Friday, January 22, 2010

Very Preliminary 2009 Top Five.

I've got a bunch more '09 releases to catch up with on DVD before I offer a definitive top five for the year, but in the interest of completing the decade retrospective, here are my preliminary picks.

1. Inglourious Basterds

This movie, more than any other I saw this year, sticks in my mind. The brilliant suspense set-pieces, the dense web of film allusions that, for the first time in Tarantino's filmography, have a relevance beyond the director's compulsion to make them, wall-to-wall memorable performances and an insight into the power of narrative to shape memory that I frankly didn't think Tarantino was capable of. It's a bingo.

2. The Hurt Locker

Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James lives as the hero of his own personal action movie. He risks his own life and the life of his men, and chases the rush of danger without a second thought. He can't die because he's the hero. He can't do wrong, because he's the hero. It's a non-stop blast (in all senses) until he gets his friends hurt and begins questioning his own perceptions. Then, there's a moment of repentance and humility, a brief attempt at returning to the safety and tranquility of domestic life, but before long, the itch returns, and he's back in the war zone, disarming bombs with a smile on his face. In short, he's a stand-in for the American attitude and history with warfare. We're drawn to the excitement and imagined moral clarity, we get our initial thrill and indulge a fantasy of absolute victory, then slowly come to the realization that we're hip-deep in blood shed for no good reason. Then, it's a brief moment of caution, a "Vietnam syndrome," before all that unpleasantness is forgotten and we plunge headfirst back into the fray, chasing the same heady rush we remember from the last time.

3. A Serious Man

Second only to Basterds as brain-stickiest movie of the year. There's nothing in it that the Coens' haven't done before, but this is the most vivid and chilling explication of some of their favorite themes. It's confounding and somewhat off-putting, but also genuinely thoughtful and, in a weird, Coen-ey way, offers a glimpse of the cosmic unknowable.

4. Crank 2: High Voltage

Making perhaps the best action film of the decade has got to be worth something.

5. In the Loop

Of all the earnest, dewey-eyed documentaries and docudramas that tried to make sense of the Iraq war, it took a troupe of British sitcoms shenanigans to cut to the heart of the matter. Armando Iannucci and company lay out the craven self interest and fortuitous idiocy in the inner circles of government that paved the way to war. As a bonus, it's also maybe the funniest movie of the year. It's certainly the most quotable.

The End of the World for Dummies: Knowing and 2012. Never before have two films so thoroughly failed to earn the right to kill billions of people on screen.

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Gomorrah. It's definitely a good film, but I suspect that the subject matter (the corrosive social impact of the Naples-area mob) and the pseudo-documentary style make it seem 'important' enough to merit raves. The "you are there" immediacy is bracing, but too much screen time is wasted on uninspired retread characters.

"Modern Comedy Classic" I just can't get behind: The Hangover. Is it really THAT easy to get young dudes chuckling across the nation? Never mind, of course it is.

Best Science-Fiction film of the year: 2009 was definitely the year of science fiction films, between Star Trek and Avatar and Terminator: Salvation and, to be pedantic about it, Transformers and GI Joe. The best of the lot, though, was the low-budget South African production District 9. It's instructive to compare District 9 and Avatar: on a basic story level, they're strikingly similar, but filmmaker Neil Bloomkamp and his collaborators invest the story with so much inventiveness and wit that nobody thought to call it a Dances With Wolves ripoff.

Best Opening Credit Sequence: Watchmen. There's a lot of things wrong with Zack Snyder's adaptation of the classic graphic novel, but the brilliant collection of meticulous tableau that run behind the opening credits sure as balls isn't one of them.

The Unjustly Overlooked: Observe and Report is a genuinely daring comedy that didn't get nearly enough recognition as such. Duplicity, lame title and typically bland Julia Roberts performance aside, is a crackling, grown-up, well-constructed grifter's tale that fell down the memory hole unjustly. And Julia Roberts' lameness is more than cancelled out by the sheer awesomosity of Paul Giamatti.

Two horror films that demonstrate conclusively that "less is more" when you're trying to scare people: Paranormal Activity and House of the Devil.

Line of the Year: "Totally...Totes McGoats!" --I Love You, Man

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DVD Roundup: Big Fan

Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler and is the writer/director of Big Fan has a very specific vision for his films. He takes tragic archetypes from past eras of film history that you don't see in movies that much anymore, and implants them in the media-saturated post-modern reality of 21st century strip mall America. Randy "the Ram" Robinson from The Wrestler is an updated version of every broken-down palooka from every boxing movie made back when people gave a damn about boxing. He's Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight, and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and Wallace Beery AND Jon Voight in the two versions of The Champ. Of course, boxing hasn't been culturally relevant since Rocky beat Ivan Drago, so Siegel's version of the character is a mashed-up veteran of one of the violent, contrived spectacles that has partially supplanted boxing in American culture: professional wrestling. Paul Aufiero, the desperately pathetic protagonist of Big Fan is another recognizable character type from a different golden age of cinema: he's the obsessive, anti-social loner that skulked his way through theaters in the 70s, a character that Martin Scorsese used to specialize in. He's Travis Bickle for the current moment. While Travis Bickle's maladjustment was signaled by his complete alienation from popular culture, Aufiero's abnormality is fueled by a full-body immersion in pop culture, or at least a small corner of it.

