Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The 50 Best Shot Films of the Last Decade

The American Society of Cinematographers just released a poll of the best shot films of the last ten years (1998-2008), released by American Cinematographers.

The poll is a follow-up to one published in AC in March ’99 in honor of the ASC’s 80th anniversary; that vote covered the best-shot movies of 1894-1997. For the new poll, AC asked subscribers to nominate 10 films released between 1998 and 2008 that they believed had the best cinematography. A final ballot listing the 50 most popular nominees was then posted on the ASC website, and the final vote was open to the public. More than 17,000 people around the world participated in the final vote. 

  1. Amelie- Bruno Delbonnel (2001)  OSCAR NOMINEE
  2. Children of Men- Emmanuel Lubezki (2006) OSCAR NOMINEE
  3. Saving Private Ryan- Janusz Kaminski (1998)  OSCAR WINNER
  4. There Will Be Blood- Robert Elswit (2007)  OSCAR WINNER
  5. No Country for Old Men- Roger Deakins (2007)  OSCAR NOMINEE
  6. Fight Club- Jeff Croenweth (1999)
  7. The Dark Knight- Wally Pfistor (2008)  OSCAR NOMINEE
  8. Road to Perdition- Conrad L. Hall (2002)  OSCAR WINNER
  9. City of God- Cesar Charlone (2003)  OSCAR NOMINEE
  10.  American Beauty- Conrad L. Hall (1999)  OSCAR WINNER
  11. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford- Roger Deakins (2007)  OSCAR NOMINEE
  12. (tie) In the Mood for Love- Christopher Doyle (2001); Pan's Labyrinth- Guillermo Navarro (2006)  OSCAR WINNER
  13. The Lord of the Rings trilogy- Andrew Lesnie (2001-2003)  OSCAR WINNER 
  14. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind- Ellen Kuras (2004)
  15. Gladiator- John Matheison (2000)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  16. The Thin Red Line- John Toll (1998)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  17. The Diving Bell & the Butterfly- Janusz Kaminski (2007)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  18. Slumdog Millionaire- Anthony Dod Mantle (2008)  OSCAR WINNER
  19. (tie) Eyes Wide Shut- Larry Smith (1999); Requiem for a Dream- Matthew Libatique (2000) 
  20. Kill Bill- Robert Richardson (2003-2004) 
  21. Moulin Rouge!- Donald M. MacAlpine (2001)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  22. The Pianist- Pawel Edelmen (2002)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  23. Hero- Christopher Doyle (2004) 
  24. Black Hawk Down- Slawomir Idziak (2001)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  25. O Brother, Where Art Thou?- Roger Deakins (2000)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  26. Babel- Rodrigo Prieto (2006) 
  27. Lost in Translation- Lance Acord (2003) 
  28. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon- Peter Pau (2000)  OSCAR WINNER 
  29. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- Claudio Miranda (2008)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  30. The Man Who Wasn't There- Roger Deakins (2001)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  31. The New World- Emmanuel Lubezki (2005)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  32. Sin City- Robert Rodriguez (2005) 
  33. Atonement- Seamus McGarvey (2007)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  34. Munich- Janusz Kaminski (2005) 
  35. The Prestige- Wally Pfsiter (2006)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  36. Memoirs of a Geisha- Dion Beebe (2005)  OSCAR WINNER 
  37. The Aviator- Robert Richardson (2004)  OSCAR WINNER 
  38. Zodiac- Harris Savides (2007) 
  39. The Insider- Dante Spinotti (1999)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  40. Gangs of New York- Michael Ballhallas (2002)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  41. (tie) Brokeback Mountain- Rodrigo Prieto (2005)   OSCAR NOMINEE;   The Fountain- Matthew Libatique (2006) 
  42. The Fall- Colin Watkinson (2008) 
  43. The Passion of the Christ- Caleb Deschanel (2004)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  44. Snow Falling on Cedars- Robert Richardson (1999)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  45. House of Flying Daggers- Xiaoding Xhao (2004)  OSCAR NOMINEE 
  46. Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow- Eric Adkins (2004)

Now, of course, lists like this are truly arbitrary, but with certain exceptions all the big names are present (Robert Richardson, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, etc.) as well they should be, they've conceived beautiful images.  Love some of the perhaps unexpected choices like Zodiac, Lost in Translation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, brilliantly made films that were less than appreciated (at least visually) in they're day.  However, one mind boggling omission kind of irks me-- in a list that progressive enough to feature a Batman film, a Jude Law green screen oddity, and Sin City?-- where's one of the most beautifully filmed features ever: Far From Heaven, with Ed Lachman's swooning, period specific Technicolor feast for the eyes.  Where?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Social Network

The teaser trailer has arrived for David Fincher's The Social Network.

I think it might be my favorite trailer so far this year.  No visuals just striking dialogue heard, while ominious music plays in the back.  I'm fascinated by how this will work, and the teaser thankfully answers no questions.  I loathe trailers that give away the whole film.  I'm sure the next trailer will probably do just that, especially if Sony Pictures gets freaked out what of movie this turns out to be.  All i know is I'd like to see this now, and if a teaser trailer provokes that, it's very effective.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jaws Turns 35

This month, 35 years ago swarms of people rightfully stayed out of the water for one reason: they were at the movies celebrating what would become known as the first Hollywood blockbuster: Steven Speilberg's Jaws.  It's time for a personal confession-- I viewed this nifty horror flick for the first time at about age 5 or 6, and to this day it's probably the only film in history that has the ability to still, at the hearty age of 25, haunt my dreams.  I know I've seen more frightening, certainly more graphic films since, but the palpable terror of Jaws has stayed in my blood for a solid two decades.  I've lived a healthy, fairly regular life, but if anyone ever needed to know the reason why I won't step one foot in an ocean, the cinema is to blame.

