Best of 2009: More of the Best

Click for full list.

Directing


  1. James Grey’s Two Lovers
  2. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist
  3. Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds
  4. Michael Heneke’s White Ribbon
  5. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker
  6. Chan wook Park’s Thirst
  7. Duncan Jones’s Moon
  8. Roy Anderrson’s You, The Living
  9. Jane Campion’s Bright Star
  10. Coen Brother’s A Serious Man
  11. John Hillcoat’s The Road

 

Writing

  1. QT’s Inglorous Basterds
  2. Armando Iannucci and co.’s In the Loop
  3. James Grey’s Two Lovers
  4. Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man
  5. Alessandro Camon and Oren Moveman’s The Messenger (a better story than Hurt Locker!)
  6. Duncan Jones and Nate Parker, Moon
  7. Woody Allen, Whatever Works (oh, shut up, the writing in that shit is tight)

Favorite Performances

  1. Sam Rockwell in Moon–one of the best one-man-performance movies ever. No other actor put as much in a role as Rockwell did. He not in the movie, he is the movie. Rockwell needs his due.
  2. Charlotte Gainsburrow and Willem Dafoe in Antichrist
  3. Kang-ho Song in Thirst–Easily my favorite international actor. The best vampire performance since Willem Dafoe in “Shadow of the Vampire.”
  4. Viggo Mortensen in The Road–History of Violence, Eastern Promises, The Road. Wow.
  5. Cristoph Waltz in Inglorous Basterds
  6. Peter Capaldi in In the Loop–“Climbing the mountain of conflict”? You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!”
  7. Melenie Lorrent in Inglorous Basterds–Nobody could have seen either Lorrent (or Waltz) coming. While he stole the show, the movie belonged to her.
  8. Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers
  9. Jeremy Renner in Hurt Locker
  10. Tilda Swinton in Julia
  11. Colin Firth in A Single Man–This is what happens when a great actor finally gets a great role.
  12. Woody Harrelson in The Messenger and Zombieland–Great fun in Zombieland, great sad in Messenger. Harrlson plays crocked eyed wild in both but his crying scene in the later is one of the best dude crying scene in recent memory.
  13. Jason Cope in District 9–If only the movie was as good as the performance.
  14. Samantha Morton in The Messenger–One of the best actresses working. What baffles me is how few talked about how good she was in this film.
  15. Bill Murry in Zombieland and Limits of Control–Most leading performance did not contain as much brilliance as Murray’s five or so minute scenes in these two movies.
  16. Nick Cage in Knowing and Bad Leutenent–A laughable actor in two laughably good films. Bad Lt. specifically figured out Cage in a way few films have.
  17. Paul Schneider in Bright Star
  18. Abbie Cornish in Bright Star ?
  19. Mimi Kennedy in In the Loop
  20. Jeffery Dean Morgan in Watchmen

Cinematography

  1. Javier Aguirresarobe, The Road
  2. Anthony Dod Mantle, Antichrist (hereby forgiven for being the DP on Slumdog)
  3. Bruno Delbonnel, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
  4. Joaquin Baca0-Asay, Two Lovers
  5. Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
  6. Roger Deakins, A Serious Man

Best and/or Most Iconic Lines

  1. “I can’t stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth. It reminds me of that Country and Western music which I cannot abide.” In the Loop
  2. “Chaos reigns.” Antichrist
  3. “Wait for the crème.” Inglorous Basterds
  4. “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” Limits of Control
  5. “My name is Shosanna Dreyfus and THIS is the face of Jewish vengeance!” Inglorous Basterds
  6. “I failed John Keats. I did not know until now how tightly he wound himself around my heart.” Bright Star (that line gets me every time)
  7. “What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table!” Bad Lieutenant
  8. “I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.” Whatever Works
  9. “Goddamn it, Bill fucking Murray!” Zombieland
  10. “His soul is dancing.” Bad Lieutenant
  11. “Is Doc Miles gonna have to choke a bitch?” Crank: High Voltage
  12. “Are you mad that you died at the end of Die Hard?” Funny People
  13. And this one from A Serious Man…

Larry Gopnik: So, uh, what can I do for you?
Clive Park: Uh, Dr. Gopnik, I believe the results of physics mid-term were unjust.
Larry Gopnik: Uh-huh, how so?
Clive Park: I received an unsatisfactory grade. In fact: F, the failing grade.
Larry Gopnik: Uh, yes. You failed the mid-term. That’s accurate.
Clive Park: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.
Larry Gopnik: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?
Clive Park: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.
Larry Gopnik: You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.
Clive Park: Very difficult… very difficult…
Larry Gopnik: Well, I… I’m sorry, but I… what do you propose?
Clive Park: Passing grade.
Larry Gopnik: No no, I…
Clive Park: Or perhaps I can take the mid-term again. Now I know it covers mathematics.
Larry Gopnik: Well, the other students wouldn’t like that, would they, if one student gets to retake the test till he gets a grade he likes?
Clive Park: Secret test.
Larry Gopnik: No, I’m afraid…
Clive Park: Hush-hush.
Larry Gopnik: No, that’s just not workable. I’m afraid we’ll just have to bite the bullet on this thing, Clive, and…
Clive Park: Very troubling… very troubling…

Music

  1. Clint Mansell, Moon (one of the best composers around)
  2. Hanz Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes(Hanz is back!)
  3. Christopher Young, Drag me to Hell
  4. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Road
  5. Joe Hisaishi, Ponyo
  6. Abel Krozeniowski, A Single Man (see, it’s possible to sound like Phillip Glass w/o being as annoying as him)
  7. Mike Patton, Crank: High Voltage
  8. Michael Giacchino, Star Trek (much, much better than his Up score)
Editing
  1. Mark Jakubowicz and Fernando Villena, Crank: High Voltage
  2. Sally Menke, Inglourious Basterds
  3. Anders Refn, Antichrist
  4. Jon Gregory, The Road
  5. Ant Boys (real name?) and Billy Sneddon, In the Loop

Best Set Piece
Pretty much any sequence in Hurt Lucker.
The bar scene in Basterds which is not even really a set piece… which is why it’s such a good set piece!

Best Nekkedness
That girl in Jarmish’s Limits of Control that was naked for like the whole movie!

Liam Neeson from Taken vs. Jason Stathem from Crank
I can’t, I can’t, it’s like choosing between my two (really buffy) kids. Okay, Chev wins the fight but only because he can’t really be killed.

Best Horror
Antichrist, best of the year, which makes it two years in a row for the horror genre.
Best Vampire Movie: Thirst
Best Zombie Movie: Zombieland

Best Sci-fi
The Box and Knowing

Funniest Movie
In the Loop

Best TV Movie
Caprica… long live the new/old flesh!

Best 3D Movie
Still not Avatar so Coraline it is!

Best Ensemble Performance

  • Basterds–Pitt, Waltz, Lorrent etc.
  • Moon (not New Moon!)–Rockwell, Rockwell, Rockwell and Robot.
  • Bright Star–Cornish, Winshaw, Snyder, Fox.

Best Non-Human Performance

  • Kevin Spacey in Moon. Robot.
  • Jason Schwartzman in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Fox (better in clay than he was in flesh in Funny People)
  • Up‘s talking dog. Dog.
  • Jim Carrey in Christmas Carol. Um, human.
  • Dakota Fanning as Coraline.

Best Video Game Performance/Voice Acting

  • Nolan North in Uncharted 2
  • Mark Hamill in Batman Arkham Asylum
  • Cammy in Street Fighter IV (not good, just like looking at  the booty)

Finally, check later in the week for the final installment if the best, before I get to the worst that is.

Best of 2009: The Best Films of the Year!

1. Antichrist
Director: Lars von Trier

This film reminds me of Dante’s famous quote “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” about his fictional descent into hell. His character had it easy. In what became far and away the most original (and hated) movie of 2009, “Antichrist” established its own rules, created it’s own visual discourse and pissed off just about anyone who watched it in the process. This film divided to a point of anarchy, proving to me that some of the worst films of all time are, to others, some of the best and most interesting. It can be called a lot of things: the worst film of the year, torture porn, misogynistic, an art house version of “Saw,” “The Shining” on acid and even perhaps just a string of curse words. Okay, so I made all that up up but at the top of the list of things I would call “Antichrist” is the best film of the year.

