Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Films of the Decade

Here is my list of the top 25 films of the 00's - in no particular order. Following this list are honorable mentions.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003)

The biopic of cartoonist Harvey Pekar has incredible performances by Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti, an interesting and heartfelt story, and is creatively told with a mixture of illustrations and live action.


I HEART HUCKABEES (2004)

I heart the concept of an existential comedy, and I loved this movie. David O. Russell showed that he had chops and Mark Wahlberg showed he can do "weird". Forget the drama behind the making of the film and just enjoy the finished product.


MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)

Any film that I can watch repeatedly and still marvel at the production and cry like a baby, even if it's the 15th time I've watched it, belongs on this list. Most importantly, when I saw it in the theater I was so bedazzled I felt like a little kid again, and that feeling is priceless.


ADAPTATION. (2002)

Several years ago I sat down to watch Adaptation. Then, when it ended, I immediately watched it again. Though a little convoluted at times, Spike Jonze's follow up to the brilliant Being John Malkovich is so strange that I think it's been marginalized by many, but those of us who hung in there reaped the benefits of having seen this amazing film.


THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)

There is so much to love about this film: Wes Anderson's exquisite direction and attention to each and every stylish detail, the brilliant script by Anderson and his buddy (and cast member) Owen Wilson, the great ensemble cast full of strong actors who don't outshine each other... I could watch this movie weekly if I had to.


CITY OF GOD (2002)

City of God is gritty and fast paced, with an incredible amount of depth. I was completely blown away by the power of this movie. I don't know that a lot of people have seen it, but it's a critical favorite for good reason.



KILL BILL VOL. 1 (2003)

There is nothing I didn't like about this movie - it was fast, it was flashy, it was badass and had a great premise. Though I did like Vol. 2 (it's in my honorable mentions) Kill Bill Vol. 1 was superior and made me jump with excitement - literally.


STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006)

Despite the interesting premise, I was still wary of seeing this film because it starred Will Ferrell. (I just don't get his appeal, though I recently watched Elf and thought it was really cute) I'm thrilled that I did, because this is an amazing movie, aided by an amazing performance by Ferrell. There were times when I was laughing to the point of tears, and several times I was actually sobbing "real" tears. Who would have thought he had so much depth?


LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)

This was my favorite film of 2006 because it offered so much - family dysfunction and redemption, flawed characters, actors playing against type (Steve Carrell) and was both hilarious and heartbreaking. Plus, any film that heavily refers to Marcel Proust gets my vote.



VOLVER (2006)

There are fewer director/actor duos who can consistently make magic nowadays, but Pedro Almodovar and his muse Penelope Cruz created an enchanting movie in Volver. Cruz is captivating and devastating as a mother who has to help her daughter with a desperate situation, while dealing with the death of her own mother. See this movie, then work your way back through Almodovar's filmography.



SIDEWAYS (2004)

I will see anything that Alexander Payne directs, and Sideways is one of his best, if not the best. Paul Giamatti gave an unforgettable performance as sad sack writer and wine lover Miles, and Payne provided a supporting cast that made us go, "Really?!' especially when it worked so beautifully. Thomas Haden Church is still doing a steady amount of work, and Sideways resurrected Virginia Madsen's career from a purgatory of Lifetime network movies. With it's jazzy score, beautiful scenery, and, most importantly, a heartfelt story, Sideways is absolutely unforgettable.



HERO (2002)

Though the plot of Hero, told Rashomon-style is satisfying enough, with enough aerial acrobatics and cool fight scenes to get the blood pumping, Yimou Zhang's film is really a work of art. The colors, imagery and cinematography brought me to tears at some points, and truthfully, though I did really like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I think that Hero completely blows it out of the water.



SIN CITY (2005)

Speaking of great imagery, Sin City is rife with outstanding visuals, without losing the story or the action. I actually wanted to watch it again almost immediately so I could study the images without having to bother with enjoying the film. With a huge cast, including an almost resurrected Mickey Rourke, Sin City is brilliant. And I'm still waiting for the promised sequel.



ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)

Arguably the best of the decade, though I'm not attributing rankings to my list, Michel Gondry's masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has an amazing amount of goods to offer: Brilliant performances by actors seriously playing against type (who would have thought Jim Carrey would make me cry other than out of disgust for his crappy comedies?) a beautiful love story, and some of the most creative visuals since, perhaps, Terry Gilliam directed Brazil. This is a film that I want to watch often, but find that I deprive myself from seeing it too frequently because I want to savor every moment.



NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

I've often been asked, as a fan (and practically scholar of) Coen Brothers films, what my favorite one is. I always answer that, for me, choosing a favorite is like choosing which of your children are your favorite; I love them all. Indeed, there are three Coen Brothers films on my list. However, when I came out of the theater after seeing No Country for Old Men for the first time, I was in shock over how powerful it was; its excellence; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and yes, what I considered to be one of the most brilliant endings to a film I've seen in years. After doing several pitch-black comedies, the Coens returned to their original formula of suspense and despair that we first saw in Blood Simple. I loved this movie, and in a year of very strong films, thought it was the best.



FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002)

I wasn't remotely surprised that I liked Far From Heaven as much as I did, considering it was a throwback/homage to the great melodramas of the 1950's, particularly those of the great Douglas Sirk. Sirk took cheesy material (a woman who deigns to date her gardener, a woman who gets blinded in an accident and is then attended to by the guy who caused the accident because it prompted him to go to medical school - that kind of thing) and wrapped it in a beautiful, colorful package that made the films credible. In Far From Heaven, director Todd Haynes takes painstaking detail in capturing the 1950's, and is supported by a great story that is not only not cheesy, but challenging and poignant. Julianne Moore's housewife is dealing with her husband's (Dennis Quaid) family-shattering secret while finding herself attracted to an African American gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Far From Heaven is like having the best of both worlds - a nice story wrapped in a beautiful package.



ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005)

I don't remember what exactly made me watch this film, perhaps I had read about it somewhere, but after I did, I felt like I was holding a really special secret. Written, directed by and starring Miranda July, Me and You and Everyone We Know is one of the sweetest loves stories I've ever seen. Dealing with loneliness and the trepidation of human relationships, the film even has a hilarious subplot involving a six year old boy having an Internet romance with an older woman. (Trust me, it's not as odd as it sounds) I have lent this film out dozens of times to people who have asked for movie suggestions; it is absolutely phenomenal.



MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)

The same week Mulholland Dr. was released in the theater, a friend of mine asked me to go see A Beautiful Mind. I told her that I would go see it with her under the condition that she would see Mulholland Dr. with me later in the week. Needless to say, we walked out of the film with me saying, "You got the better end of the deal." and her saying, "What the hell did I just watch?" I've actually been a huge David Lynch fan from the beginning, (though I still can't watch Dune) even though when I was 10 and too young to realize that the director of the movie I was watching, The Elephant Man, was about to shape the interests, education and general future of my life. I love that Lynch is able to provide such strong work in his third decade of film making, and Mulholland Dr., with its blink-and-you'll-miss-it imagery, general bizarreness and surprisingly lucid storyline ranks among his best.


O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)

With an excellent soundtrack nearly as famous (or more, depending on who you ask) as the film itself, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a Coen Brothers film more in the Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxy style than No Country For Old Men. A clever retelling of Homer's Odyssey, this film is not only enjoyable from start to finish, but its performances, especially that of George Clooney, who made people sit up and notice something about him other than his ER hearthrob status, nearly hide the fact that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a masterpiece - just look at Roger Deakin's unbelievable cinematography if you want some evidence. Every time I watch this movie it puts a smile on my face, and then I proceed to hum the great bluegrass music for the next week.



THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005)

A strong cast, with a great story, (from the Christopher Buckley novel of the same name) Thank You For Smoking was Jason Reitman's directorial debut, and it really showed what kind of talent we had to look forward to, with Juno and the recent Up in the Air. A satire about tobacco lobbyists that somehow never becomes condescending, Thank You For Smoking is incredibly enjoyable and proves that Aaron Eckhart can be a good actor, if given the right material. I can't wait for more Reitman films - what a talent.


STORYTELLING (2001)

Director Todd Solondz is a fairly controversial figure in the film world, perhaps mostly because he provides us with some of the most depressing, painful and dark material being produced in American cinema today. I recognize all of these traits in his films, but I am still drawn to them because they are always compelling, usually offer some of the best performances by actors, and they will always make you think. Storytelling is a perfect example of these traits, and one of the two different halves of the film are stronger (the second) than the other, but when the film ended I was so taken aback that I found it stayed with me for days, no matter how much I tried to shake it. And that's remarkable storytelling.


THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson's departure from everything he's done before worked majestically, which makes me a bigger fan than I ever was. Other than coaxing great performances out of his actors, making a solid film, and his uncanny ability to fit music into his films (this time it was a great haunting cello score), this was barely recognizable as an Anderson film. Daniel Day-Lewis is bafflingly good as Daniel Plainview, and Paul Dano was able to become more than "that guy from Little Miss Sunshine". Anderson continues to take chances in his films, this time having nearly the first fifteen minutes unfold with no dialogue, and ended There Will Be Blood with one of the greatest final lines I've heard.


PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006)

I have to admit that if it hadn't been nominated for an Oscar that year, I probably wouldn't have seen Pan's Labyrinth, possibly even up until now. I would have missed a fairy tale for adults that is horrifying, beautiful, heart-wrenching and full of historical intrigue. I was an inconsolable wreck at the end of this movie, to the point where I had to stay in my theater seat during the credits simply to regain my composure, but the film is so much more than a hankie-fest; director Guillermo del Toro gave us such startling images in Pan's Labyrinth that, coupled with it's story, when it lost to The Lives of Others for the Best Foreign Film Oscar I was shocked. The latter film is good, but Pan's Labyrinth blows it out of the water.


THE BOSS OF IT ALL (2006)

When I told a friend that I was seeing a Lars von Trier comedy, it took a few moments for the shock to subside before I could tell him more about the film. Famous for putting his actors through the wringer in dark (sometimes almost unwatchable) movies, von Trier lightened it up a bit with the dark comedy The Boss of it All, which I had the privilege of screening at the 2006 Milwaukee International Film Festival. The film, about the owner of an IT firm who acts like just another employee, has been telling his fellow employees that all decisions made have been by "the boss of it all". When he decides to sell the company, he hires an actor to be "the boss of it all" with disastrous results. An excellent film, The Boss of It All is definitely worth seeking out.


MEMENTO (2000)

At this point, the novelty and mystique of Memento has passed, with I'm sure dozens of films adopting the non-linear film style but Christopher Nolan's unbelievably brilliant film is still breathtakingly good; a decade later, Memento still stands apart, and I think it will for decades to come. Part film noir, part revenge fantasy, Memento not only introduced us to a different way of telling a story, but introduced us to an excellent and prolific filmmaker.


HONORABLE MENTIONS...

Since I was barely able to narrow down my full list to a Top 25, I wanted to give a special notation for the following movies, which were also on my original list:

  • Good Bye Lenin!
  • Big Fish
  • The Station Agent
  • About Schmidt
  • Shaun of the Dead
  • The Darjeeling Limited
  • Michael Clayton
  • Lars and the Real Girl
  • Juno
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Match Point
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • Mean Girls
  • Donnie Darko
  • Ghost World
  • Burn After Reading
  • Snatch.
  • Best in Show
  • 28 Days Later...
  • Nine Lives
  • The Squid and the Whale

Top 10 of 2009

Here is my (when I think of it) annual list of best movies of the year. My criteria for the list is different from most others, since I consider any films that I see for the first time that particular year to be eligible.

10. NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 (2009)

For anyone who knows me, this probably seems like a really odd choice for my "best of" list, but when I actually decided to give the film a chance (and I still haven't seen the first Night at the Museum) I found that I not only laughed really hard during most of it, but I really enjoyed the entire experience. I enjoyed it enough to actually go see it again in the theater a week later when my parents decided to see it, and I found that I enjoyed it just as much the second time. I realize that Night at the Museum 2 probably isn't on any other critic's Best of 2009 list, but a film that gave me this much pleasure just from a simple story and funny characters (Hank Azaria's Karloff-esque take on "Kahmunrah" had me in stitches for most of the film) deserves a spot on my list.


9. UP (2009)

While I do enjoy some hand drawn animation, actually, mostly just the films of Hayao Miyazaki, this admiration has not extended to most Pixar films with the exception of The Incredibles. Trust me, I consider this more of a fault in my own makeup than an indictment on Pixar animation; I can only seem to get into stories that are a little more "grounded" than talking cars or a rat who loves to cook. The story of an old man who attaches balloons to his house and then proceeds to carry it around, followed by an annoying kid doesn't sound like something that I normally would have gone for, but Up is truly an amazing film that made me a sobbing mess in the beginning, and laughing and emotional for the rest of the film, all the while, completely riveted. Up is a beautiful film that I would feel comfortable recommending to "people like me".


8. THE WRESTLER (2008)

It was a no-brainer that I would like The Wrestler. I love strong, character-driven stories, and Randy "The Ram" Robinson is one hell of a character. I'm also a sucker for dark stories, and I'm pretty sure The Wrestler was one of the darkest films of the year. I also love great comeback stories, and no one had a better comeback story last year than Mickey Rourke, whose performance is honest, gritty and completely balls to the wall. The Wrestler doesn't sugar coat anything, and even when you kind of secretly wish the camera would cut away, it doesn't. After seeing this film, my boyfriend Chris and I stopped for a soda, and as we were talking about the movie, I found myself getting choked up when I was talking about the character of Randy Robinson, because he truly is a great, tragic character in a great, tragic movie.


7. MILK (2008)

I've always found Harvey Milk's story to be interesting, inspiring and tragic, and I looked forward to seeing the big screen interpretation. Lovingly helmed by Gus Van Sant, with a fantastic cast led by Sean Penn, (love him or hate him, the guy can act) Milk was an outstanding film that kept me interested throughout, despite my familiarity with the subject. Milk is also responsible for getting the best performance out of James Franco in any film he's been in before or since. Certainly a heavy film, but it was absolutely beautiful and full of heart, much like the subject himself.


6. IN BRUGES (2008)

Two hit men are relegated to Bruges, Belgium, forced to lay low after a particularly hairy job. While Ken (Brendan Gleeson) tries to take advantage of the situation by seeing the sights, Ray (Colin Farrell) grows increasingly restless and pissed off at their circumstances. Throw in a crazy mob boss (Ralph Fiennes) and a fabulous script, and you have one of the most under appreciated, overlooked films of the year, In Bruges. The film had been on my radar since the previous Oscar season, but when it was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for the 2009 awards, I finally watched it and loved it. As full of conflict as humor, In Bruges is a great film.


5. HERB & DOROTHY (2008)

Herb & Dorothy is a documentary about the Vogels, and elderly couple who, over the course of over 40 years, have managed to build the greatest personal collection of modern art, all on a mail sorter's salary. While they lived on Dorothy's salary as a librarian, the Vogels used Herb's wages to purchase pieces from up and coming artists who they ended up befriending. Though completely unassuming and as down to earth a couple could be, Herb & Dorothy have become great patrons of the arts and philanthropists; having donated much of their collection to the National Gallery of Art. Megumi Sasaki's documentary takes us into the Vogels' lives and gives the audience a little lesson in art history and appreciation. I saw Herb & Dorothy at the Milwaukee Film Festival this year and it's the best movie you never heard of - but it was just released on DVD in December, so rent it.


4. BRONSON (2008)

Another Milwaukee Film Festival gem, Bronson is the true story of Michael Peterson, England's most violent prisoner, who parlayed an original 7 year prison term into a (so far) 34 year sentence, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement. Peterson's alter ego is Charles Bronson, and his need for attention and fame is insatiable. Bronson is an intense, entertaining and violent film that is like a big tasty mash-up of films like Snatch. and A Clockwork Orange, with a lot of theatrics thrown in. I loved its flash and I worshipped Tom Hardy's performance as the psychopathic Bronson. Full of scenes that were striking and breathtaking, if you can handle some violence, Bronson is a must-see.


3. NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957)

Though I love to discuss films any time, any place, for as long as I can, I find that there are few films that I actually have a physical need to discuss after viewing them, since I tend to internalize the experience until I have (mostly) figured out what I thought. When I recently watched Nights of Cabiria, however, I found that I had a deep need to talk about it. Like, right then. Unfortunately, there was no one I could call, e-mail or text who I knew had seen it, so I dramatically chalked it up as a personal tragedy, dismissed everyone as philistines and went to bed. The reasons that Nights of Cabiria is so discussion-worthy are numerous, but it is its rich, tragic story of an aging streetwalker in Rome who has had a hard life and somehow manages to come out of it every time. Or it could be what is perhaps the best part of the film, Giulietta Masina, and her incredible portrayal of the strong title character. Further still, it could be director Federico Fellini's superb and nearly flawless direction. There are so many great things about Nights of Cabiria, and it should be seen. Just don't make the mistake I made - watch it with someone, and don't forget your hanky.


2. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Quentin Tarantino has proven to be a master of layering different stories within a film, and his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, is another culmination of two different stories (not quite halves) of a film that simultaneously transpire and then meet up in a satisfying ending. A reimagining of history with wonderfully satisfactory results, Inglourious Basterds surprised me with it's full and compelling story, without losing the humor and flashiness of a standard Tarantino film. I was expecting a lot of violence, and indeed, there was some, but I realized fairly quickly that Inglourious Basterds was a bit more "grown up" than the usual Tarantino fare. I didn't walk out of the film jumping up and down excitedly like I did when I came out of Kill Bill Vol. 1, but I sure was raving about the film, and in the days following the screening, my appreciation grew, the more I reflected on the film as a whole.


1. THE HURT LOCKER (2008)

A lot of praise has been bestowed upon Kathryn Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker, and I'm here to tell you that it is all warranted. The Hurt Locker is a feature film that is so straightforward it seems like a documentary, and the experience of following the elite Army bomb squad as they do their work in Afghanistan is almost painfully tense and suspenseful; there were several scenes when I had to remind myself to breathe. Though the action was obviously compelling, the glimpses into the private lives and psyches of the main characters are just as interesting, believable, and at times, heart breaking. Though I am not a fan of war films as a genre, there are a few, such as Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now that I do really like and offer more than the traditional fare. I have never seen a war film like The Hurt Locker, and it is one of the best films of any genre that I've seen in a decade. The impact of this film will not fade quickly.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Ten 10/3/2009

Film #20 - Kimjongilia

Day 10 of the Milwaukee Film Festival ended up being my last day of the festival. After the screening of Kimjongilia, I just made a decision, after seeing the rest of the films I had lined up for the day, to call it quits at 20 movies, which I think is a respectable amount of films to watch over the course of 9 days.

I always come away from the film festival with ideas on what to do differently, and almost every year I think, "Take time off from work." And year after year, I don't do that, thinking I can handle it. I think that I'm going to have to employ that idea next year, and stick with it, because the nature of my day job (marketing and writing) has a pace that doesn't really lend itself to sharing time with an 11 day film festival. Though my notes helped me out this year, I would like to do more writing shortly after I screen a film, rather than struggling to get my thoughts together weeks later.

I miss a couple of the venues that used to have the film festival, namely the Times Cinema, but I don't have a lot of complaints about the Marcus North Shore theater. Obviously, parking wasn't a problem, and the theaters were large and (if you didn't sit in them for 10 hours) the chairs were comfortable. I did feel less of a connection with other film goers than I had in previous years at the Times Cinema; there was less conversation before and after the film, which is invaluable. However, all in all, the experience was a great one, and I was incredibly impressed with the caliber of films that were offered. With time and logistics thrown out the window, I could have seen at least another 25 films that looked good.

I look forward to covering the festival next year, which has already been announced for September 23 - October 3, 2010. That gives me nine months to prepare for another great experience.

KIMJONGILIA
Director:
N.C. Heikin
USA/South Korea/France - 2009 - Korean with English subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Sundance Film Festival 2009
San Francisco Film Festival 2009


Kimjongilia refers to a hybrid red begonia specially developed to bloom on North Korean Kim Jong Il's birthday; part of an attempt by the dictator to show that the people of North Korea really do love him and aren't oppressed. There are several defectors profiled in this documentary that tell a different story (and one that most of the world already knows) and expose the atrocities that they personally had to endure at Kim Jong Il's hands.

Most of the atrocities occur in prison work camps, where people are shipped for "injustices" like having a newspaper with the president's picture on it lying on the floor. North Koren law dictates that three generations of a family be purged, so if your grandmother is found guilty of an injustice, every member of the family through their grandchildren is also sent to the prison camp and subjected to torture, extreme hunger and, in some cases, death. First-hand interviews with people who escaped the camps, or were eventually released are harrowing and heart-breaking. Regardless of the time that had elapsed, the frustration and raw anger is palpable in these subjects. Kimjongilia also addresses the mistreatment of North Korean soldiers, who are subjected to malnutrition and starvation, as well as the plight of North Korean defectors; some risk being repatriated if they are caught in China, otherwise they have to make it through Mongolia to get to South Korea.

Though I was kind of lukewarm about the film as a whole, I couldn't help rolling my eyes, every time Hiekin would show scenes of interpretive dancers dramatically and oddly dancing to portray the horror we were being told. The witnesses, facts and footage did just fine and this inclusion was unnecessary, and frankly, really annoying. Anyone who is educated on current events isn't going to learn much of anything new by watching Kimjongilia, but it is certainly compelling to hear about the conditions and policies from people who have experienced them first-hand.

2 stars out of 5


Milwaukee Film Festival Day Nine 10/2/2009


Film #18 - Outrage
Film #19 - Crimes and Misdemeanors

Going into the last weekend of the Milwaukee Film Festival, I was excited about the evening's screenings. Not only was I going to be seeing a documentary that was on my short list of films I wanted to see this week, but I was going to be watching one of my favorite Woody Allen films in the presence of its star, Martin Landau. Landau was in town for the weekend, attending two screenings of Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the world premiere of his latest film, Lovely, Still, and sat down after the screening Friday night to talk about his experiences on this film, and on acting as a whole.

"Only bad actors try to show their feelings. Good actors repress their feelings." I hope that budding actors and filmmakers were taking notes during the talk back, because he certainly uttered some gems. A member of the Actor's Studio (he was accepted the same year as Steve McQueen) he was accepted after his first audition, an almost unheard of feat. He currently is serving as the head of the Actor's Studio in California. Landau was incredibly lucid and well-spoken, intelligent and charming. He answered the many questions with relish, even seeming to want to continue after almost 45 minutes. I had to laugh to myself at one point when he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Milwaukee Film Festival, because I was thinking about Woody Allen's character in Crimes and Misdemeanors, clinging to his award he received for documentary film making at the Cincinnati Film Festival as his wife retorts, "They gave an honorable mention to anyone who showed up!" Landau is a man who has won many awards, including an Academy Award, but his acceptance of the award given to him by the Milwaukee Film Festival was full of humility and humbleness. And I don't think it was just his great acting chops.

