Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Best of the Decade - Actor in a Leading Role

I'd be lying to say this bunch inspires as much passion in me as the previous grouping of actresses do. The reason, were I to venture a guess, is that when a great roles of actresses come along, they tend to astonish (well, me at least) even if the tragic truth is that most actresses will never come upon roles like those aforementioned 10. Now, there's no shortage in great roles for men, yet I found myself struggling to conjure up ones that moved me like the ladies had. Excellent work abounds, yet it would seem that my favorite auteurs also favor women, and relatively few of my favorite performances this decade came from the guys.

And still this is a damn fine group. I even bent the rules - not once, but twice - to accommodate a role that essentially spans two films, and to give equal credit to superb pair at the center of one of the decade's best biopics. And there were of course plenty I couldn't fit in, so honorable mentions go out to Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, Jeff Daniels and Lee Pace.

10. Mathieu Amalric in A Christmas Tale
9. Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People

8. Clive Owen in Closer

7. Daniel Auteuil in Caché

6. Colin Farrell in In Bruges

5. Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums

4. TIE: Forest Whitaker & James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland

3. Tony Leung in 2046 & In the Mood For Love

2. Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

1. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

Best of the Decade - Actress in a Leading Role

At this point, I'm just trying to pass the time until I can post my list of 50 Greatest Films of the Decade. As a further precursor, I'll unceremoniously barrel through a few more top ten lists - those marking my favorite performances of the decade. Not to my surprise, my best actress list filled in easiest, though it's the only one where I agonized over a few cuts that had to be made (apologies to Anamaria Marinca, Helen Mirren, Julie Delpy, Kristen Scott Thomas, Maggie Cheung, Ashley Judd, Julianne Moore and Bjork). There'll be no fancy show for tonight. Just a countdown 10 to 1 of the decade's best leading ladies. Actor will follow shortly.

10. Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider
9. Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon

8. Carey Mulligan in An Education

7. Oksana Akinshina in Lilja 4-ever

6. Penelope Cruz in Volver

5. Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

4. Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher

3. Nicole Kidman in Dogville

2. Q'Orianka Kilcher in The New World

1. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Allow me to begin with a brief comparison between two films that really aren't much akin. Exhibit A is Meryl Streep's surprise Oscar mobile, Julie and Julia, which I finally caught up with on DVD last night. Exhibit B is Peter Jackson's 'special' effects extravaganza The Lovely Bones, which I've just now taken in at the local multiplex. What do they have in common? Well, besides Stanley Tucci, because that's the obvious answer, though his two roles couldn't be more different. One likes to rape and murder little girls while the other enjoys passionate sex with the frumpiest of all middle aged women, Julia Child. In both roles, he's merely fine, but I digress.

What the films really have in common is that they both fumble in the same way. Each runs on two stories simultaneously unfolding alongside each other, but neither half seems to be serving the other much good. You could pluck Julie out of Julie & Julia and be no worse for wear. Yet the same holds true for Julie. Their existence in the same film amounts to nothing and the two opportunities that arise to make something of a connection between the two women come and go without ever taking seed. Based on a true story - fine - but the problem with true stories is that they tend to be boring. And it sort of is, but each half is decent enough in its own right. Together, nothing special.

But The Lovely Bones is no better off. After the first 15 minutes or so, our narratives diverge. On one hand, we have little Susie Salmon bouncing around in the afterlife, while back in the 1970s, her family struggles with the aftermath of her murder. Jackson attempts to connect the two halves, but they either come across as cringe worthy (her not-quite boyfriend's reflection on the water) or they feel hurried (the ships in bottles crashing on the coast). Mostly, it's this second problem that plagues Susie's part of the film. I take no issue with Jackson's fountain of CGI imagery. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, but it's all too dam fleeting. We move from one landscape to another with seemingly little meaning, and a host of beautiful images are undermined by there lack of gravity. And then we get some moments - the ships in bottles, or the rose frozen in the ice - they deserve to be dwelt on, because they actually connect back to her Earthly life. But like everything else, they're gone in a flash. Like Julie and Julia, our connections to the other narrative are squandered.

But Susie's half was at least otherwise fascinating. The family struggle on the other side is underdeveloped to a maddening extent. Like Rachel Weisz's completely unnecessary disappearance for second half of the film. A major problem because 1) it comes out of fucking nowhere, 2) I hear she actually had an interesting subplot in the book, and 3) she's fucking Rachel Weisz, one of the most criminally underused actresses working today (I will now insert a plug for The Brothers Bloom, in which she simply rocks). Susan Sarandon does boozy almost as well as Stanley Tucci does creepy, but neither rise above the fairly maudlin material. Mark Walberg is decent, which is marvelous if you're Mark Walberg, so let's give the guy a hand. I kid, he's been in my good graces ever since I first saw Boogie Nights.

