Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Sound and Editing

See what I did there? I threw in two categories that you weren't expecting. And right away, a worthy nominee gets to qualify, after starting a commercial mini-run in New York last week. Hear the call of the high-school zombie!

Best Sound (Mixing and Editing)

Sam Petty and Richard Pain for Animal Kingdom, for working creatively across music, ambient details, and abstract sound, as in that unsettling electric hum underneath... Air Supply?;

Francesco Liotard, Paolo Amici, David Quadroli, and Fabrizio Quadroli for I Am Love, for sounds of eating and food prep to give the gastroporn images some grounding, and for pushing so boldly with those John Adams elements;

Richard King, Gary Rizzo, Ed Novick, Paul Berolzheimer, Michael W. Mitchell, and Bryan O. Watkins for Inception, because even when I start getting leery of the Christopher Nolan Wall of Sound, it turns out to have meaningful layers and emotional potency;

Tye Bellar, Aaron Irons, Eric Lehning, and David Rowland for Make-Out with Violence, for accomplishing something glossy, exuberant, and disturbing on a tight budget, and figuring out how to make a wall-to-wall song score work; and

Paul Hsu, Warren Shaw, Philip Stockton, William Sarokin, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Peter Staubli, Jacob Ribicoff, Jon Title, and Allan Zaleski (!!) for Salt, a great argument for having many cooks in the kitchen, giving the stunts and scuffles sonic impact and maintaining the key of deadpan camp.

Honorable mentions to two films that hopefully didn't get pipped for the mere fact that I saw them a while ago: Green Zone, with a team headed by Oliver Tarney, Simon Hayes, Mike Prestwood-Smith, Simon Trundle, and James Boyle, might have qualified for the usual Loud Noises slot, but like the best Loud Noises movies, the work here is detailed, varying in density and modulation, and specific to its environment; and Fish Tank, with its smaller crew headed by Joakim Sundström, Per Boström, Rashad Omar, and Christer Melén, which doesn't carry its sound design to the unnerving heights of Red Road but weaves deftly back and forth between realism and a heightened sensory awareness.

Best Film Editing

Yorgos Mavropsaridis for Dogtooth, because despite all the lengthy shots, the timing of the jokes, the shocks, the pauses, and the close-ups has to be ace for the film to work;

Marion Monnier for The Father of My Children, for nailing the desultory rhythms of daily life, in times of peace and stress, as well as the dark, quiet character and story arcs beneath;

Hervé de Luze for The Ghost Writer, because from the first ferry-ride and the publishing-house meeting, we know we've a taut, witty suspenser in store, even when the script sags;

Maryann Brandon and Darren T. Holmes for How to Train Your Dragon, which could easily have jerked between set-pieces and draggy interludes of hiding and waiting, but the whole thing pops, soars, and delights; and

Shannon Kennedy and Kimberly Reed for Prodigal Sons, for shifting smoothly from a specific occasion to unpredictable events, and using the cuts to signal the echoes between two main storylines.

(I am aware, by the way, of the arguments against animated features being considered for editing awards, given that the storyboarding is so intensive and the amount of footage produced is generally more commensurate with what ultimately goes into the film. Even if this amounts to a conceptual form of "in-camera editing" where shot relations, alternations in perspective, and montage largely need to be worked out in advance—which still leaves open the matters of precise timing, cross-cutting, etc.—I still prefer to recognize successes in a different kind of process that winds up constituting its own form of "editing.")

Extremely honorable mentions, so much so that I'd probably swap them in for some of the above on a different day: Sarah Anderson for Accomplices, the best film I keep mentioning that nobody saw, and a miraculous proof that you can tell a bifurcated past-tense and present-tense movie and make both tracks exciting and detailed; Luke Doolan for Animal Kingdom, who repeatedly helps to endow genre-bound scenes with engaging off-rhythms and palpable tension; Teresa Hannigan for Cairo Time, who makes brave choices for unfilled silences and static longueurs, capturing how the leads are comfortable as well as uncomfortable with each other, all the time; Moon Sae-kyoung for Mother, who takes a risk on a heavily story-boarded feel but works adroitly with character details and with abstract crystallizations of mood and feeling; Tom Fulford and Chris King, who make Exit Through the Gift Shop such swinging fun even in its thinner passages; Heike Parplies for the consummate handling of psychology and pacing in Everyone Else; and Christopher Rouse, whose intercutting of multiple colliding courses of action at the end of Green Zone was the pulse-pounding action climax of the year so far, a whole worth more than the sum of its exciting parts.

Honorable mentions, too, to Nicolas Chaudeurge for Fish Tank, Tim Streeto for Greenberg, Nicolas Chaudeurge for Fish Tank, the ever-dependable Juliette Welfling for A Prophet, Karina Ressler for Lourdes, Ken Schretzmann for Toy Story 3, and Walter Fasano for I Am Love.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Actor

Maybe it was just the weekend, but I could sense you all getting a little drowsy over the directors, cinematographers, and screenplays. I figure I ought to throw an acting category your way, although I hope this still means something in a world where Kyra Sedgwick has an Emmy.

Once again, we mostly have 2009 to thank for the bests of 2010 in the U.S., but that's par for the course in the first half of the year for commercial exhibition. And clearly, these perfs were worth waiting for...

