Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Top Ten Films of 2009

1. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)

Up in the Air is a film that asks you to revaluate your life. With its story of corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flying back and forth across the United States firing corporate employees, is the film relevant in today's unstable economy? Of course. In fact, there are several subthemes in the film that work brilliantly – Up in the Air provides fantastic commentary on society’s ‘hook-up’ relationship culture, the growing distance between large businesses and their employees (and boyfriends and girlfriends, for that matter) in today’s world of technological advancement and personal detachment, and, of course, the economical downturn that results in the numerous layoffs seen in the film.

But it’s the human element that makes Up in the Air so incredible. George Clooney is better than he’s ever been as a man forced to face his lonely and pathetic existence in the air, and Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga are fantastic as the women who ground him. In the end, the movie evolves into a story about a man attempting to find love and meaning in today’s world.

For the first two-thirds of its running time, Jason Reitman’s movie is a brilliantly written, well-acted comedy-drama with underlying social and economical commentary. In its final third, however, Reitman does not take us where we expect to go. The ending – at once hopeful, ambiguous, joyous, and despairing – is what elevates Up in the Air from a great movie to a masterpiece. The best film of the year.

2. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)

A Serious Man, the latest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, stars Michael Stuhlbarg (the star of Martin McDonagh's masterful play The Pillowman on Broadway) in a remarkable performance as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor in a Midwest Jewish suburb circa 1967, whose life slowly begins to unravel into chaos as his wife, children and community turn against him.

The movie features one of the Coen Brothers’ finest supporting characters yet – the hilariously repugnant Sy Ableman, played by Fred Melamed in a performance that should be remembered come Oscar time. A disturbingly accurate portrayal of a man attempting to do the right thing, A Serious Man may be the best movie ever made about a crisis of faith. The Coens have made a movie about the end of a devoutly religious generation and the birth of the anti-establishment 1960s hippie era, and a man caught squarely in the middle. By the film’s end, Larry has sought religious wisdom from three different rabbis, all of whom have ignored him. He need not worry, however: a rabbi gives religious advice to his son Danny, and it sounds strangely similar to the lyrics of a Jefferson Airplane song:

When the truth is found to be lies

And all the joy within you dies

Don’t you want somebody to love?

3. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is on par with his masterpiece Pulp Fiction (1994), which is one of my favorite films of all time, and maybe even better than the absolutely brilliant Reservoir Dogs (1992), Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill Volumes One and Two (2003, 2004). Christoph Waltz, who plays the despicable yet oddly fascinating Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, has his name written on this year's Best Supporting Actor Academy Award (after winning Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year for his incredible performance). Tarantino's labyrinth screenplay, which introduces and employs dozens of memorable characters, is only partially devoted to the tale of the Basterds, the Jewish-American rogue soldiers on a mission to kill and scalp every Nazi they can find in France. Instead of filming a traditional revenge movie, Tarantino has made a distinctly European picture full of fascinating, three-dimensional characters who are the unsuspecting stars of a spaghetti-western-turned-war picture.

Tarantino holds back on the relentless violence his younger audiences will certainly crave, in favor of a terrifically written series of events in which characters meet each other, discuss film and play games, and are eventually subject to very brief outbreaks of violence. It's not that different from the structure of Pulp Fiction (although Inglourious Basterds is told in chronological order).

Brad Pitt has impressed me once again as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the head of the Jewish Basterds, with a thick Southern accent and a serious problem with the Nazi Party. Pitt's performance is both wildly comical and seriously frightening; it's worth noting that Pitt has given brilliant performances in uniformly superb movies for the past few years. Bravo to actors like Pitt and George Clooney who use their star power to make bold and daring films.

Costars Melanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Til Schweiger and even Mike Myers deliver excellent performances in the scenes that ultimately lead to the inevitably blood-soaked finale, in which the Jewish people get their revenge against the Nazi Party at the film premiere of a German propaganda movie. Aside from writing and directing one of the most entertaining and joyous odes to cinema ever put onscreen, Tarantino has also crafted a film that is a rumination on the wonderful power of cinema to destroy evil forces and change the course of history. If there's a better message to be found in a motion picture this year, I'd like to hear about it.

4. Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper)

Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart is one of the best movies ever made about a struggling alcoholic; however, unlike Mike Figgis’ brilliant but overwhelmingly depressing Leaving Las Vegas (1995), this is a movie about hope and redemption. As washed-up country-western singer Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges is extraordinary in a performance that will undoubtedly win Bridges the Best Actor Academy Award in March. That’s not hyperbole, by the way – Bridges is one of the best actors alive and has been for nearly forty years. Crazy Heart is his movie.

