January 29, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 5

(overlooked performances, disappointments, favorite settings)

(best scenes, worst movies)

(best scores and soundtracks)

Read the Best of 2009: Part 4
(best documentaries) 

The Best Movies of 2009

Though I chalked up 2009 as a generally disappointing year at the movies, when you see as many movies as I do you're bound to still find some that you like. These may not be the 10 "best" films of the year by critical standards, but they are 10+ that mattered to me in 2009.

"...There couldn't be more obstacles in its way in catching on with American audiences: it has subtitles, it's one of "those artsy foreign films", and - hide the women and children - it's from Iran...My point is, movies like The Song of Sparrows, which truly is accessible, charming, and relevant to people from all countries (especially the U.S.), are too often tossed aside or overlooked because people fear they're weird, boring, overlong, serious, tragic, or something worse. Well here's a surprise: this movie is none of those things, and its comedy is sure to be both more original and more humanistic than repetitive scenes of Will Ferrell fleeing dinosaurs..."

2. Avatar
Much as it might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy that I would fall for this movie, I'm still a little surprised that James Cameron got me again. I loved the scenery, I loved the music, and yes, I loved the outrageous dialogue, particularly from Giovanni Ribisi. A lot of people talk about "letting go" and "having fun" at the movies, but rarely am I able to do it as easily as with James Cameron blockbusters. As I wrote about Titanic a couple of years ago, this was also..."everything you would ever want from a blockbuster. Simply stated, it's why you go to the theater, and it was certainly worth the price of admission. I know most people can't stand it and James Cameron is jerk and it went way over budget and blah blah blah, but if wasn't for productions like it, you wouldn't go to the movies...". Maybe a bit oversimplified, but it holds true for me.

3. Take Out
"Completed in 2004 but not released on DVD until this week, Take Out is an unassuming early effort from filmmaker Sean Baker and his writing partner, Shih-Ching Tsou. The film received a very limited theatrical release last summer, but the few critics who saw it were unanimously and enthusiastically impressed. I can only add to the chorus of praise for this movie; were I to know what year to place it in it would definitely be in my Top 10. If you know my taste you won't be surprised, of course, since Take Out is another neorealistic, slice-of-life look at American culture, in this case focusing on the underworld of illegal immigration."

January 28, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 4

(overlooked performances, disappointments, favorite settings)

(best scenes, worst movies)

(best scores and soundtracks)

The Best Documentaries of 2009
...some great ones, but no year in recent memory can compare to 2008...

"...Anvil! succeeds for the same reason other excellent character-driven documentaries (recently Surfwise, Trouble the Water, Man on Wire) have succeeded because it truly captures the spirit of its subjects. By focusing less on the who, where and when, and more on the how and why, Gervasi doesn't tell a story about music or fame, but about friendship, trust, and determination. As such, you don't have to be a fan of heavy metal or even familiar with the genre to be touched by this film."

2. Crude
"Filmed by director Joe Berlinger over the course of three years, Crude resembles A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich more than Food, Inc. or An Inconvenient Truth. It is a riveting and penetrating legal drama wrapped up in an urgent human interest story, and it takes itself serious enough to know that it doesn't have to demonize anyone or get you riled up in anger in order to engage you. Instead it gradually brings you into the heart of a legal battle and - in a practice far too uncommon these days - actually focuses on the people intimately involved in the story."

3. Milking the Rhino
"As with so many stories about contemporary Africa, the grim, debilitating legacy of colonialism on the continent is on tragic display. Unlike most films, however, Milking the Rhino actually explores these effects, explaining how conservancies developed in the years following independence from colonial powers. It's a real splash of cold water in the face to realize that the institutionalizing of so many national parks figuratively bulldozed over the local people and cultures, creating an even wider socioeconomic gap and leading the tribes to despise the animals that were allowed to stay and roam free on their land."

January 27, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 3

(overlooked performances, disappointments, favorite settings)

(best scenes, worst movies)

The 12 Best Original Scores of 2009

The last two years I've created a "missing soundtrack" as a list of the best music from each year: singles released during the year that would have lent themselves well to particular scenes in particular movies from that year. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work, especially last year when I was trying to embed video and audio and get timing down and link here and there and everywhere.

