Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kaboom (Saturday, January 29, 2011) (4)

Oh boy - what to say about Greg Araki's Kaboom. Well, it's very frank about sex. Uh, yeah - that's about it.

This movie is some sort of gonzo laugh at John Waters-like camp fare, but is sorta impossible to follow and goes off in such weird directions that you lose track of what the hell you're watching.

Smith (Thomas Dekker) is a college freshman living in the dorm. He thinks he's gay, but starts getting interested in some of the hot women he sees around. He has a dream with a mysterious girl in it and then thinks he sees her on campus. He tries to find her and enlists his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) to help him. She's a lesbian (you see the trend) and always has a strong scowl on her face.

At some point there is a cult that starts recruiting students in the school and seems to have some sort of suicide pact, like Jonestown or Heaven's Gate. Well, they're more like the latter because there's some stuff about celestial bodies and space or something. Somehow Smith's search for this mysterious girl and search for getting laid by as many people (of all genders) as he can runs into the cult story. I'm still a bit mystified about what exactly happens.

Araki uses a rather non-linear structure to the film and it's very hard to follow from one scene to the next. I not sure very much comes from this aside from confusing us. Well, maybe this as something to do with drugs or something, but it's rather difficult to understand.

I fully admit that there might be something great that I'm not seeing here. I think Araki is capable of brilliant stuff (I think his film Mysterious Skin - which was also non-linear - is amazing), but I didn't see it here. To me, John Waters at his best was in Serial Mom and Pecker - two films that mixed the gross-out shock camp of his early work with normal (and hilarious) story lines that were somewhat approachable. Earlier and later stuff he's done (like Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living or Cecil B. DeMented) is just too hard to follow and such pure camp it's hard to connect to. This film is much more like Araki's Desperate Living than it is Mysterious Skin.

Stars: .5 of 4

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Housemaid (Saturday, January 22, 2011) (3)

The Housemaid is a weird movie. I have come to expect from contemporary Korean films that the directors sometimes like to shock and surprise us, but this movie takes that idea and really runs with it. At times I felt like writer-director Im Sang-Soo was telling an interesting psycho-sexual drama and at time it felt like he was poking fun at us for thinking it was serious, while he made a silly drama similar to a soft-core porno you'd see on late night cable. This isn't to suggest the film is pornographic, but the dramatic plot line was silly and forced throughout.

Hoon and his wife Haera are super rich and have a gigantic house. They have one old housekeeper, Nami, and are looking to hire an assistant for her to help with things around the house. They find Eun-yi, a young woman, and hire her to help out taking care of their young daughter and do smaller tasks like taking food and wine to different parts of the home (because when you're rich you hire people to do that for you). In a short time Eun-yi and Hoon are having an affair. Nami, never happy with her young assistant, finds out about the affair and tries to let Haera know about it in the most dignified way possible. All hell breaks lose when Eun-yi gets pregnant and Nami and Haera's plans crumble as Korean family pride (and blackmail) becomes more important than anything else.

One thing that Sang-Soo does very well here is that he creates a beautiful world of unparalleled luxury with gigantic spaces (in the enormous home) decorated in the finest woods and marbles. The interiors are sumptuous and the costumes work with them beautifully. At times I was reminded of the richness of the rooms and spaces in Luca Guadagnino's recent I Am Love. At time same time, though, there is a coldness and antiseptic quality to the cleanness of everything - which, of course is important here as we realize this rich family is much more superficial, fragile and even toxic than we had originally thought.

There has been a recent trend in the past few years of movies about maids (well, maybe it even goes back to Mary Poppins) and how powerful and manipulative a force they can be. They are like domineering mothers, but are not part of the family and are paid to be there, or not be there. They know all that goes on in their houses, generally don't meddle with the family business, but can find out important information by simply doing their normal job. In many ways Nami is reminiscent of Catalina Saavedra's maid character in Sebastian Silva's The Maid. She wants to be part of the family and thinks of herself as such, she's reluctant to admit she needs help and is such a master of the home that she knows how to control people who step foot in it.

