Wednesday, January 06, 2010
The rest of My Top 20 Films of 2009
Oh, I've told this story over and over, but the first time I saw Quentin's instant classic, I didn't think much of it. The next day, however, memories of "Chapter 1" were haunting me, taunting me, luring me to see it again on the big screen. I did, and hot damn, the trumpets sounded during round two. The jaw-droppingly good performance of Christopher Waltz aside, Inglourious Basterds offers the kind of satisfying sweep from drama to comedy that few films dare to attempt, much less nail so handily. Comic book gore aside, it's a mature cinematic achievement with much to say about the absurdity of war and the bittersweetness of revenge. Punctuated with long stretches of brilliant conversation depth-charged with cold sweat tension, Inglourious Basterds boasts an auteur in full swagger. Other performance shout-outs: August Diehl as a German soldier who smells a rat in the film’s intricate, pitch-perfect tavern scene and Michael Fassbender as a jaunty film-critic-turned-spy who grins as if he's just eaten Ewan McGregor.
Trust me, this is a terrific film about trust. One big fat caveat: If you don’t buy the chemistry between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, Duplicity is going to fall flat for you. BUT if you’re picking up what Claire and Ray are throwing down, you’re in for a rollicking ride fueled by delicious cat-and-mouse wit and cascading sparks. As corporate spies who mix business and pleasure, there’s always a question of who's gaming who. The nuts and bolts of the espionage storyline are solidly entertaining in their own right, but the deepest pleasure in the film is between our dueling moles as they warily coexist on a mobius strip of sexy second-guessing. Kudos to writer/director Tony Gilroy for having the moxie to bring old-Hollywood smarts back to the big screen.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Nicolas Cage used to be my favorite actor. The dude was mad and up for anything. His lanky joy and balls-to-the-wall nuttiness in films like Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart were things of beauty. Then he got lured into the big paycheck/action movie dead zone. Fortunately, a loose remake and Werner Herzog(!) resuscitated the madness in a melancholy yet hilarious cop-on-the-edge drama. In the film's burnished details like a little boy's scrawled ode to his fish, there is an aching nostalgia that rings even truer in a watercolor post-Katrina New Orleans. Loony and lovely.
Director Erick Zonca gives the kidnapping thriller genre a time-out to think about what it's done with a bristlingly sardonic script (adaptation: Roger Bohbot, Michael Collins; written by: Aude Py, Zonka) showcasing what many rightly heralded as the performance of the year by Tilda Swinton. Tilda is Julia, a boozing broad who is one backseat date away from rock bottom until an ill-advised scheme gets her licking her chops. What could go wrong? Everything, if we’re lucky. And, boy howdy, are we lucky. What this thriller becomes is the darkest of comedies as Tilda is forced to live by her liquor-dimmed wits in fits and starts. There is a coiled energy in her that startles as her red-headed phoenix takes ashes and makes Absolut-spiked lemonade out the whole lousy lot of 'em.
It’s amazing to me that this is the first feature film by director Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Enda Walsh, since there is a sure-handedness in the storytelling and visual composition that one would expect from a veteran filmmaker. Focused on the true story of a prisoner strike in Ireland circa 1981, the film is grimly unblinking and jaw-clenchingly visceral. Yet despite all manner of base abuse and self-neglect witnessed here, there are moments of pure transport. The performances are above reproach from end to end, but Michael Fassbender is especially riveting as the leader of the hunger strike, Bobby Sands. With the smallest of gestures, McQueen conveys multitudes. I still recall one of the opening moments when a prison staffer checks under his car for a bomb. No words are spoken. He just gets on hands and knees in his driveway as a part of his morning routine. In under two minutes, we know this man's life. Hunger is punishing at times to watch, but there is a meditative purity at work that mesmerizes -- finally burning the crucible clean.
And now, ladies and germs, the rest of best. Rent them, love them, thank me later.
The Brothers Bloom
“Whimsical” sounds wimpy, but it’s actually a sought-after rarity in my book. Call it cinematic frankincense, if you will. While The Brothers Bloom is ostensibly a con-man caper, its heart is powered more by romantic notions than sleight-of-hand negotiations. With a poem as prologue, writer/director Rian Johnson crafts a charming world of amusing people determined to ditch the status quo world for one of their own clever creation. While Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody are appealing as brothers always looking for their next mark (Ruffalo is goddamn hilarious -- especially in his deadpan delivery of the line about Mexico), Rachel Weisz is the heart and soul of this film. It’s her fiery naivete that keeps the pleasurable proceedings grounded. One of the true delights of 2009.
