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Top 5 Actresses:
Top 5 Directors:
The Coen Brothers
Top 25 Movies:
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
4. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
5. The Shawshank Redemption
6. Pulp Fiction
7. American Beauty
8. City Of God
9. Fight Club
11. Forrest Gump
12. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
13. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
14. The Pianist
15. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
16. Saving Private Ryan
18. The Big Lebowski
19. Apocalypse Now
20. The Usual Suspects
22. Big Fish
23. Waking Life
24. Million Dollar Baby
The Master (2012)
Cements Paul Thomas Andreson as the most consistent director working today
In a broad sense, The Master tells the story of a soulless drifter, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix,) constantly drunk and with no purpose in life, finding sanctuary in the company of The Cause, a cult-like group lead by a charismatic intellectual, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman.) This plot description does not do the film full justice, because with this film, Anderson fully releases himself from the constraints of traditional narrative storytelling. The film is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, loosely linking together vignettes and moments from the time these two men spend together, without any sense of "drive," "purpose" or "goal" in the traditional screen writing sense. It is a style perfectly befitting the emotional and spiritual state of the main character, Freddie, adrift in life with no anchor or sense of purpose of his own. Throughout the film, Anderson occasionally cuts back to a shot of the wake of a slow-moving ship, placing us, the audience, aimlessly drifting through the narrative, just as Freddie is. What results is a series of scenes, snapshots of events, some narratively linked and some not. The film is very subjective, and puts us squarely in Freddie Quell's mind; as a result, no easy answers are given, many questions remain mysteries, and we never get a firmly grounded sense of reality; many events remain ambiguous and keep us wondering as to their fidelity long after the film is over.
The Master is Anderson's most cinematically humble film yet. Gone are the sweeping camera moves, rapid-fire editing and high style of his previous films; even the slow, meticulous, beautifully lit tracking shots of There Will Be Blood are gone. Instead, Anderson submits to a wholly utilitarian shooting style, only moving the camera when necessary to capture action in the shot, and using formal framing techniques and naturalistic (but still very beautiful) lighting to comment on the characters' internal states. That said, it would be impossible to talk about the film's visual style without commenting on Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s decision to shoot on 65mm film. This film stock, especially when projected in 70mm, provides the film with an unprecedented sense of clarity and sharpness. The 65mm lenses provide a very unique and distinctly shallow depth of field that adds to the dream-like quality of the film, and helps emphasize the isolation the characters feel. It would be a crime to watch the film on any other format.
All this discussion about non-narrative elements, thematic overtones and film formats is not to minimize what is possibly the film's crowning and most long-lasting achievement: the performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most consistent performers working today and an Anderson regular, delivers another powerful, charismatic performance in line with his turn in Doubt. It is, for the most part, an effectively subtle performance, maintaining a controlled dignity peppered with the occasional outburst. Amy Adams delivers a similarly dignified performance. Her character is mostly quiet, observing from the sidelines, but she has her moments to shine in the aforementioned private scenes between her and Lancaster, in which she completely dominates him. But the highlight of the film is without a doubt Joaquin Phoenix's tremendous performance as Freddie Quell. Over the years, Phoenix has, without much fanfare, slowly but surely cemented himself as one of the best actors working today, with powerful turns in many varied films, from his deliciously villains turn as emperor Commodus in Gladiator to his quiet, grave personification of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Now, after a four-year absence from narrative films, he returns with what is undoubtedly a career best performance, and one that, with any luck, will win him a much-deserved Oscar. His utter and complete immersion in the character of Freddie Quell has to be seen to be believed. His back hunched, swinging his arms like an ape, his frame thin, his face twisted and distorted, mumbling and slurring his speech out of the corner of his mouth like he is just learning how to behave in society for the first time, and failing. And Phoenix' physical commitment to the performance doesn't stop there, either: he flings himself into scenes of raw violence that look and feel completely real. It is a crowning achievement in the art of acting and "the method," rivaling that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson's previous film, and it further cements the biggest difference between Anderson and Stanley Kubrick as directors: Where Kubrick is known for his actors' cold, removed performances, Anderson has become the most consistent source for high-caliber Acting with a capital A.
It's hard to really explain what makes The Master work even though it lacks many traditional narrative elements that provide most other films with powerful drama, closure and immediate gratification. It's a very subjective experience, and I'm sure many viewers will have difficulty immersing themselves in the film without the typical sense of narrative progression and character goals. For this reason, The Master is probably Anderson's least accessible film. That said, I think it is a testament to Anderson's enormous intellect and directorial abilities that he managed to capture the attentions and fascination of so many viewers and critics. He certainly won me over; although I had more visceral and immediately satisfying reactions to Anderson's previous films, I find that The Master lingers on long after the lights went up in the theater. The film's intellectual ambitions, along with its very unique, eerie tone, will keep me mulling over the experience for days to come. Already I feel the urge to re-visit it and attempt to uncover more of the film's secrets. And that right there is a telltale sign of an instant classic film in the making.