Paul is a New York Giants fan, to the exclusion of everything else in his life. It's understandable: he works at a hospital parking garage, he lives with his hectoring mother, he has only one friend, who he only relates to by talking about and watching the Giants. His only moments of true joy and self-expression are watching the Giants win and calling in to a local sports talk radio show with meticulously crafted bits of generic boosterism. Unlike Travis Bickle, who was tormented by his yearning for normality, Paul has no interest in connecting with the rest of the world or anyone in it. He's got the Giants, and that's enough. When he gets into a strip club fracas with his favorite player that results in the player's suspension and a Giants' tailspin, Paul loses his only source of enjoyment in life and his very identity. Paul sees himself as a part of the Giants team, and sees his talk radio monologues as integral to their success. Overnight, he has to process the notion that he's responsible for his team's failure. This puts him into a freefall that leads to a predictably-70s style resolution.

But just as The Wrestler took a stale plot skeleton and invested it with vibrant life, Big Fan tells the familiar story of an imploding loser with an attention to detail that makes it all feel fresh. Paul is played by the brilliant stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, who brings a raw, anguished vulnerability to the role. His Paul is passionate but dead-eyed, filled to the brim with love for his team and a desire to express it, but limited by his child-like inarticulateness. His life is filled with a parade of grotesques and Bridge and Tunnel stereotypes, all of whom he works diligently to avoid in favor of the imagined world where he is the ever-spinning engine powering the New York Football Giants to victory. His journey to resolving the identity crisis created by his beating never strays too far from formula, but it does flow from his wounded character, and the ending provides a couple of moments of genuine surprise and a coda that's simultaneously funny and deeply sad. Siegel's movies have so far made up for their familiar structures by bringing old archetypes into a new era and using that juxtoposition to generate thoughtful observations about the ever-changing cultural context of American life. I'm looking forward to Siegel's next reimagination of a classic film trope.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Up in the Air

George Clooney's character in Up in the Air is addicted to the pre-packaged luxuries of business-class travel. The express check-in, the VIP lounges, the free drinks and pre-warmed rental cars, the brilliantly cheerful customer service representatives. Yes, they're mass produced and artificial and a bit too slick to be lovable, but there's also no denying the very real comfort that a complimentary high ball and heated leather seats can provide for a weary traveller. Jason Reitman's movie is a lot like that: a chocolate-stuffed gift basket in a high-end hotel room. Impersonal, maybe, but still pretty damn delicious.

Much has been made of Up in the Air's zeitgeisty hook: Clooney jetting around the country laying off employees at company after company, with the parts of some of these unlucky workers being played by genuine fired people. These scenes are riveting, and offer some interesting opportunities for character development and drama, but they're generally ancillary to the proceedings. The film, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, is more interested in the emotional evolution of Clooney's commitment-averse travelling hatchet man, as he awakens to a long-buried urge for human connection and a place to call home. Clooney's arc is largely predictable, but it's executed with insight and deftness, fueled by consistently pungent dialogue and the subtle, affecting work of George Clooney in the part. What makes this programmatic but nicely crafted film carry a lasting weight is a surprisingly willingness to leave its protagonist at loose ends. In most films, especially character-driven awards bait like this, a characters development of maturity is rewarded by a newfound sense of security and, usually, a freshly-minted love interest. Up in the Air is willing to suggest that Clooney may well have been better off as a callow jetsetter. It raises questions about the definition of maturity and growth that are usually left unasked in such well-manicured fare.

The other part of Up in the Air that lingers are the great details and vivid supporting turns. At one point, a cabin cruiser full of corporate revelers powers down while anchored off Miami beach and everyone has to run, shoeless and wet, through a hotel lobby. It's a bit of comic business that's enlivened by a sense of tactile exuberance and the sheer left-field realness of it. And, of course, everything is made better by presence of Young MC. (Backwards, it's MC Young)

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

There's no denying that Avatar is going to lose most of it's luster on small-screen DVD viewing. Factor in the reality that continual improvements in visual effects are going to render it's groundbreaking techniques obsolete within a few years, and it's a good bet that Avatar will be remembered, if at all, like The Jazz Singer is today; as a technical milestone, not a film. Sherlock Holmes will similarly look a lot worse on DVD, when you're not in a theater full of relatives you're sick of talking to. But, it's definitely one of the best Christmas time-filler releases of recent memory. Robert Downey Jr. makes a bold choice, playing the iconic sleuth as a severely damaged social defective whose default expression is a sort of barely repressed panic. It's a smart move, because it makes his smarmy expressions of super-genius less obnoxious: he's clearly compensating for his inability to function without Jude Law's Dr. Watson. It's basically the House dynamic, with Victorian duds and some half-assed plot about Satanic peers and steampunk machinery. Guy Ritchie's vapid visual pyrotechnics are doled out sparingly enough to avoid calling undo attention to themselves, even if the Olde London Towne CGI looks like fresh-baked ass. Speaking of fresh-baked ass, Rachel McAdams, as Holmes' American paramour is completely out of her depth, not to mention given an underwritten, incoherent part to play. There's enough footage of Downey making dazzling deductive leaps to make it all palatable, especially if the alternative is eating leftover ham with the inlaws. Now, if the alternative is watching an actually compelling film on your Netflix queue, that's another story.