Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movie Review: A Serious Man

(For the radio version, please click here).

The Coen Brothers have a history of creating enigmatic films. Their first, “Blood Simple”, and later the more illustrative, “Barton Fink”, were odd and beautiful films. The Coen brothers didn’t feel the need to spoon feed plot to viewers. The audience had to pay attention. Without the director and writers spelling out background information or telegraphing the “twist” at the end, these mysterious films were both funny and infuriating. (They also rewarded repeated viewings on VHS and DVD).

“A Serious Man” fits well within this oeuvre. So here is my warning, presented without judgment: there is a thin line between engagingly mysterious and obnoxiously obtuse; there is a thin line between respect for an audience’s intelligence and arrogant disregard for an audience’s need of context.

For now, I am willing to disregard that “A Serious Man” is random and seemingly ends before it really…ends. Sure, I’ll embrace the mystery. The acting is great. The writing is superb. And, above all, it’s a Coen brother’s film, and even a Coen brother misfire (and I’m not saying this film is) is still better than 99% of the movies released today. They are masters of the craft.

In addition to being bizarre, other elements of the film are classic Coen brothers. The film is a Coen brothers comedy, meaning there will be lots of drama. (As opposed to their dramas, which can be pretty darn funny). Also revisited is their habit to follow an everyman who faces increasingly absurd and often dangerous situations. Think William H. Macy’s Jerome Lundegaard in Fargo.

In “A Serious Man” the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a man navigating the disintegration of his familial, professional, and marital life within the Jewish faith and the confines of late 1960s Midwestern suburbia.

Technically the film is interesting and an inside joke. A washed out, purposefully low budget feel metaphorically and literally hangs over the movie. They even purposefully screw up their shots in a specific way. By doing this, the Coen brothers pull you completely into a different time and place as if you were watching a movie made in that time. And they fooled me. Since I was once a projectionist I dismissively "tsked" the projectionist’s performance and actually complained. I was told by the projectionist the “problem” (in quotes) I was complaining about was on purpose. It then dawned on me: you got me Coen brothers, you got me. How infuriating. How funny.

“A Serious Man” plays this weekend at our beloved Gold Town Nickeldeon – the place to go see a mysterious film like this. This is Clint Farr, once again, Alone at the Movies.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Oughts Decade in Review

In a look back from 2000 to 2009, (the oughts, the noughts, the oh-ohs?), Andy Kline of KXLL (see at www.ktoo.org) interviewed me for my top ten movies of the past decade.

(For the radio version please click here).

Whereas not a transcript of the interview, the following is my top ten and honorable mentions, plus a little synopsis. And please note, I live in Juneau Alaska. There's a ton of films I don't see. Your recommendations and comments are welcome. Thank you to the Gold Town Nickelodeon for bringing smaller foreign and independent films to Juneau.

By the way, do you underline a movie's title or put it in quotations?

“Top Ten Movies of the 2000s”
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Old School (2003)
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2003)
Amelie (2001)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Wall-E (2008)
There Will be Blood (2007)
Juno (2007)
Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003)

Honorable Mention
Forty Year Old Virgin (2005)
High Fidelity (2000)
Collateral (2004)
Memento (2000)
Ratatouille (2007)
Finding Nemo (2003)
Spirited Away (2001)
Shaune of the Dead (2004)
Hero (2002), House of Flying Dragons (2004), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
The Lives of Others (2006)
Sexy Beast (2000)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Gladiator (2000)
The Departed (2006)
Training Day (2001)
Casino Royale (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Almost Famous (2000)
Traffic (2000)
O’Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Best Alaska Movie – Insomnia (2002)

Royal Tenenbaums
Really one of my favorite films. This third film by Wes Anderson remains his masterpiece despite some enjoyable follow-ups. Wes Anderson can make the quirky and random very specific and detailed. It’s quite a feat. Great performance by Gene Hackman, perhaps his best of the decade. And any movie Gwyneth is tolerable in means the director is excellent.