Louis-Do de Lencquesaing for The Father of My Children, who looms as large in death as in life, not by acting overly grand, but by capturing the rising, tragic tide of an almost mundane anguish;

Lars Eidinger for Everyone Else, for nursing his regrets as a hen guards its eggs, and quietly goading his girlfriend to fall out of love, even when he acts silly or tender;

Michael Fassbender for Fish Tank, for wearing the character as close to his skin as a pair of tight jeans, keeping you seduced and at sea even when all arrows point one way;

Tahar Rahim for A Prophet, less because he sustains a mighty arc from fledgling to kingpin than because he's so assured, he never flaunts the scale of that evolution; and

Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right, for the undisguised duels of shyness and smugness he radiates around "his" kids, admiring them while relishing how they make him feel cooler.

I know some people will justifiably consider Fassbender's and Ruffalo's to be supporting roles. Still, most readers know by now that, under the Hannibal Lecter Rule, I'm usually inclined to promote roles that are completely pivotal to the feelings and ideas of their movies into the lead category, even when they have slightly less screen time than other "leads" in the film. I do grasp that these are borderline cases, but I can't imagine even a one-line synposis of either Fish Tank or Kids that doesn't incorporate Connor or Paul. Though it helps that I write such long sentences!

Honestly, I didn't have much trouble arriving at these five, but a few honorable mentions anyway, most strongly to Cyril Descours, a young guy who brought edgy, spontaneous, charismatic life to the character who begins Accomplices as an unidentified corpse. It's spry work that augurs well for the young actor. Ewan McGregor may not redefine the art in The Ghost Writer but he reminds us what an underrated stalwart he is: a pre-eminently skilled audience surrogate, even when he's making eccentric errors in judgment, and a dab hand at playing peevish incredulity without getting ornery. Speaking of ornery, Ben Stiller does well by the lead role in Greenberg, even if the hairpin turns in Roger's temper exceed his grasp just a bit. It's my favorite kind of part to see him play, even if Joan Rivers's witheringly terse dismissal of him hangs implacably over his head. Joining him in the category of hard-working and ideally cast actors whom I can't quite love, Tom Hanks shows again in Toy Story 3 what a marvelous creation Woody is—very possibly his crowning achievement.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Cinematography

Following my picks for the best directors and screenplays. And no, despite costume and hair, Ben Stiller and Tahar Rahim were not separated at birth, though I'd love to see Rahim's take on Roger Greenberg.

Robbie Ryan for Fish Tank, for the intimacy and the claustrophobia in his 4:3 framings, achieving crackling color, light, and composition within social-realist bounds;

Harris Savides for Greenberg, for making Angeleno sunrays bland, merciless, and offhandedly enchanting in different scenes, and signaling unspoken affects so eloquently;

Yorick Le Saux for I Am Love, for unbombastic floridity, tweaking old styles with modern agitations and candor, and proving as chameleonic as Tilda in their two collabos;

Martin Gschlacht for Lourdes, whose crisp lenses and chipper colors evoke banal artifice, yet he coaxes uncanny depths from slow movements, patience, and eerie closeups; and

Stéphane Fontaine for A Prophet, who traverses a wild array of palettes and visual environments, grotty to sun-drenched, but coheres them through sustained visual energy.

Extremely honorable mentions to five runners-up who offered such strong work I'd consider them an above-average field in and of themselves: Michael McDonough's cold, steely, location-specific lensing of Winter's Bone, with some exciting departures from realism; Pawel Edelman's deliciously sinister handling of depth, framing, and geometrically blocked spaces in The Ghost Writer; Thimios Bakatatakis's tense, unsettling synthesis of Buñuel, Arbus, and Haneke in Dogtooth; Bernhard Keller's subtlety with flesh tones and bodily movements under the Italian sun in Everyone Else; and Adam Arkapaw's hot white silhouettes and precise framing in Animal Kingdom, which also handles close-ups very well as long as they're not gratuitously heavy on the zoom.

Further honorable mentions to Hong Pyung-kyo's vivid lingering on faces and colors, such that Mother seems controlled but ever-ready to go berserk; Barry Ackroyd's dependably active camerawork and deft nighttime shooting in Green Zone; and Eric Gautier's atypically pop-brite but characteristically shrewd lighting of Wild Grass, a fruitful matching of his sensibilities with Resnais's.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Screenplays

Otherwise known as Attack of the Writer-Directors, though at least the adapters tend to employ a buddy.

For Original Screenplay...

David Michôd for Animal Kingdom, for pulling out consistent surprises about who does what, who dies when, and who about-faces, yet emotion and vision outweigh shock value;

Giorgos Lanthimos for Dogtooth, who under-exploits certain threads (the misapplied words) but achieves a doomed, tragicomic synthesis from what seems like a loose structure;

Maren Ade for Everyone Else, who parses relations so finely and knows her characters so well that she conveys as many planes of tension as there are people in each scene;

Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh for Greenberg, who avoid stagnation despite a protagonist whom everyone justifiably repudiates and a co-lead who both baffles and elicits our sympathy; and

Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3, who don't just work around 2's tied-up finale but turn resuscitation itself into a blessing and curse: greater ecstasies, graver reckonings.

Honorable mentions to Bong Joon-ho and Park Eun-kyo for the crazy, purple melodrama of Mother. Christopher Nolan deserves mention for the ambitions and imagination of Inception, as do Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg for the humor, warmth, and fraught relationships in The Kids Are All Right, even if both scripts wind up selling themselves short. Their peaks surpassed those of Frédéric Mermoud and Pascal Arnold for Accomplices and Mia Hansen-Løve for The Father of My Children, although those two were more lived-in and consistent, and in many ways more involving.

