Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Observations

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Last night's Academy Awards ceremony was something of a mixed bag, both in terms of the choices of the nominees and winners, as well as the speeches and performances. Among other things, we had to sit through some confusingly lame shadow puppet people, Celine Dion butchering Morricone music, some misty-eyed theological hypothesises from a former American Idol contestant, and the usual two or three personal favorites of the year that sadly got shafted. Eventually, however, the end truly justified the means.

Let me first say that I know the Oscars is nothing more than a popularity contest, and is more about the politics of stardom than artistic merit. The list of great films that got snubbed throughout history is enormous compared to the list of times I have actually agreed with the Little Gold Man. And yet, my opinion is still what it is - one man's opininion. So I watch the Oscars in hopes that my opinion will be shared by the people who are making the movies. Usually they don't, but when they do, it makes it all worth it. In any case: the ceremony itself, which was the 79th in the Academy's history.

I'll start with the bad, to get it out of the way. Ellen Degeneres, while not especially grating or obnoxious, was a serious step down from Jon Stewart last year. The perfect Oscar MC is someone who knows that the whole thing is Hollywood's High School Prom, not someone who's giddy to recieve the honor of being asked to host. Degeneres attempted to do her daytime TV schtick, but appeared so nervous in front of the mighty Tinseltown community that most of her jokes felt bland and flat. When Jerry Seinfeld got onstage to announce one of the numerous montages, I really wished he would stick around longer.

As a rule of thumb, the Academy must always give out at least one award to a young upstart who never did anything before their movie in question, and said upstart must compensate them with a bubbly, teary-eyed, and borederline-hysterical acceptance speec. This year, Jennifer Hudson thanked God, for willing her Best Supporting Actress turn in Dreamgirls to happen. Surely he's a vengeful, Old Testament God if he not only allows so much suffering and pain in the world, but has that much of a grudge against Abigal Breslin.

Another embarrassing blunder occurred just after Ellen made a speech about how culturally diverse this year's Oscars were, with so many British, Japanese and Mexican actors and craftspeople nominated, as well as three American-produced films in languages other than English. Then, when William Monahan approached the stage for his Best Original Screenplay award, the announcer proclaimed that his script for The Departed was based on the Japanese film Infernal Affairs. Nice job, guys.

Children of Men won neither of the meager three nominations it got for Editing, Cinematography and Best Adapted screenplay. It's a shame, especially for the Cinematography, although Pan's Labyrinth was also worthy of winning for its gorgeous color useage. Pan's, which walked off with Best Makeup and and Best Art Direction, I was sure would win Best Foreign Language Film, but it lost to The Lives of Others. Probably more of the Gold Man's long-running distaste for genre pictures, since I don't know anyone who saw the latter film outside of critics for the Village Voice. It's still playing around here, though, so I'll probably check it out.

Ennio Morricone's Lifetime Achievement Award, which I had been looking forward to all night, was also something of a letdown. The orchestra's muzak-sounding versions of some of his greatest hits was played over a half-hearted montage of film clips (they really should have let Quentin Tarantino or somebody cut that thing together), followed by an abysmal performance of "Debora's Theme" from Once Upon a Time in America by Celine Dion. Is it just me, or does that woman strangely resemble the giant skeleton-ghost at the end of Poltergeist? The Maestro's speech, however, which was translated into English by Clint Eastwood, was wonderfully heartwarming.

Didn't get around to seeing The Queen or The Last King of Scotland, but both Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker are tremendous actors who I'm sure deserved their awards. Peter O'Toole really should have gotten the "Elderly Veteran Actor Who Is Totally Awesome" award, but instead it went to Alan Arkin, who I can also live with - his heroin-snorting, foul-mouthed grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine was one of the highlights of what I thought was a somewhat mixed and calculated film.

Of course, the event that made the whole evening worthwhile was the double-whammy of Martin Scorsese, the Greatest Filmmaker On The Planet, finally getting a Best Director award for The Departed. After jokingly asking them if they could "please double-check the envelope," he was whisked back out again when a chrome-domed Jack Nicholson announced that The Departed had also been voted as Best Picture. Marty looked completely stunned, and so was I - I was certain that either Babel, The Queen or Little Miss Sunshine would walk off with the award, but it was Scorsese times two. A wonderful evening which turned itself around, going from a self-congratulating celebration of cheese to an event honoring true heroes. Congratulations, Mr. Scorsese, and godspeed.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

My Personal Top 100

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1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
2. Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
3. The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
4. Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa)
5. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
6. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
7. The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
8. Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder)
9. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

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10. Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater)
11. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
12. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
13. The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)
14. The Seven Samurai (1955, Akira Kurosawa)
15. Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese)
16. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
17. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg
18. Fargo (1996, Joel and Ethan Coen)
19. Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

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20. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
21. Rushmore (1996, Wes Anderson)
22. Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
23. The Godfather: Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppolla)
24. Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)
25. The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
26. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
27. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
28. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
29. Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)

