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Best films of 2009: Redux

Well, that’ll learn me not to make a yearly best list without seeing all the films out there. And thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for that most useful little lesson.

Redoing these lists isn’t something I normally do (whether out of obstinance or laziness I don’t know), but Bigelow’s tense and amazing “The Hurt Locker” blasted its way into my heart and left behind an uneasiness that lingered for hours after viewing. In short, it demanded its rightful spot in my list … and with a film this outstanding, I’m more than happy to oblige.

(Oh, and “Hangover” — I’m sorry we had to break up, but … I found someone better.)

1. “Inglourious Basterds”

Never underestimate a Jew hunter (Christoph Waltz) who speaks softly and carries a HUGE pipe.

With most directors, it’s hard to know if they know when they’ve created a masterpiece. Not so with Quentin Tarantino, who concludes “Inglourious Basterds,” a gloriously loud, darkly comic and explosively complicated epic, with what seems like a statement of his genius. Really, though, can we blame him? “Inglourious Basterds” works as a brilliant piece of revisionist history, a kickin’ action flick, a layered character study (the most intriguing character being, of course, Christoph Waltz’s fabulously wily Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa) and a technicolor work of art. Bravo, Mr. T. Bravo.

 

2. “The Hurt Locker”

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie show the spoils (and horrors) of war in "The Hurt Locker."

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Up in the Air,” insisted it was “a movie for this time.” It’s an apt and accurate observation, indeed, and it also applies beautifully to Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping “The Hurt Locker,” which throws us right in the uncomfortable, bloody, unsentimental middle of the War on Terror. Relative nobody Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year as SSG William James, a reckless adrenaline junkie willing to sacrifice everything — including the safety of his fellow soldiers — to get his next fix. That performance and Bigelow’s confident direction make “The Hurt Locker” not just a great war movie, but one of THE great war movies.

 

3. “Up in the Air”

Airports are home to George Clooney, who makes for a most touching aimless drifter in "Up in the Air."

To watch “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s gutsy and achingly beautiful third film, is to witness a director coming into his own — though “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” hardly felt like the work of a novice — at the precisely correct moment. With “Up in the Air,” Reitman shines an unwelcome light onto the harsh yet strangely hopeful world of corporate downsizing, unemployment and the speedily tanking economy. The never-better George Clooney becomes the face and voice of this world, a drifter who eventually learns what we all know: Any man who insists he’s got life all figured out is twice as clueless as the people he’s lecturing.

 

4. “Precious”

Gabourey Sidibe (left) and Mo'Nique deliver powerhouse performances in the gritty "Precious."

Films don’t get much rougher or rawly acted than Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” adapted from Sapphire’s best-selling novel “Push.” At times difficult to watch, “Precious” nonetheless introduces us to newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who is a revelation as the Bronx-born Precious. The teen, rendered practically mute by the horrors of her life, endures unspeakable emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her vicious mother (Mo’Nique, who most assuredly deserves a Best Supporting Actress nod). Sidibe — and Daniels — manage the impossible here: to find hope in a life where none, rightly, should exist.

 

5. “Up”

Dreams deferred, then recovered, come to vivid life in Disney-Pixar's touching "Up."

There’s something about youthful dreams that never, ever get old. Disney-Pixar’s “Up” takes this never-aging concept and runs with it in “Up,” a sweet, very funny and often heartbreaking look at an elderly man’s (voiced by Ed Asner) stubborn refusal to let go of his late wife’s dream to travel the wilds of South Africa. How he goes about achieving that decades-old goal boggles the mind in terms of bright, gorgeous animation. But visuals aside, what “Up” does so wonderfully well is tap into our secret hope that it’s never too late to try again for the heart’s strongest desire.

 

6. “(500) Days of Summer”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt memorably discovers that not every love is eternal in "(500) Days of Summer."

Try as we might, humans can’t force love — or, at the very least, our memories of it once it’s vanished — to follow a neat-and-tidy timeline. Neither will it conform to the molds we attempt to force it into. “(500) Days of Summer,” a painstakingly constructed yet fragmented tale of love lost, drives home these points through Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a 20something convinced a coworker (Zooey Deschanel) must be The One. He’s wrong, very wrong, we learn in the opening credits, and thus “(500) Days” becomes a different kind of love story — the painful kind, but the one most likely to stick with us once the credits roll.

 

7. “Star Trek”

Eric Bana adds "villainy" to his already-full resume in "Star Trek."

Summer blockbusters often get snubbed come Oscar time (remember what happened with “The Dark Knight”?) on the basis they lack any substance beyond the visual pyrotechnics and the glitter. Count “Star Trek” out of that lot, for this is the other kind of summer blockbuster — the one that has it all, from the visuals to the special effects to great acting (found everywhere, but especially in the performances of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy) and first-rate writing. “Star Trek” is a treat for the senses, all of them, and a much-needed shot of epi to the dying “Star Trek” franchise.

 

8. “Two Lovers”

Joaquin Phoenix plays a beautifully damaged shell in the superbly acted "Two Lovers."

James Gray, with “Two Lovers,” does something most extraordinary: make a movie about a romantic triangle that eschews melodrama and focuses instead on affecting character growth. At the center of this character study is Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a shifty soul reeling from his fiancee’s departure who falls for two women: the beautiful but equally unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the kind daughter-of-a-family-friend who senses Leonard’s troubled nature and wants to help him. The strong performances lead to a resolution that’s poetic, somehow unspeakably sad and not the least bit maudlin.

