Monday, January 31, 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

When it was recently announced that Sarah Michelle Gellar was looking to get back into the TV game, it dawned on me. Buffy The Vampire Slayer has been off the air since 2003. It's been eight long years since the Scooby Gang invaded my TV. There has been a lot of good television since then but nothing ever came close to repeating a similar success that Buffy had.

When I told friends I was hooked on this show back then, I got a lot of dismissive eye rolls.

"Really, Dave? It's a show about vampires."

No, no, it's more than just vampires. It's a metaphor for life as a teenager in high school, kids who deal with self-image problems and heartbreak. It's also about the importance of friendship and female empowerment.

"But it has vampires. It's stupid."

They just didn't get it. Vampires are hip these days, thanks to Twilight and True Blood, but neither can hold a candle to the subversive wit and depth of the Buffyverse. Joss Whedon -- writer, creator, director, certified genius -- created this show to illustrate that high school is hell. Every teenager has heightened emotions involving romance, friendship and sex. What better way to represent those emotions through vengeance demons and blood-sucking vampires?

Buffy is best described as a cross between My So-Called Life and The X-Files. Teenage angst meets monster-of-the-week. After the events that occurred in the far inferior feature film, Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson in the movie, Gellar in the show) moved to Sunnydale, CA, a small town that is built over a portal of demon dimensions that attract supernatural phenomenon to the area (a.k.a. a Hellmouth). As we learned from the film, she was fatefully chosen as a slayer. Slayers are called to fight these demons and vampires and other forces of darkness. Each slayer is aided by a watchman, who trains and guides her. Buffy and her friends, affectionately known as the Scooby Gang, fight against the supernatural elements while trying to sort out their ever-complex social lives.

The movie never did anything for me. It was campy and silly, too irreverent to really make the emotions stick. The TV show dug deeper. Whedon was able to take his original idea and flesh it out. Some ideas just fare better on television anyway.

He had a great cast to help hammer his metaphors home. Anthony Stewart Head is Rupert Giles, Buffy's watchman and the father she never had. He's protective, sensitive, but also tells it like it is. He helped shape Buffy into the powerful woman she eventually becomes. The ever-adorable Alyson Hannigan is Buffy's BFF, Willow. As the series progressed, she too became a powerful woman -- and a witch not to be reckoned with. Willow coming out as gay was groundbreaking for its time and was handled with refreshing sweetness and honesty. Her doomed arc with lover Tara provided great drama and a brilliant performance from Hannigan. Nicholas Brendan's Xander never had any powers but he was the loyal friend, a grounded and sensible person who fans regard as the heart of the show.

And then there's Gellar. She's the classic case of the under appreciated actress. To be able to pull off a role like Buffy Summers was a formidable challenge. She had to have the look of a tough-as-nails vampire slayer but at the same time display the pluck and vulnerability of your average teenage girl. She was a born leader who just wanted to shop, date cute boys, and hang out with her friends. The responsibility of being a slayer often became too much for her to bear. And Gellar made playing Buffy look so damn easy.

The rest of the cast came and went with memorable arcs. Michelle Trachtenberg played Dawn, Buffy's new younger sister at the start of season 4. Fans hesitated when Whedon wrote her in, but in time, they warmed up to the character. I may have reacted unfavorably for a while but, in hindsight, I can't imagine the show without her. Spike, Drusilla, Faith, Angel, Anya, Oz, Wesley Wyndam-Price, Cordelia... all gave our Scooby Gang love and heartbreak through the years.

I did not catch on to the show when it first aired on the WB network. I began taping the show (Heh... taping. How archaic!) as it was showing season 4. I watched the first three seasons on Netflix in a breathless marathon run and was hooked instantly. During those several weeks, my life was all about Buffy, all the time. The Buffy/Angel drama that anchored the beginning of the series was sexy and mesmerizing. It was so good, in fact, that they spun Angel off to his own show. He was missed but Spike was a welcome addition to the show. For a while, Spike and Buffy were sworn enemies but later he and Buffy became allies and eventual lovers. See, Angel and Spike -- those were the supernatural guys you pined for. They make Edward and Jacob look like clowns.

