Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

'09 At the Movies

       While deliberating if I should even bother to compile my ’09 year-in-film review at all, I was inundated with an overwhelming show of public support (i.e. -- requests from three separate people!!!) -- which convinced me that I should step up and give it a go. Given how long it’s been since I posted anything here at all, I’d be surprised if even the couple of folks who asked for it still have the URL for this page bookmarked. At any rate, here’s my take (and a partial one at that; as I’ve yet to see either The Informant or Enter The Void -- both on many of this year’s “Best of” lists), of the most worthy films from ’09. Not necessarily the best -- as if there could be an actual yardstick for measuring quality -- but just a dozen or so films that, to me, represented the cream of the crop from this year’s offerings. Here’s a brief rundown of each, presented more or less in the order they were released:

CORALINE - Neil Gaiman’s literary accomplishments -- in comics (like The Sandman), then in novels (the Hugo and Nebula award-winning American Gods) and short stories are undeniable, but his forays into things cinematic have always been a mixed bag (MirrorMask and Beowulf being the best of the lot, IMHO). So it’s a pleasure to finally see a story of his realized so perfectly for the screen -- in old-school stop-motion animation no less! Directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), the stop-motion style is so smoothly rendered here that I think many assumed it was CGI (and viewers should watch all the way through the end of the credits for proof otherwise). Fortunately, the story is equally well rendered -- and it’s the kind that both kids and their parents will appreciate.

STAR TREK - Yeah, that’s right; a remake -- of a 60’s TV show yet. But it makes it to my list exactly because so many TV-to-film adaptations are so downright miserably awful (including most of the prior Trek movies). Abrams (Lost, Mission Impossible III & IV) has worked extensively in both TV and Film -- so he seems to know what elements can successfully survive the leap from one medium to another, and what needs to be retooled to make the premise work as a stand-alone film. Set within the continuity of the original series, but with an entirely new cast, this ret-conned reboot-hybrid yields the years most entertaining blockbuster! See it -- even if you’re not a fan.

THE BROTHERS BLOOM - Rian Johnson’s (Brick) second feature film would seem to be an attempt to “channel” Wes Anderson -- fortunately for the viewing audience, it’s more Bottle Rocket than The Life Aquatic. It’s a tale of two con-artist siblings and the quirky -- and fabulously wealthy -- heiress, who first becomes their “mark”, then their partner-in-crime. Clearly, the film is an example of this newly identified-and-already-cliched film genre (and yes: thank you, Onion A.V. Club for your fine work in ridiculing all things Pop culture); but all the same, it’s by far one of the better examples thereof. Genuinely funny throughout, with just a touch of tragedy to keep it all interesting -- one of the few solid “date” movies you’ll find on this list (or any list of mine, for that matter).

UP - Pixar’s unprecedented streak of quality films continues unbroken -- they’re the only studio making movies today (or should I say “ever”?) about which the worst that could be said of them is that some of their product is merely “good” (as opposed to “excellent” or “great”). Up is better than that, if not their best (Wall-E or The Incredibles takes that prize, as far as I’m concerned); but well worth seeing -- for all the same reasons you loved their other films.

THE HURT LOCKER - I’m pleased to see Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraqi war-drama on most critic’s ’09 “Best of” lists, because it’s as good a film as was released this year. I’d just as soon not say much more, because it’s one of those movies that you should know as little as possible about before viewing. This much I will say, however; a lot of critics refer to the “message” of the film, as it applies to the current political situation both abroad and domestically -- and certainly it addresses those issues directly enough and otherwise -- but primarily it’s the story of one man, and why he does, what he does. To put it plain (for the “message-resistant” amongst us), at no time during the viewing of this movie will you be bludgeoned over the head with a subtext-shaped hammer (and yes, I’m talking to you, Paul Haggis!).

DISTRICT 9 - Ah, yes -- the other Aliens-confront-Humans film released this year; and to my thinking, the better of the two. Neill Blomkamp’s tale of disenfranchised outer-space refugees trying to cope with an Earth government that neither wants -- nor cares -- for their survival struck a perfect balance. On the one hand, there’s an intriguing sci-fi account of Human/Alien contact: a situation made all the more compelling by its analogies to apartheid in South Africa -- where the story is set (and where Blomkamp hails from). On the other hand, you have plenty of “pew-pew” to keep the fanboys happy -- and me too, to be honest (man climbs into armored exoskeleton = happy Grigorss!). What makes the whole thing emotionally satisfying is the fine performance from Sharlto Copley, as the hapless guy caught in the middle. He’s the center of the film, and he holds his own amongst all the excellent CGI and exciting stunt work.

A SERIOUS MAN - I can’t understand why this latest feature from the Coen Bros. didn’t garner more attention than it did -- maybe because their distributor didn’t think a film that has a 8 minute opening scene spoken entirely in Yiddish would play well in Wichita, Kansas? Well if so, that’s a shame, because A Serious Man is easily their best comedy since Barton Fink, with the brothers finally back at the top of their considerable form. What’s it about? Think of it as a coming-of-age film where nobody ever quite does -- that’s close enough...

BRONSON - You might notice that when I compile these lists I don’t actually numerate the films I mention in order of supposed greatness, because generally speaking I find that sort of hair-splitting arbitrary and decidedly annoying, HOWEVER... -- if you put me in a figure-four leg-lock, and threatened to shatter my tibia unless I revealed my most favored pic of the year, then, YES, I would admit (under duress, mind you), that Bronson: the factually-based bio-pic of England’s most violent, most-recidivist, penal-system-imprisoned criminal offender would top the list. Directed by Dutch-born Nicolas Winding Refn (he of the good -- but not as great as this -- Pusher trilogy), and starring soon-to-be “Mad Max” Tom Hardy, the film’s style is a refreshing Ken Russell-meets-Peter Greenaway melange (with just a pinch of Paul Thomas Anderson thrown in to brighten up the soundtrack). It’s a frenetic mix of mockumentary, stage show and music video, and it’s a complete kick-in-the-ass. Highly recommended.

