to ratchet up our involvement with this movie. It's Hitch's crowning achievement and one of the truly great movies ever made.

My top movies of all time - #4

Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas)
I vaguely remembered Dark City being advertised, but only knew one person who saw it in theaters and they told me it was just ok. So I was surprised when I saw at the end of the year that it landed at #1 on Roger Ebert's year end top ten list. That made me want to check it out and see what was up. I did, and just thought, "it was ok". But then I started thinking more about the philosophy behind it, and especially the images contained within it. I was caught by the incredible German expressionistic architecture, and the subconscious evocation of old school noir movies (subconscious to me, because I didn't know much about noir at the time) and the paintings of Edward Hopper. So I bought it on DVD, watched it again, and liked it a lot. Then a few weeks later watched it again, and loved it. A few months or a year or whatever later, I watched it again and decided it was one of my favorite movies. In 2008, director Alex Proyas released his Director's Cut of the movie. I'm not normally a fan of DC's, but this one took one of my favorite movies and turned it into an all-time top 5 for me. The theatrical cut is like a sprint, the quick cutting and relentless pacing rushing towards the final confrontation. The DC adds in just a few scenes, but Proyas cuts them in in a way that lets the movie breathe and not exactly take its time, since it is still paced quite rapidly, but feel like it's not the sprint to the finish line that the original cut is.

The first section of the movie is brilliantly constructed in a way to make a little off balance in our viewing. Our protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), doesn't know who is he, where he is, or why he's there. Proyas shoots with no camera movement, and the rapid cutting and seemingly disconnected storytelling putting us subconsciously in the shoes of our hero. Slowly, he begins to think more clearly and put together the strands of his life with the help of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a mysterious doctor (Keifer Sutherland), and the detective (William Hurt) assigned to a murder case that John is the lead suspect in. As John does this, Proyas slowly starts letting shots linger a bit longer, move a bit more, and yet never lose the remarkable attention to visual detail that Proyas displayed in the earlier sections. The movie is chock full of references to other works, whether it's the landmark sci-fi epic Metropolis, the anime classic Akira, or the short stories The Tunnel Under the World and The Lottery in Babylon. Another influence, the French movie The City of Lost Children, is even quoted when someone mentions that the occupants of the title city "Walk through the city like lost children."

The movie that Dark City most often gets compared with is The Matrix. They came out a year apart, in February of '98 and March of '99 respectively. They are both dark on a visual level, and deal with the central idea of "the world you live in isn't real," a classic sci-fi concept that both movies use as a launching pad. The Matrix uses it for half-hearted philosophy, but mainly for an action movie (which is all The Matrix is, no matter what any nerd tries to convince you otherwise), and even reused a few of Dark City's sets on its Sydney sound stage. Dark City uses it for philosophical contemplation and half-heartedly for an action movie. Proyas also uses the story as an excuse to have incredible image after incredible image on screen. Ebert said so eloquently in his original review (he's since written another one, when he added it to his list of "The Great Movies", as well as doing a commentary track for the DVD) and I can't top it, so I'll just close with this quote "If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then Dark City is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects--and imagination."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My top movies of all time - #5

Big Night (1996, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott)

Big Night is a movie that I could sit down and watch right now and be completely entertained throughout. It's funny, has a great script, it's got tremendous performances, it has good food on screen, and it's incredibly easy to watch. Allegedly, Stanley Tucci began writing a script he was passionate about while working on a movie that he hated working on. He figured if he wanted to make movies that he cared about so much, he might as well create those movies himself. He takes the lead role of Secondo, an Italian who immigrated to America with his chef brother Primo (their names coming from the first and second courses of an Italian meal). They run a restaurant in a seaside town (I said NYC in my original review, but having since watched it many times, I realize that they never say where they are, and are most likely along the Jersey shore). A failing restaurant, which Secondo knows too well, as the keeper of their finances, and Primo is completely ignorant of, as he only has his brain in the food that he serves. This is particularly painful when they see the runaway success of an "Italian" restaurant down the street, where Primo and Secondo are both disgusted to see they serve spaghetti and meatballs, a dish that doesn't exist in Italy.