I was finally "live" with the rest of America in the middle of season 4, while Buffy and gang were off to college. It wasn't my favorite season (that honor goes to season 3, with the arrival of Faith coinciding with the big fight against Mayor Wilkins, aka the big giant snake demon), but the show still consistently surprised me. This season included one of Buffy's very best: Hush. In it, a group of ghouls steals the voices of Sunnydale residents, rendering them unable to scream when they are killing them. The episode, written and directed by Whedon himself, was a dialogue-free masterpiece.

Whedon continued to push the creative envelope year after year. The next season saw The Body, in which Buffy discovers her naturally deceased mother at home on the couch. It was the most quietly powerful hour of television I had seen all year. No music, no fighting demons, no special effects -- just a shell-shocked Buffy surrounded by her loyal friends. For the whole hour, Buffy simply struggled to make sense of it all. I leaned towards the TV in awe, hanging on to every one of Whedon's words. Unforgettable.

In contrast of tone from those greats, season six's Once More With Feeling was a massive production, a gloriously executed musical. Whedon himself wrote the lyrics and the entire cast was game for everything. It was a beautifully rendered song-and-dance hour that moved the series along and provided plenty of surprises and twists. That's what I loved about it -- it wasn't just a gimmick. It blended perfectly with the show's brilliant whimsicality.

And finally, the end. The glorious, heart-breaking, witty ending worked on so many levels. Whedon took his main motif - female empowerment - and drove it home by awakening the slayer in all of the young girls of the world. Every teenage girl had the strength, vision and instinct of a slayer. It just fit perfectly with the theme of the entire series. The final shot - the Scooby Gang stands before a hole in the earth where Sunnydale used to be - always give me goosebumps.

"What do we do now?," asks Dawn.

And Buffy just smiles. She's relieved. The world is not hers to save anymore.

That's the last of the Buffyverse I've experienced. I never joined Angel and his group of crime-fighting vampires and demons. I never read Whedon's comic-book which played out like season 8 of the series. And I'm fine with that. I felt closure.

And like Buffy, I felt relief, too.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Best of the Year: The 1960s

My Pick of the 1960s
(in alphabetical order)
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Before the brilliant modern classic The Shawshank Redemption came along, there was Birdman of Alcatraz, a melancholy, heartfelt drama spanning several years in a maximum security prison. The great John Frankenheimer directs a terrific performance out of Burt Lancaster, who plays a convicted murderer who redeems himself in isolation by becoming a bird expert. It's a thoughtful meditation of prison life and how isolation can really affect your mind and spirit.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are awesome as lovers who rob banks for the headlines and notoriety in Bonnie and Clyde, a violent, shocking drama that took Hollywood by surprise. Things get dangerous, of course, when people start turning up killed and everyone wants Bonnie and Clyde dead or captured. And what a cast -- Gene Hackman, Oscar winner Estelle Parsons, and the great Michael J. Pollard provide entertaining support while Beatty and Dunaway heat up the screen with the best performances of their careers.

Charade (1963)
This is a dashing, playful, twisty little caper and I loved every breath-taking minute of it. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are two of the most beautiful actors of their time and are delightfully droll as key pieces to a sinister and scheming game of intrigue, lies and murder. How fitting is it that the director, Stanley Donen, comes from a background of musicals? Charade is as sweet as song, dancing lightly on its feet, seducing viewers frame after frame. Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy all have great moments to shine, but Grant and Hepburn are predictably, effortlessly, gloriously magic.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
"What have here is failure to communicate." That's Strother Martin uttering the famous line as the Warden of the rural prison in which Paul Newman and his fellow chain-gang prisoners reside in. Newman refuses to play by the rules and his cohorts watch in horror and delight as he insistently rebels against the system. Paul Newman is perfect. Luke is arguably his best role and it's a delicious performance. This is a funny, thrilling character study, easily making it my favorite film from the first 60-odd years of feature-length movies.

