December 30, 2011

2011 Movie Review

Another year of movies!

I always wish I could see more, especially current releases, but time and finances don't always allow it. This year was particularly busy for me so I got fewer in than I'd like, but still saw some great ones! For the first time making this note, I had a tough time choosing the worst of the year. And by that I mean there weren't that many that I could label that way. Most of the films I saw were really wonderful. I saw 74 films this year, which for me is pretty average.

2005: 69 (Dogville).
2006: 79 (Little Miss Sunshine).
2007: 87 (Ratatouille).
2008: 74 (WALL-E).
2009: 85 (Up in the Air).
2010: 75 (The Social Network / Toy Story 3)
2011: 74.

I also kept going with my big movie blog project -- although I had hoped to finish before the year was through, I got through 38 more (18 of which I'd seen) and decided not to rush the last few since they're all such classics. Only seven left to go!

When I got to making the top ten and choosing a favorite, one stood out among the top -- and I wonder if I'm cheating since it's the very last film I saw the whole year! But there were so many breathtaking moments, so many delightful performances, and so much to recommend in Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist that it had to be my favorite for the year. Plus, as my friend pointed out, it's "for everyone who loves to love movies about people who love movies." What's not to love? :)

Here's my two cents everyone. Happy 2012 -- and cheers to a new year of moviegoing!

My Top Ten of 2011 
  • The Artist (my favorite!) 
  • Beautiful Thing
  • Before Sunset 
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Blue Valentine
  • Bridesmaids
  • The General
  • The Help
  • Rabbit Hole
  • A Town Called Panic
The Next Ten
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey  
  • ¡Atame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!)
  • Beginners
  • Catfish
  • The Descendants
  • Double Indemnity
  • Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part II
  • King Kong (1933) 
  • The Red Balloon 
  • Tangled
Amazing Performances
  • Nicole Kidman and Dianne Wiest in Rabbit Hole 
  • Madeline Kahn in  History of the World: Part I 
  • Emma Stone in Easy A (totally saves the movie)
  • Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in  Antichrist 
  • Everyone but especially Harold Russell in  The Best Years of Our Lives 
  • Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • James Franco in 127 Hours
  • Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
  • Martin Sheen in  Apocalypse Now 
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in  Before Sunset 
  • Christian Bale in The Fighter
  • Everyone but especially Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
  • Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway 
  • Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity
  • Colin Firth in The King’s Speech 
  • Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
  • Alan Rickman in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II 
  • Everyone but especially Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
  • Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath 
  • Ryan Gosling (should have been Oscar nominated) and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine 
  • Buster Keaton in The General
  • Everyone in  Beautiful Thing 
  • Everyone in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (really)
  • Everyone but especially Lesley Manville in  Another Year 
  • Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in  ¡Atame! 
  • George Clooney, Judy Greer and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants 
  • Everyone in The Help… holy cow.
  • Christopher Plummer in Beginners
  • Everyone but especially Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bujo in The Artist
Great Moments/Scenes/Lines
  • “Girl from earlier!?” (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World)
  • Choosing the escorts (History of the World: Part I)
  • Pushing Tracy’s face (The Philadelphia Story)
  • Intimacy in the cinema (Midnight Cowboy)
  • “Chaos reigns.” (Antichrist)
  • The bridge collapse (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • Springtime for Hitler (The Producers)
  • Arriving at Kurtz’s camp (Apocalypse Now)
  • Pick nearly any line from Bridesmaids but I especially love Annie’s drunken rant on the plane
  • “Don’t speak.” (Bullets Over Broadway)
  • The train crash (Super 8)
  • The battle for Hogwarts (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II)
  • “Nobody baby but you and me” (Blue Valentine)
  • Riding away absent-mindedly on the side rods of the train (The General)
  • HAL’s destruction (2001: A Space Odyssey)
  • Lanterns (Tangled)
  • The sex scene (¡Atame!)
  • “Eat. My. Shit.” (The Help)
  • So many moments but absolutely the sound of the glass (The Artist)
Best Endings
  • The Red Balloon
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Before Sunset
  • Double Indemnity
  • Beautiful Thing
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • The Descendants
  • The Help
  • The Artist
Worst of the Year
  • Alice in Wonderland (dreadful from start to finish, and it won two Oscars!) 
  • Shane (redundant) 
  • Terms of Endearment (rubbed me the wrong way) 
  • Return to Oz (takes everything wonderful about that world and makes it charmless)
  • And I tried to find a fifth to round it out, since I normally do, but that's actually all I can come up with. Maybe The Fog, but it was still enjoyable even if it was unoriginal. I did all right this year!
All 74 Movies I Saw (for the first time) in 2011
  • Rabbit Hole
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • A Town Called Panic
  • Shane
  • History of the World: Part I
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Easy A
  • Animal Kingdom
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Stagedoor
  • King Kong (1933)
  • Star Wars
  • Elaine Stritch: At Liberty
  • The Red Balloon
  • Antichrist
  • Sondheim: The Birthday Concert
  • Catfish
  • Patrik 1,5
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Soapdish
  • Terms of Endearment
  • What's Up, Doc? (1972)
  • The Producers (1968)
  • 127 Hours
  • Stepmom
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
  • Wordplay
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Before Sunset
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Fighter
  • Bridesmaids
  • Bullets Over Broadway
  • Beaches
  • Double Indemnity
  • A League of Their Own
  • The King's Speech
  • High Noon
  • Super 8
  • Splash
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  • True Grit (2010)
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Blue Valentine
  • Chinatown
  • Evening Primrose
  • Life During Wartime
  • Never Been Kissed
  • L'Illusioniste
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
  • On the Waterfront
  • The General
  • Return to Oz
  • Beautiful Thing
  • The Searchers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Tangled
  • The Fog (1980)
  • City Lights
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  • After Stonewall
  • Inside Job
  • Another Year
  • A State of Mind
  • The Navigator
  • ¡Átame!
  • The Descendants
  • The Help
  • Beginners
  • The Artist