I love the brotherly chemistry that Tucci has with Tony Shaloub. Although of Lebanese descent, Shaloub is flawless as an Italian still so much of his country that he and Tucci are constantly switching between English and Italian. Tucci has said "I thought I loved food when I started making Big Night, but I loved it even more after. It was never my intention to make a food movie. The movie was about the relationship between art and commerce, the art being food." But even that seems shortsighted in regards to this movie's power. I can't think of a better description of what Big Night is about than I did when I first wrote about the movie, Big Night = Life. It's about everything that happens to us in our lives, romances beginning and ending, relationships being tested, trying to do something you believe in, connecting with people, loving your family, and definitely about eating good food. I feel good about myself and the world around me when I see Tucci and Shaloub hug each other so lovingly in the final shot. We don't know what will happen to them specifically, but we know they'll be ok. Nothing like leaving a movie feeling as though everything is gonna be alright no matter what.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My top movies of all time - #6

Taxi Driver (1977, Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese is one of my three favorite directors (the other two have movies coming up on the list), and for the longest time I had problems figuring out which of his movies I thought was best. There's his gangster epic GoodFellas, one of the most improbably watchable movies I've seen (gangsters doing gangstery things, Scorsese not turning his view from the unpleasantness). There's also his boxing classic Raging Bull, about the self-destructive Jake LaMotta and his rise and fall through the ranks of boxing (and life). Both contain brilliant performances from Scorsese's collaborator Robert de Niro, but my favorite of their works together is their 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver is a lonely movie, inspired in part by the John Ford movie The Searchers, about Travis Bickle and his descent into his own mind. He drives anywhere through the seedy 1970's New York City (long before Giuliani cleaned up so much of the city), places other drivers refuse to go. He goes through these areas even though he despises all he sees around him. "Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets" he narrates from his journal at one point. He meets Cybil Shepherd's campaign worker character Betsy, as well as 12-year-old Iris, the child prostitute played by Jodie Foster and takes it upon himself to save them from their lives (he tells both of them at different times that they're "living a hell") whether they asked to be saved or even wanted to be saved or not, and by any means necessary. He sees himself as a kind of avenging angel, and he eventually begins training and equiping himself for his self imposed task.

It's a lonely movie, with a powerful central performance from De Niro (he might've never been better). After all these years, and many many viewings, I still can't quite explain why this movie burrows as deeply into my brain as it does. Many of us can relate to the profound loneliness that Travis feels, but certainly not in the direction he eventually directs his life. Still, something about Taxi Driver haunted me after I first watched it. Its greatness didn't hit me until a second or third viewing though, I just thought it was ok the first time I saw it. But something keeps nagging at me to make me want to revisit this movie time and time again. Although describing the plot makes it sound depressing, and the ending is certainly disturbing, I never leave with a negative feeling from it. It's the movie I probably react the deepest and oddest to in all of the list. Writing this kinda makes me want to watch it again. I might write a bit more in depth on it after I do.

Monday, March 8, 2010

My top movies of all time - #7

Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone)
The oldest movie on my list is my favorite movie from my favorite comedian, Buster Keaton. I've written before about my love of Keaton, and although the brilliance that is The General is the consensus "greatest Keaton," I was most blown away by Our Hospitality. Just his second full length movie (after the hit-and-miss Three Ages, and before his groundbreaking work with Sherlock, Jr.), Keaton runs on all cylinders. First of all, just the plot is hysterical. City slicker Keaton, on his way to take over his family's Southern mansion, befriends pretty Natalie Talmadge (Keaton's real-life wife at the time), who invites him to dinner at her family home. Upon meeting Talmadge's father and brothers, Keaton learns that he is the last surviving member of a family with whom Talmadge's kin have been feuding for over 20 years. The brothers are all for killing Keaton on the spot, but Talmadge's father (Joe Roberts) insists that the rules of hospitality be observed: so long as Keaton is a guest in the house, he will not be harmed. Overhearing this conversation, Keaton decides to just not leave, and spends a good section of the movie figuring out ways not to go home.