This film is about how maids have become Freudian nightmares. They are motherly and caring (assuming you pay them), but also can be sexual or sexually threatening. They are uber-mothers - not part of the family (and you can have sex with them if you want), but are hard to get rid of if you don't like them.

The finale of this film goes much too far and involves flames and high-wire hijinks (almost literally). It is a shame this happens as there is a lot of interesting stuff to go through in the film about male-female relationships and the cost of companionship and love. Sang-soo goes for a rather big, cheap spectacle at the end (and throughout, really) and undermines the good stuff that we saw before. This is a shame because this could have been a very interesting and beautiful film otherwise.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, January 21, 2011

No Strings Attached (Friday, January 21, 2011) (2)

No Strings Attached should be a terrible, terrible movie, but is actually pretty decent and not all that bad. In this Ivan Reitman picture, Natalie Portman plays Emma, a super hot, super smart med student. She meets up with a kid she knew in camp (and later in college), Adam (Ashton Kutcher), who works on a TV show. They both think the other is hot, so they fuck. Afterwards they decide it would be awesome if they could just be fuck-buddies and not actually date.

They start fucking all over the place, in cars, bathrooms, parts of the hospital. At some point Adam asks Emma if she would be more than just a fuck-buddy and actually be his girlfriend. She tells him no and then runs away. This ruins their relationship and their deal.

For such a silly idea, the script (by Elizabeth Meriweather) is actually pretty clever. There is some very funny, sharp dialogue and the flow of the narrative moves very well. I find most romcoms fall off a cliff in the third act as they try to figure out how to boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl in a new way. This one works pretty well, actually - partly, I think, because neither character is particularly a caricature of real people; they are both pretty down to earth people and you can see the situation from both points of view.

Somehow the casting of this seems to have come out of my subconscious. NatPort has long been a boyish crush of mine. She's totally cute and clearly very Jewish (she plays a Jew here, which is nice... or something). Her best friend is played by Greta Gerwig, a newish actress I adore. (I actually love Greta more than Nat.) Coming out of mumblecore, Greta is one of the best and most honest actors working today. She's funny and sweet and her girl-nextdoorness is out of control. She's wonderful here in the scene when all the women in the apartment are on the rag at the same time. ("There's red-velvet in here, right?")

Then there's Lake Bell, a girl I went to high school with who would barely give me the time of day then and certainly wouldn't speak to me now. She plays, bizarrely, the dorky, bookish co-worker of Ashton at the TV studio who is madly in love with him. She wears glasses and is mostly seen with a clipboard and mousy hair. It's a bit of a stretch that in Hollywood a sharp-tongued hottie like Lake would somehow be a meek assistant, but this is a dumb movie, so I won't argue too much about it. This character is actually not really necessary to the film and seems to only be in for one joke in the end credits. If the part is left in, I think Lake should have been Nat's best friend and Greta should have been the nerdy assistant (both roles are pretty small).

I don't know if it's because I have such fantasies about the actresses in the film or that it was actually pretty good, but I really think this movie is very watchable. It's pretty sharply written (with some really terrible lines peppered in, including the kicker line of the film before the credits, which is gawdawful) and very modern. It doesn't get bogged down in super-duper now-ness the way a movie like He's Just Not that Into You did (mentioning Myspace, so that by the time the film came out, the line was already a silly old relic of a bygone era), but feels contemporary nonetheless. I like it. Sue me!

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Illusionist (2010) (Thursday, January 20, 2011) (179)

The Illusionist is a very charming and lovely animated feature that is based on an unfinished Jacques Tati screenplay that was never produced. It is made by Sylvain Chomet, the animator/writer/director behind The Triplets of Belleville, which was a very Tati-esque movie in its own right.