Set in the aftermathof the accidental death of their child, “Antichrist” features just two characters (“He” and “She”) as they experience the stages of loss that include grief, pain and despair. In an effort to be “normal” again they head to the archetypal site of the fallow woman’s fears, the woods, a place in the middle of nowhere or, perhaps, middle of everywhere if you were to take the philosophical approach that these two characters are removing themselves from civilization to a cabin called Eden. This is a staggering and absurd work of dissonant visual poetry that pompously wages nothing less than the true nature of mankind and questions his/her place in “Eden.” The sinister beauty of nature certainly provokes strong emotions and the film’s heightened sense of formalism is a contentious matter of film geek debate. Some find the stylistic oddities unnerving and mean while other are inspired by the aggressively bold stance writer/director Lars vonTrier takes. Though the haters seem to outnumber the lovers by a large margin, the lovers love it by a larger margin. This is a film worth fighting over and while I feel the love I also understand where the hate comes from (this film is ridiculous) but at the same time hope that the anti-Antichristers understand that the film was made to provoke us into an feverish hatred of ourselves, others, the film we’re watching and most importantly the person behind the movie who wants us to hate all of the above. To hate it, in other words, is to validate its reason for existing. That alone does not make it any better but the goal here is to get past objective feelings of hate or love to arrive at some sort of truth in the object of art. That’s what “Antichrist” is all about and, really, that’s what movies are about.

Having never been a huge fan of Lars von Trier, this is the film where I feel he finally arrived director of tangible substance. In the past he effectively hid behind his own self-amused experiments and ironic melodramas but emphatically buries the “realism” of that pre and post-Dogme. “Antichrist” backs up its dark themes, subjects and symbols with a unique aesthetic approach that one can look at and debate until the end of cinema itself which can’t be too far off. I found this transcendentally down and dirty experience to be anything but cold, sexist or nihilistic as politically correct critics are quick to point out in an effort to discredit this movie. Another common slam is the (mis)reading that “Antichrist” is nothing more than a misogynistic battle of the sexes where the probing and rape-like intellect of man (Willem Dafoe–is there a better or more beautifully angular face in the movies today?) brutalizes the atavistic irrationality of woman (the bony perfection of Charlotte Gainsborough). Sure that’s one level of what’s going on but that is also a naive and reductionist reading that fails to take into account the notion that this is a film about artificial divisions that we make. Mankind’s arrogant assumption that “nature is Satan’s church” or that s/he is separate from or better than nature is what ultimately leads to the decay of what makes us human in the first place. Through the filter of horror of all things this film captures the existential pain of our banishment from Eden by returning us there and showing us how far we’ve fallen. In regards to gender issues as well as the man vs. nature theme, the film disavows dividing traits in it’s thesis that nature –the ugly side as well as the beautiful– is in man just as man is in woman (sometimes literally) and vice versa. To resist nature and to resist our nature is to kill it. The final, bleak summation that “chaos reigns” in the end makes the appropriately titled “Antichrist” the most disturbing film about the dark side of humanity ever made. Also the most howlingly ridiculous considering that bit of wisdom is coming from a talking fox that just ate its own tail.


2. Two Lovers 
Director: James Grey
Continuing the trend of tortured relationships, “Two Lovers” boasts two separate dysfunctional romances for the price of one! This is a profound work from one of America’s greatest and most underrated filmmakers, James Grey. “Two Lovers” is at once classic filmmaking/storytelling that recalls the great romances of the 50s and 70s and yet totally fresh in its approach to the genre through its dark tones, heavy technical mastery (romances are never this well made) and uniquely neurotic outlook that adds layers of meaning to a story that features real adults and real complexities. Grey is a director that previously worked in one genre, crime, and did it well, but here shows his true colors as a hopeless and helpless romantic. It’s his best work to date and that’s saying something because 2008’s “We Own the Night” is one of the decade’s best. The film got swept under the rug thanks to the hobo looking Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre antics but lets face it, the real problem was the general impossibility to market an American romantic film that doesn’t appeal to US Weekly readers. The title is pretty much exactly what the film is about but if neither of those “two lovers” are Sandra Bullock why should we care? Romance is a crippled genre that was able to stand on its own two legs for a brief moment before it was brushed aside. I would bet anything that “Two Lovers” will be discovered in the years to come because it has to. A film this good, this well made, this human and this touching can’t go unnoticed, it just can’t. From the performances (Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Vanessa Shaw), to the cinematography and right on down to the subtly brilliant sound design (rain, thunder and fish tanks!) that puts you in Leonard’s bipolar and love struck world, “Two Lovers” is the best genuine love story I’ve seen in years, maybe ever, and the best American movie of the year.


3. Inglourous Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarentino

Tarentinoowned the 90s and set himself loose on the 00s with, in the words of his Bible quoting character, “great vengeance and furious anger.” After he worked up the nerve to return to movies post “Jackie Brown” and got the revenge epic “Kill Bill” as well as that little road trip revenge movie (… that people don’t like to talk about) out of the system, QT turned to this inwardly epic WWII fantasy story about (but not really) a band of Nazi hunting Jews seeking, you guessed it, revenge. To call it a brilliant piece of filmmaking would not do it justice because, more than anything, it is a brave piece of filmmaking. Brilliant because of what it is and brave because of what it does or, rather, what it does not do. While the renegade basterds are a bat wielding force that “the Germans will talk about” and “fear,” “Inglourous Basterds” is not a typical “war movie” and it is not the revenge movie that “Kill Bill” or “Death Proof” are.

Forget about the fact that the film contains the unstoppable Basterds and not one but two separate (and simultaneous!) plots to overthrow Hitler (a brilliant plot detail by the way), all the pivotal moments contain nothing more than a few characters talking to each other at a table. From the masterful opening scene set in a farm to the subtle but hair raising strudel scene where the theater owning Jewish girl hiding in the farm is now being interviewed by her family’s killer to host Hitler movie night, to the tense (and wickedly extended to De Palma-size proportions) bar sequence to, finally, the moment of ultimate truth/truce where a discussion between the great Jew Hunter (Christoph Waltz) and lead basterd Brad rewrites the course of the modern (fake) history. Here’s the genus: more than guns, dynamite, the Jew Hunter’s choking hand or even Brad Pitt’s big ass knife that he uses to carve a swastikas on the foreheads of Germans so that they can forever bear the mark of their evil, Tarentino’s weapon of choice is the explosive power of celluloid and transformative nature of cultural and ideological discourse. In Tarentino’s universe, film itself is the catalysis that changes world events by literally transforming its audience. Film canisters set the world on fire while the theater holds us all trapped but riveted. Now there’s an alternate universe I would much rather live than the one we’re stuck in.

4. Thirst
Director: Chan Wook Park
Vampires are big and this film could care less. Similar to my number one film of 2008, this gorgeous anti-love story (another “Bad Romance”  makes the list!) rewrites the vampire movie rules of narrativity, myth making and visual presentation. In a world dominated by brain dead “Twilight” fans, “Thirst” madeliving in a vampire-centric culture a little easier in 2009. It blazes on with a blatant disregard for fluffy vampire lore and sparkling heroes. Directed by Chan-wook Park (he of  the Vengeance Trilogy fame), “Thirst” is a perverse morality tale about a priest, the always great Kang-ho Song, who gets infected by this “virus” while on a pilgrimage, becomes a religious icon in his country, looses faithin God, grows bored withthe prospect of eternal life, falls in love with a girl and infects her, creating a(nother) monster in the process. He spends the rest of the movie in a Russian-lit version of hell, which is before that literal hell he may soon face at the hands of an angry God he’s not even sure (or cares) exists anymore. Forget puffy shirts and Tom Cruise, this is what it means to be a vampire folks! This is not only a smart genre movie but one of the craftier explorations of religion and perdition I’ve ever come across. In other words “Thirst” is not something that could ever have been made in America.

5. In the Loop
Director: Armando Iannucci
What’s so good about “In the Loop?” Besides everything? Okay, how about dialogue that spews as much gold as it does bile “I can’t stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth. It reminds me of that Country & Western music which I cannot abide.”  How about editing that is fast as it is funny–a mock doc without the winks. How about the f-star-star-star-ing pitch perfect performances by Tom “climb the mountain of conflict” Hollander, Mimi “mouth bleeder” Kennedy, Tony Soprano and the scene/movie stealing Peter Capald-fucking-i? Imagine “Dr. Strangelove’s” satire with the UK’s “The Office” style and some meta-doc “Tristram Shandy-isms” thrown in.