Of course, the film over the course of it's 35 year history is so much more than just a personal terror.  In many ways the film molded the summer cinematic structure as evident today.  It was the first film to be aggressively advertised on television, the first film that opened on the widest number of screens simultaneously, and by the end of the it's theatrical run, it would become the highest grossing motion picture of all time (it surely was the Avatar of 1975, in fact it built the template for such numbers to become realistic.)  It would, of course drop into the bridesmaid position a mere two years later to a small film called Star Wars.  And while many should hold a grudge against this movie for that very reason, it wouldn't be fair, because honestly, I write with a brave front here, it's an amazing piece of pop entertainment that doesn't neglect the art of filmmaking.  It chills me to this day (I've only seen the film about 4 times all the way through; it's too hard, my 5-year-old self is still screaming) because of the precision and tension of it's cuts, the screech of the John Williams rift, the mere tease of a fin provoking terror for all for no reason-- the scariest of all-- think on the level of Hitchcock's The Birds.

It works as horror, but it's Hitchcockian flair is what makes it classic.  Only a few efficiently frightening shots are ever put on the shark itself.  Of course a lot of this is largely due to fact the the much-maligned production had a horrendous time getting the mechanical beast to work.  But it all builds the tension more, making the fin, and Williams' screech all the more effective.  Mostly shot from the point of view of the beast himself, the camera work tethers up and down like the waves themselves.  It's a rare film in which you feel very much apart of the action, it's the very meaning of participatory cinema, which is why it's so gut-wrenching to watch.  Even by today's standards, it's suspense is as nervy as ever, just because you never quite see that much of the violence.  There's a few choice shots, particularly at the climax, but it's the tease and control that haunts-- I imagine my 5-year-old self filling in the holes with pure terror, leaving me somewhat paralyzed by it to this day.

Much of the credit at the time was bestowed on film editor Verna Fields, a veteran of American Graffiti, for making the film an invaluable horror flick, since at the time young Mr. Speilberg had pretty much only Duel and The Sugerland Express under his belt.  Of course history has provided that Jaws was the promise of an un-paralleled filmmaking career.  But there's a great sense of play at least visually with Jaws, however troubled the production was.  Famously filmed at Martha's Vinyard, Speilberg also did re-shoots in the swimming pool of Verna Fields; I dare anyone to really notice the difference.  As well as the relatively seamless crosscutting of the fake shark (named famously Bruce) and the real sharks filmed.  Plus the famous shot of Brody (played by Roy Schneider, looking very much like Atticus Finch) after the attack at the beach-- the opposite of the groundbreaking shot in Vertigo.  It works brilliantly because it's so unsettling, and odd, creating a sense of panic in its immediacy.

The other examples are Goodfellas, Poltergeist, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Jaws wons three Oscars the year it came out, for film editing, original score and sound, but lost the big award to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Speilberg was, however, not nominated for his direction.  To celebrate I suggest staying as far away from the water as possible, and sleeping with  the lights on for the next couple of days.

The Green Hornet

Quite simply one of the most irritating movie trailers I've seen in some time.  I'm never entirely hopeful of films like this, but when director Michel Gondry (a conjureror of the amazing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the interesting The Science of Sleep) signed up, I felt a certain interest build.  The problem here is that none the abundant personality of Mr. Gondry seems to be evident in The Green Hornet, instead we are treated to tease of Seth Rogan's customary shtick and unassuming action sequence glimpses, plus a two-second appearance of Cameron Diaz.

The laughable part is at the very end, "In 3-D" pronouncement.  When I saw the joyous Toy Story 3 a couple of days ago I felt burdened by trailer after trailer with the similar phrase attached at the end.  It almost felt like an announcement, "Yep, come see this flick, and pay an extra $3 to $5 dollars a ticket while you're at it, gotcha."  My point is, nothing at least in early incarnation seems to be gained by putting The Green Hornet in 3-D, so why bother.  It's a problem I have with a lot of recent films last minute being retrofitted in to 3-D.  It feels more and more like a pathetic and desperate move on the part of the studios to try and make as much dough as possible on opening weekend, before assuming moviegoers realize we have a stinker.

Not to bark up on 3-D-- in the past year, films as lovely and varied as Coraline and Avatar proved that there's certainly an artistic state in the medium, but it should surely be perserved for the bonafide pieces of entertainment that promise to use it for good and not evil.  Personally, I think Michel Gondry seems an ideal filmmaker to toy with 3-D, unfortunately, I don't think The Green Hornet is an ideal vehicle.  Am I crazy, or fussy?

Oscar Recap: 2001

More so than any other year in the last decade, I strongly feel that 2001 has the most special attachment to me. In a weird, absurd way I feel that a vast majority of the films that came out were made for me, and no one else. That's a ridiculous notion, since my taste has always been a bit left of mainstream, but 2001, with it's Kubrickian significance (Speiberg himself was inspired to take on the Kubrick project A.I. Artificial Intelligence to great affect; at least I thought so) was a terrific year for the director, the auteur. Consider the artistic offerings of 2001:

  • In the Mood for Love- Wong Kar Wei's most dreamy film to date, and while Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are the stars, it's Wong's creation and achievement through and through. The film opened early in 2001 (I believe in February), and set the template for an exciting and visionary year of transcendent filmmaking.
  • In the Bedroom- After making it debut at 2001's Sundance Film Festival, the buzz and acclaim carried the Sissy Spacek\Tom Wilkinson melodrama-noir hybrid all the way to it's November opening through the gauntlet of award seasons. Director Todd Field (Little Children) made his directorial debut here, and the slowly unraveling pace here still gets to me. It's partially a small, yet well calibrated chamber piece, but there's a stunning full score orchestra waiting the wings. In the Bedroom builds it's tension with a surprising suspense, mixed with the sharp naturalism of ordinary characters brought into extraordinary situations. Perhaps the best technically acted film of 2001 in my opinion.
  • Memento- The biggest game-changer of 2001 as far as I'm concerned; for it introduced Christopher Nolan to regular movie folks (doubt too many people, including myself had heard of his 1998 debut Following before), and showcased a brilliant backwards narrative. It's not the first film to do so, but it's surely one of the finest. While Guy Pearce is fantastic as the unreliable lead; this is fully Nolan's achievement. One of the ballsiest of the last ten years, indeed!
  • Hedwig & the Angry Inch- Take an oddball premise of a rock star with a botched sex change operation, add some catchy, unimaginably popy tunes, a star-crossed transgendered fractured love story, and come away with one of the most endearing, and joyful movie experiences of the year. Credit director\writer\actor extraordinaire John Cameron Mitchell (and his angry inch) for so lovingly adapting his own off-Broadway charmer. For proof he's not a one-act wonder; check out 2006's Shortbus.
  • Mulholland Drive- David Lynch's poetic and utterly beguiling 2001 triumph succeeded brilliantly by sort of being a mash-up of all his greatest successes in the past. There's a little Twin Peaks, perhaps a pinch of Blue Velvet and a whole lot of metaphorical, dreamlike poetry. It's perhaps my favorite film from him, and the star-making feature of Naomi Watts, who handled all the infamous Lynchisms like a pro.
  • The Royal Tenenbaums- This is the Wes Anderson film that I doubt I ever quite shake. I remember the first time I saw it, I was impressed, but not in love. Then I gave the film some distance, and returned to it perhaps six or seven months later, and fell hard. The graceful structuring, the awkward line readings, the NYC location that wasn't quite NYC, Gwyneth Paltrow secret smoking addiction, the somber "Hey Jude" orchestration at the beginning. I fell hard for this one, harder than any other Anderson film since (although Fantastic Mr. Fox comes awful close.) Never has his vision so astutely been realized (and while the critics will point and yell that his style is overrated, twee, and pretentious), one must embrace that he actually has a distinctive style all his own. Tenenbaums at first glance seems like flawed work of genius...nine years later I think it's just genius, period.
  • Waking Life- Richard Linklater's stunning and witty meditation of dreams is one of the most surprising and beautiful pieces of art I think I've ever seen. Forever remembered I'm sure as stoner classic, the beauty of the work is in it's uncanny dialogue. Smart, if admittedly a bit pretentious, it's a film of terrific questions, wonderfully unanswered. On top of that is the trippiest and inventive animation that feels completely appropriate for Linklater's waking dream. Plus it reunites Celine and Jesse from the Before Sunrise\Sunset, swoon!

My favorite film in 2001 at the time was Ghost World, directed by Terry Zwigoff, based on the comic by Daniel Clowes. In the nine years that have passed my reaction has cooled significantly-- it feels more like a time capsule of my 16-year-old self, than perhaps a great, lasting movie. Not to discount the film at all, I still think of it highly, but I was completely obsessed when the film initially come out. It was one of those strange happenstance occurrence where I felt a movie was almost about me; that I was completely apart of this movie world, in mind, body and spirit at the time. Detached and sarcastic, I felt I was apart of it. No question it would remain in my top ten to this day, and the affection I have for the film will last a lifetime, but I don't feel quite as involved as I did. I've never particularly been a collector of anything really, but with my obsession to Ghost World, I felt compelled to have it all-- the poster, a t-shirt, the soundtrack, the comic book, a copy of the screenplay, two copies of the DVD at one time, I even had a film stock of the trailer (courtesy of work at a theater; don't tell anyone.) Even the poster tagline ("Accentuate the negative") felt personal to me-- it was a rare film that I seemed to have possession over, it was mine and nobody elses. It will stay with me, but only as a reminder of my 16-year-old self. It's funny sometimes how a film grows and regresses with age.

Anyhow back to the Oscar facts:

The Academy always has a way of letting you down slightly, even in a mighty terrific year like 2001. Not at all discounting at least four of the five films-- I'm sure you might be able to guess the one I'm gripping at. Gosford Park is Altman-lite, I think, but it's still pretty grand, and film that definitely appreciates on multiple viewings. Honestly the first time, I could barely get into it at all. Being young, I wasn't as familiar as I am know with Altman, now I'm a major fan, and happily embrace that Gosford was the film that truly introduced me. The film come courtesy of USA Films (now Focus Features) and continued the roadwork the company laid out with Traffic the year before, triumphing with seven nominations, and winning original screenplay for Julian Fellowes (a worthy win, even if my vote would have went to fellow nominee Wes Anderson.) In the Bedroom, continued the streak with Miramax Films (the brothers Weinstein wisely purchased the film at that years Sundance Film Festival), and as noted earlier was one of my favorites, highlighted by a sublime Sissy Spacek. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring started one of the best trilogies in film history, and would totally be the populist winner; the Academy wasn't a sure thing, for it's:
  1. a genre film, specifically fantasy; that's beneath them
  2. a starter film, and there for no middle or end
  3. Peter Jackson, who's he
It would take three years of AMPAS guilt to fully honor the saga.

Moulin Rouge!, I must be frank here, would have been my choice for the best picture win. Baz Luhrmann's kaleidoscopic whirligig of a musical is likely the most divisive best picture nomination of the decade, and yet it's unmistakeably and uniquely a celebration of what movies can be, and perhaps what they should aspire to be. The tonal schizophrenia is intentional and music sublime. It promises Spectacular! Spectacular! and delivers just that. It's legacy will perhaps always be closely associated with it's love it\hate it reaction, but it will be long lasting. And it fits a wonderful theme of 2001, which was the re-invention of the musical-- here Luhrmann made a musical that a music video, bridging a cap between the generation divide of our parents and grandparents who admired the old-school traditionally cut musicals of yore; John Cameron Mitchell did something with Hedwig & the Angry Inch, infusing an edgy story amidst ballads.

So of course the Oscar went to A Beautiful Mind, quite possibly one of the most overrated best picture winners of all-time, and that reputation seem to hit about the same time it won, perhaps even a few steps before. Yes, it's classy and prestige packed, like a pleasant gift on Christmas morning. All the ingredients were there: period piece, mental illness, genius overcoming obstacles, the long suffering wife, Hollywood veteran who payed his dues making good (Ron Howard), Russell Crowe obsession.... But out of the great many flicks of 2001 that achieved that rare alchemy of a truly passionate response, why settle for something merely okay. I didn't hate A Beautiful Mind when I first saw it, yet I slowly started to resent it as the typical awards hoopla was underway.

