Thursday, December 31, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
Despite some top shelf effects, James Cameron's Avatar is shockingly underwhelming. Yes, the effects are brilliant, but film cannot live by effects alone. So the movie surrounding the effects? Overlong, pedestrian and forgettable.
Avatar is set in 2154 on the far-off moon of Pandora, where the plants glow like a blacklight painting, mountains float in midair and a race of giant blue Smurf-cat natives, the Na'vi, live indigenously on the land. The humans are on Pandora to mine a valuable mineral called unobtanium, but the Na’vi live on the largest deposit of said silly-named mineral and show no signs of moving.
In order to move about Pandora, human scientists have genetically engineered human-Na'vi hybrids called avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine who arrives on Pandora to replace his murdered twin brother as an avatar operator. Using his avatar, Jake inadvertently infiltrates the Na'vi clan via an oddly sexy Smurf-cat, Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), who, at the behest of her mother, teaches Jake the ways of the Na'vi. This, of course, makes Jake an undercover agent for the marines, and, of course, of course, he starts to become conflicted as to where his loyalties lie: to the marines who want information, or to the Na'vi and Neytiri.
Now, let's talk about the effects first. Like I said, they're top shelf. Yes, they're game-changing, jaw-dropping, astounding, all that. The giant Smurf-cats look photo-real. And the hovering mountains and vistas are breathtaking. And the CGI creatures look believable: their skin glistens with sweat and they don't look backlit like most CGI creations. If you must see it, absolutely see it in IMAX 3D, since there's no reason to watch this on a television set.
Okay, enough of the effects. Let's now talk about, y'know, the film itself.
What bothers me about Avatar isn't the story. The whole point of big budget blockbuster fare is that the story is supposed to be simple and familiar. What bothers me is the storytelling. If the movie's going to be such a by-the-numbers tale (and this really is just a rehashing of Dances With Wolves mixed with a bit of Ferngully and Pochahontis), it needs some clarity and personal flare, and Avatar has neither.
I didn't find it remotely moving or touching. For such a long movie, the characters and story felt oddly thin and underdeveloped. The entire middle section feels like a 50-minute montage. There isn't a single character in this movie that I cared about. The love story between Jake and Neytiri feels rushed and perfunctory. The politics of the film are also intelligence-insultingly reductive (Corporations BAD! Military force BAD! Nature GOOD!).
It also felt like crucial elements to the story are missing. Why is this unobtanium so important? Sure, we're told it's worth a lot, but why? Plus, what are the rules of the avatar? If the avatar is killed, does the person operating it get killed? We're never really told or shown (well, we kind of are in the tail end of the movie...kind of...I think). And seriously, if we're going to go through the trouble of watching Jake learn the language of the Na'vi, why does he spend 99.9% of his time only speaking English to this race that clearly speaks English just fine?
You may be saying I shouldn't worry about these sorts of things and just go along for the ride. I agree: I shouldn't worry about these sorts of things. But since I am, this is the fault of the filmmaker, not the audience member.
I know, I know. I should be wowed by the effects alone. And yes, let me repeat: the special effects are amazing. But with such films as the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong or even the original Star Wars available, shouldn't we expect more from our "rules-changing" spectacle films? Are we just wowed by pretty pictures alone, no matter how sloppy and reductive the film itself is?
At the end of it all, Avatar feels like an impressive demo reel that goes on for far too long.
James "Meh" Comtois
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Happy Holidays, Everybody!
Well, gang. I'm off for New Hampshire. I'll see you all in 2010. Have wonderful holidays and a happy new year!
Dashing through the snow,
James "Husky" Comtois
Little Jimmy's Top 50 Films of the Decade (Part Two)
For the introduction and entries 26-50, click here.
25. Requiem For a Dream
(Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
I swear, watching the almost unbearable final 30 minutes of Aronofsky's brutal and stylized portrait of four junkies being thoroughly eaten alive by addiction (make that Addiction) makes me feel like my heart is in a giant vice. The first time I saw Requiem For a Dream a small part of me wanted to bolt out of the theatre, but since a.) I couldn't breathe or move and b.) couldn't "abandon" these characters, and c.) I was just as stunned as I was horrified by what I was watching, I did not. What an amazing and intense movie, possibly one of the most visually stunning, accurate and relentlessly bleak films about addiction ever. But definitely not for the squeamish.
24. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
(Judd Apatow, 2005)
Although Judd Apatow has become a superstar in the past couple years, producing and/or writing something like 80 comedies a year (okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but still), to date, he's only directed three feature films, two of which (the overrated Knocked Up and the touchingly personal Funny People) I've found deeply flawed for different reasons. His debut film, however, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is his one film I not only find hysterically funny from beginning to end, but a film that grows on me more and more with each subsequent viewing. Although Apatow's never been known for slim editing, Virgin, although long for a dick joke-centered comedy, doesn't wear out its welcome for me the way his other films do (as much as I liked Funny People, I have to admit I was repeatedly checking my watch during the final hour).
23. High Fidelity
(Stephen Frears, 2000)
Of course a film with characters listing their "Top Five" everythings would be on my Top 50 films list. Clearly High Fidelity is way up my alley. John Cusack (who co-wrote the screenplay) is perfectly cast as Rob, who plays the sad sack record store owner/Peter Pan-esque fanboy like an older and spiritually broken Lloyd Dobbler (his lovable nonconformist character in Say Anything). Director Stephen Frears & Co. transplanted Nick Hornby's British novel about a thirtysomething record store owner dealing with his recent breakup (and thereby all of his Top Five breakups) from London to Chicago yet kept the book's essence, which accurately portrays how guys think ("No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than sex you are having with Ian...in my head."). This is one of those movies I don't think I'll ever tire of watching.
22. Audition (Ôdishon)
(Takashi Miike, 1999/2000)
Takashi Miike's disturbing and unsettling masterpiece about a widower hosting a set of auditions for a phony film to find a new wife is tough to categorize and almost demands little be known about it before watching it. Audition takes its time establishing believable and likable characters, setting up events that go from believable to nightmarish, and steadily building tension to make the final 15 minutes of the film absolutely terrifying. Audition reminded me that I could still be surprised by film.
21. Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2)
(Quentin Tarantino, 2003-2004)
I'm combining Quentin Tarantino's two-part epic mashup action/revenge flick as one entry. With Volume I serving as the first part and Volume II serving as the second, third and fourth parts (as much as I love Vol. I, as it stands alone, it feels more like a spectacular prologue when compared to Vol. II), the whole story taken as one 200-plus-minute film works both as a meticulously-crafted love-letter to the Westerns, Asian martial arts films, revenge movies (a genre that never really caught on in mainstream American film the way it did in Eastern cinema) and grindhouse films Tarantino grew up on as well as an unpretentious ultra-fun action film that holds up on its own with its own mythology (the way Lucas created a unique mythology based solely on spare parts with the original Star Wars).
20. The Incredibles
(Brad Bird, 2004)
The first of Pixar three films on this list. Although it could be argued that all the Pixar films I saw this decade (namely, all of them except for Cars) merit spots on this list, but due to space limitations, I narrowed it down to my top three. In addition to The Incredibles being a damn fun superhero movie (taking its cues from the graphic novel Watchmen and Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," in a family friendly yet non-obnoxious way), it's an astute portrayal of how our current culture champions mediocrity and shuns greatness.
(Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009)
The second Pixar film. That opening prologue? Masterful filmmaking. Simply masterful. Who woulda thunk that a children's movie could convey so much story and pathos in such a short period of time (and without and dialogue) when so many so-called serious adult films can't come even close? People who've been watching these Pixar movies, that's who thunk it.
(Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
What an amazing movie. Based on the BBC miniseries Traffik and released before David Simon's and Ed Burns' seminal television series, The Wire, director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan weave an intricate yet epic tapestry showing virtually all the players in the cocaine-dealing game, from the politicians to the drug kingpins and their wives to the street dealers to the informants to the DEA Agents to the addicts. Yet at no point does it feel either too thin or bloated, and at no point do any of the major characters feel like two-dimensional caricatures or straw men. It's paced and structured beautifully. Like The Wire, it manages to show how much of a fraudulent joke the War on Drugs really is, yet doesn't shy away from showing drugs' destructive effects. And beyond that, it's just masterful and engaging storytelling.
17. INLAND EMPIRE
(David Lynch, 2006)
Rightfully described by one critic as "Mulholland Dr.'s evil twin," David Lynch's most jarring, prickly and perplexing film in decades (which is really saying something) shows the thin membrane separating the Hollywood A-list actress and the Polish streetwalking prostitute. This is a film I found (even as a dyed-in-the-wool Lynch fan) hard to sit through upon my first viewing, yet a movie that festered within my thoughts for months after seeing it in the theatre. As Manohla Dargis wrote, it was one of the few films to come out in 2006 that deserved to be called art.
16. Where the Wild Things Are
(Spike Jonze, 2009)
I loved Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 10-sentence children's book. It's simply a delightful and amazing film that stays true to the vision of the original book as well as to Jonze's. I loved the way Max acts like a real nine-year-old boy. I loved the overall lack of typical Hollywood film plot. I loved the acting in it. I loved how the movie doesn't engage in your typical stupid Hollywood moralizing. I loved this movie. I'm so glad it was released.
15. Inglourious Basterds
(Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Simultaneously gonzo and restrained, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II/spaghetti western/foreign drama/revenge fantasy mashup is his best film since Pulp Fiction. Inglourious Basterds is an excellent showcase for Tarantino's strengths as a filmmaker: seemingly inconsequential fun popcorn entertainment with undertones of genuine substance and pathos.
14. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)
(Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
Although I'm not really wild about her reviewing work, I think Salon.com film critic Stephanie Zacharek hit the nail on the head when she wrote that director Guillermo Del Toro was "one of the few young filmmakers working in the mainstream who actually has any vision, as opposed to just a knack for dreaming up cool effects." This stunning and haunting fairy tale about a young girl in fascist Spain conjuring a fantasy world for herself to cope with the horrors of her life. It's geared for adults (it earns it's R-rating) yet still has a childlike sense of wonder and fantasy. It also shows the power and importance of fantasy in a real world bereft of hope or joy. It has true vision, as well as some very cool effects.
13. Children of Men
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Like District 9, Alfonso Cuarón's dystopic science fiction film (based very loosely on a novel by P.D. James) gets to have its cake and eat it, too, by offering very thoughtful science fiction and intense action-packed sci-fi. Those action sequences alone, particularly the one in the car (done all in one take), damn near alone make the movie worth watching, but those amazing action sequences only augment an already compelling narrative (they’re not the film's raison d’être). This is the way the world ends: not from a lack of oil, or water, or even from mankind’s inability to reproduce. It’s simply the knowledge that the cycle of life will not continue that creates pandemonium and the dissolution of civilization.
12. The Wrestler
(Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Although many people would rank Requiem For a Dream as Aronofsky's best work (hey, I put it on the list), The Wrestler had a far greater and longer-lasting impact on me. Maybe it's because I'm a big softie that has a soft-spot for down-on-their-luck
losers underdogs. Mickey Rourke didn't just portray has-been wrestler Randy "The Ram," he is Randy. I can't imagine anyone else in that role. (Considering the Oscars are always useless, and proved themselves to be especially so this past year, so it's dumb of me to complain about this, but yes, Rourke was absolutely robbed.) In many ways, The Wrestler is as raw and intense as Requiem (albeit not as relentlessly bleak), but really humane and, in its own odd way, heartwarming. At least, as heartwarming a movie where the protagonist may be committing suicide in the end can be.
(Andrew Stanton, 2008)
The third Pixar film on this list is actually several clicks above the other two for a reason. Not that it's necessarily much better than Up or The Incredibles, but ultimately WALL-E had a substantially larger emotional impact on me. I'm always impressed with the genuinely adult sensibilities that the Pixar films have (rather than many other children's films that merely sneak in raunchy jokes), and was amazed at its truly bitingly satirical take on humanity. Yet despite its well-deserved bitch-slap towards us lazy, waste-spewing, planet-destroying, consumerist humans, the film's ultimate faith in humanity and happy ending (hey, this is still a kids film, after all) doesn't feel false or shoehorned. It's about humanity's folly, not crime, and posits that we people can get our acts together, even though it may take a long, long, long time. (And like with Let The Right One In, if you can see this on Blue Ray, do yourself the favor.)
And now, dear readers, we get to the Top Ten Films...
(Christopher Nolan, 2000)
I remember being utterly hooked and absorbed from frame one from Nolan's daylight noir about a detective/avenging vigilante with short-term memory loss trying to find the man who raped and murdered his wife when I first saw it in the theatre. Deploying a "tell the story backwards" method (deployed a few times before, most memorably in Harold Pinter's play, Betrayal, but for different means) kept me engaged all throughout, something I can't often say about 99% of most movies I see (often, I find my attention waning and my eyes wandering towards my watch towards the middle to end of the second act). Nearly a decade (and countless re-viewings) later, Memento still hasn't lost its ability to hook me in from beginning to end. But for me, it's not just about the structure, as superb as it is; or the puzzle, as fun as it is to contemplate. For me, it does what all great noir does best: show ordinary people's capability for extraordinary evil. The way normal people delude and misguide themselves to do what they want; the way
they we internally justify immoral behavior to ourselves; and how we need personal goals and missions (make that Missions) to keep ourselves sane and retain our identities. Our memories are a huge building block to our identities, so what happens once that's taken away?
9. The Dark Knight
(Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Bringing the high watermark for what we can expect, if not demand, from our summer blockbuster entertainments. With his sequel to his franchise-rebooting Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan elevates the stakes of the superhero movie to that of an epic Shakespearean tragedy. It's the best superhero movie ever made (and I'm saying this as someone who grew up on Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie). More aesthetically connected to Heat and The Departed than to Iron Man or, well, Batman, The Dark Knight has the gritty look and feel of being in the real world instead of a comic book reality (its Gotham City is unmistakably Chicago). It eschews the simple Good vs. Evil paradigm found in all other superhero stories to tell a story about the consequences of adhering to a rigid moral code. It deals with characters making dubious choices for the "greater good" and is unafraid of getting into ethically murky waters (those who think that this film unequivocally approves of wire-tapping or believes that might makes right need to put their heads on their desks, take a deep breath, count to 10, then re-watch it). It makes the audience uncertain as to what will happen next (I didn't think any of the characters -- even Bruce Wayne -- were "safe"). It has amazing action sequences. And oh, yes: it has, from the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, one of the best performances in a film, ever.