That being said, the supporting cast – including actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell – is uniformly excellent. Crazy Heart also uses music better than any other film this year, with a soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett and an original song written for the movie called The Weary Kind by Ryan Bingham (no relation to Clooney’s character in Up in the Air), which should most certainly win the Best Original Song Oscar.

Crazy Heart has been compared endlessly to last year’s The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky), and indeed, perhaps Bad Blake is a kindred spirit to Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) from that film, both men struggling to resurrect their past glory and mend broken relationships. In any case, Crazy Heart is every bit as good as The Wrestler. The film is a sad but ultimately uplifting portrayal of an alcoholic with good intentions, and an amazing debut for writer/director Cooper.

5. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

The Hurt Locker is an intelligent, gripping war film with extraordinary direction from Kathryn Bigelow, remarkable performances from both fresh faces (the incredible Jeremy Renner) and veterans (Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce), and a surging intensity that puts other recent thrillers to shame. Bigelow’s film is every bit as extraordinary as Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) – it’s easily the best war movie of the past ten years.

Equally impressive are the performances from Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty as the members of an elite bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Oftentimes, the performances in a war picture play second-fiddle to the action. Not so here, as all three actors put a devastatingly raw human face on the Iraq War.

6. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is a haunting and brilliant masterpiece, a film that must be seen more than once in order to absorb its disturbing resonance. The story of a small German village spiraling into chaos a few months before the outbreak of World War I, The White Ribbon is a beautiful black-and-white ode to the finest work of Ingmar Bergman, and deserves every Best Foreign Film accolade it has received thus far this awards season.

Haneke's film continues to haunt me weeks after having seen it. This is one of the few existing films that attempts to find the psychology behind Nazism and, more broadly, the origin of fascism in general. This film feels like a newly-discovered art-house masterpiece from the 1950s - and that's not something you can say about many movies.

7. Passing Strange (Spike Lee)

What a joyous, sad and beautiful movie. Auteur filmmaker Spike Lee shoots the live Broadway stage production of Passing Strange, the musical/ rock-opera with book and lyrics by famed musician Stew, who also performs onstage as the story’s narrator. Chronicling the life of a young African-American artist born in Los Angeles who abandons his family to live in Amsterdam and Berlin, the story is a profound coming-of-age reflection on innocence lost and wisdom gained. The music is powerful, rich and unlike anything that’s ever been seen on Broadway. By the last number, the cast – which consists of only six very talented actors, along with Stew and the other onstage musicians – had me in tears.

Passing Strange is not only one of the finest documentations of live theatre on film – it’s simply one of the best musicals I have ever seen. Lee’s camerawork is so alive and intimate with the characters that I can’t imagine watching Passing Strange live on Broadway and possibly having a better experience. Passing Strange is a cathartic experience, and one of Spike Lee’s best films (and that’s saying something).

My favorite lyrics from the musical (from the song Love Like That):

The universe is a toy in the mind of a boy

And life’s a movie too, starring you

Your whole family’s the cast and crew

That’s a little secret between God and you

8. Precious (Lee Daniels)

Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphireis 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, andPrecious 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.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

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.

10. (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb)

This is not a love story. This is a story about love.

So says the tagline for 500 Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, and the tagline couldn’t be more correct. Here is an original film with all of the charm of a regular romantic comedy, but none of the tired conventions or superficial happiness. Webb has directed a modern-day companion piece to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) – yes, the film is a comedy, and yes, there is a romance, but nobody said it had to end happily. The title even indicates that the relationship between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) has a finite amount of time attached to it.

Rarely does a film so accurately depict real-world heartache and the highs and lows of romance with the supposed ‘one.' One standout sequence uses split-screen to show both Tom’s expectations for an encounter with Summer, and the reality of the situation – a flashy cinematic device that would ring false if 500 Days of Summer wasn’t so keenly observant about the illusion-versus-reality symptom that distorts the expectations of so many lovelorn males. And yes, I do mean males. The film is told mostly from Tom’s point-of-view, and examines the hurt for which Summer is ultimately responsible. That isn’t to say that the film condemns Summer – Deschanel makes her a loveable, mysterious character – but 500 Days of Summer is the sort of movie that must be one-sided, in Tom’s favor, in order to truly evoke the pain of rejection from an unattainable love. This isn’t a misogynist statement; rather, a statement based on the idea that there are, in fact, many relationships in which a na├»ve young man is brokenhearted by a beautiful girl for no apparent reason.

