Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Vic's Film Awards - 2009

Apparently having too much time on my hands, I put together my own list of award winners for 2009. I also have a list of favourite actors, actresses and directors of the decade coming in the next couple of days (I want photos of the actors/actresses, so will require more time than I have before Thursday).

So, my 2009 award winners are:

Best Picture - An Education

Best Director - Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

Best Actor - George Clooney, Up in the Air (did not see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart)

Best Actress - Carey Mulligan, An Education

Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress - Marion Cotillard, Nine

Best Animated Film - Up (did not see Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Best Documentary - The Cove

Best Screenplay - An Education

Best Score - Inglourious Basterds

Best Cinematography - Avatar (using special effects); Katyn for old-fashioned cinematography

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Vic's Top 25 Films of the Decade

Since all the critics are doing it, I thought I’d better make my own list of the top 25 films of the decade. Before I start, it might be worthwhile to remind you that this is not a list of what I think are the 25 best films of the decade, but the 25 films that impacted me the most. How well a film is made is obviously an important criterion for me, but at least five other criteria also come into play, including 1) the WOW factor; 2) how well the film contributes to humanization; 3) its exposure of the truth in peace and justice issues; 4) its treatment of violence; and 5) an intelligent thought-provoking screenplay (the most important normal criterion for me - more important than acting, directing, cinematography, music, etc.). And it also helps to be quirky.

Okay, counting down my 25 top films of the decade (yeah, I know, there are two 25s; I couldn’t decide which one to leave off the list):

25. Doubt - With brilliant performances by Hoffman and Streep, memorable scenes and an intelligent thought-provoking screenplay by director John Patrick Shanley, this film probes deeply into questions about doubt, progress and human nature.

25. Me and You and Everyone We Know - Wonderfully quirky comedy drama, directed by, and starring, Miranda July, is about making connections in the 21st century.

24. The Visitor - Profoundly moving without being sentimental, this incredibly subtle film by Tom McCarthy is wonderfully humanizing and looks gorgeous.

23. Spider - David Cronenberg’s best film, though he’s been making one gem after another this millennium. Ralph Fiennes is magnificent as the mentally-disturbed protagonist.

22. Hero - My favourite film by Yimou Zhang, though everything he’s done has been great (he’s my favourite Asian director). This Rashomon-like film about one man’s unique “war” is both gorgeous and thought-provoking.

21. 13 Conversations About One Thing - My favourite kind of film, this one from Jill Sprecher is about how our lives intersect and the meaning of life and happiness.

20. The Edge of Heaven - Fatih Akin’s film about people learning to see things differently by encountering those “on the other side” (the original German title) features marvellous natural performances and beautiful cinematography.

19. All or Nothing - My favourite Mike Leigh film (he’s my favourite British director). This one is about despair and hope for a dysfunctional lower class family in London.

18. The Fountain - A gorgeous endlessly discussable film from Darren Aronofsky (who made another of my favourite films of the decade, Requiem for a Dream) that reveals something different to every viewer.

17. O Brother Where Art Thou - My favourite Coen Brothers film (and I like everything they do, so that’s saying something). This is a typically quirky (and hilarious) Coen outing; unusual for the Coens are its thoughts about God/spirituality.

16. The Quiet American - A great old-fashioned Graham Greene spy story based in 1950s Vietnam, beautifully directed by Phillip Noyce.

15. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - My favourite German director, Tom Tykwer, just wowed me with this strange tale of a murderer who wants to create the ultimate perfume. A mixture of fairy tale, allegory and black comedy, it’s a work of poetic art.

14. Minority Report - No director has more films in my top 150 (all-time) than Steven Spielberg. This time it’s my favourite sci-fi film of the decade. Brilliantly done.

13. The Edukators - Another brilliantly-made film, this is a German romance/thriller (both work well) from Hans Weingartner about three young activists trying to get the rich to think about how they contribute to the plight of the poor. The characters and story are very well-developed and thoughtful.

