Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TV Movie Review: Public Speaking

Public Speaking ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Featuring: Fran Lebowitz.

According to Fran Lebowitz, Fran Lebowitz is never wrong. She doesn’t need a second opinon on anything, because she already knows the correct answer. She would be an excellent Supreme Court justice in her eyes, because every case that comes before them, she knows precisely what the right answer is. If only everyone else would see things her way, things would be a lot better.

Fran Lebowitz is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s new documentary profile, Public Speaking. Lebowitz made a name for herself as a writer in the 1970s. She was merciless in her work, whether it was reviewing the books of others, or in her own work. She is also extremely clever, witty and at times downright hilarious. She may be full of herself, but that is just part of her charm.

Scorsese is my favorite director of all time, and although he is mainly known for his feature films, he has made a number of documentaries over the years that are quite good. Public Speaking mainly resembles his American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince back in the late 1970s. In both movie, Scorsese is smart enough to stay out of the way. He has a masterful storyteller in front of him, and he simply sits back and allows them room to tell their stories – share their opinions and entertain the audience. But watching Public Speaking, I was also reminded of Louis Malle’s brilliant My Dinner with Andre – which again allowed a master storyteller the room to tell their story. I’m not exaggerating in saying that Lebowitz is at least as fascinating here as Andre Gregory was in that movie.

There is hardly a subject that Lebowitz does not have an opinon on. Tourists have forever ruined New York City she says. The AIDS epidemic not only robbed the world of a number of great artists, but also of a great audience – which is just as crucial to great art as the artists themselves. She should be allowed to smoke anywhere she wants to. And when Toni Morrison said to “write the book you would like to read”, she wasn’t talking to everybody – just people with talent.

The great tragedy of Lebowitz’s life is that she is a brilliant writer – but one who cannot seem to write. After two books of comedic essays were met with great success, she wasn’t able to produce much of any real substance since – certainly not the novel which she had promised to write. She is a famous writer, more famous for her writers block than her actual writing.

And this gives the film a rather sad outlook, in spite of Lebowitz’s inspired comedic performance in the film. She is a genius with words, and is amazing at telling a story – as Scorsese highlights again and again in the film. And yet, underneath it all, there is a scared woman. She isn’t scared of public speaking, like most people are, but is “saves all her fear for writing”. She can be devastating in her criqiue of others, but prefers to be nasty behind others backs instead to their face, so that way they “have to hear it more than once”. And she loves revenge, and never passes up an opportunity to take it. She is an acid tongued woman of tremendous intelligence, wit and humor, who knows precisely what everyone should do – accept of course for herself.

I’m not quite sure what drew Scorsese to this documentary. Afterall, Lebowitz has made a career of putting up barriers around herself, and never self analyzes – at least not on camera – which is what Scorsese has made a career out of, and where his real gift lies. But, I’m happy that Scorsese did make the film just the same. Lebowitz reveals more about herself than I think she really knew she was while telling her stories, and making her observations. Scorsese brings this out of her, not so much by manipulating her, but by collaborating with her – this is as much Lebowitz’s documentary as it Scorsese’s, if not more so. And the portrait we get is of a woman who masks her own fear and own security, by ripping apart the work of others – the work of people who put themselves out there in their work, in a way that Lebowitz is simply not capable of doing. It may be shit – and according to Lebowitz most of it is – but they at least put it out there. Lebowitz may well be a genius – she is certainly one of the most entertaining speakers I have ever seen at the center of a documentary like this – but the tragedy of her life maybe that she was never really able to tap into that genius. It is the genius of this documentary that Scorsese never comes right out and says this – never underlines it in his visual style or editing, but instead approaches things much more subtlety, and simply allows the viewer to reach whatever conclusion they want to about Lebowitz. Perhaps the reason why Lebowitz made this documentary – and she is one of the producers of the film, so you know she worked closely on what in the film ended up being shown – and because she realizes that this may be the only way to get all that genius out of her – this may allow her to open up that genius and let people see what it is she for so long has not been able to put down on paper.

Movie Review: Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham ***
Directed By:
Nigel Cole.
Written By: William Ivory.
Starring: Sally Hawkins (Rita O’Grady), Bob Hoskins (Albert), Miranda Richardson (Barbara Castle), Jaime Winstone (Sandra), Andrea Riseborough (Brenda), Geraldine James (Connie), Daniel Mays (Eddie), Rosamund Pike (Lisa), Kenneth Cranham (Monty), Richard Schiff (Tooley).

It seems like such a simple thing in 2010, but the reality is that in the not too distant past, women were paid less for doing the same job as men. Made in Dagenham is the story of 187 female workers at the Ford plant in England who decided that enough was enough, and did something about it. They went on strike, eventually shutting the entire factory down because the company had no finished seats to install into their cars. They had little support from their union, almost none from their male co-workers, and not all that much in the country at large. Ford said that industry would go bankrupt if they were forced to pay women the same as men. Fairness seemed like an ideal to strive for, but not a reality.

Made in Dagenham is a by the books comedy-drama about these women. Set in 1968, the costume designers and makeup artists obviously had a field day getting the women in the film into period ware. The performances elevate movie beyond its standard issue roots. Sally Hawkins in particular is wonderful as Rita O’Grady, who was the leader of the female workers. Her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) also works at the plant, and doesn’t particularly like being out of a job – especially when that means that there is no money left to pay the bills. But Rita, and the women, insist on being paid fairly. Hawkins, so good in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go Lucky a few years ago, brings the same sort of enthusiastic optimism to her role here. It is nearly impossible not to root for her, as she deals with one condescending man after another – her husband, the head of the union, even her son’s teacher who tells her that she doesn’t understand why he has to use corporal punishment – and how could she, because she’s so poor. But she grins and bears it, and pushes forward.

There are other fine performances in the movie as well. Bob Hoskins is the one man sympathetic from the start – the one her encourages her at every step along the way. Miranda Richardson has a blast as the newly appointed Minister of Finance, who deals with sexism from her underlings, even in her position. I also quite loved Rosamund Pike, as a very intelligent women, with a degree from Oxford, who is still treated like an idiot by her husband. The rest of the cast – Andrea Riseborough as the fun loving Brenda, Jaime Winstone as Sandra, who wants to be a model, and Geraldine James, as a woman struggling to take care of her sick husband, are all fine as well.

Made in Dagenham doesn’t break new ground. There is little here that you haven’t really seen before. And yet director Nigel Cole fills the movie with life and energy, and William Ivory’s screenplay is witty and intelligent. Walking into the movie I knew what to expect – and the movie delivers that and nothing more – but it is such a charming movie that I hardly feel the need to complain. And perhaps it is worth a reminder that not that long ago, we still treated women as second class citizens. If people like Rita and her “girls” didn’t stand up and say enough is enough, perhaps we still would be. It’s good for all of us that they did.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Movie Review: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer ****
Directed By:
Alex Gibney.

Eliot Spitzer had it all. As Attorney General of New York, he had become one of the biggest names in the Democratic party in America. Had his stint as Governor of New York gone as well as his time as Attorney General, he could have easily parlayed that into a run for President at some time in the future. But as we all know, it didn’t go that well, and after just over a year in office, Spitzer resigned when he was connected to a prostitution ring as a john. Charges were never laid against him, but the accusations were true – Eliot Spitzer spent thousands of dollars – his own, not the taxpayers – on high-end prostitutes. His political career was over immediately, and he became a national joke – mocked by late comedians and practically everyone else.

The question everyone wants answer, of course, is why? Why would Spitzer jeopardize everything he had to have sex with prostitutes? Alex Gibney’s new documentary, doesn’t really answer that question. The only person who really knows is Spitzer himself, and although he gives a rather candid interview for the filmmaker, he never really answers that question. Perhaps even he doesn’t know. He admits it was stupid and he admits that his downfall is entirely his own fault, but he never really comes out and says why.

What Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer does do – which makes it one of the best documentaries of the year – is paint Spitzer’s rise to the top, and the enemies he made along the way, and how that rise, and those enemies, contributed to his downfall. True, he had sex with the prostitutes, yet it seems at least plausible to suggest that if he hadn’t made such powerful enemies earlier in his career, his mistakes later – that in fact really have nothing to do with his job – may have never had come out.

Spitzer made a name for himself almost immediately after becoming Attorney General in New York. Seeing that the SEC was either unwilling or unable, to do anything about the corruption on Wall Street – corruption that eventually led to the economic crisis America is now faced with – Spitzer went after them hard. He forced the CEO of AIG out of the company, and he attacked the head of the New York Stock Exchange, who got a $140 million retirement bonus, among other cases. Wall Street hated him from the beginning, but he became a hero to many Democrats. He made powerful enemies – not just because of the cases he took, but also because his confrontational style. He seemed unwilling to compromise, and wanted everyone to agree with him. When you are Attorney General, you can get away with this – but once he became Governor, it was much harder. But he seemed to be finding his footing when the scandal hit, and he was forced out. A career with limitless potential flamed out.