True Grit (2010)
Good ol' fashioned storytelling
As is to be expected, the film has all the classic Coen flourishes, first and foremost its use of language. The Coens have always been impeccably tuned in to language and accents, from the most creative use of swear words in The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading to the colorful, stylized prose of The Hudsucker Proxy and The Man Who Wasn't There to the very distinct accents in Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. In classic Coen fashion, the use of language is very much emphasized in True Grit. The characters have a very distinct use of words, lifted right out of the novel and, as it feels at least, right out of the time period the film takes place in. Unlike something like Deadwood which features a very modernized and stylized version of 18th century speak, the dialogue in True Grit sounds completely authentic and, along with the impeccable and accurate-feeling costume and set design, really adds to the realism of the world True Grit creates. Accents are also very important the harsh Southern drawl that the Coens have always been attracted to is very prominent and plays a very large role in the film.
As has become expected of the brothers, especially in recent years, the film looks incredibly beautiful, mainly thanks to regular DP Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography. All of his trademarks are in place: harsh but very naturalistic lighting, washed-out colors, especially in the outdoor scenes, smooth camera movements, and just a generally beautiful palette he uses to paint the world of the film with. Also very prominent in the film is the beautiful score by Carter Burwell. It hearkens back to his more melodic work on the Coen brothers' earlier films, especially Miller's Crossing. Using themes from classic hymns from the time period of the film, the soundtrack, along with the language of the dialogue, helps add a very strong feeling of authenticity to the film. It is a beautiful piece of music: dramatic but not heavy- handed, whimsical but with a hint of darkness to it. These two long-time Coen collaborators, as well as the costume and set designers, with whom the Coens have also worked with many times before, all deliver top-notch work and show once again just how strong the power of long-term collaboration can be.
Other returning collaborators are a number of the cast members. The Coens seem to have grown distant from most of their long-time regular cast members (Jon Polito, John Turturro, John Goodman, Steven Buscemi, and others), but Coen regulars still make appearances in some of their recent work. In this case, it is "The Dude" Lebowski himself, Jeff Bridges, who makes his triumphant return in a Coen brothers film, filling the very large shoes of John Wayne, who gave an iconic performance as Rooster Cogburn in the first adaptation of True Grit, from 1969. Bridges brings his own unique style and sensibilities to the role, combining his drunken goofiness with the demeanor of a serious and very skilled hunter and lawman. It is a wonderful performance playing to all of Bridges' best abilities as an actor, and it is just a joy to watch. Also playing to his best qualities is Matt Damon, who delivers one of the loosest and most fun performances of his career as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (or "La Beef", as he is referred to, by himself as well, in the film). Damon is clearly having fun with the role, although like Bridges, he, too, manages to find a very excellent balance between the humor and the seriousness and skill his character has. But the standout performance has to be newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who beat out 15,000 other girls for the part. Open casting calls often provide disappointing results, as nonprofessional actors tend to be just that not professional. 14-year-old Steinfeld proves she is a talent to watch, though she totally commands the screen with her strong-willed, stubborn character, and manages to hold her own against Bridges, Damon and Josh Brolin, who makes a brief but memorable appearance later in the film. It is a fantastic, powerful performance that is an absolute joy to watch. I foresee great things from Steinfeld in the future.
Many people will be turned off by the straightforwardness of the storytelling in True Grit. I have already heard complaints that the film lacks poignancy. But that isn't what it lacks. What it lacks is irony. It's actually quite amazing to see a film so completely and utterly devoid of irony such as this one it seems like most films these days, including the Coen brothers' recent output, all carry this air of cynicism about them. True Grit hearkens back to a more classic form of plot and character-driven storytelling, and in that sense, it succeeds immensely. Ultimately, True Grit is a piece of pure entertainment and it is quite an entertaining film: thrilling, engaging, and very, very funny. I have read many opinions claiming that this "doesn't feel like a Coen brothers film," but its storytelling style and techniques actually remind me most of another classic Coen film, Miller's Crossing. That film was also completely stripped of irony and instead focused on telling a good old-fashioned yarn, nothing more, nothing less. So while True Grit is not one of the very best films in the Coen's oeuvre, it is still just a darn good film overall.
The King's Speech (2010)
Visually stunning, beautifully written, fantastically acted; 2nd best film of the year
Despite all of its lavish production values, The King's Speech greatest asset and strongest suit is its fantastic script, written by David Seidler. In the spirit of his contemporary, Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen, Frost/Nixon and other great films), and also The Social Network, Seidler takes what would seemingly be a very trivial anecdote King George VI of England's speech therapy sessions and manages to create a genuinely compelling and fascinating drama out of it. Like Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network, Seidler manages to take this unconventional premise and find the classic dramatic arc within it. Structurally, The King's Speech is one of the best screenplays in recent memory. The king is faced with a number of obstacles that he needs to overcome in order to achieve his goal, and as the film goes along and he gets help from the people around him, he learns how to change and eventually moves on. I think that recently, many writers have forgotten about the basic elements of storytelling required to create something truly engaging. Many directors these days rely purely on visuals to tell their stories. But film is just as much a written medium as it is a visual one.