12. Waking Life - One thought-provoking scene after another in this animated film from Richard Linklater (who has made three more of my favourite films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and A Scanner Darkly - the latter two would have made my top 30 of the decade). These films are all about the meaning of life and you can’t make too many thoughtful films on this subject.

11. Chocolat - An absolutely delightful comedy drama from Lasse Hallstrom with much to say on the subjects of change, community, and the church.

10. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner - There are very few films made about the Inuit people. This is an awesome work of cinematic art that tells us the profound story (legend) of a vanished culture.

9. The Constant Gardener - Another classic spy story (and love story); this one exposes the truth behind the drug industry in Africa and is based on a novel by John le Carre. It’s directed by Fernando Meirelles and features another great performance by Ralph Fiennes.

8. Silent Light - Am I biased because I’ve met, and had a long conversation with, the director, Carlos Reygadas, or because all the actors in the film are Mennonites? Maybe, but I find it hard to imagine not loving such a gorgeous thoughtful spiritual film. It felt so real, I thought I was there, participating in the life of the Mexican Mennonite community as it dealt with the grand themes of love, death and forgiveness.

7. Crash - Wonderful humanizing film from Paul Haggis about racism and the intersecting lives of a group of people in Los Angeles. Some of the best scenes I have seen in years (including my favorite scene of the decade).

6. Moulin Rouge - The WOW film of the decade for me. Hey, you start a film with Ewan McGregor singing a song from The Sound of Music and you’ve got my attention - and it just kept getting better - wonderful maniacal musical from Baz Luhrmann.

5. U23D - This passionate plea for the world’s religions to lead the way in making the world a more just and peaceful place is one of the most inspiring and hopeful film of the decade and, just for good measure, it throws in some of the best rock songs ever written. Arguably the best concert, and concert film, of all time.

4. As it is in Heaven - Never heard of it, you say? Indeed, very few people have. It’s a travesty that this inspiring Swedish gem about a community in northern Sweden was, despite the above poster, so rarely seen in the English-speaking world, and is not even available on video in North America, as far as I know. Everyone needs to see it. Directed by Kay Pollak.

3. The Lives of Others - a perfectly-made film in every respect from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. This is a wonderfully humanizing tale of the struggle to be a good person, specifically in the repressive world of East Berlin in 1984. This is what life is all about, and this is what great filmmaking is all about.

2. Joyeux Noel - Marvelous anti-war film form Christian Carion dares to make the church complicit in war and dehumanization while also suggesting that this is not the way of Jesus. Sure it’s a flawed melodramatic film, but it’s one of the most important films based on real events ever made.

1. The Lord of the Rings (the eleven and a half hour extended version of all three films viewed as one film) - I read Tolkien’s classic in the early seventies (when I was in my teens) and dreamt of the possibility that I would live long enough to see it filmed. That I wasn’t disappointed when it happened is cause enough to make it my favourite film of the decade. That this film is not only a magnificent epic tale beautifully filmed but also an inspiring story about love and loyalty and self-sacrifice and death and so on is just icing on the cake. Peter Jackson, thank you!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Walter's Top Nine of 2009

OK – lousy year – agreed. I decided I would keep my top ten list to nine in protest. As usual, at least one of these is a little too old to be in a top ten of 2009 category but it takes me a while to get to see movies.

Not only was it a bad year, but – same as for you, Vic – it was a year when a lot of movies I thought would be good disappointed me. One of the main traits that qualified a movie to be in my top five was that they didn’t leave me with that sense of disappointment. Not really a high standard, I know. In any case, here they are:

9. Up – Surprisingly poignant beginning which actually made me sad. I can’t say Pixar movies often do this to me. Some clever bits; some funny bits. Nothing particularly great.

