Sunday, September 30, 2007

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1990

It's That Time of the Month again, when all of the acolytes of actressing collect at StinkyLulu's house to stump for and swipe at the best and the worst of a given year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar roster. Up to bat this month are the contenders from 1990. Together, they constitute a redoubtable and dissimilar field of actresses but, perhaps, a middle-of-the-road group of performances. You can, and should, read all about that over at the Smackdown. Dip into the warm, perfumed waters of the Comments section, and you'll also see that my own dream list of nominees for that year is probably:

GLENN CLOSE in Reversal of Fortune, who somehow missed a mention despite the film's multiple noms in leading categories, and despite being an 0-for-5 bridesmaid that everyone seems to like;
WHOOPI GOLDBERG in Ghost, who actually won the thing and, as far as I'm concerned, doesn't owe anybody an apology for that;
DIANE LADD in Wild at Heart, a performance championed by several Smackdowners despite the fact that most of us, myself included, have little love for the film;
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH in Miami Blues, who Tim and I agree does an affecting, funny, and atypically unhistrionic job of underplaying her dim Florida call-girl (and has the cinema's all-time best scene concerning vinegar pie); and
SHIRLEY MACLAINE in Postcards from the Edge, a film which you should already know is a favorite, in which MacLaine is an almost Whoopi-level hoot and a holler, and also a game belter and a surprisingly tough cookie, doing a terrific acting duet with Meryl Streep

Mary Alice in To Sleep with Anger might belong here, but she's construable as a lead, and I haven't seen the film in a long while. Helen Mirren also deserves a consolation prize, or maybe an actual nod, for making such brilliant, suggestive use of her screen time in The Comfort of Strangers, acing that Pinter dialogue and adopting a demure voice and delicate demeanor that still puts everyone on edge.

Of the three actress vehicles from 1990 that I screened in the last 24 hours, as a build-up exercise to this morning's Smackdown, the jewel is Paul Brickman's Men Don't Leave, in which fans of You Can Count on Me or Truly, Madly, Deeply will recognize another tart, carefully measured, wonderfully acted tale of bereavement, quiet comedy, and persuasively wrought ties to family, neighbors, lovers, and friends. Joan Cusack gives one of her best Kooky Joan performances as the downstairs eccentric who's putting the moves on Jessica Lange's 17-year-old son, very well played by Chris O'Donnell; Arliss Howard and Kathy Bates are also incredibly deft and funny in their roles as Lange's pseudo boyfriend and insensitive boss. Lange comes closer to Tootsie-style melancholy comedy than she has before or since, and it's nice to see her at comparative ease for once. The writing, especially in the first two-thirds of the film, is clever and economical, and the editing achieves poignancy not by dawdling but through carefully timed pruning and expertly showcased moments. B

Bates pops up in a single scene of Luis Mandoki's White Palace, which also features a generation-gap relationship where the woman is again the senior partner. Susan Sarandon has several effective scenes as a working-class waitress at a "White Palace" restaurant that primarily slings bite-sized hamburgers (uh....), and James Spader gives his eerie, clammy eroticism another go as the upwardly mobile yuppie whom Sarandon takes home for a hot roll in the sack. Spader has a Sadness in His Past that he won't snap out of; Sarandon also has a Sadness in Her Past that she pretends to have snapped out of, which is a good thing, because the screenplay barely makes it playable. All in all, White Palace is one of those movies that rails against embarrassment and deceit while constantly lying and emanating embarrassment about the grief, the religious disparity, and the class divide between its characters, though Sarandon does sell a great fuck-you speech as she storms out of a well-appointed Thanksgiving dinner. C

The movie could have been worse but also could have been much better, which also describes Philip Kaufman's gorgeously photographed Henry & June. Sadly, the director's follow-up to The Unbearable Lightness of Being is nowhere near as confident or as mysterious. The effortful recreation of 1930s Paris looks fussy and tacky despite Philippe Rousselot's diligent attempts to sublimate it, the script is full of faux-serious and ersatz-literary howlers, and the cast simply isn't up to the complexities or the charismas of their characters. Fred Ward and Maria de Medeiros give things an honest go, but either they don't have a knack for stylized performance, or else their maladroit versions of realist acting come across as failed stylization. Kevin Spacey and Richard E. Grant are cloying in second-tier parts, and Uma Thurman is, as so often, a disaster. The period seemingly means nothing to her except a reason to assume awkwardly "sultry" poses and stares in a series of exotic outfits, and she hasn't got the head for the writerly themes nor the physical grace required for the slinky character and mise-en-scène. Some welcome touches of wit are scattered through the film, and you can see the smarter, tighter movie lurking beneath the existing version, but it's still a bit of an ordeal. C