It's a little sad for me, but I'm going to abandon that model this year and instead focus on the best music from movies during 2009, not the best music from 2009 that belonged in movies, if that makes sense. More specifically I'm focusing on original scores here, not movie soundtracks (though I list 10 at the end). Here then are the twelve musical scores, in no particular order, that won me over in 2009 by enriching specific scenes or adding the perfect atmosphere to the overall story and images.

Moon, Clint Mansell. I wasn't even through the opening credits of Moon when I realized I was listening to the best musical score of the year. Mansell, who has made a name for himself scoring Darren Aronofsky films (notably Requiem for a Dream), achieved the perfect balance of tension, loneliness and an unsettling fatalism in the main theme, "Welcome to Lunar Industries":

Avatar, James Horner. It wasn't until my second viewing of Avatar that I realized how excellent the score was, and how important it was to keeping the pace of a 160-minute film. The percussion and triumphant, soaring choral stanzas in it brought to mind classics like Jurassic Park and The Mission, and I think I'll be remembering this music for many years to come as well. Here is a clip of the score when Jake and the other Na'vi climb up Iknimaya, incidentally the exact scene I described in Part 2:


A Serious Man, Carter Burwell. Having scored nearly all of the Coen Brothers' films, Burwell obviously has a real knack for setting the right mood around their typically tortured characters. In A Serious Man, Burwell created an ominous tone for the endless tribulations of Larry Stuhlberg, while never moving into overly dramatic or frighteningly dark territory:

Where the Wild Things Are, Carter Burwell. Here on "Sailing", Burwell (with the help of Karen O) creates the perfect environemnt for Max's melancholic, meditative journey (to be fair it sounds a little similar to A Serious Man, though it's no less effective). The original songs on the soundtrack got the majority of attention when this movie came out, but Burwell's score lingered with me longer than anything else:

January 26, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 2


The Best Scenes of 2009:
...2009 didn't have many memorable films, but it had some memorable scenes...

1. Tavern tango, Inglourious Basterds. As much as I find myself disgusted by Quentin Tarantino's public persona, I have to admit the guy can write a scene like almost no screenwriter of his generation. In the scene of the year (one of many great ones in this movie; though ultimately I found the parts greater than the sum), QT ratcheted the tension off the charts as curious characters attempted to converse cryptically in multiple languages. The payoff didn't do much for me, but the suspenseful build-up to it was unforgettable. (Read a note from editor Sally Menke about this scene here.)


2. Expedition in the "Hallelujah Mountains", Avatar. In a movie featuring the most photorealistic CGI ever seen on (digital) film, this otherworldly scene was the one that really blew me away - even in 2D. Jake and the other Na'vi warriors jumped across, ran between, and climbed on meticulously designed floating mountains. Only James Cameron could have the audacity to winkingly write a line like "You should see your faces" (by Michelle Rodriguez in an earlier scene) - and then back it up with visuals like this.

January 25, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 1

I don't know why I created a five-part "Best of 2008" series last January, but it was simple and thorough, and with a few changes I'm copying it for 2009 as well. One thing that made 2009 unique was just how few new releases I actually saw, significantly compared to 2008 (130+ new releases) but also relative to any year in at least the last five or six. I can't put my finger on one particular reason; there were just so many times I planned on seeing a movie before I either lost interest or lost time. Incredibly, I think I only visited a theater three times during the month of October - other years I might have done so three times a week during October.

Whatever the reason for my decreased theater attendance this year, though, I really don't feel like I missed much of significance. Just take a gander at the 50 highest-grossing films of 2009, for example. Pretty painful, and though box office numbers rarely match up with quality anyway, my point is that 2009 was still desperately lacking in worthwhile wide releases. So I can only go with what I've seen for the lists to come this week - feel free to let me know what I've missed or forgotten... 

The Most Overlooked Performances of 2009:
...why these received so little attention is a mystery to me...