Gibney does a great job finding the right people to interview – there seems to be almost no one involved that Gibney was not able to convince to speak with him - although there is no interview with Ashley Dupree, the prostitute who became a household name because of her involvement with Spitzer. That doesn’t matter too much though, since she has been practically everywhere else talking about it. And besides, as Gibney found out, she wasn’t even Spitzer’s “regular” girl – he spent only one night with her, but dozens with a different girl. This girl did talk to Gibney – but didn’t want her name or voice in the movie. In the films one misstep, Gibney hires an actress to play this prostitute – using his original transcript of the interview he did. The result gets the information out there, but rings false because, documentaries really shouldn’t be using actresses, and not only that, the actress they did cast isn’t very good (she sticks out like a sore thumb even before Gibney reveals that she’s an actress).

But Gibney does do an excellent job at exploring the different worlds that are involved in this story. You want to know what it’s like to work in a high priced call girl ring. Client 9 has your answer. He has interviews with several of the prostitutes, who hardly seem like the victims prostitutes are normally portrayed as in movies (then again, these are the high end girls, and not the street walkers who are poverty riddled), and even an interview with the giggly “Madam” who ran the company. It also paints the Wall Street world as one of entitlement, which is why they hated Spitzer so much, because he was willing to challenge them. Some of these Wall Street tycoons even go so far as to blame Spitzer for the economic crisis – saying if he had let the CEO of AIG stay in place, they never would have collapsed (they were well on their way there though when he left). The politics involved in being Governor of New York is also portrayed – a State Government that is generally viewed as corrupt, Gibney even gets an interview with Spitzer’s biggest rival in State politics – a State Senator who has an unearned air of superiority concerning Spitzer when you consider he was indicted for corruption not long after Spitzer left office.

I suppose the real question Client 9 asks is how much worse was Spitzer’s crime than any of the other ones we see, both in terms of the people in the movie, and other scandals outside? Bill Clinton is still as popular today as ever, despite the fact he has oral sex in the Oval Office with an Intern. Newt Gringrich had numerous affairs, and left his wife while she was in the hospital recovering from life saving surgery. There has even been other politicians implicated in prostitution scandals, who have kept their jobs. And isn’t the corruption of politicians, and what is happening on Wall Street, more important than what Spitzer did? There are legitimate questions to be asked about why Spitzer got caught in the first place. The official story, about a money order than drew suspicion, doesn’t quite sound right. And Spitzer’s enemies either claim to have reported this to the FBI, or seem to know a hell of a lot more about it than anyone else did, before the scandal broke.

Yet none of this really changes the facts of the case. No matter what role his enemies played in his downfall – if any at all – they wouldn’t have been able to do anything if Spitzer hadn’t of screwed up. He spent time – not just once but multiple times – with prostitutes. He brought upon his own downfall. All Client 9 really asks you to do is to open your mind and see the whole picture – and put Spitzer’s crime into perspective. He screwed up – big time – and he is to blame for what happened to him. But is what he did any worse than what his rivals did? It’s an interesting question, and makes for a fascinating documentary.

Movie Review: Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs *** ½
Directed By:
Edward Zwick.
Written By: Charles Randolph & Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz based on the book by Jamie Reidy.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Jamie Randall), Anne Hathaway (Maggie Murdock), Oliver Platt (Bruce Winston), Hank Azaria (Dr. Stan Knight), Josh Gad (Josh Randall), Gabriel Macht (Trey Hannigan), Judy Greer (Cindy), George Segal (Dr. James Randall), Jill Clayburgh (Nancy Randall), Kate Jennings Grant (Gina), Katheryn Winnick ('Lisa'), Kimberly Scott (Gail).

Sometimes a director needs to step out of their comfort zone to do some of their best work. Such is the case with Edward Zwick and his latest film Love and Other Drugs. While the film is certainly flawed, when the film works, and most of it does, it is the type of intelligent, warm and funny romantic comedy we don’t see much anymore. Most of Zwick’s films are burdened by their own importance – whether it be his WWII film Defiance, his African set Blood Diamond, his Japanese set The Last Samurai, or his terrorism drama The Siege, his films often try too hard to be seen as “important” to really work as well as they should. In Love and Other Drugs, Zwick’s directorial style is much more relaxed – he doesn’t force anything, he just lets it play out naturally. Yes, there are elements of the film that don’t work as well as perhaps they should – but the center of the film works like a dream.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Randall, the “black sheep” of his family of medical professionals. His father was a doctor, and now teaches medicine. His sister is a doctor. His brother Josh (Josh Gad) invented a medical software company that he sold and became an instant millionaire at a young age. But when we meet Jamie, he is selling stereo equipment. He is a good salesman – effortless and charming – and his brother gets him a job at Pfizer as a medicine salesman. Essentially his job is to go around to doctors and get them to prescribe Pfizer’s drug instead of his competitions. He struggles a bit when he tries to convince doctors to prescribe Zoloft instead of Prozac – but when Pfizer introduces Viagra he becomes a rock star salesman. Of course, Viagra pretty much sells itself, doesn’t it?

This view of the medical profession is interesting in its own right, but not enough to sustain a movie – especially since I cannot quite tell if Zwick and company think that what Jamie is doing is right or wrong. Yes, he is helping people get on medication they need – but shouldn’t doctors be prescribing patients drugs on the basis of their needs, instead of what drug reps tell them?

But luckily, this is only part of the movie – the less interesting part. What drives the movie is the relationship that Jamie develops with Maggie (Anne Hathaway). He first meets Maggie while on rounds with a doctor (Hank Azaria), where he is posing as an “intern” to try and get close to the doctor. She discovers his secret – and is pissed (she had removed her top in the exam room), but gradually he wins her over. She has early onset Parkinson’s disease and has done a good job at keeping everyone away from her – she forms no emotionally attachments, because they are too painful. Jamie is the same way, so they bond quickly over sex. It’s only gradually that emotions, and love, start to form between them – much to the chagrin of both of them.

This part of the movie – and it does represent most of the movie – is what works so well about the film. True, to a certain extent, Jamie’s “journey” in the film is similar to many men in recent romantic comedies – immature guy meets the girl of his dreams and grows up – but it feels natural in this movie. Gyllenhaal is a naturally charming actor, and he does the salesman part of his role extremely well, and he navigates the emotionally part with humor and warmth as well. But it is Hathaway who pretty much steals the movie. She is brilliant in it – funny, sweet, kind, intelligent, yet with a nasty streak in her as well, which she grows frustrated about her disease. This isn’t the typical saintly sick person we see in the movie – her Parkinson’s is early enough that it hardly feels like a sick person role at all – and Hathaway delivers one of her best performances.

Love and Other Drugs at times ventures too far into sitcom territory – usually when Jamie’s brother is involved. Josh Gad is amusing and at times quite funny in his role – but it is better suited in a sitcom than a feature film like this. At times, he almost seems to derail the movie with his role. There are a few other moments like that, which perhaps shows Zwick’s rust when doing material like this, since he has spent so long on those “important” dramas. But they are minor flaws, not fatal ones.

Love and Other Drugs is the type of romantic comedy-drama that we rarely see anymore. It is do with humor, warmth and intelligence, and in its two leads, Hathaway in particular; they have found two great characters whose relationship feels genuine. There are flaws in the film sure – but I wouldn’t write the movie, which for so much of its running time works so well, because of them. Love and Other Drugs is funny, sweet, sad and intelligent. How many other movies can you say that about?

Movie Review: Tangled

Tangled ***
Directed By:
Nathan Greno & Byron Howard.
Written By: Dan Fogelman based on the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tale.
Starring: Mandy Moore (Rapunzel), Zachary Levi (Flynn Ryder), Donna Murphy (Mother Gothel), Ron Perlman (Stabbington Brother), M.C. Gainey (Captain of the Guard), Jeffrey Tambor (Big Nose Thug), Brad Garrett (Hook Hand Thug), Paul F. Tompkins (Short Thug), Richard Kiel (Vlad), Delaney Rose Stein (Young Rapunzel / Little Girl).

