Thursday, September 30, 2010

Movie Review: Leaving (Partir)

Leaving (Partir) * ½
Directed By:
Catherine Corsini.
Written By: Catherine Corsini & Gaelle Macé.
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas (Suzanne), Sergi López (Ivan), Yvan Attal (Samuel), Bernard Blancan (Rémi), Aladin Reibel (Dubreuil), Alexandre Vidal (David), Daisy Broom (Marion).

Kristin Scott Thomas has had something of a career renaissance in the past few years. While I have always found her somewhat reserved and superficial in English movies, when she acts in French, she is somewhat freer and looser, and much more convincing. In the surprise hit from two years ago, Tell No One, she did great in a small role. And her career best performance was in I’ve Loved You So Long, another French. Last year year, I actually liked her while she was acting in her native language in Easy Virtue. While I still wouldn’t say that I am a fan of Scott Thomas, she has certainly started to grow on me.

Which is why her new film, Partir, is such a disappointment. This is a very obvious melodrama about an affair that goes too far, and ends up completely ruining an affluent family. This is a movie where all the characters actions make little to no sense. I just kept sitting there thinking that all three of the characters in this love triangle are selfish, stupid people.

Scott Thomas plays Suzanne, the wife of a doctor Samuel (Yvan Attal), who has decided to return to the workforce for the first time in years. She plans on opening her own physiotherapy office out of their home. In order to do this, they need to hire a contractor. They end hiring Ivan (Sergei Lopez), a Spanish immigrant living in France and doing odd jobs. He is a divorced, ex-convict with a daughter living back in Spain that he hardly ever sees. When Suzanne causes an accident that leaves Ivan in a cast, the two go from innocently flirting with each into passionate embraces. They start screwing like teenagers, and soon Suzanne is ready to leave her husband, and two adolescent children, in order to live with Ivan in his small, one room apartment. Samuel is obviously upset, and does everything he can to make her life a living hell. All the money in their relationship is his, and since she is abandoning him and not the other way around, as the whole thing becomes a legal mess, she winds up penniless. Her new career is a bust, and Ivan can barely support himself. Things get desperate pretty quickly in the film.

As I watched the film, I had several problems with the basic setup of the movie. For one, I never bought the chemistry between Scott Thomas and Lopez. It is not uncommon for married couples to get bored and have affairs, but while lust is understandable, the love that blossoms between them requires more of a connection than this movie offers. For another, I hated the idea of making Samuel the bad guy in the movie. His biggest sin before the affair seems to be that he was boring. All of a sudden, Samuel seems to be an abusive, horrible, cruel, petty man who wants to make her life miserable. Why is that every movie about a woman who cheats on her husband, it’s some sort of feminist statement, but when a man does it, it’s because he’s a pig?

The end of the film struck me as one of the most selfish acts that I have ever seen in a film. By that point, I had lost all sympathy with these three characters and their sordid lives. None of them think about the consequences of their actions, none of them think about anything other than their own immediate needs. While Scott Thomas and Attal are actually quite good here, considering the material they had to work with, Lopez (best known for his villainous turns in Dirty Pretty Things and Pan’s Labyrinth) is just not cut out to be a sexy leading man. Perhaps had I believed him, and the love between him and Scott Thomas, the movie would have worked - or at least been better than it was. Because I didn’t, Partir is one of most boring, most infuriating movies of the year.

Movie Review: Let Me In

Let Me In ****
Directed by:
Matt Reeves.
Written By: Matt Reeves based on the screenplay and novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee (Owen), Chloe Grace Moretz (Abby), Richard Jenkins (The Father), Cara Buono (Owen's Mother), Elias Koteas (The Policeman), Sasha Barrese (Virginia), Dylan Kenin (Larry), Chris Browning (Jack), Ritchie Coster (Mr. Zoric).

It’s become a cliché now to say that Hollywood has run out of ideas – but just because it’s a cliché, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Any movie that is made in another country that finds any sort of international success is immediately targeted for an American remake – for obvious reasons. Audiences clearly loved the film, but Hollywood wants to connect with that ever important demographic of people who won’t watch any movie with subtitles. Most of the time the American remakes fail miserably, because someone in Hollywood decides that they can improve upon the original – by taking out whatever made the film special in the first place, and filling the gaps with clichés.

Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is one of the best vampire movies I have ever seen. It was hugely popular in his native Sweden, and the film found genuine art house success when it was released in North America back in 2008, so it was only a matter of time before someone remade the film in English. I, like many, was dreading the eventual remake, thinking that the filmmakers would take what was an intelligent, genuinely scary and unsettling movie, and dumb it down for the masses. But about fifteen minutes into Matt Reeves Let Me In, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Reeves didn’t screw it up. He uses the original film as his blueprint, but not as his bible. He does make some changes, but not many, and none of them detract from the simple power, and genuine creepiness of this movie. In short, what was the best horror film of 2008 has been remade into the best horror film of 2010.

The movie has been moved to New Mexico, in the early 1980s. Reeves keeps the snow covered setting of the original film, and does a great job with casting. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Owen, a kid who is small for his age, and is the constant target for bullies at his school. He has no real friends, his parents have recently divorced, and he stays with his mother – although he prefers to spend long hours by himself in the courtyard outside their dilapidated apartment building. One day, he observes his new neighbors moving in. It appears to be a father (Richard Jenkins) and his daughter (Chloe Grace Mortez), who is around Owen’s age. Owen thinks it is weird that when he first sees the girl, she isn’t wearing any shoes, even though it is the middle of winter. When he finally meets the girl, who says her name is Abby, but they cannot be friends, he thinks she is even weirder. But gradually, these two mixed up, unpopular kids who do not fit in with anyone else, fit together and do become best friends.

But then strange things begin happening. People are winding up dead, either drained of their blood, or looking like they were attacked by wild animals – where no wild animals should be. Add to this Abby’s continual weird behavior – like the fact she never goes to school, and confuses Owen by telling him that she isn’t a girl, Owen starts to expect what we already know – that Abby is not a normal girl, but a vampire.

Just like in the previous film, Let Me In is more about mood, atmosphere and character than it is about genuine scares. That isn’t to stay that movie doesn’t have some wonderfully creepy, scary moments, just that there is much more to the film than just those moments. Reeves, who previous film Cloverfield did not suggest he had this level of talent, does a remarkable job in building the suspense in the movie, allowing the story to unfold naturally, and getting terrific performances from his actors. Smit-McPhee, sporting perhaps the worst haircut in the movies since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, makes a convincing boy being bullied – a shy kid who needs to come out of his shell. There is something about this kid that you cannot turn away from – the immense hurt and pain in his eyes for one, but also his dogged persistence – every day he gets up miserable, and plows through his life. Mortez is even better as Abby – who instead of making the character into an old soul, much like the original did, turns her into a more naïve character, completely unsuited for the outside world. If she was whip smart and capable of handling her one liners with great comic appeal in Kick Ass, she does the opposite here – it is a largely quiet performance, one where the best moments are the ones where she says nothing. And Richard Jenkins is terrific as her “Father”, who seems almost like a grown up version of Owen – painfully shy, unable to communicate his feelings or anything else for that matter, but in love with Abby. The film goes even a little farther with his character than the original did – suggesting some warped sexual feelings for her, that Jenkins masterfully conveys when he looks at Mortez.