Naturi Naughton, Notorious
John Malkovich, The Great Buck Howard
Sam Rockwell, Moon
Red West, Goodbye Solo 
Alison Lohman, Drag Me to Hell
Maya Rudolph, Away We Go
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker
Peter Capaldi, In the Loop
Arta Dobroshi, Lorna's Silence
Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers
Letekidan Micael, Heart of Fire 
Mohammad Amir Naji, The Song of Sparrows 
Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds 
Nisreen Faour, Amreeka 
Martina Gusman, Lion's Den 
Matt Damon, Invictus

January 21, 2010

On the Horizon: Movies in 2010 (Pt. 3: TBA & Documentaries)

Wow, well I don't know about you, but even for somebody who's willing to see some bad movies, 2010 looks like a good year to concentrate on some other hobbies (or, in my case, such projects like my own wedding). There are still some movies I'm excited to see, but nearly all of them are outside of the mass-marketed wide releases I listed in Part 1 and Part 2. Thanks to Garth Franklin's list I mentioned in Part 1 (you really have to check out all eleven parts), I've got my eyes on the following award-likely titles, hoping they will be bright spots in the year ahead - if they are indeed released in the next 12 months:

January 19, 2010

On the Horizon: Movies in 2010 (Pt. 2: July - December)

JULY: Star-studded tent poles and Shyamalan's return

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: I haven't read any of the books or seen either of the first two movies. So... 

Knight & Day: I've admitted my soft spot for Tom Cruise before, so it should come as no surprise that this doesn't look or sound nearly as bad to me as it does to most people. It's also worth mentioning that James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) is not your typical summer blockbuster director, so maybe, just maybe, this will be more than meets the eye.

The Last Airbender: M. Night Shyamalan's next movie. Also, the worst movie of 2010.

Inception: I have yet to see any 2010 movie forecast that does not list Inception as the #1 most anticipated movie of the year. Obviously much of this has to do with Christopher Nolan's last film, The Dark Knight (and Batman Begins before it, all three films are IMAX spectacles), but personally I'm hoping it's more along the lines of Memento and The Prestige. The short of it is that Christopher Nolan was probably the best director of the last decade, but I'm excited for this movie for different reasons than most people. 

Predators: Sequel. 1980's movie. Are you getting the picture yet? 

Salt: Ah, Angelina Jolie, peaceful ambassador off screen, half-naked ruthless assassin on screen, and always passing wise a good two decades beyond her years (all 34 of them). No, I don't have any respect for this woman and I don't feel badly about it. Expect her to save the world again and look perfectly put together doing it.

Dinner for Schmucks: If I have this correct, Jay Roach will be directing a Fockers sequel (below) as well as this remake of the 1998 French comedy, and both will be released in July? Whatever the timing, this will earn a lot of hype due to its cast alone: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Zach Galifianakis. 

Little Fockers: I loved Meet the Parents and I absolutely loathed Meet the Fockers, so this one is a bit of a rubber match film. From what I know it will involve pregnancy and or infant care, so potty humor will likely be the foundation. Maybe I'll see Inception again instead.

Expanding the Frame: Journeys @ the Walker, 1/21 - 2/28

This week the Walker Art Center will launch its annual five week "Expanding the Frame" film series, which "brings together works that challenge the form and structure of conventional cinema; the unusual approaches taken by these filmmakers provide a fresh and profound take on the universal as they journey into the unknown."

This year's series, Journeys, features a handful of area premieres and appearances by directors, including Ellen Kuras, whose Oscar-nominated documentary, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), was #6 on my documentary list last year. That film will also screen, leaving you with no excuse if you haven't seen it yet (it's been on PBS and has played here theatrically at least twice already). Prior to last year's Oscar nomination for her directing debut, Kuras had made a career as a cinematographer for directors including Martin Scorsese, Julian Schnabel, Michel Gondry, and Spike Lee - should be a fascinating discussion.

Films are screened in the Walker Cinema and tickets remain impressively affordable at $8 a piece, or $6 for Walker members (you can also buy a five-pack for $18/$24). Here is the complete schedule (clips and trailers can be viewed in a neatly compiled post on the Walker's film blog):

January 18, 2010

300 Words About: Woman Rebel

Today, the holiday commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an ironically fitting occasion to consider first-time filmmaker Kiran Deol's documentary short, Woman Rebel. In just over 30 minutes of often breathtakingly beautiful footage, the film deftly captures the last decade in Nepalese political history, much of which mirrored the civil rights movement led by Dr. King - aside from those oft-ignored tenets of nonviolence (12,000 lives have been claimed by the struggle).