“Loop” captures the feeling of being a little fish in a big, nasty, oil covered pond full of sharks (republicans), leaches (the media) and toothless bottom feeders (liberals… AND the English). “Loop” mocks/attacks all sides, showing the absurdly pathetic situation British-era politicians and policymakers faced when trying to buddy up to Americans in the time just before an entire war was invented from thin air. The feeling that these people are running around trying to get in this “loop,” which is inhabited by idiots screaming at each other, is ridiculous because the loop is just that, an insulated circle with no on-ramps or pauses for logic, reason or public interest to enter. Unlike political comedies like “Charley Wilson’s War” or “Wag the Dog” this film never wavers in its realism and yet also never hammers you with it. Taking satire to a new level, “Loop” is fun, then funny then sad when you realize that the humor is not that far fetched.

6. The Road
Director: James Hillcoat
The following really needs bold lettering: THE ROAD IS UNDERRATED. This film is as plain spoken and beautiful as the Cormac McCarthy novel that spawned it. Maybe modesty is why so few noticed this exceptional and sadly overlooked 09 film. “The Road” is special because it takes a serious look at the fall of man. This is not an action or science fiction or even fantasy movie, it is simply the single most important work in the apocalypse genre. A film that does not demand to be taken seriously, but should. The world has moved on and what it has moved on to, in the words of McCarthy, “cannot be made right again.” 
The economy of “The Road” is something to be marveled at because everything we see fits into this barren world. The vegetation is withered and browning and when the corpse of trees fall to the we realize that the trees did not just die but they have been dead for a long long time and their fall. That feeling of nature inevitable last gasp carries over into ever aspect. The world is not dying it is dead and mankind’s last survivors, what few there are left, find themselves witness to Earth’s quietly dwindling epilogue. The film captures hopelessness in ways even the great book can’t quite offer because we are SEEING what had happened to the earth and what is happening to humanity. Viggo Mortensenplays a man withno name who exists to ensure the survival of a son with no name in a world where allowing the young an innocent to survive may ultimately be a curse more than a blessing. Yet he persists and isn’t that’s the whole point? His performance is… right. Possessing the perfect image of a Great Depression era face set in this even greater depression, every line in Viggo’s face and smudge of dirt on his skin is as well worn as it is weary. And when he speaks, it’s poignant but never pompous. “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke” the man says of his son, whom the father is simply trying to raise to be “good” in a place where such moral qualifiers have lost their meaning. That is if those words ever really had meaning because for all the “good” in man look where it got them.

 

7. The Hurt Locker 
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
I never get tired of saying how much I hate Iraq war movies. I HATE IRAQ MOVIES. Ah, so refreshing, it just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? “The Hurt Locker,” a film that looked like just another Iraq 2 drama, single handily made me think twice before dismissing this genre. Then I saw “Brothers” and went back to hating it. Oh well. I saw the film over a year ago and, by now, everybody knows it. Sure this isn’t the “best” film of the year but whatever flaws there may be in the narrative structure are commendable if you consider this film’s jagged, nearly episodic sequences as an extension of the fragmented lead played so well by Jeremy Renner who should have won the Oscar (sorry Bridges). Renner’s Sgt. William James is one of the more interesting war characters I’ve ever come across because, as many have noted by now, he feeds off the discord rather than whines about it. We may not understand the war but after watching we do understand why he would want to go back. It’s a drug and the bombs James diffuses work as a handy metaphor for the male ego as well as the entire FUBAR situation we find ourselves in “over there.” 
What I respect most about “Hurt Locker” is its ability to takes us unto the sandy trenches and come out without a agenda or slant. It’s not anti or pro war, it’s just war. Even if you’re against this war “Hurt Locker” will endure beyond “Brothers” and “Stop Loss” and “Redacted” and “Greenzone” and all those shame on usdocumentaries because it removes itself from judgment and, thus, seems to have more integrity. The wonderful filmmaking by Bigelow (happy to say that I’ve been a fan since “Strange Days”) may be big and loud but the screenplay is contemplative, subtle and barley even there and the two styles make for a perfect marriage (unlike Bigelow and James Cameron hehe). After it’s big Oscar run K-Big should really make an Afghanistan-set sequel. She can even take her time making it because we’re going to be there for a while.

8. The Box
Director: Richard Kelly
If you ask me who the best new directors of the last decade is –or was– I would point to Richard Kelly as someone who should make the list. If you then laughed at me I would cite “Donnie Darko” then recommend you watch or rewatch “Southland Tales” and give his latest film, “The Box,” a shot. If you still laughed I would tell you to enjoy your Zach fucking Snyder films and walk away in total defeat. But, yeah, Richard Kelly………. Richard fucking Kelly. Three films in and I’m wondering why we don’t pay more attention to this mainstream cult filmmaker. In each meticulously made project, one thought always comes to me: “What……. is….. going on?” For some that’s why his film suck and for others it’s why they’re so good. Eschewing the modernist impulses of “Southland Tales,” a brilliant flop of a project that must of exhausted him, Kelly returns to intimate mystery while adding the assured bravado of a modern Hitchcock. This is like a Hollywood-er version of “MulhollandDr.” (mystery boxes!) and “Lost Highway” (suburban murders go down while creepy dudes visit your house with absurd proposals and deadpan whispers of “I’m looking at youright now”) meets one of the twistier moral scenario seen in “The Twilight Zone” (push a button = someone dies = you get a million dollars). Equal to those stories, “The Box” evokes a striking end-of-the-world-ish sci-fi doom and gloom scenario that brilliantly ties the fate of the world to the morals of it’s inhabitants. ::Sigh:: when it comes to the end of the world plots people picked the bluntness of “2012” over the strange subtle qualities of “The Box.” I could go on describing the movie but think back to “Darko” and ask yourself if any description would do the film justice? Like “Darko,” this film made no money and like “Darko,” it may find a small but loyal following willing to “walk into the light.”

9. White Ribbon
Director: Michael Heneke
You could watch “White Ribbon” and mistake it for a lost classic of the new wave German cinema made in the 60s through the 80s. Except it’s not lost, it’s modern and made by Michael Heneke, one of the world’s greatest pessimists; a director that, like von Trier, is not only unafraid to sow the seeds of discord but gleeful about doing so. The film, a brilliant anti-teutonic counterpart to “Inglourous Basterds,” offers a harsh de-glorification of pre-war Germany. As much of a nationalistic cautionary tale as it is an intimate drama, the specific theme or thesis of the disturbing film is left deliberately murky. Instead, Haneke offers more of a mood than a theme as the slowly unfolding events in this small town parable play out foreshadowing, of course, the torn, divided and ultimately ruined Germany that is to come. But that’s just the context. At the heart of things, this appropriately black-and-white film is a brooding mystery about sins of the father(s), who are careless and cruel, and the sins of their offspring. The little basterds in this film could hold their own against those in Heneke’s”Funny Games,” “Cache” or just about any one of his creepy-kid movies. Containing very little plot in the traditional sense of the word, “White Ribbon” moves at a glaciers and is shot with deliberate distance and space. The approach allows for an atmosphere that builds and builds and builds and, by the end, festers into something really ugly. It is a truly wonderful piece of filmmaking that evokes the iciness of Bergman and social malefice of Aurthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

10. Ponyo
Director: Hayo Miyazaki
“Ponyo” has a way of washing over you like a warm current in the dark sea of life. He may have done better but, really, that’s a relative notion when you’re dealing with Hayo Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s latest and hopefully not last children’s film is a treasure that captures a dreamlike wonder and innocence of childhood. “Ponyo” does not tread new ground for both Miyazaki(this is a Japanese “Little Mermaid” after all) or ecological message movies (it’s more imaginative than “Avatar” though) but it makes up for its lack of innovation with a wealth of dedication to the craft of non-ironic storytelling. The reigning animation master’s brilliance is actually getting old so I can see why “Ponyo” slipped through the cracks because his brilliant “Howl’s Moving Castle” suffered a similar fate few years back and that film is as awesome as they come! Like a lot of the under performing films on this list, this modest little gem would rather endure than cash-in. Recalling the opening shots of this movie where a ocean full of strange and wonderful life co-exist in a soup of marvelous creature creations, Miyazaki sets the stage for a young marine girl’s strange and scary adventure on dry land. She wants to become human and, in turn, we feel human while watching her story. This movie gives its viewer a world that feels loved and fully inhabited. I saw a fair amount of animated films in 2009 and none came the slightest bit close to matching “Ponyo’s” charm. Especially Pixar’s “Up,” a film so forced you can practically feel the balloons popping under the stress. Ponyo’s” serene, sea-set pleasures are unassuming and unsoliciting of our affection. It exists in a natural state of wonder and cuteness.

