Tuesday, February 2, 2010

January 2010

Well, the smarty pants at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got what they wanted, right? Adding those extra five spots in the best picture category allowed “An Education,” “A Serious Man” and “District 9” to join the competition for the top Oscar prize. There’s no question, crowd pleasers “The Blind Side” and “Up” were also included because of the expansion of the category, but does anyone in their right mind think any of these second-tier movies (in terms of award potential) will garner more than a handful of votes for best picture?

What does baffle me is how “A Single Man,” the superb directing debut by designer Tom Ford, didn’t make the cut in the Academy’s Top 10. From my viewpoint, it’s a smarter and better made film than all but three of the nominees.

In the acting categories there were few surprises, but I did think Michael Stuhlbarg from the Coen brothers “A Serious Man” deserved a best actor nod and, in the supporting category, Timothy Spall should have gotten recognition for his wonderful performance as a soccer coach in the Oscar-ignored “The Damned United.” But, I must admit, I haven’t yet seen three of the supporting actor selections----Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger,” “Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station” and Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones.” I have my work cut out for me.

Among the actresses, I think Meryl Streep was much better in “It’s Complicated” than she was as Julia Child and I would have certainly included Michelle Monaghan for “Trucker” and Amy Adams for “Sunshine Cleaning.” I can’t argue with the supporting picks, except to wonder why the Academy felt they had to honor a great actress like Penelope Cruz for such a throw-away performance. She was 100 times more impressive in “Broken Embraces.” A supporting performance that I thought worthy but was never on anyone’s radar was given by Charlize Theron as a daughter who can’t get past a childhood tragedy in “The Burning Plain.”

Who’s going to win this expanded Oscar race? I don’t think “Avatar” can be denied, but I would just love to see Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win a best director Oscar and deny the prize to ex-husband James Cameron.

Looks like Bridges (finally) and Sandra Bullock (god help us) are shoo-ins, as are the very deserving Mo’Nique for “Precious” and Christoph Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds.” And let’s hope that Quentin Tarantino wins for original screenplay, if only for what you know will be an incoherently memorable acceptance speech.

Now, getting to the important awards, here’s my Top 10 as of now. My complete year-end list, including my picks for actors, actresses, screenwriters and foreign films will be posted on my blog just before the March 7 Oscar ceremony.

1 The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
2 Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
3 Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
4 The Damned United (Tom Hooper)
5 A Single Man (Tom Ford)
6 An Education (Lone Scherfig)
7 Tetro (Francis Coppola)
8 A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Cohen)
9 State of Play (Kevin Macdonald)
10 Star Trek (J.J. Abrams)

Just missing my Top 10 were two films discussed later in this post, “Trucker” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and the hilarious satire of the run-up to war “In the Loop.”

This film won me over in its first scene when has-been country music singer Bad Blake pulls into an empty parking lot after driving all day from his last gig, curses the fact that he’s playing in a bowling alley and then empties the plastic bottle he uses to relieve himself when he’s on the road. Inside, Bad immediately commences to get drunk.

Jeff Bridges, sporting an unkempt beard and long hair and about 20 extra pounds, delivers one of his best performances as Bad, a once legendary singer-songwriter who has turned into a bitter, pitiful, hopeless alcoholic dragging himself from one small-town gig to the next. Looking like a cross between Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, but singing in a voice similar to Eric Clapton’s, Bridges creates an authentic, heartbreakingly sad character, disappearing into Bad both on stage and off. It’s a tribute to Bridges indelible performance that the film remains interesting even after the plot loses its steam in the second half of the picture. I would have been happy to watch this character for another hour or two.

First-time writer-director Thomas Cooper (working from a novel by William Cobb) is at his best while capturing the butt end of entertainment: Bad rolls into town, starts drinking, meets his backup band a few minutes before the show, drinks, gives the fans what they want, drinks, sleeps with some floozy and then heads off to the next dusty destination. Then a little light shines down on Bad when he’s interviewed by Jean, a small-town journalist (the always spot-on Maggie Gyllenhaal) who finds this beaten and bruised, but also funny and melancholy, 57-year-old appealing. And it doesn’t hurt that he takes a liking to her fatherless little boy.