The slow burn works for this movie, just like it worked for the last one. By the time we have reached the climax (which is perhaps the only moment in the film which is essentially a shot for shot remake of the original, because, well, it truly would have been impossible to improve on perfection) the movie has us firmly in its grasp and won’t let go. This truly is one of the best horror films of the year.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Movie Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives ****
Directed by:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written By: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar (Boonmee), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Tong), Jenjira Pongpas (Jen).

Whether the Cannes jury led by Tim Burton meant to or not, by giving Apichatpong Weerasethakul the Palme D’Or – the most prestigious prize in the film world – this year has made his film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a film that has inspired fevered debate. On one side, you have people like Peter Howell, who in the wake of the victory noted that it was a ridiculous choice – that this art film would die a quick death in a few art house theaters and then be forgotten forever and that the film didn’t deserve comparison to such films as La Dolce Vita, Apocalypse Now or Kagemusha – three films that one the same prize in years past. On the other side, were people and publications like Cinemascope who proclaimed this the most important decision a Cannes jury has ever made – said that it may just be the greatest film to ever win the Palme – and how this was a strike back for art film lovers, and people like Howell are completely out to lunch and doesn’t understand films like this or what they mean. A debate like this is unfair to the film itself – which is a great film, but one where I can’t help but think that Howell may be right about. This is never going to be an audience pleasing film, nor does it have to be. The film is no greater nor no worse than it would have been regardless as to whether it won the Palme D’Or, or got ignored by the jury. The film has to ultimately succeed or fail based on what is one screen.

For me, what was onscreen was hypnotic, beautiful and entrancing. I have often that many viewers are intimidated by so called art films by thinking that they may not understand them – which has always struck me as ridiculous because for the most part, they are very simple films. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is no exception. It is about precisely what you think it is about – an old farmer named Boonmee who is slowly dying of liver disease. He sister in law and nephew come to visit him in his final days, where he remains in surprisingly good spirits. At dinner one night, they are joined by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife, and later by the soon they had together who has disappeared. He has come back – but not strictly as himself, but as a Monkey Ghost with glowing red eyes (there are a lot of them in the film, making for some of the most striking visuals the film has to offer). He has transformed into this Monkey Ghost because he has mated with one. This, in a way, is Boonmee recalling his past life – not one before this life, but just earlier in this life. There is another striking scene involving a princess who is only beautiful when she looks into a specific pool of water. She goes there often, and on this occasion she speaks to a catfish. Is this a past life, a dream, does it matter?

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives does not really adhere strictly to the rules of narrative filmmaking, but rather to dream logic. All of what we see could be real or could be a dream and you could drive yourself crazy trying to identify precisely what is real, and what isn’t – but it doesn’t really matter does it? What matters is the visuals in a film like this, and they are haunting and provocative. Apichatpong has made a film where each segment has a different visual scheme and look – the film is as much a tribute to cinema as anything else – and amazingly they all fit together. Lest you think that this is purely a visual exercise, let me assure you it isn’t. It is about Boonmee who is dying and worries about his past sins – specifically that he killed too many communists, which could be represented in all the mosquitoes who buzz around him annoying him to no end, and not letting him get any real peace.

The final segment of the film is the hardest one, at least to be, to reconcile as it takes place after Boonmee has died, and focuses on his remaining family – his sister in law, her daughter (who we had not seen up to this point) and the nephew who has also visited him and has now become a monk. He visits his family, showers and changes out of his robes. As they are about to leave the apartment for dinner, he notices that while he is talking to his aunt, there is another version of her, and himself, just sitting there watching TV. I think what is going on is that Apichatapong is showing us how there are different versions of ourselves – we are essentially different people throughout our lives – but perhaps I don’t know.

I don’t really care that I may not fully understand Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I don’t necessarily think it is important to enjoying the film – or at least being entranced by it. I like it when a film challenges you to try and decipher its meanings – even when you know that may never be able to figure it all out. I also know, however, that I am in the minority of filmgoers who feel that way. If you want narrative cohesion – a film that proceeds logically from point A to B to C and spells everything out for you than this isn’t the film for you – like Peter Howell, you will simply grow frustrated with it. But if you are adventuresome – willing to open yourself up to something different than you normally see than Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a must see. I just can’t guarantee you’ll understand it all – I didn’t, but still loved it.

Movie Review: Smash His Camera

Smash His Camera ***
Directed By:
Leon Gast.

I have always thought that the paparazzi are pretty much scum. After watching Leon Gast’s new documentary, Smash His Camera about Ron Galella, one of the first and most famous parparazzi in America, I haven’t changed my mind. Here is a man who essentially stalked Jackie Kennedy for years, despite her asking him not to, and eventually getting a restraining order against him. When the order went down from 200 yards to 25 feet, Galella was back on her again – this time with a tape measure for everyone to see. After he got in Marlon Brando’s face – and Brando punched him out, knocking five teeth from his jaw – Galella showed back up the next time Brando was in public in a football helmet. He recalls these incidents with glee in this film – but what struck me was how pathetic he really was. It was like he wanted to be famous, had no real talent, so decided to glam onto famous people himself – and inject himself in their stories as much as possible. What a sad little man this is.

And yet, part of what makes Smash His Camera as fascinating as it is, is the debate that Galella has inspired. Some in the movie call him scum, some call him an artist – he pictures have been shown in galleries the world over, including MOMA in New York. I think the best description of Galella in the film was simply “he is the cost of the first amendment”. That strikes me as true.

Because we need freedom of the press. We need investigative journalists to dig into the things that really matter, and give the public the information they need to know. Galella says repeatedly that the public has the right to know, the right to see his pictures. But why? They have the right to know about Watergate and other political scandals. But why do they have the right to know where Marlon Brando ate dinner? Or that Jackie went bike riding in the park with her son? Or that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor got into a fight on their yacht? Seriously, why the hell do we need to know that?

The film is fascinating because it delves into Galella’s work – but also his personal life. He actually seems like a fairly nice guy, and its hard not to like him a little – especially when he talks about how much he loves bunnies. I mean serious, how can you really hate someone who loves bunnies.

And then there is a question of whether or not his photographes are actual art. Most importantly, do his pictures hold up in and of themselves, or are they simply fascinating because of the people in them. If you don’t know how Marlon Brando is, does Galella’s photograph of him still interesting, like many of the great paintings of people we don’t know, do. Or is it only fascinating because its Brando.

Well its true that compared to the current paparazzi – who shoot crude pictures on their cell phones, comparing to Galella who works on actual film and develops his own pictures – are truly artless, there is something about Galella’s pictures that are fascinating. Mind you, unlike the young woman who walks around the gallery mispronouncing the names of the people in the photos (my favorite being when she pronounces the t in Bardot, or when she looks at another picture and entitled Jackie and Bobby, then asks the camera “Kennedy?”) I know who most of the people in his photographes are of.

