30 July 2010

Feminism & movies...

Worth a look.

The Bechdel Test for the presence of women in movies is a simple test that, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of movies fail. Check out the link for a quick rundown of what the test is, how many movies fail it, and to generally ponder the depressing lack of female presence in cinema in general.

My take: This is funny but sad, and the test is simple and to-the-point. It also makes you realize how many movies that are supposedly geared toward women really miss the point: see most rom-coms. Also notable is the dearth of big-name female directors in movies, although Kathryn Bigelow's well-deserved Oscar win for Hurt Locker helped in a facile way. Seriously, think about it. I could probably name the female directors I could think offhand of on one hand, maybe two if I really struggle. Anyway, 'tis some food for thought.

28 July 2010

Act of God (Jennifer Baichwal, 2009)

If you have an interest in any of the following things -- the hypnotic prose of writer Paul Auster (the genius behind City of Glass and more recently Invisible), the invigorating experimental music of Fred Frith, the man-meets-nature style of cinema expressed by Koyaanisqatsi or Jennifer Baichwal's stirring previous documentary Manufactured Landscapes, the awesome power of nature, and, above all, the dazzling random phenomenon of lightning -- then I have no hesitation in recommending the cool, mostly astonishing documentary Act of God. The film revolves around a series of interviews with people who have survived lightning strikes, or have otherwise been involved in shocking encounters with this natural event. The interviews are bolstered by wonderful footage of swirling lightning storms and sublime nature, as well as being underscored by Frith's often eerie, moody music.

Coolness in human form.

While not all the interviews are completely gripping -- the movie takes a while to get up to speed -- more than enough of them are, not the least of which are that of a Mexican woman and the tragic fate of her children on a hill during a religious ceremony, as well as a Frenchman who has dedicated his life to operating a museum dedicated to lightning photography. Auster's own concluding monologue is absolutely astonishing -- up there with some of his best writing; I almost wish I could get a copy of it written down -- as he recounts with calm naturalism and mounting tension the fate of him and his friends on a nature excursion during summer camp. Just like a good storm, Act of God ends with one grand crescendo of a climax.

I definitely have a special interest in this movie, given my fascination with nature photography and cinematography and the work of Paul Auster. But even if you don't share my particular inclination towards these things, Act of God gives you something profound over which to ponder while simultaneously thrilling the eye and the ear. A-

Also, please check out Invisible and, especially, City of Glass for some of the most exhilarating writing and storytelling in modern times. But... I suppose that's a whole different post. I also want to check out more of Frith's music now.

01 July 2010

Summer reading

So here's what I've been occupying my mind with lately, book-wise.

Ulysses. Oh, Ulysses. A foolhardy endeavour indeed, but, I felt, a necessary one given my interest in all things Beckett. Joyce was a mentor, a friend, and something of an inspiration for Beckett, and thus, he must be read. Well, by me, anyway.

For the uninitiated, Ulysses is 950 "thrilling" pages of stream of consciousness Irish weirdness meant to combine the basic storyline of Homer's Odyssey with the various intertwining lives of various characters over the course of one day in Dublin. It's so dense and filled with tangents and random sentences and musings that it's damn near impossible at times to even figure out who is doing or saying or thinking this particular thing.

Of course, given Joyce's obvious talent as a writer, even these tangents prove fascinating. Parts of Ulysses are great, exquisite even. In the 150 or so pages I've managed to slog through so far, there has arisen some moods and images that are downright evocative. But so far, the great parts aren't leading to a complete and satisfying whole. In fact, I'm finding it far more unreadable than Beckett's The Unnamable, to which a certain professor referred jokingly as "The Unreadable." The thing is, I understood what Beckett was going for: his bleak sense of humour in the novel trilogy was invigorating for me, and his attempts to match the style of the writing to the psyches of his characters were largely intriguing and successful.

I can't say I understand everything in Beckett, nor can I say I understand everything (or even most things) I've encountered so far in Ulysses. But so far, the overall effect of Beckett is proving much more gripping than that of Ulysses. Of course, I'm massively jumping the gun with this post, and I might (I hope) feel differently by the end of the book... whenever I finally finish it. Joyce is a master and worth reading, but fun, enjoyment, or emotional/intellectual stimulation are not necessarily guaranteed here.

I also picked up Falling Man from Don DeLillo the other day. Considering how wackily awesome I found his White Noise, and how intrigued I was by the premise of this guy taking on 9/11, it was a pretty irresistible find. The shifting points of view and the focal point (although in a looser sense here) on a particular (and more horrifying) day is actually reminding me of Ulysses, but it's certainly easier to read, and at least slightly less confusing (though still fairly perplexing at points). The novel basically jumps around from differing accounts of the World Trade Centre tragedy of different people who were involved in it that terrible day in different ways. Cool... and I look forward to finishing it.

I am also about 30 pages into the 1200+ page phone book that is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Yes, I actually bought it -- one of the most loved/respected/reviled/mentioned/mocked/shunned books in modern history. Given my love of Rush and the band's frequently espoused lyrical debt to this particular writer, I had to at least give it a try... although given what I've read of Rand's politics and philosophy, I've been reluctant. So far... the writing is a bit thick and overly elaborate, and the refrain of "Who is John Galt?" is already becoming a bit pretentious. But I can't say I hate it yet, either. The idea of a man in a high-up position just randomly quitting his post for seemingly no reason has me intrigued to find out more about this dude, and the train waiting helplessly before a red light (that seemingly will never change) in the middle of nowhere has echoes of existentialism and even Waiting for Godot, which I always tend to fall for hook, line, and sinker. Hopefully, Rand decides to take these images and ideas in interesting directions. Or, at least, crash and burn in an amusing way.

Happy reading!

04 June 2010

Cellar door

The cellar door
Is the door to my childhood
Or, to a golden moment in history
Either personal or collective
That may or may not have ever been real
But certainly was vivid

What is now dark, hidden, secret, vague, and faintly musty-smelling
Was cool, breezy, inviting, alluring, refreshing, peaceful, earthy

The door to the cellar
Is locked now
Watched over by the combined forces of memory &
The passage of time and space
Formidable guardians indeed

Poem dreamed up while on a walk and based on my overheard notion of "cellar door" as the most beautiful word combination in English. I kind of agree, but there are many contenders. More on "cellar door" and its awesome phonoaesthetic powers here.

20 May 2010

Things I want to see in the Lost finale

With the upcoming Lost finale event on Sunday, here are some things I very much hope to witness. Don't let me down now, Darlton!

-Desmond kicking some more ass and looking suave as fuck doing it
-Some resolution to the time travel-related plot holes from season 5
-The big reveal of who Sideways Jack's wife is... hoping it's Juliet
-Epic concert scene involving Driveshaft and Desmond doing one big session of "Sideways enlightenment" since most of the characters are going to be there
-Richard and Frank Lapidus turning out alright
-Faraday doing something wacky
-Jack actually failing at being the candidate and someone cooler taking charge (I'm thinking Ben or maybe Hurley)
-Kate doing something worthwhile for once or else dying in an epic, Smokey manner
I may add more to this list later. Feel free to add some more items of your own in the comments. Until then, Namaste! And see you on the other side of the end of Lost (and thus, life as we know it)!

P.S.: These are just too awesome not to share...

(Click on them to see larger size images.)

08 May 2010

Why I love Rush

It's about time I updated this thing. I can't say I've missed the blog too terribly, and I'm sure you haven't either, but for the sake of occupying myself, I'll now embark upon the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts dealing with my favourite things.

In an ideal world, I wouldn't even need to explain why I love Rush a.k.a. the Holy Trinity of Rock. Everyone would already be aware of their face-melting awesomeness and raise their respective goblets of rock in their general direction. Everyone would be in awe of their revolutionary approach to modern music -- their 20 minute-long gargantuan epic story songs, their enthusiasm, and their elegant incorporation of references from everything to Greek mythology to modern philosophy to political and historical commentary to psychology to Mark Twain novels (guess which one). Their scope tends to be so vast, their musical talents so astonishing and ambitious and crazy, that I love Rush for many of the same reasons I love the TV show Lost: I'm just amazed they were able to accomplish what wild and wacky things that they did, even if not every song or album reached the heights such lofty ambitions promise.

Lost entry pending... probably following the grand finale THIS SUNDAY!

Are they the "perfect" band, like a lot of people suggest the Beatles might have been? Not particularly. I find Geddy Lee's voice as weird and high-pitched as a lot of his detractors do... the main difference I think it fits well into their overall style. He's a strange dude, but he works here. While their mid-'70s to mid-and-even-late-'80s output was overall astonishing, they undoubtedly hit some rough patches (as did many people, I'm sure) in the '90s. While even there, they had plenty of songs that still shake me to my core, like "Nobody's Hero" or "Ghost of a Chance," '90s-era Rush was entirely too filled with dreary or falsely spangly output like "Driven," "The Pass," and, possibly the worst of all, "Presto." There was also middle-of-the road stuff (not amazing, but certainly still listenable) like "Earthshine," "One Little Victory," and "Dreamline," not to mention the offbeat but kinda fascinating "Roll the Bones." Nonetheless, only two of those '90s-era tunes can really hold a candle to '70s and '80s-era masterpieces like "Spirit of Radio," "Time Stand Still," "Closer to the Heart," "Subdivisions," and "A Farewell to Kings."