8. Waking Life
(Richard Linklater, 2001)
As many of us no doubt remember, 2001 ended up being a real bummer of a year, to put it mildly. The terrorist attacks had happened, but added to that, our shitty President looked as though he was going to use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to kickstart his shitty Nixonian Empire. And added to this, nobody seemed to have a problem with this. I had no choice but to conclude in the end of 2001 that the human race was an infestation of hateful retards, eager to shut off their brains and just let fascism take over with simple-minded propaganda. (That midtown New York in 2002 looked like the militarized zone of a third world dictatorship, with troops holding automatic weapons bigger than them at the train stations didn't help, either.) Thank God I saw Linklater's dreamtastic, thoughtful, thought-provoking Waking Life just before the year's end, which reminded me there was hope in humanity yet. Not to sound pedantic or reductive, but Linklater's film is a love-letter to thinking, and reveals the joys in contemplating different philosophies and worldviews. And still, it accomplishes this without being insufferably pretentious or impenetrable. And might I add, with the rotoscoping technique this film uses, it's simply a delight to watch. Hey, with movies like this coming out, there may be hope for humanity yet.
7. No Country For Old Men
(Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2007)
I thought the Coen Brothers, masterful filmmakers who are sometimes too clever for their own good, made some very good -- and very so-so -- films this decade, but only No Country For Old Men did it for me the way their previous masterpieces (Fargo, Blood Simple, even The Big Lebowski) did. With Tommy Lee Jones' mournful opening voiceover narration set to images of the landscape, the Coen Brothers are repeating themselves...except...not really. The opening evokes the opening of earlier films, yet their typical sense of irony has been removed. Which isn't to say it's not funny; the Coens' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's book about a relentless psychopathic killer hunting down the man who stole
his his employer's money is very funny (as well as tense, thrilling, scary and depressing). The movie has the perfect blend of McCarthy's and the Coen's styles. Many people called this a perfect film. I wouldn't say that (simply because I don't believe in such things). But it may be a perfect book-to-film adaptation. And it's perfectly paced. And perfectly cast. But quixotic debate about perfection aside, it's one of the best films to come out in the past 10 years.
6. Ghost World
(Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Terry Zwigoff & Daniel Clowes' Ghost World is probably more in sync with how I see the world than any other film. Good lord, I understand too well when Steve Buscemi's character Seymour goes, "I can't relate to 99% of humanity." (Some friends and colleagues of mine often wonder why I date so rarely. Just pop in this movie and let it serve as my answer.) I often don't know whether to laugh or to cry or to tremble with rage when the ragtime blues guitarist plays to an apathetic room ("They could at least turn off the game while he plays!") yet "Blueshammer" (a shitty "blues" band consisting of white frat boys in mullets) brings the house down. Ghost World earns its deep-rooted, unironic misanthropy, and amazingly isn't glib about it: the movie calls Enid on her bullshit and Seymour is fully aware that his problems with the world are his, not the other way around. For good or for bad, even when I feel like I can't relate to 99% of humanity, I always relate to this film.
5. Mulholland Dr.
(David Lynch, 2001)
What started as a pilot for a television drama for ABC (!!!) turned out to be David Lynch's best, and most defining (dare I say, Lynchian) film of his to-date. I agree whole-heartedly with Roger Ebert when he wrote that Mulholland Dr. is the film Lynch has been working toward all of his career. Ebert writes: "He takes what was frustrating in some of his earlier films, and instead of backing away from it, he charges right through." And since I'm a huge Lynch fan, and I consider this his best film (yes, it's even better than Eraserhead or Blue Velvet), of course this makes it into the Top Five. Whether it's a death dream from a down-on-her-luck actress plagued with guilt for having her ex-girlfriend killed, a meditation on the "before" and "after" effects Hollywood (both as abstract idea and as real-world town and industry) has on the individual, or an examination of the artifice of movies ("There is no band"), or a completely non-narrative free-for-all on whatever's floating around in Lynch's head, this gorgeously shot, confounding, compelling and viscerally charged film shows us the powerful grip movies have on our imaginations, for good or for bad. Not to mention it introduced the talents of Naomi Watts to the greater world.
4. Synecdoche, New York
(Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut may put some folks off, but it's a movie that, like Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, haunted me for months after I first saw it and like INLAND EMPIRE, Synecdoche, New York is a true work of art. It's hard to put into words how much Kaufman's film affected -- and continues to affect -- me, but I'll try. It's one of the few films that conveys how we, all of us, live our lives: how we don different personas and personalities over time, how we compartmentalize the people and events in our lives, how we shed the bits of our fabricated personality as we grow older, how we hide behind artifice, how death is inevitable and life is short and fleeting, how we retrench into our minds as things don't go our way. Despite its seeming bleak and hopeless tone, this film gives me a great deal of comfort and gave -- and continues to give -- me a better understanding of my life and the world around me.
3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
(Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
As if I could choose which one of Peter Jackson's three films was the best of the bunch (or hog two more slots on this list, let alone rank them). They're all great and all part of one great story (even J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one big book). Apparently there's now some backlash against the three films, which baffles me. (Okay, that's a little disingenuous. I get it, in the way that all critically-acclaimed blockbusters get a negative revisionist stance from critics and audiences.) Just as I'm not on the hater bandwagon with Lost in Translation, I never even once considered to join said bandwagon for The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King aren't just the pinnacles of special effects (although they certainly are; I'll even assert that I prefer the look of these films to that of James Cameron's Avatar, since they blend the best of new technology [CGI] with old-school effects [miniatures] and creative and practical innovation [forced perspective]), but also wonderful examples of characterization and storytelling, exemplified by Gollum (who's both a marvel of special effects as well as an emotionally complex character; both heartbreaking and repugnant, sympathetic and vile). The first time a bunch of us watched the nearly four-hour extended edition of Fellowship, Patrick described watching it as a "feast." I couldn't have put it better myself.
2. Punch-Drunk Love
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
When I first saw Paul Thomas Anderson's thoroughly amazing oddball movie, I felt like I was watching a movie made specifically for me. That feeling hasn’t changed during subsequent viewings. Though having loved his previous three films, Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson's first film where he seems to come out from under the shadows of his influences (Scorsese, Altman, Demme) and stands on his own with a cinematic voice that's all his own. There are so many emotionally charged scenes in this film where you don’t quite know what you’re feeling: it’s simultaneously funny, creepy and sad when Adam Sandler’s novelty plunger-peddling Barry Egan confides to his brother-in-law that he spontaneously cries, then…spontaneously cries. I don’t know if there’s been a character I’ve empathized with more than Barry. I remember, while watching it the first time, sharing Barry's rage and frustration in the scene at the phone kiosk asking his sister for Emily Watson's number, angrily thinking, "Give him the fucking number," a few seconds before Sandler hisses, "Give me the fucking number!" (Mildly embarrassing personal aside: at the time the film had come out, I was getting several increasingly angry calls a day from collection agencies, so the numerous threatening calls Barry has to brush off from the phone sex girl hit way too close to home for me.) It's so off-the-wall yet so true to life. And, that screaming fight over the phone between Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman is damn near worth the price of admission alone.