I have mixed feelings about Tangled – although perhaps it’s not fair to blame the movie for them. On one hand, Tangled is an animated movie in the best tradition of Disney – a beautiful princess, a roguish hero, an evil “stepmother”, lovable animals and cheery songs (although it must be said that this time, the songs are mostly forgettable, even if they work in the movie). On the other hand though, I really do think Tangled should have been a traditionally animated Disney movie. The animators do a decent job at recreating the classic character designs we have seen in the Disney animated movies, but the fact that this time it is all computer generated means for me something was lacking. Comparing Tangled to The Princess and the Frog from last year, which maintained that traditional feel, I preferred The Princess and the Frog. That is just something not quite right about this type of animation applied to the Disney formula. The kids won’t care though – they’ll have a blast at Tangled – but for adults raised on Disney cartoons like myself, it just didn’t seem right.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t like Tangled –once I got past my hesitation about the animation, and just let the movie work on its own terms, I really quite enjoyed it. Tangled does what Disney movies have done for decades – take an existing fairy tale, and made a highly enjoyable movie out of it. This time, it is the story of Rapunzel – that princess with the really long hair, locked away in a tower for her whole life by an evil stepmother Gothel (great name by the way), who wants the healing power her hair possesses all for herself. She has told Rapunzel, who is really the long lost daughter of the King and Queen, that she is her mother and that the world is a mean and evil place and that she could never survive by herself. But Rapunzel has dreams of getting out in the world. Every year on her birthday, she sees floating lights in the sky, and wants to see them up close. She doesn’t know of course that those lights are released by her parents and their subjects as a tribute to her. When a thief named Flynn Ryder shows up at her tower, on the run both from his cohorts and the King’s guard for stealing the Princess’ crown, she makes him a deal. She will let him leave with the crown, if she’ll take her to see those lights on her birthday in a few days. She thinks she has dispatched with Gothel for a few days, and what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Of course, things never work out as simply as Rapunzel thinks they will.

I enjoyed Tangled for what it is. This is a fairy tale, although one with a little bit more of a modern feel to it, I enjoyed the voice work by Zachery Levi (from TV’s Chuck) as Flynn, and really quite liked Mandy Moore who does a wonderful job with Rapunzel – making her lovingly naïve and sweet. Donna Murphy has the appropriate evil dripping out of her voice as Gothel, and the rest of the cast is fine as well.

And even if I think it should have been traditionally animated, I did like a lot of the animated touches to the movie as well. I loved Rapunzel’s chameleon friend Padel, who changes colors to fit in everywhere, and I really loved the horse Maximus, who acts like a hound dog, and has a series of wonderful facial expressions. The human characters aren’t quite as well done, but they are acceptable, and the settings are fine. There really are some wonderful touches here. I generally dislike 3-D immensely, so I saw it in 2-D, and the colors were bright and sunny, and worked wonderfully well.

Kids, especially little girls, are going to love Tangled. My niece loves all of those Disney Princesses, and Rapunzel fits in right alongside them quite well. Perhaps when Disney does another of their more traditional animated films in this style, I will simply accept it and move on. This time though, seeing the classic Disney story fitted into computer animation felt a little disconcerting at times. Not enough for me not to like Tangled – but enough for me not to love it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Movie Review: October Country

October Country *** ½
Directed By:
Michael Palmeiri & Donal Mosher.

October Country is a frank and honest documentary about a family who seems to make the same mistakes generation after generation. We rarely get to see movies like this, because I think, filmmakers don’t know people like this – and if they did, the people wouldn’t open up to them. But the filmmakers of October Country did in fact get this family to open up – and that’s because it’s directed by one of their own, although curiously, he is never mentioned in the film. October Country is a sad film about one very screwed up family through now four generations.

The oldest members of the family are Donald and Dottie Mosher. Donald was a happy kid, who went off to Vietnam when he was 18, and came back cold and distant. He doesn’t talk about what happened in the war, but he was changed by it forever. Now, he sits around watching as his family goes to hell, and does nothing to prevent it. He seems resigned to his misery. His wife Dottie tries very hard to see the best in everyone, and although she is constantly disappointed, she keeps right on hoping.

Their daughter Donna has been married twice – to two abusive men, and has one daughter from each man – men we never see. The oldest daughter is Daneal, who has followed in her mother’s footsteps in that she chose an abusive husband, had a child too young, and is now on her own. It certainly didn’t help that Donna’s second husband molested her, and is now in jail for it. The ray of sunshine in the family is that younger daughter Desi – who is smart and funny, and although she is full of youthful pride when she claims to be “smarter than the rest of the family” she may not be wrong. Everyone hopes that she’ll break the cycle, and pick a good man, instead of an abusive one. Donna and Daneal seem resigned to the fact that they’ll only ever date assholes.

There are other family members. Donald’s younger sister Denise is not really one of the family. She lives by herself, and spends most of her time wandering in the cemetery trying to get pictures of ghosts and talking about being a Wiccan. Then there is Chris, who Donald and Dottie took in as a foster child, although he warned them that he would hurt them and couldn’t be trusted – and proved to be right. I wonder how the rest of the family feels on Halloween when he shows up with a friend playing a battered wife.

October Country is a curious movie. The family lives in beautiful upstate New York and Mosher – a photographer and Palmieri – his partner and a commercial director – captures the beauty of the area, and offsets this against the seemingly never ending despair of Mosher’s own family. The Mosher talk and talk and talk about their problems – they are not stupid in the least, they understand why they keep screwing up, but are resigned to the fact that they will never break the pattern. This is particularly hard to watch for Daneal – who is still so young, and shows us a softer, more playful side, and seems intelligent. But even though she’s young, she seems to have given up. Although we never meet her abusive husband, we do meet the man who comes after him – and he’s no treasure himself. When he leaves, she swears off men, but in the films last scene, she tells everyone she has another date. She gave her daughter, Ruby, back to her father because she couldn’t take care of her by herself. One hopes that his rage doesn’t extend to his daughter as well. It is Daneal who to me is the real tragic center of this movie. Perhaps forever messed up by her abusive father – who she still idolizes and won’t hear any negative words spoken against him – and her step father, she has resigned herself to a life of misery. Desi is the only hope this family has.

Except of course for Donal himself, whose absence from the film may be considered a flaw. What was it like for him, to grow up homosexual in this family? He presumably got out, and found a healthy partner in Palmieri, but how did he do it? Perhaps, even with all the pain he explores in this film that pain was too personal for him to put on screen. I really don’t know.

October Country doesn’t exploit its subjects – but rather gives them the opportunity to talk about their lives. One cannot help but wonder what they thought of the movie when the saw the completed version. Did it make them cry, did it wake any of them up to the rut they are in?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie Review: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe ***
Directed By:
Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

William Kunstler was a liberal lawyer who became radicalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was already almost 50 years old. He would take the cases no other lawyer wanted to touch – and at the beginning of this fame, this made him someone to admire. He was the lawyer for the Chicago 7 at their trial for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention. He tried, and failed, to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Attica standoff in the early 1970s, and played the same role for more successfully at Wounded Knee a few years later. He took on the case of a man charged with crime for burning the American flag – and took that fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won a major decision for free speech.

But as he got older, he clients became less savory, more incendiary. He got Larry Brooks, a man accused of shooting six police officers, off with an argument of self defense. He defended, and got acquitted, El Sayyid Nossair, who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. He even defended one of the men accused of raping a jogger in Central Park – although in that case, he turned out to be right. No one could ever tell if William Kunstler was an idealist, fighting for a cause, or just a fame whore who would take on any case as long as it got his picture in the paper. Least able to tell were his two daughters – Emily and Sarah – who directed this film about him.

The two were products of Kunstler’s second marriage, and born in the late 1970s, when Kunstler was already almost 60 and famous. They hated his defense of all these “bad people” – especially when protestors showed up at their house and they pretended they lived somewhere else.

But with age, comes perspective, and now 15 years after his death, the two daughters go back and examine their father’s life and legacy. Yet unlike many documentaries made by the children of famous people about their parents, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is neither a film that portrays the man as either a hero nor a horrible person. It falls somewhere firmly in between. It’s clear that the daughters admire their father for sticking to his principles, even if it was unpopular, but still do see him as somewhat a glory hound. Hell, this was a man who went on Phil Donahue often – and as Donahue explains in the film, he kept putting him on the show because he knew he would generate controversy. He was also a man who defended a cat on a mock TV trial for crimes against humanity. It really does seem that Kunstler would do anything to get on TV.

And yet he remained a good lawyer. The American Justice system depends on lawyers like Kunstler, lawyers who will take on even the worst cases and fight like hell for them, in order to function. You want to see him as a parasite, then go ahead, but without people like him, the system collapses.

The Kunstler sisters are not the best filmmakers in the world. The movie is pretty much a standard issue archival footage offset against talking heads and narration documentary. And they make one horrible mistake in the animation sequence that ends the film which is completely unnecessary and rather laughable. But overall, what it does, it does well though. Perhaps only a family member – someone who knew Kunstler – could really do justice to the man in a documentary about his life. He was a complicated man – one that no one could ever really pin down in life, and so it is rather fitting that they can’t pin him down in death either.