So, this turned out disappointing. I didn't hate it, but there's so much amiss here - some of which is Jackson's fault no doubt, but the limitations of the source material likely deserve a share of the blame. I'll grant that the cinematography was gorgeous, yet not effective as it could easily have been. And Saoirse Ronan was pretty wonderful, though not as good as she was in Atonement. Really, I'll be able to justify this film if it manages to push her career forward. I think she's leagues better than the Abigail Breslins and Dakota Fannings of her generation.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best of the Decade: Animation

From the 90s to now, the state of animation couldn't be more different. The wave of computer animation has almost entirely drawn out traditional hand drawn efforts and largely at the expense of quality - quality both in storytelling and in that of the animation itself. Both matter of course, something which Pixar and Studio Ghibli seem to grasp, but most other animation studios struggle with. Yet despite the sheer volume of mind-numbingly worthless entries into the animation yearbook - Shark Tale, The Wild, Robots, I might even toss in Cars - there's been a whole lotta fascinating films popping up as well. This I credit to some newfound tie between auteurship and animation - which admittedly has been around forever, just ask Hayao Miyzaki, Ralph Bakshi, Chuck Jones or Jan Svankmajer - but these past few years have seen the best results come from the imaginations of higher profile directors. Miyazaki remains at the top of his game, and Brad Bird and Satoshi Kon have only built on the promise they first showed in the 90s. Add to that a handful of directors from a non-animation background drawn into the craft with tremendous results - Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson for instance. And of course there's Nick Park, Henry Selick, Sylvain Chomet, Andrew Stanton and I suppose I'll call that good enough for now.

The point is, animation is still thriving. Consider Disney's decision to at last return to 2D projects as evidenced by The Princess and the Frog. In fact, I couldn't proceed with this top 10 without a healthy list of honorable mentions. Waking Life, Ratatouille, Coraline, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit, and Howl's Moving Castle all would have made excellent entries. Alas, they all fall short of the Top 10 Animated Films of the Decade.

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
How seamlessly the world of Wes Anderson translates to animation. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was in heated battle with the other two stop-motion animation films in the honorable mentions section for this final spot. It gets the honors because of Anderson's thorough commitment to the finer details, not to mention his absolutely unique approach to the craft. The eerie children's chorus playing over the final chase is pretty swell too.

9. Persepolis (dir. Vincent Parronnaud & Marjane Satrapi)
A deeply personal account of growing up in Iran, beautifully illustrated in the style of the graphic novel that came before it. Livened up by the music of the era, it's he perfect picture of one culture boxing out the rest of the world, and the inner unrest that's bound to cause. An effectively told and highly enlightening animated experience.

8. Paprika (dir. Satoshi Kon)
It feels like what might happen should David Lynch try his hand at animation. Dreams and reality collide after a highly experimental computer program goes awry. There's perhaps no satisfying explanation for how things proceed from there, but the results are sensational. Even better since I saw it first on Blue Ray.

7. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
Everyone else's pick for best animated film of the decade may only clock in a #7 for me, but that's more to the credit of the competition than the detriment of Wall-E. In fact, the first half is as fine a piece of film as anything made these last few years and it's only in the less-focused (if more ambitious) second half that it loses its footing, if only slightly. For Wall-E and Eve, I'll even make an exception from my usual rant against non-human love stories. After all, he did watch Hello Dolly one to many times, which as a kid, I did as well.

6. The Triplets of Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet)
I had the pleasure of rewatching this just the other day, and I was pleased to see that my admiration for it hasn't waned. With nearly no dialogue to speak of (pun most definitely intended) Sylvain Chomet carries us through his fantastical world of misshapen people as we follow a whistle-blowing granny's quest to track down his kidnapped cyclist grandson and his mysterious abductors. It's a visually arresting film with a swingin' soundtrack (inspired in part by Django Reinhardt) and oh so worth the brief time you'll spend watching it.

5. The Incredibles (dir. Brad Bird)
Pixar continues to keep by dislike for computer animation at bay, and they've never been better than when they first focused on the actual human dynamic (fine, superhuman dynamic) of this family of comic heroes in the making (Up, for all my misgivings with it, continues in the right direction with actual people as characters). The Incredibles nails the family dynamic, all while carrying them through one thrilling action set-piece after another. It's still the best superhero movie made to date, and easily among the best animated films of the decade.

