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January 30th, 2010

The Bestest 2009 – Filmmage

Saturday, January 30th, 2010
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 3.67 out of 5)
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There seemed to be fewer films that will stand the test of time this year than in the past, but that is not to say there weren’t a handful of gems. For me the most important filmic discovery was jaw dropping accessibility provided by Netflix “Watch Now.” I started the year with a Roku box, which was cheap and easy to use. Hooked on the drug, I upgraded to Netflix over Xbox Live. Not only can you watch a seemingly infinite number of films instantly and on a whim, the release window is incredibly fast for indie films. In fact five of the films on this list are already available on demand and by the time I get around to finishing this list I’m sure there will a few more.

1)   The Hurt Locker – Dir. Kathyrn Bigelow (Jeremy Renner, Ralph Fiennes)
Rarely does a movie that is so intrinsically political make such lucid points without seeming the least bit preachy or biased. Even more remarkable is that the film is set in a war that is actually still ongoing (Iraq) but is so focused, on one small specialized unit tasked with doing something most people know nothing about, the bomb diffusing unit, that it could be any modern war.

Despite high profile cameos by Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, the film belongs to Jeremy Renner, who like the bombs he is charged with diffusing, seems ready to explode at any moment. The only time he seems calm and at peace is when he is encased in his heavy futuristic protective suit carefully dismantling the sketchy homemade bombs strewn throughout the city. There is very little downtime in the film; it all seems filled with a relentless intensity. This is a small masterpiece, about a big subject, executed with a precision of a surgeon. When eventually the dust settles I’m not sure there will be a more compelling film about this war.

2)   Crazy Heart – Dir. Scott Cooper (Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall)
It’s hard not to love watching Jeff Bridges act. In part he often picks likable characters, but often he just makes them far more likable than they actually are. His role in “Crazy Heart,” as a banged up fading country singer, Bad Blake, is, without a doubt, the strongest and most compelling of his career. In it he is channeling his inner Kris Kristofferson but mashing it up with a “Barfly” era Bukowsky. For much of the film, watching him struggle to breathe through Marlboro lungs, and steady himself after a full day of drinking is almost too convincing. You nearly worry for the actor, not just the character.

As much as you hope the story will avoid a quasi-predictable storyline, you really know where things are heading. No matter.  The always exceptional Maggie Gyllenhaal, is quite wonderful as Bad’s live or die forcing function, but the show is all Bridges. He becomes this character, very much like Mickey Rourke’s “Wrestler,” even proving himself a capable singer. This is that magic small film that make you laugh and cry, grateful that someone, somewhere, picked it up off the floor and gave it a chance be seen on theater screens.

3)   500 Days of Summer –Dir. Marc Webb (Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
This film features two of my favorite young actors and a non-linear  story about love that isn’t meant to be, even though you spend the whole movie wishing that is were. Our protagonist, Tom, played by David Gordon-Levitt, somehow ended up writing greeting cards despite his original dream of being an architect, and the irony of a professional iterating on clichés, sets the tone for a romance that refuses to be lifted from the world of the predictable.

Zooey Deschanel (Summer) is the everything you want her to be: smart, clever, cute, but also brutally honest to a painful fault. But what separates this film from something hopelessly inevitable is the inventive and occasionally frustrating craft of the film. Built on a gimmick, in a good way, the film starts near the end and winds its way to the beginning, exposing shards of the pair’s 500 days “together” in an uncommonly engaging manner. I guess we’re all still wondering what love really means, and whether the hindsight we all wish had been foresight when we were young would have made life any better.

4)   An Education – Dir. Lone Scherfig (Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina)
There is a wonderful texture and sense of time and place about this film. The swinging pre-Beatles London captured on screen, circa 1961, from the physical locales to the music and costumes transports you not just into a physical geography but even deeper into the minds of the characters who effortlessly draw you in. Adapted crisply by Nick Hornby, the film is a kind of modern Lolita but with an older victim, 16, and a younger “predator.”