Movie Review: The Lottery

The Lottery ***
Directed By:
Madeline Sackler.

In a perfect world, Charter Schools would not exist. But we live in a far from perfect world, and if you live in the inner city, you live even farther away, especially if you want to give your child a good education. The Lottery makes the case that while inner city schools in New York are failing to give its students a good education – Charter Schools in the same area are producing great results. Yes, the film is one sided – although it does give lip service to the other side – but you really cannot argue with the results. No matter what Charter Schools – which are publicly funded but operate outside the strictures of public schools, most notably the teachers union – get results for their students. Instead of spending so much time attacking charter schools, opponents should be looking at what they are doing different – and better – than public schools to improve them, instead demonizing the other side.

Madline Sackler’s documentary The Lottery is the second documentary on this subject I have seen this year – although it did come out earlier than the much more high profile Waiting for Superman, which has become one of the hits of the documentary world this year. The Lottery isn’t as good as Waiting for Superman – but it does provide even more evidence to suggest that public education in America’s inner cities are broken, and for many parents, Charter Schools are the only answer. The problem of course is that there are thousands of more children who want to go to Charter Schools than there are spaces for them. And this, undeniably, makes charter school unfair. Everyone pays for them as part of their tax dollars, but they are only accessible to some. The alternative unfortunately seems to be that every child in these areas would get a crappy education instead of just some. This is a lose-lose situation for all involved.

The Lottery follows four families in the months leading up to the lottery to get in the Harlem Success Academy. Law dictates that if a charter school has more applicants than spaces available, then a lottery has to be done to determine who gets in and who gets left out. The stories of these families is heartbreaking – especially at the finale at the lottery itself where you can see the pain on the parents faces when their children do not get in, and are therefore denied a good education.

As I said, in an ideal world, charter schools wouldn’t exist. Instead, you could reform public schools so they can all get the results that Harlem Success Academy and other charter schools are having. But reform is made virtually impossible by the bureaucracy of the Board of Education and the Teachers Union – who do not want to give anything up, and because they are among the biggest contributors to Democrats, have the political clout to back them up. As one City Councilor suggests, it would be better to not close Public Schools, but to reform them. But as founder of Harlem Success, Eva Moskowitz points out, some of these schools have been failing for decades, and no meaningful reform has been done. What are you supposed to do with schools that have only a 30% graduation rate, or schools where only 10% of the students are reading and writing at the correct grad level? For many parents, the reforms are coming far too slowly.

And that is why, as The Lottery points out, Charter Schools are a necessity at this point. The Lottery is a little too one sided to be a truly great documentary – it is firmly on the side of the Charter Schools, and makes no real effort to try and cover that fact up. It is an advocacy documentary, and it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine charter schools giving out copies of it to prospective parents and students. Yet having said all of that, the facts are the facts, and they are undeniable. Say whatever you want about Charter Schools – the bottom line is that the kids who go there get a quality education. And shouldn’t that be the goal of any school?

Movie Review: Gasland

Gasland *** ½
Directed By:
Josh Fox.

Josh Fox grew up on acres of land in Pennsylvania along the Delaware River. He now owns that same land, and was approached by a gas company willing to pay him $100,000 for his permission to drill on that land for natural gas – of which there are oceans under America. By tapping into that natural gas, America can reduce its need for foreign sources of energy – which sounds like a good thing. But Fox wanted to know what they were planning on doing, so he takes his camera on a cross country road trip to visit others who have given the gas companies permission to drill. What he finds is rather shocking.

Essentially what these companies do is known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking”. What they do is pump millions of gallons of water, along with hundreds of chemicals, underground to break up the rocks, so they can get at the natural gas hiding underneath. Unfortunately, this fracking also allows those same chemicals – along with a lot of that natural gas – to get into the drinking water for these farms. Everywhere Fox goes, he hears horror stories of people getting sick, animals dying. It goes a step further when many people show him that yes, they can actually set their tap water on fire because they have become so polluted. Not only is the drinking water polluted, by the air is as well, as all these chemicals get evaporated into the environment.

Why can they get away with this? Because in 2005, a bill headed by then Vice President Dick Cheney (former CEO of Halliburton, one of the companies making a fortune off of this practice) passed which gave these companies an exemption from the Clean Water and Clean Air acts. Essentially, they are allowed to pollute, with little consequence.

Fox’s documentary is not the best made I have ever seen – far from it actually. It is a do it yourself film by a guy who really doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he has oddly framed shots, sometimes distracting editing, and scenes that probably don’t really need to be there (I could have done with the image of him playing “This Land is Your Land” on his banjo while wearing a gas mask). He also seems to have graduated from the Michael Moore school of documentary filmmaking – although he isn’t as arrogant as Moore, or for that matter as effective. But he’s learning.

Yet the crude filmmaking only seems to add to the charms of this film. Fracking has become a major concern in the last year – in part because of this film which debuted at Sundance in January. Hell, it even made its way to a recent episode of CSI. People should be outraged by this, and demand answers. I have no idea whether Josh Fox has a career ahead of him as a documentary filmmaker – hopefully with the exposure he has gained on this film, if he does make another one he can hired a better cinematographer and editor. Yet for all its rough spots, Gasland is one of the most effective and affecting docs of the year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Oscar Update: The Documentary Shortlist

Late last week, the Academy announced their 15 film shortlist for the Documentary Feature Oscar. As always, there were some snubs and some surprises. The biggest snubs including foreign films like Armadillo, Last Train Home and A Film Unfinished. Not surprisingly, they overlooked audience favorites like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (not serious enough), Catfish (probably too many questions about its authenticity, combined with the feeling some have that the filmmakers were exploitative) and Disney’s Oceans (the highest grossing doc of the year, unless you count Jackass 3-D, which was probably a little too “been there, done that” for them.) Two of my favorite docs of the year - 12th and Delaware, about abortion, and The Oath, about Osama Bin Laden’s former body guard, were also surprisingly overlooked. But, since I have only seen 6 of the shortlisted 15, I can’t really comment on the deservingness of all of the following films (I will see at least another one next week, if not two, and I know one of the other shortlisted films will be on DVD in early December, so that could bring me up to at least 9 films - and I will try to see the other ones.

But let’s have a look at the films that did make the list – I have ranked them in the order I think they have a shot at being nominated. This is always a tough task, because we don’t really know what this branch is thinking – but barring any real shockers, I think you are looking at any combination of the top 8 on my list - but I would be shocked if the number 1 film wasn't nominated. Nothing else would really surprise me.

1. Inside Job - Charles Ferguson started his second career as a documentary filmmaker with his great, Oscar nominated No End in Sight (the best of all the many Iraq docs out there). I think Inside Job, which examines the roots of the economic crisis and how it all went so horribly wrong. This is my favorite doc of the year so far - and since I think Ferguson should have won for his last film, I’ll be rooting for him on this one.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop - Nothing made me happier than this wonderful documentary - a completely different kind of doc from what the Academy usually nominates. The film has been a critical success and an audience favorite all year - and who doesn’t want to see what will happen if the notoriously secretive street artist Banksy, the director of the film, will do if he gets nominated. The shortlist was perhaps the biggest hurdle this film had - now that its made the list, it should easily be nominated and may even win.

3. Waiting for Superman – The only thing standing in the way of Davis Guggeinheim getting a nomination for his highly acclaimed, word of mouth hit about the problems with America’s education system is that another film about the same thing, The Lottery, is also in the running. But this film has much more buzz, is much more widely known, and comes from a previous winner of this award. This will be one of the frontrunners all season.

4. Gasland - This film hasn’t made a lot of money, but it is one that has been talked about all year - perhaps the films distribution method hurt its box office. The issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to drill for natural gas - a process that has led to huge pollution of drinking water. The film has become part of a conversation going across the country and has become so huge that even CSI did an episode based around it. I think this is one of you five nominees - and while I don’t think it’s quite that good, I do this is worth seeing and discussing.

5. Restrepo – This has been one of the most acclaimed, most talked about docs all year. It is a film where the filmmakers embedded themselves with an American army regiment in Afghanistan and filmed the action. It got great reviews and has strong box office for a documentary. I unfortunately missed it when it came to Toronto, but the DVD is scheduled to be released in December, so I will undoubtedly check it out.

6. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer - Former Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) had a busy year, directing this, Casino Jack and the United States of Money and a segment for the doc Freakonomics. But this one was the most acclaimed of the bunch - a look at the life of former NY Governor Elliot Spitzer. This is one that I cannot wait to see - it opened in TO this week, so I will try to catch it soon. This could quite easily move up into the top five.