Alternate Top 10

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Director: Werner Herzog

  


Another “Bad Lieutenant?!” Who would have though? Who could have? Herzog, only Herzog! It’s hard to describe this movie. I’ll try, but I’ll fail. This is not a remake and its not a sequel or a prequel to the 1990s film of the same name starring Harvey Keitel, Nicholas Cage’s “National Treasure” co-star. It is its ts own beast, a totally original re-envisioning (for lack of a better word) of a film nobody asked to be made in the first place. Having seen far too many lame remakes/reboots I feel this is exactly the kind of film that should be re-made! Besides, one doesn’t cash-in with “Bad Lieutenant” because… where’s the cash? The fact that this was made means it was made for a reason. I say that because Werner Herzog is behind it. For those who don’t know, and shame on you if you don’t, Herzog is a gritty auteur who happens to be one of the most fascinating directors working today because he has figured out a way to make films for himself as much as he makes them for  Hollywood (“Rescue Dawn” was his last). 
As wired as cat in heat and as sleeplessly bug eyed as a lizard, the film stars Nicholas Cage as a dirty, drug addicted cop. Now, Cage playing a cop under totally “normal” circumstances would be an exercise in overacting theatrics (ahem, “Face/Off”) but add heavy drugs, severe back pain, corruption and sexual compulsion and you have a potential acting disaster on par with “Wicker Man,” another cop performance. Instead, the crazy of Cage and craz(ier) of Herzog cancel each other out, yielding something improbably good. The clips above and below are my gift to you and if they don’t make you want to see this movie then you might just be too well-adjusted to watch. Hunchback, wild eyed, screaming, and laughing through every scene, this is a remarkable collision of Cage’s tension and Herzog’screativity. They are so good together that there almost doesn’t even need to be a scrip. And there practically isn’t. The performance is exceptional because I laughed at it withthe awareness in the back of my mind that what I’m laughing at is not entirely a joke (it shares that quality with”Antichrist”); there’s something genuine going on here. Same with the film. It has an unmistakable 90s aesthetic in the way it is shot, the quality of the shoot and the pacing. Did Herzog do that to pay homage to the original? Who knows? All I do know is that Herzog’s quirky indulgences (tons random shots of reptiles for instance makes for a truly wacky, only-in-Herzoglandmetaphor for the kind of people we’re dealing with) make this the best cop movie since “Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang.”

okay, two more clips (I just can’t get enough)

A Serious Man
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
…yet not as serious as one would think given the subject matter. Jews in Michigan in the 1960s. You can imagine. Except you can’t because you don’t think like the Coens. I cannot recall laughing this much at such a depressing film. “A Serious Man” is about an even-tempered professor (Michael Stuhlbarg, the discovery of the year) whose life goes from bad to worse to down right ridiculous. Things fall apart in every way possible to a point of near divine intervention–its almost as if God has chosen this man to fuck with. All this character can do is… react. To people, to chance and to his own steadily declining nerves. The film takes the narrative causality of one of the Coen’s beloved crime movies like “Blood Simple” or “No Country” where the protagonist makes a bad moral choice at the beginning of the film and then everything after goes wrong from him in the karmic and physical sense. The difference is there’s no crime here, just minuscule choices that people make that shifts the tides of their life. The cruel joke is that others seem impervious to the fickle hand of fate. Everyone except for the marvelously creepy guy (Fred Melamed) who steals his wife away in the most humorously condescending way possible; “let’s just step back, and defuse the situation. I find, sometimes, if I count to ten… one… two… three… faw… or silently…        …          …          …”
This is the Coen’smost philosophically fertile film to date, which is saying a lot coming off of “No Country For Old Men.” Like that movie, the unmoving and seemingly illogical hand of fate becomes crossed with, or perhaps tangled to, forces of randomness. All of which are energized with the mystical forces of cabala, Judaism and vintage Coen wit and mockery. They really should create their own Church at this point. I would totally join. 
I get the sense that this is one of those rare times where the Coen’s are not mocking their protagonist. They haven’t really liked one of their protagonists since “Fargo.” Okay, also The Dude because who doesn’t like The Dude. “A Serious Man” has been called the Coen’s most personal film to date and I would go one step beyond that to call it their most real film. Real is a much better word, too, because I’m not so sure the directors are capable of being “personal” because that would require a person. These filmmakers are clearly not of this earth. They are studying us and they are laughing at us. The irony is that within the alien community they’re still probably considered weird.


Summer Hours
Director: Olivier Assayas

How do you sum up a person’s life? One way is by looking at all the crap they left behind. “Summer Hours” does that but –unlike my choice of words– in the most eloquent way possible. It is a leisurely meditation on lives lived and lives in the living; the passing of an old era is not really a passing at all but a ghostly merging with the collective now. In the least sentimental way possible (thank god) the film is about a old woman with a rich history who passes on and leaves her house and art collection behind for relatives to pick over. There are three distinct acts. The film opens strongly with a bittersweet family get-together, spends its middle chunk detailing the organizational and financial and, oh yeah, emotional aftermath of death (I loved the scene where the kids pass through the house with appraisers, picking at these things of great value that spiritually mean nothing to them anymore) and ends, perfectly if I may say, with the children of the children having a party in the now empty estate. They are innocent and possess very little awareness of the shared connections. But it’s there, and we feel it. They will die too the film seems to be saying in the most optimistic way possible. This film is not mean or sad or funny or one of those bullshit “Big Chill” celebration of lifestories. It’s also not cold or overly analytical. Instead I would just say that it’s a very natural effort from Olivier Assayas (“Irma Vep,” “Demon Lover”), who, by not showing off for the first time, has made his best film yet.

Crank: High Voltage  
Director:
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
“Juice me!” That line, or some variation of it, is spoken often. Jason Stathem, the speaker, growls lines such as that like roidedout Energizer Bunny with a really good sense of humor. So, okay, this is a total indulgence pick on my part; every year I seem to stumble across a fantastic film that happens to be viewed as nothing more than shallow commercial entertainment. For most, though, calling “Crank 2” “entertainment” in any capacity is a kind act as it was generally disliked/dismissed by critics and unamused audiences who didn’t quite know what to make of it. Like the character that fuels it’s cinematic combustion engine, this action/fantasy/comedy is a thing of pure energy. It is also the most wildly fetishistic, male body worshiping hyperbole since Arnold walked into “Terminator” as naked as a baby. It works as a very clever action parody that went over everyone’s head. Or not as it’s remains unclear if I see more in the series than others do or if others don’t see enough. Like his action predecessors, Stathemgets ripped beyond belief but unlike them he takes his battery charged and literally heartless body through a plot beyond belief, finding time for sex, drugs and a full fledged/full sized Godzilla style battle with the man that stole his heart. Not in the gay way either, his actual heart.

Anvil!: The Story of Anvil 
Director: Sacha Gervasi

The best documentary I’ve seen since “Grizzly Man” (made by the above filmmaker). In the commentary for “Anvil!,” the director proudly stated that Michel Gondrygives this movie to his actors and demands they watch it. There is more truthin it, he tells them, than anything you could possibly script out. That’s such a good point that I’ll try my best to forget that he must have given his actors that advice on the set of “Green Hornet.” This film is like lightening caught in a bottle. It’s so perfect that I can’t believe it exists the way it does. Shots and scenarios play out with such a pitch-perfect blend of pathos and comedy that it feels like a modern retelling of “Spinal Tap” right down to quirky characters, long hair and Stonehenge imagery. But this is not a put-on for the exact reason Gondrysays, you just can’t make this shit up! There is a moment where the aging, stringy hair rockers (down on their luck Canadian metal rocking Jews) are on a European tour that includes stops at clubs with two people to promote an album that those two people probably didn’t even buy. The band shows up in their own grungy van and do a set only to find out that their gig check (probably for about $10 bucks) was taken away because they showed up late. The owner, instead, decides to pay them in borscht. As the lead singer known as Lips (a truly wonderful character person) screams his “fuck you, man” anthems at the shady owner, spit flying out of his mouth in the process, the rest of the band can be seen in the back of the shot slurping up the slop with a look of utter metal-head defeat on their faces. It’s hilarious, its heartbreaking, it’s “Anvil!” Rock on!