In the film there is an old magician traveling around France and Britain performing shows in the 1950s. As he goes to theater after theater, his audiences get smaller and smaller as the rock 'n' roll boom is just picking up at the same time. He ends up in the Hebrides, or some very remote and northern islands in Scotland, and there meets a young girl who is fascinated by his tricks. She doesn't understand the illusions he's performing and honestly thinks he's doing real magic and conjuring. Totally mystified and in love with the idea of what he does, she follows him when he leaves her village to take a gig in Edinburgh. There she is a small-town girl in the big city and the illusionist has to look after her as he tries to make a living from his tricks.

There is a wonderful joy and simplicity to this film that is rarely seen anymore. There is almost no dialogue at all throughout the film. The man speaks in simple French sentences whenever he does speak. The girl chips away in gibberish, or Scots-Gallic, perhaps, and nobody can understand what she's saying. Most of the time there's melancholy music and noise from the outside world. This brings a very cozy and sweet tone to the whole film that is really wonderful.

This film has been nominated for the Best Animated Film by the Oscars and it has no chance of winning, but it's totally deserving of the nomination. It's been 50-some years since Tati was last nominated for a significant award and this work is as much his as it is Chomet's.

Stars: 3 of 4

Monday, January 17, 2011

GasLand (2010) (Monday, January 17, 2011) (176)

Josh Fox's interesting documentary GasLand tells the story of how over the course of the past decade millions of Americans have been affected by a process of natural gas drilling, called 'fracking'. No, this is not some Battlestar Galactica sexual euphemism, fracking is a process where natural gas is collected after deep holes are drilled into the earth and water, laden with toxic chemicals, is forced into the wells. Due to massive industry lobbying and major relaxations in environmental and regulatory standards gigantic swaths of the middle part of the country, from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, are now speckled with these fracking wells.

The problem is that the chemically rich water has to go somewhere when its underground and generally ends up in drinking water. This makes the water non-potable, clearly, but also flammable, which is a neat effect to see on camera, but would be shocking to see in your kitchen. Through the film, Fox takes us around the country looking at how different families in different parts of the country have been hurt by this drilling process, how they live with the day-to-day realities of it and how they are fighting back (mostly unsuccessfully).

This is a clever polemic, but is ultimately a bit dull. It feels the whole time like a very good Frontline special or 60 Minutes report, but there's not enough intrigue to hold attention for nearly two hours (it's way too long). One nice touch that Fox uses is a wonderful banjo/bluegrass score throughout. This is probably a bit manipulative as it suggests down-homey Americana in a rather lazy way, but in the end it's wonderful music. He also uses great black and white, bold, all-caps, sans-serif titles between sections to orient us as we watch. There is a rather 'DIY' quality to these, which I like a lot.

I always hate polemics that end with a call to action and direct me to a website - that after seeing the movie, I'm supposed to get off my ass and write a letter to my congressman or senator. This is annoying do-gooderness, when just presenting the information would suffice to tell a good story. I want to watch a movie, I don't want to get involved in a movement. Stop sending me to your website, I'm in a movie theater and won't remember the address when I get home. Just show me interesting, evocative things and let me have an experience.

Maybe my issue is really with polemical docs, which are over the hump for me and on their downslide. I've had enough of liberals telling me what to cry about now (I saw as an avowed ultra-liberal). I'm no longer interested in stories about energy/chemical/food/health care companies being evil. I know those stories well.

I think Fox has a nice movie here, but he should have cut it down by 20 minutes. It drags too much and he seems to lose control somewhere after the middle of the second act. He should have tightened the story a bit and cut some of the repetitious material (how many people do you need to have on camera lighting their water on fire?).

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Easy A (2010) (Sunday, January 16, 2011) (175)

Easy A is a polished teen comedy that takes its themes and some story elements from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It is not a teeny update of the book, like how Ten Things I Hate About You was a new version of The Taming of the Shrew or how My Fair Lady, Can't Buy Me Love or Drive Me Crazy were new versions of Pygmalion. Rather this story is original (and by "original" I mean totally recycled from dozens of high school comedy movies) and deals with ideas of sin, sluttiness and gossip.