In 1996, a small group of Maoist rebels gathered rural peasants, took up arms, and began a decade long offensive against the Nepalese government (a constitutional monarchy), demanding equal rights for all citizens, regardless of class or gender. Eventually, women grew to comprise 40% of the People's Liberation Army. While the presence of women in the military should not be a surprise to Western viewers, it may be a jarring sight to those not used to seeing women in infantry combat positions, fighting and dying alongside their male counterparts. Tragically, the equality so many Nepalese women sought in life could only be found in death.

January 15, 2010

On the Horizon: Movies in 2010 (January - June)

I don't know about you, but I had many more disappointments than pleasant surprises at the movie theater in 2009. Instead of looking back on all that could and should have been, I'll look ahead at all that could and should be. If last decade went out with a fizzle, let's hope this decade starts out with a bang. Then again, by the looks of things this year's movies include about a dozen 1980's remakes, so it's really one step forward, two steps back.

These are some notable wide releases for 2010 (not documentaries, foreign, or independent) that I've culled together from IMDb and ComingSoon.net. In other words, these are the movies that everyone will see that will overshadow all of the movies that everyone really should see. 

Release months are probably only 90% accurate, but this is what we have to go on at this time. Also, Garth Franklin at Dark Horizons has an insanely well researched forecast as well. Probably the best movies of the year will be from his bunch (I can only hope based on what I see below), but in the interest of time you can scan through my list instead, and then spend the rest of the year over there - it's so extensive it might take you that long.

Here's Part 1 - the first half of the year:

JANUARY: Big stars, big movies, little interest

The Book of Eli: Denzel Washington and The Hughes Brothers (From Hell, Dead Presidents) team up for a post-apocalyptic tale about some mysterious book. The trailers remind me of a particular section of Terminator Salvation, and anything that reminds me of Terminator Salvation already has a major strike against it. 

Edge of Darkness: I enjoyed Mel Gibson in Ransom, but I think I only need to see him as a vengeful father once. Director Martin Cambell has been awesome (GoldenEye, Casino Royale) and awful (Beyond Borders), so who knows what to expect. The real question will be whether anyone can stand Gibson's Boston accent for 30 seconds, let alone 108 minutes.

FEBRUARY: Dumping grounds for the pushed back releases

The Wolfman: Benicio del Toro in the remake of the 1941 classic horror film. I haven't seen that and I have yet to find a reason to need to see this. Universal knows this and they've delayed the release already once, but they're going to have to do some hard work to get me on board in time. 

Valentine's Day: Possibly the worst title of the year, this ensemble romantic comedy is, obviously about the big love day. About a million people star, most of whom I have little tolerance for (Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Anne Hathaway, Bradley Cooper, Topher Grace). Still interested? How about Taylor Lautner and Joe Jonas? Turn in your tween girl card, please.

January 14, 2010

On the Horizon: Beyond the Chair

Like most active bloggers, I get a steady stream of emails requesting me to post particular movie news, review particular films, or link to particular websites or blogs. Some of them I follow up on, most of them I do not, either out of lack of time or lack of interest. I was ready to delete an email I received from one Dusty Duprel this week before I realized it wasn't spam and I took a closer look at what he was asking me to do: 

My name is Dusty Duprel, and what I am doing is explained in the letter attached.  As you will soon read, a close friend of mine has a lot depending on spreading this letter. What's not written are the details of how rapidly his health is fading. The reason for leaving out the heart breaking details is that we don't want pity, only to celebrate what he has accomplished. I am writing you in hopes that you will post this on your website or blog for him. 