OUTRAGE
Director:
Kirby Dick
USA - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Tribeca Film Festival 2009
Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 2009 - Award Winner




A film that investigates allegations and censored media coverage of homosexual scandals involving politicians such as Idaho Senator Larry Craig and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, among others, Outrage is a no-holds-barred look at how the progression of gay rights is being continually undermined, sometimes most vociferously by notoriously closeted politicians.

I screened this film with at least 200 other people, an admirable crowd for a late afternoon matinee on a Friday, and though I will admit that at first I was just having fun finding out which hypocritical politicians and pundits are allegedly gay, Outrage quickly became something much more important, which surprised me. Personally, this film was not a hard sell for me. I am, and always have been a very strong supporter of equality for gay rights, so I didn't feel like I was going to learn anything new, or be moved beyond what I may already have been moved by in the past. However, I not only learned about and, (true to the title) was outraged by the voting records on gay rights by these men - they are among the worst in the entire Senate and Congress - but began to question my thoughts on "forced outings" of politicians. I used to be categorically against it because I feel that is a personal and private decision, but the arguments made for this practice on gay Republicans was a compelling one; namely, how can someone support a party that is against everything they stand for?

Outrage is full of footage that support its thesis, and contains interviews with several openly gay politicians, including Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin (whose presence on the screen received a round of applause from the audience). One of my favorite politicians, Barney Frank, who, in response to allegedly gay Republican Rep. David Dreier's (another anti-gay rights bully) insistence that he was turned down for a job due to his "moderate" views, practically snorted as he quipped, "Yes, in the sense that I marched in the moderate parade last summer and went to a moderate bar." However, the most compelling testimony was from former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who recounts his experience of coming out of the closet and though it not only tore his family apart and sank his political career, he felt like himself for the first time, and the sense of relief and enlightenment was profound. Hearing this from a guy who seemingly lost everything was really eye-opening.

Director Kirby Dick has an uncanny ability, not unlike the guys over at The Daily Show, to not only find fantastic archival footage, but footage that completely contradicts something that is said years later. No one is safe; even my beloved National Public Radio (NPR) is taken to task for censoring a review of this film. In Outrage, Kirby kicks Washington's closet door open and the result is an incredibly powerful film that is emotional without resorting to name-calling or being maudlin.

4 out of 5 stars


CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
Director:
Woody Allen
USA - 1989 - English




Crimes and Misdemeanors is really two films within one. In one part, Judah Rosenthal, (Martin Landau) a well-respected doctor and philanthropist with a charming wife and two children finds himself with a mistress that he can't get rid of, without resorting to extreme measures. In the other part of the film, Cliff Stern, an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker is asked to film a profile of his brother-in-law Lester, (Alan Alda) an ego maniacal television producer who produces popular trash. Though married, Cliff falls for Halley, (Mia Farrow) the producer of the documentary series. The two sides of the film only meet once, near the end of the film, but similar themes are examined throughout each portion of the film.

This has always been one of my favorite Woody Allen films because it was a couple of years before his implosion when he went through his personal problems and took out his frustrations in a misogynistic frenzy on his female characters in subsequent films. I say all of this as a strong Woody Allen fan, it of course just needs to be acknowledged that he had a "dark" period. And not dark in a good way. Crimes and Misdemeanors is dark in a good way, as it is very thought-provoking and frustrating at the same time. Judah is such an unsympathetic character that it's hard to care about his situation, but one can't help it because Landau somehow makes everything seem like such a surprise; like he can't believe that he's done any of what he's done. Meanwhile, the Cliff side of the coin, certainly the source of the comic relief and sweetness injected into the film, is in the same boat, marriage/adultery-wise, but he is much easier to relate to. Where the two sides meet, we see that redemption comes for one and not the other, which makes the film that much more dark and introspective.

Warmly lit like Hannah and Her Sisters, another Allen film of this era, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a wonderfully intimate film that I think is often overlooked. It also contains one of my favorite scenes of any Woody Allen film; the scene where Cliff reveals his finished documentary to Lester gives me a headache from laughing so hard. It's scenes like that one, inter cut with terrifyingly dark behavior from Jonah, a seemingly genial man who is a pillar in his community that make Crimes and Misdemeanors a complicated classic.

4 stars out of 5

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Eight 10/1/2009


Film #16 - Shall We Kiss?
Film #17 - Big Fan

Day 8 was a difficult one, both physically and philosophically. Since I hadn't taken any time off of work during the festival, the time commitment was starting to take it's toll on me, as were the theater chairs - as comfortable as they may seem for a screening once in a while, my back was really starting to rebel against them and I was starting to walk like Quasimodo. Equally grueling was my decision making process on what films to see for the evening. Shall We Kiss? was a no-brainer because it didn't really interfere with anything, but the 7pm showing of Big Fan was going to cause a problem if I wanted to see the 9pm showing of a movie that was really high on my list, Il Divo. Because Big Fan had a lot of hype and there was an indication that the director was going to be there, I decided to choose that one. Unfortunately, the director did not appear, but the experience wasn't entirely a bad one. In fact, it gave me the idea to keep my festival book handy and see if I can Netflix the films I wanted to see but missed and do some follow up coverage in a few months.

In a funny side note, the film that I had planned to see when I was trying to see Il Divo, was Bliss, a film that looked good, but again, the lure of being able to attend a talk back with a director was too compelling. When I got out of Shall We Kiss? and saw a line of about 300 people waiting to get into a theater my heart sank because I realized that, though I was able to scoot into a theater first due to my press credentials, it was going to be a packed theater, which makes spreading out to take notes a little awkward. However, when I asked a person in line what she was waiting for (just to be sure) she said, "Bliss". I couldn't believe it. Meanwhile, there wasn't even an usher in front of the door for Big Fan, I just walked right in. Talk about making a lot of mixed decisions that evening...