The age gap of these lovers doesn’t seem like a big deal, in large part because Gyllenhaal, who’s becoming the female version of Bridges---consistently brilliant but rarely receiving recognition. She possesses such a sad, expressive face that she makes you understand that she sees so much more in Bad than what’s on the surface. It’s an extraordinary performance that seemed to be overlooked until her surprise Oscar nomination.

In fact, there’s superb acting all through this film, from a surprisingly convincing Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, Bad’s onetime protégé now a country-western superstar; Robert Duvall (in a nod, no doubt, to his similar, Oscar-winning role in “Tender Mercies”) as Bad’s longtime friend; and James Keane as Bad’s abuse-taking agent.

But Bridges towers over everything in “Crazy Heart” (a lame title, it should have been called “Bad” or maybe “Bad Side of the Road”); the role should finally earn him the Oscar he’s long deserved. He should have won for his beautiful performance as a children author in “The Door in the Floor” (2004) or for his unrepentant ex-con in “American Heart” (1992) or for his suicidal radio DJ in “The Fisher King” (1991) or for his insightful look at middle age in the “Last Picture Show” sequel “Texasville” (1990). And he should have at least been in the running for his turns as the Dude in the cult favorite “The Big Lebowski” (1998), the cynical pianist in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), the car inventor in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) and the self-styled crime investigator in the enigmatic “Cutter’s Way” (1981). Not a bad resume, and that’s just the highlights.

Since he became a star almost 40 year ago, after playing Duane, the love-struck teen in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Bridges has given great performance after great performance, but without a signature role that made critics and filmgoers swoon. He’s forged a career not unlike underappreciated stars such as Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan (with whom he acted in the 1973 film version of “The Iceman Cometh”) and, unfortunately, I don’t think the recognition for this role is going to change that. But there’s no other living actor who is more deserving of adding the title of “Oscar-winner” before his name.

TRUCKER (2009)
Nearly every year, there’s a tough little indie that offers an unsanitized, unpretentious portrayal of a working class woman, usually single or divorced, always depressed and anxious for something good to come into her life.

Just to name a few, there was “Frozen River” (Melissa Leo) in 2008, “Waitress” (Keri Russell) in 2007, “Come Early Morning” (Ashley Judd) and “Sherrybaby” (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in 2006, “Down to the Bone” (Vera Farmiga) in 2004 and “The Good Girl” (Jennifer Aniston) in 2002. Each film and the performance were among the best of its year and “Trucker,” starring Michelle Monaghan, is no exception.

Best know for her detective role in “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) and as Tom Cruise’s fiancé in “Mission: Impossible III” (2006), Monaghan plays Diane, a sullen, tough-as-nails long-haul trucker who lives alone in a small suburban home in Southern California’s Inland Empire. Her only friend is her drinking buddy neighbor (played by TV actor Nathan Fillion), who clearly has a crush on her even though he’s married. Her aimless life breaks down into three activities: driving, drinking and sleeping.

Then, out of the blue, Diane’s world is altered when her ex-husband’s girlfriend shows up at her door with the child she abandoned years ago. Because the father (Benjamin Bratt) has to spend a few weeks in the hospital, Diane reluctantly agrees to take care of the boy. Peter, well played by Jimmy Bennett (who also plays James Kirk as a boy in “Star Trek”), turns out to be a feisty, spoiled and lonely little boy who would rather be anywhere except with this woman he’s grown to hate.

Diane doesn’t do much to endear herself with the boy, treating him as an unwanted guest and then forces him to go on the road with her. We’ve all seen too many of these parent-child getting-to-know-one-another stories, which inevitably turn out to be tiresome and weepy, but “Trucker” takes a fresher road. Of course, they eventually bond, but it happens without sentiment and in fits and starts over the course of the film; it feels like real life. Much of the credit goes to writer-director James Mottern, making an impressive debut behind the camera.

“Trucker” stayed in theaters for maybe two weeks and received little publicity, but it’s one of 2009’s better films and Monaghan’s gritty portrait of a troubled woman drifting through life is as fresh and memorable as any performance I’ve seen this year.

