Saturday, December 26, 2009

Favorite Films of the Last (or Lost) Decade

Be warned: This is not a list of the BEST films of the last ten years, but a personal view of my favorites.
10. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, 2002. Wong Kar-Wai's ravishing tribute to unrequited love. Two of the most talented and attractive film actors in the world, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, play sad, longing lovers whose own spouses have betrayed them. Set against lush color pallettes, this is a film to savor.

9. HOTEL RWANDA, 2004. Terry George's gripping fact-based narrative about the Rwandan genocide with powerful imagery and a haunting performance from Don Cheadle, one of our most underrated actors. Unforgettable.

8. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Michel Goundry and Charlie Kaufman co-wrote
and Goundry directed this surreal love story about a woman who has her love affair erased from her memory. In his best role, Jim Carrey is the man who tries to get her back. The blend of sci-fi, longing, and comedy is irresistable.

7. CHILDREN OF MEN, 2006. Alfonso Cuaron's brilliant adaptation of P.D. James' dystopian nightmare novel keeps the core ideas but expands the novel into a thrilling story of redemption and salvation. Clive Owen and Michael Caine give beautifully drawn performances.

6. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, 2000. Ang Lee's epic tale of martial arts, honor and desire tackles a tired genre of Chinese movies and elevates it into both art and entertainment. The use of color, editing, and stunt work enhance an intensely tangled web of love and violence in a mythical China.

5. MEMENTO, 2000. Christopher Nolan's remarkable puzzle in which Guy Pearce plays a man with short term memory who must solve his wife's murder through clues he writes on mirrors, his body, anywhere before they slip away. A tour de force in narrative technique which reminds us of the fun house sequence in Orson Welles' THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI...but better!

4. You can take NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BARTON FINK to the cleaners after you see the Coen Brothers' uproarious, deliciously clever '30's romp O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU. Who would have guessed you could take Homer's THE ODYSSEY and make it this hilarious without losing the meaning. Whether it's the sirens or the lotus eaters or Polyphemus himself, they are all here in high comic form as Mississippi gospel singers, klan members, and gangsters. The music alone makes this wondrous, but add performances from George Clooney and a great cast and you have a classic comedy.

3. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005, Ang Lee. Perhaps the most heartfelt and personally wrenching movie of the decade. Ang Lee's directing Oscar was more than deserved, but the film and Heath Ledger were sadly overlooked. Beyond the hype and cheap jokes about gay cowboys, this is love story about two people who cannot deny their love for each other, despite their attempts to be apart. Ledger's expressions and voice are remarkabe and haunting.

2. PAN'S LABYRINTH, 2006, Guillermo del Toro. An allegorical tale that combines social realism, myth, and fairy tales, PAN'S LABYRINTH is set in Facist Spain. A highly imaginative girl escapes her brutish step-father by entering a world of fantasy inspired by Lewis Carroll and especially nightmarish mythical characters. Del Toro has created an astonishing world of crafty fauns, insect-like fairies, and one of the ghastliest creatures ever seen--all in the service of an heroic stand against facism and human cruelty.

1. MOULIN ROUGE, 2001, Baz Luhrmann. This movie single-handedly revived the movie musical by plundering Elton John, the Beatles, the Police, and loads of other pop icons and placing them in Paris at the end of the 19th century in the Paris netherworld of Moulin Rouge. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor bring both comic and tragic talents to this wild update of CAMILLE. The sets, photography, choreography, and acting are all amazing and all the genius of Baz Luhrmann.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

AVATAR...It's a whole new world

Some of the main line critics have carped about James Cameron's script and story for his uber-expensive fantasy epic AVATAR. Perhaps they miss several points. First, the film is a technical wonder in 3-D in that the viewer is thrust into the environment and not just assaulted by flaming arrows, rocks, and the like as in earlier 3-D films. Also, the story works on several layers. After all, it is set in the distant future when we have depleted Earth of all its natural resources and now we must import them from other planets. Under military "protection," a huge industrial outfit is determined to export Unobtainium from the planet....The richest vein of this energy is beneath a giant tree which the Nihi hold sacred and where the tribe lives. For the USA military/business complex, this is a no-brainer. Blow up that useless tree. So we have obvious attacks on U.S. policies in the past and the present, from Vietnam on. The visuals and words support this idea. In one scene as the military planes begin bombing the Nihi, we are reminded of the visuals we used to see in the 1970's as Vietnam villages were blown away. We also have environmentalists and humanists (bleeding hearts according to the military leaders) eventually standing with the Nihi in an attempt to save their planet. So the layers continue to unfold.

Finally there is the personal story of a tough marine who has lost the use of his legs but is able to find action in his avatar form (blue, ten feet tall, macho yet sensitive). As he learns the way of the Nihis and falls in love with their princess, his loyalties change and we are bombarded with references to earlier films from POCAHONTAS to NEW WORLD. Of course, director Cameron has no hesitation in quoting himself. James Horner's lush score reeks of TITANIC. Some of the military hardware comes from the TERMINATOR films and ALIENS, as do the tough, no-nonsense females. Sigourney Weaver even makes her entrance stepping out of her avatar pod and demanding a cigarette. The battles are impressive, but the world that Cameron creates is the show-stopper. There has simply not been a movie this ground-breaking in technique and freshness since the original STAR WARS. The motion-capture process that seemed so clunky in BEOWULF and THE POLAR EXPRESS has raised the bar for any such techniques in the future. AVATAR may have a few familiar cliches and characters, but its vision is truly visionary.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Vampires, Werewolves, and Ninjas. O, My!

Everybody has his or her guilty pleasures, and my guiltiest are obviously movies I shouldn't have on my radar. TWILIGHT: NEW MOON and NINJA ASSASSIN cover the span of teen exploitation. For swooning adolescents (and that age range has no cap), we have a moody child of divorced parents who has fallen for an ashen, undernourished vampire with lipstick and who glitters as he walks. In this second episode, Edward leaves Bella to protect her, and you should leave logic behind at this point, because Bella immediately falls in with werewolves, an avenging female vampire, and deep depression. Like most movies about women in trouble, this one shows Bella wandering off into the Washington woods for days at a time, riding motorcycles, and jumping off cliffs into the Pacific. Why? Because adrenaline rushes raise wispy images of Edward saying, "No, don't do it." Bella is saved more than once by Native American Jacob, who seems immune to Washington weather. He is always shirtless. Meanwhile Edward believes that Bela is dead and plans to expose himself as a vampire to humanity, an act which will cause his death. Naturally, she hops a plane to Verona, Italy, to face the Voltori, a sort of high council of the undead. I told you about abandoning logic. Needless to say, Edward, Bella, and Jacob will be back in episode three next year.

And for the guys, we have NINJA ASSASSIN, which stars the Korean pop singer Rain (yes, Rain) as a Ninja raised in the world's worst boarding school. High above the clouds in the Himalayas, our future ninja endures bloody battles with other students and steels himself to be the top killer assassin. Cut to the present and Rain has betrayed the clan and discovered he has a heart. That means countless bloody battles with chains, feet, swords, and those cool metal star things that slice your jugular. The finale features an endless duel where Rain meets his old master. No one could live through what these guys do to each other. In fact, no human has that much blood in him. NINJA ASSASSIN makes no sense, but it will please the action lovers. In fact, NEW MOON could have used a little Ninja kick.