I tend to avoid horror films, but this is my kind of fearfest. When a tiny Canadian town suffers a strange attack tied to language (of all things), the voice of a lone radio show host is there to sort the facts trickling in via strangled phone calls. Shooting almost exclusively in the confines of a dimly lit radio station set, director Bruce McDonald knits tension out of thin air -- with a big assist from the witty grey matter of screenwriter Tony Burgess. Steven McHattie is an absolute scream as the grizzled show host trying to make sense of it all. I command thee to seek this little nugget of joy out. Heck, how can you not love a movie with the tagline "Shut up or die."
The Girlfriend Experience
In a film that feels like a chic experiment, Steven Soderbergh examines how almost every interaction in our lives is a transaction -- only the forms of compensation are in flux. Deliciously julienned editing creates an enticing ebb and flow, making certain moments feel like personal memories. Real-life porn actress Sasha Grey does an admirable job in her first “mainstream” role, yet it turns out that actually having sex is the least compelling thing on anyone's mind in this contemporary cauldron.
The Headless Woman
Lucrecia Martel is a minimalist filmmaker in that she doesn’t spell things out for the audience. So quit yer griping and take it as a compliment! Less is definitely more in her hands, especially in The Headless Woman where the protagonist is as clueless as we are as to what’s just happened. Seemingly in a cloud of amnesia, she wanders through her life with a bemused smile playing on her lips. Some consider this film to be a veiled political commentary on Argentina, but it works like gangbusters as sheer drama. Prepare to get lost in a spellbinding fog, my dears.
A Serious Man
The Coen brothers made this movie. Which means you should see it. I’ve decided that they’re the greatest living storytellers the cinematic world’s got. So there. While their films may look like genre exercises on the surface, with irony flying at you from every angle, you can be sure that there are great insights to be garnered. The Coens are thinkers with a wicked wit that sears. You can cynically call them cynics, but they're merely humanists in wolves' clothing (I suppose wolves should be plural here, but now I'm picturing a retail establishment full of lupine business suits and formalwear). A Serious Man is the Job-esque story of a physics professor in the Midwest of the 1960s who is suddenly beset by all manner of bad luck. The film offers a wry (OK, bitter) exploration of the role religion plays in our lives, as well as math and myth. Grimly hilarious.
Director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (adapted from Kurt Eichenwald's book) and actor Matt Damon bring a bizarre true story of corporate greed to life with a 1970s visual vibe and a voiceover that is so goddamn byzantine and hilarious I want to be friends with it. Yes, I want to be friends with a voiceover script. Don’t give me that look.
I’ve argued at length on Twitter that this film isn’t *about* furniture. When people describe it as such, it sounds dismissive. There is bigger life meaning here in a tale of a scattered family at a crossroads. Writer/director Oliver Assayas weaves a sun-dappled tale that reveals an undeniable truth: The richness of your life depends on what you value.
I’ve been pretty immune to Pixar films' appeal up until now, most notably by loathing the beloved Wall*E. I walked into Up skeptical, but walked out tear-stained. While many celebrate the life-in-flashback montage, I was especially impressed by how the little boy was portrayed. He's the most believable kid I’ve ever seen onscreen. Warm-hearted and visually stunning, Up is an animated masterpiece.
The almost plasticine palenesss of the lead actor’s face adds to the surreal artificiality of this piercing look at how our digital lives create repercussions in the real world. By using claustrophobic framing, writer/director Antonio Campos captures the feeling of insulated emotion that the internet holds up to our noses like a chloroform-soaked rag. Bonus points: For the first time while watching a film, I caught myself craning my neck to try to see what was out of frame. Nifty trick, Campos.
Oh, Lars. You know how to work up a room. The groans elicited from the audience by the torture scenes made me snicker, since there was that sensation of von Trier pulling his infamous puppet strings. Sure, it’s beyond gruesome how the film concludes, but I think Lars earned it. He’s admitted himself that he was working out a lot of personal shit on the screen and he was so overcome by depression during filming, he was too shaky to hold the camera. What I appreciate about Antichrist is that it examines the way guilt can eat away at a person and a relationship -- the way conversation about feelings can become smothering and ineffectual -- the way a marriage is simultaneously the safest place on earth and the most dangerous of all. While I’m a devoted Lars fan, I wonder how this film will stand the test of time. But, in the final analysis, I think his experiment works -- reconfirming my belief that LvT is the most challenging filmmaker out there.