However, that isn't to say that The King's Speech doesn't deliver on the visual level as well. Directed with signature flair by up-and-comer Tom Hooper, the film is one of the most visually stunning I have seen all year. Hooper, who has only directed one feature prior to this but enjoyed a very prolific television career, having directed the Elizabeth I mini-series with Helen Mirren as well as the monumental John Adams mini-series for HBO, has, in a relatively short amount of time, managed to develop a very distinct and strikingly beautiful visual style. In this film, he goes all-out with his camera placement and movement: Wide-angle lenses, lengthy steadicam shots, off-center compositions, beautiful settings, gorgeous, naturalistic side-lighting all of these elements come together to create a rich, beautiful, almost Kubrickian visual style. It is exactly the type of visual style I personally enjoy, and it is a thrill to see a director (and cinematographer) take such a loose and dynamic approach to material that otherwise could have come across as very stiff. Of course, the beautiful locations and fantastic and lavish production design and costume design only further compliment the cinematography. Another important element that enriches the dynamics of the film is Alexandre Desplat's beautiful, understated score, which combines his own compositions with fantastic pieces of classical music that really work well to enhance the emotions of the story.
In costume dramas, the acting is often just as if not more prominent than the cinematography, costume and set design, and The King's Speech is no exception. At the center of the film are two monumental performances from two of the greatest actors working today: Colin Firth, whom I still believe deserved the Oscar last year for his sublime turn in Tom Ford's A Single Man, and whom I believe deserves the Oscar this year for his equally sublime performance as King George VI. Firth not only embodies and captures the monarch in terms of his stammer and other mannerisms, but also really breathes life and emotion into a man facing a heavy burden, caught in conflict, having to overcome a large number of obstacles including his debilitating stutter but also being belittled by his older brother and father, not having the faith of his people, and needing to win back that faith with the one thing he can't do: public speaking. Complimenting and almost completing his performance is an equally fantastic turn from Geoffrey Rush, who delivers one of his best performances yet as the king's speech therapist. The dynamic between the two of them is one of the best I have seen between two characters in any film this year; they riff and play off one another in just the perfect way, and their initial animosity turned bonding is simply wonderful to watch unfold. Rounding out the supporting cast are wonderful performances from Helena Bonham-Carter as the king's loving wife (and future Queen Mother), and Guy Pearce as King George's snooty, outrageous brother who is more obsessed with his married American socialite girlfriend than with actually doing a good job as monarch. It is a wonderful ensemble that works fantastically well together, and results in some of the best performances of the year.
Although I would rank it up there with the likes of The Remains of the Day and Atonement, The King's Speech is also set apart from those movies for one important reason: It is funny, and certainly much funnier than I expected it to be. Some scenes had me in stitches on the floor: the cursing scene will go down as one of the best I have seen in any film this year. Whereas many costume dramas are heavy-handed and feature dreary, down endings, The King's Speech is quite optimistic: characters overcome their obstacles and we are genuinely happy to see them succeed. It almost seems like an oxymoron: A British costume drama crowd-pleaser. But The King's Speech is just that: A wildly enjoyable piece of entertainment, with a heart, a fantastic story and script, and beautiful production values, music and cinematography easily make this one of the best films of the year.
The Fighter (2010)
Conventional script elevated by great direction and fantastic performances
After Rocky, Raging Bull, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella man, and many others, one begins to wonder how many more boxing movies we really need in the world, and what a new one can bring to the table. Indeed, watching The Fighter, one can't help but wonder what the film can do to renew the genre and bring something new to the table. Unfortunately, the answer is "nothing much". The script is a pretty conventional rags-to-riches story, whose most interesting element is the relationship between Micky Ward and his brother, Dickie Eklund. Luckily, Russell and company recognized that this was the strongest aspect of what is otherwise a good but ordinary and somewhat flawed script, with some problems with flat characterizations and unnatural-sounding dialogue. However, everyone involved in the film tries their best to transcend the script, and for the most part, they succeed.
Russell's direction is absolutely fantastic. His use of the camera which still has that indie looseness, free-moving and hand-held and gritty quality to it, which really adds to the atmosphere and energy the film tries to capture. His staging of scenes is fantastic and he usually just lets his actors riff off of one another, sometimes sticking to the script but sometimes talking over one another, interrupting, and creating a very dynamic back-and- forth that further lends to the realistic quality of the film and its setting. A fantastic rock- oriented soundtrack only adds to this energy and atmosphere. In terms of bringing something new to the table of boxing movies, Russell employs a very interesting technique of filming the boxing scenes as they were shown on HBO pay-per-view TV in the 90's; cheap video quality, multi-camera set-ups, the whole package. The boxing scenes were all shot over 3 days, which left the crew just enough time to run through one boxing match at a time and just shooting it as if it were an actual match, the cameras capturing everything, including mistakes and mess-ups and spontaneous, uncontrolled occurrences which yet again add to the very loose and realistic style the film attempts to capture. It is a very interesting and unique technique I have not seen used before, and I thought it was a fresh approach to boxing scenes, which have become very conventional ever since Raging Bull.