...and the Number One Film of the Decade is...
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(Michel Gondry, 2004)
Yes, I'm apparently going with the general critical consensus on this one. No, I don't care. Why? That's simple: I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best film I saw during the decade. It's really difficult to encapsulate why I love Eternal Sunshine so much beyond offering technical and structural superlatives (Charlie Kaufman's script is amazing, Michel Gondry's directing work is astounding, Jon Brion's score is one of his best, the acting, including the best performance of Jim Carrey's career, is great) and explaining how well it executes its brilliant themes (the connection between memory and identity, the subjective nature of life, how we need people to help establish and define ourselves, and how that need simultaneously hinders our identities as much as solidifies them). I could go on about how intellectually stimulating it is as well as viscerally compelling and emotionally devastating it is. I could go on about how it's also one of those films that felt like it was made specifically for me (I don't think I've ever seen any film encapsulate "the Dining Dead" aspect of a relationship so succinctly). I could mention that, like many great works of art, the film takes the personal and makes it universal (something Kaufman is masterful at). I could bring up that it defined this decade of movie-going for me (I often see many films, before and after, through the lens of Eternal Sunshine, including such films as disparate as The Station Agent, Memento, Mulholland Dr. and even other films Kaufman's worked on, like Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York) I could also get into how, despite the unique quirks, problems and peaks that Joel and Clementine display as a couple, their relationship (and breakup) is something that virtually anyone watching can relate to. But I think a capsule can only scratch the surface of how much this movie means to me, or how much it apparently means to many, many other people. So how about I just close by saying it's all those things, and much more, and end with a prosaic fanboy question: holy shit, isn't Eternal Sunshine the best film you saw this decade? (Cue the open floodgates of contrarian snark here. I don't really care.)
Monday, December 21, 2009
Little Jimmy's Top 50 Films of the Decade (Part One)
Well, as I had said I would, I decided to compile my favorite films from the decade, come up with some arbitrary ranking system, and post it in two sections. Below is the bottom half, in ascending order. I plan to post the top 25 tomorrow.
While compiling my list, I came across this, which either reveals me to be tapping into the zeitgeist (heh, heh) or being wholly unoriginal or incapable of independent thought. Well, you should probably be forewarned that there were many instances where I didn't go against the grain with the common critical consensus of many films that came out this decade, and the instances where I did may seem a bit...odd. Or ultra pedestrian. It's tough to say. (Maybe it's not for me to say.)
I think it goes without saying that compiling such a list is such an odd exercise. The comparisons and editorial decisions one must make end up being borderline perverse. (How did Audition end up being right next to High Fidelity? And what criteria made one above the other?) I really have no satisfying answers to such questions about the overall ranking. It may be safe to say that I like whatever's at the #36 spot just as much as whatever's at the #37 spot; just for radically different reasons.
Now let's talk about some of the movies that aren't on the list. First off, let's face it: I haven't seen several critically lauded films of the decade, like The Lives of Others, I'm Not There, I've Loved You So Long and City of God (to name a few out of many). There are also a few "Oscar bait" films that just came out that I've yet to see. Yes, I am ashamed. And yes, I'll get around to seeing them. (In fact, I will admit that, although there are some foreign films here and there, my list is very U.S.-centric.)
Then there are films that I have seen that have been lauded and put on many "best of" lists that I flat-out didn't like (or at least, wasn't wild about), like There Will Be Blood, The Royal Tenenbaums, Dogville, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or Knocked Up. Nope. Sorry, folks. Didn't care for them. They didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of making the Top 50, let alone the Top 100.
Then there were films that I thought were just fine but still didn't have any shot of making the list, like Munich, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Almost Famous. I mean, these are fine films that I really enjoyed. Just...not even remotely enough to consider them for the list.
And finally, there are some films that very, very regrettably, didn't make the cut, which I suspect will bemuse many of my readers, to put it mildly. As much as I enjoyed these films, when push came to shove, I couldn't find room for Half Nelson, Far From Heaven, Snow Angels or Grizzly Man. They actually were on early drafts of the list, but slowly and steadily got pushed out (even after doing a little cheating by combining some sequels and trilogies into one slot). This may bemuse readers even more when they see some of the films that did make the list. So how about we consider these movies Honorable Mentions?
(I know the absence of these movies and others will no doubt make some of the movies that did make the list fill you, dear reader, with a mixture of pity and contempt for me. Hell, you may already be feeling that sad mix for Yours Truly while realizing I just admitted that I liked Snow Angels better than Munich. Such are the rules of the game when one tries to compile any such list as this one. I'm braced for your ridicule.)
As for what's on the list...well, see for yourself. Like with all "best of" lists, they say less about the films than they do about the person compiling the list.
And finally, a word on the commentary. I intended to post a paragraph of commentary for each film, then realized that would be retarded. For a top 10 list, sure. For 50 freakin movies? That's going to take a while. So, for now, I'm just presenting the list, then in early 2010, I'll slowly and steadily add a brief commentary for each movie. How long will it take? Who the hell knows? But for now, you'll just get the list.
Okay. Enough stalling. Here it is.
50. The Squid and the Whale
(Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Already, I know a few of my regular readers will be dismayed to find this 1908s period piece about the divorce of two Brooklyn intellectuals on my list. Many saw this as a tiresome and manipulative melodrama. I however, saw it as a painful portrayal of familial relationships experiencing total collapse: that point where family members are downright hateful and vicious toward one another (exemplified when the younger son tells his mother he’s upset that he has her features, because he thinks she’s ugly). Noah Baumbach’s quasi-autobiographical film is one of the most accurate examinations of that communication meltdown among family members.
(John Carney, 2006)
This musical-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-musical about a busking Irish musician and an Eastern European woman meeting then working together to write and record songs about their unconsummated love is a sweet and sad delight from beginning to end. When the credits rolled I was sad that we were done with these two. Plus, the music’s really, really good.
48. Together (Tillsammans)
(Lukas Moodysson, 2000)
Lukas Moodysson’s comedy-drama (which really nails the perfect blend of that oxymoronic genre) about a modern-day commune in Stockholm manages to poke fun at its characters without mercilessly mocking them. Even some of the most contemptible characters are portrayed with sympathy and respect. Like Once, Together charmed the hell out of me and comes very close to becoming cloying without ever crossing that line.
(Greg Mottola, 2009)
There are many details, big and small, that Adventureland gets just right. The bonds made between co-workers at a demeaning customer service job. The way the staff undermines the petty rules and policies of the job. The makeout sessions in the back seats of car that result in disappointment and rejection the morning after. The sadistic cruelty of being forced to listen to the same damn song 20 times a day. Writer-director Greg Mottola expands the coming-of-age theme he used to good comic effect in his debut film Superbad to make a sincerely touching, funny and honest film about being young, falling in love and the indignities and delights of getting your first incredibly shitty job.