For Adapted Screenplay...

Robert Harris and Roman Polanski for The Ghost Writer, who can't avert late-film diminishing returns, but who concoct ingenious scenarios of tension, both when Ewan acts savvy and when he doesn't;

Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders for How To Train Your Dragon, who capture a playful euphoria and the sensitive intuitions between two lonely kids, scaly and not; climax problems, but foot reveal is deft;

Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Audiard for A Prophet, whose carceral coming-of-age ends much as you'd expect, but the scenes along the way bristle and thrill: the hidden razor, the blazing ghost;

Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet for Wild Grass, who give Resnais great ingredients to spice: not the opposed realities of early works, but characters who feel incompatible with themselves; and

Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini for Winter's Bone, who don't balk at the mythic structures or mannered dialogue, but who ground their story in a vivid envelope of noir, gallows humor and all.

Honorable mentions are few, when I already feel lukewarm about Wild Grass. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra came close to displacing it, if only I Love You Phillip Morris felt less gimmicky, and let the unexpected character relationships really drive the plot more than a saturating impulse to tickle and shock us. Plus, the film might never open. The Secret in Their Eyes is too soapy and over-conceived and Green Zone too naïvely wish-fulfilling to rate here.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Director

So, re-entering the now: seasoned readers will know that every year, once I've crossed the threshold of seeing 50 commercial releases, I pause for a midterm progress report of bests in several categories, which doubles as a kind of For Your Consideration ad for achievements that I'm hoping other people will recall at year's end (or else hunt down, if they didn't see them the first time). I'm going to move in reverse order of the categories I just rehearsed from last year's Honorees. And so, without further ado...

(...although, if I can just add a little ado, can I say how exciting it is to see this list filled with five filmmakers ranging from their early 30s to their early 40s, none of whom has more than three features under her or his belt, two of whom got their first solo directing credits for these films, and three of whom are women? And I promise, I arrived at this list before considering any of that. It's a new day!)

Maren Ade for Everyone Else, since she proves the term "actor's director" needn't imply inattention to visuals and structure—but still, get a load of those performances;

Jessica Hausner for Lourdes, because she hovers between spoofing her subject and seeming spooked and humbled by it, while maintaining pristine, enigmatic formal control;

Giorgos Lanthimos for Dogtooth, for evoking more about petty tyranny and ignorant complicity by refusing to be literal, allowing himself humor, and trusting his originality;

Kimberly Reed for Prodigal Sons, for an 80-minute master class in imposing clear, forceful, and moving arcs onto complex and wholly intimate material, without losing nuances; and

Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3, a playroom Preston Sturges who spins a rich central story about love and betrayal, couched amid sublime comic supports, pristinely concluded.

Extremely honorable mentions to Jacques Audiard for bringing his trademark blend of gritty realism and lightning verve to the prison tale A Prophet; to Bong Joon-ho for justifying Mother's wilder excesses by crystallizing his tones and intents so purely when it counts most; and to Andrea Arnold for sustaining the promise of Red Road in Fish Tank, which mirrors the Audiard in its blend of scrappy entrapment and fablic embellishments, and draws an ensemble of performances to die for. Those three runners-up would be full-time ballot contenders in a whole lotta years. I guess this year is shaping up okay? The only catch: Toy Story 3 is the only legitimately new film of 2010 anywhere among these eight.

Further honorable mentions to Roman Polanski for The Ghost Writer, Noah Baumbach for Greenberg, Mia Hansen-Løve for The Father of My Children, David Michôd for Animal Kingdom, and Frédéric Mermoud for Accomplices. The first, second, and fourth actually did bow on the world stage this year—albeit very early, at Sundance and Berlin!—so that's something.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2009 Honorees: Directors

The last category where I'll be profiling Bests from last year, either because I didn't fall in love with a lot (non-festival documentaries were generally weak, and Score comes down to Duplicity, The Informant!, and not a lot else), or I'm having a hard time remembering (if I don't do Sound right away, I turn forgetful), or else it's just the same films crowding all the categories (viz. Beeswax, Duplicity, In the Loop, Summer Hours, and Whip It in Best Ensemble, with The Hurt Locker, The Maid, and others following up).

These Best Director picks won't come as much of a shock given the Top Ten List I published lo these many months ago, but it's still worth applauding from our seats for...

Roy Andersson for You, the Living, for working from a palette of theater, painting, and still photography without just dabbling; the ambivalence and wit feel shaped by cinema;

Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, for conceiving a ruminative movie in long shot around Mackie, and a relentless one in close-up around Renner, and knowing how to mix them up;

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne for Lorna's Silence, for equaling the elegance of L'Enfant but with richer, less abstract emotion; the finale's debatable, but all else clicks, and I like risks;

Jim Jarmusch for The Limits of Control, for taking a bold gamble on geometric, rhythmic, chromatic, and tonal abstraction; I was spellbound, and he rarely has that effect on me; and

Erick Zonca for Julia, for driving his film with the pedal-to-floor ferocity of an old sedan crashing across a policed border, yet every element is tightly managed.

Extremely honorable mentions to the warmth, spryness, and subtlety that Andrew Bujalski brings to Beeswax; to Sacha Gervasi's sensationally funny-sad shaping of material in Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which could have been played for jokes or banalities; to Olivier Assayas for the tenderness and finely edged toughness of Summer Hours, which implies a modern France while having the elegance and lovely remoteness of an object from the past; and to my constant muse and inspiration, the single reason I write about film today, Jane Campion, who showed again in Bright Star that there are many ways of exploring a period, communicating a love-bond, or evoking as fragile and internal an act as poetry on screen.