SHALL WE KISS?
Director:
Emmanuel Mouret
France - 2007 - French with English subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Cleveland International Film Festival 2009
Palm Springs International Film Festival 2009




In a chance meeting, a man and a woman are mutually attracted to one another, but are committed to other people. As the woman struggles with the temptation of sharing just one kiss, she relates the cautionary tale of a friend who had a similar thing happen, and what became of her life after succumbing to the events that spiraled out of control after just one kiss.

Shall We Kiss? is actually comprised of a couple of films within one film; there are the scenes between the newly introduced couple, the meat of the film, which is the woman's story, and then another tale told by the man. All together, the film is very interesting, with a rich story about love and fidelity (or a lack thereof). The entire film was reminiscent of a Woody Allen film, without the nebbish character(s) and high neurosis; focusing instead on adult relationships that do not always have components that can be categorized as black or white.

The acting was commendable, and truthfully, despite the nagging feeling that I needed to race out of the film as soon as it ended to make another screening on time, I was absolutely riveted from start to finish and thoroughly enjoyed the entire film. I would almost like to see it again because there are some subtle sub contexts that I may have missed the first time around due to a few distractions in the theater. Shall We Kiss? is a film that doesn't rely on bells and whistles to drive the story along; rather its strength is in its complex narrative.

4 out of 5 stars


BIG FAN
Director:
Robert D. Siegel
USA - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Sundance Film Festival 2009


Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswald) is a super fan who lives his life devoted to the New York Giants football team. Living at home with his mother and working as a parking garage attendant, he spends his nights writing manifestos about his team and how they are going to beat their opponents that week, then calls in to a local late night sports radio show to read his words and sound "off the cuff". While battling his feelings of low self-worth based on his living situation and career, his delicate psyche begins to spiral more out of control when he and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) spot his hero, Giants star linebacker Quantrell Bishop at a gas station. After following him to a club in Manhattan, Bishop takes him for a stalker (and is mad that, unbeknown to Paul, he had witnessed him at a drug buy) and severely beats him. Paul's decision to not press charges get a number of people on his back and makes him the object of ridicule, especially to his on-air super fan rival, Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), culminating in a surprising and dark ending to the film.

I have to give Patton Oswald credit for his acting in this drama, but it's not completely against type, based on some of his previous television work. He specializes in playing nerdy, affable losers, but the main difference is that rather than being affable, Oswald's Paul is obviously a guy on a constant low-boil who we know is eventually going to get pushed over the top. Oswald particularly shows some good acting chops after his beating, when he is forced to confront the need to reconcile his love for the Giants with his complete humiliation.

Big Fan is Robert D. Siegel's feature film debut, but his writing pedigree is pretty impressive; former Editor in Chief of The Onion as well as having written the screenplay for Darren Aronofsky's film The Wrestler. Big Fan has some similarities with his previous screenplay, mainly really beaten-down, low characters who exist on the fringes of society, largely under the radar. Though I didn't feel nearly as sad as I had throughout most of The Wrestler, there was definitely a sadness to Big Fan that made some of the comedic moments almost awkward to laugh at, because in truth, there is really nothing funny about Paul's situation. Though if I'm going to make all of these comparisons, I do have to say that, despite the heavy and crazy ending in Big Fan, it was nothing compared to the ending in The Wrestler, so though this isn't a feel-good movie, you're not going to want to go into a corner for a while when it's done.

Big Fan is a different kind of movie, and I have a feeling it wasn't what most of the audience I screened it with expected. There seemed to be a lot of Patton Oswald fans in the audience, and though they got plenty of him on the screen, he wasn't the guy they normally see on the small screen, and I think there was some disappointment. Conversely, I found this refreshing, and coupled with Siegel's good script, I didn't think the film was among the best I've seen, but it's definitely good.

3 out of 5

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Seven 9/30/2009


Film #14 - An Animated World
Film #15 - Rashomon

One thing that struck me off the bat when seeing An Animated World was that it was a really good crowd for a week day show. It was a Wednesday at 5:15, so obviously the people there made an effort to be there. There was another thing that struck me, however, and that was the number kids that were in the audience with their parents. Knowing how these animated shorts showcases can go, this seems either misguided or incredibly progressive - I hope these kids can read subtitles quickly...

After the shorts showcase is a reprint of Rashomon, which is incredibly exciting to me since A) It's one of the greatest movies ever made and B) I will finally have some company with me since my boyfriend Chris and one of my best friends, Jay, is going to be joining me for the screening. If there's anything I love more than watching a good film, it's watching a good film with loved ones.

AN ANIMATED WORLD
Directors:
Various
Countries: Various

(No stars will be attributed to each short, only mini-capsule reviews)



Please note - if you are interested in seeing any of these shorts, most are available on You Tube for viewing

Mutt - Director: Glen Hunwick
Australia - 2008 - 7 min
A dog waits desperately for his craggy owner to play ball with him on a ranch in the Australian Outback, and the owner wants nothing to do with the dog except to put him to work. Computer animated, this one was kind of cute, but there wasn't a whole lot there.

Lapsus - Director: Juan Pablo Zaramella
Argentina - 2007 - 4 min

A surreal black and white study in animation involving a nun who can't stop saying "Oh my God!" I thought this one was brilliant, both in its simple animation, and the clever way Zaramella created humor and a bit of a story with nothing more than a couple well placed frames of animation. This one was definitely one of my favorites.

Photographs of Jesus - Director: Laurie Hill
USA - 2008 - 7 min

A narrator who works at the National Archives discusses funny and ludicrous requests he hears. Another excellent short. Between the narrative and the witty animation, mostly stop motion animation of photographs and objects in the National Archives, this was extremely entertaining.