46. The Puffy Chair
(Jay Duplass, 2005)
One of the first films of the hatefully named "mumblecore" movement (Christ, I hate that term, yet still I use it) and a film my sister and I strenuously disagree over. A couple having problems goes on a road trip to work things out between each other (as well as to buy a present for the boyfriend's dad), then brings the boyfriend's brother along, adding unneeded tension. Emotionally honest and complex, the acting and writing make everything about this ultra low-budget film feel like you’re watching real people talking spontaneously. Hell, most documentaries don't feel this natural.
45. Funny Ha Ha
(Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
Another entry in the so-called "mumblecore" subgenre (see? I used the word again!) that blew me away with how well it portrayed the awkward and fumbling way people in their 20s with feelings—or lack thereof—for one another interact. Although seemingly improvised (and some may argue lazily improvised), the excessive "yeah, well's," and "it's like...I dunno's" are very deliberate. We're watching very astute and hyper-self-aware characters constantly at a loss for words precisely because they're so astute and self-aware. And it's astounding to see a phone conversation between two people who use no complete sentences and don’t raise their voices be so intense and crushing.
44. Head-On (Gegen die Wand)
(Fatih Akın, 2004)
Written and directed by a German-Turk that deals with the cultural clash of east versus west, old versus new, Head-On turns the obnoxious romantic comedy genre on its ear with two people who meet the exact opposite of cute (they "meet gross," I suppose). In fact, on the two characters' first "date" (they meet in an institution after both of them survived failed suicide attempts), the woman, Sibel, shatters a beer bottle and slices her wrists (the correct way). Although the second half of the film doesn't have the same manic and intense energy of the first, it's necessary to show the protagonists drift apart and proverbially wake up from their romantic idealizations of one another and their relationship.
43. Lost in Translation
(Sofia Coppola, 2003)
This movie got a lot of backlash after heaps of praised were piled upon it. I still think it’s great. Maybe that’s because I think Bill Murray is amazing and can do no wrong. Well, he is amazing, can in fact do no wrong, and this is one of his finest -- and warmest -- performances. I particularly loved the brief shot of Murray quietly singing along to the song Scarlett Johansson sings ("Brass in Pocket" by The Pretenders) on karaoke with quiet yet sincere affection.
42. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
(Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Oh, holy hell yes. A young boy being picked on at school gets help with sticking up for himself from his new friend and neighbor, an ancient vampire in the body of a 12-year-old girl. I loved the deliberate pace of the film as well; it took its time telling its story without being dull. It's also gorgeously shot. (If you missed it in the theatres, if you get the chance to watch it on Blue Ray on a hi-definition television, do yourself a favor.) Sweet, funny and terrifying, of course this was one of the best films I saw this past decade.
41. The American Astronaut
(Cory McAbee, 2001)
Good Lord I love this movie. Entertainment Weekly's description of Cory McAbee's low budget sci-fi musical hits the nail on the head: "Imagine a long Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali." I couldn't have put it better myself. Beautifully shot, delightfully silly and wholly imaginative, The American Astronaut, a loving send-up of the midnight movies from the 1950s, was such a wonderful find during the early part of the decade. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing McAbee's follow-up film, Stingray Sam.
40. Before Sunset
(Richard Linklater, 2004)
Making a sequel to Richard Linklater's 1995 film Before Sunrise seemed at first not only unnecessary, but counter-productive and outright tacky. It's precisely the film that doesn't lend itself to answering any type of, "what happens next to these characters?" questions. (Didn't Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's cameos in Waking Life scratch any such itches?) But amazingly, not only does Linklater pull it off, he makes it seem like a necessary companion piece to his previous film. When we were first watching these young idealistic people in the first film, we're now seeing them older, perhaps wiser, and slightly more jaded by life. And it also does answer the questions Before Sunrise poses without feeling like a cheat.
39. District 9
(Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Both "science fiction" and "sci-fi," this film about alien refugees in a Johannesburg shantytown called District 9 both has its cake and eats it, too: delivering a thoughtful allegory for apartheid and a fun shoot-em-up action adventure. This is exactly the type of movie that science fiction geeks (including — if not especially — Yours Truly) have waited to see for years.
38. 25th Hour
(Spike Lee, 2002)
Maybe it took something as horrific as the terrorist attacks on September 11 to make Spike Lee temporarily take the large chip off his shoulder and make a film that shows compassion towards his fellow New Yorkers. (An non-racist Irish-American firefighter in a Spike Lee Joint? Will wonders never cease?) The aftermath of 9/11 looms over 25th Hour, which concerns a drug dealer's last night of freedom before serving a seven year prison sentence. A mournful feeling of loss pervades the film as it conveys in microcosm (Ed Norton's prison-bound character) and macrocosm (New York post-9/11) the metaphorical end of a life, until a spark of hope appears in the end.
(Spike Jonze, 2002)
With their 1999 film Being John Malcovitch, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze made their mark in the feature film world (after working in the land of television writing and music video directing, respectively). And as much as I love that movie (it would probably be on this list if it was released a year later), I think it was their follow-up film, Adaptation, that really solidified their metafictional conceit and Kaufman's recurring writing motifs (in hindsight, Malkovitch feels like a warmup film). Adaptation does a superb job chronicling the screenwriting process and the frustrations inherent to trying to tell an unconventional story (about an orchid thief) in a maddeningly conventional format (feature films). Charlie Kaufman (the character, and presumably the writer) wants to break free of the false tropes in screenwriting while his twin brother (i.e., Kaufman's inner-Pollyanna) wants to write a crowd-pleasing formula film. It's both about adapting an art work from one medium to another but also about "survival of the fittest" in Hollywood as well as Adapting in Life (Title Case Intended).
(Shane Carruth, 2004)
Shane Carruth's low-budget indie film contemplating what would happen if limited time travel was accidentally discovered in the real world did for me what Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko does for its fans. I find Primer compelling, puzzling and genuinely mind-blowing in a way that I don't with Donnie Darko. The low-key scientific jargon that Abe and Aaron mutter to each other throughout the course of the film and the way we're two steps behind two brilliant people who are confused themselves give Primer a sense of authenticity. It's true science fiction, not "sci-fi," and demands multiple viewings that deliver more rewards with each subsequent viewing.
35. The Hurt Locker
(Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)
The opening title card to this enthralling movie tells us that "war is a drug." The film then introduces us to one of its hopeless addicts. Katherine Bigelow's intense and propaganda-free war thriller follows an American bomb-diffusing squad in Iraq and introduces us to James (played masterfully by Jeremy Renner), a reckless yet skilled bomb disposal expert who takes unnecessary risks, much to the dismay of the rest of his team. This movie hooked me in immediately and never let me go until the closing credits, succeeding as both a high-stakes thriller and low-key character study.