As for the nominated Supporting Actress movies, I'd give The Grifters a B– for nastily diverting but annoyingly hollow showmanship; Goodfellas an A– for prodigious, engaging technique and daringly comic overtones, whatever its lapses into autopilot machismo and style for style's sake; Ghost a B+ (and y'all can complain if you want to) for playing its sentimental plotline affectingly straight and also for laughs, and working the machinery of Pop Cinema quite deftly; Wild at Heart a C+ for finding 20 minutes' worth of truly startling images within 124 minutes' worth of drafty self-indulgence; and Dances with Wolves a B for telling an embarrassingly Uncle Tom's Cabin-level tale of white male sentiment, and orbiting around a terrible Costner performance, but nonetheless achieving real majesty in its score, its cinematography, and its editing.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

C Sick

For a week or two now, I've been rejoicing at the prospect of all these Fall movies opening, looking forward to each release with aplomb and a positive predisposition, especially after that late-August and early-September run where I got a big, inspiring lift from almost every trip I took to the cinema: from the acerbic but energetic 2 Days in Paris to the engrossing and nearly profound Deep Water to the urgent and astute No End in Sight to the shrewdly discomfiting and illuminating Day Night Day Night to the clever and inordinately entertaining King of Kong, which I paid to see twice, sparking a contagious audience ovation both times before the thing was even finished.

But speaking of "finished," everything since then has just been so....blah. I feel how monotonous my updates must seem, trapped in this "C" range I can't get out of. So this is just an open letter of good intent: I will be thrilled, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, to credit a movie a little higher, even to tread into B or B– territory for something that won't shake anybody's world but at least delivers craftily or consistently or stylishly on a solid story or rewarding theme. But so far, I just can't do it. Superbad begins with a delicious credit sequence and 20 solid minutes of ornately uproarious dialogue, well-delivered by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, but the belly-laughs turn precipitously to belly-flops once this extraordinarily crappy-looking movie gives itself over for way, way too long to twin plots that aren't interesting and don't work: procuring booze against overfamiliar and arbitrary obstacles, and noodling around with two unfunny cops who never once stake a claim as actual characters. There's a little pick-up toward the end, partly because Martha MacIsaac and especially Emma Stone are so ingratiating (if sadly underutilized and underconceptualized) as the objects of obscure teenage desire, but that long, turgid middle section throws a big, beer-gutted shadow over the whole enterprise. Not superbad, but prettybad, and superdisappointing. C–

3:10 to Yuma and In the Valley of Elah were probably always destined for aesthetic conservatism and middlebrow limitations in theme, but there is no reason for their narratives and character studies to have veered so badly off course. Both films feature strong lead performances, from Russell Crowe in Yuma, and from an arresting but restrained Tommy Lee Jones and an appropriately disillusioned Charlize Theron in Elah. The unusual, intriguing musical score in Yuma and the ragged, enigmatic swatches of embedded video in Elah deserve credit for tugging smartly against the boilerplate plot dynamics and visual lifelessness of both movies. This problem is most aggravating (and surprising) in Yuma, which doesn't even try to draw meaning, vitality, or even a pretty postcard image from the engulfing desert, instead hemming its actors into sallow, unflattering, and relentless close-ups. Worse, Yuma never gets near, much less inside, the head of Christian Bale's protagonist (his blank perf doesn't help), which makes it even harder to understand why Crowe, who rightly thinks he's playing a wily and incorrigible villain, seems only too willing to put Bale's needs and priorities above his own in sequence after sequence, especially the listlessly edited climax. For its part, Elah doesn't just bungle the "mystery" aspects of its script but almost sadistically works against them, leaking tension the way a bullet-blasted tire loses air, threading second-tier characters in and out at random, and selecting a culprit for its head-scratching crime virtually at a whim (despite the character's impressive alibis and lack of persuasive motivation). Elah has to know this resolution doesn't work, and that it lethally neutralizes the whole movie by extension, because Haggis barely films it; we overhear that a shockeroo confession has taken place between scenes, one of many signs that Elah's cutting-room floor is swampier than a trash compactor on the Death Star. Both films: C–