While “Trucker” and its ilk are ignored and forgotten, this picture, the worst kind of formulaic junk from the Hollywood feel-good machine, is raking in box-office dollars and acting awards by the fistful. Nothing against Sandra Bullock: she can be a very appealing actress in light comedies, aided by her self-deprecating humor and understated line readings. But in this manipulative, inspirational (of course, based on a true story) dramatic comedy, she struts around in her tightly tailored suits and big hair as if she’s doing a one-woman show as Ethel Merman or maybe Mae West.

I could take the hackneyed plot---white Southern family takes in a homeless African-American high school student who turns out to be one of the country’s best football players---if Bullock, along with director John Lee Hancock, hadn’t turned Leigh Anne Tuohy into a raging force of nature. This sharp-tongued Southern cliché frightens everyone in her path, even the big-name college coaches who parade in to recruit Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). In fact, the film spends so much time preening over Bullock that it forgot to write a personality for Oher, who, in real life, went on to star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. Just once in awhile, I would have liked to have known what Big Mike was thinking. But this is Leigh Anne’s show---everyone else, get out of the way! (and that includes all the other best actress nominees.)

STAR TREK (2009)
You’d think after six films featuring the original TV show cast and four more with the Picard-led group moviegoers would have had their fill of “Star Trek” adventures. But along comes the latest version and, damn it Jim, it may just be the best of the lot.

Resetting the story back to the dramatic events surrounding the birth of James T. Kirk, director J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV show “Lost” and director of “Mission: Impossible III,” and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman mix fresh storylines with the series’ sacrosanct legends to create a sci-fi adventure that’s both excitingly fresh and comfortingly familiar.

I probably don’t write often enough about the overall casting of a film, as it’s such a crucial aspect to a production’s success. The ensemble of “Star Trek” is the perfect example. Along with Abrams, kudos have to go to casting director Alyssa Weisberg for finding Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (Bones McCoy), Simon Pegg (Scotty), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Anton Yelchin (Chekov) and John Cho (Sulu). These relatively unknown performers are faithful to the personalities their predecessors established for these characters while putting their own mark on the roles. It’s a tricky balance; you don’t want the film to play out like a SNL skit. Here, the entire cast pulls it off.

The plot involves the usual maniacal space avenger (this time a Romulan) who has issues with Spock---not the young cadet but the 50-years older version who somehow exists at the same time. The time shifting gets a bit confusing, but, most importantly, the movie makes sense in human terms. Not only is the picture jam packed with great action, but it offers the chance to see the crew of the Enterprise get acquainted and bond.

Speaking of getting acquainted, who would have guessed that Spock and Kirk would be rivals for the affections of a young, very hot Uhura? (Actress Saldana had quite a year; she also was the Na’vi princess in “Avatar.”)

Pine captures the hot-headed, out-spoken bravado of Kirk (without William Shatner’s dramatic staccato speech pattern) but the most impressive performance in the film comes from TV actor Quinto (“Heroes”) as Spock. He brings out the deep-seated emotional conflicts that exist within this half-human, half-Vulcan walking computer without the advantage of utilizing any facial expressions, beyond those famous eyebrows. His disapproval, mixed with admiration, for the fearless Kirk proves to be the heart of the film.

Abrams has done to “Star Trek” what Christopher Nolan did with the “Batman” series; not only has he started over, but he’s reinvigorated it. I doubt he can repeat this success in part 2 (coming soon to a theater near you), but he’s made an entertaining, cleverly written and superbly acted sci-fi film and that’s not something you see every year.

NINE (2009)
No longer is De Mille, Balanchine, Robbins or Fosse the driving influence of dance in movie musicals. Even the era of MTV video-influence has passed. In the ultimate example of the tail wagging the dog, those unbearably schmaltzy Academy Award show production numbers have become the models for big screen dance scenes. Case in point is Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the stage musical “Nine,” itself based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 dramatic masterpiece “8 ½.”

Marshall makes little attempt to make the musical productions integral to the story or even look like they’re part of the same movie. Star Daniel Day-Lewis serves as the show’s host, as the camera goes back to him after the numbers as if he’s Billy Crystal ready to deliver a pithy one-liner. Even viewed on their own, the dance scenes are totally lacking in originality or screen energy; it’s just attractive women strutting about.

I shouldn’t shortchange the filmmakers---along with the Oscar showstoppers, they also seemed to have pilfered some of their ideas from visits to local gentlemen’s clubs.