The Great Escape (1963)
A classic adventure film of the 60’s, this beautiful epic story features Steve McQueen, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Garner, among others, as POWs not only escaping from their German camp in WWII, but running from their enemy within enemy territory. This is essentially a three-hour ensemble character study (don’t you love those?), but have no fear; it also includes thrilling chase sequences, clever escape attempts and plenty of humor all around. A great time.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
This came to me as a complete surprise. Going into this movie, I was expecting nothing more than a comedy of manners sprinkled with a little edgy "race humor." (I suppose I had the Ashton Kutcher/Bernie Mac remake in mind.) Well, clearly, I was dead wrong. This exquisite little movie held my attention from start to finish for a lot of reasons. Two of them are named Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who were just magical as Katharine Houghton's parents. They were smart, liberal, open-hearted adults who handled her surprising news (her engagement with the awesome Sidney Poitier) with a little bit of grace and a whole lot of heart. Having died not long after the film wrapped, Tracy's final scene was incredibly bittersweet.

Hud (1963)
As the old Bob Dylan song goes, “The times…they are ‘a changing.” Melvyln Douglas won an Oscar for his role as Homer Bannon, an old-school rancher who is forced to quit the farm and settle into a life of retirement (to a rancher, that’s death). He’s at odds with his son, Hud (ah, Newman), an arrogant farmhand who can’t seem to settle into a routine and is constantly flirting with their housekeeper (Patricia Neal, another Oscar winner). Brandon DeWilde is Lonnie, Hud’s impressionistic nephew who idolizes all three adults on his ranch. Lonnie is influenced by the actions and decisions made by his elders as he heads into a new generation of ranching and sociological changes. Heart-breaking, gorgeous and superbly made.

The Hustler (1961)
Paul Newman delivers a dark and moody performance as pool shark “Fast Eddie” Felson in Robert Rossen’s wonderful film about character and integrity. Newman is a master at the game of billiards but he doesn’t quite know how to play his opponents. Standing beside him are Piper Laurie as his patient girlfriend; Jackie Gleason, in an Oscar-winning role as Minnesota Fats, as a longtime foe; and the superb George C. Scott as the sleazy manager who takes him in. Every one of these great actors delivers some of the very best work of their vast, wide-ranging careers.

In Cold Blood (1967)
Filmed in stark black-and-white, this chilling character study follows two drifters (played by Scott Wilson and Robert Blake) who grapple with their violent nature as they run from one senseless scene to another. Adapted from Truman Capote's true-life tale, this disturbing drama packs an emotional punch as we witness their crime, capture and death. Conrad Hall's cinematography looks gorgeous -- the 60's mid-west never looked so startling and fragile. This one sat with me for a long time after viewing.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
What a grand Hollywood epic. This movie is magnificent in scope, story and emotional heft, and despite the hurdles he went through, David Lean deserves all the credit in the world for not only getting it made but getting it done right. This sprawling four hour adventure is filmed in gorgeous technicolor with vivid and memorable colors and images. The story, of a British officer named T.E. Lawrence (a star-making turn by Peter O'Toole), is involving and well-paced enough to keep the viewer glued to the screen. The sheer physicality of the film, as well as Lean's other masterpiece, The Bridge on the River Kwai, still goes unmatched in Hollywood today.

The Odd Couple (1968)
I was expecting funny and I got a hell of a lot more. This Neil Simon classic is heartfelt and touching, thanks largely to the pairing of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. These two guys will never be beat when it comes to comedic chemistry and effortless wordplay. Simon's snappy dialogue flows beautifully between these two desperate men as they struggle to live together without killing one another. A big-hearted classic.

Wait Until Dark (1967)
I did not see this one coming. I knew very little about this film when I rented it and I was simply blown away by it. Audrey Hepburn, as radiant as they come, plays a blind woman who is terrorized by a group of criminals who are searching her apartment for a missing doll. It's stagy -- the film never ventures outside of the loft -- but the claustrophobic style adds to its ever-growing tension. Richard Crenna and Alan Arkin are superb as the main villains who are surprised (as are we) by Hepburn's ability to defend herself. Throw in a little Henry Mancini music and you've got one of the best thrillers ever made.

Honorary Mention
In the Heat of the Night (1967); To Sir, With Love (1966)

Quick Takes: Wall Street 2, Buried and Salt

I've been having a remarkable run with Netflix and Redbox in the last few weeks. I saw The Social Network, Inception, Piranha and The Town within days from each other and it's like being at a fun party that never ends. It's my favorite time of the season to rent movies because I'm getting all of the August-to-December releases. The quality is higher (well, I wouldn't lump Piranha in the high-quality category, but it is good popcorn) and the odds of picking a stinker are far and few in between.