Knowing
Director: Alex Proyas
Another Nic Cage movie made the list?! Go ahead, laugh, I did too until I sat back and thought about the effect this movie had on me. Cage fires on all hammy cylinders in a Saturday night supernatural thriller that, on the surface, looks like just another Cage paycheck. And it is! Except sometimes Cage accidentally manages to cash-in on a good movie. This year he did so on two which may never happen again. “Knowing” is a powerful sci-fi fantasy that takes the end-of-the-world subgenre to one of the most interesting places I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen it all except for “Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell” which is totally on my Netflixqueue. Though his films are not well regarded outside of a Roger Ebert review, the underrated director of films like “I, Robot” and “Dark City,” Alex Proyas, is actually one of the best big budget directors around. Proyasis that rare sort of popular filmmaker that figured out how to make his films visually interesting while doing the same thing with his stories. The pacing is remarkably effective because when the number-fixated conspiracies get old, Proyas does what a film like “2012” couldn’t, he changes direction so that suddenly we’re now watching a full on horror mystery and when that gets old Proyas goes all sci-fi on us. When that gets old… well, it doesn’t because the kind of sci-fi this film has to offer never gets old! Nobody would be blamed for not seeing this silly looking movie, many however will be rewarded for taking a chance on it.

You, The Living
Director: Roy Anderrson
Life sucks. It’s a miserable, meaningless void that signifies nothing other than our misfortune to be alive and stuck with each other. Lets laugh about it! “You, the Living” features a string of vaguely connected vignettes covering the most extraordinary quirky of topics and finding deadpan humor in the most random places. Swedish director Roy Anderrson is not just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, he links together one magnificent scenario after anotherin an effort to dispel misery while wallowing in it. The title lays out the tone perfectly. It’s YOU, the living, not US the living and with this the director seems to be channeling from somewhere beyond subjective human experiences. In this film you will find trombone jam sessions, tortured dogs, suicide, drunks, crying –lots of crying– sex withemaciated trombone players, death, traffic jams (a shout-out to his masterful “Songs From the Second Floor”), direct address monologues, a larger emphasis on nightmares than I expected, judges chugging beer and dishing out the electric chair during court, people crammed like sardines in tight places like bus stops and elevators, Nazi tabletops, and enough generally weird shit to put the entire Japanese entertainment industry to shame. The miracle is that by the end you will not feel depressed. Somehow, Anderrsonpulls it off. Scenes play out with great humor (most are set up like a joke, punch-line and all) and an even better sense of composition. Anderrson is a director of singular importance and originality. He masters his craft not through traditional narratives, sunny dispositions or any editing to speak of. His camera sits and watches while you watch characters watch you watching the watching camera. Sure time flies when you’re having fun but this film is living proof that it flies by a lot faster when you’re going “what the fuck?”

Bright Star
Director: Jane Campion
Here is penance for all the dark love stories I saw and loved in 2009 even though, if you think about it, “Bright Star” is just as dark if not darker than them. I put off watching “Bright Star” until the last minute. And can you blame me? It’s a movie about the late love/early death of poet John Keats madeby the director of “The Piano.” “Crank 2” this is not. I’ll say it now and say it loud: I, along with so many others, were wrong to not want to see and embrace this beautiful movie. Possessing the same timeless qualities as Keats’ poetry, you could watch “Bright Star” fifty years from now and find yourself just as moved by it as if you saw it at the Cannes premiere. The film is about the ever so short relationship between the poor poet (the unwashed-as-always Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, a rare beauty whose rounded features are impossible to look away from–not only am I in love but I totally got Ryan Phillipe’s back now). The film is also about the artistic process. Keats and his adorably acerbic writing partner Charles ArmitageBrown (an out of left field Paul Schneider who steals the movie with his alluring Scottish accent and stinging irony) sit around, discuss words and “ruminate” which is another way of saying doing nothing–poets were definitely the 19th century equivalent to being in a rock band. This is one of the best films ever made about an artist and “the woman who inspired him.” Campion is too smart to resort to biopic clichés (no constant reminders that this unsung figure is going to be famous one day), period movie blunders (either trying to over dramatize a famous relationship as “The Young Victoria” did or underplaying things to a point of suicidal boredom as Campionherself did with “Portrait of a Lady”) or romantic hyperbole (the agonizing trope of making the muse the primary creative agent a la “Copying Beethoven”). She’s also not out to make this pure yet short lived relationship something of a tragedy (though Keats is pretty emo even before “the sickness”). Campion’s skills as a storyteller first and filmmaker second really shine here. She knows when to hold a shot and when to cut, she knows when and what dialogue is appropriate and when silence accomplishes just a much.

Beaches of the Agnes
Director: Agnes Varda
“What is cinema?…. Light coming from somewhere.” I can’t think of a better documentary for French film lovers! If only every director made a film about themselves. If only every director were as interesting as Varda. Realizing, and wisely so, that objective “reality” is impossible, director Agnes Vardadoes something much better with this most personal of films. She reflects reality through the sandy mirrors of the cinema. Looking like the grandmum from “Triplets of Belleville” I watched this self-made reassemblageof the New Wave legend’s life with a unwavering smile. Like “Summer Hours,” this is a leisurely stroll through the corridors of someone’s life. In that sense, it’s not positioned to be some grand or pretentious statement but a much earned bout of super self reflective filmmaking that reminded me of Al Pacino’s documentary about the artistic process “Looking for Richard.” The abstract editing is particularly remarkable. When Varda says “the idea of fragmentation fascinates me” she intends to backs that up in this moving biography. Reenactments are staged to reflect various moments in Varda’s life, French history and, most importantly, French film history (the history of a nation is composed of the mired histories of individuals after all). This film’s depiction of history is so deliberately staged that the film effectively challenges fiction and non fiction conventions, two genres Vardahas worked in. I am usually distracted by this technique in documentaries but “Beaches” makes good use of its “theater” by simply calling attention to how artificial it can be much in the same way Fellini did with “8 1/2” or some of his documentaries like “Roma.” By the end though Vardabecomes comfortable with being “my self” in front of the camera and this candidness is what really ends up making the film something special. With “Beaches” Vardareflects on the eternal nature of cinema by juxtaposing that magical quality with the fleeting nature of her own life. I never grew tired of her photography, her stories or her spirit. What a trippy self-tribute.

Moon
Director: Duncan Jones

“Moon” is visionary but a truly depressing feat of science fiction storytelling. Set in a space station, this one man show stars Sam Rockwell in a performance that put everything else to shame in 2009. Hell, even his robot companion, voiced by Kevin Spacey in his best performance since “The Usual Suspects,” outdoes most performances. “Moon” is a science fiction film for people who like the look, feel and doomed intimacy of something like “2001: A Space Odyssey” more than the hipster schlock of last year’s “Star Trek.” The one (crazy) man scenario also recalls the oddball charm of the sci-fi cult classics like “Silent Running” as well as, in the end, the surreal disturbances of Friedkin’s “Bug.” Yes, there was a time when science fiction experimented and took chances. Unlike it’s tragic Phantom of the Spacestationhero, “Moon” is free from corporate intervention and tampering.  The best thing “Moon” does is reminds us that budgets don’t make for good sci-fi movies, ideas do. This is a film I admire, not one that I like, and not one that I find easy to write about so I’ll move on to one I do…

Special Mention…

Drag Me To Hell
Director: Sam Raimi

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Raimi, I’m just not a fan of Hollywood SAM RAIMI, the guy that directed those dreadful “Spider-Man” films. I derived practically no enjoyment out of his big budget escapades and that is strange principally because Raimi, at his core (and when he’s at his best) is one of the most purely enjoyable American filmmakers working today. I specify “America” because there’s nobody more fun to watch than Joe Wright. “Drag Me To Hell,” a fantastic horror comedy made in the goof-spook vein of “Evil Dead,” makes the list for that simple reason. It’s sense of fun is pure.

Still Walking
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

“Still Walking” is about a family that reunites one weekend during a summer. This modest film by Hirokazu Koreeda (“Nobody Knows”), is very similar in plot, if not culture, to Assayas’ “Summer Hours.” It’s nonetheless a rewarding to see how two countries tackle a similar issue without resorting to melodrama. This wonderful little reflection on life, death and family history being passed down from one generation to another (to yet another: children) is told in the gloriously un-rushed sea set tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. Pretty much the only difference is that the returning son in this film will occasionally pick up his cell to receive a text message. Oh, and the story climates in an action  packed denouement where a cranky old father, his unloved son and his unloved son’s loved step son, walk to the beach… for five minutes… in silence. God, I  love these kinds of films. Issues from the past linger but don’t fester and are not always resolved. Bickering continues but never comes to a blow. Life moves on and sometimes people don’t/can’t/won’t change. Some lessons are learned, others are simply washed away by time while just a few are passed on such as sonss not making the same mistakes as their father. Here is a film not in a rush to say anything that ends up saying a whole lot.