7. Waste Land – The Academy often finds room in their nominees for an inspirational doc like this one. I haven’t seen it yet, but everything I have heard about suggests that this doc, about a modern artist who makes art out of the people who live as garbage pickers in the Rio De Janerio dump, is a truly inspiring doc, and should tug on some heartstrings. This film is just now garnering buzz, so watch for this to be an underdog nominee – and perhaps an upset winner.

8. The Tillman Story – There have been lots of docs about the Iraq war in play in the past few years, but I don’t think many are like Amir Bar Levi’s highly acclaimed The Tillman Story (I had an opportunity to see, and missed it, because when it played here in Toronto, I was on vacation). This tells the story of Pat Tillman, who have up his career as an NFL football player to serve his country – and then was killed by friendly fire. The film has had buzz all year, and they will work hard to get this a nomination. I hope the DVD comes out sooner rather than later.

9. Precious Life – Another surprise short list entry, this one could actually surprise again come nomination time. It tells the story of an Israeli doctor, and a Palestinian woman trying to get treatment for the woman’s child who has a rare genetic disease. It is said to be inspirational, so you have to expect it could pull on some heartstrings and get a nomination.

10. Enemies of the People - A look at the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, where the documentary filmmaker spent years getting to know the members of the famed group responsible for countless deaths. This film didn’t open in Toronto this year, at least as far as I know, and I have no idea when it will come to DVD, so I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to see it before the nominations come out. This got some strong reviews, so it’s a possibility, but was largely ignored by audiences. It could surprise.

11. The Lottery - The inclusion of The Lottery is interesting. It is a fine little documentary about charter schools in New York City - and as such has generated controversies just like the schools themselves. But that’s not why I am surprised - I am surprised because this film made it in even though they also found room for the much higher profile Waiting for Superman - which is about the same thing. And the criticisms leveled at Waiting for Superman - that it is essentially an advertisement for charter schools goes doubly for this one.

12. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe - William Kunstler, the famed lawyer who represented some of the most notorious radicals in the 1960s and 1970s, and then represented some of the most hated people in the 1980s. This documentary is made by his daughters as an attempt to work through their conflicted feelings they have about him. This was actually released late last year (strange eligibility rules they have for this category). It has got good reviews, decent box office and I felt was a good doc. Not Oscar worthy - this has to be seen as a long shot to be nominated.
13. Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould - The famed Canadian musician Glenn Gould won’t seem to go away - there seem to be movies about him all the time. It did good with critics, and is doing fairly well at the box office (at least for a doc). It has to be seen as a long shot. I will try to see this at some point, but I have no idea if I’ll be able to. The Canadian in me would like this doc to get in, but I haven't really heard it getting the reviews or the buzz of the frontrunners.

14. This Way of Life – The inclusion of this doc has to be seen as a surprise – since I hadn’t even heard of it before it made the list. Apparently, it is a film about a father in New Zealand trying to raise his large family in simple surroundings, raising horses, until he gets into a fight with his own father, who tries to ruin his plan. Since I have no idea how good the film is, I can’t really handicap its odds of getting in – but I would put it as a long shot at best.

15. Quest for Honor- At only 63 minutes, I’m surprised this even qualified as a feature, let alone made the shortlist. Its chance for a nomination have to be seen as slim, but since I have heard very little about it – and just know it is about honor killings in the Muslim world – you never really know. However, seeing as how they couldn’t be bothered to put a poster together for the movie, I doubt this one has any chance.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I *** ½
Directed by:
David Yates.
Written By: Steve Kloves based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Timothy Spall (Wormtail), Peter Mullan (Yaxley), Michael Gambon (Professor Albus Dumbledore), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Brendan Gleeson (Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Rhys Ifans (Xenophilius Lovegood), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Toby Jones (Dobby).

At this point, we pretty much know what to expect from a Harry Potter movie. They all follow pretty much the same formula as the rest of them, but of course, have become much darker as the series has progressed. Now in the first of two installments of the last chapter in the series, the Harry Potter franchise has, perhaps for the first time, pleased both purists of the books and regular film fans – that is if they can get over the fact that they have to wait seven months to see the end of the movie. This is the most faithful to the books of any of the movies since The Chamber of Secrets (the second movie) because director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves had a bigger canvas to play with – a much more expansive running time. My only real complaint about the film is that I couldn’t watch the second part right after it.

You should know the story by now. Harry Potter is now a direct collision course with the evil Lord Voldemort, with no one to protect him now that Dumbledore was killed at the end of the last movie. Harry needs to find Voldemort’s “horcruxes” little pieces of Voldemort’s soul that he has scattered around in the hopes that it will make him immortal. When he finds them, he needs to destroy them. So, there is no going back to Hogwarts, that magical school, for Harry or his friends Hermione and Ron. The problem is they really do not know what they are doing – and are stuck wandering around the forests having no clue where to look. Meanwhile, Voldemort has gained more power, more followers and has taken over the Ministry of Magic and started on his campaign to get rid of the “Mudbloods” – wizards who are not pure, but have been mixed with Muggles. The film lays on the Nazi symbolism pretty heavily in places, but it works. But what Voldemort really wants is to kill Harry Potter.

I appreciate what the Harry Potter books and movies have done. Essentially, the have grown up with their characters, as well as their audience. The innocence and brightness of the first two installments, has gotten gradually darker, scarier and more dangerous. Death now hangs over the movie – and in this first installment we are dealt some real blows as characters we have come to love are cut down (this film ends with a truly heartbreaking one – where I had to fight back tears, just like I had to when I was reading the book). Director David Yates may not be the visionary director Alfonso Cuaron was when he took the reins from Chris Columbus for the third movie (The Prisoner of Azkaban) – but I think he has followed in his footsteps admirably. Despite the fact that Cuaron has only directed one of what will become eight films – I think he may have had the biggest impact on it. There was a definite tonal shift from the first two movies to the third, and it made the Harry Potter franchise mature and become better as a result.

I now admit I am at a loss as to what else to say about the movie. If you read the books, or even if you haven’t, you most likely know the story. And if you’ve seen the other six movies, you know what to expect in terms of performances. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have all grown into very good, young actors who navigate the difficult material well. Ralph Fiennes continues to be one of the more iconic screen villains in recent years, and Alan Rickman remains thoroughly unreadable as Snape, in another great role. The rest of the cast fills out the background fine – I especially love the over the top theatrics of Helena Bonham Carter and Evanna Lynch never fails to bring a smile to my face when her Luna Lovegood shows up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I does pretty much exactly what you would expect it to do. I for one, highly enjoyed it, and will looking forward to seeing what should be a great finale. But why do I have to wait until June?

Movie Review: The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days ***
Directed by:
Paul Haggis.
Written By: Paul Haggis based on the screenplay by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans.
Starring: Russell Crowe (John Brennan), Elizabeth Banks (Lara Brennan), Jason Beghe (Detective Quinn), Aisha Hinds (Detective Collero), Ty Simpkins (Luke), Olivia Wilde (Nicole), Daniel Stern (Meyer Fisk), Helen Carey (Grace Brennan), Brian Dennehy (George Brennan), Liam Neeson (Damon Pennington), RZA (Mouss), Kevin Corrigan (Alex).

Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days is different from pretty much every prison break movie I have ever seen before. The actual break represents only about a third of its running time – most of the movie is about Russell Crowe’s John Brennan, a mild mannered college professor, planning the break out of his wife, and discovering just what exactly he is capable of. During the course of the movie, he has to do things he had never even considered before – and the movie asks what price Brennan is willing to pay to get his wife out of jail – not in terms of money, but in regards to his own humanity.

The movie dives into its story fairly quickly. Brennan’s wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murdering her boss in the film’s opening scenes – and then we flash forward. Her trail is over, her appeals exhausted and she’s still in jail with no way of getting out. John has never questioned his wife’s innocence, and now believes that he has no choice but to try and find a way to break her out. He talks to a man who has broken out lots of prisons (Liam Neeson) and starts to formulate his own plan. He does this even though they have a six year old son. He needs his wife – who has gone from a perky, blonde bombshell into a depressed, suicidal woman. And to him, that is worth any price.

I found the movie fascinating – not just because of the way Haggis shows Brennan planning the unthinkable, but also in the way he sketches his characters. Haggis admittedly made all of the characters in his breakout film Crash into stereotypes, but in most of the movies he has written, he does make them into interesting, three dimensional people and not just the cookie cutter characters we normally see in a thriller. Through the course of the movie, Crowe’s Brennan transforms before our eyes from a non-violent man, into someone capable of committing murder. The question that remains unanswered by the end of the film is whether he’ll be able to make his way back again – into the man his wife loves, and who his son needs. It is one of Crowe’s best performances – at the heart of practically every scene of the movie. It’s watching this man that makes the movies as good as it is.