34. American Splendor
(Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003)
I'm rarely wild about biopics (with some exceptions, such as this film and Tim Burton's Ed Wood). For one, I agree with Quentin Tarantino when he said that very few lives are interesting from start to finish. Also, there's something lost in translation from watching documentary footage of the subject speaking spontaneously and watching an actor do his or her best to recreate that spontaneous bit of genius. Then, there are the insufferable tropes associated with biopics (the troubled childhood, the strained relationship with family, the rise to stardom, the "I'm famous" montage, the decline to drugs, etc., etc.). Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini's quasi-biopic/quasi-documentary/quasi-comic book adaptation about quasi-famous comic book writer Harvey Pekar bypasses all of those problems by taking just the best parts of the three above-mentioned genres to make a compelling story about someone who's both a "regular Joe" and a brilliant artist. Mixing documentary footage with film recreations staged by actors (with the real Harvey Pekar narrating), the movie's self-conscious attention to its own artifice adds a level of authenticity that wouldn't exist if it were a straight biopic or documentary. Plus, Pekar (as film character, comic book character and real guy) is a really interesting
33. The Station Agent
(Thomas McCarthy, 2003)
I'll admit it: indie-comedy-dramas about quirky outsiders in suburban environs (Garden State, Thumbsucker, 12 and Holding) are like catnip for me. I usually enjoy them on a "comfort food" level even if they're not any good (and often, they're not). But I think I can muster up some sense of objectivity and say that The Station Agent is actually good. Very good, in fact. You'd think this film (about a dwarf who inherits an abandoned train station who moves in to cut himself off from the rest of the world) would be either horribly exploitive or shamelessly maudlin, but it's neither. At its heart, it's about three very lonely people who deal with loneliness in different ways (the titular station agent, a dwarf named Finbar, seeks isolation from the world, while his neighbor Joe is like an overexcited puppy that craves companionship from anyone who comes by, while Olivia seeks a surrogate family to replace the one she believes was taken from her). It may go without saying that the three stars -- Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannivale and Patricia Clarkson -- are excellent, but what the hell, it bears repeating: they are. So's the writing and the directing. And the story. And the environs (hey, this indie-comedy-dramas about quirky outsiders in suburban environs had already had me at "hello").
32. American Psycho
(Mary Harron, 2000)
Although Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' once-reviled novel (mercifully) cuts out some of the more horrifically graphic portions of the book, I remember audience members groaned in dread and disgust more than once when I first saw this in the theatre. Christian Bale's seminal performance as sociopathic and soulless businessman (seriously? What does he actually do? Every time someone comes into his office he's just reading magazines, making dinner reservations, doodling or listening to the latest '80s pap.) Patrick Bateman is utterly compelling and both constantly funny and horrific. The film -- and book -- perfectly exemplifies the cost of needing money, taste and status above all else through the perfect metaphor: Wall Street power executive as serial killer. From the scene where executive whip out their, um, business cards to Bateman's incessant terror of not getting a good seat at the hot restaurant to him obsessing over the production details of the latest pop music, this film shows a world where style and taste way, way, way overshadows anything resembling substance. I have to return some videotapes.
31. 28 Days Later…
(Danny Boyle, 2002)
Taking its cues from George A. Romero's seminal Living Dead films (in particular from Day of the Dead, my favorite of the bunch) yet technically not a zombie movie (the infected can starve to death, and therefore die, and therefore aren't undead), 28 Days Later... is an unpretentious and intense cinematic experience for those who are into that sort of thing (and I suppose I am). And it also serves as a good reminder: hippies screw everything up.
30. Hot Fuzz
(Edgar Wright, 2007)
You can tell that director Edgar Wright, star/co-writer Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost are having the times of their lives playing with every big budget action film trope: high-speed car chases, jumping through windows while shooting their guns sideways and firing their guns up in the air going, "Aaaaaaaah." Both a parody and perfect example of the shoot-em-up films of the past 20 years, Hot Fuzz may be one of the most fun and fun-loving films made in the decade.
29. Shaun of the Dead
(Edgar Wright, 2004)
Another film from Wright & Pegg, and another film blatantly taking its cues from Romero's films (this time Dawn of the Dead), Shaun of the Dead starts out as a bit of a laugh until we find the eponymous Shaun's mother has been bitten by a
zombie ("We don't say that word") neighbor and needs to be shot. Sure, it's more or less a comedy. But unlike the vile and repugnant spoof films by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, this isn't a crass and cynical parody of Romero's films but a technically masterful quasi-parody made with loving care by -- and for -- genuine fanboys. Like Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead was made with love, and it shines through upon viewing.
28. A History of Violence
(David Cronenberg, 2005)
Though possibly his least...Cronenbergian (Hey, if "Lynchian" is a word, so is that)...film since The Dead Zone, A History of Violence still has the Canadian auteur's sticky fingerprints all over it (it's about the connection between physicality -- albeit via physical violence -- and identity). Sweet-natured Tom's altercation with two killers ultimately -- and unfortunately -- reveals his true identity: that of an ultraviolent "reformed" killer named Joey, who's reinvented himself to adapt to small-town country/family life. I particularly found the subplot with the son and the schoolyard bully fascinating. As the son of "Tom," he tries to evade and diffuse conflict. When he finds out he's the son of "Joey," he embraces excessive violence. Such a fascinating and engaging variation on the venerable, "How much of our identities are innate and how much are fabrication?" trope in fiction. And let's not forget William Hurt's fascinatingly oddball/funny/creepy portrayal of mob boss/older brother Richie.
27. The Departed
(Martin Scorsese, 2006)
One of the best films that one of America's best mainstream filmmakers has made in years. In fact, I'll go so far as to say The Departed is Martin Scorsese's best film since his seminal Goodfellas. (To me, Casino learned all the wrong lessons from Goodfellas and overused the device of voiceover narration so much it was insufferably distracting; when I first saw Casino, I almost felt compelled to yell at the screen, "Will you shut up? I’m trying to watch the movie!") With the help of the stellar cast, Scorsese uses what's good and fun about the standard cops-and-robbers/undercover-cop-getting-in-over-his-head genre, but knows that it's believable human behavior, not plot, that creates tension. I'm not wild about the phrase, "instant classic," but fuck it, since the shoe fits, I'll use it: The Departed is an instant classic. Also, if you haven't yet, go see Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film The Departed is based on. Both films are different enough yet actually complement each other really well: it’s fascinating to watch how Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan took the basic elements of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's film and expanded on them to make The Departed both a faithful remake yet its own thing (Infernal Affairs' story is just as entrenched in Hong Kong’s culture, history and geography as The Departed's is in Boston’s).
26. Oldboy (올드보이)
(Park Chan-wook, 2003)
My friend Abe Goldfarb once described this film as “cinematic rape,” and I don’t think he’s too far off. A man is imprisoned for 15 years for reasons and by parties unknown, then let free. He uses his newfound freedom to figure out who imprisoned him, and why. And through the course of this bizarre revenge thriller, we find out the whos and the whys. Oh, boy, do we find out. As Oldboy unfolds, we’re shocked and horrified at the answers that eventually get doled out to us. But we’re also mesmerized by the scenes of low-key drama and compassion its protagonists display to one another, and equally mesmerized by the spectacular fight sequences (which exist to serve the characters and story, not the other way around). This is a film about people consumed with rage and a need for revenge, and shows us how this desire for revenge eats people alive.
(For the top 25, click here.)
I Interview Adam Szymkowicz
After doing a slew of interviews with other playwrights over at his blog, since I was his first interviewee, Adam Szymkowicz asked me to interview him for his 100th entry. So I did.
