September 4, 2009

Fall Movie Season Begins, Part 1 - A Look Back

September is the official beginning of the Fall Movie season, but as usual, Hollywood is pretty much only releasing a few crappy films in the first couple of weeks (the best offering seems to be the mixed reviews for Mike Judge's Extract). So, in light of that, I thought I would take a look back at what the year has offered so far. Essentially, these are the films that were released (or that I saw that will be released later this year) that may have a shot at my year end Top 10 list. Keep in mind these are in alphabetical order, not preferential order, and second viewings could knock some out or make others rise.

Without further ado: here are some of my favorites so far:

(500) Days of Summer, Marc Webb - US

It's been a while since I've seen an American romantic comedy that I've enjoyed as much as this exuberant, silly, "meta" take on the genre. On one hand, (500) Days is an honest depiction of the ways we fall in (and out) of love; on the other, it's an amazing critique of the way movies shape (and screw up) our perceptions of what love should be. The are some "have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too moments in the film (the younger sister is meant to be a poke at the cliche of the too-wise-for-their-own-age younger sibling, but in the film she simply comes off as a cliche); but there is so much joy to be had in the film that its flaws are easily overlooked. "You Make My Dreams Come True" is worth the price of admission alone.

Afterschool, Antonio Campos - US

Opening at the end of October through IFC Films, Afterschool is probably the exact opposite of (500) Days of Summer. Where (500) Days is light and joy in spite of the darkness; Afterschool is little but darkness. Robert is an uncomfortable sophomore in an East Coast boarding school. His only socialization with classmates is his required involvement with the AV club, shooting stock footage for the annual video yearbook. Otherwise, his life is spent online - YouTube, porn, violence captured on cell phone cameras. In the midst of his work capturing the schools imagery his camera captures tragedy - two twins OD in the girls bathroom. From there, we get a searing portrait of the generation gap as brought to you by social networking. But it's much more than that. Antonio Campos' film questions our ability to perceive reality - suggesting that we only believe what we see on a 2.5 inch screen.

Best Worst Movie, Michael Stephenson - US

Don't know if this one is going to get a theatrical release or not, but I am telling you it's possibly the funniest documentaries that I have ever seen. In 1990, Troll 2 was unleashed upon the world to a resounding thud. A young family's vacation plans are ruined by, what else, vegetarian goblins (because there are no trolls in Troll 2 you see) who turn humans into plants and then eat them. The child star of that craptastic classic, Michael Stephenson, decided twenty years later, to revisit those times on the set. Interviews with the cast, the Italian couple who wrote and directed the film, and the fans who have turned this one-time crown-holder for Worst Film of All Time on IMDB's poll (it's currently #84 thanks to a resurgence largely due to this documentary) make up this celebration of creativity - even when it fails miserably. It's a great joy from beginning to end. Not only one of the funniest documentaries I've seen; easily one of the funniest movies of the year.

District 9, Neill Blomkamp - South Africa / New Zealand

Sci-Fi/Horror blends rarely come this thought-provoking and cheer-inducing. If you're looking for intriguing futuristic premises, you've got 'em. If you're looking for fantastic parallels to present-day situations, you got 'em. If you're looking for a little bit of cheeky humor, you've got it. If you're looking for incredibly special effect, you've got it. If you're looking for bloody gore, you've got it. Okay, I'm probably over-doing it, but this movie does have a little bit of everything. And thanks to the deft hand of novice director Neill Blomkamp, it all comes together perfectly. Kudos as well to a great lead performance from Sharlto Copley as an inept civil servant turned fugitive. As the summer came to a close, one film swept in to save us from the overblown, spirit-crushing pyrotechnics of Transformers and GI Joe, and proved that summer can come with a slice of (and a splattering of) brain.

Goodbye Solo, Ramin Bahrani - US

With only his third feature, Bahrani is quickly becoming one of the leaders in American independent cinema. He has done so through his honesty, his insight, and his slight, gentle hand. His first two films, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop were both nitty-gritty, neo-realist takes on the immigrant experience in America. Goodbye Solo loses a bit of the hand-held, you-are-there stylings, but it still tells an honest, touching story and still tells (at least in part) the immigrant experience. This time the immigrant is Solo, a Senegalese cab-driver in Winston-Salem, NC. One night, a elderly passenger ,William (a perfectly cast Red West), hops in his cab and offers him $1,000 to drive him into the Appalachians a couple of weeks and leave him there. From there a unique bond is formed between these two men - one, the image of the generation America is saying good-bye to; the other, the face of a new America. The fact that these two men grow to rely on one another turns a movie about despair into a beautiful tale of hope.