More importantly, though, the film captures everything about complex relationships that formulaic romantic comedies couldn’t dream of exploring – the loss, the confusion, the loneliness, the uncertainty, the joy, the power, the incredulity, the love. Like it's much older cinematic cousin Annie Hall (1977), 500 Days of Summer gets everything right, and hits a nerve in this young male adult who has laughed and cried throughout all 500 days of someone.

Eleventh Place (The Second Top Ten...Or Twelve)

The following twelve films were extremely close to placing on my top ten of the year. They are extraordinary films nonetheless, and they vie for the “eleventh place” spot on my top ten list.

(in order of preference)

Invictus (Clint Eastwood) - Clint Eastwood is a straightforward, honest storyteller and filmmaker. With the powerful subject matter of Invictus, Eastwood has made a film that inspires without manipulating and wises without preaching. Morgan Freeman brings a grace and power to Nelson Mandela in a performance that is extraordinary for its subtlety and conviction. Matt Damon gives yet another great performance this year (after his tour-de-force performance in The Informant!) as the South African rugby star who leads his team to the World Cup. Eastwood has directed a film that can easily stand alongside Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Changeling (2008) as the extraordinary work of his later years. Like the inspiring Mandela, Eastwood is the master of his fate, he is the captain of his soul.

A Single Man (Tom Ford) - Colin Firth astounds in A Single Man, a moving and powerful meditation on love, loneliness and our inability to move forward and escape the past. Julianne Moore gives one of her best performances in a small but pivotal role. Tom Ford, a first time director, paints a haunting portrait of a homosexual college professor (Firth) in the 1960s who is mourning the recent death of his lover, and leaning closer and closer to suicide. A Single Man is a deceptively simple movie with a breathtaking lead performance at its center; the film is also one of the most beautifully shot movies of the year.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann) Public Enemies is Michael Mann's best film since Heat (1995). Filmed with the intensity of a true auteur filmmaker, the movie is a great gangster picture, sure, but also a careful examination of the familiarity of death and violence as it pertains to Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Purvis (Christian Bale). At some point, they are both astounded by their exposure to and understanding of violence. Depp wisely portrays Dillinger as a loser in disguise, and Mann doesn't attempt to psychoanalyze why Dillinger did what he did. He's not a complex hero, or a hero at all really - which is what makes Public Enemies so fascinating. He has no future plans, no real grand escape plan - he just robs banks and assumes he will eventually die gloriously in a beautiful hail of bullets - and that is the only reason the insecure Purvis can catch him. That he doesn't die beautifully – actually, rather simply and pathetically – is a credit to Mann, who treats death with such a matter-of-fact approach that many audience members are almost shocked that Dillinger goes down so easily and quickly.

The Messenger (Oren Moverman) - A richly made, impeccably effective film. The Messenger stars 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.

The Messenger and The Hurt Locker represent the finest films made yet concerning the Iraq War. Neither movie is heavy-handed or politically manipulative; rather, they stand as moving character studies of American soldiers both overseas and here in the United States.

An Education (Lone Scherfig) –Lone Scherfig's An Education is strikingly original, very well written and features outstanding performances from Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and the rest of the very talented cast. I suspect the film will be receive Best Picture, Best Actress (Mulligan) and Best Supporting Actor (Molina) nominations at next year's Academy Awards. The film focuses on sixteen year-old Londoner Jenny (Mulligan, whose talent matches her beauty) who begins an affair with the much older David (Sarsgaard) in the early 1960s. The titular education is provided by David, and the prospect of a future with him and his seemingly cultured friends appears far more exciting to Jenny than a college education at Oxford. An Education wisely explores the idealism of youth and the disillusionment that comes with life experience – it's an excellent film. I have to pay special attention to one of my favorite working actors, Peter Sarsgaard. When I was thirteen years old, I went to see Shattered Glass (2003, Billy Ray) at Austin's local art house theater, and I was awestruck by Sarsgaard's brilliant and explosive performance as editor Chuck Lane. That he did not receive an Academy Award nomination for the film (much less a deserving win) is a real crime in Academy history.

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar) - Pedro Almodovar's engrossing latest film is part film noir, part ode to cinema. Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar give spectacular performances.

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) - Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater captures the backstage drama and the onstage joy of live theatre in Me and Orson Welles, a film that boasts one of the year's best performances by Christian McKay as the legendary Welles. Zac Efron, Eddie Marsan and Claire Danes contribute to the excellent ensemble.