After watching all these men try to score babes and settle scores, I thought a long-delayed trip to the worrisome Becoming Jane might at least offer a refreshing idiomatic contrast. Sadly, the story is as thin as I had heard, the production design and costumes are all exactly what you'd expect, and the presumed link between creative genius and diaristic transcription of one's own experience is a jaw-dropper of an ingrained insult to the film's subject. Say this for Jane, though: unlike the above films, the movie actually improves from a wobbly beginning, as director Julian Jarrold does an unexpectedly sturdy job of evoking the visual coldness and dispassionate hardness of the world in which Jane Austen (or at least this movie's Jane Austen) wrote her incandescent but never entirely optimistic fictions. If the basic story cheapens the author and her gifts, and James McAvoy never seems like a great love (instead of, say, a scrappy playmate), the color palette and orchestration of light temper the rampant romanticization and nostalgic sanctification rather nicely. Now someone just has to teach that cinematographer not to scalp the actors. C

The early-fall documentaries have been as problematic as the fiction films. In the Shadow of the Moon has scored some very generous critical notices, but compared to the urgency and the discursive sophistication of something like No End in Sight—which doesn't just evoke a more timely concern but presents a genuinely fresh take on the war as a massive crisis of Iraqi unemployment and systematic disenfranchisement—In the Shadow of the Moon just turns the camera on while nine retired astronauts offer interesting but unsurprising recollections about their trips into space ("It was really something! It changed my life!"). Neither their level of introspection nor the composited stock footage of lunar landings and cosmic panoramas adds anything new to one's understanding of the space program or to one's most automatic and time-honored visual iconographies. The men relive their memories without the film doing anything to make them our own, much less give us anything substantial to chew on or reconsider. The independently produced Helvetica has a fresher, more surprising subject—the history of a typeface, specifically, this one, which anyone who has filed U.S. tax forms or taken a New York City subway will instantly identify. The world of type designers and graphic artists proves colorful and intriguing for the first 20 minutes, and for that same duration, the film makes a solid case for the ubiquity but also the flexibility of Helvetica script. Unfortunately, someone convinced director Gary Hustwit to make a feature instead of an extended short, which means that Helvetica spirals into ever more redundant interviews with less and less eloquent designers of less and less apparent pedigree. The visual collages of signs and public text aren't always discernibly in Helvetica, to say nothing of ridiculous filler images of sidewalk crowds, coffee cups, and old LP covers. The film tries to play its subject from as many angles as the graphic-design world has tried to play Helvetica, with the analogous result of overexposure and exhausted interest, and the added sin of leaving key questions unanswered and more promising inroads untraveled. Both films: C

Amidst all of these surging C's, I wonder if I'm being slightly harder than I need to be on Neil Jordan's The Brave One and Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. The former at least accommodates some daring camera angles and taut sequences near its beginning, as well as some welcome attempts to trouble the stylistic mandates of realism; the latter yields four or five genuinely stirring images (strawberries nailed to a canvas, bone-white women and ceramic masks floating like genocide victims in gray water), and Taymor at least wants to push cinematic depth of field and risk extremes of figuration and superimposition in ways that James Mangold and Paul Haggis, more comfortably ensconced in the Hollywood system, will never even consider. But, for all that—well, the movies suck. A lot. Precisely as he did in In Dreams, Jordan fails utterly to set rational boundaries around his fairy-tale idioms in The Brave One, winding up with a totally indigestible mix of the overblown, the sadistic, and the unpersuasive. Meanwhile, the script ties itself in contortionist's knots to find ways of jerry-rigging, excusing, and abstracting the Jodie Foster character's outlandish acts of mercenary violence. The actress herself is lost somewhere between repeating all the established tropes of her woman-besieged subgenre and wallowing like some reckless exhibitionist amidst the seamy iconographies of her own troubled star persona: gun-wielding assassins, publicity-shy celebrity, homoerotic clinches with a teenage hooker, butch haircuts, veiled "is she or isn't she" innuendos. You leave the film feeling sorry for Foster but also angry at her, baffled at Neil Jordan, and helpless to explain why actors as good as Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews, and Mary Steenburgen can't find a movie that cares remotely about their characters. Across the Universe is less ethically offensive than The Brave One, and for a movie that does almost nothing right, I was surprised at how easy this one was to spend 131 minutes with, hoping that Taymor's capricious visions would actually cohere into something, if only in her next film. As far as this one goes, what can I say? The singing is awful, the songs are shoehorned into generic and disconnected contexts, none of the characters have more than a single facet, entire transitions are palpably missing (how about those steamboat crossings?), and the politics are so ludicrously simplified and self-contradictory they make Rent look like Brecht. Is love all you need, or not? Hard to say, and even harder to sing. Plus, just like The Brave One, Across the Universe has nothing to say to, for, or about black people, but doggone if it can't stop panning to and over them, reminding us that They are Wise™, and also picturesque and sonorous when they grieve. Though this grief sometimes takes the discordant and stupidly opportunistic form of gospel choirs singing "Let It Be." Which still isn't as bad as brand-new acquaintances singing "A Little Help from My Friends" or bewildered-looking actors who a) sing "Dear Prudence" to a girl, named Prudence!, in a locked bathroom, b) float through a thinly Photoshoppy spacetime continuum while doing same, and c) exchange patronizing winks and smiles because Prudence is a total lesbian...which allows Across the Universe to add one more item on its rainbow-brite List of Totally Deep Themes. Both films: D+