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30. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
32. Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda)
33. Blue Velvet (1984, David Lynch)
34. Touch of Evil (1955, Orson Welles)
35. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)
36. Nashville (Robert Altman 1975)
37. The Producers (1968, Mel Brooks)
38. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
39. Pinocchio (1940, Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen)

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40. Onibaba (1964, Kaneto Shindo)
41. Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby)
42. Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)
43. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
44. The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges)
45. King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack)
46. Halloween (1979, John Carpenter)
47. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
48. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
49. M (1931, Fritz Lang)

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50. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
51. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen)
52. Bride of Frankenstein (1936, James Whale)
53. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne)
54. The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird)
55. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
56. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
57. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
58. Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
59. Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)

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60. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
61. Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)
62. Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)
63. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975, Tobe Hooper)
64. Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)
65. The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin)
66. El Topo (1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
67. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer)
68. Bedazzled (1967, Stanley Donen)
69. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)

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70. Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)
71. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
72. Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert)
73. Tampopo (1985, Juzo Itami)
74. Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)
75. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks)
76. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
77. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928, Bill Reisner)
78. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Henry Selick)
79. Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler)

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80. A Man Called Horse (1970, Elliott Silverstein)
81. Gunga Din (1939, George Stevens)
82. A Man and a Woman (1966, Claude Lelouch)
83. Crumb (1994, Terry Zwigoff)
84. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
85. Way Down East (1920, D.W. Griffith)
86. The Royal Tenenbaums (1973, William Friedkin)
87. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953, Robert Wise)
88. Casablanca (1941, Michael Curtiz)
89. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

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90. Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)
91. Peeping Tom (1960, Michael Powell)
92. The Thin Blue Line (1988, Errol Morris)
93. Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (2001, Sinichiro Watanabe)
94. X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963, Roger Corman)
95. The Naked Kiss (1964, Samuel Fuller)
96. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978, Chia-Liang Liu)
97. 8 1/2 (1963, Frederico Fellini)
98. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965, Russ Meyer)
99. Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkofsky)
100. The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day

Friday, February 09, 2007

2006: The Year in Cinema

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With cinematic offerings like Norbit and Epic Movie, Febuary is always something of a dry spell for movie fanatics, which is just as well, because we're all at home in front of the computer, drafting up our Top 10 Best lists for the previous year. And what a year 2006 was! While I didn't make it to see every movie this year which looked interesting (The Queen, Volver, and Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima epics are probably going to have to wait until they reach my local video store), I still saw enough to prove that anyone who says that there are no good films made anymore is full of it. With that said -

1. Children of Men - Alfonso Cuaron's best film to date is this year's Munich: an armrest-clawing thriller that gets your heart pumping at a thousand beats per minute, and a beautiful meditation on all we hold dear that will set your mind reeling with philosophical questions for days afterward. For a science fiction film about a future where all women are unexplainably infertile, the world in which the characters live seems devastatingly possible, and yet its conclusion is one of the most genuine and uplifting the cinema's seen in years. It's not often a film comes along that should be required viewing for every inhabitant of this planet, but Children of Men is surely it.

2. The Departed. Many labeled this film as a "lesser Scorsese" work, and once again harped on Jack Nicholson's performance for being an "over-the-top self-parody," which I can respect. I can also respect the dietary preferences of dung beetles, even though I don't personally agree with their opinions. The latest work from America's greatest living filmmaker is a cops-n'-crooks genre masterpiece which succeeds on every level, with fine performances all around (especially the incomparable Mr. Nicholson), a cracking script, and camerawork that's nothing short of perfect. Honestly, what more could you want?

3. The Fountain. Darren Aronofsky's third feature is a rare breed of philosophical sci-fi art film, sharing more in common with 2001 and Solaris than the cold and calculating Requiem for a Dream. The movie employs painterly special effects and an astonishing visual sense, but at its core is one of the most sincere love stories of the past decade. Its mixed response from critics and indifference from audiences (not to mention its notorious booing at the Cannes Film Festival), I believe, is due to the fact that it's been so long since we've seen a vision so earnest and openly spiritual that we've forgotten what one looks like. Give it ten years, and I'm sure this one will be ripe for rediscovery.

4. Linda Linda Linda. This highlight of the New York Asian Film Festival was not only an example about what I love so much about Japanese cinema - that it's not the destination that matters so much as how you get there - but also the best film about what it feels like to be a teenager since Dazed and Confused, and a 114 minute concoction of pure rock-and-roll spirit. Three Japanese schoolgirls and a Korean foreign exchange student form a band, which will perform two songs by 80's J-punk group the Blue Hearts for their school's talent show. That's all the plot there is. There's no music-hating principal or rival band who attempt to rig the talent show; the beef of the movie is in shy, sideways glances, hallway conversations, hilariously misunderstood cultural customs, and finally seeing these girls rock their hearts out like there's no tomorrow. By the end of the movie, we actually feel like they're our friends, and we're cheering them on too.

5. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan. Speaking of hilariously misunderstood cultural customs, the cinematic debut of Sacha Baron Cohen's friendly but horrifyingly offensive Kazahk alter-ego was hands-down the most fun I had in a theater all last year. Though detractors will argue that this film brings nothing new to the table, I disagree - this is a comedy, and in comedy, there are certain things that are always funny. Exposing unwitting Middle Americans as the racist louts that they are, like the man slipping on the banana peel, is something that never fails to bring a chuckle to my lips. In our nauseatingly PC political climate, Mr. Baron Cohen is a shining light and a guiding star.

6. The Proposition. The western has sadly fallen out of fashion in our day and age, and seeing a truly great example of the genre, in which the director breathes live into the time-honored conventions and makes them seem fresh and new again, seems to be as rare as a sighting of Bigfoot. Even though the action is transported to the Austrailian outback, Nick Cave and John Hillcoat havehave still woven together a dirt-caked, sun-dried cinematic tapestry of murderers, lawmen, and grey shades of morality that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. Along with some brilliant turns from Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, John Hurt and Emily Watson, Ray Winstone gives his finest performance to date as the conflicted Captain Stanley.

7. Pan's Labyrinth. The beginning of our century has seen a wealth of movies directed by unabashed dorks, but standing head and shoulders above the recent work of Harry Knowles' drinking buddies is the latest from Guillermo del Toro. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this dark fantasy proves that magic spells, wicked stepfathers, and belief in faries isn't just kids' stuff that can sometimes contain elements of dark, psychological turmoil and allegories of real-life good and evil, but that with great storytelling, the two are often inseperable. More than The Chronicles of Narnia for grownups, this film is not only a hard-hitting message about obedience in the face of evil (a message needed more than ever in our post-9/11 climate), but an affirmation that made-up stories are as important a human need as food and water.

8. Monster House. A film that exceeded my expectations more than any other last year, this suburban supernatural adventure caputred the spirit of the Amblin productions of the 80's like E.T., Poltergeist, and The Goonies down to a T. It's a kid's movie with balls, humor, spectacular visuals and a genuine sense of peril, the likes of which is hardly ever seen outside the works of Brad Bird and Pixar. If I ever become a dad, I would love to watch this with my kids.

9. Fanfan la Tulipe. The published critical community always cheat on their top 10 lists by including a decades-old foreign film that was given a beleated arthouse release in the U.S. on that given year. In 2006, Jean-Pierre Mellville's dull and dry espionage adventure Army of Shadows was the popular favorite, which critics included on their yearly top 10's so they wouldn't have to admit that they loved Talladega Nights. I've decided to do the same, but to include the brilliant 1952 French film Fanfan La Tulipe, which combines the swashbuckling adventure of the old-school Erroll Flynn pictures with the cheeky sexual innuendo of Austin Powers, not to mention the radient beauty and charisma of Gina Lollobrigida. I can only hope and pray that someone like Criterion will release this soon, and the fortunate few of us who saw this at New York's Film Forum won't remain so few for long.

10. Tideland. If the highly disappointing The Brothers Grimm gave us a watered-down, studio lap-dog Gilliam, Tideland is surely Gilliam Unbound. This is a movie that begins with a ten-year-old girl helping her hippie father (Jeff Bridges) shoot himself up with heroin, and only gets weirder and more fucked-up from thereon in. The result is a deeply disturbing piece of work that I wouldn't reccomend to anyone outside of die-hard fans of the director, and being one of those myself, I loved it. Jodelle Ferland (the little girl from Silent Hill) gives what is surely one of the greatest child performances of all time as Jeliza-Rose, an innocent whose imagination and goodwill keeps her afloat on a sea of darkness.

Honorable Mentions - since there were too many good ones this year.

Inland Empire. David Lynch's 3-hour MiniDV epic is more fractured and experimental than anything he's attempted before. As Homer Simpson said of Twin Peaks; "this is amazing...and I have no idea what's going on."

A Scanner Darkly. Richard Linklater once again uses Waking Life's style of rotoscoped animation to bring the most faithful Phillip K. Dick adaptation to the screen. Like Children of Men, it's a not-too-far-off future that seems highly possible, given the way things are today.

12 and Holding. Outside of my friend Dave, who went to see this with me, I don't know of anyone else who saw this film. Which is a shame, because it's one of the best films about the dark nature of childhood that I've ever seen, and one of the few films this year that actually brought tears to my eyes.

Snakes on a Plane. A movie that delivers every ounce of pure, dumb, honest escapism that the title promises. If there's a film fan alive who's not delighted by the sight of Samuel L. Jackson running through a plane's baggage compartment, zapping doped-up repitles with a taser, I hope I never meet him.