Olive (Emma Stone) is a precocious, beautiful and sharp-tongued high school student who claims to have no status in her high school. Apparently "no status" means that everyone knows her name and everyone loves to gossip about her. One day in the bathroom, she tells her best friend that she had a date with an older guy and had sex with him. Someone overhears this and the news spreads around the school like a bullet and makes her popular and notorious.

At some point the school's gay kid (there has to be one, of course) approaches her and asks her to say that the two of them had sex, cementing her reputation as a floozy and suggesting to classmates that he digs chicks and not dudes (because gay kids in high school who are totally cool with being gay still like to be seen as straight. Right.). Olive does this for him and then does it for a slew of other weirdos and losers in her class, each time taking a small payment for the job. Of course, she's not actually doing anything with these kids - just saying she is.

Meanwhile, Olive and her classmates are reading the Hawthorne book in English class and she's the only one who really understands it. When the Christian club at her school starts to get upset by what they hear she's doing, she goes home, sews a few naughty outfits all emblazoned with a scarlet "A" on the chest. You see, she's suggesting she's like Hester Prynne and that her moral turpitude is similar to the character's in the book. It seems like a big of a stretch (a lot of a stretch), but whatever.

Emma Stone is actually very good in this. She has the perfect over-enunciated sharp tone in her voice to pull off the very exact, clever dialogue, by writer Bert V. Royal. She's super self-confident and very fun and the kind of girl you would love to date. This, of course, is the big problem, because she's supposed to be a weirdo loser and not a cool girl. It's very confusing, actually, because we're supposed to feel sorry for her at times, but she seems like a girl who doesn't need the pity of anyone... or would punch you in the face if she knew you felt bad for her.

The script throughout the film moves from very funny dialogue to very muddled narrative-wise. There is way too much going on here. The second half of it spirals deeper and deeper into a black hole, when keeping it simple would have done just fine enough. There is a lot of funny and amusing stuff in this, but there is also a lot of waste and indulgence (perhaps as a way of staying clear of The Scarlet Letter or other teeny comedies).

The cast in this is really outstanding, and surprising for such a moderately scaled movie. Aside from Stone, you have teeny soap stars Penn Badgely and Amanda Bynes as well as grown people Thomas Hayden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Malcolm McDowell and Fred Armisen. (Wow! Big cast!) Clarkson and Tucci are great as Olive's parents. They're very sarcastic and funny and work well together as loving parents of a kid who doesn't screw up that much. It's a relief to see Tucci in a role where he doesn't play an asshole with an affected accent. (And of course, there's something funny about Malcolm McDowell playing the principal of the school in a teen rebellion movie.)

There really isn't anything to hate in this movie, but I had a hard time trying to figure out why some people are saying it's better than the average teen comedy. It does have very snappy dialogue and Olive's best friend is named Rhiannon (which is sorta perfect and fantastic, actually!), but it gets buried in so many layers of junk on top of the story that it's hard to get through it. It feels like a man wearing three hats. Why doesn't he just wear one hat? Why does he need so many hats?

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Monday, January 10, 2011

I Love You Philip Morris (2010) (Monday, January 10, 2011) (174)

There's something about Jim Carrey that just never quite works for me. I always feel that he's showing off and doing too much hamming for the camera and sometimes wish he would just act normal (look - Robin WIlliams who is just as silly can play normal beautifully). I Love You Phillip Morris is his latest "serious" role where I am supposed to be wowed by his range and his ability to be serious - but again, all I see is over-the-top zaniness and annoying facial expressions.

In the film, Carrey plays Steven Russell, a guy who seems to be addicted to scams and breaking the law. He begins as a cop in some small town, but them comes out as gay and moves to Miami Beach. Down there, he realized that "being gay is expensive", so rather than working, he figures out ways to get injured and suing for his injuries. At some point he is convicted of insurance fraud and goes to jail. In jail, he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGragor) a smart gay guy who was arrested for stealing cars. They two fall madly in love and then spend the rest of their lives going in and out of jail, but always for love... or something.