Sherlock Holmes
Director: I can’t believe I’m writing this but, yes, Guy Ritchie
While it’s sad to see Holmes turned into an 1800s master of science “Iron Man” action hero, this modern retelling of the Holmes mythos managed to be both fun and daftly smart. It’s easy to make fun of Guy Ritchie at this point and hard to remember that, however arch and bullheaded he tends to be (Britain’s Michael Bay), he did make at least one good movie, “Snatch. Make that two good films! This time Ritchie doesn’t show off as much as he allows his character to show off for him. And he’s got the right man for the job. Robert Downey Jr. gives Holmes the Johnny Depp treatment and by that I mean he fully looses himself in this character, giving him a ton of idiosyncratic ticks and a real sense of obsession. As far from masterpiece theater as human can possibly be, Holmes a reclusive lout laying in filth and performing his OCD experiments on flies and dogs and himself until the “game is a foot” at which point he’s a scruffy, clue hunting hound dog. 
I particularly enjoyed how Ritchie is able to make Holmes an action hero but in such a way that’s somewhat true to his style. This is just the sort of take/update to the character that was needed to make him relevant again so quit your bitching and enjoy. The film, as well as Holmes, may be silly but he’s never dumb and the film actually values the mind over the muscle. When on the precipice of attack, for instance, the film freezes as Holmes internally calculates the best method of attack (figuring out the attacker is a drunk by the smell of booze on his breath, for instance, then applying a quick jab to his liver). After living in the great detective’s brain for a few moments the film will pop us back to real time as we see the chain of attacks Holmes laid out so neatly performed in an orgiastic flurry of intellect, sensuality and kinetic action. The film applies that same level of causality to Holmes’ power as a detective. A smudge of chalk on a shirt or speck of inc on an ear can basically sum up a character’s life story while something as small as a stain on a rat’s tail can lead Holmes to the source of his next clue. This happens a lot and Ritchie’s zippy style is quite good at visually representing Holmes’ methods with flash forwards/backs that almost match Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”) in visual cleverness.

Taken
Director: Pierre Morel

Speaking of fun. This year’s “Gran Torino” ladies and gentlemen. There’s just something about watching grumpy old men kicking all kinds of ass that feels so damn satisfying these days. Liam Neeson, a retired CIA agent, is called back to “my old life” for a personal bout of vengeance and heads to Europe to kick the head in of every shit eating piece of Euro trash that may have had anything to do with his dumb ass bubbly daughter who dun got herself kidnapped and sold into white slavery like a bruised puppy. Hahahahaha!!!!!! This was one of the great guilty pleasures of the year for me right alongside KFC’s Kentucky Grilled Chicken except I don’t know which is more overcooked. Watching the angry American brnad his personal blend of Papa justice (not eye for an eye but eye for a head) upon the “bad guys” was a cathartic thrill as it arrived in an age where Americans are completely inept and powerless both abroad and in country. That the film is made by a Frenchmen and stars a giant elf of an Irishmen makes it an oddball role-playing inversion where the Euros get to imagine what it’s like being bossy, self-entitled Americans. You know what, they’re good at it. This twist gives the film an ever-so-subtle spin on the usual pro-American Hollywood hooey. But, really, I love “Taken” because, despite its total preposterousness, it ended up taken (haha) itself seriously. Maybe this is not a good thing but the film’s humorless sincerity combined with a “Death Wish” ideology reminded me of the good old days where bad asses like Arnold or Chuck (of the Bronson and/or Norris variety) would go into a room to save their daughter and not leave till the evil doers were rounded up, grounded up, and spit out and, hum, who are we forgetting, oh yeah, their daughters were sitting pretty atop their shoulders. God bless American violence.

Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen

“Hollywood Ending,” “Melinda and Melinda,” “Anything Else” and last year’s under the radar “Whatever Works” are some of the least popular Woody Allen films of the decade and perhaps ever made. They also happen to be in on short list of the filmmaker’s most underrated works to date. Speaking of works, “Whatever Works” finds Larry David doing more than just being Larry David. His persona here is Larry David by way of Woody Allen! Okay, not a huge leap but it’s a match made in non-Christian heaven. When it comes to Woody Allen I have taught myself not to listen to what other people, even Woody Allen fans, (especially Woody Allen fans) think about Woody Allen movies.

Dean Spanley
Director: Toa Fraser

“Dean Spanley” is really just about a father who has been estranged from his son. That alone would not be a reason to rank it here so I should elaborate. It’s about a father and son who are united by a friend named Dean (Sam Neill) who, as it seems, was a dog in a past life and will only talk about those “dog days” when under the influence of a rare wine previously reserved for Spanish royalty. Did I forget anything? Probably but at least I didn’t forget to put it on this list.

The Messenger
Director: Oren Moverman

This somber but simmering on the insidemodern war drama is about two messed up soldiers, Woody Harrilson and Sam Foster, who go around telling people their kids/husbands/baby mamma’s etc. have died in a stupid, pointless war. What a job. I like to think of “The Messenger” as “Up in the Air” for the non-retarded who hated “Up in the Air.” It tells you a story without making the characters into “gee, these are real Americans, lets sing their common praises.” It’s overwrought in a big way but not in a way I minded because the film is approaching tired material (soldier coming home from war, yada, yada, yada) witha sense of nobility a rare mood of outright anger at what’s going on overseas and here at home. “The Messenger” is great because it starts about these two men, one a former drunk (Woody Harrelson) and the other’s a current dick (Ben Foster), who don’t know each other but rather than being ALL about that, the film splinters off when Foster falls in love with one of his jobs, a single mom played by Samantha Morton. Once again the film avoids clichés here. Foster is good but the reay show stealer is Harrelson, who finds his most interesting character in years. His final scene is heartbreaking perfection and if there’s anyone other than Mr. Waltz I’d love to see get the Oscar this year it’s him. Plus he was in “Zombieland” so that’s pretty cool.

Pandorum
Director: Christian Alvart
This year saw an explosion of hot sci-fistories hit the scene. Very few were actually good. The first, “Pandorum,” is about two characters waking up in a space ship withno idea how they got there while other, the significantly more arty “Moon,” is about one person on a space station with no memory of his past. Both make the 09 list because they are amazing, visionary works but also to make a point. That point being that Hollywood is mainstreaming sci-fi to a point of generic dilution. These films take it back to its roots, one through grindhouse sci-fi nightmares and the other through art house dreams. The huge impact “Star Trek,” “District 9,” “Transformers 2” and “Avatar” helped to give sci-fi its first genuine renaissance in years, decades maybe. I’m happy in a sense and sad in another. Happy for my favorite genre. Sad that my favorite genre is being watered down by clunky moralizing and obvious metaphors. “Pandorum” is not that kind of film. It’s a dark and unforgiving space horror movie (the survival horror video game “Dead Space” withelements of the cult movie “Event Horizon” and some of the better aspects of “Saw” thrown in) witha claustrophobic mise-en-scene that reminded me of “Alien” or, to a lesser degree “The Descent.” Best of all, and what makes this film worth seeing, is a final revelation that stands as one of sci-fi best genre twists of all time.

Adventureland
Director: Greg Mottola

“Superbad” mets “Wet Hot American Summer” except it doesn’t try as hard either. Plus the film throws in Kristen Stewart as a Jew and Martin Starr (“Freaks and Geeks”) as, um, an even bigger Jew. Score!

A Serious Man
Director: Tom Ford

Ack! I forgot to include “A Serious Man” when I first made this list. Crippling third act problems aside, a few things save this unique film about the saddest gay man on earth. First, of course, Colin Firth in a touching and uniquely human performance. We see the world through this sad man’s eyes and it is as if we’re seeing it with new eyes thanks to Tom Ford’s vision. I wish more non-directors could get films like this made but I can see why they don’t as it takes a special kind of director to wrap up everything by the end. Still, Ford’s ability to experiment with cinematography and period movie conventions (not to mention out-Mad Menning “Mad Men”) make this film hard to forget. Er, well, I kinda did forget it but I’m mad at myself.   