  

9. “The Informant!”

James Bond ain't got nothin' on whistleblower Mark Whitacre, a spy of his own creation, in "The Informant!"

A story about one of the world’s biggest (and strangest) tattletales, Mark Whitacre (wonderfully portrayed by Matt Damon), sounds intriguing enough. Then in marches Stephen Soderbergh to direct, and, well, it’s all over from that moment on. Soderbergh, with his trademark verve and style, transforms the story of Whitacre, who blew the whistle on ADM’s price fixing racket, from a corporate thriller to a jaunty but deeply sad venture into the mind of Whitacre, who concocted such an elaborate, crazy scheme even he couldn’t wrap his fragile little mind around it. Credit Damon, at his best, for taking a buffoon and turning him into an oddly sympathetic Everyman.

 

10. “Brothers”

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal anchor the subtle "Brothers" with strong performances.

“Brothers,” much like “The Departed,” offers solid proof that remakes should not be discounted out of hand. Based on a Danish film, Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” stands as a fine creation on its own, a penetrating look at the effect war — particularly in the realm of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — has on families. Tobey Maguire is sheer dynamite as Capt. Sam Cahill, who escapes an Afghani prison camp but comes home to his wife (Natalie Portman) and worried brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) a broken, dangerous man. “Brothers,” with its wrenching but never showy performances, makes us feel the knife edge of his desperation and the way it slices clean through his family harmony.

Honorable mentions: “The Brothers Bloom” for its first-rate cast (Ruffalo, Weisz, Brody); “Jennifer’s Body” for its clever dialogue, genius reversal of the teen-girl-as-hapless-victim sentiment informing most horror films and a career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried; and “Zombieland,” which glides in on sheer gross, witty fun.

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Subtle “Brothers” tackles hellish aftereffects of war

War cripples the life a Marine (Tobey Maguire) shares with his wife (Natalie Portman) in "Brothers."

There’s a line from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” that’s always haunted me, and watching Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” I couldn’t shake the feeling I was watching the poem’s story come to life. Trudging the trenches in World War I, the poet sums up his reality in five words: “All went lame; all blind.” Press on the soldiers do, but not as men; war has taken their souls. There’s nothing left.

Though times have changed, the sentiment has not. Months spent in an Afghanistan prison camp have turned Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) from a young, fiercely dedicated Marine into a blank shell. War has made him strange to his wife and two daughters, his father and his younger brother. More than that, war has made Sam strange to himself. Maguire, so deliberate in his expressions and awkward movements, gives us a man who doesn’t know who he is. Fear has him cornered, and in violently clawing to get free he terrifies his family.

A remake of Susanne Bier’s 2005 Danish film, “Brothers” touches on the ways Sam’s experience changes his family dynamic. Before leaving for his fourth tour overseas, his life is stable: He is married to his high school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) and has two daughters, Isabel (the phenomenally talented Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). He has the respect of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), also a military man, and a promising career in the service. Even his relationship with his aimless younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), recently released from prison after doing a stint for armed robbery, is solid. But after deployment, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he’s presumed dead. Grace struggles to hold it together, and she gets help from an unlikely source: Tommy, who’s trying ineptly but earnestly to be a better person. 

Here “Brothers” diverges into two storylines: that of Sam and Private Willis (Patrick Flueger), captured and tortured by the Afghani resistance, and Grace and Tommy, attempting to adjust to life without Sam. These stories share a commonality: They are about survival. Sam does things he believes to be unforgivable to get back to his daughters and Grace, while she and Tommy form a bond out of the necessity to stay afloat. Sexual tension develops that becomes more complicated when Sam is rescued. Broken though he is, Sam notices their bond, observing that Tommy and Grace look like “two teen-agers in love.” His observation turns into an obsession, and one Sam clings to in order to give his life focus.

The quiet performances keep “Brothers” from spilling into histrionics. Shepard communicates Hank’s anguish with precious few words; his guilt is wrenching. Portman plays Grace not as a sobbing mess but a damaged woman rebuilding her life, then coming to grips with what’s left of her husband. Gyllenhaal is affecting as Tommy, who wants to make a life for himself. He confronts his past, though not without fear; watch his face change as he sees the woman he robbed. Madison, only 10, nearly matches him in subtlety. She’s a true find, an actress with remarkable timing. (Note how her eyes scan Maguire’s face; she manifests a connection with the actor that feels real.) And much praise has been heaped upon Maguire for this role, but he deserves every word. His part requires both restraint and wildness; war split Sam down the middle. And when Maguire lets loose, his rage is frightening and heart-breaking. This is the performance of his career.

Though “Brothers” examines the aftereffects of war, it is more than a war film. This, too, is a look at guilt, regret and how they trickle down. Haunted by his time Vietnam, Hank assigns Sam and Tommy the roles he expects them to play. He tries to drink away that guilt, but the drink stops working. The time Tommy spends with Grace makes him regret the years he wasted drunk and drifting. Sam bears the heaviest load, the twin burdens of work vs. family and the guilt attached to what he did as a prisoner in Afghanistan. In essence, everyone here asks: Is redemption possible? The fact that they muster the courage to ask makes “Brothers” one of the most challenging and gripping films of 2009.

 Grade: A