I read Dusty's letter and was touched both by how genuinely it was written and how strange it was that I, a complete stranger, could in some way help him achieve his goal. Such are the wonders of technology in the 21st century. Of course, this isn't actually about Dusty or blogging, which is why I'm just going to copy the letter directly here for you to read:

January 13, 2010

REVIEW: The Lovely Bones (C)

Exactly what is it about rape, kidnapping and murder that appeals so much to Americans - or at least to the Americans who tune in each week to watch "CSI" (all three versions), "Criminal Minds", "Without a Trace", "Cold Case", "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit", and "Bones"? That there are so many of these shows should tell you how popular this genre is; that I've never seen an episode of any of them should tell you how disturbed I am by that trend.

Anyway, I don't want to make generalizations about the viewers of these shows any more than I do about the millions of enthusiastic readers of Alice Sebold's celebrated novel, "The Lovely Bones", but suffice to say I don't belong to either group. If you do, you'll likely appreciate Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones much more than me, and you may even glean some meaningful insights from the melodramatic depths of what I considered a whole lot of sentimental muck.

January 11, 2010

(Movie) News You Need to Know: Suburban Stereotypes & Na'vi Nerds

An entertaining and interactive New York Times data map has been circulating around the internet like wildfire over the weekend (thanks, Kathie, for the tip). Everybody who cares about movies and the movie industry has had a lot of fun playing with it, including me - now it's your turn. It's simply a color coded map of 12 metro areas showing which films were rented by Netflix subscribers in each zip code. On the micro level you can see the top 10 most popular films in your neighborhood, for example, and on the macro level (where the picture really changes), you can see how different the viewing habits are between, for example, city-dwellers and suburbanites and between the West Coast and the East Coast. Being a proud city-dweller myself, I have to take a minute to poke some fun at the suburbanites, at least in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

- Most popular rental across the board: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. A nationwide trend, no doubt spurned on by a huge number of Oscar nominations last year and the star power of Brad Pitt. Not a bad pick by the suburbanites, actually.

- Body of Lies. Well I'm obviously disappointed this got as much rental action as it did, but if there is one thing suburbanites love it's a story of an American playing a ruthless hero over there in one of those Middle Eastern countries. This was the 36th most popular title in my neighborhood (55408), but the 3rd most popular up near Rogers and St. Cloud - the heart of Michelle Bachmann's district.

January 7, 2010

300 Words About: American Casino

I don't know about you, but I find it such a relief when I learn I'm not the only one who doesn't understand what appears to be a simple issue, in this case the mortgage crisis. When a financial analyst in American Casino compared the financial calculations behind this entire mess as operating in the 4th dimension, I thought, Yep, that sounds about right.

We had a minority of bankers and brokers who developed an esoteric financial language that no one else could understand, and a majority of Americans who regularly buy fast food with credit cards and throw away unopened bank and credit card statements informing them of interest rate hikes. The eventual result, of course, is this mortgage-backed recession we've found ourselves in over the past two years. American Casino, which began filming in early 2008, illustrates what went wrong and who was affected. As you can imagine, it's not a pretty picture.

January 6, 2010

Good Times in 2009

Sometimes the experience at the theater can be even more memorable than the movie you see. Here are some of my notable movie-going memories from 2009, continued in the same boring format as the last two years ('o8, '07): 

Che (The Uptown): I often brag that I never get sick, and that's still partially true since I didn't feel sick at Che, I felt dead. Some kind of trippy head/chest flu got into my system and germinated during the course of this movie, which if you haven't seen it, is about 12 days long. I desperately wanted to leave during the intermission between Part 1 and 2, but my fiancee was enjoying it, and besides, I'd paid $18 a head for this opportunity. I struggled through the second half and saw Guevera himself eventually become as ill as me - that was some consolation.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Theatres at Mall of America): Yes, I was one of the many surprising millions who saw this in the theater, but no, I did not pay for it. It was out of obligation, to review for the paper, and my fiancee has yet to forgive me for bringing her along. In a fortunate twist of fate, a planned interview with Kevin James was canceled at the last minute, saving me from eating crow weeks later since I'm sure I would have asked him, "What are your plans after this movie bombs at the box office?". Watch for the sequel in 2011. 

The Wrestler (The Uptown): I trudged to the Uptown alone after work on a bitterly cold January night, not really having any idea what to expect from this movie. An awe-inspiring performance by Mickey Rourke and one of the best endings of the year left me greatly impressed and, weeks later, shocked when a Best Picture nomination wasn't announced. 