So does that mean their glory has totally faded? Not really, since Snakes and Arrows, their latest full album, was actually damned impressive and something of a return to classic form while also being a mature step forward for the band. It's full of rocking instrumentals, as we've come to expect from Rush, as well as authoritative, intense numbers like "Far Cry" and "Workin' Them Angels," which sift out what worked in some of those '90s songs and yoke it to pure instrumental '70s and '80s-style awesomeness. This is more than can be said of most bands popular in a bygone age, like, say, the Rolling Stones, who undoubtedly deserve props for daring to rock out in their seventies but haven't really recorded much new music of interest. (I know, I know, the Stones are older than these guys, but not so much so that it's not a fair comparison.)

But enough with what they're doing now that may or may not be great. (It is, mostly.) It's how they started out and grew (roughly 1974-1987) that made Rush what they are, love them or hate them (as an inordinate number of people I know do). They started out with a self-titled 1974 album (which was actually recorded just before Neil Peart joined the band, explaining some of its lack of epicness), which, despite being more mellow than many later recordings (especially the fun but not-so-hot "In the Mood"), still contained such exuberant classics as "Finding My Way" and "Working Man."

We then get the one-two punch of 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, arguably my two favourite albums from the band (although I'm currently in the process of acquiring several I don't yet have). 2112 opens with a 20-minute long title track, divided up into sections linked by common musical signatures and a surprisingly, reasonably coherent storytelling thread that follows a young man who has stumbled upon a magical brand of music that promises to bring enlightenment to the people of his land. But his mission is hindered by the priests of the Temples of Syrinx, the leaders of the "tribe" as it were who frown upon such spiritual, "frivolous" things and prefer to focus on the practical. It ends with authoritarian forces assuming control of the planets of the "solar federation." It works both as a single, saga-type song but its sections can be seen as relatively independent, each with their own charms and unique feel. The overture and the intensity of "The Temples of Syrinx" is beautifully juxtaposed with the softer middle segments, resolved by that crescendo of a finale. Just daring, crazy, and amazing! Not only is "2112" formally and structurally daring, but manages to combine sci-fi, adventure, mythology, and political philosophy into one gigantic slice of rock. It's probably the most singular achievement of this singular band. The rest of the album is much more quick, fun, and laid-back (except for the heavy, emotional "Tears") but not any less awesome, especially "A Passage to Bangkok."

My other favourite, A Farewell to Kings, thrills for similar reasons... although it's oddly some of the shorter songs I prefer here. "Xanadu" is a bit too much, really. Overly decadent, and quite apparently druggily incoherent, with talk of "breaking my fast on honeydew," it tries but doesn't quite match the heights of "2112." "Cygnus X-1" does a bit better, especially in the sci-fi department, consisting largely of eerie, moody, evocative metallic, almost robotic sounds and various guitar solos. I gather I'm only getting half the impact of this song, since it's continued on Hemispheres, which I also have yet to receive in the mail, but it still holds up decently while being a tad bit excessive. It's the opening title song that never ceases to rock my socks in every way possible. Starting with an old-timey lute-type intro that perfectly sets the tone for (yet more) political/social commentary about how we've done away with kings only to follow the "paths of least resistance" and have lost past glory. While I do tend to find Rush's politics a tad reactionary and overly nostalgic about some past "golden age" which may or may not have actually ever happened, I can't for a second argue that "A Farewell to Kings" doesn't make a damn persuasive (and intensely rock-licious) argument. "Closer to the Heart," later on in the album, is one of my top-five Rush songs of all time. It's one of their lighter, shorter offerings (like "Fly by Night"), clocking in at just under 3 minutes, but is a full-on sparkling gem of a song, so pretty, so perfectly written, so sincere... it'll break your heart unless you're some sort of rock person.

Having received Permanent Waves (from 1980) recently in the mail, I can say this is a contender for the top spot as well. I already knew the pure energetic, soul-stirring intensity of "The Spirit of Radio" (one of the group's most popular songs, and for good reason), and already knew and appreciated "Freewill" (also up there on the popularity meter). But when "Jacob's Ladder" rolled around, it hit me like a damn freight truck. I can't believe I hadn't heard it before, and I was floored by the excitement of discovering such dark, pulse-pounding awesomeness anew. It's a song that will likely crack my top-five upon further listening. "Jacob's Ladder" is amazing. If you have not heard this song yet, SEEK IT OUT NOW. "Entre Nous" is also a pretty sweet offering -- catchy and upbeat (with bonus points for having a French title) -- and "Natural Science" definitely tops something like "Xanadu" for being one of the better extended songs (although 9 minutes is, oddly enough, not even that extended for a Rush song).

(1982) has "Subdivisions" and "The Analog Kid," two of my already long-established favourites, but other than that is a bit lacklustre. I mean, I'll be listening to it again, but isn't quite as consistently awesome as the latter three albums I've discussed.

And what the hell is with that cover art? Drugs is my only explanation.

Power Windows (1985) is very firmly ensconced in the '80s synthesizer-y sound of Rush... but I'm more than OK with that. It's more tonally and narratively consistent than Signals, and more modern and earthbound in its subjects of discussion than something like A Farewell to Kings or 2112, and therefore shows Rush moving in a slightly different, still exciting direction. "The Big Money" has one of my favourite bass lines of all time, and while the subject matter (the evils and complexities of money) is familiar, it more than holds its own among other famous money-related songs like "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays and, best of all, "Money" by Pink Floyd. (I actually like the Floyd song a bit more than this one, but it's a reasonably close contest). "Marathon" and "Mystic Rhythms" weren't some of my favourite songs upon hearing them on Rush Gold, but they work a lot better in the context established by this album. "Grand Designs" and "Manhattan Project" are also good stuff.

As for the other albums, I'll have to postpone discussion on them until I get them in the mail. (I recently ordered all the Rush CDs from 1974-87, barring the ones I already had.) I'm particularly excited for Hemispheres (for the continuation to "Cygnus X-1"), Caress of Steel (to witness their early experimentation with gigantic songs divided into parts), and Moving Pictures (to experience "Tom Sawyer," "Red Barchetta," and "Limelight," all bona fide Rush classics, in their proper context).

So as far as rankings go, since I'm a list junkie, here's the albums I have ranked from favourite to least favourite (not including the "compilations" I have, like Gold and the Retrospectives):

1. A Farewell to Kings
2. 2112
3. Permanent Waves
4. Snakes and Arrows
5. Power Windows
6. Signals

Obviously this list is horrifically incomplete, so pay it no heed. Of course, music fans tend to also enjoy picking their favourite band member, just as, among every Beatles fan, there are the George people, the Paul people, and the John people (the Ringo people don't count... I kid... mostly). While I find Geddy Lee an amazing bassist, I find his voice (especially live) and personality (what little I could glean from the concert I attended in Edmonton two summers ago) seem a bit... off. I mean, the vocal incoherence is kind of charming in a way, but it's still... incoherent. (I seriously don't mean this to be an insult to Mr. Lee, who I would still pretty much give my left nut to meet in person.) Alex Lifeson is almost too far into the background despite being, once again, a ridiculously skilled musician. If I knew more about him, he might be the favourite. That leaves...

Neil Peart! If ever a man was the man, this man is it. His kickin' rad giganticohuge drum set, his mastery of all of it, and just the fact that he seems like a really cool guy all work in his favour. He is amazing to watch in action, possessing downright superhuman stamina as we just plugs through really long, really complicated, really fast and furious drum solos. This is all the more impressive since Peart endured considerably tough times over the years, with his daughter dying tragically, followed by his wife, who succumbed to cancer. Peart is also the main lyricist for Rush, the one responsible for the band's crucial focus on philosophy, spirituality, science fiction and fantasy, mythology, and plenty of else drawn from the vast annals of human history. Rush, in summation, would not be what they are without this man.

Well, I've rambled on long enough, but I hope whoever is reading this has enjoyed my sharing of one of my all-time passions in life: the music of Rush. Hopefully I've expressed my enthusiasm adequately, coherently, and intelligently. (I somehow doubt I accomplished the latter two criteria, but meh.) More "Why I love..." entries will be posted soon, perhaps on the Beatles, perhaps on Lost, perhaps on something else. Until then, enjoy this hilarious slice of '80s music video cheese (such a ridiculously cheesy video for such a cool song)...