This would be a terrific movie to show people who wouldn't normally go the movie nerd route of watching silent movies. It was funny in 1923, and it's funny now. Keaton's unbelievable stunt work is a marvel to behold. Sometimes you're so thrilled by Keaton's stunts you don't actually realize how hilarious he is. He's so deadpan that he never brings the attention to being funny, so I occasionally get caught up in the breathtaking work he does without comedy. After all, this was long before the days of CGI. That really is Keaton, really dangling from a rope, really nearly drowning under a waterfall. The stunt nearly drowned Keaton when he tried filming at a real waterfall (he made a prop waterfall instead to finish the scene). It's amazing from a technical perspective, if you're into that kinda thing (which, of course, I am), but if you just want to look at the surface and spend 75 minutes laughing your ass off, it's good for that too. Both are reasons why it's one of my top movies of all time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My top movies of all time - #8

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie I first saw at a very young age and adored immediately. Looking back on it as an adult, I'm not really sure why, since the majority of the movie is made up of Richard Dreyfuss thinking and slowly breaking down mentally (or so he fears). All I know is that I'm just as enthralled by it today, if not more, than I was as a child. As I said in my 2001 review, this is the only other movie that comes immediately to mind that makes me feel awed. The finale, quite possibly my favorite piece of cinema, bowls me over with its visual brilliance time and time again. Strangely for a blockbuster of this proportion, we never find out why the aliens come here, why they choose who they do, or what happens to Dreyfuss at the end of the movie. But, the aliens seem friendly. Whatever their reasons, I'm sure they're positive. Such an approach would never be allowed today, the meaning would not only need to be in the movie, but spelled out in big bold letters and italics, underlined naturally, so that the lowest common denominator in the audience gets the point. Since nobody seems to have the ambition anymore either, I doubt we'd ever get such awe-inspiring visual treats like Spielberg gives us here.

My top movies of all time - #9

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
I am not generally a fan of Stanley Kubrick's. He has a cold directorial approach (with the great Paths of Glory being the exception that proves the rule) that just turns me off as a viewer. On occasion an approach like that works, such as when it lends an undercurrent of dread to The Shining, since we seem to be emotionally detached from the poor, doomed family and are helpless to do anything but watch the tragedy unfold. Other times it doesn't, like when we get nothing out of the oil painting-like compositions that make up Barry Lyndon, just an emotionless beauty. One of the other times that Kubrick's approach works is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where being kept at a distance makes us care more about some of the doomed characters, because we can feel that they're in some sort of danger and they cannot, while also allowing us the intellectual stimulation of the grand story that Kubrick is telling us.

However, that story wasn't readily apparent on first viewing. In fact, I couldn't even finish the movie on first viewing. I struggled through the detachment while watching the "Dawn of Man" opening sequence. On second viewing, as I'd prepared myself for something much slower than I was used to, I found myself contemplating the simple yet ambitious story (the evolution of technology, how we use it, and how it affects us) while letting the images wash over me. I was less concerned about waiting for something to happen, and allowed my mind to work on the ideas slowly being revealed to me. I could continue talking about this movie for hours and hours and hours (and wrote a paper on it in college), but I'll conclude this little mini-overview of my thoughts by saying that awe is a feeling I rarely have while watching a movie. Only two movies really come to mind that fill me with awe (you'll see the other in the next spot ahead on the list), but the final section of this movie (after the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence, which is useful to show us traveling to another dimension and seeing things we've never thought about seeing in our own world, but goes on long after the point has been made) gives me goose bumps every time I watch it. It's the only movie on my list that I didn't take to immediately, but 2001 is most certainly one of the best movies ever made.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My top movies of all time - #10

Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction hit the moviegoing public like a lightning bolt in 1994. It's unashamed use of violence and creatively foul language offended a good deal of the people who went to see it (there were actually a number of boos from the audience when it took home the Palme D'or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival). It also hit me like a lightning bolt when I first saw it at about the age of 12 or so. It was the first movie I'd remembered seeing told out of order (no, I hadn't seen Citizen Kane by 12, nor had I seen Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs) and the stunning dialog really lodged a place in my young brain. Tarantino's skills as director also had quite an impact on me, building tension in some scenes, hilarious comedy in others, and his use of music struck a significant chord with me back in those days of not knowing just how much he was stealing from Scorsese (in style and approach more than content).

Watching it again recently, I was amazed at how much I still liked it. So many movies that hit you at a young age simply don't continue having the same sort of impact as you get older. Pulp Fiction, though, still thrilled me and made me laugh (it's one of the great dark comedies at its core), nearly as much as when I was 12. It's 16 years later, and I'm much more versed in the ways of cinema now, so it doesn't have the new feeling it once had, but it's still a great movie, and my #10 of all time.

I will say, however, that outside of my #1 slot, none of these movies are in definite order. Pulp Fiction could just as easily be #5 as it is #10. Still, the collection of 10 is what's important, not their specific places.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My top movies of all time - Jury Prize

So talk of how the Oscars are supposed to be honoring the best that movies gave us in the past year has got me thinking about the best that movies have ever given me, as in: creating a top ten of all time. Naturally, since I've seen literally thousands of movies, it's difficult for me to pick ten. I think I've done a pretty decent job, I'll put any of these movies up against any measure of masterpiece that anyone wants to throw out there. So, let's dive right in.

Also, since I only wrote one entry last month, I'm going to break these up into separate posts like I did for my top ten movies of the decade. That way it gives me more motivation to write something, and a bit of extra focus for whoever reads this onto each movie.

Also just like my top ten of the decade, I simply couldn't pick just ten, so I gave a jury prize. But since I'm choosing from 100+ years of filmmaking instead of 10, I gave myself 10 spots to give as Jury Prizes (deal with it). I've written about 4 1/2 of these previously, so I'm just going to do this entry as a standard list, though in no particular order, with release years and directors in parenthesis and just a sentence or two of justification:

On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)

Brando giving the greatest performance I've ever seen, not hard for me to put it on here. The "I coulda been a contenda" scene has lost none of its emotional power over 50+ years and endless parody. The movie that convinced me of Brando's genius.

Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman)

The notoriously dour Bergman retired after making this wonderfully brilliant movie that was originally a 5 hour mini-series for Swedish television that he then edited down into a 3-hour theatrical film for international release. It's like the great story Dickens never wrote, with unexpected humor and warmth, mixed with some traditional Bergman supernatural elements and philosophical pondering.

Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)

What's to say? My #1 of the past decade, and in my top list of all time.

Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)

I never thought that westerns could get better than the endlessly fascinating (if heavily flawed)
The Searchers, the high point of the careers of legends John Ford and John Wayne. That, however, was before I saw Clint Eastwood's tour-de-force, which has all the power of the Ford masterpiece, with none of the flat humor or worthless side characters. I actually got chill bumps during the film's climax, and that almost never happens.

Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)

I wrote about it before, and it's still the best French film I've ever seen. The tense-tastic 30-minute silent heist sequence is one of the great slices of film ever given to us.

The General (1927, Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman)

I once thought this was Keaton's greatest achievement, then I delved deeper into his oeuvre and found further genius. This, though, is still obviously one of the great movies.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)

A movie that haunted me like only one other has (and it's going to show up in the list proper). Herzog gives us the king of the Heart of Darkness films (which, naturally, includes Coppola's Apocalypse Now). The bat-shit crazy Klaus Kinski gives one of the best performances I've ever seen as the, well, bat-shit crazy Don Lope de Aguirre. He plays a different brand of crazy though, I assure you.

Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins)

This is the movie I always first think of when asked what movies have affected me the most emotionally. I cried like I've never cried before during the last 30 minutes or so of this movie. Truly some of the greatest filmmaking I've seen.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro)

I don't see my love diminishing for my #2 of the decade. I watched it again recently and was still blown away by it.

Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)

Like The General, I once thought this was the pinnacle achieved by one of my favorite directors, but that was not the case. Kurosawa will undoubtedly show up in the real top ten, with his real masterpiece.

So, 5 foreign movies and a silent? Oh, that's right. I'm a nerd. And proud of it.

The Oscars

Ok, I didn't do this last year, but I figure I'll do it now. The Academy Awards are on Sunday, and there has already been much (i.e. endless) discussion about who will and should win in all of the categories, but since nobody who reads this blog (including myself) has seen any of the nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject, I'll stick to talking a bit about the "important" categories. Important means different things to some people than it does to others, so me reviewing the nominees for Best Cinematography may not matter to you, but as it's an essential part of moviemaking, it's important to me as an appreciator of movies. Here we go:


"An Education"
"The Blind Side"
"District 9"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglourious Basterds"
"A Serious Man"
"Up in the Air"

Having only seen 6 of the nominees, and only two of them making my top ten list of last year, it's no secret that I am a big fan of The Hurt Locker and Up. But even the movie I like the least (Avatar) I still enjoyed, so that's always encouraging.

Who I think will win: I'm leaning towards Avatar, since I think it's just too much of a cultural milestone to pass up for the Academy, much in the way Titanic was.
Who I think should win: The Hurt Locker, although neither of my top two of '09 were nominated

Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"
James Cameron for "Avatar"
Lee Daniels for "Precious"
Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air"
Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds"

A year of celebrating diversity a bit more than usual, Kathryn Bigelow is just the fourth woman to be nominated for the directing prize (she's won most of the other major awards this year), and Lee Daniels just the second black director (after Boyz in the Hood's John Singleton nearly 20 years ago, amazingly the preeminent black American director, Spike Lee, has never been nominated). I truly hope James Cameron isn't rewarded again, since I think his direction was decidedly mediocre, while Quentin Tarantino deserved to be rewarded for Pulp Fiction and not his self-indulgent (if occasionally still very effective) work on Basterds. Jason Reitman could be the youngest winner in the history of the Oscars, but I think it's a "nomination is your award" type of situation for him.

Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow, could be a big moment for the Academy, even if they'd be rewarding a woman who makes "guy movies"
Who should win: Kathryn Bigelow

Jeff Bridges for "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney for "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth for "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman for "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker"

I was ecstatic to see that Jeremy Renner scored a nomination for his terrific and (by traditional Oscar standards) subtle performance. I've only seen two of the other nominees, Clooney (one of my favorite actors), who was more deserving of other performances in his career, and will likely be in the winners circle again in the future. But Jeff Bridges' turn in Crazy Heart is a shoo-in for the award. Bridges has been one of the best actors around for the past 40 years or so, and I have no reservations about him getting the award.

Who will win: Jeff Bridges
Who should win: Jeff Bridges

Sandra Bullock for "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren for "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan for "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe for "Precious"
Meryl Streep for "Julie & Julia"

Meryl Streep added yet another nomination to her record amount, but I don't think she has a chance to win here (despite me thinking she was terrific in the movie). I've not seen any of the other nominees, but Helen Mirren was up at the podium accepting the award just a few years ago and not many have seen her movie. I have a feeling that Sidibe is in the same realm as Jason Reitman. Which leaves it to early favorite Carey Mulligan and current favorite Sandra Bullock. That's the race from the looks of it. Still, I love Meryl Streep and would also love to see her get just her second (only second!!) Best Actress statue.

