David Cronenberg re-teams with Viggo Mortensen to create one of the darkest, most bleak, and yes, interesting movies about the criminal underworld (I will refrain from the term organized crime, because these Russian mobsters don't seem all that organized). Family members kill important people without consulting their father (the head of the family) and alliances are made behind peoples back. Booze is not stolen, but purchased cheap, but possibly it could have been purchased even cheaper, and when they get the booze they don't sell it for profit they drink it. These quirks and undercutting of the traditional mobster film make this one of the better films on the subject to come along since Miller's Crossing. The film has the appropriate cold aesthetic to it, and when we become privy to a key plot point that turns the entire film on its ear, we stop to think about what might happen to these characters after the film cuts to black. The film doesn't contain the family oriented scenes of the Corleone family of The Godfather, it doesn't contain the appealing mobsters from a film like Goodfellas; however, the film is spot on in recognizing that for these mobsters – who inhabit a world extremely different than the Italian mobsters we're used to seeing in film – their bodies belong to someone else (there's a great scene where Mortensen's character must strip before the heads of the Russian mob and prove, based on his tattoos, that he is fully committed), and that's what makes the film so fascinating: Yes it has all of the typical themes of a Cronenberg film (the decaying of body/soul, the mixture of extreme violence and sex, and the idea that the choices made by these characters have dire circumstances), but it feels fresh for its genre, it's appropriately ambiguous, and it's certainly proof of one of the best director/actor collaborations of the last decade. Oh, and that knife fight in the shower room is something to behold.
Alexander Payne has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, and even though his 2002 film About Schmidt didn't quite make the cut here I find it hard to see any kind of blemish in the director's oeuvre. With his fourth film Sideways he not only hilariously satirizes the pretentiousness of wine aficionados, but he plays with the conventions of the road film all while taking a sensitive, sincere, and introspective look into his characters lives ala Hal Ashby. Thomas Haden Church (Jack) steals every scene he's in and Paul Giamatti (Miles) pretty much cements his status as the go-to guy for gloomy characters such as this. But the real star here is Virginia Madsen, a waitress named Maya who works at one of Miles' favorite places in California wine country. The relationship between her and Miles is the perfect amount of sweet and tender which contrasts nicely with the acidic bluntness of Jack and his views on pre-married life. There's a moment where Miles and Maya sit outside her house and Miles explains why he loves wine, and it's the perfect metaphor for how he views himself and why he needs someone like Maya who can bring out the best in him. It's a beautiful moment only upstaged by a hilarious attempt to get a wallet back and the beautiful ending that ends on the most perfect of notes.
Fernando Meirelles' film is akin to Scorsese's Goodfellas in showing us the side of a criminal underworld that a lot of us probably didn't know existed. The film also reminds one of Scorsese not just because it follows a similar narrative arc (the rise and fall of two friends who get involved in the criminal underworld) but because Meirelles tells this story with such visual fervor and an élan that always keeps things interesting that even following characters through the mundane of everyday is exciting and interesting. The film really felt like it was one of the most alive things to spring out of film in the past ten years, and it's always great to see young filmmakers emerge like this. The film also earned a handful of Academy award nominations outside of the requisite Best Foreign Language Film category, something that rarely happens with foreign language films, and the noms were well deserved as the cinematography and direction (two categories the film was nominated for) felt fresh in 2003. It's one of those films that needs to be experienced by everyone who loves the hyperkinetic filmmaking of films like Slumdog Millionaire so they can see how it's done correctly.
Sofia Coppola's love song to the city of Tokyo is a perfect mixture of comedy and sadness as Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanson play two adrift characters who meet in Tokyo hotel bar and find something alluring about each others unsure futures. Coppola wisely doesn't make the relationship overtly sexual (although there is something there between the two of them) or cheaply parody the city of Tokyo in order to make easy jokes about American's in other cultures (i.e. fish out of water tales). These characters feel like they're well-traveled and articulate people, and it's refreshing to see a film like this about two people who are in search of something more than just sex. The film's look is appropriately ambiguous at times as you're never quite sure if it's day or night when, which ties in well to the feeling of jet lag and relational/psychological dislocation that these characters feel. Murray deserved every bit of praise he earned for his portrayal as the weary former action actor who will do anything for a buck (is there a funnier scene in the movie than when he is being directed by a photographer?) but isn't ashamed of that fact. This is probably the only movie where I've felt Johnason's limited range worked best, and Anna Farris is great as the actress whose pseudo-Zen philosophies seduce Johanson's boyfriend allowing her to rove around tour the city. Like Sideways it's one of those movies that isn't necessarily laugh out loud funny, but it's a film that elicits smiles with ease; and more importantly it's dramatically effective in a warm, non snarky way, with adult characters acting like adults and thinking and conversing like adults. It's refreshing to see films like this in a market that really has no interest in such contemplative relational films. The ending, again like Sideways, is appropriately ambiguous as the two characters share a whispered goodbye on the street that is drowned out by the noise of the city. Some complained that the audience was robbed of its moment at the end, but I found the ending to be wonderful, and it got a big smile from me as these two lost souls earned their moment in private, and it's proof that we as audience don't need to have everything spelled out for us in order to see something as a happy ending.