*Joyous update! I have received six more of the Rush CDs I had ordered in the mail a while back: Rush, Fly By Night, Caress of Steel, Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, and Grace Under Pressure. After giving them a listen, I'll try and add them to the list above. I can already tell that Hemispheres is pretty epic.

07 March 2010

Live blog of the 82nd Annual Academy Awards

6:02 -- Hey, look at this! All five supporting actress nominees all just randomly assembled! Let's go talk to them! This wasn't staged at all!

6:04 -- Kind of a tactless, awkward interview with George Clooney and his wife(?) standing there.

6:06 -- Ughhhh Zac Efron.

6:09 -- Matt Damon is a real class act. Perhaps even classier than Clooney. Kind of impressed by that.

6:10 -- Speaking of class... Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. Pure awesome. The phrase, "Who are you wearing?" is so ridiculous, though.

6:12 -- Hooray for the Best Picture Nominees from 1943...? The more you know, I guess. Casablanca will always be possibly the best Best Picture winner ever, though. This ten best picture nominees thing is kind of a pointless stunt, though. Happy as I am that it permitted District 9 and Up to be nominated.

6:14 -- Oh yeah, I forgot Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were together.

6:15 -- This interviewer is awful. "Hey girl!"? Really?

6:20 ish -- Steve Carell and Tina Fey are cool and hilarious. They seem soooo excited for their upcoming movie. Don't seem to be feigning enthusiasm at all.

6:22 -- Jeff Bridges is awesome. I regret not having seen Crazy Heart yet.

6:25 -- Goddammit Taylor Lautner! Get off the carpet!

Well, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin seem like tailor-made hosts of spectacular humour and stylishness. Bring on the actual show!...

6:31 -- Random pan to Robin Williams looking bemused.
-- Neil. Patrick. Harris. OMG. And he's sparkly. But what does this song have to do with anything?... OK never mind, it kind of works. Hehe, "two hosts to split the fee." Am I the only one thinking NPH would be a fantastic host?

6:34 -- Ah, the actual hosts! Coolness.

6:36-6:37 -- Random shout-outs to random nominees. This is already hilarious... OK, we already talked about Meryl Streep. But at least we get a threesome joke out of it.

6:40 -- Ha! Beautiful gift basket with a timer! Toyota! Yes! Tension between Cameron and Bigelow ftw!

6:41 -- Requisite Jew joke with Inglourious Basterds spin.

6:43 -- Jeff Bridges has a kickin' rad beard.

6:45 -- I kind of need to see Invictus and The Messenger.

6:46 -- Speaking of kickin' rad beards... Christopher Plummer in The Last Station.

6:48 -- Uber-bingo! Nice movie-making-as-expedition metaphor, as well. Go Christoph Waltz, winner of Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. Nice overall speech.

6:50 -- The Blind Side still looks terrible. I don't know, convince me otherwise.

6:57 -- Weird animated character from the nominated movies interview thing. What is the point of this? Cute, though.

6:59 -- Well, that was kind of what I thought. Would have liked Fantastic Mr. Fox to win it a bit more, but I'm quibbling. Up is terrific.

7:01 -- I should not find Miley Cyrus as hot as I do. I'm sorry to everyone who has read this. Grade-A jailbait, that.

7:02 -- Ladies from Nine are so sexy too. Still not in a big hurry to see the movie, though.

7:04 -- Damn, guess I need to see Crazy Heart. T-Bone Burnett is spectacular, but I thought for sure one of the Princess and the Frog songs would take it. Oh well, I'm still 2 for 3 in my predictions.

7:05 -- District 9 still impressed the hell out of me. Seen it three times now. Damn pleased it was nominated. Also, it's for sure better than Avatar. Yeah, I said it. Wanna fight about it?

--stepped out to get chips, dip and pop... I know, I suck--

Apparently I missed Hurt Locker winning Original Screenplay. Damn, 2 for 4 in my predictions. I really wanted either Basterds or A Serious Man to take that one. Like, really. Mucho disappointment.

7:20ish -- Nice ode to child stars and the '80s. Breakfast Club owns all. Random nostalgia-fest! Oh not so random... John Hughes died. Right... Sad times. What a legend.

7:25 -- OMG I wonder what will win Best Visual Effects... Hmm... Durrr.... Uhhhh...

7:28 -- What happened to Carey Mulligan's hair? Meh, whatever works. She needs to win. She won't but she needs to.

7:32 -- Holy crap, I guessed right on Best Animated Short?! That was a complete random guess! I hadn't seen any of them or heard anything about any of them. Wow, I win. You all owe me a Coke. 3 for 5.

7:34 -- Damn, I missed Best Documentary Short. Oh well. Can't randomly guess right every time. Go Music by Prudence! She gestures a lot with her hands and speaks... very... deliberately. Who is Prudence?

7:36 -- Also missed Live Action Short. I thought the Abracadabra thing would take it. Oh well, these guys look entertaining.

7:37 -- Oh for fuck's sake, Stiller! Guy is freaking me right out. Oh, makeup award... Makes sense. Still stupid as hell, though.... Jesus, get on with it.

7:41 -- Woot. Star Trek took Makeup, as expected. 4 for 8.

7:47 -- Mmm... Rachel McAdams... Now see, that's how you introduce a category. Just cut to the chase. Learn from them, Stiller.

7:50 -- Whaaaaaaaaaattttttt??? Fletcher!!!! 4 for 9. Totally thought either An Education or Up in the Air would take Adapted Screenplay. Goddamn. Also, I missed what District 9 was adapted from and really wanted to know. IMDb, I guess. But seriously..... whaaattt??

7:54 -- Lauren Bacall is spectacular. That is all.

7:59 -- Well duh. Mo'Nique won. 5 for 10. Unbelievably ecstatic at this unbelievably well-deserved win. What's this about politics, though? Shout-outs to Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry? Weird speech but clearly heartfelt.

8:09 -- Bright Star had freakin' astonishing costumes and should win this. That is all.... And... it didn't. Although oddly enough during the makeup category, I remarked that Young Victoria looked like it had better costumes than make-up. So... cool. And way to shout-out to the underdog. Good stuff, Young Victoria costume lady!

8:12 -- Precious is becoming ridiculously underrated and lumped in by everyone as some Crash wannabe. This is unbelievably unfair and I don't buy it at all. Have you people that are doing this even seen the movie? (Of course, I'm a Crash defender as well, but the movies are not particularly similar so don't label them as such kthxbye.)

8:17 ish -- Wicked awesome hilarious Paranormal Activity spoof sequence.

8:18 -- OK why are Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart presenting the horror films tribute? How on earth is Twilight horror-related at all? If anything, it craps all over legitimate horror (specifically vampire and werewolf) mythology. So yeah, terrible choice for presenters.

8:20 -- I never was that big on The Shining, but Rosemary's Baby has got to be one of the best horrors ever. Yes! Young Frankenstein! Psycho!

8:22 -- Of course Tarantino would be all over that horror tribute clapping like a buffoon!

8:23 -- Morgan Freeman. Narrating. The intro to the sound categories. In a wonderfully self-aware fashion. And sneaking in a tribute to The Dark Knight. (Why didn't the Academy actually nominate this film for Best Picture last year again?) This is brilliance.

8:25 -- Hurt Locker rightfully wins Sound Editing... and Sound Mixing. Guy who won the first one leaves, then promptly comes back to accept the second award, and reiterates original speech. Hilarious moment.

8:29 -- Really need to see Inglourious Basterds again.

8:34 -- Sandra Bullock looks glamourous... lipstick is a bit much. But very class-tacular and such.

8:38 -- James Taylor doing the In Memoriam tribute? Kinda sweet... Hot damn, that was a sad song. Still can't believe Brittany Murphy died? So random and out of nowhere.

8:46 -- Uh, Legion of Extraordinary Dancers? What the crap? Yeah, they need to not do this next time.

8:50 -- Ugh... and it's still going.

8:53 -- Good old inspirational speech from Michael Giacchino. Rightful winner and one I thought would win as well.

8:55 -- Avatar wins Best Visual Effects. Absolutely no one is surprised. 10 for 17.

9:05 -- No, I will not "Please welcome Tyler Perry." You are not good at all. Except for apparently helping promote Precious. But that does not make up for the travesties that are your movies and TV shows. -- OK, Snuggie joke was awesome though. Maybe you're alright, Perry.

9:08 -- Starting to think the Hurt Locker score is pretty depressing.

9:14 -- Pedro Almodovar and Quentin Tarantino! Cool pairing! Tarantino always seems like such a hilarious tool.

9:17 -- Holy crap random winners for Foreign Language Film and Documentary Feature this year. Wow, did not see those coming.

9:22 -- Starting right in to second (large-ish) size glass of wine. Party is officially started.