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow - US

Finally, someone has made a movie about the Iraq War that is worth seeing. Unfortunately, after a long series of dreadful melodramatic polemics, no one was terribly interested in seeing it. The Hurt Locker is as intense as war films get. It will leave your nerves jangled as you follow Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty through their missions in Baghdad disarming IEDs and other incendiary devices meant to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Bigelow has always been a director ready to tussle with the boys. I've loved her work since the bizarre and luridly entertaining Near Dark. The fact that it was a woman director who captured the masculine energy of the war and managed to do so without creating a false or manipulated emotion only proves that one should never paint a female director into a corner (after all, how many decades have men been directing so-called "Women's Pictures"?). Bigelow should join Wertmuller and Campion in the Kodak Theater as only the third woman director to curry an Oscar nomination for her direction. Intensity knows no gender, and The Hurt Locker is viscerally intense.

In the Loop, Armando Iannucci - UK

Where was this film while Bush was still in office? Only a little bit less than timely, In the Loop is one of the finest political satires to come along in more than a decade. And while I went there, Iannucci's film doesn't really bother to poke directly at Bush or Blair - but rather at the gigantic political machines and the manipulations that occur within them. Dialogue has rarely been this smart and the performances from James Gandolfini (the closest thing to a huge star in the film) to the utterly brilliant Peter Capaldi are priceless. It's truly a movie that begs for a second viewing (if not more) if only to try to capture the whiz-bang dialogue that keep your brain constantly on its toes trying to keep up. It's not often that a film released in summer makes you feel dumb because IT is so smart. But I'll take a missed reference or two and a missed line or two - because I missed them from laughing so hard at what had come previously. Intelligent comedy seemed to be as rare as reasonable criticism of health care reform, but In the Loop has brought it back from the brink of death.

Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantion - US

Phew! I'm still reeling over this one. There are flaws and I still believe that Tarantino caves into his worst instincts a time or two - but, when he's on his game, he's on it in ways he hasn't been since Jackie Brown. Christoph Walz, Melanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger lead a magnificent cast of European actors (who greatly outact their American counterparts - sorry, Brad), proving that Quentin knows how to get most things right - and if casting Europeans were the only thing he got right, that would likely be enough. Thankfully, there so much more he gets gloriously right.

Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke - Mexico

A deadpan comic delight from the director who previously brought us the witty Duck Season a couple years back. This time we follow Juan, a teenager seemingly like any other - lost in a sea of hormonal confusion, but clearly with something on his mind. In the opening scene, he crashes his parents' car into a pole. It won't re-start. So, after a quick call home to his little brother, he sets off into town to find the one part he needs to get the car restarted. The journey (filled with quirky characters) is the spine of the story; but with a single quick trip home, we realize that Juan isn't only lost as all teenage boys are - he's lost in grief. It's a coming of age tale that is also one of the most poignant portraits of loss you're likely to see this year.

O'Horten, Bent Hamer - Norway

By the time I realized O'Horten was playing in town it was on its last day. Forgive me Nashvillians, if I'd known earlier, I would have told you to run to the theater for this hilarious piece of Scandinavian comedy. If Lake Tahoe was deadpan, then O'Horten seems to have been directed by Bob Newhart on a roofie. It is deadpan. But (as you might be able to tell), I love deadpan humor. O'Horten is the simple story of a retired train conductor trying to figure out what to do with his life after giving up the only thing that's ever shaped his identity. In many ways it's a companion piece to Lake Tahoe - two people on opposite ends of life on a journey to find out who they are. When both become available on DVD, they might make an enjoyable double feature at home.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Hayao Miyazaki - Japan

Sure Ponyo is geared toward a much younger age than Miyazaki's previously US-released efforts (Howl's Moving Castle and Oscar-winning Spirited Away), but when it comes from the imagination of Japan's master of animation that matters little. One of my favorites of his works is the similarly kiddie-oriented My Neighbor Totoro, so calling up my inner five-year-old wasn't difficult for me. Ponyo is full of wit and is so lovingly dubbed by John Lassiter's Disney crew (including Matt Damon and Tina Fey) that it should have been a much bigger cross-generational hit. Too bad Americans don't seem willing to stretch themselves to try. Sure he's got his fan base, but nearly everywhere else in the world, his films are massive hits. Here, they are still only celebrated by his passionate cult. I'm glad I'm a part of it. You should be, too.

Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas - Mexico

I actually saw this film two years ago. Shortly after Toronto, it got picked up by Tartan USA, a studio that then immediately fell on hard times, leaving this gentle, beautiful portrait of life in the Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico (it's considered the first feature film in the Plautdeutch language) to languish on the shelf. It finally got a release earlier this year, arriving in Nashville only a couple of months ago. If you saw it, then you'll understand why it still lingers with me a full two years after I first saw it. From the nearly real-time opening shot of the sun rising over the plains to the nonchalance occurrence of something seemingly miraculous, Silent Light never fails to hypnotize. When the patriarch of the family opens up about the affair he's been having with another Mennonite woman, it threatens to not only tear him apart spiritually, but it threatens to destroy his orderly family and community life. In most films, this would be the stuff of sturm and drang. In Reygadas's hands, it becomes a cultural study filled with spiritual and philosophical inquiries into the meaning of love the depth of the human soul. I don't mind telling you that the film is bookended with a sunset - slow, lingering, and appropriate. It's the perfect way to ruminate over the subtle beauty of what you've just encountered.

Star Trek, JJ Abrams - US

I've called up my inner five-year-old, so why not call up my inner geek? I really enjoyed Abrams re-boot of the aging franchise. I liked that he cast a lot of basically no-named actors to star in the iconic roles, severing ties with the familiar completely. Yet, I also liked the way he used Leonard Nimoy to link it back to its famous past. If you haven't seen it yet, I really shouldn't go into any further detail lest I ruin some of the enjoyable trickery Abrams manages to pull off. But the biggest trick of all is that he actually manages to turn these characters into human (and Vulcan) characters that you actually care about. No small feat. And there's the requisite kick-ass effects and action, of course. Abrams is fast learning that whiz-bangery is fun, but without a human core to give a rat's patoot about, you don't really have a movie.

Still Waiting, Hirokazu Kore'eda - Japan

Since my last post was a rave on this one, I don't really feel the need to repeat it all. Suffice it to say, I love this movie. Watch it now if you haven't already.

Up, Peter Docter - US

With the addition of five additional Best Picture slots, everyone is putting money on Up to join Disney's Beauty and the Beast as only the second animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. I say, Cheers to that. Up was a vibrant lesson in how to make a film. I only wish there were more live action filmmakers that could bring the humor and humanity to the screen with the vitality that Pixar does.

Last, but definitely not least is:

The Vanished Empire, Karen Shakhnazarov - Russia

The Vanished Empire is about as under-the-radar as a film can get. It actually opened in New York on the same weekend as the afore-mentioned Lake Tahoe. It didn't appear in competition at any of the tip-top-tier festivals (I saw it as a juror at my alma-mater, the Indianapolis International Film Festival - I will always love 'em, but Indy is not yet Toronto, Berlin, or Cannes). It did get a theatrical release, but has - to date - only grossed about $8,000. And yet, it will likely rank as one of my favorite films of 2009. Set amidst the youth culture of the 1970s Soviet Union - a time of black market western music and fashion. The Vanished Empire actually refers to a discovery made by the main character's archaeologist grandfather, but the comparisons, of course, are to the eventual collapse of the socialist state. What makes the film work is that those metaphors aren't made blatant by Shakhnazarov. They're wonderfully backgrounded while the story centers on love triangles, generational misunderstandings, and the general stuff of human drama. Subtlety, honesty, and complete political upheaval - the stuff great movies are made of.

Sooo...that's how the first half (plus) of the year stacks up for me.

Coming up next, we'll talk about what I'm looking forward to seeing at the Toronto International Film Festival and further down the line - leading up to a preview of the end of the year and some early Oscar trending...

We're finally entering the time of year when the movies begin to appeal to adults. Let's hope for a great season.

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