Friday, December 31, 2010

My top ten of 2010

I only saw 24 movies released in 2010. So when it came time to come up with the traditional "Best of the Year" list, I had slim pickins. It was a great year for kids movies, but too many other "prestige" kinda movies I've not seen to tell what I think about the year overall. Every year gives us wonderful movies though, and 2010 was no exception. I've written full reviews of seven of the movies, so their entries are a little smaller. Still, it is tradition, so here it goes:

1. Toy Story 3

The fact that I don't think Toy Story 3 is Pixar's masterpiece really speaks to the quality of work they've put out over the past 15 years. The culmination of the story of Woody and Buzz and the gang is as good as their original tale, and much better than the lackluster second entry. I wrote about it back in August, and re-watching it on DVD recently only affirmed those feelings. I didn't think I would've put it as my #1 of the year, but when it came to putting together this list, it was the movie that I would've taken over any of the others.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1

Now, I wrote about this one just last month, and without a re-watch I can't think of anything new to wrote about it, so if you wanna know my feelings on it, just look back at last month's write up.
3. Leaves of Grass

Another that I just wrote about last month, Leaves of Grass was a movie I needed to watch a couple of times before its rough edges got smoothed over for me and I could stand back and admire its brilliance. Some websites have it listed as a 2009 release because of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but it wasn't released in theaters (for about 15 minutes) or on DVD until this year, so I'm counting it that way.

4. Inception

I haven't had a chance yet to check out Chris Nolan's newest blockbuster again now that it's out on DVD, but I will soon. I've seen all of his movies multiple times, and don't expect Inception to be any different.

5. Shutter Island

DiCaprio entry #2 on the list, and marking his fourth collaboration with the legendary Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island is a sad, thrilling, slightly off kilter (in an intentional way) movie that I loved every minute of. It's fun to see Scorsese making big Hollywood movies after most of his career making smaller, more character driven, independent type films. Many people complain about that very thing, wishing he'd go back to the way he used to do it. But I think, he's already done that, let the man try a different way of filmmaking, he's earned it by now. Although it was supposed to be released around this time last year, for awards consideration, and eventually released in February, I wouldn't be too surprised if it still hung in the minds of some awards voters and made it into a few of the categories. Here's hoping.

6. Despicable Me

The concept of a villain being the hero of a story is a good one, especially in this movie's case, where Gru (Steve Carrell) is disappointed that another villain has stolen one of the Pyramid's of Giza, thereby making all other villains, including Gru, look lame. Gru goes on a wacky adventure involving his innumerable minions, 3 orphan girls, a man eating shark, a freeze ray, ballet recitals, his discouraging mother, a shrinking ray, and the Moon and brings us along for the ride. It doesn't quite explore the villain-as-hero thing as much as it probably could have, but it's a wonderfully enjoyable movie with a terrific voice cast all doing voices! As in, not just recording their own voices speaking lines, but actually creating characters and coming up with new voices for them (Carrell says he based Gru's voice on a cross between Ricardo Montalbon and Bela Lugosi, and yes it does sound as delightful as that combination would lead you to believe). Thankfully, it was a big hit, so we should be seeing more of Gru on the big screen in the future.

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

What an odd, terrific, and insane movie this is. Director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) brought the creation to life from the comic book series Scott Pilgrim, and it's just unlike any other movie I've ever seen. It takes some inspiration from the world of video games, but in a very literalistic way that was hysterical to me (when a bad guy is dispensed by our hero, for instance, he turns into coins, just like in the more innocent video games of my youth). I thought it had a lot of imagination, humor, and I think its failure at the box office could be attributed to its weirdness. I thought it was a lovable little oddity though.

8. Tangled

Again, wrote about this one not long ago and haven't seen it again so I doubt my feelings have changed any about this movie. See it!

9. How to Train Your Dragon

I recently re-watched my #9, and although I didn't quite love it as much as on the first go round, I still thought it was a terrific movie, beautifully animated, well written, and a rousing adventure story executed at a very high level.