  • A Beautiful Mind
  • In the Bedroom
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Man Who Wasn't There
  • Mulholland Drive
PICTURE (Musical or Comedy)
  • Bridget Jones's Diary
  • Gosford Park
  • Legally Blonde
  • Moulin Rouge!
  • Shrek
SAG Awards:
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Gosford Park
  • In the Bedroom
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Moulin Rouge!
Following a typical template of the biggest cast must equal the best-- in this instance it's a grand choice, but it's gotten in trouble in the past (or well it should have), ahem, Crash.

Sundance Film Festival: The Believer- Ryan Gosling's breakthrough which didn't get a theatrical bow until 2002.
Cannes Film Festival: The Son's Room- not released until 2002; but the director prize was shared by David Lynch (for Mulholland Drive) and the Coen Brothers (for The Man Who Wasn't There; holy auteurial madness!)
Venice Film Festival: Monsoon Wedding- Mira Nair's pleasure was released in 2002.
Toronto Film Festival: Amelie- currently ranked as the 5th highest grossing foreign film in domestic box office receipts; and love by yours truly.

2001 is landmark for the inclusion of the best animated feature category, even though it ignored the marvelous triumph of Waking Life, for the less then triumphant Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Either way Shrek won the inaugural award, besting the Pixar release Monsters, Inc. in what is the first of only two times, the illustrious wizards have lost the award-- the other being in 2006 when Happy Feet won over Cars. I often think is the inclusion of this award just a further ghettoization of an art that the fussy members of Academy refuse have never seemed to appreciate. Never particularly been fond of the equal but different mentality.

The real aspect of the 2001 award season was the lunacy of the acting nominations, especially in a year of such rich films.

Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
Sean Penn, I Am Sam
Will Smith, Ali
Denzel Washington, Training Day
Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom

Halle Berry, Monster's Ball
Judi Dench, Iris
Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!
Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom
Renee Zellweger, Bridget Jones's Diary

I don't intend to trash any of them individually since I don't personally hate any of them (Penn the exception; that's one of the laziest nominations in Oscar history), I'm actually quite fond of a lot of them. However, my point is, when there is such a grand array of acting at it's primal best display in one, why stick to the standard award formula especially thinking of the career rejuvenating, or career igniting work performed by the likes of:
  • Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenebaums
  • Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love
  • Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge!
  • Guy Pearce, Memento
  • Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There
  • Thora Birch, Ghost World
  • Nicole Kidman, The Others
  • Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand
  • Audrey Tautou, Amelie
  • Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive
Just think of the possibilities, for a year that I felt completely involved in, I'm still incensed, angered, beleaguered, all hot and bothered by some of the outcomes. But then again that's why I love them too.

What was your favorite from my favorite year of the past decade?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Toy Story 3

The hottest streak in Hollywood continues, as Pixar Animation Studios presents its 11th feature film, reassuring any naysayers with a patented blend of original storytelling, wit, and heart. It's fitting that their eleventh home run is a conclusion to the story that started it all. In 1995, they premiered the original Toy Story, the first entirely computer generated animated feature, and ushered in an era; an entirely new possibility to telling stories. Over the last fifteen years, the advancement of technology is utterly amazing, but it's Pixar's ability to remain truthful and honest in its storytelling that keeps it all fresh and the bounty all the more glourious. It's hard to believe that fifteen years have passed since we first met dutiful honest cowboy Woody, daring space ranger Buzz Lightyear and the gang. I was a mere 11-year-old movie nerd in training, and since then the Toy Story films have in a way grown up with me. Toy Story 2 upped the ante slightly and remains a touchstone in the right way to develop a franchise-- the conclusion here in 2010 is a fitting and poignant end of a delightful series of films.

The nostalgic factor works in interesting ways, and the keen storytellers at Pixar realize this, and never make it feel mushy or manipulative. Many of said that Toy Story 3 has the ability to make grown men and women cry uncontrollably. I admit fully and honestly, it's true-- throughout much of the film (particularly the touching beginning and positively wrenching finale), I lost it. Tears come flowing down in ways that in my 25-year-old brain thought unthinkable. But the beautiful aspect of it is that they're all earned. Part of it is the human experience of growing up with a beloved film series, for sure, but also the honest realization, that Pixar nails, is the process of growing up is never easy to anyone, even the toys that belong to young Andy, now heading off the college, who just want to played with-- that's what they're for, that's their livelihood.

Of course walking into this theater, I had high expectations-- after 11 successes (well, ten-- Cars was a slight misfire), there's always a panic of meeting too much of good thing, and from all the good Pixar has shown, the pessimist in me feels the other shoe will drop some day. It wasn't this time. Aside from being a heavy emotional experience (honestly anyone who's ever loved the other two films, or had an attachment to anything ever will probably lose it, as I did), it's also a great adventure story, just as the last two were. As Andy is packing up for college, there's a widespread panic in the toy community-- what will become of his old friend, now mostly discarded to the chest (an amusing bit with Andy's cellphone starts the realization that this isn't the same little boy anymore)-- will anyone make the journey with him, sent to the attic, donated, or worse off, thrown away?

A calamatious set of circumstances sends the toys off the Sunnyside Day Care, which looks slightly like an old-folks home crossed with an insane asylum. There the gang meets a whole new set of discarded, forgotten toys. These include Lotso, a big purple teddy bear (voiced by Ned Beatty, a Southern charmer whose not who he seems), Ken (voiced with absolute vapid perfection by Michael Keaton), and hordes of others presenting Sunnyside as the perfect place to bask in the golden years. Off course that not at all what it becomes. The middle section of the story is played as parody of The Great Escape but the adventure never feels throwaway for a second, largely because it's cast of characters are already deeply rooted aspects of not only are individual childhoods, but also a part of the spectular filmic universe that Pixar has surrounded them with. There's geniune pathos in this escape-- I dare not to write out of hand, but parts of Toy Story 3 almost feel like Shakespearean tragedy.