Who will win: Sandra Bullock
Who should win: Meryl Streep, although that's because of what I've seen, I'd love a newcomer like Sidibe or Mulligan to take it home

Matt Damon for "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson for "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer for "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds"

A category where your average moviegoer will know the name (or at least the face) of nearly all of the nominees. That is, except for the front runner Christoph Waltz, the Austrian actor who's been on a run of award wins since winning the Best Actor award at last years Cannes Film Festival. The others don't honestly have a chance, although it's nice to see Damon, Plummer, Harrelson, and especially (one of my favorite actors) Stanley Tucci get some recognition from the Academy.

Who will win: Waltz
Who should win: Waltz, but again, he's the only one whose work I've actually seen. I need to get to watching.

Penelope Cruz for "Nine"
Vera Farmiga for "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick for "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique for "Precious"

Penelope Cruz got nominated again simply because the Academy is in love with her, by most accounts Marion Cotillard's performance is the lone standout from Nine. Personally, I'm just waiting to see her in Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces, since she last (and only) blew me out of the water in Almodovar's Volver (for which she was nominated for Best Actress). Farmiga and Kendrick are both deserving of their nominations, but I think they'll split the votes between them. Gyllenhaal is fantastic (she always is), especially getting to play off of Jeff Bridges, she's my favorite here. Comedian Mo'Nique has cleaned up seemingly every possible Supporting Actress award as the abusive mother in Precious, so there's no reason to believe the Oscar's will be any different.

Who will win: Mo'Nique
Who should win: Gyllenhaal

"El Secreto de Sus Ojos"
"The Milk of Sorrow"
"A Prophet"
"The White Ribbon"

I've seen precisely zero of these movies, but foreign cinema is always important, so I just added these to remind me of movies I should probably be seeing in the near future.

Who will win: The White Ribbon is apparently the front runner, winning the Palme D'or at Cannes last year, and coming from the respected (if divisive) Austrian director Michael Haneke.
Who should win: How the hell would I know? I just told you I hadn't seen any of them.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
"The Princess and the Frog"
"The Secret of Kells"

The Secret of Kells was one of the big surprises in all of the nominations this year. It's a little known, not even released here yet, little animated movie from Ireland. Looking at the previews, looks like it could be cool, but we'll have to wait and see. The Princess and the Frog and Up were both on my '09 top ten list, and Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox weren't far off of it. So it was a good year in animation as far as I'm concerned. Many people were surprised that Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's latest (and possibly last) movie, Ponyo, wasn't nominated. But since it's decidedly lesser Miyazaki, and there's no reason to nominate something just because it could be his last, I was sort of happy the Academy overlooked it. Of course, nothing stands a chance this year of breaking up Pixar's stronghold on this award. Especially since Up became just the second animated movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture (the very worthy Beauty and the Beast accomplished that feat back in the days of 5 nominees).

What will win: Up
What should win: The Princess and the Frog, although I won't be disappointed when it doesn't

"An Education"
"District 9"
"In the Loop"
"Up in the Air"

Having not read (or in District 9's case, seen the director's short film) any of the material these screenplay's are based on, I have no idea how deserving any of them are in an adaptation sense. That said, I thought Up in the Air was a well written little character movie, District 9 a smart sci-fi movie (at least in its beginning before it devolves into a standard, but very well done, action movie), and An Education is written by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors (High Fidelity, About a Boy). But I think the Academy will use this opportunity to honor Up in the Air, since it's unlikely to win any other awards.

Who will win: Up in the Air
Who should win: Up in the Air, though I'd love to see Hornby's acceptance speech, the British are great at that stuff

"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglourious Basterds"
"The Messenger"
"A Serious Man"

The life montage in Up is the best thing in any movie this past year (attributable not only to the writer, but the movie's director as well), but I think Tarantino will take home his second writing Oscar, even if I would never count out the Coen brothers, especially when A Serious Man also snagged a Best Picture nom.