This is largely the tale of a precocious high school girl (a career launching performance by Carey Mulligan) who is seduced by an older man slickly and slimily played by the consistently great Peter Saarsgard. But unlike the hundreds of similar seeming stories that have come before, this fast moving screenplay is thick with tension and a beautiful rhythm and a startling surprise twist that adds just enough spice to make it great. All of this is even more remarkable considering that the director is a young Dane who manages to access the zeitgeist with an incredible acuity and authenticity.

5)   Gomorrah – Dir. Matteo Garrone (Salvatore Abruzzese, Vincenzo Fabricino)
Between The Sopranos and the films of Scorsese, the American mafia genre has such a high ba, that most attempts at something new will suffer badly. In part this is why the gritty, Italian take on the subject is so refreshing, despite its consistently overt bleakness. This is a documentary-feeling tale about the Camorra system that seems to control every inch of Naples- a place where there are no heroes, and no victims, only a ruined landscape and an endless cycle of acquiescence and surrender.

Among the handful of interconnected stories, each leads to the same place and seems to paint the picture of a society stuck behind the bars of something too powerful to escape. From the young kids who have the naïve arrogance to try to chart their own course to the withering elders who are just trying to hold on, this is the least sentimental film in quite a while. The film swims in violence, but none of it is remotely gratuitous. It feels real, and sad just like the people walking on glass that we know will, in the end, always shatter.

6)   Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas (Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling)
This is a quintessential French film. It is beautiful and contemplative, artfully filmed and perfectly paced. At its core this is a film about family, specifically the three siblings who gather at their gorgeous French country estate to celebrate the birthday of their mother. Over the years she has filled the house with rare and beautiful paintings, sculpture and one of a kind furniture. For her each piece is cherished for its intrinsic beauty and even more the emotional significance it holds. To the rest of the family the collection is the passion of someone else, beautiful perhaps, but someone else’s memories.

Shortly after the matriarch dies, the film becomes more a meditation on the meaning of material things. As the siblings, who are now dispersed throughout the world, China, Paris and New York, debate what to do about the estate and the collection, the film asks us to consider what globalization has done to the concept of family and tradition. As I watched it made me think about my own collections, and specifically the massive collection of music (vinyl, cassettes, CDs) now packed away in boxes, replaced by digitized copies and stored on tiny hard drives. For me, collecting, the endless discovery, provided a journey, and the music a way to remember the moments along the way. ‘Summer Hours’ is a tranquil, subtle exploration of what is important. In the end it is about those things that enable us to bring back memories and what helps us to create the new ones.

7)   The White Ribbon – Dir. Michael Haneke (Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur)
There was not a bleaker more beautiful film this year, than the Bergmanesque German art film “The White Ribbon.” Like most prior Haneke films (“Funny Games,” “Cache,” The Piano Teacher”) the film paints a crisp picture of mankind’s instinct towards cruelty and hate. But this time the perpetrators are likely the children living in a stark, isolated pre-WWI northern German town.

Although very much a European film in the sense that there are many loose ends and ambiguous resolutions as you watch the credits roll, the story moves along briskly as told by a narrator recalling  vague incidents from 50 years earlier. The epidemic of tragic events that afflict the town seems both the product of the feudalism that is still a part of the society at the time, which spills directly from the cold, Puritanism of the towns’ elders. It is rare a film is able to maintain a level of unease as consistently as “The White Ribbon.” It is not exactly the edge of your seat you are feeling, but a kind slow burning emptiness. Great films make you “feel” something, but for most people this film won’t make them feel great! 

8)   Adventureland – Dir. Greg Mottola (Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds)
In some ways this film so closely mirrors my own experience that it is hard for me to judge it objectively. It doesn’t really matter though, because like a light beer on a hot day, this one goes down so easily. The film is set during the summer of 1987 primarily at a lame Pittsburg amusement park (I spent that same summer making snow cones at a lame Cleveland amusement park for $3 an hour).  The story focuses on the always lovable Jesse Eisenberg who was supposed to have been traveling around Europe using his college graduation money, which he never got because his father lost his job, and instead mans a game booth with the same insufferable music blaring all summer long. 