Old School
Old School shouldn’t have worked for me. Luke Wilson is a mystery to me; why do we care? Will Ferrel is funny but wearing. Vince Vaughn and Jeremy Piven are always engaging but also the same character. Ellen Pompeo is fine but under used. Juliette Lewis is probably the best part of the film in terms of acting and is on screen for no more than five minutes. But somehow, this film is the one that sticks with me, the one we bought on DVD, and the one that makes me laugh even after multiple viewings. Todd Phillips is very good at smart raunchy comedies and is latest, The Hangover, continues his streak.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
First, it was a delight to watch Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh actually act in a taut martial art film. Their subdued, well, suppressed love, maintains as much tension as the stunning fight scenes.

Amelie (and A Very Long Engagement)
Audrey Tautou was a relevation for me this decade. For the first half of the decade she starred in some my favorite and more interesting films, also including Dirty Pretty Things. Outside of the Da Vinci Code, she hasn’t done anything to reach Juneau in the second half of the oughts. I hope to see her soon. Also, Director Jeunet is one of the most visually smart and creative directors working in the world. I recommend any of his movies which include some 90s classics, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children.

Lost in Translation
A pitch perfect film about the trouble boredom can get people into. Bill Murray is at his understated best as a past his prime Hollywood actor shilling for whiskey in Japan. Scarlett explodes from obscurity as the bored wife of a photographer on assignment in Tokyo. From this film, had you any doubts, Bill Murray is a great actor of suppressed weariness, bemusement, and wisdom. Scarlett becomes much, much more than a pretty face and figure, portraying her role as intelligent and curious. Scarlett seared herself into the minds of the nation’s sensitive males with this one.

Lars and the Real Girl
It’s nice to see a movie where everyone behaves. This is a film that, despite a superficially ridiculous premise, reflects the basic decency in people that most of regularly encounter. Most films find their tension through people behaving badly. This film pulls of the trick of finding tension through people behaving kindly. For that, this is one of my best of the decade.

Oddly, the most dystopian view of human kind came through the g-rated eyes of a cute trash compactor. I could almost fill up my top ten of the decade with Pixar films. It’s tough not to. I think because each movie requires up to four years from conception to marketing they have plenty of time to build classic, layered, and nuanced stories. You can watch these films over and over and get something new each time. And when you have small children like I do, that’s a blessing. Pixar leaves the other animators, including Dreamworks Shrek and Madagascar series, in the dust (though I like the Madagascar penguins).

There Will be Blood
In my opinion the performance of the decade was Daniel Day Lewis; oil man in this movie. Under refreshingly restrained direction from Paul Thomas Anderson, this is an amazingly sparse, brutal, and beautiful film.

Few movies are perfect. Most don’t try and those that do try too hard. For me, Juno is a perfect movie. A well done and moving story that treats it’s teenagers like real and thoughtful human beings – while still being teenagers subject to poor decision making. Love this movie.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy
A storytelling and technical achievement, the movies defined cinema for the decade. Jackson’s ability to develop nuanced characters and a little humor amidst a war between good and evil in a fantasy world will forever stand as one of cinema’s greatest achievements. These films were rightly rewarded with big box office grosses and Oscars. Frankly, some of the best movies ever made. (And the DVD extras are like a film-making school)

Honorable Mention
High Fidelity (2000)- The last great John Cusack role (actor of the 90s)? Discuss.

Collateral (2004) – Certainly Tom Cruise’s best role of the decade. Michael Mann is a very effective director.

Memento (2000) – Part of the brain twisters trend.

Ratatouille (2007) – Keeps getting better, even after the 30th viewing.

Finding Nemo (2003)- A stunning achievement – tough choice between it and Wall-e.

Spirited Away (2001) (and the others by director Hayao Miyazaki like Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Ridiculous and so much fun, with actual scares and emotional tension.

Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) - These are sumptuous adventures available from the singular talent of Mr. Zhange. These films are pure cinema, visually stunning and simply a joy to watch. I highly recommend this director.

The Lives of Others (2006) – A stunning little movie about eastern german spies (over 200,000) and those they monitored. One of the best endings to a movie this decade.

The Forty Year Old Virgin (2004) -The film launched a number of people into stardom and started the Judd Apatow streak of raunchy but kind comedies that made us laugh the last half of the 90s. The film introduced Steve Carrell to the nation beyond The Daily Show. It cast Catherine Keener, one of my favorite actresses because she can, you know, act. It was my first time seeing Romany Malco in a movie, who has since been doing great things on Showtime’s Weeds. Elizabeth Banks is a rare combination of looks and comedic timing who has done well since. And, then there is the incomparable Jane Lynch.