4. Ponyo (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Ponyo is somehow as grand in scope as Hayao Miyazaki's most revered films (Princess Mononoke & Spirited Away) yet built with the simplicity that makes My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service equal delights. Chalk it up to all the quieter moments which lend a human element to the over-arching environmentalist narrative. Miyazaki has a better understanding of children than any director living or dead - which isn't to say the film is only for children, far from it - and for all the stunning animation, it's the character interactions that are the real marvel here. Sadly, I see this one being underrated in years to come, but that's probably Miyazaki's own fault for setting the bar so high (stay tuned for more on that).

3. The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (dir. Anthony Lucas)
It clocks in at under 30 minutes, but I decided it would be only fair to show a little love to one of the great short films of the decade, and yes, it's great enough to land at the #3 spot. As you can see above, the animation is shadow puppets meets steam punk, and we follow our hero, Jasper Morello, on an adventure to find a cure for a pestilence hanging over the metropolis of Gothia. It's a remarkable film, entirely available on youtube if I'm not mistaken, and given its length, there's really no excuse for not checking it out.

2. Millennium Actress (dir. Satoshi Kon)
The scope of Millennium Actress is perhaps unparalleled in animation. Satoshi Kon, by way of a proxy director and cameraman, takes us through the rich life of a legendary actress at the twilight of her career, exploring her rise to stardom, the height of her success and the love of her life in a rapid-fire rush from one memory to the next. It's a gorgeous, thrilling and tragic film that's a much a feat of cinema itself as it is of animation.

1. Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
It's impossible to put to words the experience of seeing Spirited Away for the first time, but ten times later, I'm not sure I can do any better job. Suffice it to say that it's a work of unbridled imagination that is equal parts wondrous, horrific and heartwarming. The bathhouse may just be the most vividly realized location in film, its occupants and unexplained magics making it a living, breathing entity in itself. We see it all with the same wide-eyed wonder as Chihiro and as it changes her, so it changes us. Neither before nor since has an animated film reached the high watermark set by Spirited Away, and I sincerely hope that cinephiles of the future will look back on this not merely as on of the animated greats of this generation, but as one of its greatest films.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Best of the Decade: Musicals

We all know that the best musical of the decade was Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Once More With Feeling" - which had catchy songs, staged brilliantly, all of them entirely relevant to the show - something which most of these musicals even struggle with. The sad fact is that although musicals seem to be on the rebound after a fairly meager existence since the late 70s, they've still functioned as pretty piss-poor entertainment for these last ten years. I was all set to blame a whole host of factors, but after a bit of thought, it all seemed to come down to casting. Famous faces don't always have pretty voices, nor do they always seem to readily embrace the fact that they're in a musical. The thing is, most musicals these days get some things so right, but when the cast just doesn't come through, I have a difficult time fully embracing it. Sometimes, those musicals go on to win Best Picture, but who's naming names?

This is decidedly the strangest list I've ever put together. It's a mishmash of films that take themselves a little too seriously with others that seem a bit hastily put together. It's also largely foreign. Only 3 - that's right, 3 - American musicals made the cut. Even only one of those is your conventional Hollywood fare. They also operate on a smaller scale than musicals you're used to (with two notable exceptions) which is kinda cool, even though it makes me long for the sweeping classics like Oliver! and The Sound of Music. Yet none of that gets at the utter strangeness I was trying to emphasize. That comes from the genres pulled from among these films, not limited to science fiction, murder mystery, horror, and Greek tragedy. Also Bollywood, which is kind of a genre in itself.

So this one's a bit bizarre, and I'd be genuinely impressed if you've seen more than 3 of these. Come to think of it, I'm not sure how I ended up seeing more than 3 of these. But it's a fun batch, so maybe you can netflix one of these to brighten up a rainy day (except #2, which I guarantee will send you into throes of depression). On that note, onto:

Top 10 Musicals of the Decade

10. Karmen Gei (dir. Joseph Ramaka)
The first of many entries to come out of left field, Karmen Gei is a Senegalese retelling of that most famous of operas, which in case you didn't pick up from the title, is Bizet's Carmen. In a course taken on the modern cinema of Africa, it was the lone standout (except for Kandahar, which isn't African, so I don't count it) and with good reason. The dancing is mesmerizing - unlike anything you've seen before - and the film feels so unique to the culture that I was hooked from the beginning. Of course, it's no typical Hollywood musical, but the music and dance alone is so enrapturing that I glad I remembered it in time to put it on the list.

9. Hairspray (dir. Adam Shankman)
Maybe it's because of the ties to John Waters' original source material, or maybe it's from the almost maddeningly infectious quality of the songs, but Hairspray stands a whole beehive above most other hit musicals of the last few years. Hell, the whole thing is just so bouncy and fun that I can even look beyond the presence of Zach Efron and way, way too much of John Travolta. And who would have thought I'd cite Amanda Bynes as my favorite part of any cast, but that she is, though Michelle Pheiffer is pretty spectacular when in villain mode.