 Unlike the endless films of its kind, where a geek falls for a beautiful girl who is in love with the wrong guy, this film feels more like swan song from the late John Hughes. The film’s hugely appealing cast stretches the thin plot into something nostalgic and authentic, with the pitch perfect soundtrack and the kind of nerdy naiveté from the 80’s now seen from a distance. Perhaps this isn’t a masterwork like ‘Sixteen Candles’ or ‘The Breakfast Club’ but there haven’t been many since then that capture a moment in time so carefully.

9)   Inglourious Basterds – Dir. Q Tarrantino (George Clooney, Dianne Kruger, Christoph Waltz)
With every Tarrantino effort I tend to lose track of the fact that most of his films never really find a mass audience despite the technical finesse, incredible dialogue and near perfect performances. With “Basterds” of course there is violence, but this time around the focus seems to be more about the thick air of tension that surrounds individual scenes versus the blood and gore of previous efforts. At the most basic level, this is a WWII movie, where a gang of rogue Americans, “the basterds” is unleashed on the evil Nazi’s. This filmis about revenge, but it succeeds in part because the Nazis,  represented by the Oscar worthy Christoph Waltz, are even more evil than you might have thought, and the rampage that the Basterds undertake occas don’t  seem cruel enough.

The film is told in chapters, and with the exception of two which seem flatter and slower than the rest, each scene can almost be appreciated in isolation as a complete work. Tarrantino is a master, but this time around it almost feels like he wields a collective hatchet for all the victims of the Nazi’s terror. Never has rooting for vengeance felt so right. I’m not sure why it increasingly seems that “Pulp Fiction” will go down as Tarrantino’s opus, despite a handful of better, deeper films since then. This one and Jackie Brown and ‘Kill Bill 2 are classics, made by the Kubrick of the modern age.

10)    Sin Nombre – Cary Joji Fukunaga (Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores)
In the wake of the great Mexican cinema of the past decade (Amores Perros, Et Tu Mama Tambien) comes the grittiest, most riveting journey for freedom in a long while. Produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and directed by an American first-timer, Cary Fukunaga, ‘Sin Nombre’ tells the story of a family of Honduran immigrants who jump on a rusty train and travel north through Mexico en route to America with hundreds of others, camped out on the roof, grasping onto the same dream.

More than any other the film this year, it is both a love story that you know will end badly, and an exploration of the brutal Central American gangs that cover the country by way of a network of cell phones and spotters. This is a different kind of road movie, but a road movie nonetheless, where the voyage is less about self-exploration than it is about survival. To consider a film like this is to remember that in a country not all that far away, chaos, violence, and poverty are a way of life, not just occasional headlines. This might be best debut film of the year.

11)   The Cove – Dir. Louie Psihoyos / Food, Inc. – Dir. Robert Kenner
Two of the scariest movies of the years had nothing to do with alien prawns or paranormal activity but were obviously one-sided explorations of how we humans treat animals (or mammals). The first was “Food, Inc.” a kind of documentary version of Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation.” In it we are exposed to the “real life” practices of the poultry, beef and pork business.’ Beyond the obvious hard to watch clips of slaughterhouses and overcrowded chicken farms the film spends as much time analyzing the global business of food, controlled by a handful of massive multinationals. The business of food is almost harder to watch than the frightening story of getting food from a farm to table. It is not just eating animals that will forever seem a dangerous voyage after watching this, food as innocent and healthy seeming as soy has, if you believe the filmmakers, an ugly back story as well. Best watched without snacks.