10. Easy A

Easy A is a "teen movie", sure, but it is one that's done with the care and intelligence any movie should be made with. Emma Stone gives wit, charm, and a wonderful chemistry with her parents (the infallible Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) to Olive, our heroine, who tells a tiny little lie to make her friend leave her alone, which rumors its way around high school (as these things do) until Olive is the harlot of her small California town, with comical and not so comical results for her and her loved ones. Stone's is so comfortable in her performance, and the movie itself acknowledges John Hughes and his influence, that I was reminded of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I think it's a star making performance and we'll be seeing this delightful actress in many more movies in the years to come. And I'll be happy to see her.

There are still a bunch of movies I've yet to see that I think would have a possibility of making it on the list:

The American
Blue Valentine
The Illusionist
True Grit
The Social Network
The Town
The Tempest
The Fighter
Black Swan
I Love You Phillip Morris
The King's Speech
Winter's Bone
Let Me In
Never Let Me Go
I Am Love

So as usual I still have a lot to catch up with, but this is where my list stands for now. To be continued...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Song of the week: Pearl Jam's "Come Back"

Pearl Jam has been one of my two favorite bands for a while. I put their 8th studio release, a self-titled album, as my #1 album of the decade last year. Pearl Jam has some of the bands best material, especially when it comes to the rockers. Eddie Vedder was writing with the memory of his recently departed friend Johnny Ramone in his head and the thought of the world he's bringing his newborn daughter into, and the first half of the album really has an almost breathless sense of punk and rock energy. Tighter as a band than ever, they go through weightier songs about the War in Iraq ("World Wide Suicide" and "Army Reserve") and religion ("Marker in the Sand"), but also don't forget to have fun, since they also include "Big Wave", Vedder's tribute to his favorite past time, surfing. To me it's unquestionably their best album, and I still stand by its #1 ranking on my top ten list of the decade.

But my favorite song on the album is the emotional plea "Come Back", a very basic song about a guy who's lost someone, I get the feeling from death, and just wants them back. The ballads on Pearl Jam's albums are often their best material, giving Eddie's voice a chance to show it has more than just rock power, it has a striking vulnerability when he wants to show it. When he says "Please say that if you hadn't have gone, I wouldn't have lost you another way. From wherever you are, come back" you can feel his hurt and loss and when he ends with "Come back, I'll be here" in that great booming voice, I can't help but be moved by the desperate begging in his voice. It's their most emotional song, and one of their best. And I think it's a great song to show to people who only have an idea of Pearl Jam from "Jeremy" or "Alive" or "Last Kiss" or whatever of their hits.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells is a beautiful movie to look at, and full of enough mysticism, intrigue, adventure, and action to keep pretty much anyone happy. If it kinda loses its way in its last third, that's ok, since it never lets us down in its tremendous artwork. The art is obviously inspired by the Book of Kells, a legendary Irish manuscript of the four Gospels (it's been housed at Trinity College in Dublin since the 1661). But despite its Middle Ages monastery setting, the movie seems to want to sidestep the super religiousness of the actual Book of Kells in favor of a coming-of-age/adventure with quite a bit of Celtic mythology thrown in. That's fine by me, but the story does lose a little of its resonance when they won't address why it's so important our young hero finishes his work on the book.

It's the story of a young monk named Brendan, mesmerized by the mythic story of Brother Aidan, who's writing a book so good that sinners are blinded when they look at it. Brendan's uncle Cellach, the Abbot or head of the monastery, is obsessed with building a giant wall around the city of Kells, which will keep out marauding Vikings. Cellach is also adamant that Brendan not leave the walls of Kells, for the outside world is far too dangerous for him to handle. When the real Brother Aidan shows up unannounced one day, bringing with him his legendary book, Brendan finds a kindred soul who'll help him become a man. Naturally, one of Aidan's firsts requests of Brendan is to travel to the forest outside of Kells and bring back certain berries which he'll use to make ink for his book. While in the forest, Brendan meets the fairy Aisling (although it sure sounds like Ashley when they pronounce it in the movie), who helps him along his way.