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson) - Critics have unfairly maligned Peter Jackson's breathtaking and beautiful adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel. The Lovely Bones is not without its imperfections, but it's still stunning and involving. Stanley Tucci deserves the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his incredibly disturbing performance as a child murderer and rapist. Saoirse Ronan captivates in the lead performance, carrying the entire film on her shoulders.

Avatar (James Cameron) – Simply put, James Cameron’s Avatar is a visual spectacle that rivals every other science-fiction and fantasy movie in the past twenty years in terms of awe and spectacle. Avatar is one of the few ‘big’ movies to live up to its hype. Rarely do I watch an entire film with my mouth wide open. Congratulations, James Cameron – this one may be even bigger than Titanic (1997).

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog) – Werner Herzog's bizarre pseudo-comedy about a very bad police lieutenant makes brilliant use of its New Orleans setting, contrasting the city’s post-Katrina chaos with the lead character’s slow descent into madness. Nicolas Cage is absolutely brilliant as the lieutenant, giving his best performance since Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze).

The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh) – The exclamation point on the title says everything you need to know about Soderbergh's take on whistleblower corporate dramas, starring Matt Damon in an astonishing performance as the goofy Mark Whitacre, the vice president of an agricultural business firm who decides to confess to the FBI the price-fixing schemes in which the company is complicit. Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and act as an FBI informant, which would all be fine and dandy if he weren't a compulsive liar - to his family, to the FBI, to everyone. Soderbergh wisely doesn't opt for a serious tone, a la The Insider (1999, Michael Mann). The brilliant use of stream-of-conscious narration from Whitacre helps the audience understand and empathize with an otherwise frustratingly intelligent man who makes some dreadful mistakes. The Informant! is a movie about a man unconsciously leading two different lives, which is more or less what everybody does, albeit to a lesser extreme than Whitacre. His mistakes are idiotic, yes, but his intentions are mostly noble, and Soderbergh and Damon ask the audience to stick with him despite his eccentricities. It's a great movie, and one of the best performances yet from the incredible Damon.

Moon (Duncan Jones)Moon is great entertainment for people who love science-fiction at it's best (think 2001: A Space Odyssey and Minority Report). Sam Rockwell's work here is more than a performance – it's a virtual one-man show – and he's absolutely astonishing.

State of Play (Kevin MacDonald) State of Play is a surprisingly gripping political thriller, with Russell Crowe, Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman in top form. The film is a great plug for the future of newspapers, too. State of Play makes journalism look exciting, an All the President's Men (1976) prototype that really works.

The Rest of the Best: Other Great Films of the Year

(in alphabetical order)

Adventureland (Greg Mottola) Adventureland is one of the most honest and accurate films about teenagers I’ve seen in a long time.

Antichrist (Lars Von Trier) – Lars Von Trier, no stranger to disturbing subject matter and emotionally and physically exhausting his audience, has made an extremely controversial and effectively despairing film. At its core, Antichrist is an art house movie from start to finish. It's almost impossible to critique critically, because although the movie is brilliantly made and features incredible performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, there are scenes in this film that are as downright disturbing and shocking as anything I've ever seen. And, more importantly, it's rather unclear what Von Trier is even trying to say with this movie. I admire Antichrist a great deal from a filmmaking perspective, but its not meant to be entertainment. Roger Ebert notes that the film must be applauded for so effectively evoking a sense of despair, and although I agree with him, I can't help but think that Antichrist is so intent on unsettling the audience that, ultimately, the movie doesn't come anywhere close to the emotional power of Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996). I think Von Trier is brilliant, and in its own very twisted way, Antichrist is brilliant, too. But I'll never watch it again.

Away We Go (Sam Mendes) – The performances ring true in Sam Mendes' Away We Go, which makes a great companion piece to his much darker Revolutionary Road (2008). Both films are about marriages and relationships, both honest, both drastically different in style and theme. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are terrific.

Brothers (Jim Sheridan) – Jim Sheridan's Brothers is a moving film that finally pairs look-alike actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire as, you guessed it, brothers.

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson) The Brothers Bloom is a whole lot of fun – a subtle sibling rivalry tale that ends poignantly and appropriately. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo are terrific.

Bruno (Larry Charles) Bruno is one of the most provocative and funniest films to be released since, well, Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. The movie is a scathing indictment on our supposedly tolerant institutions and a brutal, cringe-inducing examination of celebrity image. But more importantly, it's absolutely hilarious.

Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones) – Kirk Jones' Everybody's Fine is a 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. In a perfect world, De Niro would receive his seventh Academy Award nomination for this performance.

Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani) Goodbye Solo is a moving character study from the fine director Ramin Bahrani.

Funny People (Judd Apatow) Funny People isn’t quite as funny as Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005) or Knocked Up (2007), but what the movie lacks in gut-busting laughs it makes up for in humanity and likability. This is clearly Apatow’s most personal film to date, and it shows. Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen have never been better.

In the Loop (Armando Iannucci) – A hilarious and often scathing political satire.

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov) – George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Goat are hilarious in this irreverent satire.

Nine (Rob Marshall) - Daniel Day-Lewis is great fun in this very good screen adaptation of the Broadway musical based on Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), one of the greatest films of all time. Like The Lovely Bones, Nine isn't receiving great critical or popular acclaim, but I found the film to be a lively and entertaining musical with two Oscar-worthy performances (from Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard) at its center.

The Road (John Hillcoat) – John Hillcoat's devastating The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is 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.

Up (Pete Doctor) – Second only to Fantastic Mr. Fox when ranking the year’s best animated features.

Whatever Works (Woody Allen) – Although Allen wrote the screenplay for Whatever Works in the 1970s, the movie still works very well as a modern Woody piece (whatever that’s supposed to mean, anyway). Larry David is perfect as Woody's alter-ego, and the movie glides along with a jazzy rhythm. As with all of Allen's films, there is no fancy or distracting filmmaking on display here – just interesting characters and good dialogue. We've seen this whole thing before, but I can't help but love a movie when I happen to agree with mostly everything the neurotic protagonist spouts to the philistines surrounding him.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze) – Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a difficult movie to write about, because the film plays subtly on so many emotions without words. I have an enormous amount of respect for the movie, which is based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak, because whereas many children’s films are irritatingly condescending toward their younger audiences, Where the Wild Things Are instead embraces the emotional angst faced by young children and legitimizes that fear as something real and alive.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Children of the Apocalypse: An NYU Student's Critical Essay on Children of Men

Note: The following piece is an essay I wrote for my final paper for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. The essay is a critical reflection on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006), a film that just missed my list of The Top Ten Films of the Decade. I want to share this final essay with you, and also reflect on this brilliant film - truly one of the finest movies in recent years.

Audiences love disaster movies. They are escapist entertainment at its most heightened and visceral, offering human stories set against a backdrop of cataclysmic horror and destruction. Many of these disaster movies begin by presenting a broken family in the everyday world unexpectedly faced with surviving a global crisis together. The oncoming apocalyptic disaster keeps the audience interested in the family’s fate and, more importantly, strengthens the bonds between the once-distant family members. During times of apocalypse in many Hollywood films, families once separated are unexpectedly reunited: in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is forced to protect and reunite with his two estranged children when alien tripod machines attack New Jersey; in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), estranged father Jack (Dennis Quaid) and son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) must work together to survive an oncoming global ice age.

Although Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) does not fall into the category of “families-reunited-by-disaster” movies, the film does present a series of makeshift families created in the face of disaster. Cuaron’s film shows a futuristic landscape where humans can no longer produce offspring, and the world is slowly coming to an end in the midst of the ensuing political and social upheaval. One of the many makeshift families formed in Children of Men is The Fishes, a group of political revolutionaries and rebels united by their opposition to the British government’s treatment of illegal immigrants. Another makeshift family is created between Theo (Clive Owen), a political activist-turned-bureaucrat, and his older friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an aging hippie. In a world where there are fewer fathers and sons with each passing day, Jasper and Theo’s relationship most closely resembles a father-son bond.

But there is one family in Children of Men that isn’t makeshift – the broken family of Theo and his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who separated after their young son Dylan died in a flu epidemic nearly twenty years ago. In fact, their relationship in the film leans closer to the “families-reunited-by-disaster” category originally described (although it’s still a little different, as Theo and Julian do not have living children). In one of the first moments of relief and relaxation in Children of Men, Julian and Theo engage in a game that consists of blowing, or popping, a Ping-Pong ball back and forth into each other’s mouths. The situation is still very intense – Theo and Julian are riding in a car, along with members of The Fishes and a mysterious young refugee woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) – but, for a moment, we are privy to a scene of rare intimacy between a once-married couple separated for years but now, in the face of a possible human apocalypse, reunited by a particular circumstance.