December 23, 2011

#8: Schindler's List

By my count, this list includes six films having to do directly with World War II, if you include The Best Years of Our Lives since it chronicles the veterans' experience. Saving Private Ryan is really the only other film about the war, taking place during wartime. Interestingly, two musicals (The Sound of Music and Cabaret) are both set on the verge of war with a growing Nazi presence. And Sophie's Choice, while taking place after the great conflict, is directly concerned with its title character's experience in the Holocaust as a Polish Catholic. But as far as this list goes, only Steven Spielberg's 1993 Holocaust drama Schindler's List holds a literal and figurative candle to the Jewish experience. Hoo boy.

Company: Kecia, vegetarian chefstress; Jeremy, vegetarian; Elizabeth, movie-snack philanthropist

Cuisine: Oh boy. Darling roomie made the first dish, a baked portabella mushroom stuffed with quinoa, spinach and carmelized onions and topped with pecorino, with green beans with tomatoes and almonds. Jeremy made the broccolini bruschetta on the right. I've never been happier. Elizabeth also brought Sun Chips (the best kind, Garden Salsa) and Junior Mints to contribute. A feast for all, and we needed it.

Oskar Schindler (Oscar nominee Liam Neeson) was a real German businessman whose heroics were chronicled in Thomas Keneally's novel "Schindler's Ark." By employing Jews (mostly Polish) in his factories, and through his powers of persuasion and charm, he saved over 1,000 of them from certain death in concentration camps. Neeson portrays him as a towering, kind bear of a man, at ease with everyone, including the Nazi officials who see through his profiteering plots and seek to kill his work force. His warmth is portrayed beautifully by Neeson, but we don't really see much vulnerability to this central character until the emotional ending. More on that later.

Meanwhile, Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes gives us one of the great screen villains of all time in Schutzstaffel captain Amon Goeth, sadistic commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp where a portion of the film takes place. Fiennes gave an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum after the film was released and said this about playing the part:

"Evil is cumulative. It happens. People believe that they’ve got to do a job, they’ve got to take on an ideology, that they’ve got a life to lead; they’ve got to survive, a job to do, it’s every day inch by inch, little compromises, little ways of telling yourself this is how you should lead your life and suddenly then these things can happen. I mean, I could make a judgment myself privately, this is a terrible, evil, horrific man. But the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important. And it was in the screenplay. In fact, one of the first scenes with Oskar Schindler, with Liam Neeson, was a scene where I’m saying “You don’t understand how hard it is, I have to order so many-so many meters of barbed wire and so many fencing posts and I have to get so many people from A to B.” And, you know, he’s sort of letting off steam about the difficulties of the job. And so I suppose you can step back and that is where the evil is, when you can step back and look at it."

It's a remarkable performance, how unflinching and all-encompassing it is. Terrifying.