However, the thing most people will wake away from this movie is the tremendous animation style. Detailed and basic at the same time, influenced by the style of the illustrations in the Book of Kells, it's traditional 2-d hand drawn animation as I don't remember ever seeing it before. It's very distinctive, I could watch it with the sound off and still be enthralled by the images onscreen. It's simply one of the most visually memorable movies I've seen in the past few years.

I always admire movies that can make their point efficiently, and with the movie being under 80 minutes long, The Secret of Kells certainly does that. With its short run time, involving story, terrific voice acting, and amazing animation, I don't find too much of a reason to not recommend The Secret of Kells.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Song of the week: Ben Kweller's "I Gotta Move"

Acting as his sort of "Born to Run", Ben Kweller puts his impeccably melodic songwriting abilities to good use in his 60's inspired bouncy pop masterpiece "I Gotta Move". Kweller has been around a while now, releasing his first independent album at the ripe old age of 13 with his band Radish, before eventually going solo. His voice still boyish even though he'll finally hit 30 next year, Kweller's music is the kind of pop music that speaks to me on a very instinctual level. He has a certain way with melodies that embed themselves into my mind and won't leave, not that I ever ask them to. And Ben doesn't overstay his welcome, from what I can tell he's only released 2 songs over 5 minutes in length.

Being the perfectionist that he apparently is, what he decided to do for his third album, the self-titled Ben Kweller, was play all of the instruments himself, in the great Paul McCartney/Prince/Stevie Wonder mold. Now I know I love the album (it was my #5 of the decade, in fact), but going in I expected Ben Kweller to be a very introspective release due to having only himself to play off of, which could've also been great, but one of the things I love the most about the album is that there is a ton of life and energy to it, best represented, I think, with "I Gotta Move".

It's a classic kinda concept now, the rock star writing about the days when he just wanted to get out of his town and make something of himself, but Kweller makes it seem fresh and infectious. The chorus is just that great basic pop songwriting (and the song clocks in at the classic 3-minute mark). And when he talks about life in his hometown and how he's gotta get away from it:

I just can't sit still, in this small town,
There's nothing more here, I hit the ceiling,
So in the morning I'll hit the highway.
Oh, I just can't stay

I like the straightforward and unpretentious way he goes about it, and when he follows in the next verse with:

Its time I broke out into the open,
You know I'll settle down again some day,
I need some new land, and form a rock band.
Oh, I just can't stay

It's less about home being a negative place that's dragging him down, the way Springsteen seemed to feel in "Born to Run" and others, and more about how it's given him all he's going to get and he just needs to move on. And, as with the best pop music, the song works whether you want to peruse the lyrics or not. It's got a wonderful hook of a chorus, chugs along at a great pace, and doesn't hang around too long. He's written more meaningful songs (he's described "Thirteen", detailing his relationship with his high school sweetheart, and now wife, Lizzy, as his best song, and he's probably right) but for sheer fun and exuberance, I go back to "I Gotta Move" more than any other song he's written.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Disney's 50th animated feature, Tangled, will probably not be counted by most people as one of their classics, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and look forward to seeing the movie again. The classic fairy tale Rapunzel, Disneyfied of course, is the basis we start from. Reportedly costing an absurd $260 million, due to a restart late in the project where all they supposedly kept was "the hair, the tower, and Rapunzel." Add in some wonderful animation (the best in the short history of Disney 3-D), terrific voice work, humorous supporting characters, and solid (if mostly unmemorable) songs, and we have all the makings of a great movie in the classic Disney mold.

Rapunzel, voiced to sweet perfection by Mandy Moore in all her adorable glory, spends the days in her tower painting and cooking and generally just wasting her time until her mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) comes to the tower "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair." By the age of 18, Rapunzel has grown extremely restless and wants to leave her tower. She's aided by the appearance of Flynn (Zachary Levi), a thief who can lead her to see the floating lanterns she wants to see. The lanterns are sent into the sky every year on her birthday, and she wants to know why and to be able to see them in person. Fairy taleness ensues in a pretty straightforward way.