All about invading other playwright's privacy,
James "Nosey Parker" Comtois
Friday, December 18, 2009
Fighting With Schedule, Fighting On Stage
I'm currently trying to organize my schedule for my last few days here in the city before I leave for New Hampshire for the holidays on Tuesday, and things are definitely coming down to the wire. There are a number of shows I will regrettably not be able to see, about which I'm very bummed.
I was able to catch the very fun Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury from Piper McKenzie Productions last night at the Brick Theater's Fight Fest, which features one fight sequence with Becky Byers as a dragonfly that is itself worth the price of admission alone.
And it also features monkeys. Monkeys fucking. And monkeys fighting.
Seriously, what are you going to do, not see that? Come on.
The Zombie Project: The Story of Icarus Phoenix
Written, Directed and Fight Directed by Stephanie Cox-Williams
A glimpse of what will hopefully be a full-length production in the near future. The Zombie Project: The Story of Icarus Phoenix details the beginning of the zombie attacks and the creation of someone who could be the savior of the world. A girl has to decide if she gives up or if she will use her self-taught skills and wits to overcome the situation into which she's been thrown.
For fun, before sending out my Top 10 List of the year (which I'll be either just before or after New Year's), I'm compiling my Top 50 Films of the Decade, which I'm hoping to post next week in two parts. I just need to get the order right (as if it's really that crucial which movie is in position #32 versus #33). Because I figure what the Internet needs now is yet another list of some sort.
Clogging your browser with inanities,
James "Blathering Soothsayer" Comtois
Thursday, December 17, 2009
A Single Man
On one hand, A Single Man is a much better and more sensitive film than you'd expect from a fashion designer. On the other, it's excruciatingly obvious from every frame that this is a film from a fashion designer. Every shot in this scene looks like a print straight out of Vogue. Even the extras could be models. Hell, they probably are.
In fashion mogul Tom Ford's directorial debut, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, George Falconer is a gay British literature professor teaching at UCLA in the early 1960s and grieving over the sudden death of his lover, who died in a car accident. His best friend, Charley, another British expatriate, is doing her best to cheer him up and, in turn, use George to help mitigate her own loneliness. And meanwhile, one of George's students, Kenny, is trying to make a connection with the sad yet handsome professor.
Colin Firth plays George in a quiet, understated and impeccably groomed performance, as does Julianne Moore with her character, Charley. Nicholas Hoult as the new young potential love interest and Matthew Goode as the newly lost love interest are fine, although their characters aren't very developed. Kenny is little more than a cipher who's shown up to possibly pull George out of his suicidal funk and we only see George's recently departed Jim through rose-colored flashbacks, when the two of them languidly enjoy each others' company in picture-perfect poses or meet cute at a local dive bar.
Still, theses scenes between George and Jim and George and Kenny have a lovely muted and restrained quality to them, as does George’s brief (and tangential) scene where he meets a Spanish Jimmy Dean clone outside a liquor store.
Eduard Grau's cinematography is astounding, with the images switching from monochromes to vibrant colors, depending on George's mood. Sometimes this is distracting, sometimes it's arresting, but at all times it's beautiful.
All throughout the movie characters comment on how terrible Colin Firth looks, when in fact he looks like, well, an airbrushed cover model for GQ. True, the voiceover narration in the opening points out that he uses his meticulously organized wardrobe as a sort of costume to cover up the shell of a person he now is, but still, never has grief and suicidal tendencies looked so...pretty.
Never looking that good, even on good days,
James "Not-So-Hot Mess" Comtois
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Episode Four of Entrenched
Written by James Comtois
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Peter Brown - Rebecca Comtois - Bryan Enk
Mac Rogers - Ben VandenBoom - Merlyn Wolf
Video by Pete Boisvert
Check out all three videos thus far for the series here.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Ladies of Viral Singled Out in Patrick Lee's Year in Review
Congratulations are in order to Amy Lynn Stewart and Kid Sistois for being on Patrick Lee's Year in Review list of the best performances of 2009, for their performances in Mac Rogers' Viral! Huzzah! Very well deserved.
Still telling mom,
James "Tattler" Comtois
Friday, December 11, 2009
The Penultimate Saloon Tonight!
Well, gang. The fourth Saturday Night Saloon of the third season is upon us, going up tonight at the Vampire Cowboys Battle Ranch, featuring six awesome pieces of episodic theatre, including the penultimate episode of Entrenched.
in association with
The Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company
A five-part WWI/Time Travel serial play by James Comtois
Two men fight in the trenches.
One has died twice.
The other is being held in a POW camp in 2009.
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Peter Brown - Rebecca Comtois - Bryan Enk
Mac Rogers - Ben VandenBoom - Merlyn Wolf
As part of the Vampire Cowboys' Saturday Night Saloon.
LET'S NINJA SCIENCE RANGER TEAM GET!
by Dustin Chinn
(Member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab)
directed by Qui Nguyen
by Mac Rogers
(Universal Robots; Viral; Hail Satan)
directed by Jordana Williams
by Crystal Skillman
(The Telling Trilogy; 4 Edges; Birthday)
directed by John Hurley
JACK O'HANRAHAN AND THE TROUBULATION OF DOOM
by Brent Cox
(The Dog & Pony Show)
directed by Padraic Lillis and Courtney Wetzel
LADY CRYPTOZOOLOGIST: SEASON 2
written & directed by Jeff Lewonczyk
(Babylon, Babylon; Macbeth without Words)
Saturday, December 12
at 8 p.m. at the Battle Ranch
405 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn
ADMISSION IS FREE!
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Nosedive Productions One of nytheatre.com's People of the Year!
That's right. Nosedive Productions has been named of nytheatre.com's "People of the Year" for 2009. We here at Nosedive Central are pretty happy 'bout this. And, judging from this list, we're in some very good company indeed.
Congratulations to all the other people of the year. Now, should we all get together and play some big ole' game of celebratory theatrical grab-ass? I think so.
I. Think. So.
Knowing how to celebrate,
James "Winning Personality" Comtois
Clay Talks (Lesser-Known) Horror
Over at Awkward Press, Clay McLeod Chapman offers us a list many of us could use for our Netflix queues: the Top Ten Horror Movies of 2009 That You Probably Didn’t See.
Although I haven't seen many of the movies on this list (and neither have you, so don't act all superior), I have seen a few of them, including the movie on his #1 spot.
(At this point, I'll actually let you read the list before I put in my cent and a half on the entries I've seen. Go on. I'll wait.)
I'm very much with Clay on his assessment of Chan-wook Park’s Thirst (it kinda takes forever to get going, but once it does, the final act makes it all worth the wait). In September, I wrote in my summer movie roundup that the movie has "some stunning imagery...and although it's a bit slow going and not particularly scary, it is a haunting and meditative take on the vampire mythology."
You guys have already read my assessment of the retro-awesomeness that was The House of the Devil, so I won't repeat myself. The link to my review (and my use of the made up compound adjective "retro-awesomeness") should suffice.
Now for the number one movie on his list. Deadgirl.
As I told Clay when I read the list, I'm very glad he posted this, since this is a very unnerving movie that (understandably) got very little attention from the critics. Basically, it's about two high school losers finding a naked and apparently undead girl chained up in the basement of an abandoned mental institute and using her as their personal sex slave. I'm not kidding.