The winning streak continued with Buried (2010), a superb thriller starring Ryan Reynolds as a truck driver in Iraq who was abducted and thrown inside of a coffin, buried under the ground. The entire film takes place inside of the coffin as we watch Reynolds use his cell phone to talk his way out of there. If you close your eyes during the entire film, it's like listening a radio show. It's all sound effects and dialogue. But you may as well keep your eyes open since first-time director Rodrigo Cortes ramps up the suspense by effectively using a wide lens and tricky angles. It's a brilliant achievement in filmmaking. 4.5/5

Salt (2010) moves like an old pro. Angelina Jolie, despite what you may think of her, is a movie star and a damned good one. I don't know any other actress who can pull off a role like this one. She plays a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy. The less you know about the film going in, the more you will enjoy it. The surprises in this film are what makes it stand out. I had the rug swept out from under me at least 3 times during the movie. When I thought I had it figured out, they pulled another bait-and-switch on me. Philip Noyce, an accomplished and effective director for many years, handles this movie with great skill and precision. It's lean, fast-paced and littered with great actors (Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor add gravitas to any film they are in). It's as perfect as you can get in this genre. 4.5/5

And finally, while not a great film by any means, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) is entertaining... for the most part. I wish the script wasn't so run-of-the-mill and obvious. Oliver Stone used to be a filmmaker that took risks and this film was the safest thing he ever did. Despite the cliches, the film looks good, thanks mostly to its handsome cast of great actors. I'm big fans of Carey Mulligan, Shia LeBeouf, Josh Brolin and Frank Langella. They did what they could with the limitations they had. As for Michael Douglas....well, like Jolie, he's a movie star and a damned good one. 3/5

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Transported by Statham

Jason Statham makes me smile and I don't know why. When I first saw him Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, I dismissed him as another humorless hunk of muscle, the new generation's Dolph Lundgren. His work in Cellular and The Italian Job didn't do much for me, though the movies were harmless enough. I didn't bother with the Transporter series.

But on one lazy Sunday afternoon, I caught Crank on cable. Man, was I wrong about this guy. I thought maybe it was the insane script or the over-the-top direction, but this guy just oozed charisma. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Crank is a fantastic piece of entertainment, a balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, gleefully offensive action picture and, alas, Jason Statham entered my stratosphere. Was it just a fluke?

Absolutely not. The Bank Job followed and I really admired his work here. Under Roger Donaldson's assured direction, Statham showed that he can act without overacting and still retain his charm. A good movie and a good performance.

In recent releases, Crank 2: High Voltage was just as ridiculous and wonderful as the first one, and among all of those heavyweights, Statham was the best thing about The Expendables.

The Mechanic comes out this weekend. I'm tickled every time I see the preview. What's that all about? Why am I fawning over Jason Statham? Is it because there is no other action star like him these days? I used to love Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone in their glory days, but those times are long gone. Statham reminds me them when they used to churn out those hard-R action films in the 80's and 90's.

Ah, nothing beats blood-soaked nostalgia.  Looks like I'll be queueing those Transporter movies after all.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Best of the Year: 1994

My Picks of the Year
(listed alphabetically)
Clear and Present Danger 
"It's not about black and white, Ritter. It's about right and wrong." So says Harrison Ford, sturdily reliable as Jack Ryan, in by far the best of the Tom Clancy adaptations for the silver screen. This is a complex, genuinely suspenseful crackerjack thriller about a drug cartel that mysteriously finds its way into the White House. Ford has never been so seriously good, and a movie like this one is sorely missed in this decade's crop of so-called action releases.

In this difficult, challenging drama, Sigourney Weaver is brilliant as a victim of rape and torture. Several years after the crime, we see her living happily in a secluded area of the world with her loving husband (Stuart Wilson). On one stormy night, a stranded motorist (an extraordinarily enigmatic Ben Kingsley) begs the couple for help. Is this Weaver's attacker? Thankfully, this isn't just a whodunit, but a what-if-dunit, a fresh look at a genre so used to twists and contrivances to keep the viewer guessing. With these three excellent performances and superb direction by Roman Polanski, you can cut the tension here with a knife.