Further honorable mentions to Park Chan-wook for Thirst, Tony Gilroy for Duplicity, Drew Barrymore for Whip It!, Sebastián Silva for The Maid, Armando Iannucci for In the Loop, Cary Fukunaga for Sin Nombre, and Frederick Wiseman for La Danse. And speaking of established masters, I didn't love everything that Aleksandr Sokurov did with The Sun or Claire Denis did with 35 Shots of Rum, but no one else could or would have made those intriguing pictures, and at their best moments, who could match them?

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2009 Honorees: Screenplays

As usual, one category is full of contenders, the other struggles to keep pace. Meanwhile, the writing remains the thing I most often wish I could fix in a movie. As well as the only filmmaking task that I think I could feasibly accomplish. Hmmmm...

For Original Screenplay...

Andrew Bujalski for Beeswax, for building such rich ties among the three principals, for unfolding their relations gradually, and for so many sharp, anecdotal scenes;

Tony Gilroy for Duplicity, whose inability to lure an audience to his clever, zesty, intricate, and deliciously rewatchable espionage comedy was a great shame of 2009;

Sebastián Silva and Pedro Peirano for The Maid, who make the maid's jealousy both funny and scary, her fainting spells alarming yet dubious, and the last half-hour moving but schmaltz-free;

Adam Elliot for Mary and Max, for writing such outlandish but endearing speeches and characters that a third-act sag doesn't matter, especially at the bittersweet finale; and

Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman for The Messenger, for filling an inevitably sad story with tentative warmth and concise human details, proving the viability of adult drama in Hollywood.

Extremely honorable mentions to four scripts that made strong plays for the Mary and Max and Messenger spots and on different days might appear in their places: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for the fraught and layered scenario of Lorna's Silence, with its risky swerve into dark fable; Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker, composing taut set-pieces but leaving room for rich characters and finely etched local details; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Sugar, who evoke the experience of a perplexed immigrant to America with piquancy, compassion, and wonderfully specific context, and who snatch back a gutsy, honest ending from the encroachment of cliché in the second act; and Olivier Assayas for Summer Hours, whose "O baleful mortgage of the heritage of France!" premise could easily have rubbed me the wrong way, but for the light hand, the insights, and the push-pull sense of family that he brings to it.

Further honorable mentions to Greg Mottola for Adventureland, Jane Campion for Bright Star, Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani for Goodbye Solo, Nancy Meyers for making It's Complicated really funny, the quartet of Erick Zonca, Aude Py, Camilla Natta, and Michael Collins for Julia, and Quentin Tarantino for the delicious parts of Inglourious Basterds, which is to say, the parts that aren't sadistic, twitty, slow, or total cheats to attain an ending.

For Adapted Screenplay...

Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviani for Gomorrah, who distill the Mob in a new way, not as a scary pyramid of imposing figures, but as a viral contagion that has spread through everything;

Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche for In the Loop, who give a dozen characters their comic due, with ace plotting and dialogue ("anti-war shag"), but stay duly forlorn about the world stage;

Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious, who avoids a strict emphasis many would have drawn around Precious, Mary, and Blu, and keeps it a piece about the fortitude of young women;

Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze for Where the Wild Things Are, who start with a book you could transcribe on the back of a pasta box, imposing a workable plot and devising an array of distinct characters; and

Shauna Cross for Whip It, who works so adroitly with her clutch of old saws (rebelling girl, disapproving mom, dead-end town, lame boyfriend) and gets 'em all rolling.

Honorable mentions to Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach for the memorable family dynamics of Fantastic Mr. Fox, even if I still have a hard time living in Anderson's dollhouses; to Susannah Grant for the carefully composed characters and growing tensions of The Soloist; and to Henry Selick for the alternate universes and scrappy kid's point of view in Coraline.

I wish I were a bit more excited about these adaptations, or about what I suspect is the greater potential of the Woman in Berlin script, muffled by slightly pedestrian direction; or about the good bits in the District 9 scenario, despite some fuzziness in the whole premise and the utter, bizarre collapse of the dropped documentary conceit. (Do I keep harping on that?) It's tempting to consider 35 Shots of Rum and Julia as adaptations of Ozu and Cassavetes, which they sort of are, or Bright Star as an adaptation of Keats, which it sort of is, but even by the reduced standards of fantasy-baseball Oscar blogging, one aims for integrity.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday Reviews: Borom sarret and Only When I Dance

I was disappointed not to be more impressed with Only When I Dance, a recent documentary about Brazilian teenagers aspiring for a spot in an elite ballet corps or an international academy. I have at least one friend who is partial enough to the film that I feel like a buzzkill. And contrary to what some readers might think, it's no fun to ruin a film's perfect Rotten Tomatoes record, even if, as a culture, we seriously need to get over our over-investment in that heuristic.

In any event, here's my full review of Only When I Dance, but I'm thrilled that I am able to chase it instantaneously with something else I wrote in the wee hours this weekend, in response to a real breath-catcher. If you don't know Ousmane Sembene's films, or you're feeling self-conscious at having never seen one and not knowing where to start, you could do a lot worse than his gorgeously controlled, wise, and economical short film Borom sarret. At 20 minutes, it's also perfectly sized for a break from heavy-duty manuscript work, which was also a plum recommendation for the 78-minute Only When I Dance. Both of them inspired a rush of words, but in Borom sarret's case, they're nothing but ecstatic praise. And in this case, I'm blazing a trail for a previously empty Rotten Tomatoes dossier. So, see the film, write it up, and give the Tomato-surfers more to chew on! Seriously, you have 20 minutes, and from where I'm sitting, you're unlikely to be sorry.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

2009 Honorees: Cinematography

In a perpetually competitive category, though this year wasn't as tough as some, my favorites of 2009 were...