While the acting is top-notch, it's Oscar winner Spielberg's hand behind the camera that's most effective here. Besides parallel bookends in color, the film is nearly entirely shot in black and white, a very specific choice that my friends and I discussed. B&W brings the film back to its historical roots, certainly, and the relentlessly bleak subject matter lends itself well to a colorless scope. But it's a major decision to make a film this way in 1993, and I think Spielberg was commenting on the scope of the atrocities committed against the Jews in WWII. It's that whole idea that when everything is special, nothing is special. No one stands out; the faces of these victims blend with each other more wholly in this format than they perhaps would in color. There's a hopelessness everywhere, particularly in the liquidation of the ghettos and the portraits of life inside Plaszow, that strike a darker chord without the relief of color. I was especially moved by the moment when the female prisoners smeared blood on their cheeks to make themselves more appealing to the officials, hoping that would save them. Without color, the blood looks to our eye like dirt; in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel, it might as well be.

The only brief glimpse of color in this over-three-hour-long saga is a girl in a red coat, first wandering through a ghetto and later dead on a wheelbarrow. It's a humanizing moment for Schindler to watch an individual's journey through this experience, especially being a Nazi himself. He may have been motivated by money at first, since Jewish labor certainly cost less for him, but this moment confirms with the audience that he cared deeply for these people and was surely haunted by them long after the war was over.

Schindler goes toe-to-toe with Goeth, convincing him that even the frailest of his Schindlerjuden ("Schindler Jews") were necessary workers on his production lines. He's aided by his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (the wonderful and understated Ben Kingsley) who claims that one needs "three things in life: a good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant." Luckily for the Schindlerjuden, he fills that third role.

"Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day."

But Spielberg cuts back and forth between these tiny glimpses of sunlight and the darker, horrible realities of the camps. How can someone not shudder when this kid climbs into a toilet to hide, only to be told by other kids hiding there that there's no room for him? If there's no room for him in a shit hole, where does he belong? Oh it gives me goosebumps.

For Spielberg (whose other films on this list include crowd-pleasers Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) to step into this delicate territory could not have been easy, and it's fascinating to read about the critical reaction to this film from the Jewish community. For example, Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust by which I'm intrigued but have never and might never sit through, blasted Spielberg by calling his film "a kitschy melodrama" that didn't show the horrors of war the way he thought was necessary. Lanzmann believed that after his film was made nothing else needed to be said, which is colossally arrogant and forced Spielberg to defend his film as accurate. Naturally, when bringing an adaptation of real events to the screen, history needs to be altered somewhat; dealing with events that are so close to peoples' hearts is very difficult, and I'm sure that no one could ever please everyone on this. Schindler somehow managed it, and the film went on to receive seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score (John Williams, how do you manage to be at the top of your form every. damn. time??)

"Whoever saves one life saves the world in time."

When the war is over and the camps are liberated, Schindler gathers his friends (whom he knows by name when he dictates the list to Stern!) for three minutes of silence for those they've lost. We are silent, too, as Spielberg commands his audience to silence. How many directors can reach through the characters that way and grip an audience so firmly? Wow. It's an incredible moment of gratitude; you can feel the endless thanks and unpayable debt in this crowd gathered in the factory. And yet, Schindler says:

"I could have done more."

 Game over, composure.

A beautiful and respectful epilogue, in which the real-life Schindlerjuden walk arm-in-arm with their onscreen counterparts to pay respects at Schindler's grave on Mount Zion in Israel, acts as a eulogy for the dead and a legacy for the living. Williams' score is never more moving than at this moment, the first moment where I really noticed it, as the reverence and absence of dialogue brings it to the forefront. Wow.

Supposedly Roman Polanski abandoned his Holocaust film project when this one came out. Not a bad move. I don't think this film is the definitive look at the Holocaust (no film can claim to be the definitive anything, can it?) but it's certainly a historic and masterful memorial for the lives lost and saved. Beautiful.

Next: a little break until after Christmas, and then we don sandals and endurance for what I believe is the longest film on the entire list (and the last one I haven't previously seen!): Lawrence of Arabia. Until then, happy holidays!

December 15, 2011

#9: Vertigo

Oh Hitchy. Surprising us all, reminding us how much better your films are than we remember. So far we've seen Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho on this blog, and now, from 1958, Vertigo, based on the French novel "D'entre les morts" (or "The Living and the Dead") by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. Four movies in the top 100 of all time?? That says a lot about this director, who is always at the forefront of his films, for better or worse. Nearly always better. What's the first detail you remember about these films? Not the stars, certainly, although they're brilliant. It's always Hitchy.