This movie is basically The Mask meets Catch Me if you Can. Every time Steven has a chance to scam someone, he does. When he's released from jail and goes looking for a job, he forges his resume, gets hired as a firm's CFO and then embezzles money from them. It's all a bit much. Oh, wait ... I can't say it's too much because it's apparently based on a true story. Whatever.

Carrey is wound up so tight, when you see him release into a scene, he goes around so fast, it's hard to concentrate on what the hell is happening. You get your dumb Jim Carrey voices, and your tired Jim Carrey faces, and your silly Jim Carrey physical comedy, but not much else.

I get that the story is based on real events, but it's hard to like a character who is so dimwitted about crime. Does he not think he's going to get caught? Does he think that anyone will care how elaborate his scams are? (They're very elaborate.) You want to shake him and say "STOP!"

McGregor is good here, but it is sorta hard to figure out what the hell he sees in Steven. I guess the fact that they are madly in love (after five minutes of meeting) is enough for us to understand, but it doesn't totally work.

Mostly this movie is fun and easy, but it was frustrating how it kept going on and on and on with Carrey's 1990s jokes, never learning from his mistakes or doing anything differently. He tries one thing and he gets arrested, then gets out of jail and tries the same thing again and again gets arrested, and then a third time and on and on. It's sorta tired and silly.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Summer Wars (2010) (Sunday, January 9, 2011) (173)

Summer Wars is a good, but not great, anime movie about how the wold is in danger because of social media networks. In the film, there is a computer system called Oz (subtle) that seems to control everyone. It's like Facebook on crack. Everything you do is documented there and government stuff is run through there as well. Everyone in the world has an animated avatar that lives in Oz and interacts inside that world.

One day, Kenji, a dorky computer nerd who is a student but works for Oz doing some sort of policing, is asked by his female friend Natsuki to accompany her to her grandmother's house to pretend to be her fiance. Natsuki has a big family and her brother is apparently some legendary Oz gamer. While the whole family is there, Natsuki's uncle, Wabisuke, returns after years of living in America (boo!). It seems he left the family a long time ago after selling some of their land in a terrible deal. The family is not happy about his arrival.

But they don't have a chance to worry about him because as this is happening, Oz is taken over by some mysterious villain avatar called Love Machine (it's ironic) that eats code and other avatars and tries to take over the world via Oz. Kenji, Natsuki, her brother and the family have to get on their computers to fight Love Machine, lest he bomb Japan.

There is a very nice look to the animation here and lots of the shots of Oz are totally inspired by the art work of Takashi Murakami. I like this a lot. I also like that Kenji is a reluctant hero and that it's dorks and geeks who save the world, rather than supermen and strong guys. This is a nice change, though, I'm sure it's more common than I know in anime.

I think there is a bit too much that happens here, and the movie plays a bit too long for me. It's drags a lot in the third act and sorta loses its way a bit. The subplot of Wabisuke is nice for the family story, but feels like a hat on a hat when it comes to this program that's going to destroy the world. I get the idea that families need to stick together and that only together can we conquer tough things, but the story would have essentially be there without this character.

This is a fun movie, but nothing brilliant. It has some lovely visual elements in it and I liked the animation a lot.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Country Strong (Saturday, January 8, 2011) (1)

Note: This film had a limited release in 2010 for award consideration, but never played in New York City until this weekend. The New York Times ran their review of it on Friday, January 7, 2011 and as a result, I consider it a 2011 release.)

I was hoping this movie would have some good country music in it and be sorta trashy and fun to watch. It did have good music, but most of it was only partial songs and the story was mostly trashy and not really fun, so I didn't get what I wanted at all.

As the film opens, we see Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a rehab clinic outside of Nashville. Her orderly is Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) a hot wannabe musician, playing bars in and around Music City. The two have become friends (and maybe more) over the months she's been in the clinic. Her husband James (Tim McGraw) is her manager and wants to get her back out and on the road as soon as possible.