9:28 -- Nice anecdotes about Best Actor nominees from people that worked with them, coupled with reaction shots from the nominees. Wonderful, self-aggrandizing stuff. I ate it up with a spoon, of course. Tim Robbins was especially hilarious, talking about Morgan Freeman.

9:34 -- Goddamn you are awesome, Jeff Bridges. He just seems so happy to have found himself in this crazy situation and honours his parents and is such a good, heartfelt guy. Married 33 years in Hollywood, wow. Good work.

9:40 -- Forest Whitaker directed Hope Floats? Helen Mirren has a spider web tattoo? Dang, the more you know.

9:45 -- Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe are astonshingly awesome. I wish they could both win it. But Sandra Bullock will. Maybe she was good too.

9:47 -- What are you talking about, Sean Penn?

9:50 -- Dang. Guess I need to see The Blind Side then. Can't imagine Bullock is better than Mulligan or Sidibe, though. Great speech... classy lady... heartfelt, personal speech... but still disappointing. Yeah, I'm mean.

9:53 -- Is it going to be the first woman to win Best Director? Or the first African American? Or some other boring white guy? Stay tuned!... And it's the woman and not some boring white guy. Was rooting for Tarantino, but this is fantastic. Go Hurt Locker!

9:58 -- Wow, they're rushing right the fuck through this. Didn't even read the nominees. Mo-fuggin' Hurt Locker! Woot!

Jaw = on the floor right now. Way to go, Academy! Wasn't quite what I wanted to win, but what a bold, fine, daring choice. And what a good quip about length of the show from the hosts. I... I take back everything bad I said about the Oscars. They can still surprise. Massive kudos!

01 March 2010

Oscar predictions, twenty-ten style!

That's right, everybody. It's pronounced twenty-ten, not two thousand ten and certainly not two-thousand and ten. Guh. All y'all that say it differently can suck it!

With that said, I will now proceed with my detailed(esque) and sharp(ish) examination of the eight major Academy Award categories, presenting you with my cogent arguments for who should and who probably will win in each. The nominee that I think will win will appear in green, the one I think should win will be in red, and if they somehow magically coincide, it will be in yellow. Now I know this is pointless, and that Academy Awards don't mean a damn thing in the grand scheme of things, but somehow I keep watching and predicting, so if you have a similar love-hate relationship with Oscar (or have even maintained a love-love relationship somehow), drop me a line and say who you think will win or else validate my opinion. Without further ado, let's begin...

Best Picture
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Going into this analysis, I'd like to say this: the whole ten nominees instead of five thing is bullshit. I like the preferential voting idea, however, but the expansion to ten will undoubtedly just prove an illusion of greater egalitarianism for the notoriously snobbish Academy. Ultimately, the same old stuff will keep winning, and we all know what the five nominees would be had they not expanded it to ten. While for a time, the race was between Avatar and Up in the Air, momentum and word of mouth after it hit DVD has now put The Hurt Locker in a neck-and-neck race with Avatar, with Up in the Air and maybe Inglourious Basterds standing in as potential dark horses. Avatar, I'm quite certain, will pull it off, seeing as how it's the most popular thing since sliced bread, and since the Academy sure loves their technically proficient, exorbitantly long and grandiose Cameron pictures. As much as I'd like to think the Academy has changed its standards a bit since No Country for Old Men took the award two years ago, they're gonna go with tradition and re-crown Mr. Cameron the king of the world once again. Prove me wrong.
-Meanwhile, it's no secret what I think should win. While I would be thrilled to see The Hurt Locker, with its combination of throat-gripping suspense, action scenes far more effective and competently staged than anything done more expensively in Avatar, and rich, intimate characterization, or Precious, with its searing emotional impact and, again, amazingly realized characters, win, the true gem of the year for me was Up in the Air. Just such a proficient combination of realism with Hollywood magic, charm and surface wit with a deepening sense of emptiness and empathy, romantic comedy (with the heroines as equals of the hero for once!) with workplace tragedy... it's an insightful and moving exploration of humanity that's masterful and entertaining enough to recall not only Alexander Payne but maybe even Billy Wilder. (Something about its old-fashioned wit craftsmanship.)

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Allegedly an amazing round-up of fantastic actors, I unfortunately haven't seen two of these movies -- Invictus and Crazy Heart. And where on earth is Michael Stuhlbarg from A Serious Man? Anyways... while you'd think I would be rooting for my main man Clooney here (I still think it was the best performance of his career), Colin Firth, the best thing in an otherwise cold and smotheringly stylish depiction of romantic tragedy, and probably one of the best things in movies in general this year, gave a performance that moved me to my core. So studied, so achingly real and heartfelt. It's a mighty close race between Firth, Clooney, and Renner (a seamless, seemingly effortless, surprisingly complex portrayal of a man caught willingly in an unbearably tough job), but Firth shone through most brightly this year.
-However, buzz suggests even Firth will be bested, perhaps or perhaps not justly, by Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. The man oozes a certain rumpled charm, and seems well-suited for this part, so who am I to judge before seeing the movie. I predict he will win, although my heart (possibly until I see Crazy Heart or Invictus) goes with Firth.

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Haven't seen The Blind Side or The Last Station. Was wowed by Mulligan, Sidibe, and, to an admittedly lesser extent (if only because she's always so effortlessly great and charming), Streep. Tough category. Ultimately, I think I'm rooting for Carey Mulligan, who gave such a refreshing, thoughtful, downright luminous performance in an otherwise just-alright movie (let's call it the Firth factor), with Sidibe being a ridiculously close second. However, somehow this became Bullock's year, just like 2001 was Julia Roberts's year with her performance in Erin Brockovich. Neither of these occurrences quite make sense to me (I was fond of Roberts in Brockovich, but come on -- Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream was a clear stand-out), but such is the way of the universe. I don't even particularly care to see the seeming Red State cliche-fest that appears to be The Blind Side, but it will probably win this award. Meh. Go Bullock. I guess.

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

OK, first off, what the fuck. Where is Jackie Earle Haley from Watchmen? I know it was released early in the year, but the dude made a phenomenal Rorschach, especially in a movie where the rest of the acting ran the gamut from pretty good to downright bland and awful. Also, Anthony Mackie as the level-headed foil to Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker... a performance that gave the film much of its balance. But whatever. I haven't seen Invictus (once again) or The Messenger or The Last Station, so maybe I'm criticizing needlessly. Again, whatever. As much as Tucci made his moments in the dreadful Lovely Bones at least somewhat bearable and intense, this is so far and away Christoph Waltz's year it's almost embarrassing for the other nominees. He was one of the most devilishly intense, intelligent, commanding characters of the year -- hell, multiple years. As much as the Academy has an iffy relationship with Tarantino, the rest of the competition just isn't strong or buzzy enough (even by their standards) for them to ignore the deserved winner here. All hail Waltz, the Jew Hunter! (Jeez, never thought I'd say those words. Hehe.)

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Another category where the race was pretty much over before it began... even more so. I am pleased as punch that the two wonderful actresses from Up in the Air got nominated here. But this is so utterly Mo'Nique's year that it's crazy. She deserves it, for her searing, unflinching portrayal of inter-generational bitterness, anger, and warped psychology, for going so far beyond her comfort zone to deliver a performance that puts most seasoned drama vets and Oscar darlings to shame. And she will win it quite handily.

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Now this will be interesting. Will the Academy go for a one-two Avatar-sized punch and award both Picture and Director to James Cameron and Avatar? Or will they choose to split the love, which they sometimes do, and give it to Kathryn Bigelow (Cameron's ex!), director of the hot-on-his-heels contender, The Hurt Locker? My gut tells me they will choose the latter option. I'm not completely convinced she deserves it head-and-shoulders over anyone else here, though. A lot of the buzz behind her is based on the fact that she is a woman and has directed an amazing, male-oriented action picture... which kind of smacks of a bit of reverse discrimination to me. I think Reitman just keeps getting better at that nifty thing he does, and he would be a deserving winner too. I'm not sure it was Daniels's direction that made Precious so, well, precious, but he's certainly damn good. Cameron, of course, I wasn't a huge fan of this time around. I think Tarantino might have ultimately taken the biggest risk here, and exceeded all my expectations, delivering a joyously-made, exciting, provocative, often hypnotically suspenseful film in a genre I thought he might struggle in. As such, I would really like to see him win it, although the likely winner, Bigelow, will garner essentially as much applause from me. Like I said, tough category to judge.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Armando Iannucci, In the Loop
Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Nick Hornby, An Education
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

OK, not sure what District 9 is adapted from, but whatever, it was good, original, and took risks that paid off in spades with a meaty yet kick-ass film. I also wonder where the sparklingly written Fantastic Mr. Fox or even The Princess and the Frog are here... animation had a banner year in '09 and it deserves to be represented elsewhere than in the Animated Film category (awesome as it is to see Up battling it out for Best Picture). Moving on... In the Loop was witty and well-written as hell, of course, and more people need to see it. I like the charm and well-done characterization that Hornby brought to An Education, but not so much the underlying formulaic-ness of it all. And I don't know that Precious was that much of a "script" film as it was an "acting" film, but again -- good stuff. Up in the Air is the one my heart is behind, so great in its balance of heart and humour, piercing realistic observation and Hollywood fun... Reitman should for sure take this if he doesn't take Director... along with Sheldon Turner of course. As for who will likely win... I honestly have no idea. I have a hunch it will be Hornby, though, as An Education was a fairly Oscar-ish movie, and his script was certainly a pretty solid creation... add to the fact that he is a renowned novelist and he probably has this in the bag.