Dumb and Dumber 
In the funniest film of the year, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels made the most unlikely comic duo and succeeded with flying colors. The Farrelly Brothers' pitch-perfect script is gleefully loaded with fart and juvenile humor, and the road trip setting is a great platform for these two talents to strut their wild stuff. There’s nothing quite better than a twisted comedy that still holds up after several years and repeated viewings.

Quite simply the most magical film I have ever seen. Easily a Top 5 film of all time, one of the very best I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in a theater. On paper, the film sounds impossible to pull off, but everything works perfectly. The flashback structure, the blending of reality and fiction, the litany of memorable one-liners, the seamless and ground-breaking effects, the gorgeous set design …all of these elements collaborate together so well, one has to assume it's a miracle that this film worked. And that's precisely why Robert Zemeckis is the only filmmaker in Hollywood I would dare call a miracle worker.

Heavenly Creatures 
"Tis a miracle, one must feel, that two such heavenly creatures are real." Oh, they're real all right, very frighteningly so. Based on a true story, this drama features two best friends (perfectly embodied by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) whose obsessive relationship (featuring brilliantly choreographed trips into a world with people made of clay) drives them to murder. A devastating and superb motion picture.

Edward Zwick, director of fine films like Glory and Courage Under Fire, creates a beautiful, emotional drama with talents like Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn at its center. Consider it a soap opera with class; the story is epic in scope, and the visuals are breathtakingly captured by John Toll’s Oscar-winning cinematography. During my first viewing in the theatre, I cried my eyes out; I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 
Never have I seen such a feverish, intense and palpable monster movie. In Kenneth Branagh's version of the popular horror novel, De Niro huffs and puffs underneath garish make-up as The Creature, while Helena Bonham Carter is a fine damsel in distress. But it's Branagh's show, behind and in front of the camera. Sure, he may not know when to stop, but that's what made it work for me: in a world of unspeakable horror, the fear comes to you at hurtling speed.

William Goldman's script is so jam-packed with great scenes, sharp lines of dialogue and twists so goofy and entertaining, that the actors who embody the leading roles (Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner) are merely the cherries on top of this delicious concoction. It's charming, fast, and furiously funny. My favorite scene is the extended one with Gibson and Graham Greene (as Joseph, the most contemporary of contemporary Indians); it's truly hilarious stuff.

Nobody's Fool 
This is the first real Paul Newman film I have ever seen. What a wonderful performance by a legend I never really witnessed before. It opened up so many cinematic treasures for me -- Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, Butch Cassidy -- and it doesn't hurt that Nobody's Fool itself is such a charming, quiet ensemble piece. Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, the late Jessica Tandy in her last role, and the fantastic Pruitt Taylor Vince all shine, but make no mistake -- this is Paul Newman's film all the way.

In what still remains as Luc Besson's best film, Jean Reno makes a lasting impression as a hitman who begrudgingly grows closer to nubile teenager, Natalie Portman. Gary Oldman, continuing his early-to-mid 90's streak of extremely off-the-wall characters, hits the right notes as the crooked cop on Reno's tail. The Professional is extremely well-told and beautifully shot; a firecracker of a thriller.

What else can be said that hasn't already been said about Pulp Fiction? It is one of the most influential films of all time, an exercise of pure kinetic filmmaking, infused with crackling dialogue, a fractured, mind-blowing narrative structure, and career-defining performances by established actors. Pulp Fiction is an unforgettable experience, one of the most visceral, heart-stopping roller coaster rides ever committed to celluloid.

Never underestimate the power of the hand of John Sayles. In my eyes, he's the only filmmaker whose stories consistently unfold in a rich, multi-layered fashion that resembles a big, sprawling novel. Once again, he explores a new subgenre - children's literature - as he tells us the story of an Irish myth that comes to life before the eyes of a naive 10 year old girl. It's an endless wonder.

There is a reason why this film remains at the top of IMDb's Best 250 films of all time. It's a universally embraced drama about hope and freedom. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, two actors who are always good, no matter what movie they are in, should be proud of their work here. This film is their crowning achievement. The final act packs an emotional wallop -- there is never a dry eye in the room when the final events of the film play out accordingly.