The horror film of the decade it works so well as simply a visceral monster movie and a film in love with the genre tipping its hat to such great and varying horror films as: Alien, Don't Look Now, Jaws, The Shining, and Carrie just to name a few (not to mention non-horror films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Deliverance. The film's success is that for us horror fans it's a thrilling and exhilarating ride because the director Neil Marshall (who made a name for himself with the highly enjoyable Dog Soldiers) so clearly loves the genre (his allusions are to the right kinds of horror pictures), and this is crucial because it makes for a horror film that jump starts a dead genre because it doesn't take itself too seriously (Like The Strangers, a film that works until it turns into the typical exhibitionist torture porn that is synonymous with horror these days). What makes the film work, too, is the acting. Marshall's all female cast is phenomenal in filling out the usual horror character tropes as you have the passive characters, the risk taker, and the reluctant character with demons from their past. The latter of which is played to perfection (just the right amount of vulnerability and viciousness when appropriate) by Shauna McDonald (who reprises her role in the sequel to the film coming out soon in the U.S.) who gives the film an emotional weight and authenticity not normally found in horror pictures. I am a person who hates tight places, so the film scared the hell out of me in its opening moments (before they get to the weird aliens). And what's so memorable about the film is that it's essentially two different horror movies in one: initially you have a Deliverance meets Don't Look Now type of film that is far more cerebral and counts on things not appearing as they seem as the characters go spelunking (the film is also very much indebted to Alien here). The second half of the film is more of a monster movie, but these monsters are at least interesting, and Marshall has some fun with things-going-bump-in-the-dark…especially in one scene where the only way we can see the action is through the infrared on a video camera the character is looking through. A creepy, surprisingly emotionally effective (the ending of the film is something that is so rare for a horror film) film that has to be seen on DVD , because if you haven't seen the original British version (which makes one final, haunting use of the important cake motif) of the film then you haven't seen the real version of the movie.
It's not a shock that this film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is produced by David Gordon Green. It has the feel – with its dialogue and the way it takes you to a rural part of America completely unfamiliar to me – of a Green film. Nichols' script is light on dialogue as the camera kind of just wanders through the daily lives of Son, Kid, and Boy; named by an alcoholic father who left after the third child was born, remarried and in the process became a born-again Christian. The other side of the family thinks he's a good man, Son and his brother knew a different man; but it's not just a simple case of one family being right and the other being wrong; Nichols draws the viewer into this blood feud that has a certain authenticity to it: this is how it would be for these people living in this place. Michael Shannon plays Son, the oldest of three brothers, and he when he learns of their father's death he asks his mom for some more information, and she replies: "you can read about it in the paper." Exchanges like that make Shotgun Stories such a sad, powerful story. Nichols never lets the big moments get the best of him, never going for the easy tug-at-the-heart-string moment – especially when Son goes to his mother to inform her of a tragedy in the family, she's gardening and when she's told about the death of one of her sons she just keeps gardening. There are no false moments of reconciliation or forgiveness, there can be no reconciling this broken family. Shannon turns in the performance of 2008. He gets an array of feelings across to the viewer with just the simplest wrinkle in his brow, and Nichols is wise to let the camera stay on him and let the audience read his eyes. Shannon is a powerful force running through a powerful film, and he could have easily gone for some over-the-top emoting, but instead of hamming it up for the screen, he underplays it all perfectly and lets the sadness of the moment speak for itself. I love it when movies let me figure things out without feeling the need to hammer me over their themes and tone, and I love it when movies take me to a place I've never been to before, and I especially love it when movies surprise me at every turn for not taking the conventional way out.
Paul Scharder's Auto Focus is not about Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) the television star – that much we already know – and Schrader wisely zips through that part of his life within the first 15 minutes. The film is more concerned with the Bob Crane who had an unending need to entertain and be liked. He doesn't want to disappoint anyone, and this is one of the main reasons he frequents strip clubs: he doesn't want to feel bad for turning down an invitation. Kinnear plays Crane as the lovable loser he was. He's all surface, never concerned about his own morals or ethics, because I don't think he ever thought about that; he just wanted to be liked and that came at whatever cost. Even when Crane's ego gets so big, as he becomes more and more comfortable with his suit of celebrity, he cannot help but berate his friend John Carpenter in the nicest possible way. There's also a moment where Crane, late in his career, is on some local cooking show and makes a disparaging remark to a women in the front row. It's a sad scene that shows how Crane's sexist humor is a product of a man who refuses to evolve; he thinks aloud and his thoughts of women aren't the same as those he has to work with. It shows how the obsession, the nightly immersion into amateur pornography clouded his mind resulting in tactlessness; he's involved with sex on a daily basis, so why shouldn't everyone else depersonalize sex the way he does. It's a sad, telling scene that is common in these types of biopics, and Schrader shows the perfect amount of restraint with the scene, never going over-the-top with it; and Kinnear, too, who plays the scene perfectly as a man who is oblivious to his own idiocy. Schrader is on the very short list of directors who always have my attention. He's extremely underrated as a director. He's a filmmaker that has always been interested in showing characters that aren't always easy to take; they're often characters filled with flaws who are responsible for creating uncomfortable moments that make the viewer wince. However, Schrader writes about these characters as if they were case studies. He lets the audience contemplate their actions as they unfold in an authentic way. Schrader's films are never overwrought and are always interesting and deeply thought provoking; evoking themes you can find in most of his films and certainly in all of the pictures he's penned for Scorsese. Here his aesthetic is subdued and subtle: as the film begins he paints his images with a beautiful sheen evoking the hope and prominence Hollywood can offer (or offered, perhaps); however, as the film progresses, and Crane devolves so does the films style as the last part of the film is filmed mostly in close-up with hand held cameras evoking the paranoia and grasping-for-acceptance mentality displayed by Crane at the end of his life.