And so now I'm left with the best but also the most frustrating of all of these September releases, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Cronenberg's London is more consistent and credible than Jordan's New York City, but Eastern Promises keeps holding itself back from really thinking or feeling its way through the city, opting for anodyne interiors rather than building on the potential of its unique take on London locations. Like The Brave One and Across the Universe, Eastern Promises is dogged at portraying for us a world of ethnic and cultural life that it doesn't seem to know anything about, so that the hoariest clichés of music, dialogue, vocal affectation, and sinister connotation are enlisted to form the movie's amalgamated "Russianness." Steve Knight's shaky script needs Naomi Watts' Anna to find the diary that catalyzes the plot but then never thinks of a single other reason for her to be in the movie, much less to be the second lead. Unsatisfied by Vincent Cassel's heavily insinuated desire for Viggo Mortensen's steely, reticent chauffeur, Knight writes an overstated episode where Cassel forces Mortensen to strip and have sex with a prostitute right where he can observe—thus constituting the most patently absurd scenario of pathetically lurid and dramatically implausible homoerotic longing since Judi Dench danced appallingly in Cate Blanchett's living room. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Score admirably resist repeating their earlier triumphs with Cronenberg, but they both seem to take the new film's edgy/scruffy aesthetic to an ill-advised extreme of crudeness and cliché, and the big finale is as artificial and warped as the one in The Brave One (well, almost).

Still, the reviews have largely been raves. I concede that Mortensen is excellent: he is terse, slithery, intellectually potent, and physically articulate, and best of all, he is morally illegible in a way that often feels remarkably fresh in such a genre-bound entertainment. Unlike Cronenberg (although certainly with Cronenberg's intensive assistance), he has fully risen to the challenge of assaying unworthy material and justifying how a real artist can perceive and realize the potential in a heap of empty contrivance. But the bathhouse interlude you've heard so much about disrupts the style and flow of the piece much too drastically—it's the only scene where Cronenberg comes alive, but his priorities are perplexing and the tonal register, especially regarding the exaggerated violence, is off—and I left the film wondering what to make of that barbershop prologue, wondering whether the dead girl's voiceovers from her diary were exactly necessary, wondering why you'd introduce a huge plot twist ten minutes from the end of your picture and then do nothing at all with this new information, and wondering what in the hell an "eastern promise" could possibly be. Cronenberg always deserves a second shot, and maybe I have underrated Eastern Promises because it so drastically refuses to take shape as any of the multiple movies I would have liked it to be. But my second trip to Spider in 2002 only affirmed that a hamstrung Cronenberg movie still feels hamstrung on the second go-round, and I'm increasingly suspicious that this Promise simply isn't kept. A C+ isn't out of the question, but then I remember that teenaged-screenwriter device of the traumatic miscarriage, and the underlit hospital and the crunchy quality of the curbside London light, and the oogah-boogah way in which the movie keeps trying to scare us with the words "Vory v Zakone", and Armin Mueller-Stahl's way-too-long pause before the words "a diary?", and the creaky coincidence of the right nurse passing the right gurney in the right corridor at the right time, and that animatronic infant, and I wind up back at C.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

William Wyler Blog-a-Thon: The Good Fairy

Goatdog, of whom I was a huge fan for years before I was a neighbor and a friend, is hosting a William Wyler Blog-a-Thon this weekend. Whether it was the announcement itself that inspired me or the completely hysterical and brilliant graphics, what began as a blog post about Wyler's The Good Fairy—a 1935 film I'd never even heard of that predates and completely differs from all of his big Hollywood hits, including Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Ben-Hur—turned into my first full review since God (or at least William Wyler) was a boy. Maybe one day I'll manage to churn out one of these that isn't about a movie that's already 72 years old... but I hope you enjoy this one, and though I didn't love the film, I did find it enormously interesting and well worth the rental. (It also goes without saying that the whole blog-a-thon is a real feast.)