What a juggernaut of a popcorn thriller!! Speed is as slick, intense, and hilarious as they come. Keanu Reeves has never looked sexier and Sandra Bullock has never left our hearts since. Hopper creates one of the best villains of the 90's, and who would have thought that Jeff Daniels’ death would evoke such emotion and surprise? Wild, fast, and incredible to look at, Speed is the ultimate summer flick, the very best in the entire decade.

Credit Meg Ryan for pulling this one off. Eager to shed her cutesy image, she effectively performs very much against type as a drunk mother and wife who cannot seem to shake off her disease, despite the wearing patience of her devoted husband (a beautiful Andy Garcia) and daughters (Tina Majorino and Mae Whitman). It's a soap opera, but a damned good one.

Honorary Mention

The Greats: Poltergeist (1982)

I'll be honest here. I have well over a hundred DVDs that I'm proud to own. But really, they just sit there and collect dust. I am a movie fanatic, but I'm not the type who watches the same movies over and over again. I have thousands of favorite titles, many of which I'll be more than thrilled to give them a second, maybe a third viewing. But in that vast collection of favorites, there are only a select few titles that I will never tire of watching. If I catch it on TV, I will finish it all the way to the end. If I know it's on ahead of time, I will DVR it, even though I already own it.

Poltergeist is one of those titles.

This film was released in 1982, and it looks as glorious as anything on my 50" Plasma. HDNet Movies was showing this classic a few months back, and the quality of the HD transfer is superlative.

Tobe Hooper, with major help by Steven Spielberg, directed this classic white knuckle thriller about a family terrorized by spirits who are trapped in their home. According to spiritual medium Tangina Barrons (played so memorably by the great Zelda Rubenstein), these spirits are caught in between dimensions. After they died, they never moved on "to the light" after death. So the spirits kidnap Carol Anne, the 5-year-old daughter of Steven and Diane Freeling, thinking she's their salvation, a life force that will finally bring them to the light.

Talk about mistaken identities.

95% of this movie takes place in the Freeling house, and that just amazes me. The filmmakers managed to spring life into this house, making it one the most memorable set pieces in the history of medium. How do you forget that tree sitting outside Robbie's room? The chairs sliding across the kitchen floor? The exit portal in the foyer? You certainly won't look at unfinished pools the same way again. Every section in this home has a chance to shine.

Too bad the house vanished without a trace in the end before it had a chance to have a career in movies. Blame it on the Poltergeist curse, I guess.

Also memorable are Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams in career-launching performances. Both are wonderful actors who I've admired for years. They are believable as parents so fiercely protective of their children and are emotionally and physically exhausted from the turmoil surrounding them. It's a shame that Heather O'Rourke passed away after the third film; she had a sweet, angelic face and could have made a run at a decent career in Hollywood.

The sequels are far less successful, though I do admit to enjoying the third film to some extent. In it, Carol Anne moves in with her aunt and uncle (Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt) in the city, only to be terrorized again by spirits who really, really want her to take them to the light. Damn it, man, forget the light already! There's nothing there! Nelson and Williams wisely avoided this silly mess (after the bitter taste the second film left us, I can't say I blame them), but Allen and Skerritt are well-cast as a couple who realizes soon enough that maybe they shouldn't have adopted Carol Anne after all. She's bad luck.

I guess they never saw the first two movies.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Best of the Year: 2009

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Easily the most pleasurably cinematic event of the year. This is what big screens are made for. This is what the movie-going experience is all about. Yes, we can bemoan the script’s weaknesses or the heavy-handed environmental symbolism, but why? Some films are simply meant to entertain you and engage your senses, and Avatar delivers those promises in spades.

A sweet, lyrical road drama about a young couple looking to settle down and grow some roots before starting a family. Along the way, they visit relatives, reconnect with old friends, meet new people, and embark on a spiritual journey that prepares them for the next phase of their lives. It’s a beautiful film; smart, funny, and perfectly cast. Maya Rudolph is a revelation.