The voicework, always a refreshing aspect of a Pixar movie for they always seem to cast approiapately not always with movie stars, remains as endearing as ever-- Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Beatty, Keaton, Don Rickles, and the rest (close observers will notice that Barbie is voiced by Jodi Benson, or Ariel from The Little Mermaid.) I take that back about movie stars-- the Toy Story franchise is the one that uses the most, but point is valid. Larger credit must go to director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, and Pixar neophyte) for keeping the balance between action and tenderness completely complementary without one ever over-doing the other. Watching the joyous third part here makes the Shrek series even more embarrassing, especially considering they gave up on the story after the first one, and kept the self-references become the movie, something Pixar has largely avoided, making them feel all the more timeless (there's a cute song cue when Ken and Barbie meet to the tune of "Dream Weaver," but that's the only pop culture in-joke in the entire film.

Watching Toy Story 3, makes me all the all the reflective about not the films that I've loved for a decade and a half, but also of my childhood toys. In an odd way I feel like a neglectful, unimaginative sociopath for the simple fact that I don't know where any of them are anymore. So the negative side Pixar's genius, is that I've cried my heart out, and now am thrusted with a guilt complex....thanks a lot. A

Monday, June 21, 2010

Oscar Recap: 2000

I've been going through a typical movie awards withdrawal period. This is very typical this time of year, since nothing on the horizon really seems to have a chance in hell of making it all the to way to the Kodak Theater next February. Sure Toy Story 3, with the usual Pixar charm, has wowed with amazing reviews and a stellar opening box office receipts ($110 million is a record for the sturdiest institution in town), and many bloggers, pundits, movie buffs have weighed in that it's a shoe-in for a best picture nomination. Awesome, I'm sure when I finally see the film, I'll hardily agree. But then again, the Academy's firm bias against anything animation probably means it will be in the bottom of the top ten, with last spring's other juggernaut- How to Train Your Dragon. Asides from that nothing Oscar-able has risen to the occassion. So, I've decided to be nostalgic, remembering the Oscar season of ten years ago-- in the year 2000.

The nominees (then of course only five) were:
  • Chocolat
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Erin Brockovich
  • Gladiator
  • Traffic

It's interesting to note the differences and similarites of that list to one now. While not an earth-shattering five on terms of grand-scale artistry, all five clearly hone in on tried-and-true Academy tastes, and represent the now-typical norm of how the big studios avoided Oscar-bait stuff, instead relegating to their niche departments. Case in point-- neither Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nor Traffic are really independent films, but rather smaller, more specialized movies distributed with big Hollywood money through smaller subsidaries of big studios. Now of course this is pretty commonplace, and by 2000 is was well-established in the decade beforehand, where Harvey Weinstein, and his then Miramax embodied the classy Academy approved motion picture.

Miramax was well represented in 2000, with their trifle Chocolat, with it's refined Lasse Hallstrom direction and international cast consisting of nominated actresses Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench, along side the non-nominated Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin and Carrie-Anne Moss, but one could tell that the Miramax machine was starting to crack even here. It starts with the film itself, easily one of the most forgettable best picture nominees of the last decade, if ever, but also the film reeks then and today of machine made refinement. I remember at the time, the press of Chocolat tried to bill this film as a serious and somber meditation on individuality, but like so many in the late 90s\early 00s of Miramax Films, it feels just the same. Of course Harvey changed the landscape of the filmmaking, and the Academy Awards, so while the inclusion (in a top 5) of Chocolat seems damning and utterly stupid, there's still respect to the man behind the well-oiled machine.

But there was a sign of change in 2000 as well, as a new upstart subsidary from big Hollywood (this one being USA Films, whose parents are Universal Pictures), and in the best picture nomination for Traffic. Here was a film that is the complete antithesis of Chocolat and the type of bold, ballsy filmmaking that Harvey himself once made, and the first and only Academy love thrust upon Steven Soderbergh (he did have a prior nomination before 2000, as the writer of 1989's Miramax breakout sex, lies and videotape.) What's interesting, I think, about USA Films, now called Focus Features, is that they've developed the shrewd sense of Oscar campaigning that Miramax cultivated, but still remained earthbound by it; they're budgets are not as Miramax insane, and neither is they're preceived ego. Focus would by decades end, become a benchmark for Academy successes. Following Traffic, there was Gosford Park, The Pianist, Lost in Translation, Brokeback Mountain, Atonement, Milk, and A Serious Man. A lofty group, the only thing alluding the company is a best picture win sadly. But Traffic, I'm sure came very close, winning four out of five Oscars (director, supporting actor, adapted screenplay and film editing.) As a film itself, I believe the movie probably has gone down a notch or two in the way of it's legacy. My opinion of the film remains unchanged-- on the surface, it's a big, messy, challenging work that's grand and luminary, however when you look closer, it's muddled with a sort of maddening and frustrating inconsistancy.

Big Hollywood had a reason to rejoice in the nominations of Erin Brockovich and eventual winner Gladiator. Oddly enough both films opened in the first half of the year, usual dead zone for quality, baity filmmaking. But neither films (at least on paper) were necessarily Oscar slam dunks when they opened. Erin Brockovich was also directed by Steven Soderbergh, and really was the first big studio offering he ever made. Columbia Pictures compensated with his independent idiosyncracies by hiring the biggest movie star in the world (she was in 2000), Julia Roberts to star. The end result is an incredibly entertaining and sharp movie star vehicle. It's easily Roberts best performance to date, and in my opinion, a looser and more sharply focused piece of work than Mr. Soderbergh's other 2000 film. Gladiator, on the other hand, had a far more challenging mission: updating a bygone genre. A bygone genre of say fourty years or so. The big swords and sandals epics went out of fashion somewhere in the 1950s; even the classic westerns went to the dust shortly after, so director Ridley Scott's job wasn't necessarily DreamWorks Pictures safest bet for awards. And while I concede it's a marginal, visually ugly, pathetically written and rather forgettable movie, many differ. The movie was a huge success, and Russell Crowe, the only part of Gladiator that felt epic to me, become a movie star, and by the end of the year, and Oscar winner.