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Getting in on the Festival Action

I try to keep the self-pity on a tight leash around this blog, but every year I tell myself I'll scrounge up the money to hit the Toronto Film Festival, and I never ever make it (even though, this year, my disappointment was more than compensated by a personal visit from my idol-critic Mainly Movies on his way back from the big event, as well as detailed, sensational write-ups at The Film Experience and GreenCine).

But then, I realize, what am I griping about?? The Chicago Film Festival, despite a paucity of big premieres and a shortage of national coverage, is a pretty top-flight shindig and it's right in my neighborhood. Last year, having just moved here, I didn't hear about the festival until lots of the showings were sold out, and I was limited to three screenings, albeit interesting ones. This year, though, I had my act all kinds of together, and I scored a killer itinerary. I've never actually covered a film festival before, but I'm looking forward to regular updates and write-ups all through this one—and also to that coffee-fueled, bloodshot, Donnie Darko state of being that even the most inveterate festival goers tend to describe. Bring it on, and stay tuned!

Control (UK, Anton Corbijn) - Biopic of the lead singer of Joy Division that's been winning plaudits and audience love since Cannes; Samantha Morton's on board, which is always a plus, and I like the still images
Men in the Nude (Hungary, Károly Esztergályos) - Could be a fairly banal story of middle-age coming out prompted by some kind of Death in Venice encounter, but Eastern Europe has been churning out great stuff lately, and who could resist that title?

The Aerial (Argentina, Esteban Sapir) - One of those mad experiments that wash ashore at festivals; this one is a pastiche of silent-movie tropes as well as a comic screed against mega-corporate media
Scream of the Ants (Iran, Mohsen Makhmalbaf) - A living legend who still has trouble getting American distribution; I prefer his daughter's films to his own, which are sometimes too austere or dogmatic, but his best work (A Moment of Innocence, Kandahar) is frequently stunning
Hallam Foe (UK, David Mackenzie) - Whatever its shortcomings, the best parts of Young Adam (no, not just the naughty bits) have lingered well over the past couple of years, so I'm eager to see this new project, headlined by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Undertow)
Stuck (Canada, Stuart Gordon) - Mena Suvari (remember her?) and Stephen Rea in some exploitation thriller that was a surprise critical fave in Toronto. The late-night slot is promising.

Dreams of Dust (Burkina Faso, Laurent Salgues) - Story about African goldminers forced to tunnel, mole-like, more than 100ft. into the ground in search of their quarry. Interesting to see whether gorgeous images and political content get blended any better here than in Western films about African immiseration
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Romania, Cristian Mungiu) - A major coup, for the festival and for me: the world hasn't stopped wagging about this one since the first day of Cannes, and certainly not after it scooped the Palme. Should be a high point.

Yella (Germany, Christian Petzold) - Mainly Movies loved this one in Berlin, as did the awards jury. I don't know much about the plot except that it concerns an extremely estranged married couple.
Taxi to the Dark Side (USA, Alex Gibney) - Gibney, director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and producer of the current No End in Sight, exposes post-9/11 American torture practices, focalizing the case of an Afghani taxi driver who was imprisoned and killed in 2002
The Last Mistress (France, Catherine Breillat) - A convalescent Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) makes an unexpected swerve into costume drama, with the equally unexpected Asia Argento at her side

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (Hungary, János Szász) - Let's hope I'm not burned out by all the intensity before I even get to this acclaimed dramatization of a real-life relationship between an asylum inmate and her morphine-addicted doctor, adapted from the doctor's diaries
Chicago 10 (USA, Brett Morgen) - Rack one up for hometown stories, and for interesting multimedia experiments, with this doc about Chicago's radical anti-war demonstrators of the late 1960s. Currently on Mike D'Angelo's list of the year's best