It’s so great to see a furious, gutsy performance by Nicolas Cage again. I always admire his work as an actor, and he can usually turn the most mediocre films into something interesting and watchable. But when he’s on fire and the movie is working on all levels, it is as close to a cinematic orgasm as we can get. It’s off kilter, edgy, unpredictable and loaded with an equal amount of heart and balls.

Brothers is a meticulously beautiful soap opera, featuring a trifecta of fantastic performances from Maguire, Gyllenhaal and Portman. These are the best actors of our generation. Jim Sheridan, an old pro in creating great drama out of familial relationships, is in top form.

The best documentary I’ve seen in a long, long time. It also happens to be one of the most entertaining ones I’ve ever seen. It’s structured like an old fashioned thriller, featuring activists risking their lives in their attempts to shed light at the disturbing Japanese tradition of slaughtering dolphins for profit. You will be moved and furious at the same time.

The best sports drama in recent memory, featuring a phenomenal cast of British greats (Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney). The real star, however, is the terrific Michael Sheen who creates another indelible performance as a revenge-driven man who blows the opportunity of a lifetime as the new coach of the greatest professional soccer team of its time. It’s a fresh, hugely entertaining twist to a familiar genre.

The sweetest movie of the year. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor I can’t get enough of, and the charming Zooey Deschanel are pitch-perfect here in a romantic dramedy with a fresh spin. The story itself isn’t ground-breaking, but the way it is told and performed makes it just about as magical as it can get.

It is Hollywood’s pick as the best film of the year, and it’s a damned good choice. A tense, engaging thriller about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq that is refreshingly apolitical and urgent. The cast is tops, the direction is assured and smart, and the film works as both a commentary of the fragile, emotional state of soldiers at war as well as a kinetic popcorn action picture.

Quentin Tarantino continues his electrifying run as one of the most dynamic, creative forces in the history of Hollywood. He simply never lets up. This work of art is a revenge fantasy about different groups of soldiers and civilians who hatch plots to kill Hitler…and succeed! The originality of the plot just scratches the surface of Tarantino’s brilliance; the film is loaded with set pieces so perfect, performances so memorable, and dialogue so rich.

A superb acting triumph for Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. They are assigned the most difficult job in the Army – alerting the next of kin the news of their loved ones’ death overseas. The film does not resort to histrionics and soap opera-level twists; this is a quietly powerful drama about the fragility of the human spirit.

Given the budget, the concept and the execution, I cannot get over how well the picture worked for me. It’s everything The Blair Witch Project tried to be and failed. The viewing experience of this movie is extremely crucial – you must watch this in a dark room, preferably in a quiet setting, with no interruptions. If you let it, your imagination does most of the work. It’s not necessarily a scary movie, but for a thriller, it’s very effective.

This is the Coens’ best work in years; I liked it even more than their recent Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men. It’s a heartbreaking, funny story about a Jewish family man who is at a strange crossroads in life. He makes morally questionable choices and seeks answers from God about how to be happy. Don’t we all want to know how to be happy? It’s a deeply resonant film, very personal and wonderfully touching.

Oh, those Pixar folks. How can you not love them? Up is a magical kids film that features very grown up themes about growing old and moving on. This isn’t their best film, but it’s still remarkably better than most live action films out there. The first 20 minutes is probably the most emotional act of anything I’ve seen all year.

The greatest movie star of our generation, George Clooney, delivers an emotionally satisfying performance as a business traveler who needs to be grounded – literally and personally. It’s a beautiful film about appreciating life and those around you. Also features revelatory work from Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga.

Honorary Mention

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The 5 Best: Ed Harris

"Ask him, Edie....ask him how come he's so good at killing people."
-Ed Harris, A History of Violence

Lists. I'm obsessed with them. I love lists. They are useless in theory, so they exist only in the pleasure of discussion and debate.

Christy Lemire, AP writer and co-host of Ebert Presents At the Movies, has a regular series of lists called The 5 Best. This week, she tackles the 5 best performances from the great Ed Harris. Her picks:

1) The Truman Show, Christof
2) A History of Violence, Carl Fogarty
3) Pollock, Jackson Pollock
4) The Right Stuff, John Glenn
5) Apollo 13, Gene Kranz

This is a strong list. It almost mirrors my own choices, but I've never seen Pollock, and The Right Stuff hasn't resonated with me. The Truman Show is one of my favorites, but we're judging his performances, not his films. Despite being nominated, I felt that Harris's part was underwritten in The Truman Show, a film that belonged entirely to Jim Carrey. 