Ultimately, though, this is a movie about two brothers and their overcoming demons and obstacles in order to succeed and reach their mutual goal, together. Being a character-based film, the success of the acting is a key to the success of the film, and luckily, it is in this field that the film succeeds the most. Mark Wahlberg is adequate in the lead role of Micky Ward. I have never thought much of him as an actor and think that he did an "okay" job on this film; not bad but not particularly noteworthy. However, his supporting cast all shine, and his chemistry with them, especially with Christian Bale, is really what sells the movie for me. Bale's achievement is nothing short of revolutionary. He completely steals the show as Micky's crack-addicted older brother and trainer, a former boxer himself, and a shadow of his old self, except he can still throw one hell of a punch and knows just what Micky needs to do in order to succeed. Bale completely embodies the role and really gives it his all both in his appearance (hollow cheeks, bulgy eyes, balding) but also in his bravura performance. It is an incredible feat of acting, one of the best I have seen all year; Bale's best work as an actor yet, and totally deserving of all the accolades it will inevitably receive. Also worth mentioning though are the two main female supporting roles, namely Amy Adams as the tough and sassy but supportive girlfriend, and Melissa Leo as the overbearing mother. Both actresses are very much out of their comfort zone, which is just what makes their performances so good. Adams, who has never really shown her tough side like she does in this film, does a spectacular job, and really creates someone human and relatable out of what is otherwise an underwritten character. The same goes for Melissa Leo: her character could have gone the completely one-dimensional villainous way, but Leo adds a certain humanity to the character which just makes her seem more sad than vicious.
Ultimately, The Fighter tells a pretty conventional story in an interesting and not necessarily conventional way. It is a film that could have been over-dramatized and heavy-handed had it been put in another director's hands (see Cinderella Man for an example of over- dramatization), but Russell and his cast reign it in and set out to create a very specific atmosphere and set a particular mood that lends the film a sense of realism and a very unique dynamic energy that, with the help of the fantastic performances from the cast, help carry it above and beyond its conventional script.
127 Hours (2010)
Danny Boyle's best film
There are two main elements that make this story seem like it would never work as a narrative film. Firstly, everyone knows the ending. The film is based on a very widely reported true story that almost everyone seems to know about or at least heard about in passing. And so, must people go into the film knowing how it is going to end. Boyle and company faced a very major obstacle they needed to get over: how will they keep their audience interested in a story they already know the outcome of? In addition, there is the entire notion of dramatic structure. And when you have a story that takes place almost entirely with one character who has his hand stuck under a rock, your dramatic options seem relatively limited. Aside from the one major conflict that is set up very early on, there doesn't seem to be any room for development, further conflict, complications, additional obstacles, or any kind of change whatsoever. The character is quite literally and physically stuck. How do you make this compelling?
Firstly, Boyle's visual style does a pretty good job at keeping us interested. Continuing his streak with Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle, along with cinematographers Anthony Dodd Mantle and Enrique Chediak create an absolutely beautiful and rich visual palette, with dynamic camera movements and angles, beautiful framing and use of color, use of different kinds of cameras for different visual styles consumer-grade digital cameras to get that extreme depth of field and to have objects literally pressed right up against the lens in crisp focus; wide-angle lenses, fascinating point-of-view shots and other elements that all serve to create this incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience. The vibrant editing also does its job, with very quick, rapid-fire cuts and some of the best and most unique use of split-screen imagery I've ever seen further adding to the film's unique visual style.
So how does Boyle create dramatic tension in a movie about a man who spends the entire time with his hand stuck under a rock in an isolated canyon? Easy he takes us out of the canyon. After the accident, which occurs fairly early on in the story, the film's linear reality begins to fragment, and we begin to see what Aron begins to see. Fascinatingly enough, the film never quite makes it clear what we are seeing are flashbacks, visions and premonitions hallucinated by Aron in his desperate situation, or a combination of the two. The fact that the film blurs these lines makes the experience all the more visceral and puts us even further and deeper into Aron's head. The dynamic style of the film as well as the extremely subjective point of view it puts us in helps to create this inescapable feeling of intensity and dread as the film progresses it is quite simple one of the most intense and nerve-racking films I have ever experienced. Our connection with the character is so strong and the style so inescapable that even events that we know will happen make us feel nervous and uncomfortable. You really start thinking: there is just absolutely no other way out of this situation, and as this truth becomes more and more obvious to Aron, the feeling of dread only intensifies and intensifies leading up to the horrifically graphic climax.