Barry Ackroyd for The Hurt Locker, whose ace kineticism no longer surprises but still invigorates, especially when blending the furtive, the laser-sighted, and the panoramic;

Christopher Doyle for The Limits of Control, because even beyond his delectation in bright, unusual hues, there'd be no movie without his managing of visual tension and geometric motifs;

Adriano Goldman for Sin Nombre, because what he lacked in novelty he more than compensates in striking, dramatic, rich-toned lensing, distilling place as well as edgy mood;

Jeong Jeong-hun for Thirst, who can go anywhere Park wants to go, from epic grandeur to woozy delirium to febrile abstraction, even in a film where light is the enemy; and

Lance Acord for Where the Wild Things Are, who fuses generational reverbs by braiding 60s lens flares, 70s dolor, and modern ironies, and relishes the woolly materiality of the Things.

Extremely honorable mentions to Yorick Le Saux for the lurid dynamism of Julia's camera movement and its natural and artificial lighting and to Gustav Danielsson for finding just the right lenses, palettes, and frames for Roy Andersson's ingenious tableaux mordants in You, the Living.

Further honorable mentions to Greig Fraser for Bright Star, Alain Marcoen for Lorna's Silence, the unbelievably named Martin Gschlacht for Revanche, and Alexis Zabe for Silent Light.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Reviews: Animal Kingdom

Will wonders never cease? A review on the same day a movie opens in my local market, and in several others. I have a plant in the Hollywood ecosystem to thank for my rare access to a pre-release screening, and Glenn Dunks to thank for beating the drum so long and loud for this title. In every other respect, I have David Michôd to thank for making such an entertaining and aesthetically ingratiating movie. I can't easily think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend Animal Kingdom, an engaging yarn told with formal finesse. My full review is here.

And actually, since I already reviewed Cairo Time last week, that's two debuts in the Chicago market on which I've officially gone on record. And they're both good! Somebody pinch me.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2009 Honorees: Best Actor

You'd think I have very narrow tastes based on this roster, which brims with militarized men. The one character who isn't packing artillery nonetheless anchors a movie that's all about World War II. Maybe the Academy will have me after all? But of course the superficial impression of likeness belies five very different men, played splendidly by five commanding and prismatic actors, who jointly lead the charge of the year's most competitive acting category, by far.

SHARLTO COPLEY for District 9, who evolves so organically from doofus to terrorized victim to angry humanprawnthing, and whose work lingered mightily as the months passed;

BEN FOSTER for The Messenger, who projected a strapping maturity from a slight frame, who felt green but not naïve, who coiled in anger, shock, decency, and inadequacy;

ISSEY OGATA for The Sun, whose odd, fishlike tics and blank-faced diffidence made Hirohito a needfully enigmatic figure, edging toward a harsh metaphysical reckoning;

JEREMY RENNER for The Hurt Locker, whose reckless bravado and no-bullshit diligence feel bizarrely indivisible, even after a creepy mixup over a dead kid jars his equilibrium; and

CHRISTOPH WALTZ for Inglourious Basterds, who must be as tired of The Charismatic Nazi as we are, so he makes him jolly, urbane, Napoleonic, cobra-like, and a bit bonkers to boot.

Extremely honorable mentions to Anthony Mackie, whose watchfulness and ethical principles are almost as bracing in The Hurt Locker as Renner's struts and tremors; to Mark Duplass, whose comic timing and psychological dissection are so exquisite in Humpday that the movie's collapse almost doesn't matter; to Ben Whishaw for giving Bright Star an effete, sickly Keats who still registers strongly as a casual charmer and an object of mystery and passion; to Viggo Mortensen for taking fatherhood as seriously as survival in The Road, as a dirt-smeared Falconetti of haunted persistence; and to Robert Downey, Jr. for submerging his character's compassionate initiatives and his phobias about commitment amidst so much colorful, humanizing, offhanded detail in The Soloist that the movie never feels schematic or "inspirational" in the sticky way you expect.

Nearly as honorable are the truculent, focused pragmatism of In the Loop's Peter Capaldi; the mealy resentments and half-baked self-confidence of Patton Oswalt in Big Fan; the utter plausibility of Russell Crowe in State the Play, holding the screen even more surely than in more grandiose projects; the savvy, highwire balance of surface affectation and emotional truth that Jamie Foxx brings to his tricky part in The Soloist; the adolescent restlessness, combining comedic and dramatic instincts, of Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland; and the noisome, big-bellied, aging-wolf magnetism of Oscar winner Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, full of deft details that battle valiantly against the haziness of the script and the film.

Even this wasn't all for the embarrassment of riches, given Tom Hardy's overdone but often electrifying turn in Bronson, Souleymane Sy Savané's gradually tested bonhomie in Goodbye, Solo, Gianfelice Imparato's controlled but anxious professional dispatch in Gomorrah, Paul Rudd's indefatigable charm as he faces new feelings in I Love You, Man, and Tom Hollander's space-cadet PM and Chris Addison's rationalizing wonk in In the Loop. Adam Sandler and Michael Stuhlbarg made smart choices and fostered memorable moments in the odd patchwork of Funny People and the off-putting, self-satisfied cynicism of A Serious Man, making them honorable honorable mentions, or something. But I have to start drawing the line somewhere.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday Reviews: Welcome to V.O.R.