But in the end, does it really matter? Galella, no matter what you think of his photos, really is a parasite. Sorry, but its true. His only claim to fame is that he was really, really good at stalking famous people and annoying them to no end. So the question is, why should we care?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Movie Review: I'm Still Here

I’m Still Here ***
Directed by:
Casey Affleck.
Written by: Casey Affleck & Joaquin Phoenix.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Himself), Antony Langdon (Anton), Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs (Himself), Casey Affleck (Himself), Ben Stiller (Himself).

Now that we know that I’m Still Here, the supposed documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s collapse, is a fake, it is impossible to see the film in the same light as the critics who first saw it a month ago not knowing. Watching the film after the news came out, I would like to think that I would have known it wasn’t “real” – but I really cannot say for sure. Personally though, I am happy that this film isn’t real – because if it was, what a sad, tragic picture it would paint.

We all know the background of the film – which has now become infamous. Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting and wanted to start his second career as a hip hop artist. He gained weight, grew his hair out, grew a unibomber type beard, and seemed to slip into an excessive amount of drinking and drugging – all culminating in his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he mumbled his way through an interview, appeared to have no idea what was going on and was essentially in his own little world. The Letterman appeareance figures prominently in this film – but it happens near the end of it. We see a hell of a lot more in this film than that.

Phoenix flies into rages at his staff – for not getting him a meeting with P. Diddy to discuss him producing his album (when the meeting finally does happen, it is hilarious), to being stuck in the back of a mini van, to having to score his own drugs and hookers. He is an egomaniac who one minute tells them he loves them, and then the next is flying off the handle. He seems lost in his own world of drug use – at times he mumbles so much that subtitles are needed to translate for him – and he does little else but party and record his album. That the album is horrible – that he seemingly has no talent for rap music – is something to which Phoenix – or JP as he calls himself – seems oblivious to. After the Letterman appearance – and a failed concert in Miami that degenerates quickly after one song to Phoenix fighting an audience member than heading off stage and throwing up – it sinks in that he has ruined his career – and he goes to see his father in Panama to try and recentre himself.

So now we know this is all a hoax – or more accurately it was a performance on behalf of Phoenix. It took balls on his part to do this – essentially making himself a laughing stock in Hollywood. It also took a hell of a lot of skill. Whether you think what Phoenix did was right or not – you have to admit that he was fully committed to the role – and yes, he does deliver a brilliant performance in this film – perhaps the best of his career. While he is acting every minute of this film, you never catch him doing it. He really does seem to be drugged out of his mind, totally egomaniacal and cruel, and oblivious to his lack of talent as a rapper. It truly is one of the best performances of the year.

But why? Why did Phoenix decides to make this film at all? To do this to himself and his career, which will probably recover because afterall, he still is one of the best actors of his generation? I think part of him relished the idea of playing this role in front of the whole world, not just on a movie set. But I think the greater reason behind the film is to show just how screwed up and obsessed with celebrity our society has become. And just how callous and cruel it is as well.

I don’t remember a single thing being said on TV during the time when everyone thought Joaquin Phoenix had slide into drug addiction that was at all supportive of him. Not a single person expressing concern for his well being – or his life, which is even more callous when you recall his brother Phoenix died of a drug overdose far too young. Instead, all anyone did was mock him mercilessly. People were downright cruel to Phoenix, as were their jokes. Here was a guy that everyone thought had a serious drug problem, was perhaps endangering his life, and all anyone did was mock him.

And it’s not like Phoenix is an isolated case – or that people were simply mocking him because they thought the whole thing was a hoax. When Britney Spears suffered a meltdown, and shaved her head, they mocked her mercilessly as well. It didn’t take long after Heath Ledger’s death for Family Guy to make jokes about it. No one did anything but mock Anna Nicole Smith from the time she entered the spotlight to the time she died – and then the media played it like it was some sort of national tragedy. Why did no one, anywhere, seem concerned about Joaquin Phoenix and his health? What would have happened had all of this been real, and he had died? Would the same people mocking him, all of sudden talk about it as a tragedy?

The film is also, I think, a portrait of celebrities who become full of themselves. We have all heard stories about celebrities and then insane demands, their insane egos – and Phoenix in this movie takes it to the extreme. If this was real, than Phoenix would have to be considered one of the biggest assholes on the planet.

All of this makes I’m Still Here a fascinating movie – and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance really does deserve Oscar consideration here, even if it isn’t a typical performance, because it is certainly one of the years more memorable, more inspired performances. Yet, I also have to say that discussing the film maybe more interesting than actually watching it. After Phoenix’s performance, and the questions the film raises, there really isn’t much else here. It is a fascinating movie – one that should be seen and discussed.

Movie Review: Jack Goes Boating

Jack Goes Boating ***
Directed by:
Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Written By: Robert Glaudini based on his play.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jack), Amy Ryan (Connie), John Ortiz (Clyde), Daphne Rubin-Vega( Lucy), Richard Petrocelli (Uncle Frank), Thomas McCarthy (Dr. Bob), Salvatore Inzerillo (Cannoli).

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debute Jack Goes Boating is a low key comedy – so low key in fact that you may not even realize it’s a comedy at all. It humor doesn’t hit you over the head with jokes, but is rather more subtle and sly – often going on beneath the surface, and always springing from the characters themselves – not witty one liners. At times, it does show it stage roots – particularly in the big final scene which I think may have worked better on stage than it does here – but that’s the exception not the rule. Hoffman, as a director, has done a great job of “opening up” the play – shooting in New York City, but in those places in the city that we rarely see in films – and during the winter to boot which gives the city a much different feel covered in snow than most films in New York which take place during the sweltering summer. Hoffman, as director, has made a wonderful little debut film – and perhaps the smartest thing he did was casting Hoffman, the actor, in the lead role of Jack – as I cannot think of another actor who is better suited for the role.

As an actor, there are few currently working as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether he is Truman Capote raked with guilt, the priest from Doubt who may or may not be a pedophile, the over the top CIA Agent in Charlie Wilson’s War, or the egomaniacal navel gazer in Synecdoche, New York, Hoffman has done a lot of different work in the past few years. But perhaps because my earliest memories of Hoffman as an actor is of him playing, shy, some may say pathetic, losers in films like Boogie Nights or Happiness, I still have a soft spot for him in roles like that. Jack Goes Boating perfectly fits alongside those movies. He plays the title character of Jack, who is in his late 30s and works as a limo driver for his uncle’s company. His only friend is Clyde (John Ortiz), the other driver for the company. Perhaps they became friends solely because Jack barely speaks and Clyde barely shuts up, but their friendship truly has grown into something real between them. Clyde’s wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) even likes Jack herself, despite his shyness. Jack may hide behind his walkman (and yes, it is a walkman and not an ipod), but he really is a decent guy. So when Lucy meets Connie (Amy Ryan) at her office, she thinks the two of them may hit it off. She is also shy and quiet – so much so that her job as a telephone salesperson is in jeopardy. Both Jack and Connie are wounded people – by what the film never explains (although I think in Connie’s case it goes deeper than her being attacked on the subway, where he only see the bloody aftermath). But somehow, they seem to fit together.