8. Shrink – This was one of a few that was actually better than I’d expected (since most reviews weren't great), but that’s partly because I hadn’t been expecting much. I’m a fan of Kevin Spacey, so I wanted to like this. Interesting enough to impress me a little.

7. Empties – Slow, quiet Czech movie. The central character is both likable and frustrating. I liked the plot of someone managing to turn a potentially “empty” time of his life into one where he somewhat turns this around by filling up those around him.

6. (500) Days of Summer – I was really looking forward to this one. It didn’t really disappoint me, but almost. It was an interesting well-made comedy. It made me think, but I didn’t necessary like the direction in which it was pointed as I have elaborated earlier. Interesting that we put it at the same place in the list in spite of your liking it more than I did??

5. State of Play – This was the first movie of the year that I really liked. Watching it after several duds in a row, I was so surprised, I kept telling others in the room what a great movie it was. I thought Russell Crowe was perfect. It was just a really well made thriller. Yes, the ending wasn’t perfect, but it was tolerable and unexpected.

4. Pray the Devil Back to Hell – I had to add one documentary to the list. (I wonder if I would have added Capitalism if I’d seen it?) This one tells the story of the Liberian women – Christian and Muslim – who prayed and protested their way into bringing some relative peace to the craziness brought about by Charles Taylor. It was well put together, making a fairly smooth narrative that is both horrifying and hopeful.

3. Avatar – Both for the wonder of the experience and for the moments of real potential in the story, I’m willing to put this at three. Somehow I’d missed pretty much all of the hype for this movie so I wasn’t really expecting much. While the ending (in particular) was less than it should have been, I wasn’t feeling at all disappointed when I watched this movie.

2. Up in the Air – George Clooney was great in this. Even though part of you sees it coming, the movie draws you in to the mobile world then hits you with the truth you really should know. Believable, thoughtful and entertaining – a great example of what a comedy/drama can be

1. Away We Go – I can’t really think of a good reason why this is better than Up in the Air other than that it’s an indie film instead of Hollywood smooth. I thought the lead couple had an interesting chemistry. I didn’t really know where the film would go, and I thought it was an interesting ride getting there. There were lots of very funny moments, though a few were that awkward kind of funny that is almost too painful. Probably not the kind of movie that is worthy of being a year’s best, but it seemed the best of an unfortunately bad lot.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Vic's Top Ten Films of 2009

For me, 2009 was one of the worst years for films in a long time (since the 90’s), with very few films that will break into my top 100. Many films disappointed me this year, particularly the big sci-fi films (Star Trek, District 9, Avatar), all of which I enjoyed but should have been much better (i.e. had much less action/violence and more dialogue). I also had too high expectations (I know - always a mistake) for the latest Pixar film, so Up also disappointed (though it was also very enjoyable).

It was, however, an outstanding year for war films (three in my top seven), which ranks low among my favourite genres. Honourable mention this year goes to a great documentary that was too disturbing and different to get into my top ten, but is nonetheless a very well-made expose with a very important message: The Cove. I should also mention that I was unable to see Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which, from all accounts, would have made my top ten.

And now I’ll count down my top ten films of 2009:

10. Up in the Air - I’m a George Clooney fan, so I knew I was going to enjoy this intelligent quiet drama from Jason Reitman, who gave us Juno a couple of years ago. Up in the Air is about a man who lives in the air, flying all over the U.S. to fire people as he works toward being one of only a few people to get ten million miles with American Airlines. This film is about the meaning of life and work in the 21st century. It’s a great discussion film, both sad and hopeful at the same time, and it’s the kind of film that prevents complete despair with all things Hollywood.

9. Moon - The only sci-fi film of the year which did not disappoint, Moon is another quiet intelligent film, this time a low-budget indie from a rookie director (Duncan Jones) with a fascinating premise and lots of suspense. Virtually a one-man show, Sam Rockwell acquits himself well. This is what sci-fi is all about.