Cattle Call - Directors: Mike Maryniuk & Matthew Rankin
Canada - 2008 - 4 min

What takes place inside a cattle auction. I thought this one was just okay, I was more interested in the mixed media approach to the animation than what was actually happening at the auction.

Yellow Sticky Notes - Director: Jeff Chiba Stearns
Canada - 2007 - 6 min

Chiba Stearns animated his life on yellow sticky notes for a couple of years, including major world events around him. I loved this short because even though the format was simple, it was incredibly moving, especially since the director/animator completely opens up his life to us. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's poignant, but the entire short was mesmerizing.

Western Spaghetti - Director: PES
USA - 2008 - 2 min

Cooking a meal, but with Western pop culture references instead of actual consumable ingredients. I thought this one was really clever; this stop-motion animation short was certainly one of the most creative, but PES was also able to make a subtle point about Western pop culture. Examples of the substituted "ingredients" were Pick-Up Sticks used as spaghetti and a Rubik's Cube cut up like vegetables and stir fried.

Hot Dog - Director: Bill Plympton
USA - 2008 - 7 min

An ugly bull dog desperately wants to become a fire dog. It is no secret among anyone who knows me that even though I can appreciate animation, particularly animation showcased in this kind of format, I'm not exactly a fan of the genre. Along with that glowing endorsement of my feelings for animation, I have to say that I consider Bill Plympton's work to be some of the most unbearable that, when forced to, I have to endure. This is the second time I had to sit through this screeching, spastic, annoying short (the first was at a screening of Oscar nominated shorts - this was not one of them, rather on the "short list") and I hope I've done my due diligence at this point and never have to see it again.

Saint Feast Day - Directors: Annelaure Daffis & Leo Marchand
France - 2007 - 15 min

On the annual Saint Feast Day, ogres have free reign to feast on children, but one ogre is vexed that he doesn't have teeth at the moment to do so. I absolutely loved this one and laughed really hard during most of the short. The mixed-media animation really worked well, and I loved that the directors would insert animated figures among what was clearly stock footage; it created a great comedic effect. Definitely dark humor, and I'll admit there weren't a lot of people sharing my mirth at ogres seeking to eat children, but I stand behind my glowing review!

The Yellow Bird - Director: Tom Schroeder
USA - 2008 - 12 min

A ranch hand reflects on his life after he bumps his head. Unfortunately, that was the best description I could give this one because honestly, I had no idea what the hell was going on in this short. There were flashbacks to the guy's life, but nothing really connected, so everything just seemed random, and not in a good way.

Skhizein - Director: Jeremy Clapin
France - 2008 - 14 min

A man is hit by a meteor and finds himself exactly 9 centimeters off from where he is supposed to be. I had seen this short before as well; it was an Oscar-nominated short, and brilliantly done. When I sat through it this time, I felt a sense of dread because I was listening to everyone around me laughing at the site gag of the guy with his head through the wall when it should be through the window, etc., but knowing what was coming made me think, "You're laughing now - if you truly get it, you won't be laughing in about 10 minutes..." Turns out the guy is schizophrenic, and what's worse, he can feel it happening, summing up his displacement predicament with, "I am exactly 9 centimeters from myself. You've lost it, you're beside yourself." Brilliant and devastating.

RASHOMON
Director:
Akira Kurosawa
Japan - 1950 - Japanese with English subtitles

(I've previously reviewed this film, so I am pasting that review, with a few short comments about the experience and restoration preceding it)




I was so thrilled to have the pleasure of not only seeing Rashomon on the big screen, but also to view the frame-by-frame 35 mm restoration. Though I love film in almost any format, I do love the idea of seeing a classic film on something tangible, like celluloid, so this was an immense treat for me. I was also pleased to see a decent crowd show up for the film; a classic film readily available on DVD and not costing $10/ticket is not the easiest sell in Milwaukee, so I was heartened by the attendance. As expected, Rashomon lived up to my memories and I came away from the experience with continued admiration for Kurosawa.

Review:


Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film about a horrible crime and the various versions of the "truth" that come to fruition during the investigation is absolutely amazing, pure and simple. The story is told four different times, each time from the point of view of one of the participants. The basic story of the crime is that a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) comes across a husband and wife traveling through the forest. The bandit, Tajomaru, seduces/assaults the Masako (Machiko Kyo) after tying up her husband Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), and soon after, Takehiro is dead. What happens between the times Tajomaru encounters the couple and the discovery of Takehiro's body is what is left to be discovered. Masako, Tajomaru and even Takehiro (with the assistance of a medium) each tell their account of the story, each taking blame for Takehiro's death. The fourth telling is from a passer-by, and the audience is left to decide which is the true account.

I absolutely loved this film. I had heard that Yimou Zhang's Hero had, if not as an homage, employed the same technique of storytelling and perspective, but seeing this great film was a real treat. The story is original and rich, and Kurosawa always is able to pull great performances from his actors. I found Rashomon to be extremely compelling from start to finish, and even managed to be really creeped out at one point. (The psychic medium is pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel) From the very little that I know of Japanese cinema of the 1950's & 1960's, I realize that Kurosawa was not the only director, but he certainly was the trailblazer and set the bar for the genre for decades to come. His peers were putting out material, it was just fairly primitive. (It is easy to forget that not every country's film industry was as opulent as America's) To see this kind of film, a film that is actually incredibly simple, but so ingeniously conceived of and executed makes me remember why I have been and always will be both a student of and lover of film.

5 out of 5 stars


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Six 9/29/2009

Film #12 - Bronson
Film #13 - The House of the Devil


I did not attend any films on Day 5 of the film festival, so these are reviews for Day 6, a day which turned out to be pretty exciting.