This musical, about a self-centered, philandering filmmaker who can’t come up with an idea for his new film, is an utter water of expensive sets. The only things that kept me awake were the abundance of cleavage and fishnet stockings, but even those pleasures wore out their welcome.

By mid-film I was trying to come up with another movie that had so many acting Oscar winners in the cast. The seven in “Nine” (Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson and Sophia Loren) may be the most in a film at the time of its release. Other films have had eight, including all-star productions “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Around the World in 80 Days,” but many of the performers earned their Oscars years after the release of the movie.

Yet with all those award winners, only French actress Cotillard (she won her Oscar for “La vie en Rose”) give a solid performance, playing the put-upon wife of Day-Lewis’ Guido. The rest of the cast seems pleased to look great in their cool outfits.
While I wasn’t much of a fan of Marshall’s “Chicago”---at least in that film he smartly stole all the good ideas from Bob Fosse’s stage version---“Nine” makes that 2002 Oscar winner look and sound like “Singin’ in the Rain.” The songs are lame, the dancing is forgettable, the acting over the top and the best parts of the story were present with so much more flair in “8 ½.” But I can deny that Cruz looks smashing in fishnets (and, no doubt, earned her an Oscar nod).

There’s no mistaking a film by Terry Gilliam, whether it’s his thoughtful, superbly constructed outings such as “Brazil” and “The Fisher King” or over-amped, disjointed romps “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” his ability to bring his distinctive, oversized vision to the screen seems limitless. In fact, it’s been his inability to know when enough is enough that’s turned his promising post-Monty Python career into a series of high-profile disappointments.

Once again, he creates a wondrous, colorful alternative universe---actually many of them---in this inconsistent, slight but very entertaining movie that, at points, is nearly as visually impressive as Pandora from “Avatar” (even without the 3-D.)

At the center of the story is a seriously quirky performance by 80-year-old Christopher Plummer as a Munchausen-like Dr. Parnassus, a character out of the Middle Ages whose traveling show seems equally anachronistic. Looking like they just arrived from the road show of “The Holy Grail,” the immortal doctor, his spunky 16-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his loyal right-hand man Percy (little person Verne Troyer), and a young assistant (Andrew Garfield) with designs on the daughter travel around modern London attempting to allure customers into the doctor’s “Imaginarium.”

Those who dare pass through the magic mirror experience a cartoonish, unearthly world that’s Parnassus vision of what that person would imagine as paradise. Complicating matters is the long-time rivalry between Parnassus and the Devil (Tom Waits at his smarmy best), who shows up in the Imaginarium to temp souls to the dark side. I never understood exactly what was going on in the Imaginarium or how the doctor and the Devil measured their victories, but there’s enough going on that it really didn’t matter.

Spicing up the proceedings is Tony (Heath Ledger in his final role), who the troupe finds hanging by a noose off a bridge. They rescue him and make him part of the show. And, of course, he eventually falls for Valentina. Because Ledger died before any scenes of him inside the Imaginarium were filmed, his character is played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell during different trips into the fantasy world. By acknowledging the change in Tony’s looks, what might have become distracting and odd seems like just another bizarre aspect of the Imaginarium.

More distracting is the utter failure of Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeon (who also co-wrote “Munchausen” and “Brazil”) to deliver an interesting conclusion. The last 30 minutes are filled with pointlessly elaborate Imaginarium fantasies and a smorgasbord of poorly developed ideas.

If Gilliam had come up with something interesting to say at the end of this picture, it might have been one of his best, but even flawed, it’s a wild, unpredictable ride, featuring enough unforgettable visuals to fill a dozen movies.

THE BEST OF 2000-2009
If you judge the quality of American movies by decade, nothing changed much from the 1930s through the 1950s, a period when instant classics were regularly produced. Quality took a dive in the 1960s as the studio system collapsed and a new wave of creative talent began to emerge. In the ‘70s and much of the 1980s, those filmmakers and performers worked their magic. By the 1990s, the bloom was off the rose and the suits had reclaimed the power and it has only gotten worse during the first decade of the new century.