The Good, The Bad, the Weird
Director: Ji-woon Kim

Some of the first, a little of the second a lot of the third. This is another oddball Korean release except it’s is not a horror film. Or a drama. The director’s previous films include “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “3 Extremes” which he co-directed with none other than Chan Park (who made my number four pick) and the genre(s) of choice here is Western screwball comedy. It’s not only the highest budgeted Korean film ever made but one of the most fun. This quirky Korean epic (a chow mein western?) about a hero a thief and a thug looking for treasure marked with a big X burned into a much sought after and McGuffinized map reminded me of the spirit of the American adventure in the days before stars and high concepts and CGI took a big dump on creativity.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Director: Wes Anderson
There’s a moment in this stop motion animated film where a recovering boy gets mad at his cousin from out of town visiting his family’s fox hole. The cousin cries and the boy (Anderson staple Jason Schwartzmen) comforts him by showing the crying fox his train set. The film cuts to the fox family’s shanty house (literally a hole in the ground) and in the background we see a real train, from the human world, passing by. It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. Wes Anderson  is showing us his train set. Is Anderson capable of anything else? Visually, well yeah because this is his first animated film but at the same time “Fox” is as coyly self-examined as anything he’s done since “Rushmore.” Besides the hole non-human thing, “Fox” is basically just another Wes Anderson film in stop motion sheep’s clothing. Everything takes place on a 180 degree plane and every line of dialogue is wry and overly factual. While I’m tired of Anderson, this film renewed my fondness if only for a short period. I like how the film out-humanizes humans by making its universe of animals (even the ones who usually eat each other) respect each other and even band together to do one thing: “Survive,” the grinning Papa Fox voiced by George Clooney (in full Danny Ocean mode) says with such gravely coolness that his performance easily surpasses that whole “Up in the Air” embarrassment. The film also get points in my book for casting Jarvis Cocker as a thug by day and musician by night who is told “That’s just bad songwriting. You wrote a bad song, Petey!” by his land hording and Fox hating hood of a boss and, you know what, I think I just ranked this film on my list so I could include that line. I’ll just give co-writer Noah Baumbach credit for writing it and call it a day.

The Watchmen
Director: Zach Snyder

Hold up, hold up, this does not mean “Watchmen” is on my list. It just happens to be in my list, you see, hanging out  like someone at a party that wasn’t invited and nobody’s is talking to.

worth mentioning…

  • Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
  • I Love You, Man (John Hamburg)
  • 35 Shots of Rum (Clair Denis–might have gone higher if I got around to seeing it with English subtitles.)
  • 24 City (Zhang Ke Jia)
  • Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (David Yates)
  • Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy)
  • Precious (Lee Daniels)

 

2010 Oscar Predictions/Preferences

Continuing my streak of missing at least one in the big category I got 7 out of 8 but I don’t feel bad because nobody could have predicted Precious winning screenplay. Plus it’s great to see Jason Reitman not get something for the first time in his life. Overall I got 17 out of 24 in my guessing which is down from my 19/24 tally last year. What killed me was Avatar’s losses in the sound department (sure Hurt Locker was better but, come on). Very boring show but it’s saying something that this is only the third time in a decade where a good film won Best Picture. No Country and Lord of the Rings were the only other two.

Best Picture

  • “Avatar”
  • “The Blind Side”
  • “District 9”
  • “An Education”
  • “The Hurt Locker” (saw the mistake. I’m NOT picking Blind Side to win. Changed at 5:04)
  • “Inglourious Basterds”
  • “Precious”
  • “A Serious Man”
  • “Up”
  • “Up in the Air”

Note: All final predictions to be locked in by Saturday night. I usually flip-flop at the last minute.

My Vote Would Go To, in this order: Inglourious Basterds, Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, District 9, Precious, Avatar, Up, An Education, Up in the Air, and Blind Side in the back, way waaaaay waaaaaaaaay in the back. Sadly, the only two with any shot here are Hurt Locker and Avatar. Funny how even with ten nominated films there are still very few surprises. I half think that spineless Oscar voters tend to vote not for what they think is the best but what has the best chance, or most hype. The problem is that Avatar has a lot of hype. In fact, it’s all hype. Still, Hurt Locker is a film that plays much better on DVD screeners. Without the novelty allure 3D Avatar’s many flaws become clear. 
Should Not Be Here: It’s a shame that Blind Side got a nomination. Not quite as bad as Blind Side but still should not have been nominated are Up, Up in the Air, An Education, District 9 and Avatar. Whew, that’s a lot.
Robbed: Too numerous to count.

Directing (all predicted winners labeled with a red asterix)

* “Avatar” James Cameron
***“The Hurt Locker” Kathryn Bigelow
* “Inglourious Basterds” Quentin Tarantino
* “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Lee Daniels
* “Up in the Air” Jason Reitman

My Vote Would Go To: Tarantino first, K-Big second, nobody third. QT is just too good to win a directing Oscar. I have this suspicion though that there might be a picture/director but if there is one it will probably be an Avatar Picture/Bigelow Director split so Bigelow is safe for now.   
Should Not Be Here:Reitman and Daniels.  
Robbed: James Grey (“Two Lovers”) was once again overlooked.

Actor in a Leading Role

*** Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”
* George Clooney in “Up in the Air” (and I usually love the Cloonster)
* Colin Firth in “A Single Man”
* Morgan Freeman in “Invictus”
* Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”

My Vote Would Go To:Tough one. Renner and Firth, two very different performances, are as good as they got last year. Bridges is also pretty damn cool in “Crazy Heart” (one of those bad movies/good performances deals) and when he wins I’ll be clapping.
Should Not Be Here:Clooney. I love the Cloonster but he’s done better. 
Robbed:Viggo Mortensen in The Road. Kang Sung in Thirst. And call me crazy but Jason Statham was underrated in Crank: High Voltage.

Actress in a Leading Role

***Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”
* Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
* Carey Mulligan in “An Education”
* Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
* Meryl Streep in “Julie & Julia”

My Vote Would Go To:Nobody could have done what Gabourey Sidibe did in “Precious.” I didn’t care for any of the other performances nominated but would be happy if Streep won.
Should Not Be Here:Might as well have nominated Sandra Bullock for All About Steve cuz she’s such a good actress.
Robbed: Maria Onetto in The Headless Woman. A more high profile snub was Melanie Laurent’s omission in this category. She should lock the doors and blow up the Kodak theater in retaliation.

Actor in a Supporting Role

* Matt Damon in “Invictus”
* Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger”
* Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station”
* Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones” (first ever Oscar nom for someone doing a Dr. Evil impression lol)
***Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”

My Vote Would Go To:Waltz. End of story. Would be happy if Plummer had more of a shot.
Should Not Be Here: Damon. Boring performance in a boring movie. 
Robbed: Steven Lang, the heavy from Avatar. His character came to life while all the others put me to sleep.

Actress in a Supporting Role

* Penélope Cruz in “Nine”
* Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air”
* Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart”
* Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air”
*** Mo’Nique in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”

My Vote Would Go To:Gyllenhaal was surprisingly good in this thankless performance.
Should Not Be Here: Kendrick first. Her performances is all wrong for that movie. Cruz was also nothing special in “Nine.” 
Robbed: Samantha Morton, my favorite actress, did so much with so little in “The Messenger” that she should have an Oscar by now.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

* “District 9” Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
* “An Education” Screenplay by Nick Hornby
* “In the Loop” Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
* “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher
***“Up in the Air” Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

My Vote Would Go To: In the Loop is the only truly worthy script of the bunch because it actually adds something to the source material. Too bad it has no shot but that’s usually the case with this historically bankrupt category.
Should Not Be Here: As usual the probable winner, Up in the Air, is the one film with no business even being nominated. An Education was also pretty bland but Hornby was once a pretty good author so it’s fun seeing him nominated as a screenwriter.  
Robbed: The Road managed to capture McCarthy’s prose better than “No Country for Old Men” did.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

***“The Hurt Locker” Written by Mark Boal
* “Inglourious Basterds” Written by Quentin Tarantino
* “The Messenger” Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
* “A Serious Man” Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
* “Up” Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy

My Vote Would Go To:Easy. Basterds. But I was totally won over with “Serious Man,” one of the Coen’s best scripts in years. I’m also a big fan of “The Messenger” and its writer who made the great “Jesus’ Son” a number of years ago.
Should Not Be Here: Everything should be here except for the overrated/overwritten “Up.” 
Robbed: Robbed: Sure, a lot of good scripts were robbed but for the first time in years I like the Original Screenplay category for the most part. The sloppy, haphazard writing/plotting of Up is the only exception.