When I first heard about this project, I didn't know if there was anything that could be done. And yet, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy found an absolutely brilliant way to get around these problems, and ended up creating one of the most compelling films I have had the pleasure to see this year. By removing us from the canyon, the film ceases to be about a character with his hand stuck under a rock, and becomes a film about the character himself. What makes Aron tick? What happened to him to get him in this situation to begin with, and what does he have inside him that drives him to commit this insanely desperate and courageous act he commits at the end, one which my friends and I deliberated for hours whether or not we would be capable of doing, only to reach the conclusion that there is no way in the world we would be able to do what Aron did if we found ourselves in a similar situation. We see Aron interacting with other people, and pushing them away. We see him leisurely ignoring his friendly boss as he leaves the store he works at before he leaves for his hiking trip. We see him ignoring his mother's phone calls. We see him encounter and have fun with the two hiking girls, only to leave them as abruptly and as nonchalantly as he encountered them. In flashbacks, we see a past relationship Aron shared with a beautiful blonde girl when he was younger, a relationship that ended sourly after Aron wouldn't let her in. Even when we flash back to Aron's youth, we see that his relationship with his family was one of silence. Aron lives in his own world and doesn't let anyone in, and it is this rejection of other people that got him in this situation in the first place. However, it is the change he undergoes in the canyon under the rock as he begins to realize the mistakes he has made and yearn again for the human connection he has lacked all these years that gives him the strength to do what he did. And the shots of large crowds of people that bookend the film lend further poignancy to this notion of human connection that is so beautifully depicted in this amazing and inspirational true story of perseverance and survival.
The Social Network (2010)
A timeless story of friendship, loyalty, greed and betrayal
I just want to get this out there right away and put the cards on the table so to speak: When I first heard about it, I had very little faith in this project. I was stupefied, confused by the thought of what attracted all this talent to this seemingly trivial story to begin with? Why would David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin possibly be interested in the story of the founding of Facebook? Surely they could have found something more important, more meaningful to apply their efforts to. After seeing the film, though, I realized that, of course, Fincher and Sorkin knew what they were doing all along. And furthermore that labeling this as "The Facebook movie" is really an insult to what Sorkin and Fincher were trying to and have succeeded in achieving with this film.
First and foremost, I have to take a step back and admire this film as a technical achievement. Despite seeming to be a departure for Fincher in terms of content and subject matter which it is and then again isn't the film is very clearly and undeniably a Fincher film. Re-teaming with his Fight Club director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher manages to create and capture that really unique look all of his films have. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous once again, Fincher proves that he is probably getting the best results in digital photography out of any other director working in that medium, and this film, shot on the RED One camera, looks absolutely beautiful, from the framing to the camera movement to the lighting and on to the look and the feel of the depth of field the RED captures.
Sorkin's script is also an impeccable achievement and showcases, once again just what a genius this man really is. From a structural standpoint it employs a very effective use of a framing device the Zuckerberg lawsuit depositions, which introduce the various characters and lead into "flashbacks" of the events being discussed. It really lends the film a Rashomon air and intensifies the mystery behind the Zuckerberg character and what exactly transpired in the creation of this phenomenon, Facebook. Sorkin also demonstrates an acute awareness of character construction, and manages to create a loathsome protagonist we hate and are frustrated by but yet we still end up sympathizing with. Most of all, though, it's a showcase of Sorkin's impeccable writing style and knack for writing dialogue with a very unique sound and rhythm. I saw Fincher refer to it as "Sorkinese" in an interview, and this is a really good description it is certainly very unique to Sorkin and the scripts he has written, and it is also certainly a completely unique language one which normal people in our real world do not speak, but that just sounds great on screen. The rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue remains one of the highlights of the film for me, and the script is certainly a shoo-in for Oscar consideration.
The film is also a rare showcase of pure acting prowess, and features a very interesting and eclectic cast of young actors stepping out of their comfort zones and delivering some truly phenomenal work. The casting of the film is quite a departure for Fincher, who has enough clout to gather the biggest names working in the business. Instead, he opted to go for a cast of relative unknowns or up-and-comers, and really make stars out of them. First and foremost to be mentioned is Jesse Eisenberg, an actor I have personally been a fan of since The Squid and the Whale in 2005 and one whose work I have continued to enjoy since then. However, no matter how good he was in those previous films, none of his previous performances compare to his amazing achievement on this film. Stripping away his signature goofiness and neurosis, Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as a cold, calculated and determined genius who knows what he wants, is very confident and forward-looking and will stop at nothing to get it. His counter in the film is Saverin, played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield, a name we will be hearing a lot more of of in the next few years: Saverin is a far more sympathetic character, more warm and inviting these traits only increase the impact of the tragedy of Zuckerberg's betrayal of their friendship.
Many pundits and commentators have designated this to be the "film that defines our generation", and truly a "product of its time" in the most literal sense of the word. However, I'm not sure I like this designation, especially since once you watch the film, you very quickly realize that this isn't a story about the founding of Facebook; it's really a story of friendship, ambition and betrayal, a character study of this fascinating individual whose actions in the film happen to depict the invention of an online social networking site that gets out of hand and puts all of his relationships, especially that with his best friend and business partner, in jeopardy. All of the themes mentioned above are universal and can be applied to a number of fantastic films and works of fiction over the centuries, and that, I think, is the greatest achievement of the film.