Company: Kecia, femme fatale; Jeremy, probably afraid of heights; Elizabeth, major glam beauty from the era; Katie and Matt, the supporting players; Adam, in love with Barbara Bel Geddes

The film is instantly terrifying, setting up in a quick expository sequence the fear of heights that cripples Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart, whose imitable voice can't catch a break in this room, especially when it comes to It's a Wonderful Life), a haunted detective who retires in shame after his phobia inadvertently causes the death of a fellow officer. A rooftop chase ends with this haunting vantage shot, perfectly lit.

Well, he may not be able to climb tall buildings or leap far enough to clear an alleyway, but he can still do detective work, right? Well sure, says his friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who suspects his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is cheating on him.

She's the one in the green dress. Naturally.

Kim Novak gives away as little as possible as the mysterious femme fatale, driving us crazy wondering what she's up to. Her smoky eyes are so devoid of emotion, so vacant, that it's impossible for us to decipher what the hell she could possibly be up to. Luckily, we have Jimmy Stewart acting as our stand-in throughout the chase, guiding us through the story, knowing what we know and learning what we learn when we learn it. Is there a word for that type of protagonist? There must be.

She goes to flower shops, museums, bayside ledges, all seemingly in a daze. Is she possessed, as her husband suspects? Is she harboring other secrets? This entire mystery would be difficult for us to crack even without Scottie's gradual but inevitable fascination with the mysterious Madeleine. His judgment becomes clouded by his attraction to her, and soon he's as caught up in it as she is. It's the dizziness of infatuation that draws him to her, even though he suspects -- maybe even knows -- there's something that's not right about her.

"One is a wanderer, two are always going somewhere."
"No, I don't think that's necessarily true." 

I love this exchange: that aversion to company, to companionship... or to the idea of purpose. Two people aren't always going somewhere. In this case, one of them is walking into a trap. For both Scottie and Madeleine, the difference between intimacy and great distance is communicated in this glance above, the longing for love and safety and the acceptance of the inevitable. It's real heavy. There's also a great moment where Scottie mentions that "the Chinese say that once you save a life, you're responsible for it forever." What a great justification for your compulsion: a sacred duty to protect life. The stakes could not be higher than that. I don't want to spoil too much of the delicious puzzling plot, but let's just say it involves a spirally bell tower.

Without talking about the plot too much, it's difficult to explain much of my admiration for the movie, but let's talk individual pieces. Once again all the elements are given such grand showcases, including Bernard Herrmann's circular score, spiralling back on itself and brilliantly underscoring the endless wanting to solve the mystery. Hitchcock also creates some of his most fanciful imagery in this film (the fantasy sequence below being the most singular of them), which he would continue to explore in his next two films North by Northwest the next year (1959) and Psycho right after that (in 1960). Man, what a streak!

No matter what, you do not want Jimmy Stewart's psychedelic head floating ominously toward you in a movie. It cannot portend anything good.

I had a feeling as I went up this list that the further up I got, the harder it would be to write anything original or interesting about these films. What hasn't already been discovered, explored? And more, what can really be written about Vertigo? It's a brilliant film, different from the others in so many ways but maybe not my very favorite. Still, so much to recommend and obsess over the way Scottie does upon later re-viewings.

This is a pretty incoherent entry. I'm getting squirrelly thinking about the end of this blog. What do you do?

Next up: Schindler's List. Well, yeah. That would make sense, wouldn't it? Til then, chummies.

December 8, 2011

#10: The Wizard of Oz

"You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night!"

What's that? Oh, yes, well, of course I'm going to be biased about Victor Fleming's classic fantasy The Wizard of Oz, mostly because I'm currently playing the Tin Man in a holiday production of the stage musical down the street and so the story has been on my brain daily since early October. Nearly everyone's got a frame of reference for this film -- supposedly it's the most-watched film in America -- and as I've learned over the course of this blog, nostalgia counts for a lot when it comes to our movie preferences. I don't know anyone who hasn't seen this or doesn't like this. I mean, come on!

Company: Kecia, would probably play Glinda at some point; Jeremy, played the Mayor of Munchkinland, right?

Cuisine: trashy Chinese takeout from our favorite place. Sesame chicken and fried rice. Does it get better?

The film's opening sepia Kansas sequence has a frenetic pace as each of the characters is introduced to us, and it starts with a bang as Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Toto run from Miss Gulch (seen later and played with film-stealing verve by Margaret Hamilton). I love this opening shot, in which our heroes run away from us, the impending doom, and we see the beginning of storm clouds forming over the prairie.