Animated Feature Film

* “Coraline” Henry Selick
* “Fantastic Mr. Fox” Wes Anderson
* “The Princess and the Frog” John Musker and Ron Clements
* “The Secret of Kells” Tomm Moore
***“Up” Pete Docter

My Vote Would Go To:“Coraline” made me remember what I forgot, that Neil Gaimen is really good at making kids stories for adults. I also didn’t hate “Mr. Fox” as much as I thought.
Should Not Be Here: I’m not going to say “Up” but… um, “Up.” 
Robbed: WHERE’s FUCKING PONYO, AHHHHHH FUCK YOU!

Cinematography

*** “Avatar” Mauro Fiore
* “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” Bruno Delbonnel
*“The Hurt Locker” Barry Ackroyd
* “Inglourious Basterds” Robert Richardson
* “The White Ribbon” Christian Berger

My Vote Would Go To:Potter, Ribbon then Basterds.
Should Not Be Here: Funny how one of the best movies here, Hurt Locker, is the weakest in this category. 
Robbed: Robbed: White Ribbon. Oh, wait they actually bothered to watch that movie. Cool! How about The Road and Two Lovers. Or Serious Man. Or You, The Living. Lots of great Cinematography last year.

Art Direction

*** “Avatar” Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Kim Sinclair
* “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” Art Direction: Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro; Set Decoration: Caroline Smith
* “Nine” Art Direction: John Myhre; Set Decoration: Gordon Sim
* “Sherlock Holmes” Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
* “The Young Victoria” Art Direction: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Maggie Gray

My Vote Would Go To: Holmes, the most unlikely underrated film of 09, looks fantastic. From the city streets to dirty alleys to that big ass boat to science labs up to no good to Holmes’ dark nest of OCD filth, this is the most amazing art direction undertaking since The Prestige. There’s just so much (besides Downey’s wonderful scenery chewing) going on within the frame. 
Should Not Be Here: Young Victoria. Looked fine but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Robbed: Watchmen captured the look of the comic perfectly. That’s way harder to pull off than Young Victoria.

Costume Design

* “Bright Star” Janet Patterson
* “Coco before Chanel” Catherine Leterrier
* “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” Monique Prudhomme
* “Nine” Colleen Atwood
*** “The Young Victoria” Sandy Powell

My Vote Would Go To: The Good Doctor just because it’s good to see a non period drama win this for once.
Should Not Be Here: Period (yawn) dramas. 
Robbed: The  tattered yarns of The Road. People seem to forget that great costumes are not always supposed to look good.

Documentary (Feature)

* “Burma VJ” Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller
*** “The Cove” Nominees to be determined
* “Food, Inc.” Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein
* “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
* “Which Way Home” Rebecca Cammisa

My Vote Would Go To: Food Inc.
Should Not Be Here: Haven’t seen enough and there’s a reason for that: dees dare some boring docs.
Robbed: Anvil! The Story of a Doc Snubbed In Favor of Tedious 90s era Doc Noms.

Film Editing

* “Avatar” Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron
* “District 9” Julian Clarke
***“The Hurt Locker” Bob Murawski and Chris Innis
* “Inglourious Basterds” Sally Menke
* “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Joe Klotz

My Vote Would Go To: Basterds! No question about it. The editing really helped set the many varying moods and transition between the many characters and plot actions.
Should Not Be Here: The editing in Precious is too grandiose when it’s doesn’t have the standard cutting of a TV movie.   
Robbed: Antichrist, Two Lovers and The Box.

Foreign Language Film

* “Ajami” Israel
* “El Secreto de Sus Ojos” Argentina
* “The Milk of Sorrow” Peru
***“Un Prophète” France
* “The White Ribbon” Germany

My Vote Would Go To: White Ribbon is a timeless movie. I have a feeling it’s not “social” (read PC) enough to win. The “inverted Scarface” Prophet’s got a lot of momentum but it’s not the top or even second movie most are picking to win, that would be Ribbon and something called El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secrets in Their Eyes) which must be good since so many people are including in (Update: just read the synopsis about a unsolved murder and it does indeed sounds cool). I hope I’m wrong about Prophet.   
Should Not Be Here: I don’t know, whatever. Not a good year for foreign films.
Robbed: Thirst was hurt by the fact that it’s a vampire movie. Besides, the Academy really sucks when it comes to recognizing good (or any) Korean films. Fuck em’.

Makeup

* “Il Divo” Aldo Signoretti and Vittorio Sodano
***“Star Trek” Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow
* “The Young Victoria” Jon Henry Gordon and Jenny Shircore (huh?)

My Vote Would Go To: None. Makeup is a stupid category.
Should Not Be Here:Young Victoria. Nothing special. Oh, it’s about Royality, I guess the makeup must be good. Stupid logic voters. 
Robbed: The Watchmen

Music (Original Score)

* “Avatar” James Horner
* “Fantastic Mr. Fox” Alexandre Desplat
* “The Hurt Locker” Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders
* “Sherlock Holmes” Hans Zimmer
***“Up” Michael Giacchino

My Vote Would Go To: Hans Zimmer is so underrated. His Holmes score fits the movie, the tone and the time period perfectly. I love Desplat but honestly can’t remember any of his music from Fox. Same goes for the music of Hurt Locker, I can’t remember a thing about it.
Should Not Be Here: James Horner recycled his old music (that wasn’t good to begin with!) to make Avatar even more annoying. Trumpets and tribal chants are sucide on the ears. 
Robbed: Once again Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Road, The Proposition a few years ago) were dissed in favor of more traditional scores.

Music (Original Song)

* “Almost There” from “The Princess and the Frog” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
* “Down in New Orleans” from “The Princess and the Frog” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
* “Loin de Paname” from “Paris 36” Music by Reinhardt Wagner Lyric by Frank Thomas
* “Take It All” from “Nine” Music and Lyric by Maury Yeston
*** “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” from “Crazy Heart” Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett

My Vote Would Go To: NONE, all nominated songs suck. Okay, The Weary Kind wasn’t all out bad but it was the weakest song in the movie which really hurt it because it was supposed to be Bridges’ “comeback” song.  
Should Not Be Here: I can’t even remember the songs in Princess and the Frog.
Robbed: Does “Bale Out” count? Totally should.

Visual Effects

*** “Avatar” Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones
* “District 9” Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros and Matt Aitken
* “Star Trek” Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh and Burt Dalton

My Vote Would Go To: This is the one category that Avatar belongs.
Should Not Be Here: It’s all good in da hood.
Robbed: Harry Potter’s understated visuals. Oh, and how about Moon? You know, “good” visual effects do not have to ALWAYS be the most expensive visual effects. Sometimes, as in the case of Moon, it’s the way the effects are used that should be rewarded because it’s more creative. Oh, but what does creativity have to do with winning an Oscar these days?

***

The Usual Crap Nobody Cares About…

Short Film (Animated)

* “French Roast” Fabrice O. Joubert
* “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” Nicky Phelan and Darragh O’Connell
* “The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)” Javier Recio Gracia
* “Logorama” Nicolas Schmerkin
* “A Matter of Loaf and Death” Nick Park (Can Park ever get enough Oscars? No. He is the anti-Pixar and I love him for that)

Documentary (Short Subject)

* “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province” Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
* “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner” Daniel Junge and Henry Ansbacher
* “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
* “Music by Prudence” Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett
* “Rabbit à la Berlin” Bartek Konopka and Anna Wydra

Short Film (Live Action)

* “The Door” Juanita Wilson and James Flynn
* “Instead of Abracadabra” Patrik Eklund and Mathias Fjellström
* “Kavi” Gregg Helvey
* “Miracle Fish” Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey
* “The New Tenants” Joachim Back and Tivi Magnusson

Sound Editing

* “Avatar” Christopher Boyes and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
* “The Hurt Locker” Paul N.J. Ottosson
* “Inglourious Basterds” Wylie Stateman
* “Star Trek” Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin
* “Up” Michael Silvers and Tom Myers

Sound Mixing

* “Avatar” Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson and Tony Johnson
* “The Hurt Locker” Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett
* “Inglourious Basterds” Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano (wow, another sound nod for IG. Werid, cuz most of the film is very low key)
* “Star Trek” Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson and Peter J. Devlin
* “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers and Geoffrey Patterson (no kidding, the sound is fantastic in this, um, less than fantastic film)