The site changes a bit this week, and I have two people to thank for it. One is that jackal, Christopher Nolan, who made a movie I didn't much like that I nonetheless haven't stopped thinking about and no one has stopped talking about. I couldn't see my way toward more than a C–, but low grades like that, when they aren't bolted onto lame dross like The Eclipse or 3:10 to Yuma, often find themselves attached to films I disliked but in ways I found provocative, or that got under my skin even though I didn't much appreciate what they did once they arrived there: Inglourious Basterds, Splice, A Serious Man, Two Lovers. Sticking only to grades, especially when my time for full-scale reviews is often at a heavy premium, doesn't make it easy to separate interesting failures from dead weight, or vivid B+s and Bs from well-executed niceties that I barely remember at year's end. For a long time, I have wanted a little more "give" in my rating system, even or especially when I don't have time to write much, so I have instituted a second scale called the V.O.R. value to accompany my grades. You can read more about this small, additional feature and about my whole approach to grading here.

The other person I have to thank is a reader who sometimes posts comments under the name "Evanderholy," and whose real name I am withholding in case he prefers to keep it private. I have never met him, but he wrote me the most detailed, thoughtful, inspiring, and utterly unanticipated message that I have received in a long while, near the beginning of the year. I am disgusted to say that I still haven't answered this note, partly out of the pressure to write something even halfway as lovely, and partly because of my own bad habit of saving my favorite e-mails till the end of the "Response Due" box, which means I often never get to them. One thing Evander gently suggested in this note is that just a few lines of response about the films I grade but don't fully review would be the most welcome change I could possibly institute at the main review site. He is by no means the first reader to request this, and believe me, the writer has often requested it of himself! But a few months' practice on Twitter, a million consecutive days of writing other projects at this computer, and the desire to succinctly disentangle what is "good" or "bad" about a movie from what is "valuable" or "not valuable," "urgent" or "not urgent" about it have given me the kick I needed to find some middle-ground between my usual prolixity and my even more usual motto, "Not yet reviewed in full."

So, a grudging thanks to Christopher Nolan, and a very effusive, very public thanks to Evanderholy. Here are two full reviews of Cairo Time and the delectable Everyone Else, a medium-length reaction to Life During Wartime, and short write-ups of Greenberg, Wild Grass, and Salt, on the eve of "the Fifties" for 2010 and as an experiment in this new ratings system. Yes, this means I still haven't said anything about the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream that ostensibly sparked this sudden outpouring of verbiage, but I'll get there. I also (full disclosure) have an application filed with the Online Film Critics Society, and they may as well see that I am occasionally capable of dragging my fingers to the QWERTY and offering up more than "A–" or "C+" about movies people are actually seeing, at the moments they are seeing them.

Let me know what you think. If I drop the VOR, I pledge to try hard not to drop the capacity to bang out a paragraph to go with each grade. I'm not seeing a ton of movies these days anyway, so it oughta exist in the realm of possibility.

Lastly, and not for the first time, a huge and ongoing thanks to all of you, for continuing to follow along, being excited when I'm productive and understanding when I'm not, and keeping the level of enthusiasm and civil discourse around this site one of the great pleasures of my life. I would write these pieces anyway if no one ever read them, or cared. But it's more fun to write them with you in mind, and to hear what you say back.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

2009 Honorees: Best Supporting Actress

CLAUDIA CELEDÓN for The Maid, who lacks critical distance on the full scale of her privilege, but her inchoate feelings for her maid surpass mere sympathy or cluelessness;

VERA FARMIGA for Up in the Air, because she exudes a palpable shift in thought every three seconds, while still being sexy and sporting, and still keeping mysteries at bay;

MARCIA GAY HARDEN for Whip It, whose sense of family ties, rejection of the unfamiliar, fondness for old-school femininity, and secret rebellious streak all feel so real;

MIMI KENNEDY for In the Loop, because she evokes genuine outrage, avoids the lazy ballbreaker route, and is so sharply comic with relatively few boldfaced character notes; and

MO'NIQUE for Precious, who lacks polish but emits profound commitment, blazing with anger, self-pity, and illness, forcing us to feel the lethal stakes of this story.

Extremely honorable mentions to Rona Lipaz-Michael, who is almost as gripping an observer-reactor to Hiam Abbass in Lemon Tree as Celedón is to Saavedra in The Maid; and to two secret weapons of the Mumblecore-ish set, Alycia Delmore's patient but exasperated girlfriend in Humpday and Katy O'Connor, the spacy, occasionally tearful store clerk in Beeswax, who wears her liberal bleeding heart on her thrift-store sleeve.