James sets up a three city tour for her to get her legs back and signs up Beau (who she says is her sponsor) and a young country-pop starlet Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, Blair from Gossip Girl) to open for her. The four of them go on the road, first to Houston, then Austin and finally in Dallas. As the tour goes along (I mean, it couldn't be all that long, right? It's only three shows!) lots of stuff happens when different people have sex and Kelly proves to be not totally recovered.

It was frustrating to me was how writer/director Shana Feste used music throughout the film. This is a music movie. It's not really a movie about mental health or alcoholism (as much as those appear here). It's a movie about the business of Nashville... and the music is the business. But all we ever get is the first few bars of the songs and, maybe if we're lucky, another bit of the song later. Why she couldn't have treated the songs like full works that might help move the story along or give us insight into stuff is beyond me. (I now realize how well Scott Cooper mixed music with story in last year's Crazy Heart.) On top of this, she has Tim McGraw in the film in a particularly non-singing role. I guess it would be confusing to have him as a singer and Kelly as a singer (because then it would be like his marriage to Faith Hill), but it would have been better for the soundtrack, to be sure.

What was even more frustrating is that the big title song, Country Song, that Kelly sings at her big show in Dallas, is total country pop junk. By the point in the film when we hear it, Beau has already waxed poetic about the good ol' country music he grew up with (Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylan Jennings, Patsy Cline) and how cross-over stuff is silliness. He and Chiles performed their amazing duet Give in to Me and we love their old sound. But what we get from Kelly is junk. (Interestingly, that YouTube clip is a full version of the song that is not in the version of the film that I saw... I saw the first few lines and then there was a cut to some stuff happening back stage and then a cut back to the end of the song. Seeing it now complete, I realize it's a really, really great song.) Feste underlines the point her character makes, but seems to do it without knowing what she's doing. Her heroine is singing exactly the stuff that her hero is saying is junk... but she's doing it positively. Weird.

The script is easily the worst part of this movie. It jumps around from place to place with no explanation and never really has a good focus. At some point in the middle it seems that the tension is built on not knowing if Beau will end up with Kelly or Chiles... but this doesn't feel very important. It almost feels like Feste started writing a bunch of scenes, but never had a bigger outline and didn't know exactly how she's get from one to the next. (Also, someone has to explain to me how Kelly and Beau got on that damn train in Austin and then got off and back to town all in one day. That was weird.)

This movie would have been a lot better if it was just about Beau and Chiles. He's the emotional core of the film (Hedlund is really great as an actor and a singer) and he's the one we identify with. It could have been a movie about the duo on the road, put together against their wills but over the days they grow to fall in love. The whole Kelly part was unnecessary and a waste of time.

The whole movie is really not great, but it was nice to be introduced to Garrett Hedlund and to find out that Leighton Meester might have a career outside of Upper East Side soap operas (she's really good!). I wish there had been more music and I wish the script had been better. I'm glad for the one duet... at least I got that.

Stars: 2 of 4 (it would have been fewer stars without the one song)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Worst Films of 2010

So 2010 was a very good year in bad movies. There was a lot of garbage released. Most of it was from Hollywood, though there were a bunch of independent movies as well.

One note I want to make is that Birdemic is one of the most sublimely horrible films I've ever seen in my life. It might be worst than Tommy Wiseau's The Room (and possibly worst than Troll 2, though I've never seen that). Every part of it is terrible, the story, acting, direction, music, editing, sound editing and special effects are so bad it seems like it has to be a joke... but if it was a joke, they wouldn't be so convincingly terrible. I gave it its own section of the list because it deserves it. It is the Michael Jordan of bad movies.

Eat Pray Love was totally offensive too, so that gets 1A. In a normal year it would be the worst of the year, but it was unlucky enough to be released the same year as Birdemic - a true masterpiece of shit!