BRONSON
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
UK - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Sarajevo Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)
Sydney Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)


Bronson is the true story of Britain's most dangerous prisoner, Michael Peterson, (Tom Hardy) who was originally sentenced to seven years in jail in 1974, but due to his violent behavior, has been behind bars for 34 years; 30 of them spent in solitary confinement. Later changing his name to Charles Bronson, his biggest downfall is his need to make a name for himself, and regardless of attempts at rehabilitation, his true nature continues to surface.

There a lot of really great things about this film, but the best has to be Hardy. Critics have raved about his performance, calling it a "tour-de-force" and "legendary", and I couldn't agree more. Knowing nothing about the subject of the film I can only imagine how Hardy embodies the role, but he was absolutely mesmerizing, combining charm and humor with terrifying rage and violence. The role was very physical, with Hardy allegedly gaining 100 pounds of muscle to play it. Interspersed throughout the film are scenes in which Bronson is telling his story to an audience on stage, using various masks and costumes. Hardy goes balls-to-the-wall (sometimes literally) with his portrayal, at times spending several scenes completely naked. He transforms from raging maniac to a prostrate and drooling mental patient to a (temporarily) upstanding citizen marching around in an ill-fitting suit, all the while with the posture and looks of one of those mustachioed characters with dumbbells from the early twentieth century, all with a little humor and a little terror. One scene, which takes place at a "rave" being held for mental institution patients, stood out to me that I couldn't shake for a couple of days: Bronson is sent to the institution and is very heavily medicated because they don't know what else to do with him, and while the patients "dance" to the Pet Shop Boys, Bronson is just sitting in a chair, drooling constantly until he screams in rage and frustration because he is drugged and can't move, but he is still somewhat cognizant of his situation. Later, he decides he needs to get out of there and go back to prison, so he decides to strangle another inmate, and his transformation from drugged look to evil and aware was very subtle and gave me chills. It takes a talented actor to make the audience sympathize with a psychopathic madman, even find him somewhat charming, but Hardy pulls it off flawlessly. If he doesn't get recognition from this film, I hope that he gets a name soon.

Bronson has been called "A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century", and I agree with the comparison, at least visually, though it is not as deep, thematically as the latter. There are several surreal scenes with bizarre costumes that appear to be direct nods to Kubrick's classic, and certainly a pivotal scene in an art studio was an homage. The film is violent, but not over the top - I think Fight Club was more graphic - and fast paced and stylish; think Matthew Vaughn or Guy Ritchie without the hyper-spazzy effects and edits. The style of the film is not made up of an overload of jump cuts and quick edits, rather it has panache, which fits right along with Bronson himself. Like it or not, you know you're witnessing what are probably some terrible acts, but you can't look away for a second or you'll miss something interesting. I really enjoyed Bronson, but didn't come away from it questioning myself the way I did the first time I really loved a film like, say, A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps it was because it didn't give me a lot to ponder, it simply gave me a great hour and a half of cinematic enjoyment.

4 out of 5 stars


THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
Director: Ti West
USA - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Tribeca Film Festival 2009




Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student who desperately wants to find an apartment off campus so she can get away from her slutty roommate. She finds the perfect place, but is in danger of not getting it because she doesn't have enough rent money up front. She gets a babysitting job that quickly becomes weird when it turns out the couple do not have a child, rather an elderly mother upstairs they want her to look after, and to top it off, she is in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. The $300 they offer her is enough to convince her to take the job, however, and after she begins to explore the mansion, she discovers the reality of her terrifying situation.

Hearkening back to the great late 1970s and early 1980s horror films like Halloween or The Changeling, The House of the Devil is one of the best films I've seen recently that I don't want to see, if ever, for a long, long time - I was absolutely terrified throughout most of it! I fully admit that I'm a complete wuss when it comes to horror films that are done well; even in film school we would be studying a Dario Argento film in class as if it were a lab report, it was so clinical, but I would be the one digging my nails in my palms and trying to hide the fact that I was squinting behind my thick rimmed glasses. I found myself doing the exact same thing in the crowded theater the evening I saw this film, but I knew what I was in for since my boyfriend Chris had warned me, "I saw the trailer and it could be really f-ing creepy." The genius of The House of the Devil is that with a couple "holy crap!" moments, there is a really slow burn of tension until all hell breaks loose. Donahue spends half the film creeping around the house, sometimes with a large butcher knife, but you have no idea when someone (or something) is going to surface behind what seems like 350 doors and windows in the house, and by the way, what was that sound??

Special mention needs to be made about the music in the film. Jeff Grace's original music is almost as scary as the film itself, and it is used for optimal effect. There were a couple of times where the music itself was so scary that I wanted to cover my ears to make it go away. Another excellent use of music was during a scene involving Samantha, in the beginning of her tenure on the job, dancing around the house with her Sony Walkman and headphones on, blaring "One Thing Leads to Another" by The Fixx. I normally would have enjoyed this, but since we, as an audience were already uneasy at this point, the concept of this girl dancing around with really loud music impairing her senses was almost too much to bear.

The audience I saw this film with was a lot of fun and had no problem shrieking, yelling out warnings or the occasional expletive when scared or tense. It was really refreshing to have a low budget film that is stripped down to the simple necessary elements needed to scare the pants off of an audience, without a ridiculous amount of gore or cheap thrills. I think that most of us left the theater feeling like we'd seen something kind of special, knowing it wouldn't hit the mainstream theater-going audience. The House of the Devil is the best film I've seen recently that I don't, if ever, want to see for a long, long time. Though I may not have "enjoyed" myself during the film, I have to rate it according to effectiveness and how well it met its objective, so while I would normally give it 3 stars, I have to give it 4 stars because it was that good at what it set out to do. To quote an audience member I encountered in the ladies' room after the film: "Even this huge, over lit bathroom seems terrifying to me right now!"

4 out of 5 stars