However, to me, the one film of the five that has aged the best is Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The graceful and majestic martial arts epic was in many cases the biggest sleeper hit of 2000-- to date it's the highest grossing foreign language film in North America by a lot. It's North American box office was $128 million, the second most success foreign film was Life is Beautiful at $58 million. Aside from that it's the storytelling, the most leisurely in the five picture nominations, is positively sublime, romantic and epic. In truth, martial arts film don't really ever do it for, so I indeed mean this as high praise. I remember seeing Crouching Tiger for the first time, it was shortly after Christmas, right when the praise and press was getting a bit out of hand. And yet when the lights went dim, I was completely in it's pull, not really sure of what was going on for a good while, but the film reached its glourius climax, I felt the emotion and captivating spell of a film that had spectacle for sure, but also a soul. Rewatching the film again, I felt it again.

The Golden Globes picked:

  • Chocolat
  • Erin Brockovich
  • Gladiator
  • Sunshine
  • Traffic
  • Wonder Boys
Gladiator won in an event now infamous for Elizabeth Taylor's loopy reading of the nominations.

  • Almost Famous
  • Best in Show
  • Billy Elliot
  • Chicken Run
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The victor being Almost Famous.

Had there been ten nominations in 2000, I believe the remaing five slots would have gone to:
  • Almost Famous
  • Billy Elliot
  • Cast Away
  • Wonder Boys
  • You Can Count on Me
The first three in question are a no-brainer:

Almost Famous
was one of the biggest critical smashes of 2000 (despite being a box office flop), had four other big nominations (supporting actress for Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand, film editing, and original screenplay which it won), and was remembered fondly as Cameron Crowe's finest film. That point is still valid-- everything he's made since (Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown) has been awful; still a great film however.

Billy Elliot, as wrongheaded as I believe this to be, was very likely in the 6th spot (don't you just wish the Academy released voting records) because it received a best director nod (for Stephen Daldry-- his first film), as well as an acting nod (for Julie Walters, and I'm sure Jamie Bell was 6th for best actor), and writing. It had the British crowd pleaser thing working overtime, in a field of ten it would have easily inched in.

Cast Away is kind of my dark horse idea, since the film didn't exactly play the awards the way it was expected too. It received two nominations for Tom Hanks' tour-de-force performance (a given, even if the film flopped, for novelty alone), and for best sound. However, I expect (a la The Blind Side) that a field of ten would have sneaked it in on the fact that it was a bonafide success alone, plus the Hanks\Zemeckis factor does have it's pull.

Wonder Boys and You Can Count on Me are my wild guesses just because they were both liked enough by the academy, even though I'd feel better about calling out Wonder Boys if Michael Douglas had been nominated, but I think it's film editing nomination sort of makes up for it. Both were very modest success on terms of finances, but big critical hits. Of the two, I handily favor You Can Count on Me's bravura Laura Linney\Mark Ruffalo sibling act to Michael Douglas' midlife crises.

Every year there is a share of attrocious snubs, but what about ten year later. It's a time when a films legacy can start to rear it's ugly, or delightful head. What were the best\worst films of 2000 on terms of Academy levels and what still seems sadly overlooked:
  • Requiem for a Dream- ten years later it's still an amazing piece of work, and resonates just as deeply- it's Aronofsky crowning achievement, and that's saying a lot. The Academy had the good taste to recognize Ellen Burstyn for her amazing performance, but nothing else. Burstyn likely got in because she's great, and the critics loved her, but also because she's a legend-- I can easily imagine the Academy not especially liking this movie, or even watching it. Even fans (I'm one of it's biggest) must agree it's a hard, unforgettable watch.
  • Dancer in the Dark- Lars von Trier is an artist of the highest order, and this film remains his best, I personally believe. Sure it's uncompromising, and as many people that love also hate it-- von Trier is that kind of director, and thankfully will always be. But there's pure magic in this work-- the one and only film star to Bjork (she's claims she'll never make another movie after this experience) and big winner of the Cannes Film Festival. Catherine Deneauve is also awesome.
  • Nurse Betty- it's easy and almost encourged to take pot-shots at Renee Zellweger these days, but in 2000, before her cheeks become too much, she was utterly delightful, and thoroughly nominate-able in Neil LaBute's deranged black comedy. Betty is the sweetest character she's ever played, but also the most subsersive. And without her performance the movie's twisted dark fantasy doesn't work at all. Zellweger, as well as the inventive screenplay (which won at Cannes Film Festival) deserved Oscar attention-- of course it didn't get any of it.
  • Chicken Run- it's unfortunate that the best animated feature category didn't start until 2001, because Chicken Run would have one in a heartbeat, and deservedly so. The fresh stop motion picture was cinematic bliss.
The notables of the motion picture year of 2000:
  • Almost Famous
  • Best in Show
  • Billy Elliot
  • The Contender
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Erin Brockovich
  • Gladiator
  • High Fidelity
  • The House of Mirth
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Pollack
  • Requiem for a Dream
  • Shadow of a Vampire
  • Traffic
  • Wonder Boys
  • Yi Yi
  • You Can Count on Me