8. Nine - What can I say? I have a soft spot for musicals. For me, musicals are the most entertaining thing on the planet (I know, there goes my credibility) and I thoroughly enjoyed this one from Rob Marshall (who gave us Chicago). If you are not a Fellini fan and have never seen Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), then this film might seem very weird. But as I am a Fellini fan, and was not worried about whether this film captured the magic of 8 1/2 (after all, this is a musical based on a play loosely based on 8 1/2), I very much appreciated the Fellini style, the Italian feel and location, and the great acting (some of my favourite female actors starred and sang in this film, including Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and my choice for the best female actor of the decade, Marion Cotillard, who was the best actor in this film, as she was in this year’s Public Enemies).

7. Inglourious Basterds - Another quirky film from Quentin Tarantino, this is basically a foreign language war film (one of two WWII films in my top seven). It’s worth watching just for the magnificent performance by Christoph Waltz (who deserves an Oscar along with his Golden Globe). Basterds has great dialogue, great cinematography, a great score and one memorable scene after another. Of course, it’s a Tarantino film, so not for everyone (violence warning).

6. 500 Days of Summer - Sorry, Walter, while I mostly agree with your negative comments about the message and characters in this film, I did not go in with high expectations and thoroughly enjoyed this quirky romantic comedy (i.e. I was able to forgive most of its flaws because it was a romantic comedy that actually held my attention throughout instead of making me gag throughout, like the most popular and critically acclaimed comedy of the year, that hugely overrated mess called The Hangover).

5. Anything for Her - This French suspenser caught me off guard. It’s a very flawed film but the drama behind the suspense played just the right notes for me, making me feel complete sympathy for the irrational protagonist. And the unusual balance of bizarre coincidences confounded me in a good way.

4. Looking for Eric - It’s so sad that this film will never be seen in North America. This is a gentle amusing film about one man’s struggle with depression and how British football helped him. It’s both sad and funny, dark and light, and a beautifully-acted intelligent film from Ken Loach, one of the UK’s best filmmakers.

3. The Hurt Locker - The WOW film of the year for me, Kathryn Bigelow’s documentary-style film about what’s happening in Iraq defies any labelling. It’s a work of pure cinematic art that humanizes all sides of the occupation. Great stuff (I hope it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture instead of Avatar, which is not in the same league)!

2. Katyn - This WWII epic from Polish directing giant Andrzej Wajda (now 83) is what good old-fashioned filmmaking is all about (and it’s so rarely seen these days). Katyn tells (exposes) the true story of the massacre of Polish officers in WWII with just the right amount of sentimentality (which is to say: very little) and perfect filmmaking in every department.

1. An Education - Another example of perfect old-fashioned filmmaking, An Education took me completely by surprise (coming-of-age stories usually rank even lower than war films, though the 60‘s London setting helped a lot). In particular, the performance by Carey Mulligan blew me away (easily the best performance of the year for me and I hope she gets an Oscar for it) and made me care in a way that very few romances have done in decades. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is brilliant and gives us all much to think about. Lone Scherfig’s direction is flawless, as is the acting, cinematography and score. This is what going to the movies used to be about, but so rarely is anymore. And it would be great, and deserving, if An Education won the Oscar for Best Picture, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Another View of Avatar

I’m back - from Winnipeg! Sorry to those of you who wold like to read more reviews on this blog. I plan to write at least a dozen mini-reviews this week as well as list my top ten films of 2009 and of the last decade.

So let’s talk Avatar. Based on the box office receipts, I must be one of the last people in the western world to see this film. Was it worth the wait? Heavy sigh! Not really. Would my experience have been different if I had not known about the incredible popularity of the film or seen Walter and Roger give it four stars? Maybe, but probably not much.