A Single Man (2009)
There is a curious bond between film and fashion design: both are fundamentally visual art forms. Before the addition of sound in the late 1920's, motion pictures were just that: moving images, pure visuals in essence. Unlike in novels or plays, the film medium forced artists to tell their stories visually, and to use words sparingly. In a similar manner, fashion design can also tell stories, although the types of stories woven into clothes are far more abstract than the more straightforward plots of films. Another element that ties the two together is that both film-making and fashion design are worlds in which art is directly tied with profit making: no matter how strong or deep the artistic ambitions of the work, at the end of the day, your goal is to sell tickets/clothes. This commercial element separates both film and fashion design from the other fine art forms. And what better a marriage of these two worlds than to have an established fashion designer direct a motion picture.
And the results more than show: A Single Man is a deliciously visual film, in which Ford seems far less interested in telling a story through words, and instead, shifts his focus to establishing a mood, a character, emotions and feelings and thoughts are all mixed up in a primordial soup of images. Essentially, A Single Man is a character study, taking place over a single 24-hour period and depicting the impact various individuals in various degrees of romantic involvement with the protagonist. We have his lover, killed in a car crash, the scars of which burn so deep that they drive George to suicide. We have George's best friend for life, infatuated with him but whose feelings are not returned, as she is of the wrong gender for George's taste. And finally, a young student of George's, representing perhaps a fleeting hope of a future love, of the simple naivety of the future generation. All these characters drift in and out of the film as we see events through George's point of view, and it is quite a unique one at that.
In order to solidify our connection with George, Ford employs what may be one of the most interesting uses of color I have seen in a recent film. The entire movie is de-saturated and drained of color, to emphasize George's dreary existence. And yet, every once in a while, something will literally brighten up George's life: the smell of a wild flower or the perfume of his secretary, his friend's green eyes, or the angelic, beautiful face of young Kenny, so full of hope and joy. Memories of his time spent with his deceased lover, on the other hand, are presented in stark black-and-white, beautiful memories but deadly and dreary to dwell on. It is a stroke of visual genius that is more than complemented by the fantastic and sleek cinematography, and top-notch 1960's period production and costume design, with an astute attention to detail, no doubt stemming from Ford's own personal familiarity with vintage clothes.
But the true crowning achievement of the film is its central performance. Colin Firth is nothing short of mesmerizing as the hollow George, drifting almost dream-like through what he thinks will be his last day on earth. It is an incredible, admirably subtle performance, in which Firth perfectly captures every gesture, every restrained emotion, and truly delivers a fascinating character study worthy of the greatest actors. Firth has always stuck to more lighter, romantic comedy fare like Bridget Jones' Diary, Shakespeare in Love, Love Actually and Mamma Mia!, but I had always felt the potential was there. But he truly shines in this role: I think it's safe to say that it is the single finest moment of his career, not to mention my personal pick of the best lead male performance of 2009. Another performance really stands out, and that is Julianne Moore as Charley, George's platonic friend for life. It is a slightly more showy performance as Charley is characterized by an overtly sympathetic and bubbly personality, despite her loneliness and her tragically unreciprocated feelings towards George. It is an excellent performance that perfectly compliments and enhances Firth's turn, and I am surprised that Moore didn't get more attention for it.
A Single Man is not a film about story, but rather, about a man, and more broadly, about a man in a certain time and what that means considering the context. It's the 1960's, the sexual revolution is just beginning, and open homosexuality is becoming more and more commonplace. It is not an issue that is overtly discussed in the film, but it is an important theme that is quite prominent. Where does young Kenny stand in all this? Does his seduction of George stem from genuine romantic feelings, or is he simply part of the "hip, bohemian" revolution, experimenting sexually but nothing more? George was deeply and genuinely in love with his life partner, and yet it is hinted that his parents did not approve. Ford takes the correct approach and does not bring up these themes and implications directly: rather, he lets the visuals, the images, and the characters' actions speak for themselves, and the result is a remarkable piece of film-making, especially considering that it is a directorial debut. If Ford ever considered a career change, this would be the perfect field for him.
Shutter Island (2010)
Much more than just an atmospheric psychological thriller
Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors to have ever emerged in the history of film, and it is a joyous miracle that such a legend is still working today. Not only that, but these last few years Scorsese has really reached the peak of his career: he finally won an Oscar and his last few movies have been the most financially successful of his entire career. As a direct result of his legendary status and lengthy career, Scorsese has definitely earned the right to make whatever movies he wants to If he shot excrement for an hour-and-a-half I would probably watch it. Luckily for us, though, his advanced years and many films, some of which are masterpieces of modern cinema, have not hampered or decreased the quality of his film-making in any way in fact, his last few films were made with uncharacteristic energy and vitality for a director nearing his 70th birthday. His latest film, Shutter Island his first narrative feature since his Oscar win for The Departed four years ago is perhaps a bit of a departure from his usual fare and style. But it is still undeniably a Scorsese picture, as it transcends its genre and features many of the characteristics that identify his previous films. It's just a little harder to find them this time.