Jack Goes Boating is no more complicated than that. It is, simply, about this four people and their lives – their modest dreams and aspirations, the crushing shyness of Jack and Connie offset by the over confidence and noise by Clyde and Lucy who seem to be afraid of silence because of what they may think about when the silence kicks in. The relationship between Jack and Connie is sweet – perfectly underplayed by Hoffman and Ryan, who are actors capable of doing just about anything, but here have settled into seemingly doing nothing. Even during their “sex scene” they are quite able to let themselves go. The relationship between Jack and Clyde is also, in a way, sweet. Clyde sees Jack as a project – he’ll teach him how to swim, how to be with a woman, how to do pretty much everything – I guess because that way he won’t have to deal with his own problems. Clyde and Lucy really do feel like a couple who has been together for years – and stay together simply because its easier than the alternative.

Jack Goes Boating is not an overly ambitious film, nor is it all that original. Yet in the hands of these actors – three of them having played these roles in the off Broadway production (Amy Ryan is the newcomer) – and in the hands of Hoffman as director, who knows the material so well, it feels real. We don’t so much notice the clichés until it is over. It shows that Hoffman has a career of a director if he wants one – as long as he keeps acting, I don’t mind.

Movie Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps *** ½
Directed by:
Oliver Stone.
Written By: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff.
Starring: Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Shia LaBeouf (Jake Moore), Josh Brolin (Bretton James), Carey Mulligan (Winnie Gekko), Eli Wallach (Jules Steinhardt), Susan Sarandon (Jake's Mother), Frank Langella (Louis Zabel), Austin Pendleton (Dr. Masters), Vanessa Ferlito (Audrey), Sylvia Miles (Realtor).

For better or for worse, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street has become one of the seminal films of the 1980s. It’s villain, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), who most audiences rightly saw as evil, actually inspired many of the people who would go on to work on Wall Street in the years after the film. They treated his infamous Greed is Good speech not as a dire warning of how Wall Street was operating, but as their mantra to inspire them to what they wanted to do. Now 23 years later, we find ourselves in the midst of an economic recession – caused by Wall Street and their greed. So it’s only natural that Stone and Gekko would return to make this sequel.

This film opens in 2008 right before the financial meltdown. Gekko was released from prison after serving 8 years for his various infractions back in 2001 – but in the years since he has not risen to prominence on Wall Street again. Instead he is a pariah – trying to hock his new book about how Wall Street’s current greed puts what he did to shame – and how they are going to destroy the stock market if they don’t stop.

To a certain extent though, this movie follows pretty closely to the template of the first Wall Street. Instead of Charlie Sheen, you have Shia LaBeouf as the young, smart broker who gets close to Gekko – but this time he goes in with his eyes open. He doesn’t idolize Gekko – at least not at first – but wants to use his knowledge of how to screw people over. Instead of Daryl Hannah as Gekko’s old mistress, and Sheen’s current flame, you have Carey Mulligan as Gekko’s estranged daughter, and LaBeouf’s finacee. She wants nothing to do with Gekko, warns LaBeouf of the type of person he really is, but he is too far in. Instead of Terrance Stamp as Gekko’s rival, we have Josh Brolin as the man LeBeouf wants to get even with after he screws over his mentor (Frank Langella, who is not unlike Hal Holbrook in the first film).

Yet for all the similarities to the first film, this one feels like its own film. Yes, Wall Street is still all about greed and games, just as it was the first time, but the stakes have been raised to a huge level. The financial wheelings and dealings here have global consequences, and yet to a certain extent the film is also more intimate as well. Gekko is less caricature, and more human this time around – something that applies to most of the other characters as well. I would say that this film is roughly equal in overall quality to the first film – which was always flawed in my mind anyway.

As a director, Oliver Stone has always liked to experiment – and push things perhaps a little too far. This film is no exception. Perhaps because the film is a sequel to an iconic 1980s film, Stone uses some of the same visual tricks – montages, superimposing, etc, as the first time. But those are the tricks that make the first film feel dated today – and they really don’t work well here either. But they are isolated incidents – when Stone plays the material straight, he is still able to craft visually impressive sequences – like the mesmerizing montage of earrings in this film. He still a master stylist and editor.

In fact, I would say I liked the film a whole lot until the ending – which to me is a little bit of a cop out. It’s like after having a cynical ending – ie the one the film deserved – the filmmakers decided to back off and create a happy one – and it doesn’t quite fit. We have always like Gekko – he is too charming not to like in spite of ourselves – but he doesn’t the ending he gets in this movie. It’s too pat and predictable. But overall, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, despite its godawful title, is a highly enjoyable movie – one of the few long delayed sequels that actually lives up to its predecessor.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Year in Review: 1944

1944 was not the greatest year for movie of the 1940s – for some reason I think there was many more propaganda films released this year than any of the other wartime years. Many of the films on this list also fall into that category, although there are at least two (by one director no less) that flew in the face of that propaganda, and some that didn’t even bother being about the war at all. While I wouldn’t say 1944 is a great year for movies, it is good one.

10. Henry V (Laurence Olivier)
While I have never been one of those people who believe that Laurence Olivier is the greatest actor of all time, I have to admit that normally when the man takes on Shakespeare, he can deliver a performance that few, if any, can equal. Henry V was Olivier first film as a director, and in my mind, is infinitely better than his Oscar winning Hamlet a few years later (which is strange, because Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play). Olivier, the director, makes the daring and brilliant decision to stage the movie (at least at the beginning and end) as a play at the famous Globe theater. From there, Olivier expands the action outwards. Made at the height of WWII, Henry V was meant to be a patriotic rabal rouser in England – and it is (as it omits to mention who England lost France a short time later) – Olivier’s direction of this movie is colorful and superb from beginning to end. His performance as the larger than life Henry is also one of his best screen performances ever. While I do think that there are several Shakespeare movies better than this one, it has to stand as a landmark film.

9. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
A Canterbury Tale is a strange little film from the greatest of filmmaking teams, Powell and Pressburger. It a strange movie for several reasons – among them that almost none of it actually takes place in Canterbury, but instead in the fictional small town of Kent right outside of it. It is here that an American Sergeant (John Sweet) mistakenly gets off the train, and ends up spending almost his entire leave in the town with the beautiful Sheila Sim, a British girl sent to the town to work on a farm. She is barely off the train when she has glue poured on her hair by a mysterious assailant. So the two of them, who discover that there have been a rash of glue attacks in recent months, team up to try and track down the glue guy. But that’s really just an excuse to spend time in this small town, get to know its people, and develop the relationship between the characters. The film was meant to bring Americans and the British closer together during the war years, and is a sweet, sentimental little movie. Powell and Pressburger have no doubt made greater films together in their career, but there is something about A Canterbury Tale that works just about perfectly for the type of movie it is.

8. Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
Frank Capra was mainly known for his inspirational dramas like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, but with Arsenic and Old Lace he made a wicked black, screwball comedy. Cary Grant is excellent as a man who marries the woman of his dreams, and returns home to his family. His two aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have taken to murdering eldery, lonely bachelors out of kindness. One of his brothers (John Alexander) thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, and helps to bury the victims in the basement. Then his other brother (Raymond Massey), another serial killer, who had plastic surgery done to him by a drunk doctor (Peter Lorre) so that he looks like Boris Karloff shows up. Like all great screwball comedies, the jokes come fast and furuious – and Grant is a master at them, and makes his character, who is essentially the straight man in a family of nuts – into a sympathetic guy, even while running around half crazed trying to sort everything out. The entire supporting cast is excellent as well. Capra will always be remembered for those inspiring movies, but Arsenic and Old Lace proves he could do more.

7. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window is one of the directors best film noirs. It stars a mild mannered Edward G. Robinson as a Professor who sees a portrait of the beautiful Joan Bennett and becomes instantly enamored with her. When he meets her in real life, he is helpless to resist her charms – and eventually becomes a murderer because of them. Enter the great Dan Dureya as he tries to blackmail Robinson, and things get worse from there. The performances by the three leads (who would be even better the following year in Lang’s Scarlett Street) are wonderful, and the film is one of the original film noirs (at least one of the ones originally listed when the term was coined by the French). The twisty, bendy plot is a pleasure to watch unfold, and there are several sequences – most notably one with Robinson driving with the dead body in his car – that are masterfully handled by Lang. This film would have easily been higher on this list had it not been for one thing – the absolute cheat of an ending. I’m not sure if it was such a cliché in 1944 to end a movie like this one does, but it sure is now, and I felt cheated out what should have been a masterpiece.

6. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges)
The comedies of Preston Sturges were always a little more daring than most comedies to come out of the studio era in the 1940s – and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek could be his most daring. It stars Betty Hutton as a small town girl with a soft spot for soldiers. After a long, drunken party for a group of men heading off to war, she wakes up the next day to discover that she married one of the soldiers, whose name she doesn’t quite remember, and is now pregnant. Mild mannered Eddie Bracken, who couldn’t get into the army and has always loved Hutton, steps into help, and somehow ends up a wanted criminal, before the inevitable happy ending. I have no idea how the hell this movie slipped passed the censors – its depiction of soldiers, of drunkenness and pregnancy with someone who don’t even remembered was scandalous at the time. But even now that the scandal has faded, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek remains one of the best comedies of its time – an hilarious, daring satire from one of the best comedic directors in history.

5. Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges)
Hail the Conquering Hero is an interesting and hilarious comedy from Preston Sturges. It stars Eddie Bracken, in probably his best role, as a man who finds it impossible to live up to the legacy of his father, who died a hero in WWI. Bracken joined the Marines at the start of WWII, but was quickly discharged because of his hay fever. Not wanting to come back to his small town a failure, he pretends to be overseas fighting in the war, when really he is just working in a shipyard. He meets some Marines in a bar, and they decide to help him – they call his mother and tell her that her son is a hero, has gotten a medical discharge and will be home soon. By the time Bracken does get home, the Marines in tow, this lie has blossomed and the entire town thinks he is a hero and rushes to greet him. He keeps up the charade for as long as he possibly can. Hail the Conquering Hero is a wonderful screwball comedy, with all of the Sturges trademarks working at top speed, but it is more than that too. It is actually a daring, clever satire on Americans hero uncritical hero worship – the way they attach themselves to people to make themselves seem better. To be made at all is quite an accomplishment, but to be made during WWII is almost unthinkable. Yet somehow, Sturges pulled it off brilliantly.

4. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)
The story goes that Ernest Hemingway made a drunken bet with director Howard Hawks that Hawks could turn Hemingway’s worst novel into a great movie. Even though Hawks had to alter the story significantly, I still feel safe in saying that he won the bet. Humphrey Bogart plays a role similar to the one he played in Casablanca. This time, he is an American Fishing boat Captain in the Caribbean under the Vichy regime in 1940, shortly after France’s fall to Germany. He is trying to remain neutral, but broke, he agrees to help smuggle some French resistence members – and thinks spiral from there. The joy of the movie to watch Bogart, once again the cynic just trying to survive, and Lauren Bacall, in her first screen role and their instant on screen chemistry (this is the one where she teaches Bogie how to whistle). The film also boasts an impressive supporting cast – I especially liked an over the top Walter Brennan and Bogart’s drunk friend. The film wasn’t much of a critical hit at the time, but for me, it shows Hawks at his very best – a great little film that is more than just Bogie and Bacall.

3. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)
Sometimes I think Alfred Hitchcock made some of his films just to prove that he could pull it off. Lifeboat is a movie like that. It is a film that has one location, a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with American and British citizens aboard after their ship, and a German U-boat, sink each other during WWII. Things become heated when a German survivor (Walter Slezak) is pulled aboard. Some want to throw him over and let him drown, but it is decided that he is a prisoner of war, and thus, is allowed to stay. How Hitchcock made a movie with one location as stunning cinematically as he did is beyond me (he even gets himself his usual cameo appearance), but he succeeds wonderfully well. Things start off well between the passengers, as they work together, but the longer they are out there, they more frustrated they become, and the more their lives before being stranded become an issue for them to deal with. And in the end, they end up right back where they started from. Lifeboat does not quite rank among Hitchcock’s best films – it contains a little too much wartime propaganda for that perhaps – but it is still a stunning achievement by one of the best directors in history.

2. Laura (Otto Preminger)
Otto Preminger’s Laura, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo more than a decade later, is a thriller about a man who falls in love with a dead woman. If Hitchcock’s film is the better of the two, it’s because I think he followed that dark obsession deeper than Preminger did. That’s not to take away from this great film. It stars Dana Andrews as a cop investigating the murder of the title character (Gene Tierney). After taking to her friends, including her mentor (Clifton Webb), her fiancée (Vincent Price), her aunt (Judith Anderson) and her housekeeper (Dorothy Adams), and piecing her life before her death together via flashbacks, and looking longingly at her picture, Andrews finds himself inexcplicably in love with the girl – and that’s only the setup, not the payoff to the movie. Preminger’s movie twists and turns itself inside out, and although the plot is intricate, he never falters in building the mood and suspense of the movie as well. The performances, especially by Webb, are all great and the movie has a great climax. Preminger directed several great movies, but I think Laura is probably his best.

1. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
Double Indemnity is one of the most famous of all film noirs, and in many ways is sort of the protypical example of the genre. Poor Fred MacMurray is too dumb to realize that Barabara Stanwyck is playing him until it is far too late. He narrates his tale, about how he was taken in by her charms and seductions into murdering her husband. But instead of making it easy, she wants to make the death appear like an accident – that way the double indemnity clause on his insurance will kick in and she’ll get twice as much money. She lays it on thick, telling MacMurray what an awful man her husband is, and how happy they can be together once he is dead. But, of course, when the deed is done it only makes things more complicated – especially when Edward G. Robinson, who works for the insurance company, starts investigating the death. Billy Wilder, making one of his only forays into the genre, was crafted an impeccable, dark film that ends the only way it possibly could (which is odd since the original novel had a different ending, as did the film itself). While I do think that several film noirs are better than Double Indemnity, it certainly does stand as one of the best films the genre ever produced – and an easy choice for the best film of the year.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Children Are Watching Us (Vittorio De Sica), Gaslight (George Cukor), Going My Way (Leo McCarey), Ivan the Terrible Part I (Sergei Eistenstein), Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson).