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Social Network

The first artwork for David Fincher's latest film, The Social Network has been unveiled. The film, about the founders of social networking site Facebook, stars Jesse Eisenberg, Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, and Justin Timberlake, from a script by Aaron Sorkin. I'm excited for this one for a number of reasons, namely Fincher. Far and away one of the most invaluable filmmakers currently working in Hollywood, he's one of the few not afraid to add substance with his unique and illuminating style. I recently re-watched Zodiac, his 2007 masterpiece and was taken aback for the second time at the assurance and magnificence of the film; how on earth did that gem not garner a single Oscar nomination. Of course by going the traditional prestige route the following year with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button he finally netted his first (and by saying that I assume many will follow; I hope) Oscar nomination. But back to The Social Network, I'm "curious" which side of Fincher we'll encounter-- the refined maturity of Zodiac and Benjamin Button or the nilistic behind Seven and Fight Club-- I kind of want the anarchic spirit back again, and why not take it out the Facebook mania. Then again, I'm also "curious" about this one coming out, just so he can get started on the much-anticipated English version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The Social Network is scheduled to arrive, via Sony Pictures, on October 1st.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


In what could easily be one of the most cringe-inducing movie experiences of 2010; the trailer has appeared for the new Hilary Swank, go-for-broke Oscar vehicle. This time, like last time (the ill-fated Amelia) is a true story. She plays Betty Ann Waters, a woman of presumably lower means who becomes a lawyer to get her brother (played by Sam Rockwell) out of jail. Interestingly, the trailer expresses a passing of a about sixteen years, and Swank looks remarkably the un-aged throughout-- I suppose that's a true sign of her versatility. Swank and her accent are supported by Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Minnie Driver. and Peter Gallagher.


I'm know I'm a bit late here but I wanted to mention the elation I feel for the poster and trailer of Somewhere, Sofia Coppola's fourth feature film. It stars Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, set at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip. I'm very nervous about this one-- not because I doubt Ms. Coppola's writer\director skills-- she's got in her bones, and her filmography, however divisive proves that (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), but I worry that this one might prove a bit too inside Hollywood priviledge, and therefore might feel like a pretty music video of Entourage or something. I hope not, and pray my fears are put to rest and I eagerly await jumping into the drippy, pristine lost world of Sofia Coppola. Unfortuneately, Focus Features is keeping this one under wraps until December. That just seems wrong, right?

Psycho Turns 50

for proper ambiance press play.

On June 16, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock's immortal classic Psycho opened and scared audiences for the first time. I so truly wish I was alive back then to experience the elemental fright (of course while wishing, I'd hope to continue to be the same age I am today.) For that experience has become a thing of legend, and the crappy thing about modern horror films, aside from the fact they're rarely any good, or scary-- is the fact that the vast majority of it's audience is desenstized from any scares. But aside from that, Psycho, even at 50, hasn't aged at all really-- sure the black and white won't pass for certain modern audiences (shame on them), and Freudian analysis isn't that big today, but aside from that, the film perfectly lives on, scene by scene-- really is there a shot in this movie that isn't iconic, or boundary breaking on some front?

Just an example of Hitchcock's brilliance at creating mood in such a subtle way- Psycho was the first film to feature a toilet. That sounds tame and not revelatory, but when thinking about garnering suspence from unexpected places, it might be odd for audiences from 1960, who have never seen a toilet in a film before, to actually see a toilet. Therefore it generates a mood of something askew, but not in a way that anyone would practically notice. And then of course the leading lady is violently murdered in the first act of the film in one of the most bravura sequences in film history. Really, has any other sequence in any other film been so heavily dissected, examined, studied, duplicated, or fetishly re-shot (courtesy of Gus Van Sant), than the tour-de-force shower scene, ever the history of filmmaking?

Psycho is famous for a number of reasons: first in a change for Hitchcock, known for making big (albeit amazing) movies, felt this one needed a grindhouse look, and therefore insisted this one be a considerably smaller budget than his usual (he employed the artisans of his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents), felt it needed to be in black and white (even though 1960 was mostly in color), and it presents the first film to focus on serial killer Ed Gein (made even more famous as the subjects of both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs.) But there was more as Hitchcock was definitely a major self promoter, and this film showcases that to the tilt-- he insisted that no one was allowed into Psycho after the film started (really try and imagine a contemporary filmmaker with the authority to do that), all this promotion made Psycho even more a zeitgeist film for it's time.

Of course there's more to the story-- Psycho has lived on for half a century not just because of it's groundbreaking nature, but because it's a great film, made with the precision of a master working at the height of his talents. As well as a great performance piece for both Anthony Perkins (who sadly never did overcome playing Norman Bates) and Janet Leigh. It's still talked about and revered because it's one of the few films ever that totally connected into the American pop culture lexicon and never left, like Star Wars and Citizen Kane, I feel it's one of the most essential of American moviegoing experiences, not just because of quality, but because missing out on something like Psycho, is missing out on a part of the essential fabric of Americana. It's a scary movie, but also a frankly sexual one, and a psychological one, all of which were ahead of it's head, and in some cases, I truly believe, we're still catching up with Alfred Hitchcock.

Psycho was a success in 1960, but not necessarily from the critical perspective as it is today. It was viewed as violent and scuzzy. It did however recieve four Oscar nominations-- for director, supporting actress (Janet Leigh), art direction, and cinematography. Nothing for Anthony Perkins, or shamefully for Bernard Herrmann's beyond classic score.

So do yourself a favor and celebrate the anniversary of one the best movies of all time and stay out of the shower!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summer 2010 Progress Report

So the summer movie season is about one month in, still three weeks before the official calendar change, and it's been a largely ho-hum affair. Hollywood, as usual, has produced slickly over-priced, under-nourished franchise continuations and franchise hopefuls, and yet no one seems to be caring. No box office records have been smashed (or eviscerated, as hoped), no critical smashes, no films that seem anywhere close to entering the pop-culture lexicon. Perhaps, in a P-A (post-Avatar) filmmaking world, the doldrums must come. Much has been discussed of the last month and the disappointments (even though calling Iron Man 2 a disappointment when it's earned $290 million domestically because it didn't break any records seems ridiculous and an example of the wrong-headedness of the movie industry) that have ensued.