I was contemplating writing about this movie after having seen it, but was very much on the fence about it and ultimately decided against it. It's not because I found this film about too disturbing (although it is very disturbing) or that it crosses some ethical line and is morally repugnant (it isn't, although it certainly appears that way; it's really about how weak people find ways to dominate others even weaker than them). It's because I found its two protagonists too vile and unlikable to care about in any meaningful way. The more dominant and sociopathic of the two friends, J.T., is just a straight-up psycho, and the character you're theoretically supposed to be rooting for, Rickie, is maddeningly, insufferably spineless.
Clay tells me that's one of the things he found so unnerving about Deadgirl: the two main characters are listless teenagers with no moral code and have no morally redeeming values whatsoever. This is a very valid point: it's obvious that the zombie girl isn't the monster in this film. (I still wish I didn't spend the movie wanting to punch the supposed hero of the piece in the area where his junk should be the whole time. Seriously, Rickie, grow a pair!)
And in his honorable mention section, I agree: if you consider yourself a science fiction fan and often complain about the dearth of good sci-fi films out there that don't insult the audience's intelligence and haven't seen Moon or District 9, quit your bitching and go see them immediately.
As for the rest of the movies on Clay's list, I'm Netflixing the fuckers.
Except for Antichrist. I think I'm done with von Trier.
Not done with the scawwy,
James "Deadguy" Comtois
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
There are times I really do enjoy watching Nicolas Cage get unhinged on screen. Yes, there are times his over-the-top acting is grossly inappropriate. Other times (cough, The Wicker Man, cough) it's delightfully inappropriate. Then there are times Cage's nutty acting is delightfully appropriate. Don't believe me? Well, watch these series of ads Cage did for a Japanese slot machine:
If you're not won over, then I have no use for you.
Japanese slot machines aside, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a movie in which Cage gets delightfully, wonderfully unhinged, and the movie gets delightfully, wonderfully unhinged along with him. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, this may be one of the best - and most appropriate - performances Cage has given in well over a decade. He and Herzog make a very good manic team.
For those of you that don't know this by now, no, this is not a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel. Herzog has admitted he hasn't even seen Ferrara's movie. The films share one thing and one thing only in common: that their protagonists are corrupt police lieutenants addicted to drugs. And that's it. What happened was both films share the same producer (Edward R. Pressman), who insisted Herzog slap the Bad Lieutenant moniker on his film.
In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who saves a prison inmate from drowning in the wake of Hurrican Katrina (the holding cell's being flooded). The good news is that his bravery and heroism has earned him a promotion to lieutenant. The bad news is said heroism has also earned him permanent back pains, which triggers an addiction to painkillers. Then coke. Then...well, whatever he can score from the evidence room and his escort girlfriend (Eva Mendes).
The main plot is painfully standard: something about Lt. Terence McDonagh (Cage) investigating a multiple homicide with a drug kingpin (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner) as the prime suspect. But if I'm hazy about the details of the plot, I think it's because the movie isn't interested in the plot.
This is what happens when you have a police procedural directed by and starring slightly unhinged people who have no interest in police procedurals make a police procedural. Ironically, by dismissing the tropes typically found in the cop drama, Herzog and Cage have breathed new life into this moribund genre.
Herzog and Cage seem more interested in portraying someone go off the rails in a way we haven't seen portrayed in movies. Sporting a Richard III-esque hump to indicate his constant back problems that lead to his drug addictions, Cage's titular bad lieutenant behaves naughtily and erratically, flipping out at dismissive pharmacists, slapping imaginary (well, actually, real) iguanas, smacking around old ladies (after, of course, hiding behind her door whilst shaving) and watching dead men's souls breakdance.
Okay, I should probably back up. What's going on with the iguanas hanging out on the coffee table that only Cage can see? And, for that matter, what's going on with the shot following an alligator wandering along the freeway? And now that I think of it, doesn't the film open with the camera following a snake slithering through flood waters? Okay, I get it: we're watching a nature study on the reptiles that wandered freely around New Orleans after the levees broke. Oh, Herzog, you!
I should also mention some of the fine supporting acting going on in this movie, including Val Kilmer as Cage's low-key partner, Mendes as Cage's sympathetic girlfriend (they're both junkies and hey, misery loves company), Brad Dourif as an oddly reasonable bookie, Tom Bower as Cage's recovering alcoholic father, Jennifer Coolidge as Bower's nutty non-recovering alcoholic girlfriend and Xzibit as Big Fate.
Although I won't reveal the ending here, it does clue everyone in who hasn't yet caught on that Herzog is indeed messing with us, and has zero interest in the main cop drama. In fact, the ending reveals that Herzog hasn't been interested in making a drama, but a very manic and oddball comedy about someone becoming an unhinged reptilian beast.
Wondering if fish dream,
James "Japanophile" Comtois
Friday, December 04, 2009
The Sharpest Knife in the Drawer
Well, folks. My week has been spent only being semi-productive. I guess when you're unemployed, when you finish just a couple of items on your meager daily to-do list, you feel like you've accomplished something.
In between updating my resume, trying (with sporadic success) on adhering to a regular sleeping schedule, working on the final episode of Entrenched, and gearing up for rehearsals for the penultimate episode of said serial, I've been slowly writing my assessments of the films and movies I've seen lately.
That they've been slow-going is my fault: I've noticed that the best reviews (at least, the easiest reviews to write) are the ones that are written as soon after the viewing experience. The longer I wait, the more difficult it is to finish them, since a.) the emotional experience begins to fade (though fortunately not the actual plot details, just my enjoyment or disgust with the work becomes more diluted with time) and b.) the delay makes me feel compelled to make up for it with a longer, more impressive review. I can't be a week gone from the viewing experience to come back with a 400-word review; it's got to be 900 words now. This, of course, makes me choke, and I delay another week, which in turn makes me feel I need to now make it a 1500-word review.
Ah, yes. These are the neuroses that fuel and paralyze me, dear readers.
Anyway, while I've been delaying in posting some entries on the few movies and plays I've seen in the past month or so, I actually stumbled across this entry from Mr. George Hunka, who I think hits the nail on the head when he writes:
"...[C]ritical acumen is not unlike any knife blade; with each use the edge grows imperceptibly duller somehow, and you don't realize this until, a year down the line, you want to cut a clean slice of tomato and end up with a seedy, pulpy mush. You've used both the laudatory superlatives and the snarky takedowns, then you're faced with something much better or much worse than you've seen before. And what then? Well, then the honest reviewer is obliged perhaps to withdraw from the arena for a while, to rewhet the knife or direct his attention elsewhere for a time."
I, too, have found that writing reviews can actually become more difficult with experience. The challenge to avoid repeating oneself becomes increasingly greater with the more reviews one writes. Seriously, how much enthusiasm, disdain or indifference can one person maintain over the days, weeks, months and years?
Or, to put it another way, how many times can I write some variation of, "This was a charming show I had a great deal of fun with," before I convulse with despair from the realization that I've finally become a bore to myself?
Anyway, next week I hope to post these freakin things and move on with my (currently stagnant) life. Have a good weekend, folks. I'll catch you all later.
Charming and a great deal of fun,
James "Unemployed Sulk" Comtois