Next tier down, though "down" is hardly the right word, were Mariah Carey's weary, candid, but ultimately overchallenged social worker in Precious, Naturi Naughton's commanding Lil' Kim in Notorious, the deftly comic character work of Anna Chlumsky in In the Loop, the chilly, death's door maternity of Edith Scob in Summer Hours, and Hope Olaide Wilson's impressive spin on the stock role of the tough, abandoned older sister marooned on some unlucky relative's front door, this time in Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

2009 Honorees: Best Supporting Actor

Start here if you're wondering why I'm only now getting to this. Otherwise, my selections for the Best Supporting Actors of 2009 were, and still are:

JAMES GANDOLFINI for Where the Wild Things Are, because it takes prodigious vocal and physical work to broadcast that much temper, pain, and complexity from within a huge woolly body suit;

STEVE MARTIN for It's Complicated, because he makes the pot scenes such pure joy and seems genuinely wounded, but maturely responsive, when Meryl's character lets him down;

SAUL RUBINEK for Julia, because his enabling takes almost as many forms as Julia's mania: sensitive, appalled, faux-casual, furious, manipulative, speechless...;

DARYL SABARA for World's Greatest Dad, because he's very funny and blisteringly hateful, without just riffing or auditioning for your dorm-room wall the way Jonah Hill would have; and

STANLEY TUCCI for Julie & Julia, because even when you're besotted with a world-class companion, you still have to step carefully around their oddities and their bruises.

Extremely honorable mentions to the three men who, on and off since January, have rotated in and out of what is finally the Martin spot: Benoît Poelvoorde, who is such an imposing, charismatic lover-patron-frenemy to Tautou in Coco Before Chanel; Woody Harrelson, who combines swagger and decency with just a bit of smugness in The Messenger, as he starts to show his cracks; and Sergey Makovetsky for 12, who saves his character from the usual high-minded, tension-deflating nobility by broadcasting more doubts and hinting at more potential motives behind his contrarianism. Admittedly, that might be a lead part, but he mixes beautifully with that florid Russian ensemble.

My next rung of contenders were haunted Ciro Patrone, quietly trying to beat the mob in Gomorrah, Red West's cranky but cliché-free work as a virtual co-lead in Goodbye, Solo, Fabrizio Rongione's inscrutable agent in Lorna's Silence, Rupert Friend's brittly appealing and very affectionate Albert in The Young Victoria, and Clifton Collins, so lived-in and humane in Sunshine Cleaning, and just waiting for the movie to lean more heavily on his character.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Angels in America

I struggle with the HBO adaptation of Angels in America because the play means a lot to me, and especially given all the money that was clearly made available to this project, I wish it were a richer, more thoughtful production. Perestroika in particular brims with missed opportunities, though the heavy re-writing only further proves that Kushner has never quite settled on a design for that half of the play (though chaos is clearly an indispensable element). I can see that Nichols and his designers have played up the "staginess" of several interiors so as to keep the project rooted in a sense of theatricality, but a lot of the cinematic embellishments and CGI effects feel too slick and two-dimensional, when the play clearly benefits from as much tangibility as you can bring to it. I'd love to see what John Greyson or Robert Lepage or somebody might have done with the material. Still, it's hard to imagine a really bad production, and this one certainly isn't, because the core text is just so provocative, ambitious, imaginatively drawn, and beautifully written.

I'm picking this image less as the "best" than as a kind of emblem for my feelings. I'm not sure Angels needed this new scene that Kushner wrote for Perestroika, and it feels like a somewhat desperate opening-out of the physical space. I'm not a huge fan of natural location photography with a project like this anyway, since the whole text is constructed as a series of artificial problems and conceits laid over the very real nightmares of our history and our current reality. The beach here feels so ...domesticated, in a play that thrives on fantasy and fire. At the same time, I do appreciate the dynamic of this scene, not just because you see Joe Pitt getting recklessly invested in a relationship he barely understands—and at the same time you're feeling Louis Ironson starting to pull out of it—but because Angels in America is always telling us that denuding ourselves does not pare us down to essentials but in fact exposes our complexities. That in opening yourself to the world of sexuality you inevitably create a storm of debris, big or small, and that somebody else will have to pick it all up, now or later.

From a visual standpoint, in a miniseries that takes playful but earnest care to consider all the characters' potential relations to the angelic, I like how the foamy line of surf hits Patrick Wilson's body just where a tufted set of wings might go. The story, the dialogue, and the bulk of the shots make this Joe's scene, which is fine with me, since I think Wilson gives the best performance in the cast, in the play's most potentially opaque role. But visually, as Joe begins to strip down, we also recognize that it's really Louis's turn to wrestle, Jacob-like, with the naked angel—whatever an "angel" might mean to Louis, or to us, at this point in the piece. The shot and the scene are like a cold parallel to Emma Thompson's magnificent arrivals to Louis's HIV-infected boyfriend, Prior. Joe looms above with a kind of majesty that Wilson's body, the best one that a court of appeals lawyer ever had, only reinforces. Louis, like Prior, crouches below in a panic. This Louis-as-Prior doubling, despite the annoying fact of how the miniseries rejects a lot of the other doublings that the playscript demands, only intensifies insofar as this gray, cruddy beach with the jagged stumps at the shoreline and the capsized hulk on the horizon is like a downscale, mundane precursor of the chilly, magnificent wreck called Heaven that Prior is soon to visit.

If anything, though, it is Joe who is the hapless, Prior-like innocent in this relationship, and Louis who is the flighty, schizophrenic, Angelic agent/invader who likes to think he is a victim. In fairness, Louis does suffer. But nonetheless, the brief, visual confusion of roles in this shot strongly implies that this relationship won't work out.

So, a lot of resonant stuff going on in this otherwise simple shot, though it still feels like the viewer and the play have to do a lot of their own thinking to keep the image and the movie interesting. HBO's vision of Angels is nothing if not concepty but it barely if ever registers as intellectual, a category that the play fully embraces but which Nichols' movie avoids like a kind of ...virus? That's my reaction in a nutshell to this made-for-TV Angels, which I always feel like I'm either overestimating or underestimating. If Patrick's just taking off his clothes in a last-ditch attempt to convert me to the cause, what can I do about that? Let him try.