Before delving into the more debatable aspects of the film, I first want to mention its undeniably successful aspects, which are mainly cosmetic but are most prominent indeed. Scorsese's visual language has always been highly stylized, but this movie puts even Goodfellas and The Aviator to the test, and serves to be one of Scorsese's most hyper-stylized films yet. And with the aid of one of the greatest and most unique cinematographers working today, Robert Richardson, it also becomes what is ultimately probably Scorsese's best-looking film. Richardson's trademark style of direct-from-above spot-lighting, diffusion lenses and overexposure work overtime on this film as we drift between reality and dreams with a wink of an eye. But it's not just the cinematography that's at work here: we are treated to fedoras and trench-coats, characters puffing on cigarettes every chance they get, dripping sewers, rusty iron gates, flickering lights, creaking wood: This is Scorsese's ode to the old film-noir mystery thrillers from the 40's and 50's that he probably meticulously studied and analyzed at film school and that no doubt influenced his film-making from the beginning. Accompanied by an impressive collection of creepy and ominous musical selections, the whole thing plays out like a grand old-fashioned, highly stylized detective movie. But that's too simple for Scorsese, and the film quickly reveals itself to be far more than just that.
Another greatly impressionable element of the film is its acting, specifically the lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo was always talented there's no need to look any further than one of his earliest film roles in What's Eating Gilbert Grape for a testament to his abilities but he has truly blossomed as an actor under Martin Scorsese's wing. His performance in Gangs of New York was a little uneven, but no less than two years after that film came out he delivered the finest performance of his career, in The Aviator. This is his fourth collaboration with Scorsese and in it he delivers one of the finest performances of his career: it is a ferocious, bombastic and intense performance that despite its grandiose is still filled with subtlety and finesse: DiCaprio has a complex character to play and he nails every gesture and every motion. Like his other recent films, Shutter Island is blessed with an incredible ensemble cast filled to the brim with famous names as well as lesser-known but immensely talented character actors who really bring an extra quality when Scorsese lets them go all-out. In terms of the major supporting performances, both Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley do a fantastic job at playing simple but crucial characters whom we learn know more than we may have thought, and who keep that knowledge subtly under wraps all throughout. There are also a number of character actors who only have one appearance but who really stand out and totally steal their individual scenes, including Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson and Elias Koteas.
At first glance, Shutter Island seems like an excuse for Scorsese to demonstrate that he is also capable of delivering highly stylized genre cinema: A good, old-fashioned, moody, atmospheric psychological thriller in which the fedora-and-trench coat-wearing detective finds himself caught up in a massive conspiracy. But fairly early on, when the World War II flashbacks begin to kick in, we already start to feel that there is something more at work. At first I was a little turned off by the film's finale, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it served a greater purpose. Scorsese is too good to have his film revolve around a "twist" ending: rather, it becomes a direct continuation of and sheds important light on the nature of the main character. So ultimately, what starts out as a particularly thrilling and stylish piece of genre fiction, eventually reveals itself to be a fascinating and resonant character study. I knew I could count on Scorsese to deliver something more profound than just another exercise in style. And while not quite on the level of his most powerful films, it's still good, and definitely better than any other director could have done with the source material.
Difficult to watch, but totally rewarding
This is not an easy film to watch, and not only because some of its themes and ideas get so far under one's skin that it becomes quite an uncomfortable viewing. It's a long, dreary, slow-paced film that places almost no emphasis on plot and instead focuses almost exclusively on characters and how they go about their lives and react to certain events that unfold over a relatively extended period of time, for a film at least. It is also in a foreign language that, no matter what, does tend to create even the slightest bit of alienation from non-native-speaking audiences. What I think is interesting is how Haneke exploits this alienation from the audience and takes it a step forward in order to further emphasize his point. The film is shot in stark black-and-white, which automatically alienates the audience because it makes us aware that we are watching a film after all, the real world we live in is in color. In addition, Haneke has the film accompanied by a dreary, deadpan voice-over narration that, although spoken by a character in the film that experienced them firsthand, is alarmingly detached from the events depicted in the film. All of these elements serve to create an alienated and sterile environment, which serves as the launching point for Haneke's deeper themes.
There have been numerous films made about the dark underbelly of a seemingly perfect and pastoral American life: films like Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm and American Beauty portray settings that seem to embody the perfect example of the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness, but these settings are revealed to have dark secrets and nothing is as pure and wonderful as it seems. Similarly, Haneke sets his film in a seemingly perfect environment: a picturesque small village in rural Germany, in which all the townsfolk are good Christians who do their jobs, go to Church and whom all know one another. And yet, as the film progresses, this village is struck by a series of tragedies, events that expose the darkness within all the town's characters. The good doctor who had an unfortunate accident with his horse turns out to not be a very good doctor at all he verbally abuses his mistress and sexually molests his teenage daughter. The baron is a victim of numerous crimes, against his crops, his barn and eventually his son but could he have deserved it? He seems to rule the entire town everyone works for him and he controls everyone's fates with a wave of the hand, and if that's not the perfect embodiment of daunting totalitarianism, than what is? Even the good priest is seen to go to alarmingly extreme measures to educate and discipline his children. What is most notable about the film is that, unlike the film's American counterparts, Haneke's The White Ribbon is completely uninterested in plot. By the end of it, we never know for sure who committed the crimes that the townspeople find themselves subjected to. We hear multiple theories, but none of them are ever verified. Haneke places far more emphasis and importance on the characters and how they face these troubles; the fact that someone committed them is not as important as the fact that they transpired in the first place.