And finally...

Best Original Screenplay
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Allesandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy, Up
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

OK, where the hell is (500) Days of Summer? And why does Inglourious Basterds count here since it was based (loosely, to be sure) on an old Italian film? Bah. This is actually a damn good category (except for the fact that I haven't seen The Messenger) and a hard choice to make. The mesmerizing streams of dialogue that made Inglourious Basterds spring to life. The impeccably observed and carefully laid-out structure of The Hurt Locker. The classic combination of heart and humour in Up. The daring allegories and somehow almost-but-not-quite Jewish caricatures of A Serious Man and its ingenious black humour swirling around its serious questions of faith and existence. I suppose Up is ruled out since I wasn't a huge fan of its middle stretches, although it had a marvelous beginning and end. It ain't the best Pixar film, but it's still damn good. So that leaves three. I suppose I'll give this one to the Coens since they're relatively underrepresented elsewhere and since I did think it was an ingeniously well-thought-out and thoughtful and constantly surprising film... but I really, really am equally fond of Tarantino's amazing Basterds script and Boal's rigorously journalistic Hurt Locker script. What will win, you ask? I'm guessing this is the category that the Academy thinks they can most efficiently honour Tarantino's achievement in Basterds, and so the trophy will probably go to him, barring some sort of Hurt Locker sweep or spark of rare smartness, which would lead the Coens to win something. But when does that happen in the Oscars? Tee-hee. Whatever they choose, I will be extremely OK with.

As for Best Animated Film, I'm rooting for Fantastic Mr. Fox (by just a wispy little stop-motion fox hair) over the very very nearly as awesome Up, Coraline, and The Princess and the Frog. Haven't seen that other one. Up will probably win, though, since Pixar owns this category... and I won't care too much if it does.

Foreign Film? No idea. Sadly haven't seen any of them. And the rest of the categories? Meh. Who cares about them? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Well, that's it for another year of prediction-y, Oscar-ish fun! Agree? Disagree? Not care at all? Leave me a comment.

25 February 2010

Some late additions

Isn't it always the way? You think you've seen enough movies to make your list and then a couple days and weeks later, you stumble across a few new movies so good that they beg to be included as well. Well, that's how it happened with me, and suffice it to say, it's been a damn good week or so of movie watching. Rather than edit the list, I'll give you some write-ups right here of the films I would subsequently include on the list along with their approximate position (3a would be between 3 and 4 on the original list, etc.). And since there's three of them, that brings the 2009 list up to an even 20, which is a much better number than 17 anyway! Silver linings and all that. Happy movie-going!

3a. Two Lovers
Even considering the praise that has been lavished on James Gray's '70s-style, grittily realistic romance, it's still somehow been vastly underrated... or maybe it was just under-recognized by me, before now. Whatever the case, I can't overstate the poetic, atmospheric beauty nor the piercing honesty and the appropriately anachronistic and detailed expression of pure humanity on display in this stunning film. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressive, mildly unstable man with past baggage of heartbreak, first seen engaging in a feeble suicide attempt. Working with his fairly Orthodox Jewish parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini, both engaging in a careful balancing act between light-hearted caricature and tender empathy) at their family dry-cleaning business, he soon comes across two women who become possible suitors. His parents want to set him up with Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the beautiful, smart, and sensitive daughter of another Jewish family who is in the process of taking over their business -- it would seem like a logical match. But Leonard randomly comes across a ravishing, sprightly, but equally damaged (she has a history of drug abuse) new neighbour, Michelle (a radiant and powerful Gwyneth Paltrow), and falls hard for her, and she, somewhat, for him, despite being intermittently involved with a wealthy married man (Elias Koteas).

None of this is overstated -- not the meet-cute between Michelle and Leonard, or the urges and day-to-day lives of Leonard's parents, or Michelle's dealings with her boyfriend, or any of the complications or tragedies that ensue later on -- and so Gray achieves an almost miraculous balancing act, drawing out feelings of tension, passion, disorientation, loyalty, and the always near-incomprehensible machinations of the human heart. It's one of the most startlingly real, carefully and elegantly staged romances since Before Sunset, with a lovely, dialogue and moment-based script to boot. But I'm trying to fit it into a model, which is wrong, since the film is also wonderfully unpredictable. And least predictable of all -- except maybe to those paying close attention to the actor -- is the revelatory power of Joaquin Phoenix's lead performance, nearly Brandoesque in its astonishing intensity and heartbreaking empathy. Not to be outdone, Paltrow also gives one of the most marvelous performances of her already distinguished career. Two Lovers is not only a hopeful yet complex look at love, but about life, and it's a rare film that thrills and moves you by doing little more than presenting its particular characters and letting them interact, breathe, grow, learn, and live.

13a. Bright Star
A ravishing period piece romance that's also a relatively intelligent and compelling look at fashion, literature, and the place of women in history -- and way more snappy, fun, and luxuriously moving than that lame description could suggest. Jane Campion provides not only luscious and impeccable visual design -- my God, those costumes! -- but a sharp eye for character detail and the larger implications of her story, connecting the particular to the universal. It helps that she has a wonderful, natural talent in the beautiful Abbie Cornish -- as Fannie Brawne, the higher-class, fashion-designing lover of 19th century English poet John Keats -- and a pitch-perfect match for her in Ben Whishaw as Keats as well as a great sparring partner for her in Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats's loyal friend and confidante who disapproves of his friend's romantic choice. Witty, well-crafted dialogue is shared among all three and the film moves across its familiar story beats with seamless, exuberant ease and more thematic and narrative heft than one might expect. An emotionally, intellectually, and visually sparkling gem of a film.

17a. Big Fan
Might actually be 15a. Who knows? Anyhow, this is an oddly underlooked look at unbridled all-American sports mania from The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel, making his remarkably assured directing and comedic debut. Basically a darkly funny character study of parking garage attendant and die-hard New York Giants fan Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt, a reliable TV comedy side player making a great lead performance here, carefully modulating anger, self-righteousness, and intensity), a regular contributor to late-night sports radio call-in shows who undergoes a (possibly deserved) humiliation at the hands of his favourite team's quarterback as well as his frequent on-air rival Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport). But in the underdog spirit of America, this only strengthens Paul from Staten Island's determination to support his team, no matter what the cost to his body or his sanity. Oswalt is well-supported by Kevin Corrigan as his best buddy at the big games and the various actors playing his flabbergasted family. Siegel alternates tone well between darkness and light, nails the details of his hero's life, and brings it in to the end zone to score a touchdown of a hilarious point about not only sports obsession but a culture in which we define ourselves based solely (crazily) on what we support. Not afraid to go to some risky, but true in their context, places for laughs, Siegel makes this one of the sharpest and most outrageous satires of the year -- along with the equally under-appreciated Observe and Report.

13 February 2010

The best films of 2009 (at long last)

Well, I've finally seen enough movies from last year -- and then some! -- to, I believe, justify a reasonably comprehensive 'best of the year' list. A bit of a twist this year: it'll be a top-17 list instead of a top-10. There was just too much stuff I wanted to talk about from this year, like The Road and Inglourious Basterds as just a few spoilerific examples, for me to be comfortable narrowing it down to just 10. But before you chastise me for such a random, arbitrary number, I have precedent for it in the form of Glenn Kenny.

Regrettable omissions are of course the bane of my existence, and some of the big movies I have not yet had the chance to see from last year that I very much wanted to are Bright Star, A Single Man, Invictus, The White Ribbon (although after the abomination that was Funny Games, my desire to rush out to see another Michael Haneke film has cooled considerably), and Tokyo Sonata. And if I do like any of those to any great degree, I can just tack them on the end of the list here, or label them #10a. or something. Hooray for the flexibility of blogging! And I have seen Avatar, for the record... it just flat-out didn`t make the list. But enough about the caveats. Let's do this thang.