P.S. I would like to add a few more runner-up shots. Like Nathaniel, I am totally in love with Jeffrey Wright's physical vocabulary as Belize, whom he plays very differently than he did in his Tony-winning take on the same character for Broadway. I like this shot not only because Belize just cracks me up with all his heavy-lidded, low-volume, but prissily catlike gestures, but because I always wonder how much Wright might have felt like Belize, trapped in a play that pretends to have a lot to say about race (and, like Louis, it occasionally does have something to say) but delivers a lot less than it promises. Does Wright ever wish he could just signal the waitress, grab his check, and get outta there? It'd be Belize's best option for finding a private life or an orgasm, since even Hannah Pitt beats him to both. (Also, love those Ann Roth costumes.)

I'm including these three shots of Emma Thompson—the we-get-it, she's-a-religious-icon halo shot, the worthy showstopper that ends Part One, and the Goth-queen hurricane she whips up in Part Two—because even though I felt while watching Angels that Emma could have been more confident with her character work (outside of her marvelously dykey, warm but gruff take on Nurse Emily), I think the piece ultimately benefits from her balls-to-the-wall spirit of exaggeration and risk. You'd not have imagined Margaret Schlegel doing this, and if you fast-forward through Angels instead of actually watching it, she seems like the biggest incentive for a re-watch. I'll certainly take her any day over Mary-Louise Parker, who can always find new opportunities for empty, adenoidal "irony" in virtually any part. The entire HBO version misses Harper so badly, from script to performance, that it's too sad to dwell on.

And lastly, since it's one of the few shots that suggests what Angels might look like with a Tarkovskian sense of cold, stately, unreassuring divinity blowing through it, I'll admit that this shot triggers fantasies of what a totally different film might have looked like. I'm more reconciled to this version than I'm sounding in this post, but I like it best when it prompts celestial visions of other, more persuasively millennial approaches.

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2009 Honorees: Best Actress

Those of you who have pieced together that my Twitter account is the only reliable place to find me during this very busy summer and fall have already heard me acknowledge that I couldn't well move forward with my usual mid-year progress report of favorites without at least some quick tips of the hat to the cream of last year's movie crop. All of my End-of-Decade hoopla usurped all the time and energy I would have needed to single them out at the proper moment. But, in case you're still wondering where I wound up by year's end, I'm at last coughing up some very quick overviews.

It's cheating a little to start with Best Actress, since it's the one category where you may already know the names of my five champion causes from 2009. But nonetheless, at Twitter length, my late-arriving bouquets belong to...

ABBIE CORNISH for Bright Star, because she found a way to make Fanny potent and smart but not quite prodigious, a bit blunt around the edges but vibrant at her core;

TILLY and MAGGIE HATCHER for Beeswax, because they know every damn thing about these spunky, aching, complex but quotidian women, and they don't need Big Scenes to show it;

CATALINA SAAVEDRA for The Maid, because her ferocious agitation is sympathetic and unnerving, without any overplaying, and she still finds room for surprising vulnerability;

GABOUREY SIDIBE for Precious, because her spirit and voice are on full lockdown, but instead of fancying herself a butterfly, she plays an inchworm, slowly making her way; and

TILDA SWINTON for Julia, because she's a one-woman China syndrome, but she makes you feel the weird, graceless athleticism required to be this drunk, and this crazy.

Extremely honorable mention to Kim Ok-vin in Thirst, who bounded into a vampire-crazed moment in pop culture and acted so bold, bruised, wicked, and wronged that she felt utterly one-of-a-kind.

My next rung of contenders were quiet, tense Arta Dobroshi in Lorna's Silence, loose and insouciant Meryl Streep in It's Complicated, proud but humiliated Hiam Abbass in Lemon Tree, and two indelible teenagers: Ellen Page, who blossoms but not without paying some costs in the delectable Whip It, and the much-maligned but very affecting Kristen Stewart, who conjures a hideous self-contempt and a narcotized boredom in Adventureland while still projecting an attractive, low-frequency charisma that allows the story to work.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Back in the Trenches

When I start writing one thing, I start writing everything, but you all know that by now. Still hard at work on my book manuscript, from which I thought I was just taking a 145-minute break in order to watch James Cameron's The Abyss for the first time. I didn't expect to still feel gripped by the experience a full day later, especially since the movie is flawed enough that you'd expect its force to be blunted a bit. But I still haven't shaken it off, mostly despite the movie's missteps but also, in some interesting ways, because of them. And when that happens, this happens.

If you're a fan of the movie, or you're just interested to read more, I'd point you toward Antagony & Ecstasy's typically thought-provoking review, written as part of the James Cameron retrospective he completed in the weeks leading up to Avatar.

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Showgirls

Even without looking back at Showgirls, as per Nathaniel's instructions for this new feature, I can tell you that this is my favorite shot. Whenever I hear about anyone sabotaging anyone in real life, I think about this image. Whenever I hear the phrase "lost her marbles," I think about this image. Whenever I almost slip on the sidewalk in the winter in Chicago, which happens a lot, I think about this image. It's not my favorite moment in Showgirls, which unquestionably involves the full-bodied heaving of ketchup onto a heap of French Fries and – in answer to a completely innocent and rational question from a friendly stranger – the explosively pouty line-reading, "Different! PLACES!!!"

But this is my favorite shot.

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