Notable Films Missed: Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli), None But the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets), Since You Went Away (John Cromwell), Under the Bridges (Helmut Kautner), Wilson (Henry King).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Going My Way (Leo McCarey)
Going My Way is shameless, sentimental schmaltz. But it is entertaining shameless, sentimental schmaltz, and I for one prefer it over its much more famous sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s the following year. Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald are in fine form as two priests for the same church – Crosby is brought into to liven up a congregation sleepy under the aging Fitzgerald. Director Leo McCarey keeps things moving along nicely, and makes the most of Crosby’s singing as well. I don’t necessarily think it is a great film, but it is one that I enjoyed watching. Yes, Double Indemnity should have won, but considering how infrequently the Academy recognized film noir, is it any wonder it didn’t? A safe, unimaginative choice to be sure, but I’ve seen much worse.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Bing Crosby, Going My Way
Bing Crosby was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time that Going My Way came out. Most often teamed with Bob Hope, in a series of comic misadventures where Hope told all the jokes, and Crosby did all the singing, he wanted to prove he could actually act as well, so he jumped at this role. It isn’t a great role, but it is perfect for Crosby, who does it as well as I think it could have been done. Given the other nominees were not terrific either, I can’t complain too much about this.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Ingrid Bergman is one of my all time favorite actresses, so I am happy that over the course of her career she won three Oscars. But why the Academy picked the three performances she won for (this along with Anatasia and Murder on the Orient Express), I’ll never know. None of her Oscar wins represent Bergman at her best. Oh well. Bergman is still wonderful as a woman whose husband (Charles Boyer) is trying to make her think she is going crazy, but I would have rather she won for something else. After all, I think a young Angela Lansbury is actually the best thing about this movie. Poor Barbara Stanwyck, who never won an Oscar despite any number of great performances, should have taken this one easily.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
I love Barry Fitzgerald in any number of movies – The Naked City and The Quiet Man come to mind – and he plays his role as the crotchety older priest in this movie about as well as you could expect him to. I wouldn’t have voted for him, especially with Clifton Webb’s performance in Laura nominated alongside him, but I don’t think the Academy had much of a choice. After all, Fitzgerald’s work in Going My Way set Oscar history – he is the only actor ever to be nominated for Both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor FOR THE SAME PERFORMANCE. There was no rule saying you couldn’t be at the time, but they quickly changed that after this year. I have no idea what the hell they do know if someone gets enough votes in both categories, but they don’t allow to happen anymore.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart
I have not seen None But the Lonely Heart, despite the fact that I like Barrymore and love Cary Grant – who received one of only his two Oscar nominations for his work in the film. I have never heard anyone – including my mother who is the biggest Cary Grant fan I know – refer to this movie very positively, and it seems to have been mostly forgotten. I’ll try to catch up with one day when it plays on TCM – until then, whether or not Barrymore actually deserved to win remains a mystery to me.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Year in Review: 2008

2008 was a decent year for movies, and yet I still feel that there was no one film that stood head and shoulders over the rest. While my top four have not changed in the nearly two years since the year ended, I still feel that they are all roughly equal in quality. That isn’t a bad thing, but I always do like it when there is a film that I just go completely nuts for – and this year didn’t quite have that.

10.Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Director Steve McQueen’s debut film is one of the most haunting films of the year. It is a film that slowly builds its eventually overwhelming power. Michael Fassbender got his breakthrough role here as an IRA prisoner, who is tired of being treated like an animal by his British captors. The first half of the film basically shows us this story – how the IRA are treated, and the dehumanizing effect it has – not just on the prisoners, but also on the guards themselves. The second half is about a hunger strike led by Fassbender, where he slowly fades away into basically a skeleton. Separating these two halves is perhaps the single best scene of any movie this year – a long conversation between Fassbender and a sympathetic priest, Liam Cunningham, who disagrees with Fassbender’s method. This scene is shot in one, long unbroken shot that simply observes these two men talking. McQueen favors these long shots (another haunting one is simply of a man moping the floor of the prison) and there is something genuinely thrilling about these shots – perhaps because so many other filmmakers feel the need to edit their shots together so rapidly that you become disoriented. Hunger established Steve McQueen as one of the most promising filmmakers out there – and got the career of one of my favorite current actors off the ground.

9. Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to follow up perhaps their most acclaimed film to date – the serious, bleak drama No Country for Old Men – with a wacky screwball comedy. And yet, while on the surface the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar, both certainly share pessimism about humanity. Every character, save for one, in this film is a complete idiot – it doesn’t matter if they are a treasury bodyguard, CIA agent, lawyer or gym employee, each one seems equally clueless as to what to do. The lone character in the movie with any brains is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA agent who gets fired because he’s become an alcoholic. In reality, Cox is simply frustrated with all the idiocy that surrounds him, and he finally simply snaps. George Clooney plays a treasury bodyguard, who says he loves his wife, but sleeps with anything that moves – including Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) and a gym employee (Frances McDormand), who somehow comes into possession of Cox’s memoirs, and mistakes it for classified information, that she tries to sell off to the Russians to pay for her plastic surgery. Into her plan, she brings in a co-worker (Brad Pitt), who is gloriously stupid. These characters, and more, circle around each other, as the plot gets more complicated, and no one wants to admit they have no idea what the hell is going on. The Coens have a sixth sense for casting, so newcomers like Malkovich, Pitt and Swinton, fit in effortlessly with their stock company like Clooney, McDormand, Richard Jenkins (so selflessly in love with McDormand, who remains blind to his affections) and JK Simmons (whose final scene is simply hilarious). But no one is better than Pitt, dancing around like an idiot, but constantly smiling, no matter what is happening. If there was justice in the world, he’d get a supporting actor nomination, but there isn’t so he won’t. But Burn After Reading is a brilliantly misanthropic comedy of errors.

8. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Rachel Getting Married is about the messiness that comes with being part of a family. It is also about how your family is really all you have – they are the people who love you, no matter what terrible things you have done. The movie opens with Kym (Anne Hathaway) getting let of rehab – again – this time on a weekend pass to be able to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Although Kym is the older sister, Rachel has pretty much always played that role – taking care of Kym when she needs it. Kym is an attention hog, who doesn’t seem to be happy, unless she is at the center of everything. She knows just how to play their dad (Bill Irwin), so that no matter what is going on, she becomes the focal point. The mother (Debra Winger), has divorced their father, and remains emotionally distant from everyone. The movie is essentially made up of scenes of the family going at each other – sometimes joyously, sometimes with anger and resentment. The climax is one of the happiest weddings I can recall seeing in a film. This is not a film where anything is really solved. Like most families, old wounds never really heal; people just have to learn to live with them. Hathaway has grown as an actress by leaps and bounds since her days in The Princess Diaries, and this is a magnificent performance. She is always at risk of losing our sympathy, but never does. DeWitt matches her at every step, as a woman who is tired of taking care of everyone else, and just wants to be taken care of herself. Irwin delivers the type of subtle performance that is always overlooked, but he brings depth to the man who is desperately trying to hold everyone together. And Winger has a few short scenes, where you can tell just how her daughters ended up as they were. Director Jonathan Demme has a return to form here, capturing all the overlapping dialogue in a handheld camera style that for once is not a distraction. And Jenny Lumet’s brilliant screenplay captures life as it truly is. This is a truly unique film.

7. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s Che is one of the best films of the directors career. Split into two parts – each around two hours long – Soderbergh tells the story of Che’s rise and fall, not by concentrating on the inner man – which is how most people would have approached the subject – but by looking solely at his actions. Benicio Del Toro gives a marvelous performance as the Argentinean revolutionary, who is adopted into the fold of the Cuban revolution, and becomes its most important strategist and solider. The first film is more of your traditional biopic – flashing back and forth in time to show how Che got involved with the Cubans, the revolution itself, and his famed visit to the UN in New York. Soderbergh uses different visual looks for each of these segments, but remains focused on Che the entire time. The second film, set in Bolivia where Che went to after Cuba (and a trip to the Congo in Africa, which Soderbergh had wanted to make, but couldn’t), plays almost like a horror film. The widescreen photography of the first movie is gone, and it seems like the edges of the frame are closing in on him – just like the Bolivian soldiers who will eventually catch and kill him. The film is epic in length, but is never boring. The two films complement each other perfectly – so much so that it is now hard to imagine one without the other. Few directors would try something this epic, but Soderbergh and company pull it off brilliantly.

6. Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes)
On the surface, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road resembles his Oscar winning debut film, American Beauty. But this is a much darker, much deeper film, about a troubled marriage in 1950s suburbia. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as Frank and Alice Wheeler, a seemingly perfect couple who couldn’t possibly be more miserable. He commutes to New York everyday to work as a glorified salesman for a business machines, and he hates every minute of it. She stays at home with the kids all day, and is slowly being smothered by the weight of raising a young family. For a few brief shining moments, they seem truly happy, when they decide to chuck it all and move to Paris, to live the life they feel they are entitled to. But life has others things in store for them. DiCaprio has never been better than he is here. Gone is the young heartthrob, and in his place is a man who is cracking under the pressure of his life. And Kate Winslet is simply amazing as April. There is a lot of stillness in her performance, with subtle changes going through her face. But when she lets loose, she really lets it fly. The key supporting performance in the film is by Michael Shannon, as the son of another couple who has just got out of the insane asylum. He is the only one who supports the Wheelers in their plan to move to Paris, which should let you know just how crazy it really is. But he also sees things more clearly than anyone else in the film - and the only one willing to speak his mind. The film - written by Justin Haythe based on Richard Yates brilliant novel - gets all the small details right. The fights that start off as small things build and build until they cannot be contained. Adultery isn’t about passion, or even sex, but is a futile act of rebellion. This is the best film yet from director Mendes. While it doesn’t offer a very hopeful portrait of marriage for someone heading down the aisle next year, it is an accurate depiction of a certain kind of relationship. With a few small changes, this film could be set in 2008 without missing a beat.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
There was no greater technical achievement this year than David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Telling the strange story of a man who was born an old man and grows younger with each passing year, Fincher and his crew take visual effects to an entirely new level. All the other technical aspects - the cinematography, editing, art direction, costume design, make-up and score are also top notch. Yet, if this was solely a technical achievement, it wouldn’t be as great as it is. It is a story about what it means to be human. While Benjamin Button may have an affliction that no one in real life has ever had to go through, he still goes through the same things that everyone else does. He falls in love with Daisy when they are both children (although, of course, Benjamin is in an old man’s body) and spends his life trying to win her over. Brad Pitt delivers a truly remarkable performance as Button - going from bewildered child, to wise old man, in reverse. In many ways, Cate Blanchatt has an even harder role, being the woman who must decide whether to let this man into her life, knowing what the ultimate result is going to be. In the hands of another filmmaker, this film probably would have been overly sappy and sentimental - trying hard to milk tears from the audience. But because Fincher takes a step back, and is more detached in his style, when the tears do come in the movie, they are earned, not manipulated. This is a film that grows and grows in your mind for days after watching it. A remarkable achievement.

4. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
In the 1980s, Mickey Rourke was set to take the mantle from actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, to become one of the biggest stars in the world. And then, he blew it. Time has not been overly kind to Rourke in the years since he was the next big thing. But that makes him all the more perfect for the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Randy was once the biggest star in the world of wrestling – think Hulk Hogan – but as he aged, he didn’t know when to let go. Now 20 years past his prime, Randy still wrestles every weekend, in front of smaller and smaller audiences. He is broke, still taking steroids much to the chagrin of his body, which is gradually giving out on him, and has no one in his life that cares about him. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates him, with due cause, because he was never there for her, and doesn’t really feel like opening herself up to be hurt again. But in Roxie (Marisa Tomei), he finds a kind of kindred spirit. She is a stripper, now pushing 40, whose body is also making her chosen profession more and more difficult for her. For a while, it seems like Randy may be able to get himself back on track. He seems genuinely happy for a few brief shining moments, before it all comes crashing down around him. Darren Aronofsky directs this film with more down to earth style than he has evidenced in the past. This is stripped to the bone filmmaking. One thing that doesn’t change is his ability to illicit great performances from his actors. Tomei’s performance is excellent – another in a string of great ones she has delivered this decade. But this is Rourke’s show, and he delivers what is probably the best performance of the year, in any category. He makes Randy’s pain hit the audience hard. By the end of the movie, you’ll be surprised just how moved you are by Randy’s plight. A truly remarkable performance, at the heart of a truly great film.

3. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Truly great films of any genre are the ones that stretch the boundaries of what that genre can be. Such is the case with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which takes what Nolan did in Batman Begins, and builds on it even more. Not content with simply making another superhero movie, Nolan has reinvented the Batman mythology, and made it relevant to modern times. At the heart of the movie is a fundamental moral question – how do you fight an enemy who is not bound my any morals, without losing your own? This makes it an interesting companion piece to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which essentially asked the same question. Is The Dark Knight any less serious a film because it deals with a man who dresses up like a bat, fighting an evil clown, instead of rustic cowboys? No. It takes the questions it raises seriously, and because the movie does this, it allows the audience to take it seriously as well. The Dark Knight is very much a sequel to Batman Begins, and yet unlike most sequels, it doesn’t look to simply replicate its predecessor’s success, but instead looks to build on it. We couldn’t have had this movie unless Nolan laid the groundwork of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character in the first film. The film is a technical marvel, with each element playing off each other just about perfectly – highlighted by Wally Pfister’s excellent, dark cinematography. For those who thought that Batman couldn’t get any darker than the Burton films, this one proved you wrong. And of course, there are the performances. All the attention (deservedly) went to Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker – the best we’ve seen yet and one of the creepiest, scariest, most evil villains in screen history. But all that attention overshadowed a cast of great actors at the top of their game – Christian Bale channeling his inner Clint Eastwood, Gary Oldman making ordinariness seem extraordinary, Aaron Eckhart’s moral struggle as Harvey Dent and two old timers – Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman having fun in their roles. Maggie Gyllenhaal – taking over for Katie Holmes – is stuck with an underwritten role, but even she has one marvelous moment. Overall, The Dark Knight sets the new standard for all superhero movies that come after it. It is one of the few towering achievements of 2008.

2. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
Who would have guessed that the most touching love story of the year would be between two animated robots in a film aimed at children? But that is precisely what Wall-E is – a love story that has its roots in the earliest silent comedies. Wall-E is a robot, whose job is it to clean up earth, after humans have essentially destroyed the planet and fled on a giant spaceship. Wall-E used to have the company of others like him, but now he’s the only one still going. Then a spaceship arrives, and along with it, another robot. This one is obviously far more technological advanced than Wall-E, and is named Eve. The two robots bond, and when the spaceship arrives to take Eve back to the humans, Wall-E refuses to let go. The bond – you can call it love if you want – between these two robots is far more touching, and dare I say romantic, than any other two characters this year. Pixar has always been the best at computer animation – and not just because their films look better than anyone else’s (although they do), but because they spend just as much time working on the screenplay as with the animation, and because they trust children to be able to understand some rather complex themes. Wall-E serves as an environmental wake up call, and isn’t afraid to call the human race fat, lazy and selfish in the process. Wall-E is one of the best films of the year, because it understands cinematic history and respects it – how many other films this year referenced both Chaplin and Kubrick – but also because it builds on it. Wall-E is a magical film, and you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it.

1.Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is like no other film I have ever seen. It centers on one man – Caden Cotard played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman – as he tries for decades to make sense of his life, and create a piece of everlasting art. When we meet him he is a successful theater director, married to Adele (Catherine Keener) and has a young daughter. But then Adele leaves, and takes their daughter with her, not to return for years on end. Caden moves on, gets married again, has another child, and gets left again. The only woman he really loves is Hazel (Samantha Morton), but she always remains just out of reach. Somewhere along the way, he gets a genius grant, which allows him the freedom to create whatever he wants to. He sets himself up in an abandoned warehouse, hires a cast of hundreds, and sets about creating his work of art. This play, which starts as being about everything, eventually comes down to being about Caden and his life. He casts actors to play him, and the other people in his life, and he plays out the conversations he had the previous day in exact replica sets. Soon, he’s hiring actors to play the actors he has cast, and this is only the beginning. The film starts as comedy, but by the end, has become about nothing less than human existence and what it all means. Kaufman isn’t egotistical enough to think that he’s figured it all out, but the fact that he’s posing the questions makes the film all the more interesting. The film takes bizarre jumps from the surreal to the real, from the funny to the tragic and through it all; Kaufman never loses sight of his aim. There was not a better ensemble cast assembled this year – Hoffman, Keener, Morton in addition to Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis and everyone else – seems to know exactly where they fit into this crazed world. Does anything in this movie actually happen, or is it all some wild fever dream of Caden’s as he lies dying of a brain tumor? I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that Kaufman’s movie gets to the heart of human nature better than any other film this year. That it will likely anger or bore as many people who it enthralls only makes it all the more interesting. We ask our artists to examine the world around them, and our place in it, with wit, insight and ambition. No one did that better this year than Charlie Kaufman, which is why Synecdoche, New York is my favorite film of 2008.

Just Missed The Top 10: A Christmas Tale (Arnaurd Desplchein),The Class (Laurent Cantet), Doubt (John Patrick Shanley), Gomorra, Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh), In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), Milk (Gus Van Sant), Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichert), W (Oliver Stone).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
Slumdog Millionaire was such an irresistible story that the Academy could not resist – and I am talking not just about the movie itself, but the process it went through to be released. The film was dumped by the studio that financed it, and was thought to be heading straight to video. Then the film became a HUGE hit on the festival circuit (I was at one the screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, and I have never been in a screening where the audience exuded that kind of energy), and went onto become a box office, critical and finally Oscar hit. The film has an energy all its own, and certainly is a film bursting with charm from its immensely likable, though unknown, leads and the story is so heartwarming that you would have to be one cynical bastard to truly hate the film. I don’t think that it deserved to win the Best Picture of Director Oscar, but then I was kind of far off the consensus this year, so what I do know? I did highly enjoy it thought, so I won’t complain about it.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Milk is a very interesting film for director Gus Van Sant – because it comes at the end of a decade long experiment he was doing with films like Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park – all decidedly non-commercial films about young men and death. Milk is a departure from that – it is a mainstream, fairly standard biopic of a gay politician in 1970s-80s, but like those other films, the specter of death hangs over the entire movie. Yes, I prefer Van Sant’s experimental films, but that doesn’t mean Milk isn’t a great film (it would be #11 on my list by the way), and most of the credit for that has to go to Sean Penn. Penn is such a larger than life presence in most of his roles, that even when he is great, you still know you are watching Sean Penn acting. But in Milk, he disappears inside the role. He changes his voice, his mannerisms to match the real Harvey Milk, but that’s just the start, as he truly does get under his skin. Personally, I think Mickey Rourke delivered the best performance of the year in The Wrestler – in fact, it’s one of the best performances of the decade in my mind – but since he lost to a great performance likes Penn’s, I won’t complain.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Kate Winslet’s win for The Reader represents the only time in Oscar history that I can recall anyway, where I feel that they gave to the right actress, in the right category, in the right year – for the wrong movie. Winslet’s performance in Revolutionary Road was absolutely brilliant – perhaps the best of her career, as a headstrong housewife before her time, who feels trapped by her life. She is dynamic in that movie. Her performance in The Reader is also quite good – treading tricky moral territory as a former concentration camp guard in Nazi Germany, on trial for war crimes, but too embarrassed to admit she cannot read. It is a great performance as well – far and away the best thing about the movie – but I still feel that it was a supporting role – after all, the movie is called The Reader, not The Read To. I think Streep gave a better performance in Doubt – one of the very best in her career in fact – that Winslet did in The Reader, but not Revolutionary Road. I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight transcends the comic boon genre, just like the movie itself does. Nolan treats the movie like it could believably happen in the real world, and Ledger follows that lead, creating an insane villain, but one that is still recognizably human – evil, but human just the same. Yes, I think Ledger would have had a more difficult time winning this award had he not tragically died before the film was released, but that certainly doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve the award – his The Joker has already become the definitive version of the most famous villain in comic book history, and his performance is dynamic, darkly humorous and brilliant. This is that rare case where the Academy voted for a performance for other reasons than the performance, and got it right.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Penelope Cruz is a talented actress – especially when she is working in her native tongue of Spanish, which although Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is mainly in English, she does here. She is a sexual firecracker in this movie, coming in during the films last half and stealing the movie, and adding an additional layer of sexual intrigue between the three main characters. Having said that, I cannot help but think that the performance – no matter how charismatic, sexy and funny – is rather one note. For my money, the film’s best performance is by newcomer Rebecca Hall, who has a much more difficult, more complex role to navigate. Considering her competition included Marisa Tomei’s heartbreaking stripper and Viola Davis’ fiery one scene performance in Doubt, I would have rather the Academy give to one of those two performances – and save Cruz’s Oscar win for a more complex role, that I’m sure someone (perhaps Almodovar) will give her at some point.