ANTICHRIST - Lars von Trier’s supposed attempt at a mainstream Horror film is about as mainstream as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle but fortunately only about 1/8th as long. It might be the ultra-slo-mo cinematography, the sub-aural low bass in the soundtrack, or maybe just the sight of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg pretty much, ya’ know, going at it, right there, 40 ft high, up on the screen in front of you, but whatever it is -- it has a... -- certain impact, let me tell you. While revealing details of the plot will only spoil the splendiferous surprises found therein, I will mention that the film has no discernible connection to that perennial Old Testament boogieman “Antichrist”. Besides, why go spoiler-happy when I can share with you the briefest, most accurate, and most entertaining movie review I read all year, as provided by that auteur-extraordinaire John Waters himself, from his 2009 “10 Best” movie list (yes, I will stoop to stealing -- but only from the best!):
“If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made.”
And if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, stay away from this movie. Far, far away...

DER BAADER MEINHOF KOMPLEX - You can keep your James Bonds’, and your Jason Bournes’, because the best spy thriller this year is an all-Deutsche Kraut-fest and based on a true story to boot! The Baader Meinhof Complex recounts the true events around the genesis and fall of the RAF (Red Army Faction), a terrorist group who operated with a frightening level of efficacy in the 1970’s -- all the more frightening given that they were at their most effective during the period they were imprisoned. If you’ve ever wondered why and how terrorist groups form and thrive, then you owe it to yourself to see this film. It explains all the steps involved; methodically, impartially and with the minimum amount of hyperbole required to craft what would otherwise just seem to be a really exciting and suspenseful spy/espionage flick.

THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX - Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory) beloved children's novel is all herky-jerky Art Clokey-style stop-motion in contrast to Coraline’s silky-smooth animation -- but that’s cool, because the world of “Mr. Fox” is one that Gumby would feel right at home in. Of course, Gumby and pals would have to put up with a fair amount of “cussin’” (no actual curse-words in the movie -- just the word “cussin’”) as well as the occasional pre-meditated murder and mid-life crisis. I’m not sure who the target audience of the film is intended to be, but I do know that everyone in the theater I saw it in seemed to enjoy the heck out of it -- kid, teen and adult alike. I can only assume that people -- of any age -- actually enjoy seeing characters grapple with real, even life-threatening, problems; Who ‘da thunk it? From what I see of most other films aimed at kids, not the people who make those, that’s for sure.

UP IN THE AIR - The romantic comedy is one of the most hackneyed, cliche-ridden film forms out there, so it’s pretty understandable as to why Jason Reitman’s (Juno) latest feature is so widely acclaimed; it’s not either of those things. Yes, I know it’s being marketed as just your standard-issue rom-com -- but it’s not; Go see it already, and then try telling me otherwise -- go ‘wan, I dare ‘ya.

While the above are what I consider to be ’09’s cream of the cinematic crop, there are a number of other noteworthy films that cannot be left unaccounted for -- which brings us to...

THE 10 LB. COJONES AWARD: which goes to Jody Hill’s (creator of Eastbound & Down) Observe and Report; it’s not the best film of ’09 by any stretch, but it takes a lot of unbridled chutzpah to say “Hey, ya’ know, I think I’m going to remake Taxi Driver. As a comedy. A Romantic Comedy!” That takes ballz -- big, brassy ones...

BEST REAL-LIFE “SPINAL TAP” AWARD: goes to Anvil! The Story of Anvil; it’s a documentary (that’s “doc”, not “mock”) about a Heavy Metal band that’s spent the better part of the last 30 years trying to “make it big” -- so it has a set-up identical to Spinal Tap and peculiarly, also ends exactly the same way... (for real-sies)

BEST “OUTER LIMITS” EPISODE MADE THIS YEAR: goes to Duncan Jones Moon; it’s exactly like (and as least as good as) an old episode of the TV show “The Outer Limits”; and if they let me cut it down to 55 minutes (instead of its current 97) it would no longer telegraph every major twist in its plot and, let me tell you, it would be GREAT!

THE ICARUS AWARD this year goes to Richard Kelly’s The Box; it’s an adaptation -- and an elaboration -- of a Richard Matheson short story (Button, Button). In the course of just three films (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales), Kelly has carved out his own genre -- “The Metaphysical Thriller”; this is a step up from his previous film, but it never quite came together for me -- worth a look though.

FUNNIEST TV SHOW YOU”LL SEE ON A MOVIE SCREEN: goes to Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop; which is undoubtedly the funniest film of 2009 -- unfortunately it has all the visual panache of a 3-camera sit-com shot in 1971. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that most of the characters featured in it are taken from the Brit-com The Thick of It. Hilarity aside, I demand a little visual foreplay from a film before I put it on my “Best-of” list, At the very least, it’s got to buy me dinner first...

And speaking of visual foreplay, for OUTSTANDING TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT IN EYEBALL F**KING the award goes to Avatar. Make no mistake about it; this film represents a quantum leap forward into any film tech you care to name: CGI, 3-D, heck, even Production Design. If the plot points set up so carefully early on (and even, for once, so well), kinda’ fall by the wayside in the last third of the film... -- well, it’s easy to see how Cameron got lost in his virtual world; you will too, especially if you see it on an IMAX screen. Must be seen in a theater.

       That’s my take on ’09; Not quite sure when I’ll next post, but it won’t be any earlier than Feb -- till then.