The animation has a lot of care in it. The animators used classical paintings as reference in trying to give the movie the lushness and character of a traditionally animated fairy tale, just animated in 3-D. Speaking of, the screening I went to was mercifully projected in 3-D, so you won't have to hear me denigrating the worthlessness of 3-D again. The lighting and detail in the movie is tremendous. We're able to see the fiber threads in a carpet when Rapunzel's little sidekick is laying on a rug. The faces of the characters have a lot more movement and make the characters jump to life a lot easier than in other movies, but in a subtle way that some people may not notice. The songs are a bit of a weak point in the movie, but while there definitely isn't a "Be Our Guest" "A Whole New World" or "Hakuna Matata" in the bunch, I didn't really feel like any of them were bad either. They further along the characters and the story, and if they're not the greatest songs, at least they don't detract. I did really like the "dreams" song they sing in the bar. Very reminiscent of the "Gaston" sequence from Beauty and the Beast, but well done and a lot of fun.

So while many may not consider it an instant classic, I think it's perfectly enjoyable and has quite a bit of greatness in it. When Rapunzel finally gets to see the floating lanterns lit, the sequence bursts with light and shadow, and I loved the shot tracking down from the castle throughout the town as everyone lit their lights and sent them into the sky. It's a terrific sequence, my favorite in the movie, and with the enjoyability of the lead actors and the wonderful attention to details in the animation, there wasn't a whole lot about Tangled that I didn't like.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Song of the week: Melody Gardot's "Baby I'm a Fool"

I've been following Melody Gardot for a few years now. I first ran into her music when her song "Worrisome Heart" was an iTunes single of the week. I downloaded it, loved it, and subsequently downloaded the whole album, also called Worrisome Heart. I found out about an EP, The Bedroom Sessions, she had done while laying in a hospital bed for a year recovering from a vicious hit-and-run accident. Later came another EP, Live from Soho, which I downloaded the second I found out about it. Its opening song, which became the second single off of her second album My One and Only Thrill, was "Baby I'm a Fool" which mesmerized me immediately.

Gardot has said of this song, "'Baby I'm a Fool' is about two coquettish people who are very much afraid to admit they could possibly even fall in love and there is a secret between them both, so you have two Don Juans dancing around each other with the undertow that they are actually in love but never admitting it" Gardot is a bit different than many young jazz artists in that she mostly writes her own songs. Most jazz singers are not writers as well, or at least are not musicians and only write lyrics. Gardot, on the other hand, has released only 3 songs that she didn't write the words and music to, still co-writing two of them, and the other being her cover of "Over the Rainbow".

Her music isn't the most complex in the world, but starting out as a piano player from the age of 9, and now mostly switched to guitar, she implores many odd chords and progressions in her writing. Her lyrics range from sweet to sultry to achingly autobiographical. Her song "Some Lessons" recalls some of the details of the accident that left her with sensitivities to light and sound, memory and movement, and neural pathways in her brain that were treated with the musical therapy that brought her to where she is today. And still she refuses to be a downer, giving us the feeling that the song is about appreciating life, not holding a grudge against those who've wronged us. And in this song, "Baby I'm a Fool", even though she has these "two Don Juans dancing around each other", she still doesn't deprive them of the possibility of love, or of a happy ending. It's a wonderful song from a wonderful artist, one whom I will always look forward to watching in the years to come.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tragedy vs. Comedy

I use the terms in the title of this post a little loosely. It should really be titled something like "seriousness vs. light heartedness" or "endings where the guy and the girl don't get together vs. endings where they do get together" but I thought being more succinct would be a good thing. A recent conversation with my wife prompted me to start thinking about why we as viewers react a certain way to movies. She claims that I only like movies where The Guy and The Girl don't get together, and I claim that she dismisses any movie where they don't as being not worth the time. I certainly don't have anything against happy or "fairy tale" endings, when I think they work within the context of the movie. In fact, when I think it works, I love it just as much as anything.