8. The Happiness of the Katakuris (dir. Takashi Miike)
A family that runs a quaint little mountain inn is forced to confront the looming threat of death, as various guests begin turning up dead. Of course, it all plays out as a musical. But it's also partly animated and filled out with both comic gags and gruesome images. I warned you - this list is strange.

7. Love Songs (dir. Christophe Honoré)
It's a lovely, if fleeting, homage to classic French musicals like Umbrellas of Cherbourg and A Woman is a Woman. The songs themselves are nothing extraordinary, but they move along breezily and do they're part in creating a handful of compelling characters. Quite wonderful, and sadly under-seen.

6. Once (dir. John Carney)
Everyone's favorite indie musical, and it's pretty darn good so I'm down with all the love. The songs aren't exactly my style, but the passion you can feel behind the music is undeniable and the relationship between our main characters has a rare organic quality to it. And "Falling Slowly" gets credit for being one of the more tolerable songs in contention at the Oscars this decade - slight praise - but still deserved.

5. Repo! The Genetic Opera (dir. Darren Bousman)
It took a while, but I finally have a film from the 2000s to love like I love Tank Girl, Rocky Horror and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This camp-tastic science fiction opera generates a darkly satisfying cult classic from one of the oddest casts imaginable. Like Alexa Vega (the girl from Spy Kids), Paul Sorvino, Paris Hilton, Sarah Brightman, and Anthony Stewart Head (who it turns out was in two of the best musicals of the decade). Even when the music resorts to talk-sing (frequently) it's still never less than committed to filling the sci-fi musical gap in the early 21st century. And for that service, I'm eternally grateful.

4. Moulin Rouge! (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
There's nothing I love quite like an all out spectacle, and Moulin Rouge! is most certainly that - shamelessly. It's fast paced, positively manic much of the time, and the attention to detail is extraordinary. And what I love most is how much a part of the experience the camera work is. The cinematography sets the momentum as much as the music does. For all that, I'm willing to forgive John Leguizamo's infuriating presence. One of the few recent musicals totally deserving of it's acclaim.

3. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker)
Lagaan was my introduction to Bollywood cinema, and a pretty strong introduction at that. It's long, but that's to be expected, and the acting takes some getting used to for American perception, but the simple story is both fun and effective and it leads us through a handful of marvelous musical numbers in the process. It's when those musical numbers are on that the film really becomes wondrous. They're backed by stronger production values than any Bollywood numbers I've seen since, and the songs are as catchy as they can be when you have no way to intelligibly sing along. Definitely recommended as an introduction to Bollywood. It was the perfect start for me.

2. Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier)
So I just now realized that 2 directors have films on both my top 10 musicals and top 10 horror lists, Lars von Trier being the second to hold that honor (also see Miike, Takashi). Dancer in the Dark may indeed be a musical, but if the presence of von Trier or Bjork didn't tell you already, this one ain't all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, it may just be the most depressing film I've ever seen. An immigrant mother and her young son, afflicted with a condition causing him to go blind, struggle to make a go of it in America. Selma, our heroine, finds relief from musical theater, but not enough relief to prevent he utter ruination of her life, no thanks to mean old Catherine Deneuve (who is in pretty much every great musical ever, like the next one). It's a harrowing couple of hours, so prepare yourself, but certainly one of the most emotional musicals you'll ever see.

1. 8 Women (dir. Francois Ozon)
Well, here's where personal preference kicks in. There was no way that I wasn't going to flat-out fall in love with 8 Women - it's a French comedy, murder-mystery, musical, melodrama starring a handful of amazing French leading ladies (Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Ludovine Sangier, Emmanuelle Beart...). The songs are actually fairly strong, with a few standouts to boot, and the staginess of it is countered by the similarities drawn to Douglas Sirk melodramas, well-constructed and hard to ignore if you've seen his films. And the whole affair is a blast - especially Ms. Huppert, who proves she can be a comical spinster as well as a sexually alarming one. So while for me its the perfect combination of everything I love so much in movies, it would still place respectably on this list had I lacked those predispositions.

That's all for now. Waiting to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus before putting up my fantasy list.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best of the Decade: Romantic Comedies

Imagine my surprise when I had no trouble whatsoever compiling a top 10 list of romantic comedies from this decade. Because honestly, I don't watch that many, and feel like I hate the ones that I do happen upon. But here they are, 10 films that all pretty fairly fall into the category, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed - four of them in theaters. If there's a trend to be found, it's that most of these came from well established directors, often known for their work in other genres. And since I claim no expertise in the genre, I'll spare you any further introduction. Here's 10 romantic comedies at least one guy found totally bearable.