Please, don't let releases like Bride Wars and The Princess Diaries fool you, Anne Hathaway can act. This is not just her film, though, this is everyone's film (keeping true to the major theme of the film that family/community trumps all): Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Rosmarie Dewitt, Anna Deavere Smith, and Tunde Adebimpe all compile one of the great encore ensembles since the wonderful Gosford Park. Jonathan Demme does his best Altman here as he follows around the goings-on of a family preparing for a wedding while their on-leave-from-rehab daughter Kym (Hathaway) tries to pretend like nothing has changed. It's a weekend filled with awkwardness, fights, revealed-truths, and best of all love. Here is a family that despite the tragedy that continues to haunt them (and lurks in the corner throughout the film) really loves each other. And boy do they know how to throw a party. Demme's camera follows every little bit of minutiae of wedding preparation through till the end, when you just have to finally submit and say: alright I'd like to attend a party like that. What I love most about the film is its attention to small details. For example there is a moment when Kym and Rachel are having it out over a lie that Kym told during rehab, during the scene the two being to argue in front of others. The directing is brilliant here as we truly feel like a fly on the wall as their dad (Irwin) quielty clears people out of the room, and their stepmother (Smith) sits in a chair behind the action in the foreground: she's their stepmother,and even though these are her "kids" and she loves them, the issues being hashed out are deeper and more personal than she'll ever know. The direction to keep her in the back like that is small thing, but it's so brilliant in its execution because it tells us everything we need to know about the characters' relationships with each other. It's a warm and beautiful movie that doesn't placate. The image above is a perfect encapsulation of why the film warms my heart.
The amazing thing about Tomas Alfredson's film is that somehow, someway it doesn't flub the premise with what could be an eye-rolling horror/love story (instead the American's are going to do that with a remake entitled Let Me In directed by the guy that did Cloverfield...goody); instead he treats the horror genre not as a convention, but as another element to add into a wonderful story about a lonely, misunderstood boy who just wants someone his own age to relate to. There's also deeper themes of androgyny here (Oskar looks feminine and Eli's name can double as a boy or girl) as you can give the film a queer reading (which apparently is made clearer in the book). There's also the haunting final image of Oskar tapping the box, cementing his place in Eli's future as a carer (or slave if you want to give it a darker meaning) for Eli much like the old man in the beginning of the film, that makes this unlike any modern horror film I've seen. Oskar's introduction of Eli is one of the most memorable things about the film, and Oskar's temper as he lashes out against a tree is scary stuff without being conventionally "scary". Oh, and the ending scene in the pool is pretty great, too.
Like most of Mann's crime films Public Enemies is a deeply existential one (reminding me of the French master Jean Pierre-Melville). Mann loves for the viewer to come up with their own theories on the histories of the characters and why they do what they do; he may make action movies, but it's the deep thoughts and pondering of the film's main characters (Mann loves to use the close-up shot, especially of his characters faces) that he's most interested in. And when he does do action, he does it better than anyone else; he does arty action like the visual poet he is, comparable to anything Terence Malick has made. The great cinematographer Dante Spinotti re-teams with Mann (he shot his first foray into digital The Insider) and evokes a lot of the classic gangster film feel. He also gives several visual nods to a lot of Mann's other crime films. However, what's most amazing about the way the film was shot was that we have never seen a period piece shot with digital before. So, it's a little jarring at first, but it also feels all the more real, like we're there watching all of this happen (plus Mann just has to shoot his action scenes at night...it's like a fetish). It's so much more effective than sepia tone or muted colors. It's yet another example of one of the many things that has always fascinated me about Mann's pictures: his ability to make you feel in-the-moment with his aesthetic, yet simultaneously keeping you at arm's length with the narrative (which follows closely the narrative arc he's most attracted to: two professionals willing to do whatever it takes to "win"), which is appropriate for the type of "only think about today" type of person Dillinger (Johnny Depp in his best performance since the gonzo Sweeney Todd) is portrayed as here. It's a new kind of gangster picture and one that certainly has a place at the table with such sacred cows as The Godfather and Goodfellas, and one of my personal favorites, Casino.