Walter, your review is excellent and I agree with almost all of it. The biggest difference between us is that the ride just wasn’t fun enough for me to give it four stars or to forgive the same old same old redemptive violence ending. Talk about boring! Just like District 9, the first half of Avatar provides so much potential for greatness before the film dissolves into a silly action flick. Roger (Ebert) thinks this is forgivable in Avatar because the characters have been so well established and it means something to us to see exactly how the battle is fought and won. Sorry, Roger - I disagree. If these well-established characters had truly understood the futility/insanity of violence and war (Roger and others have called this an anti-war film - sorry again, Roger, this is most definitely not an anti-war film), they would have found a way to reach out to the soldiers in such a way that not just one but the majority of them (the soldiers) would have stood up to the colonel and refused to destroy the Hometree (let alone take part in the second bombing raid). James, what were you thinking? How can you so brilliantly allude to the way the U.S. invades countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to secure minerals (oil) for its own people and future, and so brilliantly help us see the wisdom in literally stepping into the moccasins of another (whether NaVi or Muslim), and so brilliantly portray the life of Pandora’s natural world to show us how we are not appreciating our own world (indeed are ruthlessly destroying it in order to take whatever we want), and yet not see how your failure to think outside of the box when it comes to the redemptive violence required to conclude the story (another cardboard evil character we have been taught to hate snuffs it at the end - can you hear my yawn?) leaves the way of violence and war largely unchallenged and ultimately leaves the world in the hands of the military-industrial complex you are apparently trying to condemn?

Okay, with that tirade behind us, let’s get back to my review of Avatar.

Avatar is a BIG movie. Cameron likes to make BIG films and that’s just fine with me. I enjoy seeing filmmakers push the boundaries of what can be done with film (my favourite film of the past decade is a wonderful example; what? No, of course I won’t tell you now; you’ll have to wait for the countdown when I’m ready). Star Wars was a BIG film and it remains my second-favourite film of all time. Like Star Wars, Avatar features largely unknown actors and lots of dumned-down dialogue, but remains very watchable nonetheless. Avatar is in many ways more beautiful than Star Wars; this is a gorgeous film to watch. BUT! Yeah, sorry, there is a big BUT here. BUT it felt to me like I was watching an animated film with the occasional live action thrown in. Don’t get me wrong - I love animated films, but Star Wars (especially the original 1977 version) wowed me much more than Avatar because it did NOT feel like an animated film. As for 3D? What can I say? I have never been a fan of 3D and consider the current obsession with 3D a huge downward trend in filmmaking (Tim Burton, are you listening?). The 3D in Avatar did almost nothing for me and I can’t wait to see it again in 2D. Basically, I view 3D as a distraction from the film (similar to handheld camera work). To be honest, I am increasingly distracted by special effects in film and long for the days of pre-green-screen filming. In the end, the action scenes in Avatar were as boring to me as the action scenes in most other films. So, yes, Avatar was beautiful to watch and a fun ride, but it did not impress me as the great technological breakthrough I had heard so much about. Take me back to Casablanca anytime.

Having said that, I was awed time and again by individual scenes of profound spirituality and subtle beauty, particularly all the scenes involving the Tree of Souls and its seeds. Eywa, the Goddess, is a fascinating character in the film and the idea has much to contribute to our understanding of God. Wonderful stuff. If only, in the end, Eywa wasn’t portrayed as possessing the same lack of wisdom as humans when she sends the forces of nature to destroy the evil interloper - yup, I’m yawning again. What a wasted opportunity to view God as something more than human (i.e. not confined to humanly narrowing the options available in responding to a conflict situation).

Probably the thing that impressed me most about Avatar was the fearless way Cameron challenges the American military (Anti-war? No. Anti-American-invasions? Yes). At one point, Jake Scully says: “When people sit on shit that you want, you make them your enemy and you take it” Wow! Great stuff. And hardly subtle. So is the most popular film of all time going to open the eyes of the American people to the way its military mindset is destroying our planet? I wish I could say yes, but I fear too many people just won’t get it. And the violent ending won’t help. It also doesn’t help that the two primary “evil” characters are so poorly developed, as Walter has pointed out. Also not helping is the fact that if we draw the parallels out far enough, Avatar seems to be endorsing a violent Muslim uprising against the U.S. military. Obviously no one wants to promote that, but think, James, think! (Even Scully says, “I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up” - a profound quote that requires unpacking).