Some sad exclusions (a.k.a. honourable mentions):
The Princess and the Frog
, a charming, beautiful, smart, funny, incredibly successful rejuvenation of the old-school Disney aesthetic.
Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi's cheesy-scary-giddily fun throwback to the Evil Dead era.
I Love You, Man, the deliriously funny, sharply observant, enjoyably tender 'bromance' that the scatter-shot The Hangover wanted to be... although I still liked The Hangover a wee bit as well. And it featured a cameo by Rush! (Glee!)
Adventureland, a not-quite-tonally-perfect but lovely and heartfelt movie (with endearing performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Twi-gal Kristen Stewart) that does for the '80s what Dazed and Confused did for the '70s and American Graffiti did for the dawn of the '60s.
The Limits of Control, which was kind of a lot further away from this list than those others, but which deserves as much mention as I can possibly give it for being the most underrated, surprisingly mesmerizing artsy effort of last year.

The list proper:

17. Coraline
Visually eye-popping, dazzling and tense and surreal and scary all at once, this is possibly Henry Selick's most accomplished effort yet. (I can already hear the cries of protest from the die-hard Nightmare Before Christmas fans.) Of course, he's helped greatly by Neil Gaiman, the virtuoso inventor whose book he sublimely adapts here. The animation is as exquisite as the sense of imagination and the emotional impact, and it's all buoyed by a rousing voice cast including Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, and the spookily good John Hodgman -- yep, the PC guy from the Mac ads.

16. Everlasting Moments
A wistful and moving Swedish import far more sturdily built than anything from IKEA. A wonderful, almost Ibsen-like family drama set at the turn-of-the-20th-century, the period setting is exquisitely well captured by director Jan Troell. The film, appropriately enough considering its story is about a woman who gains strength and feminine identity through her experiments with a camera she won in a lottery, often has the burnished look of an old, faded photograph. Troell proves observant, tough, and empathetic in capturing the family's moments together (although I found the father, as character and as performed, a bit bland), as well as those between the camera-toting mother and the kind old owner of the photography shop down the street. An emotional, elegant film with a fantastic, wise lead performance from Maria Heiskanen.

15. Observe and Report
The part of the list where you point fingers and call me crazy. Bah. This is a love-it-or-hate-it film of the highest order, and I'm fully on the love-it side. An all-out, darkly (even bleakly) comedic send-up of Taxi Driver and all-American earnestness, the movie (about a big-dreaming mall cop and a lewd shopping mall flasher and the havoc that results) lets Seth Rogen unleash his angry side, and it looks good on the big lug. Observe and Report also boasts propulsively funny turns from Anna Faris (as a drunken perfume counter bimbo), Ray Liotta (pitch-perfectly hammy as a self-serious cop), and Celia Weston as the mother with all the right advice. Either you go along with its outrageous energy, culminating in a ridiculously violent climax, or you find it repellently offensive. Me, I found it one of the most energetic, pointed, daring comedies of recent memory, more than worthy of comparison to Tropic Thunder or Borat.

14. In the Loop
Speaking of classic comedy, Armando Iannucci's sparkling, effortlessly witty, fast-talking political satire is like The West Wing meets... some kind of crazy, Fawlty Towers-esque British sitcom. Uniformly well-acted from a cast of largely unknown (at least on this side of the pond) British actors and, for good measure, James Gandolfini as a tough-looking, sceptical American general, the movie is briskly entertaining and sharp from beginning to end. Best of all is Peter Capaldi as a foul-mouthed, apoplectic, cell phone-toting PR guy for the British folks in charge.

13. Inglourious Basterds
Another viewing and this likely could have cracked the top-10. As it is, I found it a raucous, slightly imperfect and questionable WWII romp from Quentin Tarantino that was far more blisteringly fun than any film bearing that description has any right being. Brad Pitt is of course the biggest star in this Nazi revenge fantasia-as-meta-cinematic commentary, and he affects an unreasonably entertaining faux-Southern accent as Aldo Raine, who wants his scalps. Even more richly entertaining, though, are Melanie Laurent, radiant, impassioned, and stirring, with a bona fide feminist vivacity, as Shosanna Dreyfus, the only surviving member of a French Jewish family bent on revenge, movie-style, and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter, so gleefully intense he just about singes the edges of the screen. Tarantino could have laid on the action thick here, and what of it there is is thoroughly fun and engaging, but this is at is core a movie drenched in impossibly well-staged dialogue, whether it be Landa's throat-gripping opening interrogation or a later basement card game scene almost hypnotic in its tension. And of course it all wraps up with a quintessential Tarantino image of cinema as diabolically effective revisionist history, of movies as imagination, emotional conduit, and savior. So sit in the dark and enjoy.

12. Food, Inc.
A comprehensive, sleekly mounted, fitfully engaging, and downright shocking documentary about what we eat and the disparity between what we think it is and what really goes on behind the scenes of its production. Robert Kenner draws upon the research of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan to draw us into some of the deeper corners of the food industry. Most damning of all is Kenner's indictment of Monsanto, which has by now all but monopolized corn production in the US thanks to its patent on genetically modified seeds; but the film covers such a broad spectrum of food-related horrors, from the ground up, and Kenner packs it so full of revealing interviews and startling information, that it will definitely make you think twice about what you eat for your next meal.

11. The Road
Bad timing is really the only reason I can see for this elegant, heartbreaking film not getting its due as a worthy follow-up to that Cormac McCarthy adaptation of 2007, No Country for Old Men -- a startling film, and one of the best of the decade. John Hillcoat, the master of art-directed atmosphere who helmed The Proposition, reaffirms that reputation here: The Road immerses us in a vividly desolate, bleakly stunning, utterly authentic post-apocalyptic landscape. It also achieves a quietly mesmerizing alternation between McCarthy's terse dialogue and mesmerizing silence, punctuated by Nick Cave's haunting piano score. Aesthetically wonderful, the movie also proves once again what a towering actor Viggo Mortensen is while also featuring a great, heartfelt breakout performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee. Despairing enough to be true to McCarthy's work but also honestly emotional and hopeful enough to be moving when it needs to be, this work may be a bit too stuffy/fussy at times to completely live up to the Coen Brothers' masterpiece, but it is still an absolutely stunning post-apocalyptic tragedy.

10. Up
Yet another astonishing animated film in a sterling year for animation. Up is just further proof of Pixar`s seamless genius in telling original stories with emotional weight, witty humour, and increasingly dazzling visual beauty. Starting with a quietly poignant, perceptive, and heart-tugging opening montage of childhood enthusiasm slowly turning to mid-life acceptance and disappointment of dreams dashed, the movie quickly dives into the jubilant tale of cranky old widower and former balloon salesman Carl Fredericksen (wryly voiced by Ed Asner), finally realizing his childhood ambition of flying to mythical Paradise Falls in South America by attaching thousands of balloons to his rickety old house and hitting the skies. Faced with an unexpected stowaway, a friendly talking dog, and a betrayal by his childhood hero (silkily voiced by Christopher Plummer), Up becomes a buoyant tale of both nostalgia and new-found friendships and goals in life. If the humour is a little bit more juvenile and inconsistent than some of Pixar`s best -- like WALL-E or The Incredibles -- it`s still one of the most purely entertaining, colourful, wistful, and profound films of the year.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
A wildly inventive animated caper that recalls the sheer madcap joy of Wallace & Gromit and allows the notoriously style-oriented director Wes Anderson to more fully and intricately construct his cinematic world, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also smart as, well, a fox. Not just about the wondrously conceived details of its quirky landscape -- the action takes place in a meadow replete with foxes, weasels, moles, and even wolves, railing against the tyranny of local farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean -- or the ingeniously complicated logistics of Mr. Fox`s climactic heist, but about the shrinking expectations of middle age, family, competition, and the little thrills in life that you have to reach out and grab before they disappear. George Clooney, in his other pitch-perfect performance of the year, is appropriately wily and charismatic as Mr. Fox, and the movie is blessed as well with the vocal talents of Meryl Streep as his doubting-yet-loyal wife, and Anderson staples like Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. A tender, heartfelt family drama, a work of stop-motion art of exquisite, hand-crafted beauty, and also a blissfully entertaining, madcap, high-stakes heist flick all wrapped up in one? I'll be cussed if Anderson doesn't pull all that off and, in the process, arrive at one of his most accomplished efforts yet.

8. District 9
Easily the sci-fi film of the year in a year that boasted stiff competition in the category from such variously dazzling efforts as Star Trek, Moon, and Avatar. This is a boldly original, thoroughly satisfying compilation that combines the pointed social/political satirical implications of an alien spaceship stalling out over Johannesburg, South Africa and being forced by the locals into slum-like townships with intensely involving character study of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a weaselly corporate stooge involved in the alien relocation who accidentally comes into contact with some DNA-altering alien technology with action scenes as viscerally stirring as anything this year (on a budget that was about as big as the catering cost for Avatar). It also combines an urgent documentary approach with a more fittingly panoramic scale as the stakes and the tensions mount. South African director Neil Blomkamp, with his focused, brainy direction, has delivered an ideal summer-time entertainment, boasting busy and ingenious brain as well as efficiently muscular brawn, not to mention a poignant bit of heart regarding human-alien identification... but subtly, without ever getting as preachy as Avatar. Great, meaty late summer entertainment.