Dorothy's a lonely girl, with no real friends but Toto, her terrier, and the three farmhands that work her farm. I didn't pick up on it as a kid, but each of the farmhands has a moment here with Dorothy in which they parallel their characters in Oz. Jack Haley as Hickory has the least to work with, but Ray Bolger as Hunk and Bert Lahr as Zeke make the most of their quick cameos. When Miss Gulch steals her only friend, Dorothy is understandably upset, and runs away with the dog as soon as it escapes the basket on the bike. This is a major decision. I remember contemplating running away as a kid, and it's not decided upon lightly, but Uncle Henry and Auntie Em have betrayed her by letting her only friend be ripped from her grasp, and it's time to go.

The scene in which Dorothy meets a phony fortune teller (Frank Morgan, in one of many roles) isn't present in the original novel, but adds so much foreshadowing and heightens the stakes for everyone on screen. Dorothy accepts that she's wronged her guardians and dashes back home through the oncoming tornado, but if she reached home and got in the storm cellar with the others, she wouldn't really have learned her lesson. She'd only have been tricked into thinking she had caused Em physical pain by leaving the farm. Again, as a kid, I always thought Professor Marvel was really a soothsayer. Amazing what changes as you grow up.

Dorothy loses a battle with a renegade window during the tornado and drops down on the bed, luckily unharmed otherwise as she dreams of being set down in Munchkinland, where she's held responsible for accidentally crushing the Wicked Witch of the East. Billie Burke is having great fun as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and the Munchkinland sequence is maybe the most beautiful in the film, far surpassing the Emerald City sequence in detail and color. One thing I love about the scene is the great fascination Fleming seems to have with the Munchkins, particularly in that beautiful shot where he follows several villagers as they wake up the town with the good news of the witch's demise.

The film is so ubiquitous that it's hard not to think of all the stories about these pint-sized actors, from their backgrounds to the filming, but it's certainly a wonder of filmmaking that hasn't ever been matched.

Dorothy is told the only way to get back home is to follow the yellow brick road, and along the way she makes friends in a straw man with no brains, a tin man with no heart, and a lion with no courage. Of course, these wonderful characters are made so wonderful because they all already have the gifts they long for, and it's because they do that they're able to make it all the way to the Emerald City. Of course, the Wicked Witch (has anyone ever stolen a movie quite so completely as Margaret Hamilton does?) and her various cronies make it difficult for them, but they persevere through poisoned poppies, dark forests, monkeys and winkies and fear (oh my)!

The technicolor on display in The Wizard of Oz, which was at the time a huge step forward for film in color, has nearly come to represent cinematic innovation in itself. The images from the film (like the one above) have with time become so iconic that without even knowing it we think of this film whenever we think of movies. Right? It's such a classic story, one given a thoroughly American telling by Fleming et al, that we just can't help it. 

And the fact that the songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, particularly "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," have worked their way into our permanent collective conscience! It's pretty incredible. I don't have the greatest fondness for Judy Garland (though I should really watch A Star is Born), but her rendition of the most famous song in cinema is untoppable. She had a great way of communicating such deep sadness and longing with that alto register.

You know I'm tracking your every step, my pretty. Give up now!

I have a great fondness for the message of this story: the idea that we already have the gifts we long for. Wisdom, kindness, courage... these are all things we all possess, traits our trio displays on their journey without knowing it, and if the Wizard were to give us a diploma or a medal or a testimonial, none of it would really make a difference. They're placebos for the naive Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, but they work. Again, didn't pick up on that as a kid! Was I just a moron? Could be. But maybe this is a part of why the film sticks in our conscience so well -- it works on every level. It says one thing to children and it says something entirely different to adults. As a child I thought that the Scarecrow really got a brain through magic, but as an adult I realize he must have known everything he needed to know all along.

However, Dorothy's "what I have learned" monologue doesn't wrap things up quite as neatly as I wish it would.

"Well, I think that it isn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it's that if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, then I never really lost it to begin with."

Can anyone explain this to me? I always think I've got it, and then it throws me for a rhetorical loop again. If her heart's desire isn't in her backyard, she hasn't lost it? So if it is, she has it? What??

My idiocy is a topic for another blog. The point is, we all have wisdom, kindness and courage inside of us ... and we all possess the power to go back home to Kansas. We can fix our problems, and we've been able to all this time, whether or not we believe it. Kindness and perseverance can go a very long way.

What hasn't already been said? The Wizard of Oz is singular in American cinema. I love it, and if you don't, well... be gone before someone drops a house on you, too!

Next up: the last of four films by the great Alfred Hitchcock -- Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak have Vertigo.