Oh - and Oliver Stone is the big winner with Wall Street 2 and South of the Border both on this list. He had a heckuva year!

The Bottom Ten Films of 2010:

1 Birdemic: Shock and Terror

1A Eat Pray Love
2 The Runaways
3 Black Swan
4 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
5 Twilight Saga: Eclipse
6 The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
7 The Last Airbender
8 Salt
9 Dinner For Schmucks
10 Greenberg

Honorable Mentions:

Middle Men
South of the Border
Alice in Wonderland -3D (I don't know where this blogpost went. Sorry. The movie sucked.)
Enter the Void
Shutter Island
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Fair Game
The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Holy Rollers
Valhalla Rising

The Best Films of 2010

I've heard a lot of people say that 2010 was not a great year for movies and that ticket sales were down, partly because there wasn't anything out there that appealed to moviegoers. I think that idea is both right and wrong. This was a bad year for Hollywood movies. There are none on my Top Ten list and only one in my top 29 movies of the year (Toy Story 3).

At the same time, I think 2010 was a great year for movies, filled with lots of really great pictures. When it came to boiling down my list, I couldn't cut it off at a Top Ten with a few honorable mentions. I had to list all 19 of them - because I like them all and they all deserve another mention. 2010 was a great year for foreign films and eight of the top ten are foreign. Three are French, two are German, one was Portuguese and one was Greek (I'm not sure I had seen a Greek movie before Dogtooth). The Oath was made by an American and produced partly by PBS (dirty socialists!) but is about two Yemeni men, so that's only partly "American". Winter's Bone is deeply American.

I should say that you won't necessarily find a correlation between the stars I gave to the films and the relative rankings on the list. When making this, I listed of all the movies that are 3 or more stars and then ranked them in terms of how they sit in my mind today. In some cases I looked over my reviews and notes on them to refresh my memory. There might be movies with more starts in the honorable mentions than in the top ten itself. This happens when one movie gets better with time (I generally review things within a week or so of seeing them) and other things fade as I consider them more. So, yes, I'm aware, the stars might be confusing here, but you can ignore them. The placement on the list should supersede the relative star ratings for each film.

I had the pleasure of watching A Prophet three times in the theater (twice because I wanted to see it a second time and once more because I wanted to show it to a friend). It got better, deeper and more interesting with each viewing. I think it is one of the best films of the past decade and it will last for a long time as a masterpiece of filmmaking.

When I first saw The Human Centipede I thought it was fun and silly and sorta dumb. But it has stuck with me. I recently posted on my other blog some more thoughts I've had about it. I am proud to put that on my Top Ten list. I think it's a fabulous work of art and if it were a Samuel Beckett play, we would all think it was beyond brilliant rather than disgusting.

So here it is - enjoy!

The Top Ten Films of 2010:

1 A Prophet
2 Bluebeard
3 Everyone Else
4 Dogtooth
5 Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl
6 Mademoiselle Chambon
7 Human Centipede
8 Alamar
9 The Oath
10 Winter's Bone

Honorable Mentions:

Another Year
October Country
Four Lions
White Material
Inspector Bellamy
Secret Sunshine
The Strange Case of Angelica
Tiny Furniture
Spring Fever
Toy Story 3
Exit Through the Gift Shop
No One Knows About Persian Cats
Terribly Happy
Last Train Home
Boxing Gym
The Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Again no link- stupid Blooger clearly hates me and my year-end list)
Fish Tank

Leaves of Grass (2010) (Sunday, January 2, 2011) (172)

OK - this one is simple: Leaves of Grass is The Parent Trap meets How High... or Up in Smoke (actually I have seen only a few pot-themed movies, so I'm not going to win at this one). At any rate, it's Edward Norton and Edward Norton... and Hayley Mills is nowhere in sight.

