Sunday, November 29, 2009

As The Decade Comes To A Close, There Are Movies You Should See

At the moment, I am enjoying my return trip for the Thanksgiving Holiday in beautiful Austin, Texas. The past few weeks in New York City have been absolutely excellent - on Sunday, November 1st, Tisch New Theatre performed my original play "The Certifiable" in the Riese Student Lounge, and the result was very impressive. I can't thank the actors and director enough for their hard work on the production - like a proud parent, I videotaped the play and plan to show my recording to people who might otherwise have just simply read the play. Thank you very much, Tisch New Theatre.

Last weekend, my friend Morgan Block and I served as Production Assistants on a grueling fourteen-hour film shoot in an apartment on Third Avenue. Next semester, we are actually required to work crew hours for our final grades, but it was an excellent experience crewing on a shoot a little bit earlier than that. This particular shoot was for a group of sophomore filmmakers competing in a 100 Hour Film Race. Whether they win the competition or not, Morgan and I were lucky to spend a long time with some very knowledgeable and insightful filmmakers.

Admittedly, it's been far too long since I last wrote an entry, and in the interim period between my last post on October 30th and now, I have seen nine new film releases, ranging from middling to downright extraordinary.

I am going to start by discussing Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, a movie with such ridiculously depressing subject matter that it shouldn't work as a motion picture, by any means. And yet it does, amazingly so, charged by a powerhouse performance from Gabourey Sidibe as sixteen year-old Claireece 'Precious' Jones, who is pregnant with her second child (after being raped by her father), teased and bullied in school, and abused at home by her monstrous mother Mary (Mo'Nique). Despite these tragic circumstances, Daniels has managed to direct a film that is powerful and hopeful. The movie aims for high drama, and Precious succeeds admirably. The performances are terrific across the board - especially from Mo'Nique, who takes what at first appears to be a violent, one-note character and surprises the audience by breaking our hearts with her sadness in the film's finale. Precious is suffering currently from critical over-hype (it's commonly referred to as this year's Slumdog Millionaire), but it's absolutely worth seeing, and one of the best films of the year.

If there's a better example of an auteur American filmmaker currently working than Wes Anderson, then I'd be very surprised. Anderson, the writer/director behind the great films The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Rushmore (1998), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) is treating audiences to another whimsical and bittersweet tale of family and change. The main difference, of course, is that Anderson's new film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (based on the book by Roald Dahl), is entirely stop-motion animation. Many critics have argued that Anderson should have been making animated films his entire career based on the Fantastic-ness of his latest feature. Although I wouldn't trade any of his previous works for a replacement, I do agree that Anderson's unique style is extremely effective in the animation medium. Where else might you find a deadpan Badger voiced by Bill Murray, or a soundtrack to a children's film populated not by tween-y music but rather by The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys?

As one of my friends described it accurately, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels like an improvised animated film. The characters are lovable and understandable to children, certainly, but in addition, an older audience is treated to Anderson's comically ingenious humor. There has truly never been anything quite like Fantastic Mr. Fox, in terms of style and animation. The movie uses all of the great revolutionary techniques of stop-motion animation immortalized in Henry Selick's brilliant The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and elevates them to an entirely different level. And, more than any other film this year, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the children's film for adults (don't get me wrong, children will love the movie - but I suspect I loved it more). Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are belongs in this category, too, but whereas Jonze concentrated his efforts mostly on the darkness inherent in Maurice Sendak's children's story, Anderson explores both the darkness and the comedy.

George Clooney provides the voice of Mr. Fox, a thief-turned-father who lives in a foxhole with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and his son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman). When Mr. Fox goes back into the thieving game, stealing chickens from a group of vengeful British farmers, his family and friends come under attack from the farmers, who aim to destroy their foxhole and kill the foxes. Additional voice work is provided by Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Michael Gambon - all Anderson regulars.

I've written many times on my love for actor Robert De Niro, the best actor of his generation and arguably the greatest actor of all time (I'll argue that, anyway). In recent years, I've been amused by his comedies and wowed at his one directorial effort (2006's The Good Shepherd), but I've been waiting for another seminal performance from the legendary actor. His latest film, Kirk Jones' Everybody's Fine, is a very good film with an excellent De Niro performance in the lead. The movie gives De Niro a similar role that Jack Nicholson played extraordinarily in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (2002), and although Everybody's Fine isn't nearly as great of a film as About Schmidt, De Niro takes advantage of a very good role. As Frank Goode, a recent widower disappointed that his grown children cancelled their visit for the holidays, De Niro goes on a cross-country trip to visit each of his children separately. While the trailer for Everybody's Fine makes the movie look like a feel-good holiday schmaltz-fest, the movie is actually a moving character study, and in the final scenes, when tragedy hits, De Niro's performance takes a turn into powerful territory that the actor hasn't explored in years. Everybody's Fine opens on December 4th, and I highly recommend the film - in a perfect world, De Niro would receive his seventh Academy Award nomination for this performance.

There's an extraordinary picture playing in arthouse cinemas currently - Oren Moverman's The Messenger, starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as Army officers assigned with the duty of informing the bereaved that their husbands, wives, sons or daughters have died in the line of duty in the Iraq War. Packed with powerhouse performances from Foster, Harrelson, Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton, The Messenger is a small film that sneaks up on you - it's a powerful movie looking at soldiers dealing with the war on American soil. Speaking of Iraq, Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats is inspired lunacy - a very funny wartime comedy about psychic spies, or "Jedi warriors," trained by the United States Army to defeat the enemy with their minds. George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey are absolutely hilarious as the men who form the nutty backbone of this military operation, and Ewan McGregor plays a incredulous reporter who can't believe his eyes. That The Men Who Stare at Goats is 'based' on true events makes the whole movie a great deal funnier, though no less outrageous.

The other films I have seen include Werner Herzog's hilariously over-the-top Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage in his best performance in years (Highly Recommended); Jim Sheridan's Brothers, a moving film which finally pairs look-alike actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire as, you guessed it, brothers (Recommended); John Hillcoat's devastating The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, starring Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall in a somber film that portrays one of the bleakest post-apocalyptic futures I've ever seen in a movie, and yet ends on a hopeful note (Highly Recommended); and Richard Curtis' Pirate Radio, a lightweight but enjoyable 1960s comedy-drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy and a really rocking soundtrack featuring The Rolling Stones and The Kinks (Recommended).

Fairly soon, I will begin my countdown of the best movies released this decade (or The 50 Best Films of the 2000s, as it were). It's hard to believe that this decade is almost finished, but with each passing day, another film critic or journalist seems to be weighing in with their opinion on the best of the decade. I'd like to join in, too.

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