Walter, I particularly liked your comments about the way Pandora’s inherent hostility, mixed with the warrior NaVi, distracts from an appreciation of the planet and its people. It reminds me of various attempts made this past century to glorify the warrior culture of Native Americans, etc. (think klingons as an example). Does NOT work for me. Compare that to a film that Avatar immediately reminded me of: Disney’s Pocahontas. Only Pocahontas really was an anti-war film.

So, insofar as Avatar presents a beautifully-rendered world/culture and promotes humanization of the Other and an appreciation for the environment, and gives us Jake Scully, whose childlike cup is empty (another excellent point, Walter), it is a very worthy endeavour and worth watching at least twice. But insofar as the film concentrates too much on its technological wizardry and action and violence, it disappoints and is unworthy of its popularity and acclaim (and Golden Globe) and so cannot get four stars from me. ***+ for the ride. My mug is up but I need stronger stuff.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Another (500) Days of Summer

I know that there is already a post on this one, but I wanted to write something more substantial than just a comment because this movie prompted an unusual response in me.

It’s always unfortunate when you go into a movie with your expectations high, but a combination of the responses I heard from others and my own impression from the trailer made me think that this would be my favourite movie of the year. Bad start. The high expectations meant that I was disappointed in spite of the movie being pretty good. I liked the general idea of the story; I liked the acting; I liked the tone and the narration and even the jumping around chronologically (though I wonder if that could have been improved).

What I didn’t like was the apparent ‘message’ of the movie. Here’s the way I have articulated this a couple of times to those I watched with: “I don’t like how it made me sympathetic with Tom while giving the impression that Summer was supposedly more ‘in the right.’” In my books, you can say that you’re not looking for a serious relationship all you want, but if you’re sleeping with someone and giving lots of other ‘I’m pretty in love with you’ kinds of non-verbals while thinking that somehow you can ‘just be friends’ then you are misusing someone and probably misusing yourself.

There are a variety of ways in which (in my opinion) this could have been improved in the movie. They could have given a few more hints (there were some admittedly) that Tom’s perspective on how much she was into him was misperceived through the lens of his desire. Maybe Zooey Deschanel is just too good at playing someone falling in love. Or there could have been a little more development of her inability to commit to Tom being based on either her emotional baggage from her parents’ failed relationship or some particular aspect of Tom’s character that made commitment scary for her (or preferably a combination of both). Instead they make it seem like she was somehow more secure and mature about how she was in that relationship. Any changes along these lines would have fit with the ideas the film pointed towards but did not effectively communicate.

On the other hand, simply the fact that the movie stimulated this much thought makes it worthy of kudos. It does a great job of drawing you into the emotional world of Tom (and not the other characters by the way – I’ll say a word about them later) and then makes you work through the position he finds himself in. In this sense the film is very much from a first person perspective.There is lots of good food for thought, and certainly one can't always say this about a romantic comedy.

The other characters are actually kind of flat. Summer is an interesting and attractive person but not at all one who draws in your sympathies. The ending of her story is not sold at all well, and I don’t feel like she ends up in a good space mental/relational health-wise. Tom’s sister is also interesting but way too over-caricatured and not believable (but excusable in a comedy). And finally, Tom’s friend, McKenzie – do we really need another clich├ęd, sexually immature, over-drinking friend. Is this where our society is at these days? Does every nice guy in his late twenties still have a sexually immature, over-drinking friend? Well, maybe they do, but I’m just getting tired of these characters. Excuse my rant.

So the criticisms above notwithstanding, this was a good movie, though I’m a little surprised at how positive the critics have been. I’d keep it at ***1/2 stars myself.