7. (500) Days of Summer
(500) Days of Summer features the sliest romantic comedy gimmick of the year -- telling its story, which unfolds over, of course, 500 days, in iPod Shuffle fashion, with moments of meet-cute, first make-out, first argument, first night of sex, post-break-up despair, playfully seductive IKEA shopping, and the most joyously inspired and random musical number of the years (set to Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams") all jostling for our avid attention. That alone puts it head and shoulders above any of the thousands of run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter rom-coms that currently infest the multiplexes. But director Marc Webb does us one better by infusing his movie with a sense of pointed observation about relationships underlined by a rueful and breezily romantic heart. Although on second viewing, I did find the secondary characters as overly cutesy as the film's detractors found, the film succeeds in spite of all this thanks to Webb's balanced staging of romance and melancholia as well as the absolutely wonderful, lived-in performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, the earnest young hero (with architectural aspirations), and the radiant Zooey Deschanel as Summer, the exquisite, playful, but self-possessed and just-out-of-reach object of his undying affections. Deschanel in particular makes you believe Summer as the girl every man wants, especially (and ironically) when they discover they can't quite have her (or maybe I've just developed a bit of a celebrity crush on Deschanel... entirely possible). (500) Days of Summer is the most blissful and original (anti-)romance of the year, as endearingly quirky and perceptive, in its way, as Annie Hall and with echoes, too, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and, with its brilliant rooftop party scene, a virtuoso rumination on the image and reality of love.

6. Where the Wild Things Are
Beautiful, startlingly original, even breathtakingly moving in its best moments, Where the Wild Things Are is a miraculous, expansive adaptation of a tiny, cherished children's book by Maurice Sendak. Somehow, director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have crafted a psychologically complex but easy-to-follow, deeply characterized and visually -- even aurally, with the haunting music of Karen O included during the journey -- stunning little fantasy that's also a deep rumination on childhood imagination, fear, anger, and wonder. (Catherine Keener does a good job in a small role as the weary, divorced mother to Max, the real child and wild thing from whose eyes the movie unfolds.) Embodying Max's ideals, figments, worries, and dreams, the Wild Things he comes across after running away from home and boarding a boat to a far-away, subconscious land of make-believe are brought to vivid life. This is due not only to the roughly enchanting costumes and make-up but to the performances of Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, and, especially, James Gandolfini in a towering, scary-sensitive performance as lead Wild Thing Carol. And at the centre of it all, Max Records is a tenderly earnest, natural revelation as our rebellious hero Max. Some found it too depressing -- I admired Jonze's refusal to sugar-coat any of the darker aspects of the story and his simultaneously ringing endorsement for emotional reconciliation at journey's end. Some thought it looked gloomy -- I found the combination of light and dark, dreamy and earthy, in both visual look and emotional tone, to be just about perfect. A bright gem of a children's film that trusts in the intelligence of its audience, both young and old.

5. A Serious Man
Possibly the most audacious, free-wheeling, ambitious-yet-personal film of the year -- a colleague, Nathaniel Tensen, had it right comparing it to last year's Synecdoche, New York. Similarly, this is a film that's initially hard to swallow at points (especially that abrupt, offbeat ending), but that only grows in stature upon further reflection. It's the first film from Joel and Ethan Coen that can be counted as genuinely personal, taking part in a '60s-era, Midwest city like that of their childhood, and dealing explicitly and in complicated fashion with their Jewish roots -- but like many Coen joints, the sense of satire and almost fetishistic surface detail is overwhelming here, almost (but not quite) to the point where it can be called stereotypical. It's also one of the few films that can combine serious Biblical allegory (think the Book of Job) with mundane domestic drama, character study, and quintessentially '60s tropes of pot and rock and roll (a Jefferson Airplane song may feature the key to unraveling the film's mysteries). Finally it combines the Coens' more serious, existential mode (see No Country for Old Men... again) with their outrageously silly social satire mode (the best example being the underrated Burn After Reading) to seamless, rewarding effect.

Bold, fevered, and frankly astonishing, A Serious Man is like nothing else this year. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a mesmerizing, slow-burn performance as harried physics professor Larry Gopnik, a seemingly average, serious man for whom everything seems to be going increasingly wrong -- to the point that he starts suffering from a nightmarish crisis of faith and existence and seeks out Rabbinic intervention. The whole cast does stellar work, in fact, under the controlled direction of the Coens (Richard Kind and Frank Melamed are stand-outs). A rare glimpse at some weighty personal subject matter for the directors, A Serious Man starts off with a humourous but eerie Yiddish parable and spirals down into the existential suburban abyss before ending with a true American apocalyptic vision. Profoundly cool. I suspect it will only prove more daring and effective with subsequent reflection and viewings. (I almost toyed with the idea of it as my #1.) As it is, it is more than worthy of being placed alongside No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Blood Simple as the brothers' best.

4. The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow does a seamless job of placing us in the shoes of someone with an almost impossibly nerve-rattling job with the original, intimate, and constantly intense war movie The Hurt Locker. The film zooms in on the daily ins and outs of a bomb disposal specialist -- knowing which wire to cut; trying to figure out if there are backup bombs and detonators; marching with a heavy, hot explosion-proof suit through sweltering Iraqi city streets into likely death; trying vigourously to disarm an unwilling suicide bomber whose explosives may be timer-activated; and trying to determine whether the guy on the cell phone down the street or up on that rooftop is calling a friend or activating a detonator. And with such focus, she blows stereotypes of war, action, gung-ho patriotism, and masculine cool and camaraderie and careerism right out of the water. Nothing is familiar or comfortable here; the stakes feel viscerally real, and each moment in the film could spell death for the characters. Mark Boal's script, informed from his days out in the battlefield as a journalist, helps make everything appear vividly real. Bigelow proceeds at a deliberate, exacting pace, with each new scene completely, dizzyingly different than the last and yet building on the knowledge and fear of what came before.

As the central daredevil, Col. James, Jeremy Renner memorably employs a charismatic swagger and an almost Zen-like grace under pressure that makes you wonder whether his character is purposefully crazy and reckless or whether his hotheaded nature is the only natural response to this insane line of work. He's brilliantly backed up by Anthony Mackie as his methodical look-out man who begins to question his superior's unorthodox techniques, as well as Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in a pair of stunning cameos. "War is a drug," we are informed by a title at the beginning of the film, and indeed it is for Col. James -- with all the adrenaline, addictive quality, and vitally real danger that term implies. The Hurt Locker is superbly intense experience. Bigelow works on an intimate emotional and character-driven level as well as a purely exacting logistical level to create an astonishingly intense, immersive, observant, and efficient picture of war as we know it today.

3. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Speaking of gut-punching intimacy, Precious, Lee Daniels's
gritty, heart-wrenching portrait of an obese, nearly silent, constantly berated and down-trodden teen named Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe in a startling break-out performance) is a work of harrowing emotional power and creative juice. Daniels brings us disturbingly close to this morbidly obese inner city teen, so brutalized both emotionally and physically that her face barely registers any expression anymore, on the verge of mental implosion from past horrors, having to raise two babies (both the products of rape at the hands of her own father), and contending with her brutal, insensitive mother (Mo'Nique). Daniels works meticulously, fully developing the details of its central character's life and the slow steps she tries to take towards recovery -- including attending a school for the disadvantaged and speaking with a welfare counselor (a surprisingly good Mariah Carey). But the film remains appropriately merciless and refuses to offer any unearned uplift; it will be a slow, possibly futile journey for Precious. The combination of "real"and "fantasy" footage also wonderfully hooks us in to this girl's real world and her clashing desires, and the cast, especially Sidibe, expressively inexpressive as the title character, and Mo'Nique, absolutely scorching as the girl's damaged, damaging mother, makes you feel the force, despair, and desperation of their respective characters. This is stunning viewing, one of the great character studies of the year, and honestly and artfully heartbreaking as it reveals Precious's totemic, individual struggles to better herself amidst the knotty forces of resentment and near-pathological hostility that keep dragging her back, in a sort of sadomasochistic co-dependence worthy of Samuel Beckett (or at least Tennessee Williams), to her mother and to her unspeakable past.