Notorious (Union Station - Washington, D.C.): In the nation's capital during Inauguration Weekend, I went with a group of friends to what was rumored to be one of the louder (as in people talking) theaters in the D.C. area. Didn't really happen, but I wouldn't have minded anyway as I was absorbed in the music and the surprisingly comfortable leather seats.


Coraline - 3D (AMC Rosedale): I don't know why I agreed to see this in 3D considering my skepticism of the technology, but this was actually the best 3D experience I think I've ever had (I haven't yet seen Avatar in 3D). The story was pretty engrossing to boot, and unfortunately I think my prediction was true that it would be mostly forgotten in what shaped up to be a banner year for animated movies. 

Friday the 13th (AMC Southdale): On assignment again for the Star Tribune, I persuaded my reluctant fiancee to come along to a movie we both know she would never otherwise see. I gave it a terrible review, despite the giddy reactions from people around us in the theater, including one girl who gushed, "That was the best movie!" on our way out. I felt like an ├╝ber movie snob in that place. 

Oscar Animated Shorts (The Lagoon): I fell in love with the theatrical experience of the animated short nominees a couple of years ago, and the 2009 show was a real treat. Probably the most moving theater experiences I had of the year was sniffling along with the rest of the audience during the closing credits of the eventual winner, La Maison En Petites Cubes. It was a masterpiece.

January 4, 2010

Considering the Best Documentaries of the Decade (2000-2009): Part 2

Among the best: The War Tapes, Mad Hot Ballroom, In the Shadow of the Moon

Recently I analyzed a couple of "Best Documentaries of the Decades" lists. Soon after that post I found similar lists at Cinematical and The Playlist, as well as a terrific selection from Marilyn Ferdinand. Since some of my favorites from the decade are missing from these lists, I found it only right to come up with some version of my own.

I've been really inspired considering these films and everything they've taught me about the world in the last decade. So long as a story is well-told and relevant to my life, I don't really have a preference between documentaries or traditional feature films. But truth is always stranger than fiction - and a lot funnier, and more emotional, and more horrifying, and generally more compelling. So documentaries represent a powerfully transformative tool in my life, allowing me to be taken to times and places I could never otherwise go and be introduced to real people that I would never otherwise meet.

So I've developed a somewhat raw list of more than 40 documentary films that have added greatly to my worldview this decade while making me laugh, sob, recoil, or quite often, all three. For reasons I explained in the last post, they are all from 2002 or later and are not ranked in any order (I also listed some notable documentaries I missed from this decade). Also, I stand by my previous claims in this space that 2008 was the best documentary year of the decade, which explains why nearly all of my top 10 from last year are represented here (also, reviews for many of these below can be found via my Review Index). This is not a definitive collection by any means, but it is a personally meaningful one for me:

January 3, 2010

The Blogosphere Backlash Beast Roars Again

Rarely do the blogging world and the real world seem as distant from each other as during awards season, particularly in the month leading up to the Oscars. Hundreds of millions of "regular" people go about their daily business in January and February, oblivious to the endless debates raging online about whichever movie has captured the hearts of the taste-makers on its way to earning a trophy case full of awards. 

Yes, most regular people (not bloggers) don't care which movies received nominations for which awards, and if they give any attention at all to the Oscars, it's likely by accident on the night of the awards when they tune in and are devastated to learn their favorite primetime drama has been preempted. Each year the Academy Awards ceremony sets a new record for lowest-ever viewing audience, and none of the tricks the show's producers have tried in recent years (the mystery presenters, the Fellowship of Past Winners) has accomplished anything other than annoying regular viewers like me, for whom the ceremony is an almost sacred viewing experience.

Anyway, what's my point - that nobody watches the Oscars? No. My point is that people don't pay attention to all of the pre-Oscar criticizing or defending of nominees (particularly Best Picture front-runners, this year Avatar) that we bloggers participate in each season. So what are we doing? Why do we create a cacophonous echo chamber in which the same arguments are made over and over again with no resolution in mind?

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