But although the trauma of apocalypse oftentimes reunites people, the more obvious and more common result in the face of apocalypse is for human beings to go completely insane. The three opening lines of Children of Men exemplify this idea of chaos creating chaos. As the film opens, we hear three different newscasters reporting the following: “Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle;” “The Muslim community demands an end to the Army’s occupation of mosques;” “The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning. Our lead story.” And the lead story is yet another example of chaotic behavior – the youngest person on the planet, Diego Ricardo, was killed and beaten to death by an angry mob after refusing to sign an autograph. The newscaster’s inclusion of Diego’s exact age at the time of his death – eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours and eight minutes old – is a testament to the importance of every minute to a society teetering on oblivion. Although the tragic death of the youngest man on the planet seems like something that would normally drive people apart, sometimes tragedy brings people closer together – the outpour of mass mourning over Diego’s death brings many Londoners into each other’s arms. On the other hand, disaster just as easily drives people apart, as witnessed by the insane and chaotic behavior described above.

With these two contrasting human reactions to an oncoming apocalypse, the question arises – what informs people’s reactions to an apocalypse? The most important and obvious answer is one’s basic human needs. Water, food, shelter, clothes and good health are among the necessities for human survival, and in Children of Men, the homeless and the destitute are among the most desperate and savage people in the picture. Equally desperate are the illegal immigrants held in internment camps throughout England, many of who are starving and plagued with disease. When Theo, Kee and Miriam (Pam Ferris) ride on a refugee bus into an internment camp, helpless and suffering refugees surround them, most of them coughing, sniffling and wheezing. Outside of the bus, detainees are stripped of their clothes and corpses are stacked against the wall.

This horrendous treatment of illegal immigrants, of course, is legally enforced by the British government, which, along with the other political institutions and groups, represents another important aspect of people’s reactions to an apocalypse. This category encompasses both the government and the various revolutionaries and rebels defying the established system, represented in Children of Men by The Fishes. Although it is stated early on in Children of Men that England is one of the very few countries still operating functionally, the English government still does not hold the state together very well during the apocalypse, as evidenced by their establishment of the immigrant internment camps. Both the government and the revolutionaries may be responsible for recent bombings in the country, actions perhaps caused by their inability to listen to each other’s arguments (the Fishes are fighting for equal rights for every British citizen, and the British government is fighting to maintain Homeland Security). This political warring between the government and the rebels makes the country prime for mass chaos and social disorder among its citizens.

But perhaps the most fascinating factor that informs people’s reaction to an apocalypse is religion. At least nearly everything that society knows and understands about apocalypse comes directly from ancient religious and spiritual beliefs. This connection between doomsday prophecies and religion dates at least as far back as the Reformation Era. Robin B. Barnes, in his article “Varieties of Apocalyptic Experience in Reformation Europe,” describes Europe during the Reformation Era as a God-fearing society believing the apocalypse was closing in, primarily due to “new weapons and tactics, larger armies, and a general militarization of society” (263). Does this description sound eerily familiar? Furthermore, Barnes observes that the Europeans viewed these destructive and corrupting forces as “God’s punishment upon a sinful world” (264). In Children of Men, several scenes show groups of religious fundamentalists with signs and banners proclaiming such phrases as “The Faithless Have Made Us Barren,” “Repent, Repent, Repent,” and “Infertility is God’s Punishment.” The resemblance between the religious fervor in Children of Men and Reformation Era Europe is uncanny.

If England in the year 2027 mirrors Europe during the Reformation Era, what does this reveal about the role of religion during times of apocalypse? Cuaron hints at the answer in Children of Men; he shows us a large diversity of religious activity, and yet throughout the entire film, we virtually never see a scientist. This contrast between the lack of scientists and the diverse multitudes of religious behavior speaks to something very important about human nature – that, in times of apocalypse, there is a tendency for humans to believe. After all, when science cannot provide answers for why women have become infertile, the only answers come from the religious groups, who answer that one must repent to God. It may be a stretch to claim that non-believers are converted into believers during times of apocalypse, but there is certainly evidence to support that humans want to believe, more than ever, in a higher power before the world collapses. Their faith in the government and the political institutions has died, as witnessed in Children of Men through the establishment of internment camps for illegal immigrants and the instillation of desperate measures to defeat supposed terrorists. An addition should be made to the list of basic human needs – hope. At their core, most human beings have a basic need to believe that there is a reason for them to put one foot in front of the other each day. It’s during these times of apocalypse, in both Hollywood films and everyday life, that most people need to believe that there will be something waiting for them after the end of the world.