But I also love when there's some ambiguity in the ending. At the end of the great romance movie Before Sunrise, for instance, Jesse and Celine don't have a fairy tale ending, but they also don't have one where they necessarily don't end up together. I love the scene in the sequel, Before Sunset, where Jesse talks about the scenario (via the book he wrote about the first movie's happenings), where the two lovers part but pledge to meet again in the same spot 6 months from then. He says essentially that we fill in the blanks with whatever type of person we are, a romantic will believe they got together again (as I believed before seeing Sunset), a cynic will think that they don't, and someone in between will simply not be sure. And in my recent viewing of 5 Centimeters Per Second, there's the grayness of the ending where you think about why he stops to try and see her again, and why she walks away. I loved that ending, but it wasn't because "they don't end up together", it was because of the character motivations and what it meant to each of them to see the other one again after so long. Alvy doesn't end up with Annie Hall, but they don't have to. Alvy appreciates the time in his life that Annie occupied and has moved on, and so should we.

Some movies like that just leave us with a piece, or a taste, of love. In Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times, the first section ends up with the two young loves holding hands with nervous smiles on their faces. It was a perfect piece of cinema. Cameron Crowe's great Say Anything ends with John Cusack putting his arm around Ione Skye as they apprehensively wait for whatever they'll face in their new life of love together (a remarkably mature ending for a debut from Crowe, as is the whole movie). In Casablanca, everyone knows Rick and Ilsa don't end up with one another (the movie's so famous, most people can quote the scenes even if they've never seen the movie before), but that doesn't tarnish the great lost romance that they had, or Rick's noble sacrifice in the end. What happened after Harry met Sally? Well, they had an iconic New Years Eve, to the delight of romantics like me. James and Emily in Adventureland have a wonderfully romantic (and funny and heartfelt) culmination of their relationship at the end of my favorite film of last year. These are incredibly romantic movies, I think, and some of my favorite romance movies.

But then we have the chick flicks. The leads always end up together after some bullshit incident that threatens to derail their romance in the third act. These movies are safe and comforting for many people, and can be perfectly enjoyable when done right. But since they're simply formulas made over and over again with mostly interchangeable lead actors, I don't really think of them as romantic or as "romance" movies, and they rarely evoke any sort of passion out of me as a viewer. I understand their value in the same way I understand the value of McDonald's, you go in each time knowing precisely what you're gonna get and it doesn't matter who the lead actor (or Mickey D's location) is, you're gonna get exactly what you've already had in the past, that's why you're coming back for more. But as art, they nearly always fail to move me in any significant way. And that's what I'm looking for, some artistic payoff for my emotional investment.

It's been a little difficult for me to answer some of my wife's questions about why I react the way I do to certain movies, simply because I never really thought extensively about how we all respond to the art that we expose ourselves to. I think a lot about what our responses are, and whether I agree or disagree with your response and what our interpretation are, etc. But I don't think much about why I instinctively am drawn to things more serious minded than not. But I think that last line of the previous paragraph is the heart of it. I need to feel that payoff, it just doesn't have to be in the form of a happy ending.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Black Swan posters

Now, I haven't seen Darren Aronofsky's movie Black Swan (seeing as it hasn't opened yet) but I gotta say that I'm really loving the posters they've drawn up for his ballet/mental breakdown followup to The Wrestler. The movie, which has been getting Oscar buzz for its leading lady Natalie Portman, and also contains a much hyped lesbian sex scene between Portman and co-star Mila Kunis, won't be coming out here in a couple of weeks (or maybe even months) more than likely, but I still wanted to share its posters, a thing which I think is becoming a lost art when it comes to movie advertising.

And two of its more traditional posters, ones that I still like anyway:

If you look back on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future (or anything else by famed poster artist Drew Struzan) there used to be a lot of love put into this kind of marketing that I think helped make so many of these movies iconic. These aren't in Struzan's style (just Google his name if you wanna check out some of the cool posters he's done), but they have the same kind of care put into them that really is nice to see. Makes me want to watch a movie that I was kinda on the fence about to begin with. And isn't that the point of a poster?