The second film cut from the same cloth is the eco-thriller doc. “The Cove.” This documentary is a much more creative piece of filmmaking, with a story that seems somehow even more gripping. The film follows the man largely credited with inadvertently starting the multi-billion dollars dolphin park business, after bringing Flipper to living rooms. The story ultimately follows a crew of explorers to a small town in Japan where 23,000 dolphins a year are slaughtered for food in a heavily guarded hidden cove. There is more to the story than this, including how the team captured the grizzly footage of one day’s slaughter. You can’t help but feel an incredible sadness.  a guilty shame, watching this film, much of it because it appears that dolphins have a considerably higher intellect than the pigs, cows and chickens who appear in “Food,Inc.” Either way, I suppose the idea of natural selection, no matter how brutal, is much better exposed in these films than it is on the Discovery channel. Again, this film is best watched on an empty stomach.

12)   Goodbye, Solo – Dir. Ramin Bahran (Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West)
No one saw this film. This is a sad fact, but not a surprise. It’s a story about two ordinary people who meet under imperfect circumstances and have the kind of short of intense human interaction that delves much deeper than most longer, seemingly more intimate relationships. The story is a simple one in which a crusty old man, played with a quiet power by Red West, steps into a cab in a southern town and effectively commissions a ride in 30 days to his own self-inflected funeral from the infectiously optimistic cabbie, Souleymane Sy Savane.

Over the course of the days that follow the two begin to build something resembling a friendship different than anything either could have ever anticipated. But this isn’t a Hollywood film, and the story that plays out is real. It is neither happy nor sad. The two characters are moving through time- one with an eye on the future, the other reflecting on the past. There something sublimely calming about “Goodbye, Solo” which reminds you that time never stops.

13)   Up In The Air – Dir. Jason Reitman (George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman)
Yes, this film is easy to watch. It is slick, clever, and just deep enough to make you feel okay about loving it. Jason Reitman is now 3 for 3 (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) and has such a light touch, adding just the right amount of emotional spectrum, cool music, and perfect casting to insulate his films from any real criticism.

The thing I appreciated most about Up In the Air is the nuanced attention given to getting into the mindset of serious traveling. As someone who flies often, the subtle, unconscious, ultra-efficient decisions at security checks, airport lounges and hotels seem as perfect as the often irrational brand loyalties. Sure there are flaws, but in the end they are hardly worth acknowledging. This film is an obvious joy, and you don’t need me to tell you that.

14)   Avatar – Dir. James Cameron (Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver)
There is not much I can offer about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It is a mesmerizing, magical thing of beauty to watch. It is technically and artistically paradigm shifting in the way that “Star Wars” was while also sharing a kind zeitgeisty philosophical, neo-religious world view. Sure the story is really nothing new, albeit updated with a topical eco-friendly theme, complete with a predictable love story and obvious good versus evil polarity, but the film is more a visual feast than a  character study. I could go on, but why. This film is a masterpiece that, more than any film in years, needs to be seen on a massive screen, in 3D, and with a large bucket of popcorn.

15)   The Messenger – Oren Moverman (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton)

16)   Sugar – Dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Algenis Pérez Soto, Rayniel Rufino)

17)   A Serious Man – Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed)

18)   The Maid – Dir. Sebastian Silva (Catalina Saavedra, Alejandro Goic)

19)   The Informant – Dir. Stephen Soderburgh (Matt Damon, Scott Bakula)

20)   A Single Man – Dir. Tom Ford (Colin Firth, Julianne Moore)

January 27th, 2009

The Bestest 2008 – Filmmage

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009
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In some ways it is frustrating being a film fanatic these days. For the first three quarters of the year, good studio films slowly drip into the market, with most of them held back until December so they remain fresh when the Award season begins. During the empty Spring and Fall periods all the great indies leak quietly into the theaters but rarely remain longer than a few weeks before disappearing into that abyss that exists until the DVD is released. Summer of course is dominated largely by brainless big budget crud (“The Dark Knight” excluded). But through it all there was an endless sea of movies to pursue. This year was a good one, but then again if you work hard enough they all are.