10. Lars and the Real Girl (dir. Craig Gillespie)
Lars and the Real Girl as a concept has no business working as a feature length film. And yet it does, which is really a credit to Ryan Gosling who mines genuine feeling from a character that could have been a running joke in your standard indie film these days. A great film it may not be, but I was pleasantly surprised. Also, Emily Mortimer needs more work.

9. Love Actually (dir. Richard Curtis)
The ensemble is splendid - a perfect mix of romantic comedy mainstays (that would be you, Hugh Grant) and welcome faces from Bill Nighy to Billy Bob Thornton (who is always best in small doses) that keep things a little more amusing than your average rom com. It's also perhaps the best Christmas movie of the decade, which is a small honor, but I'd rather pop this in around the holidays than Fred Clause.

8. Paris, Je T'aime (dir. the cool kids at the art house table)
It may have placed higher had every segment sparked like those from the Coen brothers (Steve Buscemi looking for love at the metro station), Alexander Payne (Margo Martindale's earnest account of the city she's fallen for), or Alfonso Cauron (father and daughter play out family drama in a single shot). True, there's a few bad apples. But they don't spoil the bunch, not by a long shot. The collected shorts make for an enchanting portrait of love in the city known for it.

7. Enchanted (dir. Kevin Lima)
I love Amy Adams. That is all.

6. High Fidelity (dir. Stephen Frears)
So this is basically what I do all day anyway, just with movies instead of music. I sit around making pointless lists and finding ways to assert my cultural superiority. Sadly, I'm not John Cusack (or maybe not sadly, he's not had a good run lately) and this is unlikely to win me the kind of romantic escapades he spends most of the movie analyzing. Still, the film's a lotta fun, the writing is sharp, and the soundtrack of course is spectacular.

5. Shopgirl (dir. Anand Tucker)
Steve Martin adapts his own novella into this classy and surprisingly sweet film that soars thanks to one of the more unlikely love triangles seen lately - unlikely mostly because Jason Schwartzman is an incredibly awkward man, but we love him for that. Claire Danes especially is excellent, and I wish she'd get more interesting roles like this.

4. Vicky Christina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen)
In many ways, I had anticipated this film long before it came out. I recall actually making a declaration somewhere around 2006 about how if ever Scarlet Johansson and Penelope Cruz had a sex scene together in a film, I'd be first in line to see it. Well, much to my surprise, that day actually came - though it's worth noting that my appreciation for Scarlet has been in steady decline for some time, while Penelope Cruz has ended up being perhaps my favorite actress of the decade. And she's definitely the best part about Vicky Christina Barcelona, but the whole film is pretty marvelous anyway. Yes, I include in the the pitch perfect narration that you probably hate, and Rebecca Hall never got nearly enough credit for her part in it all so let me single out her as well. It's my favorite Woody Allen film since Bullets of Broadway and I'd be tempted to boost it even higher on this list, expect I think I'd catch too much flak for boxing out any of my top 3. Funny, sexy and delightful, exactly like any rom com ought to be.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
Jim Carrey reminds us why we don't take old dogs out and shoot them. And Kate Winslet is weird and irresistible, although that's because she is in a Charlie Kaufman movie, where weird is pretty much par for the course. But it's funny and bittersweat and as I realize right now, surprisingly hard to write about. Which is meant as a compliment.

2. Punch Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Eternal Sunshine reminded us that Jim Carrey was a good actor, which we already knew thanks to The Truman Show, but Adam Sandler's performance in Punch Drunk Love comes entirely out of left field. I mean, I've spent years loving to hate the guy and then he goes and then with a little help from PTA gives one of the most genuinely moving performances of the decade, of a totally hapless man struggling with love, family and the phone sex industry. And he's perfectly paired with Emily Watson - which again I'd never thought I'd say - but through all his troubles, they're a couple you're genuinely rooting for to find love.

1. Amelie (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Regardless of how much foreign cinema I drown myself in year upon year, I will always have a soft spot for Amelie, the first French film I ever saw, and still one of the best romantic comedies I've seen to date. Jeunet's style is enchanting - surprising since it's not all that different from his previous films, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children - but of course we have Audrey Tautou to carry us through and she couldn't have done a finer job. It's visually arresting without sacrificing the endearing story of a girl who can make love happen for everyone in her life except for herself.

Overall, I like this bunch. What others have I been missing out on?