The Man from London (Hungary, Béla Tarr) - I'm a virtual novice with Tarr, having only seen Almanac of Fall, so even though this one's gotten mixed notices at best, I'm still intrigued
Lars and the Real Girl (USA, Craig Gillespie) - I'm mostly avoiding the imminent commercial releases, but the timeslot was right for this one, and I'm curious to see how a faux-indie like this looks amid the context of so much international drama and documentary

Silent Light (Mexico, Carlos Reygadas) - My most anticipated ticket of the fest. The reviews have trumpeted just what I wanted to hear: that Reygadas has preserved his brilliant visual acumen and jettisoned his compulsive petulance in tone and content. Fingers crossed to high heaven.
Irina Palm (Belgium, Sam Garbarski) - An unusual cast (Marianne Faithfull, Miki Manojlovic, Jenny Agutter) and production history for this tale about a 50-year-old prostitute. I clearly ruined myself in Nathaniel's Best Actress contest with this pick (among others!), but the film still intrigues me

Faro: Goddess of the Waters (Mali, Salif Traoré) - I seek out as much African cinema as I can at events like this, since commercial distributors are never any help, even on DVD
The Witnesses (France, André Téchiné) - Téchiné might be back in Wild Reeds territory with this AIDS-influenced domestic drama set in France in the 1980s. And any film that recalls Wild Reeds is a good thing
Flight of the Red Balloon (France, Hou Hsiao-hsien) - Some foreign artists try to break into Hollywood; Hou has opted to break into French cinema with this light-touch expansion on the classic Red Balloon short film. A one-time Special Event showing for the fest

The Banishment (Russia, Andrei Zvyagintsev) - I'm kind of asking for it here, since no one said anything nice about this one at Cannes, but I loved the director's first movie The Return, so I'll extend benefit of the doubt, at least once
One Hundred Nails (Italy, Ermanno Olmi) - The title refers to a mad act by a disillusioned university professor who nails 100 books to a library door before seeking refuge in a new life. Hopefully I will meet some different fate than this. In any event, Olmi is an old master (The Tree of Wooden Clogs) in whose work I'm entirely unversed, plus there are echoes here of Tarkovsky's ravishing Nostalghia, a personal favorite

The Savages (USA, Tamara Jenkins) - The closing night gala, with Jenkins and Laura Linney in attendance, and a glowingly-reviewed film to boot. The trailer delights me every single time I see it. A great way to end what I anticipate will be an extremely rewarding couple of weeks!

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Fifties: A 2007 Progress Report

Just like last year, I have waited till I clocked 50 U.S. theatrical releases from this calendar year before I started thinking about the best of what I've seen. Granted, it's taken almost three weeks longer to see 50 movies from 2007 than it did in 2006, largely because most movies that opened this summer were sequels to franchises I already didn't like (Spider-Man, Rush Hour, Pirates of the Caribbean, and with apologies to the terrific second movie, Shrek). The other movies appeared to have Dane Cook in them, and I still don't understand who that is, or they had insupportable titles like Blood and Chocolate or Catch and Release, or they implied that it's easier to get legal benefits if you're gay, or they were about teenagers on stakeouts, or they were patently disgusting, or they were about being stupid. And none of them cast a legendary actress in a lead, except for Because I Said So, which had an insupportable title. From what I did see, some of which was still about being stupid (see: Alpha Dog, The Valet), and some of which were still sequels to franchises I dislike (Harry Potter), here are some achievements on which I'll look back fondly as we head into the fall, which I imagine to be three solid months of uninterrupted and Dane Cook-less masterpieces, full of well-rounded characters attaining legal and health-related benefits through marginally credible channels.

N.B. Between you and me, these aren't the Fifties so much as the Fifty-Two's. I finally caught 2 Days in Paris and Becoming Jane, so if we squeeze 'em in, the Fifties serve as my referendum on the winter, spring, and summer seasons. I've also caught two early-bird fall entries, The Brave One and The Bubble, but I'm not counting them in the categories below. 'Course we may as well, since they'd barely figure anyway.