However, sometimes people believe in absolutely nothing during an apocalypse – in fact, sometimes people are downright selfish. Theo, for instance, is a hopeless, cynical bastard at the beginning of Children of Men. In the film’s opening sequence, Theo walks out of a coffee shop and, as he is buying a newspaper on the street, the coffee shop explodes into flames. When he is later kidnapped by The Fishes, he expresses only his irritation at ‘almost getting blown up’ rather than considering the many people who did not survive the bombing. But there is an important turning point for Theo: when Kee finally gives birth to her baby – the first child born in eighteen years – Theo changes from blatantly cold-hearted and nihilistic to oddly hopeful. Although I won’t claim that Theo necessarily gets ‘religious’ at this point, it’s fair to claim that Theo finds a purpose with this incredible birth, a reason to put one foot in front of the other, something important that he must protect. Theo and Kee eventually form a makeshift family similar to the many others in the film, and he keeps going on his arduous journey – to deliver Kee and her child to a group of scientists known as The Human Project on the coast – for the sake of his new family, both mother and child.

While most humans want to believe that there will be something waiting for them after the end of the world, not everybody believes in life after the apocalypse. But that doesn’t really matter. It is possible to keep going anyway, surviving against the odds, if only for the sake of protecting one’s family – either makeshift or real – and preserving a symbol of hope when the world needs it most.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Best Films of the Decade: #9

9. Brokeback Mountain (2005; Ang Lee)

“Jack, I swear…”

In 2005, I named Steven Spielberg’s Munich as the best film of the year, and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a very close second. I don’t often change my mind in regards to my favorite picture of the year, but 2005 is a rare exception. Don’t get me wrong – Munich just barely missed my Best Films of the Decade list, and I personally believe that it’s one of the finest and most uncompromising films Spielberg has ever made. But Brokeback Mountain has resonated for me in a way that I didn’t fully expect upon first seeing it in December 2005.

For one, director Ang Lee achieved something few directors can nowadays – he created a breathtakingly beautiful art house film that also managed to enrapture (most) mainstream audiences with a powerfully moving love story at its center. Lee uses the empty blue skies and vast, open prairies of Wyoming to dwarf God’s lonely cowboy Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) through years of pain and loneliness. Brokeback Mountain is one of the most assured directorial efforts of the decade – Lee is in total control as a filmmaker, contrasting the rich landscape of the 1960s American West with the sadness and sexual insecurities of the film’s protagonists.

In the process of his superlative direction, Lee somehow also made a movie that brought teenage girls back to the cinema over and over again – the love story between Ennis and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) was this generation’s answer to the doomed romance between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).

And yet it's not the love story that brings me back again and again to Brokeback Mountain, although the film is certainly remarkable for its cultural influence and its understanding of homosexuality in 1960s America. In fact, Brokeback Mountain wouldn’t resonate at all as a motion picture if it were merely a political statement on homosexual rights, or simply a film pushing a political agenda.

Yes, on its face, Brokeback Mountain is a tragic love story between two men in a time period where such a love was frowned upon by society (and, of course, is still frowned upon today, although in fewer numbers).

But at the film’s core is the tragic story of Ennis Del Mar, a character as existential, lonely and isolated as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) or Joe Buck (Jon Voight) from John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). He comes from nowhere. He’s not educated. He’s already an outsider – he’s a cowboy in an age where cowboys aren’t really a cultural identity anymore, at least in the traditional sense (outlaw gunslingers were replaced by drunken good ol’ boys sometime during the twentieth century). He is alienated even further from society by his confusion with his sexual orientation.

Is he gay? He might be, although he might very well be bisexual. His relationship with Jack is formed, though, by circumstance – the fact that they’re two very lonely individuals who share one thing in common: a misplaced sense of identity, both sexually and culturally. Are Ennis and Jack meant to be together? I don’t think that’s the point – Brokeback Mountain is not a film about eternal love or soul mates.

The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that Ennis and Jack never really find out if they’re meant to be together. They never feel the joy and pain that most couples experience because, no matter how hard the two men attempt to feign some semblance of a lasting relationship, that summer they spent together on Brokeback Mountain is simply an elusive, nostalgic memory, incapable of being recaptured, especially after both men marry and have children.