Who will win: Tarantino
Who should win: Up

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
"Sherlock Holmes"
"The Young Victoria"

I really only included this category to express my support for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to win some awards.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglourious Basterds"
"The White Ribbon"

Avatar could easily win this one for its "revolutionary" use of 3-D, and just might do it. Although I loved The Hurt Locker, I didn't think the cinematography was anything too special. I was quite impressed with the work in the new Harry Potter movie, but it doesn't have a chance of winning.

Who will win: Avatar
Who should win: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

"Bright Star"
"Coco Before Chanel"
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
"The Young Victoria"

Same as Art Direction, viva Dr. Parnassus!

"Burma VJ"
"The Cove"
"Food Inc."
"The Most Dangerous Man in America"
"Which Way Home"

Same as Foreign category. Docs are important, but I'm sadly unversed in this years nominees.

"District 9"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglourious Basterds"

I honestly have no idea who should or will win this category. Editing is quite possibly the most important step in the making of a movie, yet I've heard movie editors (I wanna say it was Scorsese's usual editor Thelma Schoonmaker) say that an editors job is invisible if done correctly. That said, this award has tended to go to the movie with the most editing in it (like the hyperactivity of the Bourne movies, or last year with Slumdog Millionaire), and having seen 4 of the 5 nominees, I can say that they all have their periods of feverish cutting (although Tarantino and his editor Sally Menke seem to be the biggest fans of the slow burn). I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that District 9 will win.

Who should win: I'll say The Hurt Locker, since the tension in it requires such delicate use of editing (as many action movies fail to understand).
Who will win: District 9, for no particular reason, really, it could be any of them.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Sherlock Holmes"

I'm not really sure who the buzz is predicting in this category, but Michael Giacchino has done superb work in the past for Pixar with The Incredibles and Ratatouille, both of which are better than his work here, so I think it's time they give him his due. I've actually seen all 5 nominated movies here, but none other than Up that left any sort of musical memory.

Who should win: Up
Who will win: Up

"Almost There" from "The Princess & the Frog"
"Down in New Orleans" from "The Princess & the Frog"
"Loin de Paname" from "Paris 36"
"Take it All" from "Nine"
"The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart"

Since not as many people were as crazy about The Princess and the Frog as I was, I see its double nomination here as mostly just filling out the spots, no offense to the brilliant Randy Newman. I see this being a win for the country charm of Crazy Heart, which I think will be fairly deserved.

Who should win: Crazy Heart, although I never object to love for Randy Newman in his New Orleans jazz element.
Who will win: Crazy Heart

"French Roast"
"Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty"
"The Lady and the Reaper"
"A Matter of Loaf and Death"

The only reason I included this category was to point out that the nominee A Matter of Loaf and Death is the latest from Wallace and Gromit and its genius creator Nick Park. I had hoped that there would be another Wallace and Gromit movie on the way, but maybe not. Either way, it's going to be the clear winner in this category, as 2 of the 3 other W&G shorts have been (the first short, A Grand Day Out, my favorite, lost to Creature Comforts, an hilarious short from who else but Nick Park).
Who should win: A Matter of Loaf and Death, based simply on the fact that it's Wallace and Gromit, I haven't actually seen any of the nominees yet
Who will win: A Matter of Loaf and Death

"District 9"
"Star Trek"

I said in my review of it that Avatar had the best special effects I'd ever seen in a movie, so I can't really go back on that (when I still believe it to be the truth anyway). Star Trek used its FX wonderfully, helping to create a surprisingly joyous blockbuster experience. District 9, when budgets are taken into account, is a much higher level of work than that in Avatar, which had around 10-times the money. But there's no doubt that regardless of its Best Picture and Director outcomes, Avatar will clean up in the technical awards.

Who should win: Avatar
Who will win: Avatar