2. Summer Hours
What a lovely, lovely film this is. Summer Hours is a tender, thoughtful, sun-kissed French ensemble drama from Oliver Assayas that effortlessly arrives at and delivers pinpoint truths about family, generational differences, art, nostalgia, and social roles in an increasingly fractured, globalized world. Centred around the 75th birthday party of a family matriarch Helene (a wonderful Edith Scob), who has devoted her life to maintaining the family's summer home as well as the artistic legacy of her uncle, and subsequent family meetings held to decide what to do with the house and the museum-worthy pieces after Helene passes, Summer Hours is an intelligent, vibrantly realistic, talky, and engrossing family drama. Combine this scenario with pitch-perfect acting from top to bottom (Juliette Binoche as the whip-smart, flighty artist of the family; Charles Berling is the surprisingly sentimental economist and the oldest of the siblings, who doesn't want to part with his mother's relics; Jeremy Regnier is the calculating careerist whose job has taken a surprising turn and will keep him stuck in China; Isabelle Sadoyan is the sweet and loyal servant of the summer house; I could go on...) and lively, spiky streams of dialogue from Assayas's sparkling script and you have a movie that bears comparison not only to last year's stellar Rachel Getting Married, but to the likes of Robert Altman and Jean Renoir (this being a French film, after all). Summer Hours is both timely and poignantly timeless, a movie that expresses how we all live now and an intimately detailed and delightful portrait of these particular quirky, loving, argumentative, bourgeois characters. And as it builds toward its sunny, bittersweet conclusion, as the art gets sold off to museums and the house goes up for sale, we get, in the children and also the teenage grandchildren (just as well-acted as anyone else), a glimpse of the heartbreak that comes with letting go, as much of a thrill and a necessity as it is to move forward.

1. Up in the Air
As Summer Hours proves, sometimes the smallest films can be the most meaningful. Well, as Up in the Air proves, sometimes the most corny-seeming, all-American films can be the most joyous, satisfying surprises. Jason Reitman's effortlessly winning masterpiece (the man keeps getting better, after the auspicious debut of Thank You for Smoking and the sparkling wit and exuberance of Juno) is a half-happy, half-sad, completely entertaining affair that manages to expertly juggle all the balls it tosses so assuredly into the air. It works seamlessly and simultaneously as an uncommonly witty romantic comedy (the script, from Reitman and Sheldon Turner and based on Walter Kirn's novel, is chock full of such nimble, lighter-than-air banter it recalls the glory days of screwball, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn), a down-to-earth, up-to-the-moment tragedy of very real economic distress as it hits home, and an empathetic character study of a man who revels in his facile, rootless, frequent flier habits until he realizes his position in life is just as insecure as those he fires for a living. As Ryan Bingham, the initially happy-go-lucky, smooth operating businessman living in the lap of cookie-cutter hotel-and-rental-car luxury, George Clooney gives his most heartfelt and charming performance to date in a role seemingly custom-tailored for his movie star suaveness. As the story goes on, though, Clooney wisely modulates the bitter with the sweet as he comes to re-evaluate his position in life. It's a feat of movie star acting to get us to sympathize and believe someone like Ryan, and Clooney pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Vera Fermiga and Anna Kendrick, meanwhile, match him note for note as, respectively, a sexy, smart, self-possessed fellow corporate traveler, and a fresh-faced, upstart rival at Ryan's firm who wants to do away with the traveling ax-man system and do it all via computer -- that is, before Ryan takes her on the road and shows her the importance of personal finesse in the business of letting folks go.

Up in the Air never quite white-washes over its hero's faults or shortchanges the poor folks he fires. Reitman and Clooney draw us into Ryan's cushy lifestyle and effectively convey the sleek, systematized charm of it all (and thus its original appeal for Ryan) before showing us how much of an empty shell it has left him and reinforcing what truly matters in life -- family, love, stability. It's a high-wire act of tragicomedy that the movie pulls off wonderfully, approaching real-life seriousness with appropriate heft while remaining honestly humourous throughout. And Up in the Air, besides all that, is deeply attuned to the particular rhythms that bind men and women in today's fast-paced, technology saturated society (Ryan and Alex's flirting over instant message is a playful delight). Its exploration of corporate culture and gender relations is funny, genuine, and touching enough (in its old-school way) to recall Billy Wilder's The Apartment, and Reitman so blithely connects the dots here and works with such a keen eye for humanity in all its joy and despair that his approach can reasonably be called Alexander Payne-esque. Superb, multi-layered entertainment.


The worst films of the year:

The problem with a guy like me making a worst list is that I tend to go out of my way not to see the movies I suspect will actually be the worst of a given year. I gloss over almost all the cookie-cutter, vapid romantic comedy disasters and the dreary, tossed-together horror flicks-of-the-week, and whatever the latest WWE star's latest acting attempt is. Stuff like or Bride Wars or The Ugly Truth or Saw VI or Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, therefore, will not be on this list because I flat-out didn't see nor have any desire to see them. I did see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, however, but since I didn't particularly care for the first one, it didn't quite count as enough of a disappointment to make the list, but it was undoubtedly a titanically ill-conceived, garish effort. Therefore, my worst of the year is hardly comprehensive, and not even that bad on an absolute scale, and most of them are just mediocre and/or disappointments. With that said, here are the films I most regret seeing last year:

5. The Girlfriend Experience
After raves from the likes of Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman, critics whose opinions I give a fair amount of weight to, I expected The Girlfriend Experience to be a shoestring-budget Steven Soderbergh marvel along the lines of Bubble. Unfortunately, this was a "small" film in both budget and enjoyment. Exploring the life and times of an upscale Manhattan prostitute (Sasha Gray, the best performance -- and one of the few interesting parts -- of the movie) who promises not only sex but the full "girlfriend experience" and the realistic, high-powered businessmen who tend to employ her, the film wants to get at a sort of verisimilitude with its naturalistic actors and its grainy, shot-on-the-fly digital video aesthetic. Instead, the actors barely leave an impression at all and the wanna-be topical dialogue about the economy comes off as forced and rambling, rather than urgent or real. It all adds up to a depressingly airless, tedious experience. Again, not so much awful as a mediocre, failed experiment.

4. Whatever Works
Woody Allen's latest is a done-to-death, stuck-in-the-past affair about an obnoxiously talky old crank (in this case, an award-winning scientist) and his ridiculously unlikely, incredibly young love interest. The inclusion of Larry David in the lead instead of Allen himself was undoubtedly intended as a breath of fresh air, but it only makes the angry/neurotic tirades that Allen's script is littered with come across as more stale. Evan Rachel Wood, as the Southern belle runaway that David's character hesitantly accepts into his home, affects a thick accent and flamboyant gestures that do little to disguise the fact that her and David have essentially zero chemistry. The inclusion of Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. later on in the film help to leaven this lead balloon affair slightly, but it's ultimately too little-too late. It's like Allen was asked by his producers what he intended for his next film; the title, unfortunately, was his lamely ambivalent response.

3. Taken
Liam Neeson kicking ass and taking names in Paris in a revenge thriller from director Pierre Morel and hip co-screenwriter Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon the Professional)? Cool. Or, at least, it should be. However, Neeson manages to be surprisingly flat here, angry without ever being compelling, except for that one intense scene from the trailer where he's on the phone threatening the (as it turns out, fairly cardboard) bad guys who kidnapped his daughter. Morel's attempts to have his action thriller cake and eat it too -- i.e., to make it as energetically stupid as something like The Fast and the Furious and at the same time as serious and compulsively intense as the Bourne series -- result in a confused, muddled, blandly Euro-flavoured affair that is mirthless where it should be low-rent fun.

2. Knowing
The scene of the plane crash over the interstate about a third of the way through Alex Proyas's Knowing is a virtuoso scene of fear, panic, and larger-than-life disaster that is at once urgent and awesomely panoramic. Unfortunately, it's about the only compelling scene in the movie, which gets so bogged down in its own twisty symbolism, numerological fetishism, end-of-the-world portentousness, and askew Nicolas Cage performance that it becomes so murky it's almost opaque. Preposterous rather than mesmerizing or haunting, Knowing is perilously close to a post-The Village M. Night Shyamalan debacle. A true, muddled sci-fi dud.

1. The Lovely Bones
I've already talked a fair bit in my last post about this shockingly overwrought, contrived, and mawkish Peter Jackson misfire. Suffice it to say that Jackson should probably stick to large-scale fantasy adaptations rather than trying to shoehorn special effects from those movies into his smaller-scale novel adaptations where they prove wholly unnecessary and ridiculous. Rarely has '70s hipsterism appeared so laughable as it is embodied here by a wooden Mark Wahlberg as the daughter of a tragically murdered young girl (Saoirse Ronan, one of the few saving graces of the film), and rarely has comic relief proved as excruciating as Susan Sarandon's galloping, boozy brand here. About three movies in one -- a post-death otherworldly fantasia, a story of grief and retribution, and apparently a shrill screwball comedy -- Jackson has the unfortunate luck to have failed at all three of them. Stanley Tucci got an Oscar nomination for his intense performance as the nebbishy neighbour and child murderer, and while he was perhaps the most interesting thing in the movie, even he gets smothered by Jackson's attempts to overdo the emotional impact and stereotypify his characters, obliterating any sense of thematic subtlety the movie might have possessed. Creepy instead of sweet, goofy instead of thrillingly mystical, thud-over-the-head forced instead of genuinely emotional, there's very little that's lovely about these Bones.