There are problems with the film though – the chief one being I never could quite accept that John would do this because of his six year old son. Any parent will tell you that when you have kids, their needs come first, and you have to set aside your own needs for their well being. John takes a huge risk – a risk that could permanently damage his child much more than he already is because of his mother being convicted of murder. I somehow feel the movie would have been more effective had the child not been there at all. Plus, as good as Crowe is in the movie – and he is pretty damn great – I think it may have worked even better with a different actor there. Haggis is obviously trying to show us an everyman doing this – not an action star, but a regular Joe to heighten the impact of the film, but then why choose the muscle bound Crowe to play the lead? Why not someone like Paul Giamatti, who really would have driven the point home. I also would have liked a little more ambiguity about Banks’ guilt or innocence. Haggis plays with this throughout the movie, but by the end, it is pretty clear cut, and I wish he would have left it open.
Yet, despite these problems, The Next Three Days remains a fascinating, intelligent movie – much more so than most thrillers of its ilk. As a director, this could be Haggis’ best work behind the camera. I thought that in both his previous films – Crash and In the Valley of Elah – Haggis’s direction was too straight forward, at times too on the nose (like the upside down flag that ends Elah) to be truly effective. And what’s more, a little too TV movie to be truly cinematic (this shouldn’t surprise anyone, since Haggis has an extensive TV background). But in The Next Three Days, all of that is gone. For the first time in his career, Haggis has made a movie that feels like a movie, and not something that airs on HBO.

There are also some wonderful little touches in the films. I liked Olivia Wilde’s performance as a single parent who eyes Crowe first with sexual interest, then skepticism and finally sympathy – Wilde does this all with her face, and not her words. I loved Brian Dennehy as Crowe’s nearly silent father. The two have never really figured out how to speak to each other, but it practically brought a tear to my eye when Dennehy hugs Crowe and tells him simply “Goodbye” as he has pieced together what Crowe plans on doing. It’s a truly heartbreaking little moment.

The Next Three Days is not a great film. It is too flawed for that. And yet, in the nearly 24 hours since I have seen it, it is a film that will not leave my mind. I keep replaying scenes of it in my head. Yes, it’s flawed, but it is unlikely that you will find a more complex thriller out there right now.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Year in Review: 2009

To end this series, I decided to revisit 2009 – which I had already posted a top 10 list for back in January. Has it changed? Yes, because I decided to move a film that I was going to consider for 2010 back to 2009. It was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, and as such, is not eligible for anything else this year (due to restrictions, it wasn’t eligible for anything by Foreign last year). Other than that, this is the same list. But I felt the need to post it, if for no other reason than for completeness sake. Now that the series is done, I think I will continue to post a rethought list near the end of the following year – because sometimes once the dust as settled, you get a better chance to view the films.

10. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
There isn't much left to do with the alien invasion genre - or at least I didn't think there was until I saw Neill Blomkamp's wholly original movie. The setting is South Africa, where an alien spaceship has broken down and its inhabitants have come down to earth. They are treated like crap, shoved into makeshift shanty towns, derided by everyone, who wants them gone. Sharlton Copley gives a wonderful performance as an unprepared government bureaucrat, who is charged with moving the aliens to an even worse place, and doesn't expect what he gets. The movie has a documentary feel in its opening scenes - brilliantly handled with special effects that fit in naturally with its surrondings. And the climax is one of the best action sequences in recent memory. District 9 is a science fiction film that has a larger outlook than most in the genre - and that adds weight to the proceedings. Yet, for me, this is first and foremost a film about Copley's character, and his tragic downfall. A brilliant debut film - I expect big things from Copley in the future.

9. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier is, by all accounts, an asshole in real life - which is why many actors refuse to work with him more than once. Yet, for all his experiments in style, all his preteniousness, he is still a vital, original filmmaker. Antichrist represents von Trier at his most far out. It is a film about a married couple - Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourgh, reeling after the death of their infant son (shot in stunning black and white for the opening scene, which is contrasted by the two of them fucking). He, a doctor, takes her to their cabin in the woods and tries to "cure" her of her depression - which doesn't go well. The film is a study in abject pain and cruelty - he is cruel to her mentally, and she in turn is cruel to him physically, leading to a confrontation. The film mixes genres - throwing in horror with psychological drama and others. The performances are brilliant - especially Charlotte Gainsbourgh who undeniably gives the bravest performance of the year, and also one of the best. You may end up hating Antichrist - but it is a film that demands to be seen.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
The films of Wes Anderson have always had a slightly animated feel to them, so it was probably only a matter of time before he made an actual animated film. This allows Anderson to indulge himself in things like costume design and art direction like he never has before, and also gives him complete control over every aspect of the film. Yet, while to some this may be stifling, I think it actually freed Anderson up a little bit. His films before this hadn't hit the heights of Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but with this film, he has made one of his absolute best. It doesn't matter that the film is animated - or about talking animals - this really isn't a family film (although I think kids will enjoy it, even if the wonderful animation isn't quite what the expect), but a film about a dysfunctional family. I have no idea what Anderson's father was really like, but his film fathers are usually distant and cruel - and Mr. Fox here is no exception. When Mrs. Fox berates him for what he has done, and claws at him, it is a painful scene full of honesty and heartbreak. Yes, it's animated, yet it is still a stunning portrait of family dysfunction by a director whose has made it his obsession.

7. Up (Pete Docter)
Pixar may just be the most consistent creative force in American movies right now. Even when they make a film not up to their standards - Cars, A Bug's Life - they are still quite good. And when they get everything right - like in Up - they make animated masterpieces. Up is a strange film about a sad old man, who lost his wife (in a heartbreaking, tear inducing introduction that recalls their life together) and now just wants to be left alone. But they want to take his house away from him - so he ties a bunch of balloons on to it and takes off - unwittingly taking a small child with him on his adventure. The film hits all the right notes, even though it changes tone quite frequently - it is potent study in loss and redemption, a hilarious comedy and a thrilling adventure and action film. While it may not be quite the film that Wall-E was in 2008 (or Toy Story 3 in 2010 for that matter) Up is still Pixar at its best.

6. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Audiences do not want to see movies about the Iraq war. None of them have made all that much money, perhaps because America is still mired in the war there, and audiences crave escape. But they should - and I think have, at least on DVD - see The Hurt Locker, a film that drains the politics out of the film, and simply looks at one bomb squad going about their last month of duty before being sent home. They get a new leader in Jeremy Renner, who is an adrenline junkie - he loves the rush of defusing a bomb, and takes unncessary risks. The other two just want to get home. This is the best film of Kathryn Bigelow's career - that strangely for a female director has mainly focused on wounded masculinity. She is a great director, and the action and thriller sequences in the film are as good as any I have seen in war movie. But there is a deeper level here - and that is what makes The Hurt Locker the one film about the Iraq war that must be seen.

5. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are was criticized by some for not being a kids movie, even though it is based on a beloved children's book and stars a bunch of large creatures. While its true that this film is likely too slow for children, I don't think that's a criticism of the film - which really is a movie about childhood, not a movie for children. The little boy at the center of this film is going through a hard time - his parents are divorced, his mother is dating again, he has no real friends, and his older sister won't hang out with him anymore. He runs off after an argument, and finds himself in a strange land populated by "wild things" - each one representing a different facet of his life and imagination. The movie takes place in the mind of a confused child - one that is fighting his feelings of abandonment and hurt, and his budding sexuality that he doesn't understand. The film is also, it must be said, very entertaining and tremendously directed by Spike Jonze - who I think has made the best film of his career here. This is a funny, sad great movie about what childhood is really like.

4. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke never makes it easy for his audiences. In Funny Games, he literally punishes his audience with what he puts on the screen - in Cache in implicates his French audience in the guilt of his protaganist. In The White Ribbon, he has made a film about the birth of fascism, as seen in a small German town just before WWI. The adults in the town - who all indentified by their jobs - impose a strict, absolutist moral code on the children - and then are shocked when the children hold them to the same standards. Shot in brilliant, beautiful black and white, The White Ribbon is not as shocking violent as some of Haneke's films - and isn't quite as good as Cache - but it is still a masterpiece by one of the boldest filmmakers in the world today.

3. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is a film about a teenage Muslim who goes to jail a naïve young man, and comes out a career criminal. When he arrives, he is a loner, an outsider who doesn’t fit in with any of the groups – not even the other Muslims, who beat him up for his shoes. He is embraced by the Corsicans, who operate like the Mafia, not because they like him – they don’t – but because they need him to murder someone that they cannot get close to. This murder, early in the film, sets the tone – it is brutal, bloody, violent and messy. It doesn’t come off like most movie murders, but has the messiness of real life violence. The young man sits back and observes what he sees around him – just like we sit back and observe him – until he is ready to make his move. Jacques Audiard has been an accomplished director for a while now, but in this movie he takes things to another level – his film is violent and sweeping, encompassing politics, identity issues alongside its prison movie structure – which is also different than most prison movies we see – no one here is looking for redemption. They are violent men. At the heart of the movie is a remarkable performance by Tahr Rahim, who subtlety transforms himself as the movie progresses – from that young man who shakes when he kills his first man, to the confident criminal who leaves the prison years later. In its own way, A Prophet is a rather profound tragedy – the story of a young man who has wasted his life, and has so much more of it to waste.

2. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers are the best directing team in history - and among the most original filmmakers in the world right now. A Serious Man is one of their very best films - a strange, dark comedy about a Jewish phsyics professor in 1960s Minnesota who is being tested like no one since Job. His family life is falling apart, because his wife wants a divorce to marry his friend - who is one of those infuriatingly calm people who just wants to talk about his feelings. His professional life could also be in tatters, as his tenure is up for review. At each stage in the film, he is given one moral test after another, and struggles to come up with the right answers - going to see three rabbis who are, of course, no help at all. When he finally relents, finally gives in and makes a bad moral choice - it brings on the Apocalypse. A Serious Man is a brilliant, bold dark comedy from the Coen brothers - filmmakers who make whatever the hell they want to.

1. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino is like no other filmmaker in history. You can't really call his films original, as they are inspired by so much of cinema past, and yet he makes films like no one else would even dare. To me, Inglorious Basterds is his masterpiece - his most fully realized film, where his love of language and cinema are ingrained in the narrative like none of his other films. It opens with one of the best scenes ever put on film, as Jew hunting Nazi Christophe Waltz, questions a farmer he thinks is hiding Jews. The sequence is so brilliantly written, directed (with a great nod to Hitchcock) and performed by Waltz, that it is masterpiece in and of itself. The rest of the film - told in various chapters - are just as good though, as Tarantino weaves his complex, masterful alternate history and multiple storylines together until it all comes to a brilliant climax at, where else, a movie theater. To reference another Tarantino film, Inglorious Basterds is like a shot of adrenline - brilliant, bold, original and completely unique. Tarantino's best film, and one of the very best of the decade.

Just Missed The Top 10: Avatar (James Cameron), Bad Lieutentant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog), Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi), An Education (Lone Scherfig), 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb), The Informant (Steven Soderbergh), In the Loop (Armando Ianucci), The Messenger (Oren Moverman), Passing Strange (Spike Lee), Police Adjective (Cristi Puiu), Public Enemies (Michael Mann), The Road (John Hillcoat), Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Up in the Air (Jason Reitman).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
I remember seeing The Hurt Locker at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival and thinking that it was a great film that would never get seen by anyone. After all, Iraq war films had all tanked at the box office - and this included films with big names, not one starring Jeremy Renner in the lead role. So it made me very happy in 2010 that the film got embraced by critics and awards groups - and although it remains the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever, I have heard from more and more people who have seen and loved the film on DVD. It had pretty much the perfect campaign strategy by going all David vs. Goliath against Avatar, and the Academy made the right call by giving it to this film. True, I would have loved to see Tarantino or the Coens win the big prize this year, I won’t complain too much.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation, and with Crazy Heart he picked up his fifth Oscar nomination since 1971, and he had yet to win. His work in Crazy Heart is the reason to see the film. It is a fairly standard country music movie about a washed up, alcoholic singer who finds a second chance when he cleans up his act. The music, written by T. Bone Burnett is great, and he gets some good support from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, but Bridges really is the whole show here. He is great in a movie that is merely good. Out of the nominees, I would have given the Oscar to Jeremy Renner for his work in The Hurt Locker, and would have loved to have seen the ridiculously great Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant got a nomination, but how can you really complain about Bridges finally winning an Oscar?

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Sandra Bullock’s win for The Blind Side caught a lot of flak from many critics and film buffs for a number of reasons. First, Bullock has never really been known as a great actress - she has spent most of her career doing mediocre romantic comedies. And the film itself, although a HUGE hit (I mean really, how many straight dramas make $250 million? Answer - none). I myself thought the movie was pretty good for what it was - not great by any means, but okay and I don’t think Bullock deserved to win, or even be nominated, so I’m not going to defend it too much. But I will say that Bullock was miles better than fellow nominees Helen Mirren, who was WAY too far over the top in The Last Station, and she was at least as good as Meryl Streep’s wildly over praised performance in Julie and Julia. Yes, the youngsters Gaborey Sidibe and especially Carey Mulligan deserved to win - but considering the Academy completely ignored truly great work like Charlotte Gainsbourgh in Antichrist and Tilda Swinton in Julia, what did we really expect?

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Christophe Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Christophe Waltz’s work in Inglorious Basterds is, in my opinion anyway, far and away the best performance of the year. Even if his performance was nothing more than the first scene in the movie - where he goes back and forth between French, German and English while questioning a man he thinks is hiding Jews in his house - he would have deserved this award. But the performance goes much further than that. Waltz is perhaps the vilest, most memorable movie Nazi in history. A masterful performance in a truly great movie. There was some other decent work this year - particularly Woody Harrelson in The Messenger - but Waltz was still the best by far.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious
There are some performances that seemingly come out of nowhere. If you asked me at the beginning of 2009 if Mo’Nique would win an Oscar this year, I would have laughed. There is nothing in her background that would suggest that she was capable of delivering this type of performance. But as the title character's monstrous mother, Mo’Nique is truly amazing. I’m sure most people will remember her profanity spewing rants early in the film, but it really it her masterful final scene, where we start to understand what makes this woman tick, that earned her this award. Whether or not Mo’Nique turns this into a more sustained acting career remains to be seen - but no matter what, she earned this Oscar.

Year in Review: 1969

I’ll admit it – I ran out of time. When I started this series, I thought I’d be done by the end of the summer, which was perfect because from the Toronto Film Festival on, I pretty much spend my movie watching time catching up with as many films as I can from the current year. But it didn’t happen that way. This is perhaps the weakest list I have done, and that’s only because I didn’t have enough time to catch up with some of the movies I have missed from this year. Still, having said that, aside from number 10 – which is still a wonderful little movie – having to bump any of the top 9 out would have been hard – and I find it next to impossible to believe that anything could dethrone my number 1 film – which is one of my all time favorites.

10. Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen)
Take the Money and Run is the first real film directed by Woody Allen – after his strange redubbing work on What’s Up Tiger Lily? It is one of the films that Allen would later reference in Stardust Memories when he had people repeatedly come up to him and tell him that they liked his earlier, funnier films. Take the Money and Run is almost pure slapstick, with Allen great in the role of a bungling thief and his various escapades. The film is very early mockumentary, one of the first really, showing that Allen, even early in his career, was not adverse to taking chances. The film is hilarious pretty much from start to finish. No, I do not consider it to be one of Allen’s best films, but it’s a great comedy nonetheless.

9. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper)
You could make the case that if you wanted to include just one movie that encapsulates the 1960s, that Easy Rider should be that movie. It has certainly aged quite a bit in the 40 years since it was released, yet if you watch it in the spirit in which it was intended, it is still quite effective. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pretty much did this themselves - they wrote the screenplay together, Hopper directed and they play the two hippie bikers on their cross country journey trying to complete a drug deal. They get a nice assist from Jack Nicholson, in his first great performance, as a young lawyer who admires them and their dropping out. The film has a wonderful visual flair - perfectly suited for the material, especially in that extended graveyard sequence. The two may not quite seem like the innocent, martyred heroes they did in the 1960s (they are drug dealers after all), but the film is still an excellent example of its era.

8. The Damned (Luchino Visconti)
Luchino Visconti’s The Damned looks at Germany during the rise of the Nazis as a country already diseased – the Nazis just gave them excuse to come out of the closet as it were. It concentrates on a wealthy industrial family, whose patriarch openly detests the Nazis – although he is quickly killed and his son framed for the crime so that a distant relative – pro-Nazi – can come in and run the company the way he sees fit. Visconti’s films always had an undercurrent of homoeroticism, but here he lets it run wild – with its portrayal of the sexual deviant and child molester by Helmet Berger, and of course the infamous Night of the Long Knives sequence, with devolves into a homosexual orgy, and blood bath. Visconti, once he abandoned his neo-realist roots – was a fan of over the top movies like this one, and here he revels in decadence and moral decay. It may not be his best film, but it is one you are likely never to forget once you’ve seen it.

7. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame)
The British boarding school drama has been a staple of English cinema pretty much since its infancy – with lots of great examples from the earliest year’s right up to this year’s Never Let Me Go. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of the best, and one of the most original, of the group. Maggie Smith delivers an excellent performance – perhaps her best – in the title role as a woman who loves her “girls” and has already mapped out their futures for them before they even have a chance to decide for themselves. But not all of these girls are willing to go along with her plans – some of which involve one of the girls to become a lover of an older artist. Pamela Franklin gives a performance almost the equal of Smith’s as the most fiery and independent of the films, even though what she really longs for is for Miss Brodie to see her the way she sees another of her classmates. The ending packs an emotional wallop in this wonderful little film.

6. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack)
I can’t think of another film quite like Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It is a film set during the great depression, but it had resonance in the 1960s, and perhaps even more so today. The film is about a marathon dance competition that goes on for weeks on end, where the dancers have to keep dancing for 50 minutes every hour. The last couple standing will share $1,500. Gradually, we get to know the contestants – the miserable Jane Fonda, the sympathetic Michael Sarrazin, the upbeat Red Buttons, the diva Susannah York and the farmhand Bruce Dern among them. They are presided over by the excellent Gig Young, who acts as emcee, as mercilessly mocks the contestants, and holds up their weaknesses for ridicule. This is a fascinating film – sometimes funny, but ultimately quite tragic – especially at the end when the title snaps into focus.

5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the most entertaining Westerns you are probably ever going to see. The film coasts along on the charms of its stars – Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not the mention Katherine Ross. Butch is the leader of his ragtag group of outlaws that rob trains in the West, and Sundance is his right hand man – a kid yes, but quicker on the draw than anyone else. When Ross is introduced, as Sundance’s girlfriend, the movie really gets moving – as the three of them have such a natural chemistry together that is impossible not get swept along with them. The screenplay, by William Goldman, is witty and funny all the way through, and Newman and Redford make the most of their roles – from the moment up on that cliff when they have to jump, to the finale when they go out in a blaze of glory. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not a deep film in any way – it’s pure cinematic pleasure, and on that level it is one of the best ever made.

4. Midnight Cowboy (John Scheslinger)
Midnight Cowboy was seen as quite daring back in 1969 - because of its sexual content it was rated X. Watching it today, it seems fairly tame - and the film has certainly dated a little bit. But the film is still a wonderful one, about the strange relationship in New York between two unlikely friends. Jon Voight plays the small town, Texas boy who comes to New York with the hope of becoming a gigolo. Dustin Hoffman is the inventively named Ratso Rizzo, the streetwise veteran, who takes Voight in. Together, they move through New York city, both full of false bravado and confidence, but really quite sad, lonely and pathetic. By the end of the movie, they realize all they have Is each other - and on that bus, heading for Florida and the hope of a better life, you can’t help but hope they’ll make it - the whole time knowing full well that they don’t have a chance.

3. If… (Lindsay Anderson)
I remarked that earlier that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favorite British Boarding school dramas – Lindsay Anderson’s If, which is a completely different film on every level, may just be my favorite. It stars Malcolm McDowell in his first screen role, gives an excellent performance as the films antihero – one of the few boys in his class who rebels against the norm at his school, which constantly gets him in trouble. McDowell, and his friends, are constantly beaten down by authority, until the almost surreal finale – in which they find a cache of automatic weapons, and decide to fight back. Anderson was always a daring, innovative filmmaker, and you can see that in the way he shoots this film – which is completely unexpected (although it was later revealed some of the stylistic innovations and transgressions had more to do with money than anything else, they work brilliantly in the movie). If is a strange film – a film very much of its time and place – and yet one that still resonates today, more than 40 years later.

2. Army of Shadows (Jean Pierre Melville)
It took nearly 40 years for Jean Pierre Melville’s masterpiece about the French resistance to get a North American release – but it was worth the wait and it truly is the master filmmakers greatest achievement. The film is a stark, honest and exciting view of the French resistance during WWII – somehow portraying the members as heroes, but not making their lives seem glamorous. The performances in the movie are excellent, especially considering how stoic the actors have to be – the standout being Simone Signoiret’s great work, which ends with a scene that is tragic, and perhaps a little pathetic. But the real star of the film is Melville and his direction, and he keeps his complex story moving along at a brisk pace, never letting up for more than two hours. Melville, the great filmmaker behind such films as Bob La Flambeur and Le Samorai, made his best film with this one.

1. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
The Wild Bunch may just be the greatest Western ever made - and it came at the perfect time. The classic Western can become stagnate and rather dull, and although Leone had tried something new with the spaghetti western, we needed a film like The Wild Bunch- which finalized de-romanticized the Western completely. This is not a film with good guys and bad guys - everyone is rotten to the core, and in that final gun battle - the greatest in screen history without a doubt - everyone is shot - women, children - it doesn’t matter. Bullets don’t discriminate. Sam Peckinpah is perhaps the best of all directors in dealing with violence, and here he makes his masterpiece. He is aided greatly by his cast of aging Hollywood stars - particularly William Holden as the leader of the Bunch, and Robert Ryan as a former member who realizes before the rest of them that their time has passed, and switches side - and because of it, at the end of the movie, he is all by himself - a man who has outlived his friends, and his time. This is an absolute masterpiece.

Notable Films Missed: Antonio Das Mortes (Glauber Rocha), The Color of Pomengranite (Sergei Parajanov), Days and Nights in the Forest (Sayajit Ray), Hello Dolly (Gene Kelly), The Milky Way (Luis Bunel), My Night at Mauds (Erich Rohmer), The Passion of Anna (Ingmar Bergman), Satyricon (Federico Fellini), Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Ken Jacobs), The Wild Child (Francois Truffaut), Z (Costa-Gravas).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: Midnight Cowboy (John Scheslinger)
What a daring choice this was in 1969. This was the first, and still only, film ever to be Rated X to win the Best Picture Oscar. Perhaps the previous year’s winner – the lumbering, dull giant that was Oliver – made the Academy realize how out of date they were, so this year to assert their relevancy, they picked a popular critics movie, but a new generation filmmaker starring two up and coming stars. Out of the nominees, it certainly was the best. I feel kind of sad that Midnight Cowboy has aged a bit – even in the decade it has been since I have first seen the film – because it was such a daring film in 1969 – and remains one of my favorite winners – even if it isn’t necessary one of the best.

Oscar Winner – Actor: John Wayne, True Grit
I have been known to insult True Grit, but the truth is, it is a pretty solid B Western. It is nothing all that special – and the little girl in it annoys me to no end – but what it does, it does fairly well. If John Wayne had not won an Oscar for the film, then it would be largely forgotten today. But Wayne did win. It is clear that it was a sympathy win – he had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the Academy had only nominated him once before, despite the fact that he was biggest star in Hollywood. Wayne deserved an Oscar – his performances in films like Red River, The Searchers and Rio Bravo can attest to that. True Grit is nowhere near a great movie, but it’s pretty decent. There is a great movie lurking in that source material though – so let’s hope the Coen’s pull it off in the remake later this year.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Maggie Smith really is quite excellent in this film. She is prim and proper, the perfect school teacher for an all girls school, who is really quite a bit more warped then anyone suspects. She thinks she knows everything, maps out her girls futures for them, and then is somewhat shocked when they do not all want to follow her plan blindly. I have seen many British Boarding school movies, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains one of my favorites – and the principle reason for that is Smith’s excellent performance in the lead role.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Gig Young is excellent as the evil emcee who delights in poking fun at all the contestants in his marathon dance competition. They are nothing to him, beneath his dignity, so he lets go a tirade of insults at them. He is dripping with evil, and yet this is not just an one dimensional performance. Young never lets his guard down, but he allows his character to show us more than perhaps he wants to. A great character actor, in one of his best performances.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower
Cactus Flower was not an original movie even back in 1969. It was a warmed over story about a middle aged dentist (Walter Matthau) who tells his young hottie girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) that he’s married in the hopes of keeping their relationship casual. It doesn’t work, and he finds he needs to get a fake wife to get rid of Hawn – so he enlists the help of his nurse, Ingrid Bergman. It is a classic comedy of errors, and not one that is overly terrific – but it is made immensely enjoyable because of the three leads, all of whom are wonderful. Goldie Hawn is the classic supporting actress winner – young, hot, funny – and so she won an Oscar for her gloriously ditzy performance, while the other two, who are equally as good, didn’t even get nominated. Oh well. I can’t say this is one of the best Oscar wins in history, but Hawn is enjoyable in the film, so I won’t complain too much.