1. The Wrestler – Dir. Darren Aronofsky (Mickey Rourke, Marissa Tomei)

For me a film like this is a shoe-in to top “The Bestest:” a transformational lead performance, a gritty and at times hard to watch subject matter, and a storyline that is both theatrical yet plausible. Like the other mostly epic feathers in director Aronofsky’s cap (“Requiem for a Dream” and “PI” specifically) “The Wrestler” feels like it is shot from right up close – close enough to the see all of mankind’s imperfections magnified almost to the point of intimate discomfort.
But beyond just the craft and style of this film, it would be impossible to imagine how this could even be a film without the performance of Mickey Rourke. Beyond the obvious art imitating life curiosity, Rourke and his bulked up, bruised and abused body, complete with eyes that have clearly visited the emotional places of his character. He infuses the role of Randy the Ram, a washed out former wrestling star, with an authenticity that is transcendent. Although the film belongs to Rourke, the consistently underrated Marissa Tomei delivers yet another brave and soul- baring performance. “The Wrestler” was the film that made me “feel” the most this year, and I believe it will stand the test of time and will sit proudly next to the gritty goodness of “Rocky” when we look back years from now.

2. Slumdog Millionaire – Dir. Danny Boyle (Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor)

It might help to think of “Slumdog Millionaire” as a bit like “City of God” set in India, but spiced up with a bit more Dickens. This is a very good thing. “Slumdog” is an epic saga that follows the life of Jamal, a young Indian boy in Mumbai, who suddenly finds himself orphaned, and shivering to stay dry in an old boxcar with his older brother and a shy girl who has also just lost her parents. From there, the children begin a journey that includes losing each other countless times and then having to accept that every separation pushes them further into the realities of adulthood. The film is slick, fast, triumphant, devastating, and authentic. It is shot with an often dizzying cinematic energy, but patient enough to reveal the colorful textures of modern India.

In the hands of almost any other director the story of Jamal’s journey from inescapable poverty to game show millionaire could have felt either too implausible or at times too hard to watch. But Danny Boyle, as he demonstrated in “Trainspotting,” and “Shallow Grave,” is both a technical genius as well as a soulful filmmaker. Sure the film which cuts back and forth in time feels a bit inevitable, but this is softened by the underlying Bollywood flavor that oozes from its outside edges. In the end, “Slumdog” will make you wince, cry, laugh, and feel that exhilaration that comes with rooting for the underdog … this is a modern classic.

3. The Visitor – Dir. Thomas McCarthy (Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbass)

The first great film of 2008 was a small gem written and directed by the director behind 2004′s brilliant “The Station Agent.” Like its predecessor, “The Visitor” is a story about a journey back from loneliness and into the real world of the living. In this case a recently widowed, middle- aged professor, stuck somewhere between deep professional apathy and outright depression, is given a totally unexpected shot in the arm.

Summoned to NYC to present a paper to his colleagues, Walter Vale, played effortlessly by Richard Jenkins from “Six Feet Under,” returns to his largely abandoned NY apartment after years away, only to find two illegal immigrants living inside. After an awkward initial meeting, Jenkins begins to slowly come around to the young free- spirited drummer from Syria, who, in the gentlest of ways reintroduces him to the simple pleasures of life. Ultimately the film becomes more complicated exposing us to the inherent hypocrisy of our immigration policy in a post 9/11 world. From the incredibly nuanced portrayal of lasting and fleeting love, to the broader issue of finding joy in life, this movie is a gem that pushes buttons but never tugs too hard. The truth is told in a quiet convincing tone but with a beautifully understated cast. This is a diamond deep in the rough.

4. The Counterfeiters – Dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky (Karl Markovics, August Diehl)

Holocaust films are always hard to watch but the best, “The Piano” and “Life Is Beautiful,” tend to distract you with stories about how “distraction” can lead to survival. “The Counterfeiters” is the incredible true story of a Jewish master craftsman thrown into the concentration camps for, of all things, counterfeiting. Ironically this crime is the gift that gives him the chance to survive for years by helping the Nazi’s mint currency to prolong the war.

The counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch is played with incredible intensity by Karl Markovics whose emotions and expressions beat with a fearlessness that somehow allows the movie to keep the realities of death enough at bay to let you lose yourself in the dark flow of the film. Markovics, like Duvall’s Lt. Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” emanates a kind of glow that you know will let him emerge from the war without a scratch, but is forced to take risks that could cause the deaths of the men around him. Working for the Nazis is like playing poker with the devil, but drawing the perfect card against the evil empire is redemption like no other. War is bleak, and the Holocaust will always feel like the most devastating of them all, but “The Counterfeiters” is one of the most compelling war films of the past decade. This film cannot be missed.

5. Man on a Wire – Dir. Paul Marsh (Phillippe Petit)

Some great documentaries are great because the characters and the true stories do all the work and don’t need much of anything but a camera, a talking head and few stills. Others take simple ideas and stories and make them much better by leveraging incredibly creative filmmaking, watch anything by Errol Morris and you’ll see what I mean. But “Man on a Wire,” gives you both: an incredible story combined with an incredibly textural look and feel. The film tells the story of the French wirewalker Philippe Petit who ultimately endeavored to walk across a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.

Visually the film is an incredible combination of original footage of his three most significant walks culminating with his Trade Center excursion, in addition to home movies of the young and mildly hippie Petit and his crew practicing in the beautiful French countryside. Throughout the film the filmmakers were able to interview most of the original collaborators, allowing them to get perspectives from both the time of the event and upon reflection. What makes this film, with its odd premise, even more intriguing and eerie is obviously the footage of the WTCs at the beginning of their short lives at the moment of their completion in 1970. This film is more than a curiosity, more than non-fiction, it is a story where almost everyone and everything about it seems surreal and oddly beautiful.

6. Reprise – Dir. Joachim Trier (Anders Danielsen Lie, Espen Klouman-Høiner, Viktoria Winge)

Great films come in all shapes and sizes. Some look great, while others just make you think, and others are mostly about specific extraordinary performances. “Reprise” is that rare breed that manages brilliance on all fronts, but does so without a single recognizable actor, a single special effect, or a story that follows an easy narrative thread. Instead it rips pages from everything from “Run Lola Run” to the Dogma films, to last year’s “Control,” suspending reality, speculating on the future and meditating on the present. In it, two young writers in Oslo each drop their debut novel manuscripts into a mailbox. This sets off two parallel voyages that will lead them unknowingly into different arcs of discovery.

Set to the dark meditations of Joy Division, and filled with subtle allusions to everyone from Russ Meyer, to the great existentialists, “Reprise” is a tribute to hipsterism, but it is also fragile and self-conscious. Each character is ultimately forced to deal with the other’s success and failure at a time when both outcomes inform the rest of their lives. All of these events and emotions happen at an incredibly fast pace, both emotionally and cinematically. But more than anything, the film explores the importance of recovery: from a broken heart, from the shock of rejection, or the paralyzing effects associated with success. “Reprise” is without a doubt one of the most creative, inventive films in years. It captures the hope and dreams of youth, tempered with the complexity of becoming an adult. I relate entirely. This film is a minor major masterpiece

7. Young@Heart – Dir. Stephen Walker

Despite the rave reviews, feel-good premise, and incredible soundtrack, I was massively suspicious about a documentary that sounded this precious. But it took only moments to get sucked into this story of a few dozen 70 and 80 year-olds who are spending some of the happiest times of their later years singing an eclectic mix of punk rock and classic R&B as members of the Young@Heart chorus in Massachusetts.

Led by aging hipster and chorus director Bob Cilman, the film digs deeply into the lives of a handful of the more prominent members, many of whom are sick are dying throughout the filming and in some ways are kept alive by the joy of being part of the choir. But far from being somber, with every performance shown as either in rehearsal or to live audiences, you can’t help but get goose bumps as their renditions of Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, and Coldplay light you up with joy. Maybe I’m a sap for loving this film as much as I do, but I’m okay with that.