Sexy Beast (2000) - Great performance by Kingsley as British gangster forcing Ray Winston out of his retirement in Spain to return for one more job.

Gladiator (2000) - Russell Crowe’s breakout role after LA Confidential, this is a bloody, well edited, effective film.
The Departed (2006) - This was not the movie of a seasoned director. This was a gritty, angry, scrappy movie from a genius kid just out of film school. Scorcese continues to come up with fresh takes on a tired genre. Keep them coming. Great, great movie.

Training Day (2001) - My favorite Denzel performance of the decade. Ethan Hawke irks me for no good reason but was tolerable. The movie succeeded despite the casting of Tom Berenger, usually a death sentence. It was brutal and uncompromising; one of the meaner films of the decade. Denzel’s corrupt cop, had it not been for Daniel Day Lewis, would have been my performance of the decade.

Casino Royal (2006) - Thoroughly entertaining. I’ve never seen a film re-invent a franchise, certainly one as tired as James Bond, like Casino Royale. By casting a real actor and making it much less comic and more brutal, this film stands on its own. Also, Paul Haggis (Crash) provides his unique talents to a script otherwise penned by writers of previous Bond films The familiar bing-da-ding-ding of the opening credits is just a bonus.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) - Child performances are very difficult to pull off and this movie contains one of the best. The creation of an effective alternative universe here is completely unexpected and amazing. Movies should be visually effective, it’s a big screen after all, and this movie fits this bill better than many that were much more expensive. Violent , this movie is not for the kiddies.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) - I can’t say this is a perfect film. When Hilary Swank’s character spits out her pen and glares at her mother from her hospital bed I laughed. I think what sticks with me most was how good Eastwood was in his own film. Historically a limited actor, in Million Dollar Baby, he rips your heart out.

Almost Famous (2000) - Don’t let the nearly 10 years that have passed diminish the greatness of this film. The most heartfelt of Cameron’s films since Say Anything, this amazing little meditation on music remains a monument to the rock and roll dreams of sensitive writer geeks.

Traffic (2000) - Probably Steven Soderbergh’s last great movie. A great mute performance by Benecio Del Toro.

O’ Brother Where Art Thou (2000) - I needed to put at least one Coen Brothe’s film in my decade’s best movies since they had some great films. A bad Coen Brother’s film is still better than most of what is being shown. They are amazing. This film single handedly made US folk music hip again and for a while, teenagers were humming to Gillian Welsh. I believe this is Clooney’s break out role where we all recognized him as an leading to one amazing decade for the actor.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Got to put a Kate Winslet movie in here. This was a fantastic and sad movie.

Inglorious Basterds (2009) - Tarantino’s best since Pulp Fiction.

Best Alaska Themed Movie – Insomnia – 2002 (That's right, better than Into the Wild or Grizzly Man)

Top “Trends” of the 2000s
Disney Pixar and Japanimation gave audiences plenty of eye candy in the 2000s. But much more important, they gave timeless stories and plenty of nuance to reward repeated viewings.

Mind Benders
"Being Johan Malkovich", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", and many lesser films at least made the attempt to twist traditional narratives and construct original narratives.

Audrey Tautou and Scarlett Johanssen
These were my favorite actresses of the decades. Certainly some like Meryl were in more movies and more successful movies, but these ladies are the ones I dream of. Oh, and Kate Winslet, but she occupies a place beyond mere "best of" lists.

Russell Crowe
My favorite actors are Denzel Washington and Jeff Bridges. But from luck or savvy, Russel Crowe probably had the best run of the 2000s. Okay, definitely an argument can be made for George Clooney, Matt Damon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Viggo Mortensen, or even Bill Murray. I’d probably agree, but really, Cameron was in good films that also did well at the box office. Starting in 2000 with Gladiator, he then went on to star in some of the better bigger films of the decade:
State of Play (2009) .... Cal McAffrey
American Gangster (2007) .... Richie Roberts
3:10 to Yuma (2007) .... Ben Wade
Cinderella Man (2005) .... Jim Braddock
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) .... Capt. Jack Aubrey
A Beautiful Mind (2001) .... John Nash

Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson ended the 1990s with "Rushmore", a wonderful mature look at the odd-ones of high school. But he began the 2000s with a masterpiece. "The Royal Tenenbaums" was a pitch perfect look at the imperfections associated with genius. Set in New York, but not really, Anderson has an eye for nuance. Each frame is exactly that, framed. His attention to detail is astounding. Quirky, smart, unexpected and able to wrench performances out of actors not normally associated with great acting. He went on to make some of the more original films of the decade: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

Peter Jackson
"The Lord of the Rings", "King Kong", and this month’s "The Lovely Bones", and a production credit on the awesome "District 9" belong to Peter Jackson. Nothing of his past films in the 80s and 90s even hinted at the juggernaut he would become. His best pre-LOR was Heavenly Creatures which was magical and odd, but small too (and to Peter’s endearing credit, introduced the world to Kate Winslet, my star-crush, my muse,). Most of his films were brain splattering comic-gore, or Meet the Feebles, the craziest damn thing I’ve ever seen. So you can forgive 99% of the movie-going public when "Fellowship of the Ring" exploded into popular culture when they said, “Peter who?”

"Zoolander", "Old School", "Forty Year Old Virgin" and all the Judd Apatow films that followed, perfected a meshing of genres that should be recognized just for the audacity. In the guise of raunchy sex comedies reminiscent of the 80s Porkies knock offs, these films are actually – well – sweet; touching depictions of male bonding. None of them were masterpieces but nearly all of them were worthy distractions and a decent way to spend a few hours, be entertained, and not necessarily insulted.

Use of Good Actors in Action Films
The re-birth of James Bond with something approaching an art-house film was not only the result of writing and directing but casting Daniel Craig as the new Bond. Brooding, buff, and angry, Craig gave a 20-something movie franchise a shot in the arm unlike anything I’ve seen. I so liked "Casino Royale" I thought it should have been nominated for best picture. Never has such a hokey franchise been so successfully re-imagined. Also of note is Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, a series of movies I really enjoyed. Iron Man has Robert Downey Jr., Spiderman has Tobey McGuire, even the hulk was played at turns by Eric Bana and Ed Norton. These are real actors who elevated their films. It’s a real and welcome change from the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of action movies past.

Female Directors and Screewriters –
Though still a small club, women made gains this last decade in writing and directing great films. "Lost in Translation" and apparently "The Hurt Locker", are great films directed by women. "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Juno" were written by women. By no means complete, a partial list follows:
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
Jane Campion – In the Cut
Nora Ephron – Julie and Julia
Nancy Meyers – It’s Complicated and Somethings Gotta Give
Rebecca Miller – The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Christine Jeffs – Sylvia
Anne Fletcher – The Proposal, 27 Dresses
Mira Nair – Amelia, The Namesake, Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding
Karyn Kusama – Jennifer’s Body, Aeon Flux, Girlfight
Lone Scherfig – An Education and a bunch of Swedish Films
Lynn Shelton - Humpday
Drew Barrymore – Whip It; prod – Charlie’s Angels and Donnie Darko
Sofia Coppola – Lost in Translation and Marie Antionette
Tamara Jenkins – The Savages
Sarah Polley – Away from Her

Fran Walsh – LOR,
Diablo Cody – Jennifer’s Body, Juno
Marjane Satrapi – Persopolis
Tamara Jenkins - "The Savages"
Nancy Oliver -"Lars and the Real Girl" writer.
Sarah Polley "Away From Her"

Be it 9/11, the Iraq War, or some inkling feeling the world is in imminent danger of ending (be it from climate change, the rapture, or some combination), I think films have been much kinder over the last decade. Almost all the films I’ve listed, certainly not all, but almost, have undercurrents of kindness and loyalty, family and friendship. Even the crude comedies have been “nice”. Past movies seemed mostly ironic and amoral. In "Lars and the Real Girl", a town pulls together to help a damaged young man make it through a romance with a plastic blow-up doll. Seems crazy, but the people portrayed in this film reflect more the world I live in than any film depicting “gritty realism”. Heck, the most scathing condemnation of mankind was in a G-rated movie about two star-crossed robots. I’ve been all over and am still convinced that most of the time, most people, are mostly decent. I’ve enjoyed seeing that in the movies.

Least Favorite “Good” Movie
Little Miss Sunshine - Like opening up a can of indie filmmaking.