My picks, below:

1) The Abyss, Virgil "Bud" Brigman
2) Empire Falls, Miles Roby
3) A History of Violence, Carl Fogarty
4) State of Grace, Frankie Flanery
5) Apollo 13, Gene Kranz

Harris is an actor who rarely misses a step. His films may not always work, but he commits to every role he is offered. You never see him "phone it in." His role as Bud Brigman was the most committed I have ever seen him. Watch him as he balances the dangers of his job as the foreman of an underwater oil platform and walk the tightrope of a crumbling marriage. It's a brilliant leading performance in one of Jim Cameron's best films.

2005 was a great year for Harris. A History of Violence was my favorite film that year, where he plays a mob goon who attempts to disrupt Viggo Mortensen's new life. Harris terrorizes his family with menacing glee. Also that year he played Miles Roby in Fred Schepisi's faithful adaptation of Richard Russo's novel, Empire Falls. He leads a terrific ensemble as the sleepy owner of a diner who juggles his meddling family and middle-aged uncertainty. It's a warm performance, a wonderful contrast to his usually intense work.

In State of Grace, Harris is a live wire as Frankie Flannery, yet another mob figure with a short temper. He is none too pleased to be overshadowed by his volatile brother, superbly played by Gary Oldman. And lastly, another good guy role, and the best thing about Apollo 13, he played Gene Kranz, the flight director who, alongside Gary Sinise's Ken Mattingly, attempts to get our heroes back onto the ground after a troubled mission to the moon. I didn't care for the movie too much when it came out (I haven't seen it since then), but Harris's Oscar-nominated supporting role stood out amongst the other heavyweights.

Other performances I enjoyed that didn't make the cut:

Places in the Heart, Wayne Lomax
Glengarry Glen Ross, Dave Moss
The Firm, Wayne Tarrance
Needful Things, Sheriff Pangborn
Gone Baby Gone, Remy Bressant
Appaloosa, Virgil Cole

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Welcome Back, Roger

As I begin my movie blogging adventures, I think it is serendipitous timing that Roger Ebert is back in the spotlight again. He is producing a new movie review show for public television, in the vein of Sneak Previews/At The Movies, a long-running geek-tastic program in which two movie geeks talk about - what else? -  movies. Ebert has been a crucial staple in my movie-going history. I've been reading his reviews since I began studying film -- first as a hobby, later as a film major. He's been writing since the 60's, well before I stepped foot in a movie theater for the first time. He, too, lives and breathes the movies.

Every weekend growing up, I would watch Siskel & Ebert religiously. I remember watching their review of Kingpin and they were going on about how wonderful and refreshing it is find a movie that made them laugh so hard. That movie ended up on both of their Ten Best Films of '96, and it's one of my favorite comedies of all-time. They introduced me to so many movies, ones that I would never have seen without their thumbs of approval. It was as if these two film geeks personally guided me through the history of movies, teaching me how to appreciate the art of the medium.

When Gene Siskel died suddenly of a brain tumor, it was heartbreaking. It was almost like losing a mentor. But the show went on through various incarnations of guest hosts and replacements. Then Ebert later fell ill, and after a few unsuccessful surgeries, he lost his voice. The man still writes; his humor, intelligence and wit remain intact to this day. I watched Richard Roeper and guests, as well as the last group, Michael Philips and A.O. Scott, and enjoyed them all for what they were: a place on television where movie geeks can talk about movies. The spark of Siskel & Ebert was missing, but the passion and appreciation was still there.

Sadly after 35 years, At the Movies was officially cancelled by Disney last year. And now, Ebert is back on screen this weekend with Ebert Presents At The Movies. He may only appear in brief segments of the show (the show is anchored by Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), but Ebert's fingerprints are all over this thing.

Joe Siegler wrote a highly informative chronicle on the History of At The Movies (click on the link to read). Worth a look if you enjoyed watching the show as much as I did.

It's nice to have balcony back open again.


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