The final scene of Brokeback Mountain, which takes place after Jack’s death, shows Ennis living alone in a trailer. His grown daughter visits him and announces that she is getting married. Watch Heath Ledger’s face during this final scene – without hardly saying a word, the actor gives us the life story of Ennis Del Mar in a few seconds. His eyes welling up with tears as his daughter drives away, he touches Jack’s blue-jean jacket, which hangs in his closet. Next to the jacket is a postcard from Brokeback Mountain. Ennis wants to share the news of his daughter’s marriage to his good friend, but there’s nobody there. It’s one of the quietest and most powerful scenes in cinematic history, anchored by Ledger in the finest performance of this decade. Jack, I swear, indeed.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Best Films of the Decade: #10

10. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001; Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) wasn’t the last movie my father and I saw together before he died – in fact, we actually saw quite a few movies together over the New Year's holiday in January 2002 at my grandmother’s house in Hallsville, Texas. I vividly recall the night of January fourth – my dad was extremely excited to take me to see the weekend’s new movie, Imposter (2002; Gary Fleder) that night in Longview. The movie was merely okay, but his joy and excitement – to go out for pizza with his boy and then head to the Longview movie theater – was endearing.

It was only a few weeks earlier in Austin that I had first seen The Royal Tenenbaums at the Arbor cinema with my mother, my good friend Manny Munoz and his mother Beverly. At eleven years old, I was already claiming that I had seen “the best film of the year.” As it turns out, I was right.

While staying at my grandmother’s house that January, I wanted more than anything else for my father to see The Royal Tenenbaums with me. I knew he would love the movie and appreciate its dry sense of humor. Alas, the nearest theater showing The Royal Tenenbaums was over an hour away – in Shreveport, Louisiana. But my father – sharing my love for movies and, more than anything, wanting his son to have a good time – decided to make a road trip out of the situation. And so one morning we drove out of Hallsville and stopped in Marshall on the way, and he bought a cassette tape of the Bryan Adams album So Far So Good at the Marshall mall, and I bought a cassette tape of Bruce Willis and his band performing live (my father’s car still only played cassette tapes – and his two favorite tapes, bar none, were the Adams recording and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

When we arrived in Shreveport, we bought tickets to The Royal Tenenbaums, and then my father drove me around the city and showed me the casinos of Shreveport. Eventually, we got to the theater and watched the movie. I can’t really recall exactly what he thought of it – I’d love to say that my dad loved Anderson’s movie as much as I did, but I really don’t know. All I remember is that he never laughed as hard as I did at the movie’s dark humor.

My father and I would see a few other movies together in January, including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001; Peter Jackson), In the Bedroom (2001; Todd Field), The Shipping News (2001; Lasse Hallstrom) and Black Hawk Down (2001; Ridley Scott) along with my mother in Austin, but it’s The Royal Tenenbaums that provides the most powerful and interesting memories. I wish, more than anything, I could be back in that Shreveport movie theater and watch the movie all over again with my dad.

Only in the years since my father’s death have I truly been able to appreciate The Royal Tenenbaums on an entirely different level. When I was eleven years old, I believe I was drawn to the movie because of its incredible cast and its note-perfect melancholic balance between absurd comedy and devastating tragedy. I don’t think I need to mention the incredible style of the film – it goes without saying that Anderson is the finest example of a modern-day auteur filmmaker, and every one of his films are exquisitely shot.

But after watching Anderson’s story of an eccentric New York family countless times in the past decade, I can’t help but look at the character of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) without thinking of my father. No, my father was certainly not estranged from the rest of his family, nor did he fake having stomach cancer in order to get back into the good graces of his family. But the humor, the wit, the possibilities of redemption, the reconnection between father and son, the reuniting of a family of oddballs, and the lasting impressions made before death – these are the aspects of Royal Tenenbaum that speak to how I remember my father.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a very funny movie, and it is also a very sad movie. When I was eleven, I was enamored by the droll and heartfelt performances from Hackman, Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson and Danny Glover. I immediately bought a copy of the film’s soundtrack, one of the hallmarks of any Wes Anderson movie – Tenenbaums alone brilliantly uses Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones, These Days by Nico, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon, Judy is a Punk by The Ramones and a cover of Hey Jude in joyous and cathartic ways that only Wes Anderson can achieve. But I believe I was aware and appreciative of the tragic themes in The Royal Tenenbaums without ever being able to relate to them on a personal level until after my father's death.

I wonder if perhaps my dad didn’t laugh as much as I did at the movie because he recognized the sadness of the film, the melancholy of Royal Tenenbaum and his desperate efforts to make his family love him again before he dies. Neither my father nor I could possibly know that in four months, John Kyser would be dead. But only after my father died and my perception of the movie changed dramatically was I truly able to start wondering what he may have seen in the movie - as a father - that has taken years of repeated viewings for me to understand. My only regret is that in order to understand The Royal Tenenbaums on a deeper, more personal level, I had to lose my father.