Iron Man 2, a well meaning if directionless and cowardly sequel, fared better than anything, and was followed by Robin Hood, which with Ridley Scott at the helm and a berth as the opening film at Cannes this year is still struggling to make it's way to $100 million, besieged with a plethora of middling reviews. It's unfortunate that a film barely making $100 million is a sign of failure-- perhaps if more control over whatever was going on in Scott's brain at the time were better maintained, the feature would have been viewed as a success. But thanks to a nice returns from a forminable overseas box office, Robin Hood will survive, and possibly go another round in the not too distant future-- the world wins.

Following Robin Hood, with it's desperate need for a sequel, was a sequel nobody asked for in Shrek Forever After, this time in magically 3-D. While the film has made money, despite it being the poorest attended Shrek in it's quadilogy, it hasn't exactly broadened the wonders of 3-D, or deepened the legacy of the Shrek franchise. And as a supporter of film preservation, I implore the end of unecessary sequels, really just to maintain the success (or lack of) of the original film. Which brings us to Sex & the City 2, the critical punching bag of the season, which like the rest is struggling to earn enough dough to defeat cultural embarrassment. Whether the reviews are fairly judged or not is perhaps not the case here, but again speaking from a preservationist perspective are the Sex films helping or hurting the legacy of the lauded and, in many ways, groundbreaking television show. Then again, perhaps the film would feels less like a dud if it didn't cost $100 million to make (just a theory-- perhaps the gals should have stayed in Manhattan, instead of traversing off to Abu Dahbi.) The second mishap of the unfortunate Memorial Day weekend was Prince of Persia, showing off Jake Gyllenhaal's abs to massive effect-- again the overseas box office is booming for this, but is anybody really interested in a second helping?

And so I'm, in a rare move, rather proud of the indifference shown on this years product by the American people. The populist do, and should have the power to say what they\we are and are not interested in, and the American movie industry should listen. And if we need a season without a box office record to make that point, then so be it.

However, even in times of distress, I see a beacon (perhaps a few) of hope in a few of the offerings coming out this summer. Here's the top ten films I'm most looking forward too this summer:

10. I Am Love- I posted the preview for this sumptious looking Italian film earlier starring Tilda Swinton. I know next to nothing about it, and I kind of want to keep it that way until I see it. It generated mixed reviews at this years Sundance Film Festival, but the I've always been fascinated by love-it\hate-it type movies, and this appears to be one of them. Opens limitedly on June 18th.

9. Dinner for Schmucks- I wasn't overly impressed with the trailor for this, but it's kind of slim pickings this summer, and in truth, I suppose I'd rather waste two hours of time with the likes of Steve Carell and Paul Rudd then the other jokesters coming out this summer. Then again the trailer for The 40-Year-Old Virgin didn't exactly impress me either initially. Opens July 23rd.

8. Joan Rivers: Piece of Work- This critically acclaimed and Sundance Film Festival winner for Documentary editing examines the body of work of Ms. Rivers as she approaches her 75th birthday. I've always been ticked by Rivers and this one looks like it could be a raw and perceptive look at her career, self parody and all, plus it might actually be funny. Open limitedly June 11th.

7. Winter's Bone- A grim feature from Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) which won the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Featival, and follows a young girl (Jennifer Lawrence) trying to find her father and rebuild her family in the Ozarks. The film has gotten some of the best reviews so far this year, and while the feature looks relentlessly bleak, I'm intrigued by the Ozarks angle, simply because I've never seen a film set there before, plus advance word is Lawrence is terrific. Opens limitedly June 11th

6. Cyrus- Another hit from Sundance this year, but this one seems far more commercial than Joan Rivers: Piece of Work and Winter's Bone. It's a comedy from the Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair) starring John C. Rielly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener and Jonah Hill, centering around a romance developing for Rielly and Tomei, with Hill as her son mucking up matters. I'm hoping a mature, yet warped look at romance. Plus I'm digging Fox Searchlight's promotion for this already. Opens June 18th.

5. The Adjustment Bureau- This one's a conspiracy theory take on a Philip K. Dick short story starring Matt Damon as an aspiring senator and Emily Blunt as a ballerina. Dick stories come hot and cold in Hollywood (Blade Runner is the best by a far margin), but Damon is a pro at this point at this and Blunt, as least from the trailer appears to be right there with him. I'm hopeful about this one, so let's hope like the Bourne films it manages to please the cineasts and popcorn fans at once. Opens September 17th.

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World- Perhaps this one is a bit too high since it seems that it can go anyway at this point, but Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz) is freaking brilliant, and I'm largely impressed with the young, hip cast assembled here. Sure I'll bet everyone's a bit tired of Michael Cera playing Michael Cera, but it seems like such a Michael Cera role, who else would it be? Plus Jason Schwartzman, Keiran Culkin and Anna Kendrick. Even if it sucks, I'm totally there. Opens August 13th.

3. Toy Story 3- The only sequel on this list, and for good reason-- Pixar wouldn't just make this if there wasn't a reason too. The unparallelled focus on story and how spectacle can enhance a story (such as 3-D) is but one of the reasons Pixar is in the loftiest of situations-- they've proven all of wrong so many times now with they're innovative and inventiveness, that I succumb to them every time they choose to wave something new in my face. Open June 18th.

2. The Kids Are All Right- The buzz about the lesbian mothers and sperm donar dad comedy is so deafening at this point, I just want to see this bloody thing so badly. Not just because it stars three of favorite actors currently working in cinema-- Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. Not just because it's written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, a skilled filmmaker and observant writer (High Art.) Not just because of it's rave reviews from Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Nor because the trailer looks like it strikes the right balance between fun and heartfelt. It's because I'm clamoring and begging for a quality film to come my way, and I don't want to wait until July 9th.

1. Inception- Yep, I'm eagerly awaiting Christopher Nolan's return to the cinema moreso than the dozen of so promising films from film festivals, so there you go-- I'm not quite the cinematic snob you might figure me out to be. I'm digging just about everything so far on this film, but I worry as well. I worry that the overwhelming buzz surrounding Inception will swell to a degree of indifference either on my part or the part of the populist. But if it's as good as I feel it could be than everyone wins, right? Opens July 14th.
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