While the decade with no name produced some great films----though not in the quantity of earlier periods---it failed to deliver a landmark, defining picture, a “Godfather” or “Blue Velvet” or “Raging Bull”; the star to place on the top of the decade’s best films. The closest any production came to that level was the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but that was three films, not one.

I debated among “Mystic River,” “The Pianist” and “The New World” for the top spot, but it could have been a half-dozen others. I’ve looked at nearly a dozen rankings of the decade’s best and have yet to see the same film at No. 1.

To me, there should be no debate on the best performance by an actor during the decade. Sean Penn as the complex Boston crime boss who seeks vengeance after the death of his daughter in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” delivered a magnificent, explosive but never out of control performance, which topped excellent work by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the flamboyant writer in “Capote” (2005), Forest Whitaker ad dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), the old master Jack Nicholson portraying senior angst in “About Schmidt” (2002) and Penn again in “Milk” (2008).

The decade, with Hollywood emphasizing action films and franchises, offered fewer and fewer good lead roles for women, but a few amazing performances still sneaked through. Leading the pack was Helen Mirren’s astonishing portrayal of Elizabeth in “The Queen” (2006), Charlize Theron as a sad psychopath in “Monster” (2003) and Halle Berry playing the wife of a death-row prisoner in “Monster’s Ball” (2001).

If there was a Person of the Decade for film, it could only go to Eastwood, who bloomed at an age when most filmmakers are tinkering around the house or writing memoirs, directing two films that made my Top 10 and another, “Letters From Iwo Jima” that was probably the finest foreign-language picture I saw in the past 10 years.

Here’s my Top 20 for the ‘00s. A full list (what can I say, I’m compulsive) of the decade’s best films and performances will be posted on my blog later this month.

1 The Pianist (2002) Personal, yet calmly measured slice of horror in Nazi-occupied Warsaw by the still controversial (and fugitive) Roman Polanski.

2 Mystic River (2003) Clint Eastwood’s brilliantly constructed examination of three lives forever altered by a childhood tragedy.

3 The New World (2005) The colonization of North America---Pocahontas, John Smith, John Rolfe---brought to life by the mystic/director Terrence Malick.

4 United 93 (2006) Writer-director Paul Greengrass finds a way to make this hard-to- watch insider examination of 9/11 both artful and inspirational.

5 Million Dollar Baby (2004) Eastwood, again, brings three fascinating characters together, this time in a sweaty boxing gym.

6 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Writer Charlie Kaufman’s mind-blowing, time-altering look at the difficulties of love.

7 Capote (2005) Philip Seymour Hoffman becomes the iconoclast New York writer in this parable of personal and public ethics.

8 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) The final chapter of this astonishing, heroic trilogy beautifully realized by director Peter Jackson.

9 The Hurt Locker (2009) Kathryn Bigelow taps into the unrelenting intensity of men in war to shed some light on the occupation of Iraq.

10 Memento (2001) Backward or forward, this hypnotic mystery is “Batman” director Christopher Nolan’s best film.

11 The Queen (2006) Director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan take docudrama to a new level in this study of the aftermath of Diana’s death.

12 Mulholland Drive (2001) David Lynch, the master of the unexplainable shows us what Hollywood looks like inside his surreal mind.

13 Up in the Air (2009) Jason Reitman’s subtle mix of comedy and drama captures the public and personal angst of the here and now.

14 Synecdoche, New York (2008) Another overstuffed Charlie Kaufman creation, this time examining where art and life merge into one baffling world.

15 High Fidelity (2000) Director Frears and writer Nick Hornby capture the integral, romantic importance of pop/rock music for an entire generation.

16 Traffic (2000) The deadly cat-and-mouse game between cops and drug dealers masterfully connected by director Steven Soderbergh.

17 About Schmidt (2002) This hilarious, touching and very human tale of a senior’s soul-searching journey is perfectly personified by Jack Nicholson.

18 Adaptation (2002) The third Kaufman penned film on this list, brilliantly directed by Spike Jonze, explores the painful costs of creativity.

19 Little Children (2006) Director Todd Field’s examination of our loss of community and fear of others as seen through suburban infidelity.

20 Children of Men (2006) An ominous, but plausible thriller set in a future where tolerance is dead and nonconformity is a crime, from director Alfonzo Cuarón.