8. Milk – Dir. Gus Van Sant (Sean Penn, Emile Hirsh, Josh Brolin)

Films shot in your hometown always seem a bit better than perhaps they are. Each scene gives you the chance to recognize a corner you’ve stood on or a shop you have been in, or in the case of “Milk’, what the town might have looked or felt like before you arrived. “Milk’, one of two great films by Gus Van Sant this year, has all the texture and authenticity that I assume San Francisco had in that run-down, neglectful period during the 70′s. But really the film belongs, again, to Sean Penn who always chooses projects where he can attempt to morph into the character he is playing. Again, he is triumphant in becoming the ambitious and inspiring Harvey Milk who was the first openly gay elected politician in the country. And although sometimes the intensity with which Penn interprets his characters makes them seem unapproachable, his Harvey Milk is a guy you’d love to meet which is why he was able to do what he did in the first place.

The story of Milk’s rise and unnecessary fall could have easily become a sentimental mess that lost itself under the weight of politics and political correctness. But instead, Van Sant’s “Milk” is a great story about a very ordinary man who achieved what he did through hard work and persistence more than anything else. The beauty of this film is how genuinely watchable it is for a film that has such a serious and topical subject matter, it succeeds without being heavy handed or preachy. In a way it feels like eating organic food, nourishing for the body and soul.

9. In Bruges – Dir. Martin McDonagh (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes)

“In Bruges” was the first movie I saw in the theaters in 2008. It was also one of the funniest and best executed black comedies of the year. There is nothing too deep or groundbreaking happening here, but then again there hasn’t been a buddy movie with characters this believable in quite a while. Set in the quaint hamlet of Bruges, one of my favorite European cities, two small time crooks have been banished there to lie low after having just majorly botched a robbery in London days before.

The film is really just a character piece where we get to observe the way two people dealing with the stress and consequences of failure and then deal with the opportunity of being displaced in a strange new place. The kinetic Colin Farrell likes drinking, chasing girls, and making fun of stupid tourists all the while pining to get back to London, while the laid-back Brendan Gleason embraces the chance to wander through galleries and lose himself in the quiet calmness of the Bruges. But by the end of the film we move from the superficial to personal as both characters confront the mistakes and misgivings in their lives. No film this year mixed comedy and tragedy as well as this one.

10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Dir. Cristian Mungiu (Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu)

There were some great, incredibly bleak films that made it into my psyche in 2008. The first of those was a Romanian film set in Communist heyday of the 80′s. Shot largely with handhelds, both to emphasize the shaky voyage that the characters are embarking on, as well as, I assume, to best capture the crumbling grays and beiges of the city that feels both desperate and real and an explanation of circumstance.

The story follows two college friends, one desperate to have an illegal abortion – the only kind in Romania at that time, and her loyal friend who risks her own safety to make it happen. Nothing about this voyage is easy, from simply finding a suitable hotel to have it in to dealing with the slimy “doctor” willing to do the procedure. Almost every moment feels on the brink of “harrowing” but it keeps you holding on ever so tightly even though it would be easier to just walk away. This is not for everyone, but it should be required viewing for everyone.

11. The Wackness – Dir. Jonathan Levine (Josh Peck, Sir Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby)

I vividly remember the Summer of 1994 in NYC because I was there. It was hot, and I was poor, and Kurt Cobain had just died. This is the backdrop for the hugely underrated indie “The Wackness.” The film is mostly a coming of age tale following 18 year-old Luke Shapiro, a lonely, weed- dealing, recent high school graduate, around for the summer before he starts college. Shapiro and his parents are on the verge of eviction of their rented Upper East Side apartment while his peers who live in nearby penthouses have largely either left for travels in Europe or summer houses in the Hamptons. But the film doesn’t dwell too much on issues of class but more on a few relationships that don’t really fit any traditional mold.