Although it is a heavily allegorical and character-driven piece, another very important element that must be mentioned when discussing this film is a technical one: the cinematography. Some people were surprised this little-seen foreign film managed to nab a much-coveted Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography but it whole-heartedly deserves it. The cinematography is nothing short of divine. Every frame is fastidiously staged, down to a T: the lighting, camera movement, composition and dynamics are pitch-perfect, and if there is one thing that must be said about the film is that it is absolutely stunningly beautiful to look at. The stark black-and-white photography lends it an air of otherworldliness; the lighting and delicate camera moves become almost ghost-like. It is certainly one of the most beautiful-looking films of 2009.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy getting through this film. It progresses at a snail's pace, takes its time with every scene, is intentionally emotionally distant and requires a substantial intellectual investment from the viewer; but it also a tremendously rewarding film for those who do choose to make that investment. Haneke paints a harrowing portrait of a small and simple village that loses its innocence, so to speak, in the face of a rapidly changing Europe in the early 20th century. Secrets are revealed, dark secrets, and moral values are shaken to their foundations never to be the same again. But the worst part is that we witness the decline of the young generation, who represent the future and it's not accidental that the film ends on the devastating news of the outbreak of World War I.
The Lovely Bones (2009)
Biggest disappointment of the year: a big mess
It really is quite a big mess of a movie: some of it is just imbalanced, but some of it is just plain bad. Not one element of the film is consistently good in any way. Its flaws start on the most basic of levels: the storytelling one. I had not read the novel this film is based on, but I had heard the praise it received, and when I heard the premise, it immediately piqued my interest: The basic idea of a girl helping her family com to terms with her untimely and sudden murder from the afterlife sounded to me like an exceptionally interesting subject to deal with, and what could have proved to be a very unique and imaginative take on the depiction of a family coping with indescribably tragic grief. Indeed, the scenes in the film that deal with the family's reaction to Susie's murder provide the briefest moments of genuine emotion in the film; other than them, the movie never seems to find any emotional consistency. It will go from long and indulgent depictions of Susie wandering around her personalized heaven and meeting other figures in this afterlife that help guide her along the way, to police procedural scenes that portray the detective's investigation of the case, to a comic interlude in which Susie's eccentric and outgoing grandmother takes control over the household while everyone else is falling apart, to suddenly becoming a thriller as Susie's sister decides she will break into Susie's murderer's house in order to collect evidence against him, to a really bizarre scene in which Susie seems to possess the body of another girl in order to bid one last goodbye to the boy she loved. The movie is sprinkled with other strange scenes that lack any coherency or explanation in the context of the film, such as one scene in which Susie goes through a laundry list of her killer's past victims for no apparent reason, or another brief but totally unexplainable moment in which Susie's young brother explains to his grandmother that "Susie is in the in-between": in the mythology of the movie this is true, but how the little brother knows this information is entirely beyond me. Without going into too much detail so as not to spoil it, we are shown a scene tacked on at the end of the film of one of the characters meeting his demise, that it just seems so pointless that I just have no idea why it was included. All of these scenes seem so out of place that the movie as a whole consequently ends up feeling completely cold and emotionally detached: save for a few fleeting moments, nothing at all in the film feels in any way genuine.
This was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Everything looked like it was lining up to be something truly special: Peter Jackson returning to his Heavenly Creatures roots and telling a domestic and real-world-based story injected with a fantasy element but, for the first part in more than a decade, not actually existing exclusively in a fantasy world. A story based on a critically acclaimed novel. An all-star cast of genuinely talented individuals. What we ended up getting, though, is nothing less than the biggest disappointment of the year. I combed it from beginning to end and honestly, the film has very few redeeming qualities at all: the two aforementioned performances remain its strongest point, while the rest of it just turns out to be a big, self-indulgent, emotionally detached, inconsistent and incoherent mess. Jackson made so many bad choices as early as the conception stage that I still can't believe this is the same director that brought us the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so fine-tuned, so perfect, every element flawlessly lined up. This film never seems to know what story it wants to tell: is it a murder mystery? Is it a family drama? Is it a romance-from-beyond-the-grave? I certainly don't know, and it doesn't seem like Jackson does either. Even the writing is stiff: many sequences are accompanied by very overt voice-overs by Susie, which are clearly and obviously lifted directly from the first-person narration of the novel (again, I haven't read the book, but I know it is written in first person, so I assume these passages are lifted directly from its pages) and while the first-person stream of consciousness style works well in a novel, in the film, it just comes across as flaccid, sloppy writing as Robert McKee so eloquently put it in Adaptation. The lame performances. The digital shots. The bad CGI. The overall lack of any heart or passion. I really wanted to like this film, but the more and more I think about it, the more I realize that there really isn't much to like about it at all. And the fact that it's such a missed opportunity and that I anticipated it so much makes it all the worse.