Norton plays identical twins Bill and Brady who are basically complete opposites of one another. Bill is a world-renowned, Ivy League professor of Classics and Brady is a redneck in rural Oklahoma who happens to be one of the best pot growers in the state (in the world?). Brady tricks Bill into visiting Oklahoma and then gets him to pull a Parent Trap so he has an alibi in their local town, while he goes up to Tulsa to take care of some dirty business.

You've seen this movie about a hundred times before: Eastern elite guy goes to rednecked wilderness, hates it, then falls for a girl (the magnificent Keri Russell), then realizes it's not so bad in the sticks. This one has more stuff in it about pot and a weird thing with Jews, but that's about it.

I really like Tim Blake Nelson as an actor (though this role is basically the same bumpkin he's played in the past), but he's just not fabulous as a writer or a director, as we see here. The story jumps around in totally weird and ridiculous ways, sometimes edging around logic, sometimes just being totally bizarre and absurd. The finale is so preposterous it is absolutely impossible to figure out how it comes to be. Some tangents are begun and then left to die along the way with no further mention. It's a really, really bad script (aside from being totally recycled).

One thing Tim Blake Nelson does well is get an amazing bunch of supporting actors into his film. Aside from himself, Susan Sarandon, Ty Burrell (though this was probably made before Modern Family), Steve Earle, Richard Dreyfuss and Keri Russell all have parts in this. Not bad for a teeny tiny movie. Russell is absolutely wonderful, as she always is, and once again begs the question: Why the fuck is she not acting more or in bigger things? It looks like the last majorish film she did was Waitress in 2007. That's crazy. She's fantastic (and beautiful). Oh, and Steve Earle is always wonderful and he should act more too... and play more music. I love him.

Whatever. This movie is nonsensical and goofy. I can't figure out if it really needs to be about pot or if that was just a really cynical decision someone made hoping weed would be some sort of draw for the indie/art house movie watchers in big cities. I'm sure there are people whose mouths would water at the sight of all the massive amounts of drugs shown onscreen. I don't really care. It's pretty dumb and very banal.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Nora's Will (2010) (Saturday, January 1, 2011) (171)

Mariana Chenillo's Nora's Will is a lovely dramedy about the obstinacy of religion and old lovers. In it, Jose (Fernando Lujan) finds his ex-wife Nora dead from suicide in her apartment. The two were married for 30 years and now have been divorced for the past 20 years. They remained friendly over those years and he lives across the street from her in Mexico City.

As he begins to make arrangements for her burial, he gets wrapped up in the politics of her conservative synagogue. He has been particularly atheist and does what he can to thumb his nose at the rabbis and helpers who come to take care of her body. Meanwhile his son Ruben is caught in a messy situation with his father-in-law, a powerful man who is his boss and an important man in the synagogue.

This is a funny movie, with Jose acting the perfect devilish prankster. He orders a pizza with ham on it to annoy all the kosher men around the apartment. He tries to bury her in the Cemetery of Jesus and orders a gigantic cross-shaped casket as well as several floral crosses into her apartment. He does this as a passive aggressive act to combat the passive aggressiveness his ex-wife treated him and her family with throughout her life (and even in death).

In the third act, the film changes directions a bit and becomes more serious when Jose has to face facts and figure out a way to bury Nora. Many conservative cemeteries won't bury her because she committed suicide and Jose has to straighten up and figure out a way to make it happen, playing into the baroque politics of the occasion.

This is a lovely and small movie, but it allows Lujan to give one of the best performances of the year. He moves from being very silly to very sensible, always with a wink in his eye. We are delighted by his connection to his grand daughters and how he uses them to annoy his daughter-in-law and son. He is also very powerful as a hurt ex-lover when he realizes his wife might have cheated on him at one point during their marriage.

Chenillo has a very good, smart script here and also employs wonderful the cinematography of Alberto Anaya. This is a sweet little movie and one that packs a stronger punch than I was expecting it would. It is a much deeper film than it would appear on the surface and shows a lot of maturity on Chenillo's part. This is a grown-up movie in somewhat silly clothes.

Stars: 3 of 4