Enter Ben Kingsley as Luke’s psychiatrist, who trades mostly lame hippie wisdom for bags of grass equivalent in size to the length of the session. As Luke reluctantly confesses the causes of his depression (he wants a girlfriend) he is specifically imagining Kingsley’s beautiful stepdaughter Stephanie. As Stephanie begins to fall a little for the awkward but not totally un-cool Shapiro, the real friendship in the film combatively ignites between Kingsley and Luke. The summer rolls on while Stephanie and Luke spend time together, Kingsley begins to lose his sense of purpose and Luke races to sell enough grass to bail his parents out of debt. This film is not profound in any real way, but is a kind of perfect rumination on the nature of love both as a teenager and as an adult. So smoke a joint and enjoy.

12. Vicky Christina Barcelona – Dir. Woody Allen (Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz)

Could it actually be considered lame to genuinely “love” a late phase, post “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Woody Allen movie? Or is it merely honoring past loves (“Manhattan” or “Annie Hall”)? No. This is a great, modern, yet old school Woody film filled with all of the literate banter and emotional second guessing that we’ve come to expect from him over the years. But this time around, instead of a funny looking Woody somehow attached to implausibly good looking women, we have these same kind of characters but everyone is equally beautiful so there is no suspension of disbelief required.

The film follows two twenty-somethings spending the summer in Barcelona, looking for the answers that have consequences beyond the less trivial ones that seemed so “important” earlier in their lives. The film is both whimsical and serious, tragic and revelatory, nothing really happens, but a good story lies in the details. I hope Woody has a few more of these left in him.

13. Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (Frank Langella, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell)

“Frost/Nixon” is a film about an interview where much of the film is a recreation of that interview. In most hands, this could be a redundant seeming and dreadful idea, but Ron Howard doesn’t ever really make mistakes. Most of the time he errs on the side of safety by tugging on heartstrings, insulated by big stories and even bigger named actors. But this time Frank Langella literally is able to channel the nuanced mannerisms and elusiveness of Richard Nixon, all the while letting the pursuit of the story and near disastrous pursuit of financing, unfold neatly into the hands of always reliable Michael Sheen who plays interviewer David Frost.

Like all Howard movies, there is a perfect pace for much of the film, when gradually the intensity builds leading up to the final battle of wits where Nixon reveals the tiniest kink and actually says the words the world had been begging him to say. More than anything, this is Langella’s film, and for those too young to remember the actual interview, it seems a like fairly unbiased and accurate history lesson. This is the biggest small movie of the year, but it sure is good.

Once again, very much worth your while, but one most draw a line somewhere:

14. Frozen River – Dir. Courtney Hunt (Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe)
15. The Edge of Heaven – Dir. Fatah Akin (Nurgül Yesilçay, Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz)
16. Rachel Getting Married – Dir. Jonathan Demme (Anne Hathaway, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger)
17. Paranoid Park – Dir. Gus Van Sant (Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen)
18. Wendy and Lucy – Dir. Kelly Reinhart (Michelle Williams)
19. Happy-Go-Lucky – Dir. Mike Leigh (Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough)
20. The Band’s Visit – Dir. Eran Kolirin (Ronit Elkabetz, Sasson Gabai, Uri Gavriel)

February 22nd, 2008

Deep Water – Dir. Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell

Friday, February 22nd, 2008
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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deep-water.jpgSomehow watching a great documentary always makes me feel a little like I just did something healthy for myself – like eating organic vegetables, reading a book or going for a run. I suppose this is because documentaries are extracted from real life, and as such are educational and historical. “Deep Water” is one of those films. It tells an incredible story that most Americans are not likely to have any recollection of.

In 1969, there was a boat race to see who could become the first person to make a solo trip around the world without stopping. Nine contestants entered the race and less than half of them completed it. But the real story revolved around Donald Crowhurst a novice sailor with a nagging zeal to win the race as his one shot to leave a mark on history. He built a odd custom boat and mortgaged his house to compete against some of the finest sailors in the world. Leaving his wife and three children behind for what was expected to be a 9 month excursion, what follows is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of sport. There is nothing particularly unusual about the filmmaking here, mostly just old footage taken before the race, interviews with friends and relatives shot recently, and some haunting footage shot while out on the sea. To say more would be to ruin an incredible mystery, but this film will stick with you long after it is over. 

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