Day Night Day Night - Arresting in unexpected ways; surprising notes throughout
Deep Water - Incisive doc with narrative thrills and philosophical ambitions
Jindabyne - Fine-grained psychology + expressive technique + cultural commentary
Once - The miniaturist pleasure everyone describes, lovingly crafted
Zoo - Smartly shaped as a time capsule and a strange poem to the unknowable

Andrea Arnold, Red Road - Brilliant with light, sound, and performance
John Carney, Once - Shrewd judgment about what to leave out, where to linger
Robinson Devor, Zoo - Shaping up as a true indie wonder, albeit a weird one
Ray Lawrence, Jindabyne - Novelistic in insight, but totally filmic execution
Julia Loktev, Day Night Day Night - Bold and concise with her unexpected vision

Nikki Blonsky, Hairspray - Invigorating and game, with unflagging cheer and gusto
Julie Christie, Away from Her - Smiles as she disappears, keeping her secrets
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en rose - You say potato, I say brilliant and deeply felt
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart - Impressive portrait of love and intelligence
Laura Linney, Jindabyne - Subtly nasty, humiliated, weary, entirely plausible

Gabriel Byrne, Jindabyne - For once, his dour visage allows eloquent shadings
Don Cheadle, Talk to Me - Vocally adept, brilliant at comedy but still sincere
Shia LaBeouf, Transformers - Humanizes and enlivens this film for a long while
Ulrich Mühe, The Lives of Others - Artful reticence, complicated stillness
Gordon Pinsent, Away from Her - Bravely unsympathetic, tiny evolutions

Deborra-Lee Furness, Jindabyne - Handles huge emotional shifts very deftly
Sidse Babett Knudsen, After the Wedding - Credible, flexible, hearty, enigmatic
Leslie Mann, Knocked Up - A comic archetype becomes a surprising personality
Vicky McClure, This Is England - Goes deeper and warmer than her Goth exterior
Julia Stiles, The Bourne Ultimatum - "It was difficult for me. With you."

Martin Compston, Red Road - The most memorable character in a shady gallery
John Cothran, Black Snake Moan - A minister who isn't lofty or simplistic
John Carroll Lynch, Zodiac - Tightroping: has to tip his hand but still keep us guessing
Denis O'Hare, A Mighty Heart - A selfish person who doesn't see his foibles
Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn - Haunted and desperate without false affectations

Deep Water - Artful arranging of superb materials and a great story
The King of Kong - Tense and colorful, cheap but creatively inspired
No End in Sight - Redraws the Iraq War as a drama of disenfranchisement
An Unreasonable Man - Various, evocative points of view on a divisive figure
Zoo - The I'm Not There of doc's, turning curiosity back on ourselves

2 Days in Paris - Terrific comic battering average, plus real feeling
Black Snake Moan - Works daringly and devilishly with exaggerated archetypes
Deep Water - Gorgeous balance of a specific tale and its wider contexts
Once - A keenly observed core, with light, revealing accents
Red Road - Enticingly suppressed motives find unpredictable releases

Away from Her - Comfortable with connotation and quiet observation
The Bourne Ultimatum - Gimmicky and imperfectly directed, but great structural loops
Jindabyne - An ingenious, culturally acute reimagining of Carver
A Mighty Heart - Draws a tough, fractalized map of a desperate search
Zodiac - Bravely messy in its chronicle of petered-out obsession

Jindabyne - Suggestive framings on a wide canvas, bold overexposures
Ocean's Thirteen - Unrelated to the plot, but zesty and luminescent all the same
Red Road - Glowering colors, fascinating shadows and depths of field
Sunshine - Brilliant eye on the future, kind to actors and sets
La Vie en rose - Expert handhelds dial emotional intensity up and down

Day Night Day Night - Equally adept with time lags and accelerated crises
Grindhouse - Flashy but taut and evocative work in two divergent styles
Jindabyne - Compresses a huge, rich story into a dense but fluid experience
Once - Cuts banish sentiment while emphasizing emotion
Zoo - Kaleidoscopic, interblending the factual with the poetic and speculative

Grindhouse - The usual bath of kitschy music and sharp, funny foley work
Hairspray - Musicals feel inevitable here, but this one's bright and bouncy
Hot Fuzz - All the best jokes are sonic; hilariously overdone
Once - The thrill of live performance, doting but measured
Talk to Me - Fresh musical choices; evokes a whole, lost culture of public sound

300 - An end in itself, but more arresting than Sin City
Bug - Unnerving throughout, with a second-act coup de theatre
Grindhouse - For the delirious Planet Terror: in-jokes everyone can enjoy
Hairspray - Dreamy pastels, plus a witty mix of the tacky and the joyous
Sunshine - A spaceship that's also a planet that's also a mental landscape

2 Days in Paris - Odd, evocative instrumentations cover a lot of tonal bases
Deep Water - Impressively vivid for a doc, without ostentation
